Monday, April 30, 2007

Sifting through the ruins of a tragedy

Every once in a while although it does seem to be happening more often now, something horribly awful happens in one part of the world that shakes up the whole of humanity and sets us into a major soul-searching effort. We sit in front of our television sets with mouths wide agape, shake our heads and bewail the utter senselessness of it all.

But eventually, when media has milked all the juicy bits out of the tragedy, we settle into our old routines and get on with our lives. And everything seems forgotten and the world seems a better place again. Until the next horrible event comes along, of course, at which point we go through the whole exercise again.

I didn’t write about the Virginia Tech killings which took place a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to do so when all the dust has settled and the blaming and wailing has subsided. I know that it will take some more time before all, or at least most of the pieces of the puzzle could be assembled and a more enlightened analysis of the terrible event could be made.

The tragedy happened halfway across the world but it had a chilling effect on everyone because of several factors.

The tragedy happened inside a campus, a place we expect to be generally safe and where mass murder is supposed to be merely a theoretical construct discussed in Psychology or Literature class rather than something that one witnesses as a real occurrence. If our campuses cannot be safe anymore and a student can go on a killing rampage, it begs painful and embarrassing questions. What does it say of ourselves as elders, parents, and teachers if we’ve given rise to times where violence can come knocking on the door of classrooms and snuff out promising lives?

I am aware that there are people who frown at self-flagellation and would prefer to look at the terrible things that happen in the world as natural phenomena, something that cannot be helped. I don’t.

We must sit up and note that the killing spree comes on the heels of similar incidents that indicate a disturbing pattern. It started at Columbine eight years ago. While it would be grossly unfair and immature to make generalizations and say that the events are connected in some way, there are certain disturbing parallels in all these events.

We all know that youth can be excruciating, particularly for those who do not fit in. It is a stage rife with possibilities for feeling hate, self-loathing and all forms of psychological pain but up until now, we’ve never seen these transformed into rage of such magnitude. The fact is that this new form of venting pain and anger has become a disturbing reality. It would be naïve and immature to assume that Cho was simply a copycat of the Columbine, Amish schoolhouse, Red Lake or Jonesboro gunmen for his actions did show a steely determination. But this disturbing fact must be confronted: Killing sprees has seemingly become a potent alternative for kids who are troubled enough to pursue it.

The tragedy does seem like a grisly sequel, but unfortunately, it is not a rerun of a “Friday the 13th” or “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” It wasn’t simply a Tarantino film, nor a computer game where kids can massacre others with guns and chainsaws. We must remember that kids today are regularly exposed, perhaps desensitized to such a gruesome specter. We rile about sex on media, but not enough about violence.

Of course the tragedy happened because Cho Heung-Sui, the gunman, was stark raving mad. His ranting as contained in the plays that he wrote for his English courses indicate this. His behaviors on campus were a serious cause for concern. It was clear that his mind was snapping. So the painful question must be asked: Why didn’t anyone do something?

I hate to cast blame on others, particularly the victims of the tragedy. But we must remind ourselves of this truism: evil things happen because very often, good men don’t do anything or at least enough, to stop them. A lesson that has been learned from many similar events do stand out from memory such as those done by the passengers of Flight 93 during the 9/11 tragedy. They were brave enough to charge the hijackers and prevent that plane’s crash into the Capitol Building or the White House.

I remember being on a plane after the 9/11 tragedy where the pilot reminded passengers that they can do something in the event something similar happens— throw anything at the hijacker, beat him senseless, barricade him, etc. A fact that painfully stands out in the Virginia Tech tragedy was that there was only one crazed gunman and hundreds of other students.

Based on reports, we now know that some students survived because they barricaded the classroom doors. One professor, Liviu Librescu, a Romanian who was a survivor of the Holocaust, gave up his life by holding the door closed while his students escaped through the windows. He was killed and shot through the door. In another class, many died simply because the students couldn’t convince the professor to barricade the door. It’s time to rethink the way we condition ourselves to deal with tragedy.

In the mad rush to cast blame somewhere, so much gobbledygook has been spewed on profiling the killer’s background and on the issue of gun control. As usual, we are barking up the wrong tree.

As an Asian, I was extremely disturbed by the constant mention of the killer’s race so much so that all references to him was preceded by the description “Korean-American.”

A Filipino friend, who was vacationing in Los Angeles at the time of the killing, narrated that when the initial reports of the killing started to come on in television identifying the gunman as Asian, the common reaction among our countrymen in the US was to pray “let it not be a Filipino, please.” I know that Cho was Korean. But to constantly rub his ethnic origin in every single report smacks of denial. The gunman did the horrible crime not because he was Korean. He did it because he was sick and disturbed. He did it because, as I said, it has become an option. He could have been of any other ethnic descent. The color of his skin and the shape of his eyes have nothing to do with it.

Expectedly, the tragedy has sparked once again the bitter debate on gun control. Yes, Cho was able to vent his anger and his madness because he had access to guns. But then again, who can actually fathom the motivations and intentions of a mad mind? The fact that he had access to guns was a major factor, but if he had set his mind on killing people, it didn’t really matter if he had access to guns or none. I am not saying that imposing stricter controls on guns is not a good idea, because it is. But that is not the main issue here.

The issue is that someone was deeply troubled and no one did something about it. We are not doing enough to address mental health, or in helping kids cope with what they have to put up with.

Our kids are growing up in a world where previously unimaginable options are now available in order to cope with the many difficulties they have to contend with. It’s a world we are co-creating. It is time to confront the question: What is it that makes these terrible things happen and what are we doing about it?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Moveable holidays

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

AS of this writing, the annual celebration of Labor Day will still be on May 1, which falls on a Tuesday this year. This can change anytime before May 1, of course. This year’s Labor Day celebration can still be switched to April 30 or May 4, depending on the mood of the President or the people around her. To non-Filipinos, having moveable holidays do not make sense. Labor Day is celebrated all over the world on May 1. How can it be celebrated on another day?

But alas, we live in a country where history and meaning take a backseat to convenience and pragmatism. When the celebration of a national holiday falls in the middle of the week, we have gotten into this habit of moving it to a Friday or a Monday to allow employees a longer weekend.

By doing so, we diminish the significance of the occasions, weaken the collective soul of our nation and dilute further whatever remains of the social glue that binds our culture together. Lest we forget, national holidays are designed to be non-working days to allow citizens to commemorate historical or special occasions. They are supposed to give way to important rituals that strengthen a country’s culture.

But who cares, right? Not our short-sighted leaders who have no scruples of buying off the goodwill of citizens by giving them more vacation time; and certainly not citizens who are just too happy to have one more extra day to laze around in bed or spend at the mall.

Along the way, we have even invented or adapted concepts to justify this madcap practice.

There’s holiday economics. This is the myth that longer weekends encourage people to travel to some tourist destinations and therefore spur business activity in these destinations. Okay, maybe some people do. But last I looked, the rich people in this country already own vacation houses in Calatagan, Tagaytay, etc., and don’t necessarily go off to some developing tourist destination to spread their money around.

And, if memory serves me right, the annual migration of Filipinos to hometowns, beaches and mountain resorts has been pretty much set like clockwork: Around All Saints Day, Christmas and New Year, and Holy Week. Okay, like I said, some probably do have the means and the energy to pack up and leave for Bohol or Pagudpud at a moment’s notice when these long weekends are announced, but I am afraid the numbers can’t be enough to create any significant surges in the local economy of these so-called tourist destinations.

A foreigner friend of mine laughed so hard when he learned about the other definition of “sandwich” in this country. It’s something that school kids and harassed employees pray for—that certain days sandwiched between a Sunday and a holiday will be declared as a non-working or non-school day as well. “Sandwich holidays” are testaments to how our leaders promote indolence and a culture of entitlement among our people, particularly the younger generation.

May 1 will most likely remain untouched this year, largely because it is elections time and Malacañan Palace probably does not want to invite more criticism from the labor sector. So Labor Day will not be sacrificed at the altar of convenience this time around.

Ironically, Independence Day seems less important, and therefore not as significant, as Labor Day. If you haven’t heard yet, Malacañan Palace has already declared last Jan. 10, through Proclamation 1211, that this year’s celebration of independence will be marked on June 11, a Monday, instead of the usual June 12. The reason is obvious —to give people the benefit of a three-day weekend.

The proclamation that was issued at the start of the year programmed eight long weekends this year.

So in addition to the Independence Day long weekend, there are at least three more four-day weekends forthcoming. Nov. 2 (a Friday) has already been declared a holiday, so since Nov. 1 (Thursday) is already a regular holiday, people are already assured of a four-day weekend. The same thing has been done to Dec. 24 (a Monday); thus we will have a four-day Christmas celebration (Dec. 22-25). Dec. 31 is also a holiday so that’s another four-day weekend to cap the year.

If people want more four-day vacations, they can just file leaves on Aug. 20 (a Monday) since Aug. 21 (a Tuesday, Ninoy Aquino Day) is a special holiday. People can also file a leave on May 15 (a Tuesday), since May 14 is the mid-term elections and this is traditionally, and supposedly, a holiday.

Take note that I did not categorically say that May 14 is a holiday. I think people at Malacañan Palace must be really busy with the campaign that they have forgotten to issue a proclamation declaring May 14 as a holiday. The mid-term election was not also listed as one of the holidays under Proclamation 1211 issued last January. Perhaps because at that time Malacañan Palace was convinced there would be no elections this year?

Article 94 of the Labor Code provided that “the day designated by law for general election” shall be a regular holiday. This provision, however, has been amended by Executive Order 203 dated June 30, 1987. The EO issued by then President Corazon Aquino specified the list of “Regular Holidays” and “Nationwide Special Days.”

The EO reads: “Henceforth, the terms ‘legal or regular holiday’ and ‘special holiday,’ as used in laws, orders, rules and regulations, or other issuance shall now be referred to as ‘regular holiday’ and ‘special day,’ respectively.”

As an interesting aside, the changes in terminologies which has become a continuing source of confusion among human resource practitioners in this country (those of us who are tasked with ensuring that employees are paid holiday premium correctly)—from legal holiday to regular holiday—was allegedly because Congress was not in session at that time yet.

So Malacañan Palace is mistaken when it issues proclamations declaring certain days as “special holidays” simply because no such things exist according to law.

But to go back to the issue of May 14 being a holiday, we now know that this is not automatic precisely because the provision in the labor code that assigns the day of national elections as a holiday has been superseded or amended by EO 203. Thus, for the 2004 elections, Malacañang actually issued Proclamation 628 declaring May 10, 2004 as a nationwide special public holiday.

Malacañang has not issued a similar proclamation this year. And without it, there is no basis for employers in this country to pay overtime premium to employees. So right now, May 14, election day, is not yet a holiday. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Honoring Julia Campbell

This was my column yesterday.

I did not have the privilege of meeting Julia Campbell, the US Peace Corps volunteer who met a tragic death while taking a stroll at the Banaue rice terraces.

But like many other Filipinos, I am deeply saddened by the tragedy that befell her. It is extremely horrifying that something gruesome and senseless could happen to a foreigner in Batad, a place inhabited by Igorots who are known to be peace-loving people and therefore generally renowned to be safe. I know a number of hikers and backpackers who have traversed the same path that Julia took and they attest that the area has not been known to be dangerous.

So why did it happen to her? I guess no one can fathom the evil that lie in some people’s hearts. It is so sad that Julia was in the same place at the same time with someone with unspeakable evil in his heart.

What magnifies the impact of the tragedy, transforming it into an enormous cause for shame and embarrassment for us Filipinos, is the fact that it involved someone who was in the country for humanitarian reasons. As an American Peace Corps volunteer, Julia Campbell gave up a life of comfort and privilege in New York to be with the poorest of the poor in our country and actually made a difference in the communities where she served.

Julia’s death is personal to me on many levels. First, I have a personal connection with the Peace Corps movements in the country having worked with the US Peace Corps in the Philippines in the mid-’80s as a language and culture teacher. For a couple of years, I lived with American volunteers. My job involved helping them understand Filipinos and the many idiosyncrasies of our culture, and guiding many American volunteers in their heroic efforts to make a difference in a country that often took their benevolence and selflessness for granted. Along the way, I acquired lifetime friends many of whom I continue to correspond with today.

At that time, the myth about Peace Corps volunteers being spies of America’s Central Intelligence Agency was prevalent. Fortunately, the Peace Corps has overcome that nasty appellation.

Those among us with personal connections to the Peace Corps either as teachers, host families, colleagues, or even as friends, neighbors or simply citizens of the same community where a Peace Corps volunteer serves share this special bond with them. And this bond is one that transcends specific personalities and individuals.

Perhaps it is the nobility of the cause of the Peace Corps or the shared cross-culture experience that helps create lifelong instant affinities with any Peace Corps volunteer anywhere in the country.

This explains the outpouring of grief over Julia’s tragic death.

Second, I actually work in the building where the US Peace Corps has its headquarters and sharing an elevator or tables at the cafeteria with them is an everyday occurrence. Even my previous stint in the Peace Corps has not diminished the sense of wonder that I would feel every time I would converse with American volunteers in our native language. What makes Peace Corps volunteers endearing is the fact that they do try to learn our language and culture and immerse themselves in our ways.

Third, Julia was a blogger and I have visited her Web log (www.juliainthephilippines.blogspot.com) on several occasions courtesy of a link provided by another friend who remains active in the Peace Corps circuit. Julia blogged about the ups and downs and the joys and tribulations of being an American working in a strange land in her blog. Her first entry was made while she was still undergoing training and still living with a host family in Laguna. Succeeding posts narrate her many amusing brushes with Filipinos from Laguna, to Donsol where she was first assigned, and finally, to Legazpi City. Along the way, she set up a library, helped put up a community ecology center, taught English in some colleges, and did many other projects in the service of the communities where she lived.

The last post in her blog is dated Jan. 13, 2007, a piece ironically entitled “Buhay Pa Tayo” (Still alive). The piece recounts her efforts to cope with the aftermath of Typhoon Reming (her last assignment was in Legazpi City, which was hit hard by the super typhoon). That last entry strikes me as a fitting blog equivalent to an epitaph. Her memory, legacy and the sacrifice she made shall indeed continue to live.

I invite everyone to visit Julia’s blog. It’s a blog that deserves to be read by many because aside from the many insights that one can get about what Peace Corps volunteers go through while doing service to communities, it is also full of amusing and inspiring stories of hope and faith. It is a powerful testament to the spirit of volunteerism that is sadly going extinct in the world today.

Her blog has now become a memorial of sorts. Last I looked, there were more than 200 comments on her last post. The comments from all over the world, but mostly from Filipinos, express generally the same sentiments —gratitude and appreciation for her contributions to the country, sadness and grief over her untimely and tragic demise, and yes, apologies on behalf of the country.

It is heartwarming to note that many among us Filipinos are taking the time to reach out to the Julia’s family and friends and expressing not only our condolences but also our profound regret for the tragedy. This does not diminish the callousness of the Justice Secretary, but it does prove that Secretary Raul Gonzalez does not represent the Filipino people. No, we are not a country of jerks even if a heartless criminal and an insensitive Cabinet member are amongst us.

I know that this is a cliché, but when something quite nonsensical like Julia’s death happens, we can’t help but try to find comfort and solace in the belief that something good could come out of the tragedy. It won’t bring her back nor would it undo the evil deed of whoever it was that committed that dastardly act that snuffed Julia’s life.

But Julia’s death has put the spotlight on the nobility of the cause of the Peace Corps. It has highlighted the fact that there are still many people in the world like Julia who are imbued with the desire to do something good for humanity. Such efforts deserve our attention and support.

It is my hope then that American Peace Corps volunteers anywhere in the country shall now acquire a higher level of respect and that their efforts shall begin to be recognized. For truly, service to others, particularly those that come with immense personal sacrifice, deserve appreciation and recognition.

In death, Julia has touched more lives. She has shown us that our lives can be truly made more meaningful if spent in the service of others.

Goodnight, Julia. Sleep well. Thank you for touching our lives profoundly.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ang init!

Ang init talaga!!!

I know, I know, I am not alone in this predicament. Everyone in the Philippines is suffering from this infernal heat and I cannot bear to imagine what it is like in other countries that are closer to the equator. I understand that in certain places wildfires have occured because dried grass just suddenly ignited. I also know that in some countries scores of people are suffering from heatstroke. I empathize with everyone who is suffering as well.

The problem is that I am extremely sensitive to heat. I get migraines, nausea, skin rashes, and hypertension. And although I think it is pushing it a little too far, my gastritis has also been acting up in the last two weeks, and well, the litany goes on and on.

Expectedly, my blood pressure has been on a rollercoaster ride in the last two weeks. I would have extremely low blood pressure in the mornings (at one point this week, 90/70) which then begins a perilous a climb around noontime. I know "high" is also relative - in my case, anything in excess of 120/80 already qualifies as high; my internal plumbing system is simply designed that way.

So the last two weeks have been really hell for me. And because life has a funny way of testing one's fortitude (at least I can still see it from a lighter perspective), work has never been as hectic and as demanding. I had to finish the annual reports of two companies and organize three presentations in a record four-days time. At the same time, I had to prepare and deliver one paper for a group of HR professionals last Thursday. And tomorrow (Saturday), I have to conduct a whole-day training program for a religious congregration. And on Sunday, I have to drive all the way to Bataan to conduct a team building program for the editorial staff of the College's paper. And oh, I had to finish grading papers, checking tests, and computing grades in time for course card distribution last night.

I am whining, I know. And I am on a roll.

So my patience is really running thin. In fact, it's hanging by a thread. Which explains why I haven't been blogging as much lately. There are zillion and one things I would have loved to write about - from the latest psychological torture in PBB, to that tragic killing spree in Virginia Tech, to the senseless cruelty inflicted by the Bureau of Census to Filipinos applying for birth certificates (they are made to queue in the middle of the scorching sun in this supposedly Serbilis outlet in front of my office every day), to the various inanities in this mad mad election season, ad nauseum.

And yes, I would love to write really scathing rejoinders to a couple of entries in some blogs about me. But then again, why bother, since it is pretty obvious that some people have already made up their minds about what kind of person I am anyway. Life is too short to waste on narrow-minded people who think anyone with a perceived contrary opinion is automatically their personal enemy.

Meantime, please bear with the irregular updates in this blog. This infernal heat is just too much.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who's on the list?

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

Yes, it mentions Ang Ladlad yet again. So the trolls, the crazies and the homophobics are forewarned - save your energy, go somewhere else because there is no chance I am going to post your hate messages in this blog.


There are at least three factors that feed on each other to create uproar: Doubt, urgency, and anxiety. All three are present—in large quantities—in the current imbroglio over the continuing refusal of the Commission on Elections to release the names of the nominees of the various groups given party-list accreditation.

According to the Comelec, there is no need to do so because what is voted upon in the party-list election is the party, not the nominees. Commissioner Resurreccion Borra has a point. The party-list system is not supposed to be identified with individual candidates and personages but with platforms, causes, and advocacies.

Thank you for the lecture, sir, but we already know that.

Which is precisely the reason why no one is asking the Comelec to release the names of the nominees of the various party-list groups for campaign purposes. No one is asking the Comelec to post the names of the nominees in the ballot boxes. Nor is anyone asking the Comelec to allow nominees to campaign as individuals. And certainly, no one is pressuring the Comelec to announce the names of the nominees to the general public in order to encourage them to vote for certain party-list groups on the basis of the qualifications of the nominees.

No, honorable commissioners of the Comelec. We are not asking that you release the names of the nominees so that the party-list organizations can be identified with individuals. In fact, we are asking for the opposite. We are asking the Comelec to maintain the integrity of the party-list system, in particular, the integrity of the party-list organizations, by ensuring that the nominees come from the sector that they are supposed to represent.

We are asking the Comelec to make public the names of the nominees of the various groups they have accredited for purposes of validating representation. And representation is the operational word behind the party-list system.

The whole idea behind the party-list scheme is to “broaden representation in the House of Representatives to include sectors and those organizations that do not have well-defined political constituencies” and “facilitate access to representation of minority or small parties.”

Again, the key word is “representation.” The whole intent of the party-list system is to be able to improve the quality of the representation in the House of Representatives precisely by opening its doors to party-lists who would bring in non-traditional politicians, in other words, people who are supposed to champion the platforms, causes and advocacies given accreditation by the Comelec.

So the issue is that we want to ensure that the nominees are the truly representatives of the groups that they seek to represent.

But let’s cut all the BS and go straight to the jocular.

Actually, what people want is for the Comelec to confirm or deny the authenticity of the list of nominees that is going around. In case you don’t know, the nominees of more than 20 groups given party-list accreditation is already going around and around in certain e-mail groups and the names are bound to floor anyone down or throw anyone off the wall.

The names in that list include various undersecretaries, regional directors of government agencies, military officials, even sons of people close to the powers-that-be. So there is widespread apprehension that the party-list system is being used as a backdoor to Congress by the government.

The obstinacy of the Comelec on the issue is adding fuel to speculations that something sinister is in the works. Actually, I started to have my doubts as early as January.

When the Comelec disqualified Ang Ladlad, the party-list of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people citing what struck me as spurious reasoning, I started to have some doubts about the way the party-list accreditation was being conducted in this particular election.

If we are to go by the intent of the law that created the party-list system, Ang Ladlad and its constituency would have easily qualified.

Of course the law creating the party- list system is coached in more than enough gobbledygook that provides ample opportunities for lawyers, in particular Comelec commissioners, to tangle the ideas so that they suit some interest or agenda.

Nevertheless, four key words effectively describe the main qualifications for party-list accreditation. These four words are undeniably applicable to the constituencies of Ang Ladlad. These are: marginalized, disadvantaged, minority, and underrepresented. The reasons why these words apply to the constituencies of Ang Ladlad have been the thesis of so many articles and case studies. Let’s not go into that now.

And yet the Comelec still chose to disqualify Ang Ladlad. The official reason cited had to do with lack of “national organization.” Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos even issued what he thought was helpful advice but only served to highlight his prejudice, when he urged lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders to come out of their closets.

I don’t know what reality-altering medication the Comelec commissioners are taking to assert that Filipino lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders are not underrepresented, marginalized and disadvantaged. To say that these people do not comprise a minority is tantamount to saying that the Philippines is a first world country.

The scuttlebutt is that the real reason why Ang Ladlad was not granted accreditation was really because it happens to be very vocal about being anti-Arroyo and for being pro-impeachment. But okay, so Ang Ladlad did not meet the Comelec’s seemingly stringent requirements.

And yet surprise, surprise, 90 other organizations qualified. And the list of organizations represents a whole gamut of all possible constituencies. It seems everybody is now marginalized, underrepresented, disadvantaged and belong to a minority. Well, everyone except lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.

I know pulling down others to build a case for another advocacy smacks of extreme crab mentality, but I just cannot help it in this case. When one goes through the list of organizations the Comelec gave accreditation to, one just cannot help being exasperated. One cannot help questioning the qualification of certain organizations!

For crying out loud, how can certain professional organizations and cooperatives qualify as marginalized or disadvantaged? How in the world did organizations put up by scions of multimillionaires get through the gauntlet that the Comelec laid down for Ang Ladlad; unless of course that gauntlet was specifically designed for Ang Ladlad and no else.

It’s enough to make anyone give credence to the allegation that party-list seats are for sale in this country; that any group can get accreditation and instant votes in exchange for a certain amount.

I am sure the Comelec will be able to come up with erudite rationale to explain the accreditation of questionable organizations for party-list representation or to justify its continued refusal to release the nominees of the groups it accredited. But quite frankly, its decisions and actions on the party-list issue in this election raise too many questions. These may be reason to suspect that something is afoot.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Media Projection

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


One of the factors making the coming elections so unlike others we’ve had in the past is that this time around, the battle to win minds and hearts is being waged primarily through media.

Candidates still go through the motions of making token appearances at public markets and slum areas, kissing babies, shaking hands and speaking at public rallies. But we all know that fewer and fewer people are turning up at these rallies even if a celebrity is brought along to work the crowd.

If it is any consolation to more enlightened citizens out there, it does seem that celebrity status is no longer a critical factor in elections today. It does seem that even the matinee idol status of Richard Gomez and Cesar Montano will not translate into votes this time around. In Manila, for example, three celebrities are slugging it out in the vice mayoralty race: Cita Astals, Isko Moreno and Robert Ortega. The candidate clearly leading the race, however, is Joey Hizon, a non-celebrity.

And yet if we are to go by the rather strong and definitive opinions the electorate seems to have about the candidates, one would get the impression that voters know the candidates personally, that they have interacted with the candidates in person, and that they know exactly who the candidate is. All this is the result of conditioning through media.

Such is the power of media today. It can mold, sway, alter and even create opinions. It can empower people. Because candidates intrude into our living rooms and bedrooms at every hour of the day, we seem to already know them like the back of our hands. Thus, media projection is the most critical factor in the elections today. Media projection can make or break candidacies.

Some of the candidates know this and therefore take pains to build media projection that translates into empathy, and subsequently, votes in their favor.

It seems to be working in the case of some candidates. Very few actually know what the platforms of senatorial candidates Noynoy Aquino, Alan Peter Cayetano and Chiz Escudero are, but most have already formed an opinion of their individual worth as senators based mainly on perceptions of what they seem to stand for.

All three have questionable records as legislators. It is bandied about that Cayetano and Escudero did not file a single bill in Congress but merely attached their names to some bills filed by their colleagues. But based on the image that they have created, we have been conditioned to they think that they have done so well in Congress.

On the other hand, even the media savvy of television impresario Boy Abunda has not succeeded in creating a media-friendly image of senatorial candidate Mike Defensor. The whole “tol” campaign was obviously meant to create a softer image of the candidate, one that people can relate to easily. But it is not working. Thus, the last minute efforts to switch to a more substance-based campaign.

Even the hundreds of millions spent on television ads by senatorial candidate Prospero Pichay has not translated into empathy for him. In fact, the media image that Pichay spent so much on has only succeeded in turning him into a caricature of sorts.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where communication has become largely “visual.” It does seem that communication experts are right after all when they assert that voters today are making decisions based how the candidates are coming across as individuals based on their total packaging rather than by what they are saying (verbal) or how they sound (vocal).

This explains the absence of substance in the current campaign. Despite last- minute efforts to adjust campaign strategies of candidates to insert some semblance of content, the truth is we’re all still grappling with personalities.

We’re still stuck with gross generalizations rather than specific platforms and causes. Pray, except in the case of senatorial candidate Ping Lacson who is specifically campaigning on a platform anchored on the acronym HOPE (health, order, progress and education) who else has a clear and well-defined platform that we know of?

More importantly, who actually cares about platforms today? Not the electorate it seems. The voters have seemingly made up their minds already about who to vote for based purely on the media projection of candidates. And certainly not the candidates who are just too happy focusing on building a cult image rather than on defining their platforms.

With barely a month to go before the elections, the mad rush to fortify “images” has become more intense. The television ads of the two main political parties are clear-cut examples.

The Genuine Opposition is staking its whole party campaign on one and only one message—they are against the current administration. Whoever said that this election is not about the President must now be eating humble pie.

GO’s campaign message is not a real platform since lest we forget, the May election is not a presidential election. The only viable way they can unseat the sitting president is through an impeachment, which the Senate can do only if there are enough votes in Congress. So that campaign message is really nothing more but an effort to shore up the image of the GO senatorial candidates as brave defenders of the people against corruption. It is about fortifying public images.

Let’s not bother with the television ad of Team Unity because, quite frankly, it is a slipshod attempt at deflecting the GO campaign. What that ad only succeeds at doing is projecting the impression that the team is for protecting the status quo. What it succeeds in doing is fortifying the media projection of the team as a bunch of softies and lightweights who stand for nothing significant. And, please, “We will rock you!” is so ’80s, not to mention the fact that the sentence offers lots of opportunities for derogatory transmutations.

This business of conditioning minds requires strong advocacies and a firm stand on issues. Because voters make impressions based on images and perceptions, candidates must come across as fighters, defenders, vanguards, catalysts of change, etc. And on this score, the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the opposition.

No wonder surveys say the same thing over and over again. So instead of attacking the surveys, candidates should better work on their media projection. There’s no escaping the call of the times.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crying Lady speaks up

What follows was written about three weeks ago and was meant to be a column, but I somehow forgot about it. I just realized I wrote something about Oreta that I didn't get to include in my column when I watched her justify on television survey results that rank her as the politician most people mistrust.

And what are we supposed to make of the public apology of senatorial candidate Tessie Aquino-Oreta? I don’t mean to sound callous and heartless in the face of such seeming humility. Unfortunately, it is the campaign season and her apology is packaged as a campaign material – so I think many among us can be forgiven for being unable to see sincerity in the act.

Nevertheless, that apology begs a number of questions.

First, if she has remained in the opposition and continued to be in the good graces of her erstwhile benefactor, the former President Joseph Estrada, would she still make that apology?
Second, why did she wait this long to issue that apology? If she is truly sorry for doing that jig at that crucial moment in the Estrada impeachment trial, why do so only after six years and why do so in a manner that has all the telltale signs of a well-crafted and well-directed dramatic performance? A friend of mine pretty much summed up a common reaction: being the sister of a famous and multi-awarded movie and television director (Lupita Kashiwahara) brings certain benefits.

Nice try, Tessie Aquino-Oreta, but we are not biting. But hey, I really mean this: You have a promising career as an actress.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Irresponsible comments can lose votes

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

Television is truly a double-edged sword. It can make or break candidacies, delight or hurt constituencies. Because television airtime is costly and the attention span of audiences is fleeting, candidates are often forced to be smart, curt and witty when responding to interviews. Thus, sometimes, even the most sensible of candidates make irresponsible comments.

I did not catch that particular footage on television last week when senatorial candidate Sonia Roco made that unfortunate remark that reportedly caught the ire of the Autism Society of the Philippines. Probably because I have already announced in my blog that I was voting for Roco, a friend who is an active supporter of the Society as well as another reader of my blog, called my attention to the snafu. As a favor to my friend—who happens to have a child with autism—I am sharing with you the story:

Roco was asked by a television news reporter to comment on Team Unity’s reaction to the results of the latest survey. As we all know, Team Unity had been doggedly insisting that the surveys were wrong and that the administration candidates were certain to sweep the mid-term elections. Team Unity’s campaign manager had even boasted that the survey firms will be out of business after the elections.

Roco said: “Ano ba naman sila, dreaming? Para naman silang mga autistic, may sariling mundo.” And then she let out a hearty laugh. (Are they dreaming? They are like autistic people who live in their own world).

Let’s face it: Team Unity’s stubborn insistence that it would sweep the elections verges on the hilarious, simply because everyone, except them, already knows it is not going to happen. Thus, I can understand the context of Roco’s off-the-cuff remarks.

Too bad, those remarks hurt one sector of society: the autistic people and their loved ones.

I empathize with Filipinos who have autistic family members and who were gravely hurt by Roco’s thoughtless and insulting remarks. Those who are unfamiliar with the difficulties of autistics and their families are made to suffer due to social stigmatization may not find anything wrong with Roco’s statement. The common perception is that people with autism are mentally unbalanced, inferior, or prone to destructive behavior. They are often ridiculed, feared, even used as objects of derision. Roco’s statement was certainly uncalled for and cast aspersions on autistic people.

The Autism Society of the Philippines came up with a statement, which I am quoting here in full:

”Para naman silang mga autistic... may sariling mundo.”

“This is what senatorial candidate Sonia Roco said when interviewed on TV Patrol Monday evening newscast, regarding Team Unity’s reaction to poll surveys on Top 12 senators. She followed her statement with a hearty laugh.”

“But we could not laugh with her.”

“Coming from a respectable educator like Mrs. Roco, families of Filipinos with autism could not help being hurt by such statement, given the context that it was said. After all, we have worked so hard for the past 20 years to educate Filipinos about autism, and to remove the social stigma associated with it.”

“We can’t help wondering... if a poll survey is to be conducted now among the estimated 400,000 Filipino families [multiply that please with the number of immediate family members and relatives, plus professionals involved], what would be Mrs. Roco’s ranking?”

The statement was signed by Dang Uy Koe, president of the Society.

On Good Friday, Roco issued an apology and clarified her statement. Expectedly, she said that her comments were “not meant to deride or demean those who are suffering from autism and the people like you who care for them.”

Roco explained her comment, particularly that damning line “may sariling mundo.” She explained that what she meant was that “we are each living in our own individual world, while being members of a whole. That was the only reference I meant, insinuating that Team Unity is so engrossed in their own world that they shut out the realities of the community around them. The answer was directed to Team Unity and to Team Unity alone.” This explanation is neither here nor there because her original statement clearly had autistic people as point of reference.

She went on to share that she had a sister who was a special child and that the late Raul Roco’s youngest sister was labelled by psychologists as “mongoloid.” “Yes, I understand where you are coming from as I hope you will understand to whom the commentary was directed to,” she said.

Roco, however, did not explain the context around the hearty laughter that followed her irresponsible comment. Nor did she explain why despite being on first name basis with autism, she still made that remark.

Although the Autism Society has dropped the issue, I am told that a number of its members and supporters are still miffed, and quite understandably so. They resent the fact that Roco dragged their loved ones into the dirty world of politics.

Dexter of the Web log 3X + Y (3xty.blogspot.com) had this to say: “What might have really insulted families and friends of our uniquely loved brothers and sisters was the way Sonia Roco related autism to the severely-decaying world she wants to belong to, spelled out as P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S.”

There is a lesson to be learned here and I hope that Roco has truly learned it.

Let this be a warning to the other candidates, particularly those who make statements that they think would make them cute. Actually, such words turn people off. People are not as naïve or as forgiving anymore.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What if

The following was sent to me through my office email, which i did not access throughout the 5-day vacation, which explains the delay in posting. The author is said to be one joel saracho of abs-cbn. I am still posting it here just in case some people are still on holy week mode (really?!) or wants to take a break from the 5-day break.


Breaking News: The Crucifixion

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Had ANC (OK, let's include CNN and BBC) been around 2,000 years ago,
we would have had the following report: Anchor reads: A carpenter's
son was sentenced to die in Jerusalem after he was convicted guilty of
treason and inciting to sedition. Our Middle East correspondent is on
the field to bring us a live report… So what's the latest ?


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Anchor reads:

A carpenter's son was sentenced to die in Jerusalem after he was
convicted guilty of treason and inciting to sedition.

Our Middle East correspondent is on the field to bring us a live
report… So what's the latest ?

Correspondent (Live Shot)

Tension is high as people wait for the arrival of Jesus and two
thieves convicted to die here in Mt. Calvary this afternoon.

Jesus is bearing a cross where he will be crucified. The crown of
thorns on his head is sure sign of torture, and it was said he was
tortured heavily which included scourging.

Jesus, who claims to receive Divine Instructions, was arrested by
Roman soldiers Wednesday evening after a party with his close
associates in Gethsemane. He was tipped off by Judas the Iscariot,
finance officer of Jesus's Gang of 12, known internationally as The
Apostles.

Sources from the Palace however say Judas was bribed by the Sanhedrin,
or high priests, led by Caiaphas and Anas, to stand witness against
his friend.

It is also alleged that Jesus is among the leaders of the Essenes and
is building a mass base to form a new religion which will be called
Christianity to challenge the faith of the Jews.

Anchor

These high priests, did they say what specific offenses Jesus committed?

Correspondent

Among many other things, the Sanhedrins say Jesus worked on the
Sabbath and perform unauthorized miracles, including changing water
into wine.

It must also be remembered that Jesus made a scene when he threw a
tantrum in the temple and turned over the tables used by the
money-changers and vendors.

He was also seen talking to a crowd and inciting them to rebel against
Judean authorities in his speech popularly known as The Beautitudes.

Anchor

And the high priests found those acts worthy of capital punishment?

Correspondent

No. The high priests have no authority. What they did was send Jesus
to Governor Pontius Pilate who sent him to herod Antipas, ruler of
Galilee. I understand they have a question on Jesus's citizenship and
they concluded he was Galilean so he was sent to Herod Antipas.

Anchor

That's interesting. Isn't this the same Herod who ordered the
beheading of John the Baptist? And Pilate, representative of Rome is
not necessarily in good terms with Herod, is it not?

Correspondent

Yes to both questions.

It is safe to say there's a lot of power play here. In sending Jesus
to Herod, Pilate is testing Herod's adherence to Roman supremacy.
Pilate is actually luring Herod into a trap. But Herod refused to
bite.

From the information we have, Herod mocked Jesus by asking him to
perform a miracle. When Jesus refused, Herod sent him back to Pilate
for Rome to determine guilt and the necessary punishment.


Pilate had to preside over the trial. It was learned that Pilate held
some kind of a referendum when, following the tradition of releasing a
prisoner during Passover, he asked the people who they want to be
released – Jesus or another insurrectionist, Barabbas. The people
chose Barabbas.

Pilate was quoted as saying he doesn't believe Jesus is guilty but
that the people have spoken. Instead, he washed his hands to free
himself of guilt.

Anchor interrupts

We have to cut you short to give way to a breaking development from
our DZMM reporter. What's the latest?

Reporter:

Mainit pa ang balitang ito, at mainit pa rin ang bangkay ng
nagpatiwakal na dating kaibigan at kasama ni Jesus na kinilalang si
Hudas Iskariote.

Ayon sa mga awtoridad, natagpuan si Hudas na nakabigti sa isang puno
ng oliba ilang minuto matapos panoorin ang pagpapahirap kay Jesus.
Itong si Hudas ang siya daw nagtatwa kay Jesus at nagturo sa
kinaroroonan nito bago dinakip ng mga sundalo.

Samantala, kanina lamang ay nasalubong natin ang isang grupo ng mga
babae na may hawak na tela na may bakas ng mukha ni Jesus. Ayon kay
Ginang Veronica, pinunasan niya ang mukha ni Jesus nang makita niyang
hirap na ito sa pagpapasan ng krus. Aniya, milagrosong naging larawan
ni Jesus ang dugo at pawis na kumapit sa kanyang telang pamunas.

Ganunman, tinitingnan pa ng mga maykapangyarihan kung ang larawan ay
hindi dumaan sa digital manipulation.

'Yan muna ang pinakahuling pangyayari dito. Back to you.

Anchor

Salamat . Now let's go back to Mt. Calvary where Jesus and the thieves
who will be crucified with him have just arrived.

Our Middle East correspondent is still there. What is happening now?

Correspondent

You're right. The mood has become so emotional especially when Jesus
met his mother, Mary and his rumored to be paramour, a woman also
called Mary.

It is not known if Jesus has other brothers or sisters, but his mother
is accompanied by some men, identifed as James and Joseph. Also with
them is one of Jesus's friend, John.

The Roman soldiers nailed a sign on thecross that says King of the
Jews, apparently to better mock Jesus who is said to have claimed he
is the son of God.

I think Jesus is saying something. Let's try to listen to him.

Jesus soundbite

Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing….

***

Monday, April 09, 2007

Command responsibility

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

IS it reasonable to make candidates accountable for the actions of their supporters? Should we believe the yarn that it would be impossible for candidates to monitor and police the campaign strategies and actions of their supporters?

Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. is furious that someone filed a case against him for alleged abuse of his franking privilege as senator. The franking privilege, which is given to certain government officials, allows senators to send snail mail without having to pay for postage stamps. The magic phrase “for official use only,” which we all know often translates to “for official abuse only” particularly when it pertains to the use of government vehicles, is the justification behind the franking privilege.

Senator Pimentel allegedly abused his franking privilege by sending out campaign mails endorsing the candidacy of his son. The complainant speculates that at least 100,000 of these letters have been sent out thereby depriving the government of at least half a million pesos in revenue. But over and above the revenue issue, what rankles is the allegation of abuse of official privilege, in this case to further a vested political— actually family—interest.

Senator Pimentel claims he had no knowledge that the campaign mails were sent out using his franking privilege. He pointed an accusing finger at one of his staff. He claims to have chastised the erring staff and paid for the postage costs of the letters in question. Ganun na lang ba yun?( Shall we leave it at that?)

While driving around the Metro and some parts of Laguna over the weekend, I noted that a number of national and local candidates continue to violate Commission on Election rules on the posting of campaign materials. There are campaign posters all over, from Muntinlupa to Sta. Rosa. Many of them are tarpaulin banners in sizes that clearly exceed limits. Why, some of the posters are almost the size of billboards!

The campaign posters of the incumbent governor of Laguna are posted in practically every electrical post in Biñan and Sta Rosa. In my neighborhood in Malate, Manila, there are fences and walls completely covered by posters of mayoral candidate Ali Atienza. To be fair, though, it’s not only Atienza who is guilty of the violation. The other local candidates are just as guilty. And with only about six weeks to go before the elections, it is almost a certainty that the indiscriminate posting of campaign materials will become more wanton.

A number of candidates have tried to wiggle out of the situation by saying that they have given instructions to their supporters to follow Comelec rules. They complain that it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to monitor the actions of their supporters. I am amazed that these politicians are able to make these lame excuses with straight faces.

If they are not successful in providing leadership to their supporters, how can they be expected to succeed in the leadership posts for which they are aspiring? Besides, since they pay for these campaign materials, isn’t it logical to assume that they are aware of the quantity being printed and distributed? It is simple mathematics. There are only a number of designated common poster areas. Where else do they expect their supporters to post the thousands of remaining posters?

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of hearing candidates making all these harebrained excuses. Even the foul ups in their schedules are being blamed on their supporters. If candidates cannot assume responsibility for the actions of their supporters, then we are truly in serious trouble.

Command responsibility is one of the hallmarks of a real leader. Politicians like to cite command responsibility to make government officials accountable for various problems in this country. Shouldn’t they also be made accountable for the campaign violations committed by their supporters following the dictum what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well?

***

Over the weekend, I came across quite a number of private vehicles that have been transformed into roving campaign billboards for certain candidates. I am aware that senatorial candidate Nikki Coseteng has been whining about how some buses are breaking franchise rules by carrying the posters of some candidates (she is complaining because the candidates who seem to be getting away with the violations are from the administration ticket). But in this case, the vehicles in question are private, so I am not sure whether these constitute a violation of Comelec rules.

I just hope that no one comes up with the idea of turning private vehicles into full-time roving campaign billboards. Metro Manila’s streets are already crowded as they are. We don’t need more vehicles wandering aimlessly just to parade the photoshopped grinning mugs of certain candidates.

But I do have an unsolicited piece of advice for people who think they are doing political candidates a favor by plastering the posters of their favored candidates all over their vehicles. They must make sure that they obey traffic rules and observe utmost courtesy on the road. Otherwise, they might just be doing their favored candidates more harm than good.

Bear with a little storytelling here. I was driving back to Manila last Saturday night when I encountered heavy traffic a few meters before the tollgates near Bicutan. It was the classic funnel effect, which happened because the five-lane superhighway suddenly narrowed down to three as the lanes leading to the alternative tollgates were closed.

The situation became messy as motorists driving on the two inner lanes suddenly found themselves facing a dead end. Naturally, they were forced to swerve into the outer lanes so they could exit. Unfortunately, “giving way” is not one of the strongest suits of Filipino motorists. However, I was feeling charitable that night, so I allowed some cars to cut in front of me.
I noted that every time I would allow a vehicle to cut in, the vehicle behind me would honk his horn repeatedly as if to chastise me for being “nice.” I ignored the honking because I thought I was doing the right thing.

But the driver behind me could not see beyond his impatience. He found a way to overtake my car. He cut in front of me so suddenly I had to hit the breaks with all the strength my right foot could muster. Guess what the driver did. He stretched his left hand out of his car and gave me the finger.

And his car was plastered with the smiling face of Chiz Escudero. I don’t think the issue of command responsibility applies here, but political supporters like that rude motorist should realize that campaigning for candidates require certain responsibilities. You bet I shouted, “you lost one vote for your candidate!” at the guy.

***

And if you are not doing anything tonight, please drop by at the Teatrino at Greenhills where Abanse Pinay is doing a fund raiser. For a thousand bucks, you get dinner, bottomless iced tea, and a whole night of dancing.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Six down, six more to go...

One of the regular readers of this blog, someone who goes by the handle "Mommy Jo" left a comment a few weeks ago encouraging me to open a discussion on the candidates running for public office.

As you may have noticed, I have made public my picks for senator.

I have so far chosen six (in alphabetical order now): Joker Arroyo, Noynoy Aquino, Dr. Martin Bautista, Mike Defensor, Kiko Pangilinan, and Sonia Roco. That's my list so far. I haven't made up my mind on who the other six will be, but I will announce my other choices in the next few weeks.

Please bear in mind that the criteria I am using for the selection process is a highly personal one. I don't expect everyone to agree with my choices. It does bother me sometimes that there are people who seem to get offended when my opinions are not aligned with theirs, but I don't lose sleep over it. I guess it is personal for some people and too bad I don't feel I should pander to anyone's wishes.

One of the things that saddens me about the 2007 midterm elections is that there are people who continue to insist that political affiliation should be the main criterion for choosing candidates. I disagree. I think that political affiliation is a myth because aside from the GMA impeachment issue, the political parties do not actually stand for anything distinct and unique in terms of platforms and ideologies. For example, I do not believe that Joker Arroyo, who has always distinguished himself as a political maverick of sorts, will be a GMA lackey once reelected into office.

A dear friend of mine has been chiding me for endorsing Noynoy Aquino. She told me that she has it from a very reliable source (one of Aquino's employees at Congress is allegedly a friend of my friend) that Aquino's work ethics are questionable. Allegedly, Aquino wakes up very late and is lazy. Granted that the information is correct, I would still like to think that Aquino can still mend his ways. The thing with work habits is that they can be changed. I picked Aquino because he has always talked sense, even if I sometimes disagreed with his opinions.

I picked Sonia Roco because I have always been a Raul Roco fan. I voted for Raul Roco for President. I think that education, which is her main platform, is a valid and critical advocacy that deserves more voices in the senate.

Mike Defensor has been getting bad rap because of his seeming blind loyalty to the President. I wish I can be as loyal to anyone (note to personal exes: please do not take this as another occasion to raise issues! hehe). But like I said, I do not subscribe to the notion that political affiliation should be the only consideration for picking candidates. Doing so would result in groupthink, a phenomenon that has painful consequences. Mike Defensor's record as legislator at Congress and as secretary should be evaluated on its own merits. On a personal note, I like the fact that this guy is not pikon - he is always composed and civil even when being put through the worst possible wringer.

In a perfect world, Dr. Martin Bautista should win hands down in any electoral contest. Too bad he is running with a rather obscure political party. I know I already said I do not put too much weight on political affiliation, but the two main parties do have access to resources and political machinery, which Kapatiran (Bautista's party) does not currently have. But I invite you to sift through Bautista's credentials and I assure you these offer more than enough reasons why this guy should be voted into office.

Pangilinan and Arroyo are both incumbent senators who deserve to be re-elected. Their performance as senators are beyond question.

So there. Six more to go. If anyone out there would like to bat for his or her own candidate, the floor is open. Let's hear it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Musings on a good friday

While doing visita iglesia yesterday, I couldn't help but note how enterprising some of our kababayans have become. Practically all the churches we went featured the same scene: ambulant vendors selling all kinds of stuff, from fruits to vegetables to various types of kakanin, in one church we even noticed someone selling pirated DVDs spread out on a mat right there on the sidewalk. At least, the titles were wholesome movies. I must admit to a guilty pleasure. I bought a pirated copy of Pursuit of Happyness. My bad. Hehehe.

And wherever we went, a number of our kababayans transformed sidewalks into pay parking spaces. Sigh. The sad thing was that even young kids have gotten into the act. At the Pope Pius Center, a band of very young boys were in charge - and they were quite aggressive. In fact we almost witnessed a fisticuff as three boys argued who had prior rights to the spot we parked in.

I suppose these boys were under the impression that there is nothing wrong with making a quick buck by mulcting motorists. They've probably seen how their elders do it.

Sigh. I wonder what kind of citizens we are developing in the Metro.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

14 churches

I woke up very late today. I've been feeling exhausted lately and for some strange reason my blood pressure has been erratic - on some days, my blood pressure would shoot up to 140/110 and then crash to 90/70 within hours. It must be the heat, or the fact that I've just broke my all-time weight record. Don't ask how much I weigh now, it's embarrassing.


While doing visita iglesia tonight, I bumped into a dear old friend, someone I was pretty close to about twelve years ago. I have no reason to think that this friend has something against me - in fact, I know this person to be one of the sweetest individuals on earth. We were at the Pope Pius Church and we actually shared a pew. When he stood up to leave, I gave way and I smiled at him. He looked at me, smiled, and moved on. He did not recognize me at all. That's how heavy I have become in the last couple of years, people I knew before don't recognize me anymore. Sigh.


Anyway. Doing the rounds of churches has been an annual tradition in my household. Some visit 7 churches, we visit 14.

This year, we started at the La Paz church in Makati. We were there quite early, around 4pm and the manangs were still setting up the vigil altar outside. La Paz Church, a few blocks behind the Inquirer offfice is one of those small churches that desperately needs help. There's an appeal at the door of the church for donations to finance the ongoing renovation. I hope that this church is able to collect enough money to make it more ideal as a place of worship, particularly since it is in a neighborhood that's teeming with Binay's squatters.

The second chuch we visited was the National Shrine of the Sacred Heart at San Antonio Village, a couple of blocks away from La Paz. The difference between this shrine and that of La Paz is painfully obvious. The shrine was setting up an altar at the parking area, presumably where the Holy Thursday religious celebration (washing of the Apostle's feet) would be held. Last year, we saw the Mayor of Makati and a number of local executives in the area, and I had the feeling they would also be commemoratng Holy Thursday in this Shrine given the fact that state-of-the-art sound and lights system was being set-up.

The vigil altar was set up inside the air-conditioned church and although the candles in the altar were still unlit, some technicians were already testing the lights. I took a picture of the altar with my cellphone.

It's a no-frills altar, and I liked the fact that they decided to use plants instead of really expensive flowers.

One of my favorite churches in the Metro is the Bel-air church. If I am not mistaken, it was designed by National Artist Leandro Locsin. What I like most about this church is that it is very airy and yet functional. The chandelier at the altar, which is a ring of halogen lamps, also doubles up as a halo for the giant crucifix. Unfortunately, the crucifix was haphazardly covered with a purple cloth - it looked like whoever was in charge run out of purple fabric.

But I liked the vigil altar that they set up outside. It was a simple altar, with the blessed sacrament simply adorned by two wooden angels. They also placed a red carpet leading to the altar, so the overall effect was understated elegance.

We traversed the whole length of Kalayaan Avenue in Makati towards the Makati red light district to get to the Saint Peter and Paul church, again one of the older churches in the Metro. The Holy Thursday religious celebration was just about to start, and the procession had just started when we entered the altar. I was able to take a picture. I noted that the apostles wore simple white Barong Tagalogs. When I was younger, I remembered that the apostles (my dad always got drafted as one of the twelve) wore white robes with colored shawls. A group was rushing to set up the vigil altar at the open court in front of the church. That altar looked a bit over the top with lots of red flowers. We didn't stay long enough until they were done.

From the Burgos district, we drove to the Sanctuario de San Antonio at Forbes Park. Visiting the Sanctuario has always been part of our itinerary because from there we usually proceeded to Greenbelt where we would do the station of the cross around the park surrounding the church. That's also were we usually have dinner - usually at Macdo or Itallianis, depending on which had fewer people.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find parking at the Sanctuario. Cars spilled over the whole stretch of Mackinley Road up to Ayala, so we decided to skip Sanctuario. The idea was to come back later in the night when the Holy Thursday ritual was done. The kids likewise suggested that Greenbelt should be our last stop, so we proceeded to Don Bosco at Pasay Road.

Entering the Don Bosco Church is always a major test of concentration for me. It's a long story, one that involves a lascivious description of the church's altar written by Hilarion Henares many years ago in his column at the Inquirer. So everytime I go there, I would struggle very hard not to be reminded of Henares' unholy description of the altar, which is always an exercise in futility. Henares' irreverence is forever stuck in my memory.

Since there was also a Holy Thursday ritual happening in the church, we decided to do the station of the cross at the grounds of the church.

Then it was off to San Ildefonso Church, also at Pasay Road, near the Bangkal area. The main attraction of the San Ildefonso Church is its huge stained glass altar depicting the risen Christ. That altar always takes my breath away. It was quite heartwarming as well that the church has set up giant electric fans near the ceiling that also produced mist. The effect was quite calming as the church would be enveloped by this white mist every now and then. It reminded me of a church at the slopes of Mount Makiling which would get enveloped with fog in the early morning.

From there, we went to the San Isidro church at Taft Avenue. This is another church that I like because of its unique altar - a transparent glass wall and behind it is a tableau of the crucifixion, located outside of the church with real full-grown trees providing added visual detail. Quite a marvelous idea, actually. Too bad, someone tampered with the overall look and decided to build what looks like a steel fences inside the church.

San Isidro's vigil altar was a simple affair of curtains, white flowers and candles. Lots and lots of candles, one can actually feel the heat from a good ten feet away. It looked like a giant conflagration.


Our next stop was the Malate Church, one of the few remaining churches in Manila with a facade that has surprisingly been left untouched. After saying our prayers, in front of a vigil altar decked with candles in red containers (which logically gave the altar a warm red glow), we decided to check out the park in front.

One of the kids suggested going to Aristocrat. It's been 15 years since I set foot in that restaurant so the idea appealed to me. Too bad, 20,000 other people had the same idea and there was a really long line outside. We decided to skip Aristocrat. I suggested going to Binondo and having dinner there. The kids welcomed the idea. So we were excited at the thought of having dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Someone pointed out that the Shrine of the Nuestra Senora de Guia was along the way, so we decided to include the church in our itinerary. We were not disappointed. Finally, an altar that actually left me breathless. It was a sight to behold: giant candelabras with crystals that sparkled and flowers that were mostly white chrysanthemums. The overall effect was that one could actually feel inspired and awed while praying.

There was also soft piano music playing in the background.

And then I remembered that right in front of the Church was a Hap Chan branch. I like the food of Hap Chan. There was a time, many years ago, when its first outlet at the Dakota Mansion along Malvar Street at Adriatico was one of Manila's best kept secrets. It was a hole in the wall then and droves would come to the place that could only sit around 50. The walls of the restaurant were filled with calendars of politicians with handwritten messages from the politicians themselves. But people did not mind waiting. People brushed elbows with the high and mighty and no one minded the heat and the strong flavors that clung to one's clothes. Hap Chan has since then become a chain.

So we decided to drop our plans to go to Binondo and instead hopped over to Hap Chan where we had an enjoyable and sumptuous meal. We even had Lloyd Samartino and his mom, Carmen Soriano at the next table (hehehe). I noticed that we ordered almost the same food - steamed fish, brocolli with garlic, polonchay soup, etc.

Because of the heavy meal, two of little kids (a niece and a nephew) got very sleepy and wanted to go home already. So we changed our itinerary. We dropped off the kids and decided to just visit the nearby churches. We originally intended to visit the Manila Cathedral and nearby San Agustin Church, Binondo Church, Santa Cruz Church, Adamson Church, Paco, and then end up at the church a block away from our house, the San Martin de Porres Church on Leon Guinto.


Instead, we went to the community church at Estrada Street, which featured a makeshift vigil altar and had a very simple decoration of rose petals on the floor and some white roses around the exposed sacrament.



From there, we went to the Pope Pius Center, the Paco Park (which was surprisingly open, although the church was closed), the Paco Church, and finally, St. Anthony's Church at Singalong. The last picture I took was that of the vigil altar of St. Anthony's church which was located inside the audio visual hall of the St. Anthony's Catholic School.


And that ended our visita iglesia 2007. Tomorrow, I will write about the food stalls that sprouted in the vicinity of the churches and the enterprising parking attendants in practically all the churches.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The holy week irony

Officially, the Lenten Season begins on Ash Wednesday and the Holy Week on Palm Sunday. The Lenten Season, is supposed to be observed for 40 days—the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday—precisely why it is called cuaresma, which is derived from the Spanish word for 40.

The Holy week is supposed to begin with Palm Sunday, when Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem and was met by a jubilant throng waving palm fronds. Of course as we know, the same people who welcomed him with open arms would be the same people who would call for his crucifixion.

But for most of us, the observance of this annual Christian tradition only begins tomorrow, Maundy Thursday, and sadly, not for reasons related to piety.

It begins tomorrow because it is when it starts to be a non-working holiday. Whether we like it or not, most people look forward to the Holy Week because it represents a much-needed respite.

This year, it is going to be a five-day holiday since Monday is going to be Araw ng Kagitingan, which is a regular holiday. Depending on one’s motivation, that’s either five days of reflection, vacation, recreation, or boredom.

Once again, my family and I will remain in Manila. For many years now, I have resisted the temptation to flee to some idyllic location during Holy Week. Metro Manila is absolutely the best place to be during Holy Week. It is the only time of the year when the Metro is truly quiet and the roads are practically empty that one can get from Alabang to Manila in less than 10 minutes.

Of course, the malls, supermarkets and restaurants are also closed. But this is the Philippines so there are always enterprising people anytime anywhere, so one can never go hungry. The areas around churches are always teeming with activity and all sorts of ambulant vendors. Some of the food chains even put up stalls around the more popular churches during Holy Week.

A friend asked me not to write about how Manila is the most ideal Holy Week destination for fear that many will cancel their out-of-town trips and get enticed to remain in the Metro as well. But I doubt it. Being on vacation mode is not exactly the ideal frame of mind for the Holy week, but the reality is that for most families, the long weekend is the only time the whole family can go on vacation together.

So it is just another sad reflection of our times that practical reasons take precedence over the spiritual.

But then again, despite being the only pre-dominantly Christian country in the Far East and despite our claims at being a religious people, I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that our faith is not as deeply rooted as we would like to believe.

Contrary to the posturing of the bishops, I think the Catholic hierarchy has very little moral suasion, if at all, over its flock and the numbers of Catholics who actually understand, live their lives, and act based on the teachings of the faith has grown increasingly less through the years. And this becomes painfully obvious during the observance of Holy Week.

The Lenten Season is supposed to be the holiest season in the Christian calendar. But quite frankly, I think that the significance of the season has become increasingly lost among many of us for various reasons.

Take Ash Wednesday when the faithful submits to that curious ritual of being branded on the forehead. I have always wondered if people really understand the significance of having one’s forehead smudged with black ash. Sometimes I get the feeling that some people think of it as a religious status symbol; like something one wears to project this image of being moral or holy. And yet there is a lot of joking and ribbing around it. One who has an exceptionally dark smudge is generally teased as having committed more transgressions in life compare to others with barely discernible smudges.

And so today, the exodus to Boracay, Bohol, Puerto Galera, Baguio and other choice vacation places will begin. It will be bedlam tonight and tomorrow at the exit points of Metro Manila as throngs of people make a mad dash to get out of Manila all eager to start their vacations.

In Boracay and in Puerto Galera, they will have parties every night of the week. They will have all kinds of contests— drinking, bikini, even a Miss Gay Pageant— even during Good Friday. All these will be sponsored by big business—from cellphone companies and network providers to makers of tissue papers. And the media will cover the bacchanalia and splash it all over the evening news as if it is the most natural thing to do during Holy Week.

In the meantime, many among us who will be left in Metro Manila will go through the usual Visita Iglesia of 14 churches. And many among us will do so with the attitude of tourists and excursionistas out to enjoy the once-in-a-year promenade around the Metro. Others will have the attitude of kibitzers, simply out to check on what’s going on in th e Metro and find out who else have stayed behind.

Of course there are people who still see the spiritual and religious significance of the Holy Week and will spend time in reflection and contemplation. But sadly, I believe they are the minority.

Faith is something that is sadly diminishing among us. There are many reasons for this and I hope many among us will find the time this Holy Week to reflect and think about it.

Have a meaningful Holy Week everyone.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A culture of hostage-taking

What strikes me most about that whole Ducat caper that took place last week is finding out that we, as a people, are still capable of being surprised by the bizarre and the absurd. One would think that we are already immune to these things; after all, this is a country where hostage taking has become a regular happening.

I am sorry if I am coming across as this callous Pinoy-basher, seemingly insensitive to tragic events happening in this country.

I just do not share the hysterical reactions of the many others that project this impression that our world has been turned upside down by that Ducat episode. Of course I feel outraged that someone could, and in fact actually did, herd a group of kindergarten pupils ostensibly for a day of fun in Tagaytay, only to use them as hostages supposedly for their own benefit. I know that the previous sentence does not make sense; but then again, nothing in that whole chain of events made sense at all.

Of course I feel sad that the parents of those children, or that the children themselves, see the hostage taker as a hero instead of a rogue. But unlike the politicians and the other bleeding hearts who pontificate and put those parents to task for having the “wrong values,” I don’t think I am in a position to make judgments about what is in their hearts. Ducat presented a lifeline to something better, probably more tangible in their eyes than the empty words and election promises of local executives or by the government.

But let me state unequivocally: I do not approve of what that Ducat guy did. Nor do I think of him as a hero. Oh please, I think that guy is a total nutcase and should have been thrown into a cell (jail or mental institution, it does not matter which) a long, long time ago.

I agree with the many who think that that whole thing could have been avoided if Ducat were made to wear a straitjacket immediately after his first pathetic attempt to call attention to himself. This is a guy who staged similar publicity stunts at least thrice before including taking hostage two priests and staging a one-man protest atop the Welcome rotunda monument.

Still, I find all these reactions from the local media, government and socio-civic leaders extremely hypocritical.

Anyone who is still shocked that someone in this country could stage a hostage situation to get what he wants must be suffering from a serious case of denial. Where have you been? Most local executives who were in danger of being slapped a suspension by the Department of Interior and Local Government, or being kicked out by the Comelec for having won under spurious conditions, have resorted to the same caper many times.

In fact, something similar is occurring right this minute, as I write, in Mandaue City in Cebu. The city mayor over there, a guy named Thadeo Ouano, has barricaded himself inside the city hall. He is surrounded by his supporters.

Ducat had grenades and firearms, you say? Oh please, the city mayor probably has enough ammunition to wage a civil war. He has populated the city hall with bulldozers, minicabs, and people. These people are not kindergarten kids, but they are human beings being used as shields. You think that Ducat is guilty of putting to a halt all movements in a major thoroughfare? The mayor of Mandaue has put the whole workings of the city government to a complete halt.

His case is not isolated. Pasay City Mayor Peewee Trinidad has done it before. Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay almost pulled off the same stunt, even wearing a bullet-proof vest when he showed himself to media. Many other local executives from Nueve Ecija, Cavite, Iloilo, etc. have done the same. They also held a whole local government bureaucracy hostage.

And were these local executives thrown into jail for pulling these publicity stunts, endangering the lives of thousands, and sabotaging the delivery of government services? Of course not. Too bad for Ducat who is neither mayor nor governor.

So you think that media overstepped its bounds in covering the whole event? That it positioned itself as the main negotiator and director of the whole series of events? I have terrible news for you. Media has been trying to do that in the last two decades or so.

Many members of the media, particularly those who fancy themselves as the messiahs of this country, have been throwing their weight around and bullying practically everybody with their invisible cameras and ubiquitous microphones. They just don’t make commentaries and criticize, they pick savage fights and declare war on anyone who does not meet their fancy. Media people in this country even direct police raids, stage confrontations between alleged victims and criminals, provoke subjects to commit emotional harakiri, and in general hold everyone hostage at the sacred altar of high ratings.

Certain members of the media in this country fancy themselves not just as chronicler of events, but as prosecutors, judges, and even jail wardens.

And if you are still surprised that Senator Bong Revilla and senatorial candidate Chavit Singson were allowed to appoint themselves as negotiators and heroes, I have worse news for you. Politicians in this country, particularly those who make a fortune packaging themselves as Robin Hood wannabes, have been doing that for ages. Former President Joseph Estrada and the late Fernando Poe Jr., even Robin Padilla, have pulled similar capers in the past, eclipsing the efforts of military authorities during crucial life and death situations.

Revilla and Singson’s misplaced heroic attempts only invite scrutiny today because we happen to be in the middle of an election season. If there is something that surprises me, it is that actors Cesar Montano, Lito Lapid, Richard Gomez, and perhaps even actor and pseudo-politician Rez Cortez did not materialize in the scene alongside Revilla and Singson. I don’t approve of what Governor Singson did, but he summed it all nicely, albeit in a perverted way, when he said that the other politicians who are putting him to task for his actions are only sore that they did not get the opportunity to be in the frame.

Is a movie about the life of Ducat in the offing? You bet. And it probably will star Bong Revilla.

And what’s with this wringing of hands over how that hostage incident has severely affected the image of the Philippines in the international community? Who are we kidding? There are events in the world that are by far more bizarre, so international journalists who protest too much are indulging in the worst case of hyperbole. Take this case of this Indian guy in an international news agency who ranted on global TV about the squalid conditions of the slum area where the kids came from, coming very close to doing a Claire Danes (the movie star who described the whole of Manila as ghastly, cockroach infested, and teeming with grotesque people). When was the last time this guy was in India, for crying out loud?

This culture of hostage taking was not started by Ducat. And it won’t be the last. To a large extent, being in the Philippines is already like being held hostage. We’re hostages of uncaring and inept leaders, hypocritical moralists, sanctimonious members of media, etc. I could go on and on, but you get the drift.