Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Not by chance

This was my column on the date indicated above.

They said she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. By being so, she might lose both her legs. Another law student may lose a leg and an arm. These consequences are too painful to be attributed mainly to chance. The bomb that exploded at Taft Avenue last Sunday during “festivities” to mark the end of the Bar examinations cannot be a random act. It happened because some people have created the ecosytem that breeds such acts; and sadly, in a profession that is supposed to be about upholding the law.

No less that the Chief Justice Renato Corona condemned the perpetrators calling the crime “a senseless act of cowardice.” He then ordered the Supreme Court Security forces, the Manila Police Department, and the National Bureau of Investigation to solve the crime. I salute the Chief Justice’s swift condemnation and his mandate to various authorities to work towards a speedy resolution of the incident. I understand why Corona is riled up—the bar exams is under the supervision of the Supreme Court, after all. There are those who worry that the Chief Justice didn’t react with similar vehemence on other crime incidents—many of them more brazen and more atrocious. I will choose to see Corona’s swift condemnation and call for immediate action as an expression of concern for the value of human lives rather than merely as a form of indignation for the perceived affront on the law profession and the community of lawyers and law students of which he is part of.

I empathize with the victims of the explosion at Taft Avenue last Sunday. Because of what happened, the lives of two promising individuals have been altered significantly. A number of others suffered as well. I feel for them. However, I refuse to attribute what happened to chance. It wasn’t. I hate to say this, but something violent like what happened last Sunday was bound to happen at the hoopla they call the “bar ops.” What has been happening at Taft Avenue on the four Sundays when the bar examinations are held there every year was bound to produce something senseless like the bomb explosion last Sunday.

All the ingredients for trouble have always been there, year in and year out. First, alcohol—lots and lots of alcohol. I used to live near the area and I have noted that the guys start drinking as early as 4 in the morning when they set up their booths. The drinking never really stops all day long as classmates, schoolmates, fratmates, and kith and kin of the bar examinees begin their vigil outside La Salle. The point of all that vigil is dubious because I don’t see how having a group of people sitting around drinking beer would increase a bar examinee’s chances of passing the examinations.

Second, the intense competition between and among law schools that officially find expression in the way the schools make their presence known in the venue during the bar examinations. The schools don’t only compete for locations along Taft Avenue, they also compete for attention with banners, gimmicks, etc. Some schools and organizations even rent out whole restaurants for the purpose!

Third, the presence of rival fraternities. As we all know, some law school fraternities happen to have a history of tragic incidents. Quite a number have lost their lives for the sake of brotherhood.

All these potent elements are brought to a dangerous boil by the generally celebratory and festive mood, which inevitably surfaces a misplaced sense of pride bordering on braggadocio. There is taunting, heckling, one-upmanship.

I actually have been writing about all misplaced hoopla in my blog since 2005. What follows is an entry I made in my blog in Sept. 25, 2005, slightly edited for clarity.

* * *

I got down from the LRT Station on Vito Cruz Avenue last Sunday to witness an orgy right smack on Taft Avenue. No, it wasn’t the sexual type, although it very well could have been, or should have been. There were wet bodies all right. There were gyrating people on makeshift stages. There were drums and ati-atihan dancers. And there were people, lots and lots of people all jostling for space on that tiny strip of road half of which was already crammed with cars. I was told an Oblation Run (where stark raving naked men make utter fools of themselves and their inadequacies) was even scheduled.

The right side of Taft Avenue, from Vito Cruz to Quirino Avenue, was transformed into a parking area while the other side was the site of the circus (pardon the mixed metaphors—I really could not find one word to describe all that hoopla). Every once in a while, some groups would break into cheers and scream slogans, thrust their fists into the air and beat their chests —somehow reminiscent of gorillas staking their territories. And maybe they really were, I mean stalking their territories on that narrow road.

The bar examinees were walking out of La Salle, site of the bar exams, and were being “greeted” by their frats, schoolmates, parents, lovers, etc, with bouquets of roses, balloons, champagne, drizzles of water, beer, dancing, chanting, etc. There was food on the sidewalk. There were streamers professing support to their bar examinees (there were streamers for specific individual bar examinees too!), streamers bragging about bar records (100 percent passing rate again! Ten topnotchers in x years!). There was hugging and jumping up and down.

What the heck was that all about? As I snaked my way out of the orgy to get home to my place on Leon Guinto, I had to restrain myself many times from shouting “what the heck are you doing?!”

To begin with, what is so special about the bar exams- say, from the medical board exams or the CPA board exams—that makes it merit that kind of attention? What is so special about being a lawyer in this country where justice is hard to come by and most of the problems are caused by lawyers anyway?

Okay, okay, I am not exactly a fan of lawyers, but don’t get me wrong—I don’t hate lawyers; they may be up there on the food chain as predators, but to my mind, it is just another profession.

On the last day of the bar examinations, with the results a good five months away, the examinees were already being welcomed into the fold with hoopla, booze, and lots and lots of self-serving posturing. It was one big fraternity of bullies out there claiming a major thoroughfare for themselves, spilling beer on the sidewalk and shouting themselves hoarse with silly slogans about loyalty and solidarity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The bosses have spoken

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Traffic in Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare ground to a complete halt last week when thousands of squatters barricaded a portion of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue to dramatize their protest against a demolition being pushed by the National Housing Authority. By barricading Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare, the squatters in fact staged their own hostage situation. But then, the victims weren’t tourists from another country but hapless commuters; ordinary people trying to go about their daily business and make a decent living so nobody really paid attention.

Besides, we’ve been there a lot of times already. Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago when a similar drama was staged somewhere in Quezon City? I remember former Vice President Teofisto Guingona trying to play a role in that one, interceding for the illegal settlers. This time around, the contested lot is a huge government property: A 29-hectare property of the Quezon City government right next to the Trinoma mall. Quite a valuable piece of land, for sure. No wonder people are willing to fight to the death for a piece of it.

For the longest time, that swathe of land was idle and served mainly as feeding ground for the goats that some enterprising individuals later on butchered and sold at makeshift stalls right on EDSA. It was Kambingan country. And then the illegal settlers came. My daughter works in a building right across the area. She says that the community grew algebraically when Trinoma became operational and it became obvious that the value of the area was going to skyrocket. Settlers smelled opportunity and descended like a plaque of locusts.

Why, the whole place even got a legitimate name. It now goes by the name Sitio San Roque. The settlers got organized. And now they have set claims on the property and now speak with authority about land valuations, the law, and the workings of the Quezon City government. These are illegal settlers who sure know how to fight back. Their president, Josie Lopez, is one feisty lady who knows how to work the media. She was all over the morning shows last week spewing quite a mouthful against the Quezon City government, the National Housing Authority, and the developers.

A defiant Lopez challenged authorities saying they would never give up the land. She said that if their shanties got demolished, they would just rebuild them. Their logic: They developed the land. They said that before they settled in the area, it was overrun by Cogon grass. I don’t really know what she meant when she said they developed the land—perhaps she was referring to the fact that they created alleys, dug toilet holes on the ground, and had electricity wiring (both legal and illegal) strung into the area.

She said the relocation site given to them in Montalban, Rizal didn’t have the amenities of North Triangle. Their children go to school around the area (must be Ateneo de Manila University, Miriam College, or perhaps the Philippine Science High School), their livelihoods are within the area (Trinoma Mall, or perhaps SM North City), ergo, they should be allowed to stay in the area. It’s difficult not to raise eyebrows at their demands: A hospital, a school, and livelihood projects in the relocation sites in addition to free housing.

But then again, the settlers are really just asking for basic services that ordinarily should be made available to citizens anyway. The problem is that this whole squatting phenomenon has been made complicated by greed and opportunism. It is very obvious that a number of the squatters are “professional squatters”—people who have turned the whole thing into an enterprise of sorts. They avail of relocation sites, promptly sell them, and then look for other places that they can “settle” in. I have been told that some enterprising people actually make a lot of money by settling in slums—they provide the services that informal settlers need at a very high premium. At the Baseco Compound in Manila for example, there are illegal settlers who operate grocery stores and “water concessions.” In case you didn’t know, informal settlers pay as much as ten times for water what residents in Forbes Park do.

The current efforts to relocate the settlers from Sitio San Roque to Montalban or Rodriquez, Rizal will cost the NHA around P200 thousand per family—not a small amount of money given the number of illegal settlers in the area. Reports say there are at least 5,000 families living in the area. If government paid guards to make sure no one settled in the area, the cost would have been a tiny fraction. Sadly, strategic thinking is something alien to people in government.

The problem of illegal settlers is something that requires a comprehensive solution. We need to amend the Urban Development Housing Act of 1992, otherwise known as the Lina Law. Everyone keeps talking about it, but obviously no politician will dare touch this law because it will earn him or her the ire of the millions of squatters in this country. It will be tantamount to political suicide. This law effectively made evicting squatters from private and government-owned properties a virtual impossibility. I am aware though that amending the law is not enough. The problem requires a comprehensive solution —one that would include managing urban migration, providing education, jobs, etc.

The drama in Quezon City has been temporarily put on hold by two interceding events. A trial court issued a temporary restraining order stopping the NHA from pushing through with the demolition. The President of the Republic has also issued a status quo order all the way from the United States. A still defiant Lopez, speaking for the illegal settlers, reminded the President of his inaugural message: Kami ang boss mo (we, the people, are your bosses).

The reference to politics is indicative of just how this whole squatting problem is strongly linked to Philippine politics. In fact, the roots of the problem can be linked to politics!

The truth of the matter is that illegal settlers flourish because a number of politicians coddle them and use them during elections. This is certainly true in Quezon City and in Makati and in other urban centers where squatter colonies produce the votes that elect people into office. Lopez claims former President Joseph Estrada even promised the land to them. She also dropped hints that incumbent Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista also did the same during the last election campaign. Lopez challenge Bautista directly: “what happened to your promise during the campaign that there will be no demolition?”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wily

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Competing for attention with the recent developments related to the Hacienda Luisita land reform row, the investigation into the hostage-taking crisis, President Noynoy Aquino’s first foreign trip, the jueteng payola issue, and a host of other seemingly more urgent issues of the day is the long-running soap opera involving TV host Willie Revillame, ABS-CBN, and since last week, TV5.

I am aware that there are people out there who think that it’s basically a non-issue; a proverbial tempest in a teacup that has simply been blown out of proportion because it happens to involve someone whose popularity is widely seen as a fluke in local show business and two of the top three media networks in the country today. Why the issue continues to be front-page material in many dailies (not this paper, though) and continues to dominate the newscast of the top three networks is hardly surprising though. Media have always been interested in stories that have a human-interest angle in them, even if it borders on the perverse.

I do think, however, that there is so much that we can all learn from the ongoing brouhaha involving Willie Revillame, TV5, and ABS-CBN.

The first lesson is a no-brainer: It’s relatively easier for anyone to get media attention in this country provided one has no qualms about coming across as a total jerk. Gregorio Mendoza, brother of the hostage-taker at the Quirino Grandstand, proved that. He also proved that the notoriety that comes with inflicting one’s self on the public is not only often fleeting, it can also result in disastrous consequences. Unless, of course, one is as street smart the way Revillame obviously is.

Another lesson that we can learn from the whole melee is that there is no accounting for what people find endearing or admirable in another person. Sure, there are people out there who hate Revillame with a passion and thinks he is an overrated, insufferable enfant terrible. But for every person who vilifies Revillame there are probably two others who worship the ground the man walks on.

But really, anyone out there who dismisses Revillame simply as a pseudo-celebrity with a bloated sense of self-importance is underestimating the man’s cunning. There’s a reason why the man has a loyal following, people who are often described as those that fit the general category labeled as “survivors.” Revillame is a man who has been through the toughest wringers many times over but always manages to bounce back and emerging bigger and more successful than he ever was. And a lot of people can empathize with that. To these people, Revillame is a messiah of sorts, living proof that hope springs eternal and that a little luck—just a teeny weeny bit of luck—is all one needs to change one’s fortunes. We can all argue until we are blue in the face or until the world comes to an end about the wisdom of it all, but the fact will still remain that there are Filipinos out there who see him as a dealer in hope and faith.

There’s another lesson that we can all pick up from the Revillame case. Things don’t have to make sense for people to fight about them to the death. Or put another way, there is no accounting for the things our media networks will do or the lengths they will go for the sake of pride, or audience share. We all remember how ABS-CBN, GMA7 and TV5 scrambled all over themselves to scoop each other out during the August 23 hostage-taking incident. But ABS-CBN’s dogged insistence in tying down someone who mocks its leaders and who makes it known—and in a rather contemptuous way—his displeasure at the network and what it stands for, is extremely bothersome. Even more bewildering are the mixed messages the network has been sending to the world— some days it insists that Revillame broke his contract with ABS-CBN on other days it says that Revillame continues to have an active contract with them. Of course most everyone knows that everything being said is almost sub judice because everybody has already hauled each other to court anyway.

Given the kind of embarrassment Revillame brought ABS-CBN over his outrageous and very public outbursts, not to mention the fact that he caused the network major (or as people are wont to say nowadays—major, major) headaches when he played Pied Piper at the Ultra a couple of years back, quite a number expected the media network’s executives to have jumped for joy that Revillame has decided to jump fences.

I remember distinctly in fact that at the network’s recent annual stockholders meeting, a stockholder did stand up to ask management why it hasn’t done what every self-respecting manager should have done a long time ago- which was to give Revillame a kick in the posterior. ABS-CBN chairman Gabby Lopez hemmed and hawed about management options but really simply came across as unsure and tentative. It has been obvious that ABS-CBN has not really been able to make a firm stand on what it values more: Market share or good and ethical management practice.

To this day, Revillame has continued to taunt ABS-CBN with pronouncements that come very close to accusing the network’s management of being unnecessarily greedy and cruel. He has been quite busy burning his bridges. What Revillame is doing is very typical of a kanto boy bully—he has been projecting himself as the aggrieved party and has depicted himself as someone who only had the sincerest intentions but had been victimized simply because he is not part of the elite class. Of course, he has conveniently forgotten that he made his millions (some say billions) because the network allowed him concessions. And perhaps that lesson is the most noteworthy of all—that one about how collecting mistakes and accumulating them over time creates monsters that eventually become difficult to manage.

The Revillame-ABS-CBN-TV5 saga is far by not the only nonsensical event to happen in recent weeks.

Why, the decision of the Aquino administration to release the report on the hostage-taking incident to the Chinese government first was something that clearly boggled the mind. The official explanation was that the Philippine government could not afford to displease the Chinese anymore given the tattered state of our relations with them. Is the government then saying that it’s okay to displease Filipinos as long as the Chinese are happy? Actually my main beef about this development was not that the Chinese were prioritized but that we actually went on record to acknowledge that we were ready to kowtow to them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

As in nothing happened

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I presumed they were husband and wife because I chanced upon them one night eating dinner from the same plate; actually a woven basket inserted into a plastic bag. They were eating with their hands, which were also enclosed in plastic bags like gloves. The overuse of plastic bags presumably provided convenience as washing dishes or hands were done away with, but those plastic must be bad, very bad for the environment. I learned later on that Marilou and Renato were in fact siblings.

I don’t really know how I became their regular customer. I bought flowers from them a couple of years back because what appeared to be their regular spot on the sidewalk just happened to be a good place —for me, at least—to stop and take respite from the gauntlet that tests the faith of every pilgrim that kneels before the picture of the benevolent Lady every Wednesday. I made their acquaintance amidst the undulating sea of pushing and heaving mass of people, while dodging cars painstakingly inching their way in and then out of the area while spewing toxic fumes for everyone to inhale, and while fending off vendors of all kinds of wares and using all kinds of vending contraptions and marketing gimmicks imaginable.

I became their suki (regular customer) and the arrangement worked well for us, or so I thought. Being their regular customer had some advantages. It meant I didn’t have to sift through the bundles of flowers in their plastic buckets, they just handed to me what always turned out to be the freshest, best pick of the lot. It also meant no price increases regardless of the fluctuations in the prices of flowers due to special occasions (flowers are also subject to the law of supply and demand and thereby become more expensive during special occasions such as Valentines Day and All Saints Day). And I thought I was helping them.

I learned later on that the siblings were part of a large family that lived and operated in the Baclaran area. A friend wanted to buy a relatively huge quantity of flowers for a special occasion and I thought it would be a good idea to get the siblings to be some sort of a middleman between my friend and their suppliers. They directed me to a stall on a side street where they got their flower supplies. The “suppliers” turned out to be their parents. I learned that other siblings and cousins also “owned” various other spots around Baclaran where they also sold flowers. What I initially surmised was a very simple business enterprise, which I thought produced a measly income, turned out to be a relatively well-established business that had been in operation in the Baclaran area for decades. The whole family was involved in the business including in-laws and even relatives visiting from the province.

From the siblings I learned that most of the sidewalk vendors that operate in the Baclaran area are connected to each other in some way. Moreover, I learned that many (though certainly not all) of these vendors work like extended distribution outlets of some of the stores that operate inside the shopping centers around the area. The authorities had this brilliant idea of building malls around Baclaran supposedly to entice the vendors to stop appropriating three lanes of a four-lane street as the display area for their various wares leaving pedestrians, vehicles, carts and everyone else to fight tooth and nail for the remaining lane. The vendors bought the stalls inside the malls, turned them into storage and resting area and then continued to lay their merchandise right on the streets. Small wonder that these stalls inside malls and even some of the stores located in the side streets and alleys continue to operate even despite the absence of human traffic—they merely function as storage places or as suppliers for the vendors that continue to clog the sidewalks around Baclaran.

Of course there are vendors that operate independently, plying their wares on their own. But most of them are part of a network; their size enables them to afford paying bribes and protection money. Authorities have been trying for years and years to clean Baclaran of its illegal sidewalk vendors but to no avail.

It seemed they finally succeeded a couple of months back. For quite sometime this year, Baclaran was totally bereft of sidewalk vendors. The authorities even succeeded in dismantling the stores that were able to build semi-permanent structures around the church. I remembered watching in disbelief one Wednesday evening at streets that were so spacious people could actually walk to and from the Church without having to simulate an obstacle course! That was when I learned for the first time that Baclaran Church actually had perimeter fences and that the streets were actually wide enough for vehicles and pedestrians to co-exist peacefully if only those illegal vendors didn’t appropriate for themselves the sidewalks and the street itself.

At another time, I would have felt empathy for the vendors because I would have romanticized their situation as just another way to make a living. Unfortunately, I have already learned at that point that they weren’t really as hapless as I originally thought they were—at least many, if not most of them.

Marilou and Renato and their siblings disappeared from their allocated spots and I had to trudge a few meters on to a side street to buy flowers from their parents’ stall. The other vendors disappeared into side alleys although I noted they became more creative playing hide and seek from the authorities. It was almost hilarious watching them push makeshift cabinets and clothes hangers with wheels and the way they would quickly bundle up their wares when a mobile police car entered the area. The authorities also built concrete and steel structures for pedestrians around the perimeter fence of the Church to discourage vendors from ever building stores right next to the church. Jeepneys were rerouted to pass through the area presumably to further discourage the vendors from hijacking the streets once again. For a month or two there, going to Baclaran on a Wednesday became relatively easier, more convenient, even relaxing.

Alas, some things are too good to last. Authorities relaxed their tight watch over the area and eventually disappeared. The vendors started to trickle back into the area.

They were back in full force last Wednesday. The jeepneys have stopped passing through the area because doing so would mean getting stuck in traffic for hours. The vendors have not rebuilt the structures that used to lean on the perimeter fence of the Church - or at least not yet, but they have started to appropriate spots around the church, staking claims on the choice spots. Even the gates of the Church are now almost impossible to pass through as the vendors have blocked the paths with images of various saints as well as those of Snow White’s dwarves.

Marilou and Renato and their siblings are back on their spots. They were their grinning at me last Wednesday. As if nothing happened. As if nothing happened at all. I asked them in jest how they were able to get back to their posts. They told me how authorities always go through the motion of cleaning the area during the elections and right after each new administration is sworn in. Pasikat lang, (showing off) they said. But now they are back. Pera pera lang naman yan, (it’s all about money) they concluded.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Solomonic decision

This was my column on the date indicated above.

If we are to believe news reports, the government is determined to prevent members of the Flight Attendants’ and Stewards’ Association of the Philippines the union of the cabin attendants of Philippine Airlines, the beleaguered national carrier, to make good on their threat of going on strike soon. Exactly how the government intends to carry out this intent remains unclear although the President and Labor Secretary have been quite busy doing an impression of the “good cop - bad cop” routine.

To bring home the message that it is very serious about not getting embarrassed publicly again (at least not too soon after the public relations nightmare that was the August 23 hostage-taking incident), the President issued the warning that the government will prioritize national interest over the interest of PAL or its union of cabin attendants. Lots of people applauded the President’s statement of concern. It sure is nice to know that the President is keeping a close watch on the situation. The problem was that he didn’t stop there. He felt compelled to issue the warning that if a strike happens at PAL, the government would not hesitate to pursue its bid to open Philippine skies to other carriers, which caused a lot of people to groan inwardly.

Pursuing an open skies policy as a punitive measure is tantamount to throwing the baby along with the bath water. First of all, I don’t think such a major decision should be made out of anger, or in haste, or as a form of punishment or sanction. I don’t think the President should throw around such a threat just because he is pissed at the inability of a particular company to resolve a labor dispute. I understand that public interest is at stake here, but crippling the long-term viability of the national carrier in exchange for short-term gains just does not come across as a good example of management thinking.

Besides I am not sure such a punishment is merited. Labor disputes, by nature, require Solomonic decisions that allow parties to save face not win-lose or lose-lose solutions. And even if we grant - without necessarily conceding- that moving towards an open skies set up is an appropriate sanction for whatever offense that was made, why come up with a punitive measure that also penalizes other local airlines? Surely we have not forgotten that PAL is not the only local airline. Opening up Philippine skies also affects Cebu Pacific, Air Philippines, Zest Air, etc.

More importantly, such a threat does not really address the problem that triggered or necessitated it to begin with. It’s not as if the move to open skies policy can be done immediately. Just working out the deals with foreign airlines will take some time, not to mention ensuring that the terms of the 1987 Constitution on reciprocity is observed. Surely nobody thought that it will be a simple matter of just allowing foreign airlines to ply domestic routes?

And knowing how things work in our country, it will only be a matter of time before a national furor ensues as businessmen and industries take sides on the issue. Our legislators will eventually get involved and everything and everyone will get enmeshed in a complicated tangle of legal suits and countersuits. Why, a congressional hearing could even be possible. By then, PAL and its cabin attendants would probably have settled their dispute. Everyone would have realized by then that focusing attention on resolving the labor dispute would have been the better course of action.

I concede that an open skies policy is probably inevitable in the future. Like globalization, it is something that cannot be stopped. However, it would be a tragedy if we jump into such a policy in haste and without the necessary preparation. Obviously we are not ready yet, so dangling an open-skies policy as a solution at this point seems foolhardy.

As I write, PAL and representatives of its cabin attendants are undergoing marathon mediation hearings presided over by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz. Hope springs eternal, of course, so we join everyone in hoping that both parties come to an amicable settlement. My instincts as a human resource management professional, however, tell me that an amicable settlement is not going to be easy.

At the core of the dispute are allegations of sexist and discriminatory policies at PAL allegedly directed against the cabin attendants. The union is demanding that PAL throw out its current retirement policy, which sets various retirement ages for flight attendants depending on their hiring date. Female attendants hired before 1996 are mandated to retire at age 55 while their male counterparts are mandated to retire at age 60. The retirement age for those hired between 1996 and 2000 is set at 45 while those hired after 2000 are set to retire at age 40.

The demands seem reasonable on the surface and in this day and age of political correctness, cessation of employment based on age does seem like an antiquated concept. What the union, however, glosses over is that these retirement ages are stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement with PAL management. In short, they agreed to these. Moreover, the practical value of age limits for jobs that require a lot of physical and emotional pressure is highly debatable—I personally think that certain health risks get higher with age for certain people. Too bad we can’t have rules that are selective in application.

On the other hand, I agree that age limits contributes to “sexualization”— why do we continue to uphold this rather archaic notion that cabin attendants should look like models?—but unfortunately, PAL did not invent these rules. To my mind, the flight attendants knew about this set up and in fact capitalized on their physical assets when they applied for employment. I know a lot of PAL cabin attendants who take a lot of pride in their jobs precisely because everyone equates the job with good looks and youth. I think that this discussion has social relevance and has great implications on employment issues in the Philippines in general. I think that the issue requires longer and more comprehensive discussion.

If it is true that the union has not received salary increases in the last three years on account of stalled CBA negotiations, then they certainly have the right to demand for redress. However, I do not quite buy this assertion that PAL cabin attendants are paid low. I have come across a detailed breakdown of the compensation PAL flight attendants get and quite frankly, the number of allowances and add-ons boggles the mind.

We should all recognize that what we have here is a labor dispute and it is common practice for unions to strengthen their bargaining positions by portraying themselves as victims of oppression and injustice and for management to take the position that it cannot afford the union’s demands. This is why negotiations happen.

Unfortunately, the labor dispute threatens the public interest. Worse, the timing stinks. Both parties need to realize that they are headed for a lose-lose situation if they continue to keep a hard-line stance.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tourism and our airports

This was my column on the date indicated above.

The prophecies of the various prophets of doom have come to pass. The number of tourists arriving in the country is now on a steady decline. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Air have reduced the number of flights to and from a number of Asean destinations—notably Hong Kong. But then again, did anyone actually think that the local tourism industry would not be affected by the August 23 hostage-taking incident? We knew we’d suffer a slump. I know I am going to get it from some quarters for saying this, but it needs to be said: Not that we were up there on top as a tourist destination in Asia, anyway. For crying out loud, we only get a fraction of what Thailand or even Singapore gets in terms of tourist arrivals.

So now is probably the best time to go back to the drawing board and come up with new and hopefully better strategies to jump-start the Philippine tourism industry once again. I know it’s a cliché but really, rather than whine and mope around at our misfortune, perhaps we can use this breather to finally get a number of things done that would finally put the Philippines on the map as a preferred tourist destination.

The main problem, I think, is that most Filipinos do not really appreciate the strategic value of tourism in national development. Sure, a lot of people worried about the impact of the hostage-taking incident on the image of the country abroad—but reservations were mainly on account of national pride, as in nakakahiya (what a shame). The reality is that most Filipinos still don’t see how tourism spurs economic growth—the connection between a vibrant tourism industry and jobs for example has remained inchoate. In fact, in many rural areas, tourists are simply seen as visitors, and often as the types who get in the way of their daily routines. Worse, many see tourists simply as people we can take advantage of.

Very obviously, if we really are serious about positioning tourism as an engine of economic growth, we need to get everyone sold to the idea. Tourism is something that requires collaborative efforts from everyone. The so-called Filipino hospitality (which really needs to be defined behaviorally rather than left to the discretion of individual Filipinos) is not something that can be limited to those who work at our airports and those who work at hotels and restaurants. Whether we like it or not, tourists interact with all kinds of people—from policemen to sidewalk vendors to ordinary people who just happen to be in the same place as some tourists at a particular time. The Thais know this quite well, which is why they are generally nice and don’t take advantage of tourists.

We worry a lot about tourists shunning the Philippines, but we don’t worry enough about making sure that those who do come to the country have a great time. And quite frankly, many of our facilities are pitifully and horrendously decrepit and in various stages of decay.

It stands to reason that our airports must be in great shape. Airports are the first and last places that tourists see about a country. Let’s begin by really improving the state of our airport terminals!

Anyone who has been to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 will readily tell you a horror story of how that place is falling apart. There are not enough chairs at the departure lounge so it has become normal for passengers to stand around while waiting for the time they are allowed to board their planes. People cannot even sit on the floor because the floors look like the sidewalks of Quiapo and the carpets stink.

A friend told me about how she had to suffer for an hour trying to postpone the “call of nature” because she just couldn’t use the toilets of NAIA1. She said the toilets were grimy and stank to high heavens. When people prefer the cramped lavatories inside the planes rather than use NAIA Terminal 1 toilets, then we have a very serious problem indeed.

This is a question that I have wanted to ask for a long time: Why can’t we ensure that public toilets are clean? In terminals, malls, government offices, hospitals, etc, we take a lot of pains ensuring that grounds are well manicured and maintained, floors are mopped and shiny, etc. We always see a janitor mopping floors or pruning shrubs but we hardly see them cleaning toilets. I have always wondered why Ayala malls charge fees for the use of toilets that are cleaner—it’s like saying that clean toilets are not normal in this country.

Not only are public toilets often dirty and look unsanitary, they are also often inadequate. Has anyone noticed, for example, that at the departure area for local flights at the Centennial Terminal, there is only one toilet that is open to the public? Only one toilet for about two thousand passengers at rush hours! Naturally, this toilet is often dirty, as the janitors cannot cope with the quick succession of people who want to use the facility. Clearly, this is a problem of lack of strategic thinking. When they built the terminal, they should have considered that people do use bathrooms before flying out.

The same lack of foresight can be noted at terminals all over the country. I was at the Mactan International Airport recently and I noted the same problem—long lines at the public toilets. Funny thing is that the terminal had ample spaces for stores that sell various wares! The domestic airport at Tacloban City is currently being renovated but the ongoing renovation has not taken into account the comfort of passengers. They put in place this really stupid and appalling arrangement in the bathroom where they filled plastic bottles with water and expect passengers to use these rather than use the faucets. The construction work is conducted in the midst of passengers who are left with no choice but to inhale the dust and bear the extreme heat as the air-conditioning units are no longer turned on.

This is why I took some comfort in a news item that appeared in the inside pages of this paper last week. Cabinet officials led by Transportation Secretary Jose de Jesus, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo and about 20 executives from the travel sector met at the NAIA to discuss a proposed face-lift of the airport supposedly in time for the last quarter’s peak travel season. “One of things we discussed was how to improve the experience of incoming and outgoing passengers,” De Jesus was quoted as saying. About time, actually!

Improving the state of our airports (and bathrooms) will go a long way in terms of building the necessary infrastructure for tourism. So much more needs to be done, but right now, let’s start with our airports and our toilets!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Alleged cheating in SM stores

This was my column on the date indicated above.

There’s a tempest that’s been steadily brewing in quite a few E-mail groups since last week. It started when certain “concerned” individual consumers raised the alarm regarding what has been labeled as “cheating” purportedly being done in some–or many - SM stores. I know; it’s a very loaded accusation. SM happens to be the biggest retailer in the country with probably the biggest number of customers handled on an everyday basis so the repercussions can be potentially disastrous if the allegations are proven true and or if they aren’t resolved satisfactorily.

I actually received the E-mail thread a couple of weeks ago and I meant to write about it for three reasons: First, because I happened to have had three experiences that were quite similar to what was being complained about, which all happened in SM Harrison Plaza; second, because there is reason to believe that the incidents being complained about continue to happen in various SM stores and therefore deserve particular attention; and third, because SM should really do something concrete about the problem, and fast.

Let me tell you about my personal experience. Like I said, this happened in three different occasions and I have personally witnessed at least two other occasions where someone complained to a SM cashier about exactly the same thing. While I was paying for some purchases, it was discovered that there was a variance in the prices of the goods as written in the tags and what appeared in the cash register when my purchases were entered into their system. Obviously, there had been a price adjustment—either due to a recent sale or presumably because the price of the new inventory was higher—and the correction in terms of the corresponding new prices were not yet reflected in the actual price tags attached to the merchandise. Thus, the prices as written in the tags were significantly lower compared to what appeared in the cash registers.

In fairness to SM, the cashiers did point out the variance to me. In all the three occasions, the cashiers asked me if I was willing to pay what they told me were the “correct” prices, which they said were the ones that appeared in their cash registers. On all three occasions, I flatly refused and told them that I happened to be aware of the pertinent laws that applied in such situations, which is that the price that appears on display is what customers should pay for. And on all three occasions, they relented. The problem was that they had to call some supervisor to approve the transaction and there had to be some waiting time, which annoyed other customers who were waiting in line. I had the distinct feeling that most probably saw me as an incorrigible miser who terrorized hapless cashiers with penny-pinching antics.

Based on the various E-mails of other complainants in the various E-mail groups, what happened to me did not happen to them—in most cases, the cashiers simply ignored the price variance and rung up the purchases. The “victims” simply discovered the difference much later on when they bothered to inventory their purchases against what appeared in the official receipts. The question that is in everyone’s mind of course is: How many people actually bother to inventory purchases, much more check if the prices they paid for were the actual prices as indicated in the tags?

Naturally, more questions cropped up. Is this a normal, regular occurrence in SM stores nationwide? How many people fall “victim” to this trap everyday? What is SM doing to effectively correct this problem?

I must admit that prior to the three incidents I mentioned above, I never really paid close attention to how SM cashiers did their jobs every time they rung up purchases particularly when I paid using a credit card. I have always trusted that the automated system was foolproof. There was very minimal direct human intervention after all - the cashiers simply pointed a laser gun that read the bar code of the product containing the price and other details, and the cash registers computed the purchases. I think I am representative of many consumers—people who believe that establishments like SM have sophisticated systems in place that protect consumers.

The allegations are hitting a raw nerve because it makes people wonder if they too have been victims of the same “incidents” being complained about by many people. There’s nothing quite like mass-scale victimization of innocent people that gets at one’s goat. Suddenly, everyone is wondering if he was also victimized by the set up or not. Could it be that they have paid more than what they should have for their purchases at SM stores? If it happened to some other people, surely there is the possibility that it also happened to us at some point or another without our knowledge.

To be fair to SM, the implied accusation of cheating and massive swindling is probably uncalled for. I don’t think a conglomerate as big as SM would actually sink so low. I really don’t think that it would be willing to make money fleecing people when they could get so much more by just doing business straight up without the monkey business. SM may have had a reputation in the past for not being such an ideal employer particularly in its dealings with contractual employees but I know for a fact that it has really been putting in place more proactive measures designed to become a more responsible corporate citizen. Its rapid growth would not have happened otherwise.

In some of the E-mails from complainants that I have read, they’ve acknowledged that people from SM did call them up to explain the situation and explore solutions. I’ve read that problems in the system have been cited as the culprit as well as human errors which were deemed very likely given the levels of competencies of those hired to do the manual work of changing price tags in the goods displayed in the stores. And then there was the matter of concessionaires who employed their own merchandisers and who were not technically under the employ and supervision of SM. Other possible reasons were cited, all of which, unfortunately, do not really address the problem or appease consumers a bit. The justifications being offered do not fly because what people expect from giant retail chains like SM is not only shopping comfort and quality goods but also security and protection from all kinds of threats including being swindled and cheated not only within the premises but also by the establishment itself.

As can be expected, the issue has become saddled with even more static that adds further complication. For example, some people have raised the issue of SM stores not giving out loose change to customers. Actually, this is a problem that is not specific to SM stores although it just seems more pronounced in SM because it is the biggest retail chain in the country. Someone raised the issue of the rather steep fees SM charges for parking in its malls (quite a number thought parking should be free). And then there are the environmental issues—waste management, pollution, traffic congestion, etc.

SM is no longer just a store that sells goods. It has evolved into becoming a lot of things for a lot of people—I know quite a number of people who see SM as the center of their whole universe they go there for everything, for shopping, for eating, for their laundry needs, for entertainment, even for exercise. Soon, people will actually reside within SM malls. The issues being raised are no longer just about consumer rights, but really about stakeholder interests. Let’s all hope SM rises to the challenge.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Sacrificial lambs

This was my column on the date indicated above.

As an aftermath of the hostage-taking tragedy, we’ve seen and continue to see a parade of people gnashing their teeth, clucking their tongues, and shaking their heads in frustration at what they conclude as the general incompetence of our officials and the supposed embarrassment all these has created for the country and Filipinos in general.

Obviously, many people are still not done with the self-flagellation yet. There are people who continue to point out the many ways in which the hostage-taking crisis was bungled. In fact, there seems to be this preoccupation with discovering yet another snafu related to the hostage-taking crisis and then sensationalizing it. Some people seem to derive some perverse fun out of pointing out just how stupid our authorities have been, and are.

Like I said the other week in this space, we don’t need the Chinese or any other people to make us look or feel bad about ourselves. We are already doing a spectacular job in making ourselves look bad to the rest of the world!

So I am sorry if I refuse to go into depression, wring my hands, and flog myself in public while proclaiming “we are such a bunch of losers.” I am sorry if I am not morose enough and feeling hopeless and dejected. I apologize if I am not joining the chorus of people crying out for heads to roll or for government officials to prostrate themselves in the altar of public opinion. What happened last August 23 was gruesome, embarrassing, and horrendous but I refuse to see what happened as something that defines who we are as a people.

I agree that there were major lapses, I agree that we should apologize to the Chinese and admit culpability where appropriate and necessary. I agree that we should do what we can to honor the memory of those whose lives perished in that unfortunate incident. But I don’t believe we should grovel and get horizontal on the ground, flagellate ourselves publicly, and behead our leaders.

I don’t agree that Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo and Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma should resign from their posts because of “command responsibility.” The logic being presented by those who are crying for the heads of these two officials is that we need to send a very strong message to the Chinese that we are sincere, contrite, and resolute enough. In short, it’s a populist ploy designed to deflect attention from a more exhaustive, comprehensive and honest-to-goodness search for the truth.

A resignation from a cabinet member is a tacit admission of guilt. I know; it can also be interpreted as indicative of moral courage. God knows how many times in the past our country would have benefited tremendously if only some of our leaders had the grace and humility to offer their resignations to save the country. But the situation prevailing now is completely different.

Besides, I think offering Robredo and Coloma as sacrificial lambs represents an irresponsible and utter waste of precious executive talent. Someone said that these two executives are not indispensable and that there is a long line of people who can replace them at a moment’s notice. I don’t really know who are considered shoo-ins for Robredo’s and Coloma’s posts, but I know for a fact that it would be difficult to find people of equal competence and integrity.

What good will the resignations of Robredo and Coloma do at this point? It will be a romantic gesture devoid of real meaning; something reminiscent of what happened at the crisis wrought by the Flor Contemplacion case. Then Labor Secretary Nieves Confessor and Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo had to leave government service to appease the public. The resignations were just as tragic given that the two were competent officials and performing really well in their posts.

But my main beef about these calls for resignations is that it deprives people the opportunity to correct what needs correcting.

I also cannot help but snicker at the source of the most vociferous demand for the resignations. The sacking of Robredo and Coloma (as well as of the other Communications Secretary, Ricky Carandang) is being pushed by Rep. Edcel Lagman, minority leader at the House of Representatives.

I don’t know what medication Lagman is taking that seemed to have caused a sudden attack of amnesia. He was quoted in some papers as having pompously proclaimed thus: “ palpable incompetence and culpable indifference must not be condoned… ineffectual and errant performance of government officials will not be tolerated.” There must be something about being in the opposition that makes people suddenly cloaked with the armor of moral righteousness. Let me remind Lagman that when he was still part of the ruling party, he never advocated the resignation of any government official even in the face of overwhelming evidence of graft and wrongdoing.

***

I understand that columnists cannot and must not think of themselves as isolated nor insulated from everyone else; that feedback and exchange of ideas and opinions are integral parts of the whole arrangement. I welcome feedback, particularly those that are meant to widen the contours of the discussion or are meant to shed additional light on a particular issue.

But feedback does not have to be an overbearing and illogical lecture in badly fractured English. And it doesn’t have to be the equivalent of a prolonged heated and emotional shouting match either. What is worse is when the people who insist that I convert to their points of view refuse to reveal their identities and prefer to hide under the cloak of anonymity. Worst, they insist that their diatribes should not be published nor even mentioned in this column.

I write this not as a complaint but to illustrate how unreasonably demanding some people can be. Certain people are unreasonably harsh. They think their opinions are the only ones that matter. They think that anyone who is not on one’s side on an argument is automatically one’s enemy.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Back!

I was on blog leave for four months, from May to August. The reasons were deeply personal.

Am back now.

I will try to post my columns from May to August in this blog in the next few days.

But really, am just up to my armpits in work so I am not sure I can be as active as I used to be in updating this blog.

Those who want to read my column can always go to the Manila Standard Today website. The link is found in this blog.

To those who keep on posting messages meant to annoy me, I have one piece of advice: you are wasting your time because it really will take more than a couple of badly-written gibberish to get me worked up.

P.S. to a tragedy

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Everything that needs to be said —and more - about the hostage-taking incident last week has already been said many times over. And yet quite a number of people still feel this overwhelming need to express themselves. I guess what happened was just too gruesome and too incomprehensible that people continue to feel this compelling need to say what it is in their minds and hearts.

People need to grieve and be allowed to do so. And others just have to be patient as those who need to mourn go through the stages of grief including denial and enmity, before they can move on to acceptance. I know; it all looks good in theory but can be very disconcerting in actuality especially if one is directly exposed to the grieving process.

I need to stress this repeatedly: We must respect the grieving and mourning process of our friends in Hong Kong. Those incendiary comments by Filipinos directed at Chinese people in the Internet must be taken down. One particular thread about the Melamine poisoning issue misses the whole point by about a mile. Sensationalist reporting on supposed retaliatory actions directed at Filipinos in Hong Kong needs to be toned down, particularly if these are based on plain hearsay and rumors.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where information has become easily accessible and has become a basic need for many people. This is why there is a part of me that empathizes with the way our local broadcast journalists scrambled all over themselves to get real-time, blow-by-blow coverage of the hostage-taking situation. As ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa said, if they didn’t do what they did, someone else would have and they would have been forced to do the same. The logic stinks, but it would not be fair to put the blame solely on the “messenger.” Lest we forget, the supply and demand equation also applies to media coverage. Very often we only blame the “supplier” but not the ones that “demand” the goods.

As I predicted, everyone is now pointing fingers at everyone else for the fiasco. Certain powerful allies of the President had been dragged into the fray. Certain traditional politicians have shamelessly piggybacked on the tragedy to forward their respective political agenda. Isn’t it ironic the way Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s allies immediately called for resignations as if the same course of action had precedence in the previous administration?

We all know how messy things eventually get when bloated egos and short tempers mix so the gag order issued Monday on all government officials seems like a wise decision on surface. However, I doubt if such a gag order will really work given how creative our media people can be. And let is not ignore the fact that certain influential people have the resources to mount their own public relations campaigns and we are already seeing some clear examples of such campaigns at work. At the same time, I have serious doubts about how a gag order will sit with a general public who has been clamoring for more direct involvement of the government in managing the crisis.

At any rate, I am sure the gag order placed on everyone will be met with lots of heckling. I can already see how some people will gleefully point out that it as a decision that came too late; it should have been a decision made a week ago when it could have saved lives. But then again, hindsight is always 20/20 vision so we probably need to give some people breathing space. As it is, even the decision not to declare August 23 a holiday was seen as a factor that aggravated the whole tragedy (yes, there were those who actually had the temerity to say that what happened was bad karma for the fact that vacation time was taken away from them).

But what exactly have we learned from the whole tragedy? Everyone seems to be talking about picking up the pieces, about making sure what happened does not recur, about how we can move on from the debacle. I understand that the government is still hard at work trying to piece together what exactly happened at the Quirino Grandstand last week but surely some realizations don’t need a whole committee to formulate.

It is very clear that one of the many things that people would have wanted present during the tragedy was clear and decisive leadership. It really didn’t seem like someone was directly in charge of the negotiations and the management of the crisis.

The lack of leadership has resulted in a backlash that has been directed all the way to the top, at the President himself as many people openly question his whereabouts during the whole tragedy. We have learned that Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim was on top of the situation and that Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo was also in the vicinity (we also learned that the President himself was at one point at Emerald Restaurant, just a few blocks away from the hostage-taking site) but it seemed nobody really rose to the occasion and assumed full responsibility. Of course no one very high up in the hierarchy has done so to this day, which is infuriating a lot of people.

Comparisons cannot be helped. I must admit that this thought did enter my mind briefly: Senator Richard Gordon would have done a much better job during the crisis if he were the one sitting at Malacañang. But if we are to be really honest and objective, there really are no guarantees that someone else would have done a better job during the crisis so it’s not really a fair assessment.

But President Aquino did set himself up for the challenge when he gave categorical promises during his inauguration that the days when leaders where inaccessible and when government played deaf and blind to the sentiments of the people were over.

Media has been getting a lot of flak for what is now being referred to as excessive vigilance. I don’t really buy all the crap about how media didn’t know any better, that no one told them what not to do. I think it’s a cop-out. Most of them got carried away by the competition to out-scoop others that they forgot what were really at stake in the situation.

We need to have the resources to deal with crises—and we must put structures that could be operationalized at a moment’s notice. The crisis group needs to be visible and accessible—they need to be the face, the voice, and the hands that provide comfort and assurance to people. Such a group needs to be composed of various disciplines. Clearly, we would have benefited if an expert psychologist were available on site and to the media last week! The kind of amateurish psychoanalytic gibberish media people were churning out were just too ludicrous such as when they tried to make sense of what the driver said when he was able to escape from the bus—that all the hostages were already dead. In fact, Ces Drilon of ABS-CBN kept on stressing that she had confirmation from the team leader on the ground that what the driver said was really true. Clearly, a more enlightened analysis of the state of the mind of the driver would have helped. More scientific and insightful advice to people would have helped.

All these talk about how the tourism industry will take a beating needs to be situated in context. Of course there will be a drop in the number of tourists visiting this country, it’s a natural consequence of tragedies. Perhaps it is good time to focus our energies on building from the ground up. I just came from a trip to the Visayas and let me tell you, the state of our airports is horrendous. I will write about this next week. But to summarize: We worry about tourists coming in, but we don’t worry enough about how to make their stay worthwhile. And safe.