A year ago on July 10, members of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Cabinet resigned, and along the way called on their former boss to resign, too. The group of ex-Cabinet members have come to be known as the “Hyatt 10,” after the hotel in which they conducted their historic press conference. In truth, they weren’t the only members of the Philippine president’s official family to call it quits. Others did, too, but did so quietly, with no fanfare, and without publicly airing their disagreements with the chief executive.
My understanding of those who chose to resign quietly, was that a Cabinet member enjoys authority only by having been delegated authority by the president; which means that without a portfolio, a Cabinet member is nothing. Having enjoyed the trust and confidence of a president, a Cabinet member who relinquishes an official portfolio because of differences with the appointing authority, owes it to that authority to leave as discreetly as possible.
On the other hand, my understanding of those who decided not only to leave the president’s service, but to do so publicly and in a manner meant to accomplish a political end — Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation — felt that they were individuals with a standing in society independent of their having been members of the Cabinet; and that furthermore, as a group that had decided to resign on principle, it was their duty to define what those principles were.
More often than not, it is presidents who fire people from the Cabinet, and resignations, when voluntary, have been individual decisions over the years. Cabinet members resigning en masse is a rare occurrence in the Philippines; accompanying a group resignation with a group call to action contrary to the incumbent president’s interests, rarer still. In fact, it was unknown until the Hyatt 10 attempted it. Previously, a mass resignation of President Joseph Estrada’s Cabinet took place, but his disgruntled ministers let their resignations speak for themselves.
There is an element of Philippine culture at work here, and it is the untranslateable “utang na loob,” only partially understood when translated as “debt of gratitude” and the concept of “hiya,” even less fully explained when translated as “saving face or sense of shame.” After the initial shock over the chutzpah of the Hyatt 10 wore off, a backlash among many Filipinos -including many members of “civil society,” the NGO do-gooder ranks to which many of the Hyatt 10 belonged, and reformist-oriented politicians and technorats and businessmen from whose ranks the Hyatt 10 also came — took place.
Regardless of the merits or demerits of the Hyatt 10’s conclusion, that Mrs. Arroyo had chosen the ruthless preservation of power over loftier considerations of accountability and continuing reforms, the decision of the Hyatt 10 to quit and then call upon the president to do the same, became bogged down in a debate over their having betrayed key attributes of a national culture. Going against society’s conventions seemed less than moral courage, than sheer arrogance. If only because having announced what they did, the Hyatt 10 displayed a less-than-united front in dealing with the public’s expectations that they should spill the beans.
Only some did; the rest didn’t; and most of them tried to maintain a kind of solidarity by insisting that what beans they had to spill would only be poured out in the “proper venue,” where they could enjoy some sort of legal immunity as witnesses. Public opinion, however, does not thrive on nuances and distinctions. What may have been legally prudent, and in fact, necessary considering the manner in which they chose to confront Mrs. Arroyo, became a case of political cowardice or at the very least, playing it safe.
Add to this, the social distinctions never far from any Filipino’s mind; the reality that most of the ruling oligarchy and a frightened middle class rallied behind Mrs. Arroyo on the assumption that an attack on her was an attack on them, and that her political demise would mean open season on their dearly-held assumptions that they have a kind of divine right to rule, and the backlash against the Hyatt 10 took on the form it maintains today: Hostility egged on by contempt.
It didn’t help that the most prominent, and least camera-shy (in fact no shrinking violet when it came to media, period) of the Hyatt 10 was former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, unfashionable, weepy, outspoken and quite obviously from the wrong side of the tracks. Her zest for the limelight turned her into a lightning rod; and the media focus on her — she, who had once been so adoring of the president and now so uncompromisingly critical — made her the unfortunate personification of a group that failed. Which brings up another inconvenient truth about Philippine society: It does not, as is often assumed, root for the underdog. It only roots for the underdog who eventually wins. But a dog who loses is not only denied his day, but persecuted for daring to challenge the top dog.
Old values defeated an attempt to demonstrate new values, because those values, in retrospect, were shared by too few, even among those who dared to be different. Did the Hyatt 10 engage, as Mrs. Arroyo’s defenders insist was the case, in a conspiracy to bring down a government? Even if they did, it was a conspiracy, though perhaps cruder and less well timed, than the one Mrs. Arroyo herself engaged in to wrest the presidency from her predecessor. Except Mrs. Arroyo won then, and won again when the tables were turned on her.
But as for the motivations, they were consistent and the Hyatt 10 has unfairly, to my mind, never been given credit for being true to form. In 2001 they had objected to a president, Estrada, who ran the country like a small village; they objected in 2005 when Arroyo proved, to their minds, she preferred power at all costs to demonstrating she was better than what came before. She wasn’t better, though she has been far better at preserving a veneer of competence, and even class, than her critics. And in a society in which appearances trumps all, even virtue, that is all that counts.