Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, September 14, 1998

The new number two
in the Philippines

HEY, it's true! History does repeat itself! Back in 1994, I visited Japan and the Philippines -- both for the first time -- and found them studies in contrast. This sansei found her homeland to be a real bummer -- regimented, formal, high-priced and darn unfriendly to females. Meanwhile, the turf of then-President Fidel Ramos was casual, inexpensive and surprisingly empowering.

This weekend, shades of deja vu! On Friday, at a local reception for some visiting Japanese dignitaries, I found myself back in unliberated Tokyo. Whenever I approached the suits-and-ties, they looked uninterested or wandered away. The guys from Japan seemed more impressed with the guys from America. After all, I was "only" a wahine.

Contrast that experience to my meeting yesterday with the vice president of the Philippines, who arrived in Honolulu to give a major speech today. Boy, is she something.

That's right, the person who's a "heartbeat away" from the presidency is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo -- a 51-year-old economist, educator, journalist and former senator who gave up her presidential aspirations in 1998 to become the new number two to Joseph Estrada.

Logo She's a diminutive dynamo who exudes self-confidence, and she certainly remains one of the most popular and respected politicians in her country. But as an interview, Macapagal-Arroyo is, well, boring. She deftly avoids churning up controversy, even if the queries are intended to be dicey.

Question: When you were running for president, you said some candidates have mass appeal but lack competence. Were you referring to (former movie star and then Vice President) Joseph Estrada?

Macapagal-Arroyo: That was in the past. What I said while campaigning is not important now.

Question: But do you respect President Estrada (who, as vice president, had the reputation of being the Dan Quayle of the Philippines)?

Macapagal-Arroyo: Of course, I respect him. You have to respect someone who can get 10 million votes.

Question: Is it true that your heart broke when Manila's outspoken archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, said you were unfit to be president because you were too young and because you were a woman?

Macapagal-Arroyo: As you can see, my heart is not broken and it is still beating. I was disappointed that he would say something like that, but he has the right to an opinion.

Question: Is it correct to assume that you will not rock the boat in your six-year term as vice president, to better your chances of being elected president in 2004?

Macapagal-Arroyo: Absolutely not. That is nonsense. I will do whatever is right and necessary to fulfill my job responsibilities.

AS you can imagine, this lady is no pushover. In fact, Macapagal-Arroyo is quite intimidating, even to an avowed feminist like me.

Yet that is not surprising, given the nature and accomplishments of women in the Philippines. They represent the majority in professions like medicine, law and foreign service. And the country has already had a woman president in Corazon Aquino -- an accomplishment that cannot be claimed by most nations.

Oh, yes, Japan and the U.S. could certainly benefit from a few lessons in female assertion and achievements, courtesy of the Philippines. And I know just the gal, first name Gloria, to lead the class...

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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