Pacquiao has achieved what most Philippine leaders have not—stop crime. For the duration of the Pacquiao fever at least. The widely shared sentiment is more than a joke. Every time Pacquiao goes to the boxing ring, everyone stays in their homes, glued to the television sets. Strangers in bars watching television become instant friends, hollering in unison for their hero.
Pacquiao seems to be all about winning. He has won in eight weight divisions, gathering ten world boxing titles, a feat matched by no other. In 2009, he was included in Time’s 2009 Most Influential People. He has recorded an album and starred in several box office movies. He has become a commercial model for all sorts of products—liquor, gadgets, shoes, milk. Politicians have tried to attach their names to his, hoping perhaps his charisma, his fame would rub off. His wife and mother have gone from being ordinary citizens to icons constantly seen on feature shows, their opinions sought after on issues of marriage, lifestlyle, fashion. He ran for a congressional seat, representing South Cotabato in 2007 and lost. When he ran again in 2011, this time representing Saranggani, he won.
All throughout his campaign he has identified poverty as his main focus. It would be the greatest fight of his life. The Philippines is a Third World Country, and most candidates identify poverty as the focus of their campaigns, but somehow with Pacquiao, there seemed to be a genuineness attached to it. This was after all, a man who was once poor, who did his best to make something better of himself. He was everyone’s hero. His media portrayal also didn’t hurt—his album was dedicated to the country; its lead single ‘Para Saiyo (roughly translated in English as ‘For You’) basically told of how he was talking the blows of his opponents as a sacrifice to his country. During his post-win interviews, he would often reiterate the sentiment, that he was glad to have been of service to his fellowmen—an act sometimes read as arrogance, a sense of bloated self importance.
Despite qualms of his inexperience in politics, Pacquiao has gotten the nods of environmentalists and NGOs when he took a stand to investigate illegal mining in Sarangani. Feared to be one of those lawmakers who would avoid discussions because of lack of knowledge, Pacquiao has proved critics wrong, speaking up in his much-derided English on bills, expressing his arguments the way he expressed himself before international media, with confidence and not a hint of shyness. That alone must have gathered enough respect for the boxer-turned-politician.
Pacquiao’s most controversial stand is his opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill. A version of the pending bill authored by Representative Edcel Lagman proposes universal access to information and methods of all forms of family planning including artificial methods. Among its controversial tenets are the provision of health and sex education in schools, the provision of condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, and the provision of post-abortion care. In the largely Catholic country, condoms and pills are referred to as abortifacients, the Church instructs that life begins at the moment of fertilization, anything that stops that, or prohibits implantation is abortion. The Church has been powerful in this regard, threatening ex-communication to Catholics who are willing to support the Bill, influencing at least a barangay (village) to issue an ordinance which prohibits the selling of condoms to individuals not carrying prescriptions.
Pacquiao’s opposition to the Bill run along the lines of the Catholic Church’s logic. He has been called its poster child, spouting off Biblical lines on how God instructed us to go forth and multiply, rather than just have one or two children. He has exalted the value of family, of doing what is most natural, which is that sex often leads to procreation. Even in this regard, he tries to pose himself as the model—claiming that while his parents did have more children that they could comfortably support, they persevered. This despite the country’s overpopulation, and that it is the poor who usually have the larger number of children, partly because of lack of access to family planning, the maternal deaths still rampant (the UNFPA estimates 230 deaths for every 100,000 pregnancies) or the rising HIV epidemic in the country. Or despite the fact that his wife, Jinkee Pacquiao admitted to taking pills.
As in any other controversial political issue, things can become quite embarrassingly unscientific, ruthless and even personal. In 2009, Pacquiao was rumoured to be having an affair with a young actress. Despite denials from all parties, the rumours spread, were debated, and featured in various talk shows with everyone expressing their sides. The majority of Filipinos sided with the wife even as she repeated again and again that there was nothing happening in her family. What confirmed the issue, or at least what everyone felt enough of a confirmation was a scene captured by the cameras and played on national tv. During the height of the issue, the Pacquiao family attended Thanksgiving Mass where the priest exalted the value of family. At some point Jinkee broke into sobs. For someone so willing to enhance the ‘sacredness of the family’ and use it to oppose artificial methods, Pacquiao was painted as the unfaithful husband, the prototype of a successful man going after the young actress while his wife suffers.
It is an ultimate test of his charisma and willpower, with sharp politicians and concerned groups quickly dismembering his arguments—one of which claimed that if his parents had used contraceptives, there would have been no Pacquiao.
It can be either condescencion or kindness to think of Pacquiao as the mere pawn of the Catholic Church, rather than as a player in the corrupt world of politics. Rather than termed as being manipulative or corrupt or forced to side with an issue to gather some incentives, he is more often tasked as being naïve. His belief that what he is doing the right thing seems to be unshakeable, and as a sort of mitigating factor, he has been approached to tackle his concern for the poor by supporting other bills, by transferring that energy somewhere.
And perhaps that is one of the reasons why everyone wants Pacquiao on their side–why he has become the Catholic Church's greatest ally in this fight. That unshaking belief that he must accomplish something, despite the criticism, the boos and the hostile crowds. He has become who he is by going surging forward, unafraid. And also, something more. During the 12th round of his fight with Shane Mosley, Pacquiao barely fights back, not hitting his opponent’s injured face. He knew, everyone knew he was going to win, but somehow it mattered that the other person could finish the fight alongside him. It was an act which prodded the commentator to call him, ‘a citizen of the world, a cultural icon’. There is a level of comfort in that, that while he would fight to the end, he would also do so with grace. The greatest fight of his life, poverty, after all, has so much to do with the dignity of his people.