A change of heart

my MST column published 16 Feb 2014

Ruby Tuason cut a striking figure during last Thursday’s Senate hearing. She provided contrast to the widely despised Janet Lim Napoles, allegedly the mastermind of the P10-billion pork barrel scam.

Mrs. Napoles is seen as crass and ostentatious. She lacked formal education but she compensated through her business savvy, using her husband’s connections in the military and her ability to talk people into doing what she wanted them to do.

Napoles then built her assets as she went along, amassing houses, vehicles and other luxury items here and abroad. For a while, her daughter Jeane became notorious among netizens for her expensive lifestyle. It is also difficult to get the image of cash being dumped into a bathtub out of our minds.

The so-called pork barrel queen gave bizarre, winding answers to a roomful of reporters and editors at the height of the controversy. She then went into hiding when she was ordered arrested on kidnapping charges, and resurfaced only to surrender to the President himself.

When she appeared at the Senate, she only had two answers for all the questions thrown her way: I do not know/ I forget, and I invoke my right against self-incrimination. To many, Napoles is a cunning, calculating woman pretending to be dumb.

And then you have the wealthy socialite Ruby Tuason, the former secretary of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, who spoke well and who voluntarily flew back to the Philippines to cooperate with the government in probing the scam. Further, Tuason is offering to give back to the government P40 million representing the commissions she obtained while performing her “middleman” functions.

Tuason’s testimony has been called slam-dunk evidence by no less than Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. During Tuason’s appearance at the Senate, she detailed how she came to the Senate bringing items for Senator Jinggoy Estrada – sometimes sandwiches, sometimes pancit, sometimes millions of pesos in cash. Estrada, of course, has called Tuason “desperate” and claimed she had been pressured to come forward to pin him down. Tuason also said she delivered the money intended for Senator Juan Ponce Enrile through the latter’s chief of staff, lawyer Gigi Reyes.    

But it was through the question of Senator Bam Aquino that Tuason had the opportunity to project an image more complex than the Napoles’ linear villain. Tuason talked about how, in the United States, she had a lot of time to think about what she had done back in the Philippines (she had fled when the initial list of plunder suspects was released).

Her resolve was strengthened when typhoon Yolanda battered the Visayas. Seeing the footage of the devastation and the plight of the victims, Tuason said she felt even guiltier. “I did not want to die with millions of Filipinos hating me.”

She found a church where she contemplated her past and future actions. Worse, her grandchildren made her realize that she should do something to correct her wrong.

It’s one of two things: She’s a great actress, or she’s telling the truth.


So it’s still family that prods us to do the right thing. We worry that we may not be setting a good example for our children and grandchildren, that we would be betraying them if they found out we are not as perfect as we seem. We do not want them subjected to humiliation and shame from their peers. Children, specifically, could be bullied just by being related to a controversial figure.

Strangely, however, those who steal other people’s money may also cite the family as reason for their misbehavior. For instance, a lowly city hall employee may take bribes because it makes up for his very small income. It can even pay for his children’s tuition or for his mother’s hospitalization.

For those more advanced in the trade, dipping their fingers into public funds allows them to take their wives out to fancy dinners, or send their kids to exclusive schools, or bring their family to vacation spots.
If they want to level up, their families will also enjoy the shopping expeditions, spree, the multitude of cars, the resthouses, and the lavish parties.

And then we remember, greed knows no bounds.

When we say we are doing something for the family, we could mean many things. We may want to provide for our loved ones. Give them a more comfortable life. This can justify, at least momentarily, the amassing of money from both lawful and unlawful means.

Too often, this becomes a cover for plain and simple hubris. “I can do anything!” 

But a better definition of “for the family” is a good and untarnished name, high regard from peers, the knowledge that you have been unjust to no one. It is setting a good example your children and grandchildren can live by as they lead their own lives. 

Tuason for her part will not have it so easy. Even if she invokes her love for her family, her guilt and remorse, and even if she returns the money she pocketed and cooperates with the government, she would still have to face the consequences of what she did.  

Make no mistake - she is not a bad character who happened to have an epiphany and who is now good. She is instead a mix of good and bad and a product of the choices she made in her past. 

In the end, this is not about one woman’s change of heart.  This is, instead, about a nation seeking to bring justice to its people, long deprived of what is due them by hooligans masquerading as honorable officials who believe they are smarter than the system. 

Question is, will we ever see the day when these personalities make a 180-degree turn?