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Social activist, performance artist, and Manila maven Carlos Celdran - he of "Walk This Way" fame and "Damaso" notoriety - took some 30 members of civil society and the media on a trip around Quezon City early Sunday, but historic monuments and heritage houses were not on the itinerary that morning.
Instead, the tour group was treated to vistas of gaudily painted waiting sheds, poster-plastered walls, and tarpaulins bearing the names, faces, and initials of not-too-subtle politicians.
In a word, "epal".
The "No More Epal" campaign and Facebook community (http://www.facebook.com/nomoreepal) organized the event on Sunday, launching the first "anti-epal tour" in what they called "The Epal Capital of the Philippines." (Quezon City was the first "epal" city, Celdran said, as it was "named after former President Manuel L. Quezon even while he was still alive.")
"Epal" comes from the Filipino word for "paper", and more specifically from the colloquialism "ma-papel", meaning, "ever-hungry for credit". The anti-epal movement aims to expose and shame politicians and public servants who, as is common practice at every level of Philippine politics, plaster their names and faces at every project and opportunity - even when the said projects and events are in fact paid for (and demanded) by public funds. Ultimately, the movement also has the objective of protecting the integrity of public service, and cleaning up political practices that diminish Philippine elections.
"Epal" can be used to describe "any public official who has his or her image on any public signage, space, or property, especially if it was paid for with public money.” According to the group, epal also refers to a politician “who has signage claiming credit for a project or program that was paid for by taxpayers."
"We've had so many requests from people for us to come and tour because there are so many instances of epalism: the tiles of Herbert Bautista, the tarpaulins of Winnie Castelo," said Betty Romero, who is one of the administrators of the Facebook page. "So here we are so we can expose how bad epalism is. Or if there are changes, we also want to show that."
Romero added: "What it is is self-serving. It's pre-campaigning, and we want an end to it."
Vincent Lazatin, an officer of the Transparency Action Network (TAN), says the anti-epal movement is also inevitably tied to questions of transparency, accountability, and then electoral reform and voter education.
Lazatin, Romero, and social activist Mae Paner thought up the Anti-Epal Tour Bus (actually, a borrowed flatbed truck decked with monobloc chairs) to highlight how epalisms have grown so ubiquitous, people now take for granted how it's sullied both their surroundings as well as the politics that affect their lives.
All Sunday morning Celdran pointed out a dizzying array of items all branded with politicos' names, initials and faces - tarpaulins, streamers, waiting sheds, schools, fire trucks, sidewalks, bricks, grills on gates, public markets, ambulances, and so on - like a skilled spotter pointing out rare feathered-creatures to birdwatchers in a rainforest.
For #epalwatch organizer Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, who engages Twitter users in discussions on which acts count as epal and which do not, the event was a way to make politicians aware that their "bosses" are watching them and are clamoring for change.
She and fellow blogger Jane Uymatiao had no idea where their advocacy was going when they began dialogues online. Social media users who were "fed up" with epals sent in photos and details of their epal sightings using the Twitter hashtag #epalwatch.
Today, public pressure elicited by the two groups has led to some government officials taking down their own offending materials. During Sunday's tour, the group saw that tiles bearing Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista's initials had already been painted over along Tomas Morato Avenue and Don A. Roces Avenue. They also passed by three areas in Kamuning that used to have politicians' streamers; by Sunday, much of the three streets were cleared of the "epalisms". Dado also noted that Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) Secretary Joel Villanueva on Saturday ordered his tarpaulins taken down. And last week, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim had all signs bearing his image removed from all over the city.
The Sunday Anti-Epal Tour bestowed the "No. 1 Epal" award on Quezon City District 4 Councilor Vincent Belmonte, whose name is emblazoned on countless tarpaulins, waiting sheds, walls, and posters all around his QC district.
Despite the shaming campaign, numerous epal paraphernalia remain.
There are many types of epal, Celdran notes. There is the "insidious epal", which involve inscribing one’s initials on anything and everything to make one's name seep into the people's subconscious (e.g., "SB" and then "HB" tiles all over Quezon City); the "dynastic epal", or the act of naming projects after one's parents to further stretch name-recall; and the "infrastructure epal" that involves inscribing one’s name or initials in schools, waiting sheds, or walls.
There are also "transportable epals", such as tents, which can be brought from one wake to another; "acronym epals", where politicians' initials are used as public service handles - Sonny Belmonte's "SB" standing for "serbisyong bayan", for example; and the "common, everyday, garden-variety tarpaulin epal," that are quickly strung up for every imaginable event and occasion: Christmas greetings, free clinics, graduations, the opening of a new mall, Tuberculosis Day...
Celdran stressed that the anti-epal movement was not targeting any politician or party in particular. ""Walang personalan. (All we're) asking for (is) a paradigm-shift."
Political activist and actress Mae Paner was also part of the tour. Throughout the tour she acted as Celdran's foil via persona "Congresswoman Juana Change", sarcastically lauding her fellow epals and calling on passersby to vote for her in the coming elections. "Ayaw niyo man, kaming mga epal ang magwawagi sa eleksyon!" she shouted from atop the anti-epal truck - undescoring with humor the truth that with Philippine elections as they are, there's much voter education still to be done.
Paner went off-character often, dropping the irony and sarcasm on many moments to underscore Celdran's points about epalisms. But when she saw QC Councilor Winnie Castelo's tarpaulin thanking the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo after his tragic death in a plane crash, Paner made no effort to hide her anger.
"That is the height of epal. I really hate that,” an incensed Paner said. "How low can you go?"
The No More Epal group noted that after President Benigno Aquino III prohibited the use of his name and image in signages, Robredo and Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson issued memos banning the display of names or images of public officials on project signs and billboards.
"This campaign is just an extension of what (Aquino’s) campaign is about: transparency and accountability," said Dado. "You don't know how much (politicians are) spending. Even if they say it's (funded by) friends, what will these friends get in the end?"
She recounted how a young Twitter user was able to count 65 tarpaulins of one politician alone on the child's way to school.
"It can’t be the old system anymore of (traditional) politicians," she added. "I think that will soon come."