Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Crabby

This is my column today.

There was a very spirited discussion in one of my e-mail groups a couple of weeks ago that I feel is of interest to all Filipinos.

It was the kind of discussion that was typical among us Filipinos. It was sparked by a seemingly innocuous observation about a local television show and which somehow got blown up into a major argument that hooked people into taking sides. If the discussion were conducted face-to-face, I am sure it would have gotten emotional and probably confrontational. Eventually, the topic lost steam and some academics took over to make sense of what just happened. To complete the cycle, I am now mining the discussion into material for a column. The discussion was on the so-called crab mentality that’s supposed to be prevalent among us Filipinos.

What prompted the whole discussion was a comment made about the behaviors of contestants on the local version of the television show Wheel of Fortune. To the uninitiated, the local Wheel of Fortune airs as pre-programming for the early evening news on ABS-CBN. It is hosted by the irrepressible Kris Aquino, who, as expected, provides the show infinite material for various types of commentary.

Brought to the forum’s attention, however, were the heckling, hooting, jeering and taunting done by contestants in that show. The negative behaviors, egged on by a live audience, and presumably encouraged by the show’s staff, were interpreted as indicative of latent crab mentality among Filipinos.

For those blissfully unaware, what follows is what typically happens in Aquino’s show: Every time a contestant spins the wheel in order to accumulate prizes, the other contestants would openly wish misfortune for him or her by shouting “bankrupt,” “lose a turn,” or simply heckling the contestant almost as if to jinx his or her chances of winning. It was noted that in the original version of the show, which is taped in the United States, contestants do not indulge in the same crabby behavior.

I’ve watched some episodes of that show (it airs at midnight on cable) and can attest that yes, the American contestants on that show do cheer each other on and seem genuinely happy for other contestants’ good fortune. Every time someone snags a major prize, the other contestants jump for joy as well as if they themselves won the prize.

To be fair though, Wheel of Fortune is not the only US television show and there are many others where contestants do indulge in crabby behavior. The Survivor series is a good example; contestants on that show not only pull each other down, they wheedle and conspire to make others lose. Some other shows not only encourage contestants to sabotage others, they also put contestants in awfully embarrassing situations that tend to bring out the worst possible examples of human behaviors.

But to go back to the discussion on crab mentality, because we Filipinos seem to derive some pleasure in self-flagellation, people naturally weighed in with their own comments and observations, which, as in the case of the Gucci Gang scandal and the 70,000-dollar blog, proved more interesting and explosive.

A number offered their own analyses on the implications of showing such negative behaviors on primetime television. The general drift was that kids imbibe and emulate what they see on television, including negative behaviors, which they think acceptable and part of our norms. Others went on to point out the many other negative consequences of displaying on television behaviors that propagate the so-called crab mentality practically heaping the blame for most of our woes as a people on television. I do agree that television is partly to blame for many of what is wrong in our country. However, it is not fair to ascribe all the blame as well as the responsibility, particularly on the issue of crab mentality, to television.

There were those who opined that kids are not as dumb as most think they are and are therefore able to make distinctions between entertainment and real life. Someone cited personal experiences and challenged others to look back on their past and see if similar exposure to negative experiences produced the dreaded negative consequences that others harped about.

I personally contributed my own two cents about the evils of subliminal messages that our television networks very often indulge in. Subliminal messages are those that are often stealthily inserted into regular content to reinforce certain conclusions or points of view that the network or the show wants the audience to concur with. It’s a kind of conditioning. For example, an award-winning magazine show regularly flashes key words when tackling controversial episodes. These words purportedly summarize what is being discussed, but upon closer inspection are revealed to be partisan advocacy points.

We are in a country that is endlessly fascinated with show business, so it was expected that the network war would get dredged up as well. The relative successes and failures of GMA-7 and ABS-CBN in the areas of values development and in strengthening citizenship were analyzed and discussed. More examples of television shows that promote the crab mentality among Filipinos were cited as well as those that purportedly propagate “wrong” values.

What was really interesting was the seeming ease in which many among us accepted the accusation that we are guilty of crab mentality as a people, or worse, that crab mentality is a Filipino trait. It seems many are quick to believe that there is empirical basis for asserting that crab mentality is part of who and what we are as a people, citing that Juan Tamad story as proof.
I think we should be careful about making this kind of sweeping generalization. As my colleague Bobby Galvez pointed out, “the assumption that crab mentality is inherent and unique among Filipinos is a dangerous one because putting down other people to promote self interest has been a practice since ancient times. You can find examples of it in many world literature, from the Greek drama to Shakespearean plays to ancient and present Indian and Chinese manuscripts.”
Galvez asserted, and I agree with him that it is lamentable that many “ascribe negative behaviors to “Filipino cultural traits” when these are simply human frailties that should be condemned and discouraged.

Those contestants in the local version of Wheel of Fortune engage in behaviors that is indicative of the crab mentality not because they are Filipinos. They do so because they give way to certain human frailties, encouraged by commercial considerations.

Monday, April 21, 2008

post deleted

Conditions at terminals could be better

This is my column today.

For many people, the summer months of April and May are for traveling, mostly to exotic locations—perhaps some secluded beach or mountain paradise. It’s the chance to escape the infernal heat that engulfs Metro Manila this time of the year. I personally schedule most of my lectures during the summer for practical reasons—there are no classes, work is usually lighter, and people are generally more laid back and receptive.

Many people think having the opportunity to travel is a blessing. This is true when one is traveling to certain places for the first time; otherwise, the novelty is reduced. And if one is traveling for work, it can become tiresome. But what really makes traveling tedious and often exasperating is the general pandemonium at our airport terminals. Passing through our airports—especially the ones in Manila because they are, expectedly, busier than those in key cities —is always an exercise in keeping one’s anger and impatience in check. There’s disorder, incompetence, utter lack of organization, and in general, lack of concern for the comfort and convenience of passengers.

I took an early flight out of Manila for Bacolod over the weekend and it seemed to be one of those days when officials threw away standard operating procedures (assuming that they did have some to begin with) in favor of Murphy’s Law at the Centennial Terminal. I understand that many among us simply grin and bear whatever it is that’s ladled to us by our bureaucracy, including pure and unmitigated inefficiency. A friend I was venting my frustrations on simply shrugged his shoulders and told me “What did you expect? This is the Philippines, remember?” It’s as if we’re a cursed people who are supposed to simply accept bad fate.

I am one of those people who doggedly insist that Filipinos can do better. Which is why I will continue to rant against inefficiency and incompetence whenever and wherever I see them. What is with the bedlam at our airport terminals?!

An airport is the first and last image tourists keep of any destination; it frames the whole tourist experience. People pay fees to use these terminals and therefore deserve better. The expectations are pretty much predictable—most of our terminals have been operational for a number of years and they operate most hours of the day. The officials who manage them—granting they have the capacity to learn—have presumably had ample time to practice and perfect their management skills. So what accounts for the fact that we still see the same confusion, the same disorder, and the same recurring problems at our terminals?

The argument that the problems are caused by human traffic is absurd. A terminal exists to cater to human traffic; the measure of a terminal’s success is in its capability to accommodate optimal and increasing volume of human traffic. The job of the people who manage airport terminals at optimal utilization, not to operate them at decreasing utilization rates. Any administrator who says the chaos at our airport terminals is caused by the influx of human traffic deserves to be relieved of his post simply for not having brains. I cringe every single time operators of terminals (airports, bus, train, etc) cite this justification during peak seasons for travel. Besides, everyone knows when these peak seasons occur and can anticipate these so people can’t use this as an excuse.

In addition, the schedules of flights, including the expected volume of passengers at given hours, are (presumably) available due to the wonders of information technology. Therefore, administrators can anticipate problem areas and proactively put in place the necessary mechanisms to eliminate the kinks in the system, move human traffic along at a faster pace, and in general make the whole experience less stressful and irritating for everyone.

Over the weekend, for example, the queues leading to the security gates were inordinately long. Despite my seeming crankiness, I assure you that I do have extreme tolerance for queues, so believe me when I say the queues were really unreasonably long. The main cause was not that there were too many people trying to pass through the gates. The problem was that many passengers were clogging and holding up the queue while looking for tickets, identification cards, fixing their baggage, etc., while security guards looked on helplessly. The problem was even more pronounced at the second security gates where everyone had to take off belts, shoes, watches, and other metallic objects; and after passing through the X-ray machines, repeat the process of putting them back on while still holding the queue.

The stringent security measures are not disputed. The problem is that people are not informed beforehand of the specific security measures and many are simply unprepared and end up clogging the queue. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to be aware of what they are expected to present to the guards or take off from their bodies. Friendly reminders and directions posted in conspicuous places would really be helpful. It amazes me that our terminals are unfriendly in this regard. It is as if we expect passengers to just sink or swim in the bedlam.

The second problem has to do with really bad space management. The queues tend to snake freely through whatever space is available inside the terminal and end up blocking traffic for everyone else or make it convenient for others to jump the queue. There are no spaces assigned where people can remove or put on shoes and other items that had to be subjected to security checks. People not only end up further clogging passageways, they also suffer the indignity of undressing and dressing in full view of the public.

Obviously, sanitation is another contentious issue. If people are expected to take off their shoes, is it too much to expect provisions to keep the whole experience more comfortable and sanitary? The absence of provisions such as a foot bath, or carpeting a specific passageway where people can walk barefoot rather than tiptoeing on cold, presumably dirty floor tiles, is indicative of the seeming low regard that we have for customer convenience and comfort. In other countries, a janitor is permanently assigned at these gates regularly spraying the tiles with disinfectant and cleaning every few seconds to assuage the fears of the more squeamish passengers.

The third problem is that the job description of the personnel (mostly security guards) assigned to manage human traffic seem limited to ensuring that people subject themselves to the security checks. The guards at the Centennial Terminal seemed oblivious to the long queue or that some people were jumping the queue. Obviously there’s a need to equip these guys with a little more critical thinking skills and definitely more customer service competencies.

I can go on and on, but as usual, I am running out of space. The gist is: It could be better. We truly deserve better.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Folly

This was my column last Wednesday. I am currently in Bacolod.

The e-mail that’s currently clogging up networks is yet another hoax entitled Gas Out. It’s a pseudo campaign with a noble objective—to lower prices of oil by forcing a price war with the two major oil companies in the country. It is an e-mail that seems to be generating steam. Friends in the industry have asked me to comment on it since they have noted that many people seem to think that it would work.

It’s one of those pseudo campaigns with a huge potential to hook people in simply because it perpetuates the truism that many people continue to hold sacrosanct: When people come together in unity, nothing is impossible, even slaying a corporate giant. In this particular case, oil companies. Very few are able to resist the temptation to join something so seemingly righteous.

I received the e-mail at least six times in three days. If I had done what the e-mail had asked me to do, which was to forward it to 10 of my friends, I would have sent it to 60 other people. I did a little experiment and sent it only to some of my closest friends most of whom, I am pleased to report, did not forward the e-mail to the rest of the world. But I am not surprised that there are many people in this world who unwittingly perpetuate hoaxes. It doesn’t take much effort to forward e-mail, and many are more than willing to do that kind of “sacrifice” to bring something good in this world.

It really is easy to check the origins and the veracity of certain e-mails. A quick check at snopes.com, which serves as unofficial clearing house for urban legends all over the world revealed that the campaign is false. In other words, all the claims made in the e-mail are not supported by facts. The first version of the e-mail surfaced in 2001, and then again in 2002, 2004, 2006 and beginning March this year. The version that is currently circulating has been thoughtfully revised and edited to reflect local conditions.

I am reprinting relevant parts of the e-mail below, merely shortened for brevity by deleting certain parts:

“This will show you how we can get gas back down to P30 per liter. If you are tired of the gas prices going up, and they will continue to rise this summer, take time to read this please. Join the resistance!!!”

“Want gasoline prices to come down? We need to take some intelligent, united action. The oil companies just laughed at that because they knew we wouldn’t continue to ‘hurt’ ourselves by refusing to buy gas.”

“It was more of an inconvenience to us than it was a problem for them. But whoever thought of this idea has come up with a plan that can really work. Please read on and join us! By now you’re probably thinking gasoline priced at about P30 is super cheap. Me too! It is currently P45/liter for regular unleaded in my town.”

“Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations have conditioned us to think that the cost of a gallon of gas is CHEAP at P45/liter, we need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the marketplace... not sellers.”

“With the price of gasoline going up more each day, we consumers need to take action.
“The only way we are going to see the price of gas come down is if we hit someone in the pocketbook by not purchasing their gas. And, we can do that WITHOUT hurting ourselves. How? Since we all rely on our cars, we can’t just stop buying gas. But we CAN have an impact on gas prices if we all act together to force a price war. Here’s the idea: For the rest of this year, DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from the two biggest companies Shell and Caltex. If they are not selling any gas, they will be inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.”

“But to have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of Shell and Caltex gas buyers. It’s really simple to do! Now, don’t wimp out on me at this point... keep reading and I’ll explain how simple it is to reach millions of people!!!”

The e-mail then goes on to do mathematical computations that illustrate how the campaign would be able to reach 300 million people if everyone sends the e-mail to 10 other people. It then closes with the usual exhortations about how people can make a difference by doing things together, blah blah blah.

I will not question anymore the choice of the two oil companies that the perpetrators of the e-mail want to boycott. I reckon that the people who initiated this campaign locally excluded Petron because they have an axe to grind against Shell and Caltex.

It is easy to shoot the e-mail by noting two things. First, that our country is not an oil producer and therefore does not create oil supply that easily. Since we import oil, we are governed by limitations of trade. There is theoretically, a fixed quantity of oil reserves in this country at any given time. Thus, tampering with the supply and demand situation can have disastrous implications.

Second, the law of supply and demand is anchored on the strength of the connective “and.” It cannot be the law of supply alone or the law of demand alone. Boycotting Shell and Caltex only results in a surplus of oil stocks for the two companies and a supply problem for the other (mostly smaller) oil companies, who will then need to buy from Shell and Caltex to be able to service the extra demand. The supposed price war is then transferred to another domain—this time, the companies with no supply and the two oil companies with excess oil supply who can, theoretically, dictate prices.

In short, by doing what the e-mail suggests, together we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stupid move

I received a number of text messages from three different cellphones today telling me in no uncertain terms to back out from the Brian Gorrell issue. I didnt bother to respond.

I heard that Magic and the hosts of Good Times have received threats and warnings.

Sigh. Some people simply don't get it still. Threatening people only make things worse. For example, I didnt have plans of writing about the Brian Gorrell issue again after my last post. As someone pointed out to me in this blog, there are other things to write about in this country.

But now that I've been annoyed, I might just decide to write about it again. And again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Catch 22

This is my column today.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Arroyo administration is deliberately taking advantage of the rice crisis to deflect attention from the accusations of bribery and corruption that have bedeviled it in the last three years. It can be pointed out of course that the inordinate focus on the scandals is also on the wane as people have eventually gotten tired of waiting for the smoking gun that never came. Apparently there was… none, zilch, nada. Yet again. What an utter waste, indeed, to see that all that screaming and wailing in the Senate has yielded nothing again.

Nothing works better than a crisis to get people preoccupied. And if the crisis has to do with something as basic as staple food—and therefore survival—of course people are bound to forget everything else and focus on the crisis at hand. Naturally.

So of course, this whole rice crisis is a proverbial blessing in disguise for this administration. At the very least, the rice crisis provides opportunities to show the President in action and being in control. Last week, people once again saw the flash of the legendary temper as she put NBI operatives to task for—supposedly— misplaced priorities.

The problem is that the rice crisis is potentially bigger than any crisis we’ve had. It is a global problem that has sparked riots in other countries. True, unlike oil, which does not gush forth from this country’s bowels, we have the production capability to produce rice.

Unfortunately, rice takes a few months to grow. It requires water, lots and lots of water. In case people have missed it, we’re in the middle of a scorching summer. It will take some time before we are able to produce rice, and it remains doubtful if we can produce enough. The experts from the International Rice Research Institute have categorically asserted that the possibility of a steady supply and lower prices within the next 12 months is remote. Not unlike the possibility of another major scandal involving this administration being unearthed.

So the rice crisis may have given this administration some reprieve, but it is a short and temporary one. By thrusting it at center stage, this administration has unwittingly created a potentially unmanageable situation. We are already seeing a chain reaction involving the spiraling prices of other commodities, hoarding, and panic buying. And consequently, demand for higher wages, higher transportation fares, ad nauseum. It’s a formula for utter chaos.

Speaking of Catch 22 situations, I don’t know if anyone out there still listens to the gibberish that former President Joseph Estrada babbles about every time a microphone is shoved in his face. He was at it again last week and sadly, although I am not surprised at all that he and his handlers still fail to perceive something so very obvious, he continues to do the opposition a major disservice. All the man needs to do is open his mouth to blow the opposition’s much-vaunted invincibility into smithereens.

Estrada remains popular, particularly with the masses. But I doubt if anyone out there wants to vote for him again for President. By presenting himself as a unity candidate, he has ironically created the opportunity for disunity in the opposition. By attempting to buttress the ranks of the opposition, he has only succeeded in disaffecting many towards the cause of the opposition. What, after all that trouble we end up with Estrada again? No way.

Estrada last week scoffed at the rice crisis as simply another gimmick of this administration, although his spin on the issue was different. He smells the stink of corruption in the administration’s massive importation of rice and has directly accused the administration of engaging in a nefarious scheme to raise money for 2010. The possibility that something sinister is in the works is very likely. We do know that some people’s greed is beyond moderation. But Estrada as a prophet of virtue and incorruptibility? That’s sick.

And finally, the buzz over the weekend was Delfin Justiniano Montano’s coming out on public television purportedly to defend himself, his family and his friends from the hurricane of accusations that Australian Brian Gorrell has spewed in a blog. Montano’s act was a brave albeit methinks pointless attempt to salvage whatever little is left of his honor and reputation. Before his appearance on public television, his name was not even mentioned by media and the lurid accusations remained in the category of “gossip.” He has now opened the floodgates and has given Gorrell’s accusations some measure of legitimacy. He is no longer “he who must remain unnamed.”

Ironically, on the day Montano came out on public television, Gorrell’s blog recorded the highest number of hits— more than 120,000 all in one day. What Montano has failed to perceive is the power of blogs. A blog is on the net 24 hours a day readily accessible by anyone. He can’t match that with one solitary public appearance on television.

That act of defense has further crucified him in the bar of public opinion and has given Gorrell and his sympathizers more reasons to pillory him. As of this writing, Montano’s statements have been dissected and vivisected by so many in Gorrell’s blog, one even provided helpful links to neuro linguistics programming tips on reading non-verbal behaviors to detect when someone is telling brazen lies.

And to top it all, his mother may have created more animosity when she scoffed, on public television, would you believe— “What is 70,000 dollars?!?” The quick answer to that of course is: Someone’s hard-earned savings; an amount many less fortunate people would willingly die for and could only dream of. It’s not an amount one sneers at.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"What's 70,000 dollars?"

I've written about the Brian Gorrell blog in the past. Although I did provide a link to Gorrell's blog here, I was very careful not to mention DJ Montano's name nor the title of the blog in my column.

I empathized with Brian's situation, particularly since he is living with HIV. And as many of my readers know, I am President of Remedios AIDS Foundation and helping people living with HIV/AIDS is one of my pet causes.

I must admit that I tended to take Brian Gorrell's accusations against DJ Montano and the so-called Gucci Gang with a grain of salt. No, make that bushels of salt. I am aware that the kind of thievery alleged by Brian Gorrell does happen in this world. However, I thought it was important that people keep an open mind about the veracity of the allegations particularly since DJ Montano's version of the events has not been heard yet. I figured the guy deserved to be heard first.

Which is why I made it a point to watch that particular interview last Friday.

While watching DJ Montano on television, it suddenly occured to me that I knew the guy.
Oh, I dont claim to be on first name basis with the social set. Truth is, I am kinda allergic to people who flaunt their lavish lifestyles and squander, all in one night, money that's more than enough to feed a whole family in Northern Samar for a month, or send twenty kids to school in Basilan. I don't care if it's their money, it's just simply wrong to flaunt profligacy. I know him because he was a participant in a workshop I helped run in the early nineties. And for a while, he was the constant companion of someone I knew, someone who would always go out of his way to say hi to me in public while DJ pretended not to notice a member of the proletariat (a.k.a. me). This is not to say that I took it against him, though. The way I always chose to see it, some people simply have some growing up to do.

Anyway. Because I somehow knew him, I expected to feel some connection with him while he was being interviewed by Korina. Fat chance.

I have never felt so... uncomfortable in front of a television set in my whole life. What the f*ck was that???

What was with the fake accent? What was with that inability to pronounce a simple and common Tagalog word? It's bangungot, dude. Ba-ngu-ngot!

And what was with that I'm-above-it-all, we're- made-of-better-stuff posturing? I guess that's the reason why many are repulsed by members of the social set, they project this "we're untouchable aura" that is just so galling.

Sorry, but given a choice between the screaming, incomprehensible, incoherent, hysterical real person and the carefully rehearsed, perfectly composed, calm and collected diva... I'd go for the former anytime. Anytime.

My total conversion was sealed by Mrs. Montano when she scoffed "What is 70,000 dollars?!?" She actually said it!

Surely one couldn't be that callous.

Oh I know, she meant they could have easily forked the amount over if not for their so-called "principle." Which actually is still a tasteless thing to say on public television. One simply does not flaunt one's money. What is 70,000 dollars?!? Not much to the Montanos, or so they claim. Too bad for the rest of us who don't breathe the same designer air that they apparently do. We can only dream of having that kind of money. Forget owning that kind of money. Millions of Filipinos won't even come close to touching, even simply seeing with their own two eyes that kind of money in their whole lifetime.

And too bad for Brian Gorrell who happens to say 70,000 is the difference between living and dying.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Protest, circa 2008

This was my column last Wednesday, April 9.

While on my way to a meeting last week, I came across a motley group of protesters assembling under the scorching heat of the noontime sun.

Their banners were still rolled up and some of them were still disembarking from the jeepneys that ferried them to their assembly point. In the meantime, they occupied a good part of the sidewalk, munching on sandwiches that were being distributed by one of their organizers.
I didn’t know what they were going to protest about, or where they were going to stage their protest.

I know this would come out as grossly insensitive, but then again, aren’t all mass actions essentially about the same thing these days?

The flags that are unfurled and waved at these gatherings are suspiciously the same— be it in terms of colors, logos, and even what is printed on them. It’s the same tired old clichés, which are not necessarily a commentary on the wisdom or relevance of the slogans, but more as validation of the fact that many of the issues being protested about have been there for the longest time; only the names and faces of the people being demonized have changed.

And of course, it is also a commentary about the people that invariably show up at these gatherings.

Many among us grow old and move on to other endeavors fully expecting that others will take our place and inherit the kind of idealism that is supposed to drive these actions. So very often, it does come as a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one at that, to see familiar faces still at it.
It is admirable that some people can be activists for life, but it also makes one wonder if doing so gives justice to one’s full potentials as a person.

Every single time a protest action is featured on television newscasts, I end up looking for a familiar face, that of urban poor leader Nanay Mameng Deunida. She is that grey-haired, hoarse-voiced, skin-and-bones grandmother from one of the slum areas in Pasay City who has become a fixture of the protest movement. Nanay Mameng has been active in the protest movement since the Marcos dictatorship although she only rose to national prominence during the Anti-Estrada rallies.

On one hand, it is heartwarming to note that she’s still at it despite her age and her medical condition. On the other hand, surely there is something that needs to be said about a movement that riles against exploitation, manipulation, abuse, immorality and other crimes while at the same time is blind to the suffering that is inflicted on one of their own.

And even if one were so inclined to devote all his or her life to marching in the street and shouting slogans, surely there can be alternatives or opportunities for personal growth that can be provided if they so desire. Surely Liza Masa, Satur Ocampo, Risa Hontiveros Baraquel who enjoy the privileges of being a representative have within their means to offer the alternatives if their hearts really beat with the people they claim to represent.

The least you expect from any movement is to provide for their own, particularly people who have served them well and in their old age, rather than simply use them as continuing fodder for sensationalist media coverage.

***

I’ve also been at the forefront of these rallies and protest actions as a student leader in the ’80s. Back then, protest actions were straightforward affairs. One showed up wearing the prescribed get up, marched under the heat of the sun while chanting slogans, and cheered or heckled whatever and whoever were the subject of the fiery speeches. We bought our own food, paid for our own transportation to and from the assembly points, and didn’t expect any kind of remuneration other than the psychological reward of having been part of something noble.
Today, protesters have to be ferried to the rallies. They have to be fed as well. They wear shirts that are obviously bought from the same supplier at the same time, and obviously be the same person. It has also been confirmed by many sources that many of these people are paid fixed rates for their “labor.” And these conditions apply to protesters of different political inclinations and persuasions, for or anti.

I can understand why. It has become more and more difficult to gather people willing to lend physical presence for a cause. Some people attribute this to the protest fatigue syndrome that has become prevalent lately.

Unfortunately, the lifestyles and preferences of students—the group that traditionally was the ready source of warm bodies for protest actions on account of its inherent idealism—have already evolved into something that many politicians have so far failed to have a firm grasp of. Politicians tried to entice students and the youth to get outraged over the ZTE scandal by giving them their own rally in their own venue, complete with bands and all other necessary resources. They were hoping that it would snowball into something reminiscent of the anti-Marcos or anti-Estrada protest movements. Well, nice try, but no cigar.

Students today are simply not just into marching in the street and waving placards and shouting slogans as a means of registering their protest. Why do all those when one can blog about it to his or her heart’s content, and all within the confines of an air-conditioned café or room?

Given these difficulties that protest groups have to contend with, they’ve now leveraged on the power of the media to amplify their issues. When covered by television, particularly by networks sympathetic to their causes, a rally with only a thousand people in attendance can be made to look like it approximated the crowd size of Pope John Paul’s historic mass at the Luneta.

And to better catch media’s attention, they’ve also resorted to gimmicks and antics, some of which are, quite frankly, tasteless and gaudy to pass off as funny. I know they are not meant to be funny, they are meant as serious commentaries on the state of affairs in this country. But then again, that’s precisely the problem—how are we expected to take them seriously when they indulge in tawdry gimmickry such as holding their own mock celebration of the President’s birthday where they served lechon to those in the presidential table and half a cup of rice and a small tilapia to the guests?

Anytime this week, some senators along with celebrity witness Jun Lozada will troop to the Supreme Court to file their motion for reconsideration on the executive privilege issue. I don’t expect too many people to be there given this infernal summer heat that we are experiencing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole affair is accompanied by cheap gimmickry designed to attract media attention. Perhaps a Santacruzan with Jamby Madrigal as Reyna Emperatriz and Jun Lozada as the escort?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Wonders of the world

This is my column today.

I grew up in a household where kids were regularly trundled out to entertain guests.

To prepare ourselves for these occasions when our parents would have guests, we would have “cultural programs” practically every night after dinner. In addition to the singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments for the delight of the grownups, we were also expected to show off whatever could pass off as knowledge that we had acquired by then. This often meant defining acronyms and regurgitating facts. I guess all those mini-quiz bees stoked my interest and continuing fascination with trivia.

Fortunately for me, my maternal grandmother was a teacher who was a voracious reader. She had a lifelong subscription to National Geographic and Reader’s Digest, two magazines that would qualify as my surrogate nannies. Yup, I was the nerd child who could be left alone in a corner for hours and hours with only a National Geographic and a Reader’s Digest to keep me company. I was the child who actually knew where Timbuktu was and what a Black Mamba could do.

Thus, the seven wonders of the ancient world were sites that I knew like the back of my hand. I researched on them and even memorized all the details around them: The lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus inside the Parthenon, the Colossus of Rhodes, The Temple of Artemis, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Pyramids at Giza, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

I could even recite some interesting trivia around the seven wonders such as for example how they came about. They were selected by only one man, Philon of Byzantium in 200 B.C., primarily as a travel guide for fellow Athenians, which explains why only those around the Mediterranean area were picked to be on the list.

Of the original seven wonders, only the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt remain standing. All the rest have crumbled mostly due to earthquakes. Of the seven, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is the only one that remains a mystery since no archaeological find proves that it ever existed.

There’s a reason why I am talking about the Seven Wonders of the World in this column.
I’m going to cut to the chase and state the main reason: I want you to vote for Philippine sites for an ongoing campaign for the Seven Wonders of Nature. The three Philippine sites that are nominated for the list are the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, and the Mayon Volcano in Albay. One can cast votes at this site: http://www.new7wonders.com
As of writing time, the Chocolate Hills was ranked number 13th in the voting while the Tubbataha Reef was ranked 14th. The Mayon Volcano was in rank 39.

The process to select the seven wonders of nature mirrors the same process used to select the New Wonders of the World. I am sure that you’ve heard that a campaign to choose a new list of seven wonders was held and that the results were released last year, on Aug. 7, 2007 (7 –7-07). The new list is composed of The Great Wall of China, The Taj Mahal of India, The Machu Picchu in Peru, The Petra in Jordan, The Pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico, The Christ Redeemer Statue in Brazil, and The Colosseum in Italy. More than 100 million people from all over the world cast their votes to choose the seven wonders.

The other sites that came close to being on the top seven included such wonders as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Kremlin/St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow, the Kiyomizu Temple in Japan, the Stonehenge statues in Easter Island, the Statue of Liberty in the United States, and the Opera house in Sydney, Australia. It’s a spectacular list but what makes it really noteworthy is the fact that people from all over the world chose that list. Like I said, the original wonders were chosen by only one man. The current list was arrived at using a more democratic process.

It must be pointed out though that there are certain downsides to democratic processes and that it is not infallible. The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt—the only monument that remains in the original list—failed to land in the top seven. Naturally, this has angered the Egyptians. How did that happen? My guess is that most people were confident that the site would land in the top seven they did not vote for it anymore.

I know what some of you are thinking: Why are the Banaue Rice Terraces not in the short list? We’ve all been conditioned to think that our rice terraces are the eighth wonder of the world although such a claim never had any basis.

The quick answer is that no one, certainly not our government, actively campaigned and promoted the inclusion of the Banaue Rice Terraces in the list. I am not saying that the rice terraces should have been included in the list, although I think it is comparable to the new seven wonders in certain aspects. It probably is not in the same league as the Machu Picchu in terms of overall grandeur but it certainly is comparable if not better in terms of majesty and breathtaking beauty. Of course I am biased.

But my point is that it could have been in the short list. It certainly deserves being cited as a heritage site that’s comparable to the rest of the sites in that list.

Like many others, I also have certain reservations about winning certain awards or distinctions simply because people voted out of blind loyalty or national pride. This is particularly true when it comes to beauty contests where certain awards are decided on by voting through the Internet. In case you don’t know, candidates from the Philippines invariably win awards such as Miss Photogenic because of the deluge of votes from Filipinos all over the world. Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying that those candidates did not deserve to win. All I am saying is that it would be nice if the votes were cast using a more enlightened thinking process.

However, voting for Philippine sites for the Seven Wonders of Nature is an entirely different thing altogether. Some people have anchored their campaign on the grounds that getting the Philippine sites in the list would translate into a more vibrant tourism industry. I am sure that there is some wisdom in that.

But the main reason I am campaigning for the sites is for heritage protection.

The campaign aims to preserve natural heritage sites all over the world; getting into the Top 21 ensures that attention is focused on the sites. Hopefully the attention would translate into increased awareness and appreciation for these natural wonders—enough to encourage people to help preserve them.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A very public circumcision

This is my column today.

It’s either of two things: Dumb luck or brilliant marketing strategy.

It is possible that the people behind ABS-CBN’s “Pinoy Big Brother Teen Edition Plus” simply stumbled into the circumcision issue and made an on-the-spot decision to make a big thing out of it. But it is also possible that they knew about it beforehand and that, therefore, this whole frenzy about circumcision is simply a well-calculated marketing campaign designed to attract attention and audience share.

The latter of course puts ABS-CBN’s screening process for housemates in question. I don’t think it is ethical to ask applicants highly intimate questions such as whether they are circumcised or not. At the same time, deliberately putting the spotlight on a minor for being supot, regardless of the willingness of the adolescent in question to bare it all, hardly qualifies as ethical. Or even fair.

But I would like to give ABS-CBN people the benefit of the doubt. Although I know that PBB’s ongoing focus on circumcision is primarily motivated by business concerns, I am willing to grant that the quest for ratings can be pursued alongside nobler goals.

It’s actually about time that a public discussion on something that is an integral part of our culture be conducted. It is high time that we have an intelligent and open discussion about circumcision. After all, it is a practice that majority of Filipino males submit to; and mostly without any comprehension or appreciation for the practice, or even choice on the matter. It’s just a surgical procedure we submit to because it’s part of our culture. And for many, it is a traumatic experience.

Oh, in case you don’t watch PBB and you are happily unaware about what’s happening in that very public fishbowl, one of the male teen housemates admitted on public television that he is uncircumcised. The 18-year-old housemate, Alex Anselmuccio, has a Filipina mother and an Italian father but he grew up in Italy—where circumcision is not the norm. The uncircumcised housemate has since then declared his intention to undergo circumcision inside Big Brother’s House—to become Filipino! Of course, the whole thing will be broadcast on television although no one knows yet exactly how the coverage will be handled. In the meantime, ABS-CBN has launched a gimmick to drum up more interest in Alex Anselmuccio’s rite of passage. They will conduct free circumcision to the first 100 boys to register at ABS-CBN today.

As can be expected in a country where hypocrisy is still prevalent, the censors who go by the name Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, have already sent a warning to ABS-CBN that they are closely monitoring the situation. In response, ABS-CBN executive Lauren Dyogi went into defensive mode justifying PBB’s decision to tackle the circumcision issue by trumping up the “culture” argument. In so many words, ABS-CBN believes that because circumcision is part of Philippine culture, there is nothing inherently wrong with discussing it on television or even showing footages related to the practice.

Actually, ABS-CBN is not the first television show to discuss circumcision in public television or to show footages of the practice. It’s something that news reporters regularly cover during summertime when most boys submit themselves to the practice.

In the final analysis, however, it really boils down to the kind of coverage given to the issue and what kind of footage is shown on television. Offhand, I don’t think that showing the circumcision procedure is objectionable per se as long as they are careful about the way pain and trauma is presented. The last thing we need is to traumatize young viewers. Obviously they also have to safeguard the privacy of the housemate in question. This means they have to be careful about showing body parts.

What I liked so far about the way ABS-CBN is handling the issue is the way they have been trying to do away with the stigma directed at uncircumcised males. The bullying and the teasing that uncircumcised males receive are facts of life in our culture. Kids can be cruel, particularly after they’ve been circumcised and it becomes their turn to bully younger playmates or classmates who still have to submit to the rite of passage. I know—been there, done that. I’ve had my share of being bullied in grade school. So when I finally got circumcised in Grade 5, it was payback time and I did more than my share of bullying others.

The show has gone out of its way to explain to viewers that contrary to myth, circumcision is not a global norm and that in many countries it is a choice given to males. But the reaction of the other male housemates is more telling and encouraging. They’ve expressed empathy and understanding rather than ridicule or tease the uncircumcised housemate. They’ve also shown great maturity in terms of discussing openly the various social and cultural issues around circumcision.

ABS-CBN has also shown footages of the surgeon-father of one of the teen housemates explaining the official stand of the College of Surgeons, which is that circumcision is not anymore encouraged or considered a “requirement.” There are in fact many doctors all over the world who are against the practice particularly neonatal circumcision (i.e., circumcising an infant upon delivery). According to them, circumcision violates the Golden Rule and the first tenet of the medical practice, which is “First, do no harm.” Others see circumcision as a form of mutilation, one that deprives people of a basic human right—the right to an intact body.

In some countries, circumcision is a religious practice. There are passages in the Bible that are interpreted by many as endorsing circumcision. The Philippines may be predominantly Catholic but in our country, circumcision is not associated with religion but with culture. In other words, Filipino men and boys don’t submit to the process to adhere to some religious beliefs but because in our culture, a man has not yet transitioned to adulthood if he has not gone through this process. In fact, one is never a complete man if he is uncircumcised.

And then of course, there are the many myths around circumcision. I was told, for example, that unless I submitted to the practice, I would stop growing. Experts of course say that the perceived relationship is purely coincidental since the growth spurt happens around the age bracket when a boy is ready for circumcision.

The only compelling argument that supports circumcision is hygiene. But then again, hygiene is a purely personal thing. One can be circumcised but continue to be a total slob anyway, or conversely, one can be uncircumcised but be very diligent about hygiene. Some experts cite medical benefits including lesser vulnerability to HIV infection. There is an ongoing debate on the issue, but in the end, it is really safer sexual practices that eliminate the risk of HIV transmission.

Many among us don’t want to talk about circumcision because it involves private parts and we’ve all been conditioned to think that that part of our body is taboo. It’s unfortunate of course that the current discussion is happening amidst a very artificial and seemingly contrived context, one that is fueled by commercial considerations, but if that’s what it takes to bring home the point then we should be thankful for small dividends.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Impractical nursing

This was my column yesterday, March 31.

The Philippine Nurses Association is up in arms over a proposed nursing curriculum, which institutionalizes through a ladderized scheme, a course called practical nursing.

It is easy and tempting to dismiss the assertions of the association as just another one of those overzealous attempts of a professional organization to protect the integrity and the value of its members’ dear profession. Not that the PNA should be taken to task for doing so; it is its mandate to precisely ensure that nursing continues to be a viable and reputable profession.

But is the PNA just buttressing the “exclusivity” of the nursing profession and thereby discriminating against non-graduates of four-year nursing courses as some critics contend? Or is there more to this latest wrinkle to hit the nursing profession than meets the eye?

Ladderization is this relatively new educational scheme that’s being championed by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. It’s a scheme that aims to bridge the gap between technical-vocational courses and college degrees by breaking up full degree courses into several short-term technical-vocational courses which students can take up at their convenience.

Students can then finish a full degree course in stages while already being certified and employable after finishing each stage. So far so good, right?

The scheme offers wonderful possibilities for those with natural inclination for engineering or even for those who wish to finish a medical degree but don’t have the resources to do it in one full swing.

A school in Eastern Visayas has been offering a similar scheme for would-be doctors since the eighties. One begins by finishing a course for quack doctors (actually, barangay health workers), then moves on to work at becoming a midwife. The next course would be nursing, then medical technology, and then finally, medicine. A friend who went through the scheme is proud to have five medical degrees to his name.

But because there is a huge global demand for nurses, particularly Filipino nurses, certain sectors—including unscrupulous businessmen who smell a grand opportunity to fleece people of their hard-earned money—are now proposing to apply the ladderized scheme to the nursing profession.

Under the proposed ladderized nursing curriculum, a student can become a “practical nurse” after only 18 months. Then, if he or she chooses, he or she can then proceed to take up a full nursing course later. In the meantime, the appellation “practical nurse” is supposed to be enough for one to become employable.
If we are to believe the claims of certain sectors, being a practical nurse translates into a quick passport to a nursing job abroad.

“Quick,” “employment” and “abroad.” Those are magic words guaranteed to produce hysteria. Those magic words cast a spell equivalent to the one made by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Naturally, there’s now many people enrolled in practical nursing all of them already salivating at the prospects of being among the very first few to land a job abroad as practical nurse.

The problem is that there are no jobs waiting for practical nurses—both abroad and locally. There is no demand for practical nurses. This is what the PNA and many others have been saying above the din and dynamics of the excitement. Unfortunately, no one seems to be listening—certainly not the Commission on Higher Education and not Tesda who is pushing for this latest wrinkle. Because the whole thing has the imprimatur of Tesda, the whole thing has legitimacy written all over it, in bold uppercase letters. It doesn’t mean of course that the promises being made to entice enrolment in practical nursing programs are realistic. Or attainable.

It’s the “caregiver phenomenon” all over again. That same phenomenon that sent thousands of people into “caregiver schools,” many of them with dubious credentials. I know a number of people including friends and relatives who invested hard-earned money on those caregiver courses that were supposed to be patok—guaranteed to land them jobs abroad. They likewise poured money into the processing of their papers and paid placement fees for jobs that didn’t materialize. Many of them continue to wait, hoping against hope that Canada, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom would open their gates to Filipino caregivers.

The only ones who profited from the bubble, from the mirage, were the people behind those caregiver schools. They duped people into paying for courses that had very little demand after all.

How can there be a demand for practical nurses when there is an oversupply of professional nurses to begin with?

Let’s do a quick reality check here. Yes, there is a great demand for nurses abroad. The United States, in particular, is projected to need between 500,000 to a million nurses between now and 2020. The problem is that there’s a limit in terms of how many nursing visas can be issued by the United States in a year. My sources say that no new nursing visas have been issued since middle of 2007 as the quota had been reached already.
Add to the equation the fact that we are not the only producers of nurses in the world. India, for example, is giving us stiff competition in this area and there are more Indians out there, lest we forget.

So we do have an oversupply of nurses. These include those who have just passed the nursing board exams (65,000 passed the recent board exams and another 100,000 are expected to take the next one) and those who are awaiting opportunities to get training in local hospitals. Many nurses are volunteering their services to hospitals for free. Many more are even prepared to pay hospitals just to be allowed to train.

In addition, there are a number of graduates of nursing courses who flunk the nursing board examinations. These people finished the full nursing course and are presumably better trained to assist professional nurses.
So who needs practical nurses when there are professional nurses? The PNA is right, practical nursing is a dead-end job. Legitimizing the course only creates victims.