Thursday, November 29, 2007

The other reports

Last Monday, I wrote about our country’s dismal ranking in the latest Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum. We ranked 71st among 131 countries in terms of overall competitiveness.

Actually, the report was just the most recent to be released by the forum. Other parallel reports that focused on regional and topical issues were released at different times during the year. All these provide an important context to the main competitiveness report. There’s the Global Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, the Gender Gap Report, the Global Information Technology Report, and then the competitiveness reports focusing on some geo-political groupings such as the African and the Arab world competitiveness reports.

As can be expected, most of the media hype was focused purely on the competitiveness report because it is, after all, the bigger and more comprehensive one. The other “smaller” reports were simply glossed over; some were totally ignored. Of course, the whole report was largely ignored by the local media.

All the reports are presented in index form, which means that the countries are ranked in comparison with the other participating countries based on specific criteria.

The travel and tourism report, for instance, which was released toward the middle of the year, ranked countries in terms of attractiveness as a travel and tourism destination. The rankings, covering 124 countries, were based on 52 factors including statutory regulatory framework, health and safety, infrastructure, local price levels, and aspects relating to the environment and culture. Officials of the World Economic Forum have taken pains to explain that the travel and tourism index was not a beauty contest or a judgment on the inherent attractiveness of a country but rather a measurement of a country’s overall progress in terms of developing itself as a travel and tourism destination.

The travel and tourism report was topped by Switzerland, followed by Austria, Germany, Iceland, the United States, and then Hong Kong, Canada and Singapore. Of the top 20 countries, only five are outside of Europe and North America.

The Philippines ranked 86th among 124 countries. We ranked lower than all our neighbors and we were clobbered in practically all factors—including, unbelievably enough—human, cultural and natural resources. We ranked a very low 100th in this factor. This is a major letdown because don’t we like to think that we are second to none in terms of human resource competencies and talent particularly in those that are relevant the hotel and restaurant industry? Don’t we brag about our so-called hospitality? And we do supply the manpower requirements of many hotels and tourism destinations of the countries that made it to the top of the list. So anyone out there looking for a fine example of the grave impact of the brain drain on our industries can just check out the report and weep.

I was struck by the travel and tourism report. I know that many countries are increasingly using tourism as a growth driver for their economies. Just like in the overall competitiveness report, the overall ranking is determined by a number of countervailing factors that effectively balance the equation. For example, Singapore ranked low (42nd) in terms of human, cultural and natural resources. This is expected because everyone knows that Singapore is multi-cultural and does not have ample natural resources. However, the country topped the list in terms of regulatory framework. In short, what they lacked in natural resources, they made up for with government resolve to make things easier for travelers.

India also ranked high (sixth) in terms of price competitiveness (yeah, prices in India are almost ridiculously cheap) and participation in tourism fairs (fourth) but was severely hampered by lack of effective marketing and branding (59th). As a result, India only managed to rank 65th in terms of overall attractiveness as a travel destination.

Yet another report that accompanied the global competitiveness report was the Gender Gap Report. This report measures the size of the gap between men and women in four critical areas, namely, economic participation and opportunity (equity on salary levels, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment), educational attainment (access to basic and higher level education), political empowerment (representation in decision-making structures), and health and survival (life expectancy and sex ratio).

So how did our country fare in terms of efforts to address the gender gap? Well, what do you know, we performed spectacularly! We ranked sixth overall, higher than the United States, and even higher than all other Asian countries. Other columnists have already discussed the fine points of the gender report so I will not go into that anymore.

I am sure that there are people out there who will question the reliability of the rankings by insisting that the women in this country are far from being empowered both politically and economically. They will point out, and quite correctly, that many among our women continue to languish in poverty and various forms of oppression and degradation. These may be true. In a poor country such as the Philippines, women are poorer and bear the brunt of the problem.

There are many ways to read the report. One way is to look at it as an indicator of the great strides the women’s movement in the country has achieved in terms of creating the right social and cultural framework; which unfortunately still has to produce the desired results in the actual lives of Filipino women.

Another way is to look at the report as a barometer of social and political factors that need to be put in context in specific cultures. For example, it may be true that women in the Philippines have better access to education, political rights, even health and other cultural rights compared to say, the women of all the Arab countries (they occupied the lowest tier of the rankings) or to the women of the United States (which ranked very low in the report). This does not mean of course that Filipino women can feel superior compared to the women of all these other countries despite the democratic space being enjoyed. In fact, I wonder how many American or Arab women would like to trade places with Filipino women just because of the favorable ratings in certain factors of the report.

But still, there is no denying that the high ranking of the Philippines in the gender gap report should still be a source of pride for our country. And it’s not just because it’s one of the few times that we find ourselves right there at the top in comparison with other countries. It is also a report that measures some things that, in the end, are probably what truly matters—respect for others, concern for equality and perhaps, even our very humanity.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Strengtherning our competitiveness

Let me cut to the chase and declare an embarrassing fact: Based on the 2007 Global Competencies Report released recently by the World Economic Forum, the Philippines ranked 71st out of 131 countries in terms of overall competitiveness.

We ranked lower than Vietnam (68th), Indonesia (54th), Thailand (28th), Malaysia (21st), India (48th) and even Sri Lanka (70th). We’re practically kulelat [last in the pack]. Singapore and Japan made it to the top 10 slots (ranked seventh and eighth, respectively). South Korea was 11th while Hong Kong was 12th in the rankings. China was ranked 34th.

The report, published annually, is considered the most reliable index of the global economic development race. At its bare essence, it is a scorecard of how a country measures up to the rest of the world in terms of being a desirable destination for investments. The index covers 11 factors, called pillars, which include a wide range of components: from macroeconomic and policy stability, to corruption, to labor market efficiency, to judiciary independence, even HIV/AIDS prevalence.

The report is probably one of the most widely anticipated indexes around. Many governments use it as benchmark for choosing priorities. Foreign investors use it as tool for deciding where to pour their investments. Think tanks use it as framework for all sorts of analytical and intellectual swashbuckling. The authors of the 2007 report include renowned guru Michael Porter of Harvard, the same guy who has earned worldwide renown for his groundbreaking management theories.

Using data from the report, Time Magazine, in its Nov. 26 issue, compared the performances of selected countries in a cover story entitled “Best Countries for Business.” The coverage is particularly noteworthy in our case because of what it doesn’t say about our country’s competitiveness. The Philippines did not merit any special mention.

There has been relatively very little media coverage on the report locally. I can understand why government has not gone to town with the country’s overall competitiveness. It’s not just because being kulelat is nothing to crow about. It’s also because the data about the country painfully highlight how government inefficiency has pulled down the country’s overall ranking.

For example, among the factors that proved extremely problematic were corruption in government (the factor which scored highest), inadequate supply of infrastructure, policy instability, inefficient government bureaucracy, and yes, government instability. Out of 131 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 116th in terms of perceived diversion of public funds, and even lower (119th) in terms of public trust of politicians. Even independence of the judiciary ranked low (85th).

What this says is that there seems to be wisdom in the government’s focus on buttressing the country’s infrastructure. You may recall that this was the main, if not the only subject of the President’s much maligned State-of-the-Nation Address last year when she boasted about all those roads and bridges that were being built as legacy of her administration.

Unfortunately, the data also show that good intentions are puny when subjected to the vagaries of wide-scale greed and inefficiency. We ranked dismally (101st) in terms of quality of infrastructure. This only validates observations that all those roads, bridges, and other infrastructures fail to meet benchmarks. Juxtapose these with the other results of the survey, particularly our pitiful ranking in terms of wastefulness of government spending (such as distributing cash to congressmen and governors) and the perceived high levels of corruption—and we get the really depressing picture of the magnitude of pillage and plunder occurring in our country.

The other factors that spelled trouble were labor market efficiency and health and primary education.

It is surprising that the opposition and the opposition-friendly media have not jumped on these reported shortcomings. Is it because international experts and hard data, regardless of the gravity of their message, lack the element of sensationalism that seems the one deciding factor for playing up certain stories?

To be fair, the country scored better in the areas of macroeconomic stability, domestic inflation and interest rates, government deficit and debt levels. As an advocate of HIV/AIDS prevention, I was pleasantly surprised that we topped the rankings in terms of impact of HIV/AIDS, which is somehow indicative of our relative success in halting the spread of the pandemic in the country. Other countries continue to be handicapped by high prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection, which as we all know carry extreme costs on a country’s economy.

Sadly, our rankings in terms of ability to manage tuberculosis, malaria and other health problems were not as noteworthy.

The competitiveness report is noteworthy because it presents a more realistic appraisal of what it takes to attain long-term economic growth and prosperity. It highlights the fact that development and economic growth are complicated pursuits affected by other systems such as political, social, and cultural—although the report does attempt to simplify things by focusing on critical pillars.

India ranked high in terms of quality of management schools (eighth in the world), but its relative average overall competitiveness ranking (48th) was hampered by other factors such as inadequacy in certain infrastructure like electricity supply and in terms of inefficient government bureaucracy.

The report also illustrates how labor market efficiency can significantly affect a country’s overall competitiveness. We just happen to have one of the most inefficient—and we must note, expensive—labor markets in the world and this is exacerbated by our continuing penchant for populist but ineffective labor policies, such as legislating wage increases instead of allowing market forces to drive it. We continue to insist that wages drive productivity despite hard data and the experience of our neighbors that indicate that it actually works the other way around. It’s a small wonder, then, that most investors prefer to bring their money to countries such as Vietnam and China where wages are more market-driven.

The Global Competitiveness Report provides prescriptions to strengthen our country’s overall competitiveness. It is a roadmap that should help all of us acquire a more realistic appraisal of what we need to do together to achieve long-term economic growth for all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The changing face of the workplace

This is my column today.

Sometime last month, I finally found the time to do something that I have wanted to do for the longest time. No, I did not see a dentist, which is the one thing that’s been on top of my “to do” list for quite sometime now. I went to visit two call centers and saw for myself the changing landscape of the workplace as exemplified in the work conditions in this so-called sunrise industry.

Just for the record, I wasn’t there for job interviews. I must admit, though, that I was sorely tempted to submit myself to the process just to find out if I would qualify as a call center employee. I am told that being a call center agent or representative has become an option for many professionals upon their retirement.

I am sure there are people out there who balk at the concept of a retirement job. It certainly is a contradiction in terms since retirement is generally seen as the end of one’s working life. The reality, however, is that many “retired” people end up finding their second wind at a new career, usually at call centers. So regardless of where one locates one’s self in this debate, I think that what is noteworthy is the fact that there are now options available for those who are inclined to spend their retirement days in pursuits more exciting than sitting idly in rocking chairs all day long.

What really made it very tempting for me was the fact that I was told the whole employment selection process could be completed in a few hours’ time. What this means is that, theoretically, one can walk in and get hired (or rejected) within a couple of hours. Now, that’s really fast when we consider that the recruitment and selection process in most companies usually takes weeks—that is, when one is lucky.

It makes sense for companies in the call center industry to bring their recruitment and selection processes up to speed because of the stiff competition for talent. Actually, it makes sense for all companies in the Philippines to put in place more proactive and faster recruitment and selection processes since the market for really qualified graduates has shrunk considerably. There are too many applicants but very few are qualified for the posts they aspire for; clearly indicative of the mismatch problem that we have in this country between what the academe produces and what industry needs. But that’s another column. Being able to hire the best person for the job has become a contest of speed, of who gets to make the first offer.

It’s a small wonder then that the call center company we visited even had a recruitment center, a one-stop shop especially created to make the company more competitive in the labor market. The recruitment center was designed to look like the lobby of a trendy hotel and an entertainment center rolled into one. It literally took our breath away (one HR director who was with us almost wept with envy when she noted just how different the setup was in her own company). The facilities were designed to be candidate-friendly and the place projected an overall impression of fun and enjoyment.

There were lounging chairs in various shades of neon, computers that allowed candidates to surf the Net, a billiards table, plasma television sets, even vending machines that dispensed softdrinks, juices, and iced tea for free. These on top of magazines and other reading materials available for applicants to browse.

In short, it was a far cry from the usual setup in traditional companies where applicants wait interminably for their tests and their interviews in lounges that look like they were designed to test one’s character and fortitude, rather than as places one can relax and be comfortable in.

Yes, I know that some companies even used to deliberately put applicants inside lounges with one-way mirrors to observe how they deal with boredom and how they interact with others as part of the screening process. There are ethical questions that have been raised in relation to this practice; fortunately, it is a practice that has already become irrelevant today in light of more reliable and valid selection tools available for HR practitioners. One wishes, of course, that job advertisements also become more relevant and attuned with the times since we know that most companies still set criteria that are clearly discriminatory and illegal.

But the landscape of the workplace is clearly changing now as companies proactively respond to the challenges of attracting and managing the new generation of workers. And the call center industry is leading the way in this regard. I am sure you have heard about the many innovative programs that call center companies have been putting in place in order to attract and retain talent.

The call center company that we visited offered their employees access to a gym, a spa, a recreation center complete with all kinds of facilities for networking and entertaining, a reflection and prayer room, a freedom room (which featured a graffiti board, a boxing bag, and things you could smash around with a bat), etc. These in addition to competitive salaries and benefits, scholarships, access to training and other personal and professional development programs.

The common misconception that people have is that all these have been put in place solely in response to work demands that are unique and exclusive to the call center industry. These include working hours that cover the graveyard shift, the pressures of cross-cultural interaction (most clients that call center agents deal with are based in the West), exposure to a wide range of emotions displayed by often irate and demanding clients, the pressure of having to meet quotas, etc.

The HR directors that we talked to during that visit admitted that these work pressures were definitely a major factor in the design and implementation of the various programs that they put in place to “make employees see work as fun and make them stay in the company longer.”

However, they also shared that an equally important factor has to do with “the kind of people that come to work for them.” More than 80 percent of those who comprise the workforce in call centers are composed of very young people who simply have different values, work ethics, motivational factors, and obviously, work behaviors. They were referring to the current generation of workers, people who are described as members of Generation Y, Generation next, or some other metaphors such as the “Ragnarok Generation.” Eventually, all companies will have to contend with this situation as members of the Baby boomers and Generation X retire.

According to the HR directors that we talked to, the profile, and correspondingly, the demands of this new generation of workers were clearly different from those of say, Generation X, or even those of Baby boomers. For example, they shared that members of the new generation of workers have shorter attention spans, are more demanding in terms of what they feel they are entitled to, require more information, set higher standards for themselves, and do not have a clear sense of loyalty. As a result, they have been forced to find new ways to respond to the challenge of how to effectively manage this new generation of workers.

There are many things that can be written about how exactly the new generation of workers are different. But as I am running out of space, that would have to be another column. What is important to highlight is that bridging and managing the differences is a far more productive preoccupation than just complaining and ranting about the problem. The call center industry, despite the odds it has to contend with, is providing best practices in this aspect. It’s time we took a look at what they are doing and learned from their experience.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What is happening to our country?

This was my column yesterday, November 19. Sorry for the late post.

The question that was on most people’s minds last week, verbalized by a number of bloggers immediately after the bomb that snuffed out the lives of three people including that of Rep. Wahab Akbar of Basilan, was, eerily enough, something that was asked by Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez during the dark years of the dictatorship.

“What is happening to our country, general?” This was the question posed by then Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez to then Quezon City Police Chief Tomas Karingal as he lay in a hospital bed, seriously wounded after an ambush.

Many politicians did see some kind of parallel between the two events. One senator immediately raised the specter of martial law, even going as far as to warn President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against doing a Musharraf, referring to Pakistan’s dictator president.

What is happening to our country? This question can be answered in the way people put two and two together to pin the blame squarely on Malacañang. This question can be answered by looking at how easy and convenient it has become for many people to indulge in oversimplification.

It is telling of the level of unpopularity or mistrust that many have for this administration that something as tragic as a bomb explosion is automatically seen as part of a larger sinister plot, a prelude to something foreboding such as the declaration of martial law. This is sad because such oversimplification does not help anyone. It also doesn’t help the search for the real culprits.
The oversimplification is painfully reflected in the way some people quickly, and quite irresponsibly, jump the gun and submit their own conspiracy theories.
It doesn’t matter that the investigation still has to officially begin. This despite indications that seem to point to the fact that the bomb was intended for Representative Akbar. Even members of his family and his spokesman provide clues as to why Akbar may be a target for assassination.
But then again, that kind of paranoia has become hardly surprising today. It’s only been a few weeks since another powerful explosion rocked a commercial center in Makati killing and hurting a number of people. This administration is also reeling from a number of scandals that is crippling its ability to govern effectively. At the time the bomb exploded, another impeachment complaint against the President was being deliberated in Congress, site of the latest blast. God knows this administration needs all the diversionary moves it can muster to take away attention from all the heat it has been experiencing.

But when the President made a public appeal for calm and sobriety and against senseless theorizing, she could have been talking to a wall. Our senators and congressmen, and even her own people did not heed her appeal.

The initial public reaction of alarm and terror is brought about by the fact that the bomb exploded right inside the premises of the House of Representatives. So perhaps people can be forgiven for immediately concluding that the bomb was intended to carry a bigger, more foreboding message. Although no one aside from the perpetrators can really claim to be an expert on the motivations behind the bombing, the question that begs an answer is “if the target was indeed Representative Akbar, why was the bomb planted in the House of Representatives?” It could have been carried out somewhere else.

But like I said, we could all theorize about the real message or messages behind the bombing. At the end of the day, however, no one aside from the perpetrators really know.
The other thing that strikes me the most was the way some representatives theorized that they were the real targets of the bomb. Only in this country do we have people scrambling all over themselves to claim they were bombing targets.

Gabriela Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan, who was hurt in the bombing, refused to acknowledge that the bomb was intended for Akbar despite the mounting evidence, the pronouncements of his relatives and the subsequent police operations that yielded some arrests. She insists that her support for the impeachment complaint against the President made her a target for assassination. Why she alone—and not the other representatives who are more vocal and more strident in this advocacy —would be targeted for assassination remains unanswered.

What is happening to our country is also indicated in the way the general public remains skeptical of the results of the police investigation. Some belittled the results of the probe, calling it “too good to be true.”

Under different circumstances, people would be calling for a speedy resolution to the tragedy, mouthing slogans like “justice delayed is justice denied.” But now that police authorities have actually come up with answers in a relatively shorter time, the results are also met by outcry. One senator even went as far as to decry the speed saying that it was uncharacteristic of the police to come up with a solution immediately.

Perhaps the skepticism is understandable in the light of how authorities have botched investigations of similar tragedies in the past. For instance, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales crowed on public television immediately after the blast that they saw it coming. Hindsight is of course 20/20 vision. And it begs the question, if they did see it coming, how come they did not do anything about it? Indications point out that security remained lax in the House of Representatives despite the so-called warning. My take is that Gonzales is once again simply buttressing his own worth.

The public reaction to the bomb has now diminished and just like in the past, we’ve turned to making jokes about what happened.

One text message that has been going around says that the bomb was the result of too much methane in the House of Representatives owing to the fact that the House of Representatives is peopled by big f*rts. Another text message said that sniffing dogs were helpless in the House because dogs were no match to crocodiles (buwaya being the pejorative term for our representatives).

There’s another indication of what is happening to our country. When things don’t make sense, we turn to poking fun at ourselves using humor to diffuse tension, or as levelers to expose the foibles of people in high office. We transform the experience into something that makes sense and which can be shared by all.

I sympathize with the victims of this latest bombing incident. Because of what we know about Representative Akbar’s “colorful” background, particularly about his dalliance with the Abu Sayyaf Group and his stature as some kind of a political warlord in a war-torn province, it is easy to shrug off the manner of his death as an inevitable consequence of the kind of life he chose to live. Still, no one really deserves to meet such a gruesome fate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kid stuff

This is my column today.

I received a number of e-mail messages in response to my column last Monday, which ended with a true story involving my friend and a street child. Three were particularly instructive so I decided to discuss them in today’s column.

For those who missed my column last Monday as well as for those who need reminding, the story was about this street child who chastised a driver for pointedly ignoring her. In so many words, she reminded the driver that it was okay not to give alms, or to refuse to help. What was not okay was ignoring people such as beggars, pretending they do not exist. Since then, my friends and I have made it a point to acknowledge beggars politely when they come knocking instead of pretending we can’t hear them or simply dismissing them by knocking back on the window.
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This practice of knocking on windows as a way of turning away beggars is based on a huge urban myth that continues to be perpetuated today. I first heard about the myth in 1988. I remember the year because that was when I moved to Manila from the province. A friend told me that knocking on one’s car window was the secret code among those part of the syndicate that supposedly controls the ring of streetchildren and beggars that ply the streets of Metro Manila.

I doubt if there really is a syndicate that controls the streetchildren and beggars roaming around. I am sure there are people out there who offer protection and get some commission from the beggars’ earnings, but I doubt if the setup works in the same way as that portrayed in the movie Oliver. Come to think of it, I think that’s where they got the idea.

But we are suckers for urban myths.

One myth that’s been going around for years and which surprisingly got resurrected recently is that one about some cars running around Metro Manila at night with their headlights off (some versions say that these cars run around with their headlights at high beam). One is not supposed to flash one’s headlights at these cars as that’s supposed to be the signal they wait for. It’s supposed to be an initiation rite for some violent fraternity. They are supposed to run down the first car they encounter who flashes its headlights at them. This is a myth which started in the United States and got played up in many television shows.

But to go back to the e-mail about children, a friend reminded me about an incident at Malate a couple of years back involving another street child, this time a flower vendor. I remember the incident clearly because what the child said brimmed with wisdom beyond her age.

We were in this bar in Malate. The place was packed. I don’t know if there are still flower vendors in Malate today, but several years ago, they were a constant fixture. These kids were easily identifiable because they wore colorful dresses as uniform. We noted one particular child because she was quite precocious. She chatted up foreigners and although her English was quite fractured, it was quite charming.

Anyway. She entered the bar and started selling flowers to the guys at the table beside ours. Obviously the guys weren’t interested in buying flowers, but they engaged the child in what they thought were cute attempts at humor. In short, they were patronizing her. It’s a very common thing that adults do when they encounter precocious kids.

After about a few minutes, it became obvious that the guys were just taking her along for the ride. The child made one last sales pitch by asking the guys to buy flowers to give to their girlfriends. One guy said they don’t have girlfriends yet because they haven’t found anyone pretty enough to qualify. The child looked at the guy straight in the eye and said out loud for everyone in the bar to hear: “Eh kasi wag tumingin sa ganda lang, tumingin sa ugali!” And she marched out of the bar.

Yes, kids do say the darndest things. Unfortunately, we don’t often see them as capable of some thinking processes, we prefer to think of them as people with feeble brains. Like I said, we do tend to patronize them. And if a kid happens to say something that hits us bulls eye, we dismiss the child as pilosopo or having disrespect for the old. And this was essentially the message of the other e-mail I received.

One reader noted how television shows have started to focus on children as participants, which he thinks is another ingenious way to lengthen the programming period for children on television. Because these shows feature children as participants or as audience, other children are drawn in to watch these shows as well. He was not referring to Saturday morning cartoons, or all right, early evening fantaseryes. He was referring to primetime television shows that feature children.

Apparently there is now a local version of the popular quiz show in the United States entitled Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The local version, which is supposedly hosted by Janno Gibbs is entitled “Kakasa Ka Ba Sa Grade 5?” Last I looked kakasa was often used in a derogatory context, like when you challenge someone to a fisticuff.

I have already written about ABS-CBN’s Saturday evening game show entitled One versus One Hundred. Up until last weekend, the show’s “mob”—the term they use to refer to the 100 members of the audience that a celebrity contestant picks a fight with—were still composed of children. Yes, the show so far has been about celebrity contestant literally picking a fight with children, including making faces at them. The questions they ask in the show are no-brainers.

The kids no longer chant “Ba-la-to!” But they are still encouraged to taunt, scream, heckle, even insult the celebrity contestants. These are the same kids who are referred to when Edu Manzano shouts “is it the money or the mob?” Kids referred to and act like members of a mob, now there’s a really interesting picture.

The third e-mail was from someone who shared his thoughts on the issue of whether it hurts kids when we give alms to streetchildren. I must admit that my personal position on the matter is rather ambivalent.

I recognize that giving alms to streetchildren conditions them into thinking that begging is a viable livelihood. I know it impacts on their self-esteem as well. However, when one comes face to face with a street child who is grimacing in pain because he has not had anything to eat since he woke up, one cannot help but throw away strategic thinking and rational reasoning.

An officemate of mine, however, has come up with a brilliant idea which I intend to duplicate. He carries around with him in his car packs of biscuits and cookies. These are what he gives away to beggars and street children who come knocking. One gets to feed the hungry without having to worry about whether the alms you give them goes to gambling or the purchase of drugs.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reflections on a suicide

This is my column today.

Suicide is a complicated thing. Others try to romanticize it. Some psychoanalyze it, even make it fodder for political and moral debate. At the end of it all, it is a matter between the person and his or her God. The turmoil or conversely, the tranquility; perhaps even the resoluteness or hesitation going on in the mind of the person are known only to him or her and God.

But when a 12-year old does it, as in the case of Marianette Amper, it is unsettling for everyone. The act becomes not just a matter of taking one’s life. It becomes an indictment against society, against the social order. At the heart of the matter is the shocking realization that suicide has become an option even for a child.

The self-flagellation mode that many among us went into is understandable. Indeed, what does this say of our society; nay, of ourselves as parents when that brutal option has become conceivable even for young kids?

Marianette’s suicide is distressing because regardless of the circumstances around it, it is telling of the kind of environment that we have created for our children. Whatever her reasons for doing it, and I maintain that she took to the grave the real reasons why she did it, it does seem that Marianette’s act strikes at the core of our dismal failure as a society and as parents to provide an environment that allows our children to maintain the very things that we hope they would continue to have for a long time, nay, we wish they would have forever—innocence, unconditional trust, hope.

Sadly, many people missed the point. Fortunately, no one has come forward to blame Marianette herself although for a while there, it looked like the Catholic Church would go that route with its initial indecision about giving funeral rites to Marianette (the Church eventually did). Like I said, I can understand the self-flagellation mode that many went into. One only wishes that the rhetoric and the moralizing were tempered with a little more reflection. It is always easier and more convenient to cast the blame somewhere else.

That a young girl took her life because of poverty is a touching story, indeed. But the theory is simplistic. I am not saying that poverty is not enough motivation for killing one’s self; God knows the many good and bad things that have been committed in the name of poverty. But I refuse to buy the theory in its entirety because it offers all of us the convenient excuse to put the blame somewhere else —government, her parents, etc, as if abject poverty is the sole creation of one sector alone.

But okay, since we seemed to have latched into the theory that poverty was the reason, perhaps we should discuss it then. Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question—what creates poverty and what are we doing collectively about it? There’s a painful question to ask.

Of course the government should be blamed for the fact that poverty is the middle name of majority of our people. This particular administration’s penchant for obfuscating issues, for palliative efforts, and for fudging economic figures to make it seem that its efforts are already making impact is obscene. I agree that the widespread corruption that attends transactions in government today aggravates poverty.

I am there. I agree that government economic policy, neglect, the absence of moral compunction, etc., are major factors that sustain poverty. But poverty is not caused by government alone. That’s too simplistic. In the last two months, I have been shuttling to Negros to help a non-government organization that is doing successful work in poverty alleviation through micro financing. Their data says that poverty is also a result of our colonial history, our inequitable power structures, our political system, natural factors such as environmental degradation, even social inequalities.

I was aghast to watch some elected representatives giving a lecture on how poverty has pushed Marianette into killing herself without acknowledging the fact that they were supposed to represent people like her. But maybe that is the problem. We have elected representatives who come from the elite class and don’t really understand the issues of the poor. Let’s come to grip with this basic fact. We won’t be able to address poverty fully until more poor people acquire political power.

The religious sector went into a major soul-searching effort, which as we all know really boils down to one thing: Finding excuses to moralize. Pardon me, reverends and monsignors, but aren’t you the same people who propagate poverty by being against contraception, by promoting bias against gender, by living in palaces and convents served hand and foot by the faithful? Aren’t you the same people who have refused to live with the poor, the same people who still have to donate your lands to the poor? You actually dared to talk about how Jesus Christ asked us to identify with the poor when you yourselves propagate the caste system that reinforces poverty.

Marianette’s suicide was exactly the stuff media has a keen eye for, and boy, did they go to town with it, without reflecting on the role it has played in the tragedy. I will not pick a fight with Vicky Morales and her show (Wish Ko Lang) from which Marianette seemed to get the idea that television shows offer a lifeline out of their miserable conditions. To be fair, it’s not just Wish Ko Lang that glosses over the real issues and turns these into some kind of entertainment. Willie Revillame does the same perversion everyday with the full blessings of the station’s owners. Let’s cut the crap and call these by their real name: Business ventures.

Suicide is a form of violence. To be scientific about it, it is caused by structural violence. We do rile about sex in media, but not enough about violence. Pray, how many shows actually glorify violence and even suicide? I have watched many shows were the reference to suicide is bandied about carelessly without some kind of disclaimer or even an attempt to provide a context, not that it would make any difference, anyway.

And while we are in this self-flagellation mode, perhaps we should also ask ourselves the painful question. Exactly what are we all doing to help Marianette and the poor? Unfortunately, many among us do consider them as blight on our existence.

Here’s a real story. A friend was stuck in traffic when a young child came knocking on the car beside him. He could hear what the child was saying. As he was searching around for coins, he noticed that the driver in the other car was totally ignoring the child. But the child was insistent.

Finally, the other driver knocked on his window. The child took a deep sigh and said out loud, “Okay lang naman wag ka magbigay, kahit pansinin mo lang ako, at sana wag mo ako daanin sa pakatok katok.”

It’s a common occurrence in our streets. It has become easier to pretend the poor do not exist, to think that beggars and street children are up to no good, that they pose a threat to our comfort and security. We’ve even begin to believe that giving alms is not a charitable thing to do and only pushes them further into poverty. We have invented this new way of casting them away. We knock on our car windows instead of acknowledging them and declining politely.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Assumptions

What strikes me the most about the ongoing controversy involving the National Press Club and the Neo-Angono Artists Collective is the way accusations, being bandied about and hurled at all directions, are based purely on assumptions. The sad part is that a number of the assumptions are based on shaky grounds and yet are being passed off as Gospel truth.

Just in case you have been on vacation as well from the never-ending controversies that have become regular fare in our country, here’s a quick backgrounder on the case. On the occasion of its anniversary, the NPC commissioned the Neo-Angono to do a mural on press freedom. The mural was delivered. It was unveiled to the public in ceremonies attended by no less than the President of the Republic.

A few days after, the excrement hit the ventilation. It turns out that the mural was altered in several parts without the consent of the artists’ group. The NPC admitted that yes, they hired an unidentified artist to do “temporary” alterations on the parts of the mural that were deemed “leftist” and “political.”

What remains unclear is who in the press club passed judgment and what yardstick did that person or persons use to declare those parts of the mural “leftist” or “political.”

As can be expected, Neo-Angono raised a howl and accused NPC of censorship and disrespect for artists.

In a statement that is now going around and around in the blogosphere, the artists’ group asks rather embarrassing questions: “Isn’t it ironic that an institution such as the NPC would cause the censorship of a work that they themselves commissioned purportedly to promote press freedom? Isn’t the freedom of expression of the artist bound up with the very press freedom that they supposedly uphold? Aren’t these alterations a clear violation of the rights of authors/artists protected by the Intellectual Property Code of the Philippines?”

I empathize with the artists. I am aware of the difficulties that artists contend with, particularly those who are just starting out. They don’t often get the respect they deserve. And very often, artists are treated with disrespect and their work dismissed and ignored not for aesthetic reasons, not because of the presence of absence of talent, but simply because there is a star system that operates in our society, particularly in the arts. It is the equivalent of a caste system. Thus, some artists can wield power and influence purely on the strength of his or her name.

It is one thing to suffer disrespect. It is another thing to suffer it from the hands of your comrades, from the very people who are supposed to share your advocacy. But then again, this penchant for making assumptions is probably what is at the root of the controversy.

One would expect that the “deal” between the NPC and Neo-Angono is covered by a comprehensive contract, or perhaps terms of references, that spells out all the details of the arrangement.

After all, club money (the cost of the mural was P900,000) is involved and there is a membership that has to be answered to. Of course I am aware that the amount involved may be insignificant to serious art collectors. One writer from another paper haughtily scoffed at the amount—“only nine hundred thousand, not even a million pesos”—as if monetary value is the only determinant of an artwork’s worth.

The point is that both NPC and the artists’ group made assumptions and relied on these. At the crux of the matter are the assumptions about the basic nature of a “commissioned art piece.”

The NPC assumed that since they were paying for the artwork, they could do as they please.

The President of the club even went as far as to proclaim that since they owned the painting, they could do anything with it—even burn it. I understand that he eventually apologized for the inflammatory (pun intended) outburst which seemed to indicate the level of respect he and his association has for the artwork and the artists.

The artists’ group on the other hand assumed that the NPC understood, or at the very least shared some level of understanding for the philosophical and even ideological issues around artworks. Obviously, paintings are not just pieces of furniture that one buys. A painting is a representation of the artists’ worldview, even of his politics and ideologies. They represent artistic expression.

The artists said it well when they insisted that they were not just suppliers.

More assumptions abound. Is the tattoo of an alibata K on the Andres Bonifacio character in the mural indicative of a leftist orientation? Does the statement of the International Federation of Journalists which occupies a big portion of the newspaper held by the central figure in the mural indicate partisanship? Does the headline of the newspaper (“Press Freedom Fighter’s Son Abducted”) the José Rizal character in the mural is holding indicative of political orientation?

It all boils down to the questions: Can anyone other than the artist render absolute judgment on the meaning of an artwork?

Moreover, does ownership of a work of art really translate into absolute agreement to its message? If this is what the NPC believes and if the intent in commissioning the mural was to make it into some kind of an open manifesto, they were probably better off taking out full-page ads in the papers.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing assumptions being bandied about has to do with the motivations behind the alterations.

The story being spread around, and which has been given inordinate play up by certain media organizations, is that the changes were made to please the President who was the guest of honor during the unveiling. An attempt was made to draw into the controversy the Presidential Security Group by alluding to them as the ones who “ordered” the changes. The NPC denies these of course. I assume that the club members would prefer being seen as people lacking in artistic sophistication rather than as lackeys of Malacañan Palace who kowtow to the whims and caprices of the powers-that-be.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween, Philippine style

On Hallow’s Eve last week, I was driving home humming with anticipation of the four-day respite when I found myself stuck in limbo.

At the San Andres Bukid District, vehicles were going around and around side streets trying to find a way to get to where ever it was they were headed for before they got confronted by “No Entry” road signs that miraculously sprouted in the middle of some streets. Why and how people are allowed to take it upon themselves to appropriate public streets and turn them into private venues for parties and other occasions is truly a curious thing.

One can understand when people transform streets into public plazas that serve as venue for all kinds of merrymaking during fiestas and even special occasions such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And we all know that during elections, streets also transform into political campaign sites.

We have even learned to empathize when streets become venues for funeral wakes. We make allowances automatically assuming that the bereaved family is probably hard put to hold the wake of their dearly departed in some funeral parlor. It’s discomfiting but we’ve been conditioned to accept these things; particularly since local officials tolerate the practice as can be gleaned from the wreaths bearing their names that inevitably get displayed very proudly in these street wakes. Besides, we do have profound respect for the dead as evidenced by the way we risk life and limb to be at the graves of our dear departed during All Saints’ Day.

I have been made to understand that it is practices like these that ensure votes during elections and that certain local executives have become experts in this kind of political maneuver.

Over in Makati City, for example, urban legend has it that Mayor Jejomar Binay scours the city for funeral wakes at nighttime, making sure that he drops in at every single one of them to personally condone with the bereaved family. I suspect that there is some truth to this as I have personally encountered the mayor at least three times in such a, well, circumstance. I have no doubt that Binay means well, of course. Say what you will about him and his politics but Binay is unbeatable in Makati for one reason: He is in touch with the issues of the poor in Makati. Now, most local executives have copied Binay’s example although I can’t say the same of their motivations.

But it is a different thing altogether when the reason for the roadblocks turns out to be a private party. It gives another dimension to the concept of people power. Then again, this is the Philippines, far stranger things happen and we have learned to take all these aggravations in stride.

Anyway. To go back to what happened Wednesday night last week, the reasons for the roadblocks were, well, three Halloween parties held in the middle of the streets. I don’t know if it was an intentional Halloween trick directed at hapless motorists; but it certainly looked and felt like one.

All three parties were for little tykes who were, not surprisingly, dressed up for the occasion in what is now being passed off as Halloween costumes, Philippine style, which means being dressed to the nines in ball gowns as little beauty queens or as fairies. How Halloween has transformed into an occasion for preening and strutting around like peacocks instead of scaring people off is a curious thing indeed. In the words of one friend who was born a social critic, Halloween in the Philippines is “one big party where everyone shows up in drag.”

When even San Andres Bukid has started to put up its own Halloween parties, we know that celebrating Halloween has finally found its way into Philippine culture.

It’s just a matter of time before the whole thing becomes yet another major event that people actually prepare for. I can already see it. Around this time next year, more and more kids will be badgering their parents into buying Halloween costumes that they will get to wear only once.

And we know of course that many parents are just as thrilled to oblige given the way many among us find some perverse pleasure in finding occasions to dress up our kids and display them in public. No need to put up money to get our kids chosen as Mr. and Miss Popularity so they can be paraded in all their feathered and sequined.

At Megamall last year, my friends and I didn’t quite know how to react to the sight of costumed infants (as in months-old babies!) being wheeled around in cribs and strollers. The parents sure had fun trick or treating around the many shops in Megamall, while their poor little Count Draculas or baby Tinkerbells sweated and itched in those costumes. The kids weren’t even old enough to eat the loot. I wonder how many hours of counseling would be required when they become adults.

I have never been to the United States so I have never experienced celebrating Halloween the way the Americans do. But then again, given our never-ending fascination with anything American and the way we ape their culture, it is kind of expected that many among us would be familiar with the way Halloween is celebrated in the US.

We have our own local traditions about Halloween; but sadly these have disappeared. As a child growing up in the province, I was exposed to the way grownups would play tricks on the eve of All Saints’ Day. Nangangaluluwa was what it was called, which referred to the way a band of mischievous boys would serenade households while doing indulging in naughty stuff like stealing a chicken, or picking the fruits and vegetables growing in the backyard.

By the time I was old enough to join the fun, the tradition was no longer fashionable. Perhaps because electricity became readily available and it became almost impossible to play tricks without being caught. Also, the options for entertainment became more varied.

In the ’80s, only the very brave and the very adventurous dared to dress up on Halloween and roam the bars in Malate. It was a novelty then and establishments had to organize elaborate parties and put up attractive prizes to entice people to hit the bars in their costumes. Today, being in costume while partying on Halloween has become the norm rather than the exception.

The horror of it is that not wearing anything at all has qualified as a “costume” as well. My friends and I didn’t quite know what to make of the sight of grown ups parading around in the skimpiest undies around Malate last week. It took the concept of “scaring people off” to new heights. And it’s not limited to Malate anymore.

Naturally, malls and stores have jumped into the act and capitalized on the fad to make more business. Malls now have their own trick or treat events and kids in costumes with their loot bags have started to invade malls on designated dates.

Halloween is becoming bigger and bigger in the Philippines and we have turned the whole thing in its head. At Malate, which has long been the seat of Manila’s Bohemian culture, Halloween has been a major attraction in the last two decades. It’s the one night that competes with the annual Gay Pride party in terms of gaudiness. It took some time, but now that we have gotten into the act, we seem to be making up for lost time.