Category Archives: Oliver Geronilla's Column

The Self-respect of Nations: The Philippines and China

by W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla

 

Somewhere in the first of Trollope’s 6-volume set Palliser Novels, “the Prime Minister,”  the Duke of Omnium, also the premier, tells his usually silly wife that—and we paraphrase—nations are like people:  they elicit (the) respect from outside powers to about the same extent that they do so on a personal basis—according to how much respect they give themselves.

We respect countries and people who respect themselves.  Costa Rica is truly a tiny country, but it eliminated its military, developed peaceful relations with its neighbors, and is considerably the most prestigious country in its neighborhood.  Botswana, by far the richest black state in Africa, even used its adversity during a drought to make itself still richer, but had a unified proud country pulling with it.

Recently, we have been reading with great interest the debate in the Philippine press of how to deal with China.  One of us has been reading this sort of thing for 42 years. This is in fact the most substantive debate on foreign policy we have seen here.

But we are bothered by a few things.  Let’s get some facts straight first.  The Philippines is not a ‘small’ country and it is not a ‘powerless’ country.  It’s going beyond even being a middle-sized country as it hits the 100million mark.

Now, in all respects China is bigger, richer, and far more militarily powerful.  So?  What else is new?  Throughout history smaller countries have had to find ways of dealing with stronger ones.  The only thing the smaller country must never do is make a big deal about how powerless it is.  For by such it becomes far weaker, even pathetic, in the eyes of the stronger.

How should the smaller power act?  There are some old shoes to use.  Of course one constantly reiterates the sovereign equality of nations.  It’s a bit meaningless if one is talking about navies, but it has a basis in history and law, at least back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  It means that there is a prima facie basis for each power, no matter what size, respecting the others.

Now, to be sure, China has been ascending up a steep ladder.  Britain and then America, as they expanded, found ‘natural and historical’ rights to establish coaling stations (Shanghai, Bombay) that became colonies or extra-territorial enclaves. Empire Britain became.  America found ‘friends’ to rent all over the world as cold war fever swept over it, and poor countries like Ethiopia sold rights to its Asmara high ground, where a vital communications link was built to bring the world together—under American hegemony.

China historically has not gone in that way.  It never established a world empire.  It thinks regionally–whence its invasion of Vietnam in late 1978, to ‘teach it a lesson,’ though it seems like it was China that got taught a lesson.  Yet here’s the rub for the Philippines: It’s right in the way of China’s claim to maritime supremacy in its region.

Manila is right to build up its navy to minimize the danger.  It is wrong to go around feeling sorry for itself.  No one respects that.   But there is precedent. One of us, in September, will be publishing a long and authorized biography of former President Fidel Ramos, in which a major player is General Jose Almonte, himself quite a card to play, as the region’s foremost and smartest strategist.  FVR assigned Joal the job of dealing with China over the first real eruption of major problems with China over the Spratly islands.  Joal told us—and we are paraphrasing from the forthcoming biography—that he didn’t even believe in FVR’s assignment—to find a solution.  Joal understands power; he didn’t believe he had any cards to play.  But he rallied the region, even consulting Koreans and other nearby non-Asean powers.  He put China on the defensive and they began asserting that they were not a traditional great power; they weren’t trying to use might over right.  Ha!

General Almonte, to his own astonishment, achieved his purpose.  The Chinese backed down.  Of course there’s a lot of water over the dam since then—and a far larger Chinese navy.  What worked then must be tried harder today.  Insist in all fora on the ‘equality of nations;’ work the region as a whole.  Differences among Asean countries must be eliminated, as they play right into the Chinese hand.

Above all, achieve coherence at home.  Nothing strengthens a country more than the integrity of its political system and a growing economy.  Respect your president—give him the free hand he needs.  So far he’s been a winner abroad.  Does China want to look like a bully against a freely-elected (and overwhelmingly supported) young and popular leader?

Fight all you want domestically for advantage (but Ampatuan methods are ruled out), but as a nation be as one.  Foreign policy begins at the water’s edge, we always said.

Yet there are times when might makes right—for a time.  Still the picture of the beleaguered exiled emperor of Ethiopia at the League o Nations, after Italy defeated his forces in 1935, appealing on the grounds of sovereignty and dignity of his country, is one of the most popular of the 20th century.

If the Philippines doesn’t want to see its sovereignty violated, it must be wholly united, not by asking for pity on grounds of its powerlessness, but on grounds of its rights as a united political entity. This time it’s going to be a lot more difficult.  The Foreign Secretary looks like he’s got it right—and he’s a man of dignity who had to work for years in Washington with a weak hand to play; but he did it well.  Get Behind Secretary Del Rosario.  Be two nations if you will: a squabbling one internally (though the less so the better) but a coherent people with respect to foreign policy.

The Philippines has never had much interest in statecraft—compare Thailand.  Manila felt for too long it was protected by the US.  Even now it is putting wordly faith in its mutual defense treaty with Washington.  That has to get substantive.  Call a conference.  Put America more and more on the spot. Card by card build your hand.  The Philippines can’t stand up to China in a military conflict, but the Philippines can make that the least likely of scenarios.  In fact, we see the Philippines as having a quite strong hand in law of the sea, ASEAN unity, history, international law, and international prestige (the latter as applied to China as it wishes to present itself internationally).  Go for it!

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Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in the City of Dasmarinas .  W. Scott Thompson, D.Phil. served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston .  He lives in Washington and Makati City and is the author of 14 books on international relations and Southeast Asian politics.


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In Not So Recent Memory


by Oliver Geronilla

Taking a stroll down memory lane always makes me smile. I smile for all the things I did in the past—both good and bad.

March and April are special months. They are the months when graduations are held—the time when many– if not all school friends– say goodbye to each other. They’re also the months when I reminisce the graduations that I was a part of. At BNCS-A, I lead the graduates of school year 1991 in reciting the “Pledge of Loyalty.” We didn’t wear academic gowns then.

Weeks before the most anticipated day, we rehearsed two “graduation songs” (If We Hold on Together and The Greatest Love of All) which until now I still remember very clearly–both the lyrics and the melody. Our teachers painstakingly taught us how to pronounce the words correctly.  Mrs. Lilinda Golloso repeatedly told us to say MOUNT’NS and not MOUNTAYNS.

During the Closing Ceremonies, everyone was in high spirits except for me. I was disappointed– terribly disappointed. I felt bitter that time despite the two medals I received—a bronze medal for being the first honorable mention, and one gold medal for being the representative of our district to a science quiz bee.  In my mind, my teachers “cheated” me. I knew I wasn’t the best pupil, but I knew I was the second best among us.

I told mama and papa about my disappointment, but they just smiled at me; they were happy for what I achieved. They were proud of me. That’s what mattered.

From the processional down to the recessional, I wasn’t excited. But I could see that all parents were. We, the graduates, were there… just there trying to remember all the things we had to do. It was more of a performance.  There were speeches. There were rounds of applause. It was an academic pageantry that I wanted to erase from my memory.

That childhood angst lingered for more than a decade. I just couldn’t see beyond the end of my nose. Acceptance, or should I say “closure,” came only some years ago when I personally witnessed how academic rankings were actually done. It was far more complicated than I thought. That  gave me a blast of the past with a twist I failed to recognize.

Maybe it’s too late for me to personally extend my gratitude to my teachers back then at BNCS-A. After all, without them, I wouldn’t have learned the ropes of the English language. My elementary school teachers, for sure, played a pivotal role in shaping my future. That’s a fact of life I can’t deny. And that’s something I should forever be grateful.

Some of them are no longer with us mortals; some of them are now enjoying their retirement days. Some of them may still remember me: the lanky boy who didn’t copy the notes written on the board. I do still remember most of them. Who could forget, for example, our math teacher from  the 5th grade to the 6th grade? Her weapon was not the quintessential rod or stick –which every school teacher had that time–which could leave a bruise on our skin when we’re hit, but her (right?) thumb and index finger that could skillfully grab our sideboards …to either pull them up or down.  Addaayy!!

There’s, of course, our SIBIKA teacher who was fond of delivering monologues mouthing out all the names, places, and dates he could muster from our textbook.

(to be continued)

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Whistling in the Dark

 

By Oliver Geronilla

 

From where I am, I can sense that Bulan politics is so still you could hear a pin drop. The pledge to be transparent, the enthusiasm to inform and be informed have all vanished into thin air–perhaps corked in the trapos’ bottles of potions only to be reopened when it’s time to bewitch the electorate again.

Something’s wrong. This silence needs to be broken lest we be accused of being privy to whatever plot is being brewed by these political wizards and witches. This is the point when silence is no longer golden. It reeks of many things that you and I are both wary of—secrecy, muted whimpers, and God forbid… a whole new world of shenanigans!

Just a few more weeks, the year will be over. And yet, nothing significant has transpired in the way hits and misses in local governance are regularly reported to the people of Bulan. Well, fair do’s, at least its official website has been recently tweaked making it technically no longer dormant. Thanks to Tinker Bell! But, by golly, it still bears the same news items that netizens have probably read and reread to their boredom. To make things worse, count how many times the mayor’s picture “graced” the welcome page. Has the moon’s gravity paralyzed the mighty brains and hands of our local heralds? Or have they been gagged by the powers that be?

Whatever the case may be, it still puzzles me why this is happening when I suppose there’s enough manpower to do this job. It doesn’t take a genius to write what we see, hear, and feel. We’re not asking for brilliantly written pieces; we’re asking for reports, for observations, for stories decently written that can fill the vacuum of emptiness that make one stop thinking the world has come to a halt—in Bulan.

Personally, I want to go home, go around the town, and gather some news just for me to have a springboard. But do I really have to do them? For sure, columnists don’t go to Iraq or to North Korea just to get some juicy pieces of information for their articles. For sure, they can have the needed information to put substance into what they write without hopping from one place to another.

Hence, it bothers me that I can write commentaries about Southeast Asian affairs at a drop of a hat, but I can never write a piece about my own hometown. I can’t … because I rely mostly on cyber news. And there’s nothing much and there’s nothing new that we can read about our town through the world wide web. That’s for sure.

So, let me propose one thing: let’s all write. It might be daunting at first, but when we get the hang of it—perhaps through trial and error or dedicated mentoring—everything will just go smoothly.

By writing down our “observations,” we can subtly change the course of events in our town. It’s not tilting at windmills. In fact, it’s doing our share.

Silence is not what we need now. Make noise. Let’s write.

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Turning Weaknesses into Strengths

 

By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla

 

 We have always hated people giving advice.  It usually stems from their own insecurities or their desire to look stronger and wiser than we are.  But what if you ask for it? Sartre, on one occasion, said: “Once you choose your adviser, you’ve chosen your advice.”  So much for the impartiality of advice.

Now when a bright new president comes on the scene, Dutch Uncles are just full of advice especially if that “advice” might give them an entrée to Malacanang. There are also the doubting Thomases-cum-analysts who sometimes play politics. The question is:  Is it wrong for analysts or the general public to think about all the qualifications—and disqualifications—of a new leader—and how to play to these?  We don’t think so. After all, no one is perfect. 

There are five things that people say about the new president that might be negative but can be positive.

First, he isn’t an economist—though he, in fact, studied economics at Ateneo.  Well, Barack Obama isn’t an economist either. Nor Winston Churchill. Nor Franklin Roosevelt. Nor is any major leader in the world to our knowledge.  Oh,  there was GMA—an economist.  What a marvelous reason to be grateful that P-Noy isn’t an economist.

Second, P-Noy isn’t peripatetic,  isn’t instant-energetic, likes to sleep late, and doesn’t get excited.  That’s a disadvantage?  Well, there are lots of things to be done when you are president, and we assume that P-Noy isn’t like Erap, sleeping late because he’s hung over and wants to start the new day (as we once saw him) with brandy and roast beef. All hail to saying ‘Chill’ when everyone else is running around.  Remember Kipling’s poem ‘If’?  ‘

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
….

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

  …you’ll be a Man, my son!

 Third, he is sometimes faulted for not having a wife.  But he was overwhelmingly elected with that in full view.  In these days, is this anybody’s business?  Maybe it’s strength.  Every eligible woman in the country will hope to become first lady.  The position is not foreclosed though we presume that the new president is comfortable with his life as it is, and we shouldn’t expect any changes.

There is only one ‘weakness’ that might be scary—the fourth. P-Noy hasn’t been to Europe.  In this he echoes ‘W’ Bush, who through his father’s headship of the CIA, ambassadorship to China, etc., never traveled beyond the Rio Grande. P-Noy could have accompanied his mother on her trips as head of state—and chose not to.  We don’t however think his reasons are the bad ones that ‘W’ had (‘W’ was drugging and drinking in those years).  And we recall our own shock that Ronald Reagan went to Venice for a G-8 summit, revealed he’d never been there, and even then avoided St. Marks Cathedral and the great plaza.  But Reagan was a great president. In fact P-Noy’s tendency to stay at home might mean a lack of braggadocio, a contentedness with his huge responsibilities here in the archipelago.  Let’s hope so.

Now the last weakness: P-Noy smokes.  Maybe that’s his biggest strength, but it makes him an instant friend of Barack Obama. At the dreamy level of heads of state, the highest club of any, all you need is a connection to the king-of-kings.  They have it; they’ve already had a long chat about it.  Obama we think a bit hypocritically is reported as saying that he’s quit, but his annual physical contradicts that. So they’ve got plenty to joke about.  And no doubt on his state visit, President Noy and Barack will find a room deep down in the nuclear-secure area of the White House to have some smoke and jokes.

A leader usually emerges because he ‘fits’ the needs of his electorate.  In this case, President Noy fits the desperate need of the Filipino electorate for someone whom they can trust after nine years of scalawags; Benigno Aquino III was elected because he fits a huge requirement for the job—the nation’s desire for someone in the mold of his mother, more a saint than a devil.

Don’t worry about critics, and don’t worry about all the advice, P-Noy. Remember what Franklin Roosevelt said, when the carping got intense? “I welcome their hatred,” sublimely—and with his cigarette flashing from its iconic holder. //

 

Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in Dasmariñas City. W. Scott Thompson, Dr. Phil. served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

   ……..end…….

  

 

                                                                                          

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Sports and Politics

 By Oliver Geronilla

I join BO in congratulating Mayor Helen De Castro for winning another term as Bulan’s chief executive. This “resounding mandate,” as Mr. Gilana astutely phrased it, will give her ample time to collaborate with Bulan’s crème de la crème in close consultation with her “mga padaba na kabungto” in bringing about meaningful change in our town, to continue all the laudable projects she has spearheaded, and of course, to address the issues that have been left unsolved if not overlooked.

The election fever is over. Yet, some are still “feverish.” I hope both losers and winners can go through this “stage” without angst or grudge for it’s time to buckle down to work. There will be election protests, doubts, accusations, etc, but I wish these won’t spoil the true essence of election as a democratic process.

In sports, there’s a great tradition where athletes play fair and square and handle both victory and defeat with grace, style, and dignity. That’s what we call sportsmanship. Ideally, it should be a code of behavior that should be followed not only by athletes but also by politicians and their supporters. As they say, “sportsmanship is a distinctive trait that defines one’s character and mettle.”

How about in politics?

Well, Jun Asuncion gallantly set the tone by positively responding to the post made by the PIO. That’s what we call local diplomacy at its finest. A few expressed the same view; and as expected, others dissented. It’s no surprise that a nebulously phrased comment from who-is-it of Timbuktu created a stir because of his bitter and unfounded disparagement. Boy, that’s what we call dirty politics.

Winners should always bear in mind to be cordial and munificent. Victories should be acknowledged without mortifying opponents; being quietly proud of success and letting victories speak for themselves are virtues worth keeping and observing. Good sportsmanship, when practiced in politics, dictates finding ways to compliment our “opponents”—even if we win by landslide.

Losing, of course, is difficult to come to terms with. It takes time. So, it doesn’t help when people incessantly “jeer” at the losers or their team after the “game” is over.

When we lose, we sometimes take it out on our opponents, blame election officials, or even our own party mates. The best thing to do is to take it in stride. When we lose, we ought to lose with class. So, here’s my unsolicited advice for the losers and their supporters: Thank those who supported you, congratulate the winners promptly and willingly. That shows maturity and courage. And for the winners and their supporters? Be true to your words through and through.

                                       

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Still Tongue Makes a Wise Head

 

By Oliver Geronilla

 

Politicians and their apologists have never failed to amaze me. From their empty rhetoric to their convoluted orchestration of truth down to their infuriating chutzpah, everything seems to bring me to a fleeting rapture of guffaws every time I see them on national TV unsuspectingly shedding their own skin.

That’s true for national politics where the media seem to follow political demagogues quite naturally for juicy bits of information and commentaries. But does it also hold true for local politics? I’m afraid not. Perhaps it’s too parochial to merit the giant TV networks’ costly airtime and the major broadsheets’ precious op-ed page. Thank God we have Bulan Observer.

A couple of days ago, while dining with Dr. W. Scott Thompson, FVR’s biographer and former US assistant secretary of state, I mentioned how frustrated I was with the LGU’s nonchalance over some pressing matters in our hometown. He laughed and said: “Oh, perhaps they have forgotten what Thomas Tip O’Neill, a longtime Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress, once said.” He paused, banged the table (perhaps for theatrical effects), looked at me, and said: “Remind them that all politics is local.”

I nearly drew a blank. In fact, it took me almost half a minute before I recognized that he was waiting for me to react. When I was about to give my rejoinder, he started speaking again and ended up giving me a “lecture” on the dynamics of Asian politics particularly that of ours. He went on and on only stopping to have a sip of wine. Then, he mentioned “hiya” as one of the culprits of our flawed perception of leading and following—our own rendition of democracy.

According to Dr. Thompson, hiya, loosely translated as shame or sense of propriety, is a Filipino cultural trait that unites and divides us as a people. How? Well, look at those comments generated by the article posted by Mr. Jun Asuncion regarding the “fate” of Congressman Jose Solis. Most of them can be described just by using the word hiya and its cousins: nanghihiya, hiniya, walang hiya, nahiya, kahiyahiya, etc.

All these can either be a coping mechanism or a mere defense mechanism. But I could evidently see the angst, frustration, and resentment in their words. These, I suppose, were bottled up emotions just waiting to be “unleashed.”

In no time, BO became a temporary theater of word war. Yes, explosive bursts of emotions flooded BO’s comment page making it a repository of genuine sentiments and scathing remarks worthy of being “processed” to redefine our atavistic views.

I cringed in utter disbelief when I found out, through this site, how some of us could be vindictive—at least verbally. Still, I think there are many things that we can learn from out of this issue. One of them, and perhaps the most salient, is how we view success, failure, and downfall vis-à-vis “hiya.” We always bask in our victories walking tall thinking that our triumphs would last forever. That, of course, is an example of delusions of grandeur. Even mighty monarchs of great civilizations were dethroned. And in our case, we had the Marcoses who tried to cling to power at all costs disregarding that Filipino virtue of hiya (sense of propriety). In recent history, Erap suffered from more or less the same fate; but as we can see, he’s back in politics trying to have his last shot at the presidency. The Marcoses have long been back and, without a shadow of doubt, have reintegrated themselves to the local and national politics. Where is their sense of propriety?

What about Congressman Solis’ case? Is this the end of his political career? Maybe yes, maybe not. It’s just too bad that the verdict came out very close to the election season. Bad timing for Congressman Solis; good timing for his critics and political opponents. Well, as the cliché goes, “bad publicity or good publicity…it’s still publicity.”

Now, on the issue of hiya, is this something that is kahiyahiya? Perhaps, yes… for it has tarnished his reputation both as a public servant and as a private individual. But this is not the end. Vindication is not included in our lexicon for nothing. As pointed out by some observers, there are ways to prove his innocence. It is, in my own reckoning, clear to everyone how to do that, and where to do that.

BO writers and observers have no business defaming anyone. That’s for certain. Admittedly, some observers might have gone overboard. And their best defense? Of course, a good offense.

As I write this, things aren’t fizzling out yet. In fact, everything seems to be coming to a head. I join Mr. Jun Asuncion in asking everyone to remain level-headed and to avoid mudslinging. Let’s give our readers something worthwhile to read, something that is edifying, something that identifies us as civilized Bulanenos. Remember, what sauce is for the goose is sauce for the gander. That can perhaps change our warped views, and put hiya to proper use.

Generally speaking, we, Filipinos, are magnanimous. That’s something to bank on especially for Congressman Solis and his family members. Criticisms are part and parcel of politics. Noynoy said it well when he reminded Kris “that in any election, we’ll have our share of fervent supporters and harshest critics. And if you can’t take the heat, then politics isn’t for you.”

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Playing Politics

 

By Oliver Geronilla

 

Ask the children around you what they know about Bulan politics. I’m dead certain that you’d get the same answer that my childhood friends and I used to give: it’s all about the bigwigs plus their phalanx of entertainers and never about the nonentities.

Not a bad answer. At least they, or should I say we, know their names and the good and the bad things associated with them. What worries me is that these innocent children might have the notion that politics is all about these politicians, the external and internal struggles that they face, and how they paint reality according to their own world.

But why be bothered by these kids when they have no direct stake in the upcoming local election?

Well, we were all once like them. And we knew how amusing it was when election seasons kicked in. There were endless sources of entertainment to look forward to. Political junkets made us feel like we’re in a circus where music, dance, and other similar tricks were dime a dozen.

We didn’t care; we just took pleasure in all these jollities which went on and on like eternity. Then without us noticing it, the time came when we could start exercising our right to vote. Sadly, we’re no longer amused with their old tricks. But…oh yes, we still remember the names that entertained us every election season. And lo and behold! They’re still part of the “numbers game.”

Of course, there are some variations. For instance, when I was 16, it was Mr. Guillermo De Castro who was at the helm; and now that I’m 31, it’s his wife who’s there. She’s running for office again, and many say that she will once again win.

I was told about the many fine accomplishments of the De Castros: they’ve done these and those and have made our town more attuned to the times. According to my high school classmates, the signs of progress are everywhere. In fact, they enumerated quite a lot. Good tidings, aren’t they?

Bulanenos won’t forget these things. For sure, such accomplishments can help the incumbent mayor win the race again. That’s a good track record that’s hard to beat and the best launch pad she can ever have.

Are these things due to her efforts and of those manning the LGU? Or is it because of what we call “concurrent development” which might result in progress trap if not properly carried out?

I think it’s mainly due to concurrent development wherein we don’t have much of a choice but to forge ahead; otherwise, we’d be facing problems that are difficult to solve due to lack of resources which can of course halt further progress. It does not really matter who is in control. Progress in our town is inevitable given the kind of people that we have, not because of the kind of politicians that we have.

Remove them from the office, and the whole state of affairs will continue. A new set of  leaders will come to the rescue, and things will get back to normal. No one is so indispensable.

The opposition members will certainly have the “burden of proof” for they have not proven anything substantial yet. They’ll be articulating their promises, their aspirations. And you and I know that these are the main fares of election banquets. Partake but never be fooled for most of them are just empty roughage meant to satiate us temporarily. Forewarned is forearmed.

The official campaign period for local posts next month is nothing more than what we call “cramming.” Political candidates make themselves busy with all kinds of sorties conceivable just to get the figures that they need to win the battle of bailiwicks.

Do Bulanenos still get amused with the candidates’ old tricks? What I know is that nowadays, people cast their votes not based on these last- minute efforts to make the electorate vote for them. They cast their votes based on how these candidates –novice or not–measure up to their expectations from childhood to the present.

That’s their gauge. No more, no less.

My question is: What are these expectations? Well, they come in full spectrum.

I’m no longer a kid, and I know what’s right and what’s wrong; who are sincere, and who are not. And election season is not really about entertainment and the bigwigs. It is about making the right choice.

                                      

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