Saturday, June 30, 2007

A citizen's view on the role of media

(This was my column last June 25, Monday. I was rushed to the Makati Medical Center Monday morning and underwent emergency surgery, thus the absence. Will try to resume posts when I am recovered.)

Sometime last week, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for the nth time, appealed to certain sectors of media for more balanced and more positive reportage. In so many words, the President asked media to do its share in sustaining the economic momentum. The subtext was: If you can’t support the administration, then at least stop sabotaging the strides we are making in the economic front by playing up nothing but scandals and negative news on your front pages.
It is sad that the President of the country has to practically fall on her knees to ask almighty media to do what is right. I have been ranting in my blog about the way certain sectors in the media think that progress should take a back seat to personal advocacies (i.e., animosity toward the President). Fortunately, I don’t have to this time around.

A friend and colleague, Grace Abella Zata, could not anymore remain silent and decided to make her voice heard on the topic. She sent out an e-mail that’s currently going around, in reaction to an article published in another paper that extolled media’s role in the May 2007 elections. Zata has a different take on the matter. For reasons of space limitations, I have edited the contents of her e-mail mainly for brevity.

“I am an HR practitioner and my company provides recruitment, training and consulting services to Philippine-based companies. I have no political affiliations; the closest thing I ever did that could be considered “political” was heading a team of human resource management practitioners from the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines or PMAP (now called People Management Association of the Philippines) to formulate a competency framework for the President of the Philippines in 2004 to be used as a voter’s guide for the presidential elections.

“That experience impressed upon me the fact that democracy [i.e., elections as a means of choosing the best candidates] only works in a situation where people have access to information. It is in this context that we can assess if truly, media has taken on an activist role.

“Many people, myself included, believe that Philippine media has failed miserably in this regard. In fact, media sets a mindset that focuses on little else but the skirmishes between and among the members of the political elite. Perhaps this is why people say, “pare-pareho lang naman ang mga iyan.” Media does not encourage people to go beyond the superficial and discuss the substantial issues, and to hold their leaders accountable for strategic and well-thought out plans and initiatives and results that impact on the quality of their lives.

“So, who wins elections? The ‘mediagenic’ who have some or better yet, all of the following: youngish, good-looking, with a palaban image and a commercial that connects to people. You wonder why Escudero won in spite of the fact that other candidates, you say, are better known? But, wasn’t he on TV every day during the impeachment proceedings, and very frequently, even after that? And he projects so well on media—he’s cute in a way that ordinary people can relate to, speaks well, and knows how to play to the gallery. At siyempre, palaban.

“Marami naman talagang dapat labanan sa administrasyong ito. But I wonder at the motives of some of the opposition candidates. After doing that study on presidential competencies in 2004, it was very clear to me that Fernando Poe Jr. was not suitable for the job (and not only because he lacked experience and strategic thinking skills. On many occasions during the campaign, FPJ showed low emotional intelligence). With his background in Congress, Escudero would have been an idiot not to know that FPJ was clearly unfit. So why did he agree to be FPJ’s spokesperson? Either his critical and analytical thinking skills are underdeveloped or he swept major concerns under the rug for the sake of his political career.

“And why is media happy to claim Trillanes’ victory as its own? If Trillanes is the hero that he projects himself to be, he should have resigned from the military and pursued his advocacies vigorously with the help of media, instead of placing bombs at the Ayala center. I just feel so strongly about this because of first-hand knowledge that coups like this take away good jobs out of the country. Our company helped more than a hundred people find very good jobs for a client company. The expat executive told me that if disturbances like these had happened before they had made the investment in the Philippines, they would have pulled out of here immediately. Many of the people we helped find jobs were not even college graduates, they were so happy they kept on thanking us long after they started work. It just breaks my heart that people like Trillanes and Honasan are rewarded and voted into office for wrecking our economy.

“I am afraid many members of media are probably lazy [do not study issues in depth] or biased, prompting one blogger to call politics entertainment about the ugly. News on the front page [and commentaries by “semi-literate” radio commentators] concentrate too much on the political angle, rather than on improving the economic literacy of people. Instead of devoting 80 to 90 percent of the front page to the dynamics of the political power play, media’s perspective in a country such as ours should be: We are all in this together; we need to solve the problem of poverty and therefore we should be evaluating how good plans are, whether they are on track, whether they are producing desired results, whether resources are used properly. These should be the context of reports on corruption and exchanges between politicians, rather than merely playing up the latest skirmish between Ping and whoever, like it were the word war between Ruffa and Yilmaz.”

Zata’s e-mail, which was six pages long, went into specifics about what media could have highlighted in the last senatorial elections to help people understand the real issues at stake. But it is her contention, and I agree with her on this score, that media focused more on building a cult image for the candidates.

Zata had this advice for Ralph Recto: “Ay naku, next time Ralph—do not sponsor bills that people will find difficult to understand because it requires sacrifice in the short-term for long term results. Pa-cute ka na lang at maging palaban. Mas madali pa iyon kaysa mag-aral!” In the same breath, she asks: “Is this the lesson we want to teach our politicians?”

Zata’s e-mail continues: “While it is unfair to blame media solely, media must assume some responsibility for the daily onslaught of political scandals and news that sends a subliminal message that this country is hopeless and only fools will stay around. I am not saying media should not report on cheating in Maguindanao, (in fact, media should be congratulated for closely watching election results), Hello Garci, disappearances and killings of activists. These are deeply disturbing. But can’t we be more balanced? There are also lots of positive things happening in our country.

“Media has the important role of leading and providing a venue for rational and more incisive thinking and discussion about what we should do to lift people out of poverty. Listen to what our driver has to say: ‘Ewan ko kung bakit ako nagagalit sa gobyerno. Para iyang sa bata, e. Basta may kagalit ang tatay mo; galit ka na din, kahit di mo alam kung bakit.’

“Perhaps the challenge for media is to re-direct the frustration and anger of people so that together with our leaders, we can seek and study different paths, and choose the best one that will bring us to a brighter future.”
I say Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Painful reality check

This is my column today.

We already know that truth is stranger than fiction because there is no soap opera in this country that’s more riveting or bizarre than what we see in the news.

So when reality television shows hit our local idiot boxes, we knew it was going to be a fad because the possibilities were simply endless. We happen to be a country with a very high threshold for the absurd. We put up with all kinds of shenanigans from our leaders. We find something to laugh at even amongst the gravest life and death situations. We do not stone to death government officials who have the audacity to stand by implausible election results.

We know that simply watching real people in a glass house can be entertaining because those people are Filipinos and therefore expected to be funny, dramatic, crazy, opinionated, etc.
It’s a small wonder then that “Pinoy Big Brother” is a hit in this country.

The second “regular” season of the show is currently running and is scheduled to end in two week’s time. Technically, it is the fourth run of the show which also had a celebrity edition and a teen edition. I caught some of the episodes of the current edition during its first month and promptly tuned off because it was, in a word, boring.

As I wrote in my blog, it struck me that the current PBB housemates were chosen primarily for reasons that have to do with aesthetics rather than personality mix or talent.

As can be expected, the housemates simply indulged in mindless chitchat or lazed around in various stages of undress. The show’s production people had to stimulate the housemates with all kinds of activities and tasks before any action or excitement could happen.
But then I underwent surgery and stayed home for a couple of weeks so I tuned back in—or tried to at least. I’ve been a passive viewer in the last two weeks. Ordinarily, these last few weeks should be exciting and frenzied as the show builds up toward its finale.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is happening. It’s the level of inactivity and ennui that has increased. Thus, the show has been experimenting with all kinds of psychological tactics to produce something remotely interesting. The tactics now border on manipulation, exploitation and emotional abuse. A number of my friends (including some psychologists) have been urging me to write about the situation.

“Pinoy Big Brother” is being marketed as the teleserye ng totoong buhay (real- life soap opera). The show makes big pronouncements about how it celebrates the Filipino within us. It is not accidental that the show’s theme song is “Pinoy, Ikaw Ay Pinoy” (You Are Filipino). The show also goes to town with how it is about helping individuals achieve personal growth, service to others, world peace, and yada yada yada. In short, it’s supposed to be the next best thing to ice cream.

Thus, we expect reality. We expect truth. We expect drama and tantrums and conflicts, but we don’t want to see the scripted version. We expect the real thing. But sadly, what we have been seeing is getting farther and farther from the truth. While those kids in the show, as well as their emotions, may be real, their situation is not. The reality they live in is getting more and more contrived and scripted. It’s not reality TV anymore; it is worse—it is fiction being packaged as reality.

Watching the current season has ceased to be entertaining. It has become emotionally draining instead. The housemates have become virtual puppets that are manipulated to produce “money shots”—you know, those gripping moments when emotions build up and erupt and consequently make ratings zoom up to the stratosphere.

What we’ve been seeing in the last few days have been frenzied efforts to subject the housemates to various forms of stress and pressure all designed to produce an emotional breakdown. In short, money shots. (Okay, adult readers can also make parallelism with pornography. It is the same concept.)

“Pinoy Big Brother” makes all these under the guise of helping the housemates conquer their fears and traumas. It is supposed to be a free lesson on the dynamics of human behavior. I have nothing against helping people in this aspect. At the very least, it makes for good entertainment such as when people who have a phobia for snakes are forced to handle reptiles. However, it does not make for good psychology. It’s not that simple.

Helping people cope with psychological issues cannot be reduced to a few seconds of airtime. So in the end, it really does more disservice to the cause of mental health.

To cite an example, I have fear of heights. When this information was revealed at a dinner party, someone actually suggested that I conquer it by visiting the roofdeck of the tallest building in Makati and standing as close as possible to the edge until I am able to get used to the height. That’s what they do on those television shows, he said. Well, that’s really terrible and dangerous (in not downright fatal) advice.

We know that “Pinoy Big Brother” is first and foremost a business project designed to rake in revenues; that it needs to compete for ratings. Regular soap operas do this by adding more special effects and increasing body count. Obviously reality TV can’t do that although this edition certainly produced a number of casualties who had to be rushed to the hospital.

What “Pinoy Big Brother” has done is up the ante in terms of emotional manipulation. Their main tool has been to expose the weaknesses, the hangups, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the housemates. They used to do it subtly. Now it is brazen. They even brought in a housemate from the first season known for his brutal frankness to perform a specific job description: To sow intrigues and to make the housemates fight. When that didn’t work, they resorted to airing taped conversations that were supposedly done in confidence. The show has just pushed the cause of counseling two steps back. I can already see guidance counselors having to deal with doubts about the wisdom of sharing confidences.

How did we get here? We simply expected a “teleserye ng totoong buhay.” We did not expect the show to package protagonists and antagonists that people can hate or love or choose from.

It is very easy to blame the housemates for the mess they find themselves in. After all, they responded to the cattle call and volunteered to be part of it. But they did so with hopes of earning a quick ticket to stardom and supposedly, a better life. I am sure they did not expect that they would be hated or ridiculed by the public.

Now we are seeing the ugly side of reality TV. At its very essence, it is about using people. It is about abusing those who are willing to submit to anything just to achieve celebrity status.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Summation

This is my column today.

The long drawn out trial of Joseph Ejercito Estrada finally came to an end last Friday when the prosecution and the defense panels summed up their arguments on the P4.1-billion plunder case against the former president.

The oral summation was not really necessary and was in fact an oddity in the Philippine legal system. But then again, the case is historic. It’s not every day that a former President of an Asian country has been tried—and jailed, although that multi-million mansion complete with ponds and hectares of vegetable farms can hardly be called jail at all—for plunder, or anything for that matter. Besides, the all-star cast of lawyers, government officials, politicians, and relatives needed to perform for their audience. Lest we forget, this is the Philippines where everyone hams it up for the almighty television camera.

Some sectors in media who thrive on tabloid trash also needed something, anything new they can splash on the front pages. Truth is, since the War of the Bektases has fizzled out from a screaming match into a sniffling bout, there hasn’t been anything remotely licentious or controversial lately that could be turned, twisted and mined into a full-blown scandal.

I think people are already up to here with all the salacious details of the cheating in the last election. People already have more information than they could possibly process and have started to tune off.

So the trial is finally over. Can we now heave a sigh of relief and achieve closure on the whole Estrada imbroglio? I doubt it. As a people, we are so good at kicking leaders out of office, but sadly, our record at making them account and pay for their transgressions is dismal. Besides, it is the verdict that really counts anyway.

If Estrada is convicted, he will go down flailing and screaming at the supposed injustice and oppression that continues to be inflicted on him and his family. He will once again profess his innocence to high heavens. Not that there’s anything surprising there. He has been at it in the last seven years anyway.

In fact if there is something that I find truly exasperating and frustrating in the whole scheme of things, it is the sight of a defiant Joseph Estrada and his family. Despite the mountain of evidence, despite having been caught verbally incriminating himself, Estrada has continued to protest and claim innocence all the way through.

If Estrada is acquitted, then heaven help us, we’re in for the second coming of the so-called hero of the masses. And just like in the movies where the long suffering and unjustly accused hero returns triumphant in the end, Joseph Estrada will swagger into the political ring with guns blazing and fireworks exploding. He already hinted that there will be hell to pay, that there will be retribution.

Either way, public opinion will be divided among those who think Estrada is a victim and those who believe he is as guilty as hell. In the immortal words of a newly-elected lady governor (her opinion was solicited regarding the alleged marriage to another woman in the United States of her erstwhile rival), “damage you do, damage you don’t” (damn if you do, damn if you don’t).

But in addition to what we already know, which is already more than enough might I remind everyone, is there anything that we have learned so far from the much publicized trial?

It took more than six years to repeat the same arguments and present the same pieces of evidence that were already submitted in the impeachment case. I know that it was a separate legal proceeding, but the delay was telling of just how easy it was to manipulate the way the wheels of justice move in this country, particularly when it involved people in power.

Lest we forget, most of the delay was caused by the defense panel who hemmed and hawed and threw every possible wrench into the process just to delay the case. And yet, the Estradas were the ones protesting too much about the continuing oppression and injustice being done to their family.

We’ve lost count of the number of times the Estradas and their lackeys made dramatic appeals on television about how the former President was supposed to be languishing in jail and suffering because justice delayed is justice denied. This we know: the Estradas are truly masters in the art of reframing issues to get on the good side of the people. Some call it charisma. I prefer to call it by its real name: emotional manipulation. And some people have transformed it into a science.

Another thing we have learned is that the so-called “Plan B” does work. Plan B is a defense tactic that was played up to the hilt in that old television series “The Practice.” It involves finding someone, anyone, to stick the blame on. The idea is to liberally spread the muck around so that the accused will look less guilty precisely because everyone else is. In fact, it works better if someone powerful can be dragged into the fray to be accused of being guiltier of the same charges being leveled against the plaintiff.

If the ruse is successful, the ultimate copout can be trundled out: “a crook should not be judged by another crook.”

This is in fact the reasoning being forwarded by some militant organizations that have suddenly become like the proverbial three monkeys—see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. They say that the reason why they have suddenly become selective in their advocacy against corruption and therefore not demanding a guilty verdict in the case of Estrada is because the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, which they say is more corrupt than the accused, does not have the moral ascendancy to judge Joseph Estrada.

Silly me, I thought ideologies and principles were absolute concepts; things you can’t modify for the sake of expediency.

And at the very end, when all the arguments have been submitted and half the people in that room have already fallen asleep from sheer boredom, when the contending parties have presumably run out of words to regurgitate, what was the most appropriate way to mark the event? One would think that they would end it with a prayer or a moment of silence, or at least on a very grave and serious note that would send everyone home in a reflective mood.

But no, they decided to ham it up for the camera. They had a photo session where everyone involved, including the justices, posed and flashed their pearly whites for the camera.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we do it in the Philippines.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A still heartless GSIS

This is my column today.

I had second thoughts about bringing up my rant against the Government Service Insurance System at this particular point when the institution is being raked over the coils for its supposed nefarious role in the last election.

As many of us know, the contest between Jose de Venecia and Pablo Garcia for the post of speaker of the House of Representatives has made a turn for the worse. They are now hurling unsavory accusations at each other. It’s a rather absurd situation, one that easily brings to mind the cliché “the pot calling the kettle black.”

I suppose this kind of behavior among people who are usually addressed as “honorable” are par for the course in Philippine politics. When our leaders compete for certain positions, they automatically assume the role of gladiators locked in a vicious fight. It gets dirty. It gets bloody. People don’t fight a fair and principled contest. The only consolation we have left is that so far, it hasn’t gotten physical yet, and I fear even that is just a matter of time.

But how did the GSIS get dragged into the political circus?

Garcia happens to be the father of GSIS president Winston Garcia. In another time and place, the fact that chief executives of government companies, such as Winston Garcia, has family members who are politicians would not automatically raise suspicions of nepotism or corruption. They would be given the benefit of the doubt since they obtained their positions through their inherent talents and capabilities. But not today and not in our country. Being in government automatically subjects one to suspicions of being corrupt or at least corruptible.

The scuttlebutt is that the younger Garcia authorized the release of GSIS funds to finance the election of the older Garcia as representative of the province of Cebu. Of course the Garcia camp calls the whole thing preposterous and dismisses it as pure and simple politically motivated canard.

The state fund’s officials have also come to the defense of the Garcias. The gist of the defense is that contrary to what Garcia’s enemies would have us believe, releasing GSIS funds is not a simple transaction. According to the GSIS people, it is a complicated process that requires prior allocation and authorization, and more importantly, subject to stringent controls by the Commission on Audit. I wholeheartedly agree with the part about GSIS transactions being complicated; heck, they are torturously complicated. I don’t know about how stringent the controls are, though.

But so far, I haven’t come across information that would support the accusation that GSIS money was spent in the last election. However, I am not that gullible to swallow that yarn about all financial transactions being legal and moral just because they are audited. There are many ways to do it and as they say “kung gusto maraming paraan.”

Having said that, let me now bring up my rant about the GSIS. Last Feb. 7, I wrote about an aunt and other pensioners who had been having difficulty coping with the institution’s new requirements just so they could get their hard-earned and much-needed pensions. The agency had instituted the new requirements to weed from their list pensioners who continued to receive monthly pensions despite having already passed away.

The agency had required all pensioners to make a personal physical appearance at any GSIS office to prove their continued existence and to provide biometrics (initially fingerprints) that would be necessary for the issuance of electronic cards.

I wrote about how unsettling the situation was when we visited a GSIS office to plead my aunt’s case. We came across pensioners in various stages of exhaustion, respiration, and, well, composition.

I said I understood the rationale for the requirement. There were just too many unscrupulous people in this country who had no qualms about defrauding government, in this case, the GSIS. I knew of many people who continued to receive pension checks even if their pensioner-relatives had already died. It was about time the GSIS, or the Social Security System for that matter, clean their records.

What I ranted about (and what I will continue to rant about until the agency addresses it) was the absence of provisions for pensioners who were unable to come to a GSIS office to prove their existence. I referred to pensioners who were too sick or who were residing in another country.

Government Service Insurance System responded the day after the piece was published. In so many words, it said that my concerns were already being addressed. It said provisions for home visits to pensioners too sick to come to a GSIS office were already in place. In the case of my aunt (who has been living in the United States and couldn’t come home yet since she has pending petition for her children), GSIS said that pensioners in the US would be able to get their e-cards through representatives in certain embassies.

I also received a personal assurance from someone in GSIS that, indeed, something was being done to address the issues I raised.

True enough, my aunt in New York was asked to come to an interview by a GSIS representative who apparently flew to the US to do something that embassy officials could have easily done themselves. But hey, some officials need to travel on official business, so let’s not go there. Guess what happened afterwards?

Nothing—as in nada and zilch. The promised e-cards have not yet been delivered. No answers—to questions on broken promises and forgotten assurances —were given.

And now, the state fund has announced that it needs to do the whole process again because it seems the initial system, which only required fingerprints, is not reliable after all. Now they have switched to a new system that requires voice recognition. They will now require all pensioners to submit to the whole process once again. This means that the barely breathing will have to cross open seas, traverse mountains, and brave Metro Manila’s noxious gases just so they can oblige GSIS on this latest wrinkle.

I will not anymore go into the technicalities of why voice recognition programs are impractical when dealing with pensioners who might soon lose their voices. I wonder what is going to be next when voice recognition fails. Retina scan? DNA matching?

So once again, the parade of geriatrics to GSIS offices has commenced. We’re back to square one. My column last Feb. 7 was entitled “A heartless GSIS.” I hope the people in GSIS begin to grow one soon so they can stop experimenting on pensioners and so that they can begin fulfilling their promises and commitments.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Family feud

This is my column today.

The rich and famous are not different from you and me—this much we know from the very acrimonious and very public war that the Crespos and the Bektases have been waging for a few weeks now. Of course, instead of a mere handful of nosy neighbors and interfering kith and kin, they have the whole media and the whole country as witnesses to their emotional hara kiri.

Family members fight. We all know this. There is no familial bond—yes, not even the deepest and most profound affection—that is strong enough to withstand the corrosive power of greed, or hatred, or hurt. The most cohesive family can blow up into smithereens when a property dispute rears its ugly head. The most ideal couple with marriages seemingly made in heaven could go kaput when irrational jealousy comes into the picture.

A family feud is not an unusual thing. But a family feud gone public is one of the ugliest things in the world. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Even if the emotional screeching and the trading of all kinds of lurid accusations appeal to our inherent curiosity, the truth is that it is difficult to empathize with individuals who choose to wash their dirty linens in public. Particularly when they begin talking about really private matters, attacking each other with bare fangs, claws and axes and when they are butchering whatever little is left of each other’s reputation.

It makes for interesting and absorbing small talk over coffee, but it also makes you want to grab the characters by their shoulders, give them a good shaking, and tell them to go fix their problems in private.

Unless of course the issues become socially relevant as it just did on the War of the Bektases.

Suddenly, what has previously been mere fodder for inside pages landed on the front page, in screaming headlines.

The latest twist in the long drawn-out real-life soap opera is that Ruffa Gutierrez Bektas has finally come out with the admission that she was a battered wife.

The gory details are shocking because while Ruffa Gutierrez Bektas is known for her tendency to exaggerate her worth in this planet and therefore bent to throwing major emotional outbursts, being physically beaten black and blue is not something that most people would expect to befall someone of her stature. Nor is it something we expect her to even put up with in the first place.

But now we know domestic violence is something that happens to anyone, even to former beauty queens and those who live in gilded cages. Domestic violence is a fact of life. It happens to many women.

Based on Ruffa’s account, her husband often beat her nonstop. One such beating lasted 14 hours. She’s been locked up in a cabinet. She’s escaped to Manila from Istanbul (where she resided with her Turkish husband) with a fresh black eye, welts and bruises on her legs and body. No wonder her feisty mother expressly disallowed her to go back to Turkey to be with her husband.
Already, there are those who doubt the veracity of her story. The reasons being bruited about are many, all of which are neither here nor there. First, she is an actress and therefore simply after the publicity. Second, she and her husband are rich, civilized people. Third, if her story were true, why did it take so long for her to come out with it? These reasons do not make sense.

Unbelievably enough, there are already those who offer the idiotic theory that she must have provoked the violence and therefore deserved it. It is as if violence is an automatic and uncontrollable reaction to a provocation and that wife beaters don’t have any choice in the matter.

As someone who has counseled a friend who had been a victim of domestic violence for six years until she saved up enough courage to face up to her abusive husband and dump him, I can empathize with Ruffa’s situation.

Obviously, just like my friend, Ruffa was in denial for sometime. Victims do make a good job of masking reality, justifying the violence with their own twisted reasoning. My friend even thought she deserved the beatings or that it was just a phase her husband or all married couples go through.

I am not a fan, but it’s a good thing Ruffa has finally saw the writing on the wall and read it correctly—no one deserves to be physically beaten. Certainly, violence is not among the rights of a husband.

In the television interview I caught Saturday afternoon, Ruffa made an appeal, reminding us that she is the victim in the story, and what’s more, that she is the Filipino in the whole sordid mess. The latter initially struck me as rather simplistic; empathizing on the basis of nationality sounds naïve and shallow.

But on second thought, it made sense. Under the guise of providing balance to the story, local media has been spending huge amounts to put the spotlight on Yilmaz Bektas. One television station even went all the way to Istanbul to get his side. He is given access to local television through overseas call and e-mails that are read on local shows. We are giving inordinate attention to the man.

It is time to put a little perspective to the whole sordid mess. Regardless of how one feels toward the Gutierrezes (okay, I admit I find them annoying—even Ruffa), let’s not forget who the victim—and the Filipino—is in the story.

***

How time flies fast indeed. This column marks my first anniversary as a columnist for this paper. Writing a regular opinion column wasn’t on my “to do” list while growing up (although “writing a book” was number 5 on the list), but it has been a great adventure so far. Thank you, everyone.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mindless and aimless

Ooops.

I thought I already posted my rant about Pinoy Big Brother. It turns out the piece was consigned to the draft folder. It was a good thing someone posted a comment to remind me about it. I have updated the piece.

Picture this: you are in a party where the guests are mildly interesting but on closer observation are revealed to be just like you and me - people who are prone to some emotional outbursts every now and then, but in general have personalities that are as colorful as a an ordinary towel.

However, the party has been overly hyped to be fun so you expect fireworks to explode, you expect emotional hara-kiris to be unleashed, you expect something out of the ordinary. What you get though is the same stuff that you would normally get from your friends and family. In fact your friends can be more interesting without trying. And there's definitely more drama in your family.

The party is getting to be boring and you wanna tune off. The hosts try to liven up the party with this or that intervention - until they become desperate and experiment with all kinds of direct interventions designed to produce major emotional breakdowns. They fail, and dismally at that.

You have no idea where the party is going, or what's gonna happen. You've lost interest and you begin to tune off - catching some Z's or doing other stuff. You try to tune back in hoping against hope that things have changed. But to your growing dismay, nothing has changed; in fact things have only become more boring. The only time something exciting happens is when the hosts do something to the guests - such as bully them, or make them do innane stuff. And then everything goes back to the same boring stuff. It's still going nowhere.

And that is my description of Pinoy Big Brother, Season 2. In a phrase: it's going nowhere; it is simply meandering aimlessly.

I guess this is what happens when housemates are chosen primarily for their looks and their x factor. I don't mean to generalize and to cast aspersions on goodlooking people, but those they picked for PBB2 just dont seem to have anything else between the ears other than a cute face. Their personalities also tend to be the same - non-confrontative, laid back, preoccupied with the mundane, hung up on parent/ex issues, etc. In short, boring.

The housemates that had potential to spice things up a bit were kicked out early on. Too bad. It was downhill from that point on. So PBB2 tried to bring them back - but sadly, aside from Wendy who got in courtesy of the loveteam angle - they didnt get voted in. Of course. PBB didnt package them well enough to be likeable to audiences.

So the show is stuck in limbo. Now they practically have to pump the housemates with sugar or uppers to produce a tiny bit of excitement. They brought in a dog, old housemates, mothers, a housemate from Slovenia, fathers, siblings, ex lovers, etc. And the show is still boring as ever.

They have abused the housemates emotionally, made false promises, and given false hopes. It is still boring.

They should just wrap the show quickly and start all over again. And oh, maybe they should kick whoever was responsible for picking the sorry bunch that comprise PBB2.

Desecrating the Philippine Flag

My column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Since elected officials make it a point to implement projects that distinguish them as the exact opposite of their predecessors—especially if they belong to opposite sides of the political fence—I hope that they will make it a point to stop practices that violate laws and promote disrespect for our national symbols.

I have one suggestion to newly elected Mayor Alfredo Lim of Manila: Please stop the desecration of the Philippine flag which your predecessor, Lito Atienza, loved to do. My friends think this is a wild shot, given Mayor Lim’s renowned stand on vandalism.

However, Mayor Lim is also known for being a stickler for what is right so I think there is reason to hope.

Around this time of the year when the country celebrates Independence Day, the City of Manila becomes abloom with Philippine flags hanging at practically every streetlamp at Roxas Boulevard and on every pillar of the LRT on Taft Avenue down to Avenida Rizal. This is understandable because most of the important historical landmarks are found in Manila.

I know that other cities and municipalities also have this penchant for hanging out the Philippine flag—the more, the merrier—as if they are decorative banderitas that are haphazardly strung and festooned on streets during fiestas. But sadly, the City of Manila wins hands down as most notorious in the area of disrespecting the country’s tricolors.

Makati City, for example, also decks Ayala Avenue with hundreds of Philippine flags this time of the year. This preoccupation with quantity really boggles the mind—we don’t really need that many flags to remind us of the significance of the occasion.

I don’t have anything against displaying the Philippine flag around this time of the year or even throughout the whole year if anyone wants to do so. Anyone who wants to proudly proclaim his nationalism by displaying the flag outside his home or office is very much welcome to do so. It’s a free country and there are certainly worse things one can do in the name of nationalism.

However, I must insist that the flag be treated with respect.

This brings me to my rant about how the City of Manila usually desecrates the Philippine flag around this time every year. I hope this year will be different with Mayor Lim at the helm of the city.

Last year, I wrote in my blog (www.bongaustero.blogspot.com) a protest about the way the Philippine flag was being disrespected throughout Manila. To commemorate Independence Day last year, the city government went nuts and decided to plaster the city with Philippine flags galore. It put one up on every pillar of the LRT on Taft Avenue all the way to Avenida Rizal. Actually, it put two, one for the benefit of the southbound and another one for the benefit of the northbound motorists.

But the flags were haphazardly and crudely put up. Most of the flags were skewered with wires on each corner and spread-eagled on the pillars like, excuse me for being graphic here but the metaphor is appropriate, someone being raped. Many flags were directly exposed to rain. Other flags were placed directly under the drainage pipes of the LRT and thus served as receptacle for whatever foul liquid spewing out of those pipes. The litany of horrors did not stop there. Many of the flags were grimy and tattered, which could be expected since they were exposed to the elements including noxious gases. Some were even ripped. Some flags had parts touching the ground.

Over at Roxas Boulevard, specifically at the Baywalk, the inconceivable happened—Philippine flags were used as decorations for merrymaking. These flags resembled barbecues as they were skewered with sticks and wires and displayed like they were ordinary welcome banners. I even saw at least three flags that were deliberately punctured with holes for the wind to pass through. And believe it or not, one flag even had the words “Independence Day 2006” inscribed on it. It was sacrilege of the highest order.

It was enough to make any Filipino angry. I personally felt like walking to the Manila City Hall to throw stones at then Mayor Atienza’s giant billboard showing him behind a giant flag (also another form of disrespect as nothing, not even the faces of our elected executives should be printed on the face of the Philippine flag).

The sad thing is that there is a law (Republic Act 8491, An Act Prescribing the Code of the National Flag, Anthem, Motto, Coat-of-Arms, and Other Heraldic Items and Devices of the Philippines; also known as the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines) that prescribes how the Philippine flag should be treated. The law specifies everything about the Philippine flag—from the right colors, the correct dimensions, the proper way to display it, including the protocols in hoisting the flag or flying it half mast.

The law is readily available in the Internet for anyone’s guidance. Wouldn’t it be great if someone—anyone—who works for local executives actually reads up on the law before they go into the wild orgy of hoisting, plastering, butchering hundreds of Philippine flags on our thoroughfares?

But then again, do we really need a law to guide us on how to respect our country’s primary symbol? What kind of citizens require guidance on how to respect the country’s foremost symbol of sovereignty?

Besides, aren’t these things taught in schools? I thought developing citizenship is the whole point of all those subjects on social studies and civics. And aren’t these standard modules in basic scouting? I remember being taught the rudiments of how to raise the flag, how to fold it, even the proper way of displaying it as a scout in my elementary and high school days.

I think that showing respect for the Philippine flag is one of the most basic requirements of citizenship. This is the reason why we stand when the National Anthem is played and the flag is hoisted. The same reason why the flag should not be made to touch the ground, skewered or punctured, or even why old tattered flags should be replaced and burned.

If our local executives cannot display respect for the Philippine flag despite their pronouncements about their supposed patriotism, then we are truly in trouble. This can only mean one thing— the death of citizenship.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Working to live

Advocates of work-life balance recently got a boost from an e-mail that has been circulating among various groups. Written by Ng Wan Ching, the article appeared in Singapore’s The New Paper on May 1, 2007.

The article, entitled “Dead after eight hours on Laptop,” narrated the story of May Leong, 29, who succumbed to what was generally believed to be work-related stress. A few days before her death, she was slaving in front of her laptop, trying to cope with an impossibly heavy workload. She had been working nonstop for eight hours immediately before her death.

The cause of her death was deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot on her legs that shot to her heart.

Deep vein thrombosis is common among those over 60 years old, but people who are inactive for long periods of time such as those on long-haul flights or those who work in front of their computers day in and day out are also at high risk. The blood clot can be fatal as it can break free and travel through the veins. It can reach the lungs in which case it is called a pulmonary embolism.

To prevent this condition, the lower leg muscles should be exercised—every half hour or so—especially if one is inactive for a long period.

The article quoted a psychiatrist who said: “I would always advocate that we take care of ourselves first. If we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot fulfill our roles at work or at home. If you do not feel well, you should listen to your body and rest.”

The story strikes a chord among many work drones for a variety of reasons. There are more than enough human-interest angles in the story including May’s being an only child of a single parent who only wanted to bring some comfort to her aging mother. It also presents a situation to which many can probably relate in today’s highly stressful work environment, such as being inactive for extended periods of time when sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours. And of course, the story puts the spotlight on the most-often discussed but also most-often ignored need for work-life balance.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to see a cardiologist for clearance prior to surgery. The cardiologist was on a very pensive mood when he saw me. It turns out he just finished the rounds of his patients and the case of one business executive struck him. He shared the story with me.

According to my doctor, this particular patient had just recently retired after spending more than 30 years in the rat race, trying to rise to the top of the corporate ladder and earning enough money for retirement. Along the way, he neglected his health thinking that having status, material possessions and a handsome retirement fund were more important priorities.

Of course, the massive heart attack he suffered forced his family to sell off most of the properties he had accumulated through the years. The money for retirement was also dwindling. And now, as my cardiologist put it quite simply, the guy had no money, and worst, had bad health.

This is a thought that has been top of mind lately since my surgery. For someone who tries to juggle many responsibilities, I have been seriously thinking about reducing stress levels and simplifying my life.

Work-life balance is a favorite advocacy of various local management organizations. The truth, however, is that it remains a mere theoretical construct in the Philippines—everyone talks about it, but in reality there are very few actual programs and practices that reflect real application of the concept.

By connotation, work-life balance refers to a state where a person actually accomplishes a healthy balance between the demands of his paid occupation (work) and his personal life (play). Ideally, work-life balance is meant to reduce stress levels and increase job satisfaction among employee and consequently, enhancing business benefits for the employer due to higher productivity and increased retention.

Is work-life balance relevant in the Philippines where small and medium enterprises comprise more than 95 percent of business organizations? As we all know, the demarcation line between “work” and “life” among those who own or work for these enterprises is blurred. For many, doing work for their own companies is not work—it is their life.

There’s also this argument that work is very much a part of life. Finding the right job, one that is fun to do, might be the more important part in removing possible causes of stress. Or is it? The jury is still out on that one.

But there is a growing mass of people who forward the idea that it is not the absence of balance between work and life that is the issue, but the absence of meaning in what one does. For them, achieving balance is not the ideal simply because it cannot be done; there is no fulcrum that defines the distinction between work and life. Instead, they suggest that people find jobs that offer fulfillment and yes, meaning, claiming that these take away the pains from what is otherwise tedious and exhausting.

But the debate does not stop there. There are those who ask the rather uncomfortable question: “Is there really such a thing called overworked Filipino employees or is this another urban myth?” Their thesis is that most Filipino workers have it so good, that demands on worker productivity in our country is not that stringent and that many Pinoy workers are actually loafers at work. In short, the classic picture of the Filipino as an indolent Juan Tamad is true.

I am not so sold on this point of view. However, I do grant that compared to other countries, we Pinoys do know how to have fun anywhere, anytime, even at work. Heck, we do find something to laugh about in the gravest life-and-death situations. Our extended family system and the fact that household help is readily available in this part of the world help.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that no matter how much one loves what one does, no matter how much fun one is having, there is a limit to what the body can take physically. So eventually, regardless of the level of fun and fulfillment one derives out of work, the body begins to show signs of wear and tear. We need to take care of ourselves.