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Filipinos press pause on hostage crisis for Miss Universe

MANILA – When the disgruntled former police officer took a busload of Hong Kong tourists hostage on Monday, he took the entire nation captive as well.

The next day, Filipinos woke up to cheer on 22-year-old Venus Raj in the Miss Universe pageant, conscious of putting the hostage drama on hold.

It’s as if Filipinos collectively pushed their national PAUSE button, to give way to something less savage. It was a surreal way to salve a hurting nation, but it seemed to work.

As the pageant announcer declared Raj among the Top 15, Filipinos hollered and cheered, spreading their joy on Twitter. “Did you hear that crowd cheer for Venus Raj? ‘And finally the Philippines!’” tweeted journalist Pia Hontiveros. And when Raj was declared among the Top 5 finalists, cheers turned into prayers. “Please win today,” said a Facebook post.

Although Raj is stunning and smart, not many thought she would progress so far in the competition. That she ended up 4th runner-up didn’t dampen the audience’s enjoyment. She still beat Miss Venezuela and Miss USA, one fan wrote.

The fact that she answered a judge’s question (“What is the one big mistake that you've made in your life and what did you do to make it right?”) with the less-than-ideal (“no major, major problem”) didn’t seem to faze fans either. “A stupid question deserves a silly answer,” one wrote.

These fans weren’t making excuses. They were, I think, just being grateful. The violence that had played out on live television for the whole world to see had made people thirsty for a story with a happy ending.

Raj, the daughter of a poor family who was nearly disqualified from the pageant because of questions about the authenticity of her birth certificate, which her working mother neglected to fix, held out her hand to Filipinos.

And Filipinos needed the boost. The ascent to power of President Benigno Aquino, son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino, provided some hope in recent days, but there’s still so much to do before they can enjoy the fruits of a real, functioning democracy. Jobs are becoming scarce. The economy is not performing nearly as well as other countries in the region. The poor in the countryside, unable to find or cultivate land, are still moving to the cities in search of livelihood.

In the meantime social and political ills abound. Corruption scandals. Political intrigue. Population growth getting out of hand. Debilitating poverty. Rising level of hunger. More crime. Resilient insurgencies. Human-rights abuses.

Many cannot be faulted for thinking that Aquino, or whoever is in power, is in over his head.

So, when somebody like Raj comes along at an opportune time, Filipinos rejoice. (The only other person who has this effect on us is Manny Pacquiao, the best boxer in the world. The myth about how the country comes to a halt each time he fights is an exaggeration, but it’s also partly true.)

In the case of Raj, however, the yearning for some amount of distraction was acute. The prayers kept coming: “Please win today.” Please.

For a few hours at least, we forgot.