Many of us struggle all our lives to find the one thing that we’re supposed to do on this earth. Our purpose, our… “why.” For Christopher “Bong” Go, cabinet secretary, pambansang photobomber, and the one man constantly and visibly at the side of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it was actually his grandfather who inadvertently set him on the path that he is on right now.
According to the stories, Bong was on his way home to Davao after graduating from college when he got a call from his lolo, a close friend of the President, to pick up a few personal items of Duterte (who was then a congressman) to bring back with him on his trip.
As it so happened Duterte’s previous personal assistant had just passed away and he was on the lookout for a new aide. Go’s timely arrival at the scene took care of that problem and, as these things usually go, much of what came after owed more to timing, luck, and whatever it is that is written in the stars than any real planning on the part of either party.
Since that time, Bong never left Duterte’s side. And he has become quite literally the President’s most trusted confidant in all things, and has been rewarded for his loyalty by being appointed Special Assistant to the President (SAP) and head of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS).
But this kind of familiarity and proximity to someone as controversial and powerful as Duterte comes at a high price. For those within the President’s immediate circle, it is a constant struggle when dealing with people who would alternately kiss the ground they walk on, and at the same time stab them in the back as soon as they went by.
And for SAP Bong, who is seen as the ultimate gatekeeper, the price is particularly steep. Aside from the usual ass-kissing and back-stabbing that comes with the political territory, he is also a prime target for Duterte’s political opponents and others whose main goal is to bring down the administration.
Recently Go was accused by opposition congressman Gary Alejano and the anti-Duterte blogsite Rappler of allegedly intervening in the purchase of critical components for the Philippine navy’s first-ever missile-capable frigates.
In order to understand the whole picture clearly, we have to go back to the timeline and the details of the project to determine exactly how this whole deal got put together in the first place.
It is common knowledge that the project was first put together during the term of ex-President Noynoy Aquino. This included most, if not all of the bidding process.
It was barely two months into the Duterte administration, on September 13, 2016, when the Notice of Award was issued to South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). And on October 24, 2016, the contract to build was formally signed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and executives of HHI.
Based on the original specifications given by HHI, the ships’ combat management system (CMS) – which integrates all of the vessel’s weapons, sensors, and other mission critical components – was supposed to be supplied by Thales Nederland TACTICOS Combat Management System. But while this was specified in the proposal, the final contract apparently gave HHI significant maneuvering room in choosing which suppliers to use for the systems that would be installed on the frigates. This allowed for a disagreement to grow between the Philippine navy and HHI on what final CMS to install.
Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado, who was still the Philippine Navy flag-officer-in-command, and members of the Philippine Navy Technical Working Group (PN-TWG) were in favor of sticking with the original Thales system. HHI on the other hand was pushing for another South Korean company, Hanwha Systems Naval Shield CMS.
Eventually the jockeying led to a white paper by Hanwha making its way to the Office of the Special Assistant to the President. From there it was forwarded to the appropriate government agency – in this case to the office of Sec. Lorenzana; and eventually to vice admiral Mercado with a note from the Secretary asking that he “go over it and prepare a report/rebuttal” for submission to the President. This was on January 12, 2018, and was the basis of Rappler’s alleged ‘investigative’ report titled, “Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships”.
Escalation and Imputation of Malice
Prior to the white paper being sent to Malacañan, the selection of the CMS, while contentious, was not yet controversial. It was simply part of the process that vice admiral Mercado himself referred to on September 2, 2017, when he was quoted in the media as saying that, “Discussions are ongoing to agree on equipment and major systems to be installed.”
So why did it escalate? One plausible explanation is provided by Alejano himself when he revealed that Mercado wrote to Lorenzana on January 4, 2018 claiming that the contract with HHI has “grossly disadvantageous provisions to the Philippine Navy and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”
While it has not been reported upon, looking at the eventual course of actions twken by both parties, it’s easy to imagine how between September 2017 and January 2018 things might have gotten out of hand between the Philippine navy and HHI in the selection of the CMS. Prompting first Mercado’s letter to Lorenzana, followed by Hanhwa’s white paper to Malacañan.
And here is where the pitfalls of being Bong Go come into play.
As the people’s most visible link to Duterte, SAP Bong will always be on the receiving end of all kinds of requests, petitions, solicitations, and whatever crackpot ideas folks feel they just absolutely have to share with the President. And it is precisely his job to insulate his boss from any possibly inappropriate material by shuttling it back towards the proper channel. Which, despite Alejano and Rappler’s best effort to paint it in the worst light, is simply what he did with the Hanwha white paper. Having received it, his office simply sent it over to Sec. Lorenzana and the DND where it belonged in the first place.
Bong Go did not “intervene in the P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships” as the Rappler headline falsely claimed. Nor did he have a hand at the “anomalous” contract as insisted by Alejano. If he did, then the note from Lorenzana should have said so, rather than asking as it did for a “report/rebuttal,” which is defined as a “refutation or contradiction” of what was being presented. It really takes a special kind of paranoia to see conspiracies at every turn and impute malice in every act. But at this point, I don’t think people like Alejano or those alleged journalists in Rappler can help it. They have invested too much time, effort, money, and credibility into this particular narrative that it would be easier to jump off a cliff than to turn back now. Ironically, what they don’t seem to realize is that to continue on this insane quest to destroy Duterte will inevitably lead to the same precipice. But as they say, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.