Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flogging ourselves again

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Given the magnitude of what happened last Monday at the Quirino Grandstand, I expect the op-ed pages of our newspapers today to be overflowing with commentaries about why the tragedy happened, what exactly went wrong, who should be made responsible, etc. Hopefully, there will also be equal attention on what we all learned from the hostage-taking crisis and what we should be doing moving forward.

In fact, it was sad that some television and radio stations couldn’t hold off even for just a few minutes to allow everyone some precious moments of reflection and be able to process the tragedy. They immediately started the process of looking for someone to blame—even as the bodies of the hostages were still being taken off the bus. It was only a matter of time before they trundled out the long line of people with a mouthful to say on the matter; even Armando Ducat Jr, the guy who held hostage a bus full of schoolchildren a couple of years back was resurrected from oblivion!

Suddenly, everyone was an expert on hostage-taking situations!

In this age of YouTube, videos of more effectives ways of managing hostage-taking situations done elsewhere in the world were immediately tagged and people gleefully pointed to these as the way things should have been done as if all factors in a hostage-taking situation are as universal as the mouse they used to click those images.

A student I was chatting with online while the crisis was unfolding told me he needed to make sense of the whole thing but couldn’t because local media’s treatment of the whole thing was so frenetic there was just no time to allow things to sink in, much less to think intelligently. Why, even Mel Tiangco was hyperventilating the whole time! Media covered every possible angle of the crisis at certain points that local TV stations had four views of the bus shown on television. And they wondered why the SWAT team couldn’t position themselves properly with all those media people annotating every single movement at the grandstand?

We probably have watched too many action movies because everyone seemed to have this notion that the SWAT team should have simply stormed the bus with guns blazing a la Rambo last Monday night.

I need to say this at once: I wish that in the future, we could all learn to tone down the excitement and learn to deal with crisis situations in a more sober, more restrained, and less dramatic way. We need to tone down our penchant for histrionics. We have got to learn how to do things with a little less exuberance.

The hostage taker could have done this. His brother and his relatives could also have done the same—they could have done away with the hysterics and reminded themselves that it was not about them. The police could have put into practice more science and less gut feel, and definitely more patience. And media and everyone else from the uziseros (kibitzers) at the Luneta Park to the people in front of their televisions, radios, or computers at home could have done the same thing as well—we could have trusted the police a little more and didn’t get in the way of the operations.

At some point I wished it were possible for someone to have had the sense to step into the whole picture and scream: let’s tone down the excitement and the drama, this is not a teleserye! But unfortunately, asking Filipinos not to turn events such as the hostage-taking incident last Monday into a major production is virtually impossible. We fall for big messy fiascos that allow everyone their one big scene-stealing moment!

Please forgive me if you are getting the impression that I am trivializing what happened last Monday night. I am not. I am just as upset and mortified as everyone else. But over and above everything else, I am frustrated at our utter inability to learn from previous experiences. More importantly, I am aghast at our collective penchant for big public confrontations afterwards where we look for someone to blame, castigate people publicly, and flog ourselves hard as we imagine all kinds of worst-case and grim scenarios that would befall us as a result of the tragedy. Boy, are we so hard on ourselves! We don’t wait for criticism from other nations we take it upon ourselves to do it to ourselves, and more viciously!

I am deeply bothered by all these dire predictions talk about how the tragedy would negatively impact the future of tourism in this country. When the Hong Kong government came up with that travel advisory blacklisting the Philippines as a travel destination barely minutes after the hostage-taking incident, the link to the Internet site immediately got reposted in various blogs and Facebook sites along with all possible variations of wailing and sniveling over how we’ve lost our supposed pride of place in the global community.

Okay. I agree that what happened was a cause of embarrassment. I do not agree that it had gross incompetence written all over it; but I concede that the crisis gave the country the equivalent of a black eye in the global community. But who can actually say with certainty that what happened spelled doom for the future of Philippine tourism? And why are we the ones saying these things when we should be focusing our energies in defending ourselves?

Instead of wringing our hands in frustration and wailing our guts out, we can help in bringing this important message across: Senior Inspector Rolando del Rosario Mendoza was not representative of Filipinos, nor of the police force in this country. He was an aberration.

I hope that current efforts to paint Mendoza as some kind of a renegade hero are given the right context. He might have valid gripes (the man was a high-ranking official earning barely P19,000) but there is no possible justification for what he did.

I have no illusions that the tragedy that happened Monday night was a simple matter of a man driven to the brink of desperation, or of collective incompetence of the police authorities, or of the misplaced exuberance on the part of the media. What happened was far more complicated. I appreciate the efforts to unravel the events and to find explanations, but first things first. Rather than automatically dive into a frenzy of blaming and Pinoy bashing, perhaps we should first all take a moment to honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy. The government should probably initiate this—an hour of reflection or mourning for the senseless tragedy. And perhaps we should make an effort to process what happened—in a somber, calm and intelligent way.

The events of Monday night affect each one of us in many ways; there is something we can all learn from what happened. It would be such a waste if we all get caught up in the frenzy of blaming to be able to distill real lessons from the tragedy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Let no man put asunder

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but nowadays when married people introduce themselves they seem obliged to describe the state of their marriage. I am sure you have been in some social function where someone inevitably introduces himself or herself as someone who is “happily married.” Some do it in jest, others in mock seriousness as if they need to convince others. Thereupon others feel compelled to also echo the same description of their marital union.

I still have to come across someone who actually admitted that he or she is unhappily married, although some brave souls would admit—most often, embarrassingly—that they are separated from their spouses. So those who are in blissful unions need to publicly affirm it while those who are not have to squirm in their seats and keep their peace.

This may not be a validation of the rising number of failed marriages in this country —although there are quite a number of empirical sources that say so—but it certainly indicates social recognition of the problem. Not all marriages are made in heaven, thank you very much. We all know it. The Church knows it. The government recognizes it. The problem is that we can’t seem to agree on what to do about it.

So once again, we’re in the middle of a debate. It’s a debate that we keep having every few years or so. The really sad thing is that it is a debate that seems pointless anyway because the people who must listen and need to be enlightened have already closed their minds a long time ago so no brilliant argument can sway them to change their positions. We like to trundle out this bit about how we are the showcase of democracy in this part of the world but the reality is that just like in the case of the reproductive health bill, the majority opinion is not material in the discussion either. It doesn’t matter if 80 percent of the Filipino population approves of a measure, it is not a guarantee that it will get passed in Congress and becomes a law.

So let me just cut to the chase and say I am not optimistic about the chances of House Bill No. 1799, entitled “An Act Introducing Divorce in the Philippines” filed by Representatives Luzviminda Ilagan and Emerencia de Jesus recently. Ilagan and de Jesus are representatives of Gabriela, party-list advancing women’s rights in the country. The last time a divorce bill was filed in Congress was in 2005 when Liza Masa and Ilagan filed House Bill 3461. But similar attempts have been made at the Senate (Senator Rodolfo Biazon filed Senate Bill 782 in 2001) and also in Congress by Representative Bellaflor Angara Castillo (2001) and Manuel Ortega (1999).

Is it finally time? Will the measure finally pass Congress and become a law? Hope springs eternal and I continue to keep my fingers crossed, but like I said, I am not very optimistic.

The proposed bill makes a case for divorce building on statistics, cultural facts, legal precedents, etc. It argues that divorce is in fact available to Filipino Muslims and that absolute divorce was once part of the pre-Spanish culture of our tribal ancestors. There is also legal separation and annulment of marriage, which are really just costly and complicated variants of divorce. All these rational arguments, however, will not fly. Here is why.

The divorce bill was the topic at a morning show last week. When it was introduced as the topic, Bernadette Sembrano—who happens to be one of the relatively more sensible broadcast journalists we have around, at least until last week—immediately retorted she was not in favor of it. Her reason: Because she does not want to separate from her husband, presumably because she is happily married. Sembrano’s pronouncement defied any semblance of logic. Why would she think that having a divorce law in place would jeopardize the blissful state of her marriage?

Sembrano’s acrobatic logical deduction is unfortunately representative of the general opinion of those who are against legalizing divorce in the country who think that having a divorce law would encourage more couples to separate just because it is there and they are allowed to do it.

Such a paradigm is insulting, of course. Unfortunately, respect for the Filipino’s capability to think intelligently, or to make the right choices, is not exactly a characteristic of the moralists in this country. The way they see it, Filipinos cannot be trusted with making decisions that affect their lives—be it in the matter of what movies they can watch, how many children they can afford to have, what to do with their bodies, and whether they should remain in a relationship or not.

When I spoke about my support for the proposed divorce bill at a public forum recently, someone sided up to me afterwards and asked me point blank: How long have you been separated from your wife? I almost choked on the sandwich I was eating. Why is it that people automatically conclude that anyone who supports the divorce bill is doing so for vested self-interest? There is nothing wrong with supporting advocacies that affects one’s one life, of course.

But it’s really frustrating when people cannot see through the blinders they have put on themselves—they think that if something does not affect them personally, there is no reason to support it. For the record, I have never been married and it’s not because I am holding out for the time a divorce law is firmly in place either. I just don’t think of myself as the marrying kind—I’d probably make the worst husband in the world because of my passion for various advocacies and some factors that would probably qualify under the heading “psychological incapacity” (not physiological, definitely). Wouldn’t it be nice if other men similarly inclined did not inflict themselves on women?

So I am not surprised that many of those who are happily married are not supporting the divorce bill. I wouldn’t be surprised in fact if they actually harbor thoughts that those who are in marital limbo deserve their fate because they didn’t work as hard at their marriage. Well, tough luck indeed but I wish people would be more magnanimous and acknowledge that there are other factors that make a marriage work. Or not.

At any rate, I still don’t get the causal relationships that people read between a proposed law and certain outcomes. Why would providing contraception encourage people to have more sex? Isn’t the desire to have sex a function of biology and psychology rather than external factors? Conversely, why would a divorce bill encourage people to separate? I still have to meet a man and a woman who got married because they intended to separate after. When people decide to get married, they go through so much trouble it is inconceivable to think that they are not serious about making their marriage work! As a friend of mine told me—in jest although I suspect there was a lot of truth in it—she wouldn’t have wiggled herself into a ridiculous outfit of swaddling yards of white lace if she weren’t so serious about it.

People only have the best intentions for getting married. It’s extremely cruel and unreasonable to make them suffer all their life for the fact that even the best intentions are often simply not enough.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In search of closure

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

The Supreme Court is supposed to deliberate today on a critical issue: Whether or not to lift the restraining order it issued in 2005 against a decision by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council placing 4,415 hectares of the estate under land reform.

The importance of the deliberations and the subsequent decision cannot be ignored. Whether the current administration likes it or not, regardless of what the Cojuangcos and their supporters think, Hacienda Luisita is the test case of agrarian reform in this country. And whether we like it or not, the case is a test as well of the inclinations of the Supreme Court. As it is, certain labor groups have already raised concern over the fact that the Court seemed to have prioritized the decision on a relatively minor labor dispute involving Central Azucarera de Tarlac (a sugar refinery belonging to the same Cojuangco group) over what they perceived as the more critical issue of whether Hacienda Luisita’s stock distribution option is legal or not.

If we are to believe the press releases from Malacañang, the President is keeping a hands-off policy on the Hacienda Luisita case. He was supposed to have motored all the way there during the weekend only for some badly needed rest. I am not saying that he went there to personally get involved in the current machinations that the Hacienda Luisita management is doing to circumvent the implementation of real and honest-to-goodness agrarian reform but it’s really unimaginable to think that his sisters and cousins have not consulted him on their action plans. This entire pretense at dedma (dead malice) is stretching credulity too far.

First, it is difficult to imagine how the President can be emotionally detached from something that threatens to send his whole clan’s business interests to the ground. Country may rank very high in his priorities, but family cannot be a poor second. Second, Hacienda Luisita has profound meaning to the Cojuangcos— the fact that he himself has to motor all the way there to “recharge” his energies is more than enough proof of what the Hacienda means to him and his family. It is obvious they don’t want to break up the Hacienda into parts nor do they want to give up control of the Hacienda.

Third, having a hacienda is still the symbol of social elitism in our culture. It’s the most concrete validation of one’s social standing in Philippine society. The President may want to project this image that he is a simple person, but we know that he is a hacendero at heart and it shows in his bearing.

Fourth, the Cojuangcos do have a business model for the hacienda that, if successful, could be beneficial to all stakeholders although it would still be in violation of the basic principle and purpose of agrarian reform.

So excuse me, but I don’t think people are buying all this crap about how Benigno Simeon C. Aquino is a disinterested person in the Hacienda Luisita case. Let’s not quibble about how it is his elder sister Ballsy Aquino Cruz who represents his side of the family in the affairs of the hacienda because we all know how closely-knit siblings operate in our culture. The Aquino siblings aren’t exactly the Ilusorios or the Aguirres.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms: The President cannot detach himself from the Hacienda Luisita case. It’s futile to even attempt to dissociate from the issue because in the minds of the people, the link between Hacienda Luisita and himself is vivid and unmistakable.

But I do agree with the observations made by some Cabinet secretaries that the Hacienda Luisita case is not a make-or-break issue of this Aquino administration. The fact that it didn’t affect his campaign for the presidency—and boy, did Manny Villar and company try to make it an issue —is more than enough proof of the kind of weight people assign to the agrarian reform as a political issue.

The simple truth is that most of us simply pay lip service to agrarian reform. Sure, we all talk about how nice it would be if rich landowners would distribute land to their farmers. Of course we all empathize with the plight of the workers at Hacienda Luisita or in some other similar haciendas, many of whom subsist on less than fifty pesos a day on wages. There’s a part of us that believes social justice is an important determinant of economic progress.

But deep down inside we also feel a little empathy with the landowners for a number of reasons. Some of these landowners treat their farmers like family—they send the farmers’ children to school, provide for the medical needs of the farmers, etc. Oh I know it smacks of feudalism; but there are cases when it seems the better option. We’ve also heard stories—many of them unverified—of how farmers squandered or mismanaged the land they received from a land reform program. Some of us know quite a number of landowners whose forebears worked hard to acquire the lands their family owns and treat their farms as if their lives and their destinies are intertwined.

For Filipinos, land is not just property —it is the embodiment of who they are and what they stand for. Small wonder really that many will kill just to make sure their lands do not go to other people’s hands.

We’re not talking yet of the even more complicated dynamics of the relationship that binds landowners and tenants, one where servitude and utang na loob and unqualified respect are prized. These, and many more, explain why land reform is a concept that looks good on paper but is difficult to implement in this country.

Obviously, agrarian reform was not a strategic component of Aquino’s platform during the campaign. And as I said, there’s a certain degree of ambivalence bordering on apathy among the middle class when it comes to agrarian reform. I presume that the bright boys in the Palace have already allocated a certain amount of political capital on the agrarian reform issue.

Seventy percent of the farmers in the Hacienda supposedly voted last week to uphold the stock distribution option—a decision that remains incomprehensible to many. In addition, the whole exercise had been declared suspect by many because of its very convenient timing (it was conducted barely days prior to today’s deliberations at the Supreme Court). And then there’s the small matter of the number of farmer beneficiaries ballooning almost two-fold in a few year’s time.

So it is possible that the farmers will get royally s**ewed once again and it looks like those responsible will get away with it once again. But given the fact that the farmers are fighting for a right that is most basic, I am sure it will not be the end of it. The struggle will continue. But there’s also the distinct possibility that the farmers will finally get the ruling that they deserve. This doesn’t mean they will get their land—or at least what they think is rightfully theirs—anytime soon. The rich and the powerful in this country can always find creative ways to circumvent the law as it has done in past.

Faceless Facebook

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I am aware that the column I wrote last week (Pay peanuts, get monkeys) is being forwarded like crazy and is clogging the inboxes particularly among those in government-owned and -controlled corporations. Quite a number has sent me thank-you letters. Thank you, too; I appreciate the positive feedback but I really didn’t write that column in support of any agenda other than basic fairness.

I got several invites to be interviewed on television or appear in this or that talk show, but I feel that what I have to say has already been said in that piece so I am holding off on making additional comments in the meantime. Let’s see what will happen in the next few days. Will the proposed hearings at the Senate materialize or have our legislators finally come to their senses?

In the meantime, there are other things worth discussing as well. I also recently wrote about how Facebook has been such a great help in terms of rekindling dormant social relationships. I continue to be amazed every day at how Facebook has enabled me to get reconnected with long-lost friends and relatives.

I know, however, that like anything else, Facebook can be used for dangerous means. The son of a good friend of mine was recently a victim of someone else’s malicious prank involving Facebook. I am lending this space to my friend, Romeo dela Rosa, who has written about what happened. What follows is his account.

The way it goes, the Internet as a medium for personal publishing has become as dangerous and risky as cruising the roads of Metro Manila during the rush hours.

There is no doubt that the Internet provides convenient fora for expression of ideas and promotion of advocacy or even just to do benign social statements. As far as the former is concerned, it is the best thing that has happened to freedom of speech and the press since the advent of the newspaper.

Too much accessibility however, breeds licentiousness and the cloak of invisibility and anonymity that one can hide in has emboldened some to use the Internet for mischievous ends. The fact is you can post debauchery in the Internet and get away with it with impunity.

It is amazing that children too have found their space in the Internet through Facebook accounts that they can create so handily. Parents are generally unfettered that their children are hooked into the computer for most of their waking time. After all, there are researches to be done and reports to be written as required by the school, and everyone agrees that this is now the age of free information. Besides, young people are computer smart and that their low tech dads and soccer moms are not up to their skill level to be able to monitor their Internet activities.

But this good fortune would be wasted on the young if they cannot handle it properly. Creating a Facebook account is not without travails. My 14-year-old boy recently fell victim to a prankster, apparently a misguided classmate, who secretly set up a fictitious Facebook in my son’s name complete with photos and a few details.

I do not know how the young rascal who pulled this off learned mischief so early unless he had picked up the crooked ways of older people around him.

I gathered that the fictitious Facebook attributed to my son had a split life. Early on, it coasted along as an ordinary Facebook that did not attract much attention until the time the manipulator behind the scene reared its ugly head and executed his real mission. I do not know also how he chose his victim but it might as well be spontaneously or for a motive only he would know. One night, he sat behind a computer, opened the Facebook account he created in the name of my son and made his move. You can just imagine how his eyes shone with glee as he posted sexually perverted comments on the Facebook of one of their girl classmates. His obvious intent was to attribute the comments to my son and get him into serious trouble in school.

The victim is a simple, pretty young girl from a reputable family; the innocent and silent type. Nothing about her would invite such a scurrilous attack. But a sick mind does not need any provocation. There’s no doubt that she felt gravely violated when she opened her Facebook and found herself at the receiving end of comments such as: Are you still a virgin? Would you like to have sex with me? (Punctuated by several F words)

The following day, my son had become the most hated boy in the campus. Some tried to seek him out, surely not for friendly purposes and many sent threats of bodily harm.

The mother of the girl, as expected, filed a complaint and my son was subjected to a humiliating investigation by school officials. It was not difficult, however, to establish his innocence. His classmates who know him attested that he had no Facebook account and that his interest in computer is limited to Naruto and other online games that do not involve gambling.

Not only did his classmates virtually absolved my son but also pointed to one of their classmates as a common suspect - a young boy who looks like he could not hurt a fly. Nonetheless, my son remained vulnerable to those who do not belong to his class. When he got home, he was scared and unnerved and did not want to go back to school anymore. In this situation, family support counted a lot and he mustered enough courage not to quit. But this is easier said than done. His older brother and sister almost got into trouble themselves for trying to protect their brother and ferret out the perpetrator of this misdemeanor.

Unfortunately, if it was easier to prove that my son was innocent, it was almost impossible to pin down the person who did it. Our own investigation established that my son did not go anywhere near a computer that night when the comments were posted. In fact, the family laptop was not opened that evening. On the other hand, the process of locating and identifying the person responsible for it and thus proved our suspicion is so complicated and would involve substantial costs.

Through it all, I learned that there are so many fake Facebook accounts and that celebrities are the usual targets because their identity is easy to replicate owing to their public exposure. The ingenuity and adeptness with which the impostors assume the character of the person they are cloning is so amazing that you would not notice what’s wrong unless you happen to be the real person himself. This is piracy to the extreme!

In the beginning, having somebody run a Facebook for you may appear to be amusing, a fantasy trip of an admirer or a fan. Some say it is better to ignore it since the individuals who do this thrive on attention. Either way, there comes a point when the alter ego starts craving for controversies, assumes ownership of the personality he is representing, develops a mind of his own and creates a lot of troubles and conflicts.

I am sharing this story because I believe that everyone should be vigilant about protecting this medium of information and communication and not squander our good luck that some good things still come free, before abuses invite regulatory attention or legislated restrictions and eventually, curtail the freedom we now enjoy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pay peanuts, get monkeys

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I can understand it when the average person—the proverbial man on the street—raises his hackles over the fact that some government appointee is receiving millions of pesos in annual compensation. A couple of million pesos is probably a mind-boggling amount for someone who doesn’t know when his family’s next meal is coming from. It would be futile to try to explain concepts like market rates, compensation bands, external equity, accountability for risks and results, global competencies, and other determinants of compensation.

This is probably not a politically correct statement to make (although I must insist that being politically correct should never be at the expense of telling the truth) but the complexities of corporate organizations are probably incomprehensible to the ordinary Filipino.

So I like I said, I can understand how Juan de la Cruz can be shocked upon hearing that a President and Chief Executive Officer of a government-owned and -controlled corporation receives seven —perhaps even eight—figures in annual compensation. The words “president and chief executive officer” and “government-owned and -controlled” would probably go over their heads, which is really sad because those words are critical in this context. The people in question are the top honchos. The entities in question are government-controlled but really function like private organizations. The fact that these words have gone over the head of certain other people is tragic.

Thus I cannot understand how certain government officials, legislators, and even media men—in short, people we expect to know better and to possess some degree of corporate maturity—feign shock at the compensation levels of top executives today.

It is possible that these people are truly naïve and that their knowledge of corporate organizations and compensation structures have not kept up with the times, which actually does not speak well of them. The issue of the compensation of the top executives of GOCCs hogged the headlines at about the same time that news of the exodus of Philippine Airline pilots supposedly because of compensation factors broke the surface. The pilots were presumably getting almost half a million in monthly salaries at PAL and were being offered almost triple that amount by foreign airlines. Anybody with basic arithmetic skills can do the sums. I know we’re comparing apples and oranges here, but surely, nobody expects our CEOs to receive less than what a pilot earns in a month?

It is also possible that those who are hyperventilating over the compensation of the top executives of GOCCs are clinging to this outmoded paradigm that government service is tantamount to involuntary servitude. I know that we cannot make changes overnight and that upgrading the salary structures of those who work in government is a process that will take time, but surely, the correct paradigm is to think big and aim high rather than to be miserly and aim very low. How, pray, do we expect to attract the best people in the private sector to work for government if we offer them salaries that are ridiculously lower than market rates? Unless of course we expect them to be corrupt and to cover the shortfall in other creative ways, which is worse than simply paying them market rates. Which would you rather have, executives who are honest but are paid well or ones who are paid cheap but steal the government blind?

As they say, you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Or even worse, you pay peanuts you get corrupt monkeys.

Or could it be that these people are indulging in double standard, which in this country is often a synonym for hypocrisy? It certainly smacks of hypocrisy when some congressman almost bursts a vein condemning the fact that a CEO of a GOCC IS receiving P4 million in compensation annually while he receives triple that amount in travel and representation allowances and kickbacks from anomalous transactions. It certainly smacks of hypocrisy when a congressman flails around and expresses shock that someone receives that much money while conveniently forgetting that he or she just spent fifty times that amount to buy his or her seat in Congress!

Some of these congressmen have shares in family corporations and are privy to the compensation packages of their executives. I know, I know. Some people insist that working in the private sector is different from working for government. Really? Should it? Why should it be? Do we really want to prop up this paradigm that says a government career is inferior to a career in the private sector?

I also have something to say to these broadcast journalists who have the gall to condemn executives who join government for receiving compensation that’s within market rates: How about sharing with the general public how much you get for simply looking pretty on television in those Manolo Blahnik shoes and designer getups? Anyone who preaches frugality and simple living should have no qualms applying the same tenets on themselves particularly if his job requires passing judgment on others.

Oh sure, executives who join government should tone down their expectations and try to simplify their lives so that they can survive on much less. But lost in the din and dynamics of the discussion is the matter of regulatory oversights and the discretionary powers of whoever appointed these executives into office. Surely someone made an offer to these executives? And where, oh where is the Commission on Audit in the whole scheme of things? If these executives appropriated into themselves perks over and above the ordinary, who allowed them?

I don’t know these people personally —all these presidents and chief executive officers of GOCCs. I am arguing on principle as a management person, as a human resource management professional who is aware of the market rates of top-caliber executives in the private sector today. I am arguing as a person who champions global competencies rather than just good old sipag at tiyaga. These are great work ethics, but they don’t produce more than the minimum wage.

The most important point in this whole discussion, the one thing that has tragically been glossed over is this: The issue is not how much these people are getting, the issue should be whether or not they are worth every cent of it!

If they are not, then they should be kicked out of office and not be entitled to even one cent of their salaries. But it would be tragic to let go of someone really competent and outstanding and doing so well in his job simply because he refuses to sell his skills short.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Brain drain

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

What will it take for people to sit up and get worked up about the dire consequences of the brain drain phenomenon? For now, canceled airline flights and faulty weather forecasts.

We’ve been grappling with the brain drain phenomenon since the early seventies. The problem was that it seemed no one really thought all those grim predictions that experts warned us about would really come to pass. We’ve been losing our best nurses, doctors, engineers, and information technology experts to other countries for many years, but so what, there were more where they came from; or at least that was the general belief. We were all so confident of our general ability to churn out globally competitive human resources.

Besides, what was so bad about the fact that our best people were getting better jobs and superior pay scales abroad? Hah, we get bragging rights for being the “preferred” nationality in terms of labor import. And even better, our overseas Filipino workers get to send home remittances that insulate the national economy from the gyrations wrought by global economic forces.

Now we are starting to hurt. And hurt badly. Our airlines are hobbling and the planes of our national flag carrier cannot fly because our pilots are joining foreign airlines supposedly because they are being offered double, even triple what they are currently receiving in compensation. Our weather stations are severely hampered by lack of competent geologists also presumably because other countries dangle superior compensation and work conditions.

But the hurts and aches brought about by the brain drain are also prevalent elsewhere although in less alarming ways.

Most school administrators are bewailing the dearth of really competent English and science teachers—our ability to produce quality teachers has not caught up with the demand abroad. Only the sick, the really old, or the really patriotic have remained in the country. Why, I recently discovered through Facebook that most of my batchmate COCOFED scholars are working abroad!

Industries are hard put filling their manpower needs particularly for IT and accounting posts. I know for a fact that most banks are in desperate need and programmers and database administrators for many years now (anyone who knows of any database administrators who are looking for better jobs holler at me, please). Industry has a long list of job openings created by the continuing exodus of workers abroad that it is unable to fill simply because there is a dearth of qualified candidates.

All together, for the nth time: We need strategic and comprehensive solutions to the brain drain problem that has been causing headaches for quite sometime now. But will the current discussion on the ominous situation caused by the brain drain finally get our leaders to do just that? I doubt it. Sad, but I really doubt it.

For instance, I am alarmed that the current discussions about the Philippine Airlines imbroglio have been limited to just two factors: Compensation and labor relations issues. I have no doubt that these two factors are critical. I also agree that certain dynamics of the current PAL problem is best left for its management and labor groups to settle. However, it would be myopic for anyone to think that the PAL problem is not symptomatic of the larger problems besetting this country.

I am aware that compensation levels in this country are not at par with those in other countries. It was cute, but certainly embarrassing when the President of the Republic of the Philippines brandished his first paycheck all in the amount of P63,002.17 on public television because we all know that’s a ridiculously paltry payment for the kind of headaches the post brings. I don’t know what the bright boys at the Palace was trying to achieve with that stunt but if the message was to make people feel guilty for jumping ship because of money issues, I think it is safe to assume that the message got lost in translation. The general reaction was one of skepticism. Some thought he didn’t need the salary anyway because his family owns a hacienda or because he can get more from other means and sources, if you get the drift.

But really, it is simplistic to imagine that compensation is the only factor that is causing the brain drain. At the very least, it makes Filipino human resource mukhang pera (roughly, only concerned about money). Oh please, there’s a whole ton of social costs associated with the overseas Filipino workers phenomenon that no amount of money can compensate for and everybody knows that —the pilots and geologists in particular. I am willing to bet that most of the geologists left because of the sorry state of weather forecasting technology in the country. The compensation factors were good sweeteners but there are a whole lot of static around the issue of employees leaving their employers.

Money is important and it might be one of the factors, but it cannot be the only, nay, the central factor in the discussion. It’s not as if industry—and government—can easily triple salaries to bring them at par with those in other countries anyway.

We need better solutions—ones that provides effective balance between firefighting efforts and long-term solutions.

This is why the national organization of human resource management professionals that I am part of, the People Management Association of the Philippines, has been strongly advocating for almost five years the development of a national human resource agenda which should map out a national strategy for managing and developing the only sustainable resource this country has left which is people. PMAP has developed a framework that government or Congress can use as benchmark but sadly, it seems not everyone is totally convinced yet of the need for such a strategic solution.

The brain drain problem, the mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs, the overabundance of students in nursing schools and the dismal number of enrollees in geology and other natural science courses, the de-skilling of Filipino workers (e.g., doctors settling for nursing jobs or teachers working as domestic helpers), among others—all these require a more comprehensive and strategic solution. I’ve said this before and I am going to say this again, people are only lasting source of competitive advantage left. All our other resources are gone and the few that are left are also being depleted every minute. What we have left is people and we better have a more proactive strategy to manage or harness this resource.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

E-mail scams

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Someone I know became a victim of an E-mail scam recently and lost a considerable amount of money in the process.

I know, I know. I thought of exactly the same thing when I heard about it: How can people be so gullible? What was even more surprising was that the person fell for the same E-mail scam that has been going around and around for more than two years now. Apparently he has not heard of the scam, which compelled me to write this piece. How many other people don’t know about it and therefore fall prey to the scam every day?

The basic modus operandi of this popular Email scam works this way. First, the perpetrators hack an E-mail account - the owner of the hacked account becomes the subject of the scam. The perpetrators then send out an E-mail to everyone in the person’s address book appealing for urgent help. The specific crisis described in the E-mail varies, but the drift is always the same: The person is currently traveling abroad, he got mugged or held up and lost all his money and credit cards but fortunately, not his passport, he is now trying to check out of a hotel and desperately wants to go home but needs money; can someone please, please, please send money through Western Union to bail him out?

Former Asian Institute of Management Professor and now Communications Group Secretary Sonny Coloma was once the subject of such a scam. I also heard that Butch Dalisay of the University of the Philippines was also the subject of a similar scam recently. My friend—the one I described above who actually lost money—responded to the E-mail scam because he received an email from the official account of his mentor who, according to the E-mail, was at that time stranded in Paris, cold, hungry, and broke. It didn’t occur to him to check if his mentor was really out of the country before parting with his money.

It’s not really surprising that a number of people fall for this scam, even including those who are supposedly equipped with superior mental faculties. The situation described in the scam represents what is probably a common fear among those who travel—being held up in a foreign land and facing the prospect of going cold and hungry for days until rescue comes along. In fact, this has happened to a friend of mine. He got held up in a train while traveling in Spain. He lost all his money and baggage and had to survive for a day on the mercy of strangers.

Thanks also to the overseas Filipino worker phenomenon, almost all of us know someone who is abroad at any given time. Our vulnerability to such scams is also highlighted by our collective paranoia and our vaunted tendency to imagine that what can happen to others can also happen to us.

And of course, we also know that there are indeed criminal elements capable of the nefarious deeds described in the email. We’ve heard of countless stories of Filipinos—promdis (rural folks)—who come to the Metro only to be immediately divested of their money and belongings by thugs. We can empathize.

But one wishes people would also be a little more cautious and would bother to check first before parting with their money. A simple phone call to verify the current whereabouts of the subject of the scam would probably do the trick. By so doing, one would probably learn that the person who is the subject of the scam is currently lounging around in a hammock in his backyard at Pandacan, Manila and not sitting forlorn at a bench at Central Park New York as alleged.

Ah, but alas, many among us lose our capacity to think logically when confronted with a crisis. But hopefully experiences like these make us wiser. Right, Lemuel?

I can understand how some people can be victimized by E-mail scams that describe an emergency involving someone we supposedly know. What I have difficulty comprehending is how some people can fall prey to those so-called Nigerian E-mail scams.

I receive many of those in my inbox; probably one every two days. What I noted is that the premise of this type of scam has become more and more absurd and preposterous, even downright hilarious. They’ve also become quite inventive and elaborate.

The most recent email I received supposedly originated from the Minister of Mining of the South African government. The E-mail provides a link to the official Web site of the South African government and to the bio data of the minister. Anyone who checks the links will be directed to the right sites, which are all authentic, but it is obvious that the sender of the email is impersonating the minister in question and is doing such an awful job at it. The email is shot through with atrocious grammatical errors, which by the way should already trigger major alarm bells. The way I look at it, anyone who writes formal letters in badly fractured English does not deserve one’s attention.

Even worse, all these scams have one common denominator that should be more than enough reason for anyone to just say no. It’s that each and every one of these scams are very upfront about asking you to be an accomplice to an illegal act—either to divert money somewhere, to avoid taxes, to defraud some rightful heir of their inheritance, or to embezzle a government or another institution.

The most famous of these scams was the so-called black gold scam. The premise of the scam was that some authoritarian regime or a corrupt official successfully smuggled out of an African country tons of dollars by coating them with black ink that could only be removed by special chemical. The readers’ participation was then solicited in the form of financial donation (to be returned with substantial interest—like 500 percent) for the purchase of more chemicals to wipe out the black ink. Some people actually fell for this scam including the father of Marc Mezvinsky, the celebrated groom of Chelsea Clinton. The senior Mezvinsky was jailed for enticing more people to be part of the scam.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Going the way of the dodo

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

There are tens of thousands of “thank you” cards from the former occupants of Malacañang for public school teachers stuck at the Education Department. They have difficulty delivering those by courier service. Why couldn’t these be delivered by post mail? Oh, right. Most people have forgotten that we still have post offices in this country.

My friends and I decided to make a joint donation recently to a social cause and the one tasked to pool the money asked everyone to just issue checks. We were momentarily stumped because not all of us had checking accounts. “But how do you pay bills?” someone wondered aloud. The answer: Credit cards, automatic debit accounts, and by cash which can be withdrawn at an ATM.

I have a Kindle that I use to download and read books, a number of people I know read books, magazines, and newspapers from their iPads. The Bank I work for recently gave me a duo sim card, which instantly transformed my mobile phone into a landline. Music, movies, television shows can now be easily downloaded from the Internet and stored in and viewed from computers and iPods.

These changes are the subject of an article that is going around again on the Internet. I am not surprised the subject is affecting people in profound ways; those of us who grew up with the artifacts discussed in the email once saw these things as indispensable.

I spent some time trying to ascertain the real source of the article but had no luck. What struck me though were the many times the same article was re-titled and attributed to other authors in various sites. Anyway. I’d like to share in this space a condensed version of the article, edited for length:

Whether these changes are good or bad depends in part on how we adapt to them. But, ready or not, here they come!

The Post Office. Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. It is so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. Email, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive.

The Check. Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with checks by 2018. It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process checks. Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the check. This plays right into the death of the post office.

The Newspaper. The younger generation simply doesn’t read the newspaper. They certainly don’t subscribe to a daily delivered print edition. That may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man. As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it.

The Book. You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages. I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes but I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music. The same thing will happen with books. You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy. And the price is less than half that of a real book.

The Land Line Telephone. Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don’t need it anymore. Most people keep it simply because they’ve always had it.

Music. This is one of the saddest parts of the change story. The music industry is dying a slow death. Not just because of illegal downloading. It’s the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it. Greed and corruption is the problem. The record labels and the radio conglomerates simply self-destruction. Over 40 percent of the music purchased today is “catalog items,” meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with.

Television. People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers. And they’re playing games and doing all lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV.

The “Things” That You Own. Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future. They may simply reside in “the cloud.” Today your computer has a hard drive and you store your pictures, music, movies, and documents. But all of that is changing. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all finishing up their latest “cloud services.” That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system. So, Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the Internet. If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud. If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud.

Privacy. If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy. That’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time anyway. There are cameras on the street, in most of the buildings, and even built into your computer and cell phone. But you can be sure that 24/7 “They” know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates, and the Google Street View. If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits. And “They” will try to get you to buy something else. Again and again.“

Quite affecting observations, aren’t they?