Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Celebrating Filipino Talent

This post is antedated. This was my column November 30, 2011.

We can all continue to gripe about how democracy is being weakened in this country by what seems like a lynch mob mentality or continue to wallow in the negativity and the pall of doom and cynicism that have enveloped our existence as a people and as a nation.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to argue with moral righteousness. In the immortal words of C. S. Lewis, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Fortunately for me, I was present in a few awards events recently that somehow rekindled hope and faith that despite what our leaders do or don’t do, there will always be Filipinos we can be proud of and make us feel good about being Filipinos.

I was a judge in this year’s Mabuhay Awards, the annual search for outstanding employees in the hospitality industry under the auspices of the Association of Human Resource Managers in the hospitality industry. At the awarding ceremonies, I met a person that made me believe once again that the Filipino is truly among the best in the world regardless of the tragic absence of concrete plans to effectively nurture and harness Filipino talent.

Recipient of this year’s AHRM Mabuhay Gold Award was Pablo Logro, more popularly known as Chef Boy. I’ve seen the celebrated chef on a number of occasions in some local TV cook shows where he dazzled with his culinary skills, wit and candor but television does not really fully capture the brilliance of the man.

At the awards ceremonies, Chef Boy spoke from the heart as he narrated his life’s journey described by many as a “Cinderella story.”

Chef Boy was the second of eight children of a fisherman and a housewife in Bicol. Poverty forced him to abandon his high school studies and to come to the Big City in search of better luck. He was barely 13. He found work as a houseboy in a Chinese restaurant in Quiapo where he picked up basic kitchen skills. Since he spoke little Tagalog, he would make illustrations of things he saw being done in the kitchen—the vegetables used, how to cut, put together, and cook ingredients. The man basically taught himself.

It has been said more than often enough that opportunities come to those who work hard to improve themselves. Chef Boy eventually found employment in a number of restaurants as a cook and eventually got mentored by some established chefs.

His life made a complete turnaround when he found employment as sous chef for the royal family of Oman. The Sultan of Oman was so impressed with Chef Boy that he was soon appointed as Head Chef of the Royal Palace. Chef Boy went places as he accompanied the royal family on various trips abroad and further honed his competencies as a global chef. As Head Chef of the Royal Palace, he was given benefits and preferential treatment almost equal to a cabinet minister.

Eventually, Chef Boy came home to become Executive Chef of the Manila Diamond Hotel. Soon after, he established his own culinary school in Cavite.

The rags-to-riches story may not be unique—there are many Filipinos from humble beginnings who also achieved great success in life.

But what makes Chef Boy immensely endearing and inspiring is the fact that he is always brimming with a “can do” attitude. He is passionate about his craft and just as equally passionate about sharing what he knows with others. There is a child-like quality that envelops him—he is always smiling, seems eager to please, and makes no apologies for his humble beginnings. Particularly important to note is the fact that this man does not make apologies for the fact that he does not speak “perfect” English. In fact, people at the awards ceremonies lapped up every word he uttered despite the badly fractured English and the local accent. Chef Boy has achieved global recognition because of his competencies and because of certain attributes. He is respected and celebrated for what he is and what he has achieved. We can meet global benchmarks without having to lose our soul and identity as a people.

I sat as judge for this year’s Mabuhay Awardee for the Managerial Category along with Department of Labor Assistant Secretary Joji Aragon and TESDA Executive Director Gabby Bordado. We spent a whole day reviewing the qualifications of the 12 finalists and interviewing them. Truly, we have great people manning our hospitality industry; our hotels have some of the greatest talents in this country. The 12 finalists we talked to each deserved to be given an award. Unfortunately, we were told to pick just one. Our unanimous choice was Gibeth Guzman Gloria of the Crowne Plaza Galleria Manila.

Gloria impressed us with the excellent way in which she has been able to balance the different demands placed on her shoulders. She is probably one of the very few women (if not the only woman) holding the position of Food and Beverage Director of a five-star hotel, a post usually held by an expatriate. She had a very global mindset and yet a distinct Filipino temperament. As a manager, she impressed us with her ability to balance being a stern taskmaster and being a people-oriented person.

Still speaking of awards, the People Management Association of the Philippines last week handed out trophies to the winners of the PMAP First Makatao Awards for Mass Media Excellence. The awards were designed to recognize and honor mass media institutions and practitioners who continuously champion the cause of genuine people management and development in this country. What makes the PMAP mass media awards unique is that the finalists and winners are voted on by the members of PMAP, who are human resource management professionals.

ABS-CBN garnered most of the radio and television awards including best news program (TV Patrol) and best news program anchors (Noli de Castro, Ted Failon, and Korina Sanchez), best radio news program (Radyo Patrol 630), Pasada), best radio news program anchor (Noli de Castro), best radio program (Dos for Dos), best radio program hosts (Anthony Taberna and Gerry Baja), and Radio Station of the Year (DZMM).

However, TV Station of the Year was won by GMA7. Best public affairs program was won by I-Witness and best public affairs program host was won by Jessica Soho. The Philippine Daily Inquirer won as best newspaper

Monday, November 28, 2011

Impunity and justice

This was my column November 28, 2011.

This post is antedated.

The whole country commemorated last week the second anniversary of what will most likely go down in history as the most horrendous crime ever committed in this country.

The Maguindanao massacre which happened November 23, 2009 claimed the lives of 57 civilians, including 32 journalists (one more body has not yet been found - ed). Fifteen of the victims were women. According to eyewitness reports, all 57 were killed in brutal circumstances. Some of the women were mutilated. Many begged for their lives while the perpetrators pointed a gun at their foreheads pointblank. The bodies were later dumped into a common mass grave that was dug and pressed repeatedly using heavy equipment as if to make sure the burial ground was made compact enough.

International press freedom and media advocacy groups have designated November 23 as International Day to End Impunity.

Last week was an occasion to remember and to shake our whole justice system and demand better and faster delivery of justice. Maybe because it has been two years since the carnage happened, activities last week tended to focus on the latter.

Some media establishments tried to recall the gruesome events of November 23, 2009, but the general focus of the commemoration, the media coverage, and most of the discussion was on just how slow the wheels of justice have been turning in the case of the Maguindanao massacre. The perceived consensus was that yes, it is a given that the administration of justice in this country moves at turtle speed; the problem is that in this particular case it is moving at glacial speed.

As can be expected, there were lots of screaming, berating, teeth-gnashing and tongue-clicking last week. Many of our leaders grabbed the occasion to pontificate on the perceived weaknesses of our justice system. Some took the occasion to offer some helpful suggestions such as the need to hire more judges to declog our courts of the thousands of cases that overwhelm the whole system. Others took broad swipes at specific personalities – from the regional trial court judge who is trying the case (Jocelyn Reyes-Solis), to the government prosecutors, to the Fortun brothers who are defending the principal suspects – the Ampatuans, etc.

Others took the occasion to display the presence – or conversely, the absence - of mathematical abilities as they tried to determine how long it would take for the trial against the principal suspects and 196 others to be completed. Someone said 55,000 years. A senator offered another number: 500 years. Economist and writer Solita Monsod gave a more realistic number: 25 years. What was clear was that it would take a long, long time.

I can understand the impatience, and consequently, the exasperation. We are discussing murder committed brazenly and with impunity. Most of the victims were not even directly involved in the political war of the feuding families. The media people who were part of the convoy were just doing their jobs. There is no way to categorize massacres into gradations but the way it was conducted was just so inhuman and so evil. We all want justice to be served to those who were behind the carnage.

Having said that, I also think that it is important for people to acquire a sense of perspective.

The principal accused in the multiple murder case are not ordinary mortals. These are political warlords who have been in power for quite sometime and with almost inexhaustible resources to spend to defend themselves: former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr.; suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan; former acting Maguindanao Gov. Sajid Ampatuan; former Datu Unsay, Maguindanao Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.; Akmad Ampatuan; and Anwar Ampatuan. There are 196 others that are also charged with the multiple murder case. These are police officers, members of the private army of the Ampatuans, supporters of the Ampatuans, and others whose involvement in the murder was either complicit or just incidental.

We may have already formed our opinions about what kind of people the suspects are, but they are still accorded certain rights under our Constitution. We are a country of laws so it is a given that the suspects will exhaust all remedies to defend themselves or delay their conviction because these are among their rights. They are still presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

There are more than a hundred prosecution witnesses. The numbers vary, from a high of 157 to a low of 107, depending on whom one talks to. It is a given that the defense would have more or less the same number of witnesses. Each of these witnesses undergoes direct examination by prosecution, or by defense lawyers. Each direct examination would take at least one hearing. The cross examination to be conducted by the battery of lawyers (each defendant has his or her own lawyer) can also be reasonably expected to take some time. And then there are the various legal maneuvers such as legal questions that need to be resolved by a higher court that are perceived as dilatory tactics. And then there is the appeals process, which can take a long time as well.

I know we all want official vindication; we want our courts to pronounce the suspects guilty as charged. We want the drama of having to see a judge bang a gavel and hand down a sentence.

I also think that there is a need to fix the gaps in our justice system and we should do so not just because of the Maguindanao massacre but because there are tens of thousands of other cases that need equal consideration.

But if we really come to think about it, what will an official conviction produce that isn’t already there today? The suspects are already in jail. They have been detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology Detention Center in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan for a number of months now. The suspects have also been pronounced guilty by Filipinos – I don’t think there is anyone in this country who actually think that the Ampatuans are innocent. They have lost their influence. They are vilified and hated. These may not be the kind of justice that will satiate our collective rage, but we must admit that there is also basis to actually grant that our justice system is not totally worthless.

It will still be better if we see major improvements in terms of the way the trial is being conducted. The government can pour more resources into the case such as assigning more prosecutors. Everyone else can help by providing direct support rather than just criticism. Many of the private lawyers hired by the families of the victims hardly show up at all during the hearings but make themselves indispensable in the eyes of the media. And we can all be more vigilant by remembering the case not just when November 23 comes along.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Epic failure


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

There are many ways to interpret the national drama that we witnessed last week. Of course, things are not over yet. By all indications, the war has just started and the main protagonists are just warming up. We’re in for more torture in the next weeks.

Foremost of all is the national torture of having to see just how utterly and hopelessly incapable we are as a nation and as a people to conduct our affairs in a civilized and mature way, sans the histrionics, the very public display of monstrous egos, and the puerile contest of wills.

Surely, there is a much better way of conducting our affairs as a nation! It does seem as if we haven’t learned from our previous experiences in persecuting two past presidents. I must, therefore, for the record, express my utter disappointment in the way this current administration has handled the current imbroglio. Epic failure is written all over it.

As a result, we have once again witnessed for ourselves just how easy it has become for our politicians to turn the whole justice system in its head with all kinds of power play and political maneuvering.

There were the accusations of wanton suppression of constitutional rights, the cinematic race to catch a flight at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and a dramatic face-off that ended up with a frail-looking former President eventually being brought to a hospital.

On the other hand, there was the overwhelming presumption of malice and accusation of intent to evade prosecution—flight being presumed to be a manifestation of guilt regardless of the medical urgency. The order of the Secretary of Justice not to heed a temporary restraining order issued by no less than the Supreme Court was interpreted as barefaced defiance—a daring and brazen stand that shocked many.

But as can be expected in a situation that has gotten way out of control, most simply got engrossed in the drama. It didn’t help that as in the past, our predilection to turn news events into a dramatic production prevailed.

I watched the whole chain of events with utter dismay. Given the fact that this administration has made the prosecution of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as its main—if not its only—program of government, it was not unreasonable to expect some strategic plan of action, some contingency plan in place.

Oh please, this was not an unreasonable expectation given the fact that this administration has been in power for 17 months already and given further the many times in which officials of this administration have been crowing about the goods that they have on the former president.

As I write, President Aquino was once again blabbering on television about how the current chain of events is just the start of the government’s drive to bring make Arroyo pay for her many alleged sins. This administration just does not get it. The chain of events that we have seen so far does not inspire confidence. What we have seen have been nothing but monumental blunders of epic proportions.

As a consequence of the absolute incompetence of this administration—of the Justice Secretary in particular whose whole only strategy seems to be talking to the media—the whole caboodle of issues has been reduced into a series of showdowns and standoffs; first at the airport, then at the hospital, and then this week at the Supreme Court.

I dread the thought of how things could have spiraled way out of control if something happened to Arroyo at the airport. Actually, this scenario could still happen.

The absence of a carefully managed plan of action on how to effectively bring Arroyo to court has resulted in a most unfortunate situation. First, the threat of a constitutional crisis. Second, the commission of too many lapses and technical shortcuts that will potentially weaken the government’s position. Third, too much collateral damage in the form of erosion of credibility of many people and consequently, the weakening of social structures in this country. Fourth, the growing perception that the government has been caught flatfooted and is now moving heaven and earth to speed up the filing of cases without regard for respecting due process.

This administration is lucky that previous efforts to demonize Arroyo have so far worked. Arroyo continues to be unpopular and critics of the way this administration has been mismanaging the situation have so far refrained from speaking publicly. But let’s make no mistake about this: There is only so much incompetence people can take. Unless this administration does a better job, I see an erosion of credibility. As it is, the prevailing sentiment is that everything that is happening is a classic illustration of the “weather-weather” phenomenon (it’s all about who has the reins of power).

Elena Bautista Horn’s performance in the television show The Bottomline last Saturday evening was particularly instructive. Horn is Arroyo’s chief of staff at the House of Representative and the de facto spokesperson of the former President. At the end of the show, the usually critical panelists of the show were almost unanimous in saying that Horn came across as credible. Even more instructive, the panelists of the show were overwhelmingly unanimous in saying that Horn was infinitely more articulate and more believable than all the talking heads of this administration combined.

What is at stake in the issue is very crucial. There are those who insist that what is at stake in the issue is the inviolability of individual rights and freedoms as enshrined in the constitution. Others contend that a greater interest is at stake, the need to strengthen and uphold accountability in public service. The concept of “the common good” is once again being bandied about. There are those who insist that the bedrock of the judicial system of this country is the protection of citizen’s constitutional rights which is supposed to be sacrosanct; the logic being forwarded being that if a former President cannot seek protection from the Constitution, then what hope does an ordinary citizen have?

The other side of the argument insists that the Constitution exists as an integrated framework meant to prop up our social structures and therefore cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. Inevitably, provisions need to be interpreted with a bias for protecting the social order. Given the country’s dismal track record in making powerful people accountable for misdeeds while in office, the seeming mad dash to board a plane out of the country was interpreted as an attempt to evade justice.

These issues are worth debating about in a dispassionate and more objective way. Unfortunately, the discussions have so far remained at the level of a moral debate, which is not really a good development because such discussions inevitably become personal and highly polarizing

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Divided over a victory

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

Eight hours after Manny Pacquiao was declared the winner of the Pacquiao-Marquez fight, an American friend of mine sent me a message through my Facebook account. He said: “You Filipinos must be a nation of very righteous people; you bash your own champion and even side with the Mexican on a very subjective decision about a game that was too close to call.” The message was laced with barely concealed amusement bordering on disdain. I was at a loss as to what the appropriate response should have been.

I personally couldn’t make head or tails of the uproar over the judges’ decision. I truly cannot understand why we Filipinos do this to ourselves. Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot during situations that should be, at best, occasions to assert pride, or at least to make a sigh of relief that our fighter prevailed despite the odds and perhaps even to thank heavens that he pulled through by the skin of his teeth? Or, okay, at least, to suspend judgment and give others the benefit of the doubt.

Others thought Marquez clearly won, some thought that Pacquiao was still the rightful winner. But all things considered, everyone agreed it was too close to call. When pressed further, most everyone thought it should have been declared a draw. In short, there was a possibility that it could have been judged either way depending on what criteria one was biased towards. Some people are biased towards the number of punches that land on a body. Others put more emphasis on aggressive behavior, noting that Marquez was merely doing defensive counterpunching and spent more time waiting in ambush for Pacquiao. Others noted that if Pacquiao did not go after Marquez, they probably would not have traded punches at all.

The judges, however, gave Pacquiao more points and declared him the winner.

The Mexicans naturally reacted in protest. They booed and threw trash into the ring. For the longest time, Marquez has been whining about having been robbed of a victory since their first fight, conveniently forgetting that Pacquiao floored him three times on the first round of that bout. In fact, many believe it was Pacquiao that got robbed in that first fight.

And the Filipinos? Well, we went into self-flagellation mode. Rather than give the judges the benefit of the doubt, many among us threw our support behind Marquez. That would have been par for the course—we all think democracy allows us to make utter fools of ourselves when we feel like it.

But what I couldn’t comprehend was the way many Filipinos automatically dissed Pacquiao. I could not believe the extent to which many Filipinos heaped abuse on the guy. In many social networking sites, Filipinos who did not agree with the decision directed their disgust at Pacquiao—not at the judges, mind; they insulted Pacquiao, called him old, weakening, slow, a moneybag, etc. Someone I know even posted derogatory comments calling Pacquiao shameless, boastful, and a fraud. Whew.

It was as if Pacquiao had a direct hand in the judges’ decision.

It was as if it was his fault that Marquez was wily and chose to fight with his cunning rather than with his heart.

It was as if Pacquiao had personally wronged everyone for not being able to win convincingly.

It was as if Pacquiao had suddenly become much less of a boxer just because he didn’t succeed in knocking out Marquez halfway through the game.

It was as if he has failed the Filipino people because the judges saw him as the better boxer during the fight.

I was astounded by the sheer number of boxing “experts” that have suddenly sprouted in this country— “experts” who deemed themselves more knowledgeable than the judges who scored the game. Experts who were unequivocal about their opinions and even unshakeable in their moral righteousness.

I was just as astounded by the overwhelming numbers of Filipinos who have suddenly became experts in reading human behaviors. Given the numbers of people who categorically declared that even Pacquiao’s and his wife Jinky’s body language showed that they “conceded” the fight to Marquez, our justice system should have no problems trying suspected criminals —we have hundreds of thousands of peoples who can read behaviors!

But even more astounding was the way many Filipinos suddenly had a major change of heart. From being rabid Pacquiao fans, they suddenly became Pacquiao’s worst critics. Of course, many tried to wiggle out by prefacing their nasty commentary with the disclaimer that they are really Pacquiao’s fans, just that they subscribe to a higher moral order, one that gives them license to desert someone when he fails to measure up to some expectations.

Let’s make no mistake about this. I don’t begrudge people for believing that Marquez won. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.

But I do mind when people put down Pacquiao’s stature just because the judges saw him as the better boxer. I do resent it when people put down another person in an effort to boost their own arguments.

To my mind, Pacquiao fought Marquez with all he had, he gave the game his all, he put his life on the line for the sake of the country’s honor. Surely, he deserves a little bit of respect. Surely, he also deserves the benefit of the doubt. I think we owe it to him not to diss him and make him feel like excrement for not having won convincingly.

And I do mind when people start to drop insinuations about rigging and cheating. It’s bad enough that we openly express disaffection just because someone failed to meet some unreasonable expectations. But do we really have to go so low?

A friend of mine also tweeted and posted shoutouts in Facebook expressing his belief that Marquez should have won. He was egged by a friend to watch the replay Sunday night. He did. He watched it with a more objective eye. He then retracted everything he said and was quite happy to eat his words. According to him, any trained eye could see that Pacquiao truly won the game after all. I wish more people would follow my friend’s example.

The problem really boils down to just one thing: We had too much expectations. We expected Pacquiao to win convincingly and overwhelmingly. We expected to see Marquez reduced to a pulp. We expected nothing less than a knockout halfway through the game. Unfortunately, these didn’t happen.

What people refused to see was that Marquez didn’t knock Pacquiao down, either. It all boiled down to who was the better fighter based on points. The judges made a decision in favor of Pacquiao. That should have been it.

We won. But sadly, we have already been conditioned to accept only one kind of victory—one involving bloody annihilation, preferably with a limp body and a disfigured face. We wanted the opportunity to pump our fists into the air and scream superiority. When these didn’t happen, many felt cheated and took their ire on the fighter, a scenario reminiscent of the ancient days when Romans screamed for blood and death as they watched gladiators fight.

Clearly, there was nothing wrong with the way Pacquiao fought or played the game. It wasn’t his fault that he came up against someone who decided to play the game with a cunning strategy. Why blame him for the fact that we expected more?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Investing in human capital

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

People are our only remaining source of competitive advantage; most of our other resources are gone or are fast going but what we do have in large quantities are people. It stands to reason, therefore, that we should be spending more in terms of investments in human capital. I know I have written about this so many times, but it is something that bears repeating because it is something we cannot keep on glossing over.

The sad fact is that far too many people in this country seem to think that Filipinos are naturally gifted as if competencies and talents are our natural birthright. When people sing paeans to overseas Filipino workers as among the preferred or the best talent in the world, many among us are lulled into thinking that everything is all and well as far as the overall preparedness and competencies of Filipinos to compete in the global arena is concerned and that Filipinos will continue to find jobs anywhere, anytime. This is farthest from the truth. The reality is that even in our own country, there are thousands of jobs that cannot be filled simply because we don’t have enough candidates that meet the requirements of these positions. The mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs is becoming an alarming cause of concern.

Creating jobs is a difficult challenge, but a challenge that pales in comparison to the more critical question: Do we have a steady supply of talent that meets global requirements? We have achieved some measure of success in positioning ourselves as the outsourcing capital of the world, but we forget that this industry is human capital-dependent. The call centers and business process outsourcing centers will continue to locate in the country for as long as we have the people that will perform the jobs. But other countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, even China will soon catch up with us unless we scale up efforts in terms of proactive investment in human capital.

This leads us to the critical question, then. Are we really doing enough to ensure that Filipino talent will continue to have the competencies that will make him or her stand out – 10, 15, 20 years down the road? We need to think strategically if we are to strengthen our competitiveness. We need to focus our sights on Filipinos who are not yet in college today.

Most studies show that certain competencies are developed at an early age. For example many studies show that mastery of certain competencies such as assertiveness and even some skills associated with communications such as grammar and fluency can be traced to a person’s formative years. There are also studies that indicate, although the empirical evidence is not very conclusive, that interventions to improve certain competencies that are made in later years yield poor results. In short, if the foundation skills are not strong, the possibility of achieving dramatic development in competencies in college is slim.

Clearly, developing human capital is a matter that requires long-term investments. We need to start putting in place more aggressive programs to ensure that children are kept in school. Better still, we need to make sure that children who are in elementary grades have access to basic needs such as health and nutrition because of their causal links to skills formation.

This is why I have always supported feeding programs such as the milk program for elementary pupils initiated by Senator Frank Drilon a couple of years back.

And this is one of the major reasons why I support the Conditional Cash Transfer Program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or four Ps.

Oh I know. Programs like these do not really directly fix the structures that create inequities in our culture. The four Ps program will not fix everything that is wrong with this country. It’s not a magic bullet, that’s for sure. To be honest, these were also my reservations about the program early on.

I have talked to a number of people in our farm in Leyte including farmhands whose lives have become a little less difficult because of the program. I have personally talked to a fatherless brood of five whose monthly source of income was the P3,000 sent by their mother who worked as a household helper in Manila – a figure that has been greatly aided by the additional P1,400 that they have been able to source from the four Ps program. As a result, they children have been kept in school and the number of times they have missed meals have been reduced. For many families in rural areas, P1,400 a month makes a major difference.

We can all dream about comprehensive solutions that will fix the problems in our country in a systemic, integrated way. But we all know such solutions are not forthcoming anytime soon given limitations in the abilities of our elected leaders. But this does not preclude us from doing what we can to help our countrymen now. The four Ps is not perfect, but this is what I firmly believe in – right now, it’s the only program of this administration that it can honestly take pride in. All other programs remain inchoate or lack the impetus to make a difference.

Many people have attacked the program, citing two main criticisms. First, that dole does not work and only promotes indolence and dependence. And second, that the program is far too ambitious and will cost the Philippine government hundreds of billions of pesos that are better spent somewhere else.

The program is called conditional cash transfer; the word condition is not there for rhetorical purposes because money is only released to a qualified family on condition that they avail of health services (pre- and post-natal care for pregnant mothers and immunization, weight monitoring, nutrition counseling, and deworming for children) and they keep their children in school. In this context, the cash transfer is not a dole-out.

Of course the intellectuals among us can debate endlessly about what does and does not constitute a dole – and the ethical and moral considerations around it. We can intellectualize, moralize, and romanticize poverty and concepts like self-reliance, but at the end of the day, we all know everyone deserves a fair chance of proving himself or herself and a little assistance from government wouldn’t be all that bad. I personally would like to see stronger social security systems put in place in this country such as unemployment insurance, better retirement benefits, more comprehensive health services, etc. From where I sit, giving poor families a little help to become responsible parents and citizens cannot be all that bad.

The matter of the hundreds of billions of pesos that the program will require over the years is staggering; but not if we divide the amount by the total number of families (around 2.3 million as of last count) that would benefit from it. If we look at the amount as investment in Philippine human capital - and it is investment in human capital because we are ensuring that future employees know how to read and write and do not have health problems, for crying out loud – then, the amount is hardly enough. It certainly is far less compared to what our politicians spend collectively just to get elected into office.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Regulating shamelessness

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

Someone once shared a joke about politicians that I found really funny. Here it is:

Four surgeons are discussing who the best patients to operate on are.

The first surgeon says, “I like to see accountants on my operating table because when you open them up, everything inside is numbered.”

The second responds, “Yeah, but you should try electricians! Everything inside them is color coded.”

The third surgeon says, “No, I really think librarians are the best; everything inside them is in alphabetical order.”

But the fourth surgeon shut them all up when he observed: “You’re all wrong. Politicians—especially from the Philippines—are the easiest to operate on. There are no guts, no heart, no balls, no brains and no spine, and the head and the ass are interchangeable.”

This joke came to mind on account of the various reactions to Senate Bill 1967, also known as “An Act Prohibiting Public Officers from Claiming Credit through Signage Announcing a Public Works Project.” The proposed measure is being pushed by the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago. Malaca├▒ang has also thrown its support behind the bill.

The measure has come to be known as the anti-epal law. Epal is slang for “mapapel,” a Filipino term for attention grabbers, scene stealers, or people who are so hungry for attention that they impose themselves on others just to get a share of the limelight. It’s a malady that is most noticeable among the terminally insecure, a condition that seems prevalent among our public officials.

It’s embarrassing that we actually have to enact a law to regulate something that should be within the bounds of basic delicadeza. Clearly, public officials have no right to claim credit from projects that are paid by taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, it appears that the shamelessness of many of our officials have become so unbridled that a law is now required to stop the atrocity.

Everywhere in this country today, public work projects are accompanied by giant billboards or signages that give credit to legislators or government officials as if the projects are funded by money coming from the officials’ own pockets rather than from everyone else’s taxes. In many instances, the shamelessness is so brazen—the officials even dare plaster their photoshopped faces on the billboards creating the impression that they are members of a royal family smiling benignly on their subjects.

Some officials are not content with just one giant billboard. In many cities such as in Tacloban City, the signages are plastered on practically every electric post. And horror of all horrors, in many rural areas, the signages are not just conspicuous, they assault the senses. I have personally come across many school buildings that had whole roofs or walls painted with the name of some senator, congressman or local executive!

Will the bill get passed? I highly doubt it. First of all, I am not sure there is a counterpart bill in the House of Representatives. In case people have forgotten, we have a bicameral system in place.

Second, it’s the kind of measure that will kill the political careers of many of our legislators, in particular, those who have nothing to show for their long years in office in the form of meaningful laws that they have sponsored or enacted. These politicians coast through two or three terms as congressmen or senator mainly aided by token projects implemented with the use of their pork barrel. The malady, however, is not limited to legislators. Local executives—governors, mayors, councilors, and barangay captains—are equally guilty.

So far, only a few politicians have come forward to denounce the bill. One congressman offered a meek objection, sputtering on television about the need for billboards and signage because as he said “how else will our constituents know that we are doing our jobs?” This kind of reaction is embarrassing mainly because it is indicative of either dementia or stupidity.

The job of congressmen is to enact laws, not to implement public works projects. Granting for the sake of argument that congressmen need to spur economic development or help deliver basic services in their respective localities, there are many ways to deliver the message without having to erect permanent billboards. And really, if they are truly competent and do a great job, word of mouth is always a hundred times more effective than 100 signages.

In reality, the proposed law does not even fully address the problem. The bill only seeks to address signages. In many cases, the public works project themselves have been designed like a shrine to some public official. In Leyte, for example, there are lampposts that have been designed in the form of the letter P (for Petilla, the family name of the former and incumbent governors). In Antipolo, we have waiting sheds in the form of the letter Y (for Ynares, the governor). In Makati, there are wrought iron fixtures attached to public structures in the shape of the letter B (for Binay, of course).

In many cities and towns, the names and faces of officials are etched on permanent structures such as welcome arches, town markers, pergolas, and even on public buildings. In some towns in Bulacan, the names of the mayors are painted on every post along with some sophomoric slogan or tacky illustration that is being made to pass as artwork.

And then, there are the officials who hijack welfare goods and repackage them in bags that carry their names. What about signages that purportedly greet constituents during special occasions such as Christmas, Valentine’s, graduation, etc?

The extent of the problem is not limited to ethical concerns. There is also the matter of aesthetics. Many of these signages are tacky and cheap. They stand out because of the abysmal lack of artistry.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Incomprehensible

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


The whole country has been riveted on the circumstances around the death of Ramgen Revilla, son of movie icon and former Senator Ramon Revilla Sr. and half-brother of actor and incumbent senator Ramon Bong Revilla Jr.

I can understand why the death is newsworthy. Ramgen Revilla was murdered in his home. The fact that a young promising life was snuffed out by unknown assailants deserves attention. Unfortunately, it appears that it is his family background that has become the intense focus of media attention. There have been days that it seems Ramgen’s death has become a peripheral issue rather than being the issue in itself.

The mystery behind the murder and the fact that family members – his own siblings – have been implicated in the whole sordid mess have turned the whole thing into a complicated story with twists and turns that rival the most convoluted telenovela. There are now allegations of conspiracy among siblings, unfair treatment from other branches of the family, and of course, a money trail.

So yes, the story is compelling and I can understand the whole attention given to it.

What I don’t understand is why the whole case is being unraveled in public media. Even worse, I don’t understand why it seems certain media personalities have taken over the case and is now trying to solve it. There are even those who are already trying the case rendering judgment on the culpability and guilt of some of those implicated. Clearly, media has overstepped the bounds this time around.

At some point last week, one member of the Revilla clan issued an appeal to all and sundry to allow them some privacy during their time of grief. The appeal fell on deaf ears as media people hounded them for every bit of drama that could be wrung out of them.

Even stranger, I don’t understand why the Revillas have been scrambling all over themselves to grant interviews about what they know, what they think, and how they feel about every single development about the murder case. It’s as if every bit of evidence or theory related to the murder has to be cleared with, or deserves commentary from them.

I don’t understand why the various factions of the Revilla family are exchanging lurid accusations in social media and through television and radio shows. Surely someone among them have had the sense to remember that notwithstanding the various aggravations, they are still a family and that some things need to be discussed only within themselves, outside of the prying eyes of media.

I don’t understand why the police authorities are granting interviews left and right - explaining evidence, sorting out motives, and revealing theories in media. For crying out loud, surely this is not the way to handle a police matter. Can someone among our generals in the policy hierarchy please knock sense into the skulls of their subordinates and remind them that the protocol around murder investigations do not involve having to explain to media and to the general public every single detail of a case that is yet to be solved with finality?

I can understand why media people are all in a frenzy trying to get exclusive interviews and source information that would preempt competititors about the details of the flight and personal circumstances of Ramon Revilla (the sister of the murder victim who is also being implicated as a suspect). It’s certainly a matter of public interest. But what I cannot understand is why certain media personalities have abrogated among themselves the role of police investigator, prosecutor, and judge. I watched a clip of ABS-CBN’s Karen Davila in the network’s website showing her in a state of extreme agitation lashing out at Ramona Revilla and issuing a barrage of questions that she said she (Ramona) must answer, as if she was some magistrate that everyone was beholden to. I’ve also seen quite a number of other media personalities aggressively hounding members of the Revilla family and demanding answers as if everyone was a suspect that had to be absolved by media people.

In the last few days, we have been fed too many details about the Revillas that clearly violate their right to privacy. Media has become so intrusive and no detail has been spared.

People have feasted on that bit about how Ramgen’s branch of the Revilla family was receiving a million pesos in spending money every month from the Revilla patriarch. This has led to all kinds of speculations about the source of the money – a news story published in the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer went into details about the Revilla’s financial worth and business interests – and many people in various social media have suddenly become qualified to render judgment on the morality of giving that much spending money on nine children! Another story in another paper detailed the various branches of the Revilla progeny, making an accounting of, we have been told, all 82 children and 16 wives. Some have unearthed details about the various wives and their ages when they first started bearing Revilla’s children. Even little details about the Revilla patriarch’s health have not been spared. What all these have got to do with the murder is beyond me.

But what stupefies me even more is why no one among the Revillas and among the pundits in this country have seen fit to point out that all these line of investigative reporting is way out of line. They are irrelevant.

I don’t understand why Senator Ramon Bong Revilla Jr seems to think he is beholden to the media on things that are clearly family matters. There he was Friday evening in a late news telecast sputtering inarticulately as he was put on the spot and confronted with details about his half-sister’s flight out of the country. Surely, we can allow a senator some dignity in the face of such a complicated family tragedy. As a result, he was forced to crucify his own half-sister in public media because as he said, he is “senator of the whole Filipino people not just of the Revilla family.”

When have we become so overzealous to the point of being unnecessarily - and therefore excessively – intrusive? It’s approaching bizarre proportions.

A state prosecutor I was talking to last week told me that the police has been pinned against the wall on this case and are forced to justify their actions because of the personalities involved and the aggressiveness of media. Apparently, one police general was left with no other choice but to explain what they were doing because television reporters would not let up with the questions and were already interfering with the official investigation.

Like I said, I understand the inherent curiosity that has attended this case. People want to know what really happened. We all want some form of closure. A young man is six feet under ground, his girlfriend is fighting for her life in a hospital, and a younger brother is languishing in jail without a warrant of arrest or a charge sheet. We don’t have to force the wheels of justice to turn faster in order to satiate what seems to be hunger for salacious details.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Water, water everywhere

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

If I loved this country any less, I would probably be living and working in Thailand. I love many things about Thailand and the Thai people including the contradictions in their culture, which, by the way, are just as plentiful as ours. But what I love most about the Thais is the way they have valiantly tried to protect their cultural heritage even as they aggressively marched towards becoming a tiger economy.

Thus, it’s been with some measure of sadness that I have been monitoring the situation in Thailand over the last few weeks. The immediate concern, of course, was for an older brother and his family and some friends and former students who have made Bangkok their home for the last couple of years. Fortunately, keeping track of their situation has become a lot easier thanks to social media. Many of my friends in Thailand have been assiduously posting updates on their situations in various social networking sites for the benefit of everyone else who have to contend with what is often hysterical reportage from the traditional media. Truly, one of the great benefits of social networking is that one gets to hear about developments straight from the people concerned themselves, without the static that usually accompanies third-party reporting.

I was also worried for the temples and the other landmarks of the city. Initial media reports screamed about the possibility of the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s majestic main tourist draw and former home of Thai monarchs, being inundated by waters from the Chao Phraya river. Fortunately, while floodwater did enter the complex, the damage has not been massive so far. I am aware that some people might find my concern for Bangkok’s cultural heritage out of place given the fact that I am Filipino, but I have always believed world heritage sites belong to all people of this world regardless of where they are.

So yes, parts of Bangkok are under water. To be specific, about seven of the city’s 50 districts are under water, with some parts flooded by as high as four meters. Floodwater has reached the runway of Bangkok’s domestic airport Don Muang, forcing authorities to close it down. Those alarming pictures of planes seemingly floating on water, were taken from this airport. Reports would later indicate that those picturesque photos were of planes that have been decommissioned, in short, they were planes that had no engines! Many countries, including the Philippines, have issued travel advisories warning citizens against traveling to Thailand but the country’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, has remained operational and is actually flood-free.

For now, the inner areas of Bangkok have survived the peak tides that were scheduled to hit over the weekend. Most were worried that the network of dikes and sandbags walls that have been built precisely to protect Bangkok would succumb to the rush of floodwater from other parts of Thailand. My friends asked me to convey to everyone else that the situation is not as dire as what others would project it to be. Of course, they are having problems sourcing drinking water and other basic commodities such as diapers for infants, but that’s mainly because of panic buying and hoarding. They expect things to normalize in the next few days as the flooding recedes and clear weather begins to set in. Actually, they said that the flooding in some parts of Thailand has been there for almost three months now and it was only when the floods threatened to hit Bangkok that everyone else in the world sat up and noticed.

But the rehabilitation work that needs to be done in Thailand is daunting. Many industrial estates were affected including those that produced most of the world’s computer parts. Some predict that there will be a spike in the prices of computer parts in the next few months because of the flooding. Thailand’s government has announced a massive rehabilitation plan that would cost around $30 billion. And there is ongoing debate over the capability of Thailand’s new Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra) to lead Thailand out of the mess. Thailand’s first female PM was widely seen as a political novice who has been unprepared to deal with complexities of managing a country. There are those who insist that this situation is similar to the one prevailing in our country at the moment.

The flooding that hit Thailand has parallels with the situation operating in our country. We’ve also been prone to flooding in the last months. What has been ironic though is that the situation in Thailand has happened despite a well thought-out irrigation strategy that aimed to collect rainwater during the monsoon months to be used for farming purposes throughout the year. This strategy has enabled Thailand’s agricultural industry to boom in the last few decades. Proof, indeed, that nature cannot be reined in although I dread the thought of people in this country using that justification to defend the absence of similar strategies to store rainwater during the monsoon months for use during summer.

The reality is that we’re in a “feast-or-famine” situation. Some parts of the year would see heavy flooding, but at the same time, experts predict that the drought season would also be severe. Our dams are bursting at the seams at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there would be more than enough to tide us over during the months when there would be no rainfall.

And like what happened here during the onset of heavy flooding, accusations that authorities deliberately sacrificed some areas in order to protect others were also prevalent in Thailand. Citizens around areas in Bangkok launched protests and even destroyed floodgates in order to help alleviate the flooding in their areas even as these meant exposing industrial estates in Bangkok to flooding. In our case, there have been accusations that flooding in some parts of the country happened because authorities tried to “protect” other parts of the country such as Metro Manila.

And just like what we see here, quite a number of citizens have refused to leave their homes even when the floodwater was already seeping into their homes. This is a cultural phenomenon that many people don’t understand; but really, the concept of “home” and the act of defending it defies logic. To most of us, a home is not just a structure of brick and wood—it is a reservoir of many things, memories, a sense of identity, etc.

But what we need to remember is that water—and nature in itself—is difficult to control. As we learned in physics, it seeks its own level. We can try to put in place mechanisms to re-route floodwaters, but there is only so much we can do. What we need are more collaborative and long-term strategies to address the problem that is expected to become a constant problem in the coming months. We need to learn how to see floodwaters as a force that need to be managed although we cannot possibly control it.

***

I would have to end this column with a rant. In the last five days, I have been largely difficult to reach because I lost my cell phone last week. I was issued a SIM card with my old number last Friday and was told that mobile services would be re-established within two hours. It didn’t happen on Friday. I called Globe’s hotline Saturday and was assured it was going to happen within twenty-four hours. It still didn’t happen as of Sunday. I called Sunday afternoon and they told me there was no record of earlier transactions and I had to make another report. I was still incommunicado as of Monday. They finally got around to reconnecting me to the world yesterday, after five frigging days.

What can I say, the service of Globe sucks.