Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beyond repair

This was my column on the date indicated above.

When I was young—ahem, not too long ago—my friends and some relatives thought I was a perfect candidate to become chairman of the Kabataang Barangay (the precursor of the Sangguniang Kabataan) in our district. I was idealistic. I really and truly believed in Rizal’s admonition that the youth was the hope of the fatherland. I was just in high school then and had great dreams for our hometown.

So I was “drafted” into becoming a candidate. Everyone thought I was the candidate to beat. Many thought—and I believed them, perhaps foolishly—that my being chairman of the KB was “in the bag.” Modesty aside, I was clearly more articulate, more intelligent, had more leadership skills than my opponent who was not only lagging in school but also couldn’t speak in public even if his whole life depended on it. I was also (ahem, again) cuter. Unfortunately, my opponent was rich. He was the son of a town councilor and also had the support of the politicians in our town.

But I had a core of supporters—young people, classmates, friends who I thought were also full of idealism and who I believed would fight for me to the very end. So I remained confident.

On the eve of the elections, all my friends were invited to a party at some beach house. It was supposed to be an ordinary birthday celebration of one of the councilors of the town. The party lasted two days and my friends didn’t get to go home until after the canvassing of votes was over. They were practically kept incommunicado from our camp throughout the day of the elections as they got wined and dined, herded into the precincts to cast their votes, and back to the beach again after for more partying. As can be expected, I lost the elections. And the KB council of our district and our town merrily coursed through their whole terms without doing anything for the community. No projects, no activities, nothing at all. I went on to do community organizing through a church movement and people told me I was doing a much better job than the KB people. They asked me to run again when elections were up but by then I had already sworn never to get involved in politics again after that tragic experience.

Perhaps it was a good thing I didn’t get involved in the KB because it would later on become a national organization that helped propped up the dictatorship; it had presidential daughter Imee Marcos at the helm. I would become busy at the other side of the fence fighting Marcos and his minions.

The story above happened in the early eighties when traditional politics was supposed to be at its worst. The KB has become the SK but the idea behind the whole thing has remained the same. It was supposed to be a training ground for young people to become community leaders. It was supposed to provide opportunities for the young to get representation in matters relating to governance. The SK was supposed to be a catalyst in the community as it was supposed to embody idealism, patriotism, vigilance.

I heard that the same modus operandi to “protect” and “safeguard” votes for some SK chairmen continued to be done in the run-up to last Monday’s elections. In fact, the whole set-up has only gotten more elaborate, expensive, and lavish as whole villages of young voters got rounded up and “locked up” in hotels for the weekend to make sure they didn’t get “swayed” by the other candidates. Worse, there have been reports that parties were thrown to keep the young voters happy. Booze flowed despite the fact that there was a liquor ban in place. Most resorts in the country, I heard, were fully booked over the weekend.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we corrupt our young today. This is the way we perpetuate traditional politics in our country. This is the way we train the young to be wily and scheming, to circumvent laws, and to hijack elections just to ensure that certain politicians continued their hold on power.

The reality is that everywhere in this country, the SK has become so muddied in politics that it cannot be a breeding ground for idealism. SK groups are corrupted by politicians into forging alliances with them and most SK leaders become extensions of political networks—they do community organizing on behalf of the politicians.

President Benigno Aquino and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo were correct in advocating the abolishment of the SK. The idea was met by vociferous objections from politicians who insist that the solution is to reform the set-up, not to abolish it. I disagree. The current set-up is beyond reform; it cannot be salvaged anymore. It’s really about time we learn to let go of things that don’t work and start all over again the from the ground up.

I am also for providing the young opportunities to learn the art of governance and allowing them representation in community affairs. There are many models that we can use to forward the idea. To my mind, a good model would be one that is free from political intervention and is linked to other existing structures and initiatives.

The Boy Scouts of the Philippines, for example, has this program where top scouts are given the opportunity to sit as governor, mayor, and other elective posts for one day. Of course one day is not enough, but we probably need to look at the model for inspiration. See, the scouts who are given opportunities to become mayor for one day are top scouts who approach the idea of governance from a purely idealistic standpoint—that of being an honorable, trustworthy scout. They also bring to the post the idealism and the mission of their respective organizations. What’s more, we ensure that the representatives are students rather than professional bums with political connections.

Instead of electing young people directly to sit in barangay, town or provincial councils and get them embroiled in dirty traditional politics, perhaps we can use existing structures such as the boy scouts, student councils, even community groups like Youth for Christ, etc. We can put up a system where legitimate student and youth organizations are given accreditation to sit for specific terms in barangay or town councils as youth representatives. Any town or city in this country has a national high school or a college where there are student councils or student organizations. Every high school in this country has a scouting program in place. We will never run out of young people who can be tapped to represent the youth sector in various councils. The challenge is how to accredit student or youth organizations and to ensure fair and equitable representation. Perhaps the student councils can form their own council and rotate the term of office among the various presidents or they set up an arrangement where everyone gets to sit in the council for a fixed number of months only. The possibilities are endless.

We need to become more creative in fixing our problems. More importantly, we need to make sure that we stop this fixation with trying to make things work even when they are beyond repair. The current SK setup is beyond repair. It’s about time we change the idea completely.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The messenger

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I used to make fun of Senator Lito Lapid and referred to him as the most expensive piece of furniture in the Philippine Senate because he was the one senator who was rarely heard of. In a chamber full of people with gigantic egos all seemingly fighting to be heard, Lapid was an aberration. He never gave privilege speeches, did not hog the limelight, did not file controversial bills (or any other bill, it seemed); did not even seem to attend Senate sessions - if he did, he must have vanished into the woodwork because he was rarely caught on television being inside the session hall.

All these, however, were perceptions that were really not supported by facts.

The truth is that Lapid was quite prolific as a senator in terms of number of bills filed. In a study conducted by a professor at the University of the Philippines early this year, Lapid was ranked sixth overall among senators who successfully shepherded “original” bills into law. He was also ranked fourth overall among senators in terms of number of bills filed in the Senate with 398 bills. Some wags even alleged during the last election that Lapid’s output as senator was way better than then-Senator Noynoy Aquino’s.

But lo and behold, Lapid has suddenly become front-page material with the filing of bills that sparked spirited discussions recently. Lapid is seemingly positioning himself as a champion of educational issues and is focusing on issues that strike many people, particularly those who fancy themselves as members of this country’s intellectual elite, as mundane and simplistic. For example, Lapid recently filed a bill regulating the weight of bags that children have to carry to school every day. He also filed another bill promoting equal opportunities for left-handed people, particularly students who have difficulty using facilities and equipment that are really designed for right-handed people. Even more recent was a bill promoting children’s responsibility for their parents.

Secretary Armin Luistro dismissed —some people say with a mocking laugh—Lapid’s proposed bill to limit the weight of bags. Luistro thought Lapid’s proposed bill was “trivial and insignificant.” According to Luistro, there are already too many laws in this country and the matter of heavy school bags didn’t have to be a topic fit for discussion among our legislators. Really?

Perhaps Luistro does not know this, but there are actually thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in this country with spinal column problems that can be traced to the fact that they carried heavy bags all throughout their elementary and high school years. I am one of those people, actually. I have acute lordosis which my doctors tell me can be traced to the fact that I was an overly diligent student who carried all my books, notebooks, and whatever else the teacher required every day in school. We didn’t have lockers at school (I don’t think lockers are available in many schools even today) where I could have left my schoolbooks.

I am told that this is a major problem in many schools today. I have met many parents who accompany their kids to school precisely to help them carry their bags. Some kids have to trudge four- or five-story buildings while carrying heavy backpacks. The matter requires institutional attention and cannot be left to the discretion of school principals and teachers, many of whom probably think it’s good exercise for kids.

Lapid likewise filed a bill requiring institutions to provide facilities for left-handed people. In many educational institutions, teachers force left-handed students to learn how to write with their right hands firmly believing that being right-handed is normal while being left-handed is an aberration. Yes, some fallacies and myths from the Middle Ages continue to proliferate today.

At the College where I teach, each classroom is equipped with at least five desks for left-handed people. But not all educational institutions are as enlightened and as appreciative of diversity. This is why it is important that we have laws to require compliance on seemingly basic, mundane, even trivial issues.

The intellectual elite in this country needs to recognize that many of our problems are quite basic and do not really require sophisticated solutions. Perhaps Senator Lapid really needs to speak more often and more assertively to get certain points forward. There’s a part of me that thinks if it was Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago who advocated these bills using words comprised of polysyllables, the reaction may have been different.

There’s also a lesson that Senator Lapid needs to pick up from this experience. Packaging really helps. Sometimes, it really is not just about the message; very often it is also about the messenger.

* * *

It’s been almost two months since she was last seen and to date, there has been no information on her whereabouts. Her sons have asked for media support and have asked people to continue keeping her mother’s disappearance a “live” topic, fearing that if people stopped talking about the case it would be forgotten unsolved.

Carole Day, a 56-year old British woman who has been a long-time expatriate living in Hong Kong, has been missing since Sept. 12. She was last seen in Manila where she was on a business trip. Where is Carole Day? What happened to her?

Carole Day was a frequent visitor to the Philippines. She was into furniture/interior decorations and sourced most of her products in the Philippines. She used a showroom in Makati for this purpose. On Sept. 12, after wrapping up business transactions with her Filipino partners, she said she was due to leave for Cebu and Phuket, Thailand. She was not heard of since then. However, immigration officials have confirmed that she had not left the Philippines.

She is about 5’4”, skinny, has long strawberry blond hair, and brown eyes. Her two sons who are based in Hong Kong have been traveling back and forth to the Philippines to try to find her. The National Bureau of Investigation and other agencies have also launched a manhunt for her.

I am helping spread the word about Carole Day in the hope that someone out there can provide any lead about her and her disappearance. There’s a Facebook account where people can leave messages and which contain various contact numbers of her sons (just type Missing: Carole Day in Facebook search to be directed to the page). I join her sons and her friends in praying and wishing that nothing untoward had happened to Carole and that she is found soon. People who can provide information about her can also email her son Jai at jaicool@hotmail.com.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

What were they thinking?

This was my column on the date indicated above.

It was bad enough that someone tried to copy the logo of the Polska tourism campaign of the Republic of Poland and pass it off as an original inspired idea to help sell Philippine tourism. We thought it was just another plagiarism issue (not that plagiarism is a simple issue, just that…well, we all know what the Supreme Court of the Philippines, the highest court in the land, said about when plagiarism can be justified).

And then came that rejoinder from Campaigns and Grey, the advertising agency co-opted to help design the campaign, which said in so many words that there was really serious and deliberate intent to copy the Polska logo. The agency people said that shamelessly replicating the logo was the marching orders given to them!

Honestly, what were the officials of the Department of Tourism thinking? That nobody in this country had ever been to Poland or Europe? Did it ever cross their mind that the similarities between the two logos were so striking even someone legally blind could see them?

Of course Campaigns and Grey now washes its hands of the whole stinking mess. If we are to believe the agency, it was used, abused, confused by the guys over at the Department of Tourism. The agency people said their participation in the whole thing was not really official because they didn’t have a contract and that they understood that the whole thing was preliminary and still subject to a complicated bidding process, that they gave ample warnings about the need to test the materials, etc, etc. The guys came this close to saying they were not really in control of their mental faculties when they were helping out.

But the agency failed to provide answers to a basic question: Why did they allow themselves to be an instrument of that very obvious and shameless attempt to copy the Polska logo and pass it off as an original piece of work? Unless someone was pointing a gun at the artist that substituted the words Polska with Pilipinas and added a smiling coconut tree and a tarsier, there really is no justification for the attempt at plagiarism. The way I see it, they could have flatly said “thanks but no thanks, we draw the line on plagiarism.”

It was bad enough that our Tourism officials ditched “Wow Philippines” simply because it was identified with the previous administration. This penchant for changing things just because they are identified with a former administration did not really start with the P-Noy government. But one wishes that they came up with something more original and better thought out. “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” just does not hack it for a number of reasons most of which have already pointed out by others. But really now, “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” conjures images of Little Miss Gay Barangay Gumamugam.

Yes, it really begs the question: What were they thinking?

An observation made at the height of the very recent controversy involving inappropriate tweets issued by the President’s speechwriter comes to mind: It seems that the prevailing attitude among many of the people who comprise this administration—particularly those without previous experience in the workings of government—is one of moral superiority. It’s as if they cannot do wrong and that their points of views are the only correct ones.

How else can we explain the practically careless, seemingly cavalier, and often utterly matter-of-fact way in which people make one blunder after another?

People should really remember that they are on the other side of the fence now. They are now part of government, not anymore members of some militant or civil society group that could act holier than thou, be quick with criticism, and be able to mouth endless litanies of how things should be without fear of being truthful or correct.

***

Like millions of other residents of Metro Manila, I was stuck in the middle of a monstrous traffic jam Monday evening. Media attributed the traffic jam to heavy rains in some parts of the metro. Apparently, an hour’s worth of rains immediately transformed many of our streets into instant lagoons and rivers.

Okay, so there’s really not much we can do at this point to immediately alter the effects of global warming. We are told that the volume of rainfall has become increasingly heavier than usual so much so that a few minutes of rain would be equivalent to a day’s worth of rain two years ago. Fine. So man is no match for nature’s fury.

What I don’t get is how we are being conditioned to simply accept flooding and monstrous traffic jams as natural consequences. Heavy rains we can attribute to nature. Flooding and traffic jams are man-made disasters.

Last Monday’s monstrous traffic jam was particularly irritating because there really was very little reason for it other than the fact that there was utter breakdown of traffic systems. Sure, there was flooding in some parts of Quezon City, but that could not be the justification why there was heavy traffic on JP Rizal Avenue in Makati near the boundary of Manila. Sure, there was flooding in some parts of Edsa but that wasn’t really the reason why Metro Manila’s major thoroughfare was instantly transformed into a parking lot.

The real reason Metro Manila ground to a complete halt for a couple of hours Monday night was that traffic enforcers disappeared from our roads and there was no emergency response systems in place. A number of vehicles were stalled in many of the major thoroughfares due to overheating or other mechanical problems and they remained stuck in the middle of the roads obstructing the flow of traffic. On my way from Manila to Pasig, I encountered at least five instances of vehicular accidents and there were no traffic cops to untangle the mess, mediate, or document the accident.

Of course a large part of the problem is that we’re now right stuck in the middle of the flooding season and our canals and waterways are still to be dredged and cleaned up. Small wonder really that our roads get easily flooded.

The question that begs to be answered then is: What do our authorities intend to do with this problem? Surely they don’t expect people to just seethe in private the next time they are caught in another monstrous traffic jam.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We must not forget

This was my column on the date indicated above.

A year ago tomorrow, 57 people —most of them journalists—were brutally killed in what has been referred to as the Maguindanao massacre. The Committee to Protect Journalists has referred to the massacre as the deadliest single event for journalists in history.

The anniversary of the gruesome event is being remembered this week and media has been churning out stories reminding people of what happened in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province in Mindanao. It is important that we all take the trouble to remember the Maguindanao massacre and the people that were murdered.

We must never forget the brazen, thoughtless, and heartless way in which one family tried to assert its political supremacy even to the point of mass annihilation.

We must not forget because the magnitude of the crime remains incomprehensible—what was done was beyond words.

We must not forget that 37 journalists who were simply doing their jobs were senselessly killed apparently just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We must not forget that a number of the victims were women who were not even the direct political adversaries of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre.

We must not forget reports that said at least five of the women were brutally raped before they were killed, that most of the women were shot in their genital area (the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu’s genital was slashed four times!) and beheaded, that two of the women were pregnant at the time of the massacre.

We must not forget that at least five of the victims were not even directly connected to the event that triggered the massacre, which was the filing of the certificate of candidacy for governor of Mangudadatu; they were simply trailing the convoy of vehicles and were heading towards their own destinations. In short, they just had the misfortune of having crossed paths with people with evil in their hearts.

We must not forget that after the evil was done the perpetrators tried to cover up the whole dastardly deed by burying everyone and everything including the vehicles. They dug up practically a whole hill for the purpose with heavy equipment, a backhoe owned by the province of Maguindanao and emblazoned with the name of Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr.

We must not forget the Maguindanao massacre because there’s just no way to describe the horror, the shame, the brazenness of it all. It was just… unspeakably evil.

We must make an effort not to forget because we are a people with short-term memory and a penchant for forgiveness. Remember the Marcoses, the Estradas, the military adventurists are all back in the good graces of the powers-that-be.

***

I don’t want to take away focus from the efforts to remember the Maguindanao massacre, but we must also not forget that exactly one year ago Thursday last week, the life of a promising young man was also brutally and senselessly snuffed out.

On November 18, 2009, my former student Renato Victor Ebarle Jr. was shot dead along Santolan Avenue in Quezon City by someone riding a car bearing diplomatic plates. The car was later traced to belong to British national Stephen Pollard of the Asian Development Bank, stepfather of the Jason Ivler. All evidence points to Ivler as the man who pumped three bullets into Ebarle’s body.

We must not forget this senseless killing not just because the victim was someone who was at the prime of his life but because it is evident that it could have been averted if only the suspect was not allowed to roam scot-free (and drive a car with a diplomatic plate which gives the rider an added patina of invincibility) despite the fact that he already figured in another incident that resulted in the death of a high-ranking government official. In fact, the suspect was at that time a fugitive.

We must not forget the way in which the suspect led authorities on a merry chase for months and how his mother flaunted the fact that she was an accomplice to a crime by hiding him in her house.

We must not forget because the suspect’s family continues to be oblivious to other people’s pain and insists on its own twisted version of events. Clearly, some of not only require a heavy dose of reality check (perhaps even the professional services of a shrink) but also the moral courage to accept when someone we love has a serious emotional problem and finally do what is right.

We must not forget because the suspect and his family not only continue to evade responsibility –spewing heavy protestations and indulging in shameless theatrics, they remain unapologetic and in fact continue to spin tall tales and all kinds of shameless subterfuges to escape being made to pay for the crime. Recently, the suspect claimed to be in intense pain and wanted to be brought to a hospital—even insisting that he was an ICU case. He was dismissed from the hospital in 30 minutes since the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

We must not forget because forensic findings indicated that the first two bullets pumped into dear Victor’s body were not fatal – they didn’t hit a major organ. If the suspect didn’t pump a third bullet, Victor would still be alive today. He would have walked out of a hospital in two weeks’ time. Unfortunately, the suspect’s rage couldn’t be contained by just two bullets—he had to pump a third bullet into Victor heart. This is incomprehensible for many of us who cannot even imagine firing a single bullet into someone’s body.

We must not forget because Victor’s death is a tragedy that many of us continue to carry with a very heavy heart. While the suspect continues to build a cult following among people who—quite frankly, also need to have their heads examined—sing paeans to the man and think he is god’s gift to womankind, those among us who loved Victor dearly continue to live our days in a daze wondering how something senseless could befall someone so gentle and so devoted.

We must not forget Renator Victor Ebarle and what Jason Ivler did to him and to us.

***

And on a personal note, I would like to remind all members of the People Management Association of the Philippines to vote in this year’s annual elections to be held on Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Makati.

Also, I would like to thank my friend Rina Jimenez David of the Philippine Daily Inquirer for writing a great piece about me in her column entitled “In praise of good men” and endorsing my bid for the Presidency of PMAP. Thank you, Rina! I appreciate the vote of confidence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lessons learned well

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Rumors, it has been said, arise out of situations where there is a lot of ambiguity and where the outcome is important but uncertain. Obviously, rumors fuel anxiety and breed the creation of more rumors including those that are too mind-boggling to comprehend and those that border on the bizarre.

For example, just before and during the time Typhoon Milenyo struck Metro Manila four years ago, there was a flurry of text messages from all over about the supposed actual strength of the typhoon, the path it would be taking, the kind of devastation it would cause, etc. These were important information to take in and would have been helpful to people if only they came from official sources such as the government and if only they were not unnecessarily alarmist. I remember the text messages quoted all kinds of experts—from United States military forces to certain international broadcast reporters. Milenyo was one of the most destructive typhoons to hit the country, but the terror that was in people’s hearts was probably more destructive than the actual fury unleashed by the typhoon.

When Typhoon Megi (local name, Juan; but why oh why do we insist on localizing the names of typhoons and not use the international code names instead?) loomed in the Philippine horizon last week, the rumor mill went overdrive churning all kinds of worst-case scenarios. There was talk about how super typhoon Juan would be bringing rains the volume of which would be comparable to what Ondoy poured in Metro Manila around the same time last year. There was this bit about how the typhoon was bigger than the whole island of Luzon. All these naturally struck terror in people’s hearts. I knew people who almost went catatonic with fear that what happened last year would come to pass again.

It was a good thing the government seemed really determined to show that it has learned from the lessons of Ondoy. In fact, it reached the point when some people thought the preparations and the level of pro-activeness of some people in the current administration bordered on the OA. For example, the decision to cancel classes in some provinces and among prep pupils in Metro Manila was a knee-jerk reaction that could have been avoided if only people were not hyperventilating too much. But then again, erring on the side of caution is still probably the better course of action in situations like these.

Overall, we must credit the people in this current administration for the seemingly well-coordinated disaster preparedness programs that appeared to have been in place this time around. I think it is safe to say that efforts were made to make sure that what happened last year was not repeated. The challenge is how to institutionalize disaster preparedness programs given our ningas cogon mentality.

Of course the message that some people in this administration really wanted to put out there was that this government is way, way better compared to the previous administration. This game of one-upmanship is getting tedious and one wishes the people in this administration begins to realize, sooner we hope, that there’s a limit to how much and how long they can demonize Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions no matter how deserved it could be. At some point, they have to stop blaming the past and begin to take on some of the responsibilities for the things that are wrong in this country.

But for now, we should commend everyone who has been part of putting into action the disaster preparedness programs of the government. It’s probably too early to make judgments about the effectiveness of post-disaster efforts such as provision of relief and assistance, but what we have seen so far is worth commending.

To begin with, there was a conscious effort to dispel rumors and government exhausted all media channels including Twitter and Facebook in an effort to bring to the people real-time information about the typhoon. The hourly bulletins that the weather bureau came up with did help in appeasing people and in promoting more responsible behaviors. The various projections and estimates, the alternative scenarios, even the various possible paths that the typhoon would take—all these proved effective. This time around, people weren’t passing around speculative drivel through text messaging.

A friend commented that what he learned in the last five days about typhoons, rainfall, storm signals, etc, were more than enough to probably qualify him as a meteorologist. In fact, some broadcast journalists seemed desperate for new and novel information that had not been reported elsewhere that they were forced to mine Facebook accounts of citizens in the affected areas. Some broadcasters resorted to reading Facebook shoutouts from Ilocos or the Cordilleras that were really personal accounts of how a lone tree in front of a yard had been uprooted, or how roads were empty of people, etc.

I wish, though, that some people in government learned to be a little more sensitive and careful when making pronouncements about areas that would be affected by a calamity. I was quite taken aback when one undersecretary said on public television something about how people in Metro Manila can be thankful because the path of the typhoon will spare the metropolis and how the devastation will be concentrated on the Northern Luzon area. I am sure the good undersecretary didn’t mean that people in other provinces are lesser mortals compared to those in Metro Manila and do not deserve to be spared from the wrath of Typhoon Juan, but his statements certainly smacked of insensitivity.

Unfortunately, many media people did echo the same sentiment in various ways. There was too much focus on whether the typhoon would be affecting or not affecting Metro Manila as if ensuring that Metro Manila residents do not suffer the devastation was the most important consideration!

What we have learned this time around is that there really is no substitute for preparedness and for faster and more comprehensive information.

And speaking of preparedness, it must be noted that the Philippine National Red Cross was, as usual, one of the very first agencies to respond to Typhoon Juan in a more proactive and coordinated way. They were the first ones to call out for volunteers and for donations. Perhaps because PNRC has always been there for as long as we could remember and has always been at the forefront of disaster and relief efforts, people tend to ignore the really great work that it continuously does.

The PNRC, through the leadership of its chairman, former Senator Richard Gordon was among the first to issue bulletins about Typhoon Juan in its newly-refurbished Web site (www.redcross.org.ph). There’s a lot of new initiatives the PNRC is doing to even further improve delivery of services to the Filipino people and I am going to write about these one of these days. But for now, we must not overlook the critical roles the PNRC continues to do in the country; and the fact that it does so very effectively.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Heroes

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Eleven years ago, a couple—each with a doctoral degree in physics —left very promising careers at the University of the Philippines to settle down at a fourth class municipality in the Province of Bohol to resuscitate an old, crumbling high school. They gave up their statures as eminent physicists in the National Institute of Physics so that they could teach students from remote barrios. They turned away from very high profile jobs as heads of the country’s foremost center of learning for physics to live in a town with no nightlife, or even a fast food restaurant.

At a time when a modicum of academic credentials and some teaching experience could be easily parlayed into a ticket to a very high-paying job abroad, the couple’s decision to not only stay in the country but worse, to relocate to an unheard of remote town in the middle of the one of the least developed provinces in the country struck many as foolhardy. I must hasten to add, though, that Bohol happens to be one of the most idyllic provinces in the country not to mention being home to probably the friendliest, most trustworthy people in the country.

But that was exactly what Christopher Bernido and his wife Maria Victoria Carpio Bernido did more than ten years ago. To the surprise of their friends, the couple packed their bags, left the modern-world comforts of Metro Manila, and relocated to the town of Jagna, Bohol to start all over again. Their initial challenge was to save the Central Visayan Institute Foundation, a school owned and managed at that time by Christopher’s aging mother. The school was a family enterprise founded by his grandfather. The Bernidos chose to ignore well-intentioned advice from relatives and friends for them to foreclose the struggling school. Instead, they transformed the school into a laboratory for ideas that would, in a few years’ time, make a major impact on the educational system of the country and win for them the coveted Magsaysay Awards.

The Bernidos were the keynote speakers of the annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines held last week in Cebu City. As chairperson of the conference, I had the wonderful opportunity of interacting with them first in a series of exchanges through email and by cellphone months prior to the conference, and in person last week.

This I can say with absolute faith and conviction: I don’t think I have ever met any other couple as admirable as the Bernidos. If only this country had more leaders in politics and in other fields possessed with just even half of the quiet brilliance, the vision, the humility, and more important of all, the passion and commitment to really do something for the country—then we definitely stand a very good chance of being a truly great nation once again. There is a part of me that wants to launch a campaign to make Christopher Bernido the next president of the Republic of the Philippines, but I know that politics corrupts even the most virtuous so I think it is best that the couple be allowed to do what they do best, which is revolutionize the educational system in the country. Besides, not everyone has to be a politician to make a difference although I must grant that politics offers a platform unparalleled in terms of mass impact.

According to Marivic, they were drawn to each other because of a common desire to contribute to nation building. Their decision to move to Jagna, Bohol, was also prompted by their desire to experience first-hand the problems of the Philippine educational system and be able to formulate solutions while immersed in the real world rather than while perched at some ivory tower. In short, they were thinking like physicists who draw conclusions only from facts and hard data.

The Bernidos did something, which many other people could hopefully learn from. Unlike others who attempt to propose grandiose solutions to complicated problems beyond their comprehension, the Bernidos chose to begin within their sphere of expertise: Physics and education. They noted that the problems of the educational system required systemic solutions rather than piece-meal efforts that were costly and produced dubious results. For instance, they lamented the fact that the system continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid on scholarships for science and math teachers most of whom ended up working in other countries eventually! The net result, they said, was that the country continued paying off the loans spent on developing skills that were already out of the country and being harnessed by other countries.

But surely we need qualified, topnotch teachers to teach physics, chemistry, etc? According to empirical data painstakingly put together by the Bernidos based on their experience at the CVIF and from the pilot runs of the dynamic learning program that they conceptualized, not necessarily so. In fact, it is their contention that even physical education teachers can teach physics provided they followed a methodology and a technology that essentially taught students how to learn. Of course, the strategy also allowed for parallel skills acquisition for the teacher.

The Bernidos shot to national prominence last August when they got chosen as recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. They were also picked as recipients of the Gawad Haydee Yorac last year. Both prizes underscored a most significant point that the Bernidos have proved through their ingenuity, hard work and tenacity: Achieving quality education is possible even with lack of resources. This point is important to highlight because the general paradigm operating today, particularly among politicians, is that we need large amounts of money to revolutionize the educational system.

The Bernidos have shown that there is no substitute for thinking and for scientific rigor. They conceptualized a learning strategy that is based on what is generally referred to as “learner-centered” philosophy and developed workbooks and all kinds of materials to implement the strategy. Their learning strategy is anchored on the principle that learners are not “taught” but are enabled to learn. In short, the most important goal for teachers is to teach their learners how to learn on their own. This paradigm actually makes sense particularly when we realize that most teachers merely require students to function like automatons and regurgitate facts and data that students may not even understand at all.

At the CVIF, students spend 70 percent of their school time working on exercises and applications. Lectures by teachers comprise only 30 percent of the syllabus. Most of the exercises are writing activities, which sharpen communication skills, reasoning, and even conceptual thinking.

The best proof of success is the fact that the students at CVIF have been among the top performers in the country. The Bernidos have replicated their success in Bohol by designing Learning Physics as One Nation—a program that is now being piloted in 200 high schools around the country. The program is now yielding positive results. Hopefully, the learning strategy can also be replicated for other subjects.

I join the many, many people who salute the Bernidos for making a difference in this country. May their tribe increase!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

SSS delinquency list

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I am writing this column in Cebu City while in the thick of preparations for a conference dubbed as the biggest human resource event of the year: The 47th annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines. The conference opens at 2 p.m. today at the Cebu International Convention Center.

There are close to 1,500 human resource management professionals attending the conference and let me share with you in this column the hottest topic of conversation in every nook and cranny of the convention: The supposed alarming state of the Social Security System.

We are all aware of the problems of the SSS. One of its former Presidents, Corazon de la Paz did sound the alarm almost a decade ago. If I remember correctly, de la Paz warned that unless some drastic measures were put in place, the agency would stop being viable in a number of years. Since the warning was not repeated and the alarm bells were not rung after that, people presumed that the problems got fixed. Former SSS President Romulo Neri did say around the same time last year something about the need to increase premiums of SSS members, particularly among those in higher income brackets.

But the general impression people had was that SSS members could still continue to sleep soundly at night and not worry about the fact that they wouldn’t have retirement benefits to count on in their old age. People still want to believe that this is the case.

And now there is this persistent talk that things at the SSS are not as okay as presumed.

Fueling the wild speculations was the recent move to blacklist thousands of companies from the agency’s salary loan program. Quite a number of HR professionals attending the PMAP conference all shared the same concern: Their companies have been unilaterally and arbitrarily declared “delinquent” by the SSS.

Obviously quite a number of companies are seething, particularly those who put premium on being “honorable.” There are quite a number of companies who aspire to be known for being ideal corporate citizens and being called delinquent or being in a blacklist is something that riles them. But the smear that such a negative appellation creates on a company’s image is the least of the concerns for now. The main problem is that it comes with a harsh consequence that is arbitrary and potentially illegal: No SSS member from the same company would be able to take out salary loans or other benefits from the SSS while the company continues to be placed on delinquent status. Ouch, indeed.

As far as I know, the SSS, of course, has so far not formalized (in writing) the reasons why it has stopped processing salary loans of members who are currently employed in companies that are in the SSS blacklist. They have merely asked that companies get a copy of their “statements of accounts” in SSS branches to get a list of employees with past-due salary loans. But no circular, no memoranda to companies have been issued and for obvious reasons. The basis for the unilateral and arbitrary decision to withhold benefits to members is legally questionable.

In fact, the personnel at SSS branches are at a loss as to how to explain the fact that they cannot process benefits of members of companies who are in the delinquent list.

Just to set the record straight, the companies who have been put in the delinquent list are not companies who have been remiss in remitting SSS contributions or payments of SSS salary loans of their employees. Rather, these are companies who, as far as SSS records are concerned, have employees who still have outstanding balances in their salary loans regardless of whether they are still with the company or not anymore.

What is weird about the whole setup is that even the SSS itself recognizes that it’s an unfair imposition. SSS officials acknowledge that it is very likely that most of the employees who have outstanding balances in their salary loans must have moved to other companies, or have left for abroad, or are currently jobless. The problem is that SSS is penalizing everyone else and depriving them of their rightful benefits just because of kinks in the system.

What the SSS is in fact doing is that is forcing employers against their will to become collection agents of bad debts or to help the agency fix its records.

To be fair to the SSS, it has offered a remedy. To be removed from the delinquent list, companies are being required to submit affidavits certifying that the list of employees with past-due loans have already been separated from the company along with other documents such as resignation letters, etc. This is however, a tall order for companies with high turnover rates or those with thousands of employees. I have met HR managers here in Cebu with a list of 3,000 former employees with SSS past-due loans going all the way back to ten years. How in the world would they able to comply with the paperwork required?

Of course we should all pitch in and help the SSS in whatever way we can. We are told that bad debts from unpaid salary loans have ballooned to P27.51 billion in the last few years. This is a gigantic amount of money particularly for an agency that is going through financial problems. SSS President and Chief Executive Officer Emilio de Quiros Jr. has said that the agency is prioritizing the implementation of policies related to salary loans to be able to collect around P19 billion in past-due loans within the next three years.

It’s a good move. SSS does seem ill-equipped to monitor loan availments of its various loans programs and seem particularly even more inept in collecting past-due loans. The paradigm that everyone seems to have is that SSS has a bottomless reservoir of resources. Unfortunately, this is not the case as we are all painfully aware of now.

The problems at SSS can really be traced to lack of foresight and strategic thinking skills of our leaders, particularly those who sat at the helm of the SSS for many years. It is very clear that despite advances in automation and management information systems technology, SSS has not really kept up with the times. At the same time, the agency clearly needs to improve its processes to make sure that services to the general membership are not hampered because of inability to isolate problem cases.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Teachers' day

This was my column on the date indicated above.

World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. I was made aware of the fact because I received quite a number of greetings from former students, fellow teachers, and a handful of current students.

Yes, I continue to teach despite my crazy schedule; I’ve been continuously teaching two nights a week and on some weekends in the last 12 years. It can be physically draining and the demands can take its toll on one’s health. But the psychological rewards are beyond compare. There’s the fulfillment that comes with seeing eyes light up when students finally get a difficult concept. There’s the satisfaction that comes with being aware that one has contributed to another person’s growth.

I continue to teach because rather than whine nonstop and flail around at the shortcomings of the educational system, I choose to be part of the crafting of the solutions. There’s a gaping mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs and clearly, one of the more direct things people in industry can do to help narrow the gap is for them to teach.

Along the way I have learned quite a number of lessons; proof that even teachers can learn—in fact, must learn —from students. Of the many things I learned from my students, three immediately comes to mind: Patience, humility, and appreciation for diversity.

I’ve always been a person in a hurry and my students have taught me that if I wait, they will get it. Some people take longer than others, but they do get there. I’ve also learned to forget about my corporate rank or whatever stature I have in the profession every single time I entered my classroom. Students don’t really care who teachers are unless they see that the teachers care. And finally, I learned how to appreciate people for who they really are—warts and all. Students today come in different packaging and need to be treated as individuals rather than as a “class.”

It’s a good thing that something like the World Teachers’ Day is being instituted in many countries because I think it is important to continuously inspire as many people as possible to become teachers. A world without teachers is unthinkable. But given how teaching has become an almost thankless job, only the noble or the ones without choices opt to become teachers.

I had the chance to validate this when I had dinner recently with a college friend who, bless her soul, has opted to stay in the country and continue to teach would-be teachers in Tacloban City despite persistent and lucrative offers for her to uproot herself and her family and move to the United States. Had she decided to accept the offers, she would have received ten times her current salary. Many of our friends have left for the proverbial greened pastures. Of course they gave up senior positions in universities here to teach basic math or English in the United States.

But my friend has decided to stay in the country despite the many aggravations because she really thinks she is needed here. As it is, she is one of the very few remaining Math teachers in our alma mater with specific expertise in teaching elementary math teachers.

“So how is the current crop of students aspiring to become teachers,” I asked. It took her quite a while to answer as she mulled the question in her mind. “There’s bad news and there’s good news,” she finally answered. She noted that while there continues to be a number of promising students, the overall quality of students who go into education courses have really been on a steady decline. She observed that the students that enroll in education are typically not those belonging to the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class. Many just want a four-year degree so that they can work abroad as domestic helpers or salespeople in malls. The sadness in her voice was unmistakable.

But just as quickly, she turned to become upbeat and inspiring once again. There’s hope, she said. There’s always hope. And she started talking about the new innovations they have introduced to increase retention of learning.

There are many kinds of teachers. There are those who focus on ensuring that students learn what is in their syllabus. There are those who function more as facilitators and coaches rather than as teachers. But what people remember most about their favorite teachers would be their character—about how they inspired others, or how they were like founts of hope. My favorite teachers were like that. I don’t really remember what they taught me—all I remember was that they encouraged me to learn and to become better.

What really got me to write this piece was that ten-minute video clip that went viral over the weekend in the net. It’s a recording of Solita Monsod’s last lecture for one of her economics classes this semester at the University of the Philippines. The video was presumably taken without her knowledge by one of the students.

Most of us who know, or are fans of Monsod, can be forgiven for singing paeans to the lady. Monsod is brilliant, yes. But then again, there are many brilliant people in this country. What makes Monsod distinct is that she is a feisty, no-nonsense person who has never been known to hold her punches. The fact that she is funny and articulate makes the whole packaging even more distinct.

Monsod uses her last lecture to remind her students about their sacred responsibilities to the University of the Philippines, to the country, and to the Filipino people who subsidized their education in the state university. She alternates between cajoling, sweet-talking, scolding, even threatening her students about the importance of being honorable and about being part of the solution rather than of the problems of the country. Of course there’s the whole “were from UP, we’re the best” bravado. But all throughout, she was inspiring and funny.

One wishes most teachers were like Monsod who see teaching as preparing students for the larger roles they are supposed to play in society rather than simply as imparting technical knowledge and making students digest and regurgitate facts.

But Monsod is not really alone. I have told you about my friend in Tacloban City. There are more out there. One of my best friends teaches at the Bicol University in Daraga, Albay. She is another unsung hero of the teaching profession. She could have joined her siblings abroad, or taken on administrative posts in the university. But she has decided to stay where she is—teaching future social workers in the country. Social work—there’s another profession that clearly needs more students.

We should find more opportunities to celebrate, honor, and recognize good teachers.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mismatched

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I sat as a panelist in a round-table discussion on the mismatch problem at the annual conference of the Call Center Association of the Philippines last week. We had a very insightful exchange and I would like to synthesize the points of discussion in this column.

The mismatch problem has become a major area of concern for industry. It basically refers to the yawning gorge between what industry requires and what academe produces. Those of us in industry have been whining about the problem for the longest time. Now we’re about ready to press the panic button and start screaming like disoriented banshees. You know a problem has reached an alarming point when people start normal everyday conversations by asking each other how they are coping with the problem. So instead of talking about hypertension or inquiring about each other’s uric acid levels, human resource management professionals now invariably talk about how they’re managing their manpower shortages, particularly for critical jobs.

My friends and I do the same. I personally have been having problems trying to find qualified candidates for certain positions in the bank I work for. It is ironic. On one hand, we have a very long line of people looking desperately for jobs. On the other hand, we have a long line of companies also desperately looking for qualified people to fill their vacancies. No amount of matchmaking will help because the two sides of the equation are hopelessly incompatible—pretty much like James Yap and she who must not be named in this column. It’s almost irreconcilable.

From the round-table discussion last week, we learned that there have been quite a number of responses to the mismatch. Various groups have risen to the challenge and have come up with their own programs designed to help narrow the gap. Employer groups, for example have come up with their own studies to help locate the mismatch and measure it. Some academic communities have also started to pitch in with various efforts ranging from training teachers to become better in their craft, to making educational curricula more relevant to the needs of industry by shifting to more competency-based syllabi, to putting in place ladderized schemes that make graduates employable at various stages of their educational lives.

Most of the responses are aptly named “bridging” programs, which, by connotation means that they are designed as palliative and temporary rather than as long-term and permanent solutions. Obviously, the mismatch problem is just a symptom of a larger problem. We need to close the gap, or at least narrow it down to manageable levels, not just build bridges over it.

Solving the mismatch problem was one of the earliest promises made by President Noy Aquino during the last presidential campaign. In the Web site that tracks the promises made by P-Noy (http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/aquino-promises), it’s listed as promise number 17. The identified solution, however, looks at the mismatch problem as a simple offshoot of the lack of coordination between certain government agencies and the private sector. This is sad because the problem is clearly larger than that. It’s not going to go away just because people start talking to each other.

In the discussion last week, I shared data from the People Management Association of the Philippines, the professional organizational that I am a part of. PMAP has done a number of studies on the mismatch. Our findings indicate that as much as 40 percent of candidates for employment are not able to hurdle employment interviews because they generally fall short on three competency areas: Communications, problem-solving and analytical thinking, and initiative.

Based on the results of the PMAP studies, many college graduates are simply unable to articulate their ideas —either in English or Filipino. Many graduates are also short in the area of analytical thinking—it seems people with the ability to think through complexities had become a dying breed. And finally, initiative. Thinking out of the box just isn’t something encouraged in our system, it seems. For example, I have noted the rising incidence of candidates who show up in an interview completely unprepared; they come across as people who just wandered into the room unaware of why they were there, what the company is or does, and what post they applied for.

PMAP has come up with a number of programs such as a “Booksmart is not enough” program. A video designed for college students is available in the web (YouTube) and can be downloaded by anyone.

The other problem is that the current responses to the mismatch problem are not integrated. We’re basically all doing piecemeal firefighting efforts. People are trying to do what they can, but are usually stumped by how big the problem actually is. We need a more comprehensive and integrated response to the problem. Better still, we need government to be at the forefront of the efforts and to lead with resolve. The government must stop thinking that the problem is a simple aberration that will correct itself in time. It won’t go away soon; in fact it is bound to get worse given the absence of coordinated responses to the problem.

Of course the mismatch is just a symptom of a larger problem. The bigger problem is that we don’t have a national plan that strategically addresses the myriad of human resource problems in this country.

If we insist that people—Filipinos —are the most important resource that this country has, then we must have a comprehensive and strategic plan on how to effectively harness that resource as a lasting source of competitive advantage. Not having a clear stand on the fact that majority of our students are in nursing schools, flip-flopping on the issue of the adding two more years into basic education, the absence of a more enlightened stance on specific labor issues such as mandated minimum wages, labor-only contracting, etc—all these form part of the larger problem that needs to be addressed in a strategic and purposeful manner.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Padre Damaso

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I join the many, many Filipino people who are taking their hats off to Carlos Celdran for doing what was necessary last Thursday at the Manila Cathedral. It was theatrical, yes. It bordered on the heretical, yes. It was probably rude and disrespectful. But it brought home the message in a loud and clear way.

One does not have to be Machiavellian to understand that sometimes it is necessary to test the limits to prove a point. And to my mind, that was exactly what Celdran wanted to do: Prove a point. That point is that the Catholic Church in the Philippines has lost touch with the real issues of its flock. Worse, the bishops and the priests carry on their business—think and act like they are infallible, that they are beyond reproach. In short, like Padre Damaso in Rizal’s novels.

And ironically enough, that point was amplified even further by the Church’s knee jerk reaction to what Celdran did. The Church issued a statement that essentially sounded like it was written by, well, Padre Damaso, himself. The statement reeked of “how-dare-a-Tour-Guide-embarrass-us-in-public-he-must-be-punished” attitude in the process turning off the very few remaining people I know who actually empathized with the Church on the issue of whether what Celdran did was acceptable or not. It was an opportunity for the Church leaders to act big and magnanimous, to be forgiving, to turn the other cheek, smile and say even if through gritted teeth that they, in fact, put premium to the humility that they preach. But no, our bishops and priests allowed their hurt pride to get the better of them. They responded by huffing and turning their noses up!

I can understand why our bishops and priests are smarting. Up until last Thursday, nobody had dared engage the Church in such a direct way. Even in the most heated discussions, we do tiptoe around them and always behave with reverence. Even when they are wrong, or are being boorish. All that Catholic guilt has been milked and turned to an advantage by the Church. Well, Celdran last Thursday showed that Filipinos have had enough.

The Church insists that what Celdran did was a desecration of a religious ceremony held at a place of worship. Excuse me dear bishops and priests but who have been using the pulpit and the altar of our churches in the last many centuries to unilaterally attack others, critics in particular, and verbally massacre them in the middle of the mass? You censure Celdran for holding up a placard that says “Damaso” inside a church and for shouting his demand that the Church stop meddling in the affairs of the state and call him disrespectful of a religious ceremony while at the same time keep a blind eye and a deaf ear to priests who hostage the same religious ceremony for political purposes! This kind of selective denunciation only reinforces the general belief that the Church has indeed become irrelevant.

Those who continue to question or condemn what Celdran did last week are missing the point. Celdran was doing exactly what the Church has been doing all this time, which is to interfere with the workings of the state. So it was bastos (rude).

Well, let it not be said that those of us who have been advocating the passage of the reproductive health bill started the whole descent into the quagmire. Not that Celdran speaks for all of us; I also don’t represent any organization, by the way. But the lying, the intimidation, the blackmailing, the threats have been started by the princes of the church! Consider these:

It was Bishop Cruz who appeared on television last week threatening the government of mass action. I was aghast to hear the bishop making not-so-subtle threats about how civil disobedience against this government would be disastrous. He even went on to cite the many dangers. He said that the moment that they mount their protests, it won’t just be about the reproductive health bill anymore as the other interest groups with their own axes to grind against the President or his government would be riding on the protest.

Of course it is highly doubtful if the church can actually summon a large crowd for a protest. They can dupe students of Catholic schools into attending a religious ceremony and then label it as a mass action against reproductive health programs. Or they can easily get the powerful Catholic blocs—from the Opus Dei, to the Couples of Christ, to the various Catholic organizations to come to the aid of the church.

Using threats and intimidation has been reduced to a science by the church. What the heck would you call that threat about excommunicating the President? That’s not just a threat, that’s a direct challenge. It’s blatant blackmail! The furious backtracking of the bishops on the excommunication issue only made things worse; it only proved that not only are our bishops bullies, they are just like other bullies who whine publicly and plead being misunderstood when called to task for their acts.

So Celdran indulged in mass generalizations. Oh please, hasn’t the Church been doing that for as long as we can remember? All these efforts to lump contraception with abortion for example; all these mass condemnation of everyone who has been supporting reproductive health issues including contraception in this country, all these attempts to simplify the issue into right or wrong, all these efforts to demonize its critics—these are the handiwork of the Church.

Anyone who actually cares about the truth and about the reproductive health issue would have to get riled up too every time a priest takes the pulpit on Sundays to spin lies about the reproductive health bill. Quite a number don’t even bother about being logical, or being factual—they simply spew venom and sanctimoniousness.

Not that the faithful listens, anyway. Despite the threats, the intimidations, and the dirty tactics being employed by the Church, almost 90 percent of Filipinos support the reproductive health bill. Most couples in this country want to be responsible and do things right. The problem is that they don’t have access to services that would enable them to do it. This is why it is important for the government to provide them access to these reproductive health services.

Let me cite an example. In the grassy knoll beside the Philippine National Railway, which used to be the haven of squatters, there remains a motley of families and couples who continue to live in the area in the hope that they can put up structures once again if authorities get tired of policing the area. The place is very near my house. Last I looked, there were at least three pregnant women among the group—including the woman who gave birth four months ago and who sold her child for three thousand pesos. These people don’t have livelihoods, don’t have roofs over their heads, and live only from the mercy of strangers. These people don’t go to mass nor care about what the Church thinks. They are busy trying to survive. And yet they bring children into this world. These people obviously need access to contraception.

The Church insists that passing the reproductive health bill will promote immorality in this country. They close their eyes to bigger immoralities such as lying, threatening people, poverty, hunger, and children—lots and lots of children—who don’t get the love and the care they should get, not even from the Church.