Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mob

This was my column yesterday, October 28.

The old Filipino proverb “aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo” (literally, what good is the grass if the horse is already dead) is the title of an e-mail that is going around as fast as people can press the forward button of their e-mail programs.

I originally didn’t want to write about it until I received the same e-mail four times in two days’ time. What caught my attention were the rejoinders to the original e-mail that people felt compelled to add, mostly condemnation for the government and the people at the Social Welfare Department. There are many people who are angry, very angry, and they are demanding swift action.

I can’t blame people for being angry or for forwarding that e-mail indiscriminately without even verifying the veracity of its content. Everyone in this country is aware of the suffering that many victims of Ondoy and Pepeng have gone through and continue to go through still. The hundreds of thousands of victims need help. Badly. Urgently. They need all the help they can get and Filipinos all over the world have pitched in with whatever they could, many giving until it hurt.

To be shown what appears to be incontrovertible evidence that there was a warehouse bursting at the seams with relief just rotting away somewhere instead of benefiting those who are in need is infuriating. Many allowed their emotions to get the better of them and doused more fuel into the conflagration by making insinuations about the possible reasons why those relief are being hoarded. The default assumption is that these are being saved for the campaign period and will be distributed as part of the administration’s political largesse. Needless to say, some people couldn’t help but suspect the worst in others.

The e-mail is actually a copy of an entry of the same title posted by a blogger at her blog www.ellaganda.com. It’s an eyewitness account of how donated goods intended for the victims of the two calamities were, to use the blogger’s description, nabubulok (literally, rotting) at a warehouse of the DSWD. The blog entry, and the e-mail that is going around, came with pictures of the goods in question along with commentary that dripped of undisguised contempt for the people at DSWD. Mainstream media picked up the particular blog entry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The blog itself has been suffering from capacity overload; there’s just too much traffic in the blog, too many people trying to get to the blog to read more (they think there is more, but there’s really just that one lone post, the rest of the posts related to the issue are subsequent clarifications and attempts to put better context to the issue) and to express their condemnation. The blogger has been forced to close down the comments section of her blog because as the blogger wrote in a recent entry, she didn’t want her blog to become a mouthpiece for various parties. There’s just a lot of really angry reactions being dumped in the comments section of the blog from both sides of the fence; on one side, those who want to crucify Secretary Esperanza Cabral and the rest of the people at the DSWD and on the other, those who are defending Cabral and the DSWD people.

I’ve written about one aspect of the issue in my Web log, and that is about how the initial discussions tended to limit the issue to whether or not the relief items in that particular warehouse were indeed rotting. The blogger has clarified what she meant when she used the word nabubulok and stressed that she didn’t see goods that were rotting or decaying and therefore didn’t use that word in the literal sense.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, something about how we all should be careful about the words that we use particularly when we are trying to rouse support for a cause or when we are criticizing something or someone—especially during crisis situations where people are emotionally vulnerable. It’s a lesson some bloggers learn the hard way and yes, I am talking from experience too.

But one wishes that those who pontificate about the need for bloggers to be more circumspect in their use of words also practiced what they preach. Once again, there are certain people screaming for what they call “responsible blogging,” whatever that means. There are those who have the gall to accuse bloggers of being unfair and in the same breath spew a host of invectives and indulge in unwarranted character assassination of the blogger. And quite frankly, some people are just downright crass and cruel, they leave commentaries that are not only vicious but also aimed low, very low. These are people who seem to derive some pleasure from being vile and hateful.

This is not to say of course that all comments in the blogosphere are dysfunctional because there are comments that help a lot in framing the issues and in widening the contours of the discussion. This matter of managing the commentaries in the blogosphere remains an enigma.

There’s a lot of static generated by the side issues around the blogger’s account among them the accuracy or veracity of the allegations. Nevertheless, the issues raised by the blogger about how the DSWD is managing the distribution of the goods deserve some answers. It is a valid issue.

It is sad of course that the credibility, the hard work, the sincerity, and the overall competence of the thousands of civil servants of the DSWD has become suspect on account of one blogger’s account. I empathize with the hurt and indignation being felt by DSWD employees many of whom, I am told, had been doing more than what is required of them.

But these are unusual times and it is precisely in times like these when so much more is demanded of civil servants. To begin with, there is already too much dissatisfaction with the current administration and the resentment is bouncing off across the various government agencies.

I know for a fact that the noblest and the most selfless civil servants are those at the DSWD and that Cabral is not really the incompetent or corrupt person that many have accused her to be. But this isn’t the time to debate about qualifications and to argue about accomplishments. This is the time for real, visible action.

As can be gleaned from what’s happening, there’s a mob of people who want better, faster, more efficient ways of helping the victims of the twin calamities. That’s not exactly the worst thing that any mob can demand.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Beggars at Baclaran Church

This is my column today.

I am sure that the people who produced that Sharon Cuneta television ad which shows the megastar wearing a forlorn expression on her face, falling down on her knees to beg for help for those affected by storms Ondoy and Pepeng meant well.

I am sure that given the import of what they were trying to achieve, the last thing they had in their minds was to fuel a discussion on the moral implications of legitimizing begging or encouraging beggars in this country. It is highly possible, though, that they wanted to provoke some discussion on what it would take to get people to do or give more to the victims of these disasters.

As we all know, political incorrectness is something that enrages a lot of people in this country so it is not surprising that there were quite a number who reacted negatively to that television ad. Fortunately, people seemed to have realized that getting all riled up about the issue would only deflect focus on the more important task of helping others rebuild their lives from the destruction wrought by the twin calamities.

But regardless of how one feels about that Sharon Cuneta ad, there is no escaping the fact that the numbers of beggars in our streets have multiplied recently; and it seems algebraically. It is very tempting and convenient to conclude that the increase in the number of beggars is a direct consequence of the twin calamities that befell us recently. A friend who works with a non-government organization helping streetchildren told me that the numbers of beggars multiply with the onset of the Christmas season as people supposedly begin spending hard-earned savings and presumably also become more generous. It is also possible that the increase is caused by many other reasons such as the growing sophistication of organized syndicates that prey on beggars.

My friends and I were on Makati Avenue Thursday evening last week where we encountered a band of beggars—all middle-aged women wearing a malong, each one with a child in her arms. It was obvious that the group was organized. We made the mistake of giving one of the women loose change and within seconds around seven women surrounded us; each demanding their “share” of our generosity. We were a little bit taken aback, first, by the speed in which the band swooped down on us as if they were equipped with radars that identified those who were susceptible to their wiles, and second, by their assertiveness.

Are there really syndicates that control groups of beggars in this country? If we are to believe the authorities of the Shrine of the Mother of Perpetual Help, more popularly referred to as the Baclaran church, the answer is yes.

For quite some time now, the church has been bereft of the usual group of people that used to dominate its back pews. For the longest time, that section of the church resembled the emergency room of a public hospital. One man who occupied a specific spot in that part of the church every Wednesday sat on a wheelchair laboriously breathing from an oxygen tank beside him. Women sat on the pews rocking in their arms infants with all kinds of congenital conditions—from hydrocephalus to cleft palates to quadriplegics. Blame it on plain naivete on my part but I initially thought that they were in church for reasons of piety; I actually thought that their parents offered novenas every Wednesday to the Virgin Mother so the children’s or their conditions would improve. Imagine my reaction when I learned that they were actually soliciting money from churchgoers.

One child that I particularly took interest in was a one year old little girl with cerebral palsy. That girl caught my attention because one late Wednesday evening a couple of months ago the girl was going through some kind of seizure inside the church. The child was wheezing and gasping for breath. I talked to the woman holding the child and who was frantically massaging the child’s chest to inquire if the little girl needed to be brought to a hospital but the woman said the seizure was “normal” and the little girl would be revived soon.

And then the woman gave me the sob story—how she and her child were abandoned by the father, how she was always unable to make both ends meet, etc. She showed me documents: Medical files, unfilled prescriptions, all kinds of certifications. I offered to get the prescription form to buy medicines for the child myself but the woman gave me this story about how she had access to half-priced drugs supposedly at the Philippine General Hospital. She said cash donations were better.

The scheme sounded suspicious but I felt then that the child really needed help so I gave the woman some cash. The other women with children in similar dire conditions tried to talk to me too and I had this nagging suspicion that there was something amiss in the whole setup so I left. But I always made it a point to check up on that little girl every Wednesday thereafter. She was always there; at the last row of pews at the back portion of the church.

And then one day, she was gone. So was the man with an oxygen tank. So were the other women with sick children in their arms. They just disappeared.

I learned three weeks ago that the officials of the church had forbidden them from setting foot inside the church. There is now a huge tarpaulin banner hanging right at the façade of the church where an open letter is printed. The letter explains that the church authorities had commissioned social workers from the Social Welfare Department to look into the cases of each of the sick people. They discovered that they were “professionals,” in short, part of a syndicate. It’s a long letter that narrates the action the church has taken to help the sick people. Unfortunately, I don’t think that many people have noticed the tarpaulin banner or for that matter has bothered to read it. I guess most people are engrossed in their own travails to bother with those of others.

I still have difficulty accepting that the little girl with cerebral palsy was what the church officials claimed her to be—just a pawn of some syndicate out to fleece money from kindhearted souls. She had cerebral palsy, for crying out loud, and was much too young to even fake suffering.

I am aware that there are people who think helping beggars is counterproductive because it encourages laziness and perpetuates low self-esteem among those engaged in begging. However, I think this generalization is dangerous and also perpetuates unkindness and even disregard for the suffering of others. There is always something we can do for others who are in need and if one is not so inclined to give money to beggars, one can always give food. One can talk to them, treat them with a little more compassion, even offer some other forms of help rather than ignore them or treat them with contempt.

There is one supreme irony that seems lost in the whole setup at Baclaran church. When we come to think about it, everyone who goes there on Wednesday is in essence a beggar—begging for help, for forgiveness, for some blessing or grace from the Lady in the altar. Those who sell flowers, special novenas, massage, etc, are also engaged in some kind of moneymaking schemes that victimize devotees in many ways. I am not saying that the syndicates that prey on beggars deserve better treatment. All I am saying is that it always helps to put things in better context.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Furor over the word "nabubulok"

First of all, I would like to state for the record that I also find it annoying when people "shoot the messenger" rather than engage the issues head on. A blogger posted her story about how the DSWD is taking its own sweet time in distributing relief goods to the victims of the two typhoons that hit us recently. Read her post here.

The blog item soon found its way into mainstream media. As can be expected, the item got sensationalized. It had, after all, the elements that make for screaming headlines and catchy soundbytes. There's the possibility of incompetence. There's the possible angle of corruption. There's the possible link to some nefarious political schemes.

A visibly offended DSWD Secretary has denied the allegations of the blogger. She took exception to the comment "nabubulok." She has a point there. Wala nga namang nabubulok dun sa mga pictures na nakikita sa blog.

But the blogger has clarified what she meant when she used the word and she has gone on record to say that she did not see any perishable good rotting in the DSWD warehouses. She said that she used the word in a figurative way as in nakatambay, hindi gumagalaw. She said she didn't use the word to mean inaagnas.

It is sad that the whole issue has been reduced to a debate over the use of one word. I've been there many times. There really are people in this world who have no qualms about using that old trick of rebuttal - zero in on one error or fact and use it to attack the factual basis of the rest of the piece. For example, one can write an expose supported by tons of empirical data only to see the whole case being demolished like a house of cards because the writer misspelled one name. Of course the whole thing can be avoided if the writer made sure to check everything and I am sure Ella (the blogger) would have reconsidered the use of that word nabubulok had she known that her post would create such a furor.

Now that Ella has clarified what she meant, perhaps DSWD can now get its act together and distribute those goods.

I know that the DSWD really has warehouses full of relief goods at any given time. They stock these items in preparation for calamities. The thing is, the relief goods that Ella has referred to were specifically donated for the typhoon victims - so they must go to the intended beneficiaries. It is called accountability.

There is only solution to the whole mess. It is simple. The DSWD should move to distribute those goods as soon as possible.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barangay officials get tricky

This is my column today.

There has been this mad rush to get people to register so they can vote in 2010. Apparently the rules for registration have been relaxed because it seems the registration is being conducted just anywhere—rom community centers, to buses, to churches. Just the other night, I saw a report on television about how representatives from the Commission on Elections conducted registration right at the television studios for the benefit of our local celebrities who were more than willing to mug for the cameras all in the spirit of civic mindedness and exercising one’s citizenship duties.

Certain politicians have made voter registration their current pet advocacy. I think urging people to register and to exercise their right of suffrage is a commendable idea. I just don’t think pushing such an advocacy while being actively involved in one’s own political campaign is such a great idea because it smacks of vested political interest.

I hope that the Comelec has safeguards in place to avoid the preponderance of flying voters in 2010 because it seems people are registering left and right. And it looks like it has become a numbers game for many barangay officials—it’s as if there is now a race among barangays as to who can produce more newly-registered voters. The problem is that many barangay officials have apparently come up with schemes tied to the registration campaign that suspiciously looks like mechanisms to track voters during elections.

My older sister is a registered voter in Tacloban City but she has moved to Metro Manila in the last 10 years. She decided to register in Manila so she can vote in 2010, something that she has not been able to do since 1995. The registration process in itself was a breeze, which was very surprising considering that when I did something similar in 1988 when I first moved to Manila, the process was so tedious and convoluted. The catch, however, was that the barangay people required a lot of information about my sister; we joked that they were probably developing a dossier of each voter in the barangay.

As it turns out, some barangay officials are indeed already requiring registration as voter in the barangay as prerequisite for the issuance of a barangay residence certificate. One of my readers, Romeo dela Rosa of Barangay San Bartolome, Novaliches sent in a write up detailing his experience when he went to try to get a barangay certificate from his barangay officials. Dela Rosa is a gifted writer so I have decided to allow him to tell his story himself. What follows is Dela Rosa’s letter in full.

A house is not a home. So we are reminded by an old song. A house becomes a home only when you dwell in it in comfort, protection, and when you get a sense of belongingness from the neighborhood.

But I learned in a bizarre way, that being a homeowner, dweller, taxpayer, do not make one automatically a resident of the place where he lives. How’s that again? The woman in front of me was telling me that you can be a homeowner but not legally a resident of the barangay. No, not unless you are a registered voter in the barangay. That ruling was pronounced by a barangay official of Barangay San Bartolome in Novaliches Quezon City.

Here’s my story, and I hope it’s an isolated case. After all, I still believe that not so many nincompoops get to a position of authority.

As one who detests dealing with cold-blooded bureaucrats, be it in high and low places, it was for an important purpose that I had to apply for a barangay clearance from the barangay where we live for 15 years now. I thought it would be easy, like a walk in the park. Nonetheless, my second mind told me to secure a homeowner certificate from the president of the homeowners association of our subdivision just in case proof would be necessary.

Wrong. I found out that the only qualification needed to get a barangay clearance is to be a registered voter. Fine. Nobody has to remind me that because I have religiously exercised my right to suffrage since I was old enough to vote.

But no. Not so fast. The barangay official meant that before I can be issued a barangay clearance I have to be a registered voter in our barangay. If that does not get you into a foul mood, I don’t know what will. As bad as it can get, they assured me nonchalantly, as if time was the only issue, that I can still make it that afternoon. All I have to do is go to the City Hall right away.

In the eyes of our barangay, I am just a homeowner, not a barangay resident, because I was registered as voter somewhere else. For that matter, I cannot be issued a barangay clearance.

Forget about being a taxpayer who pays 32 percent for every peso he makes or the real estate taxes he remits to the local government year in year out. If you do not have voter value in the barangay, you are non-existent!

Being a promdi, I must confess that I am a resident of two places. During weekdays, [I am in] the polluted, concrete jungle of Quezon City, because of work, school, business, malls, and other conveniences.

During weekends, home is Bulacan for a breath of fresh air, to be with my elements, roots, parents, relatives, old friends, and real people.

I did not bother to transfer my voter registration to Quezon City because we have the same types of local candidates in our hometown anyway. What difference would it make if I transfer my sufferance to another place? Under current dispensation, the right to suffrage is just a sure ticket to continue to suffer from crooks that get elected to power.

Be that as it may, I think my obligation to vote is to the country, not necessarily to the local politicians.

The choice is mine. The barangay cannot order me to transfer my voter registration to his barangay. A case with similar circumstances is the President of the Philippines who is registered as a voter in Lubao, Pampanga. She casts her vote there every election even as she resides in Malacañang or in Quezon City.

It’s one thing to encourage people to register and vote but to coerce one to transfer his voter registration under pains of not being issued barangay clearance is absolutely misguided.

I gathered that many barangays have adopted the same tactic in variant forms. Election is just around the corner. I think they are missing the forest for the trees when they failed to understand that their mandate is to encourage people to register and vote. Period.

From this incident, it is not far-fetched to assume that the ulterior motive of the barangay is to increase the number of voters in his fiefdom for political leverage. Say, for higher internal revenue allocation (IRA).

For the same reason, barangays are so hospitable to squatters as evidenced by the proliferation and expansion of slums in the cities. The slums may be poor but they are vote rich. Squatters can vote and, sadly, without meaning to denigrate them, can be bought. Barangays keep them, not out of love and concerns for the poor, but for the knowledge that they have the numbers to install anyone to power.

I dread the thought that stories of this nature are now commonplace. Worse, that our barangay officials are involved in more sinister schemes to build a grassroots mechanism in preparation for the election in 2010.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Just another meme

I was tagged (dared is probably the more apt term) by quite a number of bloggers to do this meme. It's been quite sometime since I did something like this so I thought I'd give it a shot. So here goes.

1. What was the last thing you put in your mouth?
A bunch of grapes. Not all at the same time, of course, though I've also done that.

2. Where was your profile picture taken?
May this year at Caluruega.

3. Can you play the guitar?
I still have to meet a male person who grow up in the Visayas who can't strum the guitar.

4. Name someone who made you laugh today?
Someone at work we call Migs (long story). He was trying to be cute and well, he wasn't. Lol.

5. How late did you stay up last night and why?
Had to finish XXX because they showed something that involved the Bank I work for. Lonnggg story.

6. If you could move somewhere else, would you?
Yes. To Bangkok. If not, Tagaytay would do. Assuming I could afford it.

7. Ever been kissed under fireworks?
Nah. I guess the people I've been with while watching fireworks were also more interested in the fireworks than in doing anything else.

8. Which of your friends lives closest to you on Facebook?
Which of my friends in Facebook live closest to me? How about my kids? They live two doors away from me.

9. Do you believe ex's can be friends?
Why the heck not? I am friends with all, as in ALL my exes.

10. How do you feel about Dr Pepper?
I am sure I have an opinion of him if I knew him.

11. When was the last time you cried?
Saturday. Graduation of DLS-CSB. Read my post about it.

12. Who took your profile picture
Raymond, my student.

13. Who was the last person you took a picture of?
Hmmm...am not really into taking pictures, but I guess that would be my students while they were doing an activity in class last week.

14. Was yesterday better than today?
Not really. But philosophically, I guess it should be because the alternative is unthinkable.

15. Can you live a day without TV?
Yup. As long as there is a good book and something to munch on.

16. Are you upset about anything?
I try not to be. But I do get upset when I witness pure unadulterated meanness.

17. Do you think relationships are ever really worth it?
Again, the opposite is unthinkable.

18. Are you a bad influence?
Sadly yes.

19. Night out or night in?
Depends on what I am in the mood for. But mostly...night in.

20. What item(s) could you not go without during the day?
Ipod, credit cards, macbook, books.

22. What does the last text message in your inbox say?
My daughter asking to be picked up by the driver.

23. How do you feel about your life right now?
Can be better, but I feel blessed.

24. Do you hate anyone?
Nope. I try not to hate anyone.

25. If we were to look in your Email inbox, what would we find most?
Stuff from my professional email groups.

26. Say you were given a drug test right now, would you pass?
Sadly, yes.

27. Has anyone ever called you perfect before?
Yes, but I guess it was with sarcasm.

28. What song is stuck in your head?
Today it was Stevie Wonder's Knocks Me Off My Feet. LSS.

29. Someone knocks on your window at 2:00 a.m., who do you want it to be?
No one I can think of right now.

30. Wanna have grandkids before you're 50?
Nah. Please god, not yet.

31. Name something you have to do tomorrow:
Deal with stress.

32. Do you think too much or too little?
My problem is that I think too much; it's like a disease.

33. Do you smile a lot?
I wish.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Listening with the heart

This is my column today.

There are people like my mom who cry at weddings. I am not one of them. There are people who cry at graduations. I was not one of them—at least until last Saturday.

I recognize that graduations are occasions ripe with opportunities for anyone lachrymous to start bawling at the slightest provocation. But as someone who didn’t attend his own graduation ceremonies during college (although I did attend the Recognition and Awards Program the day before) I’ve always seen graduation ceremonies as a stuffy formality that can be dispensed with. Very often, graduation ceremonies tend to be overly long; they also more often that not feature speakers that regurgitate old hackneyed clichés that quite frankly are tedious to listen to.

But as a professor who is required by academic guidelines to don a black toga and wear a somber expression to match it at least once a year, I have learned to take graduation ceremonies in stride. I have learned to view graduations in a different light. At the very least, it allows professors and students the opportunity to formally bid each other adieu (or good riddance if one is so inclined) and wish each other good luck. It also allows professors and parents to finally meet and let me tell you, these getting-to-know-you moments often mine depths of human emotions that are difficult to put into words. One never knows what kind of information students pass on to their parents about their terror teachers and vice versa. Consequently, one never really knows what kind of impression one party has formed about the other.

Last Saturday was different though, thanks to Ana Kristina Arce, magna cum laude graduate of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde who delivered the graduation speech on behalf of her class.

DLS-CSB pretty much allows its students to speak their own voice rather than impose talking points so valedictory speeches during the College’s graduation ceremonies tend to be a miss or hit proposition. The College is a strong bastion of diversity and offers a host of courses that caters to the unique needs of its diverse community of learners so it is not uncommon to have, say, a foreign student or a student of fashion design as valedictorian. I’ve written in this space in the past about Yar Thant, the Burmese student who delivered his valedictory speech in Filipino; with great effort, yes, but with unmistakable and heartfelt sincerity and effort.

Ana Kristina Arce was not the valedictorian of her class (she missed the top slot by a few measly points) but she was chosen to speak on behalf of her class because she also happened to be the recipient of the College’s community service award on account of her outstanding achievements as a de facto ambassador of Deaf students (at DLS-CSB, non-hearing students are referred to with an uppercase D to recognize their uniqueness). She was one of four student ambassadors to a worldwide leadership-training workshop for deaf students in the United Kingdom last year and has distinguished herself for her strong advocacy of the issues of the Deaf.

It is one of the marvels of this world that a person who can’t speak using sounds and spoken words can often convey so much and more eloquently using her hands, her facial expression, and her body. Until Saturday, I have never before witnessed a situation where the cliché “one can hear a pin drop” applied so aptly. Every single member of the audience listened in rapt attention and the supreme irony was that everyone was listening to a deaf person speak. There were tears in everyone’s eyes and lumps on everyone’s throats and the standing ovation that many members of the audience honored her with at the end was truly deserved.

Truly, the only thing that separates us from the Deaf is language. The Deaf speak using means other than their voices and if we, the hearing, can only learn to listen not just with our ears but with our eyes, our minds, and our hearts, then we can truly understand just how gifted each person in this world is and in the process appreciate each other’s uniqueness. Very often, language is a major barrier that separates us from each other.

Arce delivered her speech using sign language (a voice over interpreted her speech for the benefit of the audience). She began her speech by narrating the story of The Potter’s Wheel from Jeremiah 18. For those who are not familiar with the passage, it tells about how a potter from Nazareth skillfully used his hands to produce delicate and beautiful jars. If the jar is hurt in the making, it can still be changed and be made right by the potter, while the clay is still soft. Arce then went on to talk about how our Maker is like the potter who makes each one of us beautiful and useful.

She then made parallels about how our hands mean differently to each one of us, noting how many of us take for granted what our hands can do. For Deaf people like herself, her hands are her main means of communicating.

Arce then shared her struggles and triumphs as a Deaf person trying to overcome the many challenges that the rest of the world imposes on the differently abled. It was a story that was in turns funny and touching but one replete with lessons and realizations.

She talked about her parents’ initial attempts to make her fit in and live a “regular” life by first letting her learn how to “speak” and read lips and then later on enrolling her in another school that integrated Deaf students with hearing students. The results, she said, were frustrating as she was often the recipient of reverse discrimination—hearing students tended to make allowances for her perceived disability. She talked about how most people equate being deaf with being feeble-minded and stressed that the Deaf are equipped with the same capabilities as any other person including similar, and in many cases, even superior mental faculties. The only difference, she empathically declared—and this declaration was met by resounding applause and cheers by Deaf students—was that they couldn’t hear; that was it.

She appealed to members of the audience, particularly members of her batch to help open more opportunities for the Deaf.

In many ways, Arce is luckier than most. She has parents who have the resources and the determination to help her achieve what is capable of achieving. As Arce noted in her speech, most Deaf individuals don’t even get to attend, much more finish, college. There are thousands of intellectually superior Deaf people in this country whose talents are wasted because we don’t give them the chance to prove just how capable they actually are.

She is luckier because there are colleges like DLS-CSB that walk the talk and do everything possible to nurture a learning community that appreciates and therefore enables, ennobles, and empowers all types of learners.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Here we go again...

So another typhoon is hovering nearby.

Of all the names in the world, they had to name it Lupit (Filipino for cruel). The local name for the typhoon would be Ramil, though. But many people relish referring to the typhoon as Lupit. Some people do have a twisted sense of humor. We already have more than enough misery in many parts in this country and we don't need anymore reasons to be more scared than we already are.

do we really need to be so alarmist about it? It's like all the media people in this country had this agreement to hype up reports about typhoons! I am not saying that we don't report about impending typhoons - just that we do away with the hyperventilation and the doomsday scenario reporting.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The power of hope

This was my column yesterday.  Late post. 

Like everyone else, I reacted with genuine surprise at the selection of United States President Barack Obama as this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I have great admiration for Obama both as a person and as a leader. I think he epitomizes that one admirable quality that other leaders can only aspire for but which he is able to do effortlessly by just being himself, and that is to be an inspiration to others.

As can be expected, the reactions varied from genuine elation to utter contempt. The Internet buzzed all over the weekend with all kinds of commentary. The whole gamut of reactions can be summed up in three points.

First, that the award is premature since the President has not really had the time to produce results yet. Some issues about technicalities (mainly about deadlines and time frames) led many to suspect that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee adjusted the rules to accommodate Obama. The deadline for nominations was February and Obama was barely two weeks as President at that time. What data was included in the nomination papers then? The Committee deliberated and chose the winner last June, barely four months into Obama’s presidency and yet many of the justifications being offered today were recent events.

Second, assumptions about what the Nobel Peace Prize should be rewarding. There are those who insist that the award should go to people who have labored all their lives for the sake of bringing peace to the world. Is the Nobel Peace Prize an award for lifetime achievement or is it recognition for achievements made over a specific period —say, one year?

Third, questions related to Obama’s actual achievements as a leader fully committed to the quest for peace. The general drift of the discussions is that Obama’s achievements have so far been in rhetoric rather than actual actions. In short, what he has done so far is make a few feel-good speeches and symbolic affirmations of his commitment to a nuclear-free world. The reality is that he is the incumbent president of a country that is still at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Of course there are also all sorts of commentaries from rabid ideologues but I think these comments can be ignored for the moment. I personally think that we can do away with the comments from the Taliban, from extreme rightists, and those from the hosts of the Fox Network.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee said Obama was chosen for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples.” The committee cited Obama’s efforts to strengthen international bodies and promote nuclear disarmament. The case being made by many out there is that this citation is theoretically applicable to many leaders. Obama is not exactly the lone voice in the wild calling for nuclear disarmament; and so far, he has not been able to match his mellifluous rhetoric with hardcore action.

The Nobel Peace Prize, which is named after Alfred Nobel, the Swedish arms manufacturer and inventor of dynamite who bequeathed his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, was established to recognize “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

There were those who, like Irish peace campaigner and 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan who came out with strongly-worded statement saying that Obama’s selection has not met the conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will which stipulates that the prize is to be awarded to those who work for an end to militarism and war and for disarmament. As everyone knows, Obama has continued USA’s policy of militarism and occupation in Afghanistan.

All the discussion about dates and timelines seems like an exercise in nitpicking. I think, though, that they are relevant and not necessarily because of the technicalities involved. The general assumption that people have about the Nobel Prize is that it is a reward for past achievements—in many cases, for a body of works or a lifetime of commitment.

This assumption has been nurtured through the years because of the selection of winners who have established reputations for having been indefatigable advocates of peace all their lives and whose advocacies become institutionalized the world over. Think Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama, or Lech Walesa, or Doctors Without Borders, or the International Campaign to Bank Landmines.

Actually, the prize is not for lifelong achievement. It is meant to recognize an individual who “has done extraordinarily well in creating an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation over a specific period,” in this case, for the preceding year. However, it is reflective of the level of passion many people have about the quest for peace that they project their own expectations and standards into the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reports indicate that there were a record 205 nominations for this year’s prize and that Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister and a Chinese dissident were among the front runners. Without meaning to reduce the achievements of the other nominees, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Obama was indeed the man who stood tall as the world’s leading symbol of peace last year and not just because of the color of his skin. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Norwegian committee said when it announced the selection. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

All these lead us to what seems to be the main issue around Obama’s selection. I think that most people associate rewards with hard, measurable achievements that happened in the past and the concept of rewarding potentials, or looking at it as investment in future performance is something that is still alien to many. It is as if heroism and good work emerge from a vacuum rather than something induced and nurtured. As a consequence, there has been this relentless focus on quantifying standards; many get caught up in the numbers game and lose sight of issues and factors that are deemed soft or ephemeral such as ideals; or aspirations such as hope and promise. The general belief is that good intentions are good, but never good enough because the world is supposedly created by actions, not good intentions.

In recognizing Obama, the Nobel Committee is sending a strong message to the world. There has never been another world leader since Obama who has inspired and therefore drastically changed the way many people look at themselves or at the world. Put another way, the award is in recognition of the power of hope, the immense might of potential as against action. It is potential that makes great changes happen. It is in our capacity to hold a vision and to champion that vision that the impossible becomes possible.

In a world increasingly growing cynical, one thing remains clear: The world cares about peace. The question is: Do we see peace as a destination that we arrive at or as a journey that we all embark on together?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ethical dilemmas

This is my column today.

At the height of the flooding in Pangasinan, hundreds of people were trapped inside the SM City in Rosales. Parts of the mall itself were submerged in floodwater and as can be expected, goods were floating around— obviously many of them hardly usable and practically worthless already because of water damage—and many found their way out of the building.

If you were a security guard or an ordinary worker inside the mall and you know that these goods would eventually be declared as losses anyway, would you start throwing these goods out of the building in the hope that some people would be able to salvage them and derive some benefit from them? And if you were an ordinary onlooker and you see these goods floating around, would you start picking them up and carting them away for personal use?

As it turned out, there were security guards and mall workers who did find ways to push the floating and therefore damaged goods out of the building. And many people from neighboring areas were caught on camera salvaging these goods, some of them helping themselves to the shopping carts and loading these with all kinds of waterlogged goods. Of course some people were also caught on camera not doing anything, simply content with being onlookers.

The situation seemed like a standard case study in ethics. Another interesting aspect of the situation was the behavior of media people who were reporting on the calamity in the area. Sensing a potential human-interest story, some reporters swooped into the area and started to train their cameras on the people who were carting off with the goods. The slant of the reporting was quite provocative: There was immediate insinuation that looting was happening in the mall.

This was evident in the way they framed the questions that they asked of the people seen carting off with the goods, which were quite accusatory. Some of the people looked embarrassed, others responded nonchalantly but they all had the same response: They were simply picking them up from the flood around the mall. Some people volunteered the information that security guards and people inside the mall were throwing the goods out of the building. What was even more interesting was that despite the information gathered from previous interviewees, the reporters still asked the same accusatory questions of the rest. In short, they continued to insinuate that the people were up to no good and were probably guilty of looting the mall.

There are many stories of this nature that found their way into various media channels. Some people bemoaned the fact that at the height of the flood brought by storm Ondoy, the pigs and chickens from various piggeries and poultry farms in Bulacan that were washed away by the flood were seen being snatched up by people along the waterways. In Dagupan City, there were reports of people scooping up milkfish from overflowing fishpens.

Like I said, these situations are variations of the famous Kohlberg cases that are standard fare in management classes, one of the most celebrated being the plotline of Viktor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Would you steal a loaf of bread to save starving children on the brink of death? They represent ethical dilemmas.

Oh, I have no doubt that some form of deliberate and premeditated looting did happen in certain cases. However, given the fact that the goods were in all probability going to be declared as losses anyway, and in the case of the pigs and chicken in Bulacan most likely unable to survive and therefore die in the flood, wasn’t it better that these be salvaged by others who, theoretically, could derive some benefits from doing so?

But the question that begs to be answered is: Why are we so quick to suspect the worse of other people even in the face of a calamity? We hear of stories of bravery and courage, of heroism and selflessness. But we also tend to balance these off with stories of thievery and fraud.

These were evident during the relief efforts for the victims of storm Ondoy in Metro Manila. Many stories of people in positions of power or influence appropriating relief goods for their own constituents, of people supposedly using their influence to distribute advantages to benefit people they know rather than those who really needed help the most. The knee-jerk reaction of many people seemed mainly framed from the point of view of rigid morality rather than a more comprehensive assessment of the various elements in the picture.

The parish priest of the church where I attend mass shared during his Sunday homily what he thought was a horrifying instance of selfishness and lack of discipline of certain people. He and some parishioners were on their way to visit a depressed area in Cainta, Rizal to distribute relief goods. They were stopped along the way to their original destination by scores of people who insisted that the relief goods be given to them because they haven’t received any relief yet. They ended up retreating and donating the goods they were carrying to the relief programs of some media networks. The good priest bemoaned the fact that they weren’t able to do their charity work. He was very convinced that the people who stopped them along the way were opportunists; people who were depriving those who were in real dire need from receiving aid.

I wanted to protest and point out that it was also possible that those people who were being condemned as thieves and opportunitists were probably in dire need themselves already driven by desperation. The point seemed lost on the priest.

One of the sad realities during tragedies and catastrophes is that very often the ethical dilemmas that people in positions of power face when making certain decisions are not subjected to rational and objective analysis. Most of us are just quick to subject the decisions using our own subjective moral yardsticks.

Ethical dilemmas are difficult to manage particularly in the area of public administration precisely because of the stakes involved. This was painfully evident in the way certain people have been making quick judgments on the decision of the administrators of those dams to release water when the critical levels were reached. Releasing water from the dams brought flooding to many areas but the large-scale consequences that would have been wrought on the areas had those dams been breached are even more unthinkable.

Should American soldiers be allowed to participate in relief efforts in this great hour of need despite the threat that doing so legitimizes their presence in the country? Should the interests of politicians be allowed to piggyback on relief efforts particularly those of government and media networks? Is it acceptable for government to insist that businesses take on losses at this time through price control mechanisms that often put businesses at a disadvantage?

Clearly, there is a need to bring the discussions to the level of more rational analysis. True, integrity and morality are important components that need to be seriously considered. But so are accountability and responsiveness. Even legality. The problem is that many among us don’t look at ethical dilemmas as problem-solving situations that encompass not just moral (i.e., integrity) issues but legal and social issues as well. And very often, the issue of responsiveness clouds the situation particularly when urgency becomes the order of the day. We probably need to be reminded once again that what constitute the greater good are not always clear-cut and one-dimensional.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Temporary relief

This is my column today.

At the height of the hidden video sex scandals that preoccupied many people in this country a few months ago, the main character in the scandal predicted that “all these will be forgotten in a few months.” It seems he was right. The hatred and repulsion that people felt toward him seem to have abated already. I caught a news bit lately about how he and his millionaire-doctor-entrepreneur paramour have since then reconciled and the treatment of the supposed newsworthy item was one of undisguised amusement rather than dread.

Actually I didn’t really want to write about the sex scandal per se. It just seemed like a good illustration of how even the most sordid and the most major of all controversies in this country automatically get swept away when a major disaster or catastrophe happens. Put another way, there’s nothing like a typhoon or a flood to cleanse us of our vexations and tribulations.

I don’t know if there are people in this country who think watching endless footages of homeless, hungry and angry people is preferable compared to watching Senators Ping Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada trying to slit each other’s throats. But I do know that Ondoy and Pepeng succeeded in shutting the two senators’ mouths off, something that many tried to do unsuccessfully.

I am also relieved—although I know this is temporary—that we have been given a respite from the empty posturing of our presidential wannabes. You bet I am enjoying two weeks of not having to read about Joseph Estrada’s latest swaggering or having to watch people in the throes of rapture over Noynoy Aquino. But like I said, we know this is temporary because the deadline for the filing of candidacies for the two highest posts in the land is fast approaching. It’s just a matter of time before we go back to election mode.

But in the meantime, all our other problems as a nation seem secondary and minor compared to the rebuilding that must be done in the wake of the two disasters.

We’re on a break from the Dacer and Corbito double murder trial, from the exchange of allegations on various nefarious corruption schemes, from other political vexations that seem perennially a part of our national life. It seems though that there is no such thing as a breather from the shenanigans of our celebrity folks but at least we know and they know that we know that it’s just entertainment.

But as the handsome doctor with the rather sordid fetish said, everything comes to pass. Calamities bring out the best in each of us and we’ve been witness to many incidences of heroism and citizenship in the last few days but alas, we know that even the spirit of bayanihan that we are seeing now has a time frame. Even good intentions have a shelf life.

Donor fatigue will eventually seep in or people will find something more interesting, something more urgent to attend to. Sources tell me that donations are now not only tapering off but actually on a downward trend already and what is propping up relief efforts are now the donations coming from abroad.

We can only hope that it takes some time before attention on the victims of the two disasters is completely diminished; hopefully when many or most of them are already on their way to recovery.

We know however that all this is wishful thinking. This early our attention is already being diverted toward the “static” rather than to the substantive issues. It’s just a matter of time before media trains its almighty cameras on something else.

This was painfully illustrated over the weekend when ABS-CBN had to spend considerable airtime defending itself from allegations that the network was using Sagip Kapamilya allegedly for purposes not entirely altruistic. There was this insinuation that ABS-CBN didn’t want to work with government or help Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro. The insinuation is unfair, of course, but is an expected consequence of charity efforts accompanied by lots of drumbeating and fanfare.

GMA-7, probably because it chooses to be less flamboyant in its relief efforts, has been spared the dirty insinuations so far. But then again as I said, all this is static. What is important is that the two networks are doing what they can to bring relief efforts to as many victims as possible.

It was slightly amusing to note that the President herself had to publicly admonish Environment Secretary Lito Atienza and Laguna Lake Development Authority general manager Edgardo Manda to set aside their enmity and instead focus on working together to solve the flooding around Laguna towns.

The ever-irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has advocated the filing of charges against local executives—city and town mayors themselves—who have not implemented various laws such as that one on waste segregation. The non-implementation of laws was supposed to have been a major contributory factor to the flooding the other weekend. The immediate consequence of Santiago’s call was, as can be expected, more debate. In short, more pointless discussion that takes away focus from the more important tasks at hand.

If many of the powerful in this country even get away with wanton and flagrant violations of criminal or civil laws, what chance do we have of nailing them down for perceived incompetence in the performance of official duties?

Not that it is a bad idea; it actually makes sense. We must strengthen accountability among public officials. But it’s a task that calls to mind the parable of the group of mice who wanted to put a bell around a cat’s neck to serve as advance warning. No one wants to do it. So in the end, provocative statements like these make for good copy but are really just the political equivalent of self-gratification. They can’t be done. They don’t do anything to anyone else.

So as you can see, “normalcy” is slowly creeping in. It’s just a matter of time before things are back to where they were prior to Sept. 26. The temporary respite is going to be over soon.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Things I learned from Ondoy and Pepeng

This is my column today.

It has been said that experience is the best teacher. If we are to go by the way most people reacted swiftly to the impending arrival of Typhoon Pepeng last Friday, it seemed many have indeed learned some lessons in survival—some quite more painfully than others.

Traffic in the Metro was hopelessly gridlocked in many areas late afternoon and early evening of Friday as most scrambled to get home as fast as they could presumably to prepare for the onslaught of the super typhoon. Lines at the supermarket at lunchtime were long, very, very long, as most stocked up on food and survival kits. My friends and I picked up the last remaining rechargeable lamps and batteries at a hardware store at the Mall of Asia and I personally am at a loss as to what to do now with the lamps I bought on a whim. I am sure there are many people out there with a surfeit of canned goods and instant noodles.

Many among us grew wiser—and older—in the last ten days. For sure there are lots of people out there who have learned not to take storm warnings for granted again. Here, to my mind, are some of the lessons many of us learned from typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng although this list is not by any means comprehensive.

1.It takes a major calamity to shake people out of complacency. This is true for government and for everyone. Up until the great flood wrought by Ondoy, nobody really took disaster programs seriously. But Ondoy showed us the extent of our unpreparedness. Suddenly, people were taking note of various tips and tricks on basic survival and when dire warnings about Pepeng’s fury started to get around—many of them alarmist and based on hearsay— people started to take heed.

2.Catastrophes are not really just acts of God but a result of our collective failure as a people to do the necessary. Up until now, the state of urban planning in this country was something that did not merit any attention at all. We’re now painfully aware of just how we’ve turned Metro Manila into a massive dam that locks floodwaters in. Floodwaters in many areas of Metro Manila have not subsided yet and the flood in certain areas around Laguna is not expected to recede until Christmas on account of the massive overflow from Laguna de Bay. Urban planning experts tell us that we need to think strategically and begin building vertically from this point on. There will be more flooding in the near future unless we begin to put in place strategic plans designed to make people co-exist with nature.

3.Disasters and catastrophes are great equalizers; they affect everyone equally regardless of economic or social stature. Nature treats everyone equally but people don’t necessarily do so. Those who are in positions of power and influence can justify their actions all they want but there is no escaping the fact that there has been inequity in the way rescue and relief efforts were and are being made. The over-the-top media attention on celebrity-victims and supposed heroes are proof of just how differently we treat the haves and the have-nots in this country even during disasters.

4.Despite the wanton materialism and consumerism that have enslaved many of us, the spirit of good old bayanihan is alive and well in this country. I continue to be touched by the way Filipinos in general have responded to the pleas for help from those who were severely affected by Ondoy. There are many stories out there of how people have pitched in efforts to help victims. Relief centers have not been wanting of volunteers; in fact, in many of these centers, walk-in volunteers are turned away and scheduled for a later date. We went to a relief center in Makati last week and were surprised to have been asked to render only four hours of volunteer work to give way to others who also wanted to do their share.

5.The phrase “what matters most” is highly relative but some people still don’t seem to get it. It is easy for many to preach from their high perch in society and pontificate that people should not attach that much value to material possessions. I personally find it in bad taste when people shamelessly declare on public television that “kikitain ko pa naman yun” (roughly, I’ll still be able to earn enough to buy the same stuff again) forgetting that those in the margins of society spend their whole lifetime just to be able to afford living in the shanty that they call home and to be able to buy those television sets and electric fans that many easily dismiss as just “material things.”

6.Technology is truly a double-edged sword. Technology enables us quick access to critical information but it also fuels unnecessary paranoia and panic. There was just too much information —many of them second- or third-hand interpretations of facts—that was going around last Friday about Typhoon Pepeng. Satellite images of Typhoon Pepeng showing a great swathe of clouds the size of the Philippine map was helpful for those who knew how to interpret those images but only served to heighten panic among those who saw those images literally. Those dire predictions relayed through text messages about how 9 p.m. of Friday night was supposed to be the critical hour was interpreted and re-interpreted many different ways and many saw it as the exact time when the typhoon would hit Metro Manila.

7.Prayers do work wonders, perhaps not necessarily in changing the path of an impending typhoon but on the psychological state of people. For many, prayer was the one thing that kept them sane and functioning.

8.Some politicians just can’t help themselves—it’s like they have a compulsion to be politicians all the time. I was aghast to see some relief bags carrying the names of certain politicians although to be fair, the bags did not expressly asked people to vote for them. But there was no escaping the subliminal message. We are seeing lots of politicians being very, very visible in relief efforts and the funny thing is that they are the ones verbalizing that there is nothing political about what they are doing. I was hoping for a respite from those political ads on television but it seems Senator Manny Villar is oblivious to public criticism. He has released a brand-new television ad showing him hugging people and providing relief to people

9. There really are bigoted people in this world who have a lot of growing up to do. It is possible that those who have been accused of making those incendiary comments in the Internet about how we— “sinners” and “monkeys”—deserve the calamities are innocent—it is possible they are victims of hackers. But someone still wrote those hate comments.

10. Truly, as the cliché goes, it will take more than major disasters, calamities and catastrophes to bring us down. Filipinos are a resilient people.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Pepeng

I didn't quite know what to make of the text message that was being passed around this afternoon like it was, well, Gospel truth.  I am sure you got it too because I got it - and variations of it - a grand total of seven times.

The text message said that Pepeng was as of 3pm already supertyphoon and that the critical hour was 9pm.  I liked the part that asked for prayers but I wasn't so sure about the wisdom of the dire predictions.

Well, it seems that bit about 9pm being the critical hour was not based on fact.  In fact, PAG-ASA had just announced that the typhoon was expected to hit land by tomorrow afternoon Saturday if it doesn't change course, of course.  

But okay.  I do am grateful for the fact that people seem to be doing everything to be prepared.  Finally people are not taking chances.  Many are already evacuating to safer places.  Others are making sure that they have all the provisions in case things turn for the worst.

I was at MOA again today and I was suckered into buying rechargeable lamps because all my friends were buying some.  The busiest section of ACE Hardware was the section selling flashlights, rechargeable lamps, and batteries.  It was like taking a trip down memory lane - I had a sudden flash of remembrance of the time, back in the eighties, when brownouts were a recurring reality in Metro Manila and everyone had those rechargeable lamps and electric fans. 

I hope everyone is safe and snug. 

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Yet another test of our resilience and fortitude

The news that was going around late today was something that sent shivers down one's spine.  Typhoon Peping (international codename Parma) was generating more strength and as of 3pm was officially already a super typhoon.  

Given what we just went through last weekend, it was understandable that lots of people became paranoid.  I was at MOA after work today. I decided to drop by the Hypermart to buy some candles and a couple of flashlights and was stunned to see lots of people doing panic buying.  The lines at the cashiers were just too long.

I also received a number of text messages all expressing the same thing: A fervent prayer that Typhoon Peping spares the country.

I think a little rain would do some good.  We need nature to cleanse a number of areas of the mud and filth.  But let's hope the rains aren't as destructive this time around.

I join everyone in praying for deliverance.  Let's hope God is listening.