Being a hero

A day after returning to a grateful and adoring nation from his redemptive win over Brandon Rios in Macau, boxing legend and Saranggani Rep. Manny Pacquiao faced the press to complain about the way Philippine tax officials have been treating him. The Bureau of Internal Revenue apparently had earlier ordered a freeze on all his local bank accounts pending full payment of his tax obligations. Pacquiao claims he has been conscientious in paying his taxes both in the United States and in the Philippines. But, according to the BIR, he has tax deficiencies on his boxing earnings abroad in 2008 and 2009.

The crux of the matter seems to be the boxer’s failure to submit a certified true copy of a document showing the taxes collected from him by the US Internal Revenue Service. The BIR recognizes that such taxes are deductible from a Filipino national’s tax liabilities in the Philippines so long as proof of payment is presented. Pacquiao says the BIR insists on seeing the original document and has refused to accept a copy.

We can be certain that there are no issues here that a reasonably good tax lawyer cannot sort out. The legal questions appear to be simple. It is the context, however, that is rich in complexity.  Because it is complex, one needs subtlety and cautiousness in dealing with it.

Pacquiao has said many times that his mission in Macau was not just to avenge his two previous defeats but also, more importantly, to bring happiness to the Filipino people in this time of overwhelming grief and depression.  Without any doubt, he has tremendously succeeded in both objectives. It was uplifting to see a mature and skillful boxer like him dispose of his opponent not by a lucky knockout punch but in a dazzling display of total superiority in speed and punching power. I’m not a boxing analyst, but I think his duel with Rios will long be remembered as one of Pacquiao’s best fights.

It was equally wonderful to watch the viewers in the devastated areas rise from their seats and punch the air with their fists every time their idol connected to Rios’ swollen face. It was as though they were furiously hitting back at the winds and storm surges brought by “Yolanda.” Pacquiao has given the supertyphoon’s survivors a catharsis beyond compare.

But, I wonder if our “pambansang kamao” has not somehow diluted the purity of his victory by choosing this moment to bring up the banality of taxes. It is not clear from the reports when the order to freeze his bank accounts was issued. It could not have been on the day of his actual return from Macau. That would have been the height of stupidity and ineptness on the part of the BIR. It is likewise not clear how much money there is in these accounts. But for Pacquiao to say that because of the freeze on his deposits he has had to borrow money to pay his expenses is to strain the imagination. All his big fights have been held abroad, yet he has no accounts abroad?

He says he is eager to visit the disaster victims in Samar and Leyte to bring them his own donations, but that his admirable intentions are being hampered by the freeze order from the BIR. What terrible villains these government officials are! But, one could sense there is more to this than meets the eye.

We are in the midst of a gathering political storm. We have a government that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be grossly incapable of protecting the public coffers from being pillaged by corrupt politicians and other government officials. Yet, this is the same government that relentlessly pursues ordinary citizens who quietly earn an honest living for their supposed failure to pay their taxes in full. Now, Manny Pacquiao himself has decided to bring this paradox to the fore. “There are many crooks in the government whose bank accounts and properties are not subjected to garnishment,” he said in Filipino at his press conference. “I have absorbed many blows just to earn money and give pride to the nation, but this is what happened.”

Although he is quick to say that his travails with the taxman have nothing to do with the President, his lament is heard as more than just a way of softening the BIR. He is making a political statement. Without saying as much, he is hinting that some people are doing this to him because they see him as a force to contend with in the 2016 national elections. Is he?

Given our culture and the immense popularity he enjoys, I believe he is. He has great charisma, and is the perfect personal validation of the poor man’s highest aspirations. In a time of great disaffection with conventional politicians, it is natural to think of him as an alternative. But if he has presidential ambitions, he will have to wait until 2022, because he will still be below 40 in 2016. Still, he is a sure winner if he runs for senator. He will be a big asset in any presidential aspirant’s campaign.

But from what I have seen of Manny Pacquiao’s presence in Congress, which isn’t much, I think he is no different from those icons of popular culture that rode on mass adulation to launch a career in politics. They neither have a vision of a transformed society nor a coherent program of government. Their political habits—mostly revolving around patronage and dynasty-building—are incorrigibly backward. But, more crucially, they suffer from a lack of an organized constituency from which they can draw the political strength they need to end the privileges of the traditional oligarchy that rules our country. Manny Pacquiao is a greatly admired hero to our people. He should value and keep that role by staying out of politics.

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