Free Press Cover Story
December 30, 2000
Men of the Year
Once and future heroes
by Manuel L. Quezon III
FOR their foolishness, their greed, their quarreling, and the consequences the end of their friendship has entailed for the Filipino people -pushing the nation to the brink of political chaos and submerging it into economic peril- Joseph Ejercito Estrada, president of the Philippines, and Luis Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur, are the FREE PRESS’s Men of the Year for 2000.
Theirs is the story of a friendship built on wine, women and song, on politics and plunder, a camaraderie that was the personification of traditional small-town ideas of fellowship based on shared vices; it is, most of all, the story of a friendship gone sour, and fatally so. Both for their respective political careers, and for the fortunes of the country they both claim to serve.
One must go back to the wild, wild west years before martial law to trace the origins of Joseph Estrada’s and Luis “Chavit” Singson’s famous friendship. According to Singson, their friendship began when then-actor Estrada used to go to Vigan on location for movie projects; the then- Vigan chief of police of with budding political ambitions became exposed to the man with whom he would become closer and closer: they discovered a common affinity for packing pistols and gambling high stakes, even as they drank and feasted and caroused with women. As the years progressed, each man climbed the ladder of political advancement: not in a leisurely, gentlemanly way, but with the sort of steely, iron-fisted determination that is essential for success in small-town and provincial politics. Singson, becoming governor of his province, and Estrada mayor of the municipality of San Juan, each facing challenges both legal and more sinister. Both would find security of tenure by making themselves fixtures of the martial law government, their positions ensured by their continued support for the dictatorship, and their seeming sinecures ended only by the upheaval that was the Edsa Revolution.
Like so many suddenly unemployed politicians, Estrada and Singson had to seek new employment and a vindication of their names by way of a new mandate. Singson would successfuly be elected as a Congressman representing his province while Estrada achieved election to the Philippine senate; after that, Singson would resume the governorship of his province while Estrada would rise even further and become Vice-President of the Philippines.
It is at this point that narrative must give way to reflection; for it would seem that it was in their very vindication by an electorate they they didn’t need during martial law, but to whom they turned with the restoration of democracy, that the seeds for the destruction of both their friendship and the reputation of the Estrada administration would be sown. If any lesson was meant to be taught by the removal of martial law-era local officials, it was a lesson easily ignored by the ability of the very same politicians to seek election and rise to even higher positions. Their personal fortunes intact, their power base threatened but not destroyed, and having had experience in premartial-law politics, there was no reason why the experience of the past could not be used to ensure their continued political future. And that is what the two men.
Unrepentant, with a new mandate, there seemed no reason to think that old tricks would be as useful in the newly-restored democracy of Aquino as it was in the Old Society and New Society of the various Marcos terms; everything would be business as usual. Singson would resume being a political kingpin in Ilocos Sur, and dynastic considerations taken care of in San Juan, Joseph Estrada, having refreshed the memories of voters with an anti-bases propaganda film, went on to the Vice-Presidency and was poised for capturing Malacanang.
Enter, once more, according to his own account, Chavit Singson, who played an active role in the Estrada presidential campaign. The election of Fidel Ramos in 1992 had already conditioned politicians and voters to calculate victory not in terms of building a formidable and overwhelming mandate, but in cobbling together enough resources to engineer a plausible plurality. Fidel Ramos himself had ridden to victory not because of some nation-wide bandwagon, but because his people were clever enough to do enough damage to his opponents to enable him to squeak through; indeed it would even be claimed that his accomplishment was to steal the election “fair and square.” The large number of presidential candidates in 1992 was matched by a mushrooming of “presidentiables” in 1998; with the crucial difference that while in 1992, the plausibility of Fidel Ramos was enhanced by suspicions of the mercurialness of his leading opponent in 1992, six years later the opponents of Joseph Estrada had to contend with the seeming inevitability of an Estrada victory based on predictions in the surveys.
Against Joseph Estrada his opponents hurled every possible defamation possible. But how could the charges hurled against him -of womanizing, of gambling, of fast and high living- be made to count in the already morally-debased atmosphere of the last years of the Ramos presidency? the Ramos administration had been plagued with its fair share of scandals involving graft; it had a terrible record as far as peace and order were concerned, a record not helped by the administration’s inability to either control Estrada in his role as crimefighter or play crimefighter itself; and Ramos himself seemed to be cursed with a genetic (because of his being related to the late dictator) Marcosian predisposition to keeping himself in power regardless of what the Constitution might say: not to mention the futility of accusations of womanizing being hurled against the Vice-President of a President whose supposed mistress had made herself a power broker and a leading figure in Manila’s always morally-ambivalent high society.
In such an atmosphere of naked ambition and moral indifference, the presidential ambitions of Joseph Estrada, which seemed so remote in 1987, the year he was expelled from the mayoralty of San Juan, not only seemed inevitable, but also appropriate. After a little over of six years of sincere, piously Catholic, but at times muddled and naive administration under Aquino, and another six years of an energetic, self-pleased, but crass, clever but fatally weak Ramos administration, enough of the electorate was convinced that it had nothing to lose under a President who didn’t hide his vices, who didn’t pretend he was clever, and whom everyone knew was a tough guy. After the bland corporate-style leadership of Ramos, the country seemed ready for a rejuvenating populism; and it was this populism which told the electorate that here was a man with all the defects of the Filipino masses writ large, in contrast to his opponents who had all the defects of the Filipino patriciate writ large, who deserved their votes.
If all elections involve myth-making, then the election of Joseph Estrada involved myth-making on a truly, well, mythical scale. The heroes of Edsa were tarnished; so why not turn to a folk hero? The so-called old rich were against him; so why not glory in his being a self-made millionaire surrounded by other self-made millionaires? Here was a small-town leader prepared to provide small-town style leadership after 12 years of elite rule; here was a man who spoke the language of the people and who could claim that he could eat with his hands and swagger down the street, in a way that hadn’t been seen since Magsaysay. Here was the underdog who could be a winner.
And he won, without having to steal the election, thanks to ten million votes that were enough to negate the tens of millions of other votes divvied up between his opponents, none of whom had his charisma and rapport with not just the masses, but even the middle and upper class. His supporters crowed that he received the largest number of votes in Philippine history, while ignoring the uselessness of this statistic in a nation that has an ever-growing population -for his percentage of the votes, while respectable, only served to underline the fact that 6 out of 10 voters had been against him.
Still, the myth had endured; it had been added to. And in true small-town style, there would be no magnanimity in victory. The Estrada of bacchanalian tastes would be the President Estrada who would exact revenge, Roman in zest if not in scope, on his enemies. And reward, in equally determined fashion, his friends and benefactors.
Enter, once more, Chavit Singson, Estrada’s point man in negotiating alliances with Singson’s fellow governors. With Estrada’s victory would come what he and Singson perceived as approval of their attitude toward governance and the conduct of not just their public, but private lives. Like their political revivals after Edsa, Estrada’s victory in 1998 would come to be seen as a referendum, overwhelmingly approved, on Estrada the man: how often would he be quoted by insiders as saying, in response to any criticism, “They voted for me, let them adjust to me”. The slogan of the new administration might be “Erap para sa mahirap,” but as more and more would complain, the real guiding principle of the administration seemed to be the gambler’s view that the winner takes all.
The defects of Estrada’s larger-than-life personality, while perhaps a strength on the hustings, proved to be the defects of his administration. Everything was done apparently on a whim; a country used to mercurial presidents suddenly found itself with a president both mercurial and without a strong work ethic. The President would be, as all presidents with strong characters tend to be, the fountain of all patronage; but it was patronage dispensed without rhyme or reason, purely, it was whispered, on the basis of who could whisper into the President’s ear while he caroused and sank karaoke until the early morning. Much has been written about the Estrada administration being an administration within an administration. But what concerns us here is the role Chavit Singson played in what has come to be known as the “midnight cabinet”.
Having placed his bets on his friend Estrada, and with Estrada having taken the biggest gamble of his life -and having won big- it was time for Chavit Singson to cash in his chips and collect his share of the winnings. Singson was to have his cut: and he was given it. That cut was control -call it “supervision”- of jueteng. The story of how Singson was given his racket, and peddled influence both to serve his own interests and that of the President, has been discussed at length elsewhere. What is important to consider, however, is how Singson was among the most important among the hardy crowd of drinkers and gamblers and womanizers that surrounded the President. People whose continued influence was dependent not on what they could offer the President by way of skills in government, but simply by virtue of their sharing the tastes and physical endurance of the President.
If Chavit Singson was the loyal courtier, then the President, at least according to his enemies and friends, held office in the manner that the Aga Khan: his attitude that tribute and lavish gifts were his right and due because of the position he held. The coming rift between Singson and the President could be traced to this attitude, which became offensive even to his closest friends and more intimate allies; this was a man who had forgotten two crucial “Asian values”: gratitude and face.
Machiavelli wrote that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, and woe to the prince who tries to be both feared and loved but fails to achieve either. The story of the souring of the Estrada-Singson friendship is the story, at least as told by Singson, of a President who liked to throw money and privileges at his friends while reserving the lion’s share of both for himself. And whose caprices and appetites repeatedly led him to discarding the friends who could not pay the President the tribute he felt he deserved. Having been rewarded with the supervision of the illegal numbers racket, Singson was tasked with ensuring the President received his cut. It was the tried-and-true Marcosian manner of handing out monopolies in order to delegate the amassing of illegal wealth while giving cronies a cut of the action. However, where Marcos had operated subtly and cunningly and with attention to detail, Estrada, at least as Singson has described it, acted in the grand manner, without thought of the consequences of his decisions, and without caring how things were done, as long as Estrada got his cut: and while Marcos would skim here and there, the President would insist on more and more, the quicker the better. And while Marcos would, upon seeing an ally becoming ineffectual or acting suspicious, allow the preservation of a small racket or too to enable the once-useful ally to save face, Estrada, again according to Singson, would simply lose interest and turn over what was once a particular cronies’, lock stock and barrel, to another one.
If there is the truism that in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, then Chavit Singson should not have been surprised to reach the point where his once close friend would decide he had outlived his usefulness. What he did find surprising, and perhaps doubly so because of their being contemporaries who had seen Marcos at work, was the way President Estrada apparently thought he could deprive his friend of a monopoly and leave him no other racket by way of a face-saving compensation. Upset over the way Atong Ang had not only eclipsed him, but seemed bent on reducing him to political impotence and even financial danger, Singson appealed to the President’s sense of friendship, fairness and amor propio -and found himself the target of presidential indifference and hostility. Faced with the humiliating circumstances surrounding his fall from grace, it was not surprising in turn that Singson decided to reward a betrayal with a betrayal of his own. A betrayal that, having begun as a last-ditch face-saving threat, became the cause for a vendetta when Singson saw himself targeted for liquidation. For when Singson saw that as far as the President was concerned, a useless friend was no longer even a friend, but someone expendable, he decided to make true his threat to go public and make a dramatic expose of the inner workings of the administration.
It is important to note that by his own confession, Singson viewed going public as his last card; he gave the President every chance to reach an accommodation that would enable Singson to save face and retire quietly to the sidelines. Emissary after emissary from the President came to Singson but could not offer him anything beyond an offer to liquidate Atong Ang, the President’s ambitious Chinese chum who was the cause of Singson’s fall from favor. However, the elimination of Ang would not solve Singson’s pressing needs -such as how to cover up the missing millions Singson said he filched from provincial funds and passed on to the President- and did nothing to undo the humiliating farming out of gambling license concessions in Singson’s own province to his political opponents. Singson said he was constrained to refuse; and such was the bad faith of the President or his people that Singson would soon after only narrowly escape assassination.
It was the attempt on his life that convinced Singson that he had to burn his bridges with the administration and go public. If seeking the Presidency was the greatest gamble of Joseph Estrada’s life, the attempt on Singson’s life would, in turn, lead Singson to taking the biggest gamble of all: providing the ammunition the President’s ever-growing number of opponents needed to disgrace him and shove him out of office.
When Chavit Singson went to town and told the public that he had been in league with the President in tolerating and using illegal gambling, he became the first prominent person close to the President who, for whatever reason, had finally dared to do what so many have been hoping would be done: point a finger at the President and call him a crook, a liar, and a thief.
That a man so close to the President should have been driven to doing what he did, served as the gravest and most damning indictment of the President himself. A good man, a good President, an honest and sincere Chief Executive would not be reeling from accusations of the sort Singson began hurling about, simply because people would have know, instinctively, that such charges were ludicrous.
But when Singson started talking to the press, the public’s reaction was the opposite of what it should have been if the President was everything the Palace spokesmen and the President claimed was the case. The fact was that people believed Singson. They believed Singson, more or less, because what he said seemed so plausible. And this is the reason why the President henceforth was always to be on the defensive: the Estrada of many weaknesses had already been seen, in less than two years, to be an Estrada of enormous appetites and an even vaster ego. When Singson said he had pleaded for a way out, a little consideration, and had received none, instead inviting a gangland-style rubout upon himself, the picture he painted of Estrada was one people had gotten all too familiar with. The very appetites that had once been considered strengths were now revealed as what they were: flaws and liabilities in every respect.
A remarkable transformation took place in the political landscape; it was as if Singson had abandoned the field in a crucial moment of the battle, and thereby started a rout. Seemingly overnight, far fewer people were frightened of Estrada. What had been whispered was now freely discussed in the press and by the public. The President flinched when he saw businessmen, journalists, the middle class, intellectuals and even the ordinary man on the street, not to mention churchmen, all of whom, as individual sectors he had managed to either bully or appease into an uneasy acceptance of his administration, suddenly declare him morally unfit for office. He could scoff, as he did scoff, that they were being hypocrites; but it was he who began to be viewed as the bigger hypocrite. For his flaws, though public, had never been connected with criminality and contempt for the law; his tastes, while known to be lavish, were always seen as fueled by his own personal fortune, gainfully made; now the Presidential fortune, it was alleged, was the fruit of crass and demeaning graft and corruption and gangsterism: no President, however crooked, had ever deigned to accept money from illegal gambling. Now here was the President of the Republic taking the dirtiest of dirty money, for it came from the small-time wagers of the very poor he said he had come to free from misery.
What would ensue was the transformation of Chavit Singson into the good crook; the crook who, staring death in the face, decides he might as well redeem himself by confessing his wrongdoings. His motivations of revenge and resentment over losing face and his longtime friend, the President showing no gratitude, Filipinos readily understood and sympathized with. While known as a typical crooked politician, he became the politician who was willing to blow the whistle; and the country gloried in his every lurid revelation.
In contrast, the Joseph Estrada who had been seen as a tough guy with compassion for the poor was seen to be a man who didn’t even have compassion for his partners in crime; the accusations of widescale graft and corruption in his government only served to underline the disparity between the administration’s rhetoric and what was going on in secret; and the President’s tactical mistakes -his silence, marred by occasional sallies on radio and television that became the despair of his lawyers because of the way he refused to keep to the script they prepared for him, and then the perception he refused to face his accusers, preferring, instead, to hide behind his frustrated lawyers- eroded the image of Estrada the straight-talking, blunt and courageous man. If his image and popularity were built on the myth that here at least was a politician who was unashamed of his weaknesses and compensated for them with courage and conviction, then the revelations of Singson quickly and effectively dispelled that myth.
An ironic reversal of roles thus took place. Where once Singson was a not particularly respected and indeed, notorious official, he became a hero; and where once Estrada was hero to many, he was suddenly seen as a poor caricature of his mentor, Ferdinand Marcos. Where once no one was afraid to call the President’s bluff, Singson ended up calling the President’s bluff -and the President folded. Just as he had folded time and again every time he tried to bully his opponents into submission, over giving Marcos a heroes’ burial, amending the Constitution, and muzzling the press. Here was a man standing up to the President, and hundreds of thousands rushed to his aid.
It would be Chavit Singson who would manage to steal the role that had successfully catapulted Estrada to the presidency. Chavit Singson, henceforth, would be the underdog, the maligned man fighting for his survival. It would be Estrada who would now be painted as the villain with immense wealth and power using every means, fair or foul, to get rid of his enemy and humiliate him. This turned out to be a reversal of roles incomprehensible to Joseph Estrada, action star. He had never played the role of a villain, on or off camera. Yet here he was, now, being demonized by his opponents.
Like Ferdinand Marcos, too long used to commanding and getting his way, Estrada would refuse to accept that the public’s perception of him had changed, perhaps irrevocably. He continued to sally forth, pleading that he was misunderstood, maligned, slandered; and yet the old lines didn’t work anymore. The more he protested innocence, the harder his supporters worked to prevent what he himself said he wanted: a chance to vindicate himself. And the more his supporters failed to derail the attempts to impeach and try the President, the hollower the rhetoric sounded, and the more admirable Singson became in the eyes of the public.
The result is that, as the year 2000 draws to a close, President Estrada finds himself being cast in a role he was never prepared to play, all the while insisting he is still the Asiong Salonga, the Filipino robin hood of the slums, that made him famous. But it is Chavit Singson who has adopted that role; the President finds himself reduced to the role of the old mafia don screaming for revenge as his hit men stumble over each other in confusion. All the while, protesting to the a press he once bullied, and a civil society whose moderate conventions he had defied once too often and too flagrantly, that he was still a good, well-meaning yet highly misunderstood man.
Yet it is the President who does not understand himself; and it is Singson, strangely enough, who has revealed a better understanding of the psychology of the Filipino, than Estrada the so-called man of the masses. Estrada, history may come to judge, placed all his eggs in one basket, ignoring the need to cultivate enough support to at least keep sectors that might mobilize against you, divided. Sector upon sector has united in defiance of the President, in support, whether moderate or enthusiastic, of the President’s accuser; leaving the President only his vaunted masses to cling to.
What the masses will do still remains to be seen; the daily round of revelations in the impeachment court, however, have been closely followed by the masses; and where once they were disposed to give the President the benefit of the doubt, it may turn out more and more are inclined to believe the allegations of his accusers. For Chavit Singson’s new role as underdog has been strengthened by a supporting cast of witnesses who have gained the public’s admiration for standing up to the administration. An administration, no one should forget, personified by the President.
they rose up together, they could have enjoyed six years of eating, singing, gambling and wenching together; instead, after less than three years, the party has come to an end, the friendship is gone, and only one man, either President Joseph Estrada or Luis “Chavit” Singson, will remain standing when the crisis comes to an end. As Singson has said so many times, there was no reason for things to come to this. The President had a chance to settle matters, but he preferred to kick his friend when he was down. As so many Filipinos have discovered, from all walks of life, that is one thing you never do to someone you used to call a friend. The man who knows your weaknesses is the man best able to turn that knowledge into an instrument of revenge.