Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Helping survivors deal with trauma

This is my column today, September 30, 2009.

Last Monday I wrote about how utterly unprepared we all were in dealing with major disasters and catastrophes. Our years of experience with other disasters—and we have had our ample share of them from super typhoons to earthquakes and other acts of god— have not made us any wiser.

But as we have been noting in various media reports since Sunday, what is even more tragic is our unpreparedness to deal with the aftermath of such disasters. It seems we’re doing everything oido style, based purely on gut feel and intuition rather than on systematic thinking.

It was widely expected that the post-disaster picture would be grim although I don’t think anyone was prepared for the extent of the devastation that we are seeing now. Much of the focus of relief efforts has been in ensuring that basic necessities are delivered to those who need it the most.

This is understandable and we should continue to do this. However, we really need to coordinate our emergency responses better. What we are seeing is the lack of a structure at the national, regional and even local levels to manage information and coordinate assessment activities. The various major media networks are doing a great job in terms of coordinating their own relief activities. However, there seems to be no mechanism in place to ensure that everyone is moving in a more synchronized way so that priorities are mapped out and addressed and not everyone is doing the same thing such as visiting the same places.

I also hope that people are just as mindful of the other consequences of major disasters such as the one that we have just been subjected to and are sensitive to them as well.

At a time like this, newscasters must eschew the hyperventilation that has come to be associated with broadcasting in this country. It really does not sit well with many people when Ted Failon delivers the news about more dead bodies being discovered or more people going through another day without water or food in a booming and resonant voice as if such is a cause for celebration. Celebrities, particularly the ones manning those telethons and those going on relief missions should, for the moment, hold off on the designer outfits and the expensive jewelry as these distract from the message and decrease the potential for real empathy.

People, particularly those who were severely affected by the flood, are emotionally vulnerable right now and prone to certain emotions such as anger and frustration. Anger is a normal, healthy emotion—it is the generally accepted emotion of survival. When people cannot make sense of what they just went through, anger is the most common way in which they try to express themselves. Inciting them to become more anxious is not exactly an inspired idea since it adds to the trauma that they are already experiencing. So obviously this is not the time for politicking and those snide remarks and thinly concealed criticism directed at certain politicians can wait until things have normalized.

I wish that people, particularly those in a position to provide a voice, a face, or any physical presence to the various relief efforts are armed with the basic skills to help survivors cope better with trauma. A major consequence of disasters is the psychological trauma it brings to survivors. While it would require the expertise of psychologists and trained counselors to help survivors deal with severe trauma, there are many relatively simpler things everyone can do to help victims and survivors cope better with their situations.

Foremost among these is making sure that accurate information is disseminated to everyone—particularly to families and communities that have been affected severely. One of the mistakes that people continue to commit in the aftermath of the flood is offering false hopes and promises to survivors. There is this myth that giving false assurances—the metaphorical lifeline of hope—is the better course of action after crisis situations, but in reality it really often makes the process of coping more difficult. What happens is that in most situations victims spend more time in the denial stage of the process rather than in hastening their progress toward acceptance. As we all know, acceptance is the key that helps people deal more pro-actively with their situations, in effect jolting them into doing what is necessary.

Reporting accurate information likewise requires sticking to facts and scientifically sound data as well as ensuring that respect for victims is observed at all times. For example, the reportage on rotting bodies needs to be done with extra care. We hope that our television newscasts likewise stop showing bodies of the fatalities in various stages of undress or decay not only because it contributes to the trauma being experienced by survivors but more importantly, as a sign of respect for the dead.

People should likewise be careful about making careless statements. One reporter hyperventilated on television that the decaying bodies need to be retrieved immediately before these cause the spread of infections and diseases. This is a fallacy. Victims of natural diseases are normally killed by injury or drowning and not by disease. Corpses do not spread infections or diseases, as most infectious organisms do not survive beyond 48 hours in a dead body. Of course efforts must be made to retrieve dead bodies to relieve family members and communities of the psychological trauma associated with dealing with grief and uncertainty.

In times like these, we need to be cognizant that children are more likely to be affected by trauma than adults. Children respond differently to trauma and some do not show symptoms quickly. Because children have underdeveloped coping skills, they find it more particularly difficult to adjust to the consequences of disasters such as drastic change and loss. Adults must make sure that they make available the one key that helps children deal with trauma: Reassurance. Very young children need lots of cuddling. Parents and adult figures need to verbalize their support and concern and this means answering their questions honestly and sincerely. Other means of helping them cope with trauma include providing various opportunities for expression such as drawing, conversations, storytelling, but making sure that the frightening details are kept to a minimum. The object is to help them surface their fears and process them not relive pain and anxiety.

Helping others cope with trauma is hardly rocket science stuff. The most critical skill is empathy—the ability to communicate concern and care without assuming that you know everything. Thus, everyone can help survivors by simply being there and showing they care through words and action. One key element is to help survivors go through the stages of grief, namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jacque Bermejo controversy

I came across this controversy Saturday night.  At that time, the outraged group has not been started yet.  When I checked today, I was surprised to find out that more than 10,000 people have already joined the orgy of bashing and hate directed at Jacque Bermejo.

Here's a quick backgrounder.  This Jacque Bermejo, or someone who is using her identity, posted a status update in a facebook account bearing her identity:  

"buti n lng am hir in dubai! maybe so many sinners back der! so yeah deserving what happened!"

As can be expected, there was an immediate outrage.  She followed up with this status update:

"cuz of u dnt understand!!!judge me sige!!! kya ala kayong asenso.even nature now is making statement big time!!!"

I can understand why lots of people out there are angry.  

But there have been attempts to shed light on the issue. You can read it here.  Someone who comes by the name of Nicey Yap has also been trying to defend Ms. Bermejo in facebook.  The defense being proffered is that the "sinners" comment was not made by Ms. Bermejo herself, but by someone who presumably has an axe to grind against her who hacked her account.   
 
If indeed Ms. Bermejo is a victim in this particular controversy, she needs to come out and clear her name.  

 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Trauma

I am glad that we are seeing bayanihan happening in our country at this very difficult time.  It is sad that there are those who are using the tragedy for their own selfish needs such as the people who are siphoning donations from abroad into private account numbers.  Please make sure that you donate money to reputable organizations such as the Red Cross, the DSWD, or to the media networks. 

Most of the efforts are understandably being focused on rescue and relief operations.  I hope that we also begin the process of helping people heal emotionally and psychologically.  Trauma is a natural consequence of major disasters and people do need help in dealing with it.

Of course helping people deal with severe trauma requires a certain expertise.  It is best that experts are brought in to do professional counseling.  But counseling is not rocket science so there is always something we can do to help friends and relatives deal with trauma.  From my many years experience as counselor, here are some top-of-mind simple techniques that you can do if you are face-to-face with someone who is experiencing trauma:

1.  Show you care both physically and verbally.  You don't need to do official counseling - just listen openly without making judgments.  Try not to say things such as "I know what you are going through" because you don't.  Don't make conclusions and generalizations.  Just be there and try to steer the conversation to developing solutions and action plans.

2.  Help the person verbalize their fears and emotions in a positive way.  Don't dwell too much on the anxiety - the object is not to re-live the experience, but to surface the emotions associated with them.  Doing so helps the person process the emotional experience at the rational level.  When dealing with children, other means of expression can be used - drawing, singing, etc.  

3.  The best way to help others deal with trauma is to offer reassurance.  This is particularly critical when dealing with children.  Cuddle children. Touch people.  Hug them. Shake their hands.

4.  Help the person get his or her life back to normal.  Accompany the person as he or she picks up the pieces.  Don't forget to try to inject fun into the whole process.  Find opportunities to help the person laugh or smile. 

5.  Be familiar with the stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Help them move through the stages without judgments.  It is normal to see people being angry or being depressed after a major tragedy.  Help them move towards acceptance.

There are two other practical tips that you can keep in mind:

1.  Be aware of your own "packaging" - make sure that you are dressed simply and don't have jewelry.  It not only distracts from your message; it also puts you at a perceived advantage.

2.  Make sure you have candies or other goodies in your pockets or bag and offer these to children or survivors.  Candies provide a very real and physical sensory relief. 
 

The great flood

This is my column today, September 28, 2009.

Like millions of other Metro Manila and Central Luzon residents, I woke up Saturday morning to very, very heavy rains.  I’ve never seen such a heavy downpour in my whole life.  Geologists would later report that what we witnessed was the equivalent of almost a month’s worth of rain being poured on to Metro Manila all within a total of less than six hours. It was like nature unleashing a century’s worth of pent-up fury.  Some people did report that the heavy flooding last Saturday was the worst ever in a century. 

I live in San Andres in Manila where the streets easily get transformed into instant lakes and rivers.  But we live in a street that’s elevated and the structure of the house was precisely built to withstand floods.  Not once has floodwaters entered the house.  But last Saturday was not like any ordinary day.  By 10:00 am, dark murky waters started to seep into the garage and in barely an hour’s time, the ground floor was knee-deep in floodwaters.  We all scrambled to save whatever we could. 

At noontime, many years of disaster preparedness training kicked in; something I wished happened sooner or that more people had. I asked everyone to stop and instead mapped out a contingency plan in case floodwaters continued to rise all the way to the second floor.  I asked everyone to each pack an emergency bag containing valuables, change of clothes, some food provisions and started devising a plan on how to get to the four-storey building three houses away from ours.  Our plan was to bridge rooftops using some planks of wood and ropes I happened to have around the house as training materials.  I talked to some neighbors and got them to agree to the plan in case the floodwaters did continue to rise.

We started to pray while monitoring the extent of the devastation through television and text messages.

My two kids were stranded at school and at work, both tired and yearning to get home, but were at least in safe and dry places.  A number of my students were stranded at school, but were at least fed by the La Salle brothers.  Too bad not all corporations were as generous.  We heard unconfirmed reports that the biggest retail company in the country refused to host their employees for the night and chose to close their stores instead leaving their employees to fend for themselves.  By midnight, we heard government ordered all malls to open their parking spaces for free to the thousands of motorists stranded along major thoroughfares but we didn’t know if the malls complied.

A friend sent out requests for prayers for floodwaters to recede because there were barely six inches left before it reached the second floor of his house.  Like many others, he was tragically unprepared and therefore lost all possessions in the ground floor of his house including precious antiques and paintings.  He lost so much but in the larger scheme of things, was still luckier compare to many who lost everything.

My heart went out to the thousands of people stranded on rooftops waiting for rescue efforts that didn’t seem forthcoming.  Roads were blocked by submerged vehicles, the current was too strong in many areas, and we painfully realized just how utterly unprepared everyone is in this country including government and private citizen volunteer groups to deal with unexpected disasters. 

The Internet buzzed with horror stories of people trapped inside houses.  Shocking images of houses, major thoroughfares, even malls submerged in floodwaters got posted and reposted in various sites further triggering panic buttons.  Even Ayala Avenue was flooded and the underground passageways were submerged. Two images seemed to be heavy favorites for their human-interest appeal.  One was that of a tearful celebrity Christine Reyes shivering under the rain while huddled at the rooftop of her house waiting to be rescued.  The other one was that of a video of a group of people begging for help while clutching on to debris and haplessly being swept away by strong currents.  Onlookers gaped at them helplessly.  I wonder what happened to those poor people.  I pray that they were rescued.

Facebook became an instant communications hub as people from all over the world posted inquiries on the whereabouts of kith and kin.  A former student who is based in the United States kept posting status updates asking for information about his family which he had not been able to contact – it turned out their house was totally submerged in floodwaters.  A group of friends tried to coordinate a rescue plan – in Facebook, with the whole world in on it – for a sick friend who was trapped at the second floor of her house with no means of escape.   

As can be expected, there were people who chose to politicize the tragedy.  Some people picked at the supposed ineptness and the alleged failure of the National Disaster Coordinating Council to get its act together.  There were those who thought that Administration candidate Gibo Teodoro (who is chair of the NDCC and whose political ads were precisely on disaster preparedness) squandered the rare opportunity to rack up pogi points. Teodoro could have made himself more visible and could have fashioned himself as some hero, but that would have required playing for the cameras and engaging in antics such as wading in chest-deep floods and personally plucking people from houses.   It seems Teodoro chose a more strategic role for himself coordinating mostly from control rooms – something that makes perfect sense from the point of view crisis management but is unfortunately incomprehensible to the common tao.

The tragedy brought to the fore our utter inability to deal with major tragedies and disasters.  One lone voice of reason was that of Senator Richard Gordon, chairperson of the Red Cross, who kept admonishing people to help them selves and each other instead of simply wishing for divine providence and help from government.  And indeed, in many parts of Metro Manila, it was common sense and good old bayanihan that saved the day for thousands of people.  The online community eventually shifted to discussing how people can help and I must commend bloggers like Manolo Quezon who had the foresight to coordinate and mobilize global efforts towards more productive ways.  Rather than simply wringing hands in frustration, various practical suggestions such as where to go to help in relief efforts and how to donate money were soon being posted in various sites and blogs.

There will be lots of discussions – including the usual search for someone to blame – in the aftermath of the great flood.  This couldn’t be helped given our penchant for blaming everyone except ourselves for our woes.  But in the end, the following vignette pretty much sums up our collective psyche in dealing with major disasters.

When relatives heard that floodwaters have started to inundate our house, we were besieged by text messages and calls from well-meaning relatives in the provinces.  One of my grandaunts insisted on what she said was the best course of action; something I would have found hilarious in another time.  She insisted that we get the antique image of the Santo Nino de Cebu down from its lofty perch at the second floor of the house and position it at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor. The miraculous image, she was confident, would command the floodwaters to recede.  

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Urgent appeal

The Philippine National Red Cross needs volunteers for sorting, relief packaging, many other tasks that need to be done. Please call Pasay Chapter 8542748 and 4343751; Las Pinas Chapter 8734873 and 4689688; Pasig Chapter 6350922; Alabang Chapter 8093132 and National Headquarters in Manila 5245787 and 5270864.  You can also go to Caritas Manila or call 5639298.  

All these centers accepts donations - cash, food, clothing, blankets, other provisions. 

Those who are abroad may donate cash:

Account Name: The Phil. Nat’l. Red Cross

METROBANK
Port Area Branch
Peso Acct.: 151-3-041-63122-8
Dollar Acct.: 151-2-151-00218-2
Type of Acct. : SAVINGS
Swift Code: MBTC PH MM

BANK OF THE PHIL. ISLANDS
Port Area Branch
Peso Acct.: 4991-0010-99
Type of Account: CURRENT

BANK OF THE PHIL. ISLANDS
UN Branch
Dollar Acct.: 8114-0030-94
Type of Account: SAVINGS
Swift Code: BOPI PH MM
For your donations to be properly acknowledged, please fax the bank
transaction slip at nos. +63.2.527.0575 or +63.2.404.0979 with your
name, address and contact number.

Credit Card
Please fax the following info to +632.404.09.79 and +632.527.0575:
Name of card member, billing address, contact nos. (phone &
mobile), credit card no., expiration date, CCV2/ CVC2 (last three
digits at the back of the credit card), billing address, amount to be
donated.

For online donations you may also visit our website at www.redcross.org.ph .

Many more ways to help

To help, please visit this link

How you can help

Please visit Manolo L. Quezon's blog for updates on relief/rescue operations as well as how you can help.   

There's always something we can all do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blog update

I've been on blog leave for quite sometime because I had to attend to many things - a national conference, a major project in the Bank, etc.  I felt that I had to set some priorities and stick to them.  I've been having some health problems recently too and I've been advised to really slow down. So there.

I am posting the columns that I wrote for the Manila Standard Today all in one sweep.  Sorry, but I don't have the time to organize and ante-date each one.  That would also be cheating in a way.  

To the one or two people that have been bugging me, trying to provoke me into a fight in this blog - sorry, but I have better things to do.  I feel sad that some people are so wrapped up in bitterness but hey, everyone needs to grow up in their own ways and in their own time. 
 
 

Courage and trash talk

Published September 21, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I didn’t intend to watch the telecast of the boxing event of the season yesterday but was compelled to for two reasons.

First, everyone in the house was glued to the television, gritting teeth in frustration as Floyd Mayweather Jr. pummeled the daylights out of Juan Manuel Marquez. As early as the first few rounds of the 12-round fight, it was pretty much evident that Mayweather would win the match. Quite frankly, Mayweather looked like he didn’t even break a sweat and dominated the fight all the way.

But one had to be a complete sadist not to recognize and honor Marquez’s heart. He fought a brave battle and displayed great sportsmanship all the way through even when it was already certain that he would lose. This is what makes boxing a compelling sport. It showcases two of the most powerful emotions—on one hand, naked aggression and on the other, pure, unadulterated courage. Unlike other sports where skills and cunning are channeled into an object such as a ball, boxers put their bodies out there as the main instrument of the sport. The object of the sport is not just to score; it is to harm the other person which is why I continue to view the sports with a lot of reservations even if we can’t help but watch because it happens to be the only sport now where the Philippines has earned a distinction in.

Of course the empathy for Marquez was not merely because he was the underdog; Filipinos were on his side because of Mayweather’s camp’s unwarranted verbal attacks on pambansang kamao Manny Pacquiao. And this comprises the second reason why I felt compelled to watch the Mayweather-Marquez fight.

Like many other Filipinos, I got annoyed by Floyd Mayweather Sr.’s trash talk directed at our own national boxing champ. For those who have been living under a rock in the last few days, Mayweather Sr. accused Pacquiao last week of being on steroids or some other performance-enhancing supplements which supposedly accounted for Pacquiao’s winning streak.

So yes, I wanted to see if Mayweather really still had what it would take to face Pacquiao. Mayweather’s camp has been itching to square off with Pacquiao although certain quarters insist it’s mainly for the money. Mayweather, renowned for flamboyance, is reportedly broke and a fight with Pacquiao would bring in the moolah. In this context, Mayweather Sr.’s verbal attacks on Pacquiao make perfect sense; they need to provoke Pacquaio’s camp into accepting the challenge.

I am not an expert in boxing so I will not hazard a technical analysis comparing the skills of Mayweather and Pacquiao. But this I can say with certainty: Mayweather is not the castoff that many quarters portray him to be. A lot of it is posturing and attitude, of course, but it cannot be discounted that he is a great technical fighter. He remains a formidable boxer to reckon with. His unanimous win over Marquez yesterday announced in no uncertain terms the fact that the man was back from retirement.

Marquez was supposedly an intelligent boxer but he seemed confused during the fight, unable to counter Mayweather’s constant change of tactics. People expected Mayweather to use his size advantage by pinning Marquez against the ropes and bullying him around but he chose to keep the fight in the middle of the ring.

Like I said, the fight seemed like a foregone conclusion even in the early rounds. It was all over by the sixth round and it looked like Mayweather was just toying with Marquez during the second half of the match. He was even caught on camera several times slyly grinning at Marquez.

The highlight happened at the end of the match, as BO sports commentator Max Kellerman asked Mayweather when he would fight celebrated boxer Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao.

Thereupon, Mosley materialized in the ring. It started innocuously enough. Mosley looked like he just wanted to offer a congratulatory handshake. But it spiraled out of control when Mosley challenged Mayweather to a fight and they started trash talking each other. Mosley had been urging Mayweather to a match in the last four years and Mayweather had been dodging him because some quarters insist that he (Mayweather) pick boxers he would most likely beat.

For a moment, it looked like the two boxers would come to blows right there and then. A flustered Kellerman had to end the interview and cut the feed.

Trash talk is something that one has come to associate with professional wrestlers; they who strut around in bizarre costumes, wear make up that puts members of the 1970s rock band Kiss to shame, and spew all kinds of outrageous taunts designed to provoke and shame their opponents. Because of these strange behaviors from professional wrestlers, what used to be regarded as a honest-to-goodness sport has degenerated into some kind of theater of the absurd and the perverted.

But as the Mosley-Mayweather exchange—and the trash talk of Mayweather Sr. directed at Manny Pacquiao earlier—showed, even boxing seems destined to go the way of professional wrestling. This is because people in boxing seemed to have suddenly become so engrossed with the frills and ego-boosting aspect of competitive sports—the quest for crowns and titles. Pacquiao is the current pound-for-pound champion of the world (Marquez was supposed to be second), and it is a title that used to belong to Mayweather.

This can be expected in a situation where gigantic egos begin to dominate the scene and people lose sight of what sports are supposed to be about.

I think Mayweather Sr.’s accusations should be dismissed as ramblings of a grumpy old man. After all, he is the same guy who had earlier predicted that his ward Oscar de la Hoya would beat Pacquiao to a pulp. That turned out to be a dud. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, which regularly tests athletes before and after a fight, has issued a categorical statement saying Pacquiao is clean and has never tested positive for steroids, marijuana, cocaine or other supplements. Threatening Mayweather Sr. with a libel suit is precisely what Mayweather Sr. wants—a shot at being controversial once again. Let’s ignore him and remember revenge is a dish best served cold.

Reactions to Lacson's expose

Published last September 16, 2009 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

The gamut of reactions to Senator Panfilo Lacson’s recent exposé on the shenanigans of Joseph Ejercito Estrada during his short-lived stint as President of the Republic ranged from curiosity, to open-mouth incredulity, to disdain, to resignation, and of course, condemnation.

The problem with senatorial public confessions that come under the guise of a privilege speech delivered at the floor of the Senate is that they do not seem to serve any other purpose other than to attract media and public attention. The senator who is making the exposé cannot be held accountable for what he says during a privilege speech because of parliamentary immunity. As a result, quite a number of people think that privilege speeches often constitute unbridled abuse of parliamentary privilege. Thus, a lot of people can be forgiven for taking the content of privilege speeches with not just a grain, but perhaps bushels of salt.

There are those who wonder what Lacson’s motives for attacking—I mean exposing—Estrada now. There are those who think that Lacson’s exposé is an act of survival. The metaphor that some people are using to support this theory is that of a drowning man who is splashing around, clutching at anything and anyone around him, in the process dragging them down with him.

But someone who is familiar with how things work among people in the military offers a different theory. He thinks that Lacson’s recent exposé is a carefully calculated strategy that is part of larger scheme. The metaphor being used to illustrate this theory is that of a game of chess. Presumably, Lacson’s exposé is a gambit; either a subtle message or a clear threat being sent to certain powerful people who may have the means to pry Lacson out of the treacherous waters he is immersed in at the moment. If we are to believe the scuttlebutt, there are many other powerful people—businessmen, politicians, government officials—who are now sleepless in Metro Manila.

There are those who were honestly and sincerely shocked by Lacson’s revelations particularly of its damaging portrayal of Manuel V. Pangilinan as a devious, manipulative businessman guilty of unethical practices. Prior to Lacson’s exposé , Pangilinan has been largely seen as a knight in shining armor. In fact, there is a movement that is operating covertly and its mission is to convince Pangilinan to run for president in 2010.

Lacson’s exposé unleashed once again speculative drivel regarding the real reason behind the Yuchengcos’ decision to let go of their business interest in the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. Given that PLDT is blue-chip company and given further that the Yuchengcos have never really been strapped for cash, the decision to sell to Pangilinan has been an enigma in the business community for many years now. There has also been a lot of speculation on the real cause of the family intramurals that led to the unceremonious exit of Alfonso Yuchengco III from the family’s main business enterprises around the time of the sale of the PLDT shares.

Lacson’s motives for the exposé are not the only ones certain quarters find questionable. The senator is also being put to task for the timing of his revelations—almost a decade since the alleged shenanigans happened! Why only now? Why didn’t he speak up during the Estrada impeachment trial, or during the Estrada’s trial at the Sandiganbayan? Lacson’s justification that Estrada was still his boss at the time does not really count in his favor and only serves to reinforce the notion that he was involved in and benefited from the tomfoolery. As can be expected, there are a lot of people out there who scorn Lacson’s attempt to fashion himself as a hero.

But the more prevalent reaction to Lacson’s exposé was one of resignation. Put another way, most people think we’ve been there before. The details in terms of how these were done, who were involved, and how much was the booty remain unclear but as far as many people are concerned, there is no mistaking the fact that the Estrada presidency was guilty of widespread corruption. There are those who argue that it really wasn’t the corruption per se that was unforgivable—it was really the brazenness in which people around Estrada did it. Of course Estrada’s famed profligacy, his sanctimoniousness, and his legendary absence of work ethics were just as contemptible and were major factors that fueled the movement that eventually ousted him out of office.

The general drift of opinions is that the actual booty may not be comparable to the large-scale larceny of the Arroyo cronies but only because the Estrada administration did not stay in office longer than the Arroyos.

To be fair, there are of course those who continue to think that Estrada didn’t do anything wrong while he was in power and that if there was ever a weakness on his part it was simply that he was generous to his friends to a fault. These are the people who think Lacson is simply using the former president, victimizing him all over again for the sole purpose of boosting his own political stock. One has to be a real Estrada fanatic to be able to pursue this kind of logical acrobatics but then again, we do have people in this country who believe that Jose Rizal is God or that the remains of Noah’s Ark are located at Mt. Banahaw.

Of course it is possible that Lacson’s exposé is precisely what he says it is: A courageous patriotic act. Perhaps Lacson truly has had an attack of conscience and is now intent on setting things right. His assertion that Estrada should not be allowed to become president again strikes a chord in many people’s hearts although truth to tell, an Estrada presidency has about a strong a chance as there being snow in Metro Manila in May 2010; definitely not with Noynoy Aquino and Manny Villar already in the running.

Why is it difficult to believe Lacson’s sincerity? It’s as much a reflection of our own level of cynicism as it is about Lacson’s track record as public servant.

We’re a people that has been witness to a lot of controversies and strings of exposé—none of which resulted in a conviction or in major reforms. Also, we do have a surfeit of this exposé business —it’s almost like a cottage industry in this country. Our media networks thrive on these things and they churn out all kinds of dirt about practically everyone on their shows. Small wonder really that most of us have gotten numb to these things since our level of tolerance has already been stretched so wide to accommodate all possible kinds of betrayal of public trust.

And of course, Lacson is hardly the epitome of moral righteousness. Because he has distinguished himself for his penchant for using privilege speeches in attacking his adversaries, many among us can be forgiven for doubting his sincerity this time around.


Magnificent performances

Published last September 14, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

The Cultural Center of the Philippines is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this year. The milestone year is being celebrated through a festival of spectacular shows and breathtaking performances.

There are still quite a number of shows in the offing, for example, Cecille Licad is performing in a two-part concert later this week, but the highlights of the 40th anniversary festival were staged last week:

The 40th anniversary gala held Sept. 8 and the tribute to the CCP founding chair former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos held Sept. 11, birthday of the former dictator. And anyone looking for metaphors for the state of the arts in the country would have found it at the CCP in the two shows staged last week.

I know it’s not fair to make comparisons, particularly since the two shows were supposed to be distinct from each other, but I had this gnawing feeling that of the two shows, the tribute to the Imeldific would turn out to be the more colorful show. I chose not to go to the tribute to Imelda so I never did get to see for myself what the buzz was all about. CCP officials have tried to downplay the social significance of mounting a tribute for the former First Lady by asking people to dissociate culture and arts from politics. But it really is sad to note that more than 20 years since the Marcoses fell from grace, Imelda still reigns supreme in the arts scene and she still remains the de facto icon for culture and arts in this country.

The protest staged by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, the tribute itself, and images of the bejeweled madam got prominent treatment in various media (front page material in some newspapers) but there was hardly any mention of the 40th anniversary gala or of the CCP’s milestone. And, that, pretty much sums up media projection of culture and arts in this country.

There was a lot of caterwauling recently from among our living national artists and from the big names in the local culture and arts scene over the way Malacañang bastardized the selection process for national artists. We can recall that many people dramatically rallied behind the way the powers-that-be desecrated the role of the CCP in the selection process for national artists. Guess how many national artists were present at the CCP 40th anniversary gala? Only one: National Artist for sculpture Napoleon Abueva. It might be relevant to mention here too that half the seats of the Main Theater were empty during the gala. Where, oh where were the people who, just a few weeks ago, were shedding tears for and on behalf of the CCP and arts?

I am not saying that being present in an event celebrating a milestone is more important than taking part in a protest, although I grant that the latter offers more opportunities for media exposure. Surely we realize that the CCP and our artists also need people to watch performances not just rally for them. And while we are at it, we must also note that the President of the Republic sent a “mere” undersecretary of the Foreign Affairs Department as her official representative to the event.

But the show must go on. The cliché about how life begins at 40 found new expression in the theme of the CCP’s 40th year anniversary: Life begins anew.

The challenges that face the CCP are quite daunting. Let’s not anymore go into the structural problems of lack of resources and the convoluted state of our political bureaucracy. To my mind, the most important challenge that continues to face the CCP is the general impression that the kind of art the CCP champions is elitist in nature, and so detached from the social mainstream. This is a lot of nonsense of course because in its purest essence, art is universal. But recent events have even fortified the unfair dichotomy, no thanks to the efforts of Carlo Caparas and his supporters who have gleefully latched on to this non-issue as a way of justifying Caparas’s selection as national artist.

The CCP therefore needs to reinvent itself and strengthen its efforts in showcasing the very diverse and wide breadth of our artistry as a people while at the same time continuing to nourish the quest for excellence. And the anniversary gala was a great showcase of just exactly how the CCP should blaze new paths for Philippine arts and culture.

It’s a shame that not many people were there at the anniversary gala or that that kind of show could not be made available to many Filipinos. The anniversary gala featured more than 300 performers—some very established names, some relatively new and promising ones, even some celebrities (matinee idol Piolo Pascual was one of the performers) representing various performing art forms.

The first part of the gala featured the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Oscar Yatco performing the first and fifth movements of Gustav Mahler’s The Resurrection. Performing with the PPO were four world-renowned Philippine choral groups including the Madrigal Singers and soloists Camille Lopez Molina and Jai Sabas Aracama. I must admit that I initially found the choice of symphony a bit disappointing (I expected a grander symphony) but I understand that the symphony provided a profound link to CCP’s history—it was the first symphony presented by the PPO in their very first concert after their reorganization in 1982. But watching Maestro Yatco wielding the baton is always a heartwarming sight and Molina and Aracama was astounding beyond words.

The second and third parts of the gala however, were pure joy—a veritable feast of the senses, a glorious celebration of the arts. Taking center stage were various performing groups in a grand display of creativity and passion and performing excellence. It would be difficult to even try to describe the kind of synergy witnessed onstage as various dance groups—classical dancers from Ballet Philippines, folk dancers from the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group, street dancers, gymnasts, ballroom dancers, even cheerleaders—wove together performances that reflected the sheer beauty of our culture. What was even more astounding was the way classical music and pop hits including Eddie Peregrina’s Memories Of Our Dreams and that ditty Boom Tarat Tarat were successfully blended seamlessly into a collage that simply took breaths away.

The same level of creativity and artistry was also showcased in the fusion duets that featured classical singers and pop artists masterfully bridging the great divide between opera pieces such as Nessun Dorma and kundiman classics such as Nasaan Ka Irog, between Un Bel Di, Vedremo from M. Butterfly and Imelda Papin’s Bakit (Kung Liligaya Ka Sa Piling Ng Iba). Danny Tan, arranger, and Ryan Cayabyab, conductor, and all the performers truly deserved the standing ovation the audience gave them at the end of the gala.

As I am clearly running out of space, let me just end by saluting the CCP on its 40th year and exclaiming to all and sundry —ang galing talaga ng Pinoy artist! Bravo, CCP! Bravo Philippine artists!

Real creamy goodness

Published last September 9, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I love ice cream. It’s my comfort food. I don’t know if there is any kid in this country who does not consider ice cream a treat. When I was a child growing up in the province, ice cream was not something that was readily available and the very few itinerant ice cream vendors that went around our town passed through our street only once a day. Thus, we kids had half an ear perpetually on the watch out for that oh-so-familiar and much-awaited tinkling of the mamang sorbetero’s bell. What a sight we must have been—emerging from playhouses or climbing down trees hastily putting on rubber slippers and running off to welcome the man who would make our day.

Kids of this generation are luckier. Not only is ice cream readily available today, there are also lots of variations to choose from. There are also new ice cream products that are coming out that’s not only giving the more established brands stiff competition because they offer something new and something better in terms of both quality and price.

Anyway. What got me writing about ice cream were two incidents that happened recently, both having to do with ice cream or at least variations of it. I have written in the past about the need for stricter and more comprehensive oversight of the food industry business, particularly those at the micro enterprise level such as those engaged in the production of dirty ice cream and some of its variants such as ice scramble, ice candies, ice drops, etc. Many of the stuff that is sold in our streets are really unsafe for consumption. The conditions that attend the manufacture of these products are abysmally substandard. I had the opportunity to revalidate these observations recently.

Last Saturday, I was invited to a small family affair in one of the side streets around the maze of the Blumentritt area, which turned out to be near the place where various assortment of palamig are produced. I spotted a couple of men shaving ice right on the sidewalk beside a canal. Given the fact that they were going about their work without any regard for sanitation—they were half-naked, their hands and feet were filthy, and there was mud and dirty all over the immediate vicinity of their workplace—one would have thought they were shaving ice to be used as preservative for fish products. Actually, they were shaving ice to be used for ice scramble, the local equivalent of snow cones.

As if the filthy conditions were not enough, I also noted that the ingredients they were using were not only devoid of any nutritional value, they were also of dubious quality. Into a pail of ice were thrown food coloring that looked like brown sugar and artificial flavor—that was it.

I am told the same conditions attend the production of the many other food products that are sold in our streets. When we come to think about it, it’s a little ironic that we worry a lot about the other things that supposedly pose danger to the public such as for instance the safety of our transportation systems but we don’t worry enough about what are being sold to and ingested by our children on the streets.

The sad thing is that there are actually better options out there except that not many people are aware of it, or in some cases ignore because of misconceptions. For example, many people think branded ice cream that’s sold in scooping stations are more expensive compared to dirty ice cream that’s sold in the streets. There’s also this fallacy that food that tastes better and served in better packaging is for the rich, not for the masa. And this is where the other ice cream incident comes into the picture. There is an ice cream brand in the market that is affordable yet is of superior quality.

I’ve been hearing about this new ice cream brand that a lot of people swear by because it is so creamy and yet is reasonably priced, but I never really had the chance to experience it until last weekend.

I first heard about the brand from my nine-year-old nephew who is a fan because it is available at a store near his school. This nephew, who also loves ice cream so much he insists that it qualifies as dinner on its own, is quite an expert on ice cream. We were in a supermarket a couple of months back and I noted his frantic search among the various freezers that contained ice cream products. He was looking for his favorite ice cream brand, and was sorely disappointed because it was not available in that supermarket. The ice cream he was looking for was Creamline ice cream. I initially thought it was a local franchise of a global brand but I have learned that it is proudly Filipino. It’s manufactured right out of Angeles, Pampanga from where the Clark Air Base used to be. However, the milk that is used to produce Creamline ice cream is imported from Europe and Australia, which probably accounts for the fact that the ice cream is creamier.

But what I really liked about Creamline ice cream is the fact that it is less sweet compared to other brands. I know; the general definition of ice cream is that it is supposed to be sweet but then again, it doesn’t have to be cloyingly so.

Creamline opened an ice cream house at Nakpil Street at Malate, right beside the Philippine Women’s University, last July. It’s just a couple of blocks from where we live but unfortunately, I never really got to patronize the place until last weekend. The kids in the house are regulars of the ice cream house, though. The Creamline ice cream house offers a delectable menu of ice cream dishes that are also distinctive for their Pinoy touch. Their topseller, for instance, is a chocolate concoction called Pinatubo Overload, and it is a mountain of chocolate-flavored ice cream piled on top of each other and drizzled with lots of syrup and other goodies. Their version of the classic Banana split is called Banana Split Fiesta, and it is a delightful take on the halo halo—in addition to the banana slices and the ice cream, it has nata de coco and other ingredients that make halo halo a favorite. And all these at only about a third of what they would usually cost at the more traditional ice cream houses in malls.

According to the store manager, Jon Rivera, Creamline is able to offer quality ice cream at very affordable prices (all their products including popsicles and other retail products) costs lower than competition because of the company’s efficient production process and a unique marketing strategy—they enter into distributorship, dealership, and retailer agreements with various individuals. For a small investment of just about P3,000, housewives can already sell Creamline ice cream from their stores or even houses. It’s a variation of the current business trend of going straight to the market instead of having too many middlemen.

Coincidentally, I learned that Creamline ice cream had a formidable team of people behind it who have put at stake their outstanding reputations. The chairman of the board is Sonny Vistan, formerly the most senior ranking Filipino executive at Citibank, former president of Landbank and Solidbank, and recently, former chairman of United Coconut Planters Bank. People in the banking industry know Vistan as a man of unquestionable integrity and that’s another reason to trust Creamline ice cream. It’s guaranteed to deliver what it promises, in this case, real creamy goodness at very affordable prices.

Aquino's challenge

Published last September 7, 2009 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today. 

Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino remains coy and is still trying hard to convey the impression that he is still undecided about whether or not he should throw his hat into the presidential race.

The seeming indecision is fortifying the air of mystique around him. For now, it distinguishes him from the rest who are scrambling all over the place to get noticed.

However, it doesn’t take that much analysis to conclude that the decision to run has already been reached. Mar Roxas’ withdrawal from the race pretty much sealed the whole deal; it’s really inconceivable to imagine that Roxas would throw away all that hard work and all that investment—including, as some naughty minds have pointed out, giving up bachelorhood and turning his engagement and impending wedding into a public relations circus—for something that is still uncertain. As a friend mischievously surmised, Korina Sanchez would not have forsaken her dream of becoming first lady for something that wasn’t already definite.

So what’s with all the stalling and quibbling? Ah, but we’ve been there before, haven’t we? Aquino seems intent on revisiting the trail his mother, the late former President Cory Aquino, took before she plunged headlong to meet her destiny as the 11th President of the Republic. Like his mother, Noynoy went into a religious retreat. There’s now a signature campaign under way. There’s even a yellow brigade that projects itself as some kind of a moral movement being organized.

What is really being done is the solidification of forces, the marshaling of troops behind Aquino as the opposition candidate. Reliable sources say that frenzied informal negotiations are now under way among the various political camps allied with the opposition to achieve this. People are trying to recapture the Cory Aquino magic and harness this as a potent force that would catapult Noynoy Aquino to Malacañang.

Small wonder, really, that the one word that has been cited as justification for Aquino’s sudden emergence as the proverbial dark horse in the presidential race is “destiny.” I have written about this recently and I will repeat it here: It is of course a little sad that the one qualification, the main qualification actually, that is being put out there to prop up Noynoy Aquino’s claim on the Presidency is the fact he is his parents’ son—as if the circumstance of one’s birth were a guarantee of competence. There’s very little discussion about Noynoy Aquino’s skills, his overall preparedness for the job. There’s no platform to speak of, no program of government, no advocacies as yet. And quite frankly, there’s even this effort to varnish his inadequacies with the patina of good intentions—as if good intentions were good enough.

As someone who has written more often enough about how the presidency is more about stewardship than about anything else, I am willing to give Noynoy Aquino the benefit of the doubt. I am of the firm belief that getting this country back on its feet is something that is everyone’s job—not just the president’s— and installing someone everyone can rally around as a symbol of change and hope is not necessarily a bad thing.

Having said that, however, it is important to point out that conditions in the country today are not the same as in the early 1980s when the country was under the dictatorship. The Cory Magic may still be palpable today, barely a month since she passed away, but given our collective short memory, it would take more than a physical resemblance and a family name to sustain the emotional connection until May next year. Manny Villar and Noli de Castro are already way ahead in the surveys and both have well-entrenched political machineries in place. It might be a good idea to remind the people behind Aquino that elections in this country are also a function of political infrastructure at the grassroots level.

At the same time, voters today are so much more mature than they were in the past. There’s more direct access to information. Already, there’s a lot of information being passed around— surreptitiously at the moment out of respect perhaps for the late Cory Aquino— about Noynoy’s supposed weak work ethics and his supposed dislike of confrontation. People are still being kind right now and whatever misgivings people have about Noynoy Aquino are still cloaked as mere “reservations.” But let’s make no mistake about this, the question that is foremost in people’s minds is: Does Noynoy Aquino has what it takes to get tough when the punches start raining?

Given that the discussions about Noynoy Aquino remains so far at the level of personal empathy and emotional identification, an unspoken concern is his ability to rein in his irrepressible youngest sister. I know I am going to get it again from rabid Kris Aquino fans that mistake my fascination for the “queen of all media” as pure unadulterated loathing, but it really doesn’t help that the juiciest and most substantial scoop people are getting about Noynoy Aquino’s state of mind come from Kris Aquino’s gossip shows rather than from more traditional and mainstream sources.

My friends and I were quite appalled that Kris Aquino could chastise his elder brother in public—literally calling him her ampon (adopted ward) and portraying him as financially dependent on her. During her latest bout of verbal diarrhea, she went as far as to impose her wishes on her elder brother’s personal life, categorically telling him—on public television—that he should remain single.

Okay, in the interest of transparency, I am going to admit that part of my reaction has to do with the fact that I personally know Noynoy Aquino’s girlfriend although I haven’t really talked to Shalani Soledad for years now. Soledad was my student in college a few years back and I knew her to be a really decent and gracious person. Even back then, she was already inclined toward politics and was embarked on a political career while still a student. In short, to paraphrase Cecille Guidote Alvarez famous words—she was not an idiot or a non-entity before she became Noynoy Aquino’s girlfriend. The fact that she has opted to stay out of the limelight despite being the first councilor of Valenzuela and has chosen not to say anything in her defense despite what many consider a very public rejection of her says a lot about the kind of stuff she is made of.

To be fair, we have it on second hand sources that Noynoy Aquino privately chastised her youngest sister. If we are to go by Kris Aquino’s latest bulletin, she has apologized to her brother for intruding into his private life. So all’s well that ends well? For the moment, yes. But really, Noynoy Aquino, needs to become his own man now. He needs to define what he is about outside of his parent’s image.

Photo-op of the messiahs

Published last September 2, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

In the front pages of most newspapers last Monday was that photo of 13 presidential wannabes linking arms for clean and honest elections in 2010.

The photo was of particular human interest for several reasons.

First, because it was the first time a group actually succeeded in bringing together more than seven putative candidates in one venue—13 out of the 16 or so presidential aspirants. We all know there are quite a number of people out there with a moist eye on the presidency but for the most part, we’ve only seen them individually. The impact of actually seeing a real visual of all 13 candidates together was quite mystifying. My eight-year-old niece put it in better perspective when she asked me “do all of them really have a chance to become president?”

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough leaders because we do have an abundance of them; our problem is that we don’t have enough leaders in this country that have not been inflicted with the Messiah complex. Everyone seems to think they are the only ones who can do the job. No one else would do.

Second, the 13 candidates were not only shown in a rare moment of unity, kapit-bisig style. They were also shown flashing their pearly whites as if they were bosom buddies out for a stroll instead of competitors for the highest seat in the land. Most of these people have already started hitting each other. We expect the exchange of blows to intensify further as the deadline for the filing of candidacies looms nearer.

I saw a clip on television that showed Senator Manny Villar greeting his adversary Senator Jajajajamby Madrigal with a peck on the cheek at the breakfast that preceded the event. Of course they will always claim that their running feud is not personal, but we know that given half the chance they each would like to demolish the political career of the other. Seeing all 13 being genial to each other was a pleasant experience because it validated the point that there is room for diplomacy and civility even in Philippine politics.

Third, the photo showed the 13 candidates at the starting line of the marathon. It’s almost redundant to cite the metaphorical implication of that photo-op. I’ve said this before but I will repeat it just the same: The campaign season has started and I am not just talking about those slick television ads and those streamers and tarpaulin banners that have suddenly sprouted in many streets.

The presence of the presidential hopefuls at an event supposedly staged to drum up awareness and support for clean and honest elections in 2010 was an exercise in hypocrisy. Many of these people are already engaged in practices that do not advance the cause of clean and honest elections in this country. The fact that only Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay actually ran in the marathon while the rest simply went there for the photo-op and then conveniently disappeared afterwards proved the lack of sincerity of the candidates for the cause.

It has been argued that those infomercials do not violate election rules as they do not specifically and directly urge people to vote for the candidates being pushed in those infomercials. I don’t know which one is more absurd—the efforts of candidates or those of the Commission on Elections in trying to pass off as acceptable something that is painfully obvious as unacceptable. At any rate, these infomercials are loaded with subliminal messages that are even probably more dangerous than direct, clearly spelled-out and articulated messages.

Moreover, a friend who is a local government official in the Visayas told me over the weekend that the political machinery in the provinces are already being oiled and calibrated this early with election money from the major presidential wannabes. There will be cheating—or at least attempts to cheat at the grassroots level and the mechanisms to do this are already being laid this early.

The absence of Bro. Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai religious community at the photo-op was notable because among all those who have thrown their hats into the presidential derby, he was the most talked about in the last few weeks. Reliable sources say that Velarde is smarting from having been rebuffed publicly by Joseph Estrada who denied he ever entered into any political deal with Velarde. I never really believed Velarde was seriously determined to seek the presidency, anyway.

But Bro. Eddie Villanueva and Catholic priest Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio were there. Both are still intent in seeking the presidency. I know that both have very little chances of winning, particularly if the Mar Roxas-Noynoy Aquino team gets finalized, but I still want to register my reservations at the idea of having religious leaders as candidates for the highest seats of the land.

This matter of religious leaders seeking elective positions is a complication that we can do without. Unfortunately the Messiah complex afflicts even those who claim to have God’s private telephone number.

I agree that we do have a moral crisis in the country today and that a large part of our problem is attributable to this crisis. However, I do not subscribe to the gibberish being peddled out there that the crisis that can only be solved through the election of a religious leader as president.

Oh please, the assertion that only religious people have moral ascendancy is deeply flawed. I’ll probably reconsider this stand when the Church and religious people start paying taxes, when they stop parlaying their status into certain perks and privileges, and when they start to live and act like the flock they are supposed to serve instead of like kings and monarchs. Besides, I think it is very hypocritical for any member of the religious sector to simply blame others for the moral crisis that we face today and absolve themselves of culpability. If we come to really think about it, the moral crisis is also indicative of the utter failure of the Church to do its job.

My main reservation, however, still has to do with the philosophical, ideological, and even theological biases that any leader of a religious sector automatically has, on account of his strong faith and his position in his religious group. Whether Panlilio, Velarde, and Villanueva accept it or not, they carry with them a lot of baggage that will render them ineffective as president. They cannot, for instance, endorse contraception or allow gambling, or even sex education. The separation of the Church and the State is built on certain givens that have not changed through the decades.

The return of sitcoms

Published last August 26, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Last Monday I wrote about how the clamor to make Senator Noynoy Aquino the next President of the Republic of the Philippines has shaken up the rather fragile state of Philippine politics. Whatever were there in the form of formal or informal agreements, mutual understanding, and coalitions prior to Aug. 1 have now become tentative and subject to renegotiation.

There are many things that can be said about this development and I am sure many pundits out there will try to read more into it. I meant to write about the whole phenomenon for today’s column, citing some of the comments I received in response to last Monday’s piece but I noted that most of the column spaces in various newspapers last Monday and yesterday have already been devoted to the issue. So I will just summarize what I meant to say as follow-up to last Monday’s column in three points.

First, what this development indicates is that we might have pretensions to having advanced political systems in this country. In reality, however, what we have is far from mature and stable; in fact, we often make up the rules as we move along.

Second, the outpouring of support for Noynoy Aquino may be largely attributable to the “Ninoy and Cory Aquino magic” but the younger Aquino’s non-traditional- politician posturing is a definite vector. His reluctance and seeming lack of enthusiasm even in the face of the groundswell support only serve to add to the air of mystique around him. While everyone else is jumping all over the place, aggressively and shamelessly volunteering themselves for the post, Noynoy is playing coy and uninterested. Many people interpret this to mean that the man has no personal or vested political agenda, which makes him the better choice.

And finally, what this development clearly highlights is that despite efforts made to reform the political system and to advance the cause of voter education in our country, the matter of choosing our leaders is still a largely emotional process for many of our voters—even among those who are supposed to know better. There is still a tendency to prop up cult-like images around certain personalities and political dynasties.

Having said that, I will now leave the punditry to other columnists and commentators and move on to more mundane stuff.

* * *

People who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s had limited options in terms of what they could watch on television. Cable TV and its smorgasbord of channels was still a decade or two away and unless one had access to satellite facilities, one could only watch foreign shows such as popular drama series in the United States by renting betamax tapes that some enterprising people put together. My family tried to follow one such soap opera in the United States (Santa Barbara) but gave up after 40 betamax tapes when it became apparent that the show was going to last longer than 50 episodes.

There were essentially two types of local television programs that were in vogue in those days: Variety shows and situational comedies more popularly called sitcoms. The list that follows spans a wide period of probably 20 years, but examples of variety shows that were popular in those days were The GMA Supershow and Superstar on Sundays, Vilma on Fridays, The Dick and Carmi Show on Mondays, etc. Okay, I am going to wear my heart on my sleeve on this one and admit that that mishmash of raging hormones, pseudo-talents and godawful fashion sense known as That’s Entertainment was the rage when I was in college.

I was, however, more partial to sitcoms as a growing boy, due largely to the fact that there was only one television set in the house—a black and white Radiowealth with a rotary button for switching channels and which came with its own cabinet—and my grandmother only allowed us to watch TV on specific hours at night, which was the time sitcoms were on.

Examples of sitcoms that my family and I followed religiously were John en Marsha, Joey and Son, Abangan ang Susunod na Kabanata, Chikachicks, Palibhasa Lalake, Iskul Bukol, Duplex, and Hapi Haus.

With the advent of the daily soap opera, weekly sitcoms died a slow death. Sitcoms didn’t really have a chance against daily soap operas, which offered more in terms of drama, action, plot twists, and yes, sex. Because they were only shown once a week, the plots of sitcoms were limited to simple conflicts that had to be untangled and resolved within an hour of airtime. This would often mean mindless, shallow and extremely trivial issues blown out of proportion. On the other hand, daily soap operas had all the time in the world to complicate matters to absurd extremes. It became almost obligatory for “dead” characters in soap operas to get resurrected. Or for a long-lost daughter to get reunited with her parents who have risen from abject poverty to become billionaires, after getting married to a brother who turns out to have been adopted. You get the drift.

I am happy to note, however, that the sitcom seems to be making a comeback. For a number of Sundays now, people in my house have been following religiously the travails of newlyweds Cecil and George. It’s a sitcom in the tradition of John en Marsha but updated to reflect current realities. The wife, George (short for Georgia), is a female cop while the husband Cecil (short for Cecilio), is an academic. The usual interfering in-laws include a snotty mother-in-law (Tessie Tomas) and a benevolent bear of a father-in-law (Al Tantay). The couple in the sitcom is real-life husband and wife Ryan and Judy Ann Agoncillo, who as everyone knows, tied the knot only recently. What makes the sitcom endearing is that the whole thing has “natural” written all over it; the Agoncillos don’t look like they are acting (they are on their honeymoon stage, after all) and the twists in the sitcom don’t seem all that implausible.

The material, of course, requires a parental guidance advisory. The sitcom tackles marital issues, after all; and the formula requires that each episode should end on a happy note. This means the couple end up in bed somehow. But credit goes to the people behind the sitcom particularly Director Joey Reyes for successfully keeping everything simple, clean, fun, and funny. Proof indeed that TV fare does not have to be complicated to be enjoyable.

Cecil and George is halfway through its first season and its relative success is indicated by the fact that not only has the competition come up with its own sitcom—it has scheduled that sitcom to air on the same time slot as Cecil and George. The competition is a sitcom entitled Show Me The Manny and stars Manny Pacquiao and Marian Rivera along with a host of comedians. Providing additional human interest is the Pacman’s own irrepressible mother, Dionesia Pacquiao herself.

Pitting the two sitcoms against each other puts viewers at the losing end but what can we do? That’s the way our media networks play their little games. As a result, we had to switch between the two channels last Sunday to try to catch snippets of each sitcom. Our verdict: Show Me The Manny still needs a lot of work to make it more natural and less contrived. And sadly, all that hype about Mommy Dionesia fell flat; the woman is not funny when made to act like someone else. She is funny being herself.

Deja vu

Published last August 24, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today. 

As of last week, there were 15 people who had signified their intention, willingness, or availability to become President of the Republic of the Philippines next year.

I am aware of course that many—if not most—of these people are actually angling for a lower post, perhaps that of Vice President or perhaps that of a senator and that the declaration of interest in the presidency is more of a campaign strategy to gain early media mileage. Sliding down to the vice presidency or for a senatorial post makes the candidate seem like a reasonable and gracious person who is willing to give up personal ambition for the sake of the greater good.

Some of these people also don’t have the resources to run a grueling national political campaign and will eventually buckle down.

But here’s the list so far, of the people who have indicated interest in becoming the next President of the Republic of the Philippines, in alphabetical order: Jejomar Binay, Noli de Castro, John Carlos de los Reyes, Chiz Escudero, Joseph Estrada, Bayani Fernando, Richard Gordon, Loren Legarda, Jamby Madrigal, Fr. Ed Panlilio, Mar Roxas, Gibo Teodoro, Bro. Mike Velarde, Bro. Eddie Villanueva, and Manny Villar.

It is an interesting bunch. More than half, or eight of the so-called presidentiables are either incumbent (Escudero, Gordon, Legarda, Madrigal, Roxas and Villar) or former (De Castro and Estrada) senators. Three are religious leaders (Panlilio, Velarde, Villanueva). Three are incumbent Cabinet members of the Arroyo administration (De Castro, Fernando, Teodoro). Four earned their stripes as exemplary mayors (Binay—Makati, Estrada—San Juan, Fernando—Marikina, and Gordon—Olongapo City).

Incidentally, if you are wondering who the heck John Carlos de los Reyes is, he is the councilor from Olongapo City who has been drafted as the presidential candidate of the Kapatiran Party, I am sure he is going to be declared a nuisance candidate eventually but as of now he has as much right as anyone else to be considered a presidential aspirant.

Many of these people have prepared extensively and long. Villar and Roxas, in particular, have already invested hundreds of millions of personal money—supposedly donated by supporters, which as we all know is euphemism for family members—in early and relentless political advertisements.

And now, in a phenomenon reminiscent of what happened in 1985, all the efforts and posturing of these 15 people are now under threat because of groundswell support for a reluctant candidate. There is now clamor for Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino Jr. to run for president. Just like in 1985, the Aquinos have expressed reservations about giving in to the clamor. It took several millions of signatures and heavy pressure from various quarters before the late former President Cory Aquino acceded to the clamor for her to run for president.

Senator Aquino’s sisters have repeatedly stressed that Noynoy is not yet prepared to become president at this time. Ballsy Aquino, always the voice of reason and sobriety, expressed it quite well when she said that the people pushing for Noynoy’s candidacy for president should first ascertain if they are doing so out of genuine belief that the senator is the best person for the job or just out of sympathy for the Aquino family’s loss.

Are we reliving history all over again? Not that a Noynoy Aquino presidency is the worst thing that could happen in this country, but one wishes that our selection process for the highest seat in the land is more a product of wise and careful decision-making process rather than purely emotional and visceral. Like I said, I don’t think installing Noynoy Aquino as president is necessarily a terrible idea but surely the presidency is not something that’s awarded as some kind of a prize —a gift or offering—in exchange for the tragedies and sacrifices of a family.

There are those who insist—and I must admit that there is a part of me that empathizes with this idea—that the ability to unite the country and moral ascendancy are two critical dimensions that must govern the selection of the next president. I am afraid though that these are not enough.

Yes, we may be terribly fragmented right now but imagine how much more chaotic things would be if government is not in control and someone without the necessary preparation and competencies were elected president. There are other competencies that must be taken into account such as stewardship, proven leadership and management skills, and a viable and comprehensive platform. Again, I am not saying Senator Noynoy Aquino does not have all these—just that there is a difference between having prepared for the challenge and therefore having the willingness to be measured against the criteria and having been pushed for the job out of emotional reasons.

So far, all indicators lead to a possible candidacy for vice president. It’s the win-win solution. Mar Roxas and Noynoy Aquino would be a formidable tandem. Both senators are in the same party, both are scions of political dynasties, both are sons of illustrious senators, and both are forebears of former occupants of the Palace. Of course they also have other ties that bind and the more showbiz-oriented among us would point to the fact that Mar Roxas’ mother is Kris Aquino’s doting godmother and that Roxas’ fiancée, broadcaster Korina Sanchez, was a former girlfriend of Aquino.

But then again, we’ve been there before and history often has a strange way of teaching us lessons. Prior to the groundswell clamor for Cory Aquino to run for president in 1985, Doy Laurel was the putative candidate for president. A Cory Aquino presidency was then unthinkable. We’re also a people with a bent for taking matters into our hands when emotionally provoked. Anything can happen.

What these developments in the political front tell us is that, really, even the best-laid plans and the most sophisticated political strategy are hapless before acts of God. Perhaps Senators Villar and Roxas should jettison all the political strategy and machinery for the old-fashioned strategy that has worked so well for former President Cory Aquino—storming the heavens with prayers.

Punishing unmarried pregnant women

Published last August 19 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today. 

We’ve been talking about women’s issues for so long in this country one would think that significant strides have already been made in terms of putting in place the necessary legal framework that would guarantee the protection of women from discrimination. Unfortunately, we are a country that likes to talk endlessly about issues and show off about how vigilant we are of certain rights and privileges. However, when push comes to shove and we are required to manifest commitment… ah, that’s another matter altogether.

After much hemming and hawing, the Magna Carta for Women was finally passed by Congress and was enacted into law by the President recently. The law is supposed to be comprehensive—that’s why it is called a magna carta, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be the mother document— the charter—that spells out every woman’s right in this country that is guaranteed and protected by law. Such rights cover a wide spectrum—from protection from all forms of violence including those committed by the State, to participation and representation in various councils and bodies, to equal treatment under the law, to equal access to all kinds of services and opportunities.

The law is actually quite detailed in its enumeration of what exactly it seeks to protect women from. Based on the enumeration and on the explicitly-defined purposes of the law, there really shouldn’t be any room left for confusion as to the real intent of the law. It’s a rather known fact that there exists institutionalized discrimination against women. The law also took some time to craft, and unlike some populist measures such as the proposed amendments to the Labor Code, actually went through the gauntlet of committee hearings and plenary session debates.

This is why it came as a major surprise to hear of party-list representative Ulpiano Sarmiento of A Teacher Party List Group now complaining about how certain provisions of the Magna Carta for Women are unconstitutional. To begin with, where was this guy when the bill was being deliberated in Congress?

As it turns out, the honorable party-list representative was particularly incensed at the pronouncements of Senator Pia Cayetano and Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza that the new law now renders illegal the punishment (either through expulsion, dismissal, or refusal to admit) of pregnant but unmarried female students and teachers by school officials.

In case you don’t know, this is the norm particularly in Catholic schools and in a number of state colleges and universities. I must stress, however, that there have been a number of Catholic schools that have already reconsidered this norm. The De La Salle schools, for example, no longer adhere to this.

But the norm continues to be observed in many other Catholic schools and in a number of state colleges and universities. Female students and teachers who get pregnant out of wedlock are deemed unqualified to continue being connected with the school or university because they are no longer of “good moral character.” I know; it’s a throwback to the middle ages and reminds you of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous literary work The Scarlet Letter. This norm is strictly implemented in teacher-training institutions such as normal colleges and universities where majority of the students are females and studying to become teachers.

Sarmiento claims such a measure violates the constitutional guarantee of academic freedom as the new law supposedly impinges on the right of schools to hire and fire teachers, as if the hiring and firing of teachers were an absolute right not governed by a number of laws and statutes. Sarmiento seems blissfully oblivious to laws, including labor laws, that govern the hiring and firing of teachers and these have never been seen before as violations of academic freedom.

Sarmiento’s diatribe, however, does not stop there. He also regurgitated that old yarn about how such a measure violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. His logic is startling in its simplicity; it’s surreal. In essence, he insists that the hiring and firing of teachers in Catholic schools is related to the exercise of religious freedom. Since the Catholic faith considers it immoral to have children out of wedlock, then Catholic schools have every right to dismiss unmarried female teachers who get pregnant. It seems the honorable representative is not only oblivious of labor laws and issues, he seems also confused about the difference between moral and legal issues. Moreover, he seems unaware of the human rights implications of his rather puritanical advocacy.

The funny thing is that of all the advocacy points related to the Magna Carta for Women, this particular issue is the one that everyone (at least those I have talked to and those that I have listened to) felt strongly about. Many of my colleagues in the human resource management profession had ambivalent feelings towards the other advocacy points. As can be expected, quite a number of male practitioners could not empathize with provisions that seemed to hint at reverse discrimination—i.e., inferences about women being entitled to certain guarantees purely on account of their gender. A friend of mine felt that Senator Pia Cayetano’s and Rep. Liza Maza’s repeated harping in a radio show recently on equal opportunities for women in politics, in government and in the private sector was annoying because the two did not stress that women also have to measure up to standards and should not be entitled to certain perks just because they were women.

But everyone I talked to were in complete agreement that it is about time that female teachers who get pregnant out of wedlock be given security and protection.

This whole business of Catholic schools punishing female teachers and students for getting pregnant out of wedlock is not only highly discriminatory and grossly unfair. It smacks of hypocrisy. It also sends the wrong message in terms of social responsibility. It penalizes women simply for being women; for having been assigned the social responsibility of bearing life. Catholic schools do not punish with expulsion or dismissal male teachers who get their girlfriends pregnant when they are also just as responsible for the pregnancy.

Moreover, punishing female teachers and students for getting pregnant out of wedlock smacks of condemnation and deprives them of getting a new lease in life or recovering from mistakes. And granting for the sake of argument that getting pregnant out of wedlock is a mistake, punishing unmarried females for being pregnant runs counter to the Catholic doctrine of “punishing the sin and not the sinner.”

Sarmiento’s belated misgivings are not only irritating precisely because they are indicative of ignorance and misogyny which happen to be main reasons why such a law has been deemed necessary to begin with. Sarmiento is also doing a major disservice to his very constituency— teachers, majority of which are females to begin with. It makes one wonder, is Sarmiento representing teaching as a profession or the teachers themselves in Congress?

Populist but potentially disastrous

Published last August 17 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today. 

I have three “guests” in my house, promdi relatives who came to Manila in search of the proverbial green pasture. Two are undergraduates who dropped out of college in Tacloban City—one because he lost interest in pursuing a college degree; the other one because she got pregnant and had to get married. In typical Pinoy fashion, they cast their fortunes to fate and came to Manila to find employment. In short, they did what many Filipinos are wont to do—nakipagsapalaran.

The third is a graduate of a nautical engineering course who is in the wait-list of a maritime company. As most everyone knows, the current minimum waiting time for fresh graduates in the maritime industry before they can board a ship is at least two years—and that’s if they are lucky to have connections. That is because there is a dearth of employment opportunities in the global maritime industry on account of the global recession. There are few cargo ships circumnavigating the globe today.

With a little help from some of my friends, all three have found employment as contractual clerks. Obviously, all three are under-qualified but have been hired as extra hands to help with various odds and ends such as filing documents and processing simple tasks. They are representative of the situations many contractual workers find themselves in. They perform clerical functions that, in reality, can actually be automated or rendered unnecessary through productivity measures.

Luckily, one of the three had been deemed qualified to become a regular employee despite the lack of a college degree and her regularization is now being processed. So yes, many companies do regularize those who are found qualified during their contractual employment.

The prospects for the other two are uncertain. No company will hire a graduate of a nautical engineering course as regular office clerk even if he has shown aptitude for doing simple tasks, because companies do hire employees who can assume higher and greater responsibilities in the future and this often means having the right academic foundation. The other one clearly lacks the kind of analytical skills that can only be derived from formal academic training so he is probably going to end up doing odds and ends unless he decides to go back to school, something that I have been urging him to do. He is pinning his hopes, however, on what the union of the company he is currently connected with as a contractual employee says is already forthcoming—a law that will supposedly do away with contractualization. Instead of enhancing his competitiveness in the labor market, he prefers to wait for manna from heaven.

That manna takes the form of a bill pending in Congress, Republic Act 6482, which on the surface seeks to provide security of tenure by putting very stringent rules against contractualization of labor. This particular bill has already passed the labor committee at the House of Representatives and is now about to be scheduled for plenary. Given that the law is populist and elections are forthcoming, the probability that the bill will be passed is almost a foregone conclusion. There is a very real possibility that the bill will be passed without the benefit of a plenary debate, unless of course our representatives come to their senses and see the disastrous consequences of such a law.

The issue of labor contracting has been politicized and romanticized to great extremes such as what was depicted in that indie movie entitled Endo. Endo is colloquial term for end of contract which in this country happens at the end of a six-month period courtesy of a law that says companies are obligated to absorb employees who render more than six months of work. The consequence of this law is that companies end up hiring new contractual employees every six months and contractual employees go through a succession of six-month jobs in various companies.

This phenomenon is happening because the jobs that are contracted are really non-essential to company operations and can be done away with, or are seasonal in nature. The other reason is that the employees may have shown the aptitude for the simple tasks that they are contracted to do for the particular period but cannot be hired as regular employees because they do not have the qualifications to move up the organization in the near future. Hiring them as regular employees would mean that companies would be stuck with employees who are in dead-end jobs with no prospects of career advancement.

The obvious solution to this problem is not forcing companies to stop hiring contractual as this would mean reduction in jobs. Nor is the solution forcing companies to absorb contractual employees as regular employees because this would mean saddling business with a lot of employees who are in dead-end positions. To avoid such a situation, business would naturally protect itself by hiring only those who are qualified and in the absence of such, would resort to putting in place productivity measures such as automation. Passing a law that penalizes business for temporarily compromising on hiring standards and for providing temporary employment can only result in job contraction. It’s a loss-loss solution.

Of course there are business organizations that abuse the law allowing contractualization. I have heard of certain companies in the retail or in the food service industry who purposely hire contractual employees even for jobs that are essential to the company’s business or who purposely do not regularize employees even after the six months simply because they don’t want to pay benefits that come with regularization. Reliable sources in Congress say this was exactly the impetus that pushed the crafting of RA 6482. Unfortunately, such myopia will result in disastrous consequences.

The problem is not the absence of safeguards against such abusive practices because there are more than enough laws that can be used to penalize these employers. The problem is that employees are either unaware of their rights—a study conducted by the University of the Philippines School of Labor Relations says that 70 percent of employees are unaware of their rights precisely because they did not go through academic training where they are taught their rights—and because the implementation of laws in this country is not enforced strictly by regulators. Anyone can surmise why—many employers are politically-connected.

Let me cite a specific example why RA 6482 is potentially disastrous. The proposed bill limits the number of contractual employees a company can hire to no more than 20 percent of its total manpower complement. This provision will definitely hurt many industries, particularly the banking sector. If a bank has 5,000 employees, this would mean that the total number of contractual employees it can hire will be 1,000 employees. If a bank has 300 branches, it would need at least three security guards for each branch which would mean hiring at least 900 security guards. We’re not including yet guards for its head office and for acquired assets. And then the bank would have to hire at least one utility person and probably a messenger for each branch, bringing in additional 600 contractual employees. There would be a need for armored car drivers, etc. This would mean—for security and janitorial services alone—more than 1,000 contractual or agency employees, clearly over and above the 20 percent set as cap by the proposed law. Can you imagine the security risks that banks would face if it were to reduce its security complement to comply with the law?

There are win-win solutions to the problem of contractualization in this country. Instead of pushing for populist measures that bring short-term benefits but are disastrous in the long-term, our representatives can push for strategic solutions such as strengthening the social security system in the country, narrowing the academe-industry mismatch, and putting in place various measures to strengthen the competitiveness of industries and the labor force. Of course these would require large doses of strategic thinking, something our legislators seem short of.