Manolo Quezon is #TheExplainer Newsletter — Remulla wrecking ball

My column this week looks at the woes of the Justice Secretary, through a historian’s lens.

Good times

This week’s The Long View

Weakness at the top | Inquirer Opinionopinion.inquirer.net

By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:35 AM October 19, 2022

Historian Mina Roces in 2001 defined “palakasan” as “a system wherein those in power compete with each other in obtaining special privileges and exemptions from regulations and bending the rules of law for their kinship group.”

It provides a useful lens through which to view our politics, in which, according to her, “various groups of family rivals all attempting to exercise power in the pursuit of family wealth and privilege. Each family then tries to outdo the other in being ‘malakas.’” But one unable or unwilling to use power and influence to help one’s kith or kin then becomes a disdainful thing, “mahina.”

When it comes to palakasan, there is no room for nuance. Either you are malakas, or you are mahina. Overlooked in all the ongoing debate on whether Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla should have resigned or not is the blunt reality that the terrible thing for the Remullas (and even the President, who is their ally and patron) is that the arrest of the justice secretary’s son risks depriving the clan of its malakas status. In the blunt, near constant tallying of the pecking order, the fact that the justice secretary’s son and namesake was even arrested in the first place exposed the Remullas as mahina. There is hardly anyone unfamiliar with the many steps in what passes for our justice system, in which those with the means or the connections, or both, can intervene or find people to help.

That there was a drug operation; that in the operation, Remulla was caught; that having been caught, he was charged means a point of no return was reached not once but multiple times. Put another way, from the mounting of the operation, which had to have proceeded from some sort of tip-off, to the operation resulting in the media being told (I understand that tightened rules to prevent suspects being framed by the police means a media report is basically a requirement for judges to allow a case to proceed), there were instances where the identity of the suspect had to have emerged and been ignored by the police and the prosecutors.

While many in the public are upset that Juanito Jose Diaz Remulla III has received more considerate treatment than others receiving shipments of marijuana (he was given the ultimate courtesy of being left alive, to begin with; not to mention an epidemic of sensitivity about his appearance), that is nothing compared to the ultimate discourtesy and unfavorable treatment of being charged, which makes any legal hocus-pocus not only legally, but politically, much more difficult, if not outright impossible. Had the justice secretary actually had influence, this story would not have seen the light of day, or at least he wouldn’t have been charged.

We know from press reports that there have been interceptions, in the past, of “kush” (a type known for its sedative characteristics) coming from America. The ill-fated (for Remulla) package was one of those sent through the airport. The weight was reported to be 937 grams, which at the average American market rate of $319 a gram, means a value of $298,903 (the Los Angeles Times, for this kind of marijuana, cites the average joint at 0.3 grams and 0.5 grams for the average cookie). It would be reasonable to conclude that, being a package that came through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the tip-off could very well have come as much from international as domestic sources. A tip-off from overseas to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) would give individual agents very little wiggle room, however accommodating they might be inclined. A case of native influence wilting in the face of global power. Assuming a premium being put on good relations being maintained by PDEA or the police with their counterparts in other countries, of course.

While committed to using the resources of the republic to protect his predecessor, our current president has reportedly decided on a more humane approach to drugs. Veteran journo Glenda Gloria’s recently wonderfully sourced peek into the goings-on in the Palace reported that proof of this was the President’s choice of Philippine National Police chief, someone relatively untouched by the grisly policies of his predecessor. One of Gloria’s sources mentioned that when the body count of one cop was mentioned as a plus in determining his suitability for a plum post, the President brushed it aside. But for all this, Gloria also reported that it is “in the PNP and the armed forces where the Dutertes are well-entrenched.”

To borrow a phrase from our legislators, in the ruling coalition, could it ever be that interparliamentary courtesy to coalition partners might no longer apply? If that were to be so, it would be a sign of a brash new era shocking to old-school political practitioners. But then again, the Remullas had backed former president Rodrigo Duterte, unless he somehow got sore when they backed Marcos for the presidency (meaning the tandem the former president didn’t want). After all, which other ex-president might possibly have any residual or actual influence behind the scenes in our current government? Name one.

Perhaps it’s because pecking-order-spotting has been the name of the game to an extreme degree lately, that the palakasan element of the justice secretary’s family woes seems to be one crying out to be confronted. The coalition is not so solid that the desirability of the President’s relinquishing the agriculture post isn’t taboo. Not to mention dark mutterings about the First Lady that would make Medusa blush. And all expressed and amplified within the online ecosystem of the ruling coalition. As that useful old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

Related readings

The lens through which I peered at the woes of the Secretary of Justice was a book by historian Mina Roces. This extensive extract explains her idea of politica de familia, the concept of palakasan, and the concepts of malakas and mahina in our political culture.

I made reference to this calculator in my column: A simple guide to pot, THC and how much is too much. Here is a link to the analysis of Glenda Gloria that I mentioned in my column, too.

The most sure-footed guides to the thinking going on in the Ruling Coalition might be (to gauge Duterte thinking) and Rigoberto Tiglao (for the Arroyo corner of things). Tiglao wrote an interesting column on October 14, Should Marcos resign? which to me suggests it’s a pointed barb from the Arroyo corner. Al Vitangcol III also had a column suggesting the Marcos part of the coalition isn’t pleased with co-coalitionists aiming barbs at the First Lady.

The blog Heneral Lunacy takes a gander at the President’s first 100 days (I did too, in Marcos Dodges First 100 Days, Then Switches Course in The Asia Sentinel, see if you haven’t already!). He is far less surefooted when he starts going into the operational aspects of politics but his sources seem good and his readings, profitable to consider:

In this flux JPE has come to assume a major role in the Palace both in key appointments and direction — he is said to have 3 offices, one beside the President’s, one beside the ES’ and one in the PSG. JPE is proving a much needed ballast to the Presidency at a time when the country is headed for trouble. I will not bore you with the details, just believe potentially scary stuff is coming down.

How we survive the gathering economic clouds depends on the leadership of the President and his management style. Unfortunately not much is known about these. In the Senate BBM remained fairly obscure and even today likes to stay on message and not reveal his inner thoughts.

There are varying assessments on BBM. Duterte described him as a weak leader but that was in a fit of anger. Sen. Imee has described her brother as chill. Others say he “actually is a nice guy”. Critics admit he is less scary than expected. He is intelligent, poised and capable of properly representing the country in international forums like the ASEAN and the United Nations. He is personable and prepared to listen as evidenced by the recent Palace house cleaning. The question is does he have the focus and ability to instill fear needed for an effective presidency?

BBM can talk the talk but can he walk the walk? So far the President has displayed a limited range. This is partly due to his natural conservatism — he is not a risk taker both in policy and in choice of people — but also to the heavy legacy he bears. BBM is aware the eyes of the world are on him so he is mindful to tread carefully less he be seen to repeat the sins of his father. This legacy makes him distrustful of people which limits his reach. BBM and Liza have kept to themselves all these years and have few close friends mainly social. He has relied heavily on the confidantes of his Dad like JPE and on recycled technocrats with no alternative agendas. Unfortunately many of them are getting long on the tooth and will need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

The failure of BBM to cast a wider net is also that many otherwise qualified candidates were reluctant to serve a President who until this date remains guarded on his future intentions. They are unwilling to risk their reputations to sanitize a BBM presidency until they know more but more is not forthcoming.

BBM may have a vision for this country but has not articulated it clearly nor is he consumed by it. He has not been emboldened by 32 million votes to go all in on his presidency but has instead almost taken it as a cushion to go slow and easy. BBM has also made a few rookie mistakes. His trip to the Singapore F1 may be deserved after 3 months in office but the optics were horrible: One,the President is supposed to be promoting Philippine tourism, not Singaporean tourism. Two, watching gas guzzlers hurtling around a race track when Filipinos are strangled by soaring fuel prices is shall we say insensitive.

The upshot of all this is an Administration that has still to find its footing. BBM has not yet appointed people to head critical agencies like Health and Agriculture. The President has appointed himself as Sec. of Agriculture to signal the importance he assigns to the sector. It is a bold move but not practical as evidenced by the SRA fiasco. If that could happen so soon and right under his nose then how much more on a national scale.

The first 100 days is the traditional honeymoon period of an Administration. The best that can be said of this Government is it has been uneventful, just some hand holding and sweet little nothings. The natives may soon be getting restless particularly with trouble at our doorstep.

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Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Spot.ph. Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.

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Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Spot.ph. Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.