In a few days, it will be Christmas, and I’m in a nostalgic mood. Looking back on the past months, I can’t help but remember these lines from one of the hottest songs of my salad days:
Do you remember / The 21st night of September …
Who doesn’t know the opening lines of Earth Wind and Fire’s legendary hit “September?” I have a friend who says the upbeat rhythm never fails to make her feel better. Today, 30 years after it first hit the airwaves, “September” always makes people get up and dance.
The 21st of September, though, is another thing altogether. Especially when you link it with the year 1972.
My friend and I are children of the ’70s and ’80s. Talking about our childhoods a few days ago, it seems we shared the same experiences of those difficult times. To a considerable extent, our parents shielded us from the turmoil that was simmering just beneath the surface of society, and for a few tranquil, innocent years, we bought into the perception that all was right in the world.
How wrong we were.
The truth emerged gradually, as truth always does. There were whispers about journalists and students disappearing into detention centers, newspapers abruptly closing shop, political opponents’ sudden silence; and yes, there were stories about profligate spending and the siphoning of public funds. I remember feeling torn in two, as I had friends on both sides of the political divide, many of them classmates I’d known for years. In many ways, we grew up much faster than we would have in less turbulent times, and one of the unspoken tragedies of that age was how families and friendships were sundered in those divisive years.
Today, I have cause to look back on those years, particularly given my responsibilities as commissioner at PCGG. In working to recover the national patrimony that left the country during those shadowed years, I’m reminded anew of the legacy of 21 September 1972, and how that legacy continues to shape our destiny as a people. I look at the jewels, the objets d’art, the paintings, the bank statements—evidence of affluence beyond anyone’s imagination—and I am dumbfounded anew at how such enormous wealth fell into the hands of so few. A few months ago, PCGG spoke of the challenges of recovering some paintings purchased with stolen funds. These works of art, some worthy of being displayed in great European museums, are but a drop in the bucket of the stolen wealth that should have been used for the needs of our people.
Time sometimes dulls our outrage over injustices, and I’ll be the first to admit that while there are, at PCGG, those who performed their mandate with integrity and dedication, there were also, sadly, instances in the past of incompetence and abuse which sullied the PCGG’s image in the eyes of the Filipino people. I came to know about those lapses (which is putting it very mildly) not long after I reported for duty, and when they are viewed against the context of the urgency of PCGG’s mandate, it is hard not to be appalled that some who were tasked to recover that stolen patrimony became complicit themselves with the very mind-set PCGG was created to combat—a mind-set that led to 21 September 1972 and the anguish that followed in its wake.
Arresting—and indeed, reversing—these lapses is one of the principal objectives of the PCGG’s present leadership, so as to rekindle the passion that attended PCGG’s creation more than two decades ago. Looking at this objective from the viewpoint first of a private citizen, and now as a PCGG member, I can say that such a sea change could not have come at a better moment. It’s been 42 years since the stroke of a presidential pen changed our lives beyond all expectations, but the ramifications of that signature continue to affect the evolution of our society. Who of us has not looked back on that fateful day in September 1972 and wondered where our people would be now, if a strongman and his friends had listened to their better natures?
But time moves inexorably forward, and perhaps the best way to address the memories of the 21st of September is to use them as the primary—and indispensable—reminder of what can happen to a country and a people when power and privilege are untethered from a sense of accountability. The lessons of September were brutal and tragic, but they will serve no purpose, and the suffering of so many will have been in vain, if we allow those lessons to recede into the pages of history books, to be read, but no longer internalized.
In just over a year, a new election campaign season will begin. Like millions of Pinoys who are watching these developments and pondering the choices we will have to make in 2016, I wonder if those who seek to win the vote will remember 21 Sept. 1972 and how that single day changed the face of government in ways still being felt today. Public office—with all its privileges and perquisites—can be a heady tonic. There’s a long list of persons who, through the years, capitulated to the seduction of power and sacrificed their principles to the snare of lucre. Alas, their mistakes and their hubris had dire consequences not only for themselves, but for countless millions, and for the society that looked to them to lead the country to a better future, only to be mired for at least two generations in oppression and poverty.
Today, we’re still learning from the lessons of September. In some ways, those lessons have made a mark: we see this in a free and vibrant media, in the vigilance during elections, in the outcry against the misuse of taxpayers’ funds. But with every controversy that made the headlines over the past years—proof, alas, that there remains in Philippine politics, and in Philippine society, the vulnerability to the siren call of absolute power and unearned wealth—we’re reminded anew that 21 Sept. 1972, and the innocent lives that paid the price for that date, must never be forgotten. For we who lived through those years, it is a matter of personal honor to make sure that those bitter experiences will not be repeated, to tell the stories of sacrifice and courage to a new generation of Filipinos, and to teach them the wisdom behind three simple words.
Remember September. Always.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government and a former senior partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates. He is a member of the MAP national issues committee and MAP tax committee. Feedback at <[email protected]> and <[email protected]>. For previous articles, visit <map.org.ph>.)