COLUMNISTS – HORIZONS
Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it,” counseled the great enlightenment thinker Voltaire. Since Jose Rizal, who inspired a whole generation of anti-colonial revolutionaries in Asia, not too many Filipinos have pursued true greatness, or succeeded at it. For greatness isn’t only a question of talent and discipline, two elements that are fortunately abundant among our people, but also the audacity to leave a mark on history.
For all his foibles, Manny Pacquiao is perhaps one of the greatest Filipinos in contemporary history. Unlike faux populists who never stop pretending to be men or women of the masses, Pacquiao’s origins are truly humble, making his meteoric rise deeply inspiring.
It’s precisely the authenticity of his narrative of personal success, and his stature as a national hero, that has made him a compelling contender in the realm of mass politics. Pacquiao seems determined to ensure that our next president also comes from Mindanao, a battle-scarred island filled with remarkable talent and pent-up aspirations.
Until Pacquiao’s unprecedented success as the only eight-division world champion in the entire history of boxing, Imelda Marcos was perhaps the most recognized Filipino icon on the global stage.
Pacquiao showed that Filipinos can be competitive and even dominant in one of the most exacting endeavors. Going head-to-head with the best Latino and African-American fighters, he displayed the grit and warrior spirit of his race with greatest distinction.
During his 2018 boxing match in Malaysia, he was cheered on not only by President Duterte but also by legendary Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who hailed Pacquiao as a shared pride of the Southeast Asian peoples.
Aware of the charisma and electoral appeal of his success story, Pacquiao has predictably displayed the kind of self-assurance that often precedes a presidential run. As he recently put it: “I boxed to become a world champion. Any politician, even a barangay chairman, dreams of becoming president.”
But self-assurance cuts both ways. At times, the boxer-turned-politico has gone off the rails, from his sanctimonious posturing and offensive remarks about the LGBT community to his overconfidence in “common sense” when it comes to analyzing complex social issues as well as delicate legislative debates.
Once, a visibly exasperated senior colleague in the Senate had to school him on the “very basic” principles of legislative deliberation. His perennial status as the top absentee in the country’s highest chamber is also far from reassuring, given his embrace of myriad distractions outside his legislative duties. As his long-time coach Freddie Roach explained, Pacquiao “probably wants to be the first president to win a world championship.”
Yet, Pacquiao has also shown, albeit belatedly, the audacity to challenge a political patron and act as a maverick. When his partymates tried to engineer a “Putin-Medvedev” scenario, with Mr. Duterte remaining in power beyond 2022 as the vice president of a long-time aide who also has moist eyes for the presidency, Pacquiao was quick to lash out at the “unauthorized” move by the President’s cronies.
And when the President repeatedly wavered in the face of the latest Chinese intrusions into our waters, Pacquiao stole the show by writing tough-minded and patriotic letters to the Chinese Embassy and accusing his fellow Mindanaoan of having “buckled when we need to make a stand.” One could accuse him of electioneering, but these were audacious moves nonetheless.
But does Pacquiao’s remarkable success in the ring make him worthy of the highest office of the land?
He has promised that, if elected president, “The days of corrupt governance will be numbered.” That’s a seemingly reassuring focus on good governance after years of catastrophic authoritarian populism.
What we need, however, is more than just hackneyed slogans, or sheer political will, macho posturing, and inspiring narratives. What the country desperately needs is a competent, unifying, and visionary leader who can steer the nation toward recovery and rejuvenation after years of shambolic populist governance and half-hearted reformism. What we need is a leader who, to use Voltaire’s term, “seeks the truth” when it comes to the sweet science of national governance, rather than one who feels entitled to the office.
With wise counsel and genuine humility, the still-youthful Pacquiao can surely go a long way yet in helping his country.