OCT - DEC 1999
VOL. V   NO. 4

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The Nocturnal President
Pres. Estrada’s late-night buddies influence decision-making in the Palace.

by Ellen Tordesillas

Erap's Midnight Cabinet [Artwork by Nonoy Marcelo]THE MEETINGS take place at night and last until dawn. There, views are traded, strategies prepared, and deals struck. By the time the men at the table stand up and stagger out the door, much has been accomplished that may affect the way things are done in this country. President Joseph Estrada, of course, presides over these meetings. But more often than not, those gathered around him during these caucuses are far from being Cabinet secretaries. Rather, they are his personal friends, some of them buddies of long-standing, such as Ilocos Sur Rep. Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson and Caloocan congressman Luis ‘Baby’ Asistio, with whom, it is said, the president shares a fondness for the pleasures of the good life—gambling, alcohol and women included. Singson and Asistio, say Malacañang insiders, are among the president’s most constant late-night companions.

There are other persistent hangers-on, wheeler-dealers like online bingo operator Dante Tan whose BW Resources Corp. has been accused of insider trading and manipulation of the stock market. Certainly, it would seem that ethnic Chinese businessmen are keenly aware that with Estrada, out of sight is out of mind, and are among those that a Palace insider says are fond of “slipping in when dark sets in.”

Ramon Lee, a close associate of Dante Tan and an Estrada election contributor, drops in occasionally, say Malacañang sources. So does Lucio Co, the goateed owner of PureGold duty free stores who was recently accused of being a big-time smuggler. Another fixture of the late-night teté-a-tetés is Jaime Dichavez, a fiberglass manufacturer and real estate developer who was recently involved in the corporate coup at Belle Corporation, operator of the controversial jai-alai games. Dichavez, who has no official post except as head of the Malacañang golf club, is another of the President’s most trusted businessmen-friends.

Also sighted keeping Estrada company at night are presidential adviser on overseas Filipinos William Gatchalian, who has shifted from plastics to airlines and the tourism business, and Eusebio Tanco, who recently acquired the Tiwi-Makiling-Banahaw geothermal power plant from the National Power Corporation. Tanco is the brother-in-law of one of the country’s biggest coconut millers, Douglas Lu Ym.

(But the most trusted—and most reclusive—of the president’s friends is multimillionaire Jacinto “Jack” Ng, owner of Republic Biscuit Corp. or Rebisco and of some hefty real estate. Ng, however, reportedly does not take too well to the night life and is rarely seen in the late-evening socials the president enjoys.)

Whatever their past with the president and no matter where they come from, these men offer the actor-turned-President a respite from the heavy demands of being the head of state. This they do by keeping him company while he unwinds over drinks; they even sing with him on the karaoke, as well as play mahjong, which could stretch these boys’ nights out way past their usual quitting time if the President is losing. For the country’s chief executive apparently does not take defeat at the gaming table very well.

But he takes well to recommendations and pieces of advice offered by his friends during these midnight sessions, say some government officials. Indeed, they even say a number of presidential decisions with wide-ranging implications have been reached not during the Cabinet meetings that are usually held once a month, but during the informal discussions that take place while the President relaxes with his pals, who are not exactly without business interests to advance and defend.

That, say the officials, has made for policies and appointments done on the fly, actions that come not from careful thinking and consultations with experts, but from what appear to be off-the-top-of-the-head remarks of private individuals, who may or may not have been inebriated when they made their suggestions. For example, the use of pension funds of the Government Service Insurance System and the Social Security System for corporate takeovers was the bright idea broached on one of those late evenings with presidential friend Mark Jimenez, a shadowy businessman wanted for illegal campaign contributions in the U.S. Jimenez is reportedly a mean singer at the karaoke and is an occasional “good time” associate of Estrada.

Then again, perhaps this could only be expected of a presidency in which decision-making is seemingly dependent on the interplay not so much of ideas but of the vested interests of individuals who align themselves in loose blocs. The “Midnight Cabinet” is just one among the many groups that compete for the President’s attention, groups that have their respective trump cards to play whenever they feel someone else is gaining precious ground, or simply whenever they feel that the timing is right. There are no rules and no guarantees in this game, after all, and a bloc cannot hope to keep bending the President’s ear for too long.

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