Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Politicians as entertainers

This is my column today.

We already know that the line that separates show business from politics has long been blurred to the point that it has become difficult to distinguish politicians from actors. It used to be that people from one camp generally looked better, but one cannot be sure anymore these days. At any rate, I think that as far as the masa is concerned, there’s no difference anymore.

I am sure that this development does not bode well for the future of politics nor entertainment in this country. Ideally, the requirements for each specialization should be distinct. There must be more to becoming a good politician—assuming that trying to become a “good politician” is something one aspires for—than simply being popular.

As a result, we’ve been seeing a lot of showbiz people crossing over to politics and vice versa. As expected, the results have not always been insightful or entertaining. But we’ve all learned to take this perversion in stride because, quite frankly, there’s really not much we can do about it aside from hoping that our politicians, at least the ones that are perceived to have something else between their ears other than a cute face, to act more responsibly. This means not engaging in cheap antics that reinforce the perception that deep down inside themselves, our politicians are really frustrated entertainers.

Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando is one of the very few politicians in this country who have earned the distinction of being a no-nonsense official. Say what you will about his authoritarian tendencies, his legendary stubbornness, or even about his seeming predisposition to be exacting and uncompromising but if there is something that makes him stand out from everyone else, it is the fact that he always means business.

You can therefore imagine my consternation when I saw him making a fool of himself as one of the contestants in the second season of GMA-7’s Celebrity Duets contest.

I know, I know. There is nothing inherently wrong with joining singing contests on television, especially if one has the talent. And I’d like to stress that Fernando does seem to have a singing voice.

But Celebrity Duets is hardly a singing contest in the strictest sense of the word. The singing is really just an excuse because what it is primarily is a comedy show. I know I am going to get it from a number of people, particularly from the people behind the show for saying this, but anyone who thinks that last season’s grand winner socialite Tessa Prieto-Valdez can carry a tune needs to have his head examined. Celebrity Duets is a variation of the reality television phenomenon where people are encouraged to make utter fools of themselves under the guise of building character or whatever other lofty ideals the organizers can conjure.

I can also appreciate humor where we can find it. God knows we can all benefit from a little entertainment every now and then—particularly of the type that makes us roll on the floor in laughter given all the difficulties we’re all facing. It also doesn’t hurt to derive some satisfaction from watching some politician blast into smithereens whatever is left of their stature by wearing atrocious costumes, gyrating and doing silly movements, and croaking on television. Doing these might even do a lot in terms of softening a stern image.

But for crying out loud, given the fact we’re already scraping the bottom in terms of public perception of the overall probity, respectability, and earnestness of our politicians do we really need to see the MMDA chairman reducing himself to a caricature on public television?

A number of people see politics behind Fernando’s decision to join Celebrity Duets. The man is rumored to be harboring a moist eye on the highest seat in the land and there’s a need to soften his image, particularly among the masa who see him as a dictator of sorts. There is no doubt that this foray into absurdity will endear Fernando to many people. It’s not everyday that one sees an exalted government official dueling with the likes of Melanie Marquez, Joey Marquez, and Cory Quirino for the distinction of filling in the frilly shoes of Tessa Prieto-Valdez.

Fernando’s antics last Saturday came across as cute. He looked like he was having a rollicking great time warbling “Macho Guapito” with singer Renz Verano complete with some awkward choreography. It was entertaining, albeit in a grotesque way.

But at the end of the day, we need to ask some sobering questions. Is this the way we want to see our leaders? Do antics like these contribute to creating a positive image of politics and politicians in our country? Have we reached that low point when the best we can expect from our leaders is entertainment?

***

For the second Monday in a row, we took respite from our usual tribulations on account of two national holidays both celebrating heroism.

Although Ninoy Aquino has still to be officially proclaimed as a national hero, I think very few would dare contest the great man’s claim to the distinction. It’s been 25 years since he was felled at the then Manila International Airport and the memory of what he had done for this country has been clouded by time and lack of concern to perpetuate his legacy.

Thus, it is heartwarming to note that certain sectors are valiantly trying to reawaken the national consciousness to the need to resurface the spirit of Ninoy Aquino today in our lives. Seeing yellow ribbons once again all around Metro Manila was a welcome sight and brought back powerful memories of that exhilarating period in our history when love for country was palpable.
Unfortunately, yellow ribbons are not enough. And t-shirts that show stylized renditions of Ninoy Aquino’s famous eyeglasses hardly do the trick. I concede that there’s a need to come up with stylized artwork that would appeal to the current generation, thus, there may be some wisdom in coming up with those stylized renditions of Ninoy Aquino’s eyeglasses as artwork for t-shirts. But they’re not enough.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Postcripts to the Olympics

This is my column today.

The greatest show on earth, the Olympics, officially drew to a rousing close last night at Beijing. And what a show it was indeed! I am not just talking about the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies that China rolled out but of the incredible heights that the human spirit conquered. American swimmer Michael Phelps’ (who, by the way, was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when he was younger) and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s amazing feats will be achievements that the world will talk about for decades.

At the no other point has the slogan of the Olympics - faster, higher, stronger—been illustrated so poetically and dramatically. And ironically and tragically, at no other point have our shortcomings been painfully brought to the fore. We are a people that think so highly of ourselves, referring to ourselves as world class in many fields. And yet Team Philippines is coming home without even a single medal.

For sure, our debacle in this year’s Olympics will be the subject of intense scrutiny in the coming days. We’ll be seeing a lot of screaming and finger pointing as our leaders try to make sense of our dismal performance in Beijing. Some people have already started floating ideas such as “going back to the drawing board” and “starting all over again,” including massive overhaul of our sports development programs. For once, someone has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the debacle. In a number of interviews, Butch Ramirez, chair of the Philippine Sports Commission has offered himself as the person to blame for our utter failure to live up to the expectations. One can only wish that others, particularly the heads of the various national sports associations, would be as candid.

Instead of taking responsibility, others chose to heap the blame somewhere else. For example, I was aghast to read about how certain people chose to attribute the heartbreaking loss of taekwondo jin Tshomlee Go to Australian Ryan Carneli to biased officiating. Go—as did the rest of the Philippine athletes—did their best, but as the song goes, their best simply wasn’t good enough.

Athletes take the center stage in sports competitions but there’s a lot more that goes into each fight other than the athlete’s talent, courage, and determination. The fact that the athletes wear the national colors into the arena demonstrate just how each one of us is a part of each fight. Unfortunately—and this is something that seems lost in the din and dynamics of the quest for glory—most of us simply want to partake of the triumph. We only pay attention to our athletes during competitions and whenever they win. The rest of the time, we pay no heed to their struggles, particularly the dismal conditions that they are forced to contend with while they train and prepare themselves for athletic competitions.

Our poor performance in this year’s Olympics is particularly painful because the expectations were a little high, which, if we come to think about it, must have been a factor that caused the underperformance of our athletes. There was just too much weight on their shoulders. The high expectations showed the extent of our collective hunger for an Olympic medal that even if we knew deep in our hearts that the chances were rather slim, we still prayed and wished for a miracle.

Now we know it is unrealistic to expect our athletes to produce miracles in international sports contests given the utter lack of a comprehensive, sustainable, and strategic sports development program in our country.

It is time to recognize that sports competitions cannot be won on the basis of raw talent, sheer courage and determination, and dumb luck alone. There is absolutely no doubt that we have an abundance of raw talents in this country, be it in sports, music, and other fields. It can’t be said either that we are shot in the area of grit and gumption. God knows there are more than enough young people in this country who dream of becoming the next Manny Pacquiao, or at least getting a shot at the opportunity to convert whatever little talent or skill they have into a fortune; or at the very least, a ticket out of poverty.

The matter of luck, though, is an entirely different thing. It seems we have not been lucky in national pursuits lately. But then again, luck has always been a tricky thing.

So this is what we must come to terms with: We can’t win in international athletic competitions unless we prepare long and hard for them. Dangling multi-million rewards are good extrinsic motivators for our athletes to push themselves beyond their limits but there is still no substitute for preparation. This means planting seeds and painstakingly nurturing them with all the resources we can. This means identifying athletes that show promise at an early age and nurturing their potentials through many years.

So instead of looking for someone to blame for our failures, instead of cursing our bad luck and ascribing all kinds of doubts over the motivations of out athletes such as in the case of boxer Harry Tañamor, it might be a better idea for us to focus our energies in more strategic preoccupations such as preparing for the long haul. We can set our sights eight, probably 12 years from now because it will take that long to produce Olympics-caliber athletes.

There are many things that need to be put in place if we are serious about attaining this goal. But I guess the most important is changing our paradigms about the way we look at kinesthetic intelligence. Unfortunately, we really don’t have much respect for athletes until they have become commercial successes. But even when they do become celebrities, we don’t really think of their specific field as an expertise that involves some kind of intelligence. To be blunt about it, we look at athletes as lacking in intelligence, period.

Until we are able to imbibe this paradigm and begin respecting athletes and what they do, we will never be able to empower our kids who show promise in sports because they would always think of themselves as dumb people. They will always be hampered by this attitude that says excelling in sports is an “alternative” rather than as a legitimate and valid career.

We are already seeing partnership between government and the private sector in some sports which is why some sports organizations are headed by businesspeople that provide the necessary guidance and resources. But we’re still not seeing a massive outpouring of support from the business sector in this effort.

At least most academic institutions still offer scholarships and stipends to their athletes. But not all universities can afford to provide the necessary support to student athletes. Many student athletes live under utterly miserable conditions.

Our dismal performance at this year’s Olympics is clearly a wake-up call. We can only hope that we all learn from the sad experience and come out of it with more resolve to finally do what is necessary.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the name of public safety

This was my column yesterday, August 20.


It’s either of two things. Either most people in Davao have simply gotten used to living with threats to life and property that they’ve learned to take them all in stride, or they have already become desensitized to media’s alarmist reportage that they don’t pay heed even when bloody footages are shown non-stop on television.

Whatever the reason, the bombings in Iligan and the conflict in other parts of Mindanao that have claimed the lives of a number of soldiers and civilians seemed to have produced no discernible effects on the people of Davao. I was there over the weekend and while my own kith and kin in Manila were wringing their hands worrying about my safety because they had this impression that the whole of Mindanao was at war, the malls, the bars, the restaurants, the cafés were all bursting at the seams with people. Last weekend was the weekend before the famous Kadayawan festival and Davao City seemed already in the mood to party.

I presumed that the deluge of people around the entertainment centers was courtesy of the run up to the Kadayawan festival (which is happening this week and which will culminate in the coming weekend with day-long indak-indak street dancing and parade of floats). But my friends assured me that it was an ordinary weekend crowd. Apparently, the weekend gimik culture is also making waves in Davao as in other major cities in the country.

But the bombings in Iligan and the MILF rampage in Cotabato and other places did have a palpable effect at the Davao International Airport where security was very tight. The gauntlet that passengers were forced to go through at Manila terminals were child’s play compared to what we went through Monday at the Davao International Airport while catching a return flight to Manila.

We were frisked a grand total of four times, had to take off footwear and metallic object from our bodies twice, had to surrender lighters and whatever objects the authorities deemed contraband to security personnel, and had to endure gruff and surly people manning various points of the airport, all in the name of public safety and security.

I really don’t mind submitting myself to these safety procedures. I’ve even learned to be philosophical about the whole rigmarole—casting it off as part of this whole national drill of routines designed to project the idea that some semblance of control is in place. We know that all those safety precautions and security procedures don’t really do much other than serve as psychological deterrent and bring psychological comfort to paranoid people. Terrorists are trained to evade basic security procedures. Surely, anyone with the evil intent to blow up an airport will not hide the bomb in his hand-carried luggage.

The authorities know that we know and we know that they know that we know. We go through the whole thing simply because there’s some comfort that can be drawn from mindlessly following a drill. At the very least, we all want to be able to say we did our part.

But I do mind when people, particularly those who are in customer service positions, automatically assume that security procedures and ensuring public safety on one hand, and courtesy and customer service on the other hand, are mutually exclusive concepts. In other words, they assume that a red alert or a security threat is license for them to let loose their latent sado-masochism fantasies.

The way I see it, the quest for public safety and security does not have to mean that passengers who pay good money to use certain facilities have to be denied basic courtesy in the process. In fact, I subscribe to the notion that the graver the security threat and the more stringent the security procedures, the kinder and more courteous security people should be. Unfortunately, this is a paradigm that is completely alien to people who seem to think that authority is derived mainly from one’s ability to wear a constipated look in the face. They think that the only way to enforce discipline and ensure safety is by barking orders, appearing tough, and in general, becoming bullies.

I don’t take credit for the changes at the Centennial Terminal, but I did note certain changes after I wrote about the inconveniences that passengers are forced to go through in the name of public safety in that terminal. For example, they have now placed carpets along the pathways so that passengers don’t have to tread on cold presumably dirty floors because their footwear have to be placed under x-ray machines to be examined for—well, who actually knows? They’ve also improved the queue systems so that traffic flows more easily and without obstruction.

The administrators of the Davao International Airport can certainly learn from the experience.

But over and above these things, what should really make more impact are the competencies of the people who are in direct contact with passengers. Why is it that the people who man our airports and other public facilities seem to think that their job description is to be stern, strict, and uncompromising? It’s the classic military paradigm—soldiers and police authorities are not supposed to be nice, that they are supposed to bark orders, not smile at all, and try their darned best to come across as fascists and tyrants.

I don’t mean to suggest that those who man those x-ray machines, frisk people, and pry into luggage wear Hawaiian shirts and sing “Leron Leron Sinta” while doing their jobs. But they can be nicer. Or at least wear neutral expression on their faces. And they can definitely be more courteous. They can be more customer-friendly.

They can remind themselves that while everyone is potentially a terrorist or at least a smuggler, everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. So the surly manner and the authoritarian tendencies can be done away with.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The blogger from Mindanao

This is my column today.

Once again, Mindanao has been getting screaming-headline treatment in the national media in the last couple of weeks. As usual, it’s mainly because there is expectation of general strife and mayhem in the proverbial Land of Promise.

Let’s make no bones about this: The only time media attention is focused in Mindanao is when there is something controversial, sensational, or contentious that’s breaking out (again!) in some part of the island.

And very often, it’s the kind of controversy that inevitably bolster the general perception That Mindanao is gasping at the throes of a major revolt; that it is a land where anarchists and barbarians hold court and threaten the supposed unity and sovereignty of the republic. Take your pick from the usual menu of news stories about Mindanao: Kidnapping, conflict, war, gunfight, poverty, etc. Thus, many among us, particularly those who have no physical or emotional connection with or to Mindanao, have gotten the impression that the Mindanao problem is nothing but a source of annoyance, a blight on our existence as a country.

This time, the intense media focus is over the controversial Memorandum of Agreement over Ancestral Domain between the peace negotiating panels of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The people who fancy themselves as pundits and as some kind of ultimate specialists on the “Mindanao situation” have been furiously peddling so-called expert opinions on the “problem.”
I’ve read many of these commentaries and quite frankly, as someone who grew up in Davao City and who continues to have a strong emotional attachment to Mindanao, I find most of these as nothing but intellectual swashbuckling (the description that I feel is more appropriate is the solitary sexual activity that most male adolescents indulge in, which unfortunately is not suitable for use in polite conversation).

Most of the gobbledygook that’s being spewed out there—and I must add, mostly by people who are from and in Imperial Manila—have only polarized the issues to the point of irrelevance. I don’t necessarily think that one has to possess an umbilical cord to Mindanao to be deemed qualified to write about Mindanao, but I wish that some people would at least try to acquire a multi-dimensional perspective of the issues before shooting their mouths off. There is so much about the issues that can only be understood through a comprehensive appreciation of the complex social, cultural and historical context of the struggles of the island and its people.

There is so much more about the “Mindanao issue” than the MILF problem. There is so much more about Mindanao than all the bad things that mainstream media finds newsworthy. The problem is that the other “content” about Mindanao is not getting equal media space.
Fortunately, there is now the blogosphere, hailed as the “new media.” And a number of bloggers from Mindanao have been proactively using the medium to debunk the bias treatment that Mindanao and its people are getting from the mainstream media.

At the forefront of the advocacy is Oliver Robillo, a blogger from Davao City who breathes passion and affection into anything Mindanao. I was in Davao City for work over the weekend and had the opportunity of sitting down with Robillo over coffee.

Robillo has the necessary academic pedigree and consulting portfolio to make it big in Manila or even in other major global centers, but he continues to live in Davao, occasionally shuttling to nearby Cagayan de Oro and General Santos cities for the much-needed change of atmosphere.

He is the proverbial “big fish in a small pond” doing various odds and ends, from business and information technology consulting, to column writing, to teaching, etc. But more and more, he is gaining reputation as the “blogger from Mindanao.” The description highlights his two main preoccupations: Strengthening the power and influence of blogging as the new media, and Mindanao. Incidentally, that’s how he is billed in this year’s Media Nation forum scheduled this week in Tagaytay, where he has been invited to talk about, well, what else, but blogging.
Robillo is more popularly known in the blogosphere by his nickname Blogie, which many assume he co-opted when blogging became a phenomenon. It’s not true, of course—I’ve known the guy for more than a decade now and he has always been known as Blogie even before blogs became a fad. He manages a number of blogs in addition to acting out the role as informal gatekeeper of Mindanao blogs and bloggers.

Robillo and the network of bloggers from Mindanao aim to present to the world what is true about Mindanao, from the point of view of the people who are from Mindanao. Robillo is quick to assert though, that their goal is not to paint a sugarcoated, sterilized, photo-shopped, mirage of Mindanao. “Only the truth about Mindanao,” Robillo empathically declares.

The network now comprises about 380 individual bloggers from all over Mindanao, and hopefully growing each day. The blogs run the whole gamut of interests and topics —from politics, to information technology, to photography, to culture and arts, to personal reflections on a host of topics. It’s a rich and dazzling buffet of content about Mindanao enabling and ennobling readers to acquire a more candid, personal, and ultimately—balanced and accurate— portrayal of Mindanao. In short, the much-needed context for understanding the “Mindanao issue.”

True to the spirit of the medium, the network is mainly a virtual community. Robillo, who also dabbles in events management, has put together several events that have enabled bloggers from all over Mindanao to physically converge in one location to discuss issues of mutual interest and benefit, such the annual Mindanao Bloggers Summit. Robillo is also at the helm of Word Camp 2008, the first summit of bloggers who use wordpress as platform, scheduled on Sept. 6 at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde.

Clearly, there are more perspectives about and from Mindanao other than the self-serving rhetoric that’s being regurgitated by politicians with narrow interests and by near-sighted media organizations and personalities. But thanks the blogosphere and to Robillo and the other bloggers from Mindanao— we’re at least seeing glimpses of the real picture out there.

The price of peace

This was my column last Wednesday, July 13. Late post. Sorry.

One of the greatest ironies in this world is that in order to attain peace one must prepare for war.

We can all romanticize peace as a concept, join hands and sing “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” with fervor until we come to our senses and realize it takes more than good intentions to make it happen. But we all know, both from a theoretical as well as from a real-world perspective, that attaining peace and making it last is a complicated, frustrating, contentious, and sometimes—and perhaps inevitably —a violent process. It’s never been easy. It won’t be easy. It’s important that we remind ourselves how elusive and thorny the quest for peace really is just so we appreciate the great sacrifices required of all stakeholders in the process.

The price we have to pay to attain peace is high. The question is: Are we willing to pay it?

There are many reasons why peace is difficult to achieve, but for purposes of this piece, let’s focus on the fact that attaining peace requires extreme self- sacrifice. It requires that everyone, most especially those directly involved in the potential or real conflict, come to the table with the intent to listen and understand rather than simply being listened to and being understood.

It is also important to remind ourselves that various roles need to be played in the process. We can’t all be negotiators.

And what’s more, it is imperative that everyone else, particularly kibitzers and hangers-on, heed the same advice. I know that it is an issue that involves all Filipinos. But for crying out loud, we don’t have access to the same facts and the same information as those directly involved in the conflict and in the negotiation, so our perspectives are not the same. It’s best to acquire a multi-dimensional perspective of the issues before shooting our mouths off.

Unfortunately for us, asking our leaders—most particularly political leaders—and the other influential sectors such as the media to stop talking and to suspend judgment for a while so that they may understood where the other party is coming from, is like asking them to hold their breath for an hour. We might as well ask them to commit suicide. Based on what we see everyday, we have a long line of people who fancy themselves as ultimate experts on anything and everything and who want to fulminate no end. They don’t want to listen. They just want to be heard.

What is even more alarming is the way certain sectors have attempted to read more into the issues than what is actually there. I grant that there are compelling reasons why we Filipinos must continue to be vigilant, foremost of which is that it seems that that’s the only remaining viable means to make this government behave with some semblance of honesty and decency.

However, there is definitely a whole ocean of difference between being vigilant and being paranoid. Some people just don’t seem to see the difference. Some people have simply lost the ability to objectively distinguish facts from fiction.

Which is why I am dismayed, but not really surprised, at the current turn of events around the centuries-old conflict in Mindanao and over the proposed memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain that is being forged between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

I am not going to comment on the memorandum of agreement per se because just like the millions of other ordinary mortals in this country, I haven’t seen a copy of this document in question. I know that the manner in which this document has been shrouded in secrecy invites all kinds of suspicions and has in fact sent a number of hyperactive minds into paroxysms.

I must admit that I am also as critical as everyone else of this cloak and dagger approach to something of earthshaking significance. However, I am also of the opinion that confidentiality on certain critical issues is integral to any negotiation. It’s a double-edged sword. Providing too much information is just as dangerous as withholding critical information. As it is, very little about the exact contents of the memorandum is known and already a lot of people have spun all kinds of doomsday scenarios. Imagine what it would be like if all points of the agreement was to be disclosed to the public during the negotiation and prior to the signing and without the benefit of a carefully designed information campaign and ample time for discussion!

It’s a memorandum of agreement— it’s a documentation of the consensus points arrived at by the negotiating panels. It’s not legally binding because it has to be submitted for approval by the Filipino people through a referendum. Any negotiation has to end with such a document, to be submitted to the appropriate approving authorities for ratification and approval. The negotiating panels represented the republic but they are not the Filipino people.

Of course there is a need to explain the contents of the memorandum of agreement and to educate everyone about it eventually. As already contented, it’s not legally binding until it’s been ratified by the people through a referendum. And as already explained many times by the members of the negotiating panels, public discussion will have to be conducted prior to the referendum so that the people can be enlightened on the issues. There is still ample room for constructive debate. The people can certainly trash it at the polls if needed.

This is not the impression that most people are getting from the way certain sectors are hyperventilating on the issue. Here’s a sampling of the doomsday scenarios that are being peddled out there: (1) The Republic will be dismembered and the identified areas of ancestral domain will become a separate republic/state/country depending on who is hyperventilating; (2) Christians in the identified areas will be expelled from these areas, dispossessed of their legal properties, etc; (3) That the whole process is actually a Trojan Horse designed to resurrect Charter Change movement and extend the term of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

All three are, without doubt, scary scenarios. But are these scenarios anchored on facts or mere speculative drivel? Indications point to the latter. But then again, that has not stopped people from adding on to the conflagration. Like I said, people are not listening. They simply want to be heard.

And we wonder why peace remains an elusive concept in this country.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dirty food that's really dirty

This is my column today.

It sounded like a great idea so all of us in the committee jumped at it: Make dirty ice cream available all day long for all employees, clients, and everyone else who entered the bank’s premises during its recent anniversary. We got so excited at the idea—and why not? Dirty ice cream is so Filipino, the tinkling of that all-too-familiar bell rekindles shared Pinoy childhood memories. Best of all, it is cheap. In these difficult times, an eat-all-you-can offering is something that costs an arm and a leg so at a few thousand bucks a cart, offering dirty ice cream sounded patok na patok (a bestseller).

For a while there, we thought we would have to pound the streets to round up a dozen individual mamang sorbetero from the street for our anniversary. But we were heartened to discover that most of the dirty ice cream that’s peddled in our streets comes from a handful of factories so contracting a supplier was relatively simpler that we thought. We talked to a few suppliers on the phone and got excited to learn that we could even choose whatever flavors we wanted —from cookies and cream, to a variety of fruits in season even including, yehey, atis and avocado.

The simplicity of the process—no bidding necessary, no added hassles about choosing menus and food sampling and all that plus the relatively cheaper cost—inspired us so that we decided to push the idea further. We thought of adding more “dirty food” to the offering. We decided to also offer taho and cotton candy. We were beside ourselves with glee and took to congratulating ourselves for being creative.

Then someone thought of visiting the factories. He remembered watching some “Imbestigador” episodes which showed the filthy conditions that attended the production of these street food offerings. We prevaricated for a while because we figure that if these food offerings were so unsafe, an epidemic of monstrous proportions would have already hit the country a long time ago. We grew up eating dirty ice cream and taho straight from ambulant peddlers, didn’t we? And we’re all still alive and kicking. Millions of kids still do so today.

But since we were offering the food to everyone including clients, we thought it wouldn’t hurt to be doubly sure about safety. It can’t be all that bad, we kept on reassuring ourselves. We were prepared to see some grime and sweaty workers in the factories, all of which we were prepared to ignore. We so wanted to make the idea work and were prepared to justify whatever filthy conditions would meet us at the factories.

So off we went. We first visited two dirty ice cream “factories” somewhere in Pasay City. The quotation marks are in order because there is absolutely no way that those places would ever qualify as factories. The first one we visited was a makeshift structure in the middle of a squatter colony. Filthy does not even begin to describe the place. The ingredients were simply strewn around on tables and benches, the floor was not even paved, and horror of all horror, the water that was being used in the process came from a deep well because the place didn’t have a water connection. We were served ice cream, of course, which suddenly looked unappetizing.

The second “factory” we visited was better only because at least it was housed in a structure that looked solid enough. Unfortunately, concrete walls and a tin roof are not enough to produce quality products. There was a water connection, the floors were paved, and it wasn’t in a squatter colony. But the same conditions were present: Grimy machines that looked like they were last cleaned when Marcos was still dictator, wet and dirty floors, half naked workers whose bodies seemed to be the source of the salt needed in the production process. I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the drift.

Our hearts sank. The inspired idea didn’t sound so great all of a sudden. The taho factories weren’t any better. We didn’t see plaster of paris among the ingredients although we couldn’t say for certain that it wasn’t used as the binding ingredient in the food production process. But for a food product that is supposed to be mainly derived from soy beans, we noted that there didn’t seem to be that many soy beans around.

We had to ditch the idea pronto. And quite frankly, I don’t think I will be able to eat nor allow any of my nephews or nieces to eat dirty ice cream or taho—at least the ones peddled in the streets—in this lifetime.

Fortunately, we discovered that those stalls in the malls that sell soft ice cream also provided party packages. We settled for that. And we still had a number of cotton candy machines. So we were still able to have a unique anniversary celebration.

Still, the whole experience validated what the description “dirty” in dirty ice cream really means. It’s not a figurative description; that I can assure you of.

I know that our government agencies have too many things to worry about; but surely, something as basic as the food that’s being sold on the streets deserves attention and closer scrutiny. The factories we visited all had the necessary permits and licenses issued by the appropriate government agencies, but I doubt if anyone from these agencies bothered to check the production capabilities of these businesses before issuing or renewing their business permits and licenses. No one in his right mind, or at least no one who knows someone who eats this street fare, would ever allow these businesses to operate once they get a glimpse of the filthy and miserable conditions that attend their production.

There’s a long list of food stuff that I am now certain are produced under the same questionable conditions and processes including tokwa, sago, and a variety of other candies and delicacies. We already know that those ice-based refreshments such as ice scramble are not fit for human consumption. I stopped buying boiled corn and peanuts from street vendors because I once saw someone scoop water from a public fountain to boil them with.

Majority in Metro Manila buy drinking water from the water purifying businesses that have suddenly sprouted in our neighborhoods. But given my recent experience, I have started to have doubts about whether the bottled water that’s being sold is actually purified. I have this nagging suspicion that many of these businesses simply fill those plastic containers with tap water.
I wonder what it will take for government agencies to really do their jobs and ensure that the food that’s being sold for public consumption is safe. Not an outbreak, I hope.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This is supposed to be funny?

Blogger bryanboy le superstar fabulous is a pinoy global phenomenon that needs to be appreciated within a specific context. His humor is something that needs to be taken with a certain degree of tolerance - if you want political correctness, bryanboy is not for you. But beneath all the gross exteriors of furs and designer labels and shameless self-promotion and what he calls "faggotry" I have no doubt that there is something more about bryanboy than meets the eye.

Having said that, I'd like to state for the record that I was quite taken aback by this recent post in his blog.

It's supposed to be a joke, I know.

And they did say they were kidding and that they love us. Yeah, that's supposed to make us feel better. That's supposed to be cute. We're supposed to just roll over and not be sensitive about it.

But think about it. Just think about it. Of the many things they can say about us, of the million and one things they could use to supposedly make us sit up and notice, of all the possible things they could joke about our country and our people... they chose this:

"Pupunta kami sa inyong bayan at gagamitin namin kayo parang mgang putang babaeng mura ng marikina!!"

and then:

"JUST KIDDING WE LOVE YOU!"

We're supposed to find that cute and funny?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Reactions to sex, drugs and HIV column

This was my column yesterday. Late post. Sorry.

My column last Monday about sex, drugs and HIV produced a number of reactions mostly from colleagues in the human resource management profession, friends, and some readers. The comments converged along three main themes.

First, questions about E’s identity. A certain M. Tupaz actually asked whether E was a real person or a mere figment of my imagination. I presumed that the reader found my account of E’s life journey—the drug use, the sex work, and the discovery of his HIV status - incredible. Tupaz commented “parang telenovela naman” (sounds like soap opera stuff). I guess there really are people out there who still cannot believe that life is oftentimes stranger than fiction. E told me that this was a common reaction that he got when he started his Web log; he had to talk to some people on the phone to assure them that he was indeed a real person.

A number of my students at the college where I teach were quite alarmed and inquired if E walked along the same corridors they do. It’s a normal reaction —most people begin with apprehension, and then move on to curiosity, to enlightenment, and eventually acceptance. Unfortunately, some get stuck in the apprehension stage and don’t do anything to process their fears by acquiring more information and seeking enlightenment. Most of our fears are really caused by not knowing any better.

But some did ask personal details about E such as what particular call center he used to work for and which school he goes to. These are not ideal reactions given the kind of information that most people already have about HIV and AIDS, foremost of which is that the virus is not transmitted through social contact.

HIV can only be transmitted through unsafe sexual contact, by sharing needles, and by a mother to a child during childbirth. These three things aren’t activities done in the workplace, are they? Thus, when HR directors worry about HIV transmission happening in their company’s workplace, I always ask them if they allow their workers to have sex in their premises. “Of course not!” they tell me with all the righteous indignation they could muster. “Then, why are you worrying about HIV transmission?” They usually are stumped for words afterwards.

So really, there is no point in identifying people living with HIV and locating their whereabouts other than for epidemiological purposes.

But again, I consider these normal— although, admittedly—knee-jerk reactions. These only illustrate the gravity of the stigma attached to HIV. I think the default action for most people in certain situations is to go into self-preservation mode. When they hear that someone living with HIV is in their midst, their immediate thought is to protect themselves even through means that are unreasonable and illogical.

I remember one incident a couple of years back. I was working on a project with some colleagues and I was aware that one of them was living with HIV. The project involved conducting an organizational diagnosis and job evaluation and the interaction was limited to having meetings once every two weeks, so literally, just being in the same conference room and breathing the same air. The meetings have been going on for two months already when one of my colleagues accosted me for not telling him that one of our teammates was living with HIV. He got so scared that he dropped out of the project and even threatened to sue us for exposing him to HIV. Of course we explained that his fears were unfounded because HIV was not airborne and could not be transmitted through social contact. Unfortunately, his mind was already made up.

The funny thing was that he admitted that he found it hard to believe that our colleague was living with HIV because he looked and acted normal, just like everyone else. Naturally. A person living with HIV looks like everyone else, he or she can be anyone—the person sitting next to you at Starbucks, the person taking your orders at a restaurant, the salesperson making a pitch for a product. A person living with HIV is not and does not look sick. He is just different.

The second theme among the comments I received were about drug use in the country and establishments that supposedly promote drug use within their premises. Two readers sent in e-mails that essentially squealed on certain establishments. One establishment, it was alleged, allows people to use drugs inside their premises provided they take cocaine —ecstasy, crystal and other drugs presumably deemed to be beneath their social status as the bar of the ruling social class. This establishment figured heavily in the news recently not only because of the allegations of being a drug den but also because of unruly and oftentimes violent behavior of its most valued patrons.

Another e-mail writer asked me to reveal the information she shared with me, juicy stuff about which celebrity or members of the social set are into snorting cocaine. But in the same breath, she asked that I keep her identity secret. In short, she wanted me to do what that 70,000 dollars blog does regularly, which is to pass off rumors and allegations as gospel truth. Thanks, but no thanks. I may be innately contemptuous of people who flaunt profligate lifestyles but I also have a natural disdain for people who don’t respect other people’s rights.

The third category of responses expressed alarm over the rising incidence of HIV infection in the country, particularly among the yuppie and college-age set. I’ve known for quite sometime about the high incidence of infection in the call center industry but I have personally not written about it because I felt that doing so verge on being alarmist. But I did share the information to a group of call center executives in a meeting called specifically to discuss HIV in the workplace. I remember being initially frustrated during the question-and-answer portion because most of the questions had to do with—you guessed it right—identities. They wanted to know which call centers had agents that tested positive, what was the profile of the people who tested positive, etc.

I’m still hoping that the call center industry, or industry in general, would finally sit up and recognize that we have a problem in our hands and we need to address it proactively. There’s a need to do education and prevention programs targeted at this particularly vulnerable sector. And then there’s the need to put in place HIV in the workplace programs such as counseling and other support programs for people living with HIV who are on board, or who are qualified to join their workforce. A person living with HIV is not sick, is still productive, and remains as valuable human capital.

And lest we forget, there’s actually a law that prohibits discrimination against those living with HIV.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

When it rains...

Given the fact that we've been experiencing the problem for many years now and that it is a problem that brings with it terrible, awful, horrifying consequences, one would think that someone out there would have come up with a solution to it.

But nope. Everytime it rains, the metro still gets submerged in filthy, stinky floodwaters. Traffic comes to a complete halt. People get stranded. Etc. Etc. Etc.

We've even reached the point when most among us have come to accept the aggravation as a fact of life, as a force of nature, an act of God. Oh please. Rain is an act of god. But flooding is not.

Flooding is caused by mismanagement of the garbage problem, of the utter failure of our leaders to build better drainage systems, etc. The monstrous traffic jams are caused by the breakdown of discipline on the road, the disappearance of traffic cops who are most needed to unlock bottlenecks, the reduction of road space for vehicles since pedestrians commandeer roads into promenades and giant sidewalks, etc.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Sex, drugs and HIV

This is my column today.

In moments when we want to empathize with whatever dreadful experience others are going through, we try to put ourselves in their situation. We make the effort to imagine what it feels like to live under their skin; we try to sense the pain and anguish that they are living through in the hope that by doing so we are able to relate with them better, perhaps even lighten their pain in the process. But we know that we can only try; we can only imagine what it is like. We can’t really be in the same wretched place.

I’ve been involved in HIV/AIDS prevention work for almost two decades now. All throughout these many years, I have met, counseled, fought and cared for numerous people living with HIV/AIDS. Each one of them had their own sad story to tell, some more tragic than the others, but all of them stories of courage, and in the end, of hope and redemption.

Living with HIV is one of the most paradoxical situations in this world. It makes people living with the virus to come to terms with their own mortality but at the same time appreciative of their own humanity. It exposes people living with the virus to all the possible permutations of the hatred that resides inside other people who aren’t able to deal with their own intolerance and bigotry but at the same time ennobles them to find within themselves the courage to understand and forgive.

I’ve also learned to hone my own coping mechanisms particularly in managing emotions when caring for people living with HIV/AIDS. I used to wallow in the pits of depression every time I’d come across someone with a really tragic story about how he or she got infected with HIV. I would mourn for days when someone I knew and gotten attached to passed away. Eventually, I learned to toughen myself and learned to practice the counseling mantra of being like the proverbial mirror that reflects rather than as the sponge that absorbs. I thought I had it all down pat. Until E and his story came along, that is.

What makes E’s story moving is aside from the fact that he discovered he was HIV positive just when he decided to cut clean from a destructive lifestyle that included trading sexual favors for unlimited access to drugs, he also typifies the really tragic thing about the HIV pandemic: It affects people who are at the most promising and productive years of their lives.

Bear with me and try to imagine you are 25 years old—the age when the pressure to make something of yourself is at its most intense. Having lived a relatively bohemian lifestyle that involved partaking of all the pleasures offered to someone with the physical attributes and the overwhelming craving to experience the best of what life had to offer, you wake up one day to finally realize you are not getting any younger and that it is time to turn a new leaf.

You wean yourself from a destructive drug habit that for many years has enslaved and reduced you to a veritable plaything of people with no compunction whatsoever of using their money and influence to exploit others. You write finis to a life spent trading your body for drugs. You decide to come home and become the good son and brother once again. You make peace with everyone you have hurt in the past. You go back to school and begin weaving new dreams. And then, to really enable you to begin on a new slate, you decide to get yourself tested for HIV. You look forward to the opportunity to really start all over again and be a better, renewed, revitalized person. And then life deals you a major whammy. You discover you have HIV.

This is the story of E. Many bloggers have probably come across the Web log which he put up as some kind of a therapy and tool for catharsis. I won’t mention his blog here because I think that the last thing he needs is unbridled media attention. As much as he wants to do his share in helping take away the static that accompanies discussion about HIV, AIDS, sex and drugs in this country, he needs to guard his privacy very fiercely. As it is, a number of bigoted and intolerant people have already started to gang up on him trumping up the usual messages of hate that emanate from fear and ignorance. E is not a victim, but neither should he be the new whipping boy of the moralists and bigots in this country.

HIV/AIDS still has no cure today, but someone living with HIV can live a productive and healthy lifestyle—thanks to medical breakthroughs. But the stigma has remained. Living with HIV is still looked upon as a curse that befalls “bad” people. E may have lived a carefree existence for a number of years, but deep down he is really just the typical cute boy who could pass off as the little brother you wanted to cuddle and protect from the world.

What makes E’s case particularly worrisome is that he represents the new phenomenon in HIV infections in our country. Of course no one deserves to have HIV and I certainly don’t want everyone else living with HIV to think that their situation is any less significant. But recent incidences of HIV infection seemed to be concentrated on college-age students and young urban professionals; the proverbial hope of the fatherland. E is in college and used to work in a call center. And yes, at the risk of raising alarm and unwanted scrutiny on this particular industry and segment of society, we’re seeing a rise in HIV infection in the call center industry and among college students.

E is not the only college-age person that has tested positive for HIV recently. A number of people he knows (and who move around in his particular social circle) have also tested positive. This is not empirically based, but based on my discussions with a number of young people who have recently tested positive for HIV, the emerging vector seems to be drug use. We are seeing the rise of injecting drug use in other parts of the country although in Metro Manila, recreational drugs are still more popular such as ecstasy, ketamine, crystal (most popularly known as shabu), and yes, cocaine. While recreational drugs per se don’t pose a direct cause of HIV infection the way injecting drug use does, vulnerability to HIV infection increases as inhibitions plummet and risk-taking increases with the use of these drugs.

And as confirmed by E, drugs represent the most potent currency out there today among the young. The really sad thing is that there are predators out there that won’t take money but instead use drugs as bait to lure people into sex in exchange for a line of cocaine or a few grams of crystal. I can already see the knee-jerk reaction of some quarters: Advocating a crackdown on certain bars and establishments and requiring call centers to impose mandatory HIV testing. These courses of action are foolhardy as these will only create an underground culture that’s difficult to track for HIV programs. The most viable way to address the problem is still prevention and education. And harm reduction.

I’ve spent a number of sleepless nights worrying about E and young people like him whose lives have now taken a drastic turn courtesy of a pandemic that we should have been able to manage better. It’s really sad that after more than two decades since HIV/AIDS was first detected in this country, we’re still barely scraping the surface in terms of prevention and control.

If it’s any consolation, E has become hopeful and pragmatic. He has decided to move on with his life and make the most out of the cards life has dealt him today. But not everyone has E’s maturity or pragmatism. He plans to use his HIV status as a wake up call; others are still in denial. We can’t take back the hands of time and change things for people like E, but we can still do a lot for others. And yes, we certainly can still make things better for E with a little more understanding and care.