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Editor's note: The following essay first appeared on the blog of Rep. Raymond Palatino. We are reprinting it here with his permission.
I am reported to be the second poorest congressman of the 15th Congress of the Philippines. But since I'm not a "nattering nabob of negativism", I prefer to be known instead as the 285th richest solon in the country.
As expected, world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao topped the list of politicians who became rich through legal means. But it's difficult to accept that Hall of Famer (representa)thieves are poorer than him. Maybe it's more accurate to rank politicians based on the value of their hidden wealth.
But how do we find the secret hoard? A friend suggested an innovation: Politicians must undergo a lie detector test in connection with their declared assets. Or perhaps a truth serum can help them remember their other properties. However, I doubt if these unconventional methods can work on professional liars and natural born robbers.
We can learn many things from the curious case of Imelda Marcos. She is the second richest member of the House with a net worth of almost a billion pesos. Yet a few years ago she was the pitiful poorest member of the House. How did she become rich again? The story of a penniless widow who became a billionaire provides Imeldific material for a self-help book or movie.
Seriously, why did we allow Imelda to flaunt her ill-gotten wealth again? The other sinister half of the conjugal dictatorship is not only enjoying her freedom, she has also clearly recovered some of her sequestered assets. Shame to all post-Edsa governments and their insincere anti-corruption promises!
But Imelda's fortune is not a controversial issue in the House of Millionaires. What is considered quite odd is the presence of VIPs or Very Impoverished Politicians in the elite-dominated institution. Is it really possible for a poor congressman to remain poor even after serving for three terms? Can a congressman enter and leave the chamber without being too obsessed with money, real estate, and other worldly possessions? Yes. Some fine examples are Crispin Beltran, Satur Ocampo, Liza Maza, Teddy Casiño, and Paeng Mariano. (Among Ed in the local government).
Public service is not reserved for the filthy rich with bleeding hearts. Wealth should be removed as the initial requirement for those who seek to enter politics. The stereotype that a politician is rich or that he should get rich has to be replaced if we want a more democratic type of politics.
Politicians are not obliged to renounce their wealth. They can remain rich while holding public office. In the same manner, we should also respect the decision of some poor politicians to embrace a more spartan type of life while avoiding the juicy offers of high society. It must be emphasized, though, that this lack of enthusiasm or disinterest to join the ranks of the very rich is not merely an activist credo. It's actually a very Christian thing. Should I mention the Beatitudes here?
The fascination over the excess or lack of tangibles possessed by politicians should hopefully lead us to discuss the intangibles of democracy. These intangibles like equality, justice, rights are immaterial and immeasurable but essential in a genuine democratic state.
Focus on numbers alone is not enough. What's the value of having self-proclaimed poor politicians if their politics only affirm the exploitative character of the social order? Progressive politics, democratic politics can be espoused by both the rich and poor.
What we should aggressively promote is the greater participation of the poor in the country's public and political life. The Left has been consistent in organizing and mobilizing the poor through various mass struggles. And through the partylist system, we witnessed the remarkable legislative record of proletarian intellectuals like Ka Bel and Ka Paeng. The poor deserve more voices and representatives in Parliament.
I hope the day comes when poor politicians no longer constitute a minority in government. I hope politicians wouldn't have to explain why they arrived in a taxi, jeepney, or tricycle. I hope the success of politicians or government officials wouldn't be equated anymore with elegant mansions, oversized cars, golf club memberships, and overseas properties. Hopefully, these can be achieved in my lifetime. We must resolve to achieve them in our lifetime.
(Poverty is relative. Compared to my colleagues in the House, I am poor. But I enjoy a higher standard of living compared to our minimum wage earners and farm tenants. My middle class lifestyle is partly financed by my working class parents in the US. I do not abhor wealth, it's just I don't give a damn if I have few material possessions in life. In my book – by the way, I do possess and collect a lot of books – a rich person is someone with a humble character, big heart, and open mind.)