Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tall tales and the Holy Week

This is my column today.

The most forwarded email since Monday were the columns written by Solita Monsod of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and William Esposo of the Philippine Star facts around the death of Senator Manuel Villar’s brother and about his supposed poor background to boost his presidential bid. Monsod and Esposo presented incontrovertible documents that prove that contrary to the claims Villar made in his political ads, his brother Danny did not die because his family did not have money to pay for his medication nor did he live in abject poverty in the squatters’ area in Tondo.

Villar has countered with a blanket denunciation of his critics. In an interview conducted Sunday at Naga City, he insisted that he and his family were once squatters, that he was born poor on Sta. Maria Street in Tondo, that the nine of them slept together on a single mat and mosquito net. He also insisted that his brother died because they didn’t have the money to pay for the treatment of leukemia. He also said that in no way could the property supposedly bought by his parents at a “later date” in San Rafael Village in Navotas be called living in a posh subdivision.

Villar needs to do a better job at refuting the facts as presented by Monsod and Esposo. His blanket repudiation does not really hack it. Just because someone lived in a squatter’s area does not automatically translate to being poor. In the sixties and even seventies, it was common for families to share a common sleeping mat and a common mosquito net, both of which came in “family” sizes then. A friend who lived in that part of town in the sixties swears that San Rafael Village was an upscale subdivision around that time. And treatment of leukemia was not readily available in 1962. Villar has obviously stretched the truth and adjusted facts to strengthen his image as someone whom the poor can relate with.

I have nothing against people saying they were once (or are) poor—this penchant for false humility and for wearing poverty like a badge are things that many Filipinos consider admirable. However, I don’t think there is something honorable about spinning tall tales and desecrating the memory of one’s dead to advance a political goal.

***

The Holy Week, which is supposedly the most important and most solemn days for Christians, started last Sunday with the observance of Palm Sunday. For most Catholics, however, the observance only officially starts tomorrow, Holy Thursday, when practically everything in this country is supposed to come to a screeching halt. Factories and offices will be closed to allow Christians to practice their faith. Churches will open doors for various religious traditions that depict the passion of Jesus Christ.

Throngs of people will visit x number of churches for the Visita Iglesia. I don’t really know how many churches are supposed to be visited; some people insist it should be 14 to correspond to the number of stations in the Way of the Cross, some say it should only be seven. The observance of this tradition seems dependent on personal interpretation and comfort much like that tradition about having a certain number of round fruits to greet each new year.

I don’t know what to make though of the recent move of the Catholic Church to make available the Visita Iglesia in the Internet. The web site of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (www.cbcponline.net) features an online Visita Iglesia which takes viewers through seven churches beginning with the Manila Cathedral Basilica. The Stations of the Cross accompany pictures of the façade and the altars of the seven churches. On one hand, I can see how such a service can be of help to people who are sick, or to Filipinos abroad who yearn for the traditional ways of celebrating the Holy Week. On the other hand though, it reinforces the dogma that one needs to be in specifically present in certain churches for one’s prayers to be effective instead of propagating the idea that what really matters is what’s inside one’s heart when he or she prays.

I’ve always felt that devotion and convenience are two concepts that should not and cannot go together. I remember a time when a religious congregation I was part of had this really acrimonious debate over the venue of the annual celebration of our patron saint. It was essentially a contest of wills between two parties—one wanted the celebration held at a place in Quezon City because it was nearer to their places of residence, the other party wanted it in a place in Makati that was more accessible to public transportation and where there was more parking space for the guests. The debate was halted when an octogenarian member of the community stood up to remind everyone that if we were serious and sincere about our devotion to the patron saint, convenience should not even be a factor in the discussion.

Truly, if the devotion is genuine, walking barefoot around Metro Manila to visit 100 churches should be a cinch.

At any rate, all Catholics are supposed to undergo a cleansing process, reflect once again on the sacrifices Jesus Christ offered for the salvation of mankind, and in general, supposed to live a few days in reflection and solitude. Supposedly. In reality, however, most will see the Holy Week simply as vacation time. The mass exodus to the beaches will commence tomorrow. Boracay, Puerto Galera, Bohol and Pagudpud will be teeming with people who will party and frolic all throughout the Holy Week.

I don’t mean to be such a spoilsport but I do hope that people also take time to do some reflection during the period. I am necessarily preaching conversion or asking people to observe Lenten traditions that people don’t feel like practicing. But given how loudly and vociferously we whine and gripe about the sorry state of the country or our predilection to invoke divine intervention over the most minor aggravations, perhaps we can take the time in this season of reflection to actually spend some time in meditation and even in prayer. Perhaps doing so will help many of us see things from a better perspective.

It is my hope that politicians will also take a break from the campaign season and not use the various traditions around the Lenten Season for political ends. Doing so not only smacks of cheap opportunism; it also intrudes into the solemnity of the occasion and more importantly, distracts those who want to observe traditions faithfully.

Unfortunately, many politicians are unbelievably barefaced that they not only make themselves conspicuous by going to churches wearing their campaign get-ups and accompanied by a coterie of supporters, they also distribute flyers, leaflets, and campaign materials around the churches. It can be argued that the leaflets often contain some religious exhortation or some gibberish that they try to pass off as Lenten reflection. However, these leaflets do carry the pictures of the candidates flashing their pearly whites and the positions they are aspiring for so all religious pretensions are unmasked.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Trumping the law

This is my column today.

I have a suggestion. Let’s scrap Congress. Let’s save ourselves the time and the money in getting people elected into becoming lawmakers. Let’s get rid of senators and congressmen. What’s the point having them anyway when according to the Commission on Elections, the various political parties, the candidates running for various public office, and the many other people who have suddenly found reasons to pick on our laws as justification for their various transgressions, the reason why we are such in a mess today is because we have bad laws.

So forget about the chest thumping, the drum beating, and the efforts at self-promotion of our various senators and congressmen. Forget about the much-ballyhooed accomplishments—volumes of books about them—of the various sessions of Congress that have been convened. As the cliché goes, the fruit of the pudding is in the eating: We are now being told that our laws are poorly conceived, broad, confusing. In short, we have badly-crafted laws.

There are many examples from recent events that illustrate this seeming collective realization, but for purposes of this column let’s just focus on two: The Party-list law and the Fair Elections Act. If we are to go by the pronouncements of various individuals and groups who have run out of excuses and justifications for either their ineptness in implementing or their rampant and wanton violations of these laws, their actions are warranted because they can’t make heads of tails of these two laws.

I know. It’s enough to make one want to tear out one’s hair out and run around screaming like a banshee. We all know it’s really a cop-out because to begin with, they know and we know and they know that we know that there is no such thing as a perfect law. There cannot be a law that is able to address all possible situations and circumstances—all the possible minutiae that people can think of.

If this is the paradigm that we all embrace, Congress will never be able to pass any law at all—not that such as thing hasn’t happened yet since we all know certain measures have been rotting in Congress for years now such as the Reproductive Health Bill. Crafting a perfect law is not possible simply because despite the delusions of many of our lawmakers, no one is omniscient enough to be able to tell future events. Which is not to say, of course, that we settle for poorly crafted and mediocre laws.

All I am saying is that those responsible for ensuring the enforcement of certain laws should stop using the supposed gaps or weaknesses in these laws as justification for their inability to mete out penalties or punishments for those who wantonly violate these laws. As most Filipinos are wont to say, kung gusto may paraan (roughly, if there’s a will there’s a way).

This is the reason why I am aghast at the pronouncements of the Comelec commissioners around the supposed inadequacies in the party-list law. They cite defects in the law as bases for the fact that the whole system is spiraling out of control.

Comelec chairman Jose Melo even had the cheek to actually whine on public television that the law is not clear about what comprises a “marginalized” sector. It’s a classic symptom of denial. Recall that Melo cast the crucial decision declaring Ang Ladlad—the party-list of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people ineligible to run as party-list group because of well, his inability to see beyond his own bigotry. I don’t think there is a law that would be able to enlightenment Melo enough on what comprises marginalization.

The Comelec also cited defects in the law as the reason why they cannot do anything about the fact that certain people are shamelessly using the party-list system as backdoor to Congress. Unbelievable! They cannot disqualify party-list nominees who are clearly not members of the group they seek to represent? I know that we are in a democracy and that there are certain processes that must be followed—but surely there is something the Comelec can do to at least initiate the process of disqualification instead of just throwing its hands up in the air in hapless surrender.

As a lawyer friend of mine likes to say: “There’s always a law somewhere that can be used to nail someone down.”

If the party-list law is allegedly shot with more holes than a sinking ship, the Fair Elections Act seem even in far worst shape if we are to believe the Comelec, the political parties and even candidates running for public office.

Senators Benigno Aquino III and Manuel Villar, supposedly the top two contenders for the highest post in the land, have already exceeded the limits in terms of number of minutes of advertisement they can place in one television network. Candidates for national posts are only allowed 120 minutes of advertisements per television network. Both have already clocked in more than 120 minutes in ads paid for by their own funds (in the case of Aquino) or by their political parties (in the case of Villar). I know. This matter of allocating expenses to personal funds and to party funds is already anomalous as it is because we all know the juggling act can be done just as easily by anyone else.

Aquino’s and Villar’s camps won’t run out of justifications, of course. Or of creative ways to trump the law, that’s for sure. Repeat all together now: There’s always a way! In fact, both have already come out with ads that purportedly endorse a particular candidate so the time allocation can be charged to that candidate. Aquino’s ad endorsing Risa Hontiveros, for instance; or Villar’s ads endorsing his senatorial line-up. These ads are charged to the senatorial candidates even if it is very clear that Aquino and Villar are given prominence in these ads.

Many more candidates are using various real, inferred, and invented loopholes in the law to justify various transgressions. Many have started campaigning even before the official start of the campaign period claiming they were just “introducing” themselves to the electorate. This delineation is utter nonsense.

Most candidates are violating election laws on the size and location of campaign posters and streamers. The sad fact is that the law actually is quite specific on this and leaves no room for misinterpretation. Section 4, article 4.1 of the Fair Elections Act, which provides for the appropriate size of any printed materials specifically stipulates that printed materials whether framed or posted should not exceed two by three feet unless during and at the site of campaign rallies where streamers/posters or any printed material for that matter should not exceed three by eight feet. Still, candidates are coming out with justifications about how their campaign materials are posted by their supporters on private properties, etc.

The sad thing is that all these candidates are putting themselves out there as the best candidate for the post they are aspiring for. They are all running for the privilege of being able to take that sacred oath of office that basically binds them to protect and uphold the laws of this republic. They haven’t won yet and they are already shamelessly violating laws of the republic. When we come to think about it, they are already desecrating the very laws they aim to protect.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thoughts on a graduation (again)


I was at the PICC (again) yesterday afternoon for a graduation (yet again). Okay. Let me explain that previous sentence - as professor at DLS-CSB, I am required to attend as many graduations as possible and the school holds one every term and each one is held at the PICC.

But yesterday was a bit more memorable because my son was graduating from College. Yay! The bad news is that he was part of around 1,200 new nursing graduates from just one school. I think we easily produced 100,000 new nurses this graduation season. But the prospects for nurses still look bright - daw. Besides, my son really wanted to take up nursing anyway. Am hoping he goes to Medical school but that's wishful thinking. He is typical of his generation - he wants things quick. He wants instant gratification. He has no patience for processes and for things he doesn't see practical use for.

Anyway. Because I have attended so many of these graduation ceremonies in the last ten years I have become quite detached from it all. We at DLS-CSB has reduced it to a science, our graduation ceremonies operate like clockwork. I know, though, that the experience mean more to the graduates as it should be. It's their graduation, after all.

So I was quite annoyed yesterday that the focus of my son's graduation ceremonies were not the graduates it seemed but the officials of the school. While the graduates were herded into the hall like driven cattle, the school officials were treated like absolute monarchs. Each school official was introduced as he or she entered the hall and believe it or not, they waited until the official actually got onstage before they called on the next one. Each official had to march alone from the door of the PICC Plenary Hall down to the aisle, up to the stage. The entrance of the administrators, trustees, etc, took all of 20 minutes!!!

As if these were not enough, each speaker had to not only recognize each of the administrators one by one (roll call!!!), they actually were asked to stand up by at least three people who had roles in the program. Overkill!!! I complained about it to my son on the way home and he basically confirmed that that is the way officials in that college are treated in every occasion.

Anyway. I couldn't help but really notice just how different members of today's generation really are from say, my generation. During my graduation, we were sooooooooo formal and behaved according to established protocols. We were told that a graduation gown was a very sacred thing to wear.

Today's generation are definitely more expressive and comfortable with their feelings. They cheered, howled, jumped in the air. They are more natural.

When our graduation ceremonies were over, we also threw our graduation caps into the air but we shed tears while that song from Bagets played endlessly (am sure you know that song!). Yesterday, the graduates immediately hopped and danced to "I got a feeling...that tonight's gonna be a good night." Whew.

Anyway (again). To members of the 2010 class - congratulations!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Face-off

This is my column today.

Most of the attention in this election season has so far been focused on the so-called presidentiables so when I learned that ABS-CBN was putting together a debate featuring the candidates for vice president, I marked the date on my calendar and made sure I would be home to watch the telecast.

Harapan (roughly, the face-off): The Vice Presidential Debate, happened last Sunday and featured (in alphabetical order) Makati Mayor Jojo Binay, former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Bayani Fernando, Senator Loren Legarda, Senator Mar Roxas, broadcast journalist Jay Sonza, and former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Jun Yasay. Noticeably absent was former Optical Media Board chairman Edu Manzano.

Harapan was instructive in many aspects.

It showcased a different way of conducting a debate. We’ve gotten used to debates conducted in a very somber way, which most people have come to associate with or confuse with earnestness. People do have this strange notion that just because people are wearing a Barong Tagalog and sit in high-backed chairs the quality of the discussion is a notch higher.

Last Sunday’s Harapan was conducted in a relatively informal way—instead of holding it inside some cavernous auditorium, it was conducted in an open-air theater. The atmosphere of the debate was generally festive and supporters of each candidate came to the venue with all the necessary campaign paraphernalia—placards, pompoms, streamers, and other hand-held materials—and they jeered and cheered, heckled and applauded the candidates. The candidates even dressed down for the occasion with all of them sporting simple jeans and t-shirt. Fernando came in costume—he wore a construction hard hat, the significance of which was lost on some people. There were actually people on Facebook and even in the chatroom of the ABS-CBN Web site who asked why he was wearing a plastic hat. This just goes to prove that being literal does not guarantee that people will get the meaning of one’s political statement.

I don’t mean to belittle the stature of La Consolacion College—I am sure it has an illustrious history as an educational institution—but I don’t know if the choice of venue for the debate was indicative of the level of import we attach to the office of the vice president. Recall that the series of debates for the presidential candidates was held at top-tier universities.

Harapan featured a different format. Instead of having the moderator pose questions directly at the candidates, the vice presidential candidates were pitted against each other, confrontation style, as if in keeping with the title of the debate. The candidates were paired according to their rankings in the surveys. This set-up highlighted the intense competition—or conversely, the utter lack of it—between certain candidates. Expectedly, Roxas and Legarda—the fierce rivals for the post according to surveys—lunged at each other’s throats. On the other hand, the long-simmering conflict between Binay and Fernando which was evident when Fernando was MMDA chair was brought to the fore once again. In contrast, Yasay and Sonza didn’t really have issues against each other so they basically used the occasion to sell themselves.

This format enabled the audience to appreciate the issues that represented the proverbial Achilles’ heel of the top candidates. In the case of Legarda, it’s her efforts to make the environment the end-all and be-all of her campaign seemingly because it’s her expertise. In the case of Roxas, it’s the supposed watered-down version of the Cheaper Medicines Act, which many claim was a concession Roxas made to drug manufacturers. In the case of Fernando, it’s his perceived lack of empathy for the issues of the poor and his seeming disregard for due process. Allegations of corruption and his coddling of squatters in Makati, of course, have always hounded Binay.

As if to provide a diversion from all that confrontation, Harapan ended with the candidates answering questions supposedly contributed by the audience. By the looks of it, the people that formulated those questions must have been avid followers of the Miss Universe contest because there is just no other way to describe the questions except to label them as pang-beauty contest. Just trying to recall the questions give me goose bumps; they were that corny. To make things worse, they actually picked the questions from a glass bowl!

That was really sad because the debate was also broadcast via the Internet and there were lots of really interesting comments and questions that were raised in the interactive discussions that were happening via the chat room established in the ABS-CBN website and through Facebook and Twitter. There’s a lot of interest in the current political events and there are lots and lots of people out there who want to participate in the discussion online. It’s a pity that the organizers of these debates don’t tap into this rich resource.

I was hoping that there would be a live interface between the two media platforms (traditional media represented by television and the Internet) but apparently this wasn’t the intent of the organizers. The interaction that was happening in cyberspace was really just a parallel discussion independent of what was happening onstage at La Consolacion College and on television. The fact that the candidates had alter egos in the chat room that tried to answer questions posed by chatters reinforced the fact that the two platforms were really separate and distinct.

Harapan also validated what most people have suspected all along: This current political contest has gotten personal. Our political candidates try to put up this impression that they are resilient to intrigues, mudslinging and personal attacks and that they can roll with the punches. Tempers boiled last Sunday and the attacks became vicious. It was evident that certain candidates were losing their cool and were raring to go low and dirty. Even more telling was the reaction of the audience—I think the audience cheered loudest when their candidates delivered a stinging blow to his or her rival.

I don’t want to write off whatever chances Sonza and Yasay have of winning the vice presidency, but based on what happened last Sunday, it seems the vice presidency is really a toss-up among at least four candidates now: Roxas, Legarda, Binay, and Fernando. And based on the results of the survey conducted last Sunday, Roxas’ lead is almost insurmountable. I think Legarda’s attempt to capitalize on her gender (she kept on stressing the fact that she was the only woman running for the vice presidency) and what many saw as a deliberate attempt to portray a softer image (perhaps to contrast the oversupply of testosterone last Sunday) seemed to have backfired on her. Of course it is possible that Legarda was simply tired last Sunday and didn’t have as much energy for the debate.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nonsensical

I was listening to the radio on the way to work this morning and heard that San Miguel Light beer ad again. It's the one featuring Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera.

The gist of the ad: He gets pissed because she broke his TV set. He orders a bucket of beer.

Thereupon he tells her that he broke her laptop.

She orders another bucket of beer.

There are two of them sharing two buckets of beer.

And they have the nerve to say: Drink Moderately.

DRINK MODERATELY???


Skin deep

This was my column yesterday.

I receive quite a number of press materials in my email inbox—data about certain products and launchings, answers to frequently-asked questions about this and that advocacy, even campaign materials from politicians and political parties—all sorts of information, most of which just get filed in various folders as materials for future columns.

I don’t have anything against feeding columnists with stuff to be written about as long as there are no strings attached. I will state this for the record for the first and hopefully the last time: I only write about stuff that I care about so no amount of persuasion can make me consider writing about causes that I don’t believe in, or feel anything towards.

But every now and then, someone does send material that strikes a chord such as the latest skin safety campaign of the Philippine Dermatological Society (www.pds.org.ph).

It’s a campaign that’s timely because it’s summer and in case you haven’t noticed, going to some fancy beach around this time of the year has become a status symbol for many Filipinos. It’s the time when lots of people get worked up in getting a tan. And because they do so for the sole purpose of showing it off, they try to hasten the process and fail to protect their skin in the process. I’ve met quite a lot of people who do look good resembling lobsters but who privately complain of burning pain in their skin and being uncomfortable in the process. Ah, what a price for beauty, indeed.

The society is advocating the use of sunscreen daily, particularly if one intends to stay under the direct heat of the sun for extended periods of time.

The other social factor that makes the campaign relevant today is this continued fascination with white skin as if it’s the ultimate measure of beauty. One of my good friends will disagree with this vehemently, but the heydays of Nora Aunor are long gone and we’re all stuck in this white-is-beautiful paradigm. And it’s a phenomenon that’s unfortunately not limited to the younger generation, as I am aware that lots of people in their middle age are also into it. I am not going to go into specifics for the sake of domestic harmony but there are people in my house who slobber their skins with all kinds of whitening products from soap, to lotion, to astringent, to moisturizers, all in an effort to look like Kristine Hermosa or, okay, at least Cory Quirino.

Sadly, the products that they use contain Hydroquinine a chemical that’s been around for more than 50 years and has been used widely for the treatment of darkened skins or for skin lightening.

One of the most popular astringent in the market today contains hydroquinine and while the formulation contains the legal concentrations required per bottle, there are many people out there who overuse these products, unaware of the dangers posed by hydroquinine when used in large concentrations.

There is a personal element to this piece. My favorite aunt learned the lesson the painful way. In her desire to have fairer skin, she smothered herself with products containing hydroquinine several times a day. The result was that she damaged her skin and for quite sometime, she actually had dark discolorations on her skin. She spent more money correcting the side effects and sadly, her skin never really returned to its healthy state.

Thus, “beware of what you put in your skin,” which is the tagline of the PDS campaign sounds like a reasonable warning really. After all, the skin is the body’s largest organ and it’s the part of the body that is most prominent and noticeable. It makes sense for us to take care of it. In addition, the skin functions as the body’s main protective layer against—well, everything.

I can imagine the kind of pressure the PDS is getting from manufacturers who are making a killing out of selling products laced with hydroquinine. Certain quarters that stand to benefit from a campaign to ban hydroquinine (perhaps because their own products don’t contain hydroquinine) have gone to town misquoting the PDS and taking its skin safety campaign out of context. Society president Georgina Pastorfide clarifies that what the PDS is pushing for is stricter regulation on the use of hydroquinine as proposed by the Bureau of Food and Drugs including making all concentrations of hydroquinine available only upon the presentation of a proper prescription.

The PDS re-issued its guidelines, which unfortunately, will strike many people as gobbledygook. It also requires that people read the labels of the products they use—something not a lot of consumers do.

But for those who are diligent in this aspect, here are the PDS guidelines: The PDS reiterates that preparations containing less than or equal to two percent hydroquinine can be dispensed without the supervision of a licensed pharmacist. However, the PDS maintains that preparations containing more than two percent (2%) but less than or equal to four percent (4%) hydroquinine must be dispensed under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist while those containing more than four percent (4%) but less than five percent (5%) hydroquinine must be dispensed only by licensed pharmacists of registered drug outlets upon the presentation of a proper prescription.

I am not really a vain person but I do try—and the operative term here is try—to take care of my skin. Unlike many people, I don’t like going to the beach to soak up the sun. The last time I sported a tan was more than two decades ago and that was a painful experience I will never go through willingly again. Let’s just say I was young and stupid then. My idea of a perfect summer is staying in the shade, preferably curled up in a hammock with a good book (or with my Kindle). So come Holy Week, you won’t see me in some beach frolicking under the sun, as I’d be happily content cocooned inside my air-conditioned room trying to catch up on my reading.

I do understand that many people have no choice but to work under the sun in this tropical country. My father who was a farmer all his life didn’t really have much choice either so he now has dark pigmentation in his skin in his old age. Fortunately it’s something that’s not life threatening and he wears his skin like a badge anyway.

I have fair skin and lots of people presume it’s because I slobber myself with all kinds of lotions and moisturizers. Not true at all. I simply stay away from the sun and don’t use harmful chemicals. I also eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Taking care of one’s skin isn’t rocket science. One should simply stay away from harmful chemicals and when necessary as when prescribed by a dermatologist, not overuse them. People should stop using products without the benefit of good advice from experts. And more importantly, one should stay away from direct sunlight and eat healthier food.

Friday, March 19, 2010

As usual

This was my column last Wednesday. Sorry for the late post. This has been a really crazy week - my schedule is so hectic I feel like I am spinning out of control.

Last Sunday wasn’t supposed to be an ordinary day for Filipinos.

Philippine boxing sensation Emmanuel “Pacman” Pacquiao was scheduled to beat the daylights out of Joshua Clottey in Texas, USA. In this country, any day Pacquiao goes up the ring is an occasion for national chest thumping. Of course we already know that such a day is also marked by low crime incidence as most thugs also go on some kind of a holiday. Too bad, really, that Pacquiao cannot fight everyday.

But as things would have it, last Sunday was actually like any other day. It was a day marked by the usual display of behavior—many of them annoying and unsavory—that we have come to associate with ourselves as a people.

As usual, the television network that cornered the exclusive rights to broadcast the Pacquaio-Clottey fight shamelessly milked the occasion to ridiculous heights. The time devoted for advertisements was obviously longer than the actual broadcast of the fight itself. Mercifully, the station reduced those annoying plugs during the actual broadcast of the fight itself—you know, those annoying voice-overs that announced at the start of each round that the particular round was brought to us by this or that product. Also, the screen size of the television broadcast was not reduced by product placements. In the broadcast of Pacquiao’s previous fights, almost half the screen size was taken up by product placements!

Still, the broadcast was interrupted many times by advertisements. As I wrote in this space last Monday, we had just moved into a new house and the process of settling in was at its peak last Sunday. We watched the Pacquiao-Clottey fight in between hanging up paintings, fixing cupboards, and arranging the various flotsam and jetsam that we have accumulated through the years. Needless to say, we actually got most of the work done as we had lots of time—lots and lots of time in our hands—to do chores in between watching the fight. To illustrate just how long the advertisements were, a nephew actually got to finish cleaning our aquarium between round one and round five. By the time the fight got to round 12, the fishes in the aquarium were already swimming merrily once again.

As usual, the way the Philippine National Anthem was sung before the fight became a hot topic of conversation afterwards. This thing about how the national anthem is performed every single time Pacquiao fights has become an embarrassing tradition of sorts for Filipinos.

I have written about this in a previous piece but I will repeat what I said then, here and now. If the National Historical Institute really wants to do its job, it should stop thinking of itself as some kind of a watchdog whose main role is to castigate people or file cases against them for violating the law. The NHI can become just a little bit more proactive by actually reaching out to the people behind the broadcast. Instead of just passively waiting for the crime to be committed, they can actually prevent it. How difficult is it to arrange a meeting with the people behind the broadcast of Pacquaio’s fight, sit down with the artist that has been chosen to sing the national anthem, and give pointers on the correct way to sing it? Unfortunately, it does seem to me that the people at the NHI cannot be bothered to teach or influence others positively—they’d rather prosecute, thank you very much.

What a waste, really, because we all know that the case the NHI will file—should it make good its threat—will not prosper. While I agree that national symbols such as the flag and the national anthem are important components of who we are as a people and should therefore be treated with a little more gravitas, there are just too many other cases that deserve more attention from our courts.

I also dread the kind of uproar that will be generated if and when someone of Arnel Pineda’s stature is actually put behind bars for coming up with his own interpretation of the national anthem. If we come to think about it, Pineda’s interpretation of the national anthem is also protected by the constitution in some way—there is after all that very important provision in the Constitution about freedom of expression, which, by the way, specifies “artistic expression.” Pineda and company can argue that their interpretation is also their way of expressing their nationalism. Who can say that one version is any less patriotic or nationalistic than another version?

As usual, there was lots of armchair analysis about the fight. It was very amusing to hear supposedly respected sports commentators droll on and on about what they surmised was going on inside the heads of Pacquiao and Clottey —as if reading minds had become a skill readily available to many.

As usual, media just had to do some sleuthing around Texas to find out who among the government officials were there, where they were billeted, and how much they were spending on the trip. There were reports that the First Gentleman and the Speaker of the House were there along with the usual coterie of local government officials who moonlight as Pacquaio’s groupies.

Fortunately, Pacquaio won. As usual.

And to complete our Sunday experience and remind us once again that we’re still living in this country and at the present time where the mundane and the trivial can be spun off as matters of national significance, she who must not be named in this column, the garrulous sister of the Presidentiable from Tarlac, addressed the nation once again to whine about yet another injustice done to her and her family. Of course she turned on the waterworks, which should have been a source of comfort in this season of drought, where it not for the fact that she was basically whining about something so petty.

At any rate, what this woman needs to be reminded of is that she actually signed up—nay, fought—to be where she is now and to do what she does now. She has no right to complain of being the subject of gossip and for being picked on because she brought these upon herself. That is the nature of local show busines. Besides, she also does the same thing for many other celebrities—right in the same show where she let loose her diatribe last Sunday. She also picks on other celebrities and spread gossip about them, for crying out loud. And lest she forgets, she gets paid lots of money for it—yes, she even got paid for whining on television.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Building a house

This was my column yesterday.

I am writing this piece in the midst of utter chaos. We have just moved into a new house that’s barely finished. There’s the lingering smell of fresh paint in the air despite the fact that the painting job was completed a week ago and we specifically used the type of paint advertised on television as odorless. And as if the chemical scent of paint isn’t more than enough already to bring on an attack of rhinitis, there’s the ubiquitous dust here, there and everywhere.

Moving houses in this infernal heat definitely isn’t a good idea. But we couldn’t wait to move to this house that’s finally home sweet home—the first house that’s officially in my name. It was a house built around 30 years ago when the price of marble, glass, and steel must have been ridiculously cheap—there was just not other way to explain the architecture of the house when we first found it: A veritable aquarium cum fortress with huge sliding glass doors and panels and twisted wrought iron everywhere.

A number of well-meaning friends advised me to start fresh—meaning demolish the old structure and build a new house from the ground up. It’s supposed to be more economical and less stressful, two considerations I was amply warned about. My friends kept telling me: Prepare to spend twice your budget and fortify yourself against stress. They were correct on both counts. Building a house is so stressful. It’s also like pouring money into a bottomless well.

I have learned that building a house—in my case, renovating an old house—is a great test of character. I am not sure though that building a new house from the ground up was any less economical or stress-free. At the very least, I knew that it was not environment-friendly as demolishing perfectly serviceable structures would inevitably result in wastage. Besides, I’ve always had this fascination with old houses and buildings and have signed quite a number of petitions to preserve old structures. I figured it would be hypocritical on my part if I tear down an old house just because I wanted convenience.

I now have great respect and admiration for middlemen—euphemistically called coordinators in other undertakings such as wedding or wake coordinators, contractors in the case of the construction industry. I originally didn’t want to hire a contractor as I had this foolish notion that I had what it took to personally oversee and supervise a major house renovation.

As the stress level mounted and the number of decisions that had to be made began to pile up, I inevitably threw both hands in the air in surrender. Fortunately, a sibling and her husband were available and jumped at the opportunity to travel to Manila to lend a hand. Nevertheless, I still came down with attacks of hypertension although I suspect this infernal heat was more of a culprit than the delays in the renovation and the runaway expense.

I wonder: Before there were all these one-stop-shop home depots and all these specialty stores that sell pre-fabricated, pre-cut and ready-to-install, well, everything… what exactly did people do when they built a house? I guess this was when real craftsmanship got into the picture.

I remember when my grandmother had her house constructed, back when I was still wearing short pants, all materials was delivered to the construction site in its raw form. Lumber was delivered exactly the way they looked after the trees were felled and fed through a power saw. Carpenters had to smoothen the wood planks with a tool that looked like those old steel contraptions used to shave ice for halo halo and measure the angles of the plank using a piece of string with a weight tied to it. Carpenters also had to cut planks into appropriate sizes manually and drove nails with traditional hammers. Everything had to be done right at the construction site and by hand.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that practically everything from beams, to doors, to cabinets now come pre-fabricated or pre-cut to fit one’s specifications. In addition, one could order materials from a hardware store by phone and these were delivered promptly—even materials that could presumably be carried in one’s palm. What’s more, one can walk into a home depot and find everything one needs there provided one can afford the rather steep price of convenience. When I say everything—I really mean everything, from bathroom tiles to lighting fixtures to appliances, to contractors.

Okay. I know I’m embarrassing myself here. So I’m not exactly Mr. Handyman and my knowledge about construction and house maintenance is almost zilch. I guess the lesson that I am trying to impart is that theoretical knowledge about many things in this world is really never enough. There’s the kind of knowledge that comes straight from books and there’s the other type that kinds from real exposure to the real thing. Obviously, some things in this world are best done by people with real experience in the real thing.

Building a house is stressful but putting up with bad service is even more stressful. We made arrangements to have our cable and Internet connections transferred days in advance precisely to make sure that these things would already be fixed by the time we moved into the new house. The customer service people we talked to all promised the same thing: Prompt service. It’s been three days since we moved into the new house, which by the way is just a block away from where we used to live, and we still don’t have Internet connection and cable TV. Meanwhile, the same cable and Internet service providers continue to advertise their supposedly superior services and declare in various advertisements that they can install the connections within 24 hours.

On the other hand, Meralco makes such a big to-do with being a 24-hour service company. Unfortunately, the tagline also seems to refer to their service capability as well. We ran into some problems with our electricity source—the power supply for the house was unstable and power surged each time the wind blew. Obviously, there was loose connection from the electric post. The neighborhood electrician temporarily solved the problem by applying pressure on to the wiring using a wooden pole. We called the Meralco hotline (631-1111) Friday night. We were promised immediate action. By Saturday afternoon, the promised service still didn’t materialize despite the fact that we called four times to follow up. Finally, the crew arrived Saturday night—more than 24 hours after we reported the problem.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bobby McFerrin hacks your brain with music | Video on TED.com

Bobby McFerrin hacks your brain with music | Video on TED.com

Of earthshaking significance

This was my column yesterday.

How exactly are people supposed to behave during an earthquake?

I am not sure if there is now a standard drill being taught in schools on how to survive earthquakes. I personally don’t remember having gone through anything of the sort when I was a student although I reckon that the basic principles in managing calamities and crises also apply. Not that we, as a people, pay heed anyway.

I have a very strong feeling that we’re simply not wired to be proactive in our approach to calamities and crises. Some experts attribute this to the bahala na (roughly, just leave it to fate or God) syndrome.

For example, annual fire drills are standard in most organizations in this country. I’ve been through quite a number of them myself, including one traumatic experience that required climbing down 30 flights of stairs in a pitch-dark sweltering tunnel. I almost died from claustrophobia. And yet during actual fires we still see people scampering for safety in all directions instead of applying what they were supposed to have mastered in a fire drill. We’ve had more than enough experience with typhoons, floods, droughts, etc. and yet I don’t think we can honestly say that we have ever reached a level of preparedness to deal with these calamities.

Here and there, however, I’m sure we’ve all picked up a tip or two about how to behave during an earthquake. The problem is that we’ve never really had validation that what we have learned is sound advice. For example, is it really advisable to stand under the beams of a doorway during an earthquake? I remember learning this piece of advice from a former boss who, at the height of the July 16, 1990 earthquake that leveled the Hyatt Hotel in Baguio to the ground, hollered to all of us who were then at the 19th floor of a building on Ayala Avenue to follow his lead. He was literally swaying while clutching the beams of a doorway.

Should we climb to the top of the building or should we dash down to the ground floor? I am not really sure if this anecdote is true but a friend who used to work in a Japanese firm swears that during one earthquake it was an amusing sight to witness Filipinos all rushing down to the parking area while their Japanese counterparts all trooped up to the rooftop of their building. It turns out that people should actually stay away from staircases during and after an earthquake.

This has been a year of deadly earthquakes. Within barely weeks of each other, three massive earthquakes devastated Haiti, Chile, and Turkey. The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 was supposedly the strongest earthquake to hit the region in two centuries. The magnitude 8.8 quake that hit Chile on February 27 killed a still undetermined number of people and sent a tsunami across the Pacific including parts of the Philippines. Another earthquake hit Turkey a couple of days ago although the number of casualties and the extent of the damage paled in comparison to the Haiti and Chile earthquakes which probably explains the lack of media attention.

Earthquakes do happen everyday. There’s a site in the Internet that tracks earthquakes all over the world on a daily basis and the statistics are astounding —there’s practically an earthquake happening in some part of the world every hour, although mercifully not in magnitudes higher than 5 in the Richter scale. Given the massive attention on earthquakes, one can only wish there were more information campaigns on how to protect or save one’s self during catastrophic earthquake.

An email that is going around once again, obviously as an offshoot of the three major earthquakes that happened recently, is that one which contains extracts from the article “The Triangle of Life” written by Doug Copp, a rescue expert in America. Copp’s credentials as an expert in disaster management and rescues are quite solid. The email is not a hoax as confirmed in snopes.com. Copp does exist in real life and his rather controversial theory is the subject of intense discussion among agencies dealing with rescue and crisis situations.

In his article, Copp debunked the traditional advice of “drop, cover, and hold on” in case of an earthquake. Copp recommended instead that, at the onset of a major earthquake, building occupants should seek shelter near or beside solid items, not under. The theory requires that people reexamine what they have been taught is proper, which is to crawl under a bed, table, or other solid objectives to avoid being crushed by falling debris during an earthquake. Copp says that based on his vast experiences, most victims of an earthquake die this way—being crushed under the same solid objects that they initially thought would save their lives.

Copp’s theory is that falling objects create a “triangle” during an earthquake and this triangle provides the protective space such as a void or space that could prevent injury or permit survival in the event of a major structural failure. So instead of ducking under tables or under doorways, Copp advises that people curl up into a fetal position next or beside an object such as a sofa, a bed, a table, a large chair, etc. When inside cars, his advice is for people to get out of the cars and to sit or lie next to them to avoid being crushed by falling objects such as slabs of concrete from bridges or buildings nearby.

Is Copp’s theory valid? Experts are still debating the issue. However, the American Red Cross has come up with a response that essentially deflates Copp’s assertions. The American Red Cross said in an email that is also going around today that the “drop, cover, and hold on” strategy during an earthquake is correct, accurate and appropriate” but adds the important qualifier—“in the United States.” The Red Cross insisted that Copp’s recommendations are not applicable to the United States setting because of its strict building codes and construction standards which make the probability of buildings collapsing or doing a “pancake” virtually impossible. Sadly, the Red Cross did not categorically state whether Copp’s advice is applicable to other countries such as the Philippines. Perhaps the national government agency responsible should come up with a recommendation on what works in our case because it seems our building code and construction standards are hardly comparable to those in the United States. Does this mean Copp’s triangle is more applicable to us then?

At any rate, the Red Cross did come up with statistics that indicate that more people die or get injured while fleeing from their houses or from carelessness when dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake. Many people run barefoot across broken glass or climb down stairs that are not stable anymore after an earthquake. The Red Cross concluded that “drop, cover, and hold on” is the simplest, reliable, and easiest method to teach people, including children. Incidentally, the Red Cross also reminded people that the use of a doorway for earthquake protection is not advisable as “many doorways are not built into the structural integrity of a building, and may not offer protection.”

Monday, March 08, 2010

In search of talent

This is my column today.

Now that the local franchise of the “Got Talent” television show is under way, there’s this whole preoccupation once again with the issue of “talent” and just how talented we are as a people.

And luckily for all of us, even if we don’t get to watch the talent contests on television, there’s always a video of the performance on You Tube, which we can watch anytime.

We all like to lay claim to being the most talented bunch of people in the world. If we are to go by the sheer number of Filipinos (or half-Filipinos if we must nitpick about it) that steal the show and end up as finalists in the talent contests staged in other countries, there seems to be evidence to back our claim. Why they end up as “mere” runners-up rather than as winners is understandable— most of these contests are decided by text voting by the general population who will naturally be partial to homegrown talents.

Madonna Decena and Charlie Green created waves at Britain’s Got Talent the other year. Jal Joshua, a 10-year-old Filipino placed runner up to an opera singer in last year’s Australia Got Talent. We’ve had quite a number of Filipino singers as finalists in American Idol—one of them, Jasmine Trias, placed third in the 2004 edition of the singing tilt. Even the Jabbawockeez, who first appeared in America’s Got Talent before winning MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew title, has four Filipino dancers in its roster. Incidentally, I am glad that the group’s trip to the Philippines coincided somehow with the showing of Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland so people will at least get some idea of the etymology of the group’s name.

Lest we forget, I would like to remind people that the distinctions are not really just limited to performing artists. Just recently, Filipina scientist Lourdes Junsay Cruz of the University of the Philippine was adjudged one of five winners of the 2010 L’oreal Unesco “For Women in Science Awards.” There a number of engineers, physicists, medical practitioners, teachers, athletes, etc, who have won international acclaim for outstanding talent in various fields of discipline. The problem is that their talent is not celebrated in the same way we do singers and dancers.

Anyway. As I was saying, there’s now this whole discussion that is raging among households about what talent is and whether certain people have it or not. I expect this discussion to get more intense as the competition in Pilipinas Got Talent becomes more pronounced and people start rooting for their own contestants. This is why I hope that ABS-CBN takes pains to use the show as a springboard for more in-depth discussion about what talent is, how to develop or nurture it, and how talent plays an important role in one’s personal growth and destiny.

I know this is a tall order and I’m probably crying for the moon here but given how performing artists seem to be our most popular (second to domestic helpers, it is said) export to the world, it’s really about time we become more serious about helping people nurture talents. Aside from amateur singing contests we don’t really have mechanisms to discover and hone talents. I am sure some people from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority will try to assert that they’ve been doing something along this line such as providing training in classical dancing for entertainers bound for Japan or somewhere else. I will try to be charitable and ignore what they do rather than label it correctly with a term that is not acceptable in polite conversation.

Unfortunately, we all know that our local television networks, particularly ABS-CBN, tend to see only human-interest drama in each of the situations and cases that they find worthy of some airtime. In Pilipinas Got Talent, for example, we’re seeing a definite trend—more attention and more airtime is given to contestants with more “entertainment value.” Thus, there’s this whole preoccupation with the bizarre, the unique, and the grotesque. The very few gems that they have so far given ample playtime were those with a sob story to tell.

The choice of the three judges in the show is indicative of the direction Pilipinas Got Talent is heading towards. They are going for “kwela” or mass or commercial appeal and will tend to focus on form and entertainment value rather than substance. Forget about making distinctions between superior skill and genuine talent. Forget about in-depth analysis of, for example, the real artistic value or the nuances of a particular performance. As it is, there is now this whole focus on “raw talent”—people who are able to sing their guts out or hit notes as high as the stratosphere, contort their bodies to shapes never before imagined possible, or do stuff beyond expectations.

The obvious question that we need to ask is this: Is being able to entertain the end-all and be-all of a genuine performing artist? The reality is that most people equate talent with the ability to make people stand up and notice. This has happened many times in many talent searches. Some ingénues take our breath away with their initial performance mainly because we had very low expectations of them either because they look plain, or impoverished, or too young or too old, or have physical limitations. We crown them as talent. And then we realize later on that what they had was not sustainable. We realize that talent needs to be constant and enduring. The poor guy ends up even more broken than when he or she started when the attention is heaped somewhere else and another flash in the pan “talent” is discovered.

Our penchant for entertainment value has resulted in more people with dubious talent auditioning for talent searches and —ironically enough—being given more exposure than the ones with real talent. Also, talent that is polished—say, performers who have spent years perfecting their crafts—are deemed too schooled and, strangely enough, ordinary. The ballerina who glides around the stage like she is floating on air is relegated in favor of the fire-spewing contortionist whose main talent really is that she is able to escape third degree burns.

What is talent? My hope is that the answer to this question also gets enough airtime along with the supposed examples of the diversity of Filipino talent out there. In doing so, people hopefully become better viewers and critics and are able to recognize genuine talent when they see it.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

In defense of Secretary Cabral

This was my column yesterday.

If I didn’t have my hands full with other pressing engagements last Monday, I would have been there at the Department of Health compound on Tayuman Street in Manila joining hands with women’s groups, non-government organizations, and people living with HIV/AIDS in support of beleaguered Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral.

From what I gathered from friends who were there, the crowd turnout wasn’t bad. Certainly not huge if we are to use El Shaddai or Jesus is Lord standards—but being able to gather close to three hundred live bodies is already a feat given the level of demonizing the cause, and Cabral herself, have been getting from the Catholic Church. Rallying in support of condoms is not exactly something one would usually like to be known for. Also, getting people to rally around and in support of a cabinet secretary of the present dispensation does not sound like a wise move.

But people did show up—and I am glad that they did. About time some people actually stand up to the bullying being done by the Catholic Church on the issue of condoms.

Cabral has been the object of heavy criticism from the Catholic Church on account of her steadfast commitment to promoting the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. At least three influential Catholic bishops have openly asked for her resignation as Health Secretary while other bishops have continued to crucify her in media and at the pulpit calling her immoral and incompetent. She’s not a good Catholic, they say.

Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles labeled Cabral a bad leader since her condom-distribution program supposedly endangers people’s morals. “It is immoral for a government official to support the distribution of condoms which we know does not really reduce or stop the spread of HIV-AIDS,” Arguelles was quoted in various newspapers. The archbishop was quick to condemn Cabral for simply doing her job, which is to save lives while remaining oblivious to the fact that he perpetuated a blatant lie. Arguelles should be reminded of what former senator Juan Flavier used to say to admonish them: “It’s a sin to tell a lie.”

Two of the world’s leading experts on health, the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control in the United States, have repeatedly come out with position papers backed by empirical proof which firmly establish the fact that condoms are effective in preventing HIV infections. Laboratory studies have found that HIV does not pass through intact latex condoms even when these devices are stretched or stressed.

One comprehensive study conducted in Thailand specifically found that use of condoms led to dramatic decline in HIV infections. There have been hundreds of studies conducted all over the world to test the effectiveness of condoms against HIV—and all of these studies showed that the correct and consistent use of condoms have led to dramatic declines in HIV infections. One of the most convincing data on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV infection has been generated by studies conducted among couples where one partner was infected with HIV while the other was not. These studies showed that, with consistent condom use, the HIV infection rate among uninfected partners was less than 1 percent per year.

I am aware of course that some studies commissioned by the Catholic Church and other similar organizations that have been campaigning against the use of condoms showed—as can be expected given the intent of these studies—mixed results. But even these studies, despite their lack of objectivity and the absence of scientific rigor, recognize that condoms, even if only in principle, help prevent the spread of HIV. Of course these studies belabor certain contextual factors or statistical nuances to support their contention that condoms are not 100 percent effective.

Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez said Cabral should quit as Health secretary because she was not a good Catholic. Gutierrez intoned: “Secretary Cabral should not continue serving until June because the culture and morality of society will be endangered under her. First, she does not respect the big number of Catholics in the country who oppose the distribution of condoms. Second, is she Catholic? I doubt that she is. Because if you are a Catholic and in the government, you should be living the teachings of the Church.”

I have a few points that I would like to ask the bishop. First, where is it written that being a Catholic—or being a good Catholic if he so insists—is a qualification for public office? Second, where in the Constitution does it say that the government should please Catholics in this country? And third, aren’t bishops supposed to lead by example and live the teachings of the Church? I ask this last question because I have always been of the impression that the Church is against lying and condemnation.

So yes, I am very glad that finally we have a health secretary who is standing up to the Catholic church on the matter of condoms (and if the scuttlebutt is to be believed, even on the issue of reproductive health). As some women’s groups have noted, Cabral is one of the very few—probably the first cabinet secretary after Juan Flavier—who has not capitulated to the demands of the bishops. It is my hope that she continues to be brave and resolute in her advocacy.

I’ve already written about this many times in this space, and I will say it again: The HIV/AIDS situation in the country has already reached an alarming stage. Just last December, the national registry recorded 126 cases of new HIV infections. That’s 126 new cases in only a month’s time and that figure is more than triple the monthly infection rates posted in 2009. And we are just talking reported cases here, we’re not talking about the cases that are hidden and not detected.

This is how alarming it has become: Most everyone I know has intimated to me that they know someone who has been diagnosed with HIV.

When we come to think about it, Cabral’s program of action to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS is actually not new or even unique. It’s the same three-pronged strategy that has been operationalized in the past two decades, as ABC: A for abstinence, B for being faithful to one partner, and C for correct and consistent use of condoms.

The Church wants the government to stick to the first option, which is to promote abstinence. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching people to abstain from sex. The problem is that what do we do with people who can’t abstain from sex? What do we do with people who are not Catholics and who need tools to protect themselves from HIV infection? If we don’t teach people to use condoms, what do we do with couples where one partner is living with HIV? Its position on condoms is just one more proof of the growing irrelevance of the Catholic church. It seems the church is becoming more and more isolated and insulated from mainstream Philippine society.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Up close, not personal

This is my column today.

Liberal Party presidential candidate Senator Benigno Aquino III recently expressed exasperation that the issues discussed in the series of presidential forums have become repetitive and tended to focus too much on populist shtick rather than on the more substantive issues hounding the nation.

He then challenged Senator Manny Villar, the candidate who is widely seen as his closest rival for the presidency, to a one-on-one debate; a challenge Villar immediately accepted. Villar shot back: Name the place and the venue. A sidelight to that verbal scuffle was Brother Eddie Villanueva’s attempt to insert himself into the picture saying that if Aquino and Villar were going to debate mano a mano, then he also should be there even if only to serve as a referee.

I cite this back story because it just so happened that the professional organization of which I am currently vice president, the People Management Association of the Philippines (the national organization of human resource management professionals in the country) was also at that time organizing its own series of presidential forums. What we had in mind was a format involving two or at most three presidential candidates at a time. Coincidentally, the plan was to invite Aquino and Villar to the first forum. So we jumped at the opportunity and made the necessary arrangements.

I say this with no malice intended: Inviting Aquino and Villar was a complicated and nerve-wracking experience. Up to day of the forum, we were never really sure if both, or either, or neither would show up. I’ve organized quite a number of national conferences myself and I familiar with the difficulties involved in getting the rich, the famous, and the notorious to speak or show up at a public event. Nothing prepared me for the kind of backroom negotiations that had to be made. But after a lot of wheeling and dealing, both camps accepted the invitation. There was also a lot of briefing and coaching on the talking points and the format of the forum. I don’t really know anymore how it came to pass but somewhere along the way, Brother Eddie Villanueva’s participation became part of the arrangement.

Aquino and Villanueva did show up. Villar chickened out at the last minute. If Villar thought human resource managers can easily be dispensed with, he has another thought coming. We directly influence millions of workers—we’re the gatekeepers of information and learning in industry, we’re also the people directly responsible for managing and developing those employed in the private sector.

A friend in media who covers the presidential candidates intimated to me that notwithstanding the bravado he displayed in responding to the Aquino challenge to a one-on-one debate, Villar is actually uncomfortable in forums where Aquino is also present because the crowd inevitably gravitates towards the latter.

This was exactly what happened last week at the PMAP forum. I take my hats off to Brother Eddie Villanueva who must really be such a humble man not to take offense at the fact that people mobbed Aquino and relegated him to the sidelines. I can understand how such a spectacle would be a blow to Villar’s ego. Whether it is on the wane or not, the Aquino magic is a real phenomenon.

The general perception is that there is an ocean of difference between the public persona and who a person really is up close. Television, which is the most popular medium today, brings candidates into our bedrooms and living rooms and magnifies their supposed strengths and weaknesses —their brilliance, nervous gestures, warts, thinning hair, and all. But for all its vaunted power, television has limitations. For one, it has to appeal to as many types of constituents and therefore tends to be superficial in treatment. There is no substitute for small forums that function like town hall meetings focused on specific concerns and issues. In fact, town hall meetings have been staple fixtures in the presidential elections in the United States since the eighties.

But then again, it really still boils down to the readiness and capability of candidates to provide incisive and in-depth answers to questions asked of them. I have noted that even when our presidential candidates are asked direct questions that call for specifics such as action plans and timelines, they still tend to answer with motherhood statements and broad strokes.

I was a little disappointed that at the PMAP forum, Senator Aquino couldn’t be more specific with his answers despite the fact that he had just complained, just a couple of weeks ago, about what he thought was the lack of substantive discussions in the various presidential forums. When asked, for example, how long it would take his administration to fix the mismatch problem and at what cost, he hemmed and hawed and skimmed through the surface. The moderator had to try to pin him down to talk specifics. Still, it was the moderator who had to synthesize his thoughts to come up with a specific answer: About two years, with money to be sourced from the gaps in the tax collection efforts, which would be more than enough.

If Aquino was non-committal and tended to be superficial, Villanueva was clearly oblivious of the issues. His stock answer to everything and anything was a variation of the same refrain: The problem in this country is the lack of a sense of righteousness and that he and his party would lead by example. Villanueva had specific talking points, which he had clearly mastered—memorized even—and he never strayed from these points.

There is more about Aquino that does not register on television and in other mass media channels. He is far more eloquent and engaging in person although he does tend to display non-verbal messages that seem to indicate impatience. Others have labeled these as indicative of being “petulant.” I think the senator just needs to learn to be more tolerant of criticism. At the PMAP forum, he expressed exasperation at our political system which bred incompetence and stymied innovative and long-term solutions. When the moderator cut him off with the observation that inability to change the status quo and failure to get things done within the system could also be interpreted as failure in leadership, the senator continued to whine about what he had not been allowed to do. The senator justified himself by saying he chose not to be popular.

Aquino, however, earned brownie points from me for being sincere and authentic. What I liked most about him was the fact that he didn’t try to come across as a “know-it-all,” he carried with him a folder—presumably containing statistics and various data—which he flipped through during the forum. He drank water straight from a bottle, didn’t ask for star treatment (in fact he refused to enter the room when someone else was talking because he didn’t want to interrupt), and even stayed even if he was already late for another appointment just to accommodate members of the audience who wanted to have pictures taken with him.

I still haven’t decided on who to vote for President but I know this for a fact after having met Senator Aquino, sat with him on the same table, and listened to him parry difficult questions from our group: A Noynoy Aquino presidency would not be such a bad thing.