Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Walking the talk

A breakup is never a happy occasion even when the contending parties are already going at each other with fangs, claws, machetes, and nuclear bombs.

It is sad to witness couples part ways because we know that the disintegration represents, among others, failed efforts at keeping promises or sustaining commitments. Sadder still when the couple makes public their animosity and begins exchanging all kinds of lurid accusations. But we know these things happen, so we have learned to take these in stride as dynamics of human behavior that cannot be avoided.

Besides, there are organizations that have made it their mission to strengthen marriages and families. Once such organization is Couples for Christ. CfC was created out of the belief that “the family is a creation of God and no one has any right to change it, its structure and its purpose.” CfC’s philosophy includes the belief that “marriage is an indissoluble institution.”

In the interest of disclosure, I am not a member nor a supporter of CfC. My staunch advocacy of sexual and reproductive health rights puts me in direct collision course with the rather puritan attitude of the CfC movement toward these issues. But my disagreement with some—okay, many—of the advocacy points of the CfC does not preclude harboring respect for what it does. The organization has been successful in transforming many lives and communities; for this, it deserves praise and recognition.

Too bad CfC cannot walk the talk, or practice what it preaches.

The group officially made public last week certain information that has been spreading around in certain circles for quite sometime already but has not been openly discussed in media out of respect for the group. I personally have been aware of the issues since April as I have close friends who are active members of CfC. But just like in the case of ordinary couples, I guess many people, including myself, gave CfC the latitude to thresh out their problems internally. Just like many others, I hoped that CfC would be able to resolve its problems and avert a breakup.

But it is now confirmed: CfC is headed toward splitsville. The organization that has been renowned for its resolute commitment to keep marriages intact will soon join the ranks of the separated and divorced. It seems its leaders could not work out the marriage within the ranks; no amount of mediation and counseling have been successful in bringing the warring camps together to resolve their issues. Even the valiant efforts of the bishops have been in vain.

There are now two groups that are identified with personalities: the Tony Meloto group and the Frank Padilla group. I know this sounds silly, but the two groups are contesting ownership of the name “Couples for Christ.” The Meloto group claims that they are the real CfC since they have the corporate personality and the duly elected leaders of the group are in their camp. The Padilla group claims that their group is the one that remains faithful to the real mission and mandate of the CfC.

There are conflicting versions of what exactly it was that caused the conflict although the scuttlebutt points to two things: disagreement over how Gawad Kalinga has subsumed the main work of CfC, and money matters. But accounts are so far unanimous in saying that the conflict came to a head in February of this year.

Both Meloto and Padilla are founders of CfC and until February of this year sat in the group’s seven-man Council of Elders. The two resigned, along with a third member (Lachie Agana) from the council, apparently as part of a gentleman’s agreement designed to keep CfC from disintegrating. The resignation was supposed to have been an act of humility with both Meloto and Padilla owning up accountability for the problems within CfC and admitting a failure in leadership.

The gentleman’s agreement was supposed to resolve the internal strife and pave the way for a major transformation within CfC, beginning with a total purge of leadership at the top. The elders of the CfC who have been running the show for quite sometime already and presumably responsible—or at least accountable—for the mess, were supposed to give way to new leaders that would start the internal renewal.

The four remaining members were supposed to stay on only until the general elections scheduled June 22 of this year, but for some unknown reasons, the four broke the gentleman’s agreement and stood for re-election.

The issues have became convoluted and hopelessly tangled since then with each side offering their own versions of the truth. Both camps have been calling meetings of CfC members in an effort to explain their side and to win hearts over. The war has also been taken to the Internet, with a number of blogs sprouting up purportedly to shed light on the “real issues.” It has gotten more interesting. And unfortunately, ugly. Very ugly.

Sources say that the real issue is largely theological and to a certain extent, ideological. CfC is a 26-year old organization and debates over its identity and core mandates should be expected.

What is unexpected, and unacceptable, is that the organization is utterly unprepared for the challenge.

It is embarrassing that instead of taking the issues into a more strategic level of discussion, the leaders are engrossed in exchanging accusations.

And so a quick rundown of the issues being peddled out there include accusations of malversation of funds to the tune of hundreds of millions of pesos. There are charges of nepotism and profligacy. Certain people have been accused of spending organizational funds for personal affairs. There are innuendoes of illicit affairs, immoral conduct, egotistical behaviors, messianic complexes, etc. Personal e-mails exchanged between Padilla and Meloto’s son-in-law are out there, as well as other supposedly confidential documents. A psychiatrist has even made an analysis of the issues ascribing psychological motivations and personality analysis of Meloto and Padilla. All these supposedly in the interest of ferreting the truth.

Truly, the things we do for the sake of the truth. No wonder a number of CfC members have been pleading for a halt to the mudslinging. It really is getting more embarrassing by the day as more and more people weigh in with their own opinions and speculations, which, expectedly are being passed off as versions of the truth as well.

There is wisdom in getting into the essence of the problems as a means of achieving internal renewal. It does appear that majority of the CfC members are unaware of the real state of the organization.

But there is also wisdom in forsaking personal needs and agenda in favor of nobler and larger goals. I expected CfC to be bigger than any individual leader or member. I guess I was wrong. But it’s not too late for CfC to prove otherwise.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Postcripts to a controversy

Since I am a blogger and a columnist of this paper, I guess it was expected that I would react to the Malu Fernandez controversy.

Unfortunately, I have been on blog leave for a couple of weeks now due to a medical condition that put a cap to the number of hours I could stare at a computer monitor. It was only Wednesday last week when a friend alerted me to the controversy, wondering why I haven’t joined the fray.

That was when I opened my public e-mail account and discovered quite a number of e-mails basically advocating the same thing: A public lynching of Malu Fernandez.

But like my fellow columnist and blogger Connie Veneracion (she wrote a column about the controversy last week), I did read the damning column (Am I being a diva? Or do you lack common sense) in the lifestyle section of this paper when it came out. Since I haven’t read her People Asia article at that time, I didn’t know what it was that she referred to as “funny.”
It is important to note a detail that seems to have been glossed over in the melee—Fernandez’s Manila Standard Today column, while dripping with what appears to be her signature attitude (scorn and contempt) toward things that she finds objectionable, is not the piece that sneered at overseas workers.

I found it quite unnerving that many were so quick to pontificate without bothering to make that distinction. Many even confused the two publications and in fact some did focus their screed on this paper alone.

One manifesto even went as far as ascribing motives and all sorts of insidious agenda on this paper, the editors, and the people who are part of this paper. One e-mail that I got from someone belonging to an academic community asserted: “Manila Standard Today is riding on the controversy to generate more awareness for the paper which will translate into more readership and circulation.” Quite a stretch, you would agree.

At least two comments on a blog even succeeded in dragging certain columnists of this paper into the fray, convicting them by association.

For the record, I did find Fernandez’ MST column quite outrageous. I don’t find being haughty and elitist amusing, but Fernandez’s is not exactly peerless in this department. Oh please, there are a number of other lifestyle writers in other publications that dish out the same, if not far more contemptuous, and to my mind frivolous, discourse. Some of these people talk about their wardrobes and their partying as if these are the only things that matter in this country.
Come to think of it, even some so-called respected columnists have engaged in the same hateful discourse (for instance, Isagani Cruz of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and his harangue against gay people).

The truth is, this penchant for ridiculing other people and passing it off as satire has been around for quite some time now. Many writers have gained readership precisely for this style. Many find it hilarious. I don’t. But then again, I also poke fun at others and drag them across the coils often in this column and in my blog and I guess a number of people also find it objectionable. Many bloggers do worse in their blogs every day, practically calling people all sorts of names.

This is not to say that I think this paper or any paper for that matter should tolerate bigotry of any kind. We should rile against hatred of any form, wherever, and whomever it comes from. By all means, let us condemn in the strongest words possible what we think is wrong and vile. I don’t object to calls for boycotting a paper or flooding inboxes with angry denunciations. By all means, condemn and lambaste to your hearts desire. These are valid forms of protests.
But we must learn how and where to draw the line between what is valid and not, between what is reasonable and what is clearly excessive.

Public lynching has no place in a civilized world. I would caution anyone against advocating violence in any form. I find it alarming that many went as far as issuing death threats publicly. I am aware that many did so out of anger, but surely we are still capable of rational thinking even in the midst of extreme agitation.

And I would draw the line at forcing newspapers and editors to fire anyone because of what they write. A newspaper is supposed to represent a marketplace of ideas, which is a function critical to a democracy. Suppression of opinions because they do not conform to personal yardsticks of what is right or wrong just runs counter to the whole essence of what a newspaper is supposed to be about. In the words of one great man: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Again, this is not to say that columnists should be allowed to run amuck, libel anyone, or break the bounds of decency. There are ethical guidelines that columnists should adhere to. Fernandez made no bones about the fact that she is, in her own words, a “bitch.” She admitted her bias and prejudices. Whether we agree with her or not, or whether we find her attitude acceptable is entirely up to us. But she has as much right as anyone else to peddle her opinions in the marketplace out there. And we have the right to call her a bigot.

Columnists should be personally responsible—and made accountable—for what they write. In the end, any columnist worth his or her name should own up their mistakes or lapses in judgment. It is a personal judgment call. That is the reason why columnists own their spaces in newspapers. She has apologized and submitted her voluntary resignation.

Fernandez has been properly rebuked. She said she has learned a lesson. Hopefully we all did, as well. Fernandez might have been the main issue in the controversy but it wasn’t just about her.

The controversy has validated the emergence of blogs as a powerful medium today. But it also highlighted the downside of the medium. Because blogging is a free medium and anyone out there with an Internet connection can dish out opinions, and mostly anonymously, the issue of ethics among bloggers has become a serious matter.

As Veneracion pointed out, quite a number of commentaries about Fernandez were downright libelous. I personally found a number of commentaries really cruel and irresponsible. It was dismaying to read rants that engaged in the same vile and hateful discourse that they were riling about in the first place. I truly mourn the demise of civility in this world.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Remembering 1983 and Ninoy

Exactly 24 years ago yesterday, Ninoy Aquino was murdered at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, the same airport that was later named in his honor.

1983 would stand out from memory because of many things. Michael Jackson was still black then and he was the biggest star on the planet. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police was the most requested song. Original Pilipino Music was enjoying its newfound popularity as songs by Kuh Ledesma, Asin, Banyuhay, The Apo Hiking Society, among others filled the airwaves. Ledesma and her “Ako Ay Pilipino” were huge hits.

Movies were still watched on the big screen and that year, the local film industry’s golden harvest included such gems as “Relasyon,” “Sister Stella L,” “Himala” and “Karnal.” Student activism was enjoying its second wind after the First Quarter Storm. “The Return of the Jedi” was the biggest hit globally.

But 1983 stands out from memory because of what happened to Ninoy Aquino.

I was a college student then, but that was the exact time I took a semester leave from my studies to do immersion work in Davao, helping out other student organizations and fellow activists in organizing work against the Marcos dictatorship. The League of Filipino Students and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines were heavily into building its national network.
On that fateful Sunday afternoon, I was in a meeting with fellow student writers from the Southern Mindanao chapter of the CEGP. That meeting had to be ended abruptly when someone barged into the room with the tragic news from Manila.

As we scampered to go home to our families (I was staying with an uncle and his family), the news of Ninoy’s assassination was spreading like wildfire. Although the tragic news was relayed from one person to another in hushed tones, the sense of foreboding was palpable. Davao City was the hotbed of the urban poor movement in Mindanao and the center of the uprising was a squatter colony called Agdao, but commonly referred to as Nicaragdao because of the extreme militarization in the area. I remember riding a jeepney that was strangely almost empty. The streets were also quiet and the air was electric with tension.

I got home to find my uncle and aunt frantically trying to map out a strategy to locate my whereabouts. Back then, that kind of reaction was par for the course as people were indiscriminately picked up for questioning, summarily stripped of their rights, and thrown into detention centers. Checkpoints were everywhere; the military was so powerful. My aunt and uncle feared that a clampdown was imminent and were quite sure that activists were going to be rounded up reminiscent of the time Martial Law was declared in the country.

But Ninoy’s assassination changed the course of Philippine history.

Instead of scaring off people into submission and silencing the resentment and anger that festered deep in people’s hearts, Ninoy’s death galvanized everyone and broke the general apathy toward the pervading abuses of the dictatorship. Rally after rally hit the streets sending the Philippine economy into shambles and creating a political crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Ninoy’s death was the pivotal event that unleashed public fury. His funeral was the longest ever in Philippine history as more than two million Filipinos walked out of their houses to say goodbye to a man who offered his life for freedom and liberation.

I went home to Leyte a month after Ninoy’s assassination to resume my studies. Leyte was then Imelda country and the Romualdezes were venerated like royalty in the province. The first lady was busy building her monuments in Tacloban City and in her hometown of Tolosa.

To build her grand mansion that would serve as repository of her vast collection of paintings, religious icons and other artworks, the Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Center (perversely named after the province’s patron saint, the Santo Niño), Imelda Romualdez Marcos simply fenced off a sizable chunk of land that belonged to the university I was studying in. As editor of the university paper, I wrote a scathing editorial condemning the act, but it went largely ignored even by the university administrators. Today, the university has to contend with utter lack of space while the shrine stands there, decaying, and serving no other purpose than being a symbol of the profligacy of the Marcos dictatorship.

But Ninoy’s death would make an impact even among the people who were supposed to have been at the receiving end of the Romualdezes’ benevolence. The number of people who began to show up in rallies started to increase. I remember leading and joining Sunday afternoon rallies where placards that read “Imelda country no more!” were brandished alongside the usual slogans of the period “Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa” (Ninoy, you are not alone) and “Remember Ninoy.”

The protest movement and growing unrest would lead the dictator to call for snap elections that pushed Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino, to throw her hat into the political ring. The chain of events would then lead to the 1986 People Power revolt that saw the dictator, his family and most of his cronies fleeing the country. Cory Aquino was installed president of the Republic.

We owe a lot to Ninoy Aquino. It was Ninoy’s death in 1983 that started the chain of events that freed the Filipino people from the clutches of the Marcos dictatorship. It was his heroism and courage that brought back freedom and democracy to the country. He could have continued to stay in the United States where he lived a comfortable life in exile. He didn’t have to come home to face a certain death, but he did because in his immortal words, “The Filipino is worth dying for.”

Yesterday, we celebrated the 24th anniversary of Ninoy Aquino’s martyrdom. While watching television over the weekend, I came across clips that sought to remind Filipinos about Ninoy’s greatness. One such clip asked who Ninoy was, mentioning facts such as “he is Kris Aquino’s father” or “he is the guy in the five hundred peso bill.” Sadly, these are the facts about Ninoy that the younger generation is familiar with.

Twenty-four years is a long time. But those among us with vivid memories of 1983 would cling on to the memories as if they happened yesterday. We must try to keep the memories alive because heroism such as the one displayed by Ninoy Aquino cannot and should not be forgotten.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The blame game

“Be careful what you pray for, it might just happen.” This admonition has been top of mind lately for very obvious reasons. We prayed for deliverance from the long drought and the impending water crisis. Thereafter, three typhoons played catch around us, pulled the monsoon rains, and well, you know what happened next.

It’s been a very drenching week. Classes have been suspended since Wednesday last week and since today is a holiday, this means schoolchildren have been on vacation for six straight days now. If we take into account the other Mondays that have become holidays as well because of this administration’s holiday economics wrinkle, we’re all looking at a lot of school days to be made up for. There is now talk of make up classes on weekends. Vacations do come with strings attached. It’s payback time soon.

Our desperation for the rains led us to do many things. We prayed hard, performed rain dances, even spent millions in cloud seeding operations. We came this close to making sacrificial offerings to the gods.

We did everything except the one thing that should have been done: Prepare for the deluge. It can only be one of two things. Despite our claims to piety, we must be a people of little faith. Or we simply have leaders that really stink, big time.

So when the rains did come, the usual problems surfaced. Streets became flooded because, darn it, our drainage systems turned out to be clogged.

Schoolchildren got stranded in schools and eventually got drenched going home because the bureaucrats who were supposed to make that crucial decision about suspension of classes fouled up. And worse, when they tried to make amends by deciding early on to suspend classes for the following day, it turned out to be a wrong call as that day turned out to be sunny. We also got reacquainted with the embarrassing state of our weather monitoring technologies.

And to cap it all off, we got caught in the blame trap as everyone went into full defensive mood, fault-finding, finger-pointing, bickering, carping, backbiting, chiding, scolding instead of focusing on finding solutions for the mess.

Metro Manila’s flood problem has gone from bad to worse. At the height of the deluge last Friday, parts of Metro Manila that do not usually get flooded became submerged in water. The flood level at the usual low areas became alarming—the flood at certain parts in Metro Manila was waist deep.

And strangely, I seem to have recalled the Metro Manila Development Authority making claims about having fixed the drainage systems just a few months ago. The guys at MMDA can regurgitate all the usual justifications, but there is no escaping the fact that their efforts, if there were any at all, were palpak (total failure).

It is a good thing we can still find something amusing about our flood problem. We chortled that the President got stuck in traffic for hours or that film director Quentin Tarantino was forced to ride a tricycle to Malacañang. But really, it is not funny anymore.

In times like these, one can’t help but find some comfort even from the ramblings of the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago. The senator went ballistic last week and called for the sacking of mayors who fail to fix the drainage problem in their respective municipalities. The suggestion borders on delusional because we all know it will never happen; but at least it puts some perspective into the problem. We need to strengthen accountability in our country.

The President has crowed in her last two State-of-the-Nation Addresses about how infrastructures would become her legacy. Many people in Metro Manila would happily settle for a drainage system that works, in lieu of all those grandiose projects.

The rains and the subsequent flooding highlighted another problem that has been haunting us for many years now. This matter of who should (and when to) declare suspension of classes. This problem seems insignificant compared to our other major headaches but it tugs at our hearts because, really, we can all grin and bear the aggravations brought about by the incompetence of our bureaucrats but we do want to spare our children from all that. If we can’t keep our children safe, what does that make all of us?

As a parent and teacher, I find this problem really annoying. What rankles is that we’ve always had this problem every single time there is a deluge but up to this time there has been no satisfactory solution. There is always a foul-up somewhere. Government people and school administrators always (as in always!) go into this silly exercise of passing on the blame to someone else “who should have made the decision.” Every single time, they end up calling a conference to sort out the confusion. And then it is back to square one.

I know that what I am about to say is something unpopular, but really, parents must also take responsibility for the problem. I empathize with the difficulties parents encounter when they have to pick up children from school in the middle of the day. But it is also exasperating when parents whine and scold others for a judgment call they also could very well have made on their own.

The truth is, many parents are just too quick to assign parenting to schoolteachers, or to media, or to government. In situations where the health and safety of their kids are concerned, parents should take the trouble to decide what is best for their children, such as not sending them to school when the heavens are pouring out. Parenting just cannot be assigned to others all the time.

And finally, there’s this perennial problem of the sorry, nay, embarrassing state of Pagasa I know that our weather forecasters are always the most convenient scapegoats. It is easy to pick on them specially when their forecasts turn out to be duds. Pagasa has become the object of jokes, but it seems that the agency is really hampered by lack of the necessary equipment to be able to do its job effectively. If this is so, then I think it makes perfect sense to prioritize budget allocations for the agency.

We are willing to spend hundreds of billions of pesos on bridges and roads and on the computerization of elections but apparently not on technology for effective monitoring of natural phenomena. For crying out loud, this is a country that get hit by all kinds of natural disasters.

To be fair, Pagasa does happen to suffer from a serious credibility problem also because of image problems. I am sure that our geologists and scientists are technically competent and hardworking. Unfortunately, this is the age of information and whether we like it or not, we do expect our bureaucrats to be mediagenic as well. I do not know the recruitment standards at Pagasa nor am I certain about the availability of manpower supply because it does seem that very few students are going into that field today (most are in nursing schools, remember?). But can’t they at least take crash courses on personality and image projection? It really does not help when weather experts are caught stammering and generally being inarticulate on public television at a time when people want clarity and assurance.

Like I’ve always said, we cannot always blame the weather. At some point, we have to take matters into our hands. It is about time we did.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mayor Lim's unpopular moves

Public officials cannot please all their constituents.

In fact, I believe that anyone who tries to do so is doomed. First, because it simply cannot be done; there is no way any elected official can ever hope to please everybody. There will always be someone out there with a different opinion and a contrary interest.

Second, trying to please everybody betrays a serious weakness in character. An elected official who sacrifices principles, or at the very least, a program of government, at the altar of popularity is obviously someone who lacks moral courage. Of course, the absence of moral courage is not an impediment to a political career as many of our political leaders occupying very high positions in government are obviously unfamiliar with the concept.
But a spineless politician is the worst kind; he deserves no respect.

The honorable mayor of the City of Manila is obviously not out to please everybody—or anybody for that matter.

In fact, if we are to go by his actions since he assumed office, we can even say that Mayor Alfredo Lim seems bent, even possessed by this great need—to become unpopular.
I have many bones to pick with the mayor. I disagree with some of his new directives, although to be honest about it too, I laud many of his decisions as well.

For example, I am incensed that he has turned the portion of Vito Cruz Street from Taft Avenue to the Rizal Memorial Stadium into a two-way street again resulting in daily monstrous traffic jams in the area. This particular strip of road has been one-way for the longest time and it actually makes sense because the rest of Vito Cruz Street all the way to the South Superhighway is one-way.

I pass by the area every day and believe me, the traffic is so bad now vehicles are backed up bumper-to-bumper all the way to the area in front of Century Park Sheraton. While in the past it would take me, no more than 10 minutes to get from Macapagal Boulevard to Taft Avenue. Now it takes me at least 30 minutes and that’s when I am lucky. On a bad day, the short distance would take an hour to traverse.

Nobody has been able to explain the rationale behind the decision to revert that strip of road into a two-way street. “Utos ni Mayor Lim,” the traffic cops tell me every time I ask them, “bakit ginawang two-way ito?”

I also disagree with the decision to demolish the entertainment complex at the Baywalk area. I wasn’t a regular patron of the bars and restaurants that magically sprouted in the area, but I had the occasion to be there several times. I liked the way the place became a convergent zone for people from all possible social demographic backgrounds. It was a place where people who drove BMWs and garbed in designer outfits rubbed elbows with people wearing basketball jerseys who walked all the way from Tondo and San Andres on a whim just to be where the action was.

I can’t make heads or tails of all the talk about how those bars and restaurants destroyed the view of the Manila Bay sunset. The sun sets on the bay for crying out loud, not on Roxas Boulevard. The boulevard is also quite long; anyone who wants an unobstructed view of the sunset can choose a better spot. It also doesn’t make sense for residents of the condominium buildings in the area to complain since the structures are too low to obstruct the view from their high perches.

Besides, that argument does not fly when we consider that there are taller and more permanent structures on Manila Bay itself, such as the Army Navy Club, the United States Embassy and all those restaurants and bars behind the Museo Pambata.

I agree that the Manila Bay sunset is something that we should all take pride in. It’s a spectacular, breathtaking sight. But until former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza cleaned and spruced up that particular area of Roxas Boulevard, how many actually took the trouble to go there with their friends and families in tow to enjoy gazing at the setting sun? Roxas Boulevard did not have a “friendly” reputation before then. One had to be really adventurous to venture out into that area; the general perception was that it wasn’t a safe place to be.
But Lim has a point. There is a law against selling and drinking liquor in public places. And Baywalk did become a watering hole more than a place for a family picnic eventually.

It is difficult to argue with Lim’s hard-line stance because regardless of how you feel about his decisions and actions, you know that the man is doing it because he firmly believes it is the right thing to do. It is a matter of principle to him. This is probably why he can afford to be unapologetic and straightforward about it.

I think Lim continues to earn respect even from people who do not agree with him, precisely because we know that it is not personal—the man is doing his job and doing it well.
And to give credit to the mayor, he has accomplished—and all within two months of his mayoralty—certain things that were deemed impossible to do.

For example, he was able to clear Avenida Rizal and Recto Avenue of all those vendors that have made walking on those streets akin to running through an obstacle course. Manufacturers of fake diplomas and makers of other counterfeit documents who had the temerity to shove their masterpieces on your face as you walk through them are finally gone. When these people wailed on public television about how the mayor owed his election to them, Lim uttered his Dirty Harry one-liner: The law applies to all or to none at all.

The mayor was also able to demolish squatter shanties that clogged up the canals around Quiapo. This area used to be untouchable before because the occupants, who were mostly Muslims, somehow felt that being marginalized entitled them to certain allowances. Naturally, the argument failed to thaw the mayor’s heart.

So like I said, one may not like some of the things that the mayor does, but it is difficult not to respect him for what he stands for. A public servant who does not care about being popular for as long as he gets the job done deserves respect. Yes, even if you disagree with him.
All this reminds us that in the end, it really doesn’t matter if we disagree; what is important is that we continue to respect each other.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The circus comes to town again

It’s only been only a month since Congress officially opened and barely three months since the mid-term elections were conducted. The 2010 elections is still a long way to go. Yet here we are already in the thick of political machinations that only serve to bolster our disillusionment with our political leaders and our political system. Rather than focusing energies on more productive pursuits such as sustaining the economic momentum or solving the problem in Mindanao, our leaders are preoccupied with fortifying their political stock.

Jose de Venecia and Manuel Villar reclaimed their old posts as speaker of the House and Senate president, respectively, through processes that leave a bad taste in the mouth. Their resumption to power was characterized by the worst ever kind of political power play imaginable. It involved lots of backstabbing, conniving, horse-trading, wheedling, and other types of behavior generally discussed in political science classes under the topic “last-resort political behavior of the desperate.” Let us focus more on the Senate in this piece.

I am not a fan of Senator Jamby Madrigal, but in this case I cannot help agreeing with her condemnation of the Senate’s transformation into “one big stock market and [the] session hall into a trading floor, where committees, like futures, are given to the highest bidder in exchange for political loyalty and favors.” Madrigal thinks that Villar’s gambit “has made statesmanship, principled stand, ethical considerations, word of honor and good faith obsolete.”

The kind of horse-trading involved in Villar’s naked quest for power was immediately noted. Political machinations enabled him to form a coalition composed of administration and opposition senators. This was a feat of staggering proportions as it produced unprecedented results in terms of redefining the political divide in the Senate.

The mad scramble that ensued brought to the fore the political animal instincts of our senators. This resulted in a convoluted merry mix-up resembling a pit of snakes during mating season. No one knows who is opposition and administration anymore.

The results of the mid-term senatorial elections—where, in case anyone has forgotten, the opposition mercilessly clobbered the administration—left no doubt whatsoever that the Senate would be an opposition stronghold. But in one sweep, the dominance of the opposition in the Senate became a thing of the past. Villar’s quest for the Senate presidency changed the mandate of the electorate.

Villar’s triumph worked like manna from heaven for administration senators who suddenly found themselves the majority once again. It is developments like these that make us question the relevance of voting according to political parties. What’s the point when elected officials change loyalties quickly, anyway?

While the administration senators failed to grab the plum committees—the ones with the resources to fiscalize and in general make things difficult for the administration—they nevertheless succeeded in ensuring that these committees do not at least go to the senators renowned for being unfriendly to Malacañan Palace. So in the end, Malacañang won by default and only because our senators just can’t see beyond self-vested interests.

All these can be justified within the context of “power being the last dirty word.” What rankles, however, is that our senators insist on obfuscating the issue. The “opposition” senators who joined Villar’s camp remain adamant that they have not changed political color even if the whole setup has become anomalous. The disgruntled opposition senators who did not support Villar and who are now referred to as the “solid eight,” on the other hand, insist that they are the genuine “opposition.” To simplify things, the terms “majority” and “minority” are now being used to describe the political affiliations in the Senate.

As if things aren’t complicated enough, there is now talk of political parties asserting “party” rights. I have always believed that political parties in this country do not represent anything ideological or distinct in terms of platforms. They simply serve as convenient launching pads for political careers. But there is power in numbers, so the Liberal Party, the Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas, and the Nationalist People’s Coalition have sent word that they would prefer that division of the spoils be apportioned according to party representation. What a circus, indeed.

Not that it really matters who is with which side of the political divide if the shifting of loyalties and changing of hearts is driven by something nobler rather than as a consequence of a brawl for spoils. If our senators and representatives were voting on a landmark bill of grave national importance, I would understand if they jumped party lines and ditched personal loyalties. But this is not the case here. One cannot help but compare what is happening in the Senate as an absurd version of the party game “the boat is sinking” which calls for ditching old teammates and latching on to new ones simply for the sake of survival.

Necessarily connected to the foregoing is the unexpected rise of the political stars of certain senators not exactly renowned for their qualification for certain posts. Thus, we now have Senator Jinggoy Estrada as Speaker Pro Tempore (his first performance in the role became an occasion for hilarity). Neophyte Senator Alan Peter Cayetano is chairman of the powerful Senate Blue Ribbon Committee (he reportedly has to be trained for the post that he never wanted in the first place). Does this mean we can look forward to a more constructive relationship between the executive branch and the Senate? The answer, unfortunately, has nothing to do with substantive issues but with the state of the relationship between Cayetano and the Arroyos.

Have they really buried the hatchet or are we seeing the proverbial calm before the storm?
Estrada, Cayetano, and other “lucky” senators jumped over the heads of senators who are more senior, more competent, and better prepared for the posts. Expectedly, there is now grumbling and widespread discontent in the Senate over the distribution of committee chairmanship. There is persistent talk of revolt within the Senate, which indicate that Villar’s hold on the Senate presidency is tenuous at best. Hardly surprising, actually, given the circumstances.

Is the Senate presidency really worth all that? Only Villar and his lackeys can answer that. But everything makes sense when viewed in the context of the 2010 presidential elections. So President Arroyo was right all along, the campaign period for 2010 has already begun. But contrary to her assertion, the frontrunners in the presidential derby are not standing in her way of whatever it is that she is trying to do for the country. In fact, it looks like many among them are bent on getting on her good side.

It is in this light that we make sense of Senator Loren Legarda’s sudden change of heart. The two Assumptionistas publicly kissed and made up last week. Like a true political animal, Legarda regurgitated gobbledygook in an effort to explain what happened. But her body language said it all: She was tickled pink that the President confirmed that the “she” referred to as a potential presidential successor was indeed her.

And over at the House of Representatives, two of the three Arroyos who now sit as congressmen managed to grab the chairmanship of important committees. As if it is not enough that there are actually three of them in the House, they also have to get chairmanships of committees.

One wishes that the President’s kin would do everyone (the President included) the favor of simply fading into the woodwork. But I guess the lure of power is truly irresistible that it makes people grossly insensitive to certain realities, such as the fact that the President remains unpopular. The last thing this administration needs is additional negative publicity; particularly those about family members who are perceived to be the cause of alleged nefarious activities.

At any rate, it now appears that the relative calm emanating from the House of Representatives has been mainly due to one reason: They’ve been quite busy with hush-hush negotiations on how best to divide the spoils. The circus is truly back.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More than an act of God

Metro Manila and parts of Central Luzon woke up Monday morning to heavy rains.

The downpour was a welcome respite from the humidity and the heat that have been lingering in the air two months after summer was supposed to have ended. More importantly, the rains gave reason to hope that the impending water crisis that we’ve been warned about continuously in the last few weeks would be averted.

The rains came after a weekend of what the Catholic bishops called “storming the gates of heaven” with prayers. The call for prayers was sounded off by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales last Saturday. Thus, the Oratio Imperata (Obligatory Prayer) was recited last Sunday during holy mass and the bishops have called on the faithful to continue praying “until the rains finally come.”

It is too early to say if the downpour last Monday already signals the start of the rainy season or if it was just nature’s way of temporarily indulging the Catholic faithful.

But there is no denying one fact: The rains did come after the prayers were made.

So it can only be one of three things. One, the Catholic hierarchy has access to some information about weather patterns that others don’t. Two, our bishops have a great sense of timing. Three, and this is what we Catholics would like to believe, of course, the rains were an act of God, the answer to our prayers.

As I write, though, the rains have stopped although the sky over Metro Manila remains overcast. Weather experts are still unsure of the possibilities of more rain—and understandably so. Science may already provide indications of weather patterns, but as the cliché goes, the weather is unpredictable. There is just so much about nature that we do not know about. The scientific community even remains bitterly divided over the question of whether or not the ongoing climate change is caused by global warming.

I don’t discount the power of prayers and in my heart of hearts, I do believe that prayers can work wonders, particularly in situations when hoping and praying are the only seemingly viable courses of action left. So I do not begrudge the Catholic bishops’ call for prayers as a solution to the impending drought.

But I also believe that ascribing everything, including the changes in the weather patterns, as mere acts of God is disastrous in the long-term. We must recognize that there are other factors causing the changes in global weather patterns. Many of these factors are caused by man. Many of our problems are of our own doing. To a large extent, the impending water crisis is also our fault.

If we come to think about it, this whole idea of ascribing weather problems simply as acts of God is a throwback to the early days of civilization when people offered sacrifices to their “gods” for rain or for protection from other natural phenomena (think Apocalypto, the movie which partly showcased the demise of the Maya culture due to prolonged drought although of course there is so much debate about the accuracy of the religious rituals or for that matter, the general portrayal of Maya culture in the movie).

While we can all continue to pray for rains and hope that they will come, there are many other things we can all do to help forestall the impending water crisis.

Obviously, water conservation is on top of the list. The government and other sectors have been issuing dire warnings about the need to conserve water. Angat Dam must already be the most-photographed and most closely watched body of water in history, but I guess just showing photos indicating how dangerously low the water levels have gone down at Angat is not enough to rouse people from apathy.

The usual reaction is that we’ve been there before. This happens every so often, remember? We’ve seen those pictures in the past.

What people are not getting is that the main difference is that while in the past the water at Angat Dam would only plunge to dangerous levels every four years or so, this has become a more frequent—in fact, almost yearly occurrence in the last decade.

We can track the front pages of newspapers and note that the pictures of an almost-empty Angat Dam have become an almost regular feature every year.

It is difficult to convince people of an impending water shortage because we happen to be a country that is surrounded by water. Our streets do get flooded a lot. Don’t we have a dengue problem which clearly indicates the presence of too much water in our surroundings? And of course, we haven’t closed down our golf clubs yet —one golf course consumes more water in a day than a whole barangay—have we?

So why worry when the rains do come when we begin storming the heavens with our prayers?

Thus, if the rainy season has indeed arrived and that the current threat of a water crisis has been averted, it is highly likely that all these will soon be forgotten. We will all go back to our normal lives and forget about how close we came to rationing water. All these dire warnings about the dangers of a prolonged drought will just become a thing of the past.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not praying that the current situation continues until the painful lesson has been learned. All I am saying is that there must be more strategic and more proactive ways of addressing this problem.

I hate to be accused of having little faith, but we can’t always rely on prayers for deliverance. At some point, we have to remember nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.

Water is the next major crisis. Contrary to what many among us think, water is not an infinite resource. On the contrary, most water reservoirs are drying up and with climate patterns changing globally, water supply will even become more unpredictable. And as we all know, water is an absolute necessity. Water means health, sanitation, hygiene, food, energy, etc.

We need more concerted, proactive and strategic solutions. The problem requires more than an act of God.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Goodbye and thank you, Harry

The seventh Harry Potter book has already been sitting on a side table at home untouched for a couple of days.

“Aren’t you going to read it?” I asked my kids. We did not exactly line up at 7:00 in the morning of July 21—the day the book was released to the public—but we did go out of our way to buy one that very same day. I was confident that there would not be a shortage of supply of the book since it is probably the most highly-awaited sequel of all time and any bookstore would be crazy not to horde copies considering the demand. I was right. Copies of the book occupied a whole section of the National Bookstore branch we went to.

I was expecting an argument as to who among us would have first dibs at reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter was the one book that I didn’t have to encourage—all right, coerce even—my kids to read. So I do have a special regard for the Harry Potter series.

At the very least, they did encourage my kids to read which is the one activity that is almost sacrosanct in my family. It’s a kind of family tradition. While growing up, we had this “special” rule in my family that anyone reading a book cannot be disturbed; never sent on errands, pestered to clean up one’s room, or even asked to bathe (I was a kid then so give me a break). Because I was a very lazy boy (ehem) I took refuge in reading. I must admit that reading was initially a way for me to escape being asked to do household chores. Eventually, reading ceased being an alibi and became a lifetime passion.

Fortunately for me, my elders indulged me in this passion. Books were something I never had to beg my parents to buy. My parents, bless them, didn’t always have money to buy me toys or new clothes, but they never said no when it came to books. Never. And so, in my household today, I have continued the tradition. The only two expenses that are never ever subject to budget limitations are medicines and books. The only excuse for not doing household chores is when one is reading.

It hasn’t produced the same results though. I know it is not fair to impose habits on one’s children. So I plead guilty to this: I badger my kids to read, read, read. Unfortunately, my kids are of this generation. They would much rather watch the film version of the classics. Except Harry Potter, of course. So thank you, J. K. Rowling.

Which explains why I’ve been wondering why they still haven’t read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting over that July 21 weekend. Yes, I admit that I too found excitement in the series. I do have a natural disdain for certain “types” of books. But to J. K. Rowling’s credit, she has created a series that, although not in the same league (and I know it is not fair to make the comparison so hold off the barrage of angry responses) as Lord of the Rings, readable by both adults and children and for different reasons as well. My fellow columnist in this paper, Sassy Lawyer, has already written a column on the relevance of Harry Potter today.

My kids did hold the book lovingly in their hands for sometime (the boy even hugged it) and flipped through the pages, but they promptly passed off on the opportunity. There would be time later on, they said.

I was surprised to find out that a soft copy of the book was already going around and someone did send me the file by e-mail. Please do not ask me to forward it to you, because I will not be a party to abetting violation of intellectual property rights. I really don’t know what to make of this new type of piracy. I know that it is very easy to scan any book today to produce a soft copy. But if it is any consolation, it seems this type of piracy has not affected sales of the book, as

I understand most people still want to own a hard copy.
It really is a good thing that there is still that important context attached to reading. The experience of having to physically own the book, hold it in your hands and read the words from a piece of parchment is still irreplaceable. It’s just not the same as reading from a computer monitor.

I reread parts of the book to make sure I got some details correctly for this piece. And while doing so, I think I finally understood my kids. It is emotionally affecting to come to terms with the realization that this is (well, allegedly at least, we never really know since Rowling might still be persuaded to write yet another Harry Potter book) is the last of the series. It is finally over.

And in a way, I think I am going to miss Harry, Ron, Hermione, the Weasley family, and my favorite characters—Hagrid and Professor Minerva Mcgonagall. My kids want to hold on to Harry Potter for as long as they could and I understand. It will be a while before something similar comes along, if at all.

So what do I think of the book without dishing out spoilers? It is not the best of the series. I think the third book, The Prisoner from Azkaban, is still the best of the lot. One gets the feeling from reading The Deathly Hallows that it has been written with the movie version in mind. It’s just too compact and leaves very little room for conjuring up one’s own visual imagery. But then again, that’s probably expected since the first five books were turned into monster movie hits before the book series was completed.

There are a number of characters that are left out towards the end of the book. Hagrid fans will be disappointed to note that he only makes an appearance towards the end of the book. One never knows what finally happened to the wickedly fascinating Dolores Umbridge (who is the main antagonist in Book Five, and reappears in this last book). Did Mcgonagall eventually become Headmistress of Hogwarts? The last book focuses chiefly on the three main characters.

And as if to respond to criticism about how the book supposedly promotes anti-Christianity, Deathly Hallows includes some passages from the Bible although the passages are not revealed as such. Of course I have always maintained that the Harry Potter books is actually loaded with a lot of Christian symbolism (Sirius Black was Harry’s godfather which clearly indicates that Harry was baptized).

In this final book, Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hallow, the final resting place of Harry’s parents. As they visit some tombs, they read epitaphs that contain passages from the scripture.

There’s a passage from Corinthians “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” from the Book of Matthew is the inscription on the tomb of Dumbledore’s mother and sister. Of course, Christmas has always been a constant fixture in all the seven books— this proves even the witches and wizards in the series observe the Christian tradition. So I hope this silences the religious bigots.

So what happens to Harry Potter in the end? Alas, I don’t want to spoil the fun. You just have to read the book to find out. But I am going to miss him and I hope Rowling or someone else comes up with another series of tales that will once again rekindle the joy of reading among kids of all ages. In the end, that is all that matters.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Irrational and absurd

This is my column today.

Last week, the President signed into law Republic Act 9492, otherwise known as “An Act Rationalizing the Celebration of Holidays in the Philippines.”

The new law makes legal and official the observance of movable holidays and holiday economics in the country. With the passage of the law, majority of the holidays are now automatically movable to Mondays.

The law specifies Wednesday as the cut-off day to decide whether a holiday should be observed the Monday before or the Monday after the original date of the holiday. I know. The previous sentence sounds a bit complicated. And that’s exactly my point: For a law that was supposedly designed to simplify things, it only opened up a number of complications. Let’s get into these complications in a while.

But first, I really wonder why our leaders picked Mondays as the appropriate day in the week to celebrate holidays. No one has come forward to explain the logic behind this choice. Moving holidays to Fridays would have served the same purpose, which is to allow Filipinos a three-day weekend, supposedly so they can go to a beach or some other local tourist destination and spread money around. (We all know this is a myth, of course, because the annual migration to provinces and vacation places are already pretty much set like clockwork—around the Holy Week, Christmas and All Saints’ Day.)

Perhaps, as one blogger so cheekily put it, our leaders are simply fans of the Carpenters and were inspired by the song “Rainy Days and Mondays?”

I already registered my protest over this penchant for moving holidays for the sake of convenience in a column I wrote for this paper last April 25. Malacañang, at that time, had just released Proclamation 1211, which specified the schedule of holidays for the rest of 2007.
The schedule, as prescribed in that proclamation, has been superseded by the new law. Those who already made plans using for the holidays set by that proclamation would now have to make new arrangements.

In that column, I ranted about how history and meaning have taken a backseat to convenience and pragmatism.

I will continue to insist that moving holidays is a bad, bad, bad idea. Observing national holidays is not just about giving people time to rest. It cannot be sacrificed for the sake of economics. There are more important social and cultural reasons behind the observance of national holidays, perhaps even more important than ensuring that production schedules of certain industries are uninterrupted.

National holidays celebrate milestones in our history as a people and as a nation. They give us a sense of identity, without which we are doomed. National holidays strengthen the collective soul of our nation and bind our culture together. They enrich our history.
Like I said before, this harebrained scheme of moving holidays diminish the significance of the historical occasions that are supposed to be commemorated on these dates. And yet we wonder why our children do not appreciate our history or have less sense of pride being a Filipino.

As a member of the business community, I also find it annoying that we are being used as the justification for this latest wrinkle.

It is true that the new law provides a more reliable calendar system that business and industry can use as framework for scheduling production cycles and other business activities. However, the new law increases the actual number of non-working days in a year. Let us remember that in the past, a holiday that falls on a Sunday is celebrated on that day itself and not moved to another day. With the new law, all holidays that fall on a Sunday have to be celebrated on the

Monday preceding them. That means less working days—and less production—in a year.
There are other complications. The divisor for computing number of working days in a year to determine daily rates of monthly-paid earners would have to be changed now because the number of working days has changed. What happens on Dec. 30 (a Sunday), Rizal Day? The following Monday is also a holiday (end of the year). The following day is still a holiday (New Year’s Day). Does this mean that the next Monday is another holiday? There are more complications— I will not go into all of these in this column.

If the objective was to ensure that the business sector does not experience “unscheduled” disruption in their production cycles, coming up with a schedule of holidays for the whole year right at the very start of each year would have met the same purpose.
The new law does make a distinction between what holidays are movable and which ones are not. That’s another complication. The law specifies that “religious holidays” will continue to be observed on their actual dates.

I personally find the idea of moving Christmas, Holy Thursday, Holy Friday and All Saints’ Day to other dates sacrilegious. But on point of principle, are we saying that as a matter of national policy, historical events are less important than religious events?

The end of Ramadan is a religious occasion. The holiday is called Eid’l Fitr. Under the new law, the holiday will be celebrated right on the day when the moon is first sighted at the end of Ramadan (the exact date varies each year, but it can already be determined using scientific calculations)—but only in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Elsewhere in the Philippines, the holiday will be moved to a Monday. Isn’t this religious discrimination?

In one television show I caught over the weekend, a government official said that we cannot change the dates when religious holidays are celebrated because —I am not making this up, I swear—we are the only predominantly Catholic and religious country in Asia. I almost gagged when I heard this justification. Aside from the fact that the logic does not add up, the insinuation (although I am sure unintended) directed at our neighboring countries is terribly unfair. The implication is that our neighboring countries can be expected to do just that because they are not Catholics or because they are less religious.

(Incidentally, I am sick and tired of this illogical line of reasoning often used by politicians. On another television show I caught Monday night, a congressman and a senatorial candidate who did not win in the last elections also used the same argument in lambasting graft and corruption in the country. They said that graft and corruption in the Philippines does not make sense because we are after all the only predominantly Catholic country in the Far East, blah, blah, blah. It was like saying that our neighboring countries—for example, the Thais who are Buddhists or the Indonesians who are Muslims—can be justified for having high levels of graft and corruption because they are not Catholics anyway. Duh!)

The title of this new law is indicative of the quality of thinking that went into it. It is supposed to be “An Act Rationalizing the Celebration of Holidays in the Philippines.”
Rationalize the celebration of holidays? What an absurd idea.