Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking back (2)

This is my column today, my last for 2008.

Last Monday, I wrote about what I thought and felt were some of the major events of 2008 that made major impact on our lives. In this piece, I will continue where I left off but will mostly focus on the events of 2008 that fall into the general category of “unfinished business.”

Easily topping the list would be the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008. There was great anticipation that the controversial bill would finally get passed by Congress before the end of the year. The anticipation had valid basis—there was initial groundswell support for the bill when it was filed. Unfortunately, as the year drew to a close, a number of representatives were reported to have already withdrawn support for the bill on account of unrelenting intimidation from the Catholic Church.

One congressman I know, who incidentally will vote for the passage of the bill but does not want his support for the bill publicized as he does not want to get any more visits or calls from his bishop, revealed the extent of the Church lobby against the bill. We’re not just talking social visits and vigorous application of moral suasion; we’re talking harassment, threats, and blackmail. One has to have steely resolve not to buckle given the kind of tactics employed to ensure that the bill doesn’t get passed into law.

It is easy to believe that the Church has been resorting to dirty Machiavellian tactics. Church leaders have been demonizing the legislators who authored the bill—the standard talking point was that the bill was the work of the devil himself—and even threatening legislators who would vote for the passage of the bill with excommunication. I’ve listened to far too many homilies delivered by bishops and priests that were shot through with fallacies and wrong information about the bill, among them, that it would eventually pave the way for the legalization of divorce and abortion. These assertions are founded on acrobatic logical deductions that don’t really add up. The Church has anchored its opposition to the bill on the grounds that it is anti-family.

The Church knows that most Filipinos support the bill, which is why certain bishops have started to reach out to our legislators to find a middle ground. At the root of the conflict is the simple fact that the Church and the advocates of the reproductive health bill don’t have the same frame of reference on the critical issues around the bill such as what comprises reproductive health, contraception, or even abortion. The debate will extend to 2009. It is possible that the Church will win this round once again. But it will be a temporary victory. The bill will get filed again and again and again. It’s just a matter of time.

Another major issue that didn’t find a satisfying closure in 2008 was agrarian reform. Some kind of a compromise agreement, which was the six-month extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, was hastily patched together just to appease both sides of the warring factions.
Agrarian reform has been a crucial social issue since I was wearing short pants in grade school. I doubt if we will ever be able to put in place a real and genuine agrarian program in our lifetime; unless the power structures in society are changed drastically, which of course is not going to happen anytime soon. The people who stand to lose their haciendas and their plantations to agrarian reform are the very ones who are in positions of power—from the Executive to the Legislative and even the Judiciary branches of government. Anyone out there who thinks these people would willingly hand over huge tracts of land to the working class needs to have his head examined.

There will be acrimonious debate in the next few months as members of the ruling class go through the motions of showing that they have hearts that beats for the downtrodden. But in the end, even if a law does get passed, the landlords and those in power will always find a way to thwart the real intentions of the bill. It has been done before. Case in point: The stock option program implemented at Hacienda Luisita which was really just another creative way to get around CARP.

Obviously, there’s a whole bunch of unfinished business that’s still festering at some committees at the Senate from the ZTE imbroglio to the fertilizer fund scandal. But there really is no point in expecting that these issues get resolved at all because it is apparent that resolving issues and providing closure to issues are concepts that are alien to our senators.

Ensuring maritime safety was another unfinished business, which unfortunately is a problem that’s been in search of a resolution since as far back as I can remember. This year, the major tragedy was the sinking of m/v Princess of the Stars but there were other passenger ships that also sank. A sound byte that is included in one of the media network’s yearend summary of 2008 events is that of Transportation Undersecretary Maria Elena Bautista sadly concluding that our shipping companies still have to attain a certain level of responsibility.

I agree with her, but isn’t that precisely her job description? To ensure that Sulpicio Lines and all the other shipping companies grow a conscience? That we finally burn all those floating coffins and stop endangering the lives of Filipinos? The excuse being forwarded, which is that there are no alternative transportation systems that will replace them is pure nonsense. I am sure that there are more than enough businessmen who will jump at the opportunity to get into the shipping business once the more established companies with a dismal safety record are banned from the industry.

And lest we forget, the selection process to choose the Seven Wonders of Nature is still on. There are a number of Philippine sites that are in the top 50 among them the Palawan Subterranean River which has been topping the list for a number of months now. Only one site from each country will be retained for voting until July 7, 2009 and by the looks of it the Palawan Subterranean River at Puerte Princesa will be our country’s main entry.

There are people out there who think it is embarrassing that Philippine entries tend to win in contests where open voting is allowed. For example, when Ishmael Bernal’s Himala was chosen as the CNN’s viewer’s choice award as most favorite film for Asia-Pacific, a number of people raised their eyebrows and began picking on the film. Some said other Asian films in the final list were better, or that other Filipino films such as Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag would have been a more prudent choice. This kind of nitpicking is symptomatic of our problems as a country and as a people: We’re hopelessly fragmented.

I am going to end 2008 with a personal rant against the contractors of the public works project being done at Vito Cruz Street in Manila. I know. It’s supposed to be a project designed to improve delivery of water services to the south of Metro Manila. But given the way they have dug up and made impassable Vito Cruz Street and a number of streets parallel to it, they very well could be building an underground city. The project’s original deadline was July 31. Then it got moved to September. And then they promised that the project will be completed and the suffering and the agony of everyone who lives or have to pass by the area regularly will finally end by Dec. 31. That’s today.

Of course they are not going to meet that deadline again. When I passed by Vito Cruz yesterday, the intersection at Taft Avenue was still barricaded by heavy equipment and the whole stretch from Vito Cruz to Adriatico Street still looks like Manila immediately after World War II. Public works has become a major source of abuse and display of arrogance of government and contractors. It is time the government and contractors are made answerable to the misery experienced by Filipinos when public works projects do not meet timetables or are done haphazardly without any consideration for the safety and welfare of people. I intend to make this a major advocacy in 2009.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Looking back

This is my column today.

The end of the year is always a good time to look back at the events during the year that made living in this country exasperating and frustrating but also exhilarating and exciting. So here then is the list of events in 2008 that rocked my world. Obviously, it’s a personal list and what’s in it may not sit well with others. But as has been said many times many ways, the relevance and gravity of an event is determined and measured by the personal circumstances of the person viewing it. It’s called subjective reality.


I think the two major global events that defined 2008 and which will have far-reaching implications on the world are the financial debacle that saw the collapse of major financial institutions and the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. The two events represent two extremes —on one hand, financial wreckage and devastation; on the other, hope and inspiration.


The financial catastrophe brought to their knees institutions once thought to be invincible such as Lehman Brothers. Other global financial giants that were affected included American International Group, Wachovia Bank, Merrill Lynch, and even Citibank. The repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis will continue to be felt in 2009 and everybody is predicting tougher times ahead. There are many things that can be learned from the crisis, one of which is that unfettered deregulation has its downside.


The Philippines, although described as an “island of calm” at the height of the crisis, was not spared. A number of our banks will have to declare lower net incomes for the year. Economists cannot agree yet on what the prognoses are for the country in 2009. I am not an economist, but I think that while 2009 will be a difficult year, we will prevail on account of three factors. First, the economy is not heavily dependent on exports. This is ironic because in another time, this would have been cause for much concern. Second, our economic fundamentals are relatively stronger. And three, the 2010 elections are in the offing. As we all know, elections are not only diversionary they also create surges in local economies.


On the other hand, the election of the first African American to the highest post in the United States sent a very strong message of hope to the world. Obama represented a lot of things—change, youth, optimism, courage, faith, the power of dreams, etc. His election was timely precisely because it happened at a time when the financial crisis was happening.


On the local front, a number of politicians have clambered onto the Obama bandwagon packaging themselves as this country’s new emblem of hope. Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, in fact, went as far as to call himself the Barack Obama of the Philippines. My sources say that Binay is quite serious in his presidential bid and that as far as he is concerned, it’s all systems go for 2010.


I agree that what this country needs is a Barack Obama—someone who can galvanize all of us into action, someone who can provide the inspiration and the stewardship to lead us out of the quagmire that we find ourselves in. Unfortunately, contrary to what our politicians seem to think, it’s not just about appropriating the name and image.


The major political event of the year was Jose de Venecia Sr.’s fall from power and the subsequent severing of ties between erstwhile allies the De Venecias and the Arroyos. De Venecia’s swan song was painful to watch as the man struck blindly at everyone who was party to his downfall. He delivered threats and promised to tell all. He is still making those threats and still making promises to this day.


The other major political event that defined 2008 happened to be connected to de Venecia’s ouster as Speaker of the House: The ZTE scandal.


The most celebrated quote of the year emerged from the same scandal: “Moderate their greed.” This was supposed to have been the instructions of former Economic Planning Secretary now Social Security System chairperson Romulo Neri to ZTE scandal whistleblower Jun Lozada. The government’s (mis)handling of Lozada would turn out to be a series of embarrassing blunders that eventually resulted in Lozada’s lugubrious turn at the Senate hearings on the ZTE scandal.


There are many things we have learned from the ZTE scandal. First, that the greed of certain people truly knows no limits. Second, that there are also limits to what ordinary mortals can take as far as intimidation and coercion are concerned and when pushed against the wall, some people become even more emboldened rather than cowed into submission. And third, our Senate hearings are still a better source of entertainment and many of our senators seem to use them primarily as workshops to hone their acting skills.


In 2008, blogs and blogging shot to national prominence as alternative media courtesy of a blog put up by an Australian gay man so that he can collect his lifetime savings of about $70,000, which was allegedly swindled from him by his Filipino gay socialite lover. The blog became an overnight sensation mainly because of its predilection to spew salacious and lurid details about sex, drugs, and dirt. But when the fount of scandalous revelations emptied out, public attention waned and the social set that used to be the object of ridicule has since then slowly reassumed their high perch on the social ladder.


Toward the end of the year, the Health Department finally admitted that the rate of HIV infections in the country have doubled in the last year. A number of people I know tested positive for HIV and the alarm bells are finally ringing for real. Unfortunately, it seems people are not listening. Meantime, money for HIV prevention and for HIV educational programs is still hopelessly tied up in government bureaucracy. I have said this before and I will say it again: We are going to have to pay dearly for allowing ourselves to backslide in our HIV/AIDS programs. We used to be a success study in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention. Now, an epidemic seems like a foregone conclusion.

There were a number of really great stories during the year. But all of them pale in comparison to the victories of boxer Emmanuel Pacquiao. The Pacman beat Marquez, Diaz, and De la Hoya all during 2008. What a feat, indeed.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My other passion...

Only those very close to me and well, those who have been inside my office at the Bank, are aware of my other passion, which is collecting artworks. It's kind of difficult not to notice it given the fact that practically every inch of wall in my office is occupied by a painting.

Yeah, I know. People automatically assume that it's an expensive passion. It can be, of course, if one sets his sights on the works of national artists and the more established artists. But there are also a lot of young, budding (sometimes starving) artists out there who need all the help they can get - this means more art patrons who buy art pieces. The prices of the works of some of these young artists are actually reasonable - they are probably comparable to a few action figure figurines. The problem is that not everyone appreciates or wants to invest in artworks, they'd rather spend their money on expensive gizmos of dubious quality and aesthetic value such as those really tacky wall hangings sold in some malls.

When I started my modest art collection, I set my sights on a the mid-priced artists like Baldemor, Belleza, Yap Baguio, Cacnio, etc. I figured that I would eventually save up for a Velasco, and who knows, even probably an Ang Kiukok or a Luz in the future (yeah, I'm dreaming).

Anyway, I discovered a new artist recently and I've been a fan of his works since then. I've been successful in getting a number of my friends to buy his works because they are verrrrry reasonable. His name is Mar de la Cruz and he is actually creating a name for himself already. He is part of the Wednesday group. One of his works was picked by Hallmark as a Christmas card (that's the one on the left).

Mar de la Cruz likewise does paddle art, which appeals to a number of people but not to me because the paddles somehow remind me of those violent initiation rites employed by fraternities. But he also paints on plates (I have two of those at work), and even on palettes (he did one of an owl at night for me and the piece hangs in my office at the Bank). Most of his works in my collection are mother and child pieces (which I collect, aside from birds, flowers and owls) and musicians but he also has a series of fish and fruit vendors.

Anyway, here are some of Mar de la Cruz' artworks that are part of my collection. The pictures don't do justice to the pieces. L-R: the Hallmark Christmas card and a 14x16 mother and child oil panting, a 18x24 pastel piece of twin musicians, and two 14x16 musicians on oil.







Saturday, December 27, 2008

Just the usual chismis

Nothing like good old-fashioned showbiz chismis to keep any reunion or get together alive and buzzing.

From the many Christmas parties that I went to this year, here's some of the juicier stuff that I gathered:

1. The supposed definitive story of what really happened to Marky Cielo. If the story that was being whispered about was true, it seems the scion of a powerful political clan in a province south of Manila has a lot of explaining to do. According to a very reliable source, which, as we all know, really means the information was gathered from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend... Marky Cielo had something going on with an up and coming young singer-actress who was being linked with the actor-scion of the political clan. Allegedly, death threats were made. Etc. Etc. But then again, this story may just be another yarn...just a product of someone's very active imagination. I think everyone should learn to take showbiz stories with shovels of salt. But if the story is true, well...as I said, someone has a lot of explaining to do.

2. ABS-CBN was supposed to have successfully bought the television rights of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight which was turned into a blockbuster movie recently. The network is reportedly deep in preparations to turn the love story between a vampire and a mortal into a teleserye entitled Takipsilim, featuring Rayver Cruz and Shaina Magdayao as Edward Cullen and Isabella Swan. The whole chismis seems plausible. But to be honest about it, am not really sure the idea of a dashing, dazzling, desirable Filipino vampire is something that's culturally appropriate. So if this is true, good luck to ABS-CBN .

3. From a very reliable source (which as I said earlier, really means the source is dubious), I learned that Marian Rivera and Dingdong Dantes have a mutual understanding which was abruptly cut short by the unexpected frosty reception from many quarters. The source said that the two hoped that everyone would be so kilig at the idea that they were already a couple but unfortunately, it seems except for their diehard fans, everyone else was cold to the idea. Apparently, many think she's hardly girlfriend material. I have no idea why not. And quite frankly, I have no idea what's so newsworthy about this whole thing that merits our attention at all.

4. The Survivor spoiler that turned out to be true after all. You will recall that the news that the basketball player from San Sebastian College won as the ultimate survivor was leaked in the net. GMA 7 debunked the information. As can be expected, the whole spoiler sent many people at East Avenue in panic mode - the station had poured in millions in the show after all. What the whole experience told us is that keeping secrets and upholding confidentiality agreements is truly not one of our strengths as a people.

Of course, the Vicky Belo -Hayden Kho - Katrina Halili controversy preoccupied many people during the holidays. The male doctor had eventually admitted - on public television, gasp! gasp! - that yes, he cheated on her, and yes, he attempted suicide. These things were widely whispered about. The reaction of most of my friends: Ganda ganda at haba haba ng hair ni Vicky Belo!

And what chismis livened up your Christmas parties?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Marathon time...

Given my physical condition, which is best described by weaknesses rather than strengths, it is obvious that I am not referring to a different, more physical kind of marathon.

I'm taking advantage of the lonnnggg break to catch up on my reading and my DVDs backlog.

Here's the list of books that I intend to finish before January 5:

1. A Prisoner of Birth, Jeffrey Archer
2. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling
3. Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman
4. Culture and History, Nick Joaquin
5. Passages, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo
6. Militant But Groovy, compiled by Soliman Santos and Paz Verdades Santos
7. Ultimate Blogs, Sarah Boxer
8. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
9. The Whole Truth, David Baldacci
10. The Flip Reader, Jessica Zafra
11. The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
12. A Thousand Splendid Sons, Khaled Hosseini
13. Soledad's Story, Jose Dalisay
14. Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer

Yup, good luck to me. Hahaha. I have issued an advisory to kith and kin that I didnt want to be disturbed in the next few days. Fortunately, the selection is composed of relatively easy reads.

And for intermission, here's the list of movies/TV shows on DVDs that I also intend to watch (something that I've been meaning to do in the last few months...):

1. The Lion in Winter
2. Love in the Time of Cholera
3. 100
4. House (Seasons 2-5)
5. Bucket List
6. Damages (Season 1)

And I also intend to update this blog everyday. Promise.

Gotta go. Need to go back to my reading...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good tidings




As part of the homily, the priest at church today asked the community: If Jesus Christ were to be born today in Makati, where exactly would He be born?

Then he went around soliciting responses. Someone answered OSMAK, which is what Ospital ng Makati is called. Someone else said Makati Med. A third said The Peninsula. Obviously, the priest was not getting the answer he wanted so he continued to solicit more answers...

Finally, he blurted: Of course he would still choose to be born with the poor!!! And then he enumerated the possible modern-day versions of the stable - a shanty in a squatter's colony, in a makeshift house under a bridge, perhaps in a sidewalk.

I didn't quite agree with what the priest said, but Catholic masses are not exactly platforms of democracy so of course I kept my ideas to myself.

But the news was on when I got home and there it was: Reasons why I think Jesus might not have to be born in squalid conditions today. On the news were stories of people reaching out to others, specially the poor. There was this news story about a man who went around hospitals to give financial assistance to families; he did so anonymously. There were other stories of families driving around distributing groceries, food, toys to the poor. There was also this jeepney driver who witnessed a hold-up incident in another jeepney and decided to follow the holduppers -as a result, the criminals were caught. There were other stories of a similar nature.

There are many stories like these that happen everyday. Unfortunately, they don't get featured in the news because...well, they are not sensational and controversial. But because it is Christmas today, our news programs were mostly about things positive.
Nativity photo courtesy of Freefoto.com

Because it's Christmas

This was my column yesterday. Merry Christmas!

Isang tulog na lang, pasko na.

It’s the season to be more giving and consequently, forgiving; it’s supposed to be the time to be kinder and to be more tolerant.

And it is in this context that we let pass the controversial statements made by former President Corazon Aquino last Monday at the launching of Jose de Venecia’s autobiography. Aquino’s statements, as expected, were splashed across the front pages of the major dailies yesterday. Ordinarily, people would find a lot of things to say about former President Aquino’s very public request for forgiveness from former President Joseph Estrada for having led Edsa Dos, which as we all know, caused Estrada’s disgraceful exit from Malacañang.

But since it is Christmas, I think we can all be allowed some latitude for statements done “in the spirit of the season.” Of course some people might want to factor into the equation the former president’s current medical condition but I don’t think it is something that she herself would like people to do. Definitely, there is nothing wrong with her mind or the strength of her moral convictions.

The statements were supposed to have been uttered in the same spirit as Estrada’s lighthearted attempts to “roast” Jose de Venecia Jr. Aquino has her reasons for saying what she said.

But I’ve said this before and I will say it again categorically and without any hesitation whatsoever: Joseph Estrada is not any better than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Of course there is no way anyone can divine what would have happened if Estrada was allowed to continue as president in 2001 despite the profligacy and the mass-scale incompetence. But I am aghast that barely seven years after his fall from grace, Estrada is now being held up as an exemplary government official. I am tempted to make a litany of former President Estrada’s major transgressions, but then again… it’s Christmas. So I’m going to cut the man some slack and leave him and his delusions of having been a great president and being this country’s last remaining hope.

It is also in the same spirit that we turn a blind eye to the shameless campaigning being done by a number of politicians this early—all of which are done under the guise of public service.

Many of our streets are now plastered over with all kinds of Christmas greetings conveyed through tacky tarpaulin posters of our politicians strutting like peacock in their designer clothes and grinning and flashing their pearly whites like chimpanzees. We all know that the money used to pay for these posters came from public coffers so we wish that these posters have some aesthetic value at the very least. But there is truly no accounting for taste, so I guess we just have to grin and bear being assaulted with the hideous Photoshopped mugs of our politicians at every lamppost.

We’ve also started receiving calendars from various politicians—all of them illustrative of the absurd level of conceitedness of the very people who profess that they have our best interest at heart. It does seem as if our politicians harbor some fantasies of being royalty because their calendars almost always feature them or their official families posing like monarchs.

I’m howling for the moon here, but for once, I would really like to receive a calendar from a politician which features the picture of something else—perhaps a religious image, or even a national landmark. When that happens, I’ll probably display the calendar at home rather than recycle them as gifts for relatives in our farm in Leyte.

Some politicians have also started distributing goods to their constituencies as Christmas gifts. Using money to buy food for constituents is way much better than wasting money on tarpaulin posters and calendars. It’s a good gesture if only our politicians were honest and sincere enough to acknowledge that the money used to purchase the ingredients for spaghetti, a few tins of milk and sardines, and a small bag of rice that they are distributing to their constituents came from government funds and not from their own personal pockets. Unfortunately, our politicians are so shameless in this area. They take all the credit and bask in the glow of misdirected adulation.

But again, it is Christmas. And at least some people are going to get fed, so I think we can let these things pass as well.

There is something, however, that I will not let pass even if it is Christmas.

I had to be in Trinoma at Quezon City for lunch yesterday. Since I work in Pasay City, I figured it was more practical to take the MRT rather than brave the Edsa lunchtime traffic. I’ve already written about this in the past, but my previous column was based on the experience of other people. I finally saw, smelled, tasted, and felt the really horrible, awful, horrendous things that commuters of the MRT have to put up with every single time they take the MRT trains.

I went up Taft Avenue Station where the lines leading to the windows where they sell tickets were hideously long. And because the stations were not built to accommodate long queues, people end up being crammed tight. It took me 30 minutes to buy a ticket—and the waiting time was the least aggravating factor.

I went through a more excruciating hell going back. The lines at the North Station extended from the third floor down to the ground floor at Edsa. The mass of sweaty, impatient, smelly, angry people was writhing in agony. The commuters were like animals trapped in a place with only one exit.

The problem is really simple—one which requires only the most basic strategic thinking skill and some bold leadership—obviously, skills which the people who run the MRT system don’t have. The lines are caused by inadequate space leading to the windows that sell tickets. Therefore, the solution is simple —sell tickets somewhere else or put in place an alternative system for purchasing tickets. It’s really that simple!

For example, there were at least a thousand people queuing up at the North Station at the same time that I was there yesterday. It would have been simpler if they had ready tickets that they could have sold to people waiting in line—this system is done regularly at the exit points at both the South and North Luzon expressways. But no, they insisted on having tickets sold only at the designated windows. They simply watched people queue up and wait for their turn at the windows. And there were only five windows, for crying out loud.

The mayhem created by the poor management systems at the MRT resulted in one very glaring fact: Security checks could not be done at all. So riding the MRT is not just inconvenient, it is probably unsafe as well.

At the root of the problem is utter lack of concern for commuters. And that negates the spirit of the season.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Balm for weary hearts


This was my column yesterday, December 22. The picture at left was taken a couple of years back during a Christmas reunion with some members of the first batch of college students who took classes under me.

This time of the year is most stressful for me for many reasons.

It’s usually planning-for-next-year season at my day job on top of the many year-end chores that need to be attended to such as putting together the usual end-of-the-year reports and corporate events. In the last three weeks, my team at work has been putting in 12-hour workdays to meet major deadlines. At some point it seemed the whole Christmas season was getting in the way of our work.

This time of the year also marked the end of the second term at the College where I teach and that meant reading stacks of papers, checking tests, computing grades and necessarily, consoling and giving counsel to students who did not make the grade. I had to flunk some students in a major course I taught and this meant of course that they will not be able to graduate on time.

Professors can trundle out that worn-out explanation about how we don’t manufacture grades—we just compute them; that it’s the students themselves that make the grade. But try conveying that to a bawling 20-year- old male college jock who is giving you this sob story about how this last school term was his last chance and that his parents are most likely not going to foot his tuition next term. And then there are students who do plead their case by imploring the spirit of the season, as in “Sir, Christmas naman.” It’s almost enough to make one swear off Christmas.

There’s also the Christmas rush and as usual, I am not even halfway there with the shopping, the wrapping and not to mention the delivery of Christmas presents. I know. All this running and huffing to beat the closing time of department stores has become an annual tradition. This has got to stop.

And as a columnist, this time of the year is difficult because it’s when one is supposed to be—in my case, the operative term is attempt to be—profound, philosophical, perhaps even a bit sentimental.

It’s Christmas, for crying out loud.

It’s that time of the year when one tries to be inspired or inspiring, when one is supposed to be preoccupied with other things other than the self. It’s supposed to be the time of the year when one lets go of the child within each one of us (that’s a really tired cliché; what can I say, I told you I often stink at trying to be philosophical).

It’s just a little more difficult to be optimistic and cheerful when deluged with a thousand and one reasons to be depressed. This season does bring out the worst aspects of commercialism. I’m not going to go into the details as I am sure everyone is aware of the pressure this season brings in terms of giving the right gifts, imbibing the right spirit, etc.

And if we really come to think about it, the Christmas season is probably when we do the most damage to the environment. Think of all those plastic tinsels, wrappers, ribbons, boxes that get produced and passed around this time of the year.

All these aggravations are more than enough to make one’s heart weary.

But fortunately for many of us, Christmas is also the time for reunions and get-togethers. And really, it’s in these occasions when one rediscovers the whole essence of the season—not when the singing and the dancing and the laughing is ongoing but when everyone is quiet and there’s nothing to do but sit around and listen and feel each other’s presence.

I attended one such event last Saturday night and I was glad I went out of my way to be there despite, well, you already know how hectic these last few weeks have been for me because I just ranted about them. It was a very intimate party—there were only six of us college friends who could make it.

And as we sat there updating ourselves with what’s new in our respective lives and basking in the warmth and affection that can only be had when in the company of kith and kin, my college best friend distributed his Christmas gifts. It was a book marker which he himself crafted— actually, a small water color painting that I intend to have framed. It came with a Christmas card—an old-fashioned greeting card with a picture of a Christmas scene in front and another old-fashioned rhyming message inside.

On the flap of the card he wrote “It’s very easy and convenient to bury the real essence of Christmas with the partying, the gift-giving, the shopping orgy, and the other claptraps and excuses that we have invented so that we don’t have to deal with the more difficult part of Christmas. As we reach the midpoint of our lives, I hope that we can all take this occasion to see Christmas for what it really is, which is renewing ourselves.”

A hush descended on the table. This is a friend who lost his wife to a very tragic and senseless accident; someone who, for a while, I thought would not be able to recover from the pain. And here he was, helping us come to terms with the real essence of the season. He is also quite sick himself, although he doesn’t really talk about it nor does he allow us to discuss the state of his health. But he hit a chord within each one of us in that table—there has got to be more to Christmas than just the partying and the consumerism.

When we come to think about it, it’s sad that most of us have forgotten what the advent stands for. It’s supposed to be the time for preparing our hearts for Christmas, but instead, it has become a schedule for parties and shopping.

And so today, barely a few days before Christmas, I hope each one of us can take respite from the hustle bustle and the mad scramble of the holiday rush to look inside ourselves to find and rediscover the real meaning of the season. As someone once said, “he who does not have Christmas in his heart will not find it under a tree.”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In the spirit of the season...


This was my column last Wednesday. Late post again.


As far as I am concerned, the official countdown to Christmas officially started only yesterday with the onset of the Misa de Gallo, more popularly known by the misnomer Simbang Gabi. Of course media organizations, business establishments and everyone else in the business of promoting consumerism started their own countdowns as early as September.

The pundits and the many self-styled disciples of Uncle Scrooge have been predicting a bleaker Christmas this year. But they’ve actually been saying this since 1997, when the Asian contagion broke out, trundling out the usual statistics and the usual indicators and benchmarks.

One interesting indicator that has evolved into an annual tradition is the computation of the projected cost of the gifts cited in the carol “Twelve Days of Christmas.” There’s a group that regularly goes through the exercise of computing the monetary value of all those dancing ladies, golden rings, French hens, turtle doves and partridges assuming they were to be purchased at the current exchange rates. As can be expected, the total cost has gone up this year.

The whole exercise has its merits. It helps remind everyone, tongue-in-cheek, that even Christmas is puny to commercial considerations. Unfortunately, the exercise further blurs the historical, cultural, even religious meaning of this particular carol. Surely, there is also wisdom in letting people know that, for example, the seven swans-a-swimming refer to something else other than a gaggle of graceful geese.

The most commonly used indicators in our country are the skyrocketing costs of the stuff that serve as traditional Noche Buena fare—a leg of ham, quezo de bola, fruit salad, etc. Around this time of the year, media go to town with sob stories about how certain families will no longer be able to afford having ham and cheese on their Christmas dinner table. They will feature images of families living in the most wretched conditions. There will be footages of young children not having their share of enjoyment at Christmastime—no toys, no new clothes, and not even a slice of ham and a thin wedge of cheese on a pan de sal. I know, having a feast is not the real essence of Christmas; but one has to be utterly stonehearted not to concede that good tidings and cheer are best appreciated with a little celebration.

These stories and images tug at the heartstrings of our lives; particularly at Christmastime. Unfortunately, because these images haunt our daily existence, the impact has been somehow dulled. Nevertheless, in an ideal world where people truly understand and imbibe the Christmas spirit, these should translate into more acts of charity rather than serve as mere fodder for political causes. I am not disputing the connection between poverty and corruption, but I wish media would also highlight more possibilities such as what ordinary people like you and me can do for the poor, particularly in this season of giving and loving.

Which is why it has always been my fervent wish that media coverage of this particular human element story be slanted toward giving people ideas on what they can do, or conversely, try not to do, particularly at Christmastime. For example, I wish people would tone down the lavishness of their Christmas parties and instead donate part of their funds to charity. At a time when a crisis is in the offing and many people face the very real possibility of not having jobs or at least reduced incomes in the coming months, it does not make sense to throw extravagant parties.

I also wish people would not be as wasteful with food and other resources particularly at Christmas parties where the norm is to stuff one’s self to the gills and pickle one’s liver with alcohol. One of the embarrassing traits of many of our fellow Filipinos is this penchant for overstuffing their plates with food from the buffet table, most which end up at the trash box.

Some people have come up with what they think as witty remark when reminded that there are lots of people who are hungry and who would give an arm and a leg just to be able to partake of the wasted food: “If I consumed that leftover food, would their hunger be sated?” Truly, the things we do or say to justify our frailties.

Even gift-giving can be made more sensible and done in ways that add more meaning to the season. It’s a given that Christmas and other special occasions have become so commercialized that we’ve come to associate enjoyment of these occasions with certain consumerist symbols; but there are still ways to balance commercialism with certain degree of social relevance.

Thus, instead of the usual consumer items, people may consider giving as Christmas presents products that are livelihood or fundraising projects of individuals, organizations or communities with distinct social advocacies or needs. There are quite a number of them—from orphanages, to women’s groups, to non-government organizations working on specific social issues such as HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, children’s rights, even water and sanitation.

And if one does not have the time or the inclination to go out on a limb to access these groups, there are products that can be bought from stores that are at least organic or do not harm the environment. One can also try not using plastic or non-biodegradable materials for wrapping.

A friend thinks that it’s futile to rile against commercialism, particularly since the main proponent and beneficiary of lavish spending and meaningless gift-giving is big business, which obviously has more resources to propagate consumerism. But there’s always hope. And this, I think is one essence of the season that is glossed over in favor of the more “fun” aspects of the season such as giving and loving.

For most of us, Christmas is simply about rejoicing and, okay, some giving. It’s sad of course that the reason for the rejoicing or the gift-giving is often forgotten in the merrymaking. People often forget the first seven letters of the word Christmas (Blogger Abaniko pointed out the glaring mistake in this sentence. Mea culpa - Bong A, December 21) . Sadder still is the fact that the spirit of hope does not figure as much in our celebrations.

I was asked to judge a Christmas theme contest in a company I consult with recently. The entries were mostly in Tagalog and most of them were about Christmas being an occasion for fun, loving, unity, teamwork, etc. In short, the usual trite messages of the Yuletide season. One entry, however, stood out. It was the only entry with a message of hope. The profundity of the suggested theme is lost in translation, but it talked about how it is having hope in our hearts that make Christmas more meaningful.

The giving, the loving, the rejoicing are all important aspects of the season. But so is hope. After all, it has been said that hope is the fuel that makes the heart run. When we come down to it, hope is what makes people believe in Christmas; the one thing that makes people look forward to it or the New Year. It’s the reason why we give gifts or try to be nicer to others— because we hope for sweeter, better things.

Particularly at a time like this, Christmas should be an occasion to hope: For better things to come, perhaps for more tolerance and understanding, for a more humane society, and in general, for a better world.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Judging the prejudiced

This is my column today.

There are those who see the Internet as the world’s biggest library—the source of all kinds of information from the truly significant to the most inconsequential.

There are those who see it as a trash box, the repository of filth and many things wicked and unspeakable, though not necessarily repulsive.

Others see the Internet as a virtual confessional—people who religiously log on to the Internet to share with the rest of the world the state of their mental or emotional states.

They use blogs as some kind of an online diary.

Finally, there are people who use the Internet as a pulpit—they are the people who regularly trawl the blogosphere in search of something, anything that grabs their interest. They leave commentary here and there, pick fights with others, engage in healthy or acrimonious debate, etc.

You put all these people together and you have a really potent brew.

And because the Internet and everything that is there is readily available to anyone 24/7 and the blogosphere happens to be world’s best example of a networked community, controversial issues do spread quickly and easily like wildfire.

The current sensation—or victim, depending on where one’s affections lie— of the Internet and the blogosphere is a female college senior from Ateneo de Manila University.

She attended one of those weekend immersion programs which required that she live with an Aeta family. When she got back to civilization, she decided to write about her experience in her Facebook site. Her piece was posted exclusively for her contacts (only those in her list of friends would be able to read it). But someone among her contacts picked up the post and sent it to the rest of the world.

Quite unfortunately for this college senior, the particular post infuriated far too many people. Many found her post racist and shocking in its unflinching declarations of abhorrence for the Aetas she lived with for a weekend and the conditions she had to put up with. In a statement that she supposedly sent to another blogger, she tried to justify her post as “dark quirky humor” that she said her friends normally found “comical.”

As can be expected in a medium that thrives on exchange of ideas, lots of people weighed in with their own opinions. That particular post got passed around and around. Her subsequent clarification was ripped apart as an attempt to obfuscate the issue—she thought betrayal of the friend who forwarded the post to the world was the major issue at stake. There were those who didn’t mince words and called her a major embarrassment to her parents and to the Ateneo.
Quite a number were likewise livid and called her names.

Although there are those who have come to her rescue and tried to provide some context to the issue, the kind of commentary that’s out there is hardly the kind one would like to preserve in a scrapbook.

As someone who has been through the whole experience (for the uninitiated, I had my own 10 minutes of fame—or notoriety, depending again on where one’s affections lie—a couple of years back through an open letter that I wrote for my blog and which got forwarded to the rest of the world), I know too well how frustrating it is not to be given the benefit of the doubt.

One of the things that truly amazes me is the extent to which lots of people out there presume to already know what kind of a person one is, what is going through one’s mind, and what one’s motivations are on the basis of one write up.

I maintain that it is never fair to make generalizations about people based on scanty information.
This does not mean one can’t put someone to task for saying atrocious things about others; but I just don’t see how calling a person names, judging her person, her family, and Ateneo, and ascribing all kinds of sinister motivations on her is any better.

Of course she is a brat and her unabashed declarations of “how kadiri these people are” deserve to be met with indignation. But should we condemn her and urge that she be burned at the stake?

This explains why I will not publish names here. She’s young, and I think she still has a lot to learn. Hopefully, she does learn from this experience. But if you are interested to know the details of this controversy, they are quite easy to find in the Net.

There are, however, a number of issues that I feel deserve to be discussed in the aftermath of this particular issue in addition to our collective penchant for making judgments about other people so quickly and so vociferously.

As a teacher to college students, I am aware that one of the characteristics of the members of the younger generation is the tendency to blur the lines between what is private and public and I’m not just talking about public display of affection here. The whole controversy started because the student published her prejudices and rants.

Not many among us understand, or even care to understand the phenomenon; and certainly, very few among us acknowledge that they do so because there are just too many opportunities laid out that enable them to do so in the first place. Examples of these are the many social networking sites and technological gadgets at their disposal.

This makes me sound ancient, but in my time, diaries were kept under lock and key, and intimate details about one’s life was not something one could splash across a public forum. The status of one’s relationship was not something that defined who one was—so unlike today where one’s status (take your pick—single, in a relationship, it’s complicated) ranks high up there in one’s friendster account than say, one’s educational background or hobbies. One’s opinion about other people was something one kept hush-hush and limited to one’s gossip circle.

So once again, we’re in a situation where those among us who are older are reduced to shaking our heads and heaving a sigh at the antics of the young, oblivious to the fact that we are just as responsible for the very things that we seem to object to.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Postscripts to a victory

This was my column last Wednesday, December 12. Late post, sorry.

I received a number of e-mails in response to my column last Monday, which was about the Pacquiao victory, the whole phenomenon of which was described by reader Ed Reyes as “over-the-top media circus.” He was referring to the way media went to town with Manny Pacquiao’s victory over Oscar de la Hoya last Sunday. I have news for Mr. Reyes: Expect the hoopla to reach even more frenzied levels today when Pacquiao gets home.

All the dailies bannered the Pacquiao victory Monday morning, although not all went the way of the Philippine Daily Inquirer which allocated almost half of its front page to a glory shot of the Filipino boxer and a second coming banner “IT’S CHRISTMAS DAY,” yes, all in upper case letters. What can I say occasions for national celebration and jubilation, not to mention events that can be sensationalized, have become so very rare lately; not that it justifies the way media seems to be doing cartwheels over the whole thing. The most minute details about the victory and every possible sidebar to the story have probably already been poked at, examined, and written about.

But was the supposed Dream Match really what it was bruited to be or were we all simply taken for a ride by media hype? This essentially was the gist of my reader’s beef. He is of the opinion that De la Hoya’s supposed invincibility was media creation designed to raise more excitement and anticipation for the event, giving it a David vs. Goliath storyline. I’m not a boxing expert, so I feel am not qualified to offer insights on the real state of De la Hoya’s boxing prowess.
But I do agree that the level of media attention being heaped on the victory has reached absurd heights. Media camped out in the Pacquiao residences in San Pedro and in General Santos City as well as in the residences of his siblings and parents. Microphones and cameras were shoved into the faces of Pacquiao’s relatives including his very young children. If Pacquiao’s dog can talk, I am sure media would have interviewed it too, not that the dog needs any more publicity.

Someone who requested that her name be kept anonymous should I decide to publish her e-mail wrote in to comment on something that the media has made a regular sidebar story every time Pacquaio goes up the ring: The rituals that his mother inevitably stages. My reader’s gripe: The exploitative way in which media “plays up her frailties.” I’m guessing my reader is being nice rather than naughty here although she did ask if the mother also displays the same piousness when her other boxer son (the one that probably needs more divine intercession) goes up the ring.

I’m a little ambivalent about where I stand on this matter. Okay, so Pacquiao’s mother never fails to deliver the required serving of typical Pinoy melodrama when her favorite son goes up the ring. Her behaviors may strike many as overdramatic, perhaps even a tad too theatrical for comfort; but then again who can say that she doesn’t remind us of our own mothers? I also cringed in embarrassment while watching her wail and flail around mainly because I half suspect that my own mother would probably do the same if a television camera were to follow her around. My friends and I have this running joke: We try to steer clear of situations that might land us in the papers for fear that media will find a way to get our mothers to do their thing on national television.

Most of the e-mails I received were, expectedly, rants about the heavy advertisement load of the television broadcast of the match. A certain Lemuel Que e-mailed to seethe about what he calls “blatant display of greed” of television networks. Below are portions of his e-mail:
“Aren’t there rules that govern how much advertisement load is allowed during the broadcast of events of blockbuster events? I noticed that our television stations always put too many advertisements during these events. Don’t our television stations know that it is very annoying and frustrating on the part of the Filipino audience? Instead of patronizing the products, I think the ads produce the opposite effect.”

I empathize with Que. It was a good thing the results of the match were already widely known thus making the ordeal of having to sit through interminably long commercial breaks a little less vexing. But there were still times when I felt like giving up, or worse, throwing something at the television set. Not only were the commercial breaks very long, there were also commercials to announce the commercial breaks and even more commercials to signal the end of the break and the resumption of the broadcast. A voice over would announce that the break was courtesy of a list of products. And then before resumption of the broadcast, a voice over would again intone that the broadcast was being brought to us— more like being hammered on us—by yet another long list of products. I already wrote last Monday about the fact that about a third of the television screen was also taken up by advertisements all throughout the fight.

I asked my officemates what they did to cope with the long advertisements and they said they took the opportunity to do some chores. In other words, they tuned off when the ads came on. This is hardly what advertisers paid for.

A friend of mine wanted me to publish his suggestion to our television networks: “Instead of loading up highly popular broadcasts such as Pacquiao’s fights with copious amounts of advertisements, perhaps our television networks can accommodate only a few advertisers but charge them triple the rates. In this way, the burden is not passed on to hapless viewers who will probably have more appreciation for the ads and will have better reception of the products.” I completely agree.

And finally, an e-mail from reader Andrew Tan offered this profound observation about the fight:

“Many young Filipinos will now aspire to become the next Manny ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao and for the wrong reasons. He will be idolized and many of our youth will try to follow in his footsteps because he is now a multi-millionaire (billionaire is more like it). I fervently hope people will not forget the extreme sacrifice and the risks that boxers like Manny Pacquiao invest in every fight. Boxing is still the cruelest sport in our planet. The damage done to a boxer’s health is irreversible and inevitable. All boxers in the long run succumb to neurological problems shown by the same symptoms such as addled speech, boxer’s shuffle (i.e., inability to walk straight and to drag their feet). Case in point: Mohammad Ali, Rolando Navarrete, etc. The price they pay is really high.”

Monday, December 08, 2008

Boxing as a mind sport

This is my column today.

When the broadcast of the much-ballyhooed dream match was finally started on GMA-7 at 1:05 p.m., most Filipinos tuned in to the boob tube no longer in excited anticipation of finding out the outcome of the fight. The result of the match was already all over the Internet and was already being passed on from one cell phone to another through SMS.

And as if to spite GMA-7 which bagged the exclusive rights to broadcast the fight, ABS-CBN pulled the rug under by announcing the results through a streaming advisory that accompanied its regular programming.

There are of course those who think that awareness of the outcome already diminishes the value of the viewing experience; they are the people who hate spoilers. There’s certainly less anticipation and excitement when one already knows how something is going to end. But I’m sure that when it comes to things where national pride and honor seem at stake, being aware of the outcome also brings a new dimension into the viewing experience. My friends and I watched the fight with a little less excitement, but with more confidence and yes, a lot less apprehension.

So most of us watched the match to find out how it happened. We watched to witness personally how Pacquiao overcame all the odds stacked against him. In the run up to the fight, he was the underdog. He was clearly physically inferior although he was probably hungrier and more determined. After all, he was carrying into the ring not only his personal hopes and dreams but those of millions of Filipinos as well. I am sure that all the newspapers will report comprehensive and blow-by-blow accounts of Pacquiao’s victory, so I won’t go there.

But something has to be said about the way the television broadcast of the fight was inordinately delayed and extraordinarily stretched out by GMA-7. This is nothing new of course. Our media networks’ shamelessness in this area is unparalleled.

Because they had exclusive rights to the broadcast and most Filipinos did not have alternatives anyway (the rich forked out large sums to watch the fight on real-time basis through pay-per-view or by trooping to moviehouses that had special arrangements to broadcast the fight real-time), they inundated the broadcast with commercials to the point that the commercial gaps became longer than the actual fight. Whatever happened to the regulatory requirement that prescribed the ratio of ads vis-à-vis the actual program?

And as if the lonnnnggggggg commercials were not enough aggravation, we all had to contend with watching the fight from a severely diminished television screen. The actual size of one’s television screen didn’t really matter anymore because they appropriated practically a third of the screen to product logos and ad placements. These do not include the product logos that were on the ring, on the boxers’ bodies, and prominently displayed all over the venue. I’ve never seen such variety and quantity of products displayed in one fight: From car batteries, cough medicines and muscle relaxants, deodorants, glue, door-to-door delivery services, cell phone service providers, airlines, softdrinks and beer, candies, coffee, liquor, t-shirt brands, paint to vitamins. Interestingly, shampoo, soap, and feminine products such as sanitary napkins and feminine wash were not part of them. This tells us a lot about the target demographics of the viewers.

I’ve written many times in the past about my objections to the way professional boxing is being staged today. One of them is precisely the shameless way in which these boxing matches are packaged and commercialized, even sensationalized.

Boxing matches have become less of a sports event than a commercial spectacle with lots and lots of money at stake. It has become a promoter’s event. And all these were painfully evident yesterday during the De la Hoya and Pacquiao fight. The boxing seemed only incidental in the whole scheme of things. What seemed more prominent were national honor and pride, millions of dollars (hundreds of millions of pesos!) at stake, and a lot of other commercial considerations.

Why, even the singing of the respective national anthems was not given the appropriate respect with people wildly cheering and the boxers oblivious to the anthems. In the GMA-7 broadcast, the singing of the Star Spangled Banner was interrupted by a phone interview of Manny Pacquiao. Of course it can be argued that the Americans don’t seem as sensitive about these things as we are anyway—the recording artist who sang the anthem even sang it as a stylized pop song, with hand on hip and a slouched body. On the other hand, our own Karylle even donned a fully beaded terno to sing Lupang Hinirang with as much ceremony and reverence as she possibly could—although quite frankly, it was a rendition that sounded like she was singing a love song.

It was a good thing that we already knew what the outcome was so all the aggravations were less annoying. Pacquio won anyway. I still have major objections about the way boxing is being promoted and conducted as a sport. But if there are some things that I hope would come out of the recent Pacquio victory, these would be more respect for our athletes and of course national pride.

There really should be no doubt that Emmanuel Pacquiao is a great athlete and sportsman. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the man is a very intelligent person. Kinesthetic intelligence is already a recognized form of intelligence in the world today.

Most people probably just saw the flurry of punches—the jabs, the hooks, and the undercuts that were exchanged between Oscar de la Hoya and our own Pacman—but there was clearly a lot of thinking processes that went with each punch.

In the same light, most people would only see a basketball player jump for a ball or a tennis player run to hit a ball with a racket. But in those split seconds, the kind of mental calculations that happen in the athlete’s mind is enormous: How high do I jump, what should I do with the ball, where do I land, how do I anticipate my opponent’s actions, etc, etc. All we see is the athlete doing his thing—the boxer dealing his opponent a fatal blow, the basketball player successfully catching the ball on rebound, the tennis player returning a ball with a backhand flourish.

It’s important to stress these and to highlight the fact that boxing is a sport that requires more than physical stamina and certainly much more than luck. Boxing is also largely a mental sport although of course not many among would deign to think of sports—boxing most specially—as activities that require the use of grey matter. All these were made clearly evident in the way Pacquiao overcame his physical disadvantage in height and reach by turning the match into a mental game. Clearly, Pacquio won because he was the more analytical boxer in that ring.

Again, so much will be said about what Pacquiao’s victory means to the nation. Someone made the observation that what makes Pacquiao unique as a boxer is that he carries with him into the ring the dreams and aspirations of a country. He has, time and again, tried to turn his boxing matches into occasions for national pride and celebration. He has time and again expressed the hope that his victories would serve to unite the nation. He has done it again. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to heed his call.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A bad idea

This was my column last Wednesday, December 3.

Forgive me for being irreverent; the pronouncements of old men, particularly if they are wearing a miter, should be taken more seriously.

But how are we supposed to react to the repeated calls being made by bishops Deogracias Yñiquez of Caloocan and Antonio Tobias of Novaliches for us to follow the Bangkok example as a sign of protest over the very hasty way the impeachment complaint against the President of the Republic was junked by the House of Representatives and over the alleged moves of the President’s allies to install her as President-for-life?

Okay. I agree that the two bishops and the rest of civil society members have valid gripes. The tyranny of numbers killed the impeachment complaint yet again. But then again, that was a foregone conclusion, wasn’t it? The petitioners couldn’t even get many members of the opposition to signify support for the complaint. We’re not talking administration allies yet, just members of the opposition—you know, the people they are supposed to be in bed with, to begin with.

It must rankle to realize that being right is not enough to sway people into taking your side; something that those pushing the reproductive health bill only know too well.

But they do have a point when they insist that they should have been allowed to at least present their case. Again, I am not really sure that would have accomplished anything in terms of getting more signatures or more support for the complaint. It’s a house filled with the President’s allies and lackeys. I am also certain that they would not have presented anything new, or at least nothing that they haven’t gone to town with already in various pronouncements, leaflets, statements, etc.

And certainly nothing that the People of the Republic of the Philippines don’t already know by now—how else can one explain the abysmal ratings of the President? We all want her to go and we’re all waiting for 2010 when we can finally say good riddance with feelings—and yes, whether she and her lackeys like it or not.

Given the fact that the death of the impeachment complaint was already an absolute certainty—someone described the situation in macabre ways, saying that it was already dead when it reached Congress and that it was a cadaver that they were presiding over—couldn’t they have been a little more giving? Couldn’t they have shown more respect for the dead? But then again, civility has long been dead and gone in this country.

But to go back to my earlier point, if we are to go by the exhortations of the two bishops, we should storm our airports and bring air travel in and out of Manila to a complete halt.
Let’s assume that there are more than enough people in this country who are willing at this point—when Christmas is in the air and there seems to be a hundred more important things to worry about— to take up the cause. The first decision that needs to be made is: Which airport? There are four terminals in Metro Manila—fifth if we include Nichols Airbase. I guess that’s something that the bishops and the people who have been expressing admiration for the way the Thais have beaten us in a game we invented and perfected, have not considered.

Seriously, though, I wish these people would engage their minds before they open their mouths. I have nothing against mounting protests against this administration. There’s just too many things that are objectionable about the way Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions flaunt power.

But should we follow the Thailand example and shut down our airports a few weeks before Christmas? That’s the easiest way for the bishops and civil society members to completely alienate themselves from the general population.

Let’s not anymore go into how something like that would definitely give the country’s image abroad a black eye— the world is used to our predilection to shoot ourselves in the foot. Tolentino, Honasan, Trillanes, et al. have done it many times in the past by commandeering major buildings and five-star hotels in commercial districts. Among others.

We do have thousands of Filipino overseas workers who begin streaming back into the country around this time of the year in time for the holiday season. Closing down airports in Metro Manila would effectively leave them stranded in airports all over the world. That would mean hundreds of thousands hungry and angry kith and kin all over the country.

Of course we could always re-route planes to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Pampanga, assuming that that airport has the capacity to take in a hundred international flights a day.

But consider that we had less than a thousand Filipinos stranded in Bangkok over the last few days and yet it seemed everyone was already in uproar. Of course when people learned that Senator Ja-ja-ja-jamby Madrigal was among those stranded in Bangkok and without a way back into the country, a number of people I knew wanted to celebrate and started praying that the standoff in Thailand would last forever so she did not have to come back to the country. But that’s really another column.

The Philippine government and our local airlines had to put together a rescue plan to ensure their safe return to the country. Imagine a situation where tens of thousands of Filipinos are stranded in various airports all over the world because our airports have been commandeered by the Filipino people themselves! I’m sure there will be protests against the protesters.
Anyway. A friend of mine was among those stranded in Bangkok for a number of days and despite the inconvenience, he had great things to say about the way the Thailand Tourism Authority people handled the situation. He said that the Thais really knew how to take care of their guests. I wish we could be as tourist-friendly as the Thai people and the Thai government.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Reflections on World AIDS Day

This is my column today.

Today is World AIDS Day. In other parts of the world, it’s an important day; it’s that day when individuals and organizations come together to remind themselves and others about how HIV/AIDS has changed—and is still changing —the world and their lives in grave and dramatic ways.

There won’t be any significant commemoration in the Philippines. In the run-up to today, a number of organizations including some academic institutions and some local governments conducted various public events such as symposia and lectures on HIV/AIDS. But that’s about it. For most of us, HIV/AIDS is an issue that’s passé. In the words of one local celebrity whose support was sought by one non-government organization for its HIV/AIDS prevention programs recently, “HIV/AIDS is so yesterday.” She’s correct in one and only one aspect: The issue is not new, in fact, it has been with us for a long time already.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. It’s been two decades since a special day was set aside for the purpose of bringing global attention to the AIDS pandemic. Prevention, care and support programs have come a long way since 1988 when the world was still groping for badly needed answers to a myriad of questions about the virus and its various consequences and complications. There is still no cure and no vaccine available; and perhaps there never will be. However, advances in medicine have enabled people living with the virus to live normal lives.
But in many aspects, it’s also as if the last 20 years have not happened, particularly in our country. The official documents of the celebration of World AIDS Day (www.worldaidsday.org or www.worldaidscampaign.org) state some of the reasons why the celebration of World AIDS Day this year is particularly more significant:

“Leaders in most countries from around the world now acknowledge the threat of AIDS, and many have committed to do something about it. As of 2007, nearly all countries have national policies on HIV. However, despite these policies, most have not been fully implemented and many lack funding allocations.”

“While treatment for HIV and AIDS has improved and become more widespread since 1988, many still do not have access to it—in 2007, only 31 percent of those in low- to middle-income countries who need treatment received it.”

“Despite HIV awareness now reaching nearly all areas of the globe, infection rates are still happening 2.7 times faster than the increase in number of people receiving treatment.”

“While the number of countries protecting people living with HIV continue to increase, one-third of countries still lack legal protections and stigma and discrimination continues to be a major threat to universal access.”

“More broadly, real action on HIV and AIDS and human rights remains lacking. Legal barriers to HIV services still exist for groups such as women, adolescents, sex workers, people who use drugs, and men having sex with men, and programmatic responses promoting HIV-related human rights have yet to be prioritised.”

Indeed, so much more needs to be done. According to UNAIDS estimates, there are now 33.2 million people living with HIV, including 2.5 million children. During 2007 some 2.5 million people became newly infected with the virus. Around half of all people who become infected with HIV do so before they are 25 and are killed by AIDS before they are 35. Around 95 percent of people with HIV/AIDS live in developing nations. But HIV today is a threat to men, women and children on all continents around the world.

And in our country, the imperative is even more pronounced and more urgent now.

I’ve been involved in HIV/AIDS prevention programs for more than two decades now. When we started laying the ground for the country’s response to the pandemic in the eighties, the concern and panic was palpable in the air as media started playing up the first cases of HIV infection in the country. But eventually, the attention waned as the incidence of HIV infections remained “low and slow.”

Why the rate of infections in this country has not reached epidemic proportions is still an enigma to most experts. Most of the factors that contribute to the spread of infection are present in our country: Millions of migrant workers, sex work, etc. It goes without saying of course that a number of sectors have laid claim to the perceived “success.” Some say it’s because we acted swiftly and decisively in the eighties and was immediately able to put in place the infrastructure for prevention and control. Others say it’s because sex work is not as prevalent as perceived, or at least not at the same levels as in other countries. And still others attribute it to religious and or cultural practices. For example, most men in the Philippines are circumcised.

A number of experts summarize the Philippine phenomenon in one word: Luck. We’ve been lucky so far.

Unfortunately, luck seems to be running out on us. From “low and slow” the description changed to “hidden and rising.” There’s no official description release this year yet, but it could very well be something along the lines of “mounting and alarming.”

The rates of infection on a monthly basis are doubling. In September alone, 57 new cases of infections were reported, representing a 128-percent increase over the same period last year. What needs to be noted as well is that the doubling trend started in March this year and has been on a consistent upswing since then. We’re seeing infection rates doubling and at a very fast rate.

Dr Gerard Belimac, program manager of the National AIDS and STI Prevention and Control Program of the Department of Health, was quoted the other week as saying that “the epidemic level could come in three years.” The problem is that funds for HIV/AIDS prevention and control programs is hopelessly tangled up in bureaucratic red tape and even if we do get to implement prevention programs now, the results will probably be felt only in five year’s time.
And it does seem that we need new kinds of prevention programs as most studies now say that awareness about HIV/AIDS has not translated into decrease of risky behaviors that make individuals more vulnerable to infection. Two people I know personally have been diagnosed with HIV recently and these are people who have gone through HIV/AIDS awareness and education programs.

I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again here and now: We need to get our acts together and our leaders need to make HIV/AIDS prevention a priority program. We cannot afford to remain complacent anymore.