Thursday, November 30, 2006

12 days of Christmas

I spent the whole day yesterday trying to play the role of a consummate politician - I run for director of the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines. By some stroke of luck, I won despite the intense and highly sophisticated (there are other words I can use to describe it, but I will refrain from doing so in the spirit of the season) campaign staged by the other group. But here's my column yesterday. Sorry, delayed na naman.

Some e-mails are certain to land in my inbox around this time every year. I am not talking about solicitations and all types of special holiday offers although I do get those, too. One e-mail I don’t mind receiving is that interactive electronic Christmas card that you click on several times to get a colorful tableau featuring a dog and cat frolicking in the snow under a candle-lit Christmas tree.

The other e-mail I invariably get every year is the one explaining the supposed real meaning of that popular Christmas carol, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” I still have to receive the electronic Christmas card this year. But I already received that e-mail about the Twelve Days of Christmas, including a link to the Pittsburgh National Corp.’s annual Christmas Price Index (www.pncchristmaspriceindex.com ).

I think it is good that there is actually a business organization that does a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the economics of Christmas gift-giving. Indeed, a little sense of humor does not hurt even if you are a giant financial institution. What is even more amazing is that they have been doing the survey to determine what they call the PNC Christmas Price Index in the last 22 years. The survey aims to determine how much, on Christmas, our “true loves” actually spend on us. The group then calculates the total cost of all those drummers, pipers, dancing ladies, birds and that partridge in a pear tree. Then it compares the results with those of the previous years.

This year’s verdict is that the cost of the 12 days of Christmas is $18,920. The amount translates to almost a million Philippine pesos, signifying a 3.1 increase over 2005 figures. The culprit is said to be low unemployment, which jacked up the prices of live entertainment in the United States “the carol requires 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, and eight maids a milking.” The group likewise computes what it calls the “true cost of Christmas” —the total cost of items gifted by a “true love” who repeats all the verses in the carol. For 2006, they will pay more, around $75,122 for all 364 items.

I know what you are thinking. There are more important things to worry about other than computing the cost implications of the items recited in a seemingly silly carol. Actually, the annual survey is said to mirror trends in the general economy and is claimed to be a good indicator of how expensive or inexpensive Christmas has become year in and year out. Because it is based on a Christmas carol, it enables people to do the math without sounding like Scrooge’s disciple. We know celebrating Christmas costs money, but complaining about the rising costs of gifts just does not seem right.

The survey is conducted in the United States so we have no idea how our local data compares. As a human resource management practitioner, I am interested in finding out how rising labor costs impact the economics of Christmas. Are dancing ladies (not necessarily those in the red light district), musicians such as drummers and pipers earning more this year compared to last year? I know for a fact that the demand for really good live bands has increased this year because we had difficulty finding a suitable band for our Christmas party at work. Are maids-a-milking paid minimum wages in this country? Is the bird flue scare affecting sales of birds? Korea this week torched millions of its fowls on account of the bird flu epidemic.

To add proof that certain things like a seemingly inane Christmas carol is more than what it is supposed to be, there is that raging discussion among theology scholars about which days are referred to as the 12 days of Christmas. The predominant opinion seems to be that the 12 days being referred to in the carol are the twelve days between Christmas day and the Epiphany (Jan. 6). There are those who say it refers to the 12 days before Christmas.
I guess what is more noteworthy to discuss is whether the 12 days of Christmas referred to in the carol represent something else. According to the e-mail I receive every year, 12 days of Christmas is a religious symbolism within the Christian faith. I searched for empirical sources but sadly, there seems to be none. Many Internet sites consider this interpretation of the 12 days as an urban myth. Then again, what harm does it do to anyone if we attach symbolic meaning to a Christmas carol?

So for those who have not come across that e-mail explaining the supposed real significance of the 12 days of Christmas, here is the supposed history: From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote the carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It had two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol is a code for a religious reality which the children could remember.

The partridge in a pear tree refers to Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger. The two turtle doves refer to the two version of the Bible—Old and the New Testaments. The three French hens stand for the three pillars of Catholicism—faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds supposedly refer to the four gospels and evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The five golden rings recall the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation. The seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—namely, prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.

The eight maids a-milking refer to the eight beatitudes (too long to cite here). The nine ladies dancing are supposed to refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

The 10 lords a-leaping of course refer to the Ten Commandments. The 11 pipers piping stand for the 11 faithful disciples. And finally, the 12 drummers drumming symbolize the 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.

So there. All together now. “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

* * *

My column last Monday entitled “Pushing the limits in advertising” generated unprecedented reactions. I got at least 17 e-mails, all expressing agreement with what I wrote. One reader, Mr. Ray Soberano wrote: “I guess sometimes people are just getting (plain) lazy that they equate creativity with being direct and to-the-point. Subtlety somehow died a long time ago.” I agree with him.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Pushing the limits in advertising

The following is my column today, November 27, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I am not a prude. In fact, I fancy myself as a liberal. If I were a woman, I would most likely qualify as a feminist. If I were an American, I would definitely be a democrat. You get the drift.
Having said these, let me express my discomfiture over the way certain advertisements are pushing the limits. For quite some time now, I have been seeing ads that tend to raise eyebrows and make one wonder whether the people behind them are aware of the other messages they convey other than “buy this product.”

The ads are on the cutting edge of creativity. To my mind, however, they are a few notches away from being offensive. Before anyone reacts violently, let me clarify what I just said: the ads in question come very close to being offensive, which means they are not yet offensive. They alarm me nonetheless because their existence may be a clue on the types of advertisements bound to follow.

Take for instance the print ad of this group that says there’s more to print. It features a man inside the toilet holding a television set. Okay, let’s drop the attempt to be delicate and start all over—the ad shows a man taking a crap, his underwear around his ankles. He is holding a television set in front of him. This ad announces, “print can reach places TV can’t.” This is quite an ingenious idea, except that it pushes the limits of good taste.

(I read the papers over breakfast, so you can imagine my reaction when I came across that particular ad. And I am not squeamish.)

The obviously left-brain reaction is why anyone who wants to watch television in the bathroom cannot go out of his way to mount the TV on the wall. Many five-star hotels and homes do have television sets in their bathrooms, and these sets are strategically mounted on the wall. So, in response to the ads’ tagline, I say yes, TV can be brought to the bathroom. You just have to mount it on a wall or put it on top of a cabinet. But that is not my point.

My point is that it’s a picture of a man taking a crap, for crying out loud. You can sanitize it, you can justify it, you can invoke creative license, but it is still a picture of a man with his underwear around his ankles, sitting on the toilet, taking a crap. I am not sure everyone is okay with having to see that picture while nibbling on a tuna sandwich or eating a banana.

Or take one television ad pushing a brand of sanitary napkin that supposedly solves a woman’s problem of messing up linens or clothes while sleeping. I presume there’s practical value in buying that product and that it brings value to women. The ad is creative—it pushes its point without actually showing a woman’s anatomy. But it does show, in a very graphic way, just exactly how the particular napkin—uhm—melds, attaches and bends to adjust to a woman’s anatomy while sleeping. Watching that ad makes me uncomfortable; I don’t think everyone needs to know the details of how exactly a sanitary napkin fits into a woman’s lower body parts while she sleeps. There must be a better way to show the benefits of using that product without showing how it works, exactly.

I understand that competition is pushing creativity to the extreme in terms of product development and consequently, marketing of sanitary napkins. There’s a product now that answers a woman’s every specific need—not only are there wings, special adhesives, contours, scents, etc. Since I am not a woman, I know these things only from watching television—and I don’t even watch television that often. I wonder what kids who spend the whole day in front of the television set while their parents are at work and their nannies are washing or ironing clothes do know on account of those ads.

Actually, this column was prompted by a real incident involving a five-year-old niece. One day, she was caught playing with her older sister’s sanitary napkins— one whole pack of them. She peed on each individual napkin on the pack. She probably wanted to test the products and you can guess what she must have been thinking and where she got the idea. The upside was that it presented a great opportunity to discuss with her certain facts—appropriate to her age—about women’s body functions; but how many parents are aware about the need to clarify and the misconceptions that are formed on the minds of little kids from watching these ads?

My point is that there seems to be this unchecked effort to push the envelope in terms of advertising personal hygiene products.

Let’s take another example—there is a television ad selling scented sanitary napkins, showing adolescent girls squeezing through tight places (such as inside a cinema, or inside a small car) with their lower bodies just inches away from a boy’s face. The message is: Thanks to this particular sanitary napkin, you can’t smell her.

I am not really sure that’s a good message to send out there. I mean, I may just be thinking like an old fogey and could be wrong on this one, but surely no adolescent male actually makes distinctions about girls on the basis of how she smells down there. Hello! I get the hygiene message to girls. But what message are we sending to the boys? Are we teaching adolescent boys to be consciously aware of female body odors and to learn to attribute certain scents to certain body functions?

And pray tell, what is with this overriding preoccupation with feminine scent? There’s another ad showing a woman swishing her skirt in front of a man doing yoga. Her “scent” supposedly catches his attention. I wonder what subliminal ideas are being pushed here—that women smell unless they use that product?

There are more examples. Many of us have seen ads selling a particular body spray for men by showing women pursuing a man inside a bathroom on account of how good that man supposedly smells. I know scent is a powerful aphrodisiac and that sex sells, but do we really need to hammer the sexual message into people’s heads?

I think there are more effective and subtle ways to sell a product. This is why I like those ads for diarrhea that focus on the situation rather than the specific body function. Good examples would be those television ads showing a diarrhea-suffering witness at a trial looking every bit uncomfortable (mukhang guilty!), or that man running towards a toilet grabbing someone’s newspaper along the way. They do not show body parts or indulge in dirty humor to bring home the point.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Roll out the barrel...

And so the party season has begun.

I went to my first Christmas Party tonight; it was more of a reunion of a graduate school class I once had the privilege of mentoring. It was also my first time in a long, long while to be inside a bar with live entertainment.

The place my friends picked was Nicotina, a garden restaurant and bar along Roxas Boulevard, right next to the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Pasay City. I work nearby, but I didnt even know the place existed. I learned that the place is actually more than a year old. It's a really nice place - there's no airconditioning (only huge industrial fans aimed at the ceiling) but surprisingly the place was not humid at all.

What I liked about the place was that the entertainment was quite relaxing - none of those loud blaring noise that many bars today pass off as cutting edge technology. There were two musical groups tonight - and each one had a distinct sound. The first one featured a piano, a wind instrument, an electric guitar, and a vocalist who we thought was Japanese but turned out to be Pinoy. They played standards and jazz music. The second group was composed of a keyboard, drums, guitars, and a female lead singer who reminded me very strongly of Jacqui Magno.

Nicotina serves Italian food and their pasta was one of the best I've tasted in a long while too.

We all had a swell time.

The clientele was mostly Americans though - I guess they are residents of Sea Front, the nearby residences of American employees who work at the US Embassy.

I think I just found a nice place to hang out every once in a while.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Half deaf but recovering

I finally got today the answer to a four-week old nagging question, which by the way also explains why this blog has not been updated during the same period. It's a long story, but since this is the first time that I can actually stare at a PC for more than 30 minutes without going berserk, here is the long story.

I had terrible colds towards the end of October, which I did not take medication for except taking lots of liquids and vitamic c. The frustrated doctor in me has always believed that that colds have a natural expiration date. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to go home to Tacloban on October 27 for the wedding of my youngest brother. So I took the plane and forgot to take precautions for the fact that I had terrible colds.

Halfway through the one-hour flight, my ear started to buzz. Then came this piercing pain. It was terrible and I had the longest ever 30 minute flight in my whole life. I was literally crying in pain and could not wait to get out of the plane.

To make this story shorter, I went to a doctor who prescribed medicines for my colds and eardrops. Unfortunately again, my brother's wedding, All Saints Day, plus a family beach party meant that I had to be exposed to extremely hot temperature. My colds were aggravated and before long, I knew I had infections - my tonsilitis acted up, my ears were in pain, I was running a fever, etc., the works.

And worse, I had to take the plane back to Manila. A doctor in Tacloban prescribed a nasal spray to help alleviate the pain, and it helped, except that I knew that it wasn't doing anything to the actual pressure on my right ear.

Anyway. So here's the story. I have a punctured ear drum. We are hoping that the hole would close naturally with the help of some medication, otherwise, I would have to undergo surgery to close it.

The diagnosis was arrived at only today - after four weeks of intense pain, bottles of various ear drops and anti-flammatory drugs, and two rounds of antibiotics. I am now on clarithromycin, which costs a fortune, and which, I am told is a very strong antibiotic - should I have the misfortune of developing immunity to it, I would only have around four more antibiotics to go.

But at least the pain is now bearable although I still get dizzy everytime I have to do sudden movements. Until today, I could not stare at a PC for more than 30 minutes each time - and this meant work had to be prioritized.

Am still half-deaf though and there is this buzzing sound in my ear. Now I have profound respect for old people with hearing problems. I have to strain to catch every word someone says to me. And I am too damn proud to consider asking people to repeat what they just said so I strain very hard to make sure that I get it right the first time around.

And that is the latest about me for those who care enough to know.

Myths

The following was my column yesterday at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today. So sorry for the late post. Will make an update on my condition in another post.


Many people, including this writer, could not believe last Monday’s verdict on “Philippine Idol.” For those not in the know, the local franchise of the international singing contest had been down to its last five contestants during the weekend. Last Monday, it was down to four.
Pow Chavez, one of the better singers in the contest, was eliminated because she received the least number of text votes. The results came as a major surprise because Pow was widely expected to be in the top two—in fact, the early buzz was that she was definitely a shoo-in for the Philippine Idol title.

If we are to go by the performances in the last four weeks, Miguel, the youngest contestant at 17, should have been the most likely candidate for elimination. However, it appears that he has a wider and more solid support base. If we are to believe the scuttlebutt among blogs in the Internet, he has the support of the populace of the upscale suburbs in southern Manila where he resides. Being the youngest contestant and having good looks to boot, it is perceived that he also has the votes of the younger generation locked up. If this is true, then his chances of getting into the top two slots are really high, never mind the fact that he is having major problems hitting the right notes.

It would be truly tragic if he wins the title. Not that he does not have talent—the judges in Philippine Idol have been reiterating that entry into the top 10 already validates the presence of talent. It would be tragic because the other candidates are just so much more talented and much better performers than he is. Lest we forget, Philippine Idol is first of all a singing contest.
So how is it possible for someone with the least talent to outstay the better performers in a competition? Are we really such poor judges of talent that we seem to be voting for the wrong candidates—even in singing contests? It is easy to dismiss what is going on in Philippine Idol as just another quirk of the times we live in. But I think that it is actually symptomatic of the state of our democracy. This is the Philippines, and this is our version of democracy. It’s a system built on certain myths.

The first myth is that the playing field is level—that everyone has equal chances of winning. Unfortunately, that is an illusion. In our country, economic power is absolute power and he who has more money, or at least the support of the people with money, wins hands down. To win popularity contests such as elections and yes, Philippine Idol, it is not enough that one has the talent or the qualification or the willingness and determination. One has to have the resources as well.

And so, we have a sorry situation where certain people run away with titles and the positions mainly because they have more resources than their competitors do. So yes, I believe that despite the dismal performance of its candidates in the surveys for the 2007 elections, the Arroyo administration might still be able to pull off an upset if it is able to muster enough resources (do not ask me where they will most likely get the money, your guess is as good as mine). It is an appalling thought, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles in our so-called democracy.

It is not about who is more qualified, it is about who has more money to spend. Forget about winning popularity contests or elective posts if you do not have the resources. Mau and Gian may be the better performers among the remaining four contestants of Philippine Idol, but their talent is not enough guarantee that they will get into the finals.

And then there is this myth that Filipinos have reached a certain level of maturity to enable them to make the right choices based on objective facts rather than subjective considerations. This is wishful thinking. The truth is, many among us use very subjective measures when choosing leaders, or the people we vote for in elections or in contests. We seem to base our choices mainly on personal reasons (i.e., because we are related to the person, or because we went to the same school, or simply because we like the person) and then justify later on with facts that we bend and twist to suit our respective positions.

I have an officemate who concedes that Jan (the last of the four remaining contestants) is inferior to Gian in the singing department. But he votes for Jan every weekend because—hold your breath—Jan is better looking. Snicker if you must, but apparently many people put premium on looks than on other more relevant considerations, even if it is not a beauty contest to begin with. No wonder celebrities with nothing else between their ears other than a pretty face dominate local politics.

It didn’t help of course that one of the judges of the show, the very incoherent and inarticulate Francis Magalona, actually commented that “singing techniques can be easily learned, but a handsome face can’t be easily acquired.” Oh well, too bad wisdom and insight don’t go with popularity.

By the looks of it, we don’t listen to our experts as well—and there goes the myth that we model our choices and our decisions based on the advise of the people we hold in high esteem. No wonder we are in deep trouble as a nation; it seems that no one heeds the advise of the people who are supposed to know better. I empathize with the judges of Philippine Idol. It must be really frustrating to render critical analysis on someone’s performance only to find out that the audience just does not give a damn. They do not really base their votes on the supposed expert opinions. So perhaps Ryan Cayabyab is right, it doesn’t really matter what they say anyway.

We Filipinos are renowned for our singing prowess. We say that we are second to none in terms of musical abilities. It really is too bad that we’re not too good at choosing and fighting for principle.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A network's saga

The following is my column today, November 20, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I just finished reading Kapitan, Geny Lopez and the making of ABS-CBN by Raul Rodrigo. I am not sure if the book is already available in bookstores, but I had the good fortune of having been given a copy when I spoke at the Human Resource Summit of the Lopez Group of Companies last Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Kapitan is a fascinating book mainly because it tells a really good story. Reading the book is like watching an ABS-CBN television extravaganza—it brims with big names, drama, spectacular effects, and of course, the trademark chest thumping. Expectedly, the book does tend to venerate Geny Lopez and fortify the institutional value of ABS-CBN within the country’s contemporary history. It is nevertheless a book that deserves to be read for several important reasons.

I will go on record to say that the book is very well written. I tip my hat off to Raul Rodrigo for the wonderful manner in which he was able to weave history, politics, business, and human pathos into one seamless tapestry. It is writing that does not call attention to itself and therefore reads naturally. More importantly in this case, it is one that brims with honesty despite the fact that it is a book intended as a monument to a man and an institution.

Kapitan is a story that fills in a lot of gaps and sheds light on a lot of unanswered questions about what really happened during the early years of the dictatorship. I was only in grade school when Martial Law was declared and many people my age were—and still are —not really aware of the real extent of the machinations involved in the takeover of various private business empires. All we know was that the dictator and his cronies took over many private companies under very sinister circumstances. This book succeeds in reminding us that Martial Law and the dictatorship screwed up a lot of things in this country, particularly since the Marcos heirs seem bent on rewriting history once again.

It is also a book that chronicles the history of Philippine radio and television in an engaging way. The book is a testament that history need not simply be a recitation of facts, dates and personages. History can be made interesting and delightful. I think I learned a lot more about the history of Philippine radio and television from this book than from all my previous readings on the subject.

And yes, the book succeeds in honoring the memory of Geny Lopez as a patriot, visionary, and astute businessman. I think that the book establishes Geny Lopez’ stature as a great Filipino.
Having said that, let me share what struck me the most about this book: The continuing saga of ABS-CBN not only as a media empire but as an organization that has always found itself at the maelstrom of Philippine history—not as an objective chronicler of the country’s history, but as an active participant in it.

Being a media network, it is expected that ABS-CBN would always be in the thick of national events. However, what makes ABS-CBN unique is that unlike other media organizations, ABS-CBN seems to have this institutional predisposition to become part of the “issue” rather to simply be a vehicle to ventilate, clarify, and crystallize issues.

Thus, rightly or wrongly, ABS-CBN has always been perceived as political and partisan—a network that always takes a position on an issue. Everyone knows the state of ABS-CBN’s relationship with the current government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Even during Edsa-3 and during the wake of presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., ABS-CBN was perceived as decidedly unfair and partial in its coverage. I remember Susan Roces castigating ABS-CBN publicly prompting newscaster Karen Davila to break down in tears.

Because of this, GMA-7’s claim as a network that doesn’t take sides, as a network that is not out to protect any business or political interest (“walang pinapanigan, walang pinoproteksiyonan, serbisyo totoo lamang”) rankles as a comparative mission statement. The common perception is that ABS-CBN is a network one either loves or hates with a passion. In contrast, GMA-7 is a station one either likes or is apathetic to. As a friend puts it, one does not dislike GMA-7, one simply is uninterested in it.

As a result, ABS-CBN often finds itself justifying or defending itself from vociferous criticism about the way the network defines and performs its role of being “in the service of the Filipino.” It can be recalled that in many critical and defining moments in recent history, ABS-CBN had to come up with TV spots that left no doubt as to where the network stood in the din and dynamics of the controversial debates.

Although there is no concrete indication that such is the case, the fact that the Lopezes produced one Vice President (Fernando Lopez, Marcos’ first Vice President) and propelled the election of another (current Vice President and ABS-CBN talent Noli de Castro) in addition to having political figures in its stable of talents contributes to the gnawing perception that ABS-CBN has political interests. That the Lopezes also controls major industries (power, water, and the North Luzon Expressway are some) also contribute to the perception that the network is out to protect the family’s business interests.

The book offers some justification by making bold claims about how the history of ABS-CBN is closely intertwined with the history of the country. In certain parts, it seems to hold itself up as a metaphor for the nation. But why ABS-CBN would put itself in a situation where its fortunes is hostage to political drama is an interesting story.

Kapitan offers some insights on how this institutional preoccupation to be part of history and how its brand of political vigilance took roots within the institution. What seems very pronounced is the almost palpable drive within the network not to be at the receiving end of political persecution ever again. The book makes a big case about how the network built and rebuilt itself from the ashes of political oppression and one gets a pervading message from the various testimonials within the book that the network will never ever allow such a situation to happen again. This collective passion and organizational will permeate everything the institution stands for and does. It also translates into pride, or its counterpart, conceit, and the many other intangibles that provide meaning and spirit to an organization’s existence.

Organizational theory calls it institutional ideology. It remains to be seen if ABS-CBN’s brand of institutional ideology, assuming the organization is cognizant of it, is compatible with the role it wants to carve for itself in Philippine history or with its business interests to begin with. Let’s see.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The mad rush to beautify Cebu

A lawyer-friend of mine who lives and works in Cebu, and who has specifically asked not to be named, sent me an e-mail to share his views regarding the ongoing controversy surrounding Metro Cebu’s seemingly mad rush to “beautify” the queen city of the south in time for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference slated in December.

Those of us who won’t be in Cebu anytime soon will not be able to see for ourselves what the whole fuss is all about. However, snippets of the controversy have been featured in some newspapers and in some television news shows. And in situations like these, references to the grand old days when the country’s main patroness of the Filipino value bongga (over the top) the former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos reigned supreme could not be helped.

The buzz is that local officials in Cebu and its twin sister Mandaue have pulled all the stops to make sure that all the eyesores (e.g., squatter colonies, old dilapidated houses, unsightly landmarks, etc.) are removed, covered, whitewashed, made over, etc. Based on my friend’s account, local media in Cebu have been having a field day tallying up the costs involved (hundreds of millions and still counting).

Apparently, all the roads leading to the convention center and to all the venues that will be used for the 12th summit of leaders of the Asean have been miraculously transformed overnight into sparkling first-world landmarks. Houses along the way have been given a makeover. Squatter colonies have been uprooted and relocated somewhere. Pockmarked roads have been covered with asphalt, etc.

My friend wonders why some critics are fanning the controversy “as if the people of Cebu do not deserve to be at the receiving end of such attention.” He thinks that the paving of the roads is something that “is long overdue and the question should be why are these things only being done now?” He wonders why relocating squatter colonies should be such a major issue when “squatting, by definition, should be discouraged to begin with.” Furthermore, he asks why the people of Cebu, particularly those who are beneficiaries of the grand, if belated munificence, are not being asked if they themselves resent the grand makeover.

I do not doubt the veracity of the facts presented thus far (including those relayed by my friend), but in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that all these are second-hand information. I do not know exactly the extent of the whitewashing efforts or if these are truly approaching “Imeldific” scale. But I do find the debate interesting.

On one side is the view that in situations like these when the eyes of the world are trained at us, we should always endeavor to put our best foot forward. Hence, pulling all the stops.
On the other side are the proponents of the belief that “honesty” is the better option—that there is no shame and in fact, on the contrary, there is nobility in showing the world our real state of affairs.

I do not think that these two points of views are necessarily at extreme ends of the same continuum, that this is an either or proposition. I think that there is a middle ground somewhere.

I definitely am against “over the top” grand scale makeovers that serve no purpose other than to impress others and to project the impression that we are a rich people. I agree that such efforts smack of hypocrisy, particularly if the money is taken from more urgent and critical programs of government.

Unfortunately, it is also hypocritical to point fingers at others and crucify them for something that seems inherent in our culture. Sadly, our “bongga” mentality, more often evidenced in our penchant for mounting expensive fiestas and other affairs is a cultural norm that we still have to purge from our collective psyche.

I know for a fact that in many places, people still mortgage properties, spend hard-earned money, even take out loans from usurers in order to mount festivities that serve no purpose other than to make them look good; even it means having no money to pay for their children’s tuition.

However, I think that there is wisdom too in improving infrastructure and in investing in good public relations. Cebu happens to be where the action is in terms of economic development. Cebu is one of the prime tourism destinations in the country today. In fact, I think Cebu even beats Manila in terms of being an ideal convention destination—the convention facilities in Cebu are just so much more superior compared to other key cities in the Philippines.

For example, some of the major local conferences such as the Advertising Congress and even the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines’ annual conference have been held in Cebu primarily because the nightmares that come with mounting such huge conferences are significantly less in Cebu. A sad reality check: Outside of the decaying halls of the Philippine International Convention Center, there is nowhere else in Manila where one can one house 1,500 participants to a conference. On the other hand, there are easily at least three venues in Cebu that can easily accommodate that number.

So yes, I agree with my friend that beautification efforts are not necessarily bad particularly if some cost-benefit analysis is presented.

Having said that, I would like, however, to point out what is truly sad and heartbreaking about beautification efforts such as the ones allegedly being done in Cebu today. When the party is over and the guests have left, what usually happens is that the improvements are left to decay and no one bothers with the maintenance and upkeep. That is the truly sad thing because it highlights something that is awfully and horribly wrong: We seem to do these things only for the sake of our guests and not for ourselves.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's beginning to look a lot like...

This is my column today, November 8 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Forget about nippy mornings because as we all know, weather patterns have not been as predictable lately. Forget about being cheered by Christmas carols playing on the radio because the remakes of those old carols and the supposedly new songs that are being passed off as Christmas tunes just do not create that old feeling—in fact some are bound to create the opposite effect. You feel like strangling the composer and the singer. And it’s not just the rapping and the grating and the screaming that is being passed off as music. It’s the general thesis behind the new songs or the new renditions of those old carols—everyone seems to have been jilted or swindled or just in dire need of a sex slave.

We know Christmas is just around the corner because everyone who stands to profit from it has been reminding us endlessly, shamelessly and in very unmistakably obvious ways of it. They’ve taken ads, hung streamers, clipped flyers on your windshields, hired someone to call you on your phone to tell you about their Christmas offer, etc. The only thing they haven’t done is invade your dreams and the only reason they haven’t done that is because technology has not advanced that far yet.

The newscasts have their countdowns (47 days to go before Christmas!), the department stores shove Christmas decors and various material things at our faces, everyone is hawking giveaways and promos. What is supposed to be a meaningful season has just become so darned commercial. Christmas has become synonymous with mass-scale spending and profligacy. It is very sad that many of the traditions that make Christmas something to look forward to every year are fast disappearing and that it looks like kids today are growing up with a very different perspective of what the season is supposed to be.

I realized the Christmas season was definitely here because earnest appeals for help for new and creative ideas for themes, contests, and games for Christmas parties have started to appear more frequently in various human resource management e-mail groups. Yes, even the way we celebrate Christmas has now given way to more commercial considerations. Parties cannot simply be about sharing the spirit of the season together—they have to be creative, they have to appeal to a wider range of interests and demographics, they have to be more memorable than last year’s or better than those of our competitors. Sigh.

Thus, human resource management people have to come up with the most unusual themes and concepts that often do not have anything to do with the season to begin with (e.g. Halloween at Christmas?). And we have to accommodate various political, cultural, social, religious considerations.

This reminds me of a story in an e-mail I read last year that really got me laughing so hard. That e-mail begun with a memo from a company’s HR manager announcing the theme, date, venue and other details of the annual Christmas party. A second e-mail was hastily released to explain that the holding of the party was not in any way meant to discriminate against employees who were not Christians and will therefore not be called a Christmas party anymore, but a simple gathering. A third e-mail hastily announced that out of respect for vegetarians, a vegetarian’s table would be set up. And another e-mail specified where the halal food would be placed for Muslims who want to participate. And a fifth one clarified which tables will be for recovering alcoholics. And yet another e-mail… and so on and so forth. I think the last e-mail was supposed to have announced the cancellation of the party and the resignation of the HR manager. You get the drift.

I understand why we have to respect diversity and try to respond to the needs of a wide range of interests. But what I do not get are Christmas decorations that do not have anything to do with Christmas.

Take for example those lanterns in the shape of flowers and fruits that adorn our streets during this season of reflection and sharing. In the spirit of the season, let’s not go anymore into the embarrassing questions such as why they have to be on every street lamp, why they have to be that huge, or if those things really cost that much. The money for the personal Christmas shopping of our local executives’ relatives has to come from somewhere you know, wink, wink.
But, pray tell, what have those lanterns got to do with Christmas? I was driving along Roxas Boulevard and Taft Avenue yesterday and I noticed that workers were already putting up colorful lanterns that are supposed to put people in a Christmas mood but work better at reminding us of summer.

They are giant gumamelas (hibiscus) for crying out loud! At least they are not in the shape of tulips or roses, a friend who was with me quipped. Mayor Atienza, sir, I know you like flowers and that it seems your love of them is so great and cannot be contained by simply wearing those shirts, but can we take a break from this long year-round Panagbenga festival in Manila during Christmas? Or at the very least, can they be in the shape of poinsettias?

And what is with these Christmas decors in colors that are best worn on Holy Week or to a little girl’s birthday party?

I know there is no accounting for taste, but I still have to find out why anyone would want to have a Christmas tree decked with Christmas balls and ribbons in purple, yellow, blue or black. Or why anyone would like to buy a black Christmas tree to begin with. If one is not in the mood to celebrate the season, I think a more logical course of action would be not to have a tree. But it seems there is a market out there for these inanities because practically all department stores I go to sell them.

This is a cliché; yes, it is trite and outworn but I hope that as we get dragged into the frenzy of buying presents and partying and stuffing ourselves to the gill, we also try to make a conscious decision to remember what the season is supposed to be about.

There is a reason why it is called Christmas. And there is a reason why it is supposed to be a big deal. I hope we do not lose sight of them. Now go buy those purple and pink Christmas balls for your color-coordinated Christmas tree if you must.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Breaking Traditions

This is my column today, November 6, 2006, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Two issues caught my attention last week. The first issue was unfortunately displaced in the public eye by supposedly more controversial and pressing national issues. The second one is still hogging the front pages of many newspapers, particularly those with a penchant for sowing intrigues and gossip. There are parallels between the two issues. They are about gender, discrimination, rocking the status quo, and balancing hallowed traditions with the mandates for change.

From the third grade until junior high school, I was a boy scout. In fact I was a troop leader and truly liked being part of the scouting movement. Had there been a choice between scouting and Citizens Army Training in fourth year high and Reserved Officers Training Course in college, I would have picked scouting anytime. To my mind, scouting offered more practical, exciting, and yes, intellectually stimulating experiences. I actually learned how to tie knots, pitch tents, build fire with bamboo sticks, even read maps and use a compass. On the other hand, I do not remember much of what I learned in ROTC. And of course, the character building that was part of the scouting movement was just so much more positive and empowering than say the fascist type of character building in CAT or ROTC.

There were also girl scouts and we would often hold scouting activities together. Unfortunately, gender roles in society severely limited the range of their scouting activities. While we boy scouts would pitch tents on open grounds and often in the wilderness, the girl scouts would be content with partitioning classrooms into living rooms and bedrooms with the use of curtains and blankets. While we cooked our food on open fires, they did theirs on portable kerosene stoves. In short, the girls were not allowed to learn the more physical and rigorous scouting challenges simply because of their gender.

Well, the national board of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines (its current president is Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay) recently announced that they will soon be implementing a new policy which will allow girls to join the boy scouts. All the politically correct reasons were cited and it is difficult to argue with them. They are the same reasons why Rotary Clubs have to accept female members or why some schools shifted from being exclusive to being coed. Gender should not be used as an excuse to shut out certain individuals from certain activities or from membership in certain organizations. It just does not make sense to discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender alone.

One would think that women would rejoice that another door has been opened to them. It turns out that the Girl Scouts of the Philippines is opposing the new policy. They can hem and haw about all the procedural and substantive gobbledygook, but it is obvious that the debate is mainly a turf issue. In other words, one organization is portrayed as usurping the domain of another organization. The Girl Scouts are bewailing the potential loss of members and are seeking protection.

As a human resource management practitioner, I find protectivism an inherently flawed concept. Any organization that intends to succeed against competitors—in this case, how to avoid losing members to another organization—has only one logical strategic option and that is to strengthen the organization’s capabilities to retain its members. Attacking the competitor and crying for protection have no place in today’s cutthroat world. Attracting and retaining members is a real challenge for any organization— business, civic, and yes, even scouting organizations—and any organization that wants to continue being attractive to potential as well as incumbent members simply has to work hard at it.

And this brings us to the second issue, which is about Madam Miriam’s seemingly quixotic quest to become the country’s first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is another sad commentary of our times that the whole substance of her nomination for the post seems to have been overshadowed by frenzied speculations and wild commentaries that add nothing to the discussion but quotable sound bytes. “The worst of times and the best of times,” said someone and refused to elaborate. “It is all propaganda,” said another. I think the discussion thus far has missed the real problem and we seem to be hacking at a false symptom. There is just too much politicization of the workings of the Supreme Court.

The gender angle—that Miriam’s nomination is a wonderful opportunity to finally appoint a woman to the highest post in the country’s judiciary—does not fly. There are two women Associate Justices that are qualified as well— Consuelo Ynares-Santiago and Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez. Miriam is not the only female lawyer in this country.

The more relevant issue in this case is whether it makes sense to appoint a chief justice from the outside and bypass the five qualified justices that are already incumbent justices. It has not been done before in this country, although if I am not mistaken this has happened in many countries. I think Howard Taft and Earl Warren were appointed as chief justices of the United States from the outside. Is breaking tradition worth the change?

This is actually a dilemma that human resource management practitioners in this country have faced many times. As people who are considered experts in the selection process, we are often confronted with the question of whether it would be better to promote someone from the inside or just bring in someone from the outside for certain critical positions in our respective organizations, including the post of chief executive officer. In situations like these, there are at least three factors that we consider.

The first is institutional goals. The nature of the challenges and the presumed changes that need to be made within the organization will help determine if there is a need to bring in a fresh perspective. It is easy to ascribe political motives into the determination of institutional goals, but it seems people are forgetting that voting in critical national issues has always been a collegial undertaking. There has been no reason to doubt the objectivity of the justices so there is no need to do so now. So the question that really needs to be asked is: What exactly is the value that someone external like Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago will bring in to the Supreme Court?

The second factor is institution-person fit. This is ascertaining the overall readiness of the person to adapt into or change the institutional culture. What we seem to have at the moment is a career judiciary where judges rise from the ranks. Inherent in such a system is a culture of “exclusivity.” How will the often-maverick Senator fare in this culture?

The third is person-job fit, with a bias for demonstrated rather than possessed competencies. Quite frankly, while I do agree that the good senator is never wanting in certain competencies, her presumed competencies to become chief justice remain to be demonstrated. And I think Supreme Court justices should be chosen not just for their intelligence, or technical skills, or legal expertise. More importantly, I think they need to be chosen for their experience and judgment. There is something that experience teaches—a deeper understanding of the law, of the world, of the human condition— intelligence alone will not yield this. It is also called wisdom.

In the end, I think the more appropriate question is not “What is the most democratic way to choose the chief justice of the Supreme Court?” but “What is the best way to do it?”

Friday, November 03, 2006

sifting through muck and dirt

Again, this is delayed. Sorry. This was my column at the Manila Standard Today last Wednesday, November 1.

It is always fascinating and yes, exasperating, to go through the froth that inevitably follows any major political statement in this country. I know that a lot of things hinged on that Supreme Court decision – for instance, whether there will still be a Senate or elections next year - but the breadth of discussion and analysis is truly one for the books.

For example, I just don’t get the point of the guessing game about who delivered the supposed swing vote. Not only does such a discussion reek of our proclivity for witch- hunting, for our penchant for looking for someone on whom we can heap the blame on, but it also is quite pointless since anyone among the fifteen justices is potentially the person who hammered the last nail on that coffin. And shouldn’t the discussion be about what was said rather than who said it?

I also do not get all these bitterness over the supposed harsh language of that decision. What, they expected kid gloves treatment from the people that have been the subject of so much pressure and speculation in the last few weeks? Secretary Michael Defensor’s whining and grumbling about the ungratefulness of certain justices who, he hinted, have forgotten who appointed them to the High Court, provide all the justification for the supposed viciousness of the language of that decision.

Perhaps I am immune to incendiary language as a blogger, which probably explains why I took the particular vehemence with which the decision was coached as par for the course. After all, the whole debate about charter change and the validity of the people’s initiative was already smoldering with fire and brimstone anyway. “Deception and gigantic fraud on the people” are words that, quite frankly, sound like kids’ play compared to what have already been said by the contending parties in the run off to the Supreme Court decision. Surely no one expected a cold and detached treatise on a burning issue!

And what is with this nonsense about how the voting was indicative of the level of patriotism of the justices? Since when was love of country purely determined by one’s position on one national issue, regardless of the level of importance we attach to that issue? Oh please, patriotism is something we try to aspire for everyday. And it is not a concept that can be hijacked by anyone to serve his or her own selfish political agenda.

So lets stop these attempts to read more into the decision by inputting political color, motives or emotions. Well at least no one has dared to question the mental faculties or the intellectual probity of the justices. Yet. This is the Philippines remember and in this country no one loses an argument, one side wins and the other side simply gypped.

On the other hand, I do find the accolades that the anti-charter change people are suddenly heaping on the Supreme Court justices who voted against the people’s initiative as farcical. A few months back, unkind speculations were running high over the futility of expecting an impartial decision from the GMA-appointed justices. For a while back there, the scuttlebutt was that the proponents of the People’s Initiative filed the petition precisely because they were already guaranteed of a victory – that they knew something that others didn’t. The implication was that it was a done deal, that the justices in question were puppets that kowtow to Malacanang’s every desire. I hope that from now on, we can truly give people, particularly those that deserve it, the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s focus on the incisiveness and the wisdom of the decision and stop trying to ascribe political color. There’s more than enough in it to dissect and pull apart without dragging up muck and dirt.

I personally think that the essence of that decision is long overdue. I think that the Supreme Court has done wisely to finally put a stop to all these attempts to settle national issues through extra-constitutional means.

For quite sometime now, I think that we have all been wantonly, brazenly, and dangerously manipulating the sum and substance of the concept of people power and its various derivatives – e.g., the People’s Initiative. When we do not like something, or when we want something changed, we have gotten into this mentality that all it takes is getting enough people to buy into our cause or causes. It has all become a numbers game and to heck with the law.

So we want to save the La Mesa Dam? Let’s get one hundred million signatures. We want to boot the President out? Let’s get hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets. We want to impeach someone? We want to recall an elected official? We have gotten into this trap of thinking people power is simply about body count.

I think that it is truly time for us to make our democratic processes work. God knows we have been toying with them for quite sometime now. Now we know its still works.

***

And in a perfect example of doublespeak, the administration says it will appeal the decision but at the same time is already firming up its senatorial, congressional and local government slates. I am still writing this in Leyte and the air here is already thick with pre-elections buzz.

This early, there are interesting developments happening. It seems the administration is hard put putting up the money to finance the elections given the fact that everyone is watching the administration’s every move. This probably explains why it is having difficulty getting the supposed winnable candidates into its slate. Oh, let’s cut this crap about loyalty and ideology. An election in this country is still about money and whoever has the gold gets more friends.

On the other hand, it is becoming very clear where or to be more specific, from whom, the opposition’s largesse will be emanating from. And no one seems to be watching out for that source of funding. You and I know where that money came from and quite frankly, it is shameless the way certain people have forgotten that.

It is futile to comment on the administration’s senatorial line up since it looks like the mad scramble to find suitable candidates is not over yet. However, there might be some gray lining hovering in the horizon if it succeeds in drafting local executives who might bring some bit of fresh air and competence into the murky halls of the current senate. Bulacan Governor Josie de la Cruz, MMDA Chair Bayani Fernando, even Television personality Korina Sanchez, assuming that these people can be enticed should provide an interesting contrast to the recycled tradpols that dominate the opposition’s line up. I found it quite unnerving to see that dancing lady Tessie Aquino Oreta, her balato partner John Osmena, Erap sycophant Tito Sotto, and fugitive Gringo Honasan are in that list. Good grief.