Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tribute to a personal hero and mentor

This is my column today.

I am a human resource management person by profession, a teacher by calling, and a writer by accident.

I never really thought of myself as a writer—I actually still don’t to this day. Writing was just something I could do when I was growing up. Until I started cobbling pieces for this column, being a writer wasn’t something that defined who I was. And even despite the fact that I have been writing this column for almost four years now, I still do not self-identify as a writer because I feel that it is something that I haven’t really given as much devotion to compared to, say, teaching or my HRM career.

The way I see it, writing is a craft that requires a certain degree of commitment—a commitment to perfection or at least the quest for it—something that I just don’t have the time or the temperament for. Unlike some friends who can truly lay claim to the title “writer,” I don’t agonize over a misplaced preposition or spend sleepless night searching for the right metaphor to express something. This is not to say though that I don’t value the craft because I do.

At any rate, one question that I am often asked is: How did I get into writing? This question is always mystifying to me because I always get the impression that people actually think that the ability to write is something one is born with. I get the feeling people who ask that question expect me to provide an inventory of the chromosomes I got from my ancestors. Sure I was a co-opted into joining—and becoming editor—of my high school and college papers but the truth is that by no means of the imagination can what I did then be classified as writing. I am aware that there’s not a single “writer” in this world who does not cringe or is tempted to commit self-annihilation when confronted with the stuff one wrote in high school or college. I assure you I am not being facetious and I am being truthful when I say that I produced hideous stuff back then.

There’s actually a story behind how I got into writing; a story that needs to be told now because the man at whose feet I learned the rudiments of real—or serious—writing, the man who inspired me to try to be good at it, the man who took pains to mentor me, even teach me to unlearn bad writing habits, is now gone.

Agustin Gus Arnaiz Sr., the crusading provincial journalist who valiantly championed press freedom in Leyte and Samar for many decades passed away Saturday evening in his hometown of Maasin, Southern Leyte. He was 85.

I was a college sophomore when a couple of my friends and I walked into the offices of The Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Tacloban City to gather some data for a term paper we had to produce for school. At that time, Gus Arnaiz, publisher of The Reporter, was already quite a “legend” in the region. He had just come close to winning a seat in Congress against the powerful Romualdezes, who, incidentally also put him behind bars for writing about rumors around then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. All throughout the Marcos regime he was incarcerated four times and arrested a grand total of 19 times. The Reporter was then the lone beacon of freedom and fearless writing in the whole of Region VIII. In the eyes of a then-neophyte activist, Arnaiz was a giant.

Arnaiz granted our group an interview. To this day, I still do not know what he saw in me or what possessed him to do it but he offered me a job on the spot as associate editor of the weekly paper. I learned later on that the post had been vacant for quite sometime simply because Arnaiz didn’t find anyone he liked well enough. It dawned on me many years later that he wasn’t really looking for an employee—he was on the lookout for someone he could mentor like a son. He paid me full wages for a job that was really part-time as I was still studying then. As if to make up for the hours I was in school, I would accompany him some nights and during some weekends in the long drives he made around Tacloban and the Leyte-Samar area. He was always visiting friends and colleagues who were always more than too happy to host him. Arnaiz was a genius at making conversations. I later on learned this was how he got the various “exclusive” stories that he wrote for the weekly paper. It was from these long nights that I learned how to listen, really listen.

It was on those long, very long drives —sometimes we would be driving for hours, even whole days—that I learned so much about writing and life in general. Arnaiz loved to talk—he was conversant about almost anything— from history to politics, from business to current events—despite the fact that he didn’t finish school. He had to drop out from high school due to poverty. I guess telling stories came naturally for a man who lived a very exciting and fulfilling life. Arnaiz was the classic example of a self-made man. He was a war veteran (he finally received his war veteran benefit from the United States government last November). It was from the man that I learned how to weave stories and tell them.

Arnaiz coaxed me out of my shell. He even maneuvered to put me in the board of the regional association of media people where, at 17 years old, I sat as the youngest director for one term. He taught me how to use a typewriter, edited my work right in front of me, and alas, also taught me how to smoke and drink.

I had to quit working for the weekly paper when I was in senior college to yield to paternal pressure to get a diploma. But my relationship with Arnaiz continued, shifting from mentor-mentee to friends. For many years in the late eighties I continued to write pieces for the weekly paper, stuff that I had to send by snail mail every week from Manila where I was already working.

From him I learned how to write letters. Arnaiz was a man who wrote real letters—he typed even social and personal letters using a formal format and with carbon copies too.

The Reporter eventually folded up last year. Although his children tried to sustain the paper with the same fervor and spirit that Arnaiz breathed into it, I guess some things in this world are just never the same without the moving force driving it.

We all have personal heroes that we look up to; people to whom we owe what we’ve become. It had been ages since I last talked to the man but the years have not diminished the affection and respect I keep for the man who taught me how to write.

Farewell, Gus. Thank you for the many valuable gifts you so selflessly shared with me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Road trip

This is my column today.

For the longest time now, my friends and I have been thinking of going on a long road trip through towns and cities we have never set foot in. We told ourselves: Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we packed provisions into a car and just drove —no specific destination in mind and just stopping wherever we fancied and spending the night wherever we felt like it?

It really sounded like a great idea and the more we thought about it, the more exciting it became. There are a lot of towns and cities in this country that are just there, waiting to be explored. There are a lot of churches waiting to take our breaths away, a lot of beaches waiting to be dipped into, a lot of panoramic views of coastlines and mountains waiting to be marveled at. And so it was decided. We set aside three whole days between Christmas and New Year—a period we thought was ideal as everyone else would be on vacation—and during which time we were supposed to forget about time.

The journey started at the South Luzon Expressway as we were set on traversing through the little known towns of Batangas and Laguna. We should have seen the signs right there and then at the SLEX when it seemed one million other people had the same idea as ours. Worse, everyone it seemed was just as eager as we were to escape the congestion of the metro. Reality check number one: Long holidays do not translate into empty roads; in fact, it’s the other way around—long holidays mean more people pouring into roads creating monstrous traffic jams.

As everyone knows, the SLEX is one of the worst places in the world to be in since last year, thanks to the ongoing construction of the Skyway. It seemed construction activities had been temporarily halted for the holidays because when we passed by the area last Saturday, there was hardly any worker in sight. Unfortunately, it seemed whoever is in charge of the Skyway construction also conveniently forgot that—holidays or not —the SLEX is still the main thoroughfare for those traveling south of Metro Manila; it still needed to be cleared of construction debris and still required people serving as traffic aides. Naturally, there was heavy traffic at the SLEX.

Things turned from bad to worse at the Santa Rosa exit where vehicles were hopelessly jammed a kilometer away. There were just too many vehicles trying to get into a two-lane exit thus producing a funnel effect. Our hearts sank at the realization that everyone else seemed en route to the Tagaytay area. We should have turned around right there and then and headed somewhere else but our minds had been set on having lunch at Sonya’s Garden at the fringes of Tagaytay. To be fair to the SLEX people, they did make things a little easier a few meters from the exit by assigning additional personnel who collected toll fees directly from drivers. One wishes this kind of out-of-the-box thinking happened every day.

Special memo to the SLEX cops who ride on patrol cars and station themselves like menacing dogs at certain exits: Instead of trying to apprehend drivers who cut through queues at the exit, it would actually be a lot more helpful if you assist drivers right where the gridlock begins so that drivers don’t find themselves in situations where they are left with no other choice but to cut queues just so they don’t miss their exits.

This paradox happens a lot in the streets of Metro Manila where you find traffic cops hiding in certain intersections ready to ambush motorists who commit trumped up traffic infractions such as swerving lanes. If these people get out of their hiding places and actually do their jobs as traffic managers rather than as apprehenders, there would actually be much less traffic on the road. But then again, there’s not much money to be had from being nice and from helping others.

Anyway. We braved the long arduous drive to Tagaytay. It could have been a scenic, refreshing drive if it were not for the fact that traffic was at a virtual standstill. We left Manila at 9 a.m. We reached Tagaytay Public Market at 1 p.m. How Tagaytay City intends to become a major tourist destination is a source of wonder when it cannot even get vehicles to move at a decent pace at the lone thoroughfare that cuts through the city. The city needs to seriously get its act together and begin putting in place strategic plans to cope with the increasing volume of vehicles. There has been a lot of development happening around Tagaytay (the very narrow road that connects Tagaytay to the town of Talisay is now site of many development projects) and sadly, the development is not matched by corresponding investment in public infrastructure such as creation of diversion roads. The road trip to the Tagaytay area was sheer torture with a few temporary distractions provided by roadside signs that didn’t make sense. One such sign said: “Exit to Batangas here” and there was an arrow that pointed down right to a grassy knoll. The exit was 200 meters farther.

We had lunch at Sonya’s Garden. The food was great (an eat-all-you-can set meal of fresh organic salad, heavenly bread, pasta, desert and fresh Dalandan juice) although a little expensive at almost P700 per head. The great idea behind driving all the way to Alfonso, Cavite to get to Sonya’s Garden is to escape the madding crowd and to commune with nature in a secret hideaway. Not anymore. Sonya’s Garden used to be a lovely garden. It is now simply a dining place. When we were there last Saturday, there were at least 200 cars at the parking area and the turnover was quite brisk. We were amazed to discover that there were already three dining areas. The area where we had our lunch easily sat 200 people. The whole place is still overgrown with foliage but there is hardly any place for people to sit and be still. Yet another painful reality check: Success kills a great idea. Corollarily, business and the environment remain mutually exclusive concepts.

We tried to continue with our planned road trip toward the Calatagan and Nasugbu areas but were disheartened by the heavy traffic. We decided to turn around, suffer the Tagaytay City gauntlet in order to get down to Talisay en route to the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road Tollway (yup, that’s what STAR Tollway means, contrary to common belief that the highway was named after Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos Recto known as the Star for all Seasons in show business). Driving through the STAR Tollway was quite a breeze except that the highway was just too dark for comfort—not a single light post in the whole long stretch!

The planned road trip had been jettisoned in favor of a weekend spent on the beaches of Lobo, Batangas. At least we’re on a beach that offers fine sand and which seems, so far, on the fringes of the tourism map. This means we were practically the only people at the beach. We arrived Saturday night at a resort that offered rustic accommodations. Finally, some peace and quiet and lots of time spent reading and meditating.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy holidays

This is my column today.

As I write, the whole house is being merrily turned upside down and inside out the way only little children can. There are eight children in the house—nephews and nieces—and they are bouncing off walls, sliding down the staircase, rearranging furniture, and generally testing the overall resilience of beds, chairs, and everything that’s in their way.

In addition, there are four teenagers—also nephews and nieces—who have not left their places in front of the computer and DVD player in the last 38 hours seemingly impervious to the ruckus being created by the younger set of children. How today’s teenagers can stay glued to Facebook for 24 hours or be able to watch DVD copies of all the seasons of Gossip Girl non-stop in one sitting is a mystery that I have yet to fathom.

The adults—cousins and siblings —have so far been happily content with just lounging around the kitchen whenever they are actually in the house (most of the time, they are in some mall or tiangge trying to finish what so far has seemed like a race without a finish line—Christmas shopping!). Why adults tend to congregate at the kitchen or at the dining area is probably a reflection of the relative value we attach to the various aspects of Christmas. For kids, it’s the fun and enjoyment from toys and playtime. For teenagers, it’s time spent on various personal pursuits. For adults, it’s food and booze.

By tomorrow evening, Christmas eve, the whole house will be bursting to the seams with more relatives and friends expected to converge for the annual madness we call the Christmas get-together. Like in years past, there will be anarchy; which is how we celebrate Christmas from as far back as I can remember.

There will be lots of food, glorious food; the type of which we’ve been sworn to avoid by doctors. There will be massive consumption of alcohol, which we all know will pickle our livers. There will be lots of gifts many of which are stuff we already have or don’t need—how many USB flash drives, picture frames, planners, and coffee mugs do we really need, anyway?

There are many things about Christmas that bring out the best and the worst in all of us. Christmas can be stressful and hazardous to our health, not to mention a strain on our finances. But there are also many things about Christmas that are just too marvelous for words, which probably explains why we all are just too willing to submit to the whole frenzy every year despite the hassle and the aggravation.

One of the paradoxes of the season is this concept of gift giving. The idea behind it is supposed to be one of selflessness. The common admonition is that it’s supposed to be “the thought” that counts rather than the actual gift. However, the reality is that gift giving actually forces one to evaluate one’s relationships. The more special or valuable the relationship, the more effort or money goes into the gift. The practice in many companies, in fact, is to classify clients or customers according to the size of their business transactions with the company. Obviously, the more business a client brings in to a company, the more expensive the gift he or she gets from the company.

Some do a cop-out by opting to have just one variety of gift—known as a giveaway—to give to everyone. It used to be fruitcakes, which eventually gave way to bottles of red wine. Fortunately, the range of products has since then expanded to include varieties of cakes, cookies, and native delicacies. It’s democratic but it does take away the romance and the essence of gift giving, which is that some “thought” is supposed to go with the gift. It’s difficult to feel “valued” when one is receiving a generic gift that one knows has been sent out to 300 other people.

Fortunately, we live in an era characterized by extreme consumerism so there’s now a product and a service for anything and anyone. There are actually business enterprises and individuals that will do the shopping for you, wrap the gifts, and deliver them to the intended beneficiaries. As can be expected, the convenience does not come cheap. It can be argued that hiring a personal shopper also dilutes the essence of gift giving, but then again, credit may also be given to the fact that one went out of his or her way to hire an expert shopper just to find that perfect gift for you.

I wrote about Christmas party themes the other year and since then people have been asking me to make an update on unique and unusual themes that I came across or have heard of. I suppose there are people out there who attach a lot of value in these things because there remained a lot of inquiries in my various email groups about what themes other companies or groups were having for their parties.

Quickly, here are the more unusual themes that I encountered this year: A wedding reception party where guests picked out roles in a wedding and dressed appropriately (the games were also related to the rituals around a wedding reception such as the throwing of the bouquet and the garter), a “naughty or nice” party where people came dressed like they were attending their first communion or going to a wild drunken party, and an Elections 2010 party. The last one required attendees to dress up in the colors of the 2010 presidential candidate they were voting for. I came in a rainbow-colored attire because I still haven’t made up my mind. I was surprised to find that the number of people wearing blue and orange were almost equal to the number of people wearing yellow although the yellows still dominated the room.

I was pleased to note that quite a number of people seemed intent on adopting a theme somehow related to protecting the environment. I made an observation in one of my email groups that if people really intended to adopt an environment-friendly theme, it required going beyond wearing green t-shirts and necessitated that people eschew using styropor or plastic materials. I guess most reconsidered their original plan.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrong message

This is my column today.

I do not agree with Nicanor Perlas’ assertion that the fact that a number of media organizations have already invited him to participate in various public forums for so-called presidentiables is already more than enough argument that he is qualified to run for president. I can understand the very high value he puts on his advocacy and his capabilities —I am sure that he is a very competent person. Quite frankly, his performance in the couple of public forums featuring the so-called presidentiables and in his various media outings left so much to be desired; which is precisely why I think Perlas should not anchor his appeal by citing his participation in these media events.

Besides, the idea of making media exposure a basis for deciding whether or not candidates for public office have what it takes to run for public is dangerous. Aside from the fact that people with unlimited resources have already shown no compunction about buying media airtime to prop up their candidacies, it’s relatively easier for certain types of people in this country to get media mileage. I dread the thought of future elections being decided solely on how much media mileage a candidate has racked up in his or her favor.

But I agree with Perlas on another point. The main reason given by the Commission on Elections for declaring him a nuisance candidate and disqualifying him for the 2010 elections is objectionable. The Comelec, in so many words, said that Perlas and many other candidates do not have the money necessary to win elections.

What the Comelec said, in effect, is that elections in this country are all about money. Forget principles. Forget about platforms, ideologies, advocacies. Forget about idealism. It’s all about whether one has money or not.

By extension, what the Comelec has validated as a fact is the general notion that only people with money can run for public office. Of course common sense tells us that running for public office would require some money to be used for campaign purposes. But God help us if the Comelec, the very institution that is supposedly vested with the sacred task of ensuring fair and honest elections, cites lack of money as the reason why certain citizens have to be divested with the right to participate in elections.

I agree with Perlas: The Comelec decision rankles because it sends the wrong message.

But I do understand the Comelec’s need to trim the list of candidates. Having more than 10 candidates for the presidency is an administrative nightmare for everyone involved particularly in the canvassing of votes. The Comelec is also in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation— those rendered disqualified will always find something wrong in its decision regardless of the reasons cited.

I also think that this collective preoccupation with political correctness very often gets out of hand and produces lots of static that complicates matters. But still, it wouldn’t hurt for the Comelec to actually coach its decisions in ways that show some objective and careful thinking process.

The assumption of Jose Melo as chairman of the Comelec raised expectations. However, the recent decisions of the Comelec have left many people, including this writer, wondering if the Comelec under Melo’s watch can deliver fair, honest and clean elections in 2010.

The recent decisions of the Comelec unseating two governors—Bulacan’s Joselito Mendoza and Isabela’s Grace Padaca—were highly anomalous. Both are stalwarts of the Liberal Party and critics of the administration. Surely the twin incidents cannot be mere coincidences?

Melo also cast the deciding vote that junked Ang Ladlad’s appeal for party-list accreditation. Melo parroted the Second Division’s bigoted justification despite general condemnation from a lot of sectors including the Commission on Human Rights. If it’s any consolation, at least we now know that there are three other commissioners in the Comelec that have something else between their ears other than a face.

The Comelec, however, disqualified Ang Ladlad’s president, Ateneo de Manila professor Danton Remoto, as candidate for senator citing lack of money. Gen. Danny Lim was disqualified while Col. Ariel Querubin was declared qualified. Gen. Jovito Palparan, however, was rendered qualified. I have given up trying to figure out the logic behind these decisions.


The actions of the members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the National Press Club when they mobbed Andal Ampatuan Jr. last Friday were also quite unnerving. These also sent the wrong message.

I also think that Andal Ampatuan Jr and his accomplices should be made to account for the carnage at Maguindanao. I also am incensed at his seeming lack of remorse—he certainly does not even make an attempt to look innocent. But we still shouldn’t take matters into our hands.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"This is it!"

This was my column yesterday.

No, the title of this column does not refer to that Michael Jackson movie which was shown recently. It is the title of a presentation on HIV/AIDS made by the National Epidemiology Center of the Health Department last week. The data presented on HIV/AIDS prevalence in the country was not only sobering; it was depressing. No wonder the friend who forwarded the Powerpoint presentation to me aptly wrote as the subject of his e-mail “Read it and weep.”

Of course those among us who have been actively involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and caring for People Living With HIV/AIDS for more than two decades now have known about the grim statistics for sometime already. I have personally been raising the alarm in this space and in various fora since last year. But seeing the stark data in graphs and hearing the confirmation from the NEC made the data more foreboding.

But why “this is it?” I know the statement makes it appear as if we’ve stumbled on something exciting rather than ominous.

It’s really equivalent to pressing the proverbial alarm button. HIV/AIDS prevention advocates have been trying to convince everyone about the need to get serious about HIV/AIDS prevention for quite sometime now but unfortunately, the seemingly low prevalence of infection rates in the country lulled everyone into complacency. The general attitude was that HIV/AIDS was not a serious concern in the Philippines—the mantra of the 1990s was that HIV/AIDS infection in the country was “low and slow.” After all, our infection rates were at the low thousands while that of Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries were in the millions. Some people even clung to the myth that Filipinos had some built-in protection against HIV/AIDS infection.

For almost three decades, HIV/AIDS prevention advocates sounded like the boy who cried wolf. We tried to put a new spin to the HIV/AIDS situation in the country by describing it as “hidden and rising” but to no avail.

Not this time around. “This is it!” indeed.

The doubling rate of HIV/AIDS infection rates in the country is now officially pegged at two years. What this means is that the number of people who have been infected in the last two years has been twice the number of people infected in 2007. The statistics is alarming because the doubling rate of HIV/AIDS infection prior to 2007 was 10 years. It took the country ten years—from 1996 to 2006—to double the rate of infections.

Prior to the 10-year lull, the doubling rate of infections was every four years (1986 to 1990, 1991 to 1995). What this data says is that the country actually had relative success in HIV/AIDS prevention in the eighties and nineties. I was already actively involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and education at that time and I can categorically say that the resources made available by both government and global funding agencies to the cause of HIV/AIDS prevention in the country were adequate. Non-government organizations flourished and prevention programs were running at full speed. Thus, infection rates slowed down during the period 1996 to 2006 and we were the envy of many countries, many of which looked to the Philippines for inspiration and lessons.

Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong since the early 2000s. Funding for HIV/AIDS programs went dry as HIV/AIDS prevention ceased to be a priority. It seemed everyone became complacent and we all let our guard down. Many NGOs folded up. The few that remained gasped for breath. Most NGOs who focus on HIV/AIDS prevention are subsisting on meager funds.

Without funding support, technical expertise had become scarce as most HIV/AIDS educators and advocates were left with no choice but to give up HIV/AIDS work and opt for more lucrative careers. Counselors became call center agents. Medical experts became nurses abroad. Many NGOs —including the one of which I am President of the Board of Trustees —were hauled to court on account of the country’s rather stringent labor laws.

I’ve said this before and I am going to say it again: We are going to pay dearly for the collective mistake of the last 10 years. And the NEC data released recently is a harbinger of a grim scenario looming before us. This is it! We are now seeing data that shows alarming infection rates.

In 2000, the country had one reported new case of HIV infection every three days. This went up to one new case every day in 2007. This year, we had three new reported cases of HIV infection every day. And we are just talking about reported infections. We are not taking into account undocumented cases, which many experts estimate to be at least a hundred for every reported case. And it is a conservative estimate.

A great majority of infected cases are aged between 20 to 34 years old—people who are at the prime of their lives! This means college students and those who are in the workforce. The primary mode of transmission in the country is unsafe sexual contact—and the data shows algebraic increase in infections among bisexuals and men who have sex with other men. Here’s something just as distressing: In the past, most of the infections came from highly urbanized locations such as Metro Manila; today, the infections are spread across the archipelago.

The NEC data pointed to rising incidence of risky sexual behavior and low prevention programs as the twin factors that account for the alarming rate of HIV infection. Obviously, the solution is to reverse the correlation —we should be working towards decreasing risky sexual behavior through more and better prevention programs. The conclusion is hardly rocket science—it is still education and information that will empower people to protect them selves from HIV/AIDS infection.

The NEC has sounded the alarm. Let’s hope everyone is taking notice —in particular, those who have the means to do something to prevent HIV/AIDS infection rates from further skyrocketing beyond our control.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The shortsightedness of moralists

This was my column yesterday.

This paper featured in its front page last Saturday a news story about the contempt charges filed by a Catholic advocacy group Family Media Advocacy Foundation Inc., against Creative Programs Inc., the cable TV production company of ABS-CBN, for airing the HBO drama series Big Love on its Velvet Channel. The charges were filed at a Quezon City court and cited members of the Board of the television channel including Eugenio Lopez III and Maria Rosario (Charo) Santos Concio, top honchos of ABS-CBN.

The charges stemmed from the continued airing of subsequent seasons of the show despite a supposed standing order issued early this year by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board prohibiting the show’s broadcast “to protect the interest and welfare of the viewing public.” How such a lofty goal is feasible requires major acrobatic deductions but I have long resigned myself to the fact that logic and the MTRCB—or moralists in general—are concepts that just don’t go together.

I came to know about the controversy only last Saturday and was surprised to know that there was a long-standing prohibition order issued against Big Love by the MTRCB. I am fiercely against any kind of censorship, but I wasn’t really surprised that the MTRCB had issued a prohibition order or that certain moralists have protested against the show; reactions like these are pretty expected in a country where hypocrisy reigns supreme.

My surprise stemmed from the fact that the show had been airing late nights on HBO for quite sometime already and nobody had raised a loud howl about it until now. I am not a fan of the show but I have seen a few episodes of it. The truth is that I only became mildly interested in it when I came across an online review of the show which described it as a “Mormon’s Sopranos.” I am a big fan of The Sopranos and the comparison piqued my interest. Now, Big Love is certainly very well written and is relatively more intelligent TV fare than most of the garbage that we have to put up with on the boob tube. But The Sopranos it isn’t—not even close—so I never really felt a compelling need to watch the series religiously.

So here then is the supreme irony of it all: Now that there is a controversy, I am sure the series will attract more viewers. By seeking to prohibit the show from being aired, the moralists have only succeeded in raising curiosity about it. The fact is that Big Love was not popular in the Philippines and I doubt if there was a huge demand for it. But now, thanks to the howl raised by the moralists, I am sure there will be a demand for DVD copies of the show. I, for one, now intend to buy DVDs of the show and watch all episodes of it. Had they kept their mouths shut, the show would have passed by unnoticed by the great majority of the viewing public.

In effect, the moralists have done Big Love a huge favor and have unwittingly become the show’s main endorsers.

And let’s not even delude ourselves from thinking that by prohibiting the airing of Big Love on Philippine cable television people won’t have access to it anymore. This assumption is painfully naïve if not downright foolish. Government cannot even stop pirated pornography from being sold openly on our streets. What do they want to do, cut off Internet access to all? Imprison people from burning copies and duplicating the show through their personal computers?

I prowled the Internet for related controversies about Big Love in other countries and came up with very little. There was a minor controversy in the United States over alleged misrepresentation of one of the sacred rituals of the Church of Latter Day Saints in one episode. I also came across a position paper issued by Pro-Life Philippines early this year in support of the protest of the Catholic advocacy group that filed a complaint against the show at the MTRCB. But overall, there has been very little controversy generated by the show elsewhere. When we compare it to the controversies generated by other television series such as Sex and the City, or Desperate Housewives, reactions to Big Love has been relatively more restrained.

I am not going to defend Big Love and endorse it as the next best thing to hit television after May Bukas Pa. Like I said, I am not even a huge fan of it. Like any other show, it comes with its own pluses and minuses. But it is a television show—it is fiction, not real life. People who watch it—or any other television show or movie for that matter—are supposed to engage their minds while watching it and not simply take everything that they see as Gospel truth. That is why we have brains.

This is my problem with moralists. They think that everyone is stupid and cannot discern truth from lies, fiction from reality, the good from the bad. They think that everyone else is incapable of making judgments. Moralists impose their biases and prejudices on others. Worse, they think that everyone who disagrees with them or do not share their opinions are automatically misguided and immoral.

My view is that more harm comes from imprisoning people’s minds and constricting them rather than allowing them to think for themselves. We rile about attempts to curtail other freedoms but not enough about attempts to curtail the right to think freely.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this question: What makes this people qualified to dictate on other people what is safe or unsafe? What makes this people qualified to impose their moral standards on others?

What I find even more appalling is the seeming simplemindedness of moralists who pick on shows on the basis of their basic plotlines, on their basic premise. Big Love is about a man with four wives, ergo, it preaches polygamy. It is like saying that a movie about a serial killer is automatically an endorsement of indiscriminate murder. It is like saying that a television show that portrays homosexuality positively encourages homosexual behavior. The context of the situations is very often conveniently glossed over.

As a result, they close their minds to what is even more sinister—subliminal messages.For example, shows on “religious” channels don’t seem to get monitored. Nobody is worrying about the negative effects being propagated by people who preach hate under the guise of saving souls. They even engage in open hostility toward preachers of other religious denominations. Nobody is raising a howl about how the plotlines of most local teleseryers or fantaseryes always hint at incestuous relationships. Talk about shortsightedness!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Political smorgasbord

This is my column today.

What are we to make of the overwhelming surge in the number of people who aspire for national elective positions?

There are those who look at this as positive development hypothesizing a direct correlation between the increase in the number of people who have had a sudden attack of self-efficacy (i.e., overwhelming belief in their capabilities) to an increase in resurgence of vigilance in this country. Their thesis is that the more candidates there are, the higher the level of concern for this country among the people. I am not sure there is empirical basis for the perceived relationship, but I concede that given all the aggravation and expense required of any candidate for public office, there has to be some meaningful reason behind a decision to run for an elective position other than “because one is qualified.”

As can be expected, there are those who see this as negative development. These are people who think that the standards for elective positions have sunk so low that everyone now feels qualified to become councilor, mayor, governor, congressman, senator, or president. I am not necessarily singling out the reappearance of candidates from the Philippine entertainment industry, although I must admit that I am also bothered at the sheer number of artista in the list of people running in the May 2010 elections. The actors, actresses, singers, comedians, etc., running for a post in Quezon City, for instance, can easily compose a complete lineup it is a wonder they haven’t formed a political party of their own.

Is the resurgence yet another proof of how lucrative elective positions have become that they are now seen as better careers?

Ninety-five people filed certificates of candidacies for the post of President of the Republic of the Philippines. Of the 95, nine are considered serious contenders to the post, namely (in alphabetical order): Noynoy Aquino, Joseph Estrada, Richard Gordon, Jamby Madrigal, Nicanor Perlas, JC de los Reyes, Gibo Teodoro, Eddie Villanueva, Manny Villar. They are the ones that certain media organizations have anointed as the worth featuring in the various forums for presidential aspirants. Two other names have some recall, namely, Mario Crespo (a.k.a. Mark Jimenez) and Oliver Lozano.

The rest of the 84 presidential wannabes face the inevitable: Being declared nuisance candidates by the Commission on Elections. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Crespo and Lozano meet the same fate as the 84 others. Among the 84 is someone who believes he is God the Father, another one thinks he is the rightful owner of the whole archipelago. There are one or two who actually look like they have good qualifications but given that they do not have the resources, a political party, and a solid following, one can’t help but wonder if they aren’t nuts to think that they have a shot at the presidency. If this trend continues, I am afraid there will come a time when we will have to require psychiatric evaluation of all candidates for elective positions.

Of course we’re supposed to be in a democracy and everyone has as much right as anyone else, including the right to make an utter fool of himself or herself. The problem is that given the very limited resources of the Commission on Elections, we really don’t have the luxury of indulging everyone his fantasy, or if we are to call a spade a dirty shovel, their lunacy.

Surprisingly, there were only 20 people who filed certificates of candidacy for the vice presidency seemingly validating the general perception that the post holds very little value to most people. Sure, the qualifications are the same as that of president. In fact, there are those who strongly insist that the selection of vice president be given the same weight as that of president given that the vice president is the constitutional successor to the post.

Of the 20, seven are prominent names: Jejomar Binay, Bayani Fernando, Loren Legarda, Edu Manzano, Mar Roxas, Jay Sonza, and Perfecto Yasay. The rest of the names hold very little significance.

On the other hand, the senatorial contest is quite crowded with 158 candidates vying for the 12 slots that are available. As can be expected, quite a number of incumbent senators are running for re-election, among them, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, and Senators Lito Lapid, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla.

The irrepressible Santiago is running under her own People’s Reform Party but has the distinct advantage of being a beneficiary of this new political hybrid called a “guest candidate.” She is in the slate of at least four political parties. I wouldn’t be surprised if more candidates would find themselves in a similar situation. Political parties in this country don’t really stand for distinct ideologies or platforms and are simply convenient structures to launch political careers. In ordinary times, such a spectacle would be unacceptable as it would be tantamount to being a turncoat. But the present is hardly ordinary. Marriage of convenience is the in thing particularly since most of the major parties were unable to complete their senatorial line-ups.

Picking 12 from the list will be a difficult task. In addition to the re-electionist senators, there are at least five other senators who are intent on returning to the senate. They are former senators Serge Osmeña, Ralph Recto, Franklin Drilon, Tito Sotto and Kit Tatad.

In addition, there are a quite a number of really illustrious candidates who are deserving of anyone’s consideration. The militants from the House of Representatives, among them Liza Maza, Satur Ocampo and Risa Hontiveros Baraquel have filed their candidacies. I was expecting Teddy Casiño to also run for the Senate but for some strange reason I didn’t find his name among the list of those who filed certificates of candidacies. We may disagree with the specific points of their advocacies, but one cannot argue the nobility of what these people are fighting for.

And then there are the candidates whose individual brilliance has been proven and who represent various critical concerns and constituencies; the likes of Martin Bautista, Danton Remoto, Susan Ople, Sonia Roco, Alex Lacson, etc. I personally think that a Senate with roster composed of this people would be a great source of pride and inspiration. I am not really sure what exactly they are bringing to the senate, but newscasters Rey Langit, Kata Inocencio, and Gilbert Remulla are also in the list of candidates.

As if having Enrile, Gringo Honasan, and Antonio Trillanes is not yet enough two other former military officers - others would prefer that they be described as renegades—Danilo Lim and Ariel Querubin are also vying for the Senate. Not to be outdone, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also wants to be senator.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Ending a reign of terror

This is my column today.

Is it an overreaction, a brazen display of power, or—finally—a courageous albeit belated display of political will to, once and for all, get to the bottom of the Maguindanao massacre?

The province of Maguindanao was placed under martial law last Saturday by virtue of Proclamation 1959 signed by the President of the Republic Friday evening.

The proclamation paved the way for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the province and led to the arrests without warrants of the other members of the Ampatuan family, widely believed to be behind the massacre of 57 people, including 30 journalists in Ampatuan town last Nov. 23.

Put under detention over the weekend was Maguindanao Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. along with six other political leaders and government officials related to the Ampatuans. The arrests presumably happened because of the proclamation.

Yet all of a sudden, discussions related to the Maguindanao carnage assumed a different tone and texture.

Just a few days ago, most everyone was hyperventilating about the need to do something—anything—to bring the Ampatuans to the bar of justice. There was wide-scale condemnation of the massacre and loud angry demands for the government to stop dragging its feet. Many people I know even demanded that the Ampatuans be immediately arrested despite the lack of solid evidence.

And now, the same people are crying “overkill” and are now expressing the need to protect and safeguard the human rights of everyone—witnesses and suspects alike. Oh please don’t get me wrong. I also believe that criminals have rights, which is why I have profound respect for people like lawyer Sigfrid Fortun who is valiantly defending the Ampatuans. But I can’t help but note the sudden change in advocacy among many people just because the opportunity to demonize Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has presented itself.

Of course people are still trying to be politically correct by prefacing their condemnation of the declaration of martial law by saying that they mean no disrespect to the victims of the massacre and that they still want the perpetrators punished for the horrible slaughter.

How justice is going to be served despite the Ampatuans’ reign of power and terror in Maguindanao remains unclear. A whole cache of guns and ammunitions were unearthed in the middle of a village and no one—not a single resident of the village—saw, heard, or smelled anything that could give indications as to how the cache got to be buried in the community. Another cache of high-powered firearms, including mortars, automatic weapons and anti-tank weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and explosives were also discovered in a lot close to one of the Ampatuan residences. Does anyone still need proof that the resources and the motivation for more violence to escalate are present in Maguindanao?

The conspiracy theory being peddled out there is that the declaration of martial law is some kind of a test case—a prelude to a possible similar declaration in the event that the opposition wins, or Gloria Macapagal Arroyo loses her bid for representative, in the 2010 elections. Okay. I know that far more implausible things have happened in this country. I also know that Arroyo has not exactly been the epitome of truthfulness and sincerity. But really, one has to be really paranoid to believe such a scenario will come to pass.

Am I in favor of the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao? If there is sufficient basis for it and if it will normalize the situation in the province, succeed in dismantling private armies, and bring justice to the 57 victims of the November 23 massacre, then yes. However, I live and work in Manila and have no first hand knowledge of the situation in Maguindanao so I don’t feel competent to make a categorical opinion, whether for or against the move. Unlike others, I will not presume to be an expert on the Maguindanao situation.

But I do have friends who live in Maguindanao and most of them are relieved that the Ampatuan warlords are finally in detention. Of course they are fearful that the supporters of the Ampatuans would retaliate—they tell me that despite the general revulsion that the rest of the country feels for the Ampatuans, the clan does have solid following in the province—which is why placing the province temporarily under martial law is something that they welcome. It’s difficult to argue with personal experience so I take their word at face value.

It is obvious that the Nov. 23 carnage was carried out by many people—probably a hundred or so. Arresting these many people would be almost impossible without special powers. Heck, the government and the military could not even arrest Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., despite eyewitness accounts linking him to the carnage—he voluntarily turned himself in for questioning.

A political group mocked the government by asking “Is the government so weak that it cannot enforce the arrest of those implicated without it [martial law]?” The answer to that question is obvious; it’s almost a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is such a grievous mistake to admit vulnerability when things are beyond one’s capacity to control, thereby requiring special powers.

The brazenness of the Nov. 23 carnage in itself is proof of just how powerful the perpetrators are, or the extent to which they would go to assert their power.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The circus comes to town

This was my column last Wednesday.

The circus has officially descended into town. The arrival was noted the other day as three so-called presidentiables and their supporters swooped down one after the other at Intramuros, where the head office of the Commission on Elections is located, for the filing of their certificates of candidacy.

Each presidential aspirant entered the area with much fanfare. It was as if there was a contest for the most dramatic entrance or as if gimmickry during the filing of candidacy has any bearing on the results of the elections. The fact that the filing of candidacies is marked by cheap stunts designed to attract attention rather than by solemnity is a clear manifestation of the state of things in this country.

Why can’t we treat something that is supposed to be a solemn act—making formal one’s intent to serve his or her country—with a little more dignity?

I don’t expect our candidates to put on a pious demeanor as they sign their certificates but surely, arriving at the scene accompanied by marching bands, half-naked gyrating ati-atihan dancers, and a screaming mob taunting everyone else is a bit too gaudy—and need I say it, cheap —for comfort.

I half expected someone to arrive astride a donkey with supporters waving palm fronds and singing paeans.

Deposed former President Joseph Estrada came driving a jeepney harking back to his widely-successful Jeep Ni Erap campaign that catapulted him to the presidency a decade ago. Estrada’s whole campaign is in fact anchored mainly on the myth of a widely-anticipated comeback. Estrada is harboring the delusion that the majority of Filipinos look up to him as the hero who would provide the much-needed deliverance. He is in for a major disappointment.

Eddie Villanueva was accompanied by his religious flock, clad in green and yellow. While the group wasn’t as boisterous as the others, they were nevertheless as energetic, chanting Villanueva’s name endlessly.

Senators Manny Villar and Loren Legarda’s arrival was preceded and announced by ati-atihan dancers and lots of merrymaking.

It was a grand fiesta outside the Comelec as the supporters tried to create a festive atmosphere.

When all the hoopla was done, when the candidates had left the premises and the media people had gone on to report the day’s exertions, people started to trickle away, leaving the whole place littered with trash—mostly plastic.

And there was the metaphor I was searching for—after all that enthusiastic screaming and brandishing of slogans, after the candidates were done with their speeches and their chest-thumping, after everyone had proclaimed themselves as the messiah that would bring change and hope and better days for all—everyone left the place not much better, and in fact much worse than when they descended on it. They descended on Intramuros to proclaim the start of their quest to clean up the country, to start a revolution, to bring change—and in the process only dirtied up the surroundings. They didn’t bother to clean it up after they left. Not one candidate or party bothered to warn their supporters about vandalizing the walls of the Manila Cathedral, or littering the premises.

As I write, friends who live or work in the area have just told me the circus has intensified as the other candidates tried to beat the Dec. 1 deadline.

Someone at the Comelec told me there were already more than 50 candidates for the presidency as of noontime yesterday. What a circus, indeed.


So the cat is finally out of the bag. The President ended weeks of frenzied speculation by confirming last Monday that, yes, she will be seeking an elective post in May 2010. She will run as representative of the Second District of Pampanga.

As can be expected, the confirmation was greeted by widespread consternation.

The reactions ranged from the livid (“she is drunk with power”), to open contempt (“she is shameless!”), to dismay (“how can she demean the highest post in the land by settling for a much lower post afterwards?”), to annoyance (“why won’t she go away?”), to cynicism and skepticism (“she is up to something sinister”).

Of course, everyone prefaced their reaction with the recognition that there are no legal impediments that bars her from seeking a lower elective post; that running for Congress is an option that is available for her. The question however is not legal. It’s not even moral. The question, to my mind, is basic logic. It just doesn’t make sense.

The President said, in so many words, that what prompted her decision to run for Congress was her overriding desire to continue being in public service. It’s the lamest of all reasons. Of course everyone wants to serve this country; there is no shortage of people who want to invest their time and effort in helping this country move forward. But that’s not a valid excuse for running for an elective post because there are many ways in which we can serve this country.

Efren Peñaflorida, recently chosen as CNN Hero of the Year, has probably done more for this country than most elected officials have. He has done it without being mayor or representative.

And really, it is not just about a leader’s needs; it’s not just about what she thinks is best. A real leader is one who is able to sacrifice personal needs for the sake of something bigger, something loftier.

Anyway. I’ve said this before and I will say it again here. Arroyo is pushing her luck too far. By settling for a lower post, she has effectively started her descent. It’s going to be all downhill from this point on.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Bothered and bewildered

This was my column last Monday. The President announced she was running for Congress the same day this column came out.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the filing of candidacies for the May 2010 elections.

As I write, the question that’s foremost in everyone’s mind is whether the President of the Republic will make history yet again by filing her candidacy as representative of the second district of Pampanga. In the last few days, we’ve seen what is being made to appear like a major clamor from her cabalens for her to represent them in Congress.

Quite frankly, the whole hullabaloo looks like a badly conceptualized, poorly staged moro moro acted out by awfully hammy actors. I haven’t been able to stomach watching those people declaim their appeal for the President to “please listen to them.” One of them delivered this hair-raising monologue about how the President is still young and how she is still their best hope in Congress. Even the first son, Representative Mikey Arroyo has joined in the chorus, making a dramatic appeal to “Her Excellency, my mother” to heed the people’s call. I know; it’s enough to make sober people run out of a room screaming.

I have a strong feeling President Gloria Arroyo will win if she does run for Congress. Randy David will give her a good fight, but my fearless forecast is that she will still win even in an honest and clean election. She will win for the same reason that the Marcoses have always won elections in Ilocos Norte or the Romualdezes have always won elections in Leyte despite their infamy. And I am not talking about recent elections—both families won elections in their home turfs barely a few years after their fall from grace. It’s the same reason why the Ampatuans will mostly likely still win some positions of power in Maguindanao despite the unspeakably evil massacre that happened there recently.

We all indulge in wishful thinking that the electorate has matured and that Filipinos are now more discerning in their choice of leaders. The reality, however, is that people in this country don’t get voted into office on the strength of what they are saying, or because of their platforms, or because of moral issues. People get elected into office because of highly personal, emotional, as well as practical reasons.

As can be expected, Mrs. Arroyo has done more than any other politician for her cabalens than any other politician especially in the last few months. Of course it can be argued that she and her administration also did a lot of really awful things for this country; it can even be pointed out that she brought shame and embarrassment to Kapampangans and to Filipinos in general, but to many voters in Pampanga, in her hometown of Lubao particularly, all those are abstract, ephemeral concepts that pale in comparison to the roads, bridges, public structures and other political largesse that they have received from her patronage.

All these will not make the whole idea right, or comprehensible, or even remotely logical. Why someone who has already reached the pinnacle of power would deign to settle for a lower elective post defies reason.

At the personal level, why someone would willingly put herself through the gauntlet again—subject one’s self to more humiliation and public ridicule—is something that baffles the mind. There’s the possibility of megalomania, of course, even perhaps extreme narcissism, or a bloated sense of self-importance. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, it has been said. People who are drunk with power become numb. All these are convenient analyses to explain this madcap idea of a President of a country running for a seat in Congress after her term.

But as Representative Teddyboy Locsin (who probably has the combined IQ of half the representatives in Congress) remarked publicly recently, the President is one smart woman. Mrs. Arroyo is a lot of things, but she is not stupid.

Of course she has not openly admitted that she will run for Congress, but her body language seems to confirm the message. It is within the bounds of reason that given her legendary short temper she could already have squashed the supposed clamor with a quick dismissal if she weren’t so inclined to heed it. The truth is that at the very least, she is playing coy and even seems tickled pink at the clamor of her sycophants.

So what then is the political masterplan behind all these attempts to confound the general electorate?

The general drift of the speculative drivel out there is that the President wants to run for Congress, become Speaker of the House, and then marshal forces to push Charter change ultimately leading to her installation as Prime Minister. There are a lot of gaps in this conspiracy theory, foremost of which is that it cannot happen without the support of the Senate and everyone knows there is absolutely no way Mrs. Arroyo is going to have enough senators supportive of her or of charter change. Let’s not act naïve here by thinking that any senator’s objection to Charter change is borne out of altruistic reason—the simple fact of the matter is that supporting Charter change is tantamount to political suicide on the part of any senator. They might as well hang themselves in public.

In addition, everyone knows the specter of having Mrs. Arroyo at the helm of the next government is anathema even among those who are politically neutral; let’s not talk anymore about the greater majority of people who hate her with a passion. Mrs. Arroyo becoming Prime Minister? It’s not going to happen.

There is the other scenario being floated of course: The President becoming Speaker of the House and using the vast resources she has presumably amassed as President to control the House of Representatives purportedly to protect herself and her allies from political persecution, or simply to make things difficult for the new administration in the event that the next administration is unfriendly or hostile toward her.

Again, there is a flaw in this logical deduction. The basic truth is that there is no need for all that rigmarole. This country has a rather dismal record of bringing to justice powerful people who have committed serious offenses and wrongdoings. The list includes the Estradas, the Marcoses, the Romualdezes, even the long list of former renegade military men who have not only escaped the so-called long arm of the law but have even bounced back to power. Even if Mrs. Arroyo isn’t in power anymore, she will still have allies, not to mention family members in power who can do everything to block her persecution.

We can all give this bothersome, bewildering enigma of the President’s political plans our best shot at analysis. Mrs. Arroyo rose to power and survived numerous crises because of a confluence of events that ordinary people would ascribe to destiny. Perhaps Mrs. Arroyo is waiting for—nay, anticipating—another confluence of events that would propel her to political center stage again. I think she is pushing her luck too far this time around.