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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Confessions of Comm Michael "Mike" Francis Lopez of the National Youth Commission

Alam kong sa pagpopost ng artikulong ito, paniniwala at pakikiisa ay mayroong mga kapalit. Pero anupaman ang kapalit ay nakahanda akong manindigan para dito sapagkat naniniwala ako na panahon na upang bumangon ang kabataan... panahon na para muling ibangon ang ating bansa.

Confessions of the President’s Youngest Appointee
Posted on June 12, 2008 by PINOY BLOGGER
Written By Michael “Mike” Francis Acebedo Lopez
Commissioner- at-Large, National Youth Commission

It was only a month after my college graduation as an Advertising major from Cebu’s University of San Carlos when I made an ambitious, determined, and life-changing decision to apply for a government position where I felt I could make some difference as a young Filipino. Armed with unwavering idealism, support from fellow leaders from the youth, the Cebu government, the Church, and the private sector—along with experience as an active student leader and volunteer—I applied as Commissioner- at-Large of the National Youth Commission (NYC). Having been a volunteer of the NYC for several years, I was encouraged to see so many young people who shared my passion for the future; I thought that a job at the NYC would ensure that all the energy and ideas that came with my youth would be put to good use.

I was told that it was going to be difficult applying for a position that was highly coveted especially by sons and daughters of politicians. But I knew that I was up for the challenge; even before I was sure to receive my appointment, I was already so convinced by a personal belief that it isn’t always true that when one is in government, one has no choice but to be corrupt. Wanting to prove this has consumed me and has framed my actions and decisions ever since.

Today, two years after being appointed as Commissioner of the NYC by President Macapagal-Arroyo, I have to admit that while I am pleased by my personal and professional accomplishments so far, there have been factors that I underestimated and miscalculated. There were external variables—events beyond my control—that threatened my idealism and faith that things will get better. The scandals that have rocked this government are both serious and shocking, to say the least. It isn’t easy to hold your head up high when what you see in the news convinces you to do just the opposite. Indeed, these are difficult times to be in government. (Note that the operative word is difficult—not impossible.)

While other people rally in the streets asking for the President to step down, other government agencies such as the National Youth Commission suffer from having leaderships that also warrant our attention and collective action. Those who think that replacing the President will answer all our problems are missing the point. After all, it’s not just the presidency that makes up this government or any other government—it’ s every department, appointee, local government unit, legislator, and employee.

While other people rally in the streets asking for the President to step down, other government agencies such as the National Youth Commission suffer from having leaderships that also warrant our attention and collective action. Those who think that replacing the President will answer all our problems are missing the point. After all, it’s not just the presidency that makes up this government or any other government—it’ s every department, appointee, local government unit, legislator, and employee.

After two years of relying on my vote and voice in the Commission, I have become so frustrated, desperate. The National Youth Commission is the sole national policy-making and coordinating body on youth affairs. It is a relatively small national government agency, but its potential is great and its role critical. In my opinion, the answer to the deeply-rooted, multi-faceted problems our country is facing is investing in a long-term solution, and not just focusing all our energies on a President who would be stepping down in 24 months. This can be done through investing in human capital with the most potential to create lasting change—this means nurturing in our youth and children the values and the morals that are scarce in today’s Philippine society. The good economist that we have for a President would know how critical it is for our government to invest in agriculture to ensure food security, as it is even more crucial to invest in human capital, particularly the dynamic and supposedly productive youth sector. Doing so would ensure that we would have a good supply of leaders in our future to make the right decisions and to inspire citizens to do their share. This helps end the vicious cycle of underdevelopment that has plagued us for decades. Sure, the NYC might be too small to be able to address all the concerns of the youth and empower them to become globally competitive and value-centered Filipinos, but this isn’t reason for us to just disregard altogether the central role it is mandated to play in Philippine youth development.

But what happens when the agency that’s supposed to look after the youth is the first to alienate and ostracize them? The youth become more frustrated and start shifting their energies from productive efforts to finding ways to put in their proper place the “public servants” who have done a travesty by trampling on the youth’s rights and convictions. What a waste of energy that could otherwise be put to good use! The last thing we need in our country is a frustrated youth. I join the countless young people in their frustration; but, being in government, I take my frustration as something positive—it only means that I have kept my idealism despite the many challenges. Apathy would be more alarming because it means resigning to the fact that nothing more can be done.

I have come to realize that we are at war—one that is not fought with guns or bullets, but one that is fought with integrity, conviction and hope.

Sham after sham

I am proud to report to the Filipino people to whom I am accountable that no pressure from my colleagues has allowed me to conform to what I would describe as a highly degenerate National Youth Commission. (Presidential appointees always say they serve at the pleasure of the President, but in truth we serve the greater interest of our people). This is the same Youth Commission that has bullied the alumni association of the SSEAYP (Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program), an organization of passionate and dedicated alumni of the Japanese Government’s SSEAYP program. (The NYC is mandate by law to implement the SSEAYP). The NYC Leadership insisted on the creation of a different alumni association to divide the current SSEAYP leadership in the Philippines, apparently to get back at them because the group pressed charges against the Officials of the Commission. These charges emanated from the Commission’s self-interested decision to choose one of our own as National Leader of last year’s SSEAYP delegation (the first time its ever happened) to a two-month all-expense paid cultural cruise across Japan and the ASEAN region. Worse, the Commission still opened the search to other applicants even if the NYC’s Leadership already promised this concession to the interested Commissioner, all the while creating a semblance that the process was still being followed. So what initially was just an issue of delicadeza became an issue of deception, a betrayal of public trust.

Genuine leadership seeks to unite, not divide the efforts and convictions of young people. When it does, it’s apparent that it is for no other reason but to perpetuate one’s stay in power or to secure an otherwise insecure position in society or government.

This is also the same Youth Commission whose Leadership has cases at the Ombudsman, the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) and the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC), along with a severely damaged reputation as evidenced by complaints circulating around various youth circuits and e-groups across the country and abroad. This Youth Commission has ganged up on me for my opposition, insisting that we are a collegial body and should therefore be united and agree on everything. But I believe in unity in diversity (there was a reason why the NYC was created to have several commissioners) and upholding truth and justice over everything else. They do not understand that I oppose only those decisions that I know will tarnish our individual and collective reputations, ultimately affecting the credibility and integrity of our agency. They do not understand that we each represent the NYC and our government, and our actions can and will affect the credibility and integrity of the Office we represent. Our credibility, I believe, is the best gift I could give our country and our fellow young Filipinos.

Many youth leaders across the country are mad at the NYC for its many abuses. To the officials of the NYC, every crisis in the Arroyo Presidency is yet another opportunity to “kiss ass”. This has lead to the moro-moro and incompetent management of our international programs. Slots for foreign trips, scholarships, and exchange programs are given to friends of the officials, with an unwritten, internal arrangement that only those who are pro-administration will be chosen. Take the SSEAYP for instance: its guidelines, which have been in place for several years, were changed last year to accommodate an alleged relative of the President. In fairness to the President, I do not think that she is aware of these happenings, nor has she given such order. The irony is that the alleged relative did not apply last year, but the damage has already been done against the integrity of the SSEAYP selection process. And all this after we require applicants of our programs to accomplish so many difficult requirements and submit long essays. It really is a sham, a travesty! Kawawa ‘yung mga bata, trusting and submitting themselves to a process at babastusin lang pala sila. These officials have no respect for the efforts of the young people whose interests we all swore to uphold and protect.

We’ve all heard about issues concerning our national procurement law, discussed in length at the Senate’s hearings on the NBN-ZTE issue. Unfortunately, corruption in the bidding process is nothing new—not even to the NYC. In the middle of 2006, during an Executive Session in our Regular Commissioners’ Meeting, and in the presence of our previous legal officer, I was so shocked when two of our Commissioners started accusing each other of securing kickbacks from their management of the agency’s BAC (Bids and Awards Committee). Mukhang gusto pa yata mag-agawan! The NYC Leadership did not even conduct a formal investigation on the matter. It was just so cheap that these officials would compromise their principles for several hundred thousand pesos. It’s dangerous if these people get away with illegal acts like this, since who knows how many millions of pesos or dollars they will be stealing from the public in the future?

The NYC Leadership also put the agency’s reputation at a terrible risk when he ordered for the delivery of computer units despite the advice from our Admin and Finance Division (AFD) that the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) had already denied the release of funds for the project. The project was supposed to be funded by the Presidential Social Fund, but Malacañang denied the release of funds after discovering that there were violations in the bidding process that the NYC leadership approved. For over a year, the supplier of the computer units were not paid and they almost resorted to legal action had it not been for the actions taken by our AFD Division. That could’ve been another case added to the long list of cases filed against the NYC. (I hope the NYC Leadership did not use the computers for an election bid as president of an association of law students, the computers having been distributed to the law school beneficiaries before the association’s election. It’s too much, really, to sacrifice the agency’s reputation for that.)

Look who’s talking

There is a long litany of issues (Yes, there are more) that I hope can be resolved in the proper forum. While there is an ongoing debate for the abolition of the Sangguniang Kabataan, what about looking at the activities of the National Youth Commission and the apparent failure of its officials to protect its credibility, having been embroiled in scandal after scandal? How can the SKs look up to the NYC as a guide when the Commission has lost the moral ascendancy to lead them or to even propose reforms in the SK?

To whom much is given, much is also expected. But how can the NYC live up to the high standards young people expect of them when some of its officials have even engaged in scandalous sexual and amoral behavior in some of the NYC’s official programs? Sobra na. Masyado na! Our young people are talking about these debauched activities of a highly decadent Youth Commission, an agency that could have been considered the final frontier, the bastion of integrity and righteousness in the government. Nakakadiri at nakakalungkot.

The Officials of the National Youth Commission have miserably failed our country’s youth, demoralizing like never before the hardworking staff of the agency. (The agency’s staff’s turnover rate in the past year is the highest in the NYC’s history) In this battle, I have been wounded. I am ashamed of speaking on behalf of a Youth Commission that has not done its job. I cannot lie any longer to my fellow youth that everything is alright.

A war for integrity

As I said earlier, we are at war—and we are hope warriors and we’d like to fight the good fight. As a great American leader once said: If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness. This is the reason why, despite my frustration—and though I’ve contemplated on quitting many times—I refuse to resign from government and would stay for so long as I must, for so long as I can. I gather strength from other young people, from those without any position to make them even care. They are in a serious battle to see a better NYC, one that the youth deserve, because they know that however little their efforts, it will change things for the better.

Even if I have been able to prove that one can serve in government without compromising his principles, character, and integrity, this isn’t about me. This is a cause larger than myself, larger than ourselves. Can you blame me if after two years of having a vote that’s rarely enough and a voice that always falls on deaf ears I have finally decided to give up on our Commissioners’ Meetings as a venue to address the issues and to prevent future ones from arising? Democracy has reared its ugly side in the NYC. I belong to a Commission that has connived to scratch each others back, one which has succeeded in ostracizing me. I heard that even the newly elected SK National President, who sits as Ex-Officio Commissioner, is being pressured since the NYC Leadership seems to want control over the office of the SK National Federation (One wonders why). I’ve decided to explore other channels afforded to us by our democracy before things get worse. Ang kapal ng mukha ng mga kasama ko and I think exposing their shenanigans is the only way to catch their attention and make them stop.

If, indeed, we Filipinos have a good grasp of right and wrong, then we must also choose what is right. I am sure the President, having publicly declared (repeatedly) her quest to curb corruption and abuse in her government, would appreciate it when people come out and fight to right the wrong that they see.

I call on the President to act and act fast. She should know how the acts of her people affect her government and her image among the youth. Yes, the cases are in the courts but it has been almost a year since the cases have been filed and things are getting worse and more damage is done by the day. What are we to do? Surely there is a more expeditious way to address the issues—NOW—before it is too late, before nothing is left of whatever little credibility the NYC still has.

If it means having to give up the one year that’s left of my term for the President to realize how important this is for the youth of our country, than so be it. If that’s what it takes para mapalitan lahat ang dapat mapalitan, palitan na lang rin niya ako—because we are no longer effective and we cannot exist only for ourselves. We have come to a sad and sorry state where the NYC needs to go through fire to be purified. This exposé needs to be made and heads surely have to roll to send a strong message that these abuses will not be tolerated. More importantly, we need to restore the faith and the trust of the youth in the NYC. It is imperative.

I also call on my fellow youth—the student council leaders, the SKs, the youth organizations from all over the country—to join in this war. This Independence Day, we commemorate the youth-led revolution of 1898, when young Filipinos succeeded in passing on to us the freedoms we enjoy today. In every revolution thereafter, young people have always played a central role in their success. But it doesn’t always have to be a revolution against foreign aggression or an oppressive regime—let the Youth Revolution of 2008 be one that is fought by Hope Warriors, young people who will take matters into our own hands so we can send a message, loud and clear, that whether you are President of the Republic or Chairman of the National Youth Commission, we will not tolerate any abuse of authority.

I also call on other concerned sectors of society, the Church, our schools, the Senate and Congress, and the Media, to help protect the integrity of young people, their hopes and dreams and their convictions towards helping our country. To the Senate and Congress, after more than a decade since the establishment of the NYC, maybe it is high time we revisit R.A. 8044 (the Youth in Nation-building Act; the law that created the NYC) and evaluate how effective, or ineffective, it has been in developing the Filipino youth.

The stakes are too high to waver. I am ready to fight this battle. It’s terribly difficult but I know this a defining moment for all of us. Like in any war, the risk of getting wounded in battle is ever-present. Am I afraid? Sure. Uncertainty almost always guarantees fear. But like a friend and mentor once taught me, courage is not the absence of fear, but it is the knowledge that there is something more important than fear itself.

I would rather go down with my integrity intact and my head held up high, than keep up the pretense of integrity where there is none. And I call upon each young Filipino to help me wage this war. Mayday, mayday… I need back up. Let us seize this moment , fight the good fight, and define our generation - and we will soon discover that for our country, and ourselves - the best is yet to come.

Mike, 24, is a proud Cebuano youth leader who, after starting purely as a volunteer of the NYC, has gone a long way as its Commissioner- at-large.

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