Monday, March 12, 2012

If we must

This is my column today.

The circus, also known as the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, resumes today.

We expect the fireworks to be more spectacular this time around because it is the turn of the defense to take the floor at the Senate.

We want to know how Corona is going to explain the discrepancies between the items declared in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth and the bank statements presented in the impeachment court. We are being conditioned to believe that the millions of pesos in Corona’s bank accounts didn’t belong to him but to his wife’s family corporation. It seems too much of a stretch to believe that yarn because as a banker I know that most people in this country do maintain separate bank accounts for funds intended for separate purposes. It’s just so much more convenient, intuitive and commonsensical to do it that way. Then again, he has not officially presented his defense so if we must judge the man, we must first give him his day in court. He is supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise which is the reason why there is a trial to begin with; otherwise, we might as well declare public lynching legal in this country.

But granting, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed a discrepancy in his SALN that is in violation of existing laws, the question that begs to be answered is if whether such an offense has enough legal ground to impeach him. I know that there are those who insist that as chief justice, Mr. Corona is supposed to be beyond reproach and that ultimately it is a question of moral fitness for the highest judicial post in the land. I don’t particularly think that the impeachment trial is the right venue to weigh the moral character of a person but I recognize that the impeachment trial is both a legal and a political exercise. And politics is ultimately about the ethical or unethical use of power. So yes, I think that the moral angle is valid.

But if we must impeach Corona on moral grounds, we must make sure that the process we use in doing so is beyond reproach. I insist that this is the reason we have never been able to make people fully accountable for the sins they have committed while they were in office – we tend to take a lot of shortcuts and haphazard processes that end up indefensible, all in the name of good intentions. We must realize that being suffused with righteous indignation is not enough justification to convict anyone suspected of wrongdoing.

Perhaps due to certain circumstances in my family and personal life (which I cannot go into details now), there is one admonition from my grandmother that I took to heart very early on in my life: Those who preach from a high moral perch and wish to cast moral judgments on others must make sure that they have the moral right to do so and then do so the right and moral way. Put another way, those who insist on walking the straight and narrow path must make sure that they personally do not stray from the avowed path.

For example, Corona’s revelation last week that the President seemed to have broken his own hard ethical stance when he met with Corona at his sister’s house to discuss the Truth Commission was shocking. For someone who has been harping about the need to stick to the straight and narrow path, the revelation that he tried to influence the Chief Justice on something that was going to end up in the Supreme Court in a few weeks was unnerving. Was this perhaps the reason why the articles of impeachment alleging Corona’s unfitness as Chief Justice supposedly to be propped up by testimony by Lauro Vizconde, were dropped by the prosecution? If the President himself met up with the Chief Justice to discuss a potential case, why would Corona’s meeting with Vizconde be questionable?

If we come to think about it, this is the reason this particular impeachment process is deeply flawed and difficult to empathize with. The circumstances around open more questions than answers.

In the end, it requires one to have unshakable faith in Benigno Simeon Coujuangco Aquino III not to scoff or at least doubt the wisdom of this particular complaint. The problem is that the performance of this government does not really inspire that kind of faith on people other than his rabid supporters.



Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Not about the frills

This is my column today.

What a relief to hear no less than the prince of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, the Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle, slam the growing commercialization of weddings in this country. I’m not a conservative person, but I am not blind or deaf to situations that break social norms.

In remarks delivered at the Manila Archdiocesan General Pastoral Assembly last week, Tagle chastised Filipino couples and their wedding planners and coordinators and told them to stop all the “ka-ek-ekan” (gayspeak for frivolities) associated with weddings.

I also liked the fact that Tagle didn’t deliver his message in a scathing, fire-and-brimstone manner. Instead of issuing threats and condemnations and warning people of eternal damnation in hell, the archbishop narrated vignettes culled from personal experiences while officiating during weddings.

About time someone put people to task for the way weddings in this country have become a pabonggahan (over-the-top) contest. As a teacher, I invariably get invited to a lot of weddings of former students and I tell you, there have been many occasions when I wish the bride or groom was still my student. This is so I could tell them exactly why a wedding ceremony should not be reduced to a fashion or drama production. I know what you are thinking — it’s their wedding and they have every right to make it into whatever they want. But a wedding is still a sacred ceremony that demands a certain level of solemnity and seriousness; the fact that they invited witnesses must signify their intent to keep things at a certain level of respectability. And really, if it is held inside a place of worship and officiated by a religious person, they are also obligated to show respect for their and other people’s faith.

I don’t care what people do during the reception — they can turn it into a Halloween party if they so desire. But I have serious misgivings about watching the entourage gyrating their way from the door of the church to the altar to the soundtrack of Fame, the movie. Nor is it okay for the production people who have been contracted to produce an on-site video and several post-wedding music videos to literally direct how the priest, the readers, the entourage, and the guests should position themselves or move during the ceremony just so they could get cinematic footages. The video and the photo shoot just cannot be the main consideration in the ceremony. I consider myself to have a very open mind and to have a very tolerant attitude towards fashion trends but I draw the line at flower girls dressed in evening gowns with plunging necklines and bared backs — these are kids, for crying out loud.

I’ve been to a wedding where the church decoration included live rabbits hopping around in keeping with a spring motif (I understood why the priest rushed through the whole ceremony and completed it in 45 minutes flat). I stood as sponsor in a wedding that had over a hundred members of the entourage — almost 30 flower girls and around the same number of bridesmaids (the march alone took more than 30 minutes).

I see the wisdom of having the groom and bride recite vows they themselves wrote; I can tolerate plagiarism during weddings, but one wishes some would bother to have their opuses edited for clarity or grammar. And then there are the consumerist flourishes — butterflies, confetti, bubble machines, snow makers, little animals running or flying around. Again, I don’t mind if these are featured at the reception...but at the church? Come on!

These flourishes may be important, but not really as important as the ceremony itself. A wedding is still about the vows, the sacrament, and yes, about faith. Everything else is just the proverbial icing on the cake. And people should be reminded of that.

I do understand the need to make weddings special, unique, memorable, etc. I know most people wish to get married only once in their lifetime so they want to make sure their weddings are events that they will remember forever. I also understand the need to inject their own personalities and their personal styles into the event. The key is to go for simplicity, elegance and sincerity; it’s a wedding, not a Fourth of July celebration.

If we come to think about it, it’s not the frills and the extravaganza that people will remember about a wedding — it would be the warmth, the affection, and the happiness that envelop the whole proceedings.

And by the way, I don’t really diss the Catholic bishops all the time. See, I agreed with Tagle this time around.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Santiago the gadfly

This is my column today.

The irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is once again in the maelstrom of public opinion. She, once again, lost her temper at the impeachment trial last week, called the prosecutors “g*go”, and berated them publicly for dismal performance. She also exchanged heated arguments with private prosecutor Vitaliano Aguirre after he covered his ears in public purportedly to avoid “hearing her shrill voice” and, after Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile banged the gavel to declare a recess, reportedly confronted Aguirre by standing in front of him daring him to say something to her in person. The behavior was classic, very classic Miriam Defensor Santiago.

The repeated use of the words “once again” in the preceding paragraph is deliberate. This is not the first time that the senator made a spectacle of herself. It won’t be the last.

Which is why I am stupefied that people are going berserk over Santiago’s behavior. Oh come on, she got elected as senator and continue to hog the limelight precisely for being a political gadfly and for not mincing words in public. This is a woman who has never been known to do things in moderation; she has never been known to shy away from confrontations even if it reduces her to a caricature.

Wasn’t it just a few months ago when she called some people epal for claiming credit for government projects and displaying their photoshopped images in huge billboards across the country? We applauded her for that. Didn’t she get acclaim for calling some congressmen fungus-faced? In fact, I first heard of Santiago in the eighties when as a regional trial court judge she presided over the subversion case of directors Behn Cervantes and the late Lino Brocka. The two raved endlessly about the way Santiago bravely made mincemeat of the military’s attempt to fudge evidence against them.

Admit it, people. Without her outbursts, the Corona impeachment trial would not have lasted this long because we would have died from boredom a long time ago.

But as some people pointed out to me after I published a post about Santiago in a social networking site, am I not bothered that she called the prosecutors gago in public? Oh please, let’s stop pretending that our leaders are still capable of civility or niceties when dealing with their detractors or foes. Matagal na tayong nagbabastusan sa bayan natin. I can give you many examples such as when the prosecutors and defense panels make pronouncements or attack each other in media deliberately ignoring specific instructions from the impeachment court to stop subverting itself, or when the President picked Conchita Morales Carpio to administer his oath of office, or when the chief justice struts in public like a politician rather than highest magistrate in the land.

It amuses me no end when I come across comments in various social networking sites that put Santiago to task for not showing (or earning) respect and then in the same vein attack her using the foulest language and the most convoluted logical acrobatics. Many people put her down for saying “g*go” in public, and then let loose a volley of invectives directed at her.

Besides, I am not sure that I would not have done the same thing if I were sitting as a judge in a trial where the prosecutors distinguish themselves for rank incompetence. The prosecutors were strutting all over the place just a couple of months ago, swaggering with confidence and braggadocio about “hundreds of witnesses and tons of evidence.” It turns out they had nothing because they wrongly assumed that the chief justice would resign to avoid humiliation. Unfortunately, the chief justice has been unmasked as having a face just like theirs - thick as hide. Actually, I use even more incendiary language to describe Rep. Niel Tupas and company for wasting precious time and money on an impeachment complaint that they couldn’t prop up.

Do I like Santiago? Not specifically. But I think she is the most truthful person in the whole impeachment court. Call her arrogant, crazy, emotionally unstable, intellectually snobbish. But we all can live with a little provocation every now and then to jolt us out of complacency.

If only people were honest with themselves, they would admit that they hate her for her latest outbursts simply because these did not help the prosecution, otherwise, she could have burst a vein, done hara-kiri, or regurgitated invectives that would have put a Tondo criminal to shame and we would have given her a standing ovation. Really, guys, if she does the same thing to the defense panel next week, would we still be calling her the same things?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why the fight has not ended

This is my column today.

The country commemorated over the weekend the 26th anniversary of the people power uprising that has come to be known as Edsa 1. The President, some members of his Cabinet, and some key players of Edsa 1 including former President Fidel Ramos and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile gathered at the People Power Monument to relive the heady days in 1986 when millions of Filipinos occupied the highway, stopped tanks with their bare hands, and pacified with prayers and flowers the armed soldiers sent to obliterate them to smithereens.

The question that was top of mind over the weekend was: After 26 years, are we better off as a country and as a people? Put another way, have we successfully purged from our system the evils that we swore would never again bedevil this country and the Filipino people? After 26 years, can we categorically say that we have regained our freedom and our democracy? These are painful questions to ask because we all know the answer to each of these questions. It’s a resounding no.

The President, himself, called on the people “tapusin na natin ang laban ng EDSA” (let’s bring to its conclusion the fight we started at EDSA). The fighting words only served to highlight the fact that practically nothing has changed in this country after 26 years. The fight has not ended; nor has it really brought significant changes in the country’s life.

Yet another Aquino, the son of the woman who rose to power on the wings of the people revolution, is in power. The Marcoses, the Romualdezes, and even the Estradas are back in power. The body of Benjamin Romualdez was welcomed like a hero in Tacloban City over the weekend and Joseph Estrada linked arms with the President as they vowed to continue the moral fight.

The yellow forces are once again proclaiming the absolute ascendancy of their own brand of morality. It’s the kind of selective morality that favors supporters—for instance, note how the head of the National Bureau of Investigation was unceremoniously kicked out of office without any benefit of a hearing on suspicion of wrongdoing while the chief of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation is being hailed as a victim despite existence of proof of wrongdoing. Ask anyone who deals with government agencies and you will be told the same thing – corruption has grown worse.

The country is still a Third-World country, corruption is still systemic, oligarchs continue to rule, and the numbers of those who are hungry and without jobs continue to increase dramatically.

We make speeches about how freedom and democracy have been restored in this country and close our eyes to parallels between the years leading to 1986 and the present. I was a student activist when Edsa 1 happened. I spent years fighting an authoritarian regime that had the whole country under a tight grip. We successfully kicked out a dictator in 1986; a despot who tried to impose his own version of what was right and desirable for the country, a dictator who controlled the Supreme Court and the military and had no qualms about using the resources of the whole government bureaucracy in support of a new moral order he called “The New Society.”

Of course it is being argued that the authoritarian tendencies of the Aquino government are justified because they are in pursuit of “The Straight and Narrow Path” which is supposedly for the good of everyone. But then again, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the worst kind of tyranny is the one that is “exercised for the good of its victims; those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Real changes in this country can only come if our leaders and those in a position to make changes stop romanticizing and moralizing our problems. We need to wake up and see the grime, smell the decay, and realize that our problems are much more complicated and systemic and cannot be solved by rhetorical discourses and populist posturing. For example, corruption cannot be solved by running after a few people and embarrassing them in public; we need comprehensive strategies and institutionalized value formation programs that strike at the core of the malaise. But as we speak, there is no program to speak of; there is no roadmap to guide the journey. What we need are real leaders, people with strategic vision for the country who are willing to work hard and dirty their hands and not sit around and bark orders like despots. And certainly, we don’t need more preachers who see themselves as belonging to a higher moral order; we have more than enough bishops in this country.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Worth pondering on

What follows is a comment left in my post last Monday. It was written by someone who claims to be a relative of Marvin Reglos, the victim of the Lambda Rho Sigma fraternity hazing. I hope we can all empathize with marvin's family and do what we can to ensure that he gets justice.

"you are the first person i have seen wrote a blog regarding the death of my nephew. i am abit skeptic on the way Sec. De Lima acted in the presence of what she so called "brods" allegedly accused of the murdering Marvin. if she really is for the "truth" and "justice", she could have used her power to bring forward all of the accused(20 or so i guessed) students who participated in the said hazing incident.

How can an ordinary family like us fight the likes of people behind the Greek Lettered brotherhood?
how can we follow up on the situation when in fact most of our family is in the province and the investigation is being conducted in Manila?

i hope and pray that the justice we are seeking will not be affected by the people associated in one way or the other with the Greek leter brotherhood namely, the Lambda Rho Beta and Lambda Rho Sigma."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Death in the name of brotherhood

This is my column today.

Marvin Reglos, freshman law student at the San Beda Law School, died last week in the hands of people he aspired to call brothers. He wasn’t the first to offer his life in the name of brotherhood. He wouldn’t be the last.

In the same week that Reglos was murdered, hazing was very much in the news as the Supreme Court handed down the final decision on the death of Lenny Villa, victim of the same circumstances that killed Reglos. It took 21 years before the Villas got justice — and it wasn’t even the kind that solved more than two decades of pain and longing.

In the same period, key personalities in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona openly acknowledged each other in the middle of the proceedings as “brods.” Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile recognized the following as his fraternity brothers: Corona’s chief defense counsel former justice Serafin Cuevas, members of the prosecution team Raul Daza and Arthur Lim, and Senator Judges Edgardo Angara and Franklin Drilon. Sigma Rho is indeed an influential fraternity and the open recognition and public recognition of affiliation must have sent many members of the fraternity giddy with pride. Thereupon, pundits also pointed out the other configurations present in the trial — most members of the prosecution, defense, and senator-judges inevitably got classified into Aquilans, Utopians, Alpha Sigmans, Upsilonians, Alpha Phi Betans, Delta Lambdha Sigmans, etc.

The power structures in this country are deeply intertwined with the fraternity system. Right now, it is bad; very bad news.

Any doubts about just how prevalent and deeply ingrained Greek-letter organizations are in Philippine politics and society should have been obliterated with the admission of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that she was co-founder of Lambda Rho, the sister organization of Lambda Rho Sigma — the very same fraternity whose name was embossed on the shirt that Reglos was wearing on the day his body was badly mutilated and reduced to pulp.

De lima has vowed an “honest-to-goodness” investigation into the death of Reglos. There’s a part of me that desperately wants to believe that she can do it. After all, this was the same woman who openly defied the Supreme Court last year. But in the same week that she mouthed those assurances, the leader of the fraternity was able to appear at a press conference as a non-suspect despite the fact that a car present during the hazing rites was already traced to a relative of his. I am not saying that the Justice Secretary is incapable of going against his “brods” but we can’t help noting how she said she would “appeal” to them to cooperate; a complete departure from the fighting stance that she uses to treat everyone else.

It will take more than fighting words to eradicate a system that is considered hallowed and sacred. Being part of a fraternity is considered a badge of honor, particularly if the fraternity is a major force in this country. These fraternities deliberately make admission to their ranks difficult, thus the continued proliferation of hazing despite a law (Republic Act 8049) that specifically renders it illegal.

The death of a young and promising man is tragic and I am sure many among our leaders will huff and puff in public. But we all know how all these will end. The death of Reglos will be another sad footnote to a system that considers such tragedies as unfortunate aberrations and exceptions to the illustrious history of the system. Oh sure, two or three people will probably fester in jail. But those who prop up the system, those who lend their names and provide all kinds of support and resources to glorify the system — they will continue to be worshipped and exalted.

This is the way we do things in this country. We make some token sacrifices, make a few fighting speeches, demonize certain people because these represent the easy way to gain popularity and project the impression that we are doing something. We all know, however, that the bigger problem continues to fester under the fluff and is threatening to surface later in far more ugly ways and forms. But who cares, right? That’s for another leader to take care of. And we wonder why things don’t really get fixed in this country.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Respect is earned

This is my column today.

Aurelio Gonzales, the honorable representative from the third district of Pampanga, has raised a howl over what he perceives as unfair depiction of congressmen in Philippine movies and soap operas. He filed Resolution 2140 appealing to the local movie and television industry to “minimize, prevent, or stop typecasting congressmen and congresswomen as villains or crooks in movies and television telenovelas, in order not to create stereotypes or negative public perception against members of the House of Representatives.”

I empathize with the congressman. In general, I object to any form of stereotyping, especially negative stereotyping. But I would have empathized with the congressman more and would have joined his advocacy if his resolution were more inclusive. Unfortunately, it seems the guy is also afflicted with an acute case of myopia—his ego is clouding his judgment and he couldn’t see beyond his interests as a congressman. Just like Niel Tupas, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut over matters and in times when not saying anything would have been the wiser course of action. I would have supported him if he riled against stereotyping of the elderly as senile and unproductive people, of women as sex objects and baby factories, of gays and lesbians as promiscuous objects of ridicule, of deaf people as mute and stupid, of… well, I could go and on, but you get the drift. There’s a long list of people in this country, mostly minorities, who have long suffered and continue to suffer from unfair stereotyping and bear the brunt of far more negative repercussions than just “negative public perception.” But Gonzales does not care of about them; he is caterwauling only because he thinks his image as a congressman is affected.

For crying out loud, how exactly does a “negative public perception” against them translate into actual harm? Philippine movies have always featured elected officials— congressmen, governors, mayors, even the President of the Philippines—as villains or as vacuous people from as far back as I can remember. We still continue to elect them into office, get them as sponsors in baptisms and weddings, give them choice seats at public affairs, and tiptoe around them. What exactly is the imminent danger to congressmen who are not exactly underdogs or considered a minority in this country? There is just no way that congressmen can be considered victims—they who wield considerable power such as impeaching a chief justice without the benefit of a hearing and conjuring small ladies and other various tricks to miraculously produce bank statements. Certainly not, if one has millions of pesos of pork barrel at his disposal!

A congressman whining publicly about being stereotyped is absurd because there are many more groups of people in this country that are in far worse situations than the imagined victimization of congressmen.

At any rate, I do not think that the depiction of congressmen as criminals is a norm in Philippine movies and soap operas. I don’t think that congressmen in particular are singled out as default villains in movies and telenovelas the way governors or mayors are. And in movies and telenovelas that do, I don’t think the use of congressmen (or other authority figures) as villains is a reflection of bias against them; rather, it’s a reflection of sloppiness and just plain lack of artistic talent on the part of writers and producers. It’s a trite plot device and everyone knows it. Taking offense and imagining slight is not just indicative of lack of a sense of humor; it is also quite frankly, indicative of a closed and intolerant mind.

So Congressman Gonzales, it’s not really personal, sir. It’s a literary device. It would be absurd if doctors watching, for example, Budoy, would take offense at the fact that the villainess in the soap opera happens to be a doctor. Or if businessmen were to take offense at the fact that almost all movies feature a sleazy and unprincipled businessman. Or what about the fact that there is always a corrupt policeman in every telenovela? Movies and telenovelas need to illustrate ethical dilemmas and the fact that they feature an occasional congressman as crook is not a slap on the face of each congressman. I can point out that my grandfather used to say that whoever says “ouch” got hit, but let’s not go there.

I think it is important to remind Gonzales that respect is earned and that a good image is something that is cultivated and nurtured consistently and painstakingly through hard work. If congressmen do their jobs well and lead clean lives, no amount of typecasting in movies and telenovelas would affect them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Leadership is badly needed

This is my column today.

I have long given up illusions of the impeachment trial being fair, impartial and an exemplar of outstanding—or at least competent—legal wrangling. As I have said in the past, there is only so much certain people such as Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile can do to maintain the integrity of the proceedings.

All the ingredients for epic failure just happen to be present. First, you have a complaint that was rammed through Congress without the benefit of a hearing and subsequently found to be so defective that the Chief Justice’s defense team has been able to make mincemeat of it without breaking sweat. Second, it now appears that the prosecution had no evidence to speak of prior to the impeachment hearing (no wonder it objected vigorously to a pre-trial). Third, the prosecution team has repeatedly shown what can only be described as gross incompetence all throughout the hearings, enabling the defense team to gleefully—and sometimes, irresponsibly - take advantage of the blunders to embarrass, lecture, or even ridicule them. Fourth, and probably most important of all, the political nature of the proceedings and the political leanings of the characters in the impeachment trial have become increasingly obvious some people don’t even bother with subtleties anymore.

And so, what I feared most has come to pass. The conflict between the executive and the judiciary branches of government has now degenerated into a street brawl, with no less than the President of the country and the Chief Justice engaging each other in a very public, very ugly exchange of unsavory accusations and innuendoes. In the past, the President was content with making innuendoes and simply allowing his lieutenants to do the attacking. He has dropped all pretenses of leaving the matter in the hands of the senators and has signal the launch of a more mass-based campaign to oust the Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Corona has likewise shunned the dignified and venerable image that has traditionally cloaked justices of the Supreme Court and has decided to engage his detractors mano-a-mano. He told the President to also explain his own Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as well as make public his psychological records. Corona’s attack was unprecedented. Justices of the high court usually behave with probity and propriety. But then again, his supporters say he has been provoked enough or driven to desperation.

If the top officials of the country are now throwing mud at each other and calling each other names, it’s only a matter of time before things make a turn for the worse.

There are those who think that the whole downward spiral could be averted if Corona makes the ultimate sacrifice and resigns his post. Unfortunately, Corona’s supporters also argue that a resignation would precisely defeat the essence of what Corona is fighting for which is the independence of the judiciary and the authoritarian tendencies of the current administration. Besides, the stakes for Corona are already too great—his personal and professional reputation as well as that of his family is already on the line. The impeachment trial was supposed to be the constitutionally provided avenue to get out of the impasse. But the way the prosecution has been bungling the case does not exactly inspire confidence.

Of course the kind of information that is being revealed in the impeachment trial are too damaging for Corona that it seems a resignation even after an acquittal seems necessary. It seems this is his game plan, anyway. However, it would be irresponsible to make a judgment at this point when the defense has not even started presenting its rebuttal and its own witnesses.

But it is obvious that what we have today is a leadership crisis. So far, only Enrile is stepping up to the plate, all the rest—and I do mean all, including those in the Judiciary—seem oblivious to the great need for leadership and stewardship at this critical junction. In fact, this whole series of events could have been avoided if diplomacy, some strategic thinking, a win-win approach to negotiation, and just a little less pride and obstinacy were practiced. Unfortunately, we live at a time when some people think such things as popularity and a mandate and a sense of moral authority entitle them to do whatever they want.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentines day and hypocrisy

This is my column today.

There are days when I wish there’s a device that automatically triggers off alarm bells when hypocrisy reaches untenable levels in this country. If there is something that we have a constant oversupply of, it’s hypocrisy. There are just too many people in this country who really need to subject themselves to regular and earnest reality checks.

Take the case of the Catholic bishops’ recent thinly veiled threat to government on the issue of distribution of condoms on Valentine’s Day. Consider what the archbishop of Jaro Angel Lagdameo said: “The Church is against the distribution of condoms especially on Valentine’s Day because we know how the use of contraceptives affects the morality of our people and our society in general.” By saying “they know” how the use of contraceptives affects the morality of our people, are our bishops talking from personal experience? I’m not being facetious. The church is establishing a causal relationship between contraception and morality so they must know something scientists don’t. No wonder the whole church is caught up in a series of sexual scandals.

The Church does not want people to use condoms, but is quite happy and content to ride along with the hoopla and the gimmickry that encourages people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Sure, they prattle on and on about fidelity and chastity but don’t really back their words with specific and concrete actions and programs. In fact, most religious organizations sponsored mass weddings to celebrate Valentine’s, effectively sending the message that as long as people get married eventually it is okay to indulge in sexual relations.

The whole world is involved in a global conspiracy to pressure people into celebrating love in big, grandiose and passionate ways. Malls and department stores, media channels, and everyone else scream exhortations for people to go out and express their love for each other. Establishments in the hospitality industry from restaurants to hotels to motels roll out the red carpet, complete with rose petals and crispy pata. The church doesn’t direct its ire on the whole phenomenon that for all intents and purposes pushes people into having sex on Valentine’s Day; it just doesn’t want the government to distribute condoms. In short, they don’t care if people have sex, they just don’t want them to use condoms. What hypocrisy!

Lagdameo’s gibberish was amplified by Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo who used Valentines day to assail the reproductive health bill pending in Congress. He said that the RH bill, when passed, “would boost sex liberalization in the country, which could also lead to an increase in sex crimes.” There is no scientific data that backs up the statement. The bishop packaged a personal opinion as a definitive statement of fact. It was an irresponsible statement to make.

It should be pointed out that the strict morality imposed by the Church among its members has not really prevented sexual crimes within the hierarchy. The church spends too much time talking about sex liberalization and sexual crimes but refuses to acknowledge the alarming levels of sexual crimes committed by its members. Again, what hypocrisy!

But then again, the Church has been at it for centuries so I can understand the reason behind the bishops’ doubletalk. What I cannot understand is why the government is kowtowing to the bishops on a matter so grave that it makes the difference between life and death for many. Responding to questions on whether the government intended to distribute condoms as HIV/AIDS prevention strategy on Valentine’s Day, Health Secretary Enrique Ona parroted the bishops stance by saying the government “was promoting abstinence and monogamy among Filipinos to combat the disease.” Let’s cut the crap and simplify what he really means— the government under his watch is not doing anything at all to stop HIV/AIDS infections.

Ona is oblivious to tons of scientific data that prove the efficacy of promoting condom use among certain populations to manage HIV/AIDS infections. For the first time in three decades, we have a health secretary who just does not care about the rising rates of HIV/AIDS infections. And yet this government actually crows about “caring” for the people and “serving” the people. The dismal failure does not just smack of hypocrisy; it’s a crime.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Let's not break the law

This is my column today.

There is an important factoid that many people seem to conveniently gloss over regarding the temporary restraining order that the Supreme Court released last week. The order stopped the impeachment court from compelling the Philippine Savings Bank to divulge information on the foreign currency deposits of Chief Justice Renato Corona. It was PSBank that sought the TRO. It wasn’t Corona or his defense team that went to the Supreme Court to seek relief.

So I am aghast at the pronouncements of the bright boys from MalacaƱang that the TRO was “a brazen effort to derail the proceedings.” The TRO was issued because PSBank sought to protect its name and take up the cudgels for the banking industry. Peso deposits is another thing, but the law on foreign currency deposits in this country is clear and absolute: these deposits are protected by law and not even a court order can compel a bank to reveal information relating to these deposits. This law actually makes sense. Foreign investors need to be protected. Otherwise, they can be held hostage by competitors, corrupt judges and officials, and people with connections. Banking is primarily built on trust. If customers cannot expect banks in this country to safeguard the confidentiality of accounts, then we will be in serious trouble.

The TRO may be related to the impeachment, but the TRO issue is larger than the bank accounts of Corona. PSBank did not seek to derail the proceedings unless the President and his spokesperson are insinuating that PSBank - and Metrobank, the second largest bank in the country which is the mother bank of PSBank—are in cahoots with the Chief Justice, which, if we come to think about it, is ludicrous because no tycoon in his right mind would dare cross a President bent on staking everything to get Corona.

PSBank has courageously stood its ground, as it must. The reason may have nothing to do with Corona. The bank is not playing politics. It has to protect its name as a trustworthy repository of not just the money of its clients but of their trust as well. I am sure that all other depositors of PSBank are closely observing the impeachment wondering if PSBank can stand its ground for their sake.

If media will just bother and get the views of the leaders of the banking industry they will find that most if not all support the stand of PSBank. One pillar of the industry was overheard last week saying he would be more than happy to go to jail for the cause.

The President’s lecture about how the foreign currency deposit law was not meant to protect criminals is appreciated, but he used the wrong context. There is an anti-money laundering act in this country and there are ample safeguards to ensure that the system is not used for criminal purposes.

It is quite irresponsible for many pundits to insinuate that banks are doing the country a disservice by supposedly “not helping in the quest for the truth.” Oh please, this quest has long resembled a witch-hunt. Besides, such a quest does not have to result in wanton disregard for existing laws. We don’t have to burn the whole house down in order to flush out a suspected criminal—we just need to do our jobs better. The problem is, our leaders want to do things the easy way and strut around like everyone owes them a favor for doing their jobs.

Our senators and congressmen must be reminded that they have a solemn duty to uphold the laws in this country. They create the laws, for crying out loud. They should stop flailing around if banks adhere to the laws of this country; if they think the laws are wrong, they only have themselves to blame for not doing their jobs, which is to amend laws.

And there’s really an effective and quicker way to get out of this impasse. All our leaders—the President, members of the cabinet, senators, congressmen, local officials should all declare publicly to allow banks to reveal the contents of their foreign currency accounts. Until then, let’s stop the hypocrisy and stop asking banks to break the law.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Breaking the law

At least three people who know that I am a banker (has been for more than 20 years now) asked me the same question today: If I were Mr. Pascual Garcia, would I have done the same - refuse to disclose the contents of the dollar account of Chief Justice Renato Corona?

My answer: you bet I would do the same. I would have told the senators: Your honors, I will do anything you want me to do except one thing - I will not break the law.

The bank secrecy law on foreign currency deposits is crystal clear. It says banks cannot divulge the contents of a foreign currency account unless there is a consent from the depositor. Not even the Supreme Court can compel a bank to make the disclosure. The law was designed to protect foreign investments in the country.

Those who insist that we disregard laws in order to get to the truth are in effect saying - it's okay to break the law as long as the intent is good. But it's not just about breaking a law, it's also about sending a chilling message to the investing community - banks in this country cannot guarantee secrecy of their deposits or accounts.

Those who insist that the Senate sitting as impeachment court can do anything it wants to do and that it can come up with its guidelines are missing the point. The impeachment court was created by law and should operate within the confines of the law as well.

The congressmen and senators should recognize one thing - it's their job to craft laws; it's their job to protect the integrity of laws in this country. They cannot advocate breaking the law when it suits them.



Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Disaster unpreparedness

This is my column today.

When I switched on my cellular phone upon landing in Manila from Cebu last Monday noon, I was alarmed by the surge of messages inquiring about my “condition.” From what I gathered, the earthquake struck Cebu barely a few minutes after the plane I was riding in took off from the Mactan International Airport.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, by the time I was able to retrieve my baggage and leave the terminal building, I already had more than enough details about the earthquake including firsthand accounts from relatives who swore the earthquake was so strong they thought it was the end of the world already.

But technology is truly a double-edged sword. It enables people to spread information rapidly. Alas, technology does not distinguish valid information from those that are not such as unfounded rumors and irresponsible messages that provoke panic and strike fear in people’s hearts.

A nephew told me that they had to scamper to the top of the tallest building in their campus in light of text messages that said a tsunami had already hit the downtown area of Cebu. We saw footages of people in various places in the Visayas running around scared, some on the verge of a breakdown. Mercifully, the panic didn’t result in a stampede. The same situation was replicated in various places Monday afternoon as variations of the government warning on a possible tsunami got more and more ominous each time the message got forwarded from one cell phone to another. It was revealed later that the original warning was merely for people to stay away from coastlines. Unfortunately, people do tend to exaggerate things and blow things out of proportion when in the throes of panic.

Memo to the people at the Phivolcs: Terse announcements during a crisis situation tend to provoke panic and render people incapable of making sound judgment. It is best to over-explain warnings and alerts.

One would think that because we are on first-name basis with natural calamities, most of us would already know how to behave in crisis situations. If we are to go by what happened last Monday, we’re definitely not there yet. In fact, we seem to be sliding back in terms of overall preparedness for disasters. Based on what we observed last Monday, local governments remain practically helpless in dealing with crisis situations and national government offices don’t really inspire confidence either. The gaffe about the tsunami warning, the absence of real-time information about conditions in towns that were closer to the epicenter, the mixed and often conflicting reports – all these and more indicated just how inadequate our level of disaster preparedness is.

One of the most disturbing things about what transpired last Monday was the way most people in schools and offices reacted to the earthquake. In most schools, students and pupils were left to their own devices. I saw videos of elementary pupils scampering around, many of them in tears while their teachers were practically rendered catatonic. In many offices, people simply started running to the nearest exit, some even taking elevators to get to the ground faster. In many malls, security guards didn’t seem to know how to manage the situation—some seemed more concerned with making sure there would be no looting rather than ensure the safety of people.

We really need to make sure that disaster drills are conducted regularly in our schools and even in offices to make sure that people know how to behave on reflex. If we do it often enough, it becomes part of our conditioning; we will all know how to behave without being told. We also need to produce more information and educational materials on what to do during natural calamities and make these available to everyone.

***

I am not sure it is politically correct to point it out but the earthquake literally took the spotlight out of the ongoing impeachment trial. Most people (including myself) made it a point to watch the newscasts to learn more about the extent of the earthquake and promptly switched channels when the reportage about the earthquake was over. The trial has become boring and tiresome to watch; particularly since it became obvious that the prosecution does not have the goods on the chief justice, after all.

All this gibberish about Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as well as about taxes are amusing to me because if we are to tone down the level of hypocrisy, we would all be acknowledging the elephant in the room: Everyone in this country does not declare the right value of his or her assets or net worth. Everybody in this country tries to get away from having to pay taxes on their income or transactions. Of course those of us who are paid fixed salaries are automatically deducted withholding taxes, but most everyone tries to get around the law.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Not a matter of bad luck

This is my column today.

When presidential adviser for political affairs Ronald Llamas was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs, the public reacted with amused incredulity. Ang malas naman nya! What bad luck!

Many eventually called for his resignation primarily to spare the President from having to agonize over what is presumed to be a difficult ethical dilemma. Oh okay, there were those who maintained from the very start that Llamas deserved the boot for giving face to a guilty pleasure many in this country indulge in. But if we really come down to it, most everyone in this country agree with the President’s dismissive posture when he said he has more important things to attend to than pirated DVDs, presumably the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice and the …well, the impeachment trial.

I empathize with actor Ronnie Ricketts, head of the Optical Media Board and his team (which now includes another actor – Cesar Montano, rumored to be gunning for Ricketts’s post). How do you press on with the fight when no less than the President of the country declares on public television that the piracy problem in this country is the least of his concerns? Ouch, indeed.

And it certainly didn’t help matters when Ricketts admitted, also publicly, that buying pirated goods per se is not illegal in this country. I know it is not illegal; but for crying out loud, he didn’t have to shoot down his office’s main mandate. He could have coached the message in a way that communicated the importance of not buying pirated goods even if there is no legal impediment for doing so.

Of course the issue is not just about the fact that a cabinet secretary was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs in a public place. It’s not just about film and music piracy anymore. It’s now – supposedly - about the need for public officials to tread the straight and narrow path, a path that has acquired some complicated turns and bends.

But let’s first get back to the issue of that blurry but incriminating picture showing the presidential political adviser with a stash of contraband materials. That picture established certain facts, all of which are linked to each other like a Gordian knot.

First, despite the posturing of Ricketts and his team at the OMB, piracy is alive and thriving in this country. Second, that there are malls and legitimate commercial centers in this country that continue to sell or allow the selling of pirated goods. And third, that even the high and mighty in this country is not beyond patronizing pirated goods.

So is Llamas simply an unlucky person who happened to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time? I don’t think so. I know for a fact that the man is not stupid; there is a reason why he has the President’s ear and I don’t think it’s simply because Llamas belongs to that elite group that composes one of the three K’s (in this case, kabarilan or gunmates). Carelessness, perhaps? I don’t think so. This is a man with finely tuned political and survival instincts.

The answer becomes painfully obvious when we contextualize the current behavior against previous behavior. This is the second time that Llamas figured in a similar incident. Not so long ago, television cameras took damning evidence that he had long firearms in his vehicle. Sadly, the behavior is reflective of what seems to be the prevailing attitude of smug entitlement of many officials of this administration. Some have labeled it as the hacendero complex – the belief that certain things are morally right (or wrong) because they who are in power say so. Let’s note that Llamas has said he has apologized to the President but has conveniently left out the part about apologizing to the Filipino people.

I know many of us try to project this impression that we are epitomes of morality because we do not patronize pirated DVDs. The truth is that technology has made it almost impossible for ordinary mortals to distinguish pirated goods from those that are “originals.” Pirated blue ray discs that come in tin boxes and fancy packaging can easily be passed off as the real thing. Oh I know, there are certain ways one can differentiate the real McCoy from the counterfeit, but quite frankly who has the time or the inclination for that kind of nitpicking and quibbling?

Many of these movies and music are converted into digital form anyway which makes them virtually impossible to keep track of. I know lots and lots of people who do not patronize pirated DVDs and look down on people who do so but for a completely different reason. Why spend for pirated DVDs when you can download the darn thing from the Internet? Why carry around discs when you can simply copy the digital files from someone’s USB? Really, who can honestly say that they haven’t patronized – whether wittingly or unwittingly – pirated products?

The piracy problem is not going to be solved by simply conducting raids and passing more stringent laws. Even police authorities buy pirated DVDs (yes, I too have seen a number of policemen leafing through stacks of and buying pirated DVDs in stalls in Baclaran or Quiapo). Even if we do miraculously succeed in burning down the tons of DVDs that are produced everyday in this country and the factories that produce them, piracy is not going to stop. It will simply morph into other more creative forms. Advances in technology and limitless human creativity will always pave the way for newer and cheaper ways of sharing materials.

Part of the answer is in significantly reducing the price differential between original and pirated materials. If original DVDs cost only a little more than pirated materials, there is no reason for people to resort to buying pirated versions. And please, spare me the crap about how doing so would make the movie or music industry keel over. If people only regulate their greed the cost of non-pirated materials would be a lot cheaper. Most of the cost that is passed on to consumers includes advertising and the ridiculously expensive rates of celebrities.

So yes, buying pirated DVDs can also be interpreted as a form of rebellion.

If Llamas were not a cabinet secretary of an administration that aspires to very high standards of morality, being caught with a stash of pirated DVDs would not have been such a big deal. But sadly, Llamas is not an ordinary person. And this administration has aspirations of being far from ordinary.

Should Llamas be sacked for buying pirated DVDs? I don’t think so. However, the fact that this is the second offense would seem to justify such a move.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Ripped off!

This is my column today.

There was a time when traveling around the major cities in this country gave one a distinct feeling of being in a completely different place each time.

I used to love going up to Baguio and browsing along the various little shops along Session Road and the stalls in the public market for unique finds. Most of the shops along Session Road are now closed and the stalls in the public market don’t really offer anything new anymore, as sales have not been brisk enough to encourage the development of new products. I know my friends in SM will put me to task for saying this, but big business is killing specialty shops. At the rate things are going, it will only be a matter of time when even the ubiquitous sari sari store will have to give way to 7-Eleven and the other convenience store chains that have sprouted all over our urban centers.

Going to Cebu used to mean discovering finds along the many shops along Colon Street or Mango Avenue. Every city in this country boasted a row of specialty shops and stores that sold local products and the works of craftsmen in the area: San Pedro and Claveria in Davao City, Cogon in Cagayan de Oro, Zamora Street in Tacloban City.

Not anymore. Today, there’s SM, Robinsons, Gaisano, and company. You don’t walk up a street, you ride escalators or just promenade along pathways inside a mammoth structure. In some cities, they are building bigger and more malls. In Davao and General Santos cities where I found myself over the weekend, new SM malls were in the finishing stages. It would be the second SM mall in Davao and the first in Gensan.

I dread the day when outside of topography, each city in this country would be an exact replica of the others; when one would go to Butuan City in the south or to Vigan in the north and dine in exactly the same restaurant that could be found everywhere else. This is because every mall in this country offers basically the same fare everywhere. When my officemates brought me to the newly renovated KCC mall in General Santos City over the weekend, I felt like I was back in Mall of Asia in Pasay. The stores were the same, the restaurants even more. Needless to say, the products were the same; only the faces of the people were different. If all our cities would offer the same stuff, what will be the point of going anywhere else in this country? Why go to Zamboanga if your dining choices would be limited to the same cuisine that you would find in Makati anyway? La Paz batchoy, the original, is readily available everywhere so going to Iloilo to experience it is no longer an inspired idea.

Making the same products and services available everywhere does not, unfortunately, mean delivering the same level of service quality. Branches or franchise stores of established brands in the provinces offer the same products sold in Manila and at the same prices but one is expected to put up with inferior quality both of the products and of the service delivery– it’s as if people in the provinces don’t have the right to the same level of quality and efficiency as people in Metro Manila. In fact, salespeople in the provinces tend to have misgivings about serving customers who are from Manila because they allegedly tend to be “difficult,” impatient and demanding. I wish brand owners would take the trouble to define their customer service and quality standards and train their personnel to measure up to the same standards regardless of whether their branch is in Makati, Iloilo or Kidapawan.

I was in Davao City Saturday until yesterday (I am writing at the Davao International Airport – a huge complex that, alas, only had one functioning x-ray machine for baggage and no wi-fi) and I just have to write about a negative experience I had in a Bench store at this city’s G Mall.

I had lunch with a nephew I haven’t seen for quite sometime last Monday and G Mall was the closest to his university. G Mall aspires to world-class standards but fails dismally. The security procedures border on the nonsensical - I was asked to produce receipts for the shopping bags I bought at the nearby Aldevinco market and which I was carrying into the mall. The female guards went through the motions of inspecting bags, but were not really looking at what were inside the bags as they were so busy chatting with each other.

My nephew needed to do some shopping so we ended up at the Bench store inside the mall. They had a sale. A giant tarpaulin announced that the items in a particular bin were on sale. We looked at the items and my nephew picked a shirt. It didn’t have a price tag so we sought the help of a sales clerk. She went to check and came back to tell us that the shirt was no longer on sale, it was already being sold at regular prices. She picked up the bunch of shirts of the same kind from the bin and told us they would hang them back again in their regular display racks. I shrugged.

I picked up another shirt, one that had a price tag on it indicating its regular price, which was crossed out, and handwritten under it was the sale price, which was about 30 percent off the regular price. A sticker indicating the sale price (the same as the handwritten price) was also on the tag. While my nephew and I were going through the pile, a customer angrily dumped some shirts back into the bin, muttering something about “false advertising” before walking out of the store in a huff. I wondered what the fuss was about but let it pass.

When it was our turn to pay, imagine our surprise to discover that two of the shirts we were paying for were at “regular prices” rather than the sale prices indicated in the tags. I complained and pointed out the discrepancy to the cashier. I pointed out the two sale prices indicated on the tag – one written in ink and another one in sticker. She curtly told me that the shirts were no longer on sale. I told her that the Trade Industry department’s stand on the matter is clear – customers should pay for goods based on the prices written on the tag. Right in front of me, the cashier simply took off the sticker and was about to cross out the price in ink when I told her to call the manager.

Apparently, the manager was the guy who was sitting nearby just observing the exchange. He told me they received the “memo about the end of the sale” very late and had not had the chance to change the price tags. I told him they should bring the goods to storage and take out the tarpaulin sign – why continue to display the items when they knew they were no longer on sale? I lectured him about how it wasn’t fair for customers to spend inordinate time picking through an assortment of goods that they thought were on sale only to be slapped regular prices at the counter. He looked at me like I was from another planet.

In the meantime, a line was forming and people were starting to cast dagger looks towards my direction for holding up the queue. I figured I needed to consummate the sale so I could write about it. To be fair, I did tell them that I was going to write about the experience but the manager didn’t look like he cared anyway.

I was told by friends in Davao that this practice is rampant in provincial outlets of many established brands. They announce a sale but charge customers regular prices just the same. They get away with it because most people don’t complain; apparently, the attitude of store managers is that provincial people are lucky the brands are being brought to the provinces. The practice has to stop.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Foregone conclusion

This is my column today.

Many among us try to project this impression that we continue to have an open mind as to whether or not the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is guilty of the crimes for which he has been impeached by the House of Representatives and being tried by the Senate.
There are those who go through the motions of following the proceedings of the impeachment trial purportedly for the purpose of discerning for themselves the real value of the tons of evidence presented thus far, or conversely, ascertaining the real merits of the spirited arguments of the defense panel.

There continue to be many who pretend that they have not made up their minds yet about the guilt or innocence of the Chief Justice—and I am not necessarily talking about Senators Frank Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, or Ralph Recto.

Let us get real, people. Most of us who give a flying fig about the issue have already made up our minds a long time ago. And many of us made the decision based on party affiliation, our degree of affection or dislike for the main protagonists, and other subjective considerations.

The only people who haven’t made up their minds yet are those who just don’t care one way or the other. These are the people who cannot and do not see how the impeachment of the chief magistrate will affect their lives or improve their lot, those who tend to see the whole thing as a very costly exercise with dubious practical value, or those who are disenchanted with the way the stink of politics tend to dirty everything else in this country.

Please spare me the lecture about how the impeachment process is the bedrock of democracy and how everyone should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty or at least allowed to defend himself against his accusers.

Please stop telling me that the whole process is designed to ensure fairness and to usher out justice. We all know that the impeachment trial is not about fairness or justice regardless of the number of times these words are invoked like an all-encompassing mantra by the senator-judges and the members of the prosecution and defense panels.

Impeachment is a political exercise. And sadly, the level of political maturity in this country is not something we can crow about. We’re still electing clowns and their wives to public office. We’re still relying on sheer charisma and political machinery to propel people into office. We’re still mistaking looks, eloquence and pedigree for competence. And worse, we still continue to strengthen political patronage and use political largesse to buy affections, affiliations, and yes, votes.

The prosecution panel wants to convey the impression that it wants to try the Chief Justice based on the rules of impeachment. What balderdash! Any person with eyes, ears, and half a functioning brain can see what the prosecution is up to. It just wants to overwhelm everyone with accusations. It is not interested in building a tight case—it wants to instigate a mob and force a decision based on outrage and emotions.

The defense wants to convey the impression that it is scoring points during the impeachment hearing because its lawyers are able to outwit, out-argue, out-maneuver the prosecution. They can score points inside the hall, but I doubt very much if they can claim that they are winning the public relations battle.

The bright boys at MalacaƱan Palace has been trying to pretend that they are leaving Chief Justice Renato Corona’s fate up to the senator justices. What hogwash! The government has marshaled the resources of the whole bureaucracy in support of the impeachment. Is there anyone in this country who believes the Bureau of Internal Revenue came up with the kind of information they were able to present to the impeachment court in a matter of days with just one person working on it?

And let’s all face it. No less that the President of the Republic of the Philippines has been strongly championing Corona’s impeachment. Benigno Simeon Aquino III has not made secret his overwhelming and consuming passion to oust Corona from the Supreme Court. In fact, if we are to interpret the President’s pronouncements on the issue sans the diplomacy that a head of state is supposed to observe, it would be this: I don’t care what it takes or how you do it, just get that son of a b*tch out of there as soon as possible, preferably right this very minute.

In fairness to some of the senator judges, in particular, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, there are efforts to imbue the proceedings with as much integrity and fairness as possible. But then again, we all know how politicians in this country conduct themselves when push comes to shove. Lest we forget, 2013 is an election year and half of the people sitting as senator judges are running for re-election. They cannot afford to waste political capital.

So must of us watch the impeachment trial for our own reasons. There are those who watch it for entertainment, like it’s the biggest and most spectacular soap opera ever produced. And if we come to think about it, the costs associated with this trial are staggering. For example, the legislation has virtually come to a halt with the trial. Lawyers and law students watch it mainly for its educational content, like it’s a law school on air where Justice Serafin Cuevas is professor and people like Niel Tupas are, well, the clueless students.

But seriously guys, who are we kidding? The end result of this impeachment trial is already a foregone conclusion. What we are seeing are valiant efforts to just prove a point or two.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mamma Mia!

This was my column last Monday. I was sick yesterday; thus, the late post.

Some of my friends who have bought tickets to the local run
of the touring production of the Broadway hit musical Mamma Mia are apprehensive.

There is the possibility that the curtains at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where Mamma Mia is scheduled to run starting tomorrow, will not go up if the local association of Filipino singers, the Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit makes good its threat to secure an injunction or a temporary restraining order against the local promoters of the show for allegedly not paying equity clearance.

In fact, Elmar Beltran Ingles, Executive Director of OPM has issued a more ominous threat: OPM President singer Ogie Alcasid plans to bring up the matter directly with the President of the Republic of the Philippines himself, Benigno Simeon Aquino III. Oh, President Aquino is bound to listen regardless of how busy his schedule is or how preoccupied he is with impeaching the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Alcasid and his wife, popular singer Regine Velasquez not only campaigned heavily for Aquino in the 2010 elections, the couple wrote and performed the song that launched off Aquino’s campaign.

And Kris Aquino, who by the way, may not be a member of the OPM, but is a certified gold record recipient many times over for her “inspirational albums”—where she wears her heart on her sleeve and regurgitates what she passes off as profound words of wisdom—could always intervene and ensure that Alcasid and OPM members would get the justice they think they deserve.

Foreign artists who perform in the Philippines including back-up singers and dancers are required to pay “equity” to the local associations. This set-up is observed in most countries because, theoretically, local artists are displaced and lose opportunities to make a living every single time a foreign artists goes up a stage to perform. Filipino artists who are not members of, say the unions in the United States, are also required to pay equity every time they perform on Broadway. There was a major controversy when Lea Salonga and Jonathan Price reprised their roles in Miss Saigon on Broadway precisely because of equity issues.

The local promoters of Mamma Mia insisted that they have already secured a special permit from the Bureau of Immigration for the performers. Ingles refuted the assertion. The amount OPM imposes on foreign artists is quite steep—P5,000 per performer per show. For a production such as Mamma Mia that runs for four weeks and which has a cast of dozens, the equity clearance fee is nothing to sneer at. What makes the issue a little more intriguing though is the fact that OPM supposedly required the Mamma Mia production to pay double because “December to February is peak season for local shows.” This makes the whole thing seem like a case of extortion and bullying.

But first of all, why is the OPM the one collecting equity clearance fees on the actors of Mamma Mia? Shouldn’t it be the theater artists group that should be collecting and benefitting from the fees?

And someone please tell me OPM did not really say they use the money they collect from equity fees to pay for the “medical fees and other emergency expenses of singer members.” They make it sound like mendicancy, or worse, a mafia-like arrangement.

I am a zealous supporter of Filipino artists and local productions. I make it a point to watch most, if not all local musical and stage productions because I think Filipino artists are among the best in the world and deserve every support they can get.

However, I am against extortion under the guise of protectionism. Protectionism in the arts is already in itself a highly debatable concept particularly at a time when local artists are already making a name for themselves globally. For crying out loud, how do we expect to raise the standards of performing arts in this country and that of our artists if we isolate ourselves from the global artistic community?

And then there’s the matter of costs being passed on to the audience! OPM gets a fat check, but at whose expense? No wonder ticket prices to foreign acts are prohibitive in this country! Do you know how much good seats in Mamma Mia cost? They are beyond the reach of ordinary people in this country.

Please spare me the sob story about how local artists and local productions are forced to hobble along begging for sponsorships and practically doing cartwheels to get an audience for their shows. I know the drill. But OPM, Alcasid and company can use their influence to compel the government to give arts the necessary support. There’s a long list of woes and grievances that local artists know by heart—they basically subsist on, as a local director impudently quipped, Skyflakes and catfood. But how exactly does extorting from foreign acts help their cause in the long run?

If we are serious about raising the standards of local productions and helping local artists, we need to help ourselves and start the process from within.

The truth is that the music industry is dying because of a confluence of factors, but the local artists cannot wash their hands of their involvement in the slow death of the industry. Given the kind of collective output the industry has produced in the last two decades, what the heck are they expecting? Most of the stuff we have been hearing in the last decade are covers of music written by foreign artists. And we are already scraping the bottom of the list of hits from the seventies and eighties. At the rate we are going, it’s just a matter of time before American country music also get repackaged to suit local taste.

We can fight for our rights, but we need not be opportunists and extortionists in the process. Mamma mia, talaga!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rant

It took me more than an hour to get to my house from the main street about two blocks away. I had to go around and around like in a maze.

The reason? It's bisperas of the feast of the Holy Family, which is the fiesta of the whole San Andres Bukid area. And this means people take it upon themselves to erect platforms, stages, and play areas all over in the process blocking streets and pathways. I don't really mind if only the various groups or barangay chairmen coordinate with each other to ensure that people can still come in and out of the area without too much hassle.

Our house is virtually inaccessible at this point by transportation as all streets leading to it has been blocked. Behind our house there is a Miss Gay contest being staged. Two blocks away to the left is a singing contest. There's a disco at the street to our right. And our neighbors have also set up their own barbecue parties outside on the streets complete with karaokes blaring at full volume.

Sigh.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Side issues

This is my column today.

If we are to believe the prosecution team, the issue is neither Chief Justice Renato Corona nor the Supreme Court. It is, as Niel Tupas whined publicly, about making officials of this land accountable to the solemn oath that they made when they assumed office. And yet, he heaped scorn at the man —who is not the issue at hand—and addressed him in the first person during his opening remarks.

If we are to believe the defense team, the issue at hand is not anymore Chief Justice Renato Corona but the independence of the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. And yet, the defense took pains defending the supposed honor and integrity of Corona, the same man who is supposedly no longer the issue at hand. The rally that was staged Monday morning at the Supreme Court was not also about the Supreme Court or about Justice per se, but about Corona.

The networks also chose to focus their cameras on Corona so that a small window bearing the somber face of the Chief Justice was on camera the whole time the trial was ongoing and being televised.

Both spokespersons spent considerable time in their opening remarks last Monday addressing what the impeachment trial is not supposed to be about. Most of the main characters in the impeachment trial—with the exception of the senators who so far have succeeded in resisting efforts to grab the limelight—have also been spending time addressing these so-called side issues prior to the start of the impeachment. Corona himself delivered a scathing speech at the steps of the Supreme Court Monday morning answering the allegations directed at him, most of which he said were non-issues.

We should cut the bullsh*t and acknowledge the elephant in the room – this very costly exercise is about one man – and his name is Renato Corona.

It gets more complicated. Just as Corona was concluding his speech, the prosecution team’s own press conference started at the Senate. The members took turns lambasting Corona for answering the allegations they themselves fed to the media. This game of tag and one-upmanship will be a continuing source of amusement and befuddlement in the next few weeks. It’s a game where the first party commits a violation of the rules and when imitated by the second party the first partly readily accuses the second party of violating the rules. If you are confused, don’t fret. So is everyone else. And it’s intentional; this is, after all, the way legislators and lawyers make money in this country.

This running around in circles is exasperating. But this is the stuff that will make the impeachment trial interesting to many. It’s the verbal scuffle, the efforts to outwit and outmaneuver, the bombs, the surprise tricks and sleight of hand that many will look forward to. To get to the heart of the issues, we will all have to suffer a lot of fools and dig through a lot of crap.

And whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with very many supposed non-issues that are central to the issues at hand. Actually, I predict that the debate over what issues are central and which are not will become more and more contentious.

For example, Hacienda Luisita. For the longest time, the matter of the Supreme Court decision to redistribute Hacienda Luisita to farmers was whispered about as the real impetus for the President’s zealousness to impeach the Chief Justice. Well, Hacienda Luisita has finally been acknowledged as a side issue in the impeachment trial. Corona himself brought it up Monday morning at the rally. He said that the government wants him impeached because he is a major hindrance to the desire of the President’s family to retain ownership of the Hacienda. Given that the Supreme Court decision to redistribute the hacienda was unanimous, why the Cojuancos would vent their anger on Corona alone is a question that has not been answered in a satisfactory way.

But it is quite telling that the issue is already out in the open. The President’s loquacious youngest sister herself seemed to have acknowledged the Aquino family’s stake in the impeachment trial. In a television show, she was asked the rather frivolous question: If she were made to choose one, who among Former First Lady Imelda Marcos, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago would she choose to invite for dinner? She picked Senator Santiago because, and I quote verbatim: “We need her vote in the impeachment.” Since she is not a government official, nor has she packaged herself as part of the civil society movement, the use of the second person pronoun has been largely interpreted to refer to her family, or to be more specific, her family’s business interests.

The allegations that the Coronas have amassed wealth and the story about the mismanagement of the World Bank grant are side issues that are obviously propagandist in nature. Corona has only been Chief Justice for less than two years and most of the disputed pieces of property that Corona is supposed to own were supposedly acquired prior to 2010. The World Bank project has been there in the last decade. Both were not even included in the complaint transmitted to the Senate. The inordinate attention to the list is intriguing given the fact that based on independent verification, it includes original titles of previous owners, parking spaces, and properties owned by children of Corona.

An important side issue is the need to ensure that this particular impeachment trial does not repeat the mistakes and the consequent premature termination of the Estrada impeachment trial. A lot of efforts have been made to recall the controversial and contentious components of the Estrada trial, which has enabled Estrada to once again register his vigorous protestations and to submit his sanitized version of history.

And as the impeachment trial got under way last Monday, many noted just how this latest national soap opera is threatening to divide the nation once again. This particular comment struck me because it validated the observation that the supposed invincibility of President Benigno Simeon Aquino is showing signs of weaknesses. As proof, supporters of Corona dared to stage a rally and even came up with protest slogans complete with an effigy of Aquino. All these would have been unthinkable a few months ago given the supposed popularity of the administration.

And because we are in the Philippines where the primetime newscast has to include features on the lives of celebrities and on fashion, we have to note that an important sideshow to the impeachment trial was the color of the robes that the senators wore at the start of the impeachment trial. They wore maroon robes. The robes were a different set compared to what they wore when they took their oath as judges last December. They didn’t look like Santa Clauses anymore, but the resemblance to the Black Nazarene was uncanny. Fortunately, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was absent due to sickness. Santiago would have pointed out that maroon is not exactly the same as Cambridge red, reportedly the color of choice of the senators.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Faith and love

This is my column today.

Perhaps people are saving up for Mamma Mia, or are still
recovering from the mind-numbing fare that was the 2011 Metro Manila Filmfest, or probably bracing for the grandest of all soap operas that is the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that will be unveiled today at the Senate (and which I refuse to write about today on account of the bandwagon effect).

Whatever the reason, Next Fall, Repertory Philippines’ season opener began its run last Friday at Onstage in Greenbelt 1 in Makati to a seemingly slow start; there were less than a hundred people in the audience when my friends and I caught it over the weekend.

The lack of interest in the play is surprising. Next Fall was a smash hit off and on Broadway. Moreover, plays —and movies - that tackle relationships between gay men usually have a ready audience in this country. But then again, Next Fall is not really a gay play. It’s a meditation on faith and the dynamics that make love and relationships complicated. There’s also no nudity in the play, which sadly, seems to be an important ingredient for box office success in this country. But the play just opened over the weekend and will run until February 5. Hopefully, word of mouth about the play will bring in more people in the audience. Word of mouth is important, as media’s attention will probably be elsewhere in the next few weeks.

Next Fall is particularly relevant in the local context where faith and sexual identity are overarching issues that often get in the way of the pursuit of the proverbial life, liberty and happiness among sexually marginalized people.

Written by Geoffrey Nauffts and produced on Broadway by the likes of Elton John, the play takes place in a hospital waiting room where the main characters gather while the sixth character—Luke (David Bianco)—is in coma after being hit by a runaway cab. There’s Adam (Bart Guingona), Luke’s seemingly neurotic lover of four years. There’s Brandon (Niccolo Manahan), Luke’s mysterious best friend. There’s Holly (Liesl Batucan), the fag hag woman friend. And then Luke’s divorced parents: Butch (Miguel Faustmann), the take-charge father who barrels into the scene with characteristic fire and brimstone homily-inducing intolerance and Arlene (Juno Henares), the absentee mother who prattles endlessly about the most mundane stuff.

In between the hospital waiting room scenes are flashbacks told in non-linear fashion that try to thread Adam and Luke’s life together and trace the religious conflict that serves as the main issue of contention in the play.

Luke is a fundamentalist Christian who, on surface, seems to be comfortable with his sexuality but is later revealed to be deeply conflicted (he prays after they have sex). Adam is an atheist who is a potent bundle of contradictions – neurotic, confused, emotionally needy. The differences start out like romantic situational comedy sketches that escalate into major rows that are made to appear like earth-shattering moral dilemmas.

It’s not the local production’s fault, but the play is hobbled by the material itself. Sadly, the conflict is not really threshed out in profound and satisfying ways. In fact, all the verbal skirmishes come out hallow, as both characters aren’t seen as truthful champions of the religious-secular debate. The scenes are funny, interesting, absorbing; but in the end, are not really particularly instructive. The extent of Luke’s faith is manifested in the fact that he prays before meals. Adam’s lack of faith seems pretentious in view of all that emotional hara-kiri. The discourses on religion and faith don’t really go anywhere other than provide fodder for emotional highs and lows.

Luke’s inability to come out to his parents and the consequent comedy of errors are thrown in as added wrinkle to the plot but the complication has been done many times over far more successfully in plays like The Caged Birds, or even Torch Song Trilogy.

But make no mistake about this: Next Fall is definitely worth watching. The play raises important questions about intolerance, relationships, and yes, faith. It’s funny, ingenious, and in the end, totally heartbreaking.

The local production is directed by Audie Gemora, himself a fundamentalist Christian. We watched the play on its second run when the production was presumably still a work in progress. The set design was imaginative and adequately fluid but the scene transitions seemed to take longer than necessary. There was a problem with the sound halfway through the play and the static seemed as intolerable as Faustmann’s character. But the direction was competent and overall, the production was commendable.

As usual, the acting was worth the price of admission. One wishes that there was more chemistry between Guingona and Bianco, and the two actors need to work on being more sensitive to each other (when they kiss, it looked like they were just going through the motions). Bianco is a delight to watch as he lends the character with warmth, lightheartedness, and just the right tinge of insecurity. Guingona comes across as intense and conflicted. Manahan’s character is sadly not fully threshed out but he infuses it with touches of humanity; we could relate with his character even we’re logically supposed to be repulsed by it. Henares and Batucan succeed in bringing their seemingly “token” and “stereotypical” characters to life. Faustmann, however, steals the whole play and runs away with the most memorable scene in it.

At its very core, Next Fall is a love story with a premise that is as old as time, that of two ill-crossed lovers struggling with the fallout from seemingly irreconcilable differences. The more perceptive viewer will however walk out of the theatre with a life-affirming realization: In the end, all the philosophical swashbuckling about faith, religion, intolerance, and the many things that divide us are but mere distractions to what truly matters. It’s a sad but haunting reminder that life is best lived in the present because next fall might not come to pass.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Finally!

Yey!

I finally finished updating this blog. All the columns I wrote between May 2010 and December 2011 (the period when this blog was in hibernation) have already been uploaded in this blog. It took me two weeks to do it, but I finally got it done.

Today is Friday the 13th. I don't really believe in that kind of superstition; besides, today was actually a light day at work, which was unusual for a Friday. My officemates and I descended on Sakae Sushi restaurant in MOA for lunch. I was expecting to have a grand time because I love sushi... but sadly, the experience was not something to rave about. Most of the sushi were 90% rice - and the rice was not even of good quality. Am not going back there.

Anyway, just wanted to sign in.