Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Women in the workplace

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

I was asked by Zontians to sit at a panel to discuss education and the job market for women at their international conference last week at the Hotel Sofitel. The main speaker at the panel was renowned advocated of women’s issues, Commission on Higher Education chairperson Patricia Licuanan. Three of us—an academician from the Ateneo de Manila University, a science and technology advocate, and myself—were asked to pick points from Licuanan’s talk and to present what we feel were the challenges facing women in the area of education and employment.

The consensus derived at the discussion was that women have indeed come a long way in their struggle to achieve equal opportunities in education and the workplace, but that a number of challenges remain.

In response to a comment from one of the participant, I (as the only male panelist and in fact the only male person in the whole room aside from the production people of the conference) made the observation that the concept of equality in education and in the workplace, particularly in the local context, needed to be defined as I didn’t think there was a clear definition of what the concept truly meant. I made the observation that cultural traditions and social norms probably needed to be taken into account in developing a framework of what gender equality really entails in the country, particularly when applied to conditions in the workplace. I was hoping that a spirited discussion on the topic would ensue but I guess it was the wrong forum and audience for the purpose.

I shared with the audience the results of a study on the anatomy of the glass ceiling conducted by Accenture (the glass ceiling is a symbolic barrier that blocks the upward mobility of women in social hierarchies). The study analyzed the existence and the “thickness” of the glass ceiling in six countries, namely, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Germany and the Philippines. Values were assigned on three dimensions: Individual, society, and company. The values measured the presence of social support on each of these three dimensions—the higher the value derived by the study, the greater the presence of obstacles or barriers that in effect contributed to the relative thickness of the glass ceiling.

According to the Accenture study, the thickness of the glass ceiling in the Philippines was more pronounced at the individual (3.4 in a scale where 6 was the highest) and company (3.8) dimensions. The values across the six countries in the individual and company dimensions were not spread out, which indicated that the glass ceiling continues to be present even among the most developed countries with individuals and companies still contributing the main sources of barriers. What was really most interesting was that the study found that the Philippines fared best among the six countries in the third dimension, which was societal support. The country attained a total value of 2.8 with Australia, Austria and Switzerland tied at second place (a far 4. 2), Germany (4.8) and finally United Kingdom (5.0).

The relatively good standing of the Philippines in the society dimension was attributed largely to the matriarchal nature of Philippine society. I also noted that the presence of many influential women thought leaders in the country was also a key factor for the presence of established social support for the issues of women at the macro level of Philippine society. It’s not accidental really that we’ve produced two women Presidents, a woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a number of highly respected women legislators and civic leaders. In contrast, most of business is still dominated by men and industries remain largely as an exclusive boys’ club, with a few exceptions.

As a result, we have been greatly successful in the area of passing key legislation designed to break institutional barriers against, provide for the distinct needs of, and put in place safeguards for, women.

For example, we were able to pass the Magna Carta for Women early this year. It is a landmark law that removes all forms of discrimination against women and provides for adequate protection and welfare benefits for women. A key provision of the bill is the provision of special leave benefit of two months leave with full pay following surgery caused by gynecological disorders for women, support services to enable women to balance their family obligations and work responsibilities, including but not limited, to the establishment of day care centers and breastfeeding stations.

Also this year, the 37-year prohibition on night work for women was lifted courtesy of RA 10151. The Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, the Solo Parents Act, and the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children are some of the other laws that supposedly ensure protection for women.

So yes, we have been very successful in hacking away at the glass ceiling in the area of societal support. The problem is that there is a wide disconnect between initiatives at the larger social level and at the level of industry and among individuals. For example, the general perception among industry is that legislation is imposed on business organizations without consideration of the costs entailed by the measures. Not that industry is not willing to shoulder the costs, just that it would be a lot better if attempts to share the costs are made, particularly by government. The issue really is that there have been very little attempt to dialogue with industry and to arrive at a more strategic framework that situates all these initiatives within a larger human resource management and development agenda that takes into account the real needs and concerns of both industry and workers – women, specifically.

For example, many of the pending legislation in congress are hodge-podge measures that provide all kinds of additional leave benefits for women—such as increasing further the number of paid maternity leaves, special leaves for spouses of overseas Filipino workers, temporary medical leave for birth-related emergencies, pre-natal leaves, family leaves so that women can take care of sick family members, etc. In fact we really should all be wondering why our legislators seem to think the whole issue of benefit for women is limited to providing extra day offs.

In general, however, the statistics and the anecdotal evidence that were presented in the forum validated what many of us already know: There are more men in the workplace, the average pay for women is slightly lower than those for men although the rate women’s rate of employment is higher than that of men’s, and that the traditional gender stereotypes about what jobs are for men and what jobs are for women continues. There are more men at the higher levels of power in industries. The glass ceiling is still there. Discrimination against women is no longer rampant, but ironically, the same measures that have been designed to protect and safeguard the rights of women in the workplace are paving the way for newer forms of discrimination.

I thought I would end by sharing another interesting bit that came up during the forum. A participant stood up to gently chide Licuanan for the continued existence of nursing schools in the country that deserve to be closed off already. Licuanan, ever the congenial diplomat, promised that CHED will continue to crack the whip. Being the only male in the forum, I figured I was allowed to be politically incorrect, so I lashed by reminding people that really, the reason why we have a surplus of nurses in the country is not because the CHED allows nursing schools to continue to operate. The reason is because parents continue to send their children to nursing schools. Sometimes we really need to get our perspectives checked: It is not government’s fault that students continue to go to nursing schools—this is a parenting issue and one that we cannot abrogate to others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Up close, not personal

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

Last Monday I wrote about my impressions of the Kadayawan Festival held in Davao City last week. The occasion also provided an opportunity for me to observe at close range the public behaviors of certain politicians who have been in the news lately.

I was actually in Davao for a conference where the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies was the honorable mayor of the City, Sara Duterte, more popularly referred to as Inday Sara (for those unfamiliar with the nuances of the Visayan culture, Inday is both an honorific and endearment title. Thus it denotes both social status and supposedly a measure of charisma). Duterte shot to national prominence a couple of months ago on account of a very public display of temper—she pummeled a sheriff in front of her constituents and in full view of television cameras who were more than happy to record every single millisecond of the incident. What triggered the incident was the sheriff’s refusal to heed the mayor’s request for a two-hour extension of the demolition of a row of shanties, which resulted in violence. The unprecedented behavior became subject of intense debate. There were those who condemned the mayor’s actions as unbefitting an elected local executive. There were those who praised her for taking up the cudgels for the poor and the lowly. I wrote about the incident in this space basically calling the behavior wrong and unjustified without necessarily condemning her motivations for doing what she did.

Duterte and I had a few minutes of interaction at the conference as we waited for our cue to enter the conference hall, as we sat next to each other at the presidential table, and later as we waited for her official car to arrive at the entrance of the Hotel. I wouldn’t say we got to know each other, but it was my first time to actually observe her up close.

Duterte arrived at the conference without a coterie of assistants although I was told there were bodyguards nearby who made themselves scarce. She was wearing a no-frills turquoise blouse, ordinary khaki slacks, and open-toed emerald shoes. Her only accessories consisted of a pair of south sea pearls on her earlobes, a plain silver watch on her wrist, and a Nokia cellular phone, which she clutched in her hand. She only wore a lipstick. She had very clear skin that glowed. The whole packaging screamed “no-nonsense person.” She was also quite soft spoken and struck me as almost shy and introverted.

She didn’t complain when people mobbed her afterwards and gamely posed for pictures like a celebrity. She wasn’t chatty, but she wasn’t snobbish either. In fact, she was quite gracious. When she learned that I would be staying on in Davao for the Kadayawan, she offered me a seat onstage at the main staging area of the festival. But for the most part, she just listened and smiled politely, nodding at conversations and making short and direct-to-the-point responses.

The mayor and I were on our way out of the hotel lobby when we bumped into Tagaytay City Mayor Maita Ejercito and her posse of city officials and assistants. Ejercito was on vacation mode, which probably explained her very casual get up of tight jeans, even tighter yellow t-shirt, huge sunglasses, and baseball cap. But the contrast in personality was very evident as the two lady mayors interacted. Ejercito was bubbly. She chatted everyone up, in the process drawing attention to herself. Duterte was calm and collected.

I had the opportunity to observe Duterte’s public demeanor during the streetdancing and the floats parade as well (I had to take up the mayor’s offer of a seat onstage after suffering for two hours on the streets crushed amidst a sea of people pushing around barricades). Whenever she had to give instructions, she would stand up and go to where an assistant was rather than calling someone to come to her. When someone started serving food, she asked the server to serve everyone else. Probably noting that she was in full view of thousands of people who were probably hungry while suffering under the intense heat of the noonday sun, she didn’t take a bite of the sandwich offered to her. She took a sip of water directly from the bottle. By the way, lugaw was served to all participants and spectators of the events—nothing fancy really, but at least they were able to serve most everyone.

On both days of the Kadayawan, she wore maong jeans and a simple collared t-shirt, pretty much the same outfit she was wearing when television cameras caught her at that most unguarded moment a couple of months ago. During a lull at the floats parade, she climbed down the stage to talk to a little girl in ordinary houseclothes who was perched on top of a makeshift scaffolding. She probably was cautioning the little girl to be careful lest she fall and injure herself. Or she was probably just bored and wanted to stretch her legs. And then she held the little girl’s hand and taught her to wave to the cameras.

People get elected into office today on the strength of visual images—how candidates come across as individuals rather than based on verbal messages or what they are actually saying. People observe behaviors and make judgments based on how the behaviors come across to them—whether the candidate is sincere, caring, aloof, motherly, etc. People want to see action, not listen to lectures. People want leaders who reach out and are seen walking the talk.

No wonder then that public perception of Sara Duterte among those who have seen the lady up close is that of a hardworking leader with a heart that beats for the masses. Listening to many Davaoenos’ interpretation of that pummeling incident was very insightful—most thought it was wrong, but it seems everyone was in agreement that what she did was commendable because it showed the extent of her commitment to fight for the poor. If elections were held in Davao today, Duterte would definitely win hands down.

How can one argue with perception? Truly, there is immense power in body language and visual packaging. And either Duterte is operating from sincerity and therefore behaving naturally or she has mastered the craft of impression management.

There are many things we can learn from the Sara Duterte phenomenon, foremost of which is that people are hungry for strong leadership and are grateful when they witness manifestations of such. One can only wish our national leaders are listening.

Politics, the nauseating kind, was centerstage at the Kadayawaan as well. Senator Chiz Escudero and former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri were guests of honor during the streetdancing competition and they were asked to say a few words of greetings to the people of Davao City. Escudero very wisely kept his remarks brief and limited himself to greeting everyone and wishing the people of Davao a meaningful and relevant celebration of the Kadayawan. Unfortunately, Zubiri chose to go into full campaign mode. He used the occasion to once again explain why he resigned as senator basically indulging in shameless self-promotion talking about his virtues as a person of integrity, honor, and honesty. And then he went into full sipsip (apple polishing) mode and talked about his closeness to the Duterte family.

The people around me started muttering about how the festival was being cheapened by Zubiri’s politicking. I got the feeling people were about to start hissing but mercifully, Zubiri remembered his manners and shut up.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Notes on the Kadayawan

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

Climate change—and its profound impact—was an issue that was palpable all throughout the celebration of the Kadayawan festival over the weekend in Davao City.

I was in Davao City for a conference, which luckily for me, coincided with the celebration of what is dubbed as the “king of festivals” (what can I say, even the various festivals in the country have to have their own advertising taglines nowadays). Secretary Lualhati Antonino of the Mindanao Development Authority was asked to speak at the conference about the business outlook for the island and she devoted a considerable amount of time talking about the impact of climate change on a land that is mostly agricultural. She eventually talked about her pet project to save the environment, which I hope to write about in the near future.

Of all industries, it is agriculture that is probably affected the most by climate change. Plants suffer the most from prolonged droughts or excessive rainfall. Harvests are likewise affected when the seasons are delayed or come early.

The annual Kadayawan festival is supposed to be a celebration of life, a thanksgiving for the gifts of nature, the wealth of culture, the bounties of harvest and the serenity of living. The festival is supposed to showcase the best of Mindanao—the whole island, after all, has been blessed with fertile land and weather that’s very conducive for agriculture. In case people don’t know, Mindanao has been practically feeding the rest of the country for many years now. Almost a hundred percent of the high-grade pineapples, papayas and bananas that Filipinos eat come from Mindanao. A sizable percentage of vegetables as well as rice are also produced in Mindanao.

Around this time of the year, the streets of Davao normally start to get flooded with the various bounties of nature, the harvest season reaching its peak sometime September. In previous celebrations everyone would have his or her fill of durian, marang, rambutan, mangosteen as these fruits were practically given away because of oversupply. For example, my cousins told me that around the same time last year, the sweet pungent smell of durian enveloped the city—everyone had durian at home because it was being sold dirt cheap at P15 a kilo. And one didn’t have to walk a distance to find a fruit stand as vendors were everywhere. Last week, durian could only be found at certain parts of the city and they were quite expensive—the going rate was around P85 a kilo. Some said that this was because the harvest season had been delayed; others claimed that the harvest this year was not as bountiful.

Climate change has messed up nature’s production cycle. The weather in Davao City used to be very predictable; almost like clockwork. When I was growing up in this city, large parts of the metropolitan didn’t have a water system because it rained every single day—and the rains would not be so heavy, just enough to water the plantations and to enable households to have water for their daily needs. Each household collected rainwater and stored these in cisterns. We were told that the weather in the last six months had been characterized by too much rain. A typhoon even hovered around the island, something that has not happened in decades as the island is usually not along the path of typhoons. Certain parts of Mindanao even got flooded, something completely unheard of in this island of mountains.

Davao City is supposed to enjoy balmy weather this time of the year, which is why the Kadayawan is scheduled in August. Well, the weather was particularly unpredictable last week —it was scorching hot at daytime and heavy rains poured in the afternoons and evenings. The uncooperative weather made the staging of activities scheduled in the evenings very difficult. Fortunately, the mall culture has arrived in Davao City so activities scheduled inside the many malls were impervious to climate change. But then again, the Kadayawan was supposed to be a celebration of and by the people and meant to be staged on the streets and the many public places of the city.

The issue of climate change also found its way to the two major events of the Kadayawan festival—the streetdancing competition and the parade of floats as the various participating groups inevitably found a way to include the environmental phenomenon in their productions.

Of these two major events of the Kadayawan, the one that usually gets a lot of media attention is the parade of floats that majestically roll down the designated route. This year, the floats were—as usual—a sight to behold proving once again that Filipino ingenuity is unparalleled. What makes the Kadayawan floats parade unique and marvelous is that the floats are truly a showcase of the Mindanaoan’s rich cultural heritage as well as nature’s bounty in terms of fruits and flowers.

One wishes, though, that the same commitment to celebrate and sustain local tribal color and culture were also prevalent in the streetdancing competition. Alas, this was not the case.

Although the various contingents that participated in the Indak Indak sa Kadalanan (merrymaking in the streets) tried to present local color and culture, one couldn’t help but notice how the gaya gaya (copycat) and the bongga (over the top) phenomena has stifled creativity and diluted the essence of the festival, which was to showcase the unique culture of the various Davao and Mindanao tribes.

To be honest about it, the only thing that differentiated the various Kadayawan performing contingents from say, the groups that participate in the other major festivals such as the Sinulog or the Panagbenga, were the costumes of the performers. The performers still wore tinalak and various indigenous weaves and colors but even these have not been spared contemporary influences. I was dismayed to note for example that some contingents wore leggings and had costumes that had embroideries rather than intricate beadings.

The production elements of the various contingents seemed to veer towards making a bongga statement rather than showcase authentic and indigenous sounds and movements. All of the contingents featured the same tired production contraptions such as moveable props that were transformed into risers and backdrops. Anyone who expected to witness authentic movements that called to mind the grace, skill and balance that characterize indigenous dances of the various tribes around Davao were in the wrong place it seemed. In fact, the movements were more of the Showtime and Eat Bulaga variety with lots of head and leg throws, shoulder contractions, and acrobatic drills coupled with a lot of shouting a la Ati-atihan.

Most of the contingents also relied on huge drums that produced ear-shattering beats rather than the melodious cacophony of gongs and brass instruments. Many of the contingents even featured, believe it or not, bugles and xylophones! The only thing that was missing in the whole extravaganza was giant images of the Santo NiƱo and it could have been the Sinulog.

I am not knocking down the Kadayawan because truly, we need such extravaganzas to nurture local indigenous culture. But we really need to make an effort to ensure that such festivals do not degenerate into a mere pabonggahan contest, where cheap tricks take the place of artistry and where local culture is lost in the mad frenzy of commercial styling. We need to rethink the essence of these festivals and ensure that these remain true to the task of preserving our rich cultural heritage.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Postscripts to a resignation

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

Parts of this piece were written two weeks ago. However, I didn’t submit it for publication immediately because as you will discover, my reaction to Juan Miguel Zubiri’s resignation as senator was not really nice. Iit bordered on disgust, and I didn’t want to rain on the parade the senator organized for himself. Although I knew it was going to be a Herculean task, I wanted to try to keep an open mind. I tried to see the silver lining that some people kept chirping about. I truly wanted to give Zubiri the benefit of the doubt. I even tried to empathize with the melodramatic posturing of the Zubiri womenfolk.

Unfortunately, his resignation rankled because it dripped of hypocrisy.

He thundered pompously in his farewell speech: “Without admitting any fault and with my vehement denial of the alleged electoral fraud hurled against me, I am submitting my resignation as a duly elected Senator of the Republic of the Philippines in the election for which I am falsely accused without mercy and compassion.”

Without mercy and compassion? Oh please. He sat as senator for four years, wielded the full powers of the office, and enjoyed the full benefits due him as an elected national official despite nagging questions about the legitimacy of his supposed victory. Not that I wished that somebody did, but nobody pelted him with eggs and tomatoes, poured water all over himself, or even berated him publicly as a cheat. Did he expect people to thank him profusely for sitting as senator for four years despite damning proof that he wasn’t the rightful winner of that post? If anything, he was treated with utmost courtesy and respect. What the heck was he whining about?

Zubiri continued: “I am resigning because of these unfounded accusations against me and these issues have systematically divided our nation have (cast) doubts in our electoral system which has affected not only myself, this Institution, but the public as well.”

I don’t want to nitpick on the awful sentence construction. I do want to point out to Zubiri, though, that while we don’t think it is something we should be crowing about, our electoral system is precisely faulty and prone to irregularities. The system has been the subject of intense doubt for the longest time. Let’s stop deluding ourselves that politicians don’t cheat; that they don’t violate election rules; that they don’t buy votes. Our electoral system is beyond bad and the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can fix it. And it certainly won’t get fixed as long as politicians who are proclaimed winners continue to insist that they have no knowledge of the problems or of the cheating that happens.

I didn’t expect Zubiri to admit guilt and publicly beg for forgiveness. But he could have been a little less sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing particularly since he was aiming for some brownie points.

I didn’t buy the whole emotional charade. Okay, so I am not exactly a fan of Zubiri – but I don’t dislike the man either. It is possible I am simply a cynical fool who can’t see sincerity even if it was packaged with a lot of caterwauling and chest thumping. It’s possible that I simply have very high mistrust for the antics of politicians. But there’s a limit to how much hypocrisy I can stand. Even more important, there is a limit to how much crap I can take part in, particularly if it defies logic and reason.

To my mind, what happened was pretty obvious. The resignation wasn’t the great sacrifice that Zubiri’s handlers wanted to project it to be. Perhaps we can credit the man for fortitude – I am sure there were many people who tried to dissuade him from resigning the post. But the resignation didn’t strike me as an act of great courage. Courage requires confronting one’s fears and weaknesses in the pursuit of a greater good; it requires moral clarity and quality.

I am willing to concede though, that the resignation could be interpreted as an act of decency. Given the mounting evidence that Koko Pimentel was the rightful winner, giving up the post was the decent thing to do.

People have made a big deal out of the fact that Zubiri could have dribbled the ball for another two years when the term of office of the senatorial seat was up. He didn’t have to resign, they say. I disagree. Zubiri had to sacrifice short-term consequences for long-term gains.

Had Zubiri chosen to stay on as senator despite the damning accusations of the likes of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan and former Maguindanao election supervisor Lintang Bedol—which, by the way somehow make sense of the incredible results of the elections in Maguindanao —there was great probability that he wouldn’t survive, at least politically, the onslaught of condemnation and denunciation. It was really just a matter of time before someone came up with more and more damning evidence. The noose was tightening.

Zubiri’s resignation was simply an act of self-preservation; it was a face-saving gesture. I firmly believe that Zubiri resigned because it was the only way he could save his political career. It was a cunning political strategy designed to elicit public sympathy and win sympathy points from the electorate. Simply put, Zubiri resigned because he had no other choice—that is, if he still wanted to run for national office. He made the best of a lousy situation.

It would be unfair for anyone to categorically say that Zubiri was complicit in the cheating. However, it is difficult to imagine a beneficiary not being aware of machinations designed to benefit him; at least not in the scale and magnitude that we saw in the 2004 elections. But this is another story that continues to unravel.

More than just knocking Zubiri, I do want to point out in this belated piece our penchant for proclaiming people as heroes for dubious actions. Zubiri was hailed by certain sectors mainly for resigning his post—a post that was never his in the first place. It’s the same as hailing thieves for giving their victims fare money after they have divested them of their valuables.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A splendid production

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

Someone once told me that there are no coincidences in life; that everything happens for a specific reason. So perhaps it was destined that on the same week that the Cultural Center of the Philippines was forced to close down its Main Gallery where Mideo Cruz’s art installation Poleteismo was on exhibit, the two cultural productions that were onstage could also be interpreted as scathing commentaries on religious or clerico-fascism.

Showing at the Little Theatre until August 28 is the musical adaptation of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (music by Ryan Cayabyab, libretto by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, costume design by National Artist Salvador Bernal, direction by Audie Gemora). Everybody in this country knows what the Noli is about and its role in inspiring a revolution against the abuses of Spanish friars and the subsequent call for freedom against all kinds of oppression including religious.

We are celebrating this year the 150th birthday of the national hero. Isn’t it tragic that more than a century after the publication of the Noli, time we’re still seeing vestiges of clerico-fascism operating in this country and that there continues to be far too many Padre Damasos among us?

Also showing over the weekend was Ballet Philippines’ restaging of Encantada, Agnes Locsin’s dance masterpiece. The ballet production bravely takes on a more encompassing form of spirituality showcasing various local myths, traditions, and rituals. However, an integral part of the plot, which provides a crucial element of conflict, is religious oppression and yes, obsessive worship of religious icons and the lengths to which misplaced sense of outrage could lead to disastrous consequences.

In Encantada, a rebel Indio becomes disgusted with the unabated oppression of the people by the religious Frailes. In a fit of rage, he steals a bejeweled icon of the Virgin Mary. The subsequent pursuit leads him to the mountains where the Encantada strips the icon of its jeweled crown and elaborate trappings and enshrines it among her various anitos. When the guardias civil eventually catch up with the indio deep in the Encantada’s mountain sanctuary after an orgy of beheading of suspected rebels and thieves, they are more concerned with the accoutrements of the icon rather than the icon itself.

If this sounds familiar, it is because there are parallels that can be drawn with the recent hullabaloo over the art installation Poleteismo, which was a commentary on icon worship. Truly, it is very easy for people to confuse spirituality and faith with the trappings of idolatry. It is easy to assassinate other people and their work just because they do not conform to the established norms of what faith should be and its many subjective interpretations.

But there is more to Encantada than misplaced icon worship.

It is a neo-ethnic modern dance, a fact that I feel compelled to emphasize because I am aware that there are far too many people in this country who are allergic to classical ballet. When I sounded off the idea of watching a Ballet Philippines production to some of my “younger” friends, I could literally read in their faces their aversion to watching dancers traipsing about daintily in tight costumes accompanied by music produced by classical string instruments.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with classical ballet, of course; just that we would all be better off if only we opened our minds to various possibilities and the many variations of artistic expression—in this particular case, that art and ballet productions can appeal to all kinds of audiences. The dancers in Encantada don’t even wear ballet shoes all throughout the production; they wear stylized ethnic costumes, and dance to beats and ethnic sounds and music composed performed live by the magnificent Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad and by Bayang Barrios. Encantada also call to mind familiar movements from various local rituals and festivals.

In Encantada, Agnes Locsin fused together classical ballet techniques with stylized Filipino ethnic movements. The results are breathtaking as the audience is treated to a wonderful stylized reinterpretation of various ethnic rituals and movements. The guardias civil, for instance, reinterpret movements from the Moriones and even wear masks that remind the audience of the famed Marinduque festival. Various dances called to mind movements from a variety of ethnic groups from the Igorot to the Bogobo tribes.

The brilliance of Locsin (choreographer), Al Santos (lyricist and librettist), Paul Alexander Morales (BP Artistic Director), and Joey Ayala is evident in this production. The dazzling tapestry of colors, movements and sounds was almost stupefying we didn’t notice that we had spent almost two hours watching the whole production.

Filipino artists are truly among the best in the world, and Encantada is unmistakable proof of that. Here we have an artistic masterpiece that successfully and seamlessly blends together seemingly disparate elements of our cultural heritage.

We trooped to the CCP Saturday night simply expecting to be entertained. We came out of the main theater of the CCP with our mouths agape and with the insane drive to compel all our friends and acquaintances to catch the last performances of Encantada. Had there been a television crew waiting for us at the doors, we would have gladly paid to scream to our hearts content: “Ang ganda ganda! Panoorin nyo! Sobrang Galing!” (Splendid production, watch it, unparalleled artistry!).

Unfortunately, we weren’t watching a trifling Star Cinema movie and the CCP is not exactly ABS-CBN, which never had any qualms about deploying the might of its public affairs crew in the service of its cheap commercial ventures. Where oh where are our media people when truly artistic productions break new grounds that deserve support?

To the credit of the artistic community, the CCP Main Theatre was full last Saturday evening, which was quite unusual for a BP production.

This column salutes Ballet Philippines and the CCP for the courage and commitment to present artistic productions such as Encantada that truly enables and ennobles Filipinos everywhere to feel immeasurable pride and joy.

Let us continue to rally around the CCP particularly at a time like this when narrow-mindedness and political interests seem poised to strangle the spirit that enables it to flourish and continue its mandate: Strengthening the soul of the Filipino people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A test of faith

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

I got caught up over the weekend in a really emotional discussion about “Polytheism,” the art installation currently on display until August 21 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It was a lopsided discussion, with me being the sole person who had an “open mind” about the art installation.

As can be expected, the discussion really didn’t turn out well with two of my friends taking “personal offense” at several issues: First, at what they believed was a blasphemous attack on their faith; Second, at the seeming disrespect for the sensitivities and feelings of many—not all, certainly—Catholics who have made their objections to the art installation; and third, at the blanket denunciation of their inability to see things from a wider, more-encompassing and inclusive perspective.

I was sorely tempted to get personal as well; enough to mention that among everyone present in that discussion I was the only one who actually went to Church every Sunday, read the Bible, went to Baclaran every Wednesday, and did community work in my parish. I was also the one who didn’t mock the hysterical reactions of some people including those who prayed the rosary and sang religious hymns at the CCP complex over the weekend. Not that all these made me the better Christian—I happen to think that becoming one was a lifelong process rather than something that one acquired through blind obedience to dogma—just that one wishes that in heated situations such as the ones we find ourselves in today, people would try not to cast aspersions on other people’s faith and motivations and that everyone would make an effort to see beyond their own blinders and prejudices.

I do respect the views and feelings of my friends and others who think the art installation showing a collage of various images of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary juxtaposed with a movable wooden penis, a pink condom, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty, United States President Barack Obama, among others, blasphemous and well, disgusting and grotesque. I don ft begrudge them the right to rile about the art installation. By all means, they should be allowed to speak their minds, lambast the installation and the artist, and even the CCP. They are perfectly within their rights if they demand that the installation, which they deem offensive, be taken down. They can mount protests, demonstrations, and scream their hearts out.

But what they must acknowledge, too, is that nobody has the monopoly of truth, wisdom, and freedom. Respect is a two-way street and the whole essence of democracy is precisely that we may not agree with what other people have to say but we should protect their right to say them.

I always cringe when people trundle out the argument that freedom is not absolute, using it as the rationale for saying that anything that offends them should be taken down as if the righteousness of their demand exempts them from the application of the same truism that they are fighting for. They forget that, in this particular case, the artist, the CCP and the people who have rallied around the cause of artistic expression have the same rights and freedoms that they have – that their freedom is not absolute as well.

Freedom is not absolute, yes, which is why no one is stopping them from expressing their anger and their outrage. And if they think they have grounds to do so, they are most welcome to go to court and seek all manner of redress.

A number of people have taken the CCP board to task for allowing the exhibit to be mounted. What people don ft or refuse to acknowledge is that as the vanguard of artistic expression in the country, the CCP would have failed in its most important mandate had it not allowed the exhibit to be mounted. Freedom of expression is unfortunately a concept that is not open to compromise. The long-term consequences of censorship are far more damaging. The very essence of that freedom is respect for those you despise or don ft like. Freedom is not applied to things we like or agree with but precisely for those we are deeply uncomfortable with. Put another way, freedom of expression exists precisely to protect those that offend us.

And contrary to what Imelda Romualdez Marcos thinks, art is not always about the true, the good, and the beautiful. We would all be doing culture a disservice if we limit our appreciation of art to those that make our hearts soar with joy. Art is also meant to provoke, to disturb, to draw out complex emotions from spectators.

What about morality, people ask. There are those who have condemned the art installation for its gblasphemous h and gdisgusting h images and stop there, dismally failing to see through the powerful implications of the images in terms of preaching morality. Oh please, don ft we all use negative characterizations to preach what is right and moral? Our soap operas, plays, and movies rely on the sheer evil of antagonists to deliver powerful messages of redemption. We tell our kids stories of the big bad wolf and of the evil stepsisters to illustrate the power of positive values by contrast. Why can ft we draw parallels in this particular case? Just because something is disgusting and disturbing doesn ft mean it cannot be moral.

The artist, Mideo Cruz, has repeatedly said that he intended the installation to be a commentary on icon worship. gI just hope that when we look at something, the process doesn ft stop at the surface, h he said.

I must admit that I also found the exhibit gdisturbing. h Did the art installation have to be so? Artistic expression is deeply personal and artists use their art to express a specific point of view or message including, yes, gdisgusting g thoughts and emotions, which incidentally are still considered normal. Very often, such an approach is more effective in arousing curiosity and in provoking people into confronting their own feelings and points of views. In this context, the art installation in question works.

This is my personal take on the art installation and this may not be scholarly enough for many, but my discomfort helped me examine my own faith. It is a sad commentary of the times we live in that people have taken icon worship to absurd extremes. For instance, haven ft we all seen religious icons dressed up like dolls, for example, images of the Santo Nino made to appear like policemen, fishermen, even in the image of German Moreno the showman? I fve come across icons of the Virgin Mother dressed up like contestants in a beauty contest, even holding up political slogans and peddling commercial products. Why are saints dressed up in finery and adorned with jewels despite the fact that they lived in utmost poverty and died for their faith? The art installation takes things to extremes to bring home the message – it is art, for crying out loud, no less different from a play shot through with absurd imagery and over-the-top metaphors and symbolism.

I have learned by viewing the exhibit that faith is strongest when put to the test. The icons that we revere are mere representations of the Supreme Being that we worship. When one fs faith is strong and resolute, provocation in the form of disgusting images can only strengthen it further rather than weaken it.

The tragedy is that we live in a country where gfreedom, h gtolerance h and grespect for diversity h are mere theoretical concepts that are embraced only when these suit one fs comfort zone and never in situations when their application would truly matter.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A series of unfortunate events

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

Before August 3, 2011, Christopher Lao lived a normal existence. He lived a relatively quiet life as just one among us ordinary mortals. He was simply a guy trying hard to balance the many demands of being a law student, frantically reviewing for the Bar exams, being a husband and a father. On that fateful Wednesday, he was just a motorist trying to get to someplace else when forces of man and nature threw him a challenge that unfortunately didn’t turn out to be an opportunity for him to showcase his better side. He tried to maneuver his car across a flooded street, got hopelessly caught in the floodwaters. To add to the aggravation, had his misfortune recorded by a television reporter who serendipitously happened to be in the same place at the same time.

Nobody really knew what triggered the outburst that made him an instant Internet sensation - probably embarrassment, helplessness, fury, rising sense of futility. The poor guy snapped. He ranted against situation.

The video that has become viral showed the Lao blaming everyone – the Metro Manila Development Authority traffic enforcers for not warning people that the road was already impassable, the bystanders for not showing concern for another fellow citizen (there were people on the street, including enterprising ruffians out to make a quick buck on the misfortunes of others, who watched him drive his car through the floodwaters and rushed to push his car out of the mess only when it started to float), etc.

“I should have been informed. They should have blocked the road. Did you guys even tell me? Did anyone tell me? It’s like people were waiting for somebody to just do that? Bakit ako? (Why me?).” The guy’s rant seemed inordinately unreasonable and incomprehensible, and okay, I must admit hilarious. Why blame everyone else for something that seemed commonsensical, why demand to be informed of something that seemed pretty obvious? But then again, we must note that the guy was giving vent to an emotional outburst. It was a classic variation of the road rage phenomenon. And the television crew ganged up on him just as he was getting out of his car, just seconds after what must have been a terrifying incident for him. Come on, the hapless guy went through a harrowing experience; surely he wasn’t expected to come out of it smiling and spewing words of wisdom.

If we really come to think about it, the guy’s outburst was something that was not really out of the ordinary. It was no different from the helpless flailing around that Jose de Venecia did when he was ousted as Speaker of the House by his peers a few years ago. Certainly no different from the legendary bursts of temper that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would succumb to at various occasions when she was president.

We’ve all had that moment at various stages in our lives. I have personally given vent to anger when I got stranded in rising floodwaters a few years ago – I cursed, kicked my car, snapped at bystanders who seemed to have found my embarrassing predicament a matter deserving of public commentary. The problem in Lao’s case was that a microphone and a television camera were shoved in his face at the exact moment when his fury was peaking.

It could have been an occasion for others to show empathy; he could have been given a few moments to compose himself, but alas, the television reporter seemed more concern about “doing his job” as a media person than being a human being.

I am sure the guys at GMA 7 would find justification for their actions, but something must be said about media’s increasing penchant for intruding into people’s most private moments, when people are most vulnerable; seemingly driven by nothing else other than the need to present human interest stories at its rawest, most dramatically intense form.

I strongly disagree with the assertion of Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (supposedly a media watchdog) that Lao was primarily a victim of social media excess more than being a victim of the lack of journalism ethics. The CMFR practically absolved GMA by saying that the network couldn’t have known that its reportage would create that kind of uproar. Oh please, if GMA 7 provided a better context to the whole incident and gave Lao a few more moments to compose himself and think through the situation more rationally, all these would not have come to pass.

The fact is that media have become quite notorious for focusing reportage on moments of intense grief such as at the very instance when families of victims of tragedies are informed that they have lost a loved one. Reporters shove microphones at people’s faces at the worst possible moments such as when they are in the throes of extreme emotions—anger, grief, mortification, shame, etc. News reports always tend to highlight confrontations and even stage scenes where victims physically attack those accused of victimizing them. Certain television shows even distinguish themselves for catching people in the most embarrassing and humiliating situations under the guise of investigative reporting. I could go on and on but you get the drift.

Of course Lao could have handled the situation in a more mature way. He didn’t have to blame everyone else so publicly. He could have admitted culpability and charged the whole incident to a lapse in judgment. But hindsight is always 20/20 and the tragedies that happen to other people are always logical to others who are in a position to view the events from a more objective perspective. So all these discussions about what he could have done, what he ought to have done, what he should have said are all academic and irrelevant, and yes, cruel and unfair.

Having said that, what can we then make of the thousands of people who criticized Lao in various social media for his outburst? If we can find in our hearts to empathize with Lao, I think we can also extend the same to everyone else who responded to the incident from a visceral level.

We are all still struggling with the social media phenomenon and the absence of norms has given way to excesses and indiscriminate use of the platform. What we can do is help teach others and contribute to a more enlightened discussion that could pave the way towards more responsible use of the medium, not contribute to propagating a culture of hating, blaming, and judging.

Some people have labeled the Lao bashing that is happening in various social media as cyberbullying. Are half-formed opinions and hasty responses to an emerging dialogue indicative of cyberbullying? I think that we should be able to distinguish gut-level reactions that people make in social networking sites from deliberate, repeated, and malicious attacks meant to harm other people. Certainly, many of the attacks directed at Lao in some social networking sites indicative of cyberbullying. But overall, I think we can all hold off our horses and give allowances to everyone else for indulging in “conversations” that unfortunately, people forget are being made in public.

I do agree that people should be more careful and judicious when making commentary about others’ behaviors. I certainly take exceptions to the indiscriminate efforts of certain people to drag the University of the Philippines (where Lao studied Law) into the fray—someone with lots of time in his or her hands even took the pains of tweaking an Adolf Hitler movie making it appear as if the despot was ridiculing Lao for bringing shame to UP.

But even Lao has publicly apologized for his lapse of judgment. In so many words, he has vowed to turn the whole unfortunate series of events as a learning experience, hopefully enabling him to become a better person. We should all take the cue from there. Hopefully, we could also learn from the experience and become better persons because of it. Blaming everyone else is indicative of the very same mistake Lao is being taken to task for.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Poisoned blood

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

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic by focusing on this piece of news that some dailies picked up over the weekend, but it’s a piece of news that is quite alarming for many reasons.

The Department of Health has revealed over the weekend that 32 out of 118 donated blood packs—that’s 27 percent of blood donations made to the national blood donation program last month—tested positive for HIV. The results were confirmed by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, which acts as the country’s main research and laboratory center for HIV/AIDS.

Let me be very clear about this though: I do not think that we should start worrying about possible HIV infections from blood transfusions sourced from the blood donation program of the DOH. This should not be the cause of alarm.

If we really come to think about it, that piece of news validates something that should assuage our fears: The government is doing a good job in terms of screening the blood supply in the country. Let’s not start panicking over the safety of blood sourced from the blood donation program.

I can understand why many people would be worried. Blood transfusion was one of the first routes of HIV transmission in the past, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic when the HIV test was relatively inaccessible. But science has progressed considerably since then and screening of blood for HIV and for other diseases has become mandatory in most countries including the Philippines. Theoretically —and there is no reason to suspect otherwise—the blood supply in the country remains safe.

The fact that 27 percent of blood donations tested positive for HIV, however, is worrisome. It is unlikely that all the 32 donated blood packs last month came from the same source. While I would caution against drawing direct correlations and making generalizations based purely on the specific data on hand, the increasing incidence of blood donations that tested for HIV is indicative of the growing number of HIV infections in this country. Not that we need further validation of the increasing number of HIV infections in this country, anyway. All the experts on HIV/AIDS have been saying the same thing in the last 12 months—we are facing a crisis and we need to wake up and do something about it. Unfortunately, our leaders do not seem to be listening.

I don’t want to be alarmist about it, but when a sizable percentage of blood donated to the national blood program start testing positive for HIV, then we are truly in deep trouble. It can only mean one thing—the infections are spreading fast and across demographics.

I am worried though that people who are a position to do something would react in ways that would exacerbate the problem. The last thing that we need today is to go into a wild chase to find people living with HIV. There is a great probability that people who donate blood to the national blood program are not even aware that they are living with HIV. I know what many are thinking – why not prescribe mandatory testing so that we can identify those who need to be “watched.” Unfortunately, mandatory testing is not a wise solution because it takes the virus six months, on average, to be detected by the test. The last thing that we need is to start the cycle of blaming all over again. We shouldn’t be blaming certain sectors of society for the fact that the percentage of HIV-infected blood is increasing—obviously it’s mirroring the trend of HIV infections in the general population.

Keeping the blood supply safe is of paramount importance and the best way to ensure that this remains so is by educating people about risky behaviors and by encouraging people to assess their own vulnerabilities to HIV. And of course, the government should continue to be vigilant in terms of screening blood donations for HIV and other viruses.

But the more effective long-term solution is really to put in place more aggressive efforts in HIV/AIDS prevention. The really sad truth is that HIV/AIDS prevention programs in this country are on a virtual standstill because resources for such programs are hopelessly tied up in bureaucratic wrangling. Most non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention have folded up because of non-availability of resources for their programs. It’s really tragic that the rise in the incidences of HIV/AIDS infections has not been matched with commensurate level of response by government.


President Aquino’s second State-of-the-Nation Address delivered the other Monday was pulled together by the wang-wang (siren) metaphor, which he introduced during his inaugural speech last year by pompously intoning: “Walang wang-wang (No more sirens)!”

Aquino has staked his presidency on a platform of moral reform. Before wang-wang, there was daang matuwid (straight path), which has since then been dropped unceremoniously. Many people presume it’s because people have been openly complaining about how the straight and narrow path has so far lacked a specific—not to mention inspiring and desired—destination.

And so we’ve been left with the wang-wang metaphor. It’s not a bad one, actually. In fact, it is one metaphor that has mass appeal. It creates a vivid mental picture in one’s mind. Being annoyed at individuals who use sirens to flaunt their authority on the road, wantonly violate traffic rules, and show utter lack of concern for others is something many motorists could relate to. Thus, the use of wang-wang to represent abuse of authority was an inspired idea.

But I am not sure “isip wangwang (siren mentality)” will catch on as the new buzzword the way “utak talangka (crab mentality)” has become deeply ingrained in our culture. The wang-wang is not exactly a universal symbol. In rural Philippines, the lack of wang-wang is in fact a real problem —whether they are attached to ambulances, police vehicles, or fire trucks. There are places in this country where people haven’t seen a vehicle with a siren. Knocking sirens unilaterally may be counterproductive in the long run although in general, I think that this country could use fewer sirens.

I must admit, though, that I’ve always felt ambivalent towards the choice of the wang-wang metaphor because of a more basic reason. Sure, we have partially done away with wangwangs on our thoroughfares, but that doesn’t mean people in power don’t flaunt their authority on the road anymore. “Wala ngang wangwang, may hawi naman.” We may have done away with sirens but police escorts continue to sweep vehicles on the road so that some government factotum could pass through traffic unhampered by ordinary mortals.

Let’s make no bones about this— certain government officials still act like they own our roads; their police escorts certainly make it known to everyone. It can be argued that at least they do it discreetly but nobody can certainly claim that abuse of power is no longer practiced in our country.

Monday, August 01, 2011

An exhaustible source of magic

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

It all ends. This was the main blurb—and the whole essence—of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which opened in theaters worldwide the other week. This movie had farewell written all over it and did so with a flourish.

The movie brought to an end a phenomenon that has preoccupied billions of people for almost two decades now. Harry Potter is considered the most successful franchise in history. The mere wait for all seven books to come out one after the other was already a major story in itself worth telling and retelling—I know quite a number of people who counted the days and the hours for each of the book to be released.

As can be expected, the making and the subsequent release of each of the eight movies were also widely anticipated.

Thus, the reverential attention to Harry Potter and the Death Hallows Part 2, at least among loyal muggles (non-magical creatures; and if you needed the translation, it means you didn’t read the books), was understandable. When I brought my caboodle of kids, nephews and nieces —ages ranging from 7 to 28— to watch the movie the other weekend, the occasion was ripe with significance; it was like the culmination of a pilgrimage. One nephew said it was bittersweet occasion, like saying goodbye to a dear childhood friend who was moving on to a better place.

I’ve said this before and I am going to say it again: I have great admiration for JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, for singlehandedly accomplishing what thousands of other writers have failed to do, which was encourage children to read books once again by opening a magical world for them to get lost in. As a parent and teacher, I’ve been fighting this almost losing battle to get younger members of my clan as well as my students to read, read, read. I know there are people with intellectual pretensions who turn their noses up at the Harry Potter series pointing out that the series is not literature nor stimulating enough; I would love it if kids read Huckleberry Finn but I would be happy if they just read, period.

Besides, I think that it is a great idea to get kids to read about magic and sorcery and wands and dragons and invisible cloaks. It’s what childhood is about—wonder and dreams. I personally grow up reading and rereading King Arthur, Beowulf, and yes, The Lord of the Rings and I firmly believe the hours and hours I spent imagining my own make-believe world were largely responsible for many of my adult competencies. Still another digression: I would rather, if it were an option, that kids read about dragons and spells than about vain bloodsucking creatures with insatiable lust.

Anyway. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was obviously designed as a form of closure for people who followed the adventures of Potter and his friends from the magical world and therefore know the context and backstory behind each character. Thus, people who haven’t read the books would most likely get lost in the complications of the hunt for horcruxes (objects that held shards of Voldermort’s soul) and the tangled personal histories of Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape. A friend of mine who has not read the books whined that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the storyline; he found the movie convoluted.

I have only one thing to say to these people who keep on complaining about how the Harry Potter movies are incomprehensible: There are very few short cuts in life, so just find the time to read the books if you really want to understand the whole phenomenon. You can’t judge something based on hearsay. Besides, it would have been impossible to cram the whole storyline that spanned seven relatively thick tomes into eight movies.

In fact, many of the characters that played key roles in the whole series have been reduced to brief cameo appearances. Great actors Emma Thompson (the loony astrology professor Sybil Trelawney, Gary Oldham (Potter’s godfather Sirius Black), Robbie Coltrane (Hogwarts gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid), Warwick Davis (goblin/wizard charms master) and the rest were still there, but their screen presence seem like curtain call. This movie was about Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and while his friends Ron Weasley (Ruper Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) provide valuable support, Potter hogs the screen time two-thirds of the time.

This movie was about resolving the conflict between Potter and Voldermort (unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes) and while filmmaking technical wizardry attends the final confrontation, the grueling duel was simply a good old-fashioned clash between good and evil; Potter driven by love and the desire to sacrifice himself for his loved ones and on the other hand, Voldermort’s desire to rule and destroy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II was dark and moody and the only time the screen burst into color was during a flashback scene showing the childhood romance of Harry Potter’s mother and Snape. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was bathed in gloom, a far cry from the way it was presented in all previous movies, which was as a place of endless wonder and excitement. At the end of the movie, the whole castle resembles what Metro Manila must have looked after World War II, all rubble and ruins.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II had to showcase filmmaking technology and the Mission Impossible-like heist at the beginning when Potter and friends break into Gringotts Wizarding Bank and escape on the back of a white dragon as well as the final battle showing Hogwarts’s protective cloud being bombarded by all kinds of magical spells and curses are a sight to behold. But to my mind, these really were not necessary to readers of the Harry Potter books who, based purely on what they imagined from reading the books, knew what the avada kedabra curse would produce.

In the end, the movie that really mattered was the one that played in people’s minds. “Of course it‘s happening inside your head, Harry. That doesn’t mean it’s not real Dumbledore chides Harry towards the end of the movie. He could have been addressing each member of the audience in the theatres.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II , just like the seven other Potter movies that comprised the whole movie franchise, was a good interpretation of the Harry Potter book but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the images one can conjure in one’s mind from reading the books.

As Dumbledore ponderously intones in the movie: “Words are our inexhaustible source of magic.”

One hopes that the message is not lost among a generation spoiled by technical wizardry of computer generated images and advances in filmmaking.