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The Politics of the Taho Incident

Taho, a Filipino favorite snack is best eaten warm. Normally served on a plastic cup, the syrupy soy pudding provides plenty of protein from that fresh soft/silken tofu, sago or tapioca pearl. But apparently, foreigners like Chinese national Zhang Jiale may have a different use for it like throwing it on a uniformed policeman as she did to a patrolman who was on his beat at the MRT in Mandaluyong. The viral video of that cool policeman drenched in taho syrup and tofu décor on his light blue shirt, got the attention of the country all the way to the top and even earned the policeman a commendation medal.

Senator Panfilo Lacson and Vice President Leni Robredo were prominently quoted condemning the incident (and the 18-year old Chinese student) as having “disrespected the police, the country, and the Filipino people.” Quite a mouthful for a taho-throwing incident. Through the flamboyant presidential spokesman, Sal Panelo was circumspect: “President Duterte expressed outrage over the incident…. Immediately deport her, if appropriate.”

There is a lot to unpack here. First, the awarding of the commendation medal to the policemen. Seriously, a commendation medal for being assaulted with a cup of taho? I mean, the cop deserves praise for maintaining his cool and not be overbearing like some cops would have done. A simple praise for the policeman during a press conference citing him “as a great example of calm and poise” would suffice. But then with the campaign season now in high gear, the medal was really just a ruse for former presidential assistant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go to be part of the picture. Clearly Bong Go saw an opportunity for free publicity and took with the help I’m sure of his master. It will not be surprising if he staged or suborn the hierarchy to make such presentation. Go in the picture devalued the cop’s award cheaper than the cost of taho itself.

Sen. Lacson’s move, a veteran politician and former PNP chief to exhort the nation to stand with him in condemning the attack, was clever and easily believable by a population strongly averse to the Chinese invasion. Lacson clearly recognized that this was a gimme and the act could help him attune for his lack of resolve on more important issues concerning the Philippines and China relationship like China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea, the unbelievable toll Chinese drug syndicates are burdening the country, converting Manila into a gambling Mecca and the enormous debt the Philippines will be incurring because of Duterte’s “build, build, build” infra program.

Panelo’s politically-correct statement for the president was lame but was expected given Duterte’s chumminess with the Chinese. Duterte himself said it before that he wants to remain friends with his protector. Thus it was not surprising that Duterte did not say those words himself as he normally would when he is pissed. The statement though, has a semblance of balance (“Immediately deport her, if appropriate.”) and effectively distanced the president from the incident – which I found level headed. The “if appropriate” part talks of due process. In other words, it is a police matter and should treated as such just like in any country.

So, to hear VP Rodredo lend her good office to rally the country to join in such condemnation was ill-advised and unnecessary. Of course the incident is abhorrent but it does not mean the vice president needs to wade in. Robredo must realize that being the second highest official of the land, her words carry weight and that any statement she makes must be weighed against the country’s national interest. Not to trivialize the incident, these kinds of incidents happen every day because it involves people with emotions but it does not need intervention from high officials.

Case in point is a 31-year old Iranian national who was arrested last week for being drunk and disorderly in public. The lady stripped off her clothes while in Tabinay, a tourist destination village in Puerto Galera (Oriental Mindoro) and burnt a cop’s hand with a cigarette who was trying to subdue her while resisting arrest. She is now in the calaboose awaiting arraignment.

Last year, an Australian missionary and an Italian visitor were jailed and eventually deported for engaging in local political activity. There are more examples but suffice it to say that these are every day occurrences that do not need intervention from high officials. These and the other examples mentioned above are treated as police matters and correctly so.

By treating incidents involving foreigners as police matters, the country projects to the world that the Philippines is a country of laws and not of men (or women). Of course it is an entirely different matter when an official of a foreign country disrespects the people or its culture while visiting the Philippines. This is where high officials should assert Philippine sovereignty.

Should a Filipino tourist be deported for berating a Washington DC police or if caught pissing on a cherry blossom tree on the Mall? They will most likely be cited if caught and probably won’t even make the six o’clock news but if a reporter does report it as news, U.S. VP Mike Pence will not be quoted on CNN how disgraceful these acts are to the country or its people. There is a reason why high officials do not get involved in police matters like these because they want to avoid the appearance of an official stand. People of the world travel to various tourist destinations and should not be victimized or caught in the midst of tits-for-tats of countries involved.

These officials should be making noises instead on matters that needs their support like the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) particularly in countries known for abuse of their domestic helpers or foreign employees. The tales of abuse and violence towards Filipino workers particularly women who are routinely raped reportedly by their employers can no longer be ignored.

To wit: A Pinay jumping off a tall building in Singapore to escape her abusive employers, or the Pinay domestic helper in Kuwait stuffed in a freezer for weeks after being killed by her employer, or the multiple reports of Pinay maids being abused by their Arab employers, or the hundreds of Pinay domestic helpers who are victims of physically and verbally abusive employers in Hong Kong. When will the Philippine government start caring for these OFWs as true heroes and treat them like people instead of export commodities?

If there is one thing that the taho incident has brought to the fore is the continued, deep-seated Filipino hatred for the Chinese people in general – regardless of whether they’re from China (including Hong Kong) or Taiwan. Even Filipino-Chinese (and probably more so) are lumped in with other Chinese nationals. These negative perceptions are borne out of the belief that Chinese (Filipino-Chinese included) owns most of the wealth in the Philippines thus are blamed for the suffering of millions of Filipinos wallowing in poverty.

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