Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Urban myths and the death of civil society

This is my column today.

This was something I had been meaning to write about immediately after Valentine’s Day, but I guess we all got sidetracked by seemingly more serious and scandalous matters.

On Valentine’s Day, I received through e-mail the latest reincarnation of the so-called AIDS Mary urban myth. The e-mail was forwarded to me by a college friend, who received it from one of her friends, who…well, we already know how that works. It’s like that “half-half” SMS joke that many people seem to think is funny because it has been forwarded to my cell phone at least five times already. It’s not funny because it ridicules people based merely on their physical appearance rather than on their actions.

But to go back to the latest reincarnation of the AIDS Mary urban myth, I checked the return path of the e-mail and was quite shocked to see some familiar names. In short, people who should know better than to forward messages of dubious origins and even more dubious, if not preposterously ridiculous, claims.

AIDS Mary (or the male counterpart AIDS Harry) is an urban myth that’s been going around since the early eighties when very little about HIV/AIDS was still known. According to the legend, there was this person who could not accept having been infected and therefore deliberately sought to infect others. This is a myth. It is not true although there is one recorded case of a woman in Tennessee who infected one person with HIV/AIDS after having unprotected sex with many (she said her problem was inability to say no to sex rather than conscious intent to infect others). But even if there were people intent on deliberately infecting others through sex, one can always refuse or practice safer sex practices. However, there is no documented case of anyone that deliberately attacked others with HIV-tainted needles.

I am sure you have come across e-mails that perpetuate these urban myths. Most of these warn people about syndicates that steal kidneys, gangs that prowl the night in their cars with the headlights off and mowing down people who would flash headlights at them, etc. I normally do not give these e-mails any further thought and simply condemn them to the trash bin. However, a number of my students who knows my involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention did ask me about the claims made in that particular e-mail. It turns out that a number of people posted the e-mail as bulletins in Friendster last Valentines Day, which seem to indicate that yes, there are many people out there that are prone to believe the fallacies promoted by urban myths.

The subject of the e-mail was AIDS!!! BE AWARE (the three exclamation points leave no doubt as to the alarmist nature of the e-mail). I am reprinting the e-mail in full in italics, along with my reaction and comments.

“A few weeks ago, in a cinema, a person felt something poking from her seat. When she got up to see what it was, she found a needle sticking out of the seat with a note attached saying “You have just been infected by HIV (AIDS).” Previous e-mails of this nature had the HIV-tainted needles sticking out of the handles of gasoline station pumps, in toilet seats, and from the back seats of taxicabs. I’ve also come across that tall tale about someone with HIV/AIDS going berserk and inflicting revenge on the world by deliberately poking needles into other people in public places. There have been no actual reported or documented cases of any of these incidents happening anywhere in the world.

“The Disease Control Center reports many similar events in many other cities recently. All tested needles were HIV Positive. The Center also reports that needles have been found in cash dispensers (ATM) at public banking machines. We ask everyone to use extreme caution. All public chairs/seats should be inspected with vigilance and caution before use. A careful visual inspection should be enough. In addition, they ask that each of you pass this message along to all members of your family and your friends of the potential danger.” The Center for Disease Control in the United States, which is the recognized global authority when it comes to infectious diseases, has disowned having made the report. In fact, the CDC has repeatedly stressed that infections from HIV-tainted needles are a hoax.

The probability that HIV can live outside the body for more than an hour is almost nil. The virus is dependent on certain body fluids (mostly blood and semen) in order to live outside the body. It would be almost impossible to taint needles with the virus without some kind of body fluid present in the syringe. Blood curdles easily and becomes inhospitable to the virus. It would also be difficult to get the virus into a nerve in one’s body through accidental pricking; even doctors with all their training have difficulty inserting an IV needle into a willing patient. The only cases of infection through accidental needle pricks happened in hospitals during medical procedures where fresh blood is present.

“Recently, one doctor has narrated a somewhat similar instance that happened to one of his patients at the Praia Cinema in Delhi. A young girl engaged and about to be married in a couple of months, was pricked while the movie was going on. The tag with the needle had the message: “Welcome to the World of HIV family”. Again, there is no record anywhere that something like that has ever happened. The message “Welcome to the World of HIV/Family” is a variation of what has been a cinematic cliché in movies with revenge as its plot. The woman seeking revenge usually scrawls a variation of that message using lipstick in a motel mirror. In short, it’s too cliché for comfort.

Though the doctors told her family that it takes about 6 months before the virus grows strong enough to start damaging the system and a healthy victim could survive about 5-6 years, the girl died in 4 months, perhaps more because of the “Shock thought”. We all have to be careful at public places. Just think about saving a life by forwarding this message. Please, take a few seconds of your time to pass this along. Remember to pass this on to everyone you know... Probably, your mail can help save a life. The six-month window period is prescribed for HIV testing. It takes about six months for the body to develop enough anti-bodies detectable by the test. But a person with HIV can live for a very long time with medication. There is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS but there are drugs that can prolong the onset of AIDS. No, you can’t save a life by forwarding that e-mail.

There is some quick comfort that can be derived from the thought that as long as we follow certain warnings, we can protect ourselves and the people we care about from HIV and from other terrible things. But this kind of comfort is dangerous. It creates denial of the real behaviors that increases our vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection. It also puts the blame on others rather than encourages people to take responsibility for their own safety.

Information is the key in preventing HIV/AIDS infection. And information about HIV/AIDS, as well as access to services related to HIV/AIDS prevention, is readily available. Unfortunately, it seems not for long anymore. Almost all non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention have already closed shop and the remaining ones are in the throes of death. Donor support for NGOs has dwindled. Whatever funding is available is hopelessly tied up in bureaucratic red tape and turf issues.

Civil society’s participation in HIV/AIDS prevention is practically gone as most HIV/AIDS programs are now “devolved” to local government units. There is some wisdom in this move, but there are also many disadvantages and loopholes that imperil real and sustainable HIV/AIDS prevention in the country. We all know what happens when government is left alone to manage funds and programs.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in this country. HIV/AIDS infections are actually on the rise and the expertise, participation, dedication and commitment of NGOs is needed. Unfortunately, everyone in power seems to think civil society is synonymous with trouble. The systematic strangling of NGOs working in HIV/AIDS prevention is something that we will all pay dearly in the very near future. It’s sad and tragic.

Monday, February 25, 2008

What are we waiting for?

This is my column today.

I’ve been asked the question many times in the last two weeks. The answer I give depends on the manner and tone the question is asked. There are those who pose the question with the sincere intent of broadening up their perspective and finding out what other people are thinking and where others stand in this whole stinking sordid mess.

There are those who ask the question with a tad more emotion, as if pleading with you to please see, hear, taste, smell the filth and stench that he or she thinks you have failed to perceive. Sometimes these people ask the question in a rhetorical way, not really expecting an answer, but more as a preface to a lecture.

Then there are those that ask the question in an brusque, sometimes even accusatory way, leaving no doubt whatsoever about the level of condescension that they feel for other people who are not with them, yet, or who haven’t joined their call. They ask because they seem to derive some pleasure from pointing out just how morally depraved others (you!) have become; their faces suffused with the glow of the morally superior.

And then there are those who don’t even bother to ask the question at all. They just presume the worst about you and automatically put you in the same category along with everyone else whom they have conveniently labeled “The Enemy” or in conspiracy with, to use the current catch phrase, “The Evil.” These are people who have made up their minds a long, long time ago and there’s nothing —absolutely nothing—that you can say or write that would make them change their minds about what kind of person you are simply because they think you are not on their side.

I can understand the frustration, particularly on the part of those who have been working so hard to bring closure to the many scandals that have bedeviled this administration since 2004. I’ve said this many, many times, and I will say it again: I agree—these are grievous, serious issues that should be pursued. This administration should be made accountable for these. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo should be made to answer for these.

So here we are, once again: A country united in our dislike, even hatred, for this administration; a people united in calling for an end to the profligacy of the people who are currently prowling the corridors of power and hold the country in the claws of greed.

But we are a people who can’t get our acts together in actually doing what seems the natural thing to do given the circumstances: Kicking this administration out. The reasons are painfully obvious.

We have major reservations about doing it because we don’t want a repeat of what happened before (the Marcoses and Estradas are back in power and continue to mock us everyday). We can’t agree on how it should be done. But really more because we have grown distrustful of the motivations behind the action, particularly on the part of those who clearly stand to benefit from it. We want more than emotions to get the better of us this time around.

We want change, but we know that the alternatives hardly represent deliverance at all. Sadly for us, we don’t have a Barack Obama who can personify whatever the change we want to see. We only have a long list of the same dirty rotten scoundrels who have cloaked themselves with the armor of the morally upright but whom we know to be made of the same stuff deep inside.

The other problem is the seeming duplicity in the processes that have been engendered so far in kicking Gloria Macapagal Arroyo out of office.

It has been pretty much evident from the very start that for many people, the only closure they wanted—the barest minimum that they had been willing to settle for—is no less than the removal of the President from office. I don’t think that there is something inherently wrong with this objective; everyone has the right to call for the President’s resignation. I do not begrudge them this advocacy. God knows how many times this administration —this President particularly—has been given reprieve by the people. If people want to call for her resignation, by all means they should be allowed to do so.

But there is something to be said about going through the motions of submitting the whole case to democratic and legal processes while at the same time demanding the President’s resignation pronto and proclaiming her guilt of the very things that they claim to be investigating in the first place.

What is the point of going through the motions of conducting Senate hearings, filing cases, launching campaigns purportedly to allow the truth to come out, when the whole thing is already prejudged and a specific outcome is already demanded? It not only makes a mockery of the whole process. It smacks of extreme hypocrisy.

For example, Jun Lozada had barely opened his mouth at the Senate hearings when a number of senators, among them Senators Panfilo Lacson, Jamby Madrigal, and Alan Peter Cayetano, already strutted around demanding the President’s resignation claiming that what Lozada had to say would be enough to incriminate her. Well, we already know that Lozada did spew quite a mouthful, but did not directly implicate the President, despite the needling and wheedling of the senators and the bumbling efforts of the administration’s lackeys to cover up their ineptitude.

So what are we waiting for? The question presupposes that people are simply lying around and waiting for the much hoped-for tipping point when the outrage and the indignation boil over. I can be wrong, but my hunch is that there will be no tipping point unless there is change in the way the process is being conducted and among the leaders championing the change.

I think that people are already resigned and numbed to the level of greed and corruption that is happening particularly since the prevailing belief is that everyone is guilty of it—yes, including senators and sour-graping politicians. I think that the tipping point, if any, will come from outrage not over the issues, but over the repeated and preposterous attempts to cover up the stink. I think that what makes many people empathize with Jun Lozada, even despite his rather showbiz demeanor, is precisely the way this administration “mishandled” him.

People want closure. That is a given. The issue is: How is this closure going to be attained? My gut feel is that the most plausible source of outrage will come only from pontificating from a higher moral ground. This means ensuring that the process is free from the usual grandstanding and partisan nature that has attended it so far.

We can begin by allowing the whole process to proceed with as much dignity and sobriety that we can muster. It is time for the media to stop treating the whole spectacle as a freak show. The circus and the caterwauling have to go. No more screaming and name-calling and pompous grandstanding, such as the pathetic attempts by Senator Madrigal to question Secretary Romulo’s Neri’s sexual preference.

For example, I would love to have all our senators to shut off during Senate hearings and instead allow someone, say an impartial and independent trial lawyer, to ask all the questions. This would not only produce better and more credible information, it also saves them the embarrassment that comes with people finding out just how inept they are.

We want closure. But most of us want the kind of closure that enables us to say we did it the right way; the kind of closure that’s fair, legal, and right; the kind that that really make us proud of ourselves. Many among us don’t want a repeat of Edsa Dos—look where Erap is now. It is possible that the wily machinations of some people might thwart our efforts, but at the end of the day, we can still spit on their faces and assume moral superiority over them. Then and only then can we derive satisfaction and mean it when we say that we are better than they are.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bungled holidays

This was my column last Wednesday. Sorry for the late post, been under the weather.

Malacañang turned around on a previous announcement and declared Monday, Feb. 25, a non-working day after all.

In another time and under normal circumstances such as a more civil political environment, the announcement by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita last Monday would have been met by delight, if not jubilation.

I have no doubt that many people still heaved a sigh of relief that they have once again been granted a longer weekend. But the announcement was already anti-climactic, as people were already resigned to having work or classes on Feb. 25.

I know, this borders on sala sa init, sala sa lamig and I am sure there are people out there, particularly in Malacanang who are muttering to themselves about how “there’s just no pleasing this people.”

But then again, we all know that these are not normal times for the country. The political environment can hardly be described as “civil” anymore. In fact, the situation now borders on the bastusan and garapalan so many simply considered the sudden change of heart from the Palace as another example of this administration’s predilection to flip-flop on issues when it suits its purposes. And naturally, many also chose to see it as indicative of the administration’s level of desperation, just another lame attempt to be on the good graces of the people.

Speculations as to what caused Malacañang’s sudden change of heart are flying thick ranging from outlandish conspiracy theories to the simple wala lang, naisipan lang nila.

A friend thinks that the Palace probably thought that declaring a holiday on February 25 would mean a cancellation of Senate hearings scheduled on that day, if there were any scheduled. That’s certainly one day of respite from wayward Typhoon Jun.

It is also possible that whatever threat— real, perceived, or imagined—to the President, to the nation, or to whoever has already dissipated and Malacañang has now deemed it okay to relax its guard. After all, less people than expected showed up at the Ayala rally last week, and fewer still showed up at the Mass at Greenhills last Sunday.

It is also entirely possible that the people who have tended to over-react in the last few weeks have finally been given the necessary medication and are now less edgy and prone to making stupid pre-emptive actions that have only made things worse. Perhaps these people can be put on permanent medication then?

Or perhaps, and this is another conspiracy theory that’s floating around, Malacañang finally came to an agreement with the Catholic Church on the correct interpretation of that gobbledygook called “communal action.”

Anyway. In my column last Monday, I wrote about how this administration was making life difficult for industry by inventing terminology that does not only confuse and confound, but also makes the President and Malacañang come across as inept. I wrote that the term “holiday” refers to a day of rest, so the terms “working holiday” and “non-working holiday” are examples of an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms. These terms should not be used in official proclamations.

As if in response to my column, Proclamation 1462—also released last Monday— specified that Feb. 25 will be a “non-working day.” Surprise, surprise, someone in Malacañang decided to take heed and drop the usual term used in past proclamations which was “non-working holiday.”
So far so good? Good heavens, no. This has resulted in even more confusion.

An oxymoron makes for a good laugh and enables us to ridicule certain people, but I guess we can all live with that. It is not as if the world will come to a screeching halt just because someone has been guilty of using an oxymoron. An oxymoron is the least of our problems. I must stress this lest people think that I am simply nitpicking. I am not.

The problem is when the terms—contradictory or not—used result in confusion on the part of industry over implementation issues.

You see, industry pays wages to its employees—including premium on salaries— during official holidays based on what is specified by law (for regular or legal holidays) or based on what is prescribed by the President’s proclamation (in the case of special holidays or special days). If a company has 3,000 employees that need to report for work on a holiday in order to meet urgent production schedules, this translates into millions of pesos in additional payroll costs! This is why it is important that holidays be declared ahead of time to allow industries to manage their production schedules.

The problem now is that nowhere in the President’s proclamation last Monday does it say that Feb. 25 is a holiday or a special day—it simply says Feb. 25 is a non-working day. So what then is the basis for paying employees who go to work on that day a premium on their salaries? Or for that matter, what is the basis for paying employees their wages on that day since it is not a holiday?

Of course it can be argued that Ermita announced that Feb. 25 is a special holiday, or that all our newspapers simply jumped on the proclamation without bothering to read the fine print and concluded that Feb. 25 is a holiday. The proclamation simply says Feb. 25 is a non-working day, it does not say it is a holiday, we all simply assumed it is.

So if there are companies out there who will refuse to pay holiday pay to their employees on Feb. 25, we all know whom to blame.

Also last Monday, the Palace issued Proclamation 1463 “Declaring Regular Holidays and Special (Non-Working) Days for the Year 2008.” It’s a nice attempt to please industry by announcing in advance the rest of the special days for 2008. The proclamation declaring Feb. 25 a non-working day was numbered Proclamation 1462, which means both proclamations were written one after the other and presumably by the same person. That person is either totally clueless about the impact of these proclamations or simply incompetent.

Malacañang cannot declare regular holidays. That power is vested solely on Congress. I will not attempt to read more into this latest snafu except to say that haste not only makes waste, it also reveals incompetence. Not only has this recent proclamation usurped the power of Congress, it even makes a typographical error that is simply unbelievable—the proclamation is dated 3008. Go figure.

In case you don’t know it yet, Proclamation 1463 “rescheduled” some of the regular holidays to the nearest Monday, paving the way for longer weekends. Thus, Araw ng Kagitingan (April 9) will now be observed on April 7. Independence Day (June 12) will be moved to June 9. National Heroes Day (Aug. 31) will be observed on Aug. 25. Bonifacio Day (Nov. 30) will be observed on Dec. 1.

The following have been declared special holidays: Ninoy Aquino Day on Aug. 18 (moved from Aug. 21), All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and Dec. 26, 29, and 31.

The following regular holidays will continue to be observed on their respective original dates: Labor Day, May 1; Maundy Thursday, March 20; Good Friday, March 21; Christmas Day, Dec. 25; Rizal Day, Dec. 30.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Contradiction in terms

This is my column today.

Monday next week, Feb. 25, the 22nd anniversary of Edsa People Power 1, is a “working holiday.”

Since January, many of my colleagues in Human Resource Management have been pestering Malacañang for an official proclamation on Feb. 25 to allow industry time to manage their production and business schedules. We’ve been repeatedly told that the matter was still being deliberated on. Why something that has traditionally been a public holiday in the last many years would still require deliberation on every year baffles the mind. What is there to deliberate on?

Previous Presidential Proclamations on Feb. 25 parroted the same justification for declaring a public holiday on the date: “It is fitting that the people of the Philippines be given full opportunity to honor the memory of the Edsa People Power Revolution with appropriate ceremonies.”

So why not give people the same “opportunity” this year? It’s been the norm in the past, why break away from tradition?

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita offered a non-explanation by saying that the “spirit of Edsa remains alive.” Duh.

Of course we all know the real reason for Malacañang’s change of heart this year: This administration is scared that declaring a holiday would drive the working class and students to join mass actions scheduled on that day. In short, the Palace is not taking any chances.

I doubt that people can be prevented from expressing their real sentiments simply because the day has been conveniently declared a “working holiday,” particularly those that have already been outraged and angered enough by the recent revelations on the extent of corruption happening in the country. And even if work and school do prevent people from marching and shouting in the streets, these will not dissipate the outrage and the anger.

Once again: Ugly feelings don’t die, they just fester underneath and surface later on in far uglier forms. Unless Malacañang comes up with something more sensible and more acceptable, there is simply no delaying the inevitable.

My beef with Malacañang’s declaration of a “working holiday” on Feb. 25 has little to do with depriving people another day of rest and recreation.

I have always maintained that declaring too many public holidays is counterproductive to business, particularly when these holidays are not scheduled and announced ahead of time to allow factories and industries to manage their production schedules. Things are aggravated when these holidays are subject to the whims and caprices of whoever sits in the Palace and dictated by the prevailing political situation.

I know that there are benefits that can be derived from giving people a longer weekend. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of workers in this country are paid on a daily basis and therefore don’t get paid on holidays. Yes, “no work no pay” is still a dictum that many businesses swear by. Declaring additional holidays deprives families another day’s worth of wages.

Besides, we’re a country that doesn’t seem to know how to commemorate official holidays anyway. We just let people take off a day from work and school and leave it at that, so what’s the point? Given the way things are, we might as well follow the Japan example. The Japanese observe all their regular holidays in one whole stretch towards the end of the year.

Or perhaps we should just allow employers and employees to decide on the specific days in which the holidays can be enjoyed. It defeats the major reason why holidays are supposed to be observed on specific dates, but given the way this current administration has been wantonly tampering with the observance of holidays anyway—as evidence by this preoccupation with holiday economics— it really doesn’t make any difference anymore.
Still, a lot of things need to be said about this predilection for conjuring up new terminology.

What the heck is a “working holiday” anyway? It’s an oxymoron of the highest order that ranks up there with similar inventions such as “exact estimate,” “unbiased opinion,” and yes, “military intelligence” (although it can be argued that the later is not only an oxymoron given recent events involving this country’s military officials and Jun Lozada).

We have regular holidays. These are the days specified by law and promulgated by Congress. We have special holidays, which refer to those covered by proclamations by the President. But there is supposed to be no such thing as a working holiday.

A holiday, technically and legally speaking, is a special day of rest apart from weekends. A contraction of the words “holy” and “day,” it originally represented religious days although the concept eventually evolved to include commemoration of special days tied to a country’s history and culture. But as far as the law is concerned, a holiday is a day of rest. People who go to work on a holiday because of compelling reasons are entitled to a premium on their salary.

Feb. 25 is a working holiday, but workers will not be entitled to any premium on their salary. There is no special celebration either that involves the working class. So for all intents and purposes, a declaration of a working holiday is at best, an empty and meaningless gesture that betrays the current attitude of Malacañang Palace towards events that do not suit its political agenda. They can hem and haw about how commemorating Edsa 1 “is in the heart” and how the country can still observe the historic events of 1986, but the reality is plain and simple: The spirit of Edsa 1 and Edsa Dos occupy their worst nightmares.

* * *

Spewing contradiction in terms and spinning tall tales that are expectedly nonsensical and defies logic is not totally alien to the people of this administration.

The mad scramble to try provide some sense—perhaps even just a little iota of logic—to all the major foul-ups that this administration has wrecked on the nation in recent weeks has reduced people in government to a band of babbling, bumbling baboons. Truly, there is only so much people can do to cover stench. You can try to cover it, call it euphemisms, even sanitize it. At the end of the day, it’s still excrement.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Not in the mood

This is my column today.

Most of us don’t really need reminding, but just in case you have been impervious to everything else other than the latest outrageous turn of events at the Senate, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

I was strongly reminded of the significance of the date when my students almost went ballistic as I announced last week that I would be giving a long test “Thursday, next week.” Students don’t like tests, generally speaking. But the reaction was more vehement. That’s when it hit me. To people of a certain age, Valentine’s Day is still a special day. Go ahead, snicker and make faces if you feel like it.

I’m not sure how Valentine’s Day fits into the national consciousness at this particular juncture in the country’s history. Once again, there is a certain pall in the air, like a foreboding of bleaker things to come in the next few days. I know that many people are not in the mood for some loving.

I certainly am not feeling any affection for Secretary Lito Atienza of the Department of Environment and his predecessor Mike Defensor right now. I’m not sure what other alternative careers they envision for themselves in the event they decide to leave their day jobs, but I am certain that acting cannot be one of them.

Goodness gracious, the performance of those two people at the Senate hearing last Monday left no doubt whatsoever that they were spinning tall tales and doing it badly. There is something that can be said about spinning tall tales: It requires more than just an overactive imagination and skills in pulling rabbits out from empty hats. First of all, it requires a good script, one that passes muster and by this I mean the sequence of events has to be logical and reasonable.

The ability to lie and come out credible in the process requires a strong conviction bordering on fanatical belief regarding the veracity of one’s version of the events in question. Half-hearted attempts and dismissive gestures don’t cut it. Conviction makes everything else come naturally—the welling tears, the helpless gestures, the pained facial expression, etc., in other words, the stuff that produces empathy.

If Atienza and Defensor turned in a bad performance last Monday, the police officials and their operatives did even worse. They turned in the most awful performance I have ever seen this side of town. It was like watching Kris Aquino playacting as a street urchin during her “Pido Dida” days. Yes, it was that terrible. It was the kind of performance guaranteed to make people squirm in their seats and run from the room screaming.

What was even worse than the acting was the overall demeanor of the military people in Monday’s hearing. It reminded me very strongly of the behaviors of the military men who testified in the Agrava Commission that Ronaldo Galman shot Ninoy Aquino. They appeared unconcerned that they were not making sense at all. Nope, I am not feeling any love for them right now.

It was also quite unnerving to witness on public television the “falling out” between Senator Joker Arroyo and Jun Lozada. There’s another relationship that has gone sour. I couldn’t quite make of the emotion behind Lozada’s lament “tagahanga mo ako, senador [I am your fan, senator].” Was that disappointment? Anger, perhaps? Was that anguish over pained realization that the person you used to worship has feet of clay after all?

Whatever is the current state of their affection for each other, Arroyo and Lozada still have a lot of explaining to do, not only to each other but to the country as well.

Thanks to the unexpected but very public spat reminiscent of an LQ (lovers’ quarrel, as if you didn’t know) we have stumbled into yet another subplot that further complicates the already complicated plot.

We now know that the witness and the senator have been meeting prior to the Senate hearings. Exactly when, how many times, what was the nature of the meetings, and how the good senator’s wife figured in the whole scheme of things are details that are still to be revealed. As they say in soap operas, which now pale in comparison to the kind of drama(!), the excitement(!), the sleaze(!) produced by Senate hearings in this country, abangan ang susunod na kabanata.
* * *

And talking about not being in the mood for love, certain sourpusses in Quezon City led by the Catholic Church, aren’t simply not in the mood for love, they want others to be kept in the dark about it, too.

They stormed the Quezon City Hall last Monday to demand disapproval of a city ordinance allowing sex education to be taught in all high schools around the city. Their efforts proved too late as the ordinance was already approved when they got inside the hall. This doesn’t mean of course that the issue is already dead because as we all know, no one— particularly the Catholic Church—likes to lose debates in this country.

The bishop of Cubao was even caught on television making thinly veiled threats about bringing the issue somewhere else. Hmmm. Perhaps to Malacañan Palace where I am sure certain officials would be more than happy to accommodate a quid pro quo arrangement at this time?

In a less hypocritical society, allowing sex education to be taught in high school should be something that deserves appreciation, if not commendation. Unless one has been living under a rock in the last 10 years, one knows that kids today are becoming more and more sexually active at a younger age. The simple fact is that there is no delaying the onset of earlier puberty these days no matter how many novenas we pray or how many decades of the rosary we recite every day. If the Church is truly serious about helping kids, denying sex education is not the answer.

* * *

Despite all these, I hope that you have the kind of Valentine’s Day that you hope for. Of course, those in blissful relationships have no need for a special day to celebrate what they have, and those who don’t have relationships don’t need Valentine’s Day.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Missing the point again

This is my column today.

“O tapos?” And then what?

My friend kept on interrupting our conversation with this question, uttered in a rather acerbic and sarcastic way, which indicated he wasn’t as interested in what really happened next, but on something bigger, something more earthshaking, which unfortunately, wasn’t forthcoming.

Most of us work drones didn’t have access to television last Friday although thanks to cellular phones with built-in radios some of us did manage to catch snippets of the lugubrious event at the Senate. But I did keep myself glued to the television set and trawled the net until the wee hours of Saturday in an effort to keep track of what was asked and said at that hearing. I ended up repeating and saying to no one in particular my friend’s question. “O tapos?”

Don’t get me wrong. I think Jun Lozada is a very credible witness. I think that what he had to say is important and that he deserves to be heard. I also think that what he was made to go through by the handlers of Malacañang was simply unthinkable and had ineptitude and arrogance written all over it. I don’t mean to cast aspersion and belittle the man or his testimony.

He’s already been through hell and back and we must commend the poor guy for his courage even if we all know that he is doing so now mostly because his back is already against the wall. As most of us already know, he didn’t want to testify and reveal everything he knew until Friday night when it became evident that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s lieutenants were not only intent on forcing him to keep his peace. Horror of horrors, they wanted him to spin tall tales as well, simply because the madam was already hurting.

But still, after all that has been said and done, one can’t help wondering: What next? How will the Senate and everyone else who had a hand in getting the man to reveal what he knew do justice to the man’s courage?

Let’s be honest about it, Lozada’s testimony damned former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos and made mincemeat out of the government’s procurement system. Lozada provided concrete evidence and validated what we all know in our hearts: The whole government procurement system stinks, kickbacks and commissions have become the norm, and worse, the level of greed of the many functionaries of this current administration has become nauseatingly abominable.

The thing is, we already know these things. Thus, it was quite amusing to note how our senators feigned shock and surprise that such things exist. Oh please, let’s cut this crap about how our senators are innocent about how these things work because we all know most, if not all of them, skim money from their pork barrel funds in this way. That’s how senators, congressmen, Cabinet officials, local executives, and everyone else with access to government contracts and funds make a living. Obviously, their salaries are not enough to sustain their lifestyles.
In the first hearing on this blasted ZTE scandal, Miriam Defensor Santiago even stated matter-of-factly that a certain percentage (10 percent if memory serves me right) commission or kickbacks on government deals is the current standard. We suspect that it is higher than 10 percent of course. Lozada’s testimony last Friday revealed that in this particular instance, Abalos wanted almost 100 percent of the original contract price.

So if there was anything that was outrageous, it was the validation of the fact that the level of greed of the people in this administration has become so unrestrained.

No wonder former National Economic Development Administration Secretary Romulo Neri balked and ordered Lozada to “moderate their greed.” I have a thing to say about that new catchphrase, particularly about how many people seem unfamiliar with the verb form of the word moderate like when it is used in academic parlance, but that’s another column.

But so far, and I know a number of people will put me to task for saying this, Lozada has not produced incriminating evidence enough to nail the President. It is possible, as the scuttlebutt claims, that the man is still holding back certain information, but it is also entirely possible that, as he said, there’s nothing else further he can add to what he already said last Friday.

What he had revealed puts the First Gentleman right smack in the middle of the whole stinking mess, but exactly what nefarious role the President’s husband played and how much he stood to gain from the whole atrocity remains hearsay. I am not discounting the very obvious fact of course that the whole sordid revelations further buried the Arroyos in the moral ascendancy department. What Lozada revealed in that Senate hearing is bound to harm the President and her family in terms of public perception about the kind of people they really are.

For sure, people will punish Gloria Macapagal Arroyo once again in the next round of surveys. I can already see the headlines: GMA most unpopular President ever. Unfortunately, this President has shown that she is impervious to popularity ratings. She knows that most Filipinos are already content calling her unsavory names and attaching all kinds of unspeakable labels to her person rather than remove her as President. The reason for this is still obvious and it was laid bare in all those hearings conducted. But as usual, our senators and most of the people and groups supporting those hearings are still missing the point.

Lozada spewed quite a mouthful in terms of what ails our country other than Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the bunch of nincompoops that surround her. Our system sucks, corruption attends each and every government transaction from the major to the mundane, what we need are integrated, comprehensive, strategic solutions which should cover everything. That’s where legislation is needed. Unfortunately, we’re missing the forest for the trees by insisting that all these is simply about kicking this administration out of Malacañang.

Let me get this clear: This administration is hopelessly corrupt beyond redemption and the sooner we get rid of these people, the better. But it’s not just these people. And removing this administration, and mainly by embarrassing and ridiculing it—which, also harms business and ourselves—should not be the only goal. A major reason why this administration is still in power is because most think that the people who are itching to replace this administration are doing so mainly for personal political gain. That may not be entirely true, but that’s the message people are getting. A taxi driver I talked to said it well: Better the thief that has been unmasked and has seemingly no pretensions of being moral than the people who claim to be imbued with stronger moral fiber.

So I have one suggestion to the senators and everyone else. Rather than making all these hearings simply about removing this administration, how about putting a wider, more comprehensive, more encompassing context to them? If you want everyone to care, don’t just make it about yourselves and your political agenda. Like Lozada said, it shouldn’t be partisan.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Goodbye, Joe

This is my column today.

It was difficult not to be moved at the sight of Jose de Venecia standing forlorn in the middle of the Hall of Congress last Monday night, looking beaten and dejected, striking blindly at Malacañang and the President and flailing around like a drowning man.

His pain, and the very personal way in which he took his ouster as speaker of the House of Representatives, became palpable when he looked at the assembled congressmen and moaned “Someday, this can happen to you.”

It was sad and moving because we all knew the man was not feigning the pain. The betrayal from the hands of the same people he fed, nurtured, perhaps even bought off with his own money, was all too real. He had come to the end of the road to find that most of the people whom he thought were his allies and friends had already deserted him, proof that in politics, there are no permanent friends nor enemies, just permanent interests.

But sadder still is the fact that despite the drama and the hysterics, it was even more difficult to fully empathize with the man. A cousin who was watching the live telecast of De Venecia’s impromptu swan song summed it up quite crudely, but in a very Pinoy way: “Kawawa naman, pero buti nga sa kanya? [what a pity, but serves him right].”

It is not right to kick a man when he is down. But how are we expected to react when the man in question refuses to go with dignity and fight with honor? What are we expected to feel when the man in question does the political equivalent of a man running amok threatening to take everyone else down with him?

Sorry, Joe. We sympathize with your situation, we feel your pain, but we have difficulty empathizing with you.

The simple fact is that De Venecia lost out on one of the major political power plays in recent history, but he is far from being the victim in the whole sordid scheme of things. De Venecia is not a neophyte politician. He has been the longest-serving speaker of the House and has served as congressman for decades. The man is a master in the art of political warfare.

And please, De Venecia is the last person who should preach about morality and fairness and ethics. To trump up an old cliché, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others.

His time was simply up and events simply caught up with him. It was time for him to go.
De Venecia could have done better for this country if he had chosen to cut his ties early on, like perhaps two years ago. But up until a few weeks ago, he was still singing paeans to Malacañang even when his son and namesake was singing a different tune altogether.

The man could have cut cleanly and with his dignity intact. He could have taken the higher moral ground and chosen a more principled and strategic fight. He could have delivered a better-crafted valedictory address instead of incoherently rambling on about how people owed him politically and how he was royally kicked in the posterior by everyone else. He could have chosen a better venue and a better way of delivering his threats.

Instead, De Venecia chose to wallow in misery. Worse, he chose to do it in public. It was a good thing the television networks decided to cut the live coverage because De Venecia was getting more and more pathetic as he rambled on.

Of course, De Venecia and his wife are privy to many of the shenanigans that have happened and continue to happen under this administration. Gina de Venecia even gloated on public television that she was always with the President during the 2004 campaign and on many other occasions, in effect validating that yes, she is in possession of damning information that could spell more trouble for an already-beleaguered Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. For crying out loud, that’s not exactly surprising, please tell us something we don’t know.

The thing is that De Venecia and his wife cannot claim to be mere passive observers of and innocent bystanders to the crimes of this administration. There is no way De Venecia can fully convince the Filipino people that he was never a party to whatever dastardly acts committed by this administration.

Besides, De Venecia is aware that the most among us abhor traitors and snitches. Many among us don’t like people who cheat and make fools of us. But we hate even more people without loyalty, people who turn their backs on their friends and superiors and then assert moral superiority on the basis of their self-proclaimed redemption.

So I doubt very much if De Venecia is going to follow up his threats with substantiated accusations. As of yesterday morning, he was already more subdued and conciliatory when he was interviewed on television.

De Venecia’s stint as speaker of the House has now come to an end. Nograles will take over the vacated seat.

Does this bode well for the Filipino people? Nope.

In fact, if we come down to it, the whole thing stinks because replacing De Venecia with Nograles does not do anything for the country other than to protect the status quo. The two may look different physically but everyone knows that they are political animals of the same breed. It doesn’t really matter either way—whether De Venecia or Nograles is speaker of the House of Representatives. Both owe their positions to Malacañang and both are beholden to the President and her party.

In the end, it’s still us, the Filipino people, who got screwed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Trumping up the media card

This is my column today.

But aren’t you a columnist? Why don’t you write about it?” I’ve lost track of the number of times a friend threw that line to me every single time I encountered something annoying, such as when products that I had paid for didn’t work, or when customer service in some establishment stank big time, or when we saw mulcting cops victimize hapless motorists.

That question ranks high up there with that other comment: “It’s amazing how you don’t run out of topics to write about.”

I admit that there are days when finding something worthwhile to write about is a major struggle. Oh sure, there are too many things that are wrong with this country and far too many politicians and public officials that deserve to be hung in the bar of public opinion. One will not run out of something to gripe about if one has no compunction about compromising integrity, or being known as an inveterate sourpuss whose concept of his job description is to spew vitriol every day.

There are a number of media people—writers, columnists and broadcast journalists—who regularly and indiscriminately use whatever power and influence offered by their jobs to get things done. When we come to think about it, it boils down to abuse of power and people who are guilty of it are no better than the people they criticize and rant about. But I know that complaining about something in print or on television does get better and faster results if one has no issues about receiving special treatment at the expense of others. It shouldn’t be the way to get things done.

In the aftermath of typhoon Milenyo, for example, I ranted about how this cable company was taking its own sweet time restoring the cable connection at my house. I wrote that piece after weeks of following up with the cable provider that didn’t produce any action. That piece was simply meant as a rant and I didn’t really expect the company to go out of its way to do anything as the subscription was in someone else’s name and I didn’t reveal my address. But what do you know, the cable provider was able to locate my residence and reconnect my house to the outside world all within a few hours. A senior official of the company even deigned to call to gloat that they have already done something about my problem.

The problem was that the company restored cable connection only in my house and ignored the rest of the neighborhood. Naturally, my next-door neighbors took offense and huffed about “how power and influence get things done.” Sigh.

When I wrote about mulcting cops on the corner of Macapagal and Senator Puyat avenues, the cops miraculously disappeared for two whole weeks. Some people in the building where I work congratulated me for the feat and even kidded me about henceforth using my name as leverage in case mulcting cops apprehend them, as in “isusumbong ko kayo kay Bong Austero.” That cracked me up, as I obviously have no illusions of my name being a byword.

For the record, I do value my relative anonymity. I don’t go around introducing myself as a columnist. I don’t hobnob with the powerful nor do I attend social functions as a columnist. I take pride in being able to walk into a concert or a theater venue without being recognized or being given special treatment. I think of myself as an ordinary citizen who simply happens to write a column.

By the way, those mulcting cops have since then gone back on their lucrative perch at Macapagal and Puyat avenues preying on hapless motorists with their shameless hulidap operations. They continue to harass motorists who turn right to Puyat avenue from an outer lane, fining them with that stupid made-up offense called swerving. Of course the offense won’t stick so the cops don’t issue a traffic violation ticket. Motorists who stand up for their rights are simply waved off with an admonition. Most simply fork over money for the cops’ lunch, presumably enjoyed at nearby Sofitel Hotel given the handsome booty that they are able to amass all in a day’s work.

Macapagal Avenue has become a haven for mulcting cops because at a side street leading to the Mall of Asia, just after the bridge from the row of seafood restaurants, hulidap operations are firmly entrenched. More mulcting cops are stationed further down just after the Edsa interaction, and right before the Coastal Mall. The most expensive highway in the face of the planet, the construction of which was attended by grand-scale corruption, is living up its name and reputation.

The offense that they slap motorists with is the same shameless charge that the mulcting cops invoke just a couple of blocks away at Macapagal and Puyat Avenues. I won’t be surprised if those cops simply swap posts every couple of hours to even out their share of the take.

I’ve noted the existence—in the case of Macapagal and Puyat Avenues, the return—of these cops for a couple of months now, but I have held off writing about these because I am a sucker for giving people the benefit of the doubt. When I first wrote about these mulcting cops, a general left a comment in my blog thanking me for bringing attention to the hulidap operations and promised to do something about it. Someone told me that all I had to do was tell people who I was and I would be left alone. Duh.

I know some people will raise their eyebrows over this, but I do have issues about being given special treatment and being offered privileges just because I write a column. This is the reason why I value my privacy and try not to call attention to myself. So when in sticky situations, I choose to argue and wing it as a citizen and expect to be treated as such.

I recently got as a gift to myself a new vehicle, which was delivered before Christmas. I know that it takes some time before the Land Transportation Office can issue a registration plate, although I don’t quite see the rationale for the delay. If this government can crow about indicators that the economy is in an upswing and uses data such as rising production levels in car manufacturing and number of new vehicles being purchased (mostly because interest rates on car loans are on all-time low), it should be able to walk the talk and provide the necessary regulatory support services such as providing vehicle plates that people pay for in the first place.
It’s been almost two months and the LTO is still giving the usual worn-out excuse: No plates available. They told me that I could drive my car and simply explain to cops (whether the diligent or mulcting type) that the plate has not been issued. Sources tell me that there is some pecking order at the LTO when it comes to releasing vehicle plates and that I should have no problem getting the plate for my vehicle if I tell them I am a media person. I have resisted the temptation to do so. As a result, I haven’t been able to use the car as often as I would like to.

When I got flagged down on two occasions, I had to show the cops three sets of identification cards in addition to the registration papers of the car. In embarrassing situations such as these, one doesn’t simply contend with the aggravation, one also suffers being the subject of unnecessary attention. We do have this penchant for gawking at motorists deep in discussion with traffic cops suspecting them of the worst possible motivations.

Some friends think I’m being foolish for refusing to trump up the columnist identity as if it is a badge of privilege. Something is seriously wrong in a society where people think being in media deserve special privileges. Even more so when media people get used to the idea that being such gives them the right to be given special treatment not given to ordinary people.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Questions for possible 2010 candidates

I promised Janette Toral that I would take the time to blog about what I think are the important issues for the 2010 elections.

I agree that the macro issues such as economics, the environment, regional development, etc., are all important issues. These form the bedrock against which national development can rise from. I will not belabor the point. Others have done a better job at it anyway.

But given the rather tenuous situation we find ourselves in today, I think that there are special issues, and consequently, specific qualities (or to borrow a term from my profession - competencies) that anyone aspiring to become president should- in fact, must- have. These issues may be more critical in the short term than the larger issues.

I've chosen to frame these issues in the form of specific questions:

1. How exactly do you intend to unify this country, or at least usher in a more constructive form of dialogue among the more vocal and influential stakeholders, that's necessary to get any program of government beyond the drawing board? Given how the influential people in this country tend to sabotage anything that they were not consulted on (or which go against their ideological or political or personal stand) it will be a tall order for any elected official to get anything going. I don't expect people to be on good terms with everyone, that's definitely an unreasonable expectation of a leader, or of anyone for that matter. I personally think that a leader who sacrifices principles or good governance at the altar of popularity is doomed to fail. However, there must be some action plan, some program of action, designed to promote a healthier political climate in this country.

2. What deals did you make with the people who support your candidacy and how do you intend to repay your political debts, if any? Anyone out there who is sincere about becoming President of this country to do good must come to terms with the fact that many among those who support his or her quest for the presidency expect to be repaid for their efforts. These payments may come in the form of government appointments, contracts, political accomodations, etc. What program of action (or mechanisms) will the candidate put in place to ensure that paying off political debts will not get in the way of governance?

3. What is your position on controversial issues? The range of issues include: Birth control and contraception (specifically artificial methods), sex education, land reform, HIV/AIDS prevention, censorship, protectionism, etc. Needless to say, taking the "enlightened" and "realistic" position on these issues carries with it the risk of being alienated by powerful forces in this country such as the Catholic Church. Rephrased another way, the question is, to what extent are you willing to go against powerful forces in order to stand up for what is necessary?

4. Do you have a program on values education? Do you consider this critical to move this country forward? A number of experts believe that so much of what is wrong in our country can be traced to a "faulty" or "problematic" values system.

5. What programs initiated by this current - and by previous administrations - will you continue, or for that matter, discontinue? A number of government money, as well as momentum, is wasted simply because newly-elected leaders and their administrations try to project themselves as "different" from their predecessors. The result is that good projects are often discontinued, only to be replaced by exactly the same projects that were merely given a new spin. In other words, same shit, different packaging. All those efforts to "reinvent the wheel" only snag up the bureaucracy even more. The truth is that most anything can work if politicians only commit to their effective implementation.

6. Will you commit to an overhaul of the whole government bureaucracy instead of simply reshuffling people at the top? Everyone (with the exception of the militants in the bureaucracy of course) agrees that the government bureaucracy is hopelessly bloated. There's just too many people being paid to do absolutely nothing, or are overpaid to do whatever trivial thing that they do such as review transactions that have already been reviewed by four different people. Of course not everyone in the bureaucracy is incompetent or overpaid, many do valuable work and are responsible for the fact that this country continues to function despite the ineptitude and childish behavior of our leaders. However, the fact still remains: The government bureaucracy needs to be streamlined to become more effective.

7. With most of our natural resources already gone (or going fast), the only remaining natural resource is human capital (or people). What program of action do you intend to pursue to enhance Philippine competitiveness through people? Let's face it, this country has not gone belly up despite the many (continuing and lingering) crises because of we happen to have millions of OFWs that continue to prop up the economy with their remittances. Many of these OFWs are terribly underemployed. Many more are hoping to get jobs abroad (or within the country) but don't have the necessary competencies. What we need is a national human resource agenda - one that proposes an integrated solution to the many problems related to people management and development including education, employment, and social security.

8. What exactly do you plan to do to address the problem of corruption in this country? What we need is a more realistic and comprehensive solution, and the political will to implement that solution.

Eight so far. I will blog again when I think of other more specific questions.