Three aspects of public opinion

Manuel L. Quezon III
10 min readApr 8, 2024


When it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s hidden

My three most recent columns tackle publoic opinion from three different perspectives. The case of the ill-fated Pasig River Highway project shows how -mainly middle-class- public opinion, when marshaled, can put the powers-that-be, on the defensive. The case of a survey revealing sustained, and wide, public opposition to any kind of Charter Change, reveals two things: how that opinion is based on profound public ignorance, but that the moves of political groups are dependent on invoking that opinion -until it’s revealed to be the opposite of what public officials claimed. The third is about business, or, to be precise, the ongoing experience of medium to large scale enterprises -and how they are unwilling to complain, not only because it might attract official attention, but also, interestingly, help the current opposition which is the last group businessmen want restored to power.

I. What public opinion can do


Public opinion still has clout

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM March 20, 2024

Yesterday’s front page proved that public opinion can still make a difference. Our Business section reported Ramon Ang announcing that his Pasig River Expressway (PAREx) scheme to build a giant expressway along and over the Pasig River, has been dropped, with Ang saying he chose to be “sensitive” to public opinion. It may just be that Manila’s experiment with reviving the Pasig River waterfront by means of getting Paulo Alcazaren-the architect behind Iloilo’s massively popular river esplanade development-to show the feasibility of replicating Iloilo’s success in Manila, was the cultural and tourism proof of concept that killed Ang’s scheme. The only question now is whether the formal abandonment of the PAREx scheme means a Pasig River Esplanade will now get the buy-in not just of Manila’s but other river-bordering cities and municipalities of the Metro.

Anyone who follows Alcazaren’s writings in another broadsheet or on Facebook knows that he has ideas for integrating the entire prospectus from the Agrifina Circle where the National Museum’s buildings are, with Rizal Park all the way to Intramuros and the Post Office Building. According to him, they should all be a walkable heritage zone, which radically expands, by linking together, formerly isolated green spaces while also making formerly detached zones more cohesive. Long a white elephant after the postal system essentially collapsed because of obsolescence, the Post Office Building would have made a good Supreme Court (or even Senate, considering the institution’s eccentric allergy to relocating to its logical location, the Batasan Complex). There have even been proposals to turn it into the National Archives, a splendid purpose only marred by proximity of the building to the river.

Even with the building in ruins, it’s fitting that its Pasig River frontage has become the proving ground for the Manila esplanade experiment. As always, it will now be a race against time: even as the idea is being shown to be possible, the question remains whether the buildings that are notable and historic along the banks of the river can still be saved. What will help is that whatever happens, Manila will be part of the Asean 2026 hosting of the country and a redeveloped historic core would finally put us on par with our neighbors, who caught up with, and then surpassed us, in recognizing that historic preservation makes economic sense. Just as culture isn’t a luxury, but rather, a necessity: or as those who like to make an economic case for it like to say, “a key element in product differentiation.”

That being said, it may be ripe for a discussion on whether the time for a Department of Culture has finally come. The compromise in the past, during culturally allergic administrations, was to disguise things under a bureaucratic condominium known as the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, where our cultural agencies bravely do their work despite the endemic indifference of the powers-that-be (I will always marvel at the fact that much as he had little patience for the “culturati,” the late president Benigno S. Aquino III approved the allocation of significant resources for the National Museum and other agencies; perhaps the time will come when the quiet support of previous administrations such as those of presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will be more widely recognized). I noticed that the more visionary of our secretaries of tourism always took a strong interest in culture and the arts and I wonder if the decision of other countries to have a department or ministry of culture and tourism isn’t a logical one.

But we should return where we began: to the role of public opinion in both opposing and supporting. Opposition to the PAREx scheme came in the form of heritage and environmental advocacy; a little less successful is support for the preservation and maintenance of historic structures. And, as we’re seeing, this extends to natural treasures that no one, I’m sure, even thought remotely endangered, so universally cherished they are. And yet, as we’re seeing with the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, what was unthinkable has proven possible.

No one is angrier than the people of Bohol themselves and their local officials have a lot of explaining to do-with elections on the horizon at that. Is it enough to become an issue in local elections? The irony is that after the destruction of churches, national and local, international, faith-based, and nongovernment organizations, all worked together to bring back what was lost; and yet, what nature created has been harmed-by private greed.

II. What happens when public opinion is revealed


Pulped fictions

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:12 AM April 03, 2024

Public opinion killed Ramon Ang’s plans to cover the Pasig River in toll-producing concrete. Or, to be precise, enough groups expressed themselves to turn it into a losing proposition. The latest surveys by reputable survey firms on Charter change may be enough to derail the latest Cha-cha effort, but it is worth examining the difference between the two. Public opinion was unable to stop Ang’s previous effort much as it erased historical Paco from the map; the middle-class demand for mobility cheered it on. Ironically, the success of his previous tollways may have reduced the Pasig River scheme to a tollway too far.

The visuals provided in support of the Pasig River tollway may have been the instrument of its eventual mercy killing. It showed enough to terrify its eventual critics but not enough to rally its supporters. But it was definitely enough to spark debate, with both sides claiming to have a clear picture of what was potentially at stake.

The most recent surveys, on the other hand, are the latest in a 30-plus-year series of snapshots that have remained fundamentally, and shockingly, unchanged over the same period. Each snapshot is of a profoundly ignorant population, one which is equally fundamentally incompetent to answer the question repeatedly asked of it: Do you support or oppose proposals to amend the Constitution?

In every snapshot, that is, in every survey, when asked about how much they know about the Constitution, the answer is, across the board whether based on age or affluence or education, what the public knows is at best next to nothing and in the main, too little to count as anything but overall ignorance. Therefore, rich or poor, male or female, urbanite or rural dweller, educated or not, what the Filipino feels is hostility to any proposal to change-what they neither understand nor have an informed opinion about.

Neither the schools nor the media, neither the politicians who claim to lead nor civil society which claims to act on discernment, have had any measurable impact on the pervasive picture of national ignorance. A debate that comes and goes with ferocious regularity then has obviously created much heat and little light; in other words, the effects of the sincere debating both sides of each question and the resources lavished by the insincere who simply wanted to win by pulling one over the gullible eyes of the public, have barely dented our ignoramus national condition, for that is what it is.

Considering the powers that be have gotten as far as they have, without the benefit of public support, it says a lot that when reputable survey firms have revealed more of the same (public hostility born of ignorance), a loss of nerve seems to be the result. When congressmen point to less (if not totally dis-) reputable surveys to try to blunt the effect of the reputable ones, you know panic has set in. And yet the reputable surveys, in the form they’ve been released to the public anyway, do not answer the logical next question to ask. You may oppose any and all proposals for Cha-cha, but what are you prepared to do about it? Will you, say, rally in the streets? Will you vote “no” in a plebiscite?

That’s the real question and one that could only be asked in the present, post-people power era, after the extinction of the event removing the Aquinos’ position of guarantor and guardian of our once-upon-a-time newly restored democracy. As Rodrigo Duterte discovered last February in Cebu (and early on in his presidency with the collapse into a parody of his so-called Duterte Youth), once you banish people power you cannot revive it, it won’t even come back as a zombie of its former living self. If there can’t be a parliament of the streets to deliver a no-confidence vote on incumbent administrations, what is to stop incumbent administrations from demonstrating “political will”?

The ghostly rebuke of public opinion, it seems. The machine is willing but the spirit has been proven weak. As a plebiscitary democracy, the ultimate survey is, of course, an election, but in the absence of one, the surveys remain king though not every survey is born equal. We still trust the familiar, the long-lived-the ones with some sort of track record. Most of all, we prefer the familiarity of that which we neither fully know nor understand to attempt to do otherwise.

III. Where public opinion is hidden


Under the surface

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:12 AM March 27, 2024

April is tax season and the unhappiest time of the year for most people in productive occupations except, perhaps, for those who have made a profession out of official extortion.

For them, this is their time to shine. Operating on the simple principle that God helps those who help themselves, they gladly offer a devil’s bargain to big taxpayers: the overall size of what you have to pay on taxes to the government can go down if you give the tax official you’re dealing with a cut.There is no getting around this deal because of two tried-and-tested principles.

The first is that the only certainties in this world are death and taxes (so it’s only a question of when and how much). The second is one familiar to gamblers everywhere: the house always wins. In the case of taxes, this means that honesty never pays because tax rules are written in such a manner as to leave an opening for interpretations by the dishonest or the dishonorable in the public service.

Hence the euphemism known in the corporate world as the “cost of doing business” which, in “good” years, is fixed because predictable. Any increase in uncertainty and therefore, risk, dampens domestic economic dynamism and drives away foreign investments; not enough has been written about the manner in which both domestic and foreign economic activity were suppressed by how then President Rodrigo Duterte maintained his hold by “sampling”: targeting individuals to intimidate broad swathes of society.

This was useful to Duterte but also resulted in fostering behavior that has helped his successor at a time when Duterte could benefit from a revival of behaviors he helped stamp put: conditioned to duck and cover, big business is not about to offer bold prescriptions for reform; having helped severely erode media independence and reduce the media landscape as a whole, there are no longer enough reporters, or editors, or readers, or viewers, or listeners, to make the powers that be sweat: not least because the new dichotomy in our politics is no longer Left and Right and Establishment versus Reform, it’s between the Old Right and the New Right, and between Marcos and Duterte.

Similarly, there are dynamics as old as political time itself at play in this Restoration Era. Not just every new administration (since this administration is approaching middle age, aka its midterms) but every new finance secretary has to show it can collect more taxes than its despised predecessor(s): this means, during tax season, another layer of desire being imposed: the desire to meet quotas imposed from above, in expectation of window-dressing moment during the State of the Nation Address or some similar official ritual.

At such times, a new kind of terror stalks corporate boardrooms: the terror of assessment, with particularly terrible seasons being those when assessments are repeated: you think you’ve gotten past one, and another one is announced. Here again, rectitude is neither a good defense nor a survival mechanism, because of the iron rule of the quota. It must be met, and to be uncooperative is to give those trying to fill the quota a scapegoat.

The best that boardrooms seem to be able to hope for is equal opportunity assessments, even if repeated, on the principle that at least it fairly spreads misery around instead of selectively targeting certain businesses that happened to incur the ire of the powers that be.

Here is what separates the past from the present: the lack of a forum for the public to vent its frustrations so that in most years, complaining lets off steam and in truly bad years, the steam is of such volume and pressure even the powers that be can get scalded. At present, what relieves pressure is the weird kind of satisfaction that comes from hearing-not knowing, but simply hearing whispering-that the predators are preying on each other. That those shaking down productive enterprises are informing on each other, resulting in kidnapping, robberies, and extortion that can’t be reported to the cops-because those extorted or stolen from are themselves the beneficiaries of ill-gotten wealth.

Most fundamental of all is this truly mind-boggling theory: that it is better to keep quiet about crime because to raise a fuss would only help those whose criminality was much worse than whatever’s allegedly currently going on.

Originally published at



Manuel L. Quezon III

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