Monday, September 29, 2008

Mismanaging the milk contamination issue

This is my column today.

We all know that greed corrupts certain people into doing dastardly, even stupid things. As a result, there are people in this planet that could not be bothered by such things such as public health and safety, when these get in the way of business.

I’ve written in this space, for instance, about the unsanitary conditions that attend the production of certain food peddled in our streets. But the disregard for adequate sanitation of local businessmen behind the factories that produce dirty ice cream, taho, and other street food, sounds like kids’ play when compared to the abominable crime of the Chinese businessmen that deliberately spiked milk products with melamine. Melamine has been found to be a toxic substance that produces kidney stones among those who ingest it with their milk. At least five infants have died and thousands of children in China have been found to be suffering from ailments attributable to ingesting milk contaminated with melamine.

There are certain things about this public health scare that’s truly disturbing.

The product that’s been contaminated happens to be—if we really come to think about it—the stuff of life. Milk is the most natural nutrient found in the animal kingdom. It’s the stuff that nurtures every newborn mammal—from bats to humans. There is no single human being today that has not depended on milk for his or her survival during infancy. Thus, contaminating milk sounds like sacrilege.

I am not really a milk drinker; or at least not anymore today. But I did grow up in a family of heavy milk drinkers. Easy proof of that was that while growing up, we had a garden that featured a unique attraction: Plants growing in milk cans of uniform sizes painted white to hide the milk brand. My grandmother was fiercely loyal to this brand of milk and the weekly supply came in the form of a huge tin can which eventually ended up in the garden as a pot for her plants. I don’t like drinking milk anymore, but I do make sure that my kids and my aging parents take large quantities of the stuff because I know, just as everyone in this planet knows, that milk is the best source of nutrients.

Children and senior citizens also happen to be the main markets for milk and milk products. In fact, one of the things that riled me about this whole thing was that the contamination was first discovered in infant milk products. Of all the stakeholders in this planet, children are probably the most vulnerable; and infants particularly more so. They are defenseless and helpless and it is society’s job to ensure that they are adequately protected and nurtured. For crying out loud, even animals take on that responsibility.

While still a student, my sociology professor made us listen to a song by The Police that essentially argued that if the Russians loved their children too, then a total war wasn’t feasible. I know. It’s a simplistic way of framing an issue. Concern for children has not stopped the Taliban, or George Bush, or other despots to wage wars that invariably victimized children the most. Although it still does not justify it, at least certain wars that killed children are grounded on something more profound such as religion or sovereignty. This crime against children is grounded on nothing else but greed for profits.

So if the Chinese truly love their children then they should get to the heart of the problem and make the criminals pay for their crime. In addition to a prison sentence, perhaps they should be made to drink milk contaminated with melamine for the rest of their lives.

The country’s reaction to the milk contamination problem was thankfully swift. But as usual, the reaction, particularly that of government, seemed rash and imprudent; bordering on panic. As most of us know, panic is the result of the absence of preparation. Again, it does seem that our government agencies don’t have crisis management programs in place and are therefore really ill-equipped to handle them. This is really tragic when we consider that we are visited by all kinds of crises on a more regular basis.

The Bureau of Food and Drugs Administration “pulled out” certain milk products from supermarkets to test for melamine. The exact nature of BFAD’s action has been subject to so much clarification that one wonders if there’s anyone in BFAD with a thesaurus and therefore able to make distinctions between banning a product and simply testing it for melamine.

I caught one BFAD official explaining through a telephone interview on television that the pullout was not meant to suggest in any way that the products were laden with melamine. The Secretary of Health weighed in with his own explanations and directives. As can be expected, the companies that owned the brand names of the milk products that were in the BFAD list raised questions. Our politicians smelled an opportunity to promote themselves and therefore inserted themselves into the issue.

Only one thing is clear now. BFAD does not have the technology to do the tests quickly.
All this is typical in our country, of course. We try to pass off discourses as solutions, debate as effective responses, and panic as concern.

I can understand the alarm of the companies whose brands were in that dreaded list. Four milk product brands have since then been taken off it, but I doubt if the stigma will disappear as quickly. These were milk products that were manufactured in Australia or New Zealand, after all, not China. One wonders: Why were they in the list to begin with?

How certain media organizations “managed” the BFAD list issue was just as interesting. Anyone out there who still has doubts about the kind of power big advertisers have over certain media organizations need only to take a look at how certain media organizations and broadcasters deliberately did not mention certain brand names that were in the BFAD list in their newscasts and in their talk shows. These brand names are major advertisers. Let’s not forget that a large percentage of television ads are milk commercials.

Some media organizations and personalities make such a big to-do about their supposed independence and about how they are beholden to no one other than the public’s interests. We now have proof course that this is not absolutely true, particularly when business interests are at stake.

One talk show on the ABS-CBN News Channel did something even more appalling. Not only did they not mention the more recognizable brands in the list, they made jokes out of the Chinese brand names. They picked out the brand names that they thought were really funny or bizarre and made them the object of ridicule.

They are not kidding

Just got back from a conference. This was my column last Wednesday, September 24.

It seems Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando is not kidding after all. He is intent on running for the highest post in the land.

To be really honest about it, I really thought that the man was simply trying to be cute. Antics such as his latest foray into entertainment TV via Celebrity Duets is a trademark. In fact, there are times when he comes across as a copycat of Senator Juan Flavier.

I think we can all be forgiven for being skeptical about Fernando’s quest for the presidency. To begin with, he doesn’t have national following. In fact, there are many people who insist that his fan base is limited to Marikina City. Surely, anyone who wants to become President realizes that he or she needs to be voted into office by millions of Filipinos across the country.

Secondly, anyone who wants to be voted into office needs to get on the good side of the voters. Essentially, this means getting their sympathy or at the very least, not doing anything to antagonize or displease them. Last I looked, Fernando continued to stand foursquare behind his projects, many of them quite unpopular. There are the pink fences, the U-turn slots and all the other projects that don’t really work in many areas.

Fernando is known for his legendary stubbornness. In fact, it is widely accepted that the main reason why certain traffic improvement schemes continue to be in place and are still observed despite the fact that they have failed is that Fernando does not like people questioning his supposed brilliant ideas.

It did cross my mind that a national campaign was in the works when I was told that MMDA heavy equipment and personnel were very visible in Kalibo, Aklan in the aftermath of Typhoon Frank. In fact, MMDA personnel, equipment, and vehicles have been seen in various provinces outside of Metro Manila on a more regular basis in the last two months. I am sure that the agency’s officials have a logical explanation. I doubt, however, if Metro Manila mayors and residents appreciate the fact that services that are supposed to be rendered to them are now diverted elsewhere.

Three things have convinced me that Fernando is serious after all in his bid for the presidency of the Republic of the Philippines in 2010.

First, giant tarpaulin boards that show his stern-looking mug are all over the country. When I saw a poster in Davao City a couple of weeks back, I thought it was just a test. But I traveled to Baguio City yesterday and came across more of his tarpaulins. It’s difficult to miss them because they are in that hideous shade of pink that reminds you of plastic flowers and because they feature an unsmiling Fernando, seemingly scolding us for whatever transgressions we’re supposed to have made against this country.

Second, it seems he already has the endorsement of former President Fidel V. Ramos who was quoted over the weekend as saying that the country needs a “bayani” as leader in 2010. Anyone out there who thinks the former president was talking about heroes and heroism in general should listen to what he said next: “Watch out for the Pink Panther.”
I know this sounds frivolous, but is there anyone out there who actually likes that shade of pink?
***

I am not a fan of Senator Ping Lacson. However, I cannot say that the guy is unworthy of his seat in the Senate. He is articulate, he is passionate, and he seems to be a brilliant tactician. He also has a wry sense of humor which unfortunately sometimes comes across as sardonic. So yes, I believe that there is a particular value that he brings to the Senate.

And it is a value that is quite unique and distinctive. Only Ping Lacson has, so far, been able to directly accuse people of the worst possible crimes with 100-percent certainty written on his face. This is a man with very strong convictions. Sometimes I wish I have, at the very least, the ability to demonstrate the kind of conviction that he shows in his face and demeanor for the things I believe in. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t mince words. And he seems totally unafraid of anything and anyone. It’s probably his military training; although I’ve also known quite a number of military generals with the backbone of a jellyfish.

Unfortunately, the very thing that sets him apart from the rest of the senators and for which he earns some measure of respect—even if in many cases it is given grudgingly—is also the very thing that makes people wary of him. I don’t know if the man still has ambitions of becoming President of this country. Unlike in the last presidential elections where he cast his hat into the political ring very early on, he seems to be biding his time now. I think however that he lost quite a number of votes last Monday when he delivered that fiery and impassioned privilege speech at the Senate.

I think that was exactly the kind of speech someone who harbors a moist eye on the presidency cannot afford to deliver —he practically challenged the Senate President to a fistfight. He said he was willing, ready, and capable of a bruising fight. For a while there, he looked like some character from a western movie—waving a gun in the air and accosting everyone to a duel. And he wasn’t kidding either.

***

Most human resource management professionals in this country will not be at their desks starting today until Friday. They will be at the Baguio Country Club attending the annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines (formerly known as the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines). Conferences, of course, have taken a bad rap for simply being occasions for networking and rest and recreation. But PMAP’s conferences have always been unique and relevant mainly because it’s about people—our only lasting and remaining source of competitive advantage.

Human resources and people managers who are reading this piece and who are still not in Baguio can still catch up. The conference learning sessions will run until Friday afternoon.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reality versus drama on primetime TV

This was my column last Wednesday, September 17. Late post again.

Primetime television just got a little bit more interesting with the launch last Monday of two new breakthrough shows, which, unfortunately are competing head-on for viewership. The two shows were enough to make me stay up late glued to the television set and made the ordeal of having to watch our senators acting like children once again a little bearable.

Ordinarily, competition benefits consumers as the one-upmanship usually, though not always, results in programs that are generally of better quality. This time, however, local audiences are at a disadvantage because the two shows have been intentionally designed to compete with each other and are therefore on at the same time slot. Audiences were supposed to deliberately choose one over the other. I refused to be pegged as a victim, so I switched channels after every few minutes in an attempt to get a good grasp of what each show was offering.

GMA-7 launched last Monday the local version of the international reality show “Survivor.” The show, hosted by Paolo Bediones, is dubbed Survivor Philippines. I understand the need to differentiate the local franchise from the original show which is why the country’s name is in the title. Everyone in the show is Filipino, although it is presumed that they had ample help from the locals. The show is produced by Filipinos. Unfortunately, the most important part of the show—the setting—is not in the Philippines. Thus, the title is not only misleading, it can be construed as an affront to the image of the country as a tourism destination in its own right. Each of the international Survivor series was named after the countries where the series were shot on location (e.g., Survivor Marquesas, after the islands).

And now, we have Survivor Philippines featuring the breathtaking, panoramic, and idyllic views of… Thailand!

This issue could have been avoided if GMA-7 chose to stage at least its pilot series within the country. (I learned later that the international franchise rules of the series require that all episodes of the show be shot on location outside of the country of the franchisee - Bong Austero) I love Thailand; but quite frankly, we have islands that are comparable, if not better. We are an archipelago, remember? In fact, the recent French franchise of the same series was shot in one of the islands in Camarines Sur.

Unfortunately, commercial considerations require that before any show or movie could be considered big, or major, or of international standards, it has to be filmed or shot on location abroad.

Truly, some paradigms such as colonial mentality are deeply entrenched in our psyche and are difficult to let go. Thus, there has been this newfound abundance of local films and shows that were filmed abroad, Europe in particular. Sharon Cuneta’s last movie, “Caregiver,” was shot in London. The recent Richard Gutierrez and KC Concepcion movie was filmed in Greece. And the upcoming Dennis Trillo and Jolina Magdangal movie was filmed aboard a cruise ship that sailed to some key cities in Europe.

Anyway. GMA-7’s current attempt to localize an international franchise seems to be a major improvement over previous failed attempts. Somehow, GMA-7 just didn’t seem to get all the ingredients right in the past and a lot of things seemed lost in translation, or to be more specific, in the staging. The recent staging of the local franchise of “American Idol” was a classic example.

To put it bluntly, it didn’t fly because it looked the network scrimped on production costs. They also tried to localize it too much to the point that it seemed specifically targeted for a narrow segment of the population rather than for a broader audience. As a result, most viewers, including myself, tuned off very early on.

If we are to believe the scuttlebutt, GMA-7 is said to spend a fraction of what rival ABS-CBN spends for the same type of productions. The results are often evident in terms of production values such as lighting, props, and other technical aspects; not that these are the only indicators of quality, of course. But based on what we saw last Monday, it was evident that GMA-7 is spending a fortune on Survivor Philippines. Not only did they fly the cast and crew to Thailand, they also built facilities on the island including what looks like a Buddhist temple-inspired tribal council area where the cast (called castaways in Survivor Philippines) vote out members of their tribe.

The local franchise seems intent on being a copycat of the international series down to the panning shots of the island. But some attempts to align with Philippine television norms already seem evident. There’s the obvious focus on sex elements—not only were most of the castaways already shown in various stages of undress last Monday, but one can also already sense the subtle buildup of certain castaways based on physical attributes. It’s the same formula that has worked for other local shows such as “Pinoy Big Brother” and “Pinoy Dream Academy.” In fact, the teasers for the local franchise of “Fear Factor” which will be shown soon by ABS-CBN has been shamelessly capitalizing on the physical attributes of the contestants by showing lingering footages of bodies clad only in skimpy attires.

And because we do seem to have this penchant for shows that feature over-the-top drama, we expect Survivor to show lots of caterwauling, screaming, whining, and lots and lots of childish, immature and even neurotic behaviors. These sell, in case you didn’t know.

The challenge for GMA-7 is how to sustain interest in the show. While it is unfair to expect the same level of technical wizardry that is found in the original Survivor which has more resources and had more experience mounting the show, a comparison is inevitable because most people are familiar with the international series. GMA-7 has no choice but to try to live up to the standard.

Up against Survivor Philippines is “Kahit Isang Saglit,” a telenovella that is blazing new paths simply because it is a collaborative effort between two networks from two different countries: Malaysia and the Philippines.

It’s too bad really that the two shows, Survivor Philippines and Kahit Isang Saglit, are being pitted against each other. There’s really something unique and worthwhile that each one offers.The premiere episode of Kahit Isang Saglit introduced the two leads in a rather brisk pace—they were shown as children in the first half and as adults in the later part of the show—were shot on location in Malaysia and in the Philippines. The panoramic shots of Malaysia were breathtaking.

If Survivor makes big deal of its idyllic location, Kahit Isang Saglit was not really outdone last Monday because the Malaysian locations they featured including footages of a live festival and fireworks display were spectacular. And of course, the show features Carmen Soo, who is supposed to be the biggest female star in Malaysia today and who looks really good onscreen; and Jericho Rosales of “Pangako Sa Yo” fame. The show likewise broke new ground because the Malaysian characters speak English —so here we finally have a mainstream telenovella where characters speak English half the time.

It’s really too bad that two shows are colliding on the same time slot. It’s a win-loss situation for the networks because one will obviously prevail in the ratings game. It’s a loss-loss situation for viewers.

Anyway. The late cast of the news came on just a little later after the two shows and strangely it didn’t look any different from Survivor and Kahit Isang Saglit. Our senators look like they are on a parallel set of Survivor and are out to outwit, outlast, and outlive each other. The drama was also comparable, if not even more mind-blowing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Making Lakbay Aral more relevant

This is my column today.

The running joke around the customary school field trips, which have now been given a patina of contrived relevance and nationalism by the seemingly profound term Lakbay Aral, is that they are really designed to provide our students valuable lessons on consumerism and mindless entertainment. This is why students on these field trips invariably end up at some mall or at the set of a local television game or gossip show.

I expect the Ayalas, the Sys and the Gokongweis of this world to argue that their shopping malls are also ideal destinations for students who have ventured out of their classrooms to learn about the real world. As someone who also spends inordinate amounts of time in malls, I feel I am not qualified to argue against malls as venue for educational pursuits. I do grant that some malls have at least gone out of their way to put up science exhibition halls, mount entertainment shows that are not of the usual mindless variety that we see on television, build play areas, and in general have made their malls conducive or at least friendlier and safer for large numbers of students at any given time.

Over at the Mall of Asia, for example, is a truly marvelous science discovery area which features a giant dome where one can view science feature films that are shown using state-of-the-art projection technology. It’s definitely a major leap from the now ancient one-dimensional film shows at the old planetarium at Rizal Park. The area likewise offers a number of tiny rooms where natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, are simulated using advanced technology. The downside is that the venue charges an arm and a leg that’s obviously beyond the means of public school students.

What’s more, they tend to cram too many schoolchildren into the venue so the kids end up being rushed around and their learning experience is limited to a cursory walk-through rather than an actual multi-sensory immersion. One can only wish that the administrators of the mall tried to balance commerce with social considerations and try not to accept too many field trips in a day so that kids are given more time to enjoy their facilities.

Despite my misgivings about reinforcing materialistic values on our kids, I do grant that there are some limited benefits in bringing our children to some malls for educational trips. This becomes painfully obvious when we consider that the state of the usual venues for field trips such as the public zoo, our parks and other public recreation areas are in various stages of decay. The last time I brought my young nephews and nieces to the Manila Zoo, I got so depressed at the miserable conditions that are being passed of as habitat that the trip became a lesson on how not to treat animals.

If anyone out there wants to argue about how irrelevant the Manila Zoo has become, I’d like to point out to them one very glaring fact. We probably have the only zoo in the world were vendors that sell birds—mostly chicks and mayas dyed a deep shade of red, purple and blue—are allowed within the premises. The process involved in dyeing those birds is something that must be akin to the old water torture method. Gross and extremely unkind, I know.

My main beef with using malls as venues for educational field trips for children is that most of our malls were not primarily architecturally designed to be such. For example, I doubt if Glorietta and Megamall were designed to accommodate hundreds of rowdy and overexcited schoolchildren accompanied by only a few harassed adults at a given time.

Pray tell, have safety considerations ever crossed anyone’s mind, particularly those of the administrators of these malls and those of the teachers and parents of the schoolchildren out on a field trip? Call me paranoid. Call me a worrywart. But has anyone every imagined a worst case scenario where there is an emergency and hundreds of schoolchildren are cooped up inside a mall with very narrow entrances and exits? I know this is beginning to sound like an endorsement for the Mall of Asia as a Lakbay Aral destination—and believe me that goal is farthest from my mind—but at least that particular mall has lots of open spaces and passageways that allow easy access and exits.

What got me writing about this topic was the very cavalier way in which school administrators of the school a nephew goes to when I inquired about the rationale for bringing the kids to Glorietta for their annual field trip this year. I have nothing against Glorietta, of course. I know that the freak explosion that happened last year was an accident that the owners of the mall did not want to happen. My beef is not really with Glorietta per se, but with all malls that seem to welcome and accommodate field trips involving very young schoolchildren when their facilities are obviously not designed to handle the rather special needs of these kinds of events.

I’m not just talking about safety and security concerns, I am also talking about the absence of open areas where kids can rest or take meals. Very often, kids simply plunk down on hallways or staircases in the process obstructing traffic simply because there are not enough chairs or benches for them. And then there’s the issue of ventilation and other health concerns. We’re not even talking yet about toilet facilities and the general convenience of other shoppers.

This brings me to that other preferred destination for supposed educational field trips: The sets of television variety and gossip shows. When I was growing up, I do remember watching how students in their uniforms would scamper away or cover their faces once a television camera would scan the audience. Being seen inside a television studio in their school uniforms was considered a major transgression then, not necessarily because it was baduy, but simply because it was then inconceivable to consider visiting a live set of a mindless variety show as remotely educational. It is still inconceivable today, actually.

How exactly does comprising the live audience of The Buzz translate into an educational experience? Okay, one would probably give allowances if the students were majoring in mass communications; but what is the relevance to engineering and students majoring in other fields such as geodetics and agricultural economics? Today, the students and horror of all horrors, their school administrators, are even acknowledged publicly on these shows and they proudly display their school banners and wave placards proclaiming their educational institutions. It’s become a matter of pride for them that their teachers and school administrators brought them to watch a live episode of a show where people launder their dirty linens, trade catty remarks and indulge in all kinds of mindless pursuits.

In closing, let me stress that I am not against the concept of Lakbay Aral. I think that there is wisdom in bringing kids out of the classroom to widen their perspectives and learn some critical social skills. I just wish that government, school administrators, parents, and yes, business establishments, make these trips safer, more educational, and truly worth the kids’ while.

Otherwise, we are just really making it as an excuse to pass time and fleece money from the kids and their parents.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bar ops and street floods

This is my column today.

The bar examinations are ongoing every Sunday at the De La Salle University along Taft Avenue, Manila. I live near the area and the annual hoopla associated with the exams is one of those things that just do not make sense to me. During the four Sundays when the bar examinations are conducted, traffic in the area becomes hopelessly tangled as various universities and colleges, fraternities, student organizations, and, as can be expected, business enterprises, set up tents, stalls, or rent the garage areas of neighboring houses. Together, they transform the whole place into a giant festival. The whole atmosphere becomes that of a school fair, except that there’s unlimited alcohol available.

It’s called bar ops. The whole point of the exercise is supposedly to provide moral support and inspiration to the examinees. Law schools and student organizations put up tents along Taft Avenue and some even rent out business establishments in the area to serve as some kind of temporary “headquarters” for their group. This is where examinees are supposed to be pampered by their supporters, mostly law students who expect to be given the same royal treatment in a few year’s time when it’s their turn to take the bar exams. While the examinees are taking the bar, their supporters start the vigil of a different kind—not involving prayers and meditation but merrymaking, strange rituals, and large-scale consumption of food and alcohol.

How the bar ops is related to passing the bar examinations is something that is incomprehensible to me. I’ve always been under the impression that passing the bar examinations—or any other professional examinations, for that matter—is the product of long years of training and months of preparation and not dependent on strange rituals conducted on the days of the examinations.

At the end of each Sunday, as the bar examinees begin trooping out from the gates of DLSU, their supporters stage various kinds of rituals that include singing, chanting, cheering, etc. In fact, things even get out of hand on the last Sunday of the exams when ati atihan dancers, drum and bugle bands, and stark-naked men greet the examinees, who are often drenched in a shower of beer and wine. The whole point of the hoopla has remained unclear to me. It’s obviously too early for a celebration considering that the bar exams are still checked individually and by hand by the examiners and therefore takes a good six months before the results are made known. So perhaps the rituals are meant as exorcism, which, if we come to think about it, does not speak well of the law profession.

Fortunately, the City Government of Manila has disallowed the conduct of bar ops this year. It was reported that the setting up of tents along Taft Avenue and surrounding streets would not be allowed and that the usual festivities and rituals will be banned. I don’t know if the city government would be successful in implementing the ban. When I checked the area last Sunday evening, people were still dismantling tents along Estrada Street and the whole area was littered with the remains of celebration.

I think that the whole bar ops thing is reflective of the kind of norms that operate within the groups that are supposed to prop up the justice system in our country. There’s this whole focus on academic identification. Thus, even universities and colleges from Mindanao and other far-flung areas send delegations to the bar ops and try to assert their own places along Taft Avenue. Sometimes, this whole business of academic identification reaches bizarre levels such as in a recent case when a judge scolded a lawyer in court and declared him incompetent simply because the lawyer did not come from the same school where the judge finished law studies.

There’s also this whole emphasis on ego and pride. I know that the bar exams is one of the most difficult examinations there is, but I doubt if they can claim to be any more difficult than the other board examinations. But going by the kind of ego boosting that happens during the bar exams, and the kind of attention that is given to it by media and everyone else, it would appear as if the future of this country hinged solely on the law profession.

***

The rains lasted only for an hour or so last Monday night but that was all it took for the streets of Metro Manila to become flooded. I knew the rains didn’t last that long because I was out with my kids having dinner and the downpour started just as we were sitting down to eat. By the time we were done, the rains have stopped. Traffic along major routes, however, was already hopelessly gridlocked and total anarchy and chaos reigned. We got stuck on the road for three hours. We were luckier, I was told. A friend didn’t get home until almost 4:00 a.m. yesterday.

The first question that begs an answer is: Why is it that our streets get flooded immediately these days? In the past, it would take a whole day’s worth of heavy rains before streets became impassable. And even during a heavy deluge, some streets would still remain passable. Not anymore today. Like I said, the rains last Monday night lasted only for an hour or so but the flood in some areas reached more than two feet high.

Some people have been quick to blame Mother Nature. There’s this general belief that typhoons today have become stronger and more destructive on account of global warming and that this applies to other forces of nature, including heavy downpour. I am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and concede that the amount of rain that’s been falling from the heavens have increased tremendously over the last few months. Okay.

There’s not much we can do about forces of nature. But I refuse to fall into this victim trap. I refuse to subscribe to what our leaders seem to want us to believe in, which is that we should simply accept the flooding, the traffic, and the bedlam that inevitably happens in our streets during these times as givens that we can’t do anything about.

Oh please. The reason why our streets get flooded easily is because flood control projects have not been pursued more aggressively, our drainage systems are hopelessly inadequate, canals are heavily clogged with garbage that are not efficiently collected, etc, etc. In general, it is really because our leaders lack the foresight and the political will necessary to solve the problem.

The traffic gridlock that invariably follows a heavy downpour is caused mainly by two things: Lack of discipline on the road and inefficient traffic management systems. I will not anymore go into the embarrassing details. We are all familiar with how we Filipinos seem to forget basic courtesies—even basic manners—when in tight situations such as when stuck in the middle of horrendous traffic. These are exactly the times when traffic enforcers should be visible.

Unfortunately, Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando cannot seem to be bothered by these things today. It seems his mind is too preoccupied with his premature campaign for the presidency. Instead of addressing the problems of Metro Manila residents, Fernando has been very busy posting campaign stickers on buses and jeepneys and fending off criticism. If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, most of the resources of the MMDA, including equipment and personnel, are now fanned across the country to campaign for Fernando.

See, hear and speak no evil

This was my column last Monday, September 8.

Those among us who struggled through the long years of the Marcos dictatorship and witnessed first hand the profligacy of the then first lady can only seethe at the fact that not only are the Marcoses back at their high perch in Philippine society but that Imelda Romualdez Marcos’ star seems to have found new luster.

There’s really not much we can do if the efforts to rewrite history and to reinstate the former first lady’s dubious distinction as cultural icon and role model for the young is being propped up by private institutions and organizations. This is still a free country after all, and everyone is still presumed to have the inalienable right to make an utter fool of himself or herself.

But when the effort is spearheaded by government itself, as in the case of her being invited as “guest of honor” yesterday at the annual National Leadership Training for Student Government Officers currently ongoing at the Teachers Camp at Baguio City, it deserves our collective protest and condemnation.

I got to know about the first lady’s impending appearance yesterday at the national leadership conference courtesy of a young cousin who was attending the conference. When my cousin texted me about it last Saturday, I initially thought it was a joke; the idea was not only ludicrous, it was insane. One had to be a rabid and die-hard Marcos loyalist to actually think that there is something inspiring that the former first lady can impart to the youth of this country.

Unless of course the session to which the former first lady was invited to was a no-holds barred discussion where people could freely express themselves and take turns lambasting—or okay, defending if one was so inclined to do so —the so-called achievements of the Marcoses, there was absolutely no way that any thinking government official could consider inviting the former first lady to a national training on leadership an inspired decision. But my cousin was absolutely sure that the former first lady was being invited as “guest of honor.”

I wasn’t surprised therefore to read in yesterday’s papers that a number of individuals and organizations have expressed dismay and condemnation at the decision to invite Marcos to the national youth leadership training.

The gaffe caught many officials of the education department at a loss for words. But instead of canceling the invitation, which should have been the most logical course of action, most of our officials opted to act like the three proverbial monkeys who saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil. Education Secretary Jesli Lapus said the decision to invite the former first lady was not cleared with him. The justification proffered was a simple “we did not know about it,” which, if we really come to think about it, is a non- excuse.

But then again, it seems that not knowing about what is happening right under one’s nose is now a favorite excuse among our leaders. This is the same excuse being peddled by Intramuros Administrator Anna Maria Harper for the horrible crime committed under the guise of protecting heritage. As everyone knows, 29 trees including full-grown and decades-old narra and mahogany trees at Plaza Roma in front of the Manila Cathedral were massacred last week. The cutting of trees was purportedly designed to enhance the façade of the Cathedral—the rationale being that the trees obstructed full appreciation of the Cathedral.

This is the first time I’ve come across such a perverted view of what comprises a great landscape. Most artists go out of their way to incorporate trees and other works of nature to scenery to add character and context to it. And yet, here we are deliberately felling down old trees in front of a major national and historical landmark because they supposedly take away beauty from it. This kind of reasoning makes you wonder what else is next—perhaps covering the centuries-old walls of Intramuros with white paint?

This reminds us very strongly of how the former first lady built walls around Metro Manila to hide the shanties that lined major thoroughfares when Pope Paul VI came to visit. Actually, this insanity was something that she constantly subjected Tacloban City to every single time there was an important occasion in the city.

I grew up in Tacloban City and I distinctly remember that days before the annual fiesta, the houses that lined the streets where the religious procession would pass would be subjected to a fresh coat of white paint, much to the consternation of the owners of the houses. There was not much the homeowners could do about it because the workers would not even ask for permission before going about their mandate to beautify the city. The problem was that the painting job would be done so haphazardly and worse, was limited to the façade of the houses.

Thus, some houses ended up looking bizarre with one side, the one facing the street, painted white, while the rest of the house in their original colors. It became an annual exercise in absurdity as homeowners struggled to keep their peace for fear of offending the supposed artistic sensibilities of the former first lady only to eventually spend a fortune restoring their houses to their old looks immediately after the fiesta.

And now Harper’s indignation and profuse hand-washing are unacceptable. The dastardly act has been done and those trees cannot be brought back to life again. It will take decades before new trees can grow to the same heights as the ones that were mercilessly cut down to stumps. In the meantime, I doubt if the desired unobstructed view of the Cathedral that has now been accomplished is something that can we can draw pride and appreciation from. Such a waste, indeed.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Petitions and salary increases

This is my column today.

In my haste to beat the deadline for my column last Monday, I left out a great deal of information that I wanted to share with everyone. There’s an online petition for people who want to manifest their support for the reproductive health bill and to make their voices heard over and above the din and dynamics of the ongoing debate.

Although there is already a sizable number of senators and congressmen who have already signified their unequivocal support for the bill, we know that we should not let our guard down given the intense pressure from the Catholic Church. In fact, the advocacy of the Church has precisely been focused on our legislators and the Church has not made secret its intent to apply all kinds of pressure on them even to the extent of threatening these lawmakers with excommunication.

So please sign up and let our legislators know that there is widespread support for the bill. The petition can be found at http://www.PetitionOnline.com/rhan2008/petition.html.

The petition is being spearheaded by the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network through the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines . In the accompanying request for support for the petition, the organizers cited that “more than 10 women die daily due to pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. The big bulk of those who die are poor women at the prime of their lives. This is simply unacceptable and must be stopped. Congress has the power to do this.” I agree.

Last Monday, I wrote about how the priests at this church where I go to for Sunday mass tend to hijack the religious service as platform to attack the reproductive health bill. Well, what do you know, it appears now that I am not the only person who has taken offense at the irresponsible behavior of the priests. I dare to call the behaviors of the priests irresponsible because the arguments that they peddle to attack the reproductive health bill are clear falsehoods. For example, they keep on insisting that the bill legalizes abortion. This assertion is not only a barefaced lie, it is malicious. And pray tell, what else could be more hypocritical than priests deliberately lying to the faithful during mass?

Anyway. A friend shared with me that she walked out in the middle of the homily when the priest, who was also using the pulpit to campaign against the reproductive health bill, said that “rich people want to kill the babies of poor people.” This is the kind of incendiary statements that certain priests spew during homily. My friend said she couldn’t help muttering in a loud voice “sobra na ito!” By the way, we attend the same church.

***

The hot topic this week, which is something that appeals to me as human resource management professional, is the proposed increases in the salaries of government officials and employees as appropriated in the 2009 budget. As usual, there’s too much speculative drivel being ascribed to the proposal, one of which is that this is another diversionary tactic from Malacañang. The question is: Diversionary tactic to diffuse attention from what?

Let me state clearly and in no uncertain terms my support for salary increases for government officials and employees. It’s clearly about time for this. We all know that the salaries of those who work in government have remained uncompetitive. There’s no need to trundle out the sob stories of the hundreds of thousands that turn the wheels of the government bureaucracy—we are familiar with most of them.

However, the undeniable fact that nobody seems to be recognizing is that the government bureaucracy is actually heavily bloated. There are just too many people in government and most of them, quite frankly, are doing menial and insignificant tasks that can easily be taken over by automating processes. A number of government employees do not add value to whatever it is that the government agency is supposed to deliver in the form of service to taxpayers.

There is clearly a need to reengineer the government bureaucracy. There’s a need to eliminate jobs that are clearly unnecessary. Do you know that the job of a major percentage—some say at least 40 percent—of government employees can be summarized in this sentence: To check and recheck if the necessary signatures are already in the document? There is also a need to identify the performers from those who are simply filling in space in the bureaucracy.

However, I seriously doubt whether these can be done or that there is any politician or leader with the political will to pursue such an unpopular move. It would be tantamount to committing political suicide. But just in case someone with a death wish is listening out there, one way that the government can increase salaries of government employees is really to trim down the bureaucracy and reallocate the savings as salary increases to those who are productive and whose posts are necessary in the bureaucracy.

Of course there are people in government who do their jobs well. They are qualified, they are dedicated, and they joined government service out of a strong sense of altruism. And these are the people who need the most government attention most. Chances are, these are the people who occupy leadership positions in the bureaucracy. And the current proposal stands to benefit this people as it prescribes a graduated scheme that increases the percentages of increases as you move up the bureaucracy.

If you come to think about it, this actually makes sense because that’s the way salaries in the private sector are structured. Middle and senior-level managers are supposed to have higher salaries because of the magnitude of responsibilities and accountabilities. So the proposed increases simply align government salaries to that of the private sector—at least as far as structure is concerned. It’s called external equity. It’s also called talent management and retention.

Unfortunately, the people who claim to be omniscient in this country have already attacked the proposal on the grounds that the people at the very top of the bureaucracy don’t need salary increases. The argument presupposes that everyone in government is corrupt, particularly those at the very top, and therefore have no need for their salaries. This kind of reasoning is not only unfair, it is also deceptive and tends to legitimize corruption in the bureaucracy.

Given the spate of scandals and allegations of corruption that have bedeviled this administration, the reservations being expressed by certain quarters are compelling. The problem, I think, is that certain people in Malacañang have not learned to master the art of balance. The proposed salary restructuring is a move in the right direction. However, it would have been more acceptable, and it could have been a public relations coup, if they declared early on that the President would be exempt from the increases. The discussions would have been pointed towards a more enlightened course.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hostages at Sunday mass

This was my column yesterday, September 1.

In the last many weeks, going to mass has been a somewhat distressing experience for me and my family.

This has been because the priests at the church where my family and I go to on Sundays and who are rabidly against the reproductive health bill that’s being deliberated on in Congress have always found ways to insert their often irrational and illogical arguments against the bill into the Sunday homily. Regardless of the scripture that’s supposed to be the theme for the homily, the priests have made it their mandate to skirt the discourse so that they eventually get to talk about how the reproductive bill health is supposedly the worst curse to befall this country.

We’ve tried changing our regular mass schedule in the vain hope that the other priests would not be as vociferous in the advocacy as to hijack the Sunday service into another tirade against the supposed evil machinations of Rep. Edcel Lagman and the other supporters of the bill, but no cigar. It seems all the priests of this particular church that we go to, and that of the other churches in our area, are on a mad mission to not let up on their opposition to the bill.
I found the advocacy initially amusing. This church that we go to is inside a village in Makati.

The parishioners are predominantly middle class and educated—obviously people who practice family planning. The faithful who attend mass on any given Sunday are mostly families composed of couples in their forties or fifties with two, three, or at most four children in tow.

There is no way that these families would have been able to limit their offspring to within a sizable number and within an ideal interval without the benefit of artificial contraception.
It is possible of course that some couples have conveniently had a change of heart now that they are past the age of procreation and have taken to imposing the Church’s archaic stand against contraception on younger couples. This kind of hypocrisy is, after all, modeled by the priests and nuns who preach from proverbial ivory towers.

But the advocacy has clearly been taken to new heights. The harangue has not been limited anymore to homilies; even the manangs who serve as mass commentators have joined in the melee and have taken to reading scripts that amplify the Church’s opposition to the bill. They now read as part of the announcements prior to the final blessing yet another admonition to the faithful not to support the bill and reminders for all to pray that the bill does not get passed into law. Attending Sunday mass has become an occasion for endless ear-beating.

And last Sunday, they’ve started to put tables strategically outside the doors of the church where copies of a petition were laid out for parishioners to sign. The petition was addressed to our lawmakers pressuring them not to vote for the bill. It was difficult to ignore the tables and the manangs in their Catholic Women’s League uniforms who stood guard around these tables and accosted parishioners on their way out after Sunday mass to sign the petition.

Of course my family and I didn’t sign the petition despite the entreaties of the priests and the manangs. But not everyone could say no; and I understand why many were looped into eventually signing the petition. When one has just received communion, it seems rather blasphemous not to. When one is in a supposedly peaceful disposition after receiving Sunday blessings, arguing with religious leaders and right at the doorsteps of the place of worship, is farthest from one’s mind.

And that is how the Church is conducting the campaign to oppose the reproductive health bill and to raise signatures against it. First by deliberately misleading the faithful by obfuscating the issues, spreading false information about the provisions of the bill, and by conjuring all kinds of evil scenarios that would befall this country if the bill is allowed to become a law; and then by applying all kinds of psychological suasion to get people to sign up.

I don’t begrudge the Church its right to oppose the bill even if I also believe in the separation of the Church and the state. The way I see it, the Church has the right to speak up on vital national issues and register its opposition against anything it deems immoral or wrong. The Church performs the role of vanguard of ethics, morality, and righteousness and it should be given ample leverage in advocacies around these areas. I believe in diversity and respect opinions even if they are contrary to mine.

I just wish that the Church would listen as much as it condemns. I wish that the Church would walk the talk when it preaches honesty, sincerity, ethics, respect for the opinions of other people, and all the other lofty things that it claims to espouse.

Sunday mass is hardly the time and place to go into hateful discourse; it certainly is incongruous to witness a religious service being waylaid into a tirade. People attend Sunday mass for intensely personal spiritual reasons. The last thing that people want and should be subjected to is to be held hostage and be made to suffer in silence while the priest spews a litany of falsehoods about how the bill promotes abortion, allows sex education to be taught in kindergarten, opens the gates to legalizing divorce, etc., etc. The attempt to link the reproductive health to divorce is an exercise that requires major logical acrobatics. It’s insane. But I don’t think the Church is interested in, and cares about being logical or being truthful anyway.

I feel spiritually “violated” when priests use the pulpit to denounce people like me and call me names. Of course I feel alluded to when priests rant against “legislators, media people, and liberal advocates who are colluding against God.” I am staunchly for the passage of the reproductive health bill. And I don’t see any conflict between my advocacy and my being a Catholic. It’s certainly un-Christian to judge my faith and my person on the basis of my support for the bill.

As if the falsehoods that the Church is spreading about the reproductive health bill has not been enough, here now comes yet another attack from the ranks of the bishops, this time against the use of condoms on HIV/AIDS prevention. Pangasinan Archbishop Paciano Aniceto has issued a statement calling the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention “dangerous and ineffective.” He asserted that condoms are not 100 percent effective, but as usual, he conveniently left out that part about how correct usage of a condom is the key to successful prevention.


The good bishop is correct though in saying that the most effective way to prevent the spread of HIV is behavior change. Unfortunately, the concept of behavior change that he is promoting is limited and therefore excludes those who are most vulnerable for HIV transmission—it stops at abstinence and being faithful to one’s spouse. As usual, the Church remains oblivious to reality.