The good Tan

Having known Sr. Christine Tan and what she did during the dark Marcos years, I would be terribly disappointed if she did not speak her mind after being rudely and hastily dismissed as a director of the Philippine Charity and Sweepstakes Office.  I would also feel very distressed if those of us who have known her as an exceptional human being fail to speak up when her integrity is attacked by the ignorant and the malicious who think their cynical and predatory ways are the norm for everyone.

This is one good Tan.  If those who bear this surname by sheer accident of birth have felt unduly maligned by the frequency with which their family name has been linked to scandal and crime, they now have reason to rejoice.  Here is a Tan of whom they can be proud.  In a society gone crazy over power and material possessions, Sr. Christine is a reminder that one may be born to wealth and prominence but can choose to live among the poorest in Manila’s slums.  I think the power of that example would be enough to cancel the sins of the other notorious Tans.

There are people who serve the poor, and there are people who prey on the poor in the guise of serving them.  The latter are typically politicians who carefully cultivate a pro-poor image and who publicly champion their interests, but in truth they only have contempt for them. Their empathy is nothing but performance, a rehearsed act without resonance in their everyday lives.  They refuse to recognize the roots of poverty, and so their interventions never go beyond vain displays of charity.

In contrast, there are people like Sr. Christine who have built a permanent home in the hearts of the poor but would never think of becoming barangay captain, or, least of all, president.  They generally go about their mission quietly, refusing to be overwhelmed by the pervasive misery they encounter, drawing strength only from the ungrounded hope that life might be better for the children.

But when you have experienced life the way this Good Shepherd nun has among the poor, you will not keep still and be silent.  And Sr. Christine refused to be silent or still during the Marcos years.  She denounced Imelda’s jewels and the lavish parties she threw for her jetsetter friends.  She painted the crime of the Marcoses by contrasting their ostentatious ways against the destitution of the masses. In a nation that was getting accustomed to apathy and fear, at that moment, she spoke up as a conscience of one.

I first met her in the early 80’s in the house of the late Senator Jose W. Diokno.  We were forming Kaakbay, a small group of teachers, lawyers, Church people, students and a broad range of professionals that would meet regularly to analyze the national situation, and link up with the open protest movement against Marcos.  Sr. Christine always came early by jeepney or by bus, sometimes with one or two other nuns.  She mostly listened, and when she spoke it would be in a simple, terse and forthright way.  The moral authority she commanded was awesome, but she remained ever humble and soft-spoken.

The downfall of the Marcoses was due as much to the tenacity of the mass movement as it was to the example of courage and commitment shown by individuals like Sr. Christine and Justice Cecilia MunozPalma who staked their personal safety and credibility to fight an immoral regime.  I do not expect that the Estrada administration would know or would care about what they did so that our people may live in freedom again.  I was pleasantly surprised when President Estrada appointed Justice Palma and Sr. Christine to the PCSO at the start of his term.  But having seen how Estrada treats people who have minds of their own, I am not surprised at the shabby way he has removed these two outstanding women from the PCSO.

This is a contest between showbiz popularity and solid credibility. There can be no doubt who the surveys would affirm if they asked who between Erap and Sr. Christine is right.

But more than this, the issue, once more, concerns the need to develop institutions and to move away from personalistic regimes. When Sr. Christine revealed that in just a one-year period, more than P430 million was released to projects of the President and the First Lady, while only a little over P65 million went to hospitals and orphanages, I do not think she was questioning the legality of these appropriations.  She was questioning their morality.  Neither was she questioning the legality of distributing PCSO ambulances through Mayor Jinggoy Estrada; she was challenging the fairness of it in a democracy.

Politicians have always regarded the PCSO as a milking cow.  This attitude remains very much alive in the present administration.  That is why the powers-that-be did not like it when Sr. Christine learned to object to many of their requests for PCSO funding.  In a decent society, her objections would have become the basis for tightening the rules and sharpening the criteria for allotting public funds.  But in a cynical society, they only become the reason for getting rid of troublesome truth-tellers like her.

We know if we have succeeded in institutionalizing democracy in our society when the merely popular who run for public office no longer get elected, and thieves who happen to be appointed to public office can no longer steal.  It is not democracy’s aim to convert the deluded and the dishonest into realistic and honest citizens.  Democracy’s aim is more modest — to manage the bewildering range of wickedness and goodness found in every society.

For this, we do not need to found new religions; we only need to design better institutions.


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