Friday, November 28, 2008

Fascination with vampires

This was my column last Wednesday, November 26.

Twilight, the movie based on Stephanie Meyer’s bestseller book, opens today in most theaters in the country. I expect long, very long lines at the box office. A group of people I know camped out last night at SM malls as it was the last full feature in most theaters last night.

In case you’ve been living under the proverbial rock in the last year, Twilight is turning out to be the next big thing after Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings. Potter fans, however, need not feel threatened. The Twilight book has spawned into a series composed of four books so far (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn) have sold a phenomenal 17 million copies worldwide; quite a feat actually, but nowhere near the almost half a billion copies of Harry Potter books sold in the last few years.

I’ve read the first two books in the series and yes, I intend to read the two others over the long weekend. I make it a point to read whatever it is that my kids and my students are going gaga over not necessarily because I want to exercise parental supervision over their reading but more because I am genuinely interested in whatever it is that is catching their attention. Parents and professors really need to keep up with what’s going on in the lives of kids today to be able to relate with them. And the series is big; very big among college-age people.

Meyer writes in a style that is really very easy to read so it doesn’t take as much time to read the books. Many might feel intimidated by the thick tome, but like I always tell my students, book length is really measured not by the number of pages therein but by how easy or how difficult it is to read. And going by that rule, the books are very short. Each book can be read in one sitting.

Let me get one thing out of the way because I feel it is an important point to make—any book that encourages young people to read deserves commendation. God knows how difficult it is to get kids to read today given the fact that there are just far too many other options for them both in terms of recreation and research. So I feel that any attempt to make some semblance of an analytical review of the books is irrelevant. Besides, as has been said many times, it is difficult to argue with success and there is no accounting for taste.

But for people who want to find out what I think about the series, here’s my quick review: It’s a relatively well-written Mills and Boon novel. Wait, I don’t think Mills and Boon novels are still in vogue today, so I think that’s a reference that younger people can’t relate to. So okay, it is a Danielle Steele book without the adult content, the convoluted plots, and the intellectual and aesthetic pretensions. How do I know about Mills and Boons and Danielle Steele? I read most anything and my mother was into these sappy romance novels for the longest time. My mother is going to kill me for saying this, but I figured very early on that the best way to get on her good side and get what I wanted was to discuss with her the plots and characters of her favorite novels. But I digress, as usual.

I know it is not fair to make comparisons among authors but there’s really not much that can be said about the Twilight book per se—it’s a straightforward love story with only one complication: He is a vampire, she is human. In fact, the first book in the series only offers one wrinkle in the plotline—a third vampire. And that’s it. It’s not Wuthering Heights nor is it The English Patient, of that I am very sure.

What is more interesting about the series is the way it has become a phenomenon. What I think deserves discussion is not the books per se, but how it is affecting people and why.

At the college where I teach, I’ve seen a number of guys who can be described as typical jocks proudly lugging the books in the series around. One of my favorite students who had an aversion to reading anything that does not get graded read the series because he said it boosted his stock among members of the opposite sex.

So perhaps that also explains the enigma behind the main character of the series, the vampire named Edward (he is played in the movie by Robert Pattinson—Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter movies). A lot of people I have talked to (mostly girls, I must note), holds him up as the perfect specimen of a lover. And why not, indeed; he is immortal, he is supposed to be perfectly handsome, and to top it all, he is madly, hopelessly, desperately in love with Bella and is totally into her. I got a headache reading his profuse and unabashed declarations of affection and devotion. As a result, almost everyone I know hopes for one and only one thing to happen in terms of the book’s plot: That she becomes a vampire too so that they live happily forever.

But what’s with this whole fascination with vampires, anyway? There’s been a profusion of vampire books and all of them bestsellers from the Anne Rice series, to the J. R. Ward books, to T. J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries. Meyer’s books are probably the most successful of the lot, and with movies in the works, they can only get more and more popular.

What I find astonishing is that contemporary literature about vampires no longer depicts them as scary characters. On the contrary, they are romanticized to the point of absurdity. rism?

I guess this whole phenomenon can be explained logically as a manifestation of our inherent hunger for the ideal. I’m not sure everyone wants to be as handsome or as cloyingly romantic as Edward, but am sure everyone wants to overcome human frailties, limitations and imperfections. These are not necessarily terrible things to aspire for. If vampires do exist and if they do live forever, that pretty much solves the problems of medical science. Anyone with cancer or AIDS can simply opt to become a vampire; one gets to live forever and in style. It’s not such a bad deal too, considering that vampires are always portrayed as having in possession of superhuman strengths.

One can only wish that people don’t lose sight of the fact that vampires and for that matter, witches, werewolves, sorcerers, and other paranormal creatures are really just figments of the imagination. A world where vampires exist for real is inconceivable.

The herd mentality

This was my column last Monday, November 24.

I have written about the nursing profession and the challenges it faces a number of times in the past. My interest in the issues is both personal and professional. Many members of my family are nurses—an older sister, two aunts and a number of cousins are nurses. My son is in nursing school—he chose the course on his own and I’m hoping that he will eventually proceed to medicine, which should be the normal career path rather than the other way around (i.e., fully-trained and certified doctors going back to nursing school to get employment abroad as nurses). A great number of nephews, nieces, relatives, and children of friends and former classmates are in nursing schools all over the country.

My professional interest in the issues emanates from my being a human resource management professional and academic who is gravely concerned about the mismatch problem in this country between what the academe produces and what industry needs. It’s a problem that’s becoming more and more pronounced each year.

Obviously, we are producing more nurses than can be absorbed by the system—both local and global. Worse, we are having problems with academic standards and technical training. And yet, we continue to fall victim to the classic herd mentality syndrome.

Some experts say that more than half of our college students are in nursing schools. Producing nurses has become the new cottage industry in this country and many educational institutions are cashing in on the trend. Why, even computer schools have transformed themselves into nursing schools. The problem is that many of these schools do not have the facilities or the academic personnel to produce qualified nurses.

Most of the qualified senior nurses are already working abroad. The ones that are left behind are either retired nurses who have been forced to give up retirement to become clinical instructors, the truly devoted and nationalistic who have stayed behind out of a strong sense of altruism, or the truly incompetent— those who have not been able to meet global standards.

Over the weekend, a total of 88,750 nursing graduates are set to take the licensure examinations for nurses. According to the Professional Regulation Commission, the projected number of examinees sets a new record in Philippine history: The most number of examinees for a professional licensing examination ever.

Given the fact that our nursing schools continue to overflow with students, I am willing to wager that it’s a temporary record. It will be broken next year. The number of examinees for the nursing board exams will continue to increase algebraically in the next few years.

The PRC schedules two rounds of licensing exams for nurses, one in the middle and another towards the end of the year. In the exams conducted June of this year, 64,459 took the exams. Only 43.07 percent (27,765) passed. The nursing board exam is not traditionally one of the professional licensing exams with very high mortality. Until recently, the passing rate has always been more than half of the total examinees—the passing rate for the year 2001 was 54 percent. But given the abysmal quality of academic training for nurses in this country, I predict that the percentage of passers will continue to go down.

Obviously, the Commission on Higher Education has a huge problem in its hands. Unfortunately, many of the private academic institutions in this country are owned by powerful political families and are therefore difficult to rein in.

The problems have now become even more complicated. We are also facing the challenge of arbitrary and exploitative practices of the top hospitals and nursing schools.

In an effort to ensure that they produce only extremely competitive graduates, a number of our more established nursing schools have become more arbitrary and discriminatory in their academic policies. Because there is a huge demand out there and many of these schools have wait lists that extend from here to eternity—they simply take on as many freshmen as they could and leave the more rigid screening for later. I was amazed to find out, for example, that many of our nursing schools have more than 60 sections of freshmen nursing students.

What they do is then impose stricter and more stringent academic requirements in junior and senior year— and very often arbitrarily!

As an academic who is also renowned for being a “terror professor,” I have an ambivalent attitude towards setting high academic cutoffs. However, I do think there is something wrong with a setup where institutions make money by giving students fall hopes and then dashing them to pieces when it becomes convenient for them to do so. What is happening is that many of our nursing schools simply make money out of freshmen and sophomore nursing students and then do the real screening during junior and senior years.

And then there is the problem with hospitals who exploit fresh nursing graduates by taking them in as “volunteers.” Given the surplus of nursing graduates, many hospitals scrimp on manpower costs by simply taking in fresh graduates who are more than willing to “train” without pay just to acquire the necessary clinical experience in a hospital setting. Worse, there are now hospitals that even charge nursing graduates a handsome fee before they can be allowed to undergo training in their hospitals. Some charge examinations fee, processing fees, and other creative ways to make money out of our hapless nurses.

It’s time we try to put some sense into this whole nursing herd phenomenon.

My good friend Grace Abella Zata, who is running unopposed for the post of 2009 president of the People Management Association of the Philippines, the national professional organization of human resource management professionals, has made this one of her pet advocacies in the last three years or so. She’s been in the lecture circuit and has been in far too many meetings with representatives from government, industry and academic trying to get everyone to send this message across clear and loud: There are a number of viable careers in this country and in the world other than nursing.

There is a dearth of qualified accountants, engineers, even information technology graduates. Most companies in this country have a long list of openings for these posts. From a strategic perspective, government should really be encouraging more students to go into science and technology courses if we intend to become more competitive as a nation. Our agricultural colleges are almost empty and have now transformed themselves into colleges for arts and sciences.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hostage to politics

This is my column today.

What kind of citizen would not wish progress for his hometown?

Progress is the first thing anyone who has been away for quite some time watches out for the moment he or she sets foot in his or her hometown.
So why then is the citizenry of my hometown Tacloban City seems to be torn over the issue of whether or not the city should become a highly urbanized city? Ordinarily, being conferred the title of HUC would be a source of pride. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be true in this particular case.

Tacloban City, being the premiere city in Eastern Visayas has already attained the basic requirements to become HUC as provided for in the Local Government Code. To qualify, a city must have a population of at least 200,000 and an annual income of P100 million. Tacloban has a population of more than 217,000 and an annual income of P500 million. Thus, on Oct. 4, President Arroyo signed Presidential Proclamation 1637, making Tacloban City a highly urbanized city. However, this will only take effect upon ratification by the people of Tacloban in a plebiscite scheduled Dec. 18.

If the citizenry of Tacloban approves the measure, Tacloban will become the 34th HUC in the country and shall belong to that league of independent cities with its own congressional seat, its own internal revenue allocation, etc. The city would no longer be dependent on the provincial government of Leyte. Tacloban would be the sixth city in the Visayas to attain HUC status after Cebu, Lapu Lapu, Mandaue, Bacolod, and Iloilo. Eastern Visayas would have produced its first HUC ahead of the Bicol Region as not even Naga or Legazpi have been conferred HUC status.

The campaign to make Tacloban City an HUC is being spearheaded by incumbent Mayor Alfred Romualdez and his high-profile wife, the former actress Christina Gonzales-Romualdez, who also sits as councilor of the city. The couple has hit the campaign trail to get Taclobanons to approve the measure, essentially promising the moon and the stars. If we are to go by the power couple’s logic, the city’s fortunes hinge on its attaining HUC status.

Those who oppose the measure, however, qualify their opposition by saying that they are not against the HUC measure per se. “It’s a question of when,” they assert. Their main beef lies in the assertion that Romualdez has had very little success thus far in terms of effectively addressing the most basic problems of the city and the most basic needs of its citizenry. They have a long list of complaints—from ineffective garbage collection, to a drainage system that’s gone kaput, etc—which they feel need to be addressed first before the city puts its sights on more complex problems.

By gunning for HUC status, they fear that the attention and priority of the city will be deflected towards pushing for progress that is not supported by basic infrastructure. The analogy that they are putting forward is that attaining HUC status at this point when the city does not have the basic structures to prop up it up is like adding more floors to a house and expanding its fa├žade without doing anything to buttress the basic foundations of the house nor solving the internal decay. They fear that the city would be unable to cope with the growth and eventually come crashing down like a proverbial house of cards.

They make mincemeat of the mayor’s claim that more investors would come in by citing the fact that investors have come into the province even before the HUC brouhaha came about (Robinson’s has already started constructing a mall early this year). They claim that on the contrary, it would be a strong foundation in terms of basic services, etc, that would lure investors into the city. On the other hand, the proponents of the HUC measure counter that attaining HUC status would precisely address the problem as access to more funds would enable the city to expand its current services.

The debate has become like the proverbial chicken and egg equation. On one side, we have people advocating that the city fix the inherent problems and strengthen the foundations first. On the other side, people who think attaining HUC status would precisely enable the city to fix the problems and further strengthen its foundations.

The issues are important of course and one wishes that the debate is limited to the issues that matter. But this is the Philippines. Local political issues are inevitably linked to politicians. And in this country, local politics is inevitably tied to the issue of political dynasties. Thus, central to the HUC debate is the political rivalry of two powerful political clans in the province: Between the Romualdezes and the Petillas.

The Romualdezes, of course, are like royalty in Leyte. The former first lady’s family has held various positions in the province and in Tacloban for a number of years. The current congressman for the first district is Martin Romualdez, son of former Governor Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, brother of the former first lady. Alfred Romualdez took over the reins of Tacloban from his father Bejo Romualdez.

The Petillas, on the other hand, came into power during the Aquino administration and have since then held court at the provincial office. The matriarch of the family, Remedios Petilla was governor for almost two decades. The current governor, Jericho Petilla, is a son. Siblings of Remedios Petilla sit in various elective posts. Interestingly, both families are allies of the President.

However, the provincial government and the city government have not really been in agreement on many issues for the longest time. The differences have reached almost ludicrous levels when they couldn’t even agree on a single festival to celebrate the people’s cultural heritage.
There are many things at stake aside from family honor and bragging rights. There’s economic power, for one. At present Tacloban is a component city of the province of Leyte and therefore shares internal revenue allocation with the province. Attaining HUC status would entitle it to its own IRA. The province would then be receiving lesser allocation if Tacloban becomes an HUC.

But even more contentious are the elective posts at stake. If Tacloban City becomes an HUC, it would eventually be entitled to one congressional seat. The scuttlebutt says that Alfred Romualdez wants that seat for himself so that he can relinquish the mayoralty to his wife. The suggestion of political dynasty has turned off a number of people of course, particularly since Christina is not from Tacloban. But then again, they were officially voted into office, so the perception of resentment seems misplaced. There are more political issues at stake, for example, the fortunes of the incumbent Congressman Martin Romualdez. The Romualdezes count mainly on the votes from Tacloban and Tolosa (the hometown of Imelda). If Tacloban is spun off as a separate district, the incumbent congressman will have a difficult time getting re-elected.

So in the end, it’s really politics as usual. What’s worse, the debate which has become acrimonious has begun to resemble a fight between two bullies who each want a bigger piece of the playground. When we come to think about it, it’s really too bad that something so important such as the progress of a city is held hostage to political intramurals.

Monday, November 17, 2008

An utter waste of time

This is my c0lumn today.

I hate to say it, but here it is just the same: I told you so.
I knew nothing would come out of the Senate hearing on the fertilizer scam. Like most everyone else, I didn’t want to have expectations that the hearing would yield anything productive.

We’ve had more than enough experiences with Senate hearings in the past, from the Brunei beauties, to the jueteng scandals, to the Garcia scam. We know that not a single one of them has ever resulted in a conviction. We’ve never had a Senate hearing where some guilty person was forced to admit culpability for some shenanigan. Experience has shown us that these hearings tended to degenerate into shouting matches, scolding sessions and occasions for displaying the incompetence of some of our leaders.

But this one offered some possibilities. Or at least that was what we wanted to believe. After all, it’s been a couple of years since the scandal broke out. Our senators and their staff, presumably, had more than enough time to gather information and to get their acts together. Surely, given the fact that most of them were visibly salivating at the thought of being able to finally grill the supposed architect of the scandal, they had something up their sleeves—some damning evidence, perhaps even a prepared script.

And then there was all that drama that attended the main witness’ forced deportation from the United States and his subsequent arrest and “confinement” at the St. Luke’s Medical Center. The House of Representatives wanted to do their own investigation, media and civil society camped out and did their own song-and-dance routines designed to pressure the witness to snitch on the powers-that-be. The hyperventilation created anticipation.

Perhaps this time would be different. Perhaps. We were in for a major disappointment.

We never learn.

The names of the witnesses may have changed, but they were the same old characters.

On one side, inquisitors who fancied themselves this country’s last bastion of morality, decency and good governance; people who have abrogated into themselves the responsibility of ferreting out the “truth”—a specific type and kind of truth that they wanted.

The overzealousness and the vigilance are not necessarily bad things; in fact, in another time and place, they would be prized and ideal. Unfortunately, when combined with giant-sized egos, the results can be horrendous.

So once again, we had a succession of senators asking the same questions. The witness was on the stand for eight hours. He was grilled by more than a dozen senators. Did he get as many variations and line of questioning? Of course not! What he was subjected to was more than a dozen repetition of the same line of questioning. The only thing that changed was the attitude of the senator doing the questioning.

Some were openly condescending—a few could not help but pontificate and deliver homilies and lectures. Some were openly contemptuous and did not bother to hide their displeasure. Two or three senators displayed competence and probity but were unfortunately out-shadowed by the hysterics and antics of their colleagues.

To be really candid and honest, I don’t really begrudge our senators their personality quirks. Truth to tell, there are days when I feel that the flash of temper, the arrogance, and even the sarcasm all make for an interesting hearing.

My beef is really with the quality of the questions. In short, I don’t expect our senators to be paragons of courtesy and civility although that would not necessarily be such a bad thing. But I do expect them to come to the hearings fully prepared, to be fully briefed by their staff on what has transpired and what questions have been asked, and to ask logical questions.

In short, I expect them to do their jobs properly and not waste our time with incompetent and illogical questions. But then again, this is probably not a fair expectation given the fact that our senators seem to think that they have been elected into office for entirely different reasons.

On the other side, we had the usual line of slick people who have mastered the art of spinning tall tales. Nagtatagpi-tagpi na lang ng kwento and they don’t even look like they care about being logical; heck, forget about being logical, just making sense would have been more than adequate. These are people who seemed to have sunk so low, it looked like they’ve already decided they have nothing else to lose anyway so sticking to their story is the best option.

In this particular case, the witness looked more than sufficiently prepped and coached. Either the doctors at St. Luke’s had a special therapy that works, or he was at the medical center for an entirely different set of reasons.

Whatever the reasons, one thing was painfully clear: Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante and his handlers came to that Senate hearing better prepared than all our senators combined.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Another madcap idea

This is my column today.

In my column last Monday, I wrote about how the proposal to require drivers to undergo neuro-psychological testing as precondition before driver’s licenses can be granted or renewed was an impractical idea, particularly in this country where almost everything carries a tag price and those with money get away with practically anything. If implemented, the proposal will simply open another window for corruption at the Land Transportation Office, one of the government agencies notorious for corruption.

Also on Monday, a news article was published in this paper about the Vatican’s move to re-allow psychological testing for seminarians who wish to become priests of the Catholic Church.

As I wrote last Monday, what makes psychological testing impractical is the fact that in order for results to be reliable and valid, they need to be conducted properly. This means strictly observing a number of testing protocols. The conduct of the test, the interpretation of the results, and the formulation of the diagnosis require a high level of expertise, which unfortunately, is not widely available in this country. The results are very seldom conclusive anyway; most psychologists play it safe by coaching their diagnoses by calling them indicators.

This is precisely why most of us in the human resource management profession limit our employment tests to very basic psychological tests. Very few people pursue advanced studies in clinical psychology and fewer still choose to practice the specialization. It’s not difficult to figure out why. Mental health is not exactly a popular discipline in the Philippines. There’s a lot of stigma attached to psychological counseling. Even kids who get summoned to the guidance counselor’s office for regular counseling get ribbed a lot and are automatically suspected of having committed mischief.

So there’s a lot of static surrounding psychological testing in this country. It amazes me therefore when people prescribe it as an ultimate screening mechanism. What is even worse is when people want to use it as the primary criteria to qualify people.

Given the inherent limitations of psychological tests, I would caution anyone against looking at results as Gospel truth. It can be dangerous and extremely discriminatory. In fact, most high-level psychological tests carry strict disclaimers about how the results of the tests should not be used to discriminate against other people.

Thus, I was aghast when some bureaucrat proposed psychological testing for our migrant workers earlier this year. The impetus for the madcap idea was the growing list of migrant workers who have been unable to cope with the pressures of working under harsh conditions in another country. The problem is not just implementation— obviously, conducting psychological testing for millions of people every day is an administrative nightmare. Let’s not anymore discuss how the set-up is prone to corruption.

The main problem is that the measure presupposes that ability to cope with difficult situations—or even mental health for that matter—is a hundred percent predictable. Or that all cases are congenital, latent or innate. It negates situational cases such as for example, temporary insanity or rage. It also disregards environmental factors that cause certain behaviors to surface. There’s a whole universe of possibilities out there that can cause certain behaviors to surface. So technically speaking, a psychological test can fail to detect certain signs simply because they weren’t there when the tests were conducted and only surfaced later on.

And even in cases where the indicators that are being sought are detected, it would still be unethical to discriminate against anyone on the basis of medical or psychological conditions. When we consider that even problems that are caused by medical conditions such as chemical imbalance are manageable and are treatable, the whole concept of using psychological tests to deny anyone equal opportunity to gain employment or entrance into a group smacks of unethical conduct. It’s plain and simple discrimination.

These are some of the reasons why I have serious reservations about the proposed use of psychological testing for seminarians who want to become priests of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican was specific about the tests being voluntary; but a number of our bishops glossed over that part. In fact, one bishop gave his full support to the measure citing how the tests were standard practice “during his time.” Of course the whole point that the fact that such tests were done during his time and yet did not deter sexual abuse from being committed by priests was lost on him.

The article that was published in this paper was a tamer version of what came out in other media outlets. One television broadcast chose to be more specific, and well, more controversial: The Catholic Church will conduct psychological tests to deny homosexuals from becoming priests.

Many reports focused on three main issues that are supposed to be detected by psychological testing: Ability to practice celibacy, homosexual tendencies, and tendency to commit sexual abuse (coached as deviant sexual behavior). However, most chose to focus on the generalizations that the Vatican made, mainly, that inability to practice celibacy or that homosexuality is a predictor of sexual abuse.

I have already presented the inherent limitations of psychological tests that show why relying on them alone to detect ability to practice celibacy, homosexual tendencies, and tendency to commit sexual abuse is unrealistic. And now comes the sweeping generalization that the detection of these tendencies will stop sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not necessarily about sex, just as sexual harassment is not always about sex—it is most often about the wrong use of power. There are other factors that cause it. Focusing on the sexual aspect makes for good headlines, but doesn’t really solve the problem.

The irony really is that the Church seems fixated on sex to the point that even its discussion on sexual abuse is limited to the sexual nature of the act. For an institution that is supposed to uphold celibacy, it is funny that the Church seems too absorbed on sex and sexual issues.

A mad cap idea

This was my column last Monday, November 10.

Road safety is something that we all need to be concerned about. God knows there are just too many crazy people out there who simply should not have been given a license to drive a car, much less a public transportation vehicle. They cause monstrous traffic jams either because of their sheer recklessness, their utter disregard for road courtesy, or just by unadulterated stupidity. In the process, they inconvenience hundreds of thousands unnecessarily. Worse, they endanger lives. In fact, many lives have been lost to road accidents caused mainly by incompetent or unqualified drivers.

So yes, our quest for road safety should begin with a thorough review of the manner in which we grant driver’s licenses in this country. By all means, we should make it more difficult for people to get a driver’s license. We should put in place better, perhaps more stringent measures to ensure that applicants for a driver’s license understand the responsibility incumbent upon them. We must make sure that drivers have the necessary qualifications required to be given a license.

I wouldn’t say it in the same way as Land Transportation Office chief Alberto Suansing so dramatically put it when he likened driving a car as something that is no different from holding a firearm, which, according to him, “if not handled properly [it] could hurt and even kill somebody.” But I am willing to concede that he has a point there.

Unfortunately, I don’t quite agree with Suansing’s latest madcap idea. If the man had his way, he would require all drivers to undergo a neuro-psychiatric test before licenses can be granted or renewed. Yes, the man wants to add yet another test to the battery of tests that applicants for renewal or for a new driver’s license have to take. At present, applicants for a new license have to take a written test, an actual driving test, a physical and medical examination, and a drug test. Those applying for renewal of their driver’s license have to take the physical and medical examinations and the drug test.

I have nothing against taking a battery of tests if the tests are valid and reliable. If these tests guarantee that people who have no business driving a vehicle on the road are not given licenses, then by all means we should have them. Unfortunately, the current tests are really nothing but money-making ventures that add dubious value to the process.

The written examinations are a sham because the questions are easily made available by fixers to anyone within a 100-meter radius of the LTO offices— for a handsome fee, of course. Actually, there is no need for the leakage because the questions are so simple and don’t require the use of anyone’s mental faculties. I am not sure this is still true today, but when I took my written examinations in the early nineties the questions and the correct answers were in fact written on the walls of the LTO offices as some kind of a reviewer. When my son took his written examinations this year, the driving school that he went to gave him a reviewer, which really was the entire examination, in toto.

The actual driving test is simply another bureaucratic step that adds nothing to the process but length and obviously, more opportunities to fleece money from applicants. Applicants simply sit behind a steering wheel and move the designated practice vehicle (a contraption that can give anyone a bad case of tetanus) a few feet forward and then backwards. Either they don’t have money to pay for gas or the LTO personnel are just too damned lazy to do their jobs properly. At any rate, it’s a no-brainer because even a five-year-old can do it. Of course, one can simply pay off the LTO personnel assigned to oversee the driving test and not do it at all. A friend refused to go inside the designated practice vehicle because it was too filthy for comfort and she got away without having to do the practice test by sheer stubbornness and good old-fashioned taray (snootiness). Because my son went to a driving school, he was exempted from having to take the driving test, which raises a few more embarrassing questions. Technically, driving schools can simply certify anyone they want to.

What about the supposed medical and physical examinations? It’s a lot of BS. The clerk of the accredited medical clinic goes through the motions of checking visual acuity, taking one’s weight and measuring one’s height—and that’s about it. When a friend went to renew his license recently, he was asked to take off his glasses so he can read a chart. Of course he blew his top because he was precisely wearing glasses because his vision was not 20/20. I have more tolerance for this kind of nonsense so when I renewed my license this year, I humored the assigned clerk. I aced the test and the assigned clerk commented on my perfect vision without even bothering to check if I was wearing contact lenses—which I was at that time.

The drug test is yet another example of institutional foolishness. To begin with, we all know that there are drugs available out there that one can take to ensure that traces of prohibited substances are not detected in one’s urine. Not that there’s a real need for that kind of subterfuge— one can bring another person’s urine sample since they don’t actually watch applicants take a leak. I can understand the trepidation that those assigned to oversee the process must have; one has to be a total pervert to get a kick out of watching a procession of people taking a leak.

So we know that the current tests are at best, dubious. And we want to add yet another test—and one that’s even more complicated and takes a particular expertise to administer.

As someone who studied psychology and supervises the conduct of psychological testing for employment, I know for a fact that neuro-pyschological tests take at least six hours to administer. Yes, I think they actually mean neuro-psychological testing instead of neuro-psychiatric testing as the latter is a far more complicated endeavor that requires even more specialized expertise that is very rare even in advanced countries. But I doubt if they even know the difference. Less intensive testing may take less time but lots of hours are still required for the psychologist to review records, score tests, interpret results, formulate diagnoses, and write a formal report. The results are not easy to interpret and industry standards require that the person who administers it has at least a master’s degree in psychology.

And even then, the results cannot be considered definitive. What we get, at best, are indicators because psychology, much less psychiatry, is hardly a precise discipline. The test has been standard requirement for security guards and military personnel for the longest time now. It has not succeeded in weeding out scalawags from the service, has it? In short, it’s an idea that is not practicable in a Third World country that likes to take a lot of shortcuts. What will happen is that we simply add another test that really does not do anything except enrich a few corrupt officials and their business partners.

In addition to the inherent issues of validity and reliability of the test, an additional problem is the possibility of relying too much on the tests in the process disregarding the other factors that play a major role in ensuring road safety. We’re talking about stringent enforcement of traffic rules, discipline on the road, structural issues such as better roads and carefully designed routing schemes, etc. Yes, incompetent and unqualified drivers are to blame for the dismal state of road safety and the horrendous traffic in this country but they are not the only problem. There’s more and we probably have better luck fixing these other things first.

The problem really is this bureaucratic mindset that our officials seem to have. When things don’t work, they automatically assume that crafting yet another law, or creating another regulatory body, or adding yet another administrative wrinkle will solve the problem. Suansing’s madcap idea of requiring drivers to take neuro-psychiatric test is a classic example of this kind of feeble-mindedness.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The migrant worker phenomenon

This is my column today.

I am sure that most of us have an idea of how the phenomenon of Filipino workers overseas is making dramatic impact on the life of the nation. Many are aware of the economic value that the Filipino diaspora provides. I have this nagging suspicion, however, that many among us simply look at the OFW phenomenon as just another source of livelihood rather than as national issue that deserve urgent and critical attention.

We know that the main reason why our country has not gone belly up despite the succession of global, regional and national crises that we’ve had to go through in the last decade is because regardless of what they have to put up with in the process, our migrants have continued to send money home to their families in the country. As long as the dollars, the dinars, the euros and the other forms of payment for our countrymen’s very hard labor abroad continue to flow into the country, and we know they will for as long as our workers have jobs—any job—abroad, our economy will continue to get by.

I know there are people out there who think that this is an oversimplification.

Quick question for those who continue to doubt just how remittances have become the lifeline of this country: Is there anyone among us who does not know at least five families that fully rely on someone who works abroad? There are barrios in this country, lots and lots of them, where farmers don’t take the planting of crops seriously anymore because they have now cast their fortunes on a family member who is abroad.

There are many towns in this country whose local economy is mainly propped up by money coming from remittances. In fact, in one forum I attended, one presenter shared results of her study conducted among high school institutions in one province in the Visayas which revealed that more than half of the students were being supported by a migrant worker. The discussion in fact pointed out that if half of our workers were to suddenly lose their jobs, many educational institutions would automatically close shop.

Many hardware and construction stores in cities and municipalities have been enjoying brisk business in the last two decades courtesy of migrants who pour all their money into building beautiful houses as some kind of physical proof to show for their sacrifices.

Thus, wherever you go in this country, you will find newly constructed beautiful houses made of concrete, sitting in the middle of a rice field or jutting out from the side of a mountain.
I was in my hometown in Leyte for All Souls’ Day and I noted that the phenomenon has also made an impact on cemeteries. I was amazed to find a number of mini mausoleums that have suddenly sprouted in our town’s cemetery. I visited with a friend inside their newly constructed family mausoleum (actually, just four walls, a tin roof, and some steel bars for windows) and she told me that an older sister who works in Dubai insisted on having the tombs of their parents enclosed inside a structure “so that it couldn’t be said that she wasn’t taking care of their dead.”

I work with a bank that’s the leader in the remittance business and one of the things that our branches have to contend with are families—parents, in-laws, children, nephews and nieces—who troop to the branches to claim remittance from abroad. Why does everyone have to join the parade to the branch? They need to divide the money among themselves right there and then, which really illustrate just how many people depend on a single migrant worker. Sob stories abound as well, such as when a whole family spends their last peso on fare coming to the city (with nothing left for the return trip) putting their hopes on a remittance that’s sadly been delayed because their relative abroad has not been paid by his or her employer either.

We know, too, that this phenomenon comes at a great social cost. With millions of parents working abroad, we’re seeing a whole generation of Filipinos who have grown up, or are growing up, without both or at least one parent around. The negative outcomes of such an arrangement have been chronicled in many studies. They’ve also been milked to bits in various soap operas and movies. We know that the price we’re paying for the phenomenon is quite steep. We also know that we really don’t have much choice either.

There are those who romanticize the situation by insisting that there is nobility in poverty; that it is okay for families to suffer hunger and misery as long as they are together. Yeah, sure, those are real choices. This is stuff for soap operas, but what kind of parents justify the fact that they are not able to send their kids to school or put decent food on the table by saying that at least they are together?

What we really need are programs that deal with the consequences of the phenomenon. I’m not really sure there’s anyone in government worrying about the problems and their potential impact. I still have to see the Education Department, for example, developing modules that help schoolchildren deal with the complications of not having their own parents to guide their growth. We don’t have counseling services in place to help parents and their children deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of separation. In fact, we still don’t seem to have a crisis management plan in place to deal with the misfortunes that some of our workers encounter abroad despite having had too many of these highly controversial and celebrated cases already.

But then again, I’m probably howling for the moon here. Heck, we don’t even have a national human resource agenda, much less a national human resource master plan. We keep on singing paeans to our migrants but we don’t really have a well thought-out strategic plan to manage how exactly we intend to position ourselves in the global market. I’ve said this many times in this space, but I will say it again now. Most of our other resources are gone and the little that is left needs to be preserved for future generations. What we do have is human resource.

Without a national human resource plan in place, we’ll continue to grope in the dark, hitting at moving targets. Our students will continue to enroll in courses that have dubious chances in global job market. We’ll continue to see underemployment as many college graduates settle for menial jobs. We’ll continue to have a wide gap between the needs of industry and the output of academe.

It’s really about time we seriously gave the matter some attention.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Halloween stories

And this is my column today.

The disc jockeys of the FM station we were tuned in to were gleefully greeting their callers “Happy Halloween.” Almost everyone responded by echoing the greeting except one grouse that dared to ask the question on air: “Why do we greet each other Happy Halloween—what is supposed to be happy about it?”

The disc jockeys were thrown off the wall and were momentarily stupefied, while I did the metaphorical equivalent of doing cartwheels inside my car. I wish that there really are more Filipinos who stand up to media personalities, ask sensible questions, and dare to challenge the status quo.

After lots of hemming and hawing, the disc jockeys finally managed to come up with something that they thought was an adequate answer: What’s happy about Halloween are the candies! Of course Halloween is when kids in the United States consume in one night their complete sugar dietary requirement for the rest of their lives, thanks to the trick or treat tradition that we know is bigger than Christmas over there.

But that’s in the States. Actually, I’m not really sure lots of people in this country know about the trick-or-treat tradition during Halloween. I am aware that certain exclusive villages in Metro Manila have been trying to get their community to embrace this practice, but the idea hasn’t really caught fire.

Some malls have even gotten into the act. It was trick-or-treat day at this mall I went to last Thursday. I saw a number of tots dolled up in Halloween costumes going around. The kids really looked adorable—a band of little fairies, pirates, and characters from all the editions of Shake, Rattle and Roll— so we decided to kind of follow them around unobtrusively. I wanted to see if it was something I would encourage my little nephews and nieces to do next year.

I am going to be honest here: The problem as I noted last week was that the candies that the stores were giving out were really not worth all the expense that went into the costumes and certainly not worth the effort spent walking around the whole mall. Okay. I know that there is more to it than just the candies. But oh please, if we are going to get our kids to wear itchy clothes and smear their faces with make up, we should at least make it a rewarding experience for them.

One famous restaurant chain was giving out one piece of candy per child, the kind that retails at less than a peso each. What cheapskates! Worse, some stores were not giving out candies at all. The kids’ loot bags were pitifully near empty even after lots of walking. Nah, I’m not sure that’s something I would like to expose my nieces and nephews to. I guess storeowners would rather make some advertising agencies and media networks a few millions richer by spending more on advertising than in making a few kids happy once a year. So forget about the candies.

I think Halloween in this country is really still largely for the party set who see Halloween as the grandest annual costume ball. There are more than enough of these people who try to live out their colonial fantasy by donning a costume and then going bar hopping to show off just how familiar, how in sync they are with American culture.

Anyway. I wasn’t in a position to check out the Halloween party scene over the weekend as I decided to commune with the spirits of the dead right in my own hometown in Leyte. It’s been quite sometime since I went home for undas and I felt I had to come home this year. Given that Halloween is about scary stories and encounters with spirits, let me tell you why.

Since I was brought up by my grandmother, it was a given that I would be very close to my aunts and uncles who all took me in as their “baby.” I was particularly attached to an aunt, my mother’s youngest sister because she was just in high school when I was born and she really treated me like I was her child. My Tiya Carmen passed away more than a decade ago but I always make it a point to visit her grave every time I am home.

Anyway. I’ve had about four dreams about her since April this year. The dreams were not the scary nightmare kind, though. In my dreams, she was either expressing discomfort or gently chiding me for having forgotten about her. In other words, nagtatampo. But one thing she said in a dream bothered me a bit. In that dream, she had just woken up and she asked me why I allowed anyone to disturb her peace.

So when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to come home and spend All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in my hometown.

Well, what do you know—it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had the dreams. My younger sister likewise confided that she dreamed of our aunt and that in her dream she was expressing sorrow over something that was inchoate. That’s when we decided to visit the cemetery ahead of everyone else.

Imagine our surprise to find her tomb already spruced up and what’s more, there was a family that was saying prayers before the tomb. I thought they were long lost relatives so when they were done, we approached the tomb, lighted candles and re-arranged the flowers. The family then accosted us, asked who we were, and what we were doing in their family member’s tomb! They said they buried their father inside the tomb March of this year.

We’re still trying to sort out the confusion. The family’s version of events is hopelessly convoluted. First they said they asked permission from a family member, whom they couldn’t name. And then they said they thought the tomb was abandoned. Someone said the whole arrangement was just temporary, they intended to move the bones as soon as possible.

I don’t have scientific explanations about the dreams about my aunt. It can be said that she communicated from the other world to express her discomfort over the fact that her peaceful slumber had been rudely interrupted. It’s scary, when we come to think about it. But what is even scarier is that this practice of stealing tombs and graveyards is true after all.

We’ve all heard about how this practice has become common in highly urbanized centers where there is a shortage of graveyards and where graves and tombs are unceremoniously dug up to accommodate those who recently passed away. How it can happen in a third-class municipality, and what kind of stupid people would unceremoniously claim a tomb inside an enclosure that’s obviously assigned to a family, are questions that beg an answer. If it is any consolation, at least they didn’t throw my aunt’s bones away. They said they bundled these up in a bag and shoved them inside the tomb. So at least her bones are still in the same tomb even if she is sharing it now with someone else.

I’ve been praying that the promises I made at her tomb about making reparations are enough to appease her and that she won’t be visiting my dreams anytime soon. I don’t want a long drawn-out personal Halloween this year.

Streetchildren, carols and Christmas

This was my column last Wednesday, October 29.

We don’t really need reminding—after all, Christmas is probably the most anticipated season in this country, and is so for various personal reasons.

We all have our own personal indicators of the arrival of the season. Unfortunately, most of the signs today have been created by commercial considerations rather than by religious or at least altruistic reasons. Global warming and the current financial meltdown have done away with nippy mornings and peace and goodwill to mankind. So we are left with the Christmas carols, the Christmas decorations, those ubiquitous Christmas lights, and of course, the carolers.

My own personal and amusing reminder of the impending season happened yesterday as my friends and I were driving on Adriatico Street in Manila after lunch. As usual, we got stuck in traffic right before Quirino Avenue (whatever they are doing at Quirino Avenue and why it is taking so long are questions that don’t seem to have answers at all). Thereupon a band of streetchildren descended upon us. We were hapless prey.

We are all familiar with the sight because streetchildren who beg using all kinds of subterfuge—from those who go through the motions of “cleaning” windshields to those who put on performances that they try to pass off as entertainment—have become constant fixtures on our streets. Since they are on the street 12 months a year, they simply adjust their greetings to go with the occasion. I’ve witnessed streetchildren singing love songs in February. The weirdest

I’ve seen were streetchildren greeting people “Happy Holy Friday.”
Obviously, they are now singing carols. Or at least, that’s what I think they were singing. Nobody really knows for sure these days because many carols have been given new twists and all kinds of treatments they don’t anymore remind you of what the season is supposed to be about.

What was different this time around was that in the words of a friend who is in the modeling business and who was the designated driver at that moment, the streetchildren now employed “production values.” As one child was giving a spirited rendition of a carol right beside the driver’s seat, an accomplice was uninhibitedly gyrating to the beat in front of the car. The kids had choreography! And they knew exactly how to position themselves around the car. The assigned dancer planted herself in front of the car so that everyone in the car had an unobstructed view of her vigorous and determined assertions. Malicious minds would smell subtle coercion in the act as well since there was no way a car could move forward without running over the hapless “entertainer.”

Our streetchildren are becoming more and more innovative and creative each day.
I’ve heard of stories involving streetchildren who feign all kinds of illnesses while knocking on car windows. A friend once related her own harrowing experience with a “maabilidad” streetchild who was spurting blood from her nose while she was begging. She really thought the kid was having a nose bleed and tried to bring the child to the nearest hospital. The child insisted on just having money. The blood turned out to be ketchup mixed with water, or at least she hoped that was what it was.

I’ve also had a number of personal experiences with streetchildren who sell sampaguita (jasmine) garlands on the streets. I’m a sucker for these kid vendors because I’ve always had this paradigm that at least these kids try to make a decent livelihood rather than just begging or fleecing money from unsuspecting or gullible people. I am sure many of these kids are honest and really look at what they do as a livelihood. But I also know that for many of these kids, the garlands only serve as props. And worse, some deliberately shortchange motorists by not giving the exact number of garlands or the exact change. Some time their actions just before the light turns green and motorists have no choice but to move on because there’s a long line of vehicles behind with impatient drivers honking their horns as if there’s no tomorrow.

It’s like we have an on-the-job training scheme in place in this country for teaching people how to be “maabilidad” (street smart). And our children are learning the ropes quickly.
I’m not really sure if this penchant for improvising and finding creative ways to get around a problem is something that we can take pride in. I am told that this is one of the competencies that foreign employers like about our overseas Filipino workers. We always know how to make do with whatever little we have. And sometimes, we take the sorry lack of resources to ridiculous extremes and make them fodder for jokes and source of entertainment.

Anyway. Christmas is a good 56 days away, but everyone who stands to benefit from the season is already pulling all the stops as if they want to make sure that the season arrives this year. In many department stores, this has resulted in a rather perplexing sight: Halloween decors mixed with the tinsels, the poinsettias and the mistletoes.

Many of my e-mail groups have now become besieged with all kinds of requests for ideas and suggestions on how to make their Christmas parties this year more memorable—which really means upping the ante in terms of being more colorful, more fabulous, perhaps, even more hilarious than last year’s. I think I have seen dozens of requests for possible themes, motifs, etc, for their Christmas party this year.

A number have responded with interesting ideas and suggestions—from an Oscar’s-inspired party, to gypsies and pirates, etc. One suggestion put a temporary halt to the burst of ideas and suggestions: How about making the birthday of Jesus Christ the theme of the Christmas celebration? Quite a thought, really.