Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Swimming with the current

This is my column today.

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Jefferson’s quotation came to mind for a number of reasons.

First because it seems everyone is spewing words of wisdom lately without making the right attribution. For example, some Cabinet members have been regurgitating that line about how a leader who sacrifices principles at the altar of popularity is ineffective or something sounding like that, as if the insight was something they themselves invented.

The idea was to diffuse the results of the recent Pulse Asia survey, which revealed just how unpopular the President had become, by pointing out that what was popular was not always right. Conversely, what was right was not necessarily popular. We were all conditioned to think that the President was going to stick to principle, popularity be damned. What they conveniently left out was that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive—that a leader can in fact be both right and popular. This President can be popular while sticking to principle.

Second, because I think that was what the President was trying to convey last Monday in her State-of-the-Nation Address as she tried to pander to as many stakeholders as possible while trying to bring home the message that she and her administration were on track.
Whether or not she succeeded is another thing altogether.

But say what you will about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s character and performance—the one thing you can’t ignore about her is her stubbornness and dogged persistence; she can’t be faulted for not working hard, or for trying harder. Swim with the current she did last Monday; and furiously at that. Stand like a rock she did too, on matters perceived by this administration to be beneficial to the people in the long term (and to her and her administration in the short term).

Let me state the very obvious: The Sona was well-crafted in terms of trundling out the statistics that support this administration’s contention that the country is better off today. It is difficult to argue with statistics; but statistics are not the solutions per se, they are simply indicators. The analogy of how a drunk uses a lamppost at night is a good illustration of how statistics should be used: Either he uses the lamppost as physical support to prop him up or he uses it to illumine the night so he can reach home safely.

Obviously, that thing about natural family planning methods was a concession to the Church. One wishes that she were clearer and more forthright about what exactly she meant by “letting more couples, who are mostly Catholics, know about natural family planning.” The problem with trying to swim with the current is that one has to be deliberately ambiguous, keeping things open to a little more interpretation.

The retention of the value added tax, though highly unpopular, can be interpreted as standing pat on a principle although it must be pointed out that the retention of the VAT has also been a major advocacy point for business and industry. And lest we forget, elections are in the offing in barely two year’s time and we all know what this means: Funds have to be stashed somewhere to be used as political largesse. The VAT had to stay.

Why the President crowed about the reduction of charges for text messages in her Sona is something that was quite baffling.

She is right—texting is a way of life in this country; but what is so earthshaking about SMS messaging that merits its upgrade into an issue requiring national policy directive? Besides, it sends the wrong message to the people in this period of great economic difficulty. Here we are trying to manage the runaway prices of oil, rice, and other basic commodities and we’re applauding the fact that texting will now cost us only 50 centavos?

Besides, if we really come to think about it, texting should be free. It used to be free, in fact. But the telecom companies were so successful in creating a huge demand for the service that most among us got hooked into the phenomenon; at which point, the telecom companies got greedy and began collecting fees for the service.

The scuttlebutt says that the telecom companies have been thinking about lowering the charges for SMS messaging for quite some time now, so the President’s request was something that came at the right time. Of course there are several versions to the story, including that malicious yarn about how MalacaƱang begged the telecom companies to allow the President to use the angle for her Sona.

What was obvious was that the announcement on the reduction of charges for texting at the Sona was really nothing but an undisguised and cheap attempt to get on the good side of the masa.

In addition to the misplaced importance given to texting, I also find disconcerting this new tack which requires the President to directly plead with companies to lower the prices of their goods or services. Not only does it put the President and the business community in a very awkward situation, it also smacks of government interference on matters that are best left to market forces.

At any rate, I think there was very little doubt about what the fashionable thing was during last Monday’s Sona, in addition to the usual nitpicking by the opposition.
It was fashion, or at least making a fashion statement.

Why, they even put up a red carpet reminiscent of the Oscars. I was hoping that people would be a little more circumspect with their fashion statements this year on account of the difficulties the people were going through. Dressing up to the nines, parading in designer ternos and Barong Tagalog that cost tens of thousands of pesos, and showing off the family jewels just don’t make sense at a time when most people subsist on instant noodles. I guess some people just can’t restrain themselves from showing off their wealth and social status.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beyond rhetoric

This is my column today.

If it weren’t for the recent survey conducted by Pulse Asia—which validated what we already know, that the President had become even more unpopular—I doubt whether many would give the President’s State-of-the-Nation Address today even cursory attention.

We all knew that the President’s State-of-the-Nation Address was going to happen around this time. But really - aside from those who lust for the opportunity to point out the million and one things that are wrong with this administration and this country—who, in this country, needs to be reminded of our sorry state? We’re not a country of masochists, that’s for sure; but then, neither are we big on collective responsibility.

Nah, we prefer to heap the blame somewhere else for our failures and our suffering. MalacaƱang is the logical and natural target. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is not only the most unpopular president this country has ever had, she is also the most demonized leader. Sometimes it strikes me that demonizing her has become the extent of her punishment. She is unbelievably scraping the bottom in terms of popularity ratings, but people don’t seem to want to kick her out of office still.

God knows there’s more than enough reason for us to do that. This administration has been granted more than enough opportunities to redeem itself, to finally do what is right. And it has royally squandered all of them.

In better times, the Sona would be a great opportunity for the leader of the country to display one of the most important roles of a leader, which is stewardship.

It should be an occasion to provide direction and inspiration, to map out a course of action that everyone can use as some kind of a beacon in these difficult times. Instead, the Sona has become nothing more than an occasion for justification—the rebuttal of the defense panel in a metaphorical courtroom which just happens to be composed of a very partial jury.

There’s very little that the President can say now to stem the rising tide of dissatisfaction and apathy toward her and her administration. Unveiling flowery rhetoric and spewing technical gobbledygook would be tantamount to talking above people’s heads. These are times that require more than just political rhetoric or empty promises. The results of the Pulse Asia survey tell us this: 40 percent of Filipinos think the President won’t be truthful, up by 20 percent over last year. What we have is a crisis in credibility, one which requires drastic actions, not words.
However, there are some assurances that the President can make that would make impact on the people.

First, that this particular Sona will be her second to the last, that she will absolutely and certainly not seek to continue her term beyond 2010. There is lingering concern that the President nurtures the burning desire to remain as president forever. The writing on the wall is clear on this one: People don’t want to see her in office after 2010. She should heed this.

Second, that she will do everything in her power to alleviate the sufferings caused by runaway prices of oil and commodities including canceling the value-added taxes levied on oil—the shortfall in revenue collections to be sourced elsewhere such as luxury goods and from serious efforts to cut excessive government spending. She can crow about the benefits derived from her various travels abroad, but there’s no point in attracting foreign investments if the infrastructure within the country is unable to retain these investments to begin with. So it is better to simply focus on strengthening our inherent competitiveness.

Third, that henceforth, she would be willing to submit herself and executives to public accountability. I say henceforth because I think it’s too late in the day to make amends for the fertilizer, ZTE, and other scandals. But I doubt if the people would be as forgiving or uncaring if another scandal, one dated after the ZTE scandal happened, were to break the surface of our fragile national life. We’re a people renowned for having short-term memory but that doesn’t mean we suffer from permanent amnesia. The ugly feelings caused by all the previous transgressions of this administration are festering under the surface all bound to break loose in far uglier ways at the slightest provocation.

While we are at it, it would be great if she seeks forgiveness from the people for previous prevarications and for utter failure to make things better for all so far. But she can commit to devote the last two years of her term in making sure that whoever succeeds her would have a better and easier time. These can only be done by putting in place the building blocks that would make corruption difficult to commit, government transactions more efficient, and our political systems less cumbersome and adversarial.

And finally, the President can make a pitch for collective responsibility; making a clean breast of things by admitting that she can’t do everything alone. She can finally level with the people and move the discourse beyond the usual appeal for collaboration. Magtulungan tayo just doesn’t hack it.

What we need are more concrete directives on what Congress can do (Peter Wallace, for example, suggested that she appeal to senators and congressmen to use their pork barrels in building more classrooms), she can appeal to businesses to pay the correct taxes, and empower the bureaucracy to cut red tape and impose non-negotiable deadlines for everything.

But like I said, the people have grown contemptuous of rhetorical discourses so an even better tack is to announce drastic action plans. She can convene a national crisis board to partner with her in finally making things happen. This is indulging in daydreaming but she can declare all Cabinet positions vacant and recruit business and civic leaders renowned for making things happen in their stead, including people who are critical of her administration. We certainly don’t lack competent and qualified people whose burning passion is simply to move this country forward; but they won’t join government unless the structures are free from vested political interests.

One of the apparent weaknesses of this administration is that the President is perceived to be hapless hostage by her many political debts, particularly from retired generals who occupy key Cabinet positions. Obviously, the country can’t move forward unless the Presidency is liberated from the shackles of political debts.

She can boldly declare today that she now considers all political debts fully paid—something that should have been done on Day One of her presidency. Some would consider this political suicide, but she can take comfort in the fact that the people have become more discerning today and are just as contemptuous of politicians who turn snitches. Cases in point are the fact that the credibility of former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and former speaker Jose de Venecia Sr. remain low.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Piecemeal solutions

This was my column yesterday, July 23.

I actually wrote a column about what I thought the President should address in her State of the Nation Address. I noted, however, that two other columnists had beaten me to it. So I decided to kill the piece lest we be accused of speechwriting for the President.

Sometimes it does strike me that our problems as a nation are cyclical. It seems that the words “permanent solution” is something that’s totally alien to our culture. What usually happens every single time we are faced with a problem is that we go for patchwork solutions or temporary balms that do not really make a dent in terms of fixing the problems in the long term. So the problems don’t really get solved. Some of them disappear temporarily, others stop showing symptoms; but in the end, they recur and resurface in far uglier forms than their original state.

Let’s take this problem of cleaning the waterways in Metro Manila. Obviously, we need to make sure that the creeks and canals that make up our drainage systems are not clogged so that our streets don’t get flooded at the slightest downpour. Our local governments do clean up heavily silted creeks and canals and even make a big show of the dredging operations by sending into the site heavy equipment that block traffic and inconvenience everyone. But when are these dredging operations done? When the rainy season has arrived and when the canals have been noted to overflow, that’s when.

This brings me to the baffling question: Why are these dredging operations conducted when the rainy season has already arrived and not during the summer season when most students are on vacation and there are lesser impediments to the operations? Or to begin with, why aren’t these done on a regular basis? It is as if our leaders require proof first that the rains would come before embarking on the required work.

A friend of mine attributes this to our collective unfamiliarity with the concept of “maintenance,” noting that the concept has no equivalent in Philippine languages. Instead of conducting routine, “small-scale” maintenance work, we wait until the problems have reached crisis proportions. Naturally, the reaction of most people already verge on panic.

A couple of months back, Gil Puyat Avenue in Makati was the site of a major dredging and cleanup-operation which included demolishing hundreds of shanties built by squatters on top and beside a major creek. The operations created quite a stir as the demolition required a show of force and took a whole week to finish. There were just too many families living on shanties built like a house of cards—one on top of each other. But the demolition was successful and for quite some time after, the whole area looked deserted and the murky waters of the creek began to flow once again.

Yesterday, I was shocked to see that a row of shanties have sprouted seemingly overnight on the banks of the creek. Yes, the squatters and their shanties are back. It seems that the squatters have just been biding their time, fully aware that the attention focused on them would eventually wane. It would now take another major operation to demolish the shanties again. This situation wouldn’t have recurred if the local government conducted regular watch on the area.

Related to this problem is this never-ending digging on many of our streets in the metro. It seems that construction work is never done on our streets—and again, it is strange that they time these operations during the rainy season. For example, I’ve stopped trying to figure out whatever it is that they are continually doing at Leon Guinto Street in Malate. That strip of road between Estrada and Quirino has been dug up so many times in the last five years people like me who use that street everyday has gotten used to the aggravation. I think that the utility companies and the local government take turns digging the street up.

And by the way, in case you didn’t know, the corner of Vito Cruz and Taft Avenue has been closed to traffic since March, as well as the road behind St. Scholastica’s College. Traffic in the area has been unbearably clogged for a number of months now, with nary a relief in sight. They are supposed to be laying new pipes for the water system, but who really knows what these people are doing since every time I pass by the area construction work seems limited to just digging ground again and again, and at a pace that reminds one of a snail taking its own sweet time?

Given the fact that congestion will continue to be a problem in the metro and fixing utility pipes or lines will continue to be made, shouldn’t we already put up a mechanism that would ensure that the next time we need to expand utility services, increase capacity, or add yet another system—we don’t have to dig up streets in the process?

The rollback in oil prices is yet another example of this collective penchant for piecemeal solutions. The government asked oil companies for a rollback— something which the oil companies acceded to. Fine, so it can be done after all. But anyone who thinks the agreement between the President and the oil companies does not have an expiration date is hallucinating—my personal guess is that the oil companies will try to recover their losses immediately after the State of the Nation Address of the President.

Price rollbacks are temporary and short term. What we need are long-term solutions that will cut our dependence on oil. What are urgent are mechanisms that will reduce the use of oil in this country. We need to begin putting in place effective and sustainable ways to conserve energy. We’re still not seeing these.

Anyone out there who thinks that the prices of oil will revert to December 2007 levels in the next few months is suffering from a severe case of denial. The prices of oil will continue to climb as demand increases.

If we come to think about it, even this latest brouhaha over the reproductive health bill that’s about to be passed in Congress is symptomatic of our inability to solve problems once and for all. The reason why that measure is still pending in Congress after many years is because many among our leaders continued to compromise on smaller aspects of the reproductive health issue, on the belief that small victories are better than none.

What we do know now is that previous legislation has not been enough to address the problem—we need a comprehensive reproductive health bill that addresses the issue of population management not simply from the point of view of contraception but education as well. The Catholic Church is wrong in thinking that should they succeed once again in blocking the passage of the bill this time around, the measure would already be dead. Fat chance. The bill will simply reincarnate in other forms in the next Congress. It will go on and on until a suitable and effective solution is found to address this major problem.

And finally, of course we all know that the problems of this administration are also recurring. We know the issues are essentially the same and while it is easy to think of these as a rehash of previous accusations, the truth is that they keep on resurfacing because they have not been addressed at all in ways that bring closure to the issues.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chronicles of E

I bloghop as often as I can, which unfortunately is not as often as I would want to (same old excuses - long hours at work, a teaching job, a column to write, kids to take care of, etc). Bloghopping is a truly unpredictable experience. There are days when the effort yields nothing particularly noteworthy other than being able to catch up on what's new in other people's lives. But every once in a rare while, one comes across blogs that simply, for want of a better description, take your breath away.

Chronicles of E is like that. I learned about the blog through Misterhubs. E is a recovering "bad person" and the blog is about his journey. He writes about his experiences - and what he has written so far make for compelling reading - and the psychologist in me hopes it is working as some kind of therapy for him. What he is doing is not easy, particularly since the ghosts that he seems determined to expunge from his system are the stuff that haunts not only one's nightmares but one's living existence as well.

As usual, there are people who only see the fluff and the gross exteriors (or in this particular case, the glint of a sharp blade) . For instance, I was quite taken aback by people who suggest that the blogger drop names and skewer other people (in the mold of the 70,000 dollar blog) as if everything is about salacious gossip. And then there are those who see opportunities to indulge in some fantasies of their own via the blog.

I hope E finds liberation from whatever it is that is weighing him down and I hope the blogosphere helps him in the journey.

Blogs as therapy, hmmm...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wealth is not sole indicator of worth

This is my column today.

First, please bear with a little personal story telling. In the last two years I have had the great fortune of working for a company that keeps its head office outside of the Makati Commercial Center. This means being spared the thousand and one aggravations that come with being cooped up along with millions of other working drones within a few square hectares of precious prime property: traffic, congestion, pollution, and the lure of commercial considerations. So in a manner of speaking, I’ve been thankfully insulated from lifestyle and commercial trends.

Except when I have to attend meetings, I rarely find myself in Makati. So I have been blissfully oblivious to the new commercial establishments that have sprouted in the Greenbelt and Glorietta centers like, well, children of Filipinos who have been kept ignorant and without access to contraception methods. (I know I just wrote a really awful metaphor; sorry, couldn’t help it in light of the obstinacy of the Catholic Church to fight the reproductive health bill in Congress through any means possible).

But I finally found myself in the posh environs of Greenbelt 5 over the weekend courtesy of a friend who is into material things of dubious value but whose worth have nevertheless been shot up into the stratosphere by the signature attached to it. It was a painful reality check. Just for the heck of it, I picked up a pair of ladies’ shoes on display and inquired about its price: a whooping P45,000. I was sorely tempted to ask if the pair of shoes had magical qualities that made transformed whoever wore it into Cinderella, had it not been for what I felt was the utter ridiculousness of the whole thing.

If it was any consolation, the saleslady I was chatting up seemed to empathize and intimated that she herself couldn’t understand why such things cost 1,000 percent more than what their counterparts in Divisoria would. The quality is not the same but I doubt if the quality differential was proportionate to the price gap. But there seems to be a huge demand for these accouterments of status even if, as the saleslady pointed out, quite a number would purchase items by maxing out limits on two or three credit cards combined. Why anyone would want to slave themselves paying credit card bills for months for something that can be worn once or twice seems incomprehensible.

There was nothing—absolutely nothing—in the row of stores that we checked that was worth less than P3,000, which, if we come to think about it, is roughly the half-month take-home pay of about 90 percent of the population. I understand that these establishments are meant to cater to a specific clientele. I don’t mean to knock on free enterprise, but I am worried that no one seems to be measuring this emerging conspicuous consumption, reckless luxury spending, and ostentatious display of wealth and materialism against contemporary socio-cultural considerations.

Obviously, there are people in this country who can really afford P80,000 Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blahniks. The question is: Are their numbers increasing? Are we finally seeing the narrowing of the wealth gap in this country? Are we finally seeing the rise of enterprise culture, of value creation that trickles down benefits to the lower rungs of the social ladder? I am afraid not.

Let’s make no bones about this. We are not going through an economic renaissance wherein those who have access to newfound, albeit temporary wealth such as the windfall from the call center industry, are making society wealthier. In short, the seeming rise in personal fortunes, which is illusory to begin with, is not linked to wealth and value creation at all. Nor is it indicative of a real economic boom.

For example, the truth is that the income gap is even more widening as we speak. Just last week, my colleagues and I in the human resource management profession were locking horns trying to find a way to measure the gap between the salary of top executives and the minimum wage earners. We know it is going to be difficult, not to mention, suicidal. But the chasm in the pay gap defies any semblance of logic and fairness. There are many factors that contribute to the gap and I unfortunately don’t have the column space to discuss them today, but obviously, lifestyle considerations are a huge part of it. CEOs and senior executives have to live up to certain expectations in terms of material display of wealth and personal worth—high-rise condos, luxury cars, designer clothes, the whole shebang.

We must address these issues because they portend a number of disastrous social implications.
It was difficult to ignore the tell-tale symptoms of our new collective malady at Greenbelt over the weekend: Far too many people accessorized in iPhones, iPods, and sleek cell phones sipping designer lattes and lounging around in Havaianas. The statement is obviously more of style than substance.

We’re seeing a lot of young and not-so-young people (such as call center agents) who are splurging newfound temporary wealth who have easily latched on to the trend. It does seem that we are nurturing a generation that is not so shy to flaunt wealth—even if its temporary, people who seem to subscribe to the mantra that there is no point to having money if it is not spent on material things.

Unfortunately, we’re really all party to it. Advertising, for example, has driven conspicuous spending to preposterous levels that seemed to have perverted the real value of a lot of material possessions. It does seem that luxury shopping is now prescribed as therapy for everything—if you are happy, go out and buy something, and if you are depressed, well, go out and reward yourself by buying something just the same.

What seems clear is that wealth today is closely intertwined with personal worth (note how we often measure the value of a person, even senators and congressmen, by measuring his net worth), resulting in widespread insecurity and frustration.

How these affect the national psyche is something our sociologists should worry about.
Some of my colleagues have been advocating programs on financial planning and wealth and value creation. We must find new measures of one’s worth other than material status. This is why I must admit that I was a little gladdened by the fall of the so-called Gucci Gang because of intense criticism in the blogosphere about the ostentatious display of profligate lifestyles.

Unfortunately, mainstream media didn’t play it up because it would have offended the very people who produce their profit. But if we all play our part in impressing upon people that we are not impressed by excessive display of wealth, then perhaps we can minimize all these conspicuous luxury spending and too much emphasis on materialism that is not creating value to society at all.


Adam Smith once said: “The chief enjoyment of the riches consists in the parade of riches.” I think that’s a capitalist statement that we need to render irrelevant in this country at this point.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Threatening congress

This is my column today.

Politics, religion and sex make up a really potent, perhaps even toxic brew.

And in this country, those three are strangely closely intertwined. I know I am making it sound more twisted than it really is—which is not to say that it isn’t— but really, how else are we supposed to make sense of the current imbroglio involving Catholic bishops, Congress, and reproductive health?

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of Catholic bishops using a sacrament of the faith as leverage against the passage of the reproductive bill quite unnerving. It reeks a little of illegitimate political behavior.

It speaks a lot about the emerging values of the Church when bishops begin using sacraments as tools of blackmail to get what they want. Those among us who were schooled in Catholic institutions were taught the values of forgiveness and humility; to turn the other cheek, so to speak. And now, we hear of bishops deliberately threatening to excommunicate those who are not on their side on the reproductive health issue.

In case you have been on holiday from the usual murk that envelopes our daily existence, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has threatened to follow the directive of Ozamis Archbishop Jesus Dosado which imposed a Communion ban on Catholic politicians pushing for “abortion.” At least one other bishop has expressed agreement with Dosado—the irrepressible Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan.

The strange thing about the whole directive is that it is cloaked in a lot of gobbledygook—for example, the repeated reference to an objective situation of sin, whatever that means—that only validates the perception that it really is nothing more than a heavy handed attempt to pressure congressmen from supporting a measure which has been festering in Congress for more than a decade already. The current incarnation of the bill, “An Act Providing for a National Policy on Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development, and for Other Purposes” is a hybrid of earlier reproductive health bills such as HB 17 (Responsible Parenthood and Population Development Act of 2007), HB 812 (The Reproductive Health Care Act) and HB 2753 (The Women’s Right to Know Act).

The reason why the measure has festered that long is easily explained by this recent political power play of the Catholic Church.

Threatening to withhold communion to congressmen who support the bill is just the recent of a series of moves of the Church designed to thwart the passage of the bill. The other tactics such as deliberately obfuscating the issues, labeling people, stigmatizing, indulging in rather simplistic and often mass generalizations, and threatening people have been resorted to many times in the past.

All these are pretty much evident even in the current imbroglio. For example, the indictment on people “who support abortion” is a sweeping generalization addressed to everyone and no one in particular—it’s either a warning shot or firepower from a shotgun. It’s duplicitous.

Despite all the medical evidence to the contrary, the Church’s insistence on what abortion is and how certain contraceptives are, in its view, abortifacients, are reflective of the growing irrelevance of the Church. And when its leaders indulge in the same squid tactics that traditional politicians indulge in, we’re not just talking about irrelevance anymore, we’re talking about conduct that’s unbecoming. And if the bishops and the clergy cannot stand as role models anymore, then there’s hardly any point to its moral teachings.

But what exactly is in that bill that’s raising the hackles of our venerable bishops?

Nothing new, actually. It’s the same things that women, social activists and everyone else who wants to empower people have been fighting for these many years: The right to reproductive health, the right to have control of their bodies, the right to live happy productive lives for themselves and for their children.

What’s different this time around is that the bill seems finally destined for approval as soon as Congress convenes because of the current social and cultural context. Even the current administration, which has so far been subservient to the Church on the issue of contraception, has already acknowledged the need for a more realistic policy on population.

With Filipinos now numbering almost 90 million and still counting, practically all experts—except those allied with the Catholic Church of course who remain deaf and blind to the grueling poverty around them—have already warned that this country’s resources aren’t simply enough to provide for the needs of its growing population.

The really sad thing is that there really is no need to trundle out statistics and empirical data to make a case for population control and reproductive health. All one needs to do is open his or her eyes and be aware of what’s going on around us.

Just yesterday, all dailies carried stories about the increase in dropouts among schoolchildren. We know people are struggling with the increased prices of commodities. And our resources are simply becoming more and more insufficient—we’re importing rice, vegetables, practically everything. That whole crap about all these being the result of ineffective management is also true; but even management skills is a resource that is sadly deteriorating courtesy of a confluence of factors which, again, can be traced to the same origins.

Poverty and suffering have always been a staple subject matter among our television shows. The shows that used to depict poverty in ways that made audiences wince and shed buckets of tears were soap operas. Today, it’s the news and current affairs programs that produce the drama—and I tell you, it’s the kind of drama that produces more than just tears.

Just last week, I caught on television two programs that were so difficult to watch because they portrayed poverty at its heartbreaking worst.

On GMA-7’s special “Kalam” there was this brood of very young children struggling to survive on their own because their parents abandoned them. The same situation was also featured last Saturday on another show (I don’t remember what the program is now), this time involving a trio of siblings with congenital bone defects who were also struggling on their own because their parents likewise abandoned them. It’s the kind of viewing fare that makes you wish there is a law that makes it a crime for parents to have children if they can’t afford to have them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Light rail troubles

This is my column today.

The word out there is that the Light Rail Transit and the Metro Rail Transit have become the preferred mode of transportation in Metro Manila today as it should be. They’re fast. They’re convenient. And of course, they’re a lot cheaper than taking a bus or driving a car to work.

Before the prices of oil became prohibitive, the trains were not really patronized as often by the upper and middle classes of Metro Manila society for a number of reasons. Most preferred to bring cars to work. The LRT and MRT stations require taking flights of steps that can be daunting for people in high heels and corporate attires. But the no. 1 reason was that both the LRT and the MRT were and still are classic case studies of really terrible management of customer service.

I really doubt if the people that operate the transit systems—the train operators, the ticket vendors, the clerks, and the guards—think of the people who ride the trains as customers at all. I have the feeling they think of the commuters simply as statistics or perhaps as trouble that simply needs to be dealt with.

But the LRT and the MRT have now become so “successful” as mass transport systems that their administrators are already expressing concern that the transit systems were not built to accommodate as much number of people. The concern could have been funny if only the threat of total mayhem were not real. Where in the world do you find administrators complaining that far too many people are patronizing the service they provide? It’s the kind of problem that many businessmen would kill to have. To be fair, the expression of concern was really more on account of the physical limitations of the train stations than the ability of the trains in themselves to ferry people.

The train stations, particularly those of the MRT, were seemingly not built to accommodate thousands of people at any given time. Many of the platforms, the access ramps, and stairways are just too narrow. In many stations, there’s simply no space where people can wait in comfort for the trains so they end up clogging the stairways and spilling over to the sidewalks in the streets. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The building of the LRT and the MRT were crowed about as the country’s solution to the transportation needs of the burgeoning population in Metro Manila. Therefore, one would expect that the people who built them came up with realistic projections of the transportation needs of people—surely, they were thinking of train systems that would be able to address algebraic increases in passengers. I mean, surely they intended the system to last for a long, long time. As it is, passengers have not even tripled yet and the administrators are already expressing concern about the possible inability of the transit system to serve that number?

And then of course, we all know that commuters of mass transport systems are not really seen—and therefore not treated—like customers. The prevailing sense is that anyone who wants comfort or courtesy should take a taxi or drive their own cars. Those who take the LRT or the MRT have no business complaining.

I took the LRT and the MRT on several occasions last week. All I can say was: Thank God I don’t have to take these trains everyday. My heart went out to those who have no other alternatives but to suffer the inconveniences. The trains were crammed. The air- conditioning system in the trains I was in was not functioning and for a moment I thought I would asphyxiate from lack of oxygen. Getting in and out of the trains, particularly at the busiest stations, required superhuman effort. And those were the easier part of the ordeal. The toughest parts were getting in and out of the stations.

Someone I know works in Quezon City and takes the MRT everyday to work. She gets off at the last MRT station at Trinoma, where she gets stuck for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. The problem is that she can’t get down because every possible square inch of space in the North Terminal is filled with commuters all rushing to get to work and all unwilling to yield space for people going down.

The Filipino’s lack of discipline and utter disregard for others are traits that are often brought to the fore in tight situations. These are painfully surfaced in many LRT and MRT stations during rush hours. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. I dread the thought of a stampede happening at the busiest stations during rush hours where thousands of impatient people try to get into platforms ahead of everyone else. The problems are actually manageable, which is why it is truly a wonder that the people behind the MRT have not been able to address them up to this time.

Let’s begin with the system in buying tickets which can be described in just two words—sheer bedlam. The lines are just too long that the people who are queuing to buy tickets in lines that snake around and around the station end up blocking the traffic for others who are trying to get in or out.

It used to be simpler when tokens were still used because these could be bought on the sidewalk from enterprising people, or from certain stores under the stations. But now that electronic tickets are used, it has become imperative that the tickets are sold at designated vendors. Why can’t these tickets be made available like pre-paid cell phone cards? Why do the MRT and LRT insist that these tickets be bought only at the windows at the stations which are hampered by space limitations to begin with? Outsourcing the function not only makes the purchase of tickets faster and convenient, it also frees up precious space in the narrow terminals.

Then there is the problem with the security precautions which adds up to the delay and the queues. In most stations, there are usually two guards (one male and one female) tasked to inspect bags. We all know that the whole security process is really just for show—or to be more specific, meant as a psychological deterrent for petty criminals. To begin with, the inspection is really very cursory and superficial as there is no way that those guards can do a thorough search when three thousand other people are pushing and rushing to jump the line.

If one was carrying whatever it is that those guards are supposed to look out for—and I am not sure those guards really know what they are looking for—I am sure that they will take the trouble to really camouflage it so well beyond detection. I am not against these security precautions of course. I also believe that it is for my own good. But surely there are more effective and efficient ways of doing security checks or ensuring security inside trains—sniffing dogs for example, or installing cameras, or posting more security guards, among others.

There are more, but as usual, I am running out of space. To summarize, the problems in the LRT and the MRT are process problems—things which can be reengineered and redesigned if only the administrators of the LRT and the MRT think of commuters as customers that deserve better.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Wasted energy

This is my column today.

I am going to make a fearless forecast.

In the next few days, we are going to see a lot more of tempers boiling over, accompanied of course with a lot of screaming as our representatives in Congress try to find someone to blame for the unfortunate sinking of m/v Princess of the Stars.

And then, when everyone has grown hoarse, has his or her fill of strutting around and posturing like some great inquisitors, or when something more earthshaking and newsworthy has come around to divert everyone’s attention, whichever comes first, the whole thing will be promptly dropped and forgotten.

The whole thing will then be turned over to the proper courts where it will fester for some time because we all know that those with the means to throw all sorts of impediments into the system do get away with that kind of tomfoolery.

In the meantime, Sulpicio Lines will be allowed to operate their floating coffins once again because let’s face it, this country needs to transport goods and people from one island to another. Lest we forget, the Philippines is still an archipelago, and ships are still the most affordable and practical means of getting around. And Sulpicio Lines happens to have the largest fleet of transportation ships in this country.

Forget about a government takeover of the company. The government can only do so if it declares martial law and we already know that those two words can’t even be mentioned in this country without sending some people into apoplexy. Besides, this government has already proven itself inutil in the area of providing services to people. I fear for the lives of more people if government takes over the largest passenger shipping fleet in this country.

The business sector, the Filipino-Chinese community, and the other influential sectors in this country may have distanced themselves momentarily from the company that is now on record as the main perpetrator of the number one cause of death in this country since World War II. But when some semblance of normalcy has befallen and it is once again safe to declare affinities and public support, we know that the owners of Sulpicio Lines will be able to regain their standing in the community.

The weather bureau may be getting some media attention right now because the perceived ineffectiveness of its antiquated methods and technology has caused national grief and embarrassment. However, it remains doubtful if major breakthroughs will ever be achieved in terms of finally outfitting our weather scientists with cutting edge technology.

We may be visited by all sorts of natural calamities frequently, but the weather bureau is hardly seen as a priority government agency in terms of budgetary allocation. Besides, in this country where fatalism is the norm, typhoons and natural phenomena are still largely seen as acts of God and therefore perceived as beyond the means of science and human competencies.

I know I am being cynical. But there is more than enough history and a number of indicators in the way this current tragedy is being handled that make it difficult for anyone to be optimistic.
Take for example the way the current investigations are being conducted.

To begin with, there are just too many bodies looking into the tragedy—all of them with questionable intents. Thankfully, the Senate has not yet jumped into the act—at least not yet.
Quite frankly, it looks like these bodies and everyone else involved in the tragedy are more interested in making sure that they don’t get blamed for what happened than in really finding out what happened and more importantly, how to make sure the tragedy is the last of its kind.

I know that investigating the factors that caused the sinking is important, but one wishes that energies are focused on more productive and urgent matters. For example, ensuring that whatever toxic cargo that ill-fated ship was carrying is retrieved before these seep into the waters off Masbate and cause irreparable harm to people and the environment. Shouldn’t these be the main priority now?

This has been said by many and repeating it seems futile since the Go family seems deaf to the criticism anyway, but what really aggravated the tragedy was the seemingly heartless and insensitive way the people behind Sulpicio Lines responded to the situation. They’re still not getting it now. They are still unable to project a more caring and humane way of dealing with the families of those who perished in the tragedy.

Of course people should be held accountable for the tragedy. But must we drag them across the coils in public, scream at them and call them names in the process? Is simply embarrassing them in public the kind of punishment that we want for these people? I ask these questions because the tenor of the ongoing investigations, particularly the initial inquiry conducted by Congress last Monday, seems to indicate that the whole idea is really more focused on scolding people and putting them to task for perceived misgivings than in objectively unraveling the events that led to the tragedy.

It’s really wasted energy because if the whole point is to find someone to blame then we’ll never hear the end of it. Obviously, there are all kinds of ruses, justifications, alibis, and legal gobbledygook that people can trump up to protect their asses. Besides, at the end of the day, it’s the courts that decide on guilt anyway, so the energy is better spent on more productive discussions such as what should we do to make sure the sinking of the Princess of the Stars is the last tragedy of its kind to happen in this country.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Make new tax law retroactive to May 1

This is my column today.

The price of oil rose over the weekend again. It has become a weekly occurrence in the last two months that many people seemed to have accepted the increases as inevitable. Even the media networks have stopped giving it prominent space in the news. Whereas before most newscasts would banner the Friday night price increases, giving it a screaming headline treatment, the increase over the weekend would have gone practically unheralded if not for the protest staged by the militants.

The general reaction is one of resignation, as in “there’s nothing we can do about it.” It is classical conditioning at work—when people are exposed to something with regularity, they get used to it. The reaction to the mass action of the militants is basically the same. Because they have been at it for the longest time, protesting against anything perceived as oppressive, most people have also learned to take these mass actions in stride—as just another one of those things that a restive political sector is wont to do every now and then.

This is sad because the militants do have a point: What exactly is this government doing to help Filipinos survive the runaway oil prices? Some ideas were floated around in the beginning, but nothing has come out of these. It seems the government seems content on just sitting around idly, simply watching the prices go up every weekend like it’s some kind of a nightmare that would eventually go away in time.

Over the weekend, the militants demanded that the government scrap the value-added tax levied on oil and increase minimum wages, among other things. We know these demands are counterproductive, but at least some people are doing some thinking, which seemingly cannot be said of the people who walk the corridors of power in this country.

It’s not wise to increase minimum wages at this time because what it would do is force companies to close shop or scale down operations. That would mean more jobless people. But there are certainly many things the government can do to help workers cope with the difficulties.

One immediate action is to make the law that exempts minimum wage earners from paying income taxes and which grants others increased tax exemptions effective Jan. 1. It won’t be much, but the reimbursement of at least P5,000 in taxes withheld from January to June already constitute a windfall to many. The truth is that many workers have already “spent” this expected savings when our leaders trumpeted the supposed benefits of the new law last May, so the decision to make the law retroactive to January would only be a token gesture of the government’s concern.

Over and above the actual amounts, it’s really the gesture that counts at this point. Things are already difficult for most people today, so the last thing this government should do is make them any more difficult. This holds true for companies as well who are now faced with an administrative nightmare, courtesy of the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s intransigence in upholding the technicalities of the new law, particularly on the date it becomes effective.

It’s also a matter of keeping commitments and promises made. When our senators, congressmen and certain government officials went to town last May bragging about how they’ve done workers in this country a great favor by pushing the tax law exempting minimum wage earners from having to pay income tax, they made it appear that the law was already effective. As I’ve written in a previous column, many unions in fact immediately fired off letters to their respective managements demanding reimbursement of taxes withheld during the first six months.

It appears now that all that crowing was really just papogi—an attempt to earn brownie points with the populace. As it turns out, all that strutting around like peacocks in heat was premature because the BIR still had to craft the implementing guidelines that would put the law into effect. It would have been better of course if the bureau were involved in the crafting of the law so that all the kinks in the implementation were ironed out before it was passed. But I guess everyone was so busy trying to become popular they left the messy details to the BIR to sort out.

The revenue bureau has now declared that the law was not retroactive to Jan. 1. What this means, simply, is that all the promised relief is not going to be enjoyed by workers anytime soon. Minimum wage earners cannot claim the full benefits from the new law for the whole year 2008 since the law only took effect yesterday, July 6, a full 16 days after its publication. Of course the bureau has its hands tied—it is constrained to follow the provision in the law that says it only becomes effective 16 days after its publication. Most, however, prefer to see vested interests in the whole decision. The BIR, after all, is under extreme pressure to meet revenue collection targets and lest we forget, income taxes withheld on income are the easiest to collect.

Despite claims that the new law is revenue-neutral since the shortfall in tax collection is supposedly easily offset by more vigilant tax collection efforts and from consumer spending, everyone knows that the BIR is bluffing. Of course there is an impact: it is guaranteed collection already lost.

It’s easy to accuse those who are up in arms against the BIR interpretation as greedy, impatient and unreasonable people. The new tax law becomes fully effective in 2009, after all. Why can’t we just be happy for half the benefits that can be enjoyed this year—isn’t half better than nothing?

The point is that this was not what our leaders crowed about when they did all that bragging when the law was passed. Besides, these are difficult times and people need relief now.
And like I said, it’s really not just about the tax exemption issue. There is also the administrative nightmare that companies are faced. The new law also grants changes in personal tax exemptions. Personal exemptions of single taxpayers have been increased to P50,000 from the usual P20,000-32,000. The deductions for each qualified dependent have also been increased from P8,000 to P25,000.

The bureau has come up with this latest wrinkle of prorating these exemptions for 2008. This is the first time that such a scheme has ever been done. What this means is that companies will have to do two kinds of computations, one for the first half of the year and another for the second half when the new tax law is deemed effective. And then companies will have to ensure that the deductions are zeroed out at the end of the year so that employees don’t have to pay anything. All these are relatively simpler to do given advances in computerization, but tell that to many small and medium enterprises who do these things manually. And lest we forget, more than 90 percent of businesses in this country are SMEs.

I know several organizations that are now preparing their respective positions on this latest tempest. They are hoping that public pressure will make the BIR see beyond the technicalities and make the law retroactive to January 1.

But does this government really need to disappoint more people at this time when most are already disaffected with it? At the end of the day, it’s about public perception, and the last thing this government needs is more people critical of its seeming apathy to their plight.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Blow to the blogosphere?

The buzz last week was the death of chikatime, a popular blog that exposed the foibles of people in high places, usually in ways that challenged the limits of ethics and the law.

I must admit that I wasn't a fan of the blog; not necessarily because I frowned on the subject matter - heck, I also love unmitigated gossip, the trashier the better - but simply because I have this thing about anonymity. I mean if people want to dish out trash, particularly on other people, they should be man enough to own up to the act. The way I see it, anyone is entitled to assert their own spaces in this world, even inflict themselves on the public should they wish to. However, I maintain that people should be able to take what they dish out. By all means, bullshit people to their faces but don't hide behind the cloak of anonymity when you do it.

I know. It's the ideas that count. People are also entitled to their own privacy. But - and this is a highly personal opinion - where's the integrity in the whole thing?

It's just plain cowardice. And the current actions of the people behind the blog - closing it arbitrarily and scampering away when their cover got blown - prove my point.

Some people allege that the NBI made some arrests. What is clear is that Jenni Epperson (google her and you will get to her multiply site) was instrumental in the whole thing with the help of another blogger who was able to track the identities of the people behind chikatime.

So point one: There's no such thing as absolute anonymity even in the blogosphere. It is easy, particularly to people with the tech savvy and the time and the determination, to track people who lurk in the internet.

Point two: There are limits to blogging. It's still a relatively freer communal space, but freedom is not absolute.

Point three: When the excrement hits the fan, you get to know who gets the lion share of it - and those who can't stand it.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hillary and women of a certain age


(image taken from the candidate's official website).

This was my column yesterday, July 2.

Like many others, I followed the goings-on in the bitterly contested nomination process for Presidential candidates, particularly between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton which offered valuable insights on how elections are truly won. Many among us presume that because America is supposed to be the showcase of democracy in the world, the American people are more discerning in their choices of candidates, that electoral contests in that country are won purely on the basis of merit and qualification, and that candidates are spared from prejudice and discrimination.

Clinton was supposed to be invincible in the beginning. She had all the right pedigree. But in the end it all boiled down to a personality contest. Obama was just so much more charismatic, inspiring, and hopeful; his message of change overwhelmed Clinton’s message of stability. Hope is truly often more powerful than reason.

I am a Bill Clinton fan and I guess, by extension, I secretly rooted for Hillary. I think it is sad that she lost the nomination mainly because of misperceptions about her character—first as a politician, as a politician’s wife, and as a woman.

Most people today have grown cynical toward politicians. This is understandable given the declining quality of politicians overall. Politics is no longer seen as a dignified professional career that one prepares and aspires for; it’s now more often seen as an alternative, fall back pastime for those with the resources and the grit and gumption for dirt and sleaze. This is bad news for people who see politics as a science and vocation, people like Hillary Clinton who are inherently political animals.

Although both camps tried hard not to bring in race and gender as issues in the campaign so as not to alienate core supporters, everyone knew Obama’s color and Clinton’s gender were issues that occupied center stage. In this particular contest, I think Clinton’s campaign suffered the most harm from institutionalized prejudice against women, particularly toward women of a certain age and level of success.

I am a feminist at heart, but I believe only a woman can articulate the pains and the frustrations that many women feel in the aftermath of the Clinton defeat. Fortunately, my good friend Grace Abella-Zata had written her thoughts on the matter in a five-page e-mail entitled “A Filipina’s Take on Hillary or Why Her Loss Could Be Our Gain” which she sent out to her friends. What follows are parts of her e-mail that are relevant to what we are discussing and I’d like to share her thoughts with you:

“Many American women over 40 are taking Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US Democratic primary personally. Well, so am I, even if I am Filipina. I am 51 years old, after all. After Hillary’s concession speech, my dear poor husband got it from me: ‘From now on, you are washing your own dishes!’

“The Hillary-haters have caricatured Hillary as an ambitious, ruthless woman who would do anything to get what she wanted: She had wanted to be President from the very beginning, she and Bill had been in the White House for eight years and still that was not enough for her, what a greedy, power-hungry monster!

“After Hillary’s defeat, pundits relished the opportunity to point out what she had done wrong. Very few saw how well she had in fact done. Could any other politician-male or female—have succeeded in capturing 18 million hearts and minds, versus the brilliant, idealistic, politically astute Obama, he with the hip, made- for—tv rock star persona that the media just adores and has made larger than life?

“They never analyzed why Hillary kept winning important states and why so many Americans turned out to vote for her even as the numbers showed it was impossible, under the rules of the game for her to recover and win. The media failed to acknowledge the significance of the fact that Hillary had moved out of Bill’s shadow and had come into her own. Except Joe Klein who apparently had covered Hillary from her first lady days and saw the genuineness of her political passions. He wrote: ‘The Clinton campaign has been a revelation… The greatest revelation was Hillary Clinton herself—a fabulously skilled candidate and a compelling human being, one of the very rare politicians who found her soul during a campaign, rather than losing it.’

“Hillary found her footing when she realized that she just had to be true to herself, that the way to position herself as a candidate was from the place of her deepest passions—a fighter for the disadvantaged and marginalized. She had always been a fighter for causes she believed in. I suspected she chose to highlight her experience over her passion because the latter might be perceived as too emotional, and as a woman she could not risk that label. But voters—men as well as women respond to what is authentic and her near-win in spite of costly strategic mistakes—the huge Obama war chest, a mostly biased press, and the weight of political baggage from the past—was solid proof that people acknowledged she is indeed presidential material and had every right to seek the most powerful position in the world.

“As she bloomed, found her voice and gave those exhilarating victory speeches, I cheered her on. ‘Go Hillary. Fight and win for us—for the school girls who were voted secretary and took notes even when they were actually presidential material, for the wives who wisely or unwisely, sacrificed their careers so as not to eclipse their underachieving husbands, for all the women who were told not to appear too intelligent lest the men get turned off (not true!). Go, Hillary and fight! For all of us, men as well as women—straight and gay— who struggle to find our true joys in life, or whose passions smoulder from within under the weight of societal and familial expectations or who simply have not found the personal courage to follow our bliss.’

“Critics pilloried her for her refusal to concede immediately and for talking at great length about the achievements of her campaign during the concession speech. A definite sign of her tanker—size ego, they said! They did not see what Hillary understood all too well—she was the surrogate of what has been profiled in this campaign as the ‘invisible, ignored, neglected women of a certain age.’

“After child-bearing age, at 50 and definitely at 60 onwards, women—it is said become ‘invisible.’ Women have no role models of mature women who are attractive not because they manage to keep their looks, either through natural or artificial means but because they glow with their passions and their successes. There are actually many women achievers who younger women could look up to as models of beauty and power, but sadly they are not interesting enough for the media and perhaps the public. I can think of only one such personality, my own idol Winnie Monsod.

“So as the radiantly beautiful, albeit defeated 60-year-old candidate basked in the love and admiration of her supporters and fans—probably for the last time, I felt I wanted this moment to last a little bit longer. Go and glow for us, Hillary—for those of us who feel fully depreciated, ignored and invisible, for the women—young and mature, who feel that they have to be lipoed, botoxed, gluthathioned, Belo-ed, Facial-cared etc. etc. to be beautiful and worthy of love and admiration.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

TRAPPED

I am claustrophobic.

The first thing I do when I go to bars or concert venues is to look for the exit doors and make sure I have an unimpeded access to them, just in case. I can't sleep without lights on because I dread waking up in the middle of the night and getting the feeling that I'm trapped - it's not really fear of darkness because I've slept in large open spaces that were pitch black at that time (and enjoyed it too, but that's another post).

This is why I don't like taking long elevator rides, specially when alone. There was a time I had to take an elevator all the way to the 46th floor of a 48-storey buidling and I had to get off somewhere at the 32nd floor (I think) because I was beginning to have a panic attack. I used to work at the Tektite Towers in Ortigas and my office was in the 30th floor - I always made sure I wasn't alone every time I boarded an elevator.

Fortunately for me, the building where I work at now is relatively shorter -all of ten floors and my office is at the 7th floor. I take comfort in the fact that I can take the stairs going up and down, which I never do anyway. But the elevator rides are brief and relatively uneventful... until of course yesterday.

Yesterday, I got stuck in an elevator during a brownout. Arrrghhhhhhhhhhh. And the worst part was that I was alone. Arrrghhhhhhhhhhhh again! Fortunately, the building had a stand-by generator set that automatically took over the power requirements and the elevator I was in was also equipped with batteries that powered emergency lights. So thank god, at least it wasn't pitch dark inside the elevator. But it took a few minutes before the elevator started to move... and those few minutes seemed like hours.

I can now pompously state that I know what it really feels like to be trapped in an elevator. And all I can say is that I am not riding an elevator alone again!