THE TULFOS are a phenomenon. The numbers confirm our national obsession with them. Raffy Tulfo in Action has more than 8 million subscribers on YouTube, and nearly 4 billion views.
Culture Spotlight

The Tulfos are the face of Philippine Justice, and that should bother us

Hundreds of people line up outside TV5 every day to file a complaint with Raffy Tulfo in Action. To many of them, the program is their last bastion of hope, and the closest thing to getting real justice in the Philippines
Gian Lao | Nov 10 2019

I can’t get their good reasons out of my head.

A young girl told me her father refuses to support her financially. Her father is a cop, Camp Crame turned her away, and so did the Public Attorney’s Office. She felt voiceless. And thus, she was there on the curbside.

A man told me five of them were illegally terminated from work. They told their boss they would file a case with the Department of Labor and Employment. The boss dared them to do so—claiming he’d make the process “bloody.” And thus, they were there on the curbside.

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A group of ten people told me they were getting paid below minimum wage. They were hungry and tired, one of them said, but this was the fastest way to attain justice. And thus, they were there on the curbside. Some of them had been sleeping there for two weeks. They had no money left, and no place to stay in Metro Manila.  

People line up along Reliance Street, Mandaluyong, waiting to file a complaint with Raffy Tulfo in Action.

We were on a curbside on Reliance Street, Mandaluyong, where everyone waits to file a complaint with Raffy Tulfo in Action. Hundreds of people line up every day. People with black eyes. Mothers stranded in Manila with no money for the boat fare home. They approach the studio’s gate to a get a stub before waiting patiently on the curbside of what many of them perceive to be their last bastion of hope. There might be no denser population in Metro Manila of people who almost have nothing left.

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THE TULFOS are a phenomenon.

“Ipapa-Tulfo kita” has made its way into our national lexicon. The “Tulflix: Tulfo and Chill” app went viral and was promptly removed by the Google Play Store, but not before it inflicted the strange mental image of folks getting frisky while watching Raffy Tulfo in Action. Once, I even had an extra talkative Grab driver tell me, referring to one of the Tulfos: “Kinamayan ko si idol dati. Laking tao. Daliri niya mas malaki pa sa titi ko.”

The numbers confirm our national obsession with them. Raffy Tulfo in Action has more than 8 million subscribers on YouTube, and nearly 4 billion views.

Think about it: 8 million subscribers is approximately 12% of the adult population in the Philippines, and 4 billion views for their videos is roughly equivalent to around 75,000 years of viewing time. According to data collection site Socialblade, this makes the show the second most influential YouTube page in the Philippines, next to ABS-CBN Entertainment, and ahead of ABS-CBN News and GMA News.

Raffy Tulfo untangles a domestic feud in his show. Screengrab from Raffy Tulfo in Action on YouTube

PulseAsia measures the Philippine population’s Tulfo awareness at either the high eighties or low nineties. Nine out of ten Filipinos know about them. Around three out of ten would vote them into the Senate.

I guess it makes sense. The Tulfo formula was viral before we knew what viral was: domestic turbulence, crooked officials, abusive businesses, and the heroes coming up to bat for the common man. But translating this into social media language supercharges the drama, which gives us the amazing titles of Raffy Tulfo in Action’s greatest hits—my favorite one being: “SA AIRPORT DAPAT SIYA DADALHIN, PERO SA MENTAL SIYA DINALA NG BIYENAN NIYANG BARANGAY CAPTAIN.”

Once, I even had an extra talkative Grab driver tell me, referring to one of the Tulfos: “Kinamayan ko si idol dati. Laking tao. Daliri niya mas malaki pa sa titi ko.”

It’s easy to argue why such a formula is unhealthy for any society. It’s trial by publicity. Instant justice—fallible, extralegal, and prone to abuse. It makes a spectacle out of suffering. It infects the general population with the idea that justice is faster and more just outside the justice system.

The only problem is: Isn’t it?

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EVERY YEAR, the World Justice Project releases a Rule of Law Index. They interview around a thousand people in 126 countries and diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of their respective justice systems. In their latest report, Singapore is ranked 13th; Malaysia is 51st; and Indonesia is 62nd.  The Philippines is 90th.

Notoriously, we sit at 115th for Order and Security, 99th for Civil Justice, and 113th for Criminal Justice. We are at 105th for fundamental rights, while our highest rating is 51st for Open Government, possibly because we are—at least—transparent about our disregard for human rights.

While there are a fair number of free legal assistance groups in the country, the odds remain stacked against the poor. In 2017, the average lawyer in the Public Attorney’s Office handled 458 cases and assisted 5,794 clients. There is also a fair chance that their lawyer will change during the course of a case—since some cases take years to process—hurting their chances at a favorable outcome.

Pinning their hopes on Raffy Tulfo

There are also the flashpoints that probably need articles of their own, including the week when our most hallowed hall of justice felt like a Survivor-style tribal council, or a more recent incident where the electoral complaint of a dictator’s child wasn’t thrown out, even if he was clearly creamed in all the recounts.

“If you grew up without being loved,” a wise friend once said, “you might fall for one of love’s many impostors.”

And if you are raised without knowing what real justice feels like, you might mistake a great many things for justice. Yes, even instant, mob, radio-show justice. And yes, maybe even violence.

Here’s a survey question for the PulseAsias of the world: Kailan ka huling nakaranas ng katarungan?

Though I’m sure we can all guess what the results would look like.

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THE PEOPLE waiting outside for their day in the Tulfo studio are sharp. They come bearing birth certificates, certificates of employment, various proofs of their suffering, and a deep understanding of systemic oppression. Their faces are not ones of desperation, but of the fatigue that sets in after too much desperation. I was a little afraid to ask. I had to ask if I could ask. Pwede po bang magtanong? Ano pong pinunta niyo dito?

They answered with very little information at the beginning. Magrereklamo lang po, most of them said. But eventually some of them were glad to tell me about why they were there. Their stories aren’t new to any of us. Watch the show. See what suffering we’ve normalized.

If you are raised without knowing what real justice feels like, you might mistake a great many things for justice. Yes, even instant, mob, radio-show justice. And yes, maybe even violence.

When I ask if they looked for a solution within the “system”—whether through line agencies, the barangay, or the justice system—the answer is almost always “yes,” quickly followed by some version of: “Wala naman kaming narating doon.”

A handful of them didn’t bother, saying they’re too poor to survive the grind of due process, and the Tulfos act faster. Some feared their well-connected abusers would pull bureaucratic strings and stack the odds against them. Some feared they would be threatened or physically harmed.

The Tulfos, to them, are equalizers. In a system that seems to reward only power and influence, the Tulfos would allow them to fight power and influence with power and influence.

Suddenly I am thinking about “instant justice.” How instant is it if the people outside the studio have to sleep on cardboard boxes to wait for updates? How could it be instant if they’re only there as a last resort? Is it still “instant justice” when it’s the only justice?  

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I AM NOT justifying our Tulfo dependency.

But it is a dependency. To a certain extent, we do depend on them. It can’t hurt to understand those who respect, idolize, or rely on them. For many of us, after all, our exposure to anything that resembles justice is limited to the Tulfo programs on air.

They are almost like Grab—a popular, exploitative, but relatively functional alternative to poor government services and regulations. And like Grab, they will be around until we get our collective act together. We don’t need to accept them, but—at the very least—we need to accept our responsibility as a community to do better for those who have it worse. Because, frankly, the Tulfos might really be the best they have.

Which is why I’ve been losing sleep over this article—because there is no single way to fix all of this.

It’s dangerous to think that this could all go away if our government officials wake up and decide not to be evil—though them not being evil would go a long way. We are dealing with a corrupt ecosystem that doesn’t just prevent victims from attaining justice, but also harms those who attempt to resist its whims

Sure, there are a few good short-term solutions. For instance, there are good people working to provide free legal assistance or to develop more efficient and transparent courts.

But it’s hard to feel like you’re making a dent. At the end of it, the long-term solutions are both simple and difficult: Educate kids better so they grow up with a moral compass. Help laborers organize. Vote for honest and competent officials. Reduce economic and social inequality. The call to action isn’t to like, share, or subscribe. The call to action is to be good every single day, and to do that for a few decades—then maybe we’ll start seeing something change.

No plan of action can fix all of this tomorrow. Tomorrow, the Tulfos will still be folk heroes, and some will say rightfully so. Tomorrow, there will be new people lining up outside their studios—waiting to tell their stories—because they see no better option. And if you think such an ending is dissatisfying, that’s because it’s supposed to be.