FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 13, 2012 - 12:00am

A spokesman for the Singapore Foreign Ministry sounded frantic, denying the spin in Philippine media that seriously misrepresents the city-state’s foreign policy position. Someone in President Aquino’s party in Vladivostok goofed big time.

The Philippine president and the Singaporean prime minister held a brief bilateral talk on the sidelines of the APEC Leaders Meeting in Vladivostok. Nothing earth-shaking was taken up during that brief chat. In the aftermath, however, someone let go the spin that Singapore supports the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea.

That was a damaging spin for Singapore, a real cause for official alarm.

The city-state consistently maintained a well-crafted foreign policy position on the slippery South China Sea issues. As a member of the Asean, Singapore supports the early adoption of a code of conduct governing all claimant countries in the South China Sea. Like every member of the regional association, the Philippines included, Singapore prefers that these issues be resolved by peaceful means.

 Like all other non-claimant countries, the US included, Singapore takes no sides on the territorial dispute.

That is a proper stance to take. It helps enlarge the diplomatic space for negotiating the delicate territorial claims. It conserves the role of the Asean as a viable third party offering its good offices for continuing diplomatic dialogue among the claimant countries.

The rest of the Asean, we need to underscore, has been very careful in keeping the regional association from any semblance of ganging up on a non-member country. The Asean is not about to behave like some college fraternity indulging in a rumble because one of its members feels aggrieved, even if that member-country claims being bullied.

There is a lot more at stake, over the longer haul, in maintaining the distinction between the regional association and the territorial claims of some of its member-countries. Otherwise, the regional association will be diminished as a feasible forum and degenerate into a gang.

On maintaining that crucial distinction between the collective position of the association and the foreign policy positions of each member-country, Singapore has consistently maintained a sagacious stance. In a region where countries often tend towards volatile policy positions, Singapore plays an important role in keeping the harmony the association needs to be viable.

There are hotheads in the region — principally the Philippines and Vietnam — who are prone to making confrontational noises on contested territories. It is Singapore’s role to offset the confrontational noises by maintaining its firm position on keeping diplomatic lines open.

Singapore seeks to be the position of equanimity in a region beset with so many excitable leaders and so many complex issues.

It was, therefore, so unfair to misrepresent that country’s position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Someone owes Singapore an apology for this gross misrepresentation of its carefully crafted foreign policy position. That unfortunate media spin simply reinforces Singaporean prejudices about the lack of professionalism among our political leaders and the recklessness of our media.

We need to trace where the unfortunate spin began. That is the least we can do to redress a valued regional partner.

Did the spin emanate from a member of our official delegation eager to make it appear the President’s attendance at the APEC summit resulted in palpable gains for the country? Is it the result of amateurish journalism on the part of the Filipino media delegation?

We need to find out so that we can begin making amends to the Singapore. We need to find out so that we can improve on our own protocols. We should not need a Senate foreign affairs committee to hold a costly hearing on a matter our diplomatic establishment could very well find out for itself.

Misrepresenting another country’s foreign policy position is a serious breach.

The worst we could do here is to be cavalier about the matter and dismissive of the Singaporean foreign ministry’s complaint.


We should all support the Anti-Epal Campaign launched by a number of cause-oriented groups recently. The campaign began with noisy motorcades denouncing the large tarpaulins and other means of self-promotion politicians use (at public expense) for self-promotion.

Our language has been enriched by the word “epal” to denote the obnoxious practice among elective officials (or those who wish to be elected) to claim credit for publicly-funded programs and to do so by plastering their likenesses or their names around these programs. “Epal” practices include commandeering the logos of local governments to remind people of who is king in a municipality, exploiting the misery of calamity victims by using them as props for political self-promotion, and cynically using public advocacies in media ads as means to improve name-recall.

Nearly all of the “epal” practices may be classified as forms of corruption because they involve commandeering public funds for purposes of personal political gain. A lot of these practices involve unethical credit-grabbing for public projects. Of course, nearly all the tarpaulins and paid ads are paid for from public funds.

“Epal” practices abet the worst features of our patronage-driven, personality-oriented electoral culture. With their access to public funds to indulge in brazen self-promotion, entrenched political elites gain a clear advantage over outsiders in contests for elective posts.

The only way to correct this phenomenon is to make “epal” practices an electoral liability. To achieve that, citizens must not only denounce those most brazen in commandeering public resources for self-promotion. Voters must deny “epal” candidates their vote.

The anti-“epal” campaign has the potential for evolving into a true grassroots movement aimed at transforming our electoral politics by raising voter tastes and sharpening their distastes.

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