Exceptional. Normally, a race for the presidency involves a cast of exceptional people. These would be the men and women seen to be at the top of their respective games and, as such, worthy of the privilege to serve the Filipino people as their chief executive for the next six years. In a presidential race, among voters’ choices, one would reasonably expect to find the country’s pre-eminent thought leaders, statesmen, movers, shakers, and generally all-around nice people.
Sadly, however, things are not quite at that state of play in this year’s presidential elections in the Philippines. Instead of a search for exceptional men and women, Filipinos are looking for the one who is the least bad amongst the lot. Indeed, it is sad. Instead of exceptional virtue and qualifications, it is now down to just “basic decency” as the primary standard to which the current crop of presidential candidates need to measure up to. Rather than automatically meet the latter basic standard and reach for the earlier zenith, this year’s presidential candidates are reaching for the lower bar.
It is not even as if these presidential aspirants are actually reaching for that low “basic decency” bar. Their efforts are better described as putting effort to be merely perceived to be meeting that “basic decency” standard. Mar Roxas is trying to be perceived to be a competent candidate. Grace Poe is trying to be perceived to be a loyal Filipino national. Rodrigo Duterte is trying to be perceived to be a results-driven crime fighter. And last, but not least, Jejomar Binay is trying to be pereceived to be an honest official.
The bigger point, however, is that politicians’ aspirations to meet a standard has become so slack that exceptionalism and excellence no longer form part of the effort. Filipino voters are happy enough with a politician who can claim that he or she will not steal from them — which implies that the main criteria for the Philippine presidency is simply that whoever gets chosen for the role is not a crook.
That’s really bad. Imagine trying to hire a nanny for your child and the only candidates you can choose from are a bunch of ex-convicts and elementary school dropouts!
To be fair, though, this is the Philippines we are talking about.
In Philippine politics, perception is everything while results are mere afterthoughts. Filipino politicians win elections on the back of a successful crafting of voter perception but go on to serve in government and enjoy total immunity from being routinely held to account for delivery of real results. That is a counter-productive habit that, when coupled with a penchant for being suckers for the colourful bells and whistles of big money election campaigns, always deals a fatal blow to the hopes of any real reforms ever taking hold in Philippine society and governance.
This, perhaps, is the reason why Filipinos now apply very low standards in the search for their next president, and why the quality of the crop of candidates lined up today reflects that degeneration in their collective standards. Filipinos have for so long been disensitised to mediocrity and criminality in governance that they have been conditioned en masse to simply latch on to the no-substance promises and slogans of their cartoon characters politicians without question. And so empty motherhood statements like “daang matuwid” strongly resonate in Philippine society while solidly-grounded discussions on pertinent issues are merely sidestepped.
The bottomline is that people from whom uncompromising excellence should be expected are able to successfully sell mediocrity on a cone for Filipinos to hungrily lap up. Being exceptional in the Philippines is no longer rewarded. Simply being not bad already gets Filipinos excited.