To nobody’s surprise, the Philippine hosting of the SEA Games 2019 failed even before its official start. But the degree to which it has become a national and regional disgrace has shocked even many of us whose expectations for the Duterte Administration were already damn low to begin with — like that meme with a placard reads: “Our expectations for you were low but HOLY F*CK.” People have even compared SEA Games 2019 with the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017, and I would agree, except, you know, the people being left to rot aren’t just some snooty rich kids from some random Western country but the best athletes of Southeast Asia.
The sad thing about all of this is that we could have avoided becoming an international embarrassment. We were already set to withdraw from our hosting back in 2017 due to the BIFF attack on Marawi; the money meant to fund the SEA Games 2019 was to be spent on rebuilding Marawi instead. Well, here we are two years later, and Marawi still lies in ruins. I suppose some people desperately needed to make money. I mean, after all, they even displaced the Aeta communities of Tarlac just to be able to construct the relevant facilities at the “world-class” multi-billion-peso New Clark City in time for the SEA Games 2019.
Never mind all that, of course. What’s important is that the Philippines is currently putting its best foot forward: we have a logo and mascot reminiscent of a Staphylococcal culture, an “artsy,” “priceless” kaldero a whole province away from the venue of the opening ceremonies, unfinished locker rooms, scoreboard-less football matches, and, uh, social media mileage and virality. Hey, at least we’re trending.
Make no mistake: there was blatant corruption here. I don’t know how you get to spend P6 billion and yet still fail at the basic no-brainers like ensuring your guests are picked up at the airport on time, or that they’re served food appropriate for an athletics meet (and for their cultural background), or even just that the Welcome to the Philippines banners aren’t printed or handwritten on ugly sheets of bond paper ten minutes before the foreign delegates arrive. Everyday, headlines all across Southeast Asia have been exploding with new SEA Games 2019 mishaps — insufficient halal food for Muslim athletes, teams forced to train on the streets, players sleeping on hotel floors. Even college orgs could have done better.
Para sa bayan. No other phrase encapsulates how we have fetishized embracing oppression as an ideal form of nationalism.
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, head of PHISGOC, the private organization in charge of organizing the SEA Games 2019 has now resorted to blaming journalists and the opposition for the SEA Games 2019’s abysmal international reputation. Strangely enough, some sectors have been enjoining us, their fellow Filipinos, to blind ourselves to the anomalies and the unacceptable blunders and draw attention to the better aspects of SEA Games 2019 instead, that we may present a “unified” face to the international community, Like how the Athletes’ Village in New Clark City, extraordinarily, has halal food. Or that we are now able to conduct football matches with an actual scoreboard. Save us from embarrassment, they say. Do it for the country, they say. Para sa bayan.
I don’t know what they’re expecting though. Do they think that if we close our eyes the SEA Games’ problems would magically evaporate? That the international media and the visiting teams would suddenly turn blind as well and forget the problems they’ve been raising? Our country’s reputation has already been besmirched. The PHISGOC’s blunders have made sure of that. So, at this point, vocally criticizing this government’s failure and poor treatment of foreign guests actually saves face for the country. It is a statement: this is not what the Filipino people are.
Para sa bayan. No other phrase encapsulates how we have fetishized embracing oppression as an ideal form of nationalism. We are so used to being used by our government to cover up its incompetence and corruption. This grotesque rhetoric absolves the government of its responsibilities. It passes the burden of leadership and governance from the government to the private sector, both individuals and altruistic companies. It tells us that it’s okay for government to fail because civil society will step in. We have internalized our oppression so much that asking for what is just is now seen as demanding too much.
We deserve better as a people. We should know this. Speaking out and loving your country are not incompatible things. Enough should be enough. It is only by speaking out that we can rattle those in power that they are forced to shape up. Telling Filipinos to unite behind a corruption-riddled event is myopic and ultimately self-defeating. It is only with our indignation that PHISGOC has resolved to better its organization. They didn’t respect us enough to even try obscuring their corruption. But with our outrage, they have apologized and vowed to do better. And they should. Because our athletes deserve better. Our foreign guests deserve better. We, the taxpayers who financed this entire mess, deserve better. And we should let them know.
And so we must speak out and continue to speak out as long as their is cause to. What is nationalistic is to behold ourselves as we are, that we may praise the good and rectify the faults. Turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of the SEA Games will not benefit the country nor will it save the Philippines’ reputation. No matter how hard we close our eyes, the Ginintuang Kaldero of Clark will not be any closer to the opening ceremony of the games. No matter how thoroughly we blind ourselves, Pami will still be grotesque AF. Keeping quiet only benefits those who’ve already made a killing by misusing the SEA Games funds. Speaking out forces us to remember that after all of this — the pageantry, the medals, the pomp and circumstance — there are people who we must hold to account.
Our money has already been spent and spent poorly. So we must speak out. Because while our athletes suffer overpriced sports equipment, underfunding, being made to wait hours for their accommodation on their home turf, some politicians have already made a killing. Because we as a people deserve more than to be made fools in front of the world. Because we must let them know that we know our mettle. That we know our worth. What we deserve, what our athletes deserve. And that is not this.
Para sa bayan.