Monday, May 31, 2010

Some things never change

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

A realization that struck me like the proverbial ton of bricks last week as we witnessed how our senators and congressmen tried to make sense of our collective experience with automated elections, was that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

We may have put in place the technology—the machines, the processes, and the systems—that was supposed to have catapulted ourselves out of the Medieval Ages in terms of how voting and counting of votes were done in this country. But the sad reality is that the maturity of most of the electorate has remained abysmally low. In addition, there remain quite a number of politicians who continue to see elections merely as a power struggle that needs to be won at all costs. And to make matters worse, there are just too many hooligans and lowlife creatures in this country with absolutely no compunction about lying, cheating, and scamming people in exchange for today’s equivalent of a few pieces of silver.

As a result, we may have been able to speed up the actual voting process as well as the counting of votes but as we are beginning to realize quite painfully now, these did not necessarily mean that we have successfully improved the way we conduct elections in general in this country. Some things have remained the same.

For example, new forms of vote buying were supposed to have surfaced during the last elections. In the past, voters got paid in exchange for writing the names of specific candidates in the ballots; one received money for actually voting for someone. This time around, the modus operandi was that people got paid in exchange for not casting votes that would have favored another candidate. So technically speaking, the term vote buying no longer applied as there were no votes that were cast.

What about instances when voters were mature or principled enough not to accept money and still insisted on going to the precincts to brave the heat, the queues, the shoving, and the various aggravations just to be able to cast their votes? No problem; there were other people who were not as principled and accepted money to harass or prevent these voters from going to the precincts. We haven’t been able to invent a new term for this kind of election hooliganism but given the surfeit of creativity in this country—think koala bears, jejemons, and petal attraction—I am sure we will be able to come up with something catchy soon enough. Vote blocking, perhaps?

Identifying which voters were die-hard supporters of certain candidates was presumably made easier this time around, thanks to the inventors of that ubiquitous fashion accessory called a baller ID. Those bracelets were probably the one symbol that clearly illustrated how democracy is such a great equalizer; everyone wore one with pride—from wealthy matrons from Forbes Park to scavengers at the Payatas dumpsite. And lest we forget, branding was a distinct feature of the last campaign as candidates and their supporters appropriated for themselves certain colors—yellow for Noynoy Aquino, orange for Manny Villar and Joseph Estrada, green for Gibo Teodoro, red orange for Richard Gordon, yellow and green for Eddie Villanueva.

If this trend continues, candidates in future elections do not need to have posters with one’s name or smiling mug in them; they simply need to invest in tons and tons of ribbons and shirts in the color they have appropriated for themselves. Of course there is the possibility that we would run out of primary colors given the dizzying rate in which our politicians change loyalties and want to be identified distinctly from everyone else. So we would probably reach a point where we would have to come out with a law regulating the use of and specifying the processes for appropriating colors for campaign purposes.

We all expected that there would be attempts to cheat because there are simply too many politicians in this country who are so full of themselves they think certain elective positions are theirs by birthright. But what takes the cake for most dismaying development was the rise of con syndicates who came up with a new form of modus operandi to victimize and dupe candidates—they posed as individuals or groups with the capability to rig the results of the elections. Apparently, many candidates fell for the ruse. Naturally they lost. They are now flailing around, whining publicly under the guise of having a sudden albeit belated attack of patriotism and civic duty.

I have a problem with all these belated revelations of supposed large-scale and systemic manipulation of election results: No one has come forward with actual, verifiable proof to back up their fantastic stories. We’re all being made to believe that all of them—every single one of them—didn’t bite. But okay. Let’s pretend we live in an ideal world where politicians are clean and righteous. It’s still inconceivable that they simply listened to a sales pitch; that they didn’t even, at the very least, got curious enough to get proof about how it could have been done. If someone were asking for a billion pesos, it would stand to reason that one would demand proof that it could actually be done. A complicated operation like that would require the complicity of someone really high up in the Comelec so anyone with a functioning brain being offered such a deal would have required proof that the whole operation had the blessing of that Comelec official. Why hasn’t anyone come out with a name? As usual, we are all fascinated and engrossed on the static rather than on the actual message; we’re all suspending logic in exchange for the entertaining antics.

And of course, one real, undeniable, and scary proof that elections and politics in this country haven’t really changed at all was the glorious resurrection of Didagen Dilangalen in Congress. There he was last week on center stage once again at the first session of the joint committee tasked to canvass the votes for president and vice president. Dilangalen rose to national fame (or infamy, depending on which side of the political fence one is perched on) many years ago during that committee hearing called to discuss Joseph Estrada’s impeachment when he showcased more than a hundred ways of calling the attention of a presiding officer. All throughout that hearing, Dilangalen’s repeated outburst of “Mr. Chairman!” could be heard in the background like some grotesque musical score.

Dilangalen illustrated last week how one person could single-handedly delay proceedings simply by being a master in filibustering. Dilangalen opposed moves to open ballot boxes containing the various certificates of canvass without first resolving the many questions and issues raised related to the authenticity of the results of the automated elections. I agree that some form of guarantees need to be made about the integrity of the certificates of canvass, but if we are to resolve every single issue related to the elections—they’d be stuck in that hall for the next two years.

I am sure our senators and congressmen will initially try to humor Dilangalen by acceding to some of his requests but eventually, their patience will grow thin and practical considerations will prevail. I expect Dilangalen and company to start manifesting behaviors reminiscent of those displayed by politicians associated with Fernando Poe Jr.’s camp during the canvassing of the results of the 2004 elections. At that time, Senator Francis Pangilinan was roundly criticized for simply noting each question, objection or complaint related to the certificates of canvass. I am sure we’re in for a similar experience in the next few weeks. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Up in smoke

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

So the presumptive president is a heavy smoker. If we are to believe reports, he consumes three packs of cigarettes a day.

I know Benigno Simeon Aquino III smokes because I have seen him smoke. When we invited him last February to speak at the general membership meeting of the professional association that I am part of, he had a few minutes before he was due to enter the hall and he took the opportunity to grab some puffs from his Marlboro lights menthol at the designated smoking area.

We all know Noynoy Aquino smokes because it was made an issue during the campaign and it looks like the habit had been turned into a defining issue of his presidency. Whether Aquino likes it or not, whether we like it or not, people will continue to talk about his smoking for many reasons.

But is it really fair to make a big deal out of it? We know a lot of our leaders smoke—I can name quite a number of senators and congressmen who do smoke. Former President Fidel Ramos used to be a heavy cigar smoker although he was supposed to have given it up midway through his presidency (he continued to carry an unlit cigar with him in various public appearances, though).

Aquino never hid his smoking from the public—he has been photographed many times with a cigarette in his fingers. He has also acknowledged publicly that he does smoke. When asked when he would quit the habit, he has never made categorical statements about when he would drop it—just that he would quit at the appropriate time, which really means he will stop when he feels like it. At the height of the campaign, Aquino went on record to acknowledge that smoking relieves him of stress—which was probably indicative of the particular psychological context around his habit.

As someone who used to smoke heavily—and who continues to smoke an occasional cigarette or two when in the company of friends who smoke—I feel a certain empathy towards Aquino’s situation. It’s not easy giving the habit up. I have succeeded in reducing my cigarette intake dramatically—I can go for days without smoking without suffering from withdrawal symptoms. But then again, I am not president of this country and the pressures of my jobs are miniscule compared to what Aquino has to contend with.

But like Aquino, I also used to feel annoyed whenever people felt obliged to give me a lecture about the harmful effects of smoking or whenever friends and relatives hounded me about the need to give it up. The way I saw it, as long as I wasn’t bothering anyone with second-hand smoke, people had no right to pressure me into giving up my habit. There were even a couple of times when I felt compelled to point out that I was using my own money to buy my own cigarettes anyway. It’s just annoying when people pester you about it as if you are a lesser person for having picked up the habit to begin with.

People who smoke know the harmful effects of smoking. Some may be in denial, yes; but let’s make no mistake about it—we know. Aquino knows. Most smokers know more about the effects of smoking than the average person does so pointing these out do not do any good; it’s really like telling a diabetic that sugar is bad for him. It also does not help when people feel compelled to conjure all kinds of dreadful scenarios such as the specter of lung cancer. Talking about long-term effects also does not help precisely because for smokers, the need is often urgent and pressing—as in now, not in ten years. The need is for quick gratification.

Smoking is not a simple and straightforward matter. Very few people can quit the habit cold turkey. Simply put, smoking is most often an addiction. And addiction is a subconscious thing and therefore often beyond the realm of reasoning. One cannot stop a person from smoking by arguing with him or appealing to reason.

This is the reason why I have reservations about the move to put pictures of the harmful effects of cigarettes on cigarette packs. Sure, we should put programs in place that would discourage people from smoking particularly very young people.

But I’m not really sure shock therapy works. I’ve been in countries where they put shocking pictures on cigarette packs—I’ve even bought samples of cigarette packs showing graphic pictures of decaying teeth, open sores in the mouth, or emaciated people presumably dying of lung cancer to show to my students—and these haven’t really reduced the number of smokers in these countries.

There are behavior specialists who argue that repeated exposure to negative or shocking pictures can result in a different kind of conditioned response—people can get used to the pictures and not see the harmful effects anymore. A friend who used to work at a government hospital swears this is true: You get used to seeing pain and suffering around you, in time you don’t even get affected anymore. A friend who works actively caring for people living with HIV/AIDS used to get depressed every time he came face to face with the harsh realities of the disease—but he eventually learned to get used to it. We get used even to the most dreadful stimulus.

Shock also often results in denial; instead of empowering people to consider various options, they feel compelled to rationalize their habits such as by thinking it won’t happen to them or that the negative images don’t have anything to do with them. And obviously, no amount of negative stimulus or persuasion can convince a person who smokes because of psychological reasons to begin with. Addiction is a sickness—it’s not something you can reason with.

And definitely reducing smoking into a moral issue and turning it into a character issue is even more infuriating. Surely there is a lot more about a person than one habit.

So yes, I empathize with Aquino’s situation. I can even go as far as agreeing with him when he said his smoking is probably the last of his remaining freedoms although that’s not really true. He is still single, after all.

On the other hand, I also understand the clamor for Aquino to quit smoking. Smoking may not be as serious an issue when considered at the individual level. However, it is a very serious issue when we look at its impact at a more macro perspective. Smoking-related illnesses when taken together at the national level pose a serious drain on national resources. A third-world country such as the Philippines has many more urgent health concerns that it can pour money into such as vaccination programs that will eliminate certain diseases as well as more basic health care programs for the citizenry. Statistics at the national level are difficult to ignore and lest we forget, these are the kinds of data the President of the Republic should be concerned with.

It is the job of the Department of Health to campaign against smoking. The problem is, there is no way it can succeed in this campaign for as long as the chief executive of the country remains a smoker. It’s just ridiculous having a health secretary going out there telling people about the harmful effects of smoking when everyone knows the president cannot kick the habit.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The freak show

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

On the same day my column came out last week—the one where I expressed full confidence in the overall reliability of the results of the elections—the masked man came out to reveal how he and a team of no less than a hundred people rigged the elections.

As if it wasn’t enough that he was wearing the most hideous and ludicrous disguise, he said people could simply refer to him as Robin. People should have cracked up right there and then, asked him where Batman was, and dismissed him as just another Renaldo Lapuz—you know, that Filipino who dared put on a Knights of Columbus costume and bawled “you are my brother… my best friend forever” at Simon Cowell during auditions for American Idol.

But no, the incredibly amazing thing was that media people actually scrambled all over themselves to give the guy precious minutes on primetime television. Some broadsheets devoted tons of newsprint and ink to the man. The supposed number one broadsheet in the country even gave it a second coming treatment—splashing the banner headline about the tall tale across the whole front page!

The worn-out excuse was that every possible lead that could point to proof of an irregularity—anything that could prove that cheating did happen during the elections- must be pursued in the interest of ferreting out the truth. Why we always suspect the worst in ourselves is a question that baffles the mind; but the even more perplexing question is why we bother with people who wear masks and spin tall tales.

How can media give credence to someone who said that the main reason he was singing like a lovelorn canary was because he didn’t get paid? Not that being double-crossed is not enough reason for someone to start bellyaching; just that not requiring advance payment for something that was presumably labor intensive, involved massive operations and logistical support, required major investments in technology and grassroots infrastructure not only smack of stupidity, it just doesn’t add up.

What kind of fool advanced all that money for the massive operations involving a minimum of at least 200 people (he said they had at least 12 people in each key city and region) without any guarantee of a sure payoff?

And more importantly, where were the rest of the disgruntled people? How come no one else has come forward to corroborate the statements of the masked crusader?

He didn’t—couldn’t—produce evidence; there was no logic in his assertions. Makati Representative Teddyboy Locsin put it in better perspective when he wondered out loud “how can you summon a koala bear to a meeting of the house?” Of course Locsin later on added to the freak show by going ballistic, throwing one giant public tantrum. But the fact that the monicker stuck and the masked crusader became better known as koala bear was more than enough proof of the kind of importance people placed on him and his so-called revelations.

But wasn’t it possible that the guy was telling the truth; that massive irregularities did happen in the last elections? After all, as some quarters have been quick to point out—there’s more than enough people who could presumably have the motivation to spring this kind of caper on the public consciousness. Everything is within the realm of the possible in this country. People give birth to mudfish, non-performing senators get re-elected, people who are ousted from power for shameless and brazen corruption are able to repackage themselves and become fierce advocates of morality and anti-corruption.

But por dios por santo, surely we can still distinguish the muckrakers from the champions, the loonies from the advocates, the whiners from those with valid complaints.

Why do we always presume that evil would succeed, that the worst among us would have always get away with their nefarious activities? Hardly have the people who pitched in to make sure the elections would be clean and honest—the employees of the Commission on Elections, the tens of thousands of teachers, the hundreds of thousands of volunteers—basked in the pride that their efforts yielded some results when the brickbats started coming in. Some people immediately pounced on every little thing that could prove that something went wrong somewhere. It seemed we just don’t know how to celebrate successes; we have to shoot ourselves in the foot every time we do something remotely inspiring.

I am not saying that we should just sit back and ignore allegations of cheating during the elections. My point is simply that people should come forward with more than just an accusation and a pointing finger. They should come forward with evidence—hard, incontrovertible evidence; otherwise they should go back and do their work first or just shut up.

It’s called accountability. And of course, it goes without saying that people who point fingers at anyone should be man enough to own their actions and their statements. This means staking their reputations or putting their names on the line. Coming forward wearing a hideous mask and a clown’s hat are just unacceptable. After all, volunteers who toiled hard to ensure that the automation program worked and that the genuine voice of the people could be heard put their very lives at stake.

How could a lone masked man’s illogical story—or for that matter, the bellyaching and public whining of losing candidates—have more credence over the efforts of hundreds of thousands of citizens who volunteered, watched and guarded the elections process? If there was indeed massive cheating, we would have heard about it from everyone else. Lest we forget, the last elections were a people power uprising in disguise.

It’s really about time that we demand something more from people who want to correct the system, point out what is wrong with something, or even accuse others of wrongdoing. Wearing a mask and a clown’s hat and spinning a tall tale just wouldn’t do.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Accountability and acceptance

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

Although Congress still has to convene to officially conduct the canvassing of votes for the top posts in the land, everyone has already accepted that Senator Benigno Aquino III is the new president of the republic. The official canvass will be a mere formality, a ceremonial task that quite frankly, seems already superfluous and unnecessary.

One of the unintended consequences of having immediate knowledge of the results of the elections due to automation was that it has rendered the official proclamation as anti-climactic. As a result, I am beginning to get the feeling—although I fervently hope that I will be proven wrong—that the euphoria will be short-lived and that this second Aquino administration will probably have a much shorter honeymoon.

Aquino still has to be proclaimed officially and yet this early we are already seeing a surge in demand for accountability, for an accounting for the promises made during elections. It doesn’t help of course that the infighting within the Aquino-Roxas camp had become public which seem to indicate that the euphoria had died down quickly even among those who fought hard for the victory to happen. I am one of those who thought that the “despedida party” for Kris Aquino on Facebook was really a joke but I also recognize that there was a subtle message being sent by the people who signed up for it: People will hound this administration to stick to the promises made during the campaign.

For one, Aquino will find it hard to ignore the promises he made during the campaign. In the past, people tended to forget the promises after the elections. Not this time around. There’s a record of everything said or promised during the campaign: Every single vow, every single assurance made— there is a clip of it somewhere in cyberspace or someone else’s hard disk ready to be picked from obscurity to be bandied publicly at the slightest provocation.

Already, people are keeping a very close watch at how the Aquino administration will ensure dominance over the House of Representatives. The assertion that the Liberal Party’s candidate for Speaker of the House is a shoo-in for the post because the president has control of the pork barrel funds is potentially controversial because we all know the pork barrel is the single most potent source of corruption in this country. If Aquino does use the pork barrel to entice congressmen to toe the line, then there goes the main platform of his candidacy. Let’s forget about the much-vaunted promise of a corrupt-free administration.

***

We know that elections in this country are not just about electing people into office. There are many social, cultural, and even psychological factors that attend elections in this country. In many cases, particularly at the local levels, elections are often about redeeming family pride or reclaiming a supposed legacy. I have heard of candidates running for office mainly to prove something personal as if elections were about validating one’s abilities. Of course we are all aware that many thought of the recent elections as some kind of a moral referendum—many reduced the issues to a choice between good and evil, between hope and despair.

Certain practices and attitudes are likewise brought to the fore during elections; some of them don’t really add up in the logic department but it is difficult to argue with deep-seated beliefs. For example, there’s this rather pervasive belief held by many at the grassroots level that receiving money from candidates does not necessarily translate into vote buying or represent corruption. A friend of mine who ran for public office in the last elections told me it was necessary to give “token” amounts to voters to show that he had resources of his own. Apparently, there are those who continue to cling to the belief that candidates who are already independently wealthy will no longer steal. There’s a lot of evidence to dispute this belief—we know of many politicians whose greed simply knows no bounds—but like I said, it’s difficult to argue with deep-seated beliefs.

A conventional wisdom that many subscribed to was that in this country, nobody loses in an election—candidates either won or were cheated. However, the relative success of the automation program may have already invalidated this observation. Election cheating and rigging of results have always been associated with the canvassing of the ballots. The longer the canvassing, the more opportunities for cheating—presumably as ballot boxes got swapped and official tallies and canvasses got altered. But given that technology had reduced human intervention to a minimum and that the barriers of time and distance have been eliminated, it was understandable that most people in this country have concluded that the results of the 2010 elections were accurate and that the general conduct was clean and honest.

Like many others, I too had many reservations about the automation program prior to May 10. But like I said in this space last week, I think there is very little reason to doubt the results of the elections.

Unfortunately, it seems some candidates have still to read clearly the writing on the wall. The three candidates who got the least number of votes—and who are now collectively referred to in many blogs as The Three Stooges—have been whining publicly about supposed irregularities in the elections. I feel bad for JC de los Reyes and Nicanor Perlas because both have struck me as sensible people. Their current actuations have reduced them to traditional politicians.

I recognize that everyone in this country, losing candidates in particular, have the right to question the results of an election. I am aware that De los Reyes, Perlas and Jajajajamby Madrigal have repeatedly stressed that they are flailing around, running after flash cards, and demanding a recount in many precincts supposedly because they want the real will of the people to be reflected in the results of the elections. However, there is a huge difference between proactively championing efforts to rid the system of kinks and bugs so that it works perfectly next time around and efforts to undermine the results because one thinks it failed to count a hundred votes or so in one’s favor. I understand the contention that every single vote is sacred and must therefore be appreciated for its genuine intent. However, democracy is essentially a numbers game. At the end of the day, 48 percent of the votes being cast for one candidate already speak volumes.

Besides, De los Reyes, Madrigal and Perlas seem oblivious to the fact that the results of the election are actually validated by tons of other empirical data: quite a number of pre-election surveys and a number of exit interviews. One has to be utterly dense not to recognize that had there been massive cheating in the last elections we would not have witnessed what we are currently seeing: Swift return to normalcy.

I am sure there are a lot of things that can stand improvement in the electoral system. We have three years to work on them. In the meantime, I think De los Reyes, Madrigal, and Perlas can take a leaf from Grace Padaca, Rissa Hontiveros Baraquel and the rest of the really deserving candidates who have accepted the results of the elections and submitted to the will of the people no matter how painful.


Monday, May 17, 2010

After the romance of an election

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

It’s not yet known how incoming president Benigno Aquino III will respond to unsolicited advice. It is very likely that like his mother who was catapulted into the presidency by a series of fortuitous events Aquino would be averse to unsolicited advice. This early, the President-elect is showing signs of displeasure at having to put up with niceties and diplomatic tact.

Given the variety and the ready accessibility of communication channels available to Filipinos today, Aquino—and his siblings—would have difficulty restraining people from expressing whatever is in their hearts and minds or even from ignoring them. He—and his sister, the garrulous one—need to know that simply brushing people off as “petty” or “bitter losers” will only aggravate matters and further alienate those who already have reservations about an Aquino presidency to begin with.

I’ve read quite a number of “unsolicited advice” for the new President; the blogosphere and various the social networking sites have been buzzing with variations of the “Dear Noynoy” campaign for days now. Many of the inputs to the Aquino presidency are quite incisive. One of these was a note posted by my friend, Grace Abella Zata, who was 2009 president of the People Management Association of the Philippines. Zata said a lot of things that’s been on my mind lately so I asked her permission to reprint her note which was originally entitled “Real Life Begins After the Romance and Fantasy of Elections.” What follows is Zata’s note reprinted in toto:

A concrete question that President Elect Benigno Aquino III can answer to jumpstart his presidency is this: Bakit mahirap pa rin ang maraming magsasaka sa Hacienda Luisita kung totoong “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap?”

I am using the Luisita case not to put down our new president, but to illustrate the fact that our problems are deep-seated and complex. Sincerity and integrity are vital, but we also need to apply imagination and doggedness to finally solve seemingly intractable issues. It is time for all of us to go beyond our upper class notions of probity and uprightness. Mahar Mangahas, a long-time advocate of land reform wrote in his column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer that contrary to the recommendations of the commission that she herself formed to study the sticky issue of agrarian poverty and unrest, Cory Aquino signed a bill allowing stock transfers, which presumably enabled the Cojuangcos to retain control over Hacienda Luisita and which, more significantly failed to improve the poor farmers’ lives. I allow though that she may have signed it in good faith.

Do candidates sit down and do an in- depth analysis of the problem of poverty before they come up with their platforms and slogans? Did they ask themselves- “Where are the poor? How many are they? Why are they poor?” Did they then match the profiles with opportunities? It appears that none of the candidates presented a comprehensive and well-thought out plan to provide jobs and livelihood for the poor, aside from the standard answers of “BPO’s ( certainly not for the marginalized), tourism (a ball park percentage of unemployed that this sector would provide jobs for would have been good) and some vague ideas on agriculture and entrepreneurship.

It is true that mitigating corruption is the necessary first step and will improve social services, but we will need to do more to put in place the conditions that will decisively solve poverty: An 8% growth rate that lifts all boats. A clean government will not necessarily result in droves of investments to the Philippines—the BPO industry, after all flourished during GMA’s scandal-ridden term, thanks in large part to private industry’s initiatives.

On the other hand, China is getting choice investments inspite of massive corruption. Clearly, we must define our competitive advantage. We are not competitive in low-end manufacturing because of high power costs and relatively high wages compared to the ridiculously low wages in countries like Vietnam. We cannot compete in high value manufacturing and high technology industries because we do not yet have the talent base and the reputation, among other things (our low self-esteem and ambition, included.) So where do we position ourselves to attract foreign investments? On the other hand, it should be noted that there is a lot of local capital sleeping in our banks. How do we encourage local businessmen to invest in ventures and do business in ways that will have maximum results in terms of growth and equity?

There must be a labyrinth of issues in agriculture, but first, we need to decide: Are we going to finally do this or not? Candidates have promised to improve agriculture in every election! And then, we must answer basic questions: Is genuine land reform the way to go or should we turn to big agribusiness to attain food self-sufficiency? If the latter, how do we ensure that such produces decent jobs for agricultural workers? Perhaps cooperative farming can answer both productivity and equity issues—but how do we manage it so that current pocket successes are replicated on a large scale?

These are only a few of the issues that must be addressed immediately so the second Aquino administration can hit the ground running.

While the incoming government grapples with these difficult issues, ordinary citizens experience mixed feelings of hope and apprehension. Is Noynoy and his team up to the task of navigating these issues with intelligence and insight? The president gets advice from different people and perspectives, some of which may be conflicting. That is actually good, but the president must have the confidence , proper appreciation and work ethic to make good judgments. Can he lead in finding and more importantly, successfully implementing workable solutions? Can he inspire us to think in terms of social justice and equity , and not merely high growth rates, a “good investment climate” and the appearance of an upright government?

What Noynoy and our other leaders can and will do is, to a large extent, beyond our control. It is also true that given our systemic problems and the fact that the economic and political elite remain firmly entrenched, a sincere and well-intentioned president can only do so much in six years. If we want our nation to achieve in six years the kind of stunning success that the Filipinos handed Noynoy Aquino this election, we- business owners, wealthy professionals, taxpayers , big landowners and employers must deal with our own question: How can we do right by the millions of Filipinos who braved the L-O-O-N-G lines, the punishing heat and the occasionally dysfunctional machines because they believe in -what may seem to some of us- is merely the romantic notion of a better Philippines? What can we do to achieve the Impossible Dream of Ninoy Aquino?

We must keep the romance alive, after all. Otherwise, it is going to be “business as usual.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Postscripts to an election

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

Everyone had a story to tell about last Monday’s elections.

There were inspiring stories of how people endured the sweltering heat, the unbelievably long queues, and the horrible foul-ups in the system just to manifest their solemn civic duty. There were horror stories of precinct count optical scan machines heating up or simply malfunctioning, of shameless and blatant vote buying, of physical confrontations involving candidates and their supporters. There were tragic stories of people losing their lives in isolated skirmishes, of voters not being able to vote despite all the hardships they went through simply because someone somewhere goofed, of new forms of cheating and manipulating election results.

To my mind, though, the best story of this election is that it somehow worked. Despite the grim prognosis, the last-minute glitches, the sheer unpreparedness that characterized the whole shift from manual to automation—it somehow worked! There were some problems, of course. But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles—it worked! It’s too early to make a categorical evaluation of the accuracy and the credibility of the results of the elections but most indications seem to converge on the conclusion that the automation program was relatively successful.

So can the Commission on Elections and the people from Smartmatic now gloat and snicker at all the doomsayers and everyone who had very little faith in the automation program? Not really.

I do not discount the technical competencies and the hard work of the Comelec and the people from Smartmatic but I must express my dismay at the abysmal level of project management skills that went into the whole automation program. It may be futile now to point out the many things that could have gone wrong with the PCOS machines, the memory cards, the software and the telecommunications components of the program because they somehow worked. But by golly, what risks we took! For an undertaking so major, for something that carried with it repercussions of epic proportions had it failed, it seemed we relied too much on luck and divine intervention.

Clearly, this was not the way to go. The glitches in the memory cards of the PCOS machines that were discovered during testing barely five days prior to the actual elections were unacceptable. It was a good thing the problem was fixed although the delivery of the memory cards to isolated areas could no longer be made in time for May 10.

What was also evident was that the automation program seemed solely focused on the technology part to the detriment of the other components of the change management process. Sure, there was massive information campaign on how to accomplish the ballots (hats off to whoever conceptualized that catchy jingle may bilog na hugis itlog), but it seemed nobody paid attention to the effective clustering of precincts, to capacity planning particularly the manning requirement per precinct and space allocation requirements, and crowd control. So what happened was that people didn’t have problems accomplishing the ballots and using the PCOS machines, but they had major problems trying to get into the voting precincts.

The sad thing was that the chaos, the long queues, the shoving, the searching for precincts—all these were preventable. My voting experience was a breeze—the precinct I was assigned to had fewer voters in its list. I was done in ten minutes. But in the hallways and in the other rooms, there was utter bedlam.

It seemed like this basic fact slipped some people’s minds: Our public schools have severe limitations in terms of how many people they can accommodate inside classrooms and in its hallways. Also, there are limits to what three teachers can do to manage a huge crowd of shoving, cursing, hungry, sweating voters.

I think we can all agree at this point that the whole exercise yielded powerful lessons that we should all be able to improve in three years’ time—assuming that we want to. I think the real problem is not automation per se but our utter incompetence in project management particularly in the aspect of change management.

It just strikes me that despite all the advances in science and technology we still seem to rely too much on miracles, or luck, or just sheer remedyo (quick fixes). There were just too many things that were wrong with the way the automation program was implemented and the prognosis was bad but we all went ahead with it, eyes closed and fingers crossed, believing that things will somehow work; in fact willing it to work with sheer determination and a host of good intentions. It’s been known to happen, after all. There have been many instances in the past when we as a people and as a nation were faced with absolute certainty of abysmal failure and yet still managed to survive—barely by the skin of our teeth—simply because of sheer luck or divine intervention.

I have this dreadful feeling that this has become our pattern. We’ve become so used to the fact that we’ve always managed to pull through at the last minute so we continue to take major risks.

In a way, I suspect that this is the paradigm shared by many among our leaders. For instance, most of them know that they don’t have the necessary resources to win an elective office but they still jump into the fray without the necessary preparation, the requisite platform, or even supporters to speak of; bahala na si Batman, or to borrow their favorite quote: Bahala na ang taong bayan (let the people decide).

It worked this time around. But I am not sure our luck will continue to hold out. I hope this was the last time we cast our collective fate to luck.

***

One of the advantages of an automated election is immediate knowledge of results. As I write, “partial and unofficial” tallies from various sectors already indicate clear winners. The results for the top two national posts as well as the first ten slots in the senatorial race already seem like a foregone conclusion.

Misgivings about certain winners are expected but the process of acceptance is now incumbent upon all of us. We need to start accepting certain things that are inevitable with a change in leadership. It’s difficult, but it needs to be done.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Not a bad crop

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

I have hesitated to make a direct pitch in this space for any of the candidates for national positions, particularly the top two posts in the land in today’s elections. This is because I have felt that contrary to what many people would like us to believe, the possibility of utter and total catastrophe this time around is not as pronounced as in previous elections. I really believe that an impartial analysis of the qualifications of most of the candidates running for president, vice president, and the 12 slots for senator will reveal that we have a relatively good crop of candidates this time around.

I have my own bets, of course. As can be expected, I do feel that the candidates I have chosen for president, vice president and senators would do a much better job of bringing this country to new and greater heights than all the others. However, in my heart of hearts, I also do believe that any of the other candidates have as much potential to do well for this country.

I do feel that allowing Joseph Estrada to run for President was wrong although I also think that it in a way it was a blessing that he was allowed to because he divided what is referred to as the masa vote. I continue to have serious misgivings about the man but I also recognize and accept that there is a possibility that in the most unlikely scenario that he wins and becomes the first president to be elected anew despite having been subjected to an impeachment trial, despite having been deposed in a people power movement, and despite having been jailed for plunder, the oath of office might just acquire more significance and perhaps more sanctity to him this time around. There are powerful lessons to be learned from the tragedy that he has gone through and even if my whole being feels revulsion at the thought of seeing him at MalacaƱang again, I am willing to grant that he represents a powerful message that needs to be understood and accepted: That redemption is always a possibility and that hope springs eternal.

I also think that Jamby Madrigal falls short on many of the competencies required to become President of this country. She has a temperament that seems too volatile for the highest post in the land and her motivations are, quite frankly, suspect. She has struck me on many occasions as having delusions of infallibility and moral righteousness. But I am willing to grant that her platform of government is sensible. I had misgivings about the level of vitriol she heaped on the other presidential candidates but on the overall scheme of things, many of the things she said were based on incontrovertible facts anyway. Although she also leveraged on her relationship with one of the heroes of this country (one wishes she also followed the example of her grandfather Jose Abad Santos who chose to die rather than do irreparable damage to this country), she tried to run a campaign that was issue-based although not necessarily free from cheap gimmickry. In my book, she is not the best candidate for the post but given her experience as senator and the strength of her convictions, having her as president may not be as worse as, say, having Eddie Gil.

JC de los Reyes was probably the only candidate that had a platform that was based on a clear political ideology. His party, Ang Kapatiran, has distinguished itself as the only political party today with what passes to be a political ideology. I disagree with his very conservative stand on many issues, particularly his supposed pro-life and anti-reproductive health stance. To my mind, reproductive health is non-negotiable—we have higher maternal deaths compared to our neighbors—but I believe that for as long as our leaders continue to stay in the communications process and continue to listen there is hope for win-win solutions. De los Reyes has shown willingness to listen. He is young and passionate and the fact that he and his party have reached this far is already a major achievement. He is not the worst thing that can happen to this country.

Everyone I have talked to about Nick Perlas knows only one thing about the man: That he is running on a platform to save the environment. There are many people who think it is really about time that we elect a president who is also passionate about saving Mother Earth. But even those who are fierce environment advocates agree that the issue cannot be the end-all of be-all of an elected president. I haven’t met anyone who said he or she was voting for the man. But Perlas is competent and he represents a paradigm that is unique and out-of-the-box. He is probably the only candidate that represents real change and because of this, a Perlas presidency, although very remote, can be a welcome development.

Brother Eddie Villanueva is running on a platform that is utopian: A corrupt-free republic within six years. It cannot be done, of course; which is not a reason to scoff at it. My problem with Villanueva’s anti-corruption campaign is that it is directed only at certain people at the top and turns a blind eye to the fact that corruption is systemic in this country. I also have major problems with the fact that Villanueva is a religious leader with his own powerful sect. But again, there are far worst things that can happen to this country than a Villanueva presidency.

Senator Manuel Villar has plummeted in the surveys in the last two months and this, I believe, is indicative of the volume and kind of baggage he carries. There are those who insist that all the accusations leveled on the man in the last few months were politically motivated hogwash. My take on the matter is that Villar has unfortunately shown inability to manage confrontation—the reason the issues have stuck to his person and to his campaign was precisely because he never really confronted the issues in a way that achieved closure. I also am very queasy about a Villar presidency but I grant that having been Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, and CEO of his successful companies, he is well prepared for the post.

Senator Noynoy Aquino is the front-runner of the Presidential race mainly on account of the resurgence of “yellow fever” in this country. I look at the Noynoy Aquino phenomenon as many people’s attempt to correct the mistakes of the two people power uprising. Here finally is an opportunity to catapult to power through legal means someone who represents hope and courage. I have written about Aquino in this space many times so I will just repeat the thesis of my convictions: Aquino is not the most competent nor the most qualified for the job, but he probably is the safest choice at this time. To my mind, choosing Aquino is a compromise.

In another time and place, Senator Richard Gordon would be a shoo-in for the post. He epitomizes the competencies of what a president should be. The man has vision, integrity, superior intelligence, a track record as public official, the gift of oratory, etc. Sadly, Gordon launched his candidacy too late in the day and his campaign has been hobbled by its inability to engage people outside his core base of supporters.

Everyone agrees that if he were not the administration candidate and that if only he is not allied with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Gibo Teodoro is the perfect candidate for the presidency. His supporters argue that Teodoro, not Arroyo, is the one running for president. Teodoro could have engaged in dirty politics to boost his candidacy but through it all, he continued to preach unity and reconciliation.

I join everyone in praying for a safe, orderly, and clean elections. Let us all vote and help make the first automated elections in this country successful.

Monday, May 03, 2010

In support of Secretary Cabral

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

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.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Tragedies

We buried a favorite sister-in-law today at San Manuel, Tarlac. The loss has not really sunk in yet so I still can't write about it.

Tragedy struck again yesterday. We lost Quintin "King" Doromal yesterday. King Doromal was the 82-year old pillar of the HR profession in the Philippines. He was one of those people whom we wished would live forever because he was such an inspiration to all of us at the People Management Association of the Philippines. The really sad thing was that he didn't die because of sickness (he was very healthy). He figured in a senseless traffic accident.

In difficult times like these most people take comfort at the thought that our dear departed are finally "resting in peace." I wish I can do that too. But I am still trying to make sense of these twin tragedies. And so far I am not succeeding.

Greedy or nuts?

This was my column last Wednesday, April 28. Sorry for the late post. We had a family emergency (lost my sister-in-law to a short bout with cancer).

In the last few days we witnessed how things have made a turn for the worst in the political front as we approach the home stretch of the political campaign. There are those who see these developments as par for the course; people who think mudslinging and character assassination are normal in an electoral contest. On the other hand, there are those who, continue to be astounded at the level of muckraking that we are capable of as a people.

At the rate things are going and given the kind of effort many people are devoting into the task of unearthing all kinds of dirt and muck about certain candidates, we shouldn’t have problems cleaning the Pasig River from hereon. We definitely have the competencies, and in large quantities, present in this country.

Senator Manuel Villar’s campaign has been badly hobbled by accusations that the rags-to-riches story that he has been aggressively peddling since day one of his campaign is one big hoax—a myth, a fairytale, a canard. His siblings had to trundle out his octogenarian mother last Monday in what looked like a last-ditch dramatic effort to put the matter of his impoverished background to rest. Along the way, accusations and counter-accusations were traded as to who was the first to shamelessly and opportunistically use family members—both dead and alive—in the service of a political campaign. Naturally, Villar’s camp insists that Senator Noynoy Aquino’s camp did it first.

Villar’s campaign is now reeling from a barrage of heavy punches from no less than former President Joseph Estrada and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Both have accused Villar of unethical—perhaps even illegal—conduct when he supposedly personally lobbied for certain regulatory rules around trading of securities to be relaxed so he could maximize personal gains. Although the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange have both denied that Villar pressured them into breaking rules, Estrada and Enrile insist that there is more to the issue than meets the eye.

There are those who insist that Estrada’s and Enrile’s accusations do not deserve attention because both are allegedly polluted sources. Estrada was himself accused of unethical—perhaps even illegal —conduct as President in connection with the BW stock manipulation scandal.

What is integral to the issue—at least as far as I am concerned—is that the new rounds of accusations strike at the heart of what it is about Villar that I personally find uncomfortable about, which is that Villar’s seeming greed appears to have no bounds. There is persistent talk of how Villar—as congressman, as Speaker of the House, as senator, and as President of the Senate—parlayed the power associated with these offices into attempts to influence the distribution of advantages or disadvantages to benefit his business interests. In the banking industry, for instance, there is persistent talk of how Villar used political influence to get major concessions related to the financing of his various real estate projects.

If the accusations against Villar strike at the issue of character, the one directed at Senator Noynoy Aquino that is potentially damaging strikes at the issue of overall fitness for the post. There is persistent talk about the state of his mental health; or to be more specific, about the state of his mental health in the past.

To set the record straight, I am not voting for either Villar or Aquino although in the interest of transparency I will repeat what I already wrote in this space last February: An Aquino presidency cannot be the worst thing to happen to this country. In short, Aquino is simply not my first choice but if something were to happen to the candidate I am voting for, Aquino will probably be the next suitable candidate in my book.

Having said that, I would like to register my consternation at the way this mental health issue is being exploited as a political issue. The accusation is that Aquino has undergone psychiatric sessions in the past; I must stress the last three words because these are important. Mental instability is curable. And it is very obvious that Aquino is not suffering from any mental disability at the present—the rigors of the campaign would have already caused whatever mental problems he is supposed to have to surface.

In a column piece that is now being passed around Facebook sites and through emails, Carmen Pedrosa of the Philippine Star alleged that the late Ninoy Aquino himself sought psychiatric help for the young Noynoy because he was, in essence, a “late bloomer.” I have news for Pedrosa—I know a lot of people who were also late bloomers, some of them even went to schools for the mentally retarded before they were diagnosed simply as having dyslexia or suffering from attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. One friend of mine underwent psychiatric help when he was young and look where he is now—a topnotch lawyer and multi-awarded poet and playwright.

In a way I am glad that the issue of mental health is out there being discussed openly because as can be gleaned from the reaction of many people, there is a lot of stigma associated with mental health in this country. Visiting a psychiatrist, or even undergoing counseling, psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis is automatically given negative connotations. It’s really amazing that in this day and age when information is already readily available, many people persist in making conclusions and judgments that are not based on science.

If Aquino did visit a psychiatrist or undergo some psychiatric help, what is so objectionable about it? I personally would recommend that many of our leaders seek the same professional help! Inability to find contentment with material possessions and a seeming fixation with a wretched past are emotional issues that can be corrected with a little psychiatric therapy. Chronic womanizing, mood swings, uncontrolled temper, inability to grasp reality and megalomania—well, these are just some of the obvious behavioral manifestations associated with other presidential candidates that, in my opinion, deserve psychiatric help.

Many experts estimate that one in every five people suffers from some form of emotional, cognitive, or behavioral problems that can be helped through some intervention done by a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. Most simply go through life without acknowledging that they have a problem—or to borrow the common expression used today, that they have “issues”—and therefore suffer unnecessarily from stress or other symptoms. Some people simply can’t cope with their problems and resort to self-destructive behaviors. Of course there are extreme cases when mental instability results in socially dysfunctional behaviors; but these are extreme cases.

By using mental health as an issue against Aquino, critics are not just doing disservice to a candidate. They are perpetuating stigma around mental health issues. They are doing harm to the tens of thousands of people out there who are now forced to deny that they mental problems and therefore forgo professional help precisely because we are conditioning people to think that seeking professional help for their problems casts them as social lepers.