Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Intrusive media

This is my column today.


Despite her strong character and her steely determination, we know former President Corazon Aquino is not immortal nor in possession of superhuman powers. In fact, what really distinguishes her from everyone else is precisely her aura of vulnerability. She has always struck people as very maternal and human.

But still, the thought of a sick Cory Aquino, picturing her with something debilitating such as colon cancer, is very difficult to do. It’s something almost unimaginable.

No wonder many people were affected when the news of her sickness spread last Monday. When I texted a friend about the breaking news, she immediately responded with a comment that hit close to home: “Oh no, I feel like my own mother is sick.” In a very real sense, that’s precisely the role Cory Aquino has assumed in this country since 1983. She’s not called Tita Cory for nothing.

It is in instances like these when one realizes that political differences and the many other seemingly petty things that separate us from each other don’t really matter in the end.
Regardless of where one locates himself in the current political geography, there is no denying Cory Aquino’s great contribution to this country and to the cause of democracy. Which is why I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the politicians and everyone else who have expressed sadness and asked for prayers for Cory Aquino’s recovery.

I, too, am enjoining everyone to pray for Cory Aquino’s recovery. In fact, I do pray that great people like her live very long lives if only because this country continues to lack real role models. The new generation can definitely learn from the feet of elders who, in the twilight of their lives, can focus their energies on shaping the minds of the younger generation.

In making the announcement about the state of the former president’s health, the Aquino family called for “respect and privacy.” Thankfully, media seemed to have been listening for a change. The coverage has been so far reverent and restrained. I hope this continues. The last things that we want to see are television crews camping outside the Aquino home, ready to ambush and hound the former president or her family for footages and sound bytes.

I hope everyone, particularly the media, accords the former president the privacy and the respect that she deserves and asks for. It is important to highlight this because we do have this tendency to turn everything with a smidgen of human-interest angle into a major circus. We have very little respect for other people’s privacy particularly if they are famous people.

Take the case of Manny Pacquiao’s homecoming last Monday. Of course we expected media to go into paroxysms and treat the new WBC super featherweight champion like a returning hero.
We expected hordes of cameramen and journalists running after Pacquiao and pelting him with all kinds of questions and requests for commentaries. We also expected local politicians to stalk the venues where Pacquiao was scheduled to be and to jostle each other for the opportunity to stand next to the champ and be photographed with him. We were not surprised to see Chavit Singzon and Environment Secretary Lito Atienza breaking bread with Pacquiao.

Despite the crabby remarks of some so-called boxing experts, I think Pacquiao’s victory over Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez is cause for celebration. So the big welcome is well deserved. By all means, bring out the red carpet and let’s do the parade.

Unfortunately, many among the media do not seem to know, or don’t care to make, the distinction between a sports champion and a second-rate movie actor; or between a press conference for a returning champion and a segment of the Sunday gossip show The Buzz. Okay, I am willing to grant that Pacquiao himself is to blame for the confusion. After all, he does cross the line many times.

However, last Monday’s homecoming was different and should have been treated with a little more discretion. At the very least, the highly intrusive questions should have been avoided.
Were those questions about actress Ara Mina really appropriate in an official press conference for a national champion? Was it necessary to ask Pacquiao political questions that put him on the spot? Was it really necessary for Mel Tiangco to ask Pacquiao how much his overall booty amounted to? What were all those footages about Pacquiao’s children and their class schedules at this international school all about? And was it really necessary to bring up Pacquiao’s colored past involving mistresses and other vices all in the same breath?

The news coverage about Pacquiao’s arrival easily took up half of the newscast time last Monday evening. The sidebar stories were a hodge-podge of trivial matters that were really a waste of everyone’s time. These included details we did not need to know such as where he is currently staying (New World Hotel, they reported) and what his pasulubong for his kids were (computer games, it was also reported).

This kind of news coverage and reportage makes one yearn for the good old days when Angelo Castro and Tina Monzon Palma (The World Tonight) and even Loren Legarda (Newscast) delivered the news straight up, without the fanfare, the hoopla, and the cheap gimmickry. Back then, the news was about… well, the news.

The irony is that a number of studies do point out that people actually watch the newscast for the news and not for the celebrity stories. For example, the results of the recent study by the Communications Research Department of the UP College of Mass Communications “Mulat or Manunuri ng Ulat: Viewers Reception and Evaluation of Television News Programs” showed that television viewers give more attention to the substantive news rather than “Chika Minute” or “Star Patrol.”

So why do our major networks continue to waste precious primetime on the shenanigans of celebrity folks while reducing more substantive news items into a mere one-sentence summary? There are many answers to that, but the obvious answer is that it makes for good business. The networks drum up attention for the stars in their stable of talents, particularly if they are appearing on company-produced shows.


In short, the newscast is used as propaganda platform for the station’s other programs. What this means is that all those claims about delivering news purely in the service of the nation and the people, and about being fair and unbiased, are all lip service.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Averting the impending rice shortage

This is my column today.

Three separate incidents that happened last week, all involving family members, validated to me on a very personal level the reality of an impending rice shortage in this country.

As background information, let me share that my father is a farmer who tends to a few hectares of rice fields in the family’s farm in Leyte. We’re not rich, but we’ve never bought rice for the family’s consumption as the farm has always yielded more than enough supply for the family even after selling off a large part of the harvest.

It therefore came as a major surprise to me when a sister intimated over the phone last week that she and her family had been buying rice since last month. Apparently, her stock from the last harvest has not been enough to tide over the family until the next harvest. And to make matters worse, she feared that the heavy rains that have plagued Eastern Visayas in the last two months have affected this season’s crop. The yield from this season’s harvest will be less compared to last season’s. She said that her situation was not unique as most people she knew—all of them rice farmers—had also been buying rice.

No wonder my own mother has been bugging me, also since last week, for a loan to be used as additional capital for her latest business venture which involves advancing money to rice farmers to tide them over until their harvest sometime in the next few weeks. She said the demand was very high as local traders have been scrambling all over themselves offering advance money to rice farmers in our place for their harvest.

Traders smell a rice shortage and are cornering up a large part of this season’s harvest. I smell trouble. Big trouble. Traders seem bent on hoarding this season’s harvest. A shortage is indeed in the offing.

This set-up offers a lifeline to rice farmers today but it also puts them at risk of not having enough stocks for their own family’s consumption in the coming months. Like I said, the quality of this season’s produce has been greatly affected by the La Niña and the El Niño phenomena. Heavy rains have plagued some parts of the country; a lingering drought continues to be felt in other parts. Whatever little produce rice farmers are able to come up with in the next few weeks has already been pledged to and paid for by traders, leaving them no choice but to honor their commitments at the risk of not having enough for their own family’s needs. This translates into hunger in the next few months.

As if to further validate this development, the National Food Authority has issued an appeal to farmers to sell their produce to the agency to avert an anticipated rice crisis. The government agency has even increased its buying price for palay and has started offering incentives to farmers to lure them into selling their produce directly to the agency. But the government, at least according to family members, is no match to wily traders who don’t wait for farmers to come to them but rather go to the fields to directly negotiate with the farmers, cash in hand.

Thus, NFA Administrator Jessup Navarro’s assurance that the impending rice shortage will be solved by this summer’s rice harvest is, at best, wishful thinking.
Obviously, greed is aggravating the problem.

My elder sister who lives in Caloocan City came to the house over the Holy Week to inquire whether I knew anybody in the NFA. She told me that the demand for NFA rice was so huge that the rice vendors in her area were hard put meeting the need. According to her, a neighbor who sells NFA rice is able to dispose of her allotment all within 24 hours. Apparently, many rice vendors have been bitten by the greed virus and are packaging and selling NFA rice at commercial prices. She now wants to distribute NFA rice and help people in her area get access to NFA rice at the prescribed price.

Robert Zeigler, who heads the International Rice Research Institute at Los Baños, issued the dire warning last week. He said it simply: “We have a crisis brewing in rice supply.” It’s a global problem and the Philippines, being one of the biggest importers of rice in the world, is poised to suffer the brunt of the crisis.

Some senators have also sounded the alarm. But as usual, our senators seem unable to come up with something a little more constructive. Senate President Manny Villar said that he would direct “the committees on agriculture and food and the accountability of public officers and investigations [Blue Ribbon] to conduct an inquiry regarding the reported rice crisis and rice cartel that influences price spikes.” Yeah, we face a crisis of major proportions and the Senate wants to conduct another investigation as if it would do the trick!

I can already see it: Senators are looking for someone to pin the blame on. Perhaps it should summon to the Senate God Himself for casting the curse of global warming upon all of us.

The government has so far refused to admit that a rice crisis was in the offing. Of course. There’s no point in inciting panic among people. But reports indicate that the President herself has already made an unprecedented call to Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, requesting that he promise to supply a specific quantity of rice. Reports said that the Vietnamese prime minister could only commit half of the requested guaranteed supply. Where shall we get the shortfall?

Of course it is disheartening that we have to seek help from our neighbors for something so basic as the “stuff of life” and particularly since we should be able to produce enough rice for our own needs. But a confluence of factors has put us in this situation today. It is not the time to look for someone to blame. What we need are effective courses of actions that balance short-term concerns with long-term solutions.

But it is definitely not the time for half-baked solutions such as asking people to cut down on their rice intake. I don’t know what Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap’s diet is like, but his advice for people to eat “half a cup of rice instead of one cup” comes across as not only insensitive but downright unrealistic. Oh I know, eating less rice is good advice for those wanting to shed off excess poundage, but prescribing a diet for the hungry hardly comes across as sound advice.

In the short term, the government must make sure that there is adequate supply of rice and that greedy traders do not take advantage of the situation through cartelization. Hopefully, this administration does not owe political debts to big-time traders enough to tolerate their greed.

In the long term, it is time to bring rice production technology up to speed with the rest of the world. It is a shame that we host the International Rice Research Institute and not be able to use the same technology that our neighbors are using to double, even quadruple rice production. We also need to look into maximizing the use of available farmlands for rice production. Obviously, we need to put in place a master plan to balance industrial development with agricultural production as many farmlands are already being transformed into industrial sites.

A rice crisis is the kind of problem this country needs like a bullet in the head.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nitpicking after the victory

This was my column yesterday, March 19.

“Sana magkaisa na tayo!”

This was newly-crowned WBC super featherweight champion Manny Pacquiao’s message to the Filipinos after he won last Sunday’s grueling match against Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez by split decision.

For a while there, it did look like the Filipino people were indeed united—all for the whole duration of the fight. A couple of hours later, everything was back to normal. And surprise, surprise—people couldn’t even come to an agreement regarding the wisdom of Pacquiao’s victory.

I had to drive from San Andres Manila to Noveleta, Cavite, last Sunday to attend a gathering of friends. The trip usually takes an hour-and-a-half on a really good day when everything’s all right with the world. This time, we were in Noveleta in less than 30 minutes. Malapit lang naman pala. It’s easy to forget that many places seem far only because it takes forever to get there due to heavy traffic.

This was because the streets were literally empty as most everyone obviously stayed home to watch Pacquiao pummel Marquez—or at least, that was the general expectation. It was almost eerie driving around the Metro and around Cavite and not feeling like being part of a funeral procession that was taking its own sweet time. I half-expected children with blank expressions on their faces to suddenly emerge from out of nowhere like in my favorite horror film.

A friend caustically remarked “so this is what Aguinaldo Highway really looks like without the congestion and the traffic!” It was also my first time ever to see Aguinaldo Highway; Oh, I’ve driven on that road more times that I care to reminisce but I don’t remember ever seeing anything else other than the exterior of other cars and buses that tended to box you in as you fought for every inch of that highway. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the actual highway—as in the cement and asphalt— before. But as usual, I digress. Lets go back to the Pacquiao-Marquez fight.

I listened to the live radio coverage of the fight and I realized later on that most everyone did the same because, as usual, the promised “live” satellite television coverage of the event did not materialize. By the time the fight was shown on television everyone and his dog had already received text messages announcing the results of the fight. I have totally forgotten how thrilling an experience it can be to be able to use one’s imagination to picture events being narrated in great detail by a hyperventilating announcer.

Television has made us lazy and many among us have surrendered control of our ability to conjure visual imagery to what television directors want us to see.

Pacquiao fought hard. Really hard. I haven’t seen him struggle as much as he did last Sunday. And it looked like he was going to lose the match not only because Marquez looked stronger, more prepared and more agile as the fight took longer. Although Marquez fell in an earlier round, he was able to recover and dominate the middle matches. Marquez was also the very picture of grim determination. There was just too much at stake for Marquez in that fight and it showed. This is not to say that I think Pacquiao wasn’t as determined; just that the hunger was more visible, perhaps even more palpable, in the case of Marquez.

Still, Pacquiao prevailed at the end of the fight. It was a very close call and as seen on television, everyone including Pacquiao was unsure about what the decision of the judges would be. The uncertainty was also apparent in the faces of the people who watched the fight live and therefore didn’t have advance knowledge that Pacquiao would win. So, as many analysts have said—it was close and the victory could have gone to either.

But Pacquiao won. It wasn’t unanimous as one of three judges chose to award the fight to Marquez. But Pacquiao did win. Thereupon, millions of Filipinos screamed in jubilation and jumped up and down in glee. For a grand total of 10 minutes. And then the usual nitpicking and the crab mentality of many of our own people took over.

One had to watch the newscasts to believe it. Many so-called experts said Marquez should have won. Of course they prefaced their assertions with the usual gabble about how they were proud of Pacquiao, how it was a great fight, and all that gibberish. But in the end, they concluded that Marquez was cheated of the title.

A noted sportswriter from the daily renowned for its sensational coverage of the Senate hearings even demanded that—prepare yourself—an investigation be conducted on how Pacquiao won! I couldn’t believe he said it, but he did say it, even repeated it. The conspiracy theory forwarded was that Pacquiao was made to win because of commercial considerations. Pacquaio’s fights are best sellers; making him win would translate into sustained revenues for the long term.

Pacquiao’s stellar status as a crowd drawer is not disputed. That game fixing happens is also a fact of life. But why should it automatically be presumed that the two are related, particularly in that last fight? What kind of a person automatically presumes that any person with an opinion contrary to his is simply a paid hack? Why can’t people just agree to disagree and leave it at that? Better still, why can’t people just express their personal reservations in a diplomatic and tactful way, while conceding that it is also possible that he or she may be wrong?

But then again, I suppose there’s no fun in that. And many among us do think of ourselves as infallible. When we disagree, we do so with the sole objective of proving the other person wrong. We don’t want to debate, we want to annihilate. We don’t want to listen, we just want to be listened to. Those who disagree with us are simply wrong.

I am not even trumping yet the patriotism bit because I think that is a discussion minefield that is best left alone for the moment. I know that we shouldn’t take anyone’s side simply because of a shared citizenship, but then again, what does it make of us if we can’t watch out for our own kind? And even if we can’t support our own because of personal or professional conviction, do we really have to be crabby about it and pull everyone else down?

I wish we Filipinos can reduce our tendency to indulge in self-flagellation. When things go well, we do tend to sabotage ourselves and shoot ourselves in the foot as if there is some scripting in our national psyche that’s says we don’t deserve progress, or global renown, or happiness. Maybe it is time for us to believe that we truly deserve to be victorious.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Red faces and lurid accusations

This is my column today. In case you don't know the url of brian gorrell's blog: http://www.delfindjmontano.blogspot.com/. Enjoy!

There were lots of red faces at the Senate last week.

The hearings on the ZTE controversy, which up until last week seemed to be a never-ending fount of juicy revelations, hit a major snag as Senator Ping Lacson’s much-ballyhooed “explosive” surprise witness turned out to be a dud. Many will remember that a few days prior to the hearing, Lacson was grinning like the proverbial cat that swallowed the bird and bragged about the credibility and reliability of his surprise witness.

As it turned out, Leo San Miguel refused to sing like a lovelorn canary. Instead, he exposed the deadly sins (mostly pride, sloth and wrath) of certain senators—and the defects of the whole process of selecting and prepping up witnesses—to public ridicule.

And as if that comedy of errors caused by faulty scripting, inflated egos, and inefficient staff work wasn’t enough, Senator Jamby Madrigal felt compelled to add more embarrassment to the Senate. The millionaire heiress renowned for legendary and diva-like tantrums went ballistic at the Commission on Appointments and blocked wholesale the confirmation of 26 officials among them Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Elections Commissioner Moslemen Macarambon, and 24 military officers by simply invoking Section 20 of the commission’s rules. Section 20 is a non-debatable privilege that is sparingly invoked, and up until Madrigal’s handiwork last week, never for all candidates for confirmation.

Other senators pleaded for Madrigal to reconsider; but she was intractable. The lame excuse she offered was that she was doing it “out of principle.” Senator Pong Biazon opined that Madrigal was actually smarting over the confirmation of Brig. Gen. Nestor Sadiarin, which she vowed to block but was unable to do because she wasn’t paying attention during the last session and only posed her objection after Senate President Manny Villar had banged the gavel. Madrigal’s unprecedented filibustering was a classic illustration that indeed, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

It was almost painful to watch our senators scramble all over themselves to defend the indefensible and to make sense of the nonsensical. The two events not only dampened public enthusiasm on the ZTE scandal but also, once again, cast doubt on our senators’ overall competence. The two events were avoidable and could have been prevented if only our senators weren’t the hotheads that they were and were willing to subjugate personal pride and feelings in the interest of nobler and loftier aspirations.

And we still wonder why despite the mounting evidence against this administration, many remain hesitant to ally themselves with these senators?

***

The oust-Gloria Macapagal Arroyo movement may be crowing about how support for the cause is snowballing and about how the numbers are rising algebraically, but it seems more people are preoccupied with another type of scandal that has taken the blogosphere and the Internet by storm. I couldn’t believe it at first until I saw the numbers for myself: Almost 200,000 unique hits in a few days, 46,000 unique hits in one day alone! Now, that’s the kind of traffic that many bloggers can only dream of. Imagine a situation where the same number of people assembled at Ayala to demand GMA’s resignation!

In case you’ve been living under a rock in the last two weeks, the salacious and convoluted twists and turns in the ZTE scandal has been deposed from being the most “popular” issue in the Internet. What has been keeping the Internet abuzz in the last two weeks are the lurid—and I must add, downright libelous—revelations about the dirty secrets of Manila’s social set as detailed in a blog created by Australian Brian Gorrell. Google Brian Gorrell if you want the sordid details.

It’s a scandal that is riveting because it involves gossip of the absolutely prurient variety embroiling the people who hog the society pages of our newspapers. Thrown in for good measure were allegations of large-scale thievery and embezzlement, sex and drugs, and accusations of blackmail, conspiracy and injustice. The fact that the main characters involved were gay men and that one of them was living with HIV added fuel to the conflagration and as expected, sexist and bigoted commentary.

The plot further thickened when the blog was suddenly taken off. Gossip mongers had a field day speculating as to the real cause for the suspension of the blog. Some suspected that it was the handiwork of hackers hired by those dragged into the mud pool. Others cried censorship. Some hoped that Gorrell finally got what he was asking for, which was for the Filipino ex-lover who had been vilified and demonized in the blog to return the P3.6 million pesos that was supposed to have been embezzled from him.

The blog has been restored and has since then resumed spewing the most potent vitriol on some members of Manila’s social set. Mercifully, the comments section has been turned off. It was quite dumbfounding to note that hundreds of people dove into the fray dragging more names, sullying more reputations, and in general making irresponsible commentary. In short, madaming nakisawsaw, turning the whole thing into a dissing orgy.

This latest scandal validates the emerging power of blogging as medium of our times and consequently and necessarily opens, once again, discussion on the ethics of blogging. The general perception, it seems, is that because blogging is a free medium and because it happens in cyberspace, people can express themselves as freely as they wished. Many people are taking far too much liberty with the medium and the hell with fairness, truthfulness, and accountability. This is a phenomenon that is potentially counterproductive in the long run.

I am not making judgments on the veracity of the accusations and counter-accusations engendered in the Gorrell scandal. But as a blogger (although in the interest of full disclosure, I must add that I don’t blog as much as I used to anymore), I feel a certain level of alarm at the way people are indulging in free-for-all mudslinging. In this particular case, many of the things people are saying are not only irresponsible and unfair; they are downright libelous!

On a positive note, it was heartening to note insightful discussions on the relevance (or irrelevance) of the social set in some of the blogs that offered commentary on the scandal. There is truly a need to conduct a more realistic appraisal of the authentic social value that these so-called “socialites” provide. I don’t want to knock on individual expression. But there is definitely something not right in a setup where wealth and excessive lifestyles are flaunted and regularly splashed across the pages of newspapers as if they are the most natural things in the world while the majority live below the poverty line.

And finally, the scandal seems to validate another disturbing phenomenon: It does seem like our collective tolerance for dirt and sleaze has breached new levels. Gorrell spewed toxic vitriol, indiscriminately and wantonly dragged many people into the fray simply because they were friends of his ex-lover, and in general did the equivalent of mass scale character assassination. Many people found it entertaining and are demanding more, more, more.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Threats and ultimatums

This was my column last Wednesday, March 12. I know, very late post. Long story.

Exactly one week ago today, a group composed of former Cabinet secretaries who had banded together to form an association called Former Senior Government Officials issued an ultimatum to the President of the Republic.

They called on the President act on five “recommendations.” They gave her one week (some reports shortened the timetable to five days) because according to former Civil Service Commissioner Karina Constantino David, “one week was a reasonable time” for the President to act on their recommendations. Otherwise, they said, they would join calls for her resignation.

The automatic reaction of Malacañang was to accuse the FSGO of blackmail.
If it were another President sitting in power, I am sure everyone would have been outraged at the idea that the ultimate symbol of power and sovereignty in the country could be subjected to threats.

Of course, the statement of the FSGO was welcomed by the anti-Arroyo camp. The group is another potential addition to the roster of individuals and groups that can be added as signatories to a future manifesto to be published as a full-page ad in the papers.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is now an ongoing contest as to which side comes up with the most number of full-page advertisements containing a list of names that support their cause. So far I have noted that the government is winning by default. There are just far too many provincial, city, and municipal boards in this country that can be tapped as potential authors of manifestos of support and who seem just as willing to lend their names and their exalted positions to the cause. It is an utter waste of money but hey, it makes good business for newspapers. But I digress.

There were those who saw the move of the FSGO as brazen and naked display of arrogance. What right do these people have to make “recommendations” that they insist on being implemented, anyway? The recommendations were actually demands; let’s please make no bones about it.

However, it is one thing to make demands; it is an entirely different thing altogether to force a timetable and to issue corresponding threats of mayhem if the demands are not met. Making demands is entirely within the right of any citizen of this country. Issuing threats, however, smacks of superiority and ascendancy.

Others wonder at the conflicting messages. On one hand, the statement conveys a “wait-and-see,” “we’ll-give-you-another-chance-to-redeem-yourself” tone.

On the other hand, the aggressive stance, the verbal pronouncements, and the actuations of some members of the group before, during and after the press conference leaves no doubt as to where their real feelings lie. Duplicity is pretty evident as some of the members of the FSGO have already been actively calling for the President’s resignation as early as two years ago. Some of them were already at the forefront of rallies calling for the President’s resignation.

The deadline set by the FSGO was up yesterday and obviously, the Palace has not acted on any of the five so-called recommendations. In short, Malacañang has not committed hara-kiri yet—as many have been praying for.

Foremost among their demands was for the President “to order Secretary Romulo Neri to testify at the Senate without restrictions and limitations.” That demand floored me down and threw me off the wall. Testify without restrictions and limitations? At the Senate? These FSGO people are either senile or simply nuts. Why will Gloria Macapagal Arroyo want to do that? Why would she want to shoot herself in the head?

It’s a ludicrous idea because Neri has already been burned badly and vilified enough by the senators and by anti-Arroyo forces to turn around and offer himself as a friendly witness. It’s an absurd idea because the Senate has never made secret the real goal of all these investigations: To skewer Gloria Macagapal Arroyo and hang her in the bar of public opinion. Thus, ordering Neri to testify without restrictions and limitations at the Senate is like throwing a docile buffalo into a den of lions that haven’t been fed for months.

And of course, it won’t happen because this President has never made secret her desire to stay in power, at least until 2010, or until she and her cohorts have made sure that their tracks are well-covered and that they can enjoy retirement outside of prison.

The FSGO called their demands “sincere offer of help” that will enable the administration to resolve the political crisis. This kind of doubletalk is not only confusing; it is counterproductive. Sincerity, my foot! What sincerity are they talking about when their rhetoric is laced with vitriol and their stance is that of warriors already prepared to fight to the death?

The FSGO likewise erred in demanding for the outright suspension of Cabinet secretaries and government officials who were implicated in that monumental foul-up in securing Gretchen Barretto-wannabe celebrity witness Jun Lozada.

The former Cabinet secretaries forget that there are laws in this country that impose due process before any official or employee, whether in government or in the private sector, can be meted disciplinary action. It is particularly disturbing to note that among those who advocated the demand for outright suspension of certain officials including Environment Secretary Lito Atienza and Police National Chief Avelino Razon, was the former chief of the Civil Service Commission, the very government agency tasked with protecting the welfare of people who work in the government bureaucracy.

Having said that, however, let me state for the record that I am in complete agreement with the FSGO that the government’s inaction, which continues to this day, on Lozada’s abduction was and is unacceptable. Atienza, Razon, Gaite, and company fouled up big time in that bungled attempt to secure Lozada.

And yes, darn it, it would have been a good time to witness someone blowing her top and giving everyone the riot act! At the very least, these government officials should have been subjected to an investigation. Their suspension or termination could also be meted out by the appropriate bodies if there are enough bases to merit doing so, but only after due process is afforded to them. But Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not done anything on the matter and thus, the demands of the FSGO and other citizens become legitimate —even if they don’t make sense.

Therefore, now that we are experiencing what amounts to the proverbial calm before the storm, it would be a great opportunity for this administration to show real proof that it is serious in addressing the grave allegations that have been made against it. Sorry guys, but the usual evasive tactics won’t hack it. We’re still not seeing what we need to see. I guess it will take more than an ultimatum then.

Honoring women

This was my column last Monday, March 10. Sorry for the late post, it's been a really hectic week.

Last Saturday was International Women’s Day.

While driving to my classes in Quezon City, I tuned in to an AM radio station and chanced upon a spirited discussion on the relevance of setting aside a special day for women. The clueless broadcaster—obviously male, and I wondered if his rather archaic views were representative of the attitude of most men in this country—was ranting about the relevance (or irrelevance) of setting aside a special day for women. His barely disguised political incorrectness was anchored on the convoluted theory that celebrating women’s days was an exercise in reverse discrimination.

My automatic reaction was to wonder what was so wrong and objectionable in a situation where certain days, or all right—even each day of the year—were set aside for particular causes or segments of the population. What exactly was being taken from anyone by the celebration of international women’s day?

In many countries, March 8 is actually considered a national holiday in recognition of the distinct and important roles that women play in society. It’s also a day set aside to commemorate and remember the struggle women have waged through the decades in order to gain certain liberties and freedoms that were not made available to them in the past—such as the right to vote or the right to be considered co-equal in society.

We must remember that in many countries and cultures, it took a lot of hard work on the part of women before they were awarded basic rights. And even today, in many countries, these rights are still not afforded to women.

The women’s movement has gone a long, long way but the struggle is far from over. As someone who consults with various non-government organizations working with women in rural areas such as the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, I am familiar with the difficulties many women in this country contend with every day. We may have a woman president and we may be considered a highly matriarchal society, but the truth is that many if not most of the women in this country continue to suffer, and mostly in silence.

There is a dictum that says, “in a poor country, women are poorer.” This is sadly true in the Philippines, particularly in rural areas where mothers, sisters and even grandmothers take in the burden of not only of caring for the old and the young but also in sustaining the family’s welfare. This is indulging in generalizations, but in many cases, men tend to squander whatever little resources the family has in certain vices and it is left to the women in the family to worry about putting food on the table and even money for the children’s schooling.

In fact, even among many of my colleagues, it is the women who bear the heavier brunt of the responsibilities. Most women in our culture may have careers, may have higher ranks in the corporate world or earn more than their husbands, but they still do most of the household work when they get home. The usual setup is that husbands plant themselves in front of the television set or relax with a bottle or two of beer when they get home, while the women go straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner, supervise their kids’ homework, or even do the laundry. Their work is never done.

I personally grew up in this kind of setup. My mother was a schoolteacher who would double up as some kind of overall househelp when she would get home from a long day of teaching at a public school and doing community work. My dad wasn’t really a chauvinist, but he was the stereotypical Filipino male who shunned housework and seemed to think that managing the household was the sole domain of a woman. When we got sick, or when we had some problems, the standard line in the house was “talk to your mother.”

Of course we’re already seeing some changes in the setup as more men become more involved in family matters and household management. Still, this is far from being the norm in our society. In our culture, taking care of the home and nurturing children are still largely considered a woman’s job.

Whether we admit it or not, institutionalized discrimination against women still exists in our society. I am embarrassed to admit this but as a human resource management practitioner, I am aware that we still have a long way to go before we can honestly say that we take gender issues seriously in this country.

A quick scan of the job ads in most papers would easily reveal the extent to which we continue to sustain discriminatory practices, particularly towards women. For example, most job ads still specify physical requirements—usually couched as “pleasant personality”—for female applicants that are not required for males.

Thankfully, the workplace has become a little friendlier toward women. At least many companies now acknowledge the distinct social roles that women play in society particularly toward propagating the human race. Thus, it is heartwarming to note that most companies no longer discriminate against married women in the hiring process simply because they are liable to get pregnant and avail of certain benefits such as extended maternity leaves. In the past, many companies shunned hiring married female candidates in effect penalizing them for having wombs.

It can be argued of course that the main reason why married women are no longer discriminated against in the hiring process is simply because industry has found itself with very little choice. There is a dearth of qualified talents and the competition has forced many companies to accept the inevitable—hire married females and put in place programs that address their needs or suffer the business losses. Women have also been found to be more effective in certain jobs because of their inherent nurturing and caring traits.

Many companies have also started putting in place work-life and gender-friendly programs that recognize the distinct needs of women. For example, many companies now make available facilities for breastfeeding mothers to extract milk while at work. I am aware, though, that many of these breastfeeding mothers still have to put up with sexist comments and suffer being at the receiving end of jokes from their male counterparts. One friend confided that she had to stop breast feeding her newborn because she couldn’t anymore bear being the object of unwanted attention every single time she had to go to lock herself in a private room to, in the words of some crude male officemates, “play with herself.”

Domestic violence, though, is still something that the workplace has been unable to address so far. It is sad that many people still consider the subject a private matter between couples.
Women do perform extraordinary roles and make significant contributions in our society. Thus, the theme of this year’s celebration “Shaping Progress” was more than apt.

There’s a lot of discussion that needs to be conducted on the issues of women in this country. It’s is a sad reflection of the times we live in that most of these issues were deflected last Saturday when pro- and anti-Gloria Macapagal Arroyo women groups found themselves on the same venue last Saturday. I guess the human interest angle was just too difficult for media to ignore. Thus, most of the coverage about last Saturday’s celebration tended to focus on the potential drama than on the more substantive issues.

And was it just sheer coincidence that the people behind the Binibining Pilipinas franchise also chose the date in which to stage the annual pageant? Of all the dates in the calendar, did they really have to stage that pageant last Saturday? The pageant was a fitting reminder that their remains many institutionalized obstacles that stand in the way towards full recognition of the real contributions and potentials of women in our society.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The waiting game begins

This was my column last Monday.

The professional organization I belong to was in a tight spot last week. Like many other professional organizations, it has become customary for our group to invite the President of the Republic to preside over the inauguration of its new set of officers. The invitation was sent out to the Palace last year and promptly forgotten.

Well, as things would have it, the Palace did accept the invitation this time around. Let’s leave the discussion as to the motivations behind the sudden graciousness of the Palace (and why the induction had to be done last Friday) to conjecture.

But instead of the President attending the regular meeting at the hotel where the inauguration rites were to be held, the Palace allotted time for the President to induct the new set of officers at Malacañang last Friday. Obviously, there was a lot of discussion around the wisdom of going to the Palace or having the President officiate the inaugural rites at this time, given the pervading political situation. In the end, it was decided that the matter as to who would or wouldn’t go would be left to the individual discretion of each officer. Some went; I did not.

But the decision and the discussion that ensued were very telling of what I think was the current pulse among members of the business community. The fact that there was a discussion at all and that there were reservations that were brought out in the open were indicative of the level of concern people have about the current situation.

Let’s make no mistake about this: We’re all deeply bothered and affected by what is happening in our country. Not all of us went to Ayala Avenue last Friday, and we all have our reasons for not doing so, but we were all there in spirit. The e-mail groups that I subscribe to were brimming with inquiries about what was going on at Ayala on that day. The fact that students, who up until last week were still largely uninvolved in the issues, are now finding their own voice and speaking out loud is also indicative of the level of alarm.

A number of my students were at the inter-faith rally, too. These were students who, until recently, had to be cajoled into speaking up about political issues in the country. This is important to point out because there are some quarters who insist that students are only getting involved because of the prodding of their school officials and teachers.

Over at Miriam College where I did a lecture on human resource development last Saturday, I was taken aback by streamers strategically placed on the steel railings facing the College. The streamers carried the accusatory message “Sa mahal ng matrikula, turo nyo ay pamumulitika.” I guess you and I know who are behind these accusations.

I have news for these people: There is only so much school administrators can do to influence this generation. These are people who value their independence and speak their own minds.
The College where I teach did provide buses for students who wanted to join the rally and arrangements were made to “excuse” students from their classes if they wanted to go to Ayala Avenue. But, and this I know for a fact, no one—absolutely no one—not a single school official, coerced nor encouraged the students to go to the rally. They went because things have reached an alarming point.

We’re alarmed not at the fact that corruption is present in our system— we’ve already been resigned to the reality that corruption is deeply imbedded in our culture. We’re all deeply disturbed at the level at which it is widely prevalent.

We’re bothered not so much by the fact that people in power are involved in anomalous deals because we’ve suspected it for the longest time. We’re deeply mortified at the seeming nonchalant and cavalier way in which this administration responds to the allegations.

We’re astounded not so much by the fact that the people of this administration are covering their tracks and obfuscating the issues because we expect them to do it. We are stupefied by the outrageously illogical tall tales these people are conjuring. Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite’s testimony at the Senate regarding the source of the half a million pesos he gave to Jun Lozada and the motivations behind his sudden generosity were simply incomprehensible. In the words of a friend, nagtatagpi-tagpi na lang ng kwento.

In short, we’re alarmed that this administration is still not showing any political will or sincerity to address the issues.

This has already been said many times by other people in far more eloquent ways, but I will say it just the same: Ordinarily, this should be a good time for the President to flash her legendary temper and to marshal all the resources of the government to get to the bottom of things and fix what needs to be fixed. But I guess these are not ordinary times.

Many are still undecided about whether to join the call for the President’s resignation at this time or not. But very few are of the mind that the President is doing enough, if any at all, to address the issues.

And so, one has to be utterly clueless not to recognize that there are now reservations in people’s minds about being associated with her. My own professional organization has always been apolitical and has always chosen not to get involved in political activities. But what happened last week was indicative of how even non-political organizations are already slowly being drawn into making a stand on the issue. Like many other organizations, we continue to respect Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s position as President. After all, she is still President of the Republic. This attempt to make distinctions between the person and the chair she is sitting in is a delicate matter that tests people’s patience and virtues. But in the end, I think there is some wisdom in being virtuous even if others are not. But until when?

It has become very evident that even among organizations and people who used to defend, vociferously, the status quo now anchor their advocacy merely on questioning the qualifications of the people that compose the succession line, or doubts on whether changing the President would result in any significant changes after all.

I personally think that all these gobbledygook about “searching for the truth” is really just another way of saying “let’s observe the right processes.” It’s simply a courteous way of saying “we’re waiting for you to do the right thing and we are watching you.”

The consensus I am getting in all the discussions I have been part of so far is that the problems are systemic in nature and require a far more comprehensive solution. But it is not disputed anymore that the President is part of the problem. There are those who continue to believe that a far better solution would be to get the President to initiate the changes. I think that is wishful thinking because how exactly do we get the President to do that? That’s like asking her to incriminate herself.

And so we wait. And we wait not only with bated breaths, but with eyes wide open.

Moderation

This is my column today.

Thanks to you-know-who, the phrase “moderate their greed” has become a political slogan for our times, right up there with “hindi ka nag-iisa” and “tama na, sobra na!”

As can be expected in a culture where people take liberties with anything and everything that advances their own personal agenda, the phrase “moderate their greed” has been used and abused, interpreted and re-interpreted many different ways. The original context around which the statement was supposed to have been made, as well as the reference of the pronoun “their,” has not simply been lost in translation. They’ve been mangled beyond recognition.

At the very first rally held in the wake of the ZTE controversy, the phrase was written in bold and used as a backdrop for the makeshift stage. The pronoun “their” had already been replaced with the more accusatory second person pronoun. The phrase thus metamorphosed into the call “Moderate your greed!”

“Moderate their greed” was supposed to be Secretary Romulo Neri’s instructions to former National Forest Corp. president, now celebrity witness Jun Lozada. The pronoun “their” was supposed to refer to specific people, most notably, former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos.

The original context was that Neri mandated Lozada to “moderate,” something which Lozada was more than willing to do, presumably in an effort to keep things within “reasonable” limits. Before you send me indignation letters for undermining Lozada, let me state for the record that Lozada’s willingness to serve as accessory in the ZTE bribery is not disputed. In fact, it is one of the many so-called sins that he has been continuously apologizing for and seeking absolution from—and it seems, from just about everybody, something that really needs moderation as well. I’ll go back to this observation later on in this piece.

There is reason to believe that Neri used the word “moderate” as a verb, which can mean “to temper” or “lessen.” However, moderate can also mean “to preside.” We all presumed what action was meant, but no one really bothered to clarify. Most were simply happy to make inferences.

As usual, many among our leaders, including a number of our senators, plunged into the issue with nary a care for semantics and simply assumed that the word moderate was always used as an adjective. Thus, the long and often irrelevant discussions during the Senate hearings on what constitute “moderate greed.” One senator huffed and puffed and made rhetorical distinctions between “moderate” and “extreme,” all of which were pointless because there simply was no basis for comparison yet since the whole point of the hearings was to establish that there was an anomaly to begin with.

And as everyone in the academic community knows, particularly people familiar with research methods—although many seemed to have conveniently lapsed into temporary amnesia on this one—“to moderate” can also take on a lot of meaning and describe a number of outcomes. To moderate, then does not always and necessarily result in reduction of impact. In fact, a moderating variable can just produce the opposite effect—it can exacerbate or worsen current conditions. Thus, if Neri was using “moderate” in the academic context, Lozada could very well have increased the level of greed of the parties concerned. Again, no one cared to bother with these distinctions because most already had their own conclusions on what the phrase meant, anyway.

All of these simply bring home the point that, like I said, the real intent of the instruction has been lost in translation. Of course, it can be argued that Neri is to blame for the fact that most people simply made their own inferences on what the statement really meant since he refused—and continues to refuse—to testify anyway. The point is that no one knows and no one cares anymore. Most simply grabbed the phrase, turned it around and around to suit their own purposes, and the hell with the truth or fairness.

Thus, it was initially amusing—but eventually exasperating—to note the liberties many people took with that phrase. By adopting the phrase as a battle cry and using it continuously in its various pronouncements against the administration, the opposition has succeeded in misleading many people to believe that the President and her family are the reference of the pronoun “their” in Neri’s original instruction to Lozada.

The first family’s involvement in shady deals is open to conjecture, but in the interest of truth, this still has to be proven and backed with proof. If we are to embark on the search for truth, we must begin by making honest distinctions between facts and hearsay.

In fact, many senators badgered Neri, Jose de Venecia III, and Lozada to directly implicate the President and the First Gentleman in the anomalous transaction, but to no avail. Of course. Lozada and De Venecia III would later on add flourishes to their original testimonies at rallies and in campus tours to gain pogi points with the audience, but the fact remains: They still have not categorically and directly implicated the First Family. They’ve made sly innuendos, but they haven’t produced the smoking gun. In fact, the whole point of pressuring Neri to testify is precisely because it is widely presumed that he is the only one who can directly implicate the President or the First Gentleman.

So it disturbs me a lot to note that Benjamin Abalos’s role and participation in the whole sordid scheme is now for all intents and purposes cast into oblivion as the whole brunt of the accusations have been directed solely at Malacañang for quite some time now. Don’t look now, but at the rate we are going, Abalos may just become a footnote in this scandal.

The lesson we can draw from all these is not only how easily hearsay becomes Gospel truth when repeated often enough and when people take liberties with certain facts to suit their own interests, but also how excessive attention on certain things take away attention from other equally important preoccupations.

Take for instance Lozada’s tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve, engage in self-flagellation, and make pronouncements that convey a false sense of humility. This used to be cute, but quite frankly, these have become a bit tiresome lately. His tendency to amplify and augment his original testimony in his various speaking engagements has also become quite alarming because all these tend to reduce the gravity of his original testimony. So one wishes that he would learn to “moderate” his act because quite frankly, he already had most people at “hello,” there’s really no need for the whole song and dance routine.

But as usual, and this is where this piece is leading to, doing things in moderation is truly a concept that we seem unfamiliar with as a people. We tend to do everything in excesses.

The same thing can be said of the inordinate preoccupation with Senate hearings. Again, I am not saying that we should junk these hearings altogether. But perhaps our senators can also pay attention to other issues that are just as important—perhaps things such as legislating urgent bills?

Maybe we can truly practice moderation in this country, and that includes greed and ambition as well.