MANILA, September 23, 2003 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven  - One of the problems of having foolishly gotten atop this bucking, wild broncho, I guess this writer will have to go on recounting each new chapter in an increasingly dreary story. Where is Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson right now?

Reporters and cameramen waited in vain for the just-returned solon to make a rumored appearance in the Senate building, hoping he would materialize and call a press conference on his latest "findings". They were disappointed. Ping, it seems, is keeping out of sight, but a new "press-con" was announced for 2 p.m. today with no venue as yet designated.

I had lunch with Senator Loren Legarda yesterday in the Tower Club – she was hosting a get-together for us and a few friends. Loren, who’s in the thick of political negotiations (about which, alas, I can’t write), confirmed that the Senate is not scheduled to re-convene till October 6. So, I suppose, Ping will simply have to go to the media.

As we revealed in last Sunday’s column, Lacson arrived by stealth Friday night in a very clever fashion (from his two weeks abroad, partly in Australia, but mostly in the United States). He flew in directly from Hong Kong aboard a Cebu Pacific Airways flight which arrived in the evening, then crossed the tarmac in the Mactan International Airport to a private hangar where a Citation jet was waiting. Boarding the private aircraft without delay, he was whisked back north to Manila. (It’s said the Citation belonged to Businessman Manny Zamora, brother of San Juan Rep. Ronnie Zamora, Erap’s former Executive Secretary).

Did Senator Lacson check himself through "Immigration" in Cebu? Betcha, with the influence he retains in that southern bailiwick where he’s’ the local law-and-order hero, you’ll find his passport duly stamped – and it won’t be counterfeit.

Perhaps the hide-and-seek method Lacson employed to literally sneak back into the country was due to the prospect of his being arrested in connection with the old Kuratong Baleleng massacre case which was resurrected by the Supreme Court and which a lower court may act upon with dispatch in blitzkrieg fashion. As we’ve said often enough (quoting the Super-Kraut Iron Kanzler Otto von Bismarck), politics is war without bloodshed – although our local warlords frequently inject bloodshed into politics with gusto.

In any event, we’ll know soon enough what Ping has got to show. What I hear, though, is that he failed to get the original documents, in the form of canceled checks from former Manila congressman (5th district) and big dealer Mark Jimenez.

MJ, it seems, might have promised to hand over to Lacson the canceled checks (amounting to some P8 million or so) in "contributions" he had made to the First Gent’s "Luwalhati Foundation". Lacson had hoped some of those checks might show they were diverted to the "Jose Pidal" bank account. Unfortunately for him, as Alikabok tells me, Bulacan Rep. Willy Villarama – formerly Mark J’s "chief of staff" and cousin of his first wife, but back in the graces of the Most High in the Palace – got to MJ in Miami (Florida) first. What did Willy tell Mark? To cool it? Anyway, it’s alleged by the usual sources that when Lacson got to Miami for his scheduled meeting with "tell- all" MJ, he was sadly informed that the checks weren’t with MJ at this time, but somewhere else. Did he, then, come home empty-handed?

No smoking gun? We breathlessly await Ping’s coming statements. Then we’ll know whether the gun is firing blanks, or whether it’s got a real bullet.

* * *

The President was at the rostrum in Jolo yesterday when, in the middle of her speech to the Sulu crowd, the electricity conked out and her microphone went dead. Speechless in Sulu, that’s what many observers will quip. But it’s not funny. There are blackouts in Sulu (I dislike the fudgy term "brownouts") quite frequently, the residents told GMA. This will increasingly be true of much of the country – the next danger zone is Cebu – unless we tackle our energy shortfall with a rational plan, and with both investment and determination.

Indeed, the Chief Executive may be focusing on peace and order problems in Mindanao this week, just before she goes off to the United Nations in New York next Thursday, but in truth the problem is nationwide. What irks and discourages our citizenry most are not the big bank heists. (Although the brazen attack up north in the Lepanto Mines area, where seven murderous gunmen shot down five Lepanto employees on the way to deliver just one gold bar, worth P12 million reportedly, is both terrifying and disgusting. Imagine such a slaughter for the sake of stealing a single bar of gold!)

In truth, it’s the everyday feeling of personal danger that makes the public lose faith in our government – whether the predators are kidnappers, akyat-bahay robbers, rapists, drug addicts, or cellphone snatchers. You never know what will happen to you when you step out of the house – or shanty. Or board a vehicle. Or visit a store or shopping mall. Street crime and big crime are all the same in the eyes of the "little people" – they’re daily reminders of lack of government protection, indeed of the breakdown of government.

It’s no wonder, as the latest Pulse Asia survey demonstrated anew, there’s a stampede for the exit. And how is that being accomplished at times? In the most interesting manner. For instance, so many young people are madly scrambling to get into nursing school. Why? Because a diploma in nursing is a ticket to emigration – to the US, to England and the United Kingdom, and to many industrialized countries which lack nurses, health care workers, and medical technologists.

Take the School of Nursing of the University of Sto. Tomas (UST). No less than 15,000 have just taken the nursing entrance exams, desperately vying for a mere 500 student vacancies in freshman year. Shopgirls I’ve talked to say they’ve abandoned computer studies, and are now trying to get into our mushrooming nursing institutes.

Even doctors – yes, practising medical physicians – are joining the exodus, but re-inventing themselves as "nurses". Can you imagine how many doctors we’re already losing? Some 10,000 nursing graduates took the most recent Nursing Board examinations – and, would you believe, 4,000 of those who took the exams were doctors!

Sure, it’s long been said that every Filipino believes he’s entitled to life, liberty, and a ticket to Disneyland. But this is too much. Our hospitals are running short of nurses, since even the youngest recent grads are being plucked from their wards and offered jobs in the US and Britain, with the added attraction being dangled of their being able to bring along their families.

How can we compete with this? We’ve bragged that our close to eight million OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) are, by their remittances, keeping our nation afloat. Well, we’re floating even more dizzyingly with the departure of battalions of our nurses.

Yet, who can fault those who flee abroad and bid us adieu? Aside from much bigger pay, they say, they feel "safer" abroad. There’s only one solution, which everyone can plainly see: And it’s to make our country a better place in which to live.

The most important word is "to live".

* * *

Talk about security. At the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (formerly Clark Air Force Base), the advance "point men" in charge of the security of the incoming US President, George W. Bush, are already clashing with our local Philippine National Police and security planners. They were all on the spot up there yesterday in Angeles City, to determine where to park the US Chief Executive’s aircraft, Air Force One (known in military jargon as VC-25).

The mini-squabble arose when the American Secret Service Intelligence officers designating the landing and parking areas at Clark and planning how the parked plane will be safeguarded insisted on all security being completely in their hands; i.e., entirely responsibility of the American contingent, without any of our police units or security teams involved. In sum, they would feel secure, they indicated, only if it was a 100 percent American show.

Our police officers, reportedly, got on their high horse and huffed that this is our country, our territory, our sovereignty, our goddam airport, et cetera. Okay, having gotten their angst off their chests, I suggest they look at the entire thing rationally. Don’t we realize the advantage we’ll derive from the American mind-set of not trusting us? (After al-Ghozi’s mysterious getaway, I repeat, who can blame them?) Let the US Secret Service assume full responsibility. In fact, kindly let the Americans put this in writing. If anything happens to President Bush and his airplane – which I pray God (or Allah) not – then it will be the Americans’ responsibility. I know this could look like a cop-out, and injures our pride. But heck: Didn’t we get our pride injured when the PNP let that Jemaah Islamiyah bomb-terrorist al-Ghozi escape from Camp Crame so breezily?

Enough already. Let’s give Mr. Bush’s antsy security people what they want. After all, our distinguished visitor will be here for just a few hours. Let’s give even their sniffing dogs a red carpet welcome. When all is said, friends should be friends and not stand on ceremony.

We must exert every effort, nonetheless, to keep the visiting President, the First Lady, and everybody in their entourage, safe and happy. This is what hospitality, not just friendship, entails.

* * *

Speaking of Air Force One, here’s what Kenneth T. Walsh, chief White House correspondent for US News & World Report wrote about it:

"Contrary to his carefully cultivated populist image (Columnist’s note: GMA hindi ka nag-iisa), Bush loves the perks of office, as most presidents do, and this trait is especially clear on Air Force One. After taking off his suit jacket upon boarding, he customarily puts on a lightweight blue windbreaker-style jacket with AIR FORCE ONE over the right breast and ‘President George W. Bush’ embroidered on the left. His father loved to wear the same distinctive jacket on the plane, as did Bill Clinton. It has become an airborne presidential uniform – prized by the owners because only one man in the world gets to wear it. On lengthy flights, he changes into a sweat suit or slacks and a golf shirt."

There you go. You’ll see that aircraft coming in for a landing about noontime on October 18.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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