Confessions Of The President's Youngest Appointee
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 a 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 had a passion for the future and thought that a job at the NYC would put to good use all the energy and ideas that come with my youth.
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, there have been factors and events, many beyond my control that are difficult to reconcile with what I believe in. The scandals that have rocked this government are shocking, to say the least, and it isn’t easy to hold your head up high as a part of that government. 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 corrective 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.
Look at the young leaders, too
After two years in the Commission, I have become so frustrated, desperate. The National Youth Commission, an agency under the Office of the President, 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 long-term solutions, and not just focusing 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 the right values in our youth and children. 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 would address 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 plays 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 non-productive efforts. 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.
There is a 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 constrained to report to the Filipino people, particularly to my fellow youth, that the Officials of the National Youth Commission have not served the greater interest of our people, for the following reasons:
1) This is a 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, being subject to numerous complaints from various youth circuits and circulating in 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 is 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. At a time when corruption and hopelessness pervade, our credibility, I believe, is the best gift we could give our country and our fellow young Filipinos.
2) 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 mandated by law to implement the SSEAYP in the Philippines). The NYC Leadership supported 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 cases filed emanated from the Commission’s decision to choose one of its 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 went through the motions of a search for applicants even if the NYC’s Leadership had already promised the position to the interested Commissioner. 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.
3) Many youth leaders across the country perceive NYC as using every crisis in the Arroyo Presidency as 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 unilaterally 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. These officials have no respect for the efforts of the young people whose interests we all swore to uphold and protect.
4) 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). The NYC Leadership did not even conduct a formal investigation on the matter.
5) The NYC Leadership 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 steps taken by our AFD Division. (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.)
6) There are fresh reports of a certain Commissioner who allegedly falsified a DILG Memo Circular, forging no less than Secretary Ronaldo Puno’s signature to endorse his SK seminar cum business venture. The falsified DILG Memo Circular endorsed this Commissioner’s training of SKs, an activity unknown to the NYC and its staff. Maybe he preyed on the SKs knowing that they have the funds to participate in his seminars and falsified/forged the signature of the Cabinet Secretary to make sure that they are obliged to join (according to reports, these cost at least Php 5, 000 per participant; with possibly over a thousand SKs in that province who can participate – well, you do the math).
Despite the humiliation and indignity caused by them, many of these Officials still have the nerve to seek reappointment; worse, one is even starting to lobby for the Chairmanship of the NYC. To reappoint or promote anyone from this crop of NYC officials is like sentencing young people in our country to a fate worse than death.
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, adding insult to injury, some of its officials have been reported to engage in scandalous sexual and amoral behavior in some of the NYC’s official programs? Complaints from some youth volunteers allege that, in a number of instances, a Commissioner asked them to look for prostitutes for him. 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.
The Officials of the National Youth Commission have failed our country’s youth. Even the hardworking staffs of the agency appear to be demoralized. (The agency’s staff’s turnover rate in the past year is the highest in the NYC’s history)
A war for integrity
As I said, there is a war—and we are all hope warriors who must fight the good fight. As a great American leader once said: If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness. 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 however little their individual effort may be, it will help 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, but I commit to do my part. Even if it is frustrating to attend the commissioners’ meetings (where one gets the feeling that many things are pre-arranged), I will continue to do so and register my protest when it is called for, and cooperate when good projects are undertaken. Boycott is not an option, it just serves to silence our voice and we end up watching from the sidelines. We must confront every challenge where we find it. For there is a value even when we lose, if we use it to strengthen our resolve to make things right. This does not mean that we should not explore other venues to expose wrong and seek redress for our grievances. All of these efforts are needed.
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 urge the President to look into what is happening in the NYC and to listen to the sentiments of the youth. 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. 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.
Even if have 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, when proven in the proper forum, 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. Every 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 want a better future for themselves and for our country, and one that has sent a message, loud and clear, that whether you are President of the Republic, a Senator or Congressman, 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, and nurture with care, 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.
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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.
You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His blog is here: http://mikeacebedolopez.blogspot.com/