Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Go ahead, sit down and talk!

This is my column today.

So all the furious speculating and all the frenzied efforts to ascribe motives and read all kinds of intents into the much ballyhooed impending meeting between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Manila Electric Co. chairman and chief executive Manolo Lopez proved futile after all. The meeting did not materialize. Meralco, however, was said to have been invited to the Cabinet meeting held at Panglao, Bohol, to make a presentation about its take on the current imbroglio about electricity.

I think it is sad that the meeting did not take place. Sadder still is the fact that the high-level meeting seemed to have been cancelled because too many people were wary about what the meeting would achieve. There was just too much speculative drivel from a lot of the usual well-meaning experts.

Many people in this country have become naturally suspicious of the actions of our leaders, particularly those of the President, in the light of recent revelations about allegedly clandestine meetings held with ZTE officials in China. Sadly, her critics know this and are expectedly capitalizing on this.

Adding to the pressure was the protestations of Government Service Insurance System president Winston Garcia who came very close to accusing the government of being ungrateful of his proven and steadfast loyalty and his valiant efforts to take on the Lopezes supposedly on its behalf. Of course Garcia did not say it in those exact words, but the real meaning of the gobbledygook he spewed needed no deciphering; it was clear.

What the cancellation meant was that old-school diplomacy, the one which required warring or disagreeing parties to come to the negotiation table to try to thresh out or resolve their difference in an atmosphere of civility and sincerity is really going fast, if not perhaps already gone.

This used to be the way conflicts were resolved, remember?

If two people had disagreements, they were supposed to work it out among themselves in a civil, respectable and mature way. If one had a problem with someone else, one did not necessarily go to media to amplify his position or defend the imagined slur on his honor; or to pile on dirt on the other person. One was supposed to seek out the other person in an effort to clarify things. One was supposed to come to the negotiating table to iron out what was called a gentleman’s agreement where at the end the parties shook hands either to signify that they have come to an agreement or that they have agreed to disagree.

By requesting the meeting and by signifying that they were open to it, the Lopezes and Meralco showed the stuff they are made of. Unfortunately, I wish I can say the same of others.
This kind of diplomacy used to be the accepted and honorable way to resolve conflicts.
The high level summits between the presidents of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war era were classic examples. Two other examples come to mind as I wrote this piece.

There was a time, when Cory Aquino was President, when she was having some problems with then Defense Secretary (now Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile.

Enrile was then being vocal about his criticisms about Aquino and there was much speculative drivel being raked up in the press that tended to aggravate the impasse further. That particular conflict was resolved quickly when Aquino sought Enrile to ask him what the problem was. I don’t anymore remember what Aquino’s exact dialog was or Enrile’s exact repartee—I only remember that Enrile was caught by surprise and stammered that he really had no issues with then President Aquino, but rather, with the people around her. Aquino’s efforts to reach out and show willingness to resolve the issue paid off at that particular time.

Another incident that easily comes to mind happened when I was in college in Tacloban City, when AM radio was most powerful and hard-hitting radio commentators reigned supreme. I remember one incident when the top AM radio station in the city spewed an all-out barrage of criticisms directed at the then female city mayor supposedly for berating a student leader who applied for a rally permit. The radio commentators lambasted the mayor for hours and went to town doing what radio commentators do best: Crucify public officials on air.

Imagine the listeners’ surprise when they heard the mayor’s calm voice interrupt the relentless on-air attack on her person. What happened was that she had walked into the radio booth, took a seat in front of the commentators, grabbed a microphone, and announced to everyone calmly and in a mature way: “Here I am, say these accusations to my face and let me answer them as well.” They had to go to a commercial break. After a few minutes, you bet they were all cordial and agreeable.

My point is that a lot of things can be resolved in this country if only people were more open to resolving differences the civil and amicable way rather than picking fights with others on public media.

For example, and this is an idea that was broached by a blogger friend of mine several months ago, wouldn’t it be such a great idea if the President would walk (without cameras in tow) into the office of a senator who is openly critical of her actions, sit down and tell that senator “You have a problem with me, let’s hear it and see how we can resolve it.”

Oh I know it’s not as simple as it seems and we don’t have to be literal about it. I know that it is difficult to negotiate under an atmosphere of mutual distrust, which is why third party roles such as conciliators or mediators have been invented.

There comes a point when one simply wishes that people re-learn the fine art of diplomacy. I don’t know about you, but this is a thought that’s been top of my mind lately: Why don’t our leaders just sit down and discuss their differences among themselves like the mature, responsible, intelligent people that they are supposed to be?

Senseless and gruesome

This was my column last Monday, May 19.

The magnitude of the crime committed at the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Cabuyao Laguna branch last Friday is simply beyond words.

When the news reverberated across the country last Friday, many among us in the banking industry were stupefied. Most were reduced to shaking heads, unable to comprehend the reprehensible crime. The words gruesome, horrifying and dastardly don’t even begin to describe the act.

Although being held up at gunpoint is a thought that many bankers don’t bring to the conscious level, it is nevertheless a risk that we know we face everyday. This is why banks do train employees on how to deal with such situations. As a trainer in one of the top universal banks, I personally conduct training programs that teach bank employees techniques on how to proactively manage robbery situations. This includes not engaging the perpetrators in eye contact so as to avoid being suspected of having identified any of them. The general assumption was that a robbery is mounted for one and only one purpose: For the robbers to abscond with the money. Darn it, they were supposed to grab the money, not harm anyone, and run off as quickly as possible.

I don’t think any bank or anyone for that matter has ever entertained the thought that a bank heist would ever come to such a gruesome end where everyone inside the premises would be killed mercilessly.

As bankers, we know at the back of our minds that the possibility of being held up—however remote it may be— exists, and come with the job. But up until last Friday, the possibility that one would come across such lowlife creatures —I have difficulty referring to the perpetrators of the crime as human beings because how can any one with a beating heart and a functioning mind be blind, deaf, and generally insensitive to the cries for help or mercy of another human being—in one’s line of work was simply inconceivable. Are there really people with such unspeakable evil in their hearts walking in this world?

According to reports, all nine victims —eight of them employees in the bank, and one client—were shot at point blank range. They seemed to have been lined up “gang” way and systematically shot in the head. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to stand in a line and witness your colleagues being shot down one by one and being cognizant, in a surreal way, that you could be next. I know that what I am writing is dreadful and I apologize; but we must not let the rage inside us die down—what was done to all nine victims was unspeakable evil. No one should be made to go through something as horrible.

We all hoped and prayed that Isagani Pastor, the bank’s client relations manager, the only one who was still alive when police arrived at the scene last Friday, would survive. But he had also passed on as I wrote this piece. The work that lay in store for our investigators has just become more difficult.

There are many theories about what must have happened inside the RCBC Cabuyao branch that fateful rainy end-of-the-workweek morning.

One theory is that the criminals must have been known to the employees; this is supposed to explain why the employees were killed. But it doesn’t explain why they were killed in such a gruesome way. One theory being whispered about involves personal motives—a kind of rage killing. There is not much basis for this theory and I am personally inclined to dismiss this as pure hearsay. But what is clear and cannot be disputed is that the perpetrators were simply evil beyond words.

All banks are equipped with various security measures including time delay locks installed in cash vaults as well as cameras that record all movements inside a bank. Banks also have security procedures in place.

It appears that the vault was opened. This was possibly because the bank was not open for business yet and the bank cashier must have been still preparing the cash requirements for the day. But why was a huge amount of money—round three million worth of dollars and yen, reports say—left strewn around? Perhaps because the criminals knew that foreign currencies are documented, photocopied even, and are easily tracked? Perhaps because these represent a pittance compared to the overall booty?

It still isn’t clear if the built-in cameras in the bank were malfunctioning at the time of the robbery or if they were destroyed by the criminals. The branch was relatively new and banks do invest heavily on security measures so it is inconceivable for RCBC to have non-functioning cameras.

What is clear is that the criminals were not amateurs as many were quick to point out. One broadcaster opined— ludicrously—on public television that it would have been much easier for the criminals to have worn masks over their faces if they knew any better. To begin with, it is not known if they did or did not wear masks. The timing of the crime—the bank was still closed for business so the criminals had more time in their hands—as well as the other clues that cannot be revealed yet indicate that it was a well-planned heist.

What happened last Friday breached new alarm levels in terms of security precautions in this country. Obviously, banks have to reinforce current security measures and procedures to ensure that a similar tragedy would not recur. In other countries, banks are practically fortresses, but very tough security measures seem to run counter to the very personalized way of banking in our culture. And really, if we come down to it, the most advanced security measures are puny when one comes face-to-face with pure evil.

It is easy to politicize what happened. I admire the tenacity of the gun ban advocates, but quite frankly, I hope we don’t exploit the tragedy for whatever gains. What happened last Friday was not about the gun ban issue, nor about the death penalty issue. This is not about the corruption that is happening in this country. It’s about how our society has bred low-life creatures that are now brazenly showing to the world just how little value or worth they put on human lives when these get in the way of their evil schemes.

I condole with the families and friends of the victims of Friday murders. At the same time, I would like to personally reach out to my good friends and colleagues at RCBC, particularly my good friend Edwin Ermita, who seems to have aged a lot since last Friday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prepaid electricity

This is my column today.

I was in Tacloban City over the weekend where I got acquainted with the latest power distribution system that seems to be working well in terms of lowering electricity usage and costs, as well as in terms of lowering power systems losses.

It’s called prepaid electricity system.

I know. It sounds funny and incongruous. At first blush, it sounds like we’ve pushed our tingi mentality to ridiculous extremes. We’re probably one of the very few remaining countries in the world with a market that still thrives on the sari-sari store system—the same system that encourages people to buy most goods in sachets, from shampoo to toothpaste to seasoning. I don’t mean to come across as this snotty person who looks down on people who buy tingi; it’s just that there a lot of things wrong with a system that discourages people from thinking more strategically and proactively; and which happens to do more harm to the environment by using up and producing more plastic than necessary.

But a number of my friends in Tacloban swear by the efficiency of the system. A college friend of mine says that her household’s electricity consumption has been reduced significantly since they switched to the prepaid system. It’s because the system allows them to plan their electricity usage more effectively because they pay in advance for it. The net result is that they have become more responsible in their use of electricity.

The system is quite simple. A special prepaid meter is installed in lieu of the usual electric meters. The prepaid meter contains indicators that show up how much electricity credits are still available as well as a keypad which consumers can use to input electric load credits which they buy in increments of 100 pesos. The meter automatically shuts down a household’s electricity system as soon as the credits are consumed.

Unlike the ordinary meters which only record consumption and which require a “reader” to monitor, the prepaid meter allows consumers to plan their electricity consumption more effectively. Because they pay for the electricity in advance, the impact of the expense is immediately felt compared to the usual system which in effect makes consumers automatically at debt to the power supplier.

There are many benefits that can be derived from implementing a prepaid electricity system. Obviously, there is no need for additional manpower to serve as meter readers. This translates into lower overhead costs for power suppliers. Theoretically, power suppliers are also prevented from charging systems losses to consumers although of course we all know that as we have learned in the case of Meralco, there are many creative ways to milk consumers dry. Long queues at payment stations as well as for other services are also done away.

It’s a system that is working quite well in Tacloban City. I was told by electric cooperative personnel that the same system is being implemented in other cities such as Palawan, Cebu and even in Baguio.

It’s a system that empowers consumers to have control of their electricity consumption and expense. When a household is running low on electricity credits as indicated in their prepaid meter, they can simply unplug some electrical equipment or ration electricity usage more effectively.

A friend in Tacloban who switched to the system told me that they now know how much electricity each appliance in their house consumes. In the process, they have become wiser and more practical.

Given the current electrical imbroglio, one wonders why a similar system has not been put in place in Metro Manila. Perhaps because the system puts power in the hands of consumers rather than on the wily machinations of big business?

* * *

I have written in the past about how protesters have become more and more creative—and recently, more antagonistic and hostile—in their efforts to amplify their issues and grievances. What was a seeming isolated incident of one graduating student mounting a protest in the middle of her own graduation ceremonies last year was duplicated twice over a couple of weeks ago. And by the looks of it, the recent two incidents are not the end of it.

The graduation ceremonies of the University of the Philippines-Manila and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines were marred—or made more memorable, depending on where one’s political affiliation lies—by protests mounted by some members of the graduating class. At the UP Manila graduation, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno was the guest speaker while Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita was the special guest at the PUP graduation.

Both Puno and Ermita shrugged off the incidents. Both claimed that they empathized with the protesting students. I am not privy to the temperament of the two gentlemen, but their pronouncements on the incidents were expected as it would have reflected badly on their character had they taken offense. However, I doubt if both would be happy to accept invitations in the future without some guarantees that a similar incident would not recur. I doubt if both universities would be able to invite controversial national figures to serve as guest speakers in future graduation ceremonies.

Many of my friends thought that the two incidents reflected negatively on the universities concerned and on the kind of training they provide in terms of building the character of their students. I have a more ambivalent stance on the matter as I think that universities and schools should first and foremost teach students to think for themselves and speak their own minds. A hallmark of a credible university is in its ability to produce students who can think for themselves and act independently.

Having said that, however, I must admit that I also empathize with the other members of the two graduating classes who felt that the protesting students deprived them of their right to enjoy their graduation ceremonies in the way they wanted to —free from political noise and in-your-face protests. One graduate from PUP summed it up quite nicely when he told me that “parang sila lang ang student sa PUP at kanila lang ang graduation na ’yun.”

Perhaps future student leaders who intend to ape the protesters during the UP and PUP graduation ceremonies recently can also take into account the feelings and opinions of the other members of the graduating class.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paranoia and high stakes bluff

This was my column yesterday.

The unexpected twists and turns in the ongoing soap opera featuring Manila Electric Co. and the Government Service Insurance System—or between the Lopezes and the Arroyo administration, if we are to believe some overactive and malicious minds out there—underscore the very fragile state of affairs in this country. It does look like most of us are suffering from a terrible case of paranoia that makes us automatically suspect the worst in others.

In ordinary times, concerns over runaway rates of a basic necessity such as electricity should have merited groundswell support from various sectors. Except for those who are associated with the power industry, who in this country does not want lower electricity rates? So at the very least, we should have had an enlightened, collaborative, problem-solving approach to the electricity imbroglio. What happened instead was that people allowed paranoia to prevail over their better judgment. Instead of getting down to the roots of the issues and contributing to the quest for a win-win solution, most preferred to ascribe various motivations to the actions and statements of the parties involved.

The government was accused of masterminding a takeover of the biggest power company in the country. Some sectors went as far as accusing the government of waging a vendetta on the Lopezes on account of the very negative press it had been getting from Meralco’s sister company, ABS-CBN. Both were speculative drivel, but at the rate these accusations were being repeated, it didn’t take long before they began to sound like Gospel truth.

Meralco, on the other hand, was accused of corporate tomfoolery, which could be summarized in this way: Sustained and massive swindling of consumers. If we are to believe the government’s spin on the issue, the reason why power rates in Luzon are higher than those in the Visayas and Mindanao is because Meralco has been passing on to consumers a number of hidden charges and costs and that Meralco is mismanaged.

The accusations sent analysts into overdrive, spinning all kinds of conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios. As expected, politicians jumped into the fray to stoke the conflict into becoming a major conflagration. What was a relatively simple issue of bringing electricity costs down has become an occasion for intense saber rattling and high-stakes bluffing. Consequently, it has metamorphosed as fodder for our favorite national pastime and source of entertainment—a congressional inquiry.

The business sector was expected to rally behind any campaign to bring down electricity costs. After all, hasn’t business been riling endlessly about how the prohibitive cost of electricity in this country was making it hard for its players to turn in a decent profit? So when the President’s pitch to the business sector enjoining everyone to join in the quest to bring Meralco power rates at par with those in the Visayas and Mindanao fell on deaf ears, eyebrows were raised. How can the business sector ignore something that is supposed to be beneficial to it?

Lower electricity rates benefit the poor; any effort to make life easier for the masses is bound to get the support of the hearts that bleed for the poor in this part of the world, right? Up until last week, it was unthinkable to imagine Bayan stalwart Teddy Casiño as a fierce defender of capitalists and big business. Casiño, Liza Masa, Crispin Beltran and the other party-list representatives in Congress are supposed to be anti-capitalist and anti-big business. They are supposed to be for the nationalization of major industries in this country so the ballyhooed takeover of Meralco by government should have sent them into somersaults. But our leftist friends in Congress are instead ferociously defending Meralco and the Lopezes.

The problem is that we have a government that has very little credibility, particularly in terms of good corporate governance. Because of a dismal track record in upholding transparency in government dealings, government has very little moral authority to preach on the matter, particularly to the business sector. And unfortunately, big business is aware of this predicament and is taking full advantage of the situation by deliberately being defiant. It’s a lose-lose situation for government.

It doesn’t help, of course, that government has also been unclear about what its real agenda is—what it really wants and how, or up to what extent, it is willing to go to get what it wants on the issue around electricity rates. To complicate things further, people in government continue to sing in discordant voices. Is this really simply about lowering electricity rates, or is there more than meets the eye? Is a takeover of Meralco part of the plan? Is GSIS really acting on its own accord, or is the government behind the saber rattling? No one knows because no one is giving straight answers, which leads many people to suspect that it’s all a bluff.

It is also very tempting to picture Meralco as the proverbial big bad (greedy) wolf in this whole scheme of things. It is a profitable business enterprise, although, to be frank about it, not as profitable as it should be given its assets. It also happens to be one of the leaders in the industry in terms of compensation and benefits— Meralco is renowned for having the lowest employee turnover rates in the country as hardly anyone resigns from the power firm because of its long history as a good provider for its employees.

But is Meralco passing on charges to its consumers in violation of legal and ethical rules? This is a valid question that Meralco refuses to answer in a straightforward manner. Meralco is preventing GSIS, which, together with other government agencies, owns 33 percent of the firm from taking a look at its books.

The truth is that Meralco has a lot of explaining to do to its stakeholders. It is benefiting from the generally low credibility of this administration, but there is a limit to how much it can shield itself by conjuring legal gobbledygook. At the end of the day, Meralco is answerable to consumers as a public corporation that thrives on its image as a responsible corporate citizen. It must aspire to be honorable even if others are not; even if the government is not.

All this talk about a takeover is really smoke-and-mirrors. Anyone out there who thinks a takeover is a viable option must be extremely naïve. The Lopezes may be sick and tired of all the regulatory restrictions that come with managing a public utility company, but aside from the fact that Meralco is a crown jewel in the family business empire, it also happens to be a firm that is closely tied in to the family’s history and legacy. Meralco is not just a business venture for the Lopezes. And anyone who thinks that the government can successfully conduct a corporate raid at a time when people—particularly businessmen—are edgy is out of his mind. It’s not going to happen.

So let’s keep the discussion focused on what is real, doable and relevant: Keeping electricity rates down. It’s an issue that is valid and which requires effective responses—both short-term and long-term. Surely we can do better without resulting to high stakes bluffing and giving way to paranoia.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gay Marian devotion is wrong?

This is my column today.

Most newspapers carried on their front pages yesterday a report detailing Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales’ disapproval of the participation of cross-dressing gay men in the traditional Santacruzan or Flowers of May celebration.

The good cardinal tried not to come across as a gay-bashing intolerant bigot by stressing that he has nothing against gays or homosexuals. He said he was simply trying to keep the “sacredness” of the Santacruzan. “What is sacred should be kept sacred,” he said.

However, there was little doubt about the intensity of his disgust for gay men wearing gowns and parading in a ceremony where an image of the Virgin Mary is present. “That’s not right, you are destroying the purity of the devotion,” he was quoted as saying. Some reports said the Cardinal actually cried “Ay naku po, nakakapanghilakbot” [it’s horrendous]!”

If we are to take the Cardinal’s statements, there is no place for gay men —or at least those wearing gowns—in the Santacruzan since in his own words, allowing gays to be part of the Santacruzan “defeats the real purpose of the religious procession.” The cardinal said that “instead of giving honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary, you are destroying the devotion by having gays there instead of women. As a result it becomes a laughing matter.”
I have some issues with the Cardinal’s vehement reaction.

First of all, it is wrong for him to accuse cross-dressing gay men as the (only) people who are destroying the supposed purity of the devotion.

I’m not sure how many Santacruzan events the cardinal have been to in the last decade. I have personally witnessed a number of them as I happen to have relatives and friends who have this penchant for dolling up the more “presentable” young female members of their families and fielding them as sagalas in far too many Santacruzan processions. Guess what, very few understand or are even aware of the religious significance of the event. For most people, it is simply the neighborhood version of a fashion show, or of the Mardi Gras. Now it has also become a drag show. Why? Because most people think that is the essence of the Santacruzan!

Ask any kid today if they understand what the Santacruzan is about and I guarantee you blank faces. So if people don’t appreciate or care to protect the supposed sanctity of the Santacruzan, the Catholic hierarchy has only itself to blame for failing to teach the faithful about the religious significance of the event. Blaming others is a cop out.

The cardinal is right in asking that religious events be respected. However, I object to the cardinal’s selective condemnation. Your Eminence, it’s been decades since the Santacruzan has been turned into a commercial parade with no religious reference whatsoever other than the crucifixes the queens in the parade carry in their hands. It’s been decades since fashion designers and beauty contests have turned the Santacruzan into a showcase of their fashion inspirations and misadventures. It’s been a number of years since the last Miss Universe pageant was held here where contestants were made to participate in a very commercial and contrived Santacruzan wearing atrocious gowns, including one consisting merely of the skeleton of a ball gown.

The cardinal does not seem to find fault with how the Santacruzan has become a classic showcase of commercialism and how it perpetuates misogyny; as long as the participants continue to be models and beauty queens who are biologically female.

So the cardinal thinks that cross-dressing gay men destroy the sanctity of the Santacruzan. Unfortunately, he did not clarify exactly how gay men do that by simply participating in the event.

Some of the gay men who participate in the Santacruzan do take their Marian devotion seriously. And if we are to be honest about it, it’s not really the cross-dressing gay men who turn the whole thing into a comedy—it is the people who watch the Santacruzan that find something hilarious at the sight of cross-dressing gay men regardless of what they look like.

I am sure that there are gay men— and I’ve seen many—who also play to the crowd by giving them exactly what they want: Something to laugh about. But really, it is the members of audience who taunt, jeer, and throw insults at the cross-dressing gay men—what else are they supposed to do given the embarrassing situation? Many of these gay men take their devotion and their participation seriously; they even save up hard-earned money to buy their gowns only to end up being the butt of jokes of people who look down on them because of their gender.

Of course, the cardinal and the morally superior don’t find anything wrong with the cruelty displayed by those who insult and do harm to other people. The cardinal’s latest diatribe even gives license to bigots to continue hating gay men. As usual, as in the case of the Cebu canister scandal, the Church found fault with the victims rather than those who victimize them.

But I understand the cardinal; certain rules of decorum should be respected. Fine. Religious events should not be turned into a drag show.

The question that begs an answer now is: Is the Catholic Church saying there is no room for gay men in its religious events? What does the Catholic Church want to do with gay men who take their Marian devotion and their faith seriously? Asking gay men to deny their identity for the sake of their faith smacks of hypocrisy because who they are is precisely the bedrock of their faith. Surely God judges people based on what is in their hearts, not based on what they are wearing.

The cardinal insists the issue is religious, not gender. I completely agree with him. This is not a gay rights issue, this is a religious issue. And what the cardinal seems to be saying is that gay men have no religious rights.

In the name of "bongga!"

This was my column last Monday, May 5.

Anyone in search of a metaphor to describe the state of the country would have found it Saturday night at the Cultural Center of the Philippines grounds where the Aliwan Fiesta was held.

The country may be going through various crises of huge proportions but these cannot and will not stop the Filipino from spending inordinate amounts of money to celebrate a fiesta. And in the most bongga way ever! Thus, traffic along Roxas Boulevard was hopelessly tangled last Saturday, as 25 of the most popular fiestas from all over the archipelago converged in Manila to outperform, outsmart, and outspend each other for the distinction of being hailed the best of the best.

Not even a heavy downpour could dampen the spirits of the tens of thousands of performers and spectators —from as far north as Isabela to as far south as Zamboanga—who all came in anticipation of a grand fiesta. They were not disappointed.

We do have this predilection to do celebrations in a magnified, grand, over-the-top scale, in line with our bongga mentality. And a fiesta—the communal orgy of dancing, eating, drinking and general splurging—fits perfectly as an occasion to let loose our bongga mentality.

A fiesta exemplifies the lengths to which we go through in an effort to showcase—supposedly—culture, religion, tradition, history and local color in the most bongga way ever. In every barrio in this country, people will hock the farmland or sell the last carabao to finance a fiesta and then subsist on practically nothing for the rest of the year. Local governments may not have money to pay the wages of their employees but will not spare any expense to mount a fiesta to end all others.

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Since towns and cities need to have fiestas that are decidedly unique and different from all the others, local governments have indulged in various types of gimmickry to drumbeat their own fiestas. The prevailing trend is to pick something— anything—that’s supposed to be organic to the locality such as a product, a norm, or a historical fact, embellish it, and then turn it into some kind of a “festival.”

The result is a cornucopia of inspired madness. Some even attempt to land in the Guinness Book of Records by grilling the most number of vegetables in one location, or rolling the longest tobacco, or mounting the most number of people doing the same thing at a given hour.

In the past, fiestas were primarily in honor of the barrio’s or town’s patron saint. Some fiestas are still about saints and religious icons. The Sinulog of Cebu, the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, and the Moriones of Marinduque still celebrate religious piety. But other fiestas are not anymore about religion. Some fiestas now revolve around vegetables, animals, events, historical facts, produce, even virtues and ideals.

This unusual turn of events has turned our anthropologists and sociologists into a tizzy. But in the meantime, no amount of admonitions about a lingering rice crisis, dire warnings about committing sacrilege, even appeals about the need to be relevant, can stop us from mounting and enjoying a fiesta that is grander, more colorful and more spectacular than those of others. In other words, on with the bongga!

My own hometown, Abuyog, which lies along the fringes of the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Leyte, was picked to be one of the 25 contingents to the Aliwan Fiesta. My hometown happens to have a festival called Buyogan named in honor of bees (buyog), from which the town got its name. The festival pales in comparison to the grandeur or the popularity of the more established festivals such as the Sinulog or the Ati-atihan (which won the top plums, as expected). Obviously, we don’t have the resources or the decades-long experience of the festivals of the major cities.

But Buyogan thrives on an authentic and unique concept and is anchored strongly on the tenacity and community spirit of the townspeople. It’s a festival that highlights the convergence of history, culture, and environmental protection. So it came to pass that 300 schoolchildren from our town found their way to Manila to compete with the more established festivals. And naturally, it became an occasion for pride and bayanihan for all of us sons and daughters of our beloved town who all rallied in support of our own Buyogan.

The Aliwan Fiesta dangled a booty of a million pesos for the grand winner of the streetdancing competition. A million pesos sounds like a huge amount but in reality, it does not cover the amount needed to transport, feed, and clothe hundreds of performers and their coterie of chaperones and support staff. But as town Mayor Octavio Traya said, what was at stake was the town’s pride and honor so everyone pitched in to get the kids to Manila.

Buyogan won fifth place among a field of 25 contestants. Not a bad showing considering that, like I said, the others clearly had the edge in terms of resources and experience. Unlike other contingents that had the benefit of having professional dancers from major universities participating, the Buyogan participants were all schoolchildren most of which set foot in Manila for the very first time. Proof indeed that even little towns can be on equal footing with the rest in terms of talent and guts.

Let me in this piece say, by calling attention to the fact that while the organizers behind the Aliwan Festival should be commended for the inspired idea of bringing together the best festivals in the country in a spirit of friendly competition, that a lot more could have been done to ensure that the whole spectacle could be enjoyed by all. Commercial considerations dictate that the festival be held in front of the headquarters of the Manila Broadcasting Corp. which was the major sponsor of the event.

But the narrow and confined space was hardly the best place for such a huge spectacle. Most of the hundreds of thousands who converged on that narrow road between the CCP and Aliw Theatre had to contend with watching the proceedings from a handful of small projection screens which did not do justice to the pageantry of the streetdancing. So perhaps holding it at the Quirino Grandstand or the Rizal Memorial Stadium where more people can watch in comfort can be considered the next time around.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

May Day

This was my column last April 30.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, also known as international worker’s day.

Everyone should expect the usual demonstrations and speeches as the working class assert their rights and insist on better recognition of the important roles they play in industry and society. Although the celebration has its roots in the eight hour-day movement, which advocated that work hours be limited to eight hours (the remaining 16 hours to be divided equally for recreation and rest) and the Haymarket riots in Chicago in 1886, May 1 has also been appropriated by the socialist movement as an important commemorative day.

Thus, May 1 is usually celebrated in the former Soviet Union states, Cuba, and in the People’s Republic of China with grand military parades and display of power and force. The United States, of course, sets its own celebration of Labor Day on the first week of September. But elsewhere, as in the Philippines, May 1 is an occasion to celebrate the many social and economic achievements of the labor sector, most of which were attained through hard work and vigilance.
We should expect militant labor groups to assert their political and ideological agenda. It’s their day, after all.

In the run-up to this year’s Labor Day, the government and our legislators have been rushing several measures which would comprise their gift to the labor sector tomorrow. Our senators and congressmen had months to work on the Cheaper Medicine Act, but they felt the urgency only recently when someone brought up the idea that Congress needed to gift workers with something on the first of May.

Up until last Monday, certain congressmen were still flailing around and threatening all kinds of hexes and curses on what was supposed to be a watered-down version of the bill. It didn’t look like a compromise was in the offing. But now that the bill has been packaged as a gift to workers—a sector any legislator or elected official can’t afford to antagonize, and definitely not when an election is in the offing—people are suddenly more open to compromises.

I am told that, as usual, Rep. Teddyboy Locsin is the person that has made the breakthrough in the long-awaited Cheaper Medicine Bill. What can I say, other people can hem and haw, blabber like baboons, and swagger around like idiots but when push comes to shove, it takes real intelligence to get things done. And so, as I write, it looks like the bill will be enacted into law after all, just in time for tomorrow.

I have a problem with this collective penchant for setting certain deliverables to coincide with certain days. It’s like taking one’s significant other and being nice to that person on Valentine’s Day and then ignoring that person the rest of the year. Or not being naughty only on Christmas. Or displaying good behaviors such as not smoking on New Year’s Day. Or taking a bath only on one’s birthday.

So just because it’s Labor Day, people are rushing things and working overtime just so there could be some good news that could be delivered to workers. I know it’s better than nothing. At least there are some efforts to pay attention to the plight of workers even if it’s only on Labor Day. But if we come to think about it, that’s not really good news, is it? Surely we can become more proactive and strategic in the way we deal with our most important resource left which are people. I’ve said this a lot of times but I will say it again here and now: All or most of our other resources are already gone, and the only remaining source of competitive advantage that we have in vast quantities is people. Token gifts on Labor Day and half-baked palliative measures won’t cut it.

Most industry groups are already resigned to the possibility that a mandated wage hike increase is in the offing. A wage hike at this point is going to be counter-productive because it will further fuel the vicious cycle of spiraling prices and costs in this country.

To be able to afford the wage increase, industry will have to source the additional money to cover the spike in operational cost from somewhere. This means that to be able to pay their cashiers and merchandisers higher wages, supermarket chains will most likely impose price increases on the goods they sell. Restaurants, food chains, and other establishments will have to increase the prices of their products and services. Factories will have to charge extra as well.

And so on. To cut a long story short, industry will only pass it on to consumers eventually.
At least Congress and Malacañang have withdrawn their initial (ridiculous) proposal for a legislated wage increase. The matter has been delegated to the regional wage boards, as it should be. The dynamics are different in each region and all these need to be taken into account in the determination of any wage hike. It doesn’t make sense to decree a uniform wage increase across the country.

There’s actually a much better way to do it, which is to empower workers and management to discuss and agree on any employment issue including wage increases. Some companies are obviously doing so well that they can afford to give their employees double, even triple the current minimum wages, and a number of them do just that. Others are barely getting by and can’t even afford the current minimum wages; asking them to comply with higher minimum wages is like asking them to commit suicide.

The reality is that many companies do have collective bargaining agreements in place and many of these agreements have insulated these companies and their employees from the minimum wage increase brouhaha. In other words, the minimum wages in these companies are already over and above the reach of any new wage hikes.

Similar mechanisms such as labor management councils or management-employee collaborative councils can be strengthened. Wage hikes should be productivity driven. They must take into account the individual conditions of the companies that hire the employees in the first place. If Congress truly wants to safeguard the welfare of workers, it can pass a bill empowering workers to negotiate directly with management on wage hikes, subject to certain parameters such as financial conditions, productivity, etc.


And of course, government can strengthen social security in the country. The current move to provide cash assistance to the poor is admirable, but it doesn’t qualify as social security. This administration is doing a fantastic job of sending the message that it cares for the people while at the same time confusing the issues. It reminds one of the smoke and mirrors tricks.

The state of old movie houses

This is a very late post. Sorry, I've been travelling a lot lately.

There is something that I have long wanted to write about in this column but never had the chance to do until now: What have become of public movie theaters in the country. I’ve written about it a couple of years back in my blog though, but a recent trip to Davao City rekindled the urge to make public commentary about it.

I spent a considerable part of my growing up years inside movie theaters. I’m still a film enthusiast today. This was because I grew up in a family where most members were huge fans of the movies and of celebrities. An aunt was a diehard fan of Amalia Fuentes while one of my yayas was a certified Noranian to the very core; both were the types who were willing to kill or die for their idols. My fascination and lifelong interest in films became deeply ingrained while finishing my my elementary grades in Davao City where I had the great fortune of having for a best friend someone whose family owned movie houses. This meant free admission to the movies anytime, although most of the films we got to watch were the Chinese kung fu variety. These were movies were people perched on top of bamboo sticks, used fans and chopsticks as deadly weapons, and where people mouthed dialogues like "you must be tired of living" in sing-song fashion.

Up until I was in College, the main sources of entertainment and relaxation were the movies. Back then, movie houses were the preferred venues for couples going on dates. Movie houses were grandiose structures – the ones in Avenida and Recto in Manila, for example, had astounding facades that were undoubtedly great works of architecture. Some of them have been declared national heritage sites, in fact.

Watching movies then was a real physical experience as one ascended imposing and winding staircases or promenaded through a spacious lobby that featured astounding art deco pieces. Movie houses, not just movies, were a large part of our culture.

While in Davao over the weekend, I met up with my childhood friend - the one whose family owned movie houses – and while reminiscing upon the proverbial good old days, we hit upon a tragic realization. Most of the old movie houses in this country are gone and the few who are left standing are in decrepit and pitiful state they serve no other practical purpose other than as food for termites. Many movie houses in Davao have been transformed into warehouses, or worse, bars that display entertainment of the ribald variety. Of the three movie houses my friend’s family used to own, only one remains standing although it had been padlocked for a number of years already, unable to compete with the more modern movie houses inside malls or with pirated DVDs and VCDs.

And in a rather strange twist of fate, a number of these old movie houses have been transformed into… of all possible options, places of worship! They are not being torn down to give rise to the construction of new edifices or churches, they are simply renovated and in some cases simply re-outfitted with new lighting fixtures and presto, a place of worship! The trend is not only widespread in Metro Manila – such as those in Cubao and in the North Avenue area in Quezon City. I have been to cities outside the metro where I have seen theatre marquees proclaiming not the titles of movies, but fellowship or worship sessions for various religious fundamentalist groups.

Let me state for the record that I have nothing against these religious groups per se, or at the way they have appropriated these movie houses for their use. At its barest essence, a movie house is after all an auditorium and presumably ideal for any activity where someone wearing atrocious clothes flails on stage and threatens everyone with mayhem unless they converted to their group. I just find a number of seemingly incongruous issues around it. For example, does it mean that the kind of worship that takes place inside a movie house is also, how shall I say this, make believe or illusory? If the movie house in question had a reputation for sleaze and all kinds of lubricous behaviors, do they conduct exorcism inside the movie houses to neutralize it first?

Today, movie houses are mostly found inside malls where people are forced to cough off a fortune just to be able to watch movies the traditional and communal way – in a large imposing silver screen, in the company of hundreds of kindred spirit. One has to pay parking fees, eat, shop, and do a thousand other unnecessary things and make a thousand other unessential purchases along the way.

The movie houses are getting smaller and more intimate. And horrors, the cost of admission have risen in reverse proportion. The smaller movie houses have become, the more expensive the prices of tickets. In the meantime, the old magnificent structures stand forlorn, neglected and decaying.The main reason, of course, why our old movie houses have been reduced to such a dismal and pitiful state is because they have become obsolete and consequently, nonviable business enterprises. Very few people watch movies inside these places anymore because people’s tastes and preferences have changed drastically. It didn’t help that many of these movie houses failed to keep up with advances in audio-visual technology or improved the general safety and convenience of movie watching.

Just the same, something must be said about the social and cultural implications of the way our society has simply moved on with development without any concern for history and heritage. Many of our old movie houses are real and authentic national landmarks. It is really such a waste that we have been unable to protect them, not only from going bankrupt, but also from general decay and decomposition. I guess this is just another tragic consequence of our utter lack of lack of foresight and sense of history.

***

In my travels out of Manila for the last three weeks, I have made it a point to visit public markets and the places where NFA rice is being sold. I checked out Bacolod the other weekend, and Davao City over the weekend. Guess what, there are indeed long lines of people in places where NFA rice is available, but the situation is not anywhere near media wants us to believe.

If we are to believe media reports of the rice crisis, people are angry and restless and have turned into mobs in certain places and the country seems on the brink of a civil war. This is farthest from the truth, particularly outside Metro Manila. This brings us to the realization that so much of what we see in the news is really sensationalized and blown out of proportion.