Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

A Good Memory

I remember.

Not everything. I’m not that good at faces and names. I’m also not as good at rote memory–memorizing lists, passages, or poems–as I once was.

But I remember well places, scenes, roads, words, sensations, textures, experiences, tastes.

I remember far too much.

Eating ice cream at midnight when I was 2. Riding piggyback on my dad’s bike to Kindergarten in Legaspi City when I was 4. Mum making sauerkraut in a bucket in her office. The mango tree behind our house blowing over in the storm and the taste of unripe mangoes with a sprinkle of salt. The words of Filipino Sunday School songs. Getting my arm stuck in the washing machine wringer. Wading and swimming in flood waters in Lupagon. Playing with Gardiner Improsso on the IGBI basketball court. Visiting the Andersons in Tagbalaran. The look on the man’s face that I mistook for my Uncle at the airport in 1972. Where I was when my sister told me Mr Wright died (I had only met him once but he took our family to Disneyland.) The smell of the musty basement at my uncle’s church in Madison, Wisconsin. My first breath of Australian air after stepping off the plane in Sydney. How sausage rolls and strawberry milk really didn’t mix well in Grade 4.

1971-05-01 Burning the Clubouse
When we left the Philippines in 1971, our parents allowed us to have a bonfire with our old ‘clubhouse. I’m third from the left.

 

It might not seem so bad, but that’s only a small fraction of my mind’s inner workings. I also remember almost every unkind word I said, every failure, wrong decision, mistake. The lie I told in 1985. The rules I broke in 1986. The car accident of 1987. The wrong song I sang in church in 1996. The embarrassing joke of 1998. The brain snap of 1999. . . Many times my excellent memory feels like a curse.

It condemns me.

It beats me up. It makes me feel inadequate, foolish and, like Cher, wishing I could turn back time.

But I can’t wind the clock back. I can’t take back those hurtful words, unwrite that nasty letter, or undo that wrong move.

People are kind. They forget—or at least they don’t mention it again. I doubt there would be a handful of folks who would immediately call to mind that failed speech I gave, or that embarrassing joke I told.

People also give me advice on how to deal with my memory problems: “It is what it is.” “Accept it and move on.” “We all make mistakes.” “You wouldn’t be where you are today if you didn’t make the mistakes you made.”

While all these are true, it does nothing to mitigate the feelings of regret, remorse, or sadness over the past.

I find it easy to forgive others. I find it incredibly hard to forgive myself.

Memory is like that.

I recall the words of a song from First Call (Yes, I am a CCM tragic straight outa the 80s!) called God is Greater. Not a hugely memorable song and, despite my outstanding knack of remembering useless stuff, I can’t remember anything except this one line: “And even if your heart condemns you, God is greater . . . than your heart.”

God, the Divine Presence, the ever-loving, always forgiving, Eternal One is greater than anything that might condemn me.

I’m not discounting the reality of the regret I feel when I remember the bad things I have done or the pain I have caused the people that I have trodden on. That is still with me every day and, quite frankly, sucks. Big time.

What I hold on to is that no matter what my perception is, or has been, the reality of God’s love overpowers all.

Sure, I messed up and, if memory serves me correctly, still do.

But my life lies open before me and I can’t let those moments pass in vain. There are lessons I have learned and I need to move forward knowing that every mistake is redeemable, every wrong path can lead to healing, and every trespass is forgiven. Love wins, always.

 

Traditions

It’s ironic, in a nation where Christmas Day is celebrated in the middle of Summer when the weather’s usually hot and humid, that the shopping malls and radio stations still play Christmas music a la Currier & Ives—singing about sleighs, snow and sitting by the fire. The Christmas dinner of choice in most households, even in 40-dgree heat (100+ on the old scale) is still a roast turkey and piping hot vegetables. And the ubiquitous Santa Claus suffers through days in stuffy faux-snow castles wearing a long-sleeved fur-lined coat, long pants and boots.

Australia_SantaWhy is it that, miles away from the northern hemisphere, traditions are carried on through the generations as if one is living in Europe, the U.K. or America?

Apart from the inroads of Americanism into our culture, Australians by-and-large carry in traditions of their ancestors to a fault (even though shrimp and cold meats are slowly usurping prime position on the table (and the turkeys breathe a collective sigh of relief).

Tradition is a powerful motivation. One only needs to visit any family in a growing number of ethnic communities to see that the holiday itself takes on different (or no) meaning, depending on the country of origin.

Christianity, too, has its traditions. And just like traditions differ between Afghans, Chinese and Italian immigrants, so traditions within Christendom vary depending on denomination and, often, nation of origin of that denomination.

Regardless of the origins or the variables evident, traditions—rituals, liturgies, stories, histories—are a grounding force in religion. I believe they are important elements of faith that bring to the table a sense of place, a history. In my opinion, we need history to show us not only where we came from, but also bring perspective into the present and help us in envisioning a trajectory into the future.

Traditions may be rituals such as candle lighting during Advent, special stories read on Christmas Eve, a Christmas Day church service, the pennies baked into plum puddings or great-grandma’s hand-embroidered doilies on the dinner table. They may be the Christmas hymns we sing (a.k.a. carols), the legend of St Nicholas, or the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Traditions are like points on a map that show us where we have been, or like mile markers to show us where we are or how far we have to go.

They give us a sense of belonging.

They ground us in our ever-changing culture.

They give us a sense of stability.

They show us, in symbolic picture, prose or ritual, what is possible.

They give us hope for those who follow, that they too will be able to grasp the meaning and find a way to live in generations to come with purpose and faith.

Traditions may change. Rituals may evolve. But may the myriad of ways they speak into our lives always bring us joy, peace, love and a sense of hope for the future.