Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Traditions

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I am writing this piece in a nipa hut in the middle of rice fields somewhere in the middle of the island of Leyte in the Visayas.

That there is Internet connection here is a source of amazement to me. The speed of the connection is horribly slow by Metro Manila standards—it’s the metaphorical equivalent of someone furiously pedaling on a bicycle in an expressway. But the point is that there is Internet connection, thank you very much.

My teenage nephews and nieces exchange knowing looks and snicker away, reminding me pointedly that they have been chatting with me and leaving messages for me in Facebook since last year. I’ve always assumed they traveled 60 kilometers to an Internet café in Tacloban City to surf the net and update their Facebook accounts. The observation cracked them up even more. I guess that kind of physical effort is incomprehensible to kids today. They couldn’t believe I used to walk three kilometers to school every day when I was in high school.

I know a lot of families that got to interact with each other on Christmas Eve despite the fact that various members were spread across the globe. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Yahoo messenger and Skype. For instance, all four laptops in our house were utilized for video conferencing on Christmas Eve as we did our cyber version of a Christmas reunion. My parents and two siblings were in Leyte, three of us were in Manila, while another one was in China. We were also doing video conferencing with cousins and aunts in the United States. Ten years ago it would have cost an arm and a leg just to hear the voice of a loved one for a few minutes. Today, a friend in Frankfurt keeps his laptop open the whole time he is at home, with the video focused on him even when he is sleeping. He says it’s a running joke between him and his wife who used to suspect that he was cheating on her.

It’s heartening to note that advances in technology have also actually made families to become closer and enabled them to observe certain holiday traditions. There was supposed to be a paradox about technology; it was supposed to be cold and sterile and poised to rob people of their humanity. That’s not what’s happening today. My 80-year-old aunt practically lives in Facebook and even my own mother wants to open her own account so that she could get to “look at all those videos and pictures of all her friends and relatives.” In case you didn’t know yet, most Filipinos have turned Facebook into a giant photo album.

Anyway. There’s three more days left before the New Year descends upon us. You still have time left to scour markets for the all the sundry that need to be completed and put in place in order to bring luck and prosperity in 2011.

These could include, depending on which version of the superstition you happen to subscribe to: A collection of round fruits (some insist there should be at least 14 fruits, others say there should only be 12), a cupboard full of all the basic necessities from anise to Zesto, firecrackers to ward off all the evil spirits, crisp new bills and newly-minted coins as well as polka dotted clothes to invite fortune, bunches of grapes and oranges to hang in the doorway like mistletoe, and a veritable feast to greet the New Year. The supreme irony that is lost on many is that they waste inordinate amounts of money to invite money in.

Most of these are superstitions and traditions copied from the Chinese. I was surprised to note yet another tradition that many Filipinos have seemingly embraced without hesitation: Buying figurine of whichever animal is associated with the New Year. The coming year is the year of the rabbit in the Chinese calendar so I am told there is a mad rush to buy figurine of Bugs Bunny and his friends in various stages of mischief. The fact that the Chinese New Year does not begin on January 1 is irrelevant to the discussion.

This matter of collecting a certain number of fruits to greet the New Year has long stopped being just a tradition —it has become almost like a religion to many. Fortunately, completing 12, or 14, or even 24 round fruits is no longer a problem today provided one is willing to fork over lots of money for exotic fruits. Our markets are awash with fruits imported from all over the world. A habit that I picked up from my late grandmother is this thing about making sure children knew how certain fruits taste; so last Christmas I bought fresh cherries, parsimons, tangerines and plums. I would have wanted to buy fresh peaches but my suki fruit vendor said they were available in Divisoria but she didn’t think there would be buyers. The cherries were very expensive, but the rest cost pretty much just like apples.

It is a sad reflection of the times we live in that certain imported fruits such as apples and oranges are now a lot cheaper, and more readily available, compared to local fruits such as guavas. Come to think of it, it’s been ages since I last saw macopa and balimbing sold in fruit stands. Except for our mangoes, there is supposedly no market for indigenous fruits in this country. Apparently, most Filipinos think the way these fruits taste is unworthy of our more sophisticated palate. This is arrant nonsense, of course. In many five star hotels in Thailand, they serve slices of macopa, guavas, and other fruits along with apples and oranges in their buffet tables.

The selling of firecrackers has been banned in cities like Muntinlupa although the city ordinance did not specify if lighting some also constitute a violation. Given that the stuff is readily available elsewhere in Metro Manila (I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of stalls in Muntinlupa continue to sell the prohibited stuff), regulating firecrackers would be a tall order. Of course, as in most anything else in this country, the key is political will. Davao City has been firecrackers-free for a number of years now because former city mayor Rodrigo Duterte has decreed that firecrackers are anathema and has made sure that everyone in the city complies with the ordinance.

Last I checked, casualties from firecrackers were already being attended to in various hospitals—and it’s not even New Year’s Eve yet. Those horrible footages of children screaming in pain while doctors try to re-attach body parts blown to smithereens by firecrackers are back in the newscast. Is anyone listening? I don’t think so. Certain traditions are really difficult to let go. The campaign against firecrackers has been ongoing for many decades now and yet we continue to count casualties around this time of the year. Clearly, we need to present alternatives. The way to encourage people to give up bad habit is to provide them a suitable option such as watching a more spectacular fireworks display nearby. Shock therapy is a tricky proposition, and almost always ineffective anyway.

But traditions do serve a valuable role in society. They often defy logic but they always make some sense because, truly, the things that bind us together in family and solidarity are often beyond reason. Some things in this world are just best enjoyed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hope for 2011

This was my column on the date indicated above.

The results of a recent Pulse Asia survey said that roughly nine out of ten Filipinos are hopeful that the coming new year will bring better opportunities for them and their families.

Actually, the results of this year’s survey mirrored the results of similar surveys conducted in previous years, which seem to indicate that the holiday cheer may have a dramatic effect on people’s perceptions about their lives and their future. But that, really, is another story. For now, the story is that media actually picked up the results of the survey! And even more surprisingly, media organizations and individuals renowned for being allergic to good news actually went to town with that particular story.

I couldn’t help but notice this trend. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, supposedly the daily with the largest circulation in the country, still resembles a huge tabloid on most days but at least it has toned down the negative reporting since their candidate won as President. We know too that ABS-CBN is in the good graces of Malacañang so it has also been doing a good job of cheerleading since June 2010.

For once, I actually enjoyed the newscast on Christmas Eve this year. This was because, for once, the newscasts didn’t feature what used to be staple fare in previous years—a depressing story about the ocean of difference between what was on the noche buena table of the rich and the very poor. I remember one particular Christmas Eve newscast when one reporter even delivered her story from the makeshift kitchen of a family of squatters living under a bridge. The family of six was partaking of a simple fare of instant pancit canton and bread. To make matters worse, the reporter even partook of the food, obviously taking away previous morsels from the hungry little kids.

Oh I know that there really are people who are so poor that they don’t have even a slice of cheese on Christmas or New Year’s Eve. I also think we should not forget about them and that everyone should do something for them. But putting their suffering faces in front of television cameras, trailing them around while they try to salvage whatever little pride they have left, and making them feel miserable about their conditions without doing anything else about it just makes my blood boil. It smacks of exploitation. I just don’t buy that BS about how media’s role is to simply document events. It’s like saying the job of a cameraman is to simply point the camera at a person who is dying and not to help save that person.

Which is why despite the fact that I smell politics in the whole thing, I can’ help but feel heartened when I see the likes of Korina Sanchez distributing hundreds of slippers every week to schoolchildren in far-flung areas or when Ted Failon visits a school submerged in floodwaters to distribute plastic boots to the schoolchildren. This year, ABS-CBN had reporters stationed at La Loma—lechon capital of the Philippines - and from various sites that had some festivities happening. The banner story on Christmas Eve was about how Filipinos were scrambling all over to complete their Christmas shopping and to put a hearty meal on the table for noche buena; quite a far cry from previous years, indeed, when the predominant story was about gloom and doom.

But I do agree that to a certain extent media was also simply riding on the general crest of hope that the country seems to be experiencing. Things are not as bad as they were in the past—or at least they don’t seem so. And there really is a general sense of optimism for 2011.

Like many others, there were many times in the last few months when I groaned inwardly and shook my head in exasperation at the succession of blunders committed by the Aquino administration. There were times when I also felt that the whole Aquino cabinet resembled a student council floundering on their first few months in office, operating from intuition and gut feel and doing things in a trial-and-error way, seemingly armed with nothing else but a surfeit of noble intentions. In fact, there were many times when I felt the moral righteousness was their main problem.

Mercifully, Aquino’s Cabinet did eventually seem to find solid footing and learned to work as a team although hints of the turf war between the Samar and Balay factions continued to find their way to the media.

But the government needs all the cooperation it can get from people. I initially intended to write a column on the major blunders that characterized the first six months of the Aquino administration —from the infamous Executive Order No. 1, to the bungled hostage-taking incident at the Quirino Grandstand, to those indelicate tweets about the wine served at the Vietnam banquet, to the Pilipinas Kay Ganda brouhaha, to the Nobel Prize ceremonies snub. But after some reflection, I realized that dragging people through the coils once again would not really do anyone any good particularly since if we really come down to it—if we really examine the events —we would come to the conclusion that the Aquino administration did try to rectify the errors afterwards. In short, this has been an administration and a cabinet that recognized mistakes and tried to do something to correct them.

Besides, there were quite a number of Cabinet members who produced good work in the last six months and did so silently and seemingly unobtrusively outside of the glare of the television cameras. Of course everyone is aware of the achievements of the gutsy Leila de Lima of the Department of Justice. De Lima’s case is unique because not only is the lady competent and articulate, she also happens to have had the advantage of having been at the helm of the Human Rights Commission which has given her an aura of invincibility.

But many other cabinet members did perform well in the last six months. Rosalinda Baldoz of the Department of Labor, Enrique Ona of the Department of Health, and Sonny Coloma of the Communications Group. Baldoz, in particular, has shown steely determination never seen at the Department of Labor in recent years. The DOLE rulings on the PAL cases reflect not only reflect strong political will, but commitment to fairness and to effective balance between strategic and short-term issues. It would have been convenient for the labor secretary to be populist on the PAL outsourcing issue, but Baldoz showed the kind of resolve leaders must have to become effective.

Is it reasonable to expect better days ahead then? I join many others in praying that the Aquino administration is able to finally harness the goodwill that majority of the Filipino people have bestowed on it.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In the spirit of the season

This was my column on the date indicated above.

A most recurring observation that I kept hearing from various people in this particular season of peace on earth and goodwill to all men was this thing about how the jolly fat man in a red suit has become the foremost symbol of the season instead of the baby in the manger.

The Church has even come out with an official statement admonishing people to put out a belen in their homes as part of their Christmas décor; short of saying that those color-coordinated Christmas trees and those paper mache figures of Santa Claus in various stages of mischief and repose (you’ve seen Santa climbing a rope or aboard a calesa but have you seen Santa on a bathtub?) are trendy and cute but that they miss the real essence of the celebration.

I have no problem with keeping our perspectives about Christmas in check. I’ve also been saying the same thing in these last many years. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to compete with the advertising and merchandising resources of big business, they who make gazillions of money around this time of the year. Of course they promote commercialism, it’s the reason for their existence!

As a human resource management professional, I have also been bewailing the fact that Christmas parties for employees have become complicated affairs. Not only are companies expected to come up with creative themes that would put to shame all other Christmas themes ever thought of, people are also expected to come up with all kinds of gimmickry to ensure that everyone has a great time. The messages of the season could very well be: Binge! Get bankrupt! Party like there is no tomorrow! It’s also around this time that employees max their credit cards, take out all kinds of loans, and demand or expect all kinds of additional remuneration from employers. As I said, it’s time we really make a serious effort to keep our perspectives in check.

It really just takes leadership and political will to bring about changes. At the Bank that I work for, the president decreed early December that gift-giving between and among employees would be discouraged. Instead, a fund drive to raise money for orphans was launched and employees were asked to donate to the fund—or some other charity instead. There were those who saw the mandate as a damper on the spirit of the season. But most heaved a sigh of relief. At the very least, it saved many of us trips to the mall to buy gifts. More importantly, it allowed us the chance to do something meaningful this Christmas.

This matter of exchanging gifts has always been problematic anyway. Oh I know, it’s the thought that counts—the actual gift should be immaterial. But then again, as long as one is giving a gift, one might as well give something that would be appreciated. Obviously, people with higher stature in life such as bosses and ranking government officials are perceived to have finer tastes. Thus, we end up spending more for gifts for these people—they who don’t need material presents—than we do for people who really need help such as messengers, utility personnel, househelp, etc. This Christmas, I hope we can all consider giving more to people who need our help most. Perhaps we can spend more for the gifts we give to indigents, poor relatives, etc, rather than simply giving them standard giveaways such as a planner that they have no use for.

About four years ago I wrote a column on 10 possible things we can all do on Christmas day that may help rekindle that old warm feeling that is supposed to come with this joyous season. I am reprinting parts of that column today, with some parts rewritten for brevity. Here then are some things you can do on Saturday, Christmas Day:

Make sandwiches of the leftover ham and cheese from the Noche Buena feast. These will probably be lying around ignored in the dining table for the rest of the day until someone finally has the heart to stuff them into the refrigerator where they will lay untouched for a few more days, if not weeks. With a few slices of apples and some strips of lettuce or cabbage, these can be transformed into delightful gourmet sandwiches. Wrap them in paper napkins of sandwich bags if you have them and give these to the streetchildren that are bound to come knocking at your car in some intersections of the Metro. These kids probably will have to fight for a slice of ham and probably won’t have queso de bola at their table on Christmas Eve so your leftovers will definitely be a welcome treat for them. Some of my friends and I started doing this since a couple of years back and it is something guaranteed to make you feel the real spirit of the season.

Reach out to someone you haven’t been had contact with for sometime now. It’s the time to mend broken friendships, forgive old hurts, or simply validate someone’s presence in your life. Write a letter, call, or send a text message. You have the perfect excuse to do it today—it is Christmas.

Spend some quality time with your loved ones, especially the old and the young. Remember, quality time is measured by the receiver; so make an effort to do the things that truly mean something to the people you love, not the ones that you think has meaning to them. Often, this simply means spending time with the kids doing what they like best—either joining them in playtime or just being there with a smile on your face and without any trace of judgment for their countless demands. Or this could mean just spending time with your old folks listening to them drone on and on about the thousand and one concerns of the aging.

Go to church. You do not have to attend a mass or participate in a religious ceremony if you do not feel like it. Being inside a church for a few moments of silence and reflection really does wonders to the spirit. I particularly do not like hearing mass, but I have always found solitude inside a church, particularly on Christmas Day.

Watch a movie with your family and support the Metro Manila Film Festival. I know the quality of Filipino movies has been on a general downward trend, but this is the best time to go watch a Filipino movie. The spirit of the season is a perfect excuse to enjoy even the most escapist plot or the most awful film output. The Philippine film industry is dying and needs all the support it can get from all of us. Films do serve an important role in strengthening our country’s collective soul and it would be tragic if we simply watch it gasp for its last dying breath without doing anything to help.

Make an inventory of the Christmas presents that you received and remember to thank the people who gave them. It has become very convenient to think that just because you already reciprocated the gesture by exchanging gifts with the person, there is no need to say thank you. A simple text message or a note would go a long way to validate the other person’s gesture.

Pray for our country. God knows we need all the divine intervention we can get in these uncertain times. But the Christmas season is a good time to remind ourselves that hope springs eternal. There is still hope for our country.

Maligayang Pasko!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Being Mr. Scrooge

This was my column on the date indicated above.

On the same week that Hubert Webb got acquitted, former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos got vindicated and got some sequestered properties back while the case against Hayden Kho was dismissed purportedly because it was impossible for Katrina Halili - one of many girls who got victimized - not to have noticed that a camera was recording the whole thing.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the Webb case because I didn’t – couldn’t – buy the theory that the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case was caused by the influence of former Senator Freddie Webb. There’s only so much influence can do in this country particularly when media attention is focused on a case. Besides, it’s not as if Lauro Vizconde didn’t have influence as well.

The former first lady continues to maintain that her family did not steal the government and the Filipino people blind during the Marcos dictatorship. She said that the Olot Tolosa property in Leyte that was returned to her recently had been part of her family’s inheritance– all those hectares including a picturesque hill fronting a beach and a 17-room mansion.

Hayden Kho has been deodorizing his image in the last few months, capitalizing on his good looks and the resources of his benefactor.

Around the same time, as well, our leaders couldn’t agree on whether it was to our best interest that our ambassador boycotted the awarding ceremonies of the 2010 Nobel Prize. Actually, they couldn’t agree on whether we simply snubbed the affair or boycotted it. And worst, no one, it seems could formulate a justification that had a semblance of logic in it.

Meanwhile, some of our congressmen are hell bent on wrecking more havoc to industry by insisting on measures that supposedly will protect workers but in reality will only make things more difficult for this country to generate jobs. Ideologues railroaded a hearing of the Committee on Labor at the House of Representatives called for the purpose of consolidating various bills meant to protect security of tenure. If the proposed bill gets passed, and I am fervently hoping that it won’t, we can expect more difficult times ahead.

And these, my friends, are just some of the things we have to contend with as we approach Christmas.

***

There was a time when I couldn’t wait for Christmas. My grandmother who was so big on the holiday season would insist that we would put up Christmas decors as early as November and would only take them down sometime first week of February. I don’t remember anymore the religious significance of the first week of February but my grandmother was fully convinced that the season lasted until then. I didn’t think it was my place to argue given that I did like the festive air that all those tinsels and trimmings brought.

Christmas came late for me this year. It cannot be just because I am older, or have become cynical because as my friends would kid me, I was born “old” and cynical anyway. Not that I didn’t want to feel the spirit because despite the drain on one’s financials, there really is nothing quite like imbibing the spirit of giving and sharing. Just that I really didn’t feel “Christmassy” up until a few days ago. And truth be told, I had to work myself up to get into the spirit of things. The last two months were particularly trying and tiring as I had to manage a political campaign while coping with the added demands at work. For the first time in many years I even forgot about submitting a column for last Wednesday!

It didn’t help that the “early” Christmas parties that I went to had themes that really didn’t bring on the cheer. One required guests to come in military-inspired attire while two others had the same theme: white Christmas. Being snappy and sterile didn’t do wonders for the tired soul; mine in particular.

Needless to say, one’s emotional state affects the way one perceives the environment.

Is it just me or has the traffic situation really gone bonkers this holiday season? Traffic was particularly horrendous last Friday evening as almost everyone seemed to have been on the road shuttling from one party to another. I got stuck for almost three hours on Buendia Avenue while on the way to Greenbelt for a get-together with friends—that sure did wonders to my mood. And I wasn’t the last one to arrive; a friend who came all the way from Quezon City staggered into the restaurant at half past midnight hungry, tired, and in a really foul mood greeting all those assembled: “I must love you so much to have braved all that traffic to get here!”

A friend observed that the monstrous traffic must also be caused by the fact that there are just too many cars on the road. She said that sales of cars have been on a steady upward trend in the last few months. I don’t have data to support my friend’s claim but I know a few friends who bought new cars in the last three weeks so there must be some grain of truth to her assumption. I do know that certain cars are no longer manufactured in the country —we import them from our neighboring countries where labor costs are cheaper and where governments make it easier for investors to do business.

The lines at malls have become longer because we are told most people are descending on the malls late—as in a few week’s late. Apparently it’s not just me who has been grappling with the late onset of the holiday cheer. I’ve even noted that Christmas presents are also being delivered late—if at all. Hopefully, it’s also because people are donating more to charitable institutions like many senior officers in the Bank that I work for did; we all agreed not to exchange gifts but to donate instead to charity.

Certain things are inevitable, of course. It is difficult to ignore Christmas not just because everyone makes an effort to remind you of it but because when we really come down to it, it represents at its most basic essence, what the world really needs more of: Hope, faith, love, sharing.

It’s not too late to get into the spirit of the season. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Football and politics

This was my column on the date indicated above.

The Philippine National Men’s Football Team, the Azkals, got into the semifinals of the 2010 Suzuki Cup. It’s the first time the national team advanced to the semis in the 14-year history of the cup. Actually, it’s probably the best performance ever by a Philippine football team.

Suddenly, everyone in this country is a football fan. I am not complaining, though. I have always kept the belief that we are better suited for sports like football (or okay, soccer if you think the Americans are correct on this one). Why we continue to be crazy over basketball when we clearly are at a disadvantage because of our height limitations is really puzzling. I’ve always maintained that we have better chances in football.

Media has finally taken notice of the Azkals and has deemed the team’s performance front-page material in the last two weeks. About time, really. Unfortunately, and this is a really sad commentary on the way we manage things in this country including sports, every single article about the Azkals inevitably lead to dirty politics.

The story that is unraveling now is hardly surprising. We’ve known all along that many people wrestle for control of national sports associations as a form of political sports – they want the power, the prestige, and the influence that comes with being called “officials.” At sports events they get better reception while the athletes themselves suffer under the most horrible conditions.

It appears that the Azkals has been hobbling along all this time with hardly any support from the Philippine Football Federation. Its deposed president not only didn’t do anything to support the team in its current unprecedented bid to win the Suzuki Cup, he apparently did more harm by unilaterally giving away the team’s right to play its “home field match” right in the Philippines. Jose Mari Martinez was ousted as President of the PFF last November 27. So the Azkals will be playing against Indonesia in the semi-finals on December 16 and 19 and both games will be staged in Jakarta. Talk about hostile conditions and being underdogs thrice over.

What’s even more appalling is that everyone is taking credit for the Azkals’ splendid performance in the Suzuki Cup. I would like to reprint in full a recent statement made by the Team to set the record the straight:

“In the last few days, Filipinos everywhere have heard about how the Philippine National Men’s Football Team has received all sorts of help from the Philippine Football Federation.

While our triumphs on the football field and the glory we’ve attained is something we are sharing with every Filipino and football fan out there, taking credit for matters one did not do is something we do not condone.

In the past year, the national team has been kept running and going by Mr. Dan Palami who has graciously shared his resources with the team yet has asked nothing in return except that we help promote the beautiful game and win glory for the country.

He has spent quite a lot from his own resources and that amount is something we are not at liberty to say. Suffice to say that it is a lot. And on the contrary, we have not received one centavo of support from the PFF. Not to mention a call or a text during the final rounds of the 2010 Suzuki Cup in Hanoi, Vietnam, we the national team made it to the semifinals for the first time in the 14-year history of the competition.

To hear of a three-year plan that he has put in place is actually laughable and downright insulting. This year, we’ve never had any decent training grounds for us to practice on until recently when we trained at the Alabang Country Club and the International School of Manila. Even the simple matters such as processing the paperwork regarding our request for the release of the Armed Forces servicemen to national team duty cannot be done.

And now there is the matter of the former PFF president telling Asean Football Federation officials that we, the national team, cannot have our own home game, that we fought so hard for, to be played in front of our countrymen.

What a wasted opportunity!

This is not meant to be a laundry list to air out our grievances. Rather, we just want to set the record straight.

Thank you and mabuhay!”

Although I have heard that Dan Palami was actively involved in the national football team, I didn’t realize until recently that he was team manager of the Azkals. I am not surprised that the team has spoken very highly of Palami’s generosity and passion– he’s a man who never does things halfheartedly.

I knew Palami as a little boy because we went to the same College although he was many years my junior. He was, I think, in Grade 5 when I entered College; but we knew each other because the College had this thing about making sure the top students in all levels got to interact in cultural and other academic activities. Palami’s mother was also one of my teachers. Palami went on to become a highly successful businessman. He made a bid to become Mayor of Tacloban City a couple of years ago but was sadly unsuccessful. He was just too clean, too darned ethical and was no match for the political machinations of the political family that has been so well entrenched in Tacloban City since the Marcos dictatorship.

So the Azkals will be playing in the semis against Indonesia next week. They may not be playing in home turf but we can always show our support in many ways. It’s not too late – there’s always something we can all do to support the team.

And hopefully the attention that is being heaped on the Azkals today leads to better things such as more support for national sports teams. Also, it is hoped that the great performance of the Azkals paves the way for better appreciation of football in this country.

All the best, Azkals!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Holidays and condoms

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I would like to appeal to the bright boys at the Palace to already make a pronouncement this early on whether or not President Benigno Simeon Aquino is inclined to uphold Proclamation No. 1841 issued by his predecessor on July 21, 2009.

Proclamation 1841 specified the regular holidays, special non-working days, and special holidays for all schools for the year 2010.

Specifically, it set the following dates as holidays during this Christmas season: December 24 (Friday) as additional special non-working day, December 27 (Monday) in lieu of December 30 which is Rizal Day, and December 31, last day of the year. It is important for the Palace to make the clarification this early because the dates are critical. If the Palace intends to uphold Arroyo’s proclamation, then employees are guaranteed two long weekends during the Christmas season: Four days during the Christmas weekend, and another three days during the New Year weekend.

Actually, most have already made plans based on Proclamation 1841 assuming that Malacañang will not dare alter the dates. I know quite a number of people who have already scheduled trips abroad or to their hometowns during the projected long weekends. It would cause quite an uproar if arrangements would have to be altered simply because someone thought that any proclamation signed by the former occupants of the Palace deserves repudiation.

An early announcement on whether December 24, 27, and 31 are holidays is also critical for certain industries and for businessmen. Those in manufacturing will have to fix their production schedules based on the holiday schedules. Businessmen need to ensure that their cash flows will not be affected by the fact that banks will not be open on certain days.

Ordinarily, Arroyo’s proclamation should stay because it is a valid proclamation, after all, in the sense that she was still President when she issued it. The proclamation also adheres to the provisions of the Republic Act 9492, which says that holidays, except those which are religious in nature, should be moved to the nearest Monday unless otherwise modified by law, order or proclamation. The law however was very specific about one thing: Any modifications should be made and announced six months earlier. Based on this provision, Proclamation 1841 should stand.

Unfortunately, we’ve had precedence this year when President Aquino chose not to uphold certain provisions of Proclamation 1841. Note that Aquino refused to move Ninoy Aquino Day to August 23, which is the Monday nearest August 21.

There are pros and cons to the issue of movable holidays. Holidays have implications on industries. But the again, this is not the time to go into a discourse on the politics behind holiday proclamations. What people want is simple: Advance warning. We just need clarification early on.

So, please, bright boys, can we make that announcement already?

***

I am not surprised that the Catholic Church is alternately playing clueless (as in they don’t really know what their official stand is and is consequently often caught mouthing empty words and statements) or engaging in doublespeak (as in they say one thing now and then something completely different the day after) on the issue of condom use.

Certain quarters in the Church hierarchy maintain that there hasn’t been a change in the Church’s position on condoms, even for HIV/AIDS prevention. They insist that Pope Benedict XVI has simply been misquoted or that so much more has been read into what the Pope really was supposed to have said. Pronouncements like these make them come across as people high on prohibited substance—like people in dreamland oblivious to reality.

And then there are those who welcome the Pope’s change of heart but insist that the change does not signal any changes in the Church’s stand against condom use. Their argument is anchored strongly on the interpretation that what the Pope said was that condom use for HIV prevention is the lesser evil, which, in their opinion, does not really represent a change in the Church’s position. In fact, they further insist that the Pope was very specific about what kinds of people are seemingly justified in using condoms—prostitutes. I know. This kind of obfuscating and hairsplitting, not to mention the use of politically incorrect words, is what drives the prices of paracetamol to the stratosphere. Why can’t people just talk straight?

What I find offensive in the whole discourse is that the Church remains unapologetic over the harm it has obviously made to people living with HIV/AIDS. Many of them could have avoided infections if only the Church has not been adamantly against the use of condoms. Imagine how many more people could have avoided infections if the Church had not been aggressively promoting the idea that using condoms was evil and reprehensible.

In fact, one thing that has been glossed over in the whole discussion is the fact that the Church has been, for almost two decades now, funding studies and brandishing the results of these subjective and obviously flawed studies, that the use of condoms is not an effective deterrent in HIV/AIDS prevention. Worse, members of the Church have been aggressively promoting the wrong information that the virus can penetrate condoms! Is the Church going to apologize for deliberately spreading wrong information about the effectiveness of condoms in HIV prevention now that the Pope has said that it is the lesser evil?

This whole discussion can be traced to one basic problem and it is that the Church insists on playing politics and getting involved in matters of state. The problem with playing politics is that one is forced to embellish, bend the truth, distort facts, and re-frame issues to suit one’s interests. This is to be expected because politics, by definition, is about trying to influence the distribution of advantages or disadvantages and one cannot do this without having to manage other people’s impressions or perceptions. Simply put, anyone who indulges in political behavior must be a master in manipulation.

Ideally, therefore, the Church should as much as possible get out of politics or at the very least should always endeavor to be beyond or above it. I say as much as possible because I also know that playing politics cannot be totally avoided in the higher echelons of power. But given how the Church is supposed to be the bastion of morality, of truth, of ethical behavior, and of many other things good and desired, then it stands to reason that the Church should keep itself above the fray.

But alas, this is not the case today. The Church is actively involved in politics—and worse, in promoting illegitimate political behavior. And therein lies the bigger problem.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Man-made

This was my column on the date indicated above.

We know Christmas is around the corner because there are a lot of things associated with the season that begin to manifest themselves around this time of the year such as those ubiquitous twinkling lights and lanterns. Sadly, no thanks to global warming, we haven’t been waking up to nippy mornings yet despite the fact that we’re almost in the middle of December.

But there is one thing associated with this season that has only become more evident and correspondingly, more vexing this year: Traffic! Monstrous, gigantic, humongous traffic jams!

It’s the one reminder that jolts everyone to the reality that celebrating this season of love and sharing come with a price. I think it is safe to assume that most are willing to bear the monetary cost. Having the fortitude to endure certain inconveniences—particularly those that are really avoidable—is another thing altogether.

We know traffic in Metro Manila shifts from bad to worse around this time of the year. But the traffic situation in the last two weeks has been unreasonably and irrationally bad it has made people openly wonder whether the concerned government agencies responsible for managing traffic and enforcing law and order in our streets have what it takes to do the job.

The traffic problem in Metro Manila is the perfect metaphor for what is wrong in our country. We can all romanticize the state of the economy, we can churn out million of pages of facts and figures that say we are on the right track, we can all sing paeans to nationalism and love of country. But all these don’t mean anything when people do not follow rules, when those who violate rules get away by bribing enforcers, when the enforcers themselves are incompetent and corrupt and are often malingering, when those with influence are given special treatment, when everyone just wants to get ahead of the others without any consideration for courtesy, and when the basic structures are so limited and have not been built with the foresight to accommodate growth and expansion. And these, really, are the factors that are causing the monstrous traffic jams in Metro Manila.

We are being told—conditioned is actually the more apt term—that the traffic jams we have been experiencing lately is temporary. They’ve even coined a term for it—Holiday Traffic. Even more amusing, they have come up with a scheme supposedly designed to ease “holiday traffic” by opening up side streets, calling them “Christmas Lanes.”

Nice try, really. It appears that the people concerned with designing these schemes do so while in the comfort of their air-conditioned offices. To begin with, the so-called side streets that they have assigned as Christmas lanes are not exactly traffic-free. What they have done is simply spread out the traffic jam. People won’t get stuck in Edsa for hours, they will get stuck in some side street. How do I know this? Because I rarely use Edsa, I use those darned side streets that the Metro Manila Development Authority now want to use as alternative lanes. They are less congested than Edsa, but I guess not for long now that they have been assigned as Christmas lanes.

The authorities have also come up with this brilliant scheme to impose vehicle reduction on mass transport systems such as jeepneys and buses. I am not really sure the problem is that there are more jeepneys and buses on the road because God knows there doesn’t seem to be any when one desperately needs them. But I do know this for a fact: If drivers of buses and jeepneys follow traffic rules, display courtesy and some—just a little bit—of proactive thinking on the road, traffic wont be as bad, really.

Jeepneys cause traffic because they stop anywhere they want (most often in the middle of the road), and use the streets as terminals. On Vito Cruz, for example, traffic is always bad because the jeepneys use the street as parking area and terminal and leave only one lane for moving vehicles to pass through.

As far as buses are concerned, the problem is not that there are too many of them. I think that bus operators would not be stupid to continue fielding their buses if there are not enough passengers that would patronize them. I used to take buses in the eighties and the nineties and boy, we had to run after them, get squeezed inside like sardines, and in general endure the many aggravations that come with having just a few buses on the road. The problem really is that we don’t have an efficient system to manage passenger buses on the road. Bayani Fernando did try to put in place some innovative programs but I guess he really didn’t have the support of everyone.

The problem is that we have too many bus drivers who shouldn’t be driving. Bus drivers are particularly notorious for causing monstrous traffic jams. Just one bus stuck in the middle of Edsa near Guadalupe Makati for five minutes, trying to get back into a yellow lane, can cause a traffic jam that would extend all the way to Buendia!

In fact, this was what happened just last Saturday afternoon. We were on our way to Quezon City. We turned left to Edsa from the Buendia flyover to find ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam. Thirty minutes after, we discovered the cause of the jam: Buses took up the inner lane reserved for private vehicles while trying to get back into the yellow lane to pick or drop off passengers at the Guadalupe area. Traffic got bad again after Boni Avenue because of the same funnel effect caused by buses who used up inner lane while trying to squeeze back into the yellow lane approaching Crossing. It was then smooth sailing all the way to Cubao where the same problem manifested itself. Where were the MMDA traffic enforcers all this time? They were nowhere to be seen.

Clearly, the traffic problem is a people management problem. First, we don’t seem to have the right people in the right jobs and this applies to traffic managers, enforcers, and drivers.

We have monstrous traffic jams because people don’t follow traffic rules and we need to understand why. Could it be that they simply do not know traffic rules? Then we need to embark on a massive re-education program for everyone who wants to apply for or renew their licenses—no exceptions. Could it be that there are structural impediments that hinder people from obeying traffic rules such as faulty traffic lights, unclear traffic signs, or even systemic problems in the road such as bottlenecks caused by some stupid traffic enforcer who has over-rode the traffic lights and went into manual mode not being aware that doing so has made traffic even worst?

We have monstrous traffic jams because quite frankly we have a breakdown of values in our streets. People just don’t give way to each other and there’s this whole obsession with just getting ahead of everyone else even if doing so blocks everybody else’s way. We have monstrous traffic jams because we have traffic enforcers who are either incompetent or corrupt, and sometimes both. Most of our traffic enforcers are not equipped to manage traffic bottlenecks from a more macro perspective.

No amount of traffic systems, vehicle reduction schemes, or even road expansion will alleviate the traffic situation unless we get our perspectives right: Traffic is caused by people. The solution has to address that basic recognition.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mindboggling

This was my column on the date indicated above.

What would you do with more than half a billion pesos? This was the question that was foremost in people’s minds in the last couple of weeks. I had my own list of stuff I would have done with the money but that’s all really wishful thinking.

The final pot reached P741million —the biggest jackpot in the history of Philippine lotto - Monday night. It was won by a single bettor who was supposed to have placed his bet in Olongapo City.

The range of reactions to the windfall that befell one person was stupefying. There were those who openly wished that person—whoever he or she is—well and hoped nothing untoward would happen to him or her. Apparently there is not a single person in this country that believes the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office can keep the winner’s identity under wraps. I know some people who felt animosity for the lucky fellow as if that person took away something that had already their names on it.

But I guess it is safe to say everyone wanted to be that person.

Seven hundred forty-one million pesos is a lot of money. I asked my grade school nephew to write the amount in full and was amused to note that he struggled with the number of zeros. And apparently, the amount is incomprehensible even to some people with college degrees. I don’t know that many Filipinos would come close to earning even ten percent of that amount in their whole lifetime.

I witnessed at least three separate conversations when people who really should know better came across as mathematical nitwits while trying to figure out what to do with all that money. The first one involved a caller and the hosts of a morning radio show; the second and third conversations involved friends. Each of the three separate conversations were about what was the best way to spend more than half a billion pesos and each of the three conversations centered around the supposed brilliant idea of dividing the whole loot among all Filipinos.

The caller and the radio show hosts were having a spirited discussion last week with the caller arguing quite passionately that the government should have stepped in already to do what should have been done immediately which, to his mind, was to divide the money equally among Filipinos. He argued that instead of the whole loot going to just one person why not distribute it among the 90 million Filipinos? He went on and on about how five million pesos could make a significant difference in the lives of each Filipino. And the hosts were agreeing enthusiastically. I wanted to call the station and save the poor guy and the radio hosts from further embarrassment because there was something obviously wrong with their computation. Five hundred million pesos divided by 90 million comes to about five pesos each, not five million pesos. They were off by a number of zeroes!

Apparently the temporary inability to do basic arithmetic was pretty common in the last few weeks. Did you hear about the many calculations of the odds at stake to win the jackpot?

Figuring out what to do with the jackpot and how to win it were apparently not the only things that sent people into a frenzy. There were speculative drivel about how it is almost impossible to win the lotto and how the PCSO, supposedly in cahoots with the corrupt officials of the previous administration, regularly rigged the results of the lotto to make it appear that someone always won the jackpot even if there were no winners. My friends at the Philippine Gaming and Marketing Corporation, the company that provides the infrastructure for the Philippine lotto, vehemently deny this allegation. But they’ve not really gone out to aggressively refute the malicious allegations because people were still betting anyway, and doing so as if there were no tomorrow.

I personally stopped betting the moment the jackpot crossed the half-a-billion mark. Not that I didn’t need the money; God knows I had a few ideas of my own about how to make the lives of a number of people happier if I won the darned jackpot. I just thought something had to done to quickly stop the jackpot from ballooning further—and the one thing I could do was to stop betting myself. Unfortunately, it seemed I represented the minority. Even our senators and Cabinet secretaries were busy betting and weaving fantasies of their own about what to do with all that money in the event they got lucky. I heard even our priests had a momentary bout with amnesia. We certainly didn’t hear from the Catholic hierarchy in the last few weeks about how the lotto was the work of the evil, didn’t we? Apparently, it was a battle they couldn’t win so they didn’t fight it.

Seriously, I hope everyone comes to his senses now that someone has effectively and finally snuffed out everyone else’s fantasies of living the great life and doing great philanthropic works.

Let’s settle the debate about whether we should put a cap on the amount of the lotto jackpot. There are pros and cons to the issue, but the argument that floored me was that one about how government should not set limits to dreams. I couldn’t believe some people actually regurgitated that line about how people should be allowed to dream big. I think we are officially in trouble when some people begin equating dreams with a game of chance where the chances of winning are miniscule. I also think that shutting down the lotto for moral reasons is a bit of an overreaction but we should be very clear about certain things: Lotto is a game of chance, it cannot and must not be held up as a viable alternative way to prosperity.

The PCSO should sternly remind lotto outlets about certain restrictions such as allowing young people to place bets. The lotto lines in the last few weeks were particularly long and I have personally passed by lotto outlets where high school students in uniform were waiting in line to place lotto bets. It is easy to imagine why high school (perhaps even elementary kids) would be enticed to place bets in the lotto; after all, everyone and his mother has been talking about it nonstop. It is even plausible that some parents passed on the idea to their children that the lotto represented a direct line to an easy and luxurious life. We need to make sure we teach our kids that they cannot pin their hopes and their futures on the lotto.

The sad thing about jackpot prizes reaching the stratosphere is that it also stretches the extent of our expectations. Now that the jackpot has breached 741 million, I guess it would have to reach new highs for it to generate the same level of excitement. Do we really want a lotto jackpot worth a billion pesos? That’s a mind-boggling amount. But then again I am sure we can all figure out many wonderful things we can do with that kind of money. What would you do with a billion pesos?