Fourth runner-up in this year’s Miss Universe beauty pageant Venus Raj saw her chances for the crown dramatically dissolve when she nervously responded to a question posed by US Actor William Baldwin last week. Mr. Baldwin asked the petite 22-year-old what her biggest mistake was in life, and she responded before a global audience, “In my 22 years of existence, I can safely say there’s nothing major, major problem I’ve done in my life.”
But that wasn’t the only global stage the Philippines performed upon last week. In a far more serious test, the Philippines profoundly embarrassed itself before the world by botching a hostage crisis also broadcast live around the world. Bizarrely, multiple government spokespersons rushed to characterize the fiasco as nothing major, major strategically. And as in the case of Ms. Raj, the collective jaws of viewers dropped worldwide in response.
Ms. Raj’s error was likely viewed by many as a stunning shortcoming with comedic highlights. Not so in the case of the Philippine government’s inept response to the hostage crisis. As members of the ill-trained, inadequately-equipped force responsible for the poorly executed siege of a tourist bus in which eight Hong Kong residents died proudly posed for photographs at the contaminated crime scene, the world reacted with a mixture of fury and disbelief.
The fury was not motivated by the deaths of the hostage-as senseless and tragic as they were-but by government officials supervising the response to the crisis. Their apparent concern initially with preserving the life of a deranged, corrupt ex-cop over those of 22 foreign nationals visiting the country and held against their will was outrageous. The nonchalance of top officials added to the fury. Just how angry Hong Kong and China citizens are was demonstrated last Sunday, when close to 100,000 people took part in a protest against the Philippine government to demand justice for the victims of the crime, and punishment for those who allowed the tragedy to spiral out of control.
The perpetrator of the crime, dismissed Philippine National Police (PNP) Inspector Rolando Mendoza, was belatedly but rightly shot and killed by a PNP sniper, who bragged to television reporters about his accomplishment moments after dead and wounded hostages were pulled from the bus. Mr. Mendoza was a criminal who committed a horrific crime, but many in Hong Kong feel that the Philippine government acted criminally as well, and will seek to cover up its misdeeds in the same way its spokesmen sought to minimize the impact of PNP incompetence on international perception of the Philippines.
Government image handlers-if they can be called that-have seemingly worked hard at convincing themselves that people have short memories and that the senseless homicide of foreign guests won’t matter much for long. That perspective-and communicating it with relentless frequency-is as much a disservice to Filipinos and foreign tourists as the initial, cavalier attitude towards the hostages and their lives.
It also reveals little concern over the immediate impact, which is being manifest in unusually high cancellations of airline and hotel reservations across the country, a sharp drop off in international delegates to conferences and meetings, and disappointment among investors and multinational executives in the Philippines who must struggle to explain why the PNP and top government officials so amazingly mishandled what should have been a quickly resolved crisis.
If the PNP and government officials continue to downplay the consequences of their actions-or inaction-and whitewash an investigation into the bungling of the crisis, the crisis of its aftermath will only grow worse. Like Ms. Raj, the Philippines was on the cusp-once again-of making real progress towards achieving great things. It is not an exaggeration to say that Monday evening saw that promise severely eclipsed, and no one can truly say how long that will remain the case.
There are many meaningless ifs associated with this tragedy. If elite troops had been used or assistance from better equipped forces regionally been requested; if police had simply shot Mr. Mendoza at one of many opportunities; if President Benigno S. Aquino III had called Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang-or at least answered one of his two calls; and, if government spokesmen had clearly indicated that their concern was the hostages’ lives, not the number of visitors who will still arrive in the Philippines this year.
Government can’t make up for its shortcomings, which are historic. But it can come back to reality. Something major, major did happen. And something major, major didn’t happen that should have-common sense management of the crisis and its aftermath. It’s time to acknowledge those shortcomings, humbly admit that government failed its people and its guests in this case on multiple levels, and vow to never let it happen again.
(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)