The Celebrity Mentality of the Philippines

The Philippines disappoints in many ways, be it in reducing the infant mortality rate, mitigating new HIV cases or solving the killing of journalists – just to name a few. However, one aspect it never ceases to fulfill is in making an unnecessary fanfare out of important issues.

Last month, the country hosted the annual APEC Summit attended by dozens of heads-of-state. The agenda for the Summit included the global economy, free trade and environmental issues; the agenda for the Philippine media? To transform it into a popularity contest and see who was the most attractive head-of-state.

Two national leaders quickly became household names among Filipinos: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Having those two names dominate media airwaves should not be all that surprising, they have been in the spotlight of the international media beforehand. Trudeau had just been elected as leader of Canada, he then unveiled an ethnically-diverse Cabinet and made a popular speech empowering the role of women in Canadian politics. Pena Nieto on the other hand has been bombarded with corruption allegations in his home country, allegedly holding ties with notorious drug cartels and accused of having a hand at the disappearance of students late last year.

However, the reason why Filipinos were so invested in the two were for a completely different reason.

The hashtag – #APEChotties – quickly became a trending topic on Philippine social media. Trudeau and Pena Nieto were both seen as highly attractive individuals for Filipinos, within hours of landing in the country the smiling photographs of both men were being shared incessantly on people’s Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.

Some were rightfully upset over the unnecessary attention being given, but this was downplayed by others who sought to look on the bright side and be thankful that Filipinos actually paid attention to the fact that such an important event was happening. Their counter-argument is easily dismissed, the Philippines declared multiple holidays and cancelled scores of flights in anticipation of the event – we can be certain that every Filipino knew that the APEC Summit was going on.

Despite this, most people failed to see why #APECHotties was a problem. It was simply dismissed as a harmless or even light-hearted way of viewing politics. That is exactly the point, however.

By viewing politics through #APECHotties, we get only that – politics. Politics is the art of winning power by saying the right things or appearing the ‘right’ way to the public. Many would say that that is how President Obama won the elections so convincingly in 2008, by appearing as a young, hip and charismatic figurehead who emphasized this idea of ‘change’. It can be also argued that good politics is how Joseph Estrada won so dominantly in 1998, despite having questionable academic credentials and obviously zero brainpower – because he took the image of a ‘hero’ to the masses, he claimed to be ‘one with all of us’.

Politics is merely the bandages on a mummy, making it appear presentable when the corpse is actually rotten underneath.

This is precisely the problem with #APECHotties, we judge Trudeau and Enrique Pena Nieto based on their looks alone – nothing about their substance.

Just think for a moment, by asking who was the better looking among the two would we have known that Justin Trudeau is “resolutely pro-choice” when it comes to abortion? Meanwhile, Filipinos still overwhelmingly oppose the Reproductive Health Law – which does not even allow voluntary abortion and would still be considered largely conservative for Mr. Trudeau’s standards. A food for thought would be to ask whether Filipinos would still be crazy for him knowing his political standpoints?

Let’s not also forget the prior complaints the country have with Canada regarding the dumping of toxic wastes into the country. Early this year many were up-at-arms over the shipment of 98 container vans of trash from Canada, during the course of the APEC Summit those cries became silent. Does a glimpse of Mr. Trudeau suddenly change our perception on important matters?

In the case of President Enrique Pena Nieto, Filipino admiration has masked the issue he is most known for in his native Mexico – the Ayotzinapa Students’ Disappearance. In 2014, 43 student activists from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared en route to Iguala town in Mexico to stage a protest against government funding. These students – all male – were never heard from again and are suspected of being killed by a local syndicate.

The ensuing outrage resulted in mass protest demonstrations which quickly led to vandals and destruction of government offices all over Mexico. The international community also blamed Pena Nieto’s government for the disappearance, and the president’s speech before the United Nationstalking about human rights in Mexico was laughed at by both Mexicans and international observers. In fact, the craze Filipinos held over President Nieto was slammed by Mexican.

It seems Mexican citizens are better at reading through politics than Filipinos, they don’t buy through the charisma emitted by Nieto’s attractiveness and instead looked at his policies and his performance instead. This manner of thinking would be possible if only the Philippines did not have a well-entrenched “celebrity mentality”.

This method of selecting politicians by superficial metrics is nothing new in the country, just look at the amount of celebrities elected to public office. Joseph Estrada was a notable one, he turned out to be crooked and incompetent. In the current Senate alone we have several former celebrities – actors such as Bong Revilla, Jinggoy Estrada and Lito Lapid; a news reporter in Loren Legarda; a TV host in Tito Sotto; coup plotters in Antonio Trillanes IV and Gringgo Honasan and candidates riding on their famous last names with JV Ejercito, Bam Aquino, BongBong Marcos and Grace Poe.

Of that list seven were listed as having benefited from the Pork Barrel Scam, which should not really be a surprise since no one bothered to look at their backgrounds before electing them. Do people even realise that Jinggoy Estrada had already been accused of plunder along with his father, the former president Joseph Estrada? We saw it again in 2014, Jinggoy being in the center of an investigation for the same crime of plunder. Do Filipino voters know that Tito Sotto was regarded as a crook even during his days as anti-narcotics head honcho and that members of his security team were found to have been protecting notorious drug lord Alfredo Tiongco?

Of course they don’t, why does it matter when Jinggoy and Tito Sotto are both popular celebrities already? The voters know who they are and they portray likable characters on TV, who cares how they are in real life right? Hopefully you answered no to both questions, and if not then you are part of the problem.

There used to be a time in Philippine politics when lawyers, journalists and literary authors formed Congress, where doctors and health professionals were drafting health laws and dictating health policy and war veterans and diplomats worked together to craft foreign policy and military strategy – today we have an institutionalized version of Eat Bulaga.

It comes as no surprise then that the reputation of Filipino politicians is at an all-time low, where the actions of our elected representatives in government could warrant a tabloid headline because let’s face it – if Kim Kardashian ran for Senator in 2016 the only issue Filipinos would have is the fact that she got pregnant before she got married.

Celebrity mentality is a problem and it usually manifests itself in “trivial” or “harmless” topics such as #APECHotties; hence why you should criticize and sneer at it the second you have the chance to.

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