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?”

My Last Night in the Philippines (Philippine Adventure, Part 5)

Litex2It was already dark as we made our way down the narrow, winding streets of an area the locals called Litex, a barrio on the outskirts of Quezon City.

I was seated on a motorcycle behind the driver. No helmets. As he slowly weaved around parked pedicabs and crowds of people heading towards the market, a helmet would have been overkill. Dad was seated in the sidecar, rather calmly taking in the surrounds: a market with the accompanying crowds and the smell of fresh fish for sale, crowded jeepneys politely sounding their horns as they weaved in and out of traffic, local kids kicking a ball and chasing it down a side alley . . .

Down one narrow street, squeezing past a jeepney packed with workers on their way home. Sharp right, uphill a few metres then a sharp left, down an even narrower alley. Bumping over cracks in the road, another few unusual turns into crowded lanes. We finally stop.

We follow one of the local pastors down an alley bordered by concrete houses with rusted tin roofs, some with small dirt yards full of chickens, dogs, and clothes hanging out to dry. Not much light.

We’re walking downhill. Groves have been molded into the rough-laid walkway to help drainage in the wet season. This is the dry season, so it’s hot and the air is heavy with humidity. We continue walking, more carefully now, turning a corner as the alley narrows and we enter an area where there are no lights.

“We’re here,” Manuel says.

A tin door opens in the darkness and we enter what seems to be an entry way, down a steep concrete step and into another open door, Five more high steps down and we’re in a living room. In the middle of the floor a mother cat is nursing her three kittens, a dog barks from behind a low concrete enclosure in the corner. In the dim light we see the room contains a sofa and chairs which had seen better days, a dining table, old refrigerator and a computer.

And lots of chairs, stools and other seating arrangements.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, 30 or more people arrive, and cram into this small room. The neighbourhood children sense this is unusual–maybe it’s the “Americanos” that spark their curiosity. They find seats on the alley side of the unscreened windows and take in what is happening below.

Everyone is here. One young man pulls out a guitar and starts strumming and a girl starts a rhythm going on a “beat box”–a unique instrument that contains strings inside to reverberate different sounds depending on where the box is struck. People start singing:

This is the night,
This is the night that The Lord has made . . .

I look around and amazed by how many are here, and how many generations. Sunny, an 84-year-old from Davao is sitting next to me (four of us squeezed into a three-seat sofa) and claps along. Across from her is beautiful little Jewel, the grand-daughter of the local pastor. There are teens, twenty-somethings, mothers and fathers. All are joyously join in the song:

This is the time,
This is the time that The Lord has made . . .

The second light bulb in the room won’t work and they can’t fix it, so one of the young men runs off and returns with a more powerful light bulb, climbs up on the table and replaces its dimmer counterpart. The room erupts in bright white light.

This is the place,
This is the place that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice,
We will rejoice and be glad in it . . .

We sing together. In English. I imagine that some of those present wouldn’t fully 2013-04-30 (19-39) Philippines 353understand, but the joy on their faces assures me that they know.

We pray together. Some in English. Some in Tagalog. Some in Cebuano.

At one point a fight breaks out in the alley. Children and adults are shouting at each other. As our host moves to put up the makeshift boards that close the windows, the woman across from me, a leader in a local church youth group, turns to me and says, “They are our mission.” I sense that she will not stop until she has been able to impact each one of these young people and all of this neighbourhood with her simple yet deep faith in Jesus.

We finish as the pastor leads us in prayer. A very loud “Amen” rises from those assembled and food is brought out. The guitarist plays and we all join in:

Give thanks with a grateful heart . . .

From out of nowhere, it seems, A feast is spread before us: rice (it is the Philippines after all), a pork and green bean soup, whole dried fish, and a case of ice cold RC Cola with the tops popped and straws in place.

We eagerly grab plates and fill them with food, being careful not to tread on the kittens which, by now, have started wandering about the room, exploring.

We are soon once again seated, eating, laughing, talking, singing. The guitarist is still strumming and a few of the young people are singing:

Glory to his name, glory to his name . . .

Sweets are served: A coconut and jelly treat which, as I find out, is easier to drink than to eat with a spoon. Homemade coconut sugar candy follows and then one final prayer before we head into the darkness.

We walk up the hill by the strange light of glowing cellphones. We pass families sitting in front of their homes in the relative coolness of the outdoors. Children are playing. Adults talking, smoking, laughing. We follow the alley back to the road and make our way to our respective homes . . .

It’s 10 o’clock. I should be tired by now. But I’m not. I feel a buzz of excitement. On my last night in the Philippines, I have experienced something I had only read about in missionary stories or heard about from those working in far-flung places. I have seen real joy, genuine community, a deeply-held faith and a love that is generous and fully without either pretense or boundaries.

I will fly out tomorrow from Manila and back across the ocean to Australia, to my normal life, my family, my work. I will leave a part of my heart in this land where I was born, with its wonderful people, on its beautiful hills and plains, and submerged in its colourful culture.

Yet I’m sure this night will stay with me and I will be hearing these heartfelt songs of praise and songs of blessing wherever I am. And every time  when I hear these songs, I will hear them in a Filipino accent, accompanied by a guitar and a beatbox, truly amazing voices that expectantly and joyfully lifts towards heaven, singing with open hearts:

I love you with the love of the Lord,
Yes, I love you with the love of the Lord.
I can see in you the glory of my king
And I love you with the love of the Lord.

The Spirit of Adventure: Doing the Lord’s Work Illocano Style (Philippine Adventure, Part 4)

I have the utmost respect for Carlos and Milagros (Mila).

In 1968, I was the ring-bearer (page boy) at their wedding in Legaspi. My sister was the flower girl. My dad was the preacher.

2013-04-27 (20-04) Philippines 239They were a young couple just starting out together with an ambition to serve God and share the gospel in their homeland.

Carlos was from the Illocos region in far northern Luzon. Mila was from Bicol (part of the large Improsso family, many of whom we encountered in our time in the Philippines). They met as they were both studying for full-time Christian ministry in Mindanao.

Fast-forward 20+ years and they moved north to Isabela province to plant a church and ended up starting a Bible School of their own. IGBI_IsabelaThey spent many years in this area and were very successful in their work. Numerous young men and women graduated from their Bible School which later became one of the three IGBI campuses of TCM (Philippines).

While the work was growing and new churches were being planted in the Isabela region, Carlos and Mila came to the decision to leave Isabela and do what they had been teaching young men and women to do for so many years–plant new churches. Our church at the time joined with them in this venture and contributed a small amount each month towards their living expenses. It was always great to see each new endeavour and where God was opening doors for them to serve.

2013-04-29 (12-26) Philippines 323They chose a location on the opposite side of the island of Luzon, just about as far north as you can go in the Philippines, near the city of Laoag–a small barangay (village) called Caaoacan. Here they built a house with an adjacent small meeting space and started a church.

That wouldn’t be anything fantastic, considering how many churches are planted in the Philippines every year. But what makes this incredible is that Carlos is 80 and Mila is in her late 70s. And while Carlos was originally from the Illocos region and spoke the native language Illocano, it took his wife 8 years to learn it well enough to be reasonably fluent.

Dad and I took a short detour north and flew into “Laoag International Airport” (called so because, once in a while, a charter flight from China or Taiwan lands there) on a warm Saturday evening. We were met by Carlos on his “tricycle” (motorbike with a sidecar attached) and, together with our luggage, 2013-04-29 (15-17) Philippines 348crammed into his and another tricycle for the half hour journey north to Caaoacan.

2013-04-28 (17-54) Philippines 286With the expense of owning a car is beyond the reach of most Filipinos, the motorbike and tricycle are widely used forms of transport. Wherever you go, these vehicles crowd the roads and are even used as taxis. And, apart from the suspension on bumpy roads, they do amazingly well for the little amount of fuel they use.

We spent only a couple of days with this wonderful couple. We participated in their church services on Sunday and dad went with them to their Sunday afternoon meetings (I was in bed, sadly, not feeling too well).

??????????Their enthusiasm for their work was contagious. Though clearly showing signs of their age (Carlos had a heart bypass operation last year and Mila has problems with her feet and hip), they not only ran a full schedule in Caaoacan, but held services Sunday afternoon in another barangay an hour’s drive away (once again via tricycle).

They are isolated. Though they are not far from a decent-sized city (Laoag has a population of 104,000) with most of the mod-cons (McDonalds being foremost), the area in which they live has no running water, sewers, telephone lines, internet, and undependable electricity supply.

They have a young ??????????pastor staying with them who also works with the youth in the village and helps them by fishing in the nearby river (a great source of little shrimp), drawing all the water from the well (via a pump in their kitchen–no running water) to water their plants, clean and drink, running errands for them in his tricycle and helping out around the church property. He is also a brilliant guitar player (a gift many Filipinos seem to possess!).

In all their work, Carlos and Mila remain selfless, generous, and dedicated to their calling. It was a privilege to stay with them for even this short visit. It also helps that Mila is a fantastic cook!

2013-04-29 (12-02) Philippines 314Too soon it was time to say our farewells. There were tears. Mila bemoaned the fact that “Mum Jan” (my mum) and “Mum Vicki” (my wife) couldn’t have come with us. Having just seen the beautiful local beach that morning, I wished we could have stayed longer and done some more exploring . . .

2013-04-29 (17-48) Philippines 344As we flew out of Laoag, I felt a sense of sadness that we had to cut our visit short (due to flight changes out of our control). Also for the fact that we, with so much at our disposal, complain so much and do so little in comparison to what these excited and dedicated senior citizens are accomplishing. Theirs is not my calling, yet, in some respects, what they do is what we all as followers of God are called to do: to serve unselfishly, to speak the good news into every part of our lives, and to be faithful in everything.

Thank you, Carlos and Milagros, for sharing with us your adventure in ministry and showing us, with such a vibrant and gracious spirit, the joy that can be found in being faithful to your calling.