The brief public life of Aprodicio Laquian

After writing an intimate political ethnography of the campaign that made Joseph Estrada the centennial president, Dr. Aprodicio Laquian came home from Canada early last year to launch the book in Malacanang.  Almost a year later, to everyone’s surprise, Prod returned to Manila with his wife Eleanor (on a “buy-one-take-two” basis, he would joke) to take up a key position in Malacanang.  In academic parlance, the scholar has returned to the field as consultant, possibly as savior.

It is a fantasy that intellectuals are heir to, born of a yearning to change the world and not just interpret it.  One can imagine Professor Laquian pacing his room in the University of British Columbia, as he contemplates the graceless fate of a president whose election he has just documented and celebrated. In just a year, the Philippines under Erap has loomed like a full-blown disaster about to happen.  The good professor sincerely thought he could do something to avert further damage.  That is why he came home.

From abroad, the country’s problems will always seem simple, and perhaps, indeed, they are.  Technocrats and theoreticians like Prod Laquian will view them mainly as systemic inefficiencies, arising from a complex of historical and cultural factors, for which there are appropriate cures.  The remedies are usually in the form of organizational strategies aimed at minimizing the impact of idiosyncratic behavior upon state performance.  In the Philippine context, the problem would be how to insulate the vital affairs of the state from the irrationality of the key actors.

Prod came home with very clear ideas of what needed to be done in the Office of the President.  If the interventions he had in mind would work only if he himself was there to oversee their implementation, he was willing to make the supreme sacrifice.  He would then be, in his own fatal chatter before the Manila Overseas Press Club, “the designated driver”, the “sober person”, in a party of drunken decisionmakers.

In Canada, or anywhere else in the civilized world, the one who volunteers not to drink because he will be driving the rest of the party home is hailed as a good person. In our country, he only runs the risk of being labeled as henpecked for refusing to drink.   Our culture cannot suffer law-abiders, professionals who draw the line between what is permissible and what is not, whose sense of duty permits them to violate the norms of pakikisama.  Our leaders also expect people who work for them not only to do their work well but also to be sycophants.

I had thought that Prod Laquian, of all people, would know these cultural syndromes by heart.  As a UN expert, he had worked in a variety of anthropological contexts.  In his own country, he would be his own best cultural interpreter.  Still, aware that he and Eleanor had been away for more than 20 years, well-meaning friends gave them all the counsel they might need to survive Malacanang.  They advised Prod to work as quietly as possible, to avoid the media since anyway he was going to be the President’s Chief of Staff and not his spokesman, and not to be provoked by the intrigues that were certain to come his way.

He had made a great sacrifice in opting to come back to the country at this time, to help a president whose daily performance in office has been a relentless confirmation of his gross unsuitability for the role. Prod had to give up his Canadian citizenship, a tenured position in a university, and a comfortable life in Vancouver – just so he could baby-sit a president.  Cynics, of course, saw him only as a semiretired academic who successfully maneuvered his way to a position of immense power, in exchange for service as a trophy intellectual to a president without achievements.

I was bothered when, soon after his appointment, Prod was quoted by the media as making a litany of all the high-paying professional contracts he had to give up so that he could assume his present position.  He reacted to reports that he had purposely applied for the position, instead of being pursued and recruited to rescue a bungling government.  He sounded like an academic desperately fighting for his self-image, something unnecessary for him to do, I thought, if he was to remain focused on the awesome responsibility he had taken upon himself.

I believe that Prod Laquian — a decent, competent and patriotic Filipino — would have made a difference in the Erap presidency.  Like many of his friends who were shocked by his decision to come home, I did not think he would endure Malacanang.  But I had hoped he would last long enough to put in place the kind of insulation needed so that the nation may be protected from the irreversible injury of a disastrous presidency.

Dr. Aprodicio Laquian remained a professor to the end of his brief public life, a victim of what the writer Pico Iyer called the “imperatives of chatter”.  The witticisms he dished out at the MOPC forum could have been formulated while he was still a professor in Canada, as he examined the prospects of joining a government as strange as those he had once advised in Africa. He probably thought he was still in a seminar room, among colleagues who would appreciate irony, and who would not mind a little bragging from a fellow field worker who had just emerged from participant-observation.

It was too late when he realized he was before the media.  He had made a fool of himself; he had embarrassed the president, and he was properly repentant.  But I doubt if he is unhappy that he has his life back.


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