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03 November 2015

"Stupid is Forever but Integrity is Not." Deconstructing the Public Persona of Miriam Santiago

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I suspect that most of the people who still support Senator Santiago are college educated and so I think it is only appropriate that I use English in deconstructing the inimitable senator.

The legendary and feisty senator started out as an uncompromising crusader against corrupt officials in government when she became the Commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation under the Cory administration. However, so much water has passed under that bridge. Currently, the senator is a spectacle on her own. She beats her own drum; and judging from her actions in recent past, the emphasis is on “her drum.”

Santiago may be compared to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher but Santiago is more of an entertainer than the dogmatic and stoic Thatcher is. On the one hand, Santiago espouses liberal ideas. She is pro-women and valiantly defended the Reproductive Health Bill. However, I think that she is a very elitist conservative when she proposes that only educated people should be allowed to vote. In a way, she declared a specific kind of ideology that easily disfranchises most Filipinos. Perhaps no one has told the senator that lack of western-style college education is a not a choice. If college were free in the Philippines, most of us will be working hard to get a diploma. She also fails to recognize that the most corrupt people in this country have degrees from prestigious universities and some of them are lawyers just like her. Apparently, being educated does not equate to being honest and socially responsible. 

She also proposes that only taxpayers should vote, which is a stupid declaration because even the poor pay tax; the payment may be indirect but the poor still pay taxes and so everyone could still vote in case Congress takes the senator’s proposal seriously.

She fills her speeches with catchy one-liners and jokes to shield herself from ridicule. She is ridiculed but mostly for being supposedly insane, which I think is an empty insult. Being the butt of jokes for being insane because of your high intellect and eccentric behavior is as harmless as Joseph "Erap" Estrada being ridiculed for not being able to speak perfect English. Being your own joker is a good political defensive move. A politician’s own jokes will be his shields against the jokes and ridicule of other politicians and critics that might open the eyes of the public. If a politician makes people laugh, real criticism takes a back seat. Laughter is no longer the sharp dagger of satire but a "unthinking reflex." As British novelist Jonathan Coe stated:

“These days, every politician is a laughing-stock, and the laughter which occasionally used to illuminate the dark corners of the political world with dazzling, unexpected shafts of hilarity has become an unthinking reflex on our part, a tired Pavlovian reaction to situations that are too difficult or too depressing to think about clearly.” [From “Sinking Giggling into the Sea” by Jonathan Coe, London Review of Books, 18 July 2013]


President "Pnoy" Aquino and Mar Roxas do not tell jokes or funny one-liners and so jokes about them often hurt them politically.

Santiago is using the Erap-strategy to become more loveable to a specific group of voters. Embrace the jokes and fuel them with more examples. Santiago’s antics during Senate hearings are the stuff of good entertainment. I know some young people who look forward to senate hearings just to witness what Santiago will do or say. If Erap had the masses (allegedly), Santiago, as many claims, has or had the college-educated voters. This probably explains why she is usually a hit when she delivers speeches in many campuses.

She recently claimed that she is very anxious about the uneducated majority in the Philippines but she and majority of our politicians speak in English regarding issues of national importance. In effect, alienating most Filipinos who really need to know much information to decide intelligently. She uses legal jargon to make herself more credible and yet alienating many non-English speaking Filipinos but, since she speaks in English, she must know better. “Kapag nag-i-Ingles magaling,” as one of the vendors near my office once said. I am sure that you have seen people start speaking English once they complain to a clerk in a mall, a restaurant, a government office and a service company. Speaking in English is a way of declaring your social status. In this country, your social status counts. (Yes, I am aware that this essay is in English).

Screenshots of a supposed Miriam
quote and meme [from my
Facebook news feed]
We have to admit, Santiago knows how to play the media. She is never boring and she is social media savvy, or at least the team that manages her. Every day, I see Miriam memes or Miriam quotes posted on Facebook. Most of the time, these posts are not about social issues. For a Filipino politician, she has one of the most numbers of followers on Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps, Santiago is becoming an “icon” of social media, just like Willy Wonka.

I think Santiago is more needed in the Senate or the Supreme Court than in MalacaƱan. As a Supreme Court justice, she can use her legal mind exclusively without much politics and media fanfare. But knowing the public persona of Santiago, I will not bet on that. Still, I prefer to have her in the Supreme Court than in MalacaƱan. The problem is that Pnoy will never nominate her to the Supreme Court in a million years but perhaps, the next president might.

Bottom line, Santiago has become a political jester than a political thinker. She is a classic literary character. Like most politicians, she is not loyal to a party and she is not consistent with her political beliefs. She claims to be a defender of the people and a crusader against the corrupt and yet she does not blink an eye when supporting Bongbong Marcos, a man who grew up enjoying the spoils of the corrupt Martial Law years. When she declared that the Marcoses had nothing to apologize for, she totally invalidated all the killings, the disappearances, the corruption during the Martial Law years. Oddly, she loathes Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the architects of Martial Law. Where is the consistency there?

Perhaps Santiago is just following the pulse of some young voters although we do not have the exact numbers to prove whom the young voters really support. The current media perception now is that many young voters see no issue in electing someone like Rodrigo Duterte who said that his presidency "is going to be a dictatorship." Some millennials celebrate the Martial Law years and wish to replicate the glory days of that era by promising to vote for Bongbong Marcos. In this blog alone, I have received many comments from readers that they would vote for Marcos. I personally know some people in their 20s who want Duterte to run for president and win.

To be fair to Santiago, her actions and decisions are not that different from those of other traditional politicians (trapos). Many trapos have done worse. Nevertheless, Santiago is a disappointment because she started out as a popular crusader even winning a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. 

As a teenager, I wrote to Santiago when she first ran for president. I did not expect to get a reply but she was generous enough to send me an autograph picture of herself. I respected her so much back then and like many people, I bought her book, "The Miriam Defensor Santiago Dictionary."  I still have genuine respect for her but not as a crusader or possible leader of a nation but as a political gadfly: an acerbic individual who confronts people in power, who challenges the status quo, who questions a popular position and who intentionally provokes others so they will act.

Notes: Pavlovian reaction


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