In “A House for Mr. Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul, the lead character, Mohun Biswas, sees a house as a sign of his triumphs, independence, and vindication from his bad fortunes. I surmise that it’s not a mansion or a palace, but a house that he can call his own.
In a GMANews.TV report, the Coconut Palace – that edifice to anything and everything Imeldific, one of the many monuments to the ostentatiousness of Martial Rule – is being considered as the official residence for Vice President Jejomar Binay, who seems to be getting a little bit of cabin fever from his office. Apparently, the office in the PNB Building isn’t dignified and respected enough for Binay to exercise his duties. As such, the office that he represents should have an official office and residence fit for his position.
There’s no better manifestation of a “structure of power” than a house. It’s more than just a place to live: it’s a status symbol. We add floors, create wings, fill rooms with furniture and create fences and gates to affirm class and status. It’s a matter of giving something prestige, of creating (literal) structures that affirm our lot in life. That, in effect, is what Binay is trying to do: give some weight to his position. In this case, a nicely-appointed residence.
I wouldn’t really mind if Binay would occupy Malacañang if President Aquino chooses to stay at his house in Times Street, but it does beg the question of how much importance and prestige is there in being the Vice President. Some popular perceptions of the position include succession, the national caretaker in the event that the President is not in the country, a free pass at a Cabinet appointment (ideally, the Foreign Affairs portfolio: the highest in the Cabinet), a goodwill ambassador, and a springboard to the Presidency.
The challenge to Binay is to define, for his position, a constitutional, legal role to his position that provides him the importance and relevance that makes him more than just a crutch, or an accessory.
Yet the insistence on houses in this case is a wee bit questionable. For someone who held a very tastefully-appointed office at Makati City Hall, it seems that Binay wants his structure of power for it’s own sake: that if the President has Malacañang, then so must he have a similarly tastefully appointed house. Somehow, part of the exercise of duty is hinged on having something palatial and prestigious, something symbolic and sacred.
In the case of Binay, it is not function, but prestige. It is not leadership, but pomp. It is not initiative, but that he can’t be the Vice President in an austere office because because because. Of course, this is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior in a nation where public school principals spend much on their own office chairs, where “it’s okay” to eat at fancy restaurants abroad because of the position you have in Government, and wang-wang, at the expense of the public good, is encouraged.
I believe in feeding the ego of authority every once in a while, if it means the better and more prudent exercise of duty. If we need to wire a Government office to the fastest possible Internet connection, it must be done. If we need to dispose of austerity to give the President topnotch medical treatment, then we should.
Yet palaces, castles, and mansions have, more often than not, served the purpose of symbolizing oppression, dereliction, and ostentatiousness: that it is not the gilded columns and marble floors that validate leadership, but the ability of leaders to make do with what they have and make wonders out of them. The office at PNB, as official as it is, doesn’t make Binay any less of a Vice President, but his inclination to occupy a palace “befitting his position.” A palace that carries with it the arms meetings of Muammar al-Gadaffi, the piano pieces of George Hamilton, a sleepover by Brooke Shields, and a stopover for The Amazing Race.
How prestigious, indeed, compared to the relatively honorable work done in less tastefully-appointed offices at the PNB complex, at barangay halls, and in other less-palatial places where Government officials carry out their duties with the barest of essentials with the most barebones of operating expenses. What of them, compared to a Vice President who wants his palace?
Decades past, Pope John Paul II declined Imelda Marcos’ offer for him to stay at the Coconut Palace, saying that it was not appropriate to stay there in a place where people suffer for want of a home. For Mr. Binay, maybe it should not be the house that he would stay in for the next six years that counts, but the house of accomplishments, achievements, and milestones he could make, even without it.