Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

William Torres

‘The electoral system must be changed’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

ONE OF the most vivid — and defiant — images captured on television during the last days of the Marcos dictatorship was the walkout of 30 computer technicians manning the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) tabulation machines at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). Led by Linda Kapunan, the technicians suddenly stood up from their posts and then filed out of the room, computer diskettes in hand, to protest the deliberate manipulation of election results to favor Ferdinand Marcos.

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That was on February 9, 1986, two days after the snap presidential election called by Marcos. Considered one of the early sparks of Edsa 1, the walkout served to further lend credence to allegations, acknowledged even by a multinational team of observers, that the electoral exercise was marred by widespread vote-buying, intimidation, ballot box-snatching, tampered election returns, and the disenfranchisement of millions of voters especially in opposition bailiwicks at the behest of Marcos’s party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL).

Dr. William Torres was at the PICC that day. He wasn’t one of the technicians, but was one of the two consultants the Comelec contracted pro bono to help review the vote tabulation system designed by the National Computer Center (NCC). An information technology professional since the 1960s, he, too, had noticed that much of the processing of the election documents was no longer being done electronically, and that the returns had become deliberately slow in coming.

“Somehow, somebody totaled and then brought it to a room where the head of the NCC was isolated from the rest,” he recalls. “And you don’t know what happened to these documents. But when these came out, these were now the numbers that got posted.” Looking at it from a systems perspective, he became convinced that there was an irregularity in the process.

He says the technicians had brought up the same issue with him. When they staged their walkout — which he says took him by surprise — he and his fellow consultant, Col. Fermin Javier, decided to follow their lead. Torres’s and Javier’s act, however, was never to be immortalized by a TV or still camera.

Now the president of the country’s first commercial Internet service provider, Mozcom, the 73-year-old Torres refuses to ascribe anything political to his decision that day. “It’s just that I cannot be part of a fraud or an irregular process,” he explains. “As a professional, you couldn’t be part of that no matter what people think. Because some people would think it would become worse if you leave.” It was, he stresses, “a matter of principle.”

Thirteen days later, Torres, along with his wife and a small contingent of IT colleagues, would join other Filipinos massing up along the stretch of Edsa in front of Camps Crame and Aguinaldo for what would become the first “people power” revolt.

HAD EDSA 1 not happened, Torres would have stayed on at the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP), where he was already senior vice president providing guidance to government projects involving information and management systems. Although not that keen about working in the government, he says the academy, then under the stewardship of the esteemed Dr. Onofre Corpuz, provided him the luxury of engaging in development work in an agency that was “not totally government” and “the conscience of martial law.”

But the new Cory administration had other ideas about mining Torres’s IT talents. With his work at the DAP and such credentials as a Fullbright-Hays scholar, the first Filipino to be conferred a doctorate degree in computer science by the University of Wisconsin, and a professor of mathematics and management engineering at the Ateneo de Manila University, Torres was designated officer-in-charge of the NCC until July 1987, and eventually as its managing director until May 1993.

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His stint as NCC head ushered in great strides for the IT sector, then largely untapped as an enabler of economic development and social transformation. It was his idea that government agencies craft and adopt their own information systems plans to enable them to look a few years ahead at what they wanted to do.

Today’s Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) traces its roots to the Information Technology Coordinating Council (ITCC) created by the Cory government in 1987, and which Torres chaired for six years. Through the council, which later evolved into the National Information Technology Council (NITC) and then the Information Technology and Electronic Commerce Council (ITECC), Torres authored the first-ever draft of the National IT Plan (NITP). In October 1997, the action agenda was updated for the 21st century, called IT21, with the goal of transforming the Philippines into the knowledge center of Asia.

Torres credits these pioneering endeavors largely to the much improved political environment that allowed the government and the private sector to work together. Under Marcos, the NCC was the sole entity responsible for directing IT use for national development. Under Aquino, there emerged a mechanism that ensured a government-private sector partnership in overseeing the development and deployment of information and communications technology in the different spheres. It was even represented by the aggressive acronym TIGER — telecommunications, industry, government, education and research — and its goal was to make the country globally competitive.

Torres’s other important (if not his greatest) contribution is helping lay down the foundations of the Internet infrastructure in the country, an accomplishment that has even earned him the unofficial title of “Father of the Philippine Internet.” His informal negotiations with the U.S. National Science Foundation in 1992 initiated the campaign to bring the Net to the country, but it took him more than a year to finally realize his goal. The link to the Internet was set up via a local server ahead of schedule in early 1994, with ample help from other titans of the Philippine IT field — the late Dr. William Gan (Torres’s co-founder at Mozcom), Dr. Rodolfo Villarica of the Internet Research Foundation, and Dr. William Padolina, who went on to become secretary of the Department of Science and Technology.

In the last 20 years, the IT sector has become a vital engine of the Philippine economy. Telecommunications is leading the growth with SMS and mobile applications development. New trends in IT services like business process outsourcing, call centers, and medical transcription have joined software development and digital animation as billion-dollar revenue-earners as well as employers.

When the history of IT in the Philippines is written up, Torres will certainly be recognized as one of the trailblazers. Today he is pleased that the country has reduced the gap between the availability of technology and its usage. But he says a lot still needs to be done in terms of how technology can be better used, particularly in improving our competitiveness, uplifting people’s lives, and providing services to citizens. The government may have been equipped with technology to enhance its processes, but the change somehow has only had the effect of speeding things up.

Torres thinks that the prevailing political and economic environment is making it hard to implement the “enabling” IT policies already in place. “(There are) too many cooks trying to do what they think they know,” he says. “And we cannot seem to agree. And I think there’s a lack of leadership. I’m not talking only about the president, perhaps the people around the president, maybe the leadership in the private sector who are all influenced by the situation in the country.”

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INDEED, WITH the serious allegations of systematic and massive cheating in the 2004 elections continuing to hound President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it does seem the Philippines has only come full circle. And 20 years after public outrage over electoral fraud spawned Edsa 1, and despite the benefits of information technology, the electoral system has remained untouched by modernity.

Like many who advocate for genuine electoral reforms, Torres strongly believes the electoral process has to be fixed if the public is to influence the direction of governance in the country. “If you don’t have a good electoral process,” he says, “how can you guarantee the election of public officials that the people want?” Like many others in the technology sector and indeed, most everywhere else, Torres believes that “the electoral system must be changed.”

From the standpoint of systems and technology, what the Comelec had intended to do in 2004 — capturing the votes on paper, counting the ballots through a machine, and transmitting the results centrally via the satellite system — was already good. But the process still remained vulnerable to fraud with cheats finding all sorts of ways to thwart it.

Torres himself counsels against employing a mere technological solution. “I don’t think you can solve a social problem using only technology,” he says. “Technology must go together with human processes. It is really how the human system makes use of the technological system that will change things.”

Yet he does regret the failed reinvention of the NCC that he was proposing at the time when Cory Aquino’s signature still had the force of law. He says Malacañang had already made a commitment to look at his proposal, but that it was sidelined at the last minute by other matters. “I think it was agrarian reform or something like that,” he says, “and I agree it was more important.”

Torres also points out that many other important things went undone. While such failings could be attributed to the lack of sufficient time to address everything or that people were not moving quick enough, in many cases, he says, vested interests came into the picture and slowed things down.

Torres may have very well been referring to the present. A case in point is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which got congressional approval recently but which could have been started two or three years ago.

For sure major gains have been achieved in the information technology field, with the success of call centers and business-process outsourcing ventures. But the sector — and the rest of the country, really — could have done much more in the last 20 years. Says Torres, almost sighing: “We don’t have the kind of leadership to make things boil, simmer, and then cooked.” — Alecks P. Pabico