Thursday, December 28, 2006

Three hours in a convent

I spent the whole morning today with the Daughters of Saint Paul, also called the Paulines. Most of you probably know them as the sisters that publish some of those really great value-formation books and magazines and run the Daughters of Saint Paul Bookstores. (I had the great fortune of having lived in Tacloban City a few houses away from their Tacloban branch - so there were days when I practically lived inside their bookstore just browsing through their books).

I was invited to give a "situationer" on the real state of the country. It's something that I normally don't do primarily because I think there are other people who are more qualified to talk about economics and politics; but the sisters were able to convince me that they wanted to listen to the points of view of an "ordinary man." Besides, how do you say no to nuns?

It was my first time inside a "convent" although I do not think that the Paulines consider their Pasay compound as such. There is a beautiful and serene chapel inside the compound and lots of trees, a printing press, and several houses that serve as quarters for the various communities of sisters. (I don't really know if I am using the correct terms, I was a little embarrassed to ask too many questions of the nuns).

We had the session inside an auditorium that evoked simple elegance and functionality- a hall that reminded me so much of those old quaint audio-visual rooms in certain Colleges that produced echoes and had wooden chairs that did not make that squishing sound. Very few of those are left, I think - they have been replaced by sterile sound-proofed cushioned AV rooms that are filled with all kinds of technical gadgets. I was told that the session was part of their "reflection and strategic planning efforts" which they do every six years or so.

I hope to be able to put together my two-hour talk into a column for New Year's Day.

But I had a really great time interacting with the nuns. It's been a long time since I delivered a talk to an audience that was eerily quiet and so well-behaved (smile). As a teacher of college students, I have been used to employing all kinds of devices to attract, sustain and engage attention that I have forgotten how it is to have an audience with impeccable behaviors.

So, to the sisters who tell me that they do make it a point to check my blog as often as they could, thank you very much for a very inspiring and fulfilling session.

Delightful and disturbing

This was my column last Wednesday, December 27. The same internet difficulties you have been experiencing caused the delay of the post.

Trying to decide the other day which movie to watch among the nine entries in the Metro Manila Film Festival, my friend Emer and I went into a spirited discussion. It was a tough call because none among the entries seemed to warrant the spending of time and money. Patronizing the filmfest, however, was an annual tradition for me and my friends. Our reasons were more altruistic than artistic, or even affective. Finally, we decided to heed the advice of the Film Ratings Board who gave three films (Ligalig, Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, and Kasal Kasali Kasalo) A ratings.

Deciding exactly which one among the three films to see was a little easier. We simply picked the movie with the shorter queue. Expectedly, the Judy Ann Santos and Ryan Agoncillo film Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo was making a killing in the tills so we figured watching it didn’t fit well into our reasons for supporting the festival. We settled for Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh which features Rustom Padilla in the lead and Zsa Zsa Padilla as his super hero(ine) alternate. I had read Carlo Vergara’s comic book and had seen the musical play adaptation. I figured it would be fun to compare how the film fared against its earlier artistic incarnations.

The whole viewing experience was almost destroyed for me by my friend who kept gushing about how beautiful Rustom Padilla was as Ada, the parlorista (gay beautician). Actually, my friend kept gushing about how beautiful Padilla as a gay man was, period. The fact that we had difficulty dissociating Padilla, the person, from the character he was supposed to play spelled trouble as far as appreciating the film was concerned. (It’s really not his fault that the circus attending his coming-out-of-the-closet continues to haunt him.)

To his credit, Padilla delivers a really heartfelt and touching performance. In fact, I think his performance is luminous —he really does shine, even when my friend kept insisting Padilla was too beautiful and classy to be believable as a parlorista for the masa. I figured my friend had been going to the wrong beauty parlors—the ones that I had been to were always inhabited by beautiful gay people.

This is a movie that presents the heart-rending situations of gay people in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek way; and it does so without trivializing them. Here, the gay man is still a drama queen, is beaten by his father, is used and abused by almost everyone, and is a responsible uncle to his niece. Here is a movie that depicts the gay man’s quest for affection and empowerment sans the usual slapstick. It is still tragic-comic because in real life as in this movie, gay people do have this inherent propensity to turn even the most emotionally climactic situations into something hilarious. In this movie, though, the result is less comedy and more poignancy. One can actually empathize with Ada and his emotional situation. In that scene where he cries his heart out after being dumped by the guy he has supported through college, one can actually feel his anguish and pain.

Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah is also noteworthy because it is probably one of the very few Filipino movies that is an authentic musical. I know there are countless Filipino films which feature some singing and dancing, but they are gratuitous; you get the sense that the musical performances are inserted simply to add length or to make up for the performers’ absolute lack of acting talent. This film features singing and dancing that pushes the story forward and serves as emotional highlights.

Too bad the young could not appreciate the homage to those Darna movies from the ’70s that featured all those women from other planets wearing silly wigs, sillier costumes, and truly bizarre dialogues. Pops Fernandez as Queen Femina Suarestellar baroux (you read the name right, that’s how campy the movie is), Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah’s nemesis from planet XXX, reminds me so much of Helen Gamboa’s similar turn in Darna and the Planet Women which I watched when I was a little kid. Why, even the cardboard spaceship and the sidekicks look similar. Fortunately, the special effects are more advanced in this movie.

Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah does not offer much in terms of storyline. But then again, this isn’t a movie that you watch to appreciate a good plot. Even the romantic angle between Ada and Dodong is a little contrived. To the director’s credit, however, this is probably the first movie featuring a romance between two people of the same sex where people inside the theatre actually go “awww” in the end as the two characters declare their passion for each other. I can go on about the political implications of the film, and they are there in the movie, but I think people should simply enjoy the film and come up with their own individual analysis. That’s what brains are for.

As a whole, it is a well-made film with a lot of heart. It’s a film that deserves to be watched if only because it tries to say something important and succeeds in doing so while entertaining people at the same time. Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah is a delightfully funny and poignant film.

My friend and I still had time in our hands after watching Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah so we decided to do more than our share in supporting the filmfest. We watched the third film which was given an A rating —Cesar Montano’s Ligalig. The people behind the film have been making a big deal with the supposed surprise twist at the end of the movie and have gone as far as using this twist as the main marketing come on. Halfway through the film, though, my friend and I already figured out just what the twist in the end would be. It was too obvious. Duh, the title already suggested that someone in this film was disturbed.

This movie, though, still deserves the A rating because of its technical achievements. The opening and end credits alone are worth the admission price—they are so well-made that one gets the feeling that one is watching a foreign film. Cesar Montano’s main strength as a director which was already palpable in his first film Panaghoy sa Suba is in his astounding ability to capture details on camera. Although the movie does feature the standard scare tactics (one almost sees subtitles that say “be prepared to scream in the next scene”), the real suspense comes from lingering context shots: a quivering hand holding a cigarette, a fluttering leaf, etc.

This movie is almost in the same league as Mike de Leon’s classic Kisapmata. In particular, it does a really great job of capturing that general sense of foreboding that makes a suspense-thriller worth watching. I won’t be surprised if Montano wins the best director plum for this movie. He deserves it, mainly for being able to produce a gem of a film from a rather soporific premise of a story.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Ten things you can do today

Merry Christmas everyone! This is my Christmas day column at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

You probably woke up a little later than usual today. And if it weren’t for the fact that some relatives will most likely drop by at some point during the day or you need to be somewhere else in a few hours “perhaps your parents’ house for the traditional Christmas reunion” you probably would have preferred to curl up in bed some more and sleep off the hangover from last night’s revelry. But the kids in the house are most likely already creating a ruckus, running around playing with their new toys, so it is difficult to be grouchy today. It is Christmas.

It’s that one day in the year when we’re supposed to feel a little better despite the many uncertainties of the times we live in. A quick glance at your cellphone tells you that your inbox is overflowing with all sorts of Holiday greetings, some original, some creative, and the others a repeat of the same text messages that have been going around since yesterday.

So you roused yourself from bed making a mental note to yourself to make this day different from all the other days of the year. But how exactly? Someone once said “he who does not have Christmas in his heart will never find it under the tree or in someone else’s hug.” So here then are 10 things you can do today that may help rekindle that old warm feeling that is supposed to come with this joyous season.

Dress up in something that makes you feel great. As that carol says, “on we now our gay apparel.” You don’t have to put on your tux or a ball gown, but you can make an effort to put on clothes that makes you remember that today is a special day. Yes, despite everything, there is a lot to feel good about and that is more than enough reason to celebrate. If you are the religious type, then think of it as your way of celebrating His birthday. Otherwise, think of it as your way of being one with the rest of the Christian world in a collective party to celebrate peace, love and joy.

Play Christmas carols, some inspiring music, or any music that makes the house hum with the beat of the season. The one thing about enthusiasm and cheer is that it is like an airborne virus that you can catch if you expose yourself to it. So go ahead and play those old Ray Conniff albums and fill the house with the sound of Christmas.

Make sandwiches of the leftover ham and cheese from last night’s feast. These will probably be lying around ignored in the dining table for the rest of the day until someone finally has the heart to stuff them into the refrigerator where they will lay untouched for a few more days, if not weeks. With a few slices of apples and some strips of lettuce or cabbage, these can be transformed into delightful gourmet sandwiches. Wrap them in paper napkins of sandwich bags if you have them and give these to the streetchildren that are bound to come knocking at your car in some intersections of the Metro. These kids probably had to fight for a slice of ham and probably didn’t have queso de bola at their table last night so your leftovers will definitely be a welcome treat for them. Some of my friends and I started doing this since a couple of years back and it is something guaranteed to make you feel the real spirit of the season.

Reach out to someone you haven’t been had contact with for sometime now. It’s the time to mend broken friendships, forgive old hurts, or simply validate someone’s presence in your life. Write a letter, call, or send a text message. You have the perfect excuse to do it today—it is Christmas.

Spend some quality time with your loved ones today, especially the old and the young. Remember, quality time is measured by the receiver; so make an effort to do the things that truly mean something to the people you love, not the ones that you think has meaning to them. Often, this simply means spending time with the kids doing what they like best— either joining them in playtime or just being there with a smile on your face and without any trace of judgment for their countless demands. Or this could mean just spending time with your old folks listening to them drone on and on about the thousand and one concerns of the aging.

Go to church. You do not have to attend a mass or participate in a religious ceremony if you do not feel like it. Being inside a church for a few moments of silence and reflection really does wonders to the spirit. I particularly do not like hearing mass, but I have always found solitude inside a church, particularly on Christmas day.

Watch a movie with your family and support the Metro Manila Film Festival. I know the quality of Filipino movies has been on a general downward trend, but this is the best time to go watch a Filipino movie. The spirit of the season is a perfect excuse to enjoy even the most escapist plot or the most awful film output. The Philippine film industry is dying and needs all the support it can get from all of us. Films do serve an important role in strengthening our country’s collective soul and it would be tragic if we simply watch it gasp for its last dying breath without doing anything to help.

Make an inventory of the Christmas presents that you received and remember to thank the people who gave them. It has become very convenient to think that just because you already reciprocated the gesture by exchanging gifts with the person, there is no need to say thank you. A simple text message or a note would go a long way to validate the other person’s gesture.

Pray for our country. God knows we need all the divine intervention we can get in these uncertain times. It is sad that the animosity and our troubles are bound to resurface after the Christmas season and by the looks of it things are going to get more ugly in the political front in the next few weeks and months. But the Christmas season is a good time to remind ourselves that hope springs eternal. There is still hope for our country.

Cap the day by reading a good book that’s inspiring, or offers some moments of reflection. There are a number of really great books that does a good job of reminding us that living is still a wonderful gift that we need to be thankful for; that our lives need not be spent in drudgery and misery. And if reading is something that does not appeal to you, watch a movie in your DVD player that achieves the same purpose. It does not have to be “The Ten Commandments,” it can be something that makes you feel good and brings home the Christmas message in some way.

May you find meaning today. Maligayang Pasko!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas presents

This is my column today, December 20, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

If you are on the brink of having a nervous breakdown, going nuts trying to figure out how to complete your shopping list with barely six days to go before Christmas, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Going by the number of harassed people who are still converging in the malls and the tiangges (according to the household help who was in Divisoria yesterday, it is sheer bedlam out there), you are definitely in good company.

I still have to meet someone who can categorically declare that he or she is finally done shopping for gifts this year. The task seems daunting: choosing gifts, lining up to pay for the items, and wrapping them, and making sure the tags are correct. We all know how it goes. No matter how many times you check and recheck that darned list (assuming that you had a list in the first place), there is always someone, or worse, a number of your kith and kin who somehow slipped your memory this year. Worse, there is always that someone unexpected who pops up bearing a gift, and you find yourself obligated to reciprocate. Whoever was responsible for changing “gift-giving” to “gift exchanging” deserves to be condemned to a life of wrapping presents 24/7.

There was a time when wrapping presents, and keeping track of which gifts go to whom, was something that I relished. But in the last three years or so, I have delegated the task to the other people in the house. First, the volume of items to be wrapped has simply quadrupled as I got older. Consequently, what used to be fun has now become tedious and arduous. Second, wrapping gifts has transformed into an advanced art form that now requires huge amounts of mental, creative and physical effort. Not that I am lacking in any of these three (ahem); I just believe that there are more important things on which to spend effort.

How did it all get this complicated? I think that the commercialization of Christmas has really raised the bar in terms of what excites or pleases people today. Gifts do not only have to be unique or expensive, they also have to be packaged in ways that make people shriek with pleasure, or at the very least, smile.

Notwithstanding the increasing commercialization of the season, I must admit that this business of exchanging gifts does do wonders to the spirit. This early, I have received some truly delightful presents—some because they were from people I hardly expected to get presents from, and some because of the nature of the gift itself. I write about these in the hope that they will provide inspiration to others who are suffering the shopping equivalent of a writer’s block.

It seems fruitcakes have been replaced as the standard gift of the season. In Christmases past, I always ended up receiving more fruitcakes than the whole family could consume (to begin with, no one actually liked eating fruitcakes in my household). I swear on my grandmother’s grave that I never recycled fruitcakes as Christmas presents despite fair warning from friends that I was doing a major crime of breaking the so-called fruitcake chain. (The joke is that there are only 100 fruitcakes that get passed around at Christmas). I still have to get a fruitcake this year, but I have received more bottles of wine than I could consume during the season. Is red wine the new fruitcake? Of course, this is probably because people see me now as a grown up and thus eligible to pickle my liver with alcohol. And I am not complaining. At least, red wine is something that comes handy as a gift in any occasion (not just Christmas) and it does last longer than fruitcakes. So go ahead, bring them on.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I am not sure if this is necessarily the case, but I have noted that instead of the usual bulky food baskets that invariably contained the same canned and bottled stuff (presumably ingredients for making fruit salad, spaghetti, and other standard Pinoy holiday fare) some people are becoming more creative and in the process more gift-recipient friendly. For instance, someone sent me a basket of stuff that would make a good appetizer course or a picnic fare: baguette and various spreads such as a collection of cheese, a jar of capers, a tin of anchovies, a bottle of pesto sauce, etc. Another basket contained a collection of organic stuff—from organic coffee and tea, mascovado sugar, etc. A friend told me someone sent him a basket of sauces for all kinds of Pinoy viands (there’s a basket I want to receive). I must take my hat off to the people who put together these baskets—they are not only creative and original, they actually make you feel valued.

And then there’s this new trend of giving native kakanin or local food specialties as Christmas presents. Someone sent me a box of barquillos straight from Iloilo (the box said so), another one sent in two dozens of Lucban longganiza still wrapped in newspaper but held together by a pretty ribbon. For a moment there, I was tempted to follow the inspiration and send an urgent SOS to my parents in Leyte to send some muron, which is chocolate suman that is made exclusively in my hometown; but I figured there was no need to share the stress with my aging parents. So I’ve stuck to presents straight from National Bookstore, good old dependable SM, and of course, the many tiangges that have sprouted around the Metropolis like mushrooms.

I hate to admit it, but one’s perspective about Christmas does change as one gets older. I now have profound understanding of the phrase “seeing Christmas through a child’s eyes.” I wish I could enjoy Christmas all over again the way I did when I was a child.

Sadly, someone has to tick off the names in the list and match these with the right presents, worry about planning and preparing the Christmas feast, and more importantly, keep track of the expense—the last one is more than enough to dampen any hope of being able to enjoy Christmas the way a child does. I don’t know if I should thank my lucky stars or weep over the missed opportunity, but I was spared the trouble of having to explain to my children the supposed painful truth about Santa Claus’ real identity. They just figured it out on their own, thanks to television and Christmas movies. I don’t know exactly when they figured it out. I have this sneaking suspicion that they were in on the big secret for the longest time but held off revealing their discovery to make sure they get exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

So in case you are suffering from frazzled nerves and aching limbs in a vain effort to imbibe and spread the spirit of the season, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The self-destructing administration

The following was my column last Monday, which I failed to post in this blog due to various reasons which I can't go into right now. But am okay.

The potent combination of outrage and sense of betrayal coupled with simmering discontent and long-dormant animosity finally came to a boil in the political event of the season that was the prayer rally held yesterday at the Luneta. For quite sometime now, many have been wondering what would finally make people snap out of their collective apathy. We know the answer now.

The throngs of the betrayed have been galvanized into action, their anger ignited by the brazen and callous post-midnight conspiracy of the administration congressmen in the House of Representatives to change the Constitution through a constituent assembly.

What is truly sad about the whole sordid turn of events is that all these are reminiscent of previous chains of events that consequently threw someone out of Malacañan Palace. Frankly, we’ve been there before; didn’t the administration see this coming? Edsa II and III were ignited by the same callous disregard for due process, the same wanton disrespect for people’s intelligence. In moments like these, we can’t help wondering whether the people who walk the corridors of power in this country have indeed become so drunk with power that they have become deaf, blind and numb to the fact that there is actually very little support for this administration to begin with.

Let’s do a quick reality check. The failure of the opposition and militant groups to muster numbers for protest actions in the past were not due to overwhelming affection for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It was due to grudging capitulation that rocking the status quo would be more dangerous. That was then. I have always maintained that many people were willing to cut President Arroyo and her allies some slack, but that this was preconditioned on certain deliverables. Okay, let’s call a spade a dirty shovel and state what I think many people wanted: clear signs of repentance and mending of ways.

There is only so much that people can take. Even the most apolitical and the most apathetic person could be roused to action when he feels insulted and abused. And the shameless way in which the House of Representatives railroaded the process to convert itself into a constituent assembly while the nation slept was truly insulting. How dare these people think they can get away with whatever it is that they want!

A line has been crossed in the last three weeks. And, unless more concrete steps are taken to assuage people’s fears and doubts, unless very definitive assurance is made that similar sinister conspiracies will never ever be resorted to again, I am afraid that the resentment will continue to snowball.

It is very easy to dismiss the prayer rally spearheaded by the Catholic Church yesterday simply as a warning salvo to the powers-that-be. I don’t share that belief. The organizers may have tried to downplay the political overtones of the event by insisting that it was simply a religious affair. But the truth of the matter is that most of the people who went to Luneta yesterday did not go there to pray. Everyone knows we can pray anywhere. People went because of political reasons. People went because they felt violated. People went because, quite frankly, their patience was wearing thin.

In the same light, the government’s frenzied but inept attempts to backpedal on the constituent assembly proposal and to diffuse the situation were indicative of certain things: most specifically, it shows the level of concern, even panic, on the part of Malacañang. National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales even went to the extreme of trundling out that old worn-out communist bogey threat in an effort to discourage people from going to the rally. It was almost farcical how he attempted to dissuade parents from allowing their children to go to the rally by citing security threats. Oh please, this tactic had been practiced by the Marcos lackeys in the ’70s and ’80s, and had proven to be so unsuccessful. The problem with using fear as deterrent is that it only serves to embolden people and deepen their commitment after their initial success in overcoming their misplaced fears.

Using scare tactics has never worked in eliminating casualties due to the use of dangerous firecrackers during New Year’s Eve, or in HIV/AIDS prevention, or in many other situations. What ever made Gonzales think it would work now?

More telling is the way the Palace has been forced to reveal its hand in the whole scheme of things. We can recall that in the beginning, the government made it appear that it had nothing to do with the workings of the House of Representatives. Now that things have come to a boil and the backs of administration congressmen have been put against the wall, Malacañang has taken a direct hand in diffusing the situation and doing spin control. It would have been convenient to simply toe the usual line and pin the blame squarely on the administration representatives. Given the way things are, however, this would have smacked of political suicide. As it is, we’ve already had a number of Pontius Pilate wannabes washing their hands in public a good three months before Holy Week.

So here we have a situation where the President is no longer linked to the whole sordid mess simply by association. It is now pretty clear that the Palace has been behind the move after all—and this conclusion is no longer drawn from simple inference. This spells trouble for the President who, except of course for that very incriminating taped conversation (whose impact may have been diminished but continues to haunt her just the same), has so far been spared from being directly implicated. The chinks in the armor are now all there for everyone to gawk at. The opposition and the civic groups who have been sharpening their axes for quite some time now are all ready to strike again. I can almost hear them humming that old familiar refrain, “happy days are here again.”

Serves the administration right, I think. It has been given more than enough opportunities to redeem itself but it has only squandered these. If there is something that can be said of this administration, it is that it has done a great job at self-destruction. Instead of focusing on building a great legacy that will counterbalance the series of scandals that have rocked it from its inception, it has wasted its energy on counterproductive actions that have only alienated more and more people, including those who have been initially supportive—whether sincerely or grudgingly.

Is everything lost, then? I don’t know. Right now, I can’t see through my personal resentment at the way my intelligence has been insulted by this administration over that stupid move to ram that constituent assembly. Proposal down my throat. It is just sheer luck that all this mess is happening during the Christmas season when people are in a more forgiving and hopeful mood. But this self-destruction has got to stop. It simply has got to stop. Enough. Please.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Surreal but real

This is my column today, December 13, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

The title is not original. It is a dialogue from the movie Notting Hill. But it’s a phrase that has been coming to mind as I watch in utter amazement, and complete horror, some of the events of the last two weeks.

The House of Representatives stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to flex its muscle and flaunt its power to bully anyone that stands on its way—the opposition, the Senate, the Filipino people. I actually stayed up until around midnight watching the live proceedings on local television. I was initially annoyed and upset, but I eventually ended up laughing myself out at the sheer brazenness of the administration representatives who were vainly trying to conjure a logical case for their audacious move. It was pure madness. I knew what was at stake was no laughing matter, but I was 100 percent certain that they were doomed to fail. Surely, such wanton and reckless disregard for due process was predestined to meet a tragic end.

I figured being livid and getting angry would be a colossal waste of energy, so I opted to watch the proceedings the way one would watch a circus act. The acrobatic logical deductions were quite impressive. The juggling acts and the emotional hara-kiri were awesome.

Even the sideshow featuring she-with-the-streaked-hair (forgive me, I still cannot mention her name without going into a giggling fit over that “If We Hold On Together” dramatic turn at the Palace) was a welcome diversion. If you did not catch it on television (and too bad it wasn’t featured in the newspapers, which seems to indicate that her star is waning, tsk, tsk, tsk), she-with-the-streaked-hair brought a stuffed toy of a puppy into the gallery and made a big to-do of waving it every time a television camera zoomed in on her. It was her way of taunting, or in a manner of speaking, yapping at the administration representatives, calling them tuta (lapdogs) of the President. Surreal but real! But even more surreal was how one female representative stood up to deny being a tuta of the President or of Speaker Jose de Venecia. Why dignify something if it was untrue?

We all know what happened next, how the Palace and the House of Representatives hemmed and hawed over succeeding courses of action. As of this writing, the official word is that the Palace has withdrawn support for the ill-fated constituent assembly proposal and is now throwing its support behind the constitutional convention route. I can only wish them luck since I am sure the recent fiasco over the constituent assembly proposal has put everyone in a very uncooperative mode. Meanwhile, reports indicate that Sigaw ng Bayan is reactivating its signature campaign. Again? Surreal but real.

I have been told that real life was stranger than fiction. What can be stranger than the sight of two educated, honorable, distinguished gentlemen indulging in a water splashing incident eerily reminiscent of that classic dramatic scene from a Filipino movie, recently turned into a television soap opera? Yup, that’s the one where the quintessential dramatic actress Cherie Gil utters the immortal line, “You are nothing but a second-rate, trying hard, copy cat!” before splashing water on Sharon Cuneta’s face. Only this time, the characters involved were males; the scion of a national historian (he actually shares the same name as his illustrious forebear) and a noted business columnist of another national daily. The confrontation happened at a press conference where television cameras and tape recorders were readily available to document the whole sordid turn of events.

Watching the confrontation on television was a weird experience. I was amused that some people have deemed themselves worthy enough to pass judgment on the ethical implications of the altercation. Some people even had the gall to explain the behavior of either party as if there were any excuse or justification for boorish behavior anywhere.

I don’t care who is involved, or if the cause that person is fighting for is noble. As far as I am concerned, the bottom line is that bad behavior is bad behavior.

But this is where we are right now: This is how low we have sunk in the area of social behavior.

We are no longer content with simply disagreeing with another person; we must attack the person and make mincemeat not only of his opinions but of his persona and honor as well. We are no longer content with just shouting slogans and brandishing placards; we must throw rotten eggs at the person.

We are no longer content with merely making public statements and publishing manifestoes; we must march uninvited into private functions or by-invitation-only affairs, diss the hosts and call them serial rapists. We are no longer content with simply shoving and bodily removing from the premises people whose behavior we do not like; we must literally douse them with water.

And the list of surreal events goes on and on.

Immediately after the verdict on the Subic rape case was handed down, one prominent bishop thought he was doing Filipino women a great service by putting his foot in his mouth and dispensing advice that only served to strengthen traditional gender stereotypes. He said: “Women, most especially, should be taught that womanhood is precious and noble, so it is not right for them to be flaunting it around. They should not make themselves appear cheap and practically inviting to be violated by men.” There are those who do not see what harm statements like these do in terms of perpetuating the culture of blame directed at victims of rape and sexual crimes. The suggestion that rape can be “invited” is appalling. And these are words coming from a bishop of the Church!

The double whammy that were Reming and Seniang hit some areas and missed some. I think it is natural for those who were spared from the devastation to heave a sigh of relief. But making public statements taunting the organizers for canceling the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit because typhoon Seniang did not hit Cebu after all, only other provinces, smacks of callousness and feeblemindedness. In those other provinces, people were killed and thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods to that typhoon that missed Cebu. As it is, I don’t think it is in good taste for anyone to even talk about how lucky they were for being spared by the typhoons. Their supposed “luck” spelled misery for others. The politicians and pundits who used the typhoon as fodder for political hogwash is in the same league as that priest who proclaimed that his prayers produced the miracle that spared Metro Manila from typhoon Reming.

Surreal but real.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Responding to the labor mismatch

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

The mismatch between what the academe produces (graduates) and what industry needs (jobs) has been a cause for concern for decades. In the past, however, the issue has not merited serious attention. There have been many reasons for our utter inability to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. The practical reason has been the passivity of industry: it simply accepted whatever the academe produced. It merely trained (or in some cases, totally re-trained) new hires to fit the requirements of the jobs.

I think, though, that the most important reason has been our inherent trust in our educational system. After all, it is the same system that produced us and made success stories of our own selves. How can something that produced us be so wrong?

What could have been the first major sign of trouble went largely ignored for, again, social reasons: The emergence of underemployed Filipino workers locally and abroad. Although we’ve had many sob stories of Filipino workers with full college degrees ending up as domestics or crews in fast-food restaurants, both locally and abroad, many of our leaders chose to see this as a temporary variance or exception. (Of course, I do not think there is something intrinsically wrong with these jobs. It’s just that these weren’t the jobs our countrymen trained or obtained college degrees for.)

So for many years, we continued to labor under the assumption that the problem was not that serious, and that Pinoy ingenuity was more than enough to bridge the gap. Whatever our labor supply lacked in skills, we made up for with grit and gumption, with our never-ending sense of devotion (tiyaga) and forbearance (sikap).

Too bad the years of collective denial seem to be finally catching up on us. Today, the issue has become urgent and alarming because the country’s bid as the most ideal destination for offshore work from developed countries is beginning to expose the decay in the system. As many of us know, the call center industry has seen phenomenal growth in the last couple of years. More business processes have been outsourced in the Philippines, and the trend isn’t showing signs of letting up. These industries, however, require certain competencies that have not been clearly defined, communicated, and understood.

We now face a potential shortage of qualified labor to meet the requirements, not only of the emerging industries such as call centers and business process outsourcing, but also among traditional industries. It does not help, of course, that many of our qualified and competent graduates are being siphoned off by the more developed countries or that everyone seems to be enroled in nursing schools today. So while opportunities in terms of employment seem promising, the labor supply remains problematic.

Exactly where and in what areas do we have a mismatch between labor supply and demand? How exactly do we address this? These are questions that are finally being asked by many sectors.

Thankfully, enlightened debate on the issue is finally taking place. Initiatives are now being undertaken to strategically respond to the problem.

Last Monday, Dec. 4, the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines pushed for a more integrated and strategic response to the problem by convening a tripartite summit to address the mismatch. The summit was attended by close to 300 representatives of government, academe, trade, and industry.

Grace Abella Zata, chairman of the summit, reveals at least three major breakthroughs that emerged from the summit. First, the summit laid the groundwork for academe and industry to work collaboratively in addressing the problem, beginning with efforts to clarify misperceptions about the supposed gaps in the system such as explaining the real needs of industry. For example, for quite sometime now, there has been this nagging perception that call center jobs are clerical in nature and simply require English proficiency. Zata says these “are misplaced perceptions considering that the jobs do require analytical skills.” At the same time, the summit helped clarify that the English proficiency requirement does not call for English grammar proficiency (although that certainly is ideal anywhere), but for communication skills in listening and responding with empathy.

Second, the summit opened avenues for short-term, medium-term and long-term strategies to address the mismatch.

Third, the summit brought to the surface the need for a more integrated and enlightened approach to the problem. It has become clear that the mismatch has philosophical, cultural and political dimensions. One noted academic provided a powerful context to the problem when he wrote that education could not just be about responding to the needs of industry while ignoring other human dimensions. Clearly, the problem requires a multi-pronged approach and “while the problem may be rooted in the educational system,” the solutions need to go beyond finding faults. To be empathic about it, the educational system is not solely to blame for the problem. Ensuring that our graduates become employable is not just a function of providing the necessary labor supply, but also of fine-tuning and qualifying the right demand, situated within a more enlightened social and cultural context. The discussion has just become more interesting.

* * *

What we do know now is that there is a need for more empirical data from which to draw our responses and action plans. For example, the need for accurate information regarding the career situation of college graduates is long overdue. We need to know if the number and quality of current graduates are adequate to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing job market or whether unemployment is increasing.

It is in this light that the Graduate Tracer Study of the Commission on Higher Education becomes more meaningful. The study, which aims to improve the quality and market relevance of higher education training in the Philippines, operates at two levels: institutional and national.
At the institutional level, 120 randomly selected higher education institutions were invited to participate in the conduct of the study to cover 60,000 randomly selected baccalaureate graduates of academic years 2000-2001 to 2003-2004. At the national level, the study aims to develop a profile of the more successful college graduates in this country.

Results of the institutional studies will be presented in a whole-day CHED-sponsored forum at the Bayview Park Hotel today. The forum intends to provide information on key indicators of employment opportunities, job satisfaction, the relevance of academic qualification, competencies and professional skills needed on the job, job mobility, migration, and underemployment of Filipino graduates. If you have the time, do drop by and contribute to the discussion.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Congratulations, mau!

My friend Jerome has been rooting for her all this time - he even went out of his way to have his picture taken with her (that's him in green shirt and the photo was filched from his own blog, teehee).

Well, she made it. After all that has been said and done, talent prevailed. For a while there, I was skeptical about her chances because she clearly did not have the machinery - even her own grandmother does not have a cellphone - and she has a humble background.
But what do you know, Pinoys do know talent when they see one. So in the end, all that machinery and organized campaign by the other parties proved puny compared to the power of the people. Well, I personally voted for Mau 16 times (mahirap pala mag text ng ganun kadami and I did not have the patience to go beyond that) and for Gian 8 times. I felt I had to do my share to make sure the winner was someone who could truly represent the country abroad.

So, what can I say about the finale of the Philippine Idol?
It was a good thing we do have really great singing talents to make up for the awful technical problems (the lighting was really bad and the audio was often unrealiable) and the really baduy conceptualization of the show. Parang FAMAS show 1980 ang concept - meron pang mga dancers sa opening number at meron pang movable set a la Walang Tulugan for that Christmas number.
Whoever thought of putting Aiza Seguerra and Pow Chavez together in a number needs to be congratulated for a daring idea that could have failed miserably. Fortunately, both sung so well that the initial giggling and snickering among the audience eventually gave way to open appreciation. Whew. I guess it just proved once more that gender, looks, and other considerations become less important when genuine talent is present.
I liked the medley of Ryan Cayabyab songs - except that I would have wanted to hear them sing songs from Katy such as Entablado and Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako, songs which I feel represent Ryan's best. But I guess they didn't really have much time to prepare so they had to settle for more popular songs.
It was a good thing Pilita was asked to sing only a few bars of the last song because age seems to be really catching up on her. Her voice just isn't the same anymore and it was quite uncomfortable watching her try to scale those high notes. Too bad she has not been able to preserve her gift - unlike Barbra Streisand, for example, who sounds even better now that she is older.

The power of an organized campaign

I stayed home to watch the final contest of Philippine Idol last night. Overall, I wasn't disappointed because the top three contestants, Mau, Gian, and Jan were all generally talented and performed well. However, I couldnt help but note the impact of an organized "pala" on the overall performance of contestants and the general mood of the contest.

Of the three, Jan Nieto had the better machinery - which probably explains why the judges made the fearless forecast that the first Philippine Idol will be male. Jan's supporters seem more organized and seem to have a better-managed campaign going. This was painfully obvious last night at the Araneta - his supporters had all the works... glittering pompoms, larger tarpaulins, more streamers, and louder shrieks.

If we are to go by the audience reaction at Araneta Coliseum last night, the contest was already won by Jan Nieto. He simply had better connection with the audience, although not with those watching at home. Jan has great vocal pipes and I think he has shown considerable improvement since his earlier days in the contest, but he still looks awkward and uncomfortable at turns. Television is a painful medium and his facial ticks and tendecy to over-emote were often highlighted on camera. He seemed all heart.

On the other hand, Gian was the exact opposite - he looked very polish and comfortable onstage. Problem is, he looked verrrrrrrrrry comfortable and he had the tendency to come out sterile. In short, the technicals were perfect, but his performance seemed to lack heart. His rendition of Impossible Dream was vocally perfect, but strangely, I did not feel an emotional connection with him - and to think that song has special meaning to me (favorite song of my grandmother).

Mau is admittedly the more talented of the three. Unfortunately, her performance last night lacked the usual power and presence that have become her trademark. She just wasn't as animated as in the past. But that last song sure blew me away - I think even Whitney Houston could not have done a better job.

So who is going to be? I hope people will remember that while all three are great singers, the winner is going to represent the country and will be compared to the other Idols from other countries. Jan is okay, but Mau and Gian are the better singers and performers.

I voted for Mau and Gian. I hope one of them makes it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This is exactly what I mean...

In my column today at the Manila Standard Today, I maintained that "rape happens and will continue to happen unless we address the power inequities in our society, most specifically, those perpetuated by traditional gender stereotypes that tend to devalue women."

I ran out of column space, which is why I was not able to explain what I meant by "traditional gender stereotypes that tend to devalue women."

Well, what do you know, in some papers today, there are news items quoting Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan saying one of the most outrageous things that bring home my point.

While trying to draw lessons from the Subic rape case, the good bishop has been quoted offering this bit of advice to women "women, most especially, should be taught that 'womanhood is precious and noble, so it is not right for them to be flaunting it around.” "They should not make themselves appear cheap and practically inviting to be violated by men,” he said.

This is exactly the problem with traditional gender stereotypes - they cast people into certain moral categories. Thus, a woman must subscribe to the traditional gender stereotype of someone who is "chaste, meek, passive, obedient, etc" otherwise, they invite being violated. Thus, certain types of women (such as those who frequent bars, dance with abandon, wear sexy clothes, etc) deserve to be violated for "flaunting" their womanhood in public. Oh please. This is very medieval. This line of thinking reflects just how irrelevant and awfully outdated the Church is on a number of issues.

Why should the blame be pinned on the victim instead of the culprit? What does this line of reasoning say about men - that men are unthinking, sex-crazed animals who are bound to lose their mental faculties at the sight of a woman in sexy clothes? Rape - or sexual harassment - can be excused because a woman was walking on a street at midnight and therefore invited the assault?

It is reasoning like these that perpetuates power inequities in our culture - the same reasoning that conditions men to think that they are entitled to certain mischief - because the woman did not behave according to the traditional gender stereotype. Thus, she invited it.

Power, politics, and rape

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

Sexual crimes such as rape, sexual molestation and even sexual harassment are not really just about sex. They often happen because one party thinks he or she is entitled to certain liberties mainly because of inequities in power structures.

Many studies show that unequal power structures between cultures and between genders are important determinants of sexual crimes. For example, there are many documented cases of sexual crimes being committed by those with economic power, i.e., rape or sexual harassment being committed by people who think that their money can buy almost anything and therefore entitles them to take advantage of others. In addition, traditional negative gender stereotypes, specifically those that tend to devalue women (in the case of the Subic rape case, Filipino women) make them susceptible to sexual crimes.

Thus, was the rape committed because the accused servicemen thought that Filipino women are like commodities that can be had that easily? Was the rape—and the subsequent atrocious way the victim was carried out of the van and dumped on the sidewalk—indicative of the level of contempt for Filipino women? These were some of the unspoken questions that hung in the air all throughout the trial.

It is within this context that we can make sense of the political drama surrounding the Subic rape case, including the seemingly incendiary statements of the militants that have been keeping watch on the trial and even those of Nicole’s private lawyer when the verdict was given last Monday. When the verdict was read, she was caught on television shouting something along the lines of vindication of Filipino women and justice for Filipinos and women in general. Of course, those who have been following the developments in the trial could not have missed the placards, slogans, and the chants of the militants and human rights activists that hued very closely to the statements of the victim’s private lawyer.

For quite sometime now, attempts to provide a wider and deeper social and political context to the rape case have been met with some skepticism, perhaps even indifference. For many people, the rape case was a simple case of crime allegedly committed against one person. But for others, particularly the militants, the rape case was definitely more than that as they threw in concepts such as national sovereignty, national pride, the honor of Filipino women, etc., into the picture.

I think that there are valid grounds for some of these claims. Because the rape happened inside a former United States naval base and involved US servicemen, the cross-culture implications cannot be avoided. However, the acrobatic logical deductions employed by some quarters— particularly those that lump together Americans in general (or the US government for that matter), all servicemen, Filipino women who work at Subic, etc., beg to be reconsidered. The criminal act of one or four or 20 US servicemen is not enough repudiation of all US servicemen, just as the circumstances and conduct of one Filipino woman cannot be held as collective representation of all Filipino women.

Understandably, there are those who think that we should go easy on the political slogans and the widespread condemnation, fearing a possible backlash directed at our own overseas workers in other countries, specifically those in the United States (never mind the intra-government repercussions, I think we have enough to leverage on against whatever possible diplomatic backlash). I do not want to make light of the fears because the dynamics of rage, particularly those borne of cultural peculiarities, are difficult to fathom. But I have great trust in the capabilities of people to waddle through the possible emotional reactions and see the case for what it is: A crime was committed, a trial was conducted, and a verdict was made based on the facts presented.

Personally, what I found really infuriating and galling about the circumstances around the rape case was the way they treated the victim after the supposed crime was committed. As it is, rape is a crime that cannot be justified or excused. But there is absolutely no defense for the way they carried the victim out of the van like a pig, dumped her unceremoniously on the sidewalk, and left her there like a piece of trash. The picture of the victim—with her panties down, carried like some carcass, discarded at the sidewalk—what enrages me. Surely, no decent man is capable of doing that especially after one has taken liberties against the person. If anything, these acts validated the extremely low regard they had for the victim. They not only violated her person, they totally stripped her of her dignity.

So while the three other servicemen may not have been found guilty of rape there is no doubt in my mind that they are guilty of something else—something just as terrible, depraved, and atrocious. They are guilty of barbarity of the highest order. Which is why I find some relief in the thought that the three servicemen will still face administrative and disciplinary sanctions from the US military establishment.

Having said that, I think it is time for all of us to make sense of the events that just happened. One of the things that saddens me about national issues such as the Subic rape case is our utter inability to draw lessons from the experience after the drama has subsided. It sometimes seems to me that we tend to look at sordid national events as national pastimes, something akin to the teleseryes that we follow on television. They offer momentary excitement and diversion, serve as fodder for emotional debates, and once their run has finished, we move on to the next scandal or human interest story.

Although this is a long shot given the fact that media projection of the Subic rape case has been focused largely on the cross-culture angle, I hope that at the very least the case has highlighted the social issues around sexual crimes. This case involved US servicemen, but lest we forget, rape is not the exclusive domain of foreigners. There are thousands of rape cases involving our own countrymen. Whether they involve US servicemen or Filipinos, rape happens and will continue to happen unless we address the power inequities in our society, most specifically, those perpetuated by traditional gender stereotypes.

* * *

Now that media seems to have reconsidered the hysterics in its reportage of the devastation caused by typhoon Reming, the sobering reality of the extent of the damage is beginning to set in. It is time for all of us to come to the aid of our countrymen in the Bicol area. In the bank that I work for, the holding of the traditional festive Christmas Party has been scrapped this year.

The money earmarked for the party will instead be donated to the victims of the typhoon. It just does not make sense to hold extravagant parties at this time when many of our fellow countrymen do not even have roofs over their head or food on their table. I hope other companies will follow suit. To paraphrase what someone once said, he who does not have Christmas in his heart will not find it under the tree or experience it in a party.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Demystifying job interviews

This is my column today, December 4, 2006, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

As a human resource management practitioner, I conduct job interviews for a living. I don’t interview people all day long, but conducting job interviews and determining the overall fit between a candidate and a post and between a candidate and the organization is something that I have been doing for almost 18 years now. Those of us in the HRM profession cannot imagine a selection process without a formal interview, which is why I am quite aghast at the refusal of the five associate justices of the Supreme Court to submit to a public job interview. It seems that there are still many people in this country, particularly those in government, who think that submitting to a job interview is beneath them.

I do not actually blame them. There are many misconceptions about the nature of a job interview, foremost of which is that a job interview is akin to an inquisition. It is really unfortunate that in this day and age, there is still this misplaced belief that a job interview is a battlefield, one where the interviewer (or interviewers in the case of interviews conducted by a panel) and the candidate are adversaries rather than professionals who are on the same side.

The truth is, a job interview is and should really be a collaborative process where both parties help each other determine whether a candidate qualifies for a post. A job interview should be a cordial process of screening people by focusing on their qualifications, rather than of picking faults. It need not be a gauntlet or a third-degree inquisition.

During the 2004 elections, a group of HRM professionals under the auspices of the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines conducted a public job interview of the candidates vying for the presidency of the Republic. The project aimed to provide a forum where the presidential candidates could showcase their overall suitability for the post they were aspiring for. The job interviews were conducted by a panel of select HRM practitioners who have earned their stripes in the trade. Although the public job interviews proceeded, it did not gain enough media mileage mainly because only four of the six candidates submitted themselves to the process. The leading candidates, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the late Fernando Poe Jr. did not submit themselves to the process, citing generally the same reasons that the five justices gave last week.

People can hide behind procedural gobbledygook and cite all the self-righteous reasons for snubbing the public job interviews. I will not nitpick on these points except on one. I do not agree with the reasoning that since the chief justice does not act as chief executive of the Judiciary, there is no need to conduct a job interview. A job interview can be tailored to suit any position.

If conducted properly, a job interview offers many benefits and is an invaluable tool for selecting the right candidate. And in this particular context, interviewing the candidates for a very critical public post such as that of the chief justice of the Supreme Court strengthens public accountability and transparency, two concepts that are sorely lacking in this country today.
By foregoing the public job interviews, which by the way is part of the guidelines of the Judicial and Bar Council, we all—and I mean all of us: the five associate justices, the media, the Filipino people—missed out on a golden opportunity to push transparency and accountability in this country one step further.

The buzz generated by the issue highlights one important point: That people are more empowered today and want active participation in the goings-on in government, particularly in the selection of government officials. The Supreme Court cannot keep on isolating itself from the mainstream. The high court and its magistrates cannot continue to live in an ivory tower, particularly in light of recent events where the court’s role as final arbiter of critical issues in the country has been painfully brought to the fore.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that there is intense interest not just on the composition of the court, but on the selection of specific justices because of the critical role that swing votes have come to play in its decision-making processes. Thus, I think that at no other point has the need to provide a human persona and dimension to the Supreme Court become more imperative. The public job interviews could have responded to this need. At the very least, it would have helped Filipinos get to know the candidates as individuals rather than as mere statues in black robes.

But I empathize with the five associate justices. Sadly, our collective experience with the way public hearings are conducted in this country has been anything but worthwhile. We’ve seen too many horrific instances of public hearings becoming free-for-all mudslinging and senseless posturing. Public hearings in this country have a sorry history of combing the dregs of our shortcomings as a people. So the trepidation of the five associate justices is well founded.

The really disappointing fact is that the whole thing could have been a win-win exercise if only some people, particularly those that compose the council, did their jobs better. Some strategic thinking could have helped. For example, the guidelines for the public job interviews could have been agreed upon earlier and made known to all. To begin with, the 30 minutes allotted for each of candidates could have been reconsidered. Thirty minutes is not even enough to interview someone applying for a clerical position. How much more for a chief justice of the highest court of the land?

Safeguards against highly subjective, partisan, or yes, irrelevant and downright stupid questions could have been put in place. Better still, the job interviews could have been contracted to an impartial group of experts (say, HRM or management experts, ahem).
A job interview need not be an irrelevant, unnecessary, and annoying process. The thing is, we need to do it correctly. There is a science to it. Nowadays, there are actually ways to make this exercise more productive for all.

* * *

As I write, our local networks continue to assault us with stark footages of the extent of the devastation wrought by typhoon Reming. I have no doubt that media is simply reporting the wreckage as they find them, but I have mixed feelings about the macabre and gruesome reportage. The preoccupation with body counts, limbs, decaying bodies, misery, ad nauseum must be traumatic to viewers. Watching the various newscasts make one wonder if there is a contest among the networks as to which one finds the most gory situations or the most heart-wrenching wail.

I am not advocating that networks sugarcoat their reportage. Surely, though, there are better ways to document just how puny we all are to forces of nature without showing dead bodies in various states of decomposition. I hope that our local networks realize that television is a medium that is easily accessible to all, including children. There are limits to what people can process emotionally and psychologically. We do not have to send people to sleep or perk up their days in the morning with those horrible images.