Do We Need Another Hero?
President-elect Noynoy Aquino has come under public scrutiny lately for not wanting to quit smoking and for short-listing television talk-show host Boy Abunda for a high government position.
Stop laughing, this is serious. The smoking thing started when Aquino was asked if he would quit for World ‘No Tobacco’ Day on May 31. Obviously uncomfortable with the question, he said he is not inclined to give up the habit as it would pressure him more – and forget about the promise he made to quit smoking if he wins the elections.
Aquino steps outside Carmel church for a smoke. Image here.
In a recent speech, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon called tobacco use “ugly and deadly” and urged “all governments to address this deadly threat.” The World Health Organization says tobacco-related diseases are the second-highest cause of death globally after hypertension, killing one in 10 adults. It is an epidemic that is “preventable” with the strong support of government.
For this reason, Department of Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral and several non-government organizations have urged Aquino to kick the vice, citing “leadership by example” and the difference he could make in the lives of the country’s smokers via his example. However, Cabral acknowledges that it’s Aquino’s choice to continue, “as long as he does not smoke in front of others or harm them with his smoking.”
Come on, he’s not going to light up in the bathroom or closet. He’s the president and he’ll smoke where he pretty darn pleases.
Cabral perceives Aquino as having influence as a role model, which is a symbolic function. A role model is a person whose way of life serves as a source of inspiration for others to transform themselves for the better. He becomes a sign for what is good and worthy of emulation.
Why is he seen as such? As a public figure, he lives his life in the media, his behavior and actions subject to everyone’s observation, deconstruction, speculation, and outright fabrication. That comes with the territory. Don’t complain. You can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Yet Aquino remains cool and unflappable. He makes decisions as he deems fit. For one, he mused on tapping Abunda’s media and marketing expertise for the government, also citing his stature as an “icon” and his effectivity in communicating ideas to his audience. Noynoy has said he wants to offer Abunda a position as undersecretary or assistant secretary – pretty high up the food chain for someone who is not career government.
Pundits criticize this choice, saying there are many other candidates better suited for the position. Abunda himself has defused the situation by saying that he wants a “simple life”, and that he is still under contract to the ABS-CBN network. A successful businessman, he certainly earns more in entertainment and through his other entrepreneurial activities.
Boy Abunda: celebrity icon. Image here.
Apart from the connection via friendship (Abunda is very close to Noynoy’s sister, talk show host Kris Aquino, and was also the family spokesperson upon the death of Kris and Noynoy’s mother, former president Corazon Aquino), the president-elect is showing just how powerful the influence of popular culture is. Because Abunda, by dint of his engaging performance on air, has become wildly popular among his viewers, he is seen as an “effective communicator”. For running a successful talent management company, he is deemed to have marketing and business skills of the caliber to run a government agency.
What does that say about the Filipino, when the incoming head of state – his image also largely a product of popular culture – relies upon the icons of media to help with the “marketing” of a country?
It says that the power of popular culture should not be underestimated, and that those who wield it have immense responsibility, for they can use their influence for good – or evil.
Looking at Aquino’s choice of Abunda from another angle, it is the acquisition of the talents of people from showbiz (and other private industries) for the public good, or “privatization”. In the US, a comedian wants Steve Jobs to become president and reverse the economic meltdown. He did it for Apple – two million iPads have been sold since it was launched two months ago, and its market capitalization has surpassed Microsoft’s, for years the giant in the IT world. The idea is, if it works there, it’ll also work here. But that’s not necessarily so. Private success does not always translate into public effectivity.
To sum up, Aquino is not a “good role model” for refusing to ditch cancer sticks and for being swayed by popular culture and personal agenda when making some decisions that have national repercussions.
But we didn’t elect him to be the national role model or hero. That’s Jose Rizal. We voted Aquino in as president. His job is to make the right choices, set the right priorities, and do what needs to be done. Government corruption, poverty elimination, culture of impunity – the list of issues that need reforms is inexhaustible.
The National Hero’s image on a banknote.
Good governance is the toughest job of all – harder even than quitting smoking. And if the president struggles, we all struggle – the political equivalent of inhaling second-hand smoke.
A Wise Guy friend says, “Stop looking for messiahs. Wala sa Wowowee at Star Talk ang pag-asa. It’s not the president’s job to create co-dependents; dapat lang maiahon niya ang bayan sa kahirapan.” And it is our job as citizens and members of media to keep him on track, give him feedback from the grassroots, and tell him whether or not he’s doing the job we elected him for. ***