Maid Hanging Upsets Philippines Election, Jeopardizing Ramos

LAST month's hanging of a convicted Filipina maid by Singapore has evoked such a powerful emotional backlash in the Philippines that President Fidel Ramos's government is fighting for its survival.

The latest fallout from the incident is the forced resignation of Philippine Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo on Monday. Other officials may fall soon, including possibly Labor Secretary Nieves Confessor. Two ambassadors face disciplinary charges for failing to help the maid, Flor Contemplacion, during her trial for the killing of another Filipina maid and that women's four-year-old Singaporean charge.

Foreign Minister Romulo said he accepted the blame for the debacle and recognized his departure to be politically important. ''The reality of politics indicate it [my resignation] is more important. What I'm saying is the buck stops here. I'm gone, let's move forward,'' he said.

The next casualty could be Ramos-backed candidates in May 8 elections. The Contemplacion tragedy has eroded his coalition's chances of winning a strong majority in Congress and among mayoral and gubernatorial races.

Ramos in trouble

Mr. Ramos stated in a recent interview that his job was on the line and that he must save his administration. He has tried to buy time to get through the election by setting up a commission to look for culprits in the Contemplacion case.

But the strength of the public backlash was unforeseen. Filipinos wept on the streets and protested against the ''brutal and inhumane'' Singaporean government by burning the state's flag by the thousands.

The protests reflect a cultural divide. Singapore and the Philippines failed to understand each other's judicial system and cultural values.

Filipinos reacted strongly to the idea that a poor maid -- like millions of Filipinos who have endured hardships and loneliness in overseas jobs -- could be guilty of murder. Roman Catholic Filipinos see the hanged woman as a weeping Madonna incapable of crime.

Leftists and opposition politicians who lack strong arguments against Ramos in the election used the incident to their advantage. A brutal ratings war between two television stations whipped up emotions over the Contemplacion execution.

But there have also been grievances against how much the government helps the estimated 4.2 million overseas Filipinos. They are the country's biggest foreign-exchange earners and have kept the economy afloat for the last 15 years. They remitted $3 billion last year alone.

The month-long controversy has eroded public support for Ramos's achievements. He had put the May elections as a referendum on his three-year-old government, which has achieved credible economic growth, peace, and stability.

Further the Philippines needs the backing of other Southeast Asian nations in a dispute over China's taking of disputed shoals in the Spratly Islands. The incident has tested the cohesion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

Ramos has been courting ASEAN investments to boost the East ASEAN economic growth area covering the southern Philippines, east Indonesia, and Malaysia. The prolonged controversy and stunning display of Filipino emotionalism could affect foreign confidence in the country.

Help from Singapore

Singapore rejected Ramos' two appeals to spare the convicted maid, whom many Filipinos believed was innocent.

But after taking stock of the initial shock, Singapore has extended cooperation to Ramos to help him out of his quagmire.

Although it rejected the findings of the commission that the maid was probably innocent, Singapore agreed to a joint autopsy with Filipino experts on the body of the maid allegedly killed by Contemplacion to see if she might have been a victim of a beating by a man. The autopsy began in Manila yesterday. A third independent autopsy may be conducted.

But by then the election will be over and Ramos will have to pick up the pieces to strengthen his government for the second half of his term.

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