Thursday, April 30, 2009

The numbers game

Someone asked me if I already made one million hits on this blog.  The quick answer to that question is:  I don't know.  I deleted the counter two years ago and at that time, the count was around 300,000.  It is safe to assume that this blog had already hit more than a million.  Or not.  I don't know.

I figured the reason he asked was that some bloggers think hitting a million, or another million for that matter, is an important milestone.  Not for me, though.  Don't get me wrong. I don't think celebrating because a million people has pointed the mouse and clicked on the url is not reason enough for celebration.  It's just that I measure myself against a different yardstick.

I didn't create this blog to be popular. I don't write to create friends, or enemies, or fans, or hecklers.  I didn't accept the challenge of writing a regular column so I could make money, or build influence.  I write simply because I like doing so.  I write because it seems natural for me to do so.  I write the way I talk; I write the way I think.  But writing alone does not define who I am.  I am also a teacher, and in fact, I believe I am a much better teacher than a writer.  I am a banker by profession, too.  I've been connected with the financial services industry for close to two decades now and I can't imagine being with another industry.  I am also a social development activist, a family man, a friend, a lover.  The point I am trying to make is that I refuse to make this blog or my writing my life.  

I didn't and don't want to be caught up in the numbers game.

If a million people think what I write is worth reading, that's great; but I'd still feel the same way if there's just one or two or three.  The effort is the same anyway.  

The disclaimer that you find on top of this blog was written right on the day I created this blog.  I've edited it for brevity a couple of years back, but the essence has remained.

And that's all there is to it, really.


In contrast

I wrote the other day about how Senator Mar Roxas and Korina Sanchez seemed intent on using their engagement and their impending wedding as campaign material.

There is no doubt that Judy Ann Santos is a much bigger star than both combined and has a more loyal following among the masa.  Senator Jajajajamby Madrigal did "buy" her image and got elected on the strength of Juday's immense popularity.   

Last Tuesday, Juday and Ryan Agoncillo got married.  I tip my hat off to the couple for not making a media extravaganza of their wedding.  They succeeded in getting married with only close family members and friends as witnesses.  Based on what we've seen on TV, the wedding was classy, elegant, private, intimate.

I hope Mar Roxas and Korina Sanchez learned a thing or two from the younger couple.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Prevention is better than control

This is my column today.

For a while there, it did seem like everything was all right with the world. We had about a month or two of respite from the type of events that sent blood pressures racing to new heights.

The hiatus saw media people scraping the bottom for newsworthy events that they could play up into screaming headlines.

We knew there was a dearth of earthshaking news material because even Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s off-the-cuff remark about how Senators Ping Lacson and Manny Villar should simply shoot each other to resolve their differences became banner material for some media organizations. Of course it was a preposterous statement to make. But then again, it came from the mouth of a senator renowned for making controversial statements all year round so there was hardly anything new there.

I also agree that the circumstances around Trina Arteche Etong’s death were newsworthy; the way the situation was managed by the Quezon City Police Department was even more worthy of mention. But the insane attention devoted to it by some media quarters was just over the top. One daily broadsheet devoted practically 80 percent of its front page and about a whole inside page to Etong’s death, even including interviews of Etong’s relatives in Leyte and a rather amusing sidebar about who the Arteches are and how they are connected to political dynasties in Tacloban City.

But just as we’re getting used to the relative peace and quiet, we woke up last week to a series of earthshaking events that threatened to alter our lives significantly.

Let’s leave for another discussion the implications of Daniel Smith’s acquittal by the Court of Appeals, the repercussions of the sudden swelling of the number of seats at the House of Representatives, the early campaign for the 2010 presidential elections (four potential candidates now have serious campaign programs ongoing, all masquerading as advocacy campaigns), and the mind-boggling—and for some people, nauseating—very public declaration of eternal love and devotion between presidential hopeful Senator Mar Roxas and celebrity broadcaster Korina Sanchez.

I think that the main news this week is potential spread of human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) more popularly referred to as swine flu.

I don’t want to necessarily alarm people, but unless the spread of the epidemic is contained, the swine flu that is sweeping Mexico and which has found its way into the United States and even some countries in Europe is a major cause for concern. Despite what our health experts and epidemiologists say, there really is a lot more about swine flu that experts need to be certain of. Experts at the Center for Disease Control in the United States are still racing against time to learn more about the virus.

It is presumed that the virus is being transmitted through human-to-human contact the way ordinary flu is passed on —but health experts are still verifying empirically if this is really the case. In the meantime, the precautions that are followed to avoid flu transmissions are prescribed and they really are simple doable things such as washing hands more often, not touching one’s nose or mouth, avoiding sneezing or coughing without covering the mouth or nose, staying home if one has flu-like symptoms, etc.

In the past, swine flu was something that happened sporadically and only to a very limited number of people—the most number of infections was tagged at 12, none of which died. The number of infections reported yesterday was nearing 3,000. At least 145 have died.

What’s more, cases of swine flu were detected within days in various parts of the world apparently on people who were exposed to the virus in Mexico or people who were in Mexico recently. Global health authorities are now using the term pandemic, which illustrates the potential harm that swine flu could bring globally.

And really, the spread of a virus that is unfortunately contagious is easier today because of faster and more readily accessible modes of human transportation. Theoretically, someone who was exposed to the virus in Mexico City or New York City could be halfway around the world within 24 hours bringing with him the virus and potentially infecting others at airport terminals and other public places.

It makes sense for governments to install control measures at points of entry. Unfortunately, this is not foolproof as it is possible that an infected person may not display flu-like symptoms and may not be aware that he or she is passing on the virus to others. Theoretically, one can transmit the virus and infect others on Day 1 of infection or while he or she is sick with swine flu.

Installing controls at airport terminals cannot be the extent of our response to the swine flu pandemic because lest we forget, we are an archipelago composed of more than 7,000 islands and that not everyone who enters the country goes through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where the high-tech equipment to detect higher body temperatures is located. We have other international airports and it would be comforting to also know that the same sensors are available there. Also, it might help to be reminded that we have back doors in the south as well as a number of ports that are open to international and regional voyagers.

Clearly, relying purely on control measures in a few terminals is not enough. It probably assuages some people suffering from extreme paranoia but we must not lose sight of the fact that prevention is always a far better and more effective course of action than control. The best way not to get infected is to protect one’s self against being infected rather than putting the responsibility solely in the hands of other people such as government.

In this light, it is important for the government to step up its information campaign on the swine flu pandemic and empower people to do what is right such as how to protect themselves. People should also be advised what to do when they or someone they know experience symptoms of swine flu.

It should also include correct information such as facts about wearing surgical masks. Most television footages show people wearing masks, as if wearing masks alone would do the trick. There is no documented case of swine flu in the country yet so there’s really no urgent need to rush to buy surgical masks. Besides, ordinary surgical masks won’t do the trick—they only protect people from droplets that may be coughed or sneezed in one’s direction. There’s also no documented case of swine flu being acquired from eating pork.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Romance and politics

Up until now, I never thought romance and politics could mix.  But I guess truth is really stranger than fiction.  

Just like everyone else, Mar Roxas and Korina Sanchez deserve to find happiness and the fact that they found it in each others' arms should not be anyone else's business.  They are both single. They are both of age.  

But given that Mar Roxas is gunning for the presidency and has already launched a rather intensive campaign (a full year before the elections), the timing of the announcement of their engagement and the media blitz that has followed has sent not a few eyebrows to the stratosphere.  Last Saturday, the couple were in Wowowee where the senator unabashedly shed copious tears (supposedly of happiness although quite a number of wags were not convinced) and where they displayed behavior of the type generally associated with high school students. Thereupon, the irrepressible host of the show announced with undisguised jubilation "Umiiyak si Senator!!!!" 

ABS-CBN naturally went to town with the confirmation of the engagement.  The Wowowee footage of the public display of affection is probably the most repeated clip in television today. 

Why, even Malacanan jumped into the fray.  The Press Secretary said he was tickled pink.
 
What do we make of this new development?

1.  Finally.  It's not a farfetched assumption that they have been living in for quite sometime anyway.

2.  The timing is suspicious.  It's embarrassingly obvious that they're milking the romance angle in support of a presidential campaign.

3.  We haven't seen the end of it - it's going to be one big, very public, very sensationalized wedding towards the end of the year just before the official start of the campaign.

4.  We're seeing a new genre of campaign strategy unfolding before us.  The other presidentiables must now be wracking their brains trying to come up with something that would invite the same level of media frenzy.  I dread the thought of seeing someone fake a near death experience, being seized by spirits, revealing dirty secrets, etc.

5.  We're all being taken for a ride.  The painful truth is that we're all helpless and there's really not much we can do about it except snicker and shudder at the utter showiness of the whole spectacle.




Monday, April 27, 2009

Celebrating Philippine fiestas

This is my column today.

It’s quite hard to describe ourselves collectively as a people. But if there’s something that seems able to capture our essence as a people, it’s the fiesta. First of all, it’s the one experience that seems common to all of us—there are as many fiestas as there are many barangays and barrios in this country.

When I was growing up in a small town called Abuyog in the island of Leyte, summer meant the onset of fiesta season. The fiestas were scheduled like clockwork in the months of April and May, as if the elders of the various barrios of the town got together many scores ago to plot a timetable. A fiesta blended together religious fervor, unbridled merriment (including drunken revelry and lots of dancing), traditional games and contests, and needless to say, partaking of large quantities of food, glorious food. Nothing like a fiesta brings out our penchant to do things in the most bongga (over the top) way ever!

I think that years of experience have enabled us to bring the fiesta to the level of a science. In the past, fiestas were mainly about celebrating the feast day of a patron saint. Not anymore today. Most now adopt a specific cultural element that’s unique to the community and highlight this as the central theme of the celebration. For many, it’s a historical event such as the Sandugo festival of Bohol, which commemorates a blood compact. For others, it’s an indigenous tradition such as traditional practices of painting bodies and faces such as the Pintados of Leyte or the Boling Boling of Quezon, or a unique feature of the town such as the Ibon Ebun Festival of Candaba—a celebration of the migratory birds that flock to town’s swamps.

There’s still a religious element thrown into the picture, but for the most part, it’s almost like a token side bar to the celebration. The Sinulog of Cebu, the Dinagyang of Iloilo, the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, etc., are religious in origin, but the packaging of these festivals now reflect a unique cultural heritage of the specific locales.

Our fiestas reflect who and what we are as a people. Everything about us finds expression in the way we celebrate our fiestas, even the state of our community spirit. The value of bayanihan may be dead in other aspects of our life as a people, but it’s there—left, right and center stage—in a fiesta. Our inherent creativity, our natural artistry, even our flair for the superficial at the expense of substance—all these converge in that annual tradition that is the Philippine fiesta.

One simply had to be there last Saturday night at the Quirino Grandstand to experience how the fiesta is indeed an integral and wondrous element of our culture. The occasion was the 2009 Aliwan Festival. Dubbed as the “Festival of all festivals,” Aliwan is a courageous—and I must say highly commendable—annual project of the Manila Broadcasting Co.

This year, Aliwan drew 21 festivals from all over the country—from as far north as Laoag City (Pamulenawen Festival) to as far south as General Santos City (Kalilangan Festival). The major festivals were represented by a contingent of street dancers—from the Sinulog of Cebu, Dinagyang of Iloilo, Kadayawan of Davao, Penagbenga of Baguio City, Pamulenawen of Laoag, Pulang Angui of Bicol, etc.

It was a highly spirited competition of floats and street dancing that featured a riot of colors, an explosion of innovation and creativity, and a most importantly, the pulsating throb of national pride. Festivals like the Aliwan really deserve all the support it can get, as no other cultural event has been able to achieve what it has been able to successfully mount all these years, which is showcase the breathtaking breadth and depth of our culture. It is sad of course that government and other private organizations choose to mount their own little events instead of just pouring all our resources into what is already an established and successful venture. I was disheartened to note, for example, that the Department of Tourism still seemed happily oblivious to the Aliwan Festival. At least the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the city governments of Pasay and Manila were co-sponsors of the event.

Last Saturday’s Aliwan Festival was finally held at the Quirino Grandstand— a much bigger and more accessible venue compared to the Aliwan grounds at the CCP. I don’t want to take credit for the decision although I did suggest it last year in this column, and someone from MBC told me that my column was discussed by the organizers in one of their meetings. But the change of venue enabled more people to witness the once-a-year extravaganza, which should be the case.

This year, the judges of the Festival which included cultural luminaries such as prima ballerina Lisa Macuja and CCP president Nestor Jardin made it a point to stress their bias for more indigenous dance movements. This was an inspired decision as I have noted the seeming predilection of most festival choreographers to feature ballet and modern dance movements in street dancing entries. There’s also this rather annoying proclivity to insert gratuitous acrobatic acts into the street dancing, which as can be expected, gets the roaring attention of the crowd but which really comes across as superfluous. And of course, there’s this absurd and quite hilarious tendency to dress up dancers in glittery outfits that remind one of Christmas tree ornaments as if our indigenous costumes are not colorful enough.

Nevertheless, last Saturday’s festival was in general an extremely delightful experience. I have never seen such creativity particularly in the use of props and in theater staging. The contingents used handheld props that transformed into platforms and various contraptions that boggled the mind and took the audience’s breath away.

I must note with great pride that the grand champion this year was the Buyogan Festival of my very own hometown, Abuyog Leyte. The Festival has really gone a long way. What makes the festival unique is that it features not professional dancers but high school students and elementary pupils—from a very small town in the heart of Leyte. The kids traveled aboard several buses from Leyte and had very little resources to cover its participation. But what it lacked in resources, it more than made up for with sheer talent and determination.

I hope that government and other private organizations such as the media rally behind the annual Aliwan Festival so that it can become even grander than it already is, ennoble more festivals to participate, and enable more Filipinos to sit up and notice it. It’s a shame that not very many people know something we can all draw pride in exists.

In closing, I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to Ellen Fullido, vice president for Human Resources and Eleanor Ebreo of the MBC who literally plucked me from the sidewalk where I was watching the festival and gave me access to the VIP section of the grandstand.

See you at the next Aliwan Festival where I am confident my hometown festival will successfully be able to defend its title as overall champion.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Text clans

This is my column today.

For quite some time now, we Filipinos have taken at face value the assertion by certain quarters that we are the “Texting Capital of the World.” It is alleged that the volume of text messages we exchange on a daily basis is far greater than the annual output of many European countries combined. I really don’t know if the record—or the self-anointed title—is something to gloat about.

It’s a fact that we are a people with a propensity for staking claims on various global records and distinctions, some with dubious value. I know that there’s nothing inherently wrong with such a propensity; I also agree that there’s a lot of good to be had from having grand aspirations. I think that aspiring to be the best in a particular discipline or holding records for being the fastest in a competitive event deserves commendation. Unfortunately, this propensity has reached ridiculous levels such as when towns and cities begin holding all kinds of festivals to create the biggest turon, bibingka, barbecue, salad, etc.

To be fair, we’re not the only people in the world that has become gaga over getting mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. If it is any consolation, at least we do not have people who have not cut their nails, or hairs, or have not bathed since they were born just to continue being in the list—or at least not yet. But as if these overt efforts to snag world records are not enough, we also happen to have this propensity to make hyperbolic statements—even without the benefit of empirical evidence to back us up. For example, I get dismayed when people make statements such as how we are the “basket case of Asia.” Or about how we are a “nation of cheats.”

Okay, I’m digressing. To go back to my original point, I am concerned that no one it seems has done any analysis on why, how come, and what does it mean being the “texting capital of the world.” I don’t expect the telecom companies who are raking profits from the service to raise a howl, of course. But surely consumer groups should have something to say on the matter; perhaps our legislators?

One obvious factor that has spurned the phenomenon is that the charges for text messaging in this country are smaller than those for voice calls. In other countries, the tariff for sending text messages is the same and in some cases, more expensive than making calls. Thus in countries like India and Thailand, people call each other rather than send text messages. So text messaging is cheaper. That still does not answer the question why we seem to be sending more text messages out there. In fact, economics complicate the issue because if it costs money to send text messages, why are people spending hard-earned money on it instead of buying more essential stuff?

Given how popular it is, and given how texting is so prevalent in this country even among children (my 7-year-old nieces don’t have cell phones, but they sure know how to text), isn’t it about time that we take proactive steps—not to regulate it—but to ensure that the service is being used more effectively and to make sure that there are enough measures to protect consumers and certain sectors of society such as children from unintended consequences?

I want to be clear about this: I am not advocating that we regulate text messaging in this country. I am against any form of censorship or curtailment of freedom of expression. Nor am I advocating draconian measures to address certain emerging trends in the way text messaging is being used today. What we need to put in place are proactive measures such as better education and information campaigns directed at the more vulnerable populations such as children. I want to highlight these because God knows how the minds of certain legislators in this country works—they think that regulation is the key to most problems and that crafting another law and creating yet another regulatory body solve problems in this country.

Before you think I am over-reaching here, let me tell you about my personal experience with texting in the last two weeks. One of my main advocacies is HIV/AIDS prevention and education. As most everyone in this country knows, we are seeing a new wave of infections in the country, particularly among certain vulnerable populations such as younger people. In the last few weeks, I have been immersed in the activities of text messaging-based groups more popularly known as “clans.” I decided to join a “clan” to be able to understand the patterns of interaction among more vulnerable populations.

Thanks to promotion programs of our telecom companies, unlimited texting is a service that is readily available to everyone. I have discovered, by virtue of my joining a “clan,” that the term “unlimited” is not an exaggeration. I have been receiving, on average, 40-75 messages per hour—many of these messages I just delete and don’t read anymore. And the clan I joined is smaller compared to other more established clans out there.

Clans use the unlimited texting service of our telecom companies pretty much as virtual chat rooms, with each member sending messages to the whole clan in “general message” mode. So if a clan has 50 members, that’s the number of people conversing at any given time each one responding to each other, with every other member of the clan as eavesdropping or reacting to the conversations. The discussions cover a whole range of interests and concerns— from the weather to intimate stuff to well, fetishes and perversions.

Clans have regular general eyeballs (that’s cyberspeak for a meet-up). I went to one last weekend at a place that is generally accepted as the venue for clan activities. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of people that were there. There were at least 20 clans having an eyeball in that place on that night. What was more interesting was this: Most of the people were high school students— people aged 14-17. The place was bursting at the seams with people—each one holding a cell phone. And yes, intimacy was very much in the air. It was very clear that for most of the people in that place, the evening would end in bed.

I was told of course that clans are not just avenues to meet people but also serve other purposes, some primarily functioning as some kind of social support system. Like anything, it is a double-edged sword. What is very clear, however, is that text messaging is now a platform for a different kind of interaction. Small wonder we are the texting capital of the world. However, text messaging is just a tool. Like anything else, it can be used positively or negatively.

Let me repeat: I hope our legislators, our regulatory officials, government, and even police authorities do not react to this phenomenon with hasty programs that really do not provide long-term or even effective solutions. I have purposely chosen not to reveal identities and locations because I fear that the police will react by raiding the establishments that play host to these clan parties. I really hope they don’t because doing so will only drive the clans underground, which will make them even more difficult to access for prevention and education programs. What we need to do is reach out to these groups and conduct more information and education awareness programs.

The best response is information and education. The best form of control is self-control. The most effective solutions are those that empower the communities and individuals themselves to act in ways that promote their self-interest.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Tragedies

This is my column today.

Now that people seemed to have come to their senses, perhaps it is time to talk about the Failon tragedies in a calm and sober manner. Yes, the use of the plural form in the previous sentence was deliberate. The unfortunate death of Trina Arteche Etong was just the first of a series of tragedies that happened last week.

I did write a very impassioned piece on the incident in my Web log last week in reaction to the monumental blunders (a reader of my blog called it epic failure) of the officers belonging to the Quezon City Police District Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit. I don’t regret writing that piece where I cursed to high heavens the utter senselessness and the extreme viciousness displayed by the police officers.

Department of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has tried to explain, in his usual sardonic way, the general demeanor of the police officials as “enthusiasm.” I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who still puts any weight on the Justice Secretary‘s opinions, but one has to grant that the attempt to inject a positive spin was amusing.

But at least it was an indirect admission that the death of Ted Failon’s wife did receive “special attention” from the police.

In a country where police response to crimes is often compared to that of a three-toed sloth taking its own sweet time, the display of zealousness should have been worthy of commendation. One can only wish that the supposed “enthusiasm” was also tempered with compassion. It seemed that in their haste to show that they are capable of quick action, they forgot that the incident was not just a potential criminal case. Trina Arteche Etong was a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend. It was also an occasion for grieving.

Unfortunately, our police officials don’t seem to be acquainted with the concept although they seemed to have handled the case of Rod Strunk in the celebrated Nida Blanca murder many years ago with a little more sobriety. It wouldn’t really hurt for the police to be contrite at this point and to apologize.

Our police officials really need to learn to be more “human.” Very often, what victims really need is empathy and concern rather than swift solutions. We all know that crimes take some time to solve. Of course we want solutions, but we first want them to be a reassuring presence; to convince us that something is being done.

I am not discounting the possibility that “revenge” was also a motivation on the part of the police. Police inaction or ineffectiveness has been one of Ted Failon’s favorite advocacies. But it’s an insinuation that remains to be proven, so in fairness to the police, probably best left as a sidebar for the moment.

Much of the frenzy, however, should be attributed to the sensationalized reportage of media. ABS-CBN went out of its way to issue an official statement appealing to everyone to respect the privacy of the Failon family during the difficult time. Ironically, the same media company was at the forefront of the coverage reporting the minutest detail of each revelation.

I hope that everyone has learned a lesson from the series of tragedies. It would be such a waste if Etong’s death is simply relegated to one of those unfortunate things that happen in this country every now and then.

***

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde has finally acknowledged, and vociferously denied, rumors that have been going around and around for about two weeks now on who ordered that ill-fated helicopter to fly out of Baguio causing the death of six people. The version of the rumor that was relayed to me unequivocally put the blame squarely on Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The President, famous for her micromanagement tendencies, was supposed to have given marching orders for the advance team to fly out of Baguio pronto on that fateful afternoon. The rumor painted the President as a tyrant who barked orders with nary a care for the welfare and safety of her underlings.

Given that we have seen the President on many occasions fuming mad and throwing a fit on public and the many stories around her legendary temper, I can understand why that particular rumor soon became almost like Gospel truth. What I couldn’t believe though was how Senator Rodolfo Biazon—a former military officer, might I add—fell for that rumor, even calling for a Senate investigation in the process.

My personal reaction when the rumor reached me was that it was a disservice to the victims of the tragedy. It painted them as automatons—brainless people who scurried around to comply with orders without the benefit of some thinking process.

The other rumor implicated presidential son Rep. Mikey Arroyo. The rumor alleged that the other reason that caused the delay of the team’s departure was that the First Son was still using the chopper for highly personal—and therefore suspicious—reasons. The Palace has denied the rumor.

What are we to make of these rumors and our seeming predilection to believe the worst of the First Family? Of course it is indicative of the level of unpopularity of the current occupants of the Palace.

But to be fair, these have happened before. A lot of rumors swirled around the Marcoses when they were in power some of them really incredible such as those ones about Bongbong Marcos’s alleged drunken sprees. There were also rumors about the Ramoses, the Aquinos, and the Estradas.

The usual explanation being proffered is that these are all part of our attempts to “humanize” people who live in palaces. We make fun of them, make them fodder for jokes, reduce them to caricatures, even ridicule them for their foibles.

But really, at a time when we have all these technology at our disposal to clarify issues and inform people of the real score, one wonders why it takes quite some time for our leaders to set the record straight quickly and effectively.


Friday, April 17, 2009

WTF

I am not the type who cusses in public.

But I know now what it is like to be stupefied beyond words, to be reduced to utter incoherence when confronted with something unbelievably outrageous. One can only stare incomprehensively at the utter senselessness of it all and exclaim WHAT THE F*CK !?!

I do not have pretensions of being such an expert on how police matters should be conducted. I will also admit that I don't have insider information about the kind of evidence that was discovered, or lost, inside Ted Failon's residence in Quezon City. I don't know if he is guilty or innocent.

But this I know: He, his family, and his househelp do not deserve the kind of treatment that they have been getting from the police and from certain members of the media.

The day after the tragedy happened, I was surfing channels when I came across what seemed like a teaser for a discussion - a taped recording of a woman saying over and over again in an anguished voice "sorry papa, sorry papa, sorry na po papa." Then the anchors of the show started talking about the tragedy like it was an ordinary event, as if there were no children that were orphaned, or for that matter, as if there was no one grieving at all. They kept on playing the teaser over and over again. It was incredibly tasteless and grossly insensitive. Wtf!

Watching they way our police officials are managing the case makes one cringe in embarrassment and horror. This is what it looks like: It looks like they have prejudged the case and have already resolved to make sure that the tragedy is pinned on Ted Failon. In short, they have reversed that sacred dictum, that one about how everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In this case, they've done the reverse - they seemed to have decided already that Failon is guilty as hell. The seeming singlemindedness and resoluteness is chilling as it has resulted in a reversal of the process. Instead of gathering evidence to make a conclusion, they have instead made a conclusion first and are now furiously backtracking to prop up that conclusion with evidence, most of which they don't have yet, but that has not stopped them from making irresponsible statements in public anyway.

Since it appears that Failon is impregnable, they have decided to make him pay for the tragedy one way or the other. Or at least his family. Or his househelp. Wtf.

Okay. Like I said, I am not prejudging the case. Maybe Failon is guilty. Perhaps not. But I don't think that what we're seeing today is a decent way to handle the situation.

F*ck. Forget decency. Let's just talk basic empathy. Or even basic respect. The man lost his wife. His daughters lost their mother. The siblings lost a sister. Don't any of these matter at all? Wtf, indeed.

Here we have police officials and media people saying that Failon tested negative for powder burns in the Paraffin test conducted on him. In the same breath, police officials shoot down the results of the test by saying tests like that are not conclusive anyway. Wtf. So what was the whole point of conducting it anyway? To get photographs? There's something just incredibly wrong in a set up where police officials publicly dismiss the results of a test when the results do not serve their purposes.

And as if the whole sordid mess is not surreal enough as it already is, in comes the honorable Secretary of Justice exclaiming on public television (referring to Public Attorney's Office chair Acosta): "She is crazy!" What kind of a justice secretary makes statements like that? And quite frankly, wtf, look who is talking!Italic

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Drug money

This is my column today.

Drugs are often more than a necessity. They sometimes represent the thin line between survival and death. We know, too, that the prices of drugs in this country are so much more prohibitive than those in other Asian countries.

I know these because like everyone else, I have parents in their old age who need to take regular medication. I also take maintenance medicines for various medical conditions. I used to travel around the region regularly and whenever I did, I would make it a point to hoard up on medicine in Bangkok, New Delhi, even Kuala Lumpur. The prices of drugs in these cities were easily at least 40 percent cheaper than what they would cost in the Philippines. Some were even cheaper by as much as 80 percent. For example, the drug that I usually take for gastritis costs around P140 per tablet in Manila. In Bangkok, the same medicine at the same dosage costs the equivalent of around P80. You bet the price difference is not negligible.

Drug companies are some of the most profitable firms in the Philippines. Small wonder that they raised a major howl when some people proposed that we import cheaper medicines from India. This is why they also threw a major tantrum, kicking and screaming all the way, when the Generics Law was passed.

There are many reasons why medicines are more expensive in our country. The drug companies usually churn out this sob story about the high cost of research and development as if they have to recover the whole cost from only one country and all within a year’s time. Yes, they spend billions to develop and improve a drug but they conveniently forget to tell people that they sell the same drug under different names in various countries globally and for all intents and purposes, forever.

The other reason that’s usually cited as the culprit is high operating costs. This is probably true, as we all know that manpower costs are higher in the country than in others. Still, it’s not a foolproof argument because the counter-argument also makes sense. Operating costs can be lowered.

One obvious way is to go for more cost-effective advertising. I don’t mean to impose my own biases upon the pharmaceutical industry, but it’s a sad reflection of our times that even the pharma industry has become celebrity oriented. For example, I am aware that John Lloyd Cruz’s dimples bring joy to the lives of millions in this country but surely getting him to endorse a paracetamol and paying him gazillions in the process is superfluous. The drug in question is already widely popular anyway. Think about it: Do we need someone heartbreakingly handsome to tell us that paracetamol cures headaches? It’s not going to make anyone look as handsome as he is, that’s for sure. In the same vein, one can only wonder how many millions were spent to get Manny Pacquiao to deliver those tongue twisters (nagkapulupulupot, try saying that three times in quick succession) in support of a muscle relaxant, or to get Robin Padilla to admit to his polygamous nature in order to sell food supplement.

And then there’s the matter of representation expenses. Of course drug companies have to hire sales people— medical representatives—whose job description is to ensure that doctors prescribe to their patients the drugs they are selling. Someone has to talk to doctors and explain to them the benefits of a particular drug. The assumption of course is that med reps use their persuasive abilities to influence the prescribing habits of doctors through ethical ways. From what I gathered from colleagues who were med reps in their previous lives, this was mostly done through the provision of samples and simple giveaways such as token ballpens, stickers, and on rare occasions, a simple snack at the hospital canteen.

I have known for quite sometime now that the practice has been elevated to an art form more complicated than the geisha system in Japan. Med reps are now involved in promotions programs targeting doctors through various means, usually through the use of lavish and extravagant gifts. A number of my doctor friends confided that most drug companies dangle foreign trips, expensive gifts such as down payments in condominiums, accommodation and dinner at five star hotels, etc. It is now standard practice for med reps to treat the more popular doctors and their families to dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. What is quite scary is that it is obvious that drug companies have a dossier on each doctor of significance in this country.

This poses a serious ethical question: If doctors are beholden to drug companies, what happens to the interest of patients? I see a lot of angry doctors in my horizon, all ready to shoot me with vehement protestations about how committed they are to uphold the rights and welfare of their patients. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that in many cases, the interest of business and patients can be congruent. But it’s not a perfect world and there are times when one has to make painful choices. In fact the choices are not always obvious—many doctors simply prescribe high-end and therefore more expensive medicines to their patients without even considering the financial capabilities of their patients. So yes, the practice does affect the way doctors prescribe medicines to their patients.

It is in this light that we take note of a new bill party-list representative Nicanor Santiago III is strongly pushing for immediate passage. According to news reports, House Bill 6063, known as the Medical Gift Giving Ban Act of 2009 seeks to prevent health manufacturers from having too much influence over doctors. According to Santiago, “the possibility of having conflicts of interest may exist between a physician’s duty to prescribe a proper drug against an ineffective one manufactured by a pharmaceutical producer who has influenced the physician through the gifts given.” Thus, the proposed law seeks to prohibit drug companies from “giving, offering to give, anything of monetary value to medical practitioners and encourage them to issue prescriptions for the manufacturer’s drugs.”

“We must stop drug money’s influence on medical treatment,” Santiago said. “Free dinners, luxury trips and other gifts to doctors serve to improperly distort treatment decisions and diminish patient care.” According to news reports, the bill proposed to punish violators with a fine of P1,000 but not more than P10,000 or imprisonment of not less than two months but not more than one year or both upon the discretion of the court.

I have no argument with the intent of the proposed bill. However, given the economic power of drug companies, I expect vigorous lobby against the bill. I am not sure though that a law is enough to curb the practice, or that putting a law in place is necessarily the best solution. God knows this country has more than enough laws already against corruption but that doesn’t mean corruption has been eradicated.

I think the more viable long-term solution is for all parties to come together and arrive at more workable programs of action. Self-regulation is always the better option. Educating patients about their rights is another long-term solution. Unfortunately, creating yet another law seems to be our knee-jerk reaction to most problems in this country.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Sunday reflections

This is my column today.

I woke up yesterday to find more than 30 text messages in my cellular phone all wishing me and my family a Happy Easter. Some of the messages contained profound reflections on the real meaning and significance of Christ’s resurrection. Others were the usual cute messages conveying Hallmark-styled greetings of hope, love and redemption.

The messages came as a surprise. I realized of course that it would be unfair on my part to make deductions on whether or not the messages were indicative of the state of the senders’ spirituality. But being a theorist at heart —my friends rib me constantly about being a certified geek who tries to fathom meanings out of mundane things, they call it my “Sheldon personality” (after that nerd character in the television sitcom Big Bang Theory)—I did wonder if this new phenomenon of sending text messages on Easter Sunday were reflective of something more.

Are we really seeing a resurgence of spirituality in the world today?

I noted that a good percentage of those who sent me Easter Sunday greetings were people who were at least 30 years old. No one among my college students —the very same people who would usually send text messages about anything and everything—bothered to send greetings.

I’ve read somewhere that anywhere in the world today, half the bestsellers in any bookstore are spirituality books. This is easy to validate, of course. The more observant among us would easily notice that spiritual books occupy a prominent location in any bookstore today. And it’s not just during Lent but all year round.

I’ve made this observation many times with my friends. There was this one time when we actively took note of the range of spiritual books available out there and were amazed, for instance, that preacher Bo Sanchez had already authored more than a dozen books—all bestsellers. Sanchez’ books were tailored for specific demographics—one for the lovelorn, another for those aspiring for successful careers, one on parenting, even another for those with addictions, etc.

Why, even Jonathan Livingston Seagull is back in the shelves of major bookstores. Other books from my religion subjects in high school have also made a major comeback including Herman Hesse’s books and Trina Paulus’ Hope for the Flowers.

I must also point out that there seemed to be more people around churches last Maundy Thursday. In past years, doing the Visita Iglesia was quite a breeze for us. Not this year. Traffic was really bad around the more popular churches. To illustrate, traffic at Intramuros leading to the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church was hopelessly gridlocked and many were forced to park their vehicles as far back as Roxas Boulevard and the Luneta area.

I also noted that these seemed to be more organized groups that did the Visita Iglesia this time around. Even more interesting, the groups seemed more easily identifiable because they wore the same shirts, walked around as if they were part of a procession, and had more “commercial” trimmings such as lanterns, banners, megaphones, etc.

It was heartwarming to note that the groups seemed to have quite a number of younger people among their ranks, or that they seemed unembarrassed to display piety. One can only hope that the whole carnival-like display was grounded on stronger spirituality.

I noted that many of them were documenting their pilgrimage with digital cameras and that some tended to be rowdy during picture-taking sessions. They would walk around barefoot, enter the church together calling attention to themselves because of their uniform, the religious icons and banners that they carried, and the sheer volume of people in their procession. They would all kneel down, do their prayers together, and then… take pictures of the group in front of the altar. Obviously, this was distracting to others who were deep in meditation.

To be fair, this practice of lugging around digital cameras and whipping them out at any occasion seems to be a norm nowadays. I also noted quite a number who did the same although some were more discreet as they did their “documentation.” I used to take pictures of the altars of the various churches we visited, but I stopped the practice this year. I didn’t want to add to the distraction.

We came across one large group at the Sta. Cruz Church, for instance, that even carried banners that proudly proclaimed “16 years of Visita Iglesia and still counting!” as if there was a competition somewhere for longevity.

What are we to make of these new phenomena then?

Someone offered the theory that the whole resurgence of seeming piety is a direct result of the difficulties people are going through as a result of the global recession. Perhaps it is in times like these when people do turn back to God and become more religious.

One wishes, of course, that people would learn to make distinctions between spirituality and religiosity. More to the point, one wishes that the Church and the religious groups would go out of their way to teach people about the distinction. It’s really not just about following traditions blindly. It’s not just about making sacrifices such as flogging one’s self to a bloody pulp or traversing the distance between Quiapo and Baclaran Church barefoot. It’s about finding personal meaning in the whole thing.

Spirituality is about situating the whole essence of faith in one’s life rather than just practicing some rituals on given occasions. Thus, doing the Visita Iglesia as a physical journey is one thing, doing so with a reflective heart is another.

The observance of Holy Week is largely religious. If we aspire to become more spiritual, then the end of the Lenten Season yesterday was simply symbolic. The real challenge is to live the meaning of the Lenten Season in our daily lives the rest of the year. Perhaps, even the rest of our lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trouble at Boracay during Holy Week

A friend who was in Boracay for Holy Week called me up this morning to tell me that his trip was quite exciting in an exasperating way.  Following were his observations:

1.  Too many people.  He was worried about the capability of the island to accommodate tens of thousands of people at one given time.   My personal take on this is that Boracay is a tragedy in the making.  The island is overexploited.  The question is: What is the government going to do about it?  

2.  Too many paparazzi.  He said that privacy in the island was almost nonexistent because the press, particularly movie press, was all over the island.  Of course this was to be expected given that most movie celebrities flock to the island on Holy Week.

3.  Too many brawls, most of them involving celebrities. He gave me a sampling of the tiffs and and scandals that occurred during the weekend.  Horrible.  It's bad enough that people party like there's no tomorrow during Holy Week.  But to get into catfights and brawls?

A friend, Joshua Formentera, figured in one of the fights.  What happened was that he and his friends were relaxing at the beachfront of their hotel when a group that included the Sexbombs swooped into the area with liquor and sounds in tow.  They were playing loud music and they had high-powered speakers.  Joshua is into meditation and reflection. He first complained to the front desk.  When the group refused to lower the volume of their music, Joshua himself approached the group to tell them pointedly to respect the needs of others. 

What happened next is now a classic case of "he said - they said."  

But here's the really sad thing:  Someone among the sexbombs threw a big glass at Joshua's face which caused two  gashes on his face. 

Now, I think that there's really no way that violence can be justified.  There is no way that the Sexbombs can ever defend the fact that they caused physical harm to someone else.

There's another angle to this story that I hope will not become an issue in this whole fracas.  It is irrelevant.  Joshua's background is not material to the whole case so please, people, let's not bring it up.

 





Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lenten traditions

This is my column today.

I’ve been abstaining from meat every Friday since the onset of Lent.  I must admit though that the abstinence was prompted less by religious reasons.  Although I am critical of the institutional biases of the Catholic Church, I am a practicing Catholic and I observe a number of religious traditions. But in the interest of honesty, I will admit that I haven’t been eating meat not only on Fridays but most days of the week because I need to lose weight drastically for health reasons.  It’s just convenient to do so now because it’s also Lent.

The point I am trying to make is that it seems most of us now blend observance of religious traditions with practical reasons.  Many among us observe religious traditions when it is convenient to do so.  If it’s inconvenient, then we make up reasons to make it so.

Before anyone scolds me for making generalizations based on personal circumstances, let me illustrate with a few more examples.

I was in Noveleta, Cavite last Sunday for Palm Sunday where a good friend of mine has continued a family tradition that’s now more than 50 years old.  They hold a pabasa in front of their house starting at sundown of Palm Sunday until sunset of Maundy Monday.  This was the third year in a row that my friends and students trooped to Noveleta for the pabasa and it has become an annual reunion of sorts.  I suspect that most of us embarked on the long drive every year with the reunion in mind more than the pabasa. 

And since we knew that a mass was going to be celebrated prior to the start of the pabasa, many among us purposely didn’t go to mass anymore last Sunday.  So there was another reason to go which it made it more convenient.

I am sure that many of my friend’s kith and kin that came and went last Sunday at various points of the night dropped by not just for the pabasa but to keep in touch with family members as well.   I wouldn’t be surprised if some went there to transact business with someone who was also going to be there. 

A friend of mine makes it a point to do the Visita Iglesia around the churches in Laguna because it allows her the opportunity to visit some relatives in some towns of the province as well as gives her and her family the chance to savor native delicacies of the various towns they visit.  The trip becomes some kind of a gourmet experience as they load up on all kinds of kakanin and food specialties of the various towns along the way.  But yes, they do the Stations of the Cross in each of the 14 churches they visit. 

Some politicians make it a point to be seen publicly at the religious rituals of Holy Week I suspect more of an effort to earn brownie points not necessarily from God but from the faithful.  I don’t presume to know what is truly in their hearts of course, but I wouldn’t dare suspect them of other motives if only they try to be inconspicuous.  But no, most of our politicians have this habit of announcing their presence in various annoying ways. 

Last year, I took offense at a candidate for a congressional seat in Manila because he came to the Malate Church for Visita Iglesia in his trademark campaign get-up and arrived with a full coterie of campaigners who distributed leaflets.  To be fair, the leaflets contained what could have passed off as inspirational messages if not for the candidate’s name at the bottom as the author of the Lenten reminder.

The Holy Week is supposed to be the most significant season in the Christian calendar.  When I was a child growing up in the provinces, the traditions that surrounded the commemoration of Holy Week were quite stringent including making sure we were absolutely quiet on Good Friday.  Some families even forbade bathing on Good Friday.  Fasting was not a choice, it was required.  The Stations of the Cross were conducted barefoot and there were strict rules about gender that were followed in certain processions (only females were allowed to walk behind the image of the grieving Mother Mary).

Today, religious traditions have taken on a more practical bent giving way to a number of accommodations.  It’s like faith has become a little more flexible and subject to negotiation.  I haven’t made up my mind as to whether this is a good thing or not.  I am not exactly a purist and there’s a part of me that wants to give people the benefit of the doubt – at least they still observe traditions.  On the other hand, I do think that the bedrock of faith is precisely unconditional submission.

I will leave it up to you, dear readers, to reflect on this; as I will in my own way during this season of reflection.

While we are at it, perhaps I might also point out that certain traditions may have stood the test of time but have not been totally spared from modern day influences.  I thought that the pabasa was still one of these traditions that have remained intact both in form and content.  But apparently not based on what I experienced last Sunday.  Let me stress that the pabasa I witnessed took place in Noveleta Cavite – a town that may be near Metro Manila but still largely provincial and was participated in by “older” people - definitely not members of generations X or Y.

In the first two hours or so of singing the life and passion of Christ, the group stuck to the traditional pasyon tune, which really sounded like a chant with a little melody thrown in.  In the past, I’ve always marveled at the extreme patience of the people who would participate in the pabasa because I figured having to sing hundred stanzas of text in the same boring tune was sheer torture.  Then again, that probably is the point anyway – it’s not meant to be enjoyed.   But on second thought, why not?  Where exactly is it written that the recitation of the life and passion of Christ should only be read and sung in the most somber and boring way? 

Imagine my surprise then when after about three hours of warbling the same old repetitive tune, the group shifted melodies and started singing the pasyon to the tune of Acin Cu Pung Singsing.  When I left, they were singing the pasyon to another tune, this time a song straight from my childhood.  The title of the song escapes me now, but the lyrics went “a kiss a kiss a kiss me in the morning, a kiss a kiss a kiss me in the night.” If memory serves me right, this was a song a younger Vilma Santos would sing while cavorting with Bubot Mortiz. 

My students reacted with curiosity:  Could the lyrics of the pasyon be sung to the tune of Ang Huling El Bimbo?  I am not sure it could be – but am not sure it’s necessarily a bad idea.  If that’s what will get the younger set to participate in these religious tradition, then why not?  But then again, I can already hear some people gnashing their teeth and complaining about how we are bastardizing traditions