Thursday, March 29, 2007

pure drivel

This was my column yesterday. My workload has been really heavy in the last few weeks (and I have been sick as well) so I haven't been able to update this blog aside from posting my columns here. There are really interesting comments left in some of the posts and I wish I have time to respond to them. I will, soon. I am actually looking forward to the Holy Week as I see this as an opportunity to catch up on my readings and to update this blog.


The next few weeks should be really interesting times as the campaign period for all elective positions, now including those for local government posts, officially begins.

The important question, which has been the subject of what is being passed off as intellectual discourse, but which I consider as nothing else but pure speculative drivel, is: Will political machinery at the grassroots level really make a difference in the results of the senatorial elections?

There are those who contend that political machinery will not make any difference since national posts, and consequently, the candidates vying for these seats, are too far removed from everyday realities of ordinary people. Thus, the selection of senators is subject to voters’ perception of the candidates’ worth rather than the endorsement of local leaders. And on this aspect, the opposition claims to have the upper hand.

There are those who claim that political machinery will only affect the last two slots of the senatorial elections. The proponents of this theory suggest that the percentage of hakot voters is not significant enough to alter the top rankings.

And then there are those who swear by the powers of political machinery. They are the ones who insist that the real battle for the hearts and minds of voters happen at the barangay or precinct level. On this aspect, the administration has the edge. The opposition is barely able to get its act together at the national level. How much more at the local level?

The political parties and the pundits may claim parallelisms with previous election results, cite googols of statistical figures, even trundle opinions of a whole gamut of soothsayers from Madam Auring to Mahar Mangahas. The bottom line remains: No one has categorical answers.

Nobody really knows, because this midterm elections is unlike all other elections in the past. And quite frankly, despite what the so-called experts and the purveyors of surveys claim, who really understands the political psyche of the Filipino voter?

At the beginning of the year, everyone was certain of 12-0 win in the senatorial elections, with the opposition being the hands down winner. But the latest surveys show a different picture. It looks like it is going to be a close fight after all.

And when the candidates for the House of Representatives, for governors, mayors and the various local elective posts join the fray, begin raising hands and distributing sample ballots and political largesse, will there be a significant change in the rankings? This remains to be seen.

We can all make educated guesses. At the end of the day, though, nothing is certain until voters cast their votes and the tallies are made.

Anything can still happen.

Thus, I am aghast that certain people continue to make pronouncements as if they have just come back from the future.

And yet there are candidates who, this early, have already started whining. They are already predicting that they will be cheated in the elections, citing the results of the latest surveys showing a decline in their numbers. They now claim that the public is being conditioned for eventual cheating. Sigh. As they say, nobody loses in elections in this country. It is either one wins, or one is cheated.

***

Senatorial candidate John Osmeña wants us to believe that he has filed this and that bill in the Senate that would have made our lives easier. He does not explain why that has not happened yet or what else he intends to do if he gets reelected as senator since he claims to have already done his fair share of saving this country.

Osmeña makes claim to a brand that he calls “Tatak Osmeña.” I wonder what brand he is talking about. I hope he is not talking about the fact that after fiercely defending former President Joseph Estrada during the impeachment trial, he jumped fences and became an administration ally in exchange for the chairmanship of the powerful Senate finance committee. And now he is back in the Estrada camp again.

***

I must hand it to us Filipinos. We do have this ability to always see the light side of any situation. The run up to the midterm elections is generating muck and dirt and all kinds of unusual behaviors, but many Filipinos still find something to laugh at. Here are some of the funny stuff I have come across recently:

One joke goes this way: Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano is not the only senatorial candidate who may have problems with votes not being counted in his favor because of another candidate with the same name. So if someone were to write “Sonia” in the ballot for whom shall it be counted? Roco or the other senatorial candidate who is believed to answer to that name as well?

I still don’t get Mike Defensor’s “tol” campaign and it seems I am not alone. There is this joke that the reason most people don’t get the whole point of Defensor’s TV ad because it is misleading and inaccurate. According to the joke, “bakit tol e pandak naman siya? (why he is being called “tol” [tall] when he is short?)”

Monday, March 26, 2007

Two Stories of Ineptitude

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

When my officemate recounted this story, all of us who were listening were aghast. Alarm bells rung inside our minds.

My officemate’s 11 year-old son and five of his friends were having a great time the other Saturday at this upscale mall in Alabang, the one whose name is synonymous with celebration. They were dropped off at the mall, which happened to be just a few blocks away from where they lived, to cool away the infernal heat.

Boys being boys, they were drawn to some electronic gadgets inside this computer store when a decent looking guy chatted them up, probably under the impression that they were very rich kids with lots of money on them. And then the guy guided them outside the store. The guy zeroed in on my officemate’s son, and started roughing him up. He dragged the boy towards one corner of the mall, still in full view of mallgoers, near a row of public telephone stations. There, the guy held up the 11 year-old boy.

The man initially asked the boy to hand over his cellphone. He was not wielding a gun or knife, but he was threatening the boy that bodily harm would befall him and his friends if he resisted. Fortunately, the boy was not carrying his cellphone at that time and when he relayed this information, the guy frisked him in public. Finding no cellphone, he decided to simply take the boy’s wallet, which contained all of three hundred pesos. And then he fled.

I know that times are hard and as a consequence thereof, there are desperate and ruthless people who are driven to extreme measures just to make money.

But preying on children in malls takes the cake for extreme callousness!

And apparently, that wasn’t the first time this happened in that mall. When I told my friends about the incident, they told me that they have heard a number of similar stories happening inside that mall. It seems that the proximity of the mall to the nearby posh villages has made it a magnet to some rogues who patrol the deceptively sterile air-conditioned environment to prey on some hapless victims, particularly children.

What was infuriating and disturbing was that when the parents of the boys sat down with the security officials of the mall, they discovered that the mall’s close circuit cameras were not actually functioning.

One would think that malls, with their very strict security procedures at their gates, would have foolproof security measures in place. But it seems that security measures are nothing but a façade. As my officemate recounted, the security officials of the mall that they talked to did not seem to know what to do. They were generally inept in their handling of the incident. They even failed to have the incident reported in the nearby police precinct.

Malls are the convenient destination for families and kids this summer. I hope that malls really think through their security measures, not just at their entrances but also inside as well.

***

I know that many others have already expressed consternation and utter bewilderment over this continuing public relations nightmare involving Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo’s arrest, detention and that botched attempt to drag him to Leyte. He was subsequently brought back to Manila and all kinds of lame and pathetic excuses were made to justify the embarrassing faux pas.

But I just can’t help but add my voice to the chorus of “what the %$#@ was that —is all these—about?”

The whole thing just does not make sense. It is beyond comprehension. It is surreal. It is enough to make one wonder if there is anyone in this administration who is still thinking straight.

For a government that needs to downplay and deflect criticism about its authoritarian and fascist tendencies, it sure is getting itself into more trouble with this series of embarrassing events. One can’t help but wonder whether there is truth to the various conspiracy theories being bandied about.

Was it a botched up assassination attempt?

A public relations stunt meant to deflect attention away from the United States Senate inquiry into the series of extra-judicial killings in the country, gone awry perhaps? Was the government trying to highlight the fact that the communists are just as guilty of summary executions as evidenced by a case filed by the family of victims of the famous communist purge more that a decade ago?

A pure case of miscommunication and general ineptitude? And is it also true that some eager beaver general simply got his instructions wrong and screwed up the whole operations?

Was it a validation of the theory that there was a faction in the military beyond the control of Malacañang? Has the military become so powerful that even the President is powerless to control it? Is the President’s debt of gratitude so huge that she is now captive to the whims of certain factions in the military?

Or has this administration simply become so immune to public criticism, so detached from reality that it thinks it can pull brazen stunts involving violation of civil liberties just like that?

The whole thing was simply absurd, preposterous, and downright stupid. It is like shooting oneself deliberately in the foot in the middle of a marathon. It’s like, well, sabotaging whatever little success one is getting.

The President’s approval ratings have just gone up a notch, although it remains in negative territory. And then something like this happens—in full view of the people. With cameras recording the whole caper. During an election season. At a time when the government is reeling from accusations of being fascist and authoritarian. When the militants are determined to increase their numbers at the House of Representatives through the party-list system.

The tendency of this government to self-destruct has become legendary. No wonder the opposition, despite being in disarray and despite committing major blunders in the campaign, is still generally more popular. With capers like that one, who needs the opposition to point out what is wrong with this administration?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Exposing hulidap operations

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

Anyone out there looking for a case study on one of the most blatant forms of corruption happening in our country is invited to visit, during peak hours, the intersection of Senator Gil Puyat and Macapagal Avenue in Pasay City, just a few meters from the august halls of the Senate of the Republic of the Philippines.

It is where the classic case of hulidap happens practically every few minutes during rush hours.
The area is not particularly prone to heavy traffic. It usually gets bumper-to-bumper only when nearby Mall of Asia sponsors a giant event such as the recent fireworks competition or that public kissing festival. So what accounts for the fact that on any given day, one would find at least five or six traffic cops lurking in the area?

Having the Senate nearby cannot be a justification. Our senators travel with security escorts who drive like the roads of Metro Manila are their private racetracks, anyway. And, as I said, there is hardly any traffic in the area that can possibly cause inconvenience to our very hardworking legislators (they produced more than 10 bills this time, hurray!). Macapagal Avenue, after all, is almost as wide as Edsa and can accommodate a sizable number of vehicles. It is not the most expensive strip of road in the Philippines for nothing.

So what are these cops doing on that intersection? The answer is simple. It offers a perfect trap for unsuspecting motorists travelling towards Makati.

I mentioned earlier that these traffic cops “lurk” in the area—that is the correct word. If you are a motorist coming from the south and intending to turn right towards Makati on Gil Puyat Avenue, you will not be able to see these cops while approaching the intersection. But once you make a right turn towards Sen. Gil Puyat and you happen to make the mistake of turning right from an inner lane, that’s when these cops suddenly appear out of the blue and descend on you like hungry vultures.

Because I work around the area, I am witness to the number of motorists who have been victimized by the setup. There has never been a time, not even once, during all the times that I passed through the area when traffic cops did not “apprehend” someone. By observing their body language, one can surmise that a negotiation process is always happening. Certainly, the discussion is not about which senatorial candidates deserve to win.

The offense they slap motorists with is “swerving.” It’s one of those traffic regulations that say if you are turning right, you must stay on the right lane. This regulation actually makes perfect sense if you are travelling on a two-lane road where you are bound to block traffic if you swerve from the inner lane. But on an eight-lane highway that hardly has any traffic? Come on.

But then again, traffic laws must be followed. So it really does not matter whether the road is narrow or wide, or whether you are the only motorist or the road or not. It’s in the attitude. I think it is still a sign of basic courtesy that drivers who are turning right of left, must prepare for the turn way ahead so that they do not block other vehicles when they actually make the turn.

This happens a lot along Taft Avenue. On the corner of Vito Cruz, for example, vehicles turning left towards Vito Cruz Extension usually block all three lanes of Taft Avenue going south. This means that motorists traversing Taft Avenue towards Gil Puyat have to wait until the green light for turning left is likewise on before they can cross Vito Cruz.

But are there traffic cops on Taft Avenue to apprehend the violators? Of course there are none. Even at the intersection of Kalaw and Taft, cops turn a blind eye on motorists turning left on a no-left-turn sign. The answer is painfully obvious: there is just too much traffic and too many people on Taft Avenue—it would be difficult to collect bribes from motorists in full view of thousands of people.

So the extortion scam works in areas where strictly imposing the regulation is not critical, after all. They used to do this in Edsa, right before the approach to Shaw Boulevard. It’s the same modus operandi—the traffic cops hide behind those giant pillars of the MRT and then make that surprise appearance when someone makes the mistake of swerving right towards Crossing. They do this when Edsa is free flowing. But when traffic in Edsa is gridlocked, those traffic cops don’t care if motorists crisscross and play soccer with their vehicles on the road.

And this is exactly what gets my goat. Traffic cops in Metro Manila seem to have only one mandate: To apprehend violators. One would think that apprehending violators is only one of the ways to address the traffic problem, but no, it seems that as far as these traffic cops are concerned, apprehending violators is their only job description.

Instead of lurking in the shadows and hiding behind bushes and posts, traffic cops could actually become more helpful and be able to do their jobs more effectively if they actually direct traffic and signal to motorists what they can and cannot do while on the road.

But then again, that’s real hard work and there’s not much money to be had in doing that kind of public service. So I guess mulcting motorists and taking bribes is much more desirable.

When we count pesos and centavos, the corruption that is committed by kotong cops is negligible compared to, say, the kind of corruption attached to the distribution of the pork barrel funds or the ones happening at the Bureau of Customs. But mulcting motorists on the road is just as insidious because it victimizes everybody and it happens in full view of everyone else. It feeds the cycle of corruption in our country.

So how do we address this problem? Obviously, the solution has to be comprehensive and requires more than just one column. But I have one quick suggestion that apply in this particular context.

The government agencies responsible for traffic management must publish the schedule of penalties associated with the most common traffic violations. They can also post the schedule of penalties on critical intersections for people to read. One would be surprised to note that certain violations actually do not merit heavy fines contrary to what kotong cops would like us to believe.

For example, the fines for the following traffic violations are pegged at P150 “only”: making an illegal turn, failure to yield to the right of way, overtaking in an intersection, obstruction to traffic, disregarding traffic signs, etc. Even the dreaded offense of parking in a place not designated for parking actually carries a penalty of P150 only—a paltry amount compared to what one has to pay for the services of those darned tow trucks. But if one does not know the schedule of penalties, then he is subject to the bullying acts of kotong cops.

A friend of mine paid the kotong cops P300 for an offense that was punishable by a fine of P150 because the cops said that’s what he was going to fork out if he gets a violation ticket anyway. Of course, a number of people will still prefer to pay off the kotong cops, but the more conscientious ones will think twice.

Besides, some of the offenses do carry heavy fines (e.g., driving under the influence of liquor or drugs carry a steep penalty of P2,000) and being aware of the penalties involved might just get people to obey traffic rules.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

looking for someone to blame

This was my column yesterday. I was in Baguio City Friday to Sunday - and was sick the whole time. This column can get an award for "column written in shortest possible time," I think I wrote this in 30 minutes in a cafe at Session Road, while suffering from extreme abdominal pains. Anyway, am back in Manila, but am still sick.

In a survey conducted a couple of weeks back, international traders picked the Philippines as the most corrupt among 13 countries in Asia.

These people should know that they are the ones who allocate the money that goes into corruption in the first place. These people are the ones that pay bribes to get their business papers processed and approved at record speed.

And yes, these are the very same people who complain of inefficiency and bureaucratic red tape every single time they are made to follow procedures, wait for a few minutes, or are made to comply with some regulatory requirements.

Who has not met foreign businessmen who come to the country expecting doors to be automatically opened to them and all civil servants to be at their beck and call simply because they are investors bringing in money? They cite supposed global standards (yeah right, as if they do not line up, or accede to rigorous business processes in their own country) and complain about how bureaucratic red tape in this country is hopelessly tangled.

And then they pay grease money to facilitate their business. Very often they hire professionals to do the dirty work for them. It’s called public relations or something similarly innocuous. They feed the system, make some public officials indebted to them.

And then they have the nerve to complain publicly as if they never had the choice not to indulge in corruption.

But please don’t get me wrong, I do not share the Palace’s spin on the results of that survey. I do not share the opinion that corruption does not happen in this country.

If you may recall, immediately after the results were announced, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her bright boys attempted to downplay the results of the survey by burying their heads in the sand like that proverbial ostrich. The reaction from the administration was denial—they claimed that the survey was based on previous data and perception.

The reaction reminded me of a friend who rants endlessly about kotong cops. Yet this friend wantonly violates traffic rules and pays grease money instead of asking cops to give him a violation ticket every single time he gets flagged down for some traffic violation. In his mind, it is never ever his fault and traffic policemen simply pick him out randomly every single time as if he has a chip implanted somewhere in his body that attracts cops. He is in denial—he thinks kotong cops are corrupt, but his actions do not constitute corruption.

So what’s my beef with the results of that survey? Nothing. I think that the results validate something that we’ve all known although not quite accepted for quite some time now (the President is not the only one in denial, that’s for sure). For crying out loud, this is a country where legislators have pork barrel funds, where every single local executive thinks nothing of pulling strings to secure a relative some job or favor, where even the Catholic Church is on record as having received donations from proceeds of gambling operations.

My beef is not with the results of the survey, but with the survey itself. More often than not, these foreign individuals package themselves as victims or at the very least, impartial observers to whatever it is that they find objectionable. Truth is, they are often willing accomplices. They actually feed the system.

The group who conducted the survey did not even come clean about why they were doing the survey. I really resent the fact that these international traders or businessmen (or foreign government representatives for that matter) do these things with this unmistakable attitude of contempt for us and our processes. They point out to us what is wrong with our country but do not come clean about their role in the whole sordid scheme of things.

Oh please, contrary to what they wish us to believe, foreign businessmen and traders are not exactly the most ethical business people in the world.

There are actually many cases where foreign traders or businessmen come into the country simply to make a quick profit, and then at the first sign of trouble fly off, leaving behind a string of negative commentary about our country, our culture, our laws, our government, our people.

In other words, they spit on our faces after they’ve milked us dry and made their fortune.

These people come into the country, cavort with the devil, and then get sanctimonious and begin pontificating. It is sad but it is very easy for these people to come in, make a quick profit, and then go off just like that.

Sadder still is the fact that in the din and dynamics of the current political climate where it is more convenient to simply hate the government, certain people take advantage of any piece of bad news to shore off their political stock.

But to go back to the topic of corruption, everyone knows corruption happens in this country. Heck, everyone is guilty of it.

And this is exactly my point: Corruption is so ingrained in the Philippine culture because everyone is guilty of it. There are those who try to project this holier-than-thou attitude and pretend that the little things they do like asking friends who work for the government to facilitate their teeny weeny transactions do not comprise corruption. Many people have this insane paradigm that says corruption is something that other people do.

If we are serious about addressing corruption in this country, we must move beyond the current mindsets. Denial will not get us anywhere. Neither will blaming other people, particularly the government, work. It will take so much more than these to address the problem.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cheap shots

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

Having a full-time job, a teaching job and a number of social advocacies has made responding to comments in my Web log and to various e-mails increasingly difficult for me. Even updating my Web log has become almost impossible. As the cliché goes, there are only 24 hours in a day, and even despite multi-tasking, there is only so much one can do without breaking sanity levels.

So I must apologize publicly to all those who leave comments on my Web log and to all those who send e-mails to express their reaction to or share their agreement or disagreement with my writing. I do read your comments and reactions. I just don’t always have the time to respond to them. Since I do not publish my e-mail address, I am particularly impressed with the ingenuity and resourcefulness of some readers who somehow found a way to find out how to reach me via e-mail.

In this piece, I am going to acknowledge and respond to three e-mails that struck me.

A certain A. Pantoja e-mailed to tell me that he has been “looking for a way to express opinion about some ads of our candidates,” especially those that he “believes are not correct.”
Pantoja is complaining about the television ad of senatorial candidate John Osmeña, the one where he is shown advocating the trashing of the expanded valued added tax. Pantoja asks, “Isn’t EVAT already a law? Why is he shown ripping a piece of paper with the word E-Vat and saying ‘Ibasura ang E-Vat?” Isn’t it like telling the people not to obey the law? Why did the Philippine Association of National Advertisers approve this political advertisement when it seems to me its only purpose is to score ganda points?”

I agree with Pantoja’s alarm over this sensationalist approach to attract attention. Osmeña’s television ad is deceitful and devious because it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. The EVat was approved by Congress and it is already implemented. People have already gotten used to it. It is a non-issue. Reviving the issue at this time is simply a cunning move to earn some brownie points with the voters.

Attempting to repeal the EVat law, or even simply amending it, is an exercise in futility. Osmeña knows it cannot be done. First, the government really needs the money. Second, it will require major political will to get the measure across. And lest we forget, political will is not exactly one of the strongest suits of our legislators.

And yes, I am aghast that a candidate, a former senator at that, is openly advocating trashing or disobeying a law that the same institution he is aspiring to become a member of passed.
Another reader, S. Briones, sent a long e-mail expressing disgust over the way certain media institutions played up that embarrassing faux pas involving President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo during last week’s celebration of National Women’s Month. As backgrounder, the President apparently mistook the audience for another group of women and when she started asking questions, she naturally got the wrong responses.

My reader says that she caught the television coverage of the event of both ABS-CBN and GMA-7. She thinks that the GMA-7 coverage of the faux pas was more balanced. “They also showed the embarrassing exchange between the President and the audience, but they also highlighted the fact that the President was able to manage the situation well. The ABS-CBN report simply highlighted the faux pas.”

Briones likewise illustrated the differences in the way the various dailies played up the incident. In my reader’s opinion, certain papers focused on the audience’s reaction labeling it as “heckling” when it was clearly not the case. To summarize, Briones thinks that media is too focused on embarrassing the President and watching out for blunders rather than reporting fairly.

I think there is no doubt that the President came out of that incident a better person—at least as far as her image is concerned. She didn’t lose her cool (I think everyone expected a major tantrum), and she was able to turn the situation around.

However, media’s preoccupation with bad news, sleaze, and scandals has been a cause for alarm for quite some time now. Unfortunately, media is also a business enterprise and is affected by market variables such as ratings and readership. I also think that media has a social responsibility to educate its audience but a large share of the responsibility must be borne by the citizenry. In short, sleaze, scandals and embarrassing incidents sell. They are played up as human interest stories mainly because of this. It is difficult to argue with success.

Anyone out there who thinks that a certain television station or newspaper is not living up to its social responsibility has a ready option available to him or her. All he or she needs to do is to stop patronizing that paper, or stop tuning in to that station or show. It is as simple as that. I have stopped watching “Imbestigador” and “XXX” mainly because I think these shows are intrusive. They wantonly violate civil liberties and are clearly fascist. These shows treat suspected criminals as if they don’t have rights anymore.

Yet another reader, who wants to be known as M. Rajani put me to task for my column “It’s not the economy, stupid.” Rajani asks, and in what I surmise to be a lame attempt at patronizing me, “are you an economist, Mr. Austero?” And then the reader ranted about columnists who are in his words “teacup economists” (he or she did not bother to explain what that means) who are also paid hacks.

No, I am not an economist. I never made pretensions about being one. But I do work and have always been connected with the financial services sector, so I do ingest economic figures for merienda every day. But so what if I am not an economist, what has that got to do with that column? I just don’t get this “who are you” line of argument that many people use. We should argue and debate based on ideas, not based on who we are.

I don’t usually get e-mails similar to M. Rajani’s diatribe so it always makes for a good diversion. And being accused as a paid hack has got to be the funniest, craziest, most asinine idea ever.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Build it and they will come

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


IN this age of consumerism, I have always wondered what it is that attracts people to certain places and establishments.

I admit I never really understood the whole point of the movie “Field of Dreams” but this dialog from that movie is stuck in my memory: If you build it, they will come. (As an interesting aside, I recently met up with a friend from college who was and continues to be a serious film buff. He, too, admitted that he never really got the point of that hit movie. That provided some measure of relief because for sometime I really felt like a total failure for not getting the whole point of that movie. If anyone out there has an idea, feel free to drop a comment at my Web log at www.bongaustero.blogspot.com.)

Anyway. This dialog was top of mind last week as I finally saw for myself two areas in Metro Manila that seem destined to be the next choice destinations.

First, the Trinoma complex that is rising fast at North Edsa, a stone’s throw away from the first SM complex that started the whole mall trend in the Philippines. In the late eighties, SM City North Edsa was The Mall in Metro Manila—throngs of people were willing to traverse the whole length of Edsa just to get there. Someone told me that Trinoma stands for Triangle North of Makati although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this piece of information.

The question is: Does Metro Manila really need another giant mall?

From the looks of it, Trinoma, which is being put up by the Ayalas, is going to be as big as or perhaps even bigger than Glorietta. I wonder what is going to happen to the many quaint restaurants, entertainment centers, tiangges and other smaller stores nearby when the giant mall begins operation. The Trinoma is located very near the Quezon Memorial Circle where these tiangges and restaurants are.

As we all know, these smaller enterprises do not stand a chance against a giant mall. Cases in point: the death of all those shops and restaurants in Pasay Road, in Cubao, and even in Alabang.

I don’t have anything against these malls and I know that there are advantages in putting as many shops, restaurants, and entertainment centers under one roof. At the very least, it makes our lives simpler and offers convenience. I just wish that these malls become more conscious of the negative effects on the environment—they generate more waste, use up more water, etc. I am told that most of these malls do not have effective systems for waste disposal.

And of course, we all know that these giant malls rule and kill the smaller competition.
On the other side of the metro, I finally saw for myself last week the changing face of Macapagal Avenue at night. For those unfamiliar with the area, Macapagal Avenue is parallel to Roxas Boulevard from Sen. Gil Puyat (or Buendia) Avenue to Naia Road. It is supposed to be the most expensive strip of road in the Philippines for reasons not entirely due to construction costs. I actually work around the area, but since I have shunned any semblance of nightlife for sometime now, I haven’t been able to check out the area until last week.

I was in for a major surprise. Macapagal Avenue is the new nightlife destination in Metro Manila and it is pulsing with activity at nighttime. Right in front of the Philippine National Bank headquarters is a dining and entertainment center that features a host of restaurants and bars. One of the choice destinations is the famed Mikey’s Bar and Restaurant, owned by presidential son Juan Miguel Arroyo. I was told that the young Arroyo is often there to personally entertain patrons but since I didn’t have the desire nor the inclination to make his acquaintance, we chose not to go there. Besides, the restaurant was quite full with people sporting Rolex watches and we didn’t feel like we’d fit in. So we moved on.

Right next to it is another complex of restaurants that form the outer layer of a public wet market that sells seafood. The attraction of the place is that people buy fresh catch from the wet market and have these cooked in any of the many restaurants around. For a fee, of course. It’s not actually a new concept in dining as this was pioneered by those enterprising market vendors in the Baclaran area.

Since we live in a country where people easily latch on to a successful venture, we’ve had a number of these establishments mushrooming around the metro, from Parañaque to Libis to Shaw Boulevard. It’s the shawarma and litson manok syndrome—everyone copied the idea to the point that one could find one in every corner. The market got saturated and everyone lost in the venture eventually.

Ironically, these places became renowned as dampa which is Tagalog for a small nipa house, something that they are definitely not.

But what makes the Macapagal Avenue dampa complex more enticing is that it is located on reclaimed land that used to be part of the Manila Bay. Even if people know that the seafood does not come from the murky waters of the nearby bay (most likely harvested in Aklan and shipped to Manila), at least one gets to eat seafood with the right ambience. And what’s more, the stink of the bay does not get in the way of the dining experience unlike in those restaurants near the Quirino Grandstand. There’s some value to be had in dining and drinking with the sound of waves lapping under your feet, but let’s face it, Manila Bay is not exactly the cleanest body of water there is.

We toured the wet market to check out the seafood available. I have to hand it to these vendors, the market offered prize catch. Yes, there even was mameng (Napoleon wrasse, a rare fish that was in the limelight recently when Chinese poachers were nabbed near the Tubbataha Reef with more than a hundred of this delectable fish in its hold) available. We were tempted to point out to the vendors that selling the fish was illegal, but one of my friends reminded us that arguing with people welding sharp knives was not a brilliant idea so we simply did not patronize that particular stall.

A number of fruit stalls were also present and it was a delight to see fruits that are not readily available elsewhere such as durian and marang. I didn’t know what to make of the stalls selling pirated DVDs and VCDs though. It seems these stalls are pretty much a common sight anywhere in the metro today.

I haven’t checked out The Fort (we’ve been planning to visit and test if the famed Krispy Kremes doughnuts measure up to the hype) or the Libis area lately. I am told that these places are enjoying brisk business.

Seeing how people are flocking to these places and taking note of the number of malls and commercial places being put up at a fast pace make one wonder if all these is a mirage, too. Consumer spending seems to be on an upward trend and liquidity seems to be high. Either people just don’t give a damn about our problems and just want to go on with their lives or people simply need more diversion to take their minds off their problems. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

It's not the economy, stupid

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

Because it is election season, candidates are expected to indulge in political tirades meant to prop up their political stock. Certain issues such as fitness for office or morals are highly subjective and open to debate and interpretation. But the performance of the economy is not.
Sometime last week, the Genuine Opposition came up with a full-page advertisement in some newspapers to make mincemeat of the economic gains being trumpeted by this current administration.

In so many words, the opposition said that the country’s much-vaunted economic progress is a mirage and that the administration is making false claims, particularly about its role in the bull run of the stock exchange and in the appreciation of the peso. From the point of view of the Genuine Opposition, the current administration is simply lucky to be sitting in power at a time when all these good things are happening in the economic front. That like a natural phenomenon, economic progress is bound to happen anyway regardless of what this administration does or does not do.

This latest tirade is expected. The whole point of being in the opposition is to attack those who are in power and show the people why they are the better alternative.
Thus, efforts to refute the so-called economic gains is par for the course given the fact that even the economic managers of the country admit that so much more needs to be done before any economic progress can be felt by ordinary people.

But then again, the apparent lack of connection between economic figures and public perception is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to the Philippines. The latest issue of Time Magazine reports that the same phenomenon is shaking up the whole of Europe. While most countries in Europe are riding an economic boom, most Europeans are of the impression that they are worse off today than ever before. Discontent is a worldwide phenomenon brought about by increasing cost of living.

The opposition’s simplistic spin, however, is insulting because economic figures are difficult to fudge and our economic performance is subject to close scrutiny by a number of international agencies who are all in agreement that the economy is indeed picking up. More importantly, attacking the economy is counterproductive because quite frankly, it is not the issue. Politics is the issue.

Simply put, it is politics that is weighing down heavily on the economy, not the other way around. We should all be rallying around the economic gains and pushing these further upstream rather than tearing these apart.

The claim that the performance of the stock exchange is simply brought about by a general upsurge in the capital markets in the region is ridiculous because it assumes that international fund managers simply invest their money where the wave leads them. It doesn’t work that way and as someone who spent eight years in the local capital markets, I know that attracting foreign capital into the country is never that simple. God knows how hard the local capital markets people have been trying to entice foreign investors into bringing their money into the country. So once again: The upsurge in the local capital market is caused by increased confidence in our economic fundamentals.

To attribute the surge in the local stock market to sheer dumb luck is to spit on the faces of these people. In fact, the local market was able to recover within a day after a steep fall last Wednesday brought about by an external glitch, proof that our economic fundamentals are strong enough to withstand external factors.

But I just wish they stopped there. Unfortunately, the real intent of the ad became painfully obvious when it tried to make comparisons between the supposed economic gains under Joseph Estrada’s watch as president and those during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s. All those previous assertions that this election is not a contest between Estrada and Arroyo has just been shot down by that ad.

To say that we were better off during Estrada’s time than we are today is ludicrous. The Genuine Opposition is indulging in fallacious debates because to begin with, the context is not the same. The time gap between Estrada’s short-lived reign and the present is also a major factor that needs to be taken into account as people do tend to look at the past more kindly than they do the present.

Let’s shorten this pissing contest by simply stating the obvious: By no stretch of the imagination can Estrada be considered the better economic manager. How can a regime that plotted its economic programs during midnight meetings over bottles of scotch and which involved suspicious characters be any better? Of course his supporters say otherwise and they are entitled to live in their own mythical world where Estrada is a hero and maybe even perhaps a god. But I am aghast that the more learned people in the opposition seem unable to make these distinctions anymore perhaps because they can’t seem to see through their hatred for Arroyo.

Of course, this administration is guilty of so many sins and deserves to be made accountable for them. But let’s cut this BS about Estrada being the better leader. Let’s not rewrite history in an effort to topple this administration.

And more importantly, let’s not drag the economy into the fray. Whatever growth we are experiencing in the economic front deserves to be nurtured and supported regardless of where our political affiliation lies. It’s a given that sustained economic growth is bound to enhance our prospects as a nation in the long term. To do otherwise is akin to sabotage. Could it be that is exactly what the opposition is doing?

Any effort to undermine and sabotage the economy is counterproductive because it is not only Arroyo’s fortunes that are at stake here. If the GO wants to get the business sector and the working class on its side, it had better get its act together and leave the economy alone. The GO had better focus on more substantive issues rather than attack the economy. It seems to forget that there are so many among us who are working so hard to keep the economy afloat.
By attacking the economy, the opposition has only succeeded in alienating the business sector and the middle class.

More than two decades ago, just before Marcos was kicked out of power, the businessmen and the middle class rose up in arms over Marcos’ tirade against the business sector. At that time, the slogan of the businessmen and the middle class was “The issue is political, not economic, Mr. President.”

The Genuine Opposition had better brush up on history. It’s not the economy, stupid!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Targeting kids as consumers is harmful

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

I believe in my heart that Sharon Cuneta is a great person. I don’t know her personally and I haven’t had the pleasure or being within 10 feet of the megastar. If I were an average movie fan, I would probably be a die-hard Sharonian—she strikes me as genuinely nice, warm, intelligent, talented and real. Having said that, let me now put her to task for allowing her two young daughters to appear in those television advetisements that hawk fast-food fare and a brand of medicine for kids.

Since I don’t get to watch television at daytime, I am not exposed to the advertisements that are shown before primetime. But I knew something was wrong when I had three young nieces with ages ranging from four to six in my car a couple of weeks ago. We happened to pass by this fast-food outlet and they immediately started singing. I thought it was a new pop hit so I asked them whose song it was. They chorused “Frankie” and sung the song again. It turns out that the song is featured in the TV ad of that fast-food featuring the megastar and her daughter Frankie.

Needless to say, I got suckered into dropping by that fast-food and treating the kids to greasy food that I knew was not healthy regardless of Sharon and Frankie’s testimonial.

I got to watch that advertisement eventually as well as that other one featuring the youngest daughter (Miel, I think) this time hawking kids’ medicine. I have also seen those ads featuring the offspring of celebrities Marjorie Barretto and Ruffa Gutierrez Bektas (for a milk product), the twins of Aga and Charlene Muhlach (for another fast-food chain), and even those of Zoren Legaspi and Carmina Villaroel (for yet another milk product).

I am sure that these celebrities think that there is no harm in allowing their kids to appear on television to endorse products. The fact that they earn money in the process is a plus factor. No harm done? Think again.

Targeting kids as consumers is not exactly ethical, particularly when the value of the products in question is debatable.

I don’t want to argue with fast-food chains on the nutritional value of their products. We all know, though, that fast-food fare is not good for kids. Let us call a spade a spade and come to terms with this basic fact: Fried burgers, sugar-coated spaghetti, fries swimming in oil, cola and artificially sweetened fruit juices are unhealthy, particularly when ingested frequently. Exposing children to fast-food fare leads to obesity and we know to what condition that eventually leads. And we are not even factoring in financial costs yet.

And what about milk products? I know that drinking milk is good for children. But contrary to the claims of certain advertisements, milk alone cannot provide the whole range of nutrient needs of children. When advertising packages milk as an alternative to eating other kinds of food, then we are in serious trouble.

But over and above the debate on nutrition is the issue of advertising directed at kids.
I am going to run into trouble with some friends who are in the advertising industry with this piece again but we must discuss this alarming trend in Philippine advertising. We seem to be targeting kids more and more as consumers.

It does not take a psychologist to tell us that kids are very impressionable and at a certain age (before the age of eight, if I remember my child psychology correctly), they are not able to make the distinction between advertisements and reality. Being exposed to advertisements that target them can create a wrong concept of the world around them. They can grow up with a distorted and exaggerated view of the world—one where material things and ephemeral pleasures take precedence over important values. We should be teaching kids to become responsible citizens, not to become consumers.

The use of celebrity kids further aggravates the problem because when celebrity kids endorse products, these products automatically earn the status of being cool and desirable. It is difficult to teach kids about the harmful effects of certain products or explain to them why they can’t have certain pleasures when celebrity parents are shown on television recommending or enjoying them together.

The pernicious effect of advertising directed at children is that we create consumers out of them at a very early age. And we know what consumerism brings—we begin defining ourselves based on consumerist images. One is not “in” unless one patronizes this brand or that brand, one does not fit in unless one is wearing this or that brand. Imagine the social catastrophe when kids acquire these wrong notions of personal identities at a very early age.

Targeting children in advertising seems a good business strategy because children do have persuasive powers particularly at a time when social guilt among parents is quite high. Because more parents work away from home, they make up for the guilt by giving in to their children’s wishes.

The fast-food ad of Sharon Cuneta and her daughter Frankie has another facet to it that begs scrutiny. It is an ad that capitalizes on a “shared experience” or in more popular parlance, “bonding moment” between a mother and child. The fact that the ad is presented from the point of view of the daughter presents complications. Frankie’s song says “it is only here in this fast-food that she sees her mother so happy.” This effort to imbed certain products as an integral part of the Filipino way of life is problematic because children begin to grow up with a materialistic perspective of the elements of Philippine culture.

To be fair, another fast-food chain is more blatantly upfront in this area. As a result, and I am talking from personal experience here, children grow up thinking that happiness and fun are synonymous with going to this fast-food chain. One of my nephews actually insisted that his birthday party be held at this fast-food chain, otherwise it wouldn’t be a real birthday party. I am sure this phenomenon is becoming more and more prevalent as the distinction between our real culture and that created by advertising becomes increasingly blurred, particularly in the eyes of impressionable children.

In many countries, advertising directed at children is actually banned. It is sad that in our country, the practice is flourishing and our regulators seem to be turning a blind eye to the phenomenon.

Since our regulators are not doing anything about it and business seems bent on pursuing this trend of turning children into consumers at an early age, parents will just have to work harder to counter the negative effects of advertising. Unfortunately, when you are up against someone like Sharon Cuneta, the odds are heavily stacked against you.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dumb bigots

It's strike two.

Danton Remoto has just been declared a nuisance candidate by the Comelec. He's my top pick for senator (see sidebar). Danton represents Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. Their group, Ang Ladlad, is seeking party list accreditation. The Comelec has denied them accreditation claiming that the party cannot show proof of "national membership." It seems the Comelec needs proof that LGBTs also exist in each of the provinces and cities and towns and barangays in the Philippines. Talk about denial.

Victor Wood has not been declared a nuisance candidate. The singer from the 70s who figured in many embarrassing television shows in recent years due to incoherence or variants of strange behaviors like mimicking Kris Aquino on public television while being interview by her, is fit for senator but Danton who is professor at the Ateneo, multi-awarded poet, author and editor of many books, is not.

What can I say, the COMELEC is not only a bunch of people who cannot count; they are also a bunch of bigots. Worse, they are dumb bigots.

Shame.