MANILA – Delegates attending the 2nd Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora held in Makati on Feb. 25-27 expressed great alarm at the widespread indifference of many Filipinos in the Philippines towards overseas Filipinos and a general ignorance of their conditions. How is it possible that just when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) released figures showing record remittances by overseas Filipinos, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced the delisting of 238,455 overseas Filipino voters?
While the Comelec’s December 14, 2012 resolution disenfranchising more than a quarter of all eligible overseas Filipino voters drew howls of protest from overseas Filipinos, the issue barely registered a ripple in the Philippine press.
To be fair, not all local commentators exhibited this general indifference and ignorance. Former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban was unabashed in his appreciation of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:
“Our OFWs toil diligently in foreign shores, braving loneliness, illness, family separation and extreme weather. In the process, they collectively remitted last year a total of $21.4 billion, up 6.3 percent from the $20.1 billion sent in 2011. They are the single biggest source of foreign currency for our country. Their relatives here used these remittances to buy homes, appliances, motor vehicles, food items, clothing and toys, thereby keeping our vibrant economy the envy of the world.”
But sadly, the Comelec commissioners proved to be the rule more than the exception in terms of its indifference to the aspirations of the estimated 12-15 million Filipinos who live and work outside the Philippines.
Even Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III proved to be a disappointment when he declined to personally address the delegates at the Global Summit that was sponsored by his Commission of Filipinos Overseas (CFO). Greg Macabenta, former national chair of the National Federation of Filipino Associations in America (NaFFAA) lamented his absence in his column: “any indication of the importance of the conference, in the eyes of the President of the Philippines, may be gleaned from the fact that he has only sent a videotaped message to the delegates. One senses that this “Gathering of Heroes” is not important enough to merit his personal presence. Aquino also sent a recorded message for the first conference.”
That was not the only disappointment. After the Philippine Congress finally approved the amended Overseas Voting Act (OVA) in the first week of February and sent the bill to Pres. Aquino for his signature, overseas Filipino convenors of the Summit requested Pres. Aquino to sign the OVA into law either at the Global Summit or during the week of the Summit to allow delegates to witness the signing of the bill that they had lobbied for since the greatly flawed Overseas Absentee Voting (OAV) law was enacted in 2003.
The OVA law carried an odious provision requiring overseas Filipinos who register to vote to sign an affidavit of intent to return back to the Philippines within three years or face incarceration of up to a year in jail. This provision discouraged overseas Filipinos – most of whom planned to live and work abroad for more than three years – from registering to vote.
The resulting low registration turnout vindicated the self-fulfilling prophecy of the skeptics who predicted that overseas Filipinos were not interested in participating in Philippine politics. Despite this extreme disincentive, however, more than 350,000 overseas Filipinos registered to vote in the 2004 elections. But a lesser number registered for the 2007 and 2010 elections and only about 300,000 registered for the May 2013 elections bringing the total to less than 900,000 overseas vote
New overseas voting act
The approval of the new voting act with the removal of this voter-deterring provision was a source of great relief for advocates of suffrage for overseas Filipinos who wanted to be present when the president signs the new bill into law. But Malacañang Palace sent word that Pres. Aquino could not accommodate the request for them to attend the signing ceremony because he was too busy that week, perhaps campaigning for his Team PNoy senate slate. Did he not understand that a photo-op of him signing the OAV bill in front of overseas Pinoys would draw support for his slate from overseas Pinoys, like the 65% of them who voted for him in the May 2010 presidential elections?
Perhaps Pres. Aquino should talk to one of his own Team PNoy senate candidates, Sen. Koko Pimentel, who announced in a press conference last month that he expects six million overseas voters to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election following enactment of the Overseas Voting Act, which he sponsored in the Senate.
Pimentel said that the Senate’s approval of the bill on February 5 “was a red-letter day for the over 13 million overseas Filipinos…Maybe not in this coming election in May, but once the OVA amendments take effect, overseas Filipinos may soon be able to register and vote using mail, whether postal or electronic, fax, and other secure online systems.”
Pimentel added: “In 2016, when Filipinos come together as one nation to decide on the next administration, one of our biggest legacies to voters around the world is an OVA law that offers flexibility in terms of new technologies,” Pimentel said. Under the amended Overseas Voting Act, “the participation of overseas Filipinos in the election of national officials would be as easy as their turning on their computers and connecting to the Internet to register or to vote.”
Global Summit delegates trooped to the Philippine Senate building on Feb. 28 to personally thank Sen. Pimentel and Sen. Loren Legarda for their support of the OVA bill. During a roundtable discussion about issues of concern to overseas Filipinos, Sen. Legarda encouraged “former Filipinos” to invest in the Philippines. At that point, I said “Senator, there is no such thing as a “former Filipino”. You can be a former Philippine citizen but never a “former Filipino”. Once a Filipino, always a Filipino.” Sen. Legarda readily agreed.
While Sen. Legarda and Sen. Pimentel were meeting with the Summit delegates, another Team PNoy senate candidate, Cynthia Villar, was busy putting her foot in her mouth. When she was interviewed on TV by host Wennie Monsod, she was asked why she intervened in favor of nursing school diploma mills in 2005. Villar replied that she did so because she believes there is no need for Philippine nurses to graduate with Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees since they only want to become “room nurses” or caretakers anyway.
The social networks of global Filipinos exploded with fury. Here is one comment, among thousands that were posted: “Telling your precious Pinay nurses that they don’t even need to have a BSN because they only want to work abroad as a room nurse and that they don’t really need to be good because they are only there to be a caretaker for others is utterly degrading and demeaning. And by the way, there’s no such thing as a “room nurse”. Operating room nurse, yes. Emergency room nurse, yes. But a room nurse? Seriously?”
Villar should not underestimate the gravity of her gaffe and the influence of outraged Philippine nurses working abroad who remit billions of dollars of their salaries to their families in the Philippines. One word from them to their relatives and Villar’s hopes to succeed her husband in the Philippine senate will be dashed.
Unpalatable as some of Aquino’s Senate candidates may be, the alternatives offered by the opposition UNA slate are even more dismal. One UNA candidate, Nancy Binay, has only held one job in 39 years – being the personal assistant of her father, Vice-President Jojo Binay. Another UNA candidate, Jack Enrile, son of Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, was questioned by Karen Davila on TV about his involvement in killing three people (his bodyguards were “over eager” in the first two and the third, movie actor Alfie Anido, committed suicide, he claims). And another candidate, JV Ejercito, son of convicted plunderer, former Pres. Joseph Estrada, is running a very public feud with his half-brother, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada. He said he is pro-RH but voted anti-RH to please his mother.
Despite the absence of inspiring candidates to vote for, representatives of the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC) still sought to get the Comelec to reconsider its decision to disenfranchise 238,455 overseas voters.
At a scheduled meeting at the Comelec headquarters in Manila on March 1, GFDC delegates from the United Kingdom (Gene Alcantara) and Norway (Nitnit Hogelshom) explained the difficulties that overseas Filipinos encounter in having to travel all the way to the nearest Philippine consular office just to register and then to vote. Another explained that 250,000 Filipinos serving in maritime vessels around the world find it next to impossible to vote in the consulates they originally registered in.
GFDC spokesman Ted Laguatan pointed out that the provision of the law Comelec relied on to delist the overseas voters was simply discretionary, not mandatory, as they may have believed. Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr. acknowledged that perhaps the Comelec may have been too hasty in its interpretation of the 2003 OAV law.
Overseas voters re-enfranchised
On March 5, the Comelec reconsidered its decision and voted unanimously to reinstate the 238,455 overseas Filipino voters it had ordered delisted in December.
It was a major victory for the GFDC which was formed only in September of 2011 and which last year organized a European Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora attended by over 250 delegates from 29 European counties. The GFDC plans to hold a Summit of Filipinos in the Middle East and Africa in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Oct. 15-18, 2014. Singapore is the projected site of the Diaspora Summit of Filipinos in Asia.set for 2016. Meanwhile, in February of 2015, the 3rd Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora will return to Manila.
Greg Macabenta reported in his Business World column that “the new organization has lined up a set of goals and programs that should have considerable impact on the country down the road. When that happens, perhaps the President of the Philippines will consider it fit to honor Global Filipinos with his personal presence.”
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