The year was shaping up to be a good one for the Philippines. A new president was at the helm, perceived to be honest, after the nine-year calamity that was Gloria Arroyo. Manny Pacquiao, the world boxing champion in practically all the weight divisions, was considered, "pound-for-pound" the greatest boxer ever. Teen singing sensation Charice landed a role in the US TV hit series Glee and promptly Botox-ed her face in preparation for her star turn. Native son Miguel Syjuco's literary tour-de-force Ilustrado, winner of the Man Asian Prize, hit bookstores worldwide and garnered much-deserved citical acclaim. Designer Rajo Laurel's intricate cobweb dress made the cover of WWD. Boracay's beautiful albeit no-longer-as-pristine shores were belatedly discovered by the likes of the New York Times and heralded as the next Phuket.
The list of achievements and accolades seemed endless, from the profound to the frivolous, from Efren Penaflorida, CNN's Hero of the Year, to Bryanboy, superstar of the blogosphere. There were designers and jewellers, scientists and celestial choirs winning recognition and reaping award after award. And, for the first time in years, there was a stunning, statuesque beauty queen with a real chance of bagging the Miss Universe crown.
And then...and then...
In a pathetically amateurish display of Keystone Cops bravado, the Philippine National Police force blew it. In a hail of gunfire, what was left of the country's reputation was shattered, along with the unnecessary deaths of eight innocent tourists.
The cast of characters in this spectacle, which would be farcical if it weren't so tragic, has the makings of a Carlo J Caparas film -and not a good one at that.
The gunman/hostage-taker: a disgruntled ex-cop dismissed for extortion, who, in a moment of cerebral enlightenment, decided that the best way to get reinstated was to hijack a bus of tourists out on a sightseeing tour of Manila.
The negotiators: other policemen, including the gunman's brother, all of whom clearly did not attend the Basics of Negotiation seminar.
The SWAT team: as my friend Louie Guerrero said, what this elite unit represented was Sorry, Wala Akong Training. It was a tactical situation, not a street corner rumble that required brute force to break it up.
And there were more. The driver who scampered away to freedom, hysterically screaming that everyone was dead. The absent mayor. The grandstanding vice-mayor. The local media who chose to trivialize and sensationalize a situation of grave significance.
And the President? Where was he when damage control was desperately needed? According to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, he tried calling Aquino and all he got was the melodiously annoying voice recording we're all familiar with: "The number you are calling cannot be reached. Please try your call later."
There was no later. I don't know what was going on in Malacanang Palace, but Aquino should have been on the phone to Donald Tsang as soon as the hostage crisis broke out, reassuring the HK leader that everything but everything was being done to ensure the safety of the Hong Kong tourists. He should have been giving him regular updates, every hour on the hour. Instead, it seems, he decided to wait and see.
And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with this country. When everything seems to be going well, we seem to have this knack of royally and spectacularly fucking up. Because we choose to wait and see instead of taking decisive action. At a time when we needed someone to take charge of the situation, no one stepped up to the plate, no one was in control. It's easy to point fingers and say, eh kasi eh, but the tragic turn of events yesterday simply brought to light the collective and epic failure of the system.
As a nation, we pride ourselves on our resilience and optimism, but what is the point, when we refuse to engage in national self-introspection? Instead, we point fingers and exonerate ourselves from blame. "That's why I didn't vote for Noynoy Aquino," some people said.
But that's not the point. The fact is, he is the president. The fact is, he should have taken charge. The fact is, it is our duty as citizens to continue to clamor for reform and accountability from public servants, including the police. The task at hand is to get to the bottom of what went wrong, address the issues and correct them and take the necessary steps to repair our international image on a deeper level. Venus Raj winning the Miss Universe crown might have done some cosmetic repair, but what is needed is much more substantial than a quick fix.
I cannot even begin to fathom the grief and horror experienced by the hostage victims and their families. I understand the anger that is reverberating in Hong Kong at the moment, even if I believe Donald Tsang's blanket ban on travel to the Philippines is a rather extreme reaction to the situation because we all know it is an isolated event, not an everyday occurrence, and really, truly, tourists are generally safe, as long as they don't venture deep into the south. But I understand he is simply communicating his rage and frustration and sending the Philippine Government a strong message: Fix this fuck-up NOW.