Monday, March 30, 2009

Going beyond hype

This is my column today.

If we are to believe Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, the Philippine tourism industry is making great headway, supposedly even more so now that we’re making a bid to become the medical tourism destination in the world. I hope we’re not staking our fortunes on Vicky Belo and the Calayans, though. I’d hate to elevate to the global community the question of whether or not Boy Abunda is fit to become an endorser of beauty.

Of course this latest development is a little confusing because it seemed only yesterday when we were making a pitch for ecotourism. And just before that, we were proclaiming to the world (remember Wow Philippines?) the wonders of our mainstream tourism spots—Boracay, Palawan, Chocolate Hills, etc—and gloating about how they were better than other more popular tourism destinations in other countries.

But I’m not going to quibble with marketing messages in this piece although I am of the belief that a more consistent, a more integrated, and perhaps a more strategically thought-out campaign would not be such a bad idea.

It’s a foregone conclusion that we really should aggressively bat for a bigger slice of the global tourism pie. To begin with, we have the sites. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry. Tourism means jobs. Tourism means more economic activities particularly at the local community levels. Unfortunately, having effective marketing strategies is one thing; having adequate and efficient infrastructure is another. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure that we’re doing as much as we can for the latter. Thus, I am afraid that we might have the best marketing strategies and the best tourist attractions in the country but we might not have the other necessities that would sustain a tourism boom. There is only so much hype can do, after all.

What got me thinking about the state of our readiness to welcome more tourists into the country was a series of experiences—some of them not quite pleasant—that I had recently while traveling around the country. In the last two months, I’ve been in at least five key cities and several recreational spots near Metro Manila such as Tagaytay City and Caliraya Lake and Calamba in Laguna.

First off, I wonder what it will really take to finally establish order at our airports. The general chaos that is present at departure and arrival terminals all over the country is a cause for national shame. I’ve ranted about this many times in the past already and it annoys me that it seems the people who manage our airports don’t have the political will nor the inclination to finally put method into the madness.

At the Ninoy Aquino Centennial Terminal, for example, the check-in procedures have become even more confounding with the implementation of common check-in counters. In the past, they would assign specific counters for specific flights and this established some kind of order as people lined up at their designated counters. With the common check-in counters, the lines have become quite long. And worse, passengers who are already late for their flights end up being allowed to jump the queues to the consternation of other passengers who precisely came early to avoid the check-in hassle.

I know. A large part of the chaos can be attributed to lack of discipline on the part of passengers, which I think is exacerbated when authorities do not implement the rules strictly. The way I see it, we can’t attain order and enforce discipline if we don’t have the political will to implement the rules strictly. This is also painfully brought to the fore during boarding when people jostle each other and defy boarding procedures just to be the first to get inside the plane, as if being the first to board ensures that they arrive ahead of everyone else at the destination.

Let’s not anymore get into the hassles passengers are subjected to under the guise of enforcing safety and security.

If checking in at departure terminals is a hassle, retrieving baggage upon arrival is a nightmare. In many key cities, terminals have a lone baggage conveyor belt that doesn’t even go around—clearly not equipped to handle the volume of passengers and their baggage. I was in General Santos City recently where the first order of business upon arrival was—in addition to dealing with the extreme heat and humidity—fighting tooth and nail with a thousand other passengers (three planes arrived within minutes of each other) to retrieve baggage. It was total bedlam as passengers were left to their own devices and not a single airport personnel was on hand to establish order. Like anywhere else, there were dozens of porters standing around like sentries, waiting to be contracted first before they would lift a finger to assist anyone.

In many instances I have noticed how foreigners would simply cluck their tongues at the spectacle and shake their heads in bewilderment and frustration. An airport is the first and last thing that greets tourists and if conditions there are dismal, then we should stop deluding ourselves that they would wish to come back or even spread positive word of mouth about the country. As it is, we already have a negative reputation on account of the kidnappings that is happening in the South.

And then there is the matter of ensuring that we have adequate facilities for tourists. I am aware that there are five-star facilities in this country that offer amenities and customer service that are world class. But these facilities are quite few and don’t really cater to the average tourist. In addition, these facilities are not really representative of what this country has to offer and what we’re really about. In Bohol, for example, there’s Eskaya Resort and the Panglao Beach Resort for the upscale market, but there are also quite a number of resorts along Alona beach for the regular tourists. The same setup exists in Palawan, Cebu, Puerto Galera, etc. The problem, obviously, is that more often than not, amenities and customer service at mainstream resorts and tourist spots often stink.

I was at Caliraya Lake for the weekend and I can honestly say that the facilities of the resort were quite okay—it had a mud slide, a zip line, a swimming pool, and a number or team-building facilities such as volleyball and soccer games using a giant earth ball.

Unfortunately, customer service in the resort left people breathless - with frustration. The resort offered free buffet meals as part of their package and the food - although not really something to write home about—was at least abundant. The problem was that the staff simply piled food on buffet servers as if they were serving convicts and simply let their customers fend for themselves. The facilities were okay—the management systems were painfully inadequate.

Conditions at the lake mirror the problems of the tourism industry in the country. Caliraya Lake is still worth visiting. The facilities of the resort can pass muster. Unfortunately, location and facilities are not enough. Customer service also counts. Putting some order and system into the operations also matters. It can’t be all hype. We need to think not just about enticing people into our country, we actually need to think about serving these tourists and making sure that their visit becomes a delightful experience.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Too much victimization

This is my column today.

Now that “Nicole” has supposedly recanted her story— I say supposedly because there’s a lot of unanswered questions and naturally a lot of speculative drivel around her latest affidavit—there are now a lot of people saying they doubted her story all along.

Actually, the word “doubt” does not even begin to describe the vitriol that’s being heaped on her person in the comment sections of various Web logs and Internet sites.

It seems it is now politically correct to splash her face in various media, reveal her identity, bash her, and call her names because apparently she is no longer a victim. I don’t really know what it was that made media people decide that it was now okay to reveal her identity since everyone else is saying that her current affidavit is not material to the case anyway. Nevertheless, she has seemingly jumped from being the symbol of the oppressed to being a harlot who has betrayed her country and her people. Worst, there are now people who think she should be jailed for perjury and for destroying the life of an innocent man.

Now that everyone knows what she looks like the bigots are having a field day mocking her. One very cruel comment I read said that American serviceman Daniel Smith, who apparently is the epitome of handsomeness to some, couldn’t have raped someone with her looks. I tell you, some people are mean beyond words.

Of course there are also people out there who are saying that the probity of her latest affidavit is questionable. There’s a lot of theorizing that’s happening out there.

There are legal experts who insist that the latest affidavit does not in fact say that she believed she was not raped—she is not just sure anymore if what happened can be called as such. In other words, she left it all up to the judgment of more impartial, perhaps more qualified persons. I know. Such hairsplitting is often beyond the comprehension of most people.

And then there are those who think that her recantation is in fact typical of people who are suffering from the “victim syndrome.” Most victims, experts say, tend to blame themselves for the misfortunes that befell them and condition themselves to thinking that they were partly to blame for their tragedy.

But overall, I think that quite a sizable percentage of people now empathize with Smith and I can’t say I blame them. If the person who is supposed to be the victim of the crime says she is not sure anymore if what happened was indeed rape, what then is everyone else supposed to do? It’s difficult to take up the cudgels for someone who has now thrown in the towel and wants to be left alone in peace.

So what are we to do then? A number of people are now trying to widen the contours of the discussion taking it beyond the current dilemma and contextualizing past and present events within the weaknesses and limitations of the justice system in the country.

What they are trying to say is that crimes such as rape always turns out to be a lose-lose situation for the victims. They end up being victimized over and over again—and in the end eventually succumb to the pressure. There are a few exceptions, of course. There are women like Maggie de la Riva who are able to reclaim their honor, but they represent the exception.

In this context, we can say that perhaps Nicole never really had a fighting chance, to begin with. She had an American serviceman as a boyfriend who was not with her at the time she was in Subic. That makes her a cheat in the eyes of some. She was drinking and dancing at a bar inside a former naval base frequented by sex workers. This automatically painted her as a woman of loose morals. She decided to be left alone with Smith in the bar since she was having a good time. This translated to an invitation to be ravaged. In short, she was really up against heavy cultural taboo.

It must be pointed out that all these do not and cannot justify rape—in fact, there is no justification for it. Rape is rape regardless of who and what the victims are.

And then there was the political pressure. She was up against a superpower. The Philippine government didn’t really take up the cudgels for her and on a number of occasions seemed like it was even lawyering for the American serviceman instead. And to top it all, certain political groups was making her a poster girl for their various issues. So I guess it was expected that Nicole would eventually opt for some peace and quiet. There’s only so much victimization a person can take, after all.

***

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the current scandals involving fashion designer Boyet Fajardo and comedian Bayani Agbayani, it’s that people – particularly those with reputations to protect—should always be in their best behavior when caught in tight situations. Losing one’s temper, throwing one’s weight around, and generally being obnoxious can be disastrous to one’s career in this day and age when almost everyone has a cell phone with a camera and Internet access.

Both Fajardo and Agbayani were caught in embarrassing situations recently. Fajardo berated a hapless employee at a Duty Free shop and demanded that the employee kneel in front of him, which the guy did. Agbayani, on the other hand, had an altercation with a group and was caught spewing words best described as straight from the sewerage. Unfortunately for them, both episodes were recorded on a cell phone video and uploaded to the Internet via YouTube.

There’s now a vicious backlash directed at these two people. Like anything else, this new development is a double-edged sword. It can be empowering for people who have otherwise no access to media for their advocacies. But it can also be prone to abuses.


Monday, March 23, 2009

A crisis of values

This is my column today.

The crisis that has the whole world in its grip today is no longer just a financial crisis. It has become so much more complicated as we begin to see its residual effects on the rest of the world, particularly developing countries whose economies are dependent on the developed world. For instance, the crisis has now evolved into a human development crisis and countries are now in a tight race to find viable ways of addressing the needs of their people, foremost among them gainful employment. Perhaps more importantly, the crisis has now evolved into a values crisis as the world tries to come to terms with what had been widely seen as the main causes of the crisis - recklessness, unabated greed, overdevelopment, etc.

A number of news stories that came out last week in various media brought to the fore concrete indicators of this crisis of values.

Locally, there’s been the series of horrendous stories about how the Legacy Group victimized thousands of people of their hard-earned—in many cases, lifelong - savings.

How Celso De los Angeles and his lackeys were able to pull off one of the most brazen Ponzi schemes ever, and how they were able to victimize people, illustrate how greed and the enticement of a quick profit often gets the better of us. We know of course that greed feeds on greed and that very often greed knows no limits.

What De los Angeles did was unconscionable, that’s for sure. But he and his lackeys were able to get away with it because the sad truth is that there are just too many people in this country that want to make money the easy way. Notice the long lines of people at lotto outlets when the pot money balloons to hundreds of millions of pesos. Many bought into Legacy’s phantom double-your-money schemes despite being aware that savings rates were hovering at lower than 1 percent and time deposit interest rates were hovering at around 2.5 percent. A promise of a 100 percent return on investment in a few years was simply incredible and should have triggered alarm bells. Like I always tell my friends, if an investment scheme offers you ridiculously fantastic returns be scared— be really scared.

The Legacy imbroglio is not the first of its kind to happen in our country—there’s been a number of these things that have been victimizing people for years, some cleverly masqueraded as network marketing schemes. For as long as there are people who subscribe to the “jackpot mentality,” there will always be a De los Angeles out there who will prey on their greed.

And then there were all those news stories about how executives of the beleaguered American Investment Group appropriated for themselves hefty bonuses at a time when their government was spending billions of taxpayer money to bail them out. AIG posted $61.7 billion in losses for the fourth quarter of 2008—the largest quarterly loss ever recorded in corporate history. AIG is being provided a lifeline by the American people through a bailout plan that costs every American citizen—young and old—about $600 each, and yet about 400 employees of the company had the gall to appropriate $165 million in bonuses for themselves. Naturally, this did not sit well with government people, legislators, and the media. As Whoopi Goldberg in the popular talk show The View put it quite eloquently “You can’t bend us over!”

A furious Barack Obama was seen fulminating about the “recklessness and greed” of the AIG executives. One newscast had him saying “I am choked up with anger here.” Of course, the remark was really meant as a joke to cover for his coughing, but a lot of people still saw it as clear denunciation of the greed of AIG executives.

There’s a large part of me that joins the whole chorus of people crying out against the reckless band of financial wizards who have made a huge fortune making bets they could not afford and creating a huge bubble that couldn’t be sustained—because it was built on nothing. But as a banker and senior executive of a major bank, I draw the line at indiscriminate bashing borne out of ignorance of the nature of financial and management transactions. It seems to me that a number of people have jumped into the orgy of bashing without making distinctions about what kinds of financial transactions are questionable and which ones are valid and viable to begin with. Not all banking transactions are shady, not all bankers are greedy, and certainly, not all executive bonuses are unwarranted.

At any rate, there seems to be valid basis for Obama’s displeasure in this particular instance. The AIG executives happened to have employment contracts that were so airtight even the President of the United States has no power to rescind the bonuses stipulated therein. And what’s more, the traders in question can’t even be sacked because their particular expertise is needed to unravel the whole complicated mess. They happen to be the only ones who could unmake the crisis. So in short, not only are they being greedy, they are acting like hooligans who are keeping everyone hostage.

If there were stories that made blood pressures shoot up to the stratosphere and made people wonder what have happened to good old traditional values of caring and being concerned for the welfare of others, there were also news stories that provided a contrast and proved that not everything is wrong with the world.

In reaction to my column last Monday (People are capital, not cost), six people sent me links to the same story. While the links were about the same news story, they led me to four different sites, which indicated that a number of news agencies and quite a number of bloggers as well picked up this particular story. In fact, the story eventually found its way into two of my professional e-mail groups.

The news story was about Paul Levy, Chief Executive Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (the training hospital of Harvard University) and his proposal to stave off a mass layoff at the hospital which was met with enthusiasm by most of the people who worked at the hospital.

The story narrated how Levy “looked out into a sea of people and recognized faces: technicians, secretaries, administrators, therapists, nurses, the people who are the heart and soul of any hospital. People who knew that Beth Israel had hired about a quarter of its 8,000 staff over the last six years and that the chances that they could all keep their jobs and benefits in an economy in freefall ranged between slim and none.” To protect lower-wage earners who were receiving less to begin with and who could end up suffering more as a result of the recession, Levy asked everyone else for a “bigger sacrifice.” He asked that others give up more of their salary and benefits. His proposal was met by “thunderous, heartfelt, sustained applause.” And then he appealed to people to send him their ideas on how the scheme could work.

Levy was stunned by the sheer number of suggestions he received, all saying they were willing to give up part of their pay and benefits just to make sure no one loses his or her job. Some volunteered not to receive a raise, others suggested working one less day a week, and still others volunteered vacation and sick leaves. The moral of the story of course is that in this day of materialism and consumerism, there is still space for kindness and empathy.

What Levy stumbled upon is not entirely new, of course. We Filipinos do variations of the same thing in many different ways everyday. We call it malasakit, bayanihan, pakikipagkapwa, pananagutan, etc. In this country, there are many companies that were hit by the crisis which are exploring various schemes to save jobs. What we know is that even crises offer opportunities. This particular crisis may be doing all of us a favor by reminding us of the things that really matter in this world and in our lives.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gensan

As my contacts in facebook very well know, I am in Pacquiao country.  Got here last Friday and will be travelling to Davao City later today.  It's sweltering out here.  Really.  As in.  I now have great affinity with OFWs who work in Saudi Arabia.  

But the food here is great.  Dirt cheap.  My bestfriend who has chosen to be based in Gensan updated me on the prices of vegetables (yeah, we are weird in that way) and I couldn't believe how cheap they are here.  My favorite veggie is asparagus sprouts - and in manila, a bunch of about 12 stalks cost a whooping 40-50 bucks.  Here - hold your breath - a bunch of about 50 stalks cost a measly 20 bucks.  And when there's heavy rains daw and the plantations get flooded, the prices go down to a ridiculous 10 per bunch.  It's so cheap here that they use it as feed for their hogs.

Needless to say, I've been stuffing myself to the gills with asparagus sprouts and tuna since Friday.  Yum.  Yun lang.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Truisms

This is my column today.

Senator Ping Lacson finds himself in the middle of a major controversy today. And it is one that seems to have most of the requisites that would ordinarily—had it happened to an ordinary mortal and not a senator like himself—would have already merited congressional inquiry and a major dressing down and scolding from senators and congressmen.

Perhaps now the senator and his colleagues would have a better appreciation of that old truism that says everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Actually there are more truisms that come to mind as we witness the senator squirm, proclaim to high heavens his innocence, point fingers somewhere else, and invoke all kinds of conspiracy theories.

One really wishes he would stop doing all these because quite frankly, a simple “I don’t want to dignify dirty tricks” or “I am innocent so I will not react until I have been accused formally” would have done the trick. He still enjoys high credibility anyway, even despite previous insinuations of extreme Machiavellianism.

There’s that truism about how “where there is smoke, there is fire.” Incidentally, that hackneyed line was recently endorsed as a valid logical deduction by no less than Bataan Bishop Soc Villegas. The good bishop was quoted as saying that one proof that the President and her husband were guilty of grand-scale corruption was the litany of accusations that had been heaped on the first couple. I think Senator Lacson himself has used that line a couple of times in the past.

Another truism that comes to mind is best expressed in Tagalog and loses its flavor when translated to English: “Kung sino ang umaray, ’yun ang tinamaan (roughly, he who complained of pain got hit).”

And then there’s that admonition about how one who is in trouble should stop incriminating himself.

There’s even a parable that illustrates this lesson quite charmingly. A little bird was flying East to escape winter when it fell due to exhaustion. By some stroke of luck, it fell right smack into a pile of fresh cow dung. Initially, the little bird cursed its luck. But it soon noticed that the warmth given by the cow dung was thawing it out and giving it comfort. The little bird started to sing and rejoice. Thereupon a cat that just happened to be nearby, heard the ruckus the little bird was creating, pounced on the little bird and ate it. The moral is that if you are in deep s**t, shut up. In fact, come to think of it, the other moral of the story may also apply to Senator Lacson’s situation, and that is: Not everyone who dumps s**t on you is an enemy.

Let me make this clear: I am not saying that the senator is guilty. Like everyone else, he should be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. If we are to believe conventional wisdom, probably more so because he is a senator —if someone of his stature cannot even invoke that basic right, what chances do ordinary mortals have?

The problem is that the senator seems to be reinforcing negative public perception. This is because, unfortunately, the gentleman has been protesting too much even when his name still has to be officially dragged into the controversy. Consequently, everyone I talked to is asking the same thing: Why is he making such a ruckus when he still has to be accused, formally, of the crime?

And oh, since we’re talking about truisms, there’s also that one about how offense is the best defense. It’s entirely possible that the senator, who lest we forget, used to be a military man and has expertise in intelligence work, knows something we don’t and is therefore taking matters into his own hands. Thus the senator has been quite vociferous in asserting that the whole thing is politically motivated and is a ploy to destroy his chances in 2010.

Unfortunately, we’re talking about double murder in this particular case. At the end of the day, the matter of political foul play should become irrelevant.

It is possible that Lacson’s enemies are milking the controversy to bits to advance some political agenda. It is possible that the senator is correct, this is another hatchet job from the usual suspects in Malacañang.

It is illegitimate political behavior, of course, but like I said, it is irrelevant in this particular case because the only question that needs to be answered is whether he is guilty or not of the crime he is allegedly being implicated in. So the senator’s whining about how the whole scheme is a ploy of the dirty tricks department of the Palace is really irrelevant.

The senator’s whining about how this controversy is besmirching his reputation is also not valid. He is a politician and therefore knows how to roll with the punches. Moreover, he knows that bad publicity is still publicity and in a run-up to an election, it’s name recall that matters.

Personally, I think everyone should just wait for former Senior Supt. Cesar Mancao to come back to the Philippines and reveal what he knows. All these drama and cat-and-mouse tricks to divine the contents of that affidavit is just plain grandstanding.

As yet another cliché says: It’s not over until the fat lady sings. Or in this case, until Mancao sings.

 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

They think it is clever


I was having lunch with my colleagues at Wendy's at the Mall of Asia today when this poster advertising their shrimp sandwich caught my attention. I took a picture of the poster using my cellphone. It was lunchtime so I couldn't take a good shot without the reflection from the glass wall. Anyway the quotation on the poster, which is enclosed in quotation marks is pretty clear. It says "Take this all of you, and eat it."

Abstaining from meat during this season of lent is supposed to be good for our souls, thus they are pushing their shrimp sandwich with clever advertising. A colleague thought using the words Jesus Christ said at the Last Supper is sacrilegious.

You be the judge.

Monday, March 16, 2009

People are capital, not cost

This is my column today.

We all know we’re right smack in the middle of a global crisis because everyone has been making references to it nonstop—it’s practically coming out of people’s ears. Of course we’ve also become aware of the crisis because contrary to what some so-called experts so brazenly claim, we’re not deaf and blind. And we’re definitely not stupid.

The effects of the crisis are quite obvious.

I still have to watch a newscast, read a newspaper or magazine, listen to a radio talk show, or even sit through a briefing or lecture without someone making a reference to the global crisis and use it as some kind of a justification for all kinds of arguments and decisions—many of them horrendously unwarranted. Obviously, many of the messages being put out there are not even empowering or inspiring.

And horror of all horrors, there is now a cottage industry of business organizations and individuals cashing in on the crisis, under the guise of providing expert advice on how to survive it. I am talking about countless fora, symposia, seminars, workshops, conferences, lectures, and all other modern-day variations of the Delphi oracle being organized for the sole purpose of providing us information—most of which we already know, and advice— most of which we’ve already been practicing.

I’ve sat through many of these—as invited reactor, as facilitator, and as participant. I tell you, many of these sessions are pure unadulterated balderdash. I am not generalizing of course—some do offer valuable insights and practical tips. But most are just plain money making ventures. They invite so-called experts who, more often than not, turn out to be American management consultants. They trundle out statistics culled from the Internet, bring out the equivalent of fortune-telling crystal balls, and then begin spewing what they think are expert analysis and counsel.

In a number of occasions, I actually wished we Filipinos weren’t so polite and courteous so that we could give these experts the tongue-lashing that they so deserve. For example,

I sat at a forum recently where an American management consultant went on and on about his theories about what caused the global crisis and what countries could have done differently. I wanted to stand up and point out to him certain facts that he was glossing over. One, the global crisis was sparked by unabated greed, yes; but which country championed it? And if he and his contemporaries were really such great experts, why didn’t they predict and head off the debacle to begin with?

A colleague of mine recently told me a horrendous story that wasn’t really unusual—like I said, it seems to be the norm today—but which floored me because it happened at a forum organized by the Bankers Association of the Philippines and attended by the shakers and movers of the local banking industry.

In that particular forum, one foreign consultant offered what he thought was a brilliant deduction: The reason why the Philippine banking industry has been spared so far from a meltdown is because—hold your breath—Philippine banks are still behind in terms of global banking trends and technologies and Philippine bankers are not quite there yet in terms of technical expertise to understand the complexities of the hybrid financial schemes and products. What utter nonsense, what arrogance! I was surprised he was able to get out of that forum alive.

The foreign experts we can ignore and snicker at. But what do we do with people in the country—Filipinos—who have gotten into the act and started preaching messages of doom? I was at another forum Wednesday last week supposedly organized to discuss how to manage human capital in a downturn environment. I went to the forum expecting to hear about creative approaches in human capital management in these difficult times.

The very concept of human capital is built on a sacred assumption—that people are capital, not cost. Therefore, I expected to hear about what could be done or what others are doing to save people, or to use a cliché, how to cut costs to save people rather than cut people to save costs.

As expected, the initial prognosis was not good as statistics that outlined the breadth and scope of the global crisis was presented. But eventually, the global consultant (British, I think) showed statistics that indicated everything is not lost and that in fact, for countries like the Philippines, there are valid indicators to be optimistic and hopeful. He then went on to talk about what other countries have been doing to manage human capital issues.

Most of the thesis centered on creative approaches to managing executive compensation (yeah, it seems this is the major challenge since people on top of the hierarchy corner a huge percentage of the overhead).

What unsettled me though was the general drift of the discussion after the talk. One after another, Filipino managers began asking about and discussing better ways to say no to labor unions asking for increases, laying off people, declaring redundancies, etc. In short, they were on full crisis mode and seemingly raring to cut heads. I am aware that certain companies are really left with no other choice but to reduce headcount. But let’s get this straight: Not everyone is in that same dire situation.

I looked at the profile of the participants and noted that most of them belonged to companies that are generally insulated from the crisis so far such as outsourcing, banking, academe, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, etc. These industries are not badly hit and don’t really have to resort to drastic measures, and yet it seems they have already been converted into the ranks of the prophets of doom. It can be argued that many among us are just being proactive and are practicing strategic thinking. But there is a huge difference between being prepared and having a defeatist attitude. I am afraid that many among us are needlessly overreacting and making drastic decisions such as reducing people without considering the long-term cost to the business of these wrong decisions.

It is really sad that it is very easy for foreign companies to come into the country, set up business here, enjoy a windfall, and then when the going gets tough, pack up and leave—with the promise that just like Douglas MacArthur, they will return. When conditions are better, of course. On the other hand, local companies because of our complex value system, which prescribe malasakit, pananagutan, pakikiramay, pakikipag-kapwa, etc, are supposed to have a difficult time at it.

But it seems not anymore. It is tempting to heap the blame on foreign influences to explain the seeming shift in the way we are dealing with people issues as a result of the crisis. But that’s not really the case. It’s really the absence of a strong anchor—or core—that makes us prone to perpetuating the very same things that cause the global crisis to begin with: Unabated greed, lack of concern for others, not valuing people and relationships. In the end, it is people who will enable companies to weather the crisis - it is people that will bring in the revenues, fix the problems, plug the gaps, etc. Making people the first casualty of a crisis just does not make for good business sense.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cyberbullying

This is my column today.

Two separate but related events caught my attention recently. Both happened in cyberspace and had to do with cyberbullying.

I know. Bullying by itself is already a complicated problem and in a country such as ours, one that is largely ignored as one of those things that most kids have to go through to survive or become tougher. We all know bullying happens and that a sizable percentage of kids are bullied in school. And now we have yet another phenomenon that adds further complication—cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is pretty much like ordinary bullying except that it is done with the aid of technology such as cellular phones or the Internet. The intent, however, remains the same, which is to humiliate another person for the purpose of proving superiority or power. Much of the behaviors around bullying happen under the surface—bullying is usually done covertly and in the case of cyberbullying, often anonymously.

The first incident that caught my attention involved some of the college students that are taking courses under me this term and happened in Facebook. Yes, I am a member of a few social networking sites and my official excuse is that being such helps me in becoming a better teacher. One can’t relate with the younger generation unless he immerses himself in the issues and the fads that preoccupy them, or at least that is what I tell myself. The truth is that Facebook is my only means of communicating with friends from high school and college who are now all over the world.

Facebook has this feature that enables people to upload pictures—any picture—and tag others who are supposed to be in it. Because it is a social networking site, anything one does on the site—from updating status, to poking someone, to joining a cause such as saving the Banaue Rice Terraces—is broadcast to everyone else within one’s circle of friends. This means that when a person is tagged in a picture, everyone else knows about it and can access the picture, leave comments, and comment on the comments of others. It goes on and on.

The site also happens to be very user friendly so a number of cartoons with a variety of faces showing different emotions are also available for downloading. Facebook offers a whole variety of these things such as a mock up of a whole class with a variety or personalities depicted—from the pretty, to the bright, to the studious, and then down to the unsavory and dysfunctional types such as the drunk, the flirt, the arrogant. You get the drift.

One threw the first salvo by downloading one such cartoon and tagging his classmates—matching characters and personalities with names and in effect giving each one a label. Everyone got into the act and soon there was a frenzy of cross tagging. It soon got into a point when people were already ganging up on some of their classmates. All in the spirit of fun, of course, but a number were already clearly getting offended and two of them did confide to me that they felt violated.

Being the professor, I called the attention of the perpetrators and counseled them about what cyberbullying is and why it shouldn’t be done. Guess what, one of them put up yet another cartoon and tagged me as the class bully. Of course I dealt with the situation and with the student in ways that made it known that the student crossed a line. He did take the cartoon down and apologized. But it was evident that he really thought there was nothing wrong with the whole thing because it was meant as a joke and they were just having fun. This is symptomatic of how cyberbullying operates—very often, the perpetrators are in denial of the negative implications of their actions. Most don’t often see what they do as a form of aggression.

But if you think cyberbullying is a problem that is happening only among the younger generation, think twice. Workplace bullying and cyberbullying even among the ranks of the professionals are also on the rise.

To illustrate, let me share with you another incident that happened in one of my professional e-mail groups. The incident started when one member complained about alleged “cyberbullying” that happens in the group. Apparently, some people felt that their inquiries or opinions were often responded to in a patronizing or condescending manner and that certain “gurus” in the forum tended to display aggression towards novice members, prompting many of them to just lurk and be passive participants. The e-mail sparked a very spirited discussion that raged on for weeks.

The discussion eventually converged on the thesis that cyberbullying is a highly subjective concept and largely defined by the “victims” of the act; a definition that seemed like a win-win conclusion, but which unfortunately didn’t really help put closure to the debate. There are, after all, inherent problems when subjectivity is invoked, foremost of which is the tacit recognition that each person’s interpretation is valid and that everyone has a right to feel aggrieved, or conversely, victorious.

Eventually, what I feared most happened. The discussion got personal. The issue eventually got waylaid into a discussion of ethical behavior in the e-mail group at which point all hell broke loose. The air got thick with accusations and innuendoes, some people felt alluded to, and well, you know how these things ultimately end with threats of legal action. Last I looked, people were still trying to mediate and put closure to the debate.

In the din and dynamics of the whole debate and resulting fracas, the original issue of contention, which was cyberbullying, was forgotten.

In both incidents, people could not agree on what cyberbullying was and consequently, what behaviors qualified as cyberbullying. The confusion and the resulting debates were indicative of just how difficult it is to analyze human behavior particularly because most everyone seems to think of themselves experts on the subject. This penchant for playing psychologist or psychiatrist is common and is perfectly understandable—we’re all human, we manifest all kinds of human behaviors, and we are exposed to the behaviors of a variety of other people everyday. Ergo, we’re all qualified to join any discussion about human behavior. The problem is that when people make assertions and render judgments about human behaviors that are based purely on gut feel and intuition, the whole discussion becomes a free-for-all shouting match.

I am still not sure if cyberbullying really occurred in the second incident I cited and unfortunately, given the way people were burned in the resulting attempt to discuss the issue analytically, we’ll never really know now as most have opted to just bury the whole issue unresolved. But based on what happened in the two incidents, third things are clear. First, cyberbullying is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more real today. Second, we’re pitifully unprepared to manage the issue; at this point it seems no one has anticipated the phenomenon—not academe, not the corporate world, not even the psychologists and the human resource managers. And consequently, we’re all dealing with the static around the issue rather than the issue itself.

(Photo/cartoon taken from facebook - it's an example of what I am talking about and this one is the milder variety).

Monday, March 09, 2009

Mindless and tacky

This is my column today.

A sizable percentage of all our newscasts are already devoted to the pranks and tomfooleries of our local celebrities.

Over at GMA-7, Pia Guanio sashays into our living rooms several times every day during the early evening newscast, dressed in contraptions that defy logic and gravity to give us our daily dose of inanities. It seems Chika Minute!!! is a matter of such national significance because she is acknowledged as an anchor of the show.

ABS-CBN has an equivalent in the person of model Phoemela Barranda who also pretty much does the same stuff, albeit in more tasteful fashion statements. Mercifully, she and her Star Patrol segment are not given the same prominence as the other segments.

The weekend gabfests, I can understand.

I know there are better ways to spend a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon than to listen to some hapless celebrity justify why he or she flunked a lie detector test—while still strapped to the device, mind you—or witness someone squirm in embarrassment at Boy Abunda’s or Ruffa Gutierrez’s hilarious attempts at interrogation. But it is entertainment.

It is escapist. It is mindless and vacuous. But it is entertaining. I personally find the fashion statements— the hosts actually wear evening gowns or cocktail dresses on these shows and parade their diamonds—uproarious. I mean, it is Sunday afternoon, for crying out loud. Their audiences are probably lolling around in dasters and basketball shorts while munching on camote cue, all drenched in sweat from doing the week’s ironing, and yet these people carry on like they are on a red carpet somewhere.

But like I said, it’s entertainment although I am not sure that’s exactly the intent; which, if we come to think about it, makes it even funnier. I wouldn’t be surprised if they consider what they do as broadcast journalism. Here’s an interesting digression: An entertainment writer from another paper once justified her decision to reveal the juicy details of her scandalous affair with a young matinee actor as part of her duty as a journalist.

Apparently, all these gabfests are not enough yet because there’s now a daily gossip show on ABS-CBN top-billed by Boy Abunda and Kris Aquino, no less. On primetime television. On a timeslot that’s so critical because it serves as pre-programming for the late newscast.

What exactly is this leading to? What message is ABS-CBN sending to the country? We are right smack in the middle of a global recession and this is the best that the network that takes pride at being in the service of the Filipino people can give us?

I’ve watched a few episodes of Showbiz News Ngayon and quite frankly, I am still not getting the whole point of the show. Many of the things they talk about are already covered by the Star Patrol segment in TV Patrol and obviously, by the network’s weekend gossip shows. There’s really not that many events or issues of earthshaking significance that befall the lives of our celebrities everyday that merits daily coverage, is there?

Just as I feared, the show has taken to stoking controversies for the sake of ratings. SNN has been airing for just a couple of weeks but has already figured in a number of controversies, one of which involved the show’s host himself Boy Abunda tangling with cosmetic surgeon Vicky Belo.

Both Abunda and Aquino have used SNN as platform for their own personal issues recently.

This development in itself is a little iffy because here we have a situation where the hosts themselves are the subject of the controversy and use their show as platform to defend themselves or amplify their positions.

This is what happens when celebrities themselves act as hosts, or when hosts become celebrities and revel in being so. Janice de Belen once made such an observation when she hosted a rival gossip show. She resigned because she recognized the ethical implications of the situation.

What is even worse is that the show has segued into becoming some kind of a derivative of the television show Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous. They have resorted to showing off just what our celebrities do with their money. And sadly, the tone of the show is not even art appreciation—it’s just plain and simple showing off, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Take for instance those recent gaffes around the Hermes bags of Sharon Cuneta and Rufa Mae Quinto.

SNN has this segment where they take footages of a particularly expensive bag, reveals how much that particular bag costs, and then makes the audience wonder who the “proud” owner of the bag is. In one episode, they revealed that one particular bag carried a price tag of a million pesos and then later announced that the bag’s owner was Rufa Mae Quinto. They later sheepishly revealed that they overstated the price; apparently there are too many rich people in this country who knows how much these luxury bags fetch in the market.

They did the same treatment with Sharon Cuneta’s black crocodile skin Hermes bag. The show priced the bag at a whooping three millions pesos. A number of blogs later on pointed out the real market value of the bag (less than three million). SNN did interview Cuneta who thankfully refused to reveal the price of the darned bag in question, but who nevertheless explained that she is not in the habit of buying horrendously expensive bags that cost millions each and that she picked up the bag as reward for thirty years of hard work.

I don’t think people should take against anyone the fact that they can buy bags or yachts or designer watches that cost millions. If they can afford it, why the heck not? It’s their money anyway. But something should be said about shows that deliberately flaunt these things, particularly at a time like this. It’s just tacky.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

130/100

I've been having high blood pressure since last Thursday. I had to come home early from work last Thursday because I had a splitting headache and my bp was hovering at 140/120. It eventually went down to 130/90, which in my case is still quite high since my regular bp is 100/70. I've been in bed the whole day yesterday and today - trying not to be stressed out. And yet, my bp is still at 130/100 levels. Sigh.

I would have wanted to join my friends on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Manaoag, but I was afraid the four-hour trip would aggravate my hypertension. Besides, I had a scheduled visit from a reflexologist who claimed to have healed so many with his healing touch. I figured the massage would be relaxing (yeah, I know and he knew that he had to be careful about putting pressure on the nape area).

So let's talk about the reflexology experience first. What can I say, I wish I had the same level of faith as this particular reflexologist. He kept chattering on and on about the wonders of reflexology - about how most diseases can be healed simply by applying pressures on specific points of the body, etc. etc. I was warned by the friend that recommended this particular reflexologist that this guy fancied himself a real healer. I really don't have problems with that, ordinarily. I know most of it is self-fulfilling prophecy. But he showed up in an all-white get up, of the fabric typically used to dress up saints. He also offered to do some feng shui in my house as well as some cleansing session - using smoke and all that, which I promptly but politely declined. So am still trying to process the whole thing and I'm still deciding on whether there is going to be a second session or not.

Anyway. I think it's really the heat that's causing my hypertension problem. The last time this happened was three years ago, also around the same time, the onset of the summer season. It's also aggravated by high levels of stress, mostly from teaching.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Farewell to a great Filipino artist

I actually liked him both as an artist and as a person.
I liked what he stood for.
Kaleidoscope world is one of my favorite OPM songs.
I remember being asked once who I thought are the male Filipino celebrities who haven't aged and probably won't and I remember mentioning Francis M as one of them. Why? Because we were born on the same year - 1964, but he really never looked his age. He always looked baby-faced specially in person.
Good night, Francis M.
(Photo taken from wikipedia)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Signs of the times

This is my column today.

When a very well-traveled friend—he has been to practically half the major cities in the world—sent me a text message to tell me that he was passing through my hometown in Leyte on the way to a lecture engagement in Southern Leyte, I groaned inwardly and hoped he would be distracted enough not to notice the marker that greets everyone that passes by our hometown.

But as fate would have it, not only was he not distracted. He was in fact, stupefied by our town marker. To be honest about it, it is kind of hard not to notice the marker because one, it is strategically located at an intersection, and two, it is a sculpture of mammoth proportions.

Just as I feared, my friend’s next text message was to tell me the vehicle he was riding in had just passed by the town marker and that he was still ROFL (that’s cyberspeak for rolling on the floor laughing). At least he didn’t get traumatized by having to behold a hideous image and didn’t threaten to sue the town officials for damages.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing and I beg forgiveness from the town officials of my beloved hometown who came up with what they probably thought was an inspired idea: Putting up a sculpture of a giant bee at the entrance of our town. We’re not talking stylized, child-friendly, smiling and huggable bee of the stuffed toy or fastfood-chain-mascot variety. We’re talking hairy legs, mandibles, and large compound eyes—the whole grisly details; in short, hideous.

The name of my hometown was supposed to have been derived from the local word for bees. One wishes of course that they didn’t have to be so literal about the whole thing; but what can we do? There’s just no accounting for taste. One can argue that there is nothing inherently frightening about bees and that these insects play a major role in the propagation of the plant kingdom. But God didn’t design these insects to be three feet high and 10 feet in length, right?

A giant sculpture that looks like a hybrid between a tarantula and a mosquito just doesn’t sound welcoming. So why is it out there as a landmark for my hometown? Because in case no one else has noticed, there seems to be this insane contest among towns and cities in this country for the distinction of having the most unique marker to distinguish their town or city from everyone else.

And so everywhere we go in this archipelago, we find arches, sculptures, obelisks, billboards, structures, etc., to announce that one is already entering or leaving the jurisdiction of a barangay, town, city or province.

The really sad thing is that no amount of artistic license or tolerance can qualify many of these as works of art. Instead of providing relief to the senses or uplifting the spirit, some produce the opposite effect. They make us smile, but not necessarily because we find pleasure in beholding them. They affect us but not necessarily in positive ways. Some, quite frankly, simply offend our intelligence.

Others leave us stupefied beyond words such as that arch that I came across in Mindanao that had the likeness of flowers, fruits, animals and people haphazardly piled one on top of another producing something that reminded me of Smokey Mountain in the seventies.

I’ve come across a giant birthing chair in Northern Luzon, all possible renditions of the fruits and vegetables in Bahay Kubo plus a few more including durian, pineapples, and why, even bananas. I’ve seen a wide variety of fish and animals in various sizes and stages of repose including a duck that didn’t look like a bird and a blue marlin that bobbed up and down.

Really, art appreciation should be made a mandatory course for all government officials so that they stop inflicting their lack of aesthetic sensibility on the people. And hopefully we stop erecting monuments and landmarks that mar our landscape.

In Metro Manila, for example, we have been cursed with such hideous structures such as the People Power Monument on Edsa, that sculpture of a teacher in Mandaluyong, and all those monuments around the city of Manila from Roxas Boulevard to Santa Cruz.

Perhaps the city of Manila should pass an ordinance decreeing a standard size for all monuments in the city since it seems everyone is intent on filling every possible public space with a monument. It just doesn’t look right when a smaller monument of Ninoy Aquino is located just a few meters away from a larger-than-life monument of Ramon Magsaysay.

Like I said, there is no accounting for taste and I am sure that there are those who will insist that that giant monument of Our Lady of Peace at the Edsa Shrine is a beautiful structure. I happen to think it isn’t, but at least it doesn’t make you want to brush your teeth every time you look at it.

The question is: Should local officials be left to their own devices and everyone be allowed to erect whatever monument they fancy?

The terrible consequences are already out there in our streets. In addition to the ugly structures that are being passed off as works of art and those hideous streetlamps that have transformed our streets into red light districts and sleazy motel rows, we also have street signs that are confusing and clearly substandard.

If you go around Metro Manila, you will notice all those street signs that are peeling away like a bad case of sunburn. In many cases, all that remains of the street sign is a tin board, everything else had been washed off. In some, the name of the street is still visible but the material used to produce the street sign had already shrunk or peeled off so that the signage now resembles a poster for Halloween.

Let’s not even go into the fact that these street signs defy logic—some only has the name of the street, others has the whole “street” printed on it, while others only has the abbreviation St. on it. In Manila, there are streets with two or three street signs in the same intersection almost one on top of each other—if it’s any consolation at least all three street signs have the same signage on them. Some abbreviate highway as “Hwy,” others use “hiway,” and I’ve seen one that said “Hway.” I am glad we Filipinos have such a great sense of humor we’ve reduced the whole thing into a running joke the way we did with Ped Xing.

I know that these are money-making ventures for our politicians. One wishes that they at least bother to make sure that those signs last longer, make sense, and don’t offend people.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Gordon responds

This is my column today.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about Senator Richard Gordon in this space. I wondered why the Senator was not a front-runner for the 2010 elections. I listed the man’s qualifications in terms of traits and track record and argued that a major test of our maturity as an electorate is choosing who should be in the shortlist of candidates for the 2010 elections. So while my column was about Gordon, it really was more about the sad state of the electoral system in our country.

The senator has written a rather long reply to my column, which I am sharing with my readers below. I would like to state for the record that I am not endorsing Gordon for the presidency. While he has indeed expressed interest in and availability for the highest post in the land, he has not openly launched his bid yet. I haven’t decided on whom to support, myself.

He says that he is still busy with his legislative work as chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee. We should note that this committee, under his watch, came out with a report on the fertilizer scam last week. That a Senate committee came out with something concrete after all those physical exertions and emotional hara kiri by our lawmakers during the hearings is a wonder in itself. That the report actually implicated the President and the Ombudsman and made specific recommendations as way of moving forward gives us some measure of hope, no matter how fleeting, that some things still work in this country.

Gordon is also heavily at work pushing for the automation of the 2010 elections. In a related development, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting and the National Movement for Free Elections have come out with full-page ads in some broadsheets asking for support for the project.

I have decided to lend space to the senator’s letter because I feel that he raised some insightful ideas about what the 2010 elections should be. Of course it can be argued that the senator’s letter drips heavily with undisguised political agenda; that is to be expected. I am not that naïve. But at least the man has not been putting out slick television ads that, quite frankly, are so gratuitously self-serving. If we want the 2010 elections to make a difference in the country, then we must make sure that our pool of candidates are not limited to those who have the means to build a cult following through magic tricks. What follows is Gordon’s reply to my column.

“Thank you for your article ‘Are we there yet?’ which appeared last Feb. 2. It is indeed humbling and flattering to find out that at least one more person of your stature believes that we should be considered as a possible presidential candidate for the 2010 elections.

“Apart from expressing my deep appreciation for what I take as a kind compliment and acknowledging the merits of your analysis, perhaps it would do well to point out that your entire column speaks more of what we ought to change in ourselves as a people in order to save our country from continuing on a downward spiral.

“Perhaps the crux is not so much that I am not a front-runner, but rather, in your own words, the real problem is that ‘we’re stuck in this rut where landing on top of surveys is seen as blanket substitute for qualification, where money is considered the ultimate advantage, where populist strategies win over the principled, etc.’”

“I wholeheartedly agree with you in sounding a call to the Filipino electorate to look beyond a candidate’s popularity, claims of fabulous financial girth, and demagoguery. While these attributes may make for an interesting and lucrative candidacy, they will certainly fail to solve what ails our country and, in the years after 2010, we will once again witness protests against whoever is the occupant of Malacañang.

“Therefore, the next election should be all about competence, integrity and reliability—not popularity, much less money or political machinery. The tragedy of our political history, of course, is that money had not always been able to buy electoral victory. Even our present political parties have become graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises. Everybody talks about change. But who had stood for that message when nobody else would?

“I have yet to declare my candidacy as president for a number of reasons, the best ones are the many pressing legislative matters at the Senate, notably as Chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, and with our humanitarian work I lead in the Philippine National Red Cross. Nevertheless, while we have already expressed our interest in seeking a higher position, I have on top of my list the automation of the 2010 elections. We all need to see to it that the Commission on Elections would no longer have any excuse not to automate the country’s elections. We have proven it can be done in the last elections in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and given the national political will, we can do it too in May 2010.

“The title of your particular column caught my attention. ‘Flash Gordon’, after all, was an old monicker given to me by people who believed in and supported my brand of leadership back when I was still Mayor of Olongapo.

“It brings me back to the time when I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my townmates as we lifted ourselves out of the morass of criminality, corruption, literal filth, and hopelessness that was Olongapo before my term as mayor. It has also made me recall the time when 8,000 of my townmates and I volunteered to transform Subic into the tourism destination and industry haven that it is today.

“We also remember the monicker having regained some currency when we were promoting the country as tourism secretary and succeeded in bringing two million tourists to the Philippines a year despite the negative tide of publicity brought about by SARS, coups d’etat and whatever else was there.

“Right now, I am given to a fair amount of wondering: Will my track record as well as my current performance as senator enough for people to consider me as their choice for president in 2010?

“I stubbornly believe that meritocracy is still attainable in this country. I still believe that if one works hard and becomes the best in what he does, he will be recognized and rewarded with the privilege of a greater responsibility. But regardless of how passionately I fight for my beliefs and demonstrate my willingness to sacrifice for what I believe is right, all I can do is offer myself and my service in humble gratitude to the nation and its people whom I hold dear. The Filipino people want a president who cares for ordinary people, who can be trusted and relied upon to make tough decisions. It is my ardent prayer that I measure up to their expectations.”

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fleeting encounter

Wala lang. Just thought I'd share this nonsensical bit with you on this sweltering Sunday afternoon.

I was at National Bookstore Shangrila EDSA last night around 8:30 quietly browsing around when I thought I heard a familiar voice in front of me.  I looked up...and there was this woman in an all-black get up, wearing HUGE as in HUUUGGGE sunglasses (at night!).  The first thought that crossed my mind was that this woman had flawless, creamy skin.  And then I noticed that she had two little girls in two.  I actually recognized Frankie and Miel before I recognized her. hahaha.  This I can say for a fact:  Television does not do Frankie justice.  I think she would make a really pretty lass someday.  

She was just passing through NBS although the kids seemed really interested in buying school supplies and I overheard her admonishing them about buying unnecessary stuff.  Everybody in the store was stupefied by her presence.

And then she and her coterie of security people were gone. Just like that.  Yun lang.

The funny thing was that the friend I was with did not even notice what just happened in that store.  When he looked up, I asked him if he saw Sharon Cuneta.  He rushed out of the store to try to catch a glimpse of the megastar. His excuse:  It would vex his sister (a Sharonian, I reckoned) no end if he told her that he bumped into Sharon at Shang EDSA.

I know what you are thinking.  Is she really that horizontally challenged?  Not really.  That bit about how television adds ten pounds to one's girth is true.  

I remember writing in one of my columns that I have never been within ten feet of the megastar.  Now I have been. Hehehe.  

Like I said, wala lang.