Monday, February 28, 2011

An outrageous ordinance

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

I didn’t know what the more appropriate reaction was: To laugh, get angry, or feel really sad.

It was just so outrageous; it was difficult to believe it was the handiwork of people who were thinking straight.

Why would a barangay council think that they are over and above the Constitution of this country that they could pass an ordinance that infringed on constitutionally provided rights? The whole range of rights that were merrily trampled over ranged from those covered under freedom of expression, the right to confidentiality particularly of medical histories as well as confidentiality between doctors and patients, to the right of access to certain products deemed legal by government, and even the right to conduct business!

What kind of air do they breathe in Ayala Alabang (supposedly the enclave of the rich and famous in this country) that made certain barangay officials think they have the power and the authority to redefine scientific facts long upheld by global authorities such as the World Health Organization, the experts at the Bureau of Food and Drugs Administration, or even the doctors at the Department of Health?

More importantly, what is it that made members of the barangay council so convinced of their moral superiority; made them suffused in righteousness that they actually thought it is within their powers to dictate to couples what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their homes?

There are more questions that I would have wanted to ask, but they would all be questions that express outrage.

The barangay council of Ayala Alabang passed Barangay Ordinance no. 1 on January 3, 2011 entitled, “An Ordinance Providing for the Safety and Protection of the Unborn Child within the Territorial Jurisdiction of Barangay Ayala-Alabang; Fixing Penalties for its Violations, and for other Purposes.” The ordinance, however, only received media attention last week.

It is clear that the ordinance is a political statement against the reproductive health bill that is currently scheduled for plenary debate in the House of Representatives. I am told that certain individuals in the Ayala Alabang community who are among the most active lobbyists against the RH Bill in Congress are also behind the barangay ordinance.

Like I said, the ordinance is so outrageous a friend actually thought it was a farce—a satirical statement directed at people who oppose the RH Bill.

The Ordinance sought to, among others, penalize anyone who advertises through billboards, brochures, leaflets, flyers or similar means, sell, offer for free, endorse, promote, prescribe or distribute abortifacients (which they redefined liberally to include intrauterine devices and contraceptives.

As if these weren’t fascist enough, the ordinance likewise decreed that the purchase of condoms and contraceptive pills inside the village and at establishments at the Alabang Town Center would require prescriptions. It gets even more fascist. The ordinance mandated the recording in a register book information about customers who buy pills or condoms, among others, the name and address of the customer as well as the physician who prescribed the condoms and pills, referred to as abortifacients and anti-conceptionals.

I share the views of Elizabeth Angsioco, chairperson of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines and columnist of this paper when she said that “The ordinance is coercive as it forces residents to adhere to the wrong view that contraceptives are abortifacients and are dangerous to women’s health. The Ayala Alabang barangay council cannot be more authoritative than (the World Health Organization) on this matter. Fact is, even the country’s Bureau of Food and Drugs Administration recognizes the safety and efficacy of contraceptives with its approval to making contraceptives available.”

There were actually quite a number of really insightful and intelligent (not to mention witty) comments made by others in response to the Ayala Alabang ordinance. Former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral, a resident of Ayala Alabang, said in a television newscast that the barangay council “should remember that Barangay Ayala Alabang is not in Afghanistan. They are not the Taliban.” Carlos Celdran twitted that “Ayala Alabang is totally promoting STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Bravo!” Even Lea Salonga weighed in with her own reaction expressing astonishment at the narrow-mindedness of the council.

I texted a couple of former students who are residents of Ayala Alabang and asked them what they thought of the ordinance. Their reaction could not be printed here but essentially echoed the point of view propounded by many others: The ordinance was not indicative of moral leadership but of hypocrisy of the highest order. One of my students even shared some incriminating information about one of the people behind the ordinance.

What the Ayala Alabang ordinance painfully illustrates is the major disconnect between the people who live in Ivory Towers from harsh reality.

Obviously, regardless of how many ordinances the barangay council produces—they can plaster all the walls of the Village with all kinds of ordinances reminiscent of the tactics of Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series or of Caligula and the laws he posted so high up no one could read them—this will not stop residents from having sex. This will not stop teenagers from having premarital sex, nor will it stop live-in couples from using contraceptives, or even wives from taking the pill because she doesn’t want to get pregnant while her husband maintains two other mistresses on the side. They can pontificate all they want about their moral superiority but the reality is that some families would continue to bundle up their daughters to the United States to get an abortion there because they can afford it. They can legislate crazy ordinances all they way but they will not be able to legislate sexual behavior.

What the Ayala Alabang ordinance painfully illustrates also is that it is easy for moral righteousness to cross over to moral fascism if people don’t stand up to stop it. Someone once thought Jews and black people and homosexuals were inferior and sought to annihilate them. Millions died before people finally stood up to end it. Fortunately, there are quite a number of people who are standing up to the barangay council in Ayala Alabang before they wreck more havoc with their bigotry, their moral superiority and their narrow-mindedness.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Misgivings

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

Like many others, I heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced that the Chinese government postponed the execution of three Filipinos convicted of drug trafficking in China.

But strangely, I didn’t feel jubilant. I had a gnawing sense that something was not entirely right with the whole thing. Perhaps what happened wasn’t wrong. But it wasn’t right, either. Sure, we saved lives and that is something we can always feel good about. I know this is not the politically correct thing to say: But at what cost?

To begin with, the decision did not really totally spare the three Filipinos from being meted the death sentence—the reports were very clear about the fact that it was a postponement, not a commutation. In short, we were given time; but to do exactly what remains to be seen. Some wags claim that we simply bought time to be allowed to accumulate favors for the Chinese government. Someone said it all boils down to the fact that there’s no such thing as a free lunch when talking diplomacy between countries that are not exactly co-equals. There was talk that the reprieve was the Chinese government’s way of returning the favor we extended when we boycotted the awarding rites of the Nobel Peace Prize last year, which was bestowed on a Chinese dissident.

Others were less subtle; they say the Chinese government gave us time to realize the folly of our request.

This brings us to the other reason why I had misgivings about the whole thing.

Like I said, I empathize with the family of the three Filipinos. I also do not believe that the death penalty has a place in civilized and humane society.

However, I must express reservations at this pattern in which we have found ourselves. And let’s make no bones about the fact that it has become a pattern. This is not the first time we have approached another government on bended knees to ask that they bend their laws to accommodate one of our citizens, who, unfortunately, has been found guilty of the crime they were accused of committing. I know, I know. It is not possible to put a value on human life and most everyone will do anything and will give up everything to save the life of someone he or she loves. Thus, it is difficult to find fault with family members who go on a media blitz to appeal to the President and everyone in position to do everything to spare the life of their loved one.

But this question still begs to be answered: At what cost?

Oh, I’ve also read the Scripture, particularly that parable about the lost sheep and the value of saving one lost soul. I’m not sure it serves anyone to be literal in his or her interpretation of what the Bible says.

At any rate, can we really afford being labeled as a country with no sense of what is right or wrong, or worse, a country that is so morally weak that it cannot impose penalties and uphold the tenets of its justice system? Do we really want to turn cases like these into a national crusade? How much longer can we sustain this kind of approach to problems like these involving Filipinos abroad convicted of crime? Do we really want to commit our government, our leaders, whatever is left of our national part in the service of such endeavors?

I was quite taken aback when the government tried to marshal everyone in this country to get China not to push through with the executions. For quite sometime there, I had the distinct feeling that there were people who were trying to turn the three Filipinos into some kind of modern-day heroes the way we turned Flor Contemplacion and Angelo de la Cruz into some kind of national symbols of oppression. I was afraid that we were sending out a new message to our children, that we were undoing years of values education about what is right and wrong. Even the call for prayers and the national vigil struck me as quite odd.

It would have been a completely different matter altogether if we did all these because we believed the decision to mete out the death penalty was based on shaky grounds and therefore patently unfair or because we honestly think that the Filipinos meted the death penalty were innocent. In matters like these, I would be one among those loudly clamoring for justice and lambasting the foreign government in question.

But this is not the so in the case of the three Filipinos in China. There is strong evidence that they were engaged in drug trafficking. Some members of their families have come out in the open admitting knowledge that the Filipinos in question were functioning as drug mules. The wife of one even went on television to admit that her estranged husband was for many years hooked on drugs and was himself a part of the drug syndicate.

Of course they also claimed that the Filipinos were victims of circumstances; that they were hapless pawns being pushed around by drug syndicates. I understand that this “victim angle” was also one of the talking points of Vice President Binay when he went to China to officially ask for the favor from the Chinese government. We can romanticize all we want, but the fact still remains—the three Filipinos were found guilty of drug trafficking. In China, that is a crime punishable by death.

Am I saying that we should have simply allowed the execution to happen without lifting a finger? Not really. I think we should have made an appeal based purely on humanitarian grounds; I still think we should have sent someone to make the appeal but it could have been someone associated with the Church, or with a human rights organization, perhaps someone with stature as a foremost humanitarian, etc. It can be argued that it would not have made the same impact as having the second highest official of the land personally doing the interceding but it would have put a completely different spin to the whole thing.

But then again, the lives of three Filipinos were spared. We don’t know how long the reprieve will last and we’re not sure we will have the moral ground to ask for yet another favor from the Chinese government the next time around considering that they have already given us this favor. It was a favor we asked for which was granted—it was a quid pro quo.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Piracy and forced servitude

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

There are so many Filipino seafarers or merchant marines —more commonly known by the politically incorrect label seamen—that there is a joke that at any given time, there is a Filipino in every square mile of ocean or sea in this world.

There is a morbid version of the joke, one about there being a Filipino in every ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates or that meets some other disaster in the high seas. We Filipinos truly know how to make fun of our misfortunes. I remember being at a forum last year where someone in the audience put to task some official from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency for not doing enough to protect Filipino seafarers, suggesting that the government put a stop to the deployment of seafarers in the meantime that the Somali pirates continue to terrorize ships in international waters near the coast of Somalia. The hapless guy from the POEA tried to make light of the situation by correcting what he said was a wrong impression. “It is true that there is a Filipino in every ship that meets a misfortune… but in the Philippines,” he deadpanned.

Like most Filipinos, I have family members—a brother and some cousins —who are seafarers. Thus, you can imagine our reaction every single time we hear of news of another hijacking incident committed by Somali pirates.

According to the International Maritime Organization, there are at least 685 seafarers of various nationalities on board 30 ships currently being held for ransom by Somali pirates along various locations across the Somali coastline. A number of Filipino casualties have been reported recently in one of the hijacked ships.

The activities of Somali pirates have become increasingly alarming because they have extended their hijacking operations beyond the coast of Somalia to the wider Indian Ocean. Their tactics have also become more devious as they now resort to using hijacked ships to attack other ships using crews on board as human shields.

Given the vast area that is covered by the hijacking operations of Somali pirates and the complications brought about by the need to safeguard the lives of the hostages, trying to find a solution to the problem has proved difficult.

A Norwegian shipping magnate recently came under intense criticism for suggesting that pirates captured off the horn of Africa be executed on the spot and their ships sunk. Jacob Stolt-Nielsen, founder of one of the top shipping groups in Norway- a country known as a seafaring nation and peace broker in many armed conflicts not to mention being home of the Nobel Prize- reminded everyone that his proposed penalty has been the historical way of dealing with pirates. He said that the piracy problem cannot be solved by treating pirates lightly.

“Pirates captured in international waters have always been punished by death, often on the spot,” he wrote in the op-ed pages of Norwegian financial newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv, arguing that modern navies should deal with the problem like Roman pirate hunter Pompey did more than 2,000 years ago. As can be expected, the proposal drew rebuke from various international groups. Some called the proposal “barbaric” while others insisted that even criminals—in this case, pirates—have rights.

I also get a little uncomfortable every time someone argues for the rights of criminals. But it is difficult to ignore the other factors that drive people to commit crimes. It is also difficult to condemn criminals of other nationalities when we have made it a point to appeal for clemency every single time one of our own gets convicted in other countries for various crimes.

Nevertheless, it is important that the Philippine government make more active representations with international bodies that are trying to address the problem of piracy in the Coast of Somalia. We can also make sure that no Filipino seafarer boards ships that do not adhere to international guidelines prescribed by international bodies such as the IMO to deter piracy attacks. The guidelines, unfortunately, are written in gobbledygook—traditional officialese language that makes comprehension difficult. From what I could understand, there are surveillance, identification and tracking devices in place in the area and that information on location of possible pirates are available for ships that are registered with certain international bodies. Unfortunately, not all shipping companies think such preventive measures are effective.

The problems that our seafarers face, however, are not limited to the widespread piracy that is happening at the Coast of Somalia.

In fact, if government agencies responsible for monitoring and regulating the maritime industry really want to safeguard the welfare of our seafarers, they should begin right at the start of the whole employment process for seafarers.

The shipping companies and the manning agencies responsible for employing Filipino seafarers have this system of forced servitude in place. It’s the worst kind of exploitation imaginable and the worst part of it is that everybody knows that the system is in place. Our government officials know about it, our legislators know about it. Media people know about it. The parents and the friends of seafarers know about it.

I am referring to the system that requires first-time seafarers to serve as “cadets” at the offices of shipping companies and manning agencies for indeterminate periods of time. I know some aspiring seafarers who toil as janitors, drivers, messengers, cooks, even houseboys who are serve the officials and employees of the shipping companies and manning agencies for months and years before they are finally allowed to board ships. The system operates under the guise of strengthening the resilience and the fortitude of future seafarers. They are supposed to be undergoing training that will be valuable in their quest for survival in the high seas.

I have been to offices of shipping companies and manning agencies where these so-called cadets do the most menial of tasks. I’ve seen “cadets” stand behind some lowly-employee acting as some kind of manservant. They are supposed to be undergoing training on the finer points of seafaring but actually serve time as unpaid, exploited extra hands that do the dirtiest, the most tedious, the most basic of tasks that do not require any particular skill befitting someone who finished marine or nautical engineering.

Did I say they are unpaid? Companies use the services of these people without paying them anything in return— nothing as in zilch, nada. And that many among them labor for more than 12 months before they get into some list of candidates that can be considered for deployment in some ship? That some of them don’t actually get to board ships at all?

It’s the worst kind of exploitation imaginable because many of these seafarers come from the provinces with barely nothing to tide them over the whole time they are in the “cadetship program.” They practically live on the mercy of friends and relatives.

I wonder when and what it will take for officials of the government agencies responsible for the maritime industry to look kindly on the plight of our seafarers.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Political bills

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

Aggressively being pushed in Congress today are several bills that are considered “political” in nature. The “political” label attached to these bills is not only superfluous; it is also ironic. When we come to think about it, all bills filed in both houses of Congress are political in nature and are subjected to political processes.

Still, labeling certain bills as “political” makes sense. These are the bills that are designed to advance certain political interests, never mind if the long-term or overall benefits of the bills are doubtful. In fact, some experts have claimed that the long-term impact of certain bills being pushed in Congress today is disaster. In short, these are bills whose passage are primarily meant as a political statement or are designed simply to appease certain groups or political interests.

The whole idea is quite outrageous. We can understand - although not necessarily tolerate - politicians who appoint relatives and friends into positions of power or grant business concessions in order to pay off political debts. But legislation is a completely different matter altogether. A law becomes permanent (unless amended, which can be a long tedious process) and has far-reaching implications. So politicians who trade their votes in exchange for some political favors are among the most contemptible people in this world.

Like I said, we have a number of these “political” bills clogging up both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Many of these bills do not make sense and in fact takes us two or three decades back in terms of our progress as a nation.

Because I am a human resource management professional, I will use as examples bills filed that pertain to labor.

There’s a bill that purportedly seeks to ensure employment of workers and security of tenure. The bill is obviously meant to address the issue of “contractualization” and “outsourcing” of jobs. This bill seeks to put a 20 percent cap on the number of jobs a company can contract out or outsource. This bill will kill many companies and industries. Can you imagine what it will do to, for example, pawnshops, which because of the nature of their business need to have more security guards than actual employees per branch? It will also be disastrous to small and medium enterprises, particularly start-up ones that rely on a third-party for their utility, messengerial, and security needs. The unintended consequences of this bill are just too catastrophic to imagine! And guess what, it has already passed the committee level.

Our representatives in Congress are also hard at work on a proposed legislation that seeks to mandate across-the-board salary increase to employees. This is madness, of course. First of all, wages should be a function of productivity and performance. Second, most companies have in place collective bargaining agreements with their labor unions. Third, there are regional wage boards that already set wage increases regularly. And finally, we already have one of the highest levels of wages in the region making us uncompetitive. Why our legislators would entertain the notion that they are in a better position to determine how much workers should get instead of the people in industry is stupefying.

There’s also a bill that seeks to mandate automatic profit sharing to employees.

These are just examples of the measures being aggressively pushed in Congress. There are more. And the scary thing is that these bills are being aggressively championed.

Many people point fingers to the party-list system as the main culprit behind this situation. I agree that the party-list system is contributory to the situation but I don’t think that the whole blame should be placed on the system. I have many misgivings about the party-list system, primarily on how the system has been hijacked by traditional politicians as rear-door entry to the House of Representatives. However, it would be wrong to put the blame squarely at the doorsteps of our party-list representatives, many of which represent specific ideological platforms.

The party-list system became possible because of a law enacted in 1995. The intent of the law was quite noble: To provide proportionate representation to sectoral groups, particularly, those who are marginalized. The idea was to nurture a “healthy democracy” by providing voice to groups and causes that normally would not get representation and access to the power structures in this country because of their marginalized status. It was supposed to foster change in the country’s political systems by introducing platform-based politics.

We now have more than enough party-list representatives in Congress and as can be expected, the “critical mass” phenomenon is now apparent. Certain measures that have languished and festered in some filing cabinets at the House of Representatives have not only suddenly broke surface, their passage through the various steps in the lawmaking process have become accelerated.

In the case of the “Security of Tenure Bill,” this current congress was able to do in less than five months what former congresses failed to do in five years - consolidate the many bills on the subject into one bill (H.B. 303). That’s amazing speed given the way our legislators work. Note for example, that the reproductive health bill has been languishing in Congress for many, many years now.

The speed in which the security of tenure bill blazed through the committee level is not necessarily admirable, though, because this particular bill is potentially disastrous to business and industry, and in the long term, to the very people it wants to protect—the workers.

How was this made possible? Simple. Party-list representatives, particularly those representing the labor sector, rallied around the bill and made sure that they had the numbers to create a momentum. And let’s make no bones about this: Party-list representatives just happen to be more diligent and conscientious in attending committee hearings, which in turn allow them to dominate discussions. Consequently, they are able to ensure that their bills get through, at the very least, the committee level.

Enacting bills into laws is a completely different matter, though. Party-list representatives may be able to dominate committee hearings but they still don’t have enough numbers in plenary to pass laws. And this is where, I am told, politics rears its ugly head. This is where the horse-trading and the quid pro quo arrangements are done intensely.

A friend who is privy to the goings-on at the halls of power swears that the kind of lobbying that’s happening in Congress today is unprecedented. But, he hastens to add, at least the discussions have assumed a more substantive focus. The discussions have at least taken on ideological issues and platforms. One wishes, though, that our legislators really keep an open mind and learn to balance various interests in a more judicious and fair way.

But still, the situation is spooking industry. Foreign investors are taking a long, hard look at other destinations abroad. In the long run, Filipino workers are at the losing end

Monday, February 14, 2011

Whistleblowing and truth-telling

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

The national association of human resource management professionals, People Management Association of the Philippines, came out with a statement over the weekend on the critical role whistleblowing and, consequently, whistleblowers, play in the fight against graft and corruption in the country. The statement is printed in full at the end of this piece.

The statement is timely and relevant in light of the observation made by some people that the ongoing Senate and House hearings on alleged irregularities in the Armed Forces of the Philippines be stopped on account of the death of former Secretary Angelo Reyes.

Should the hearings be stopped now? I vehemently disagree. Our senators and congressmen should continue with the inquiry. However, I do think that the hearings can be conducted in a more respectable, reasonable, courteous manner.

In short, we should be able to conduct hearings where witnesses invited supposedly to “shed light on the issues” don’t get browbeaten, insulted, threatened—in short, treated like criminals. The same is true for whistleblowers and officials accused of wrongdoing. I think hearings can become so much more productive if people learn to do in a more temperate way.

I also think that our legislators should do a better job at making sure that something concrete comes out of these hearings. I know. This is like beating a dead house or trying to squeeze blood from a turnip. The reality is that these hearings rarely get things done in terms of actually putting the guilty behind jail although they make a darned good job shaming them in public. Unfortunately, shaming them in public is never enough because not everyone has the same tolerance for public embarrassment.

I am more concerned, however, with the fate of whistleblowers. What will happen to Heidi Mendoza and George Rabusa in the next few months is something that worries me because I fear that they will become yet another Mary “Rosebud” Ong or even Jun Lozada.

Whistleblowing has negative connotation in our country. Very often, the general assumption is that both whistleblowers and the parties they accuse of wrongdoing are of the same ilk—“parepareho lang sila.” The common perception is that people squeal on anomalous transactions because they were shortchanged or double-crossed. It doesn’t help that most—not all, certainly—of those who turn whistleblowers are often part of the whole stinking rotting mess who simply had a sudden change of heart, or have been coerced into becoming a reluctant witness. We’re not a people supportive of whistleblowers. Our culture doesn’t look kindly on snitches.

Thus, whistleblowers, in addition to having to deal with ostracism and isolation—being avoided like the plague—have to contend with humiliation and harassment. Very often, they are pilloried publicly and their reputations are blown to smithereens by supporters of the people they accuse of wrongdoing in an effort to destroy their credibility.

These and other reasons should compel our legislators to enact a law protecting whistleblowers. This is a tall order, of course, given the role that our legislators play in exploiting whistleblowers for various political means. But like I always say, there is always hope because we may have the worst kind of scum as legislators in this country but we also happen to have the best minds in this country sitting in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

The following is the PMAP statement entitled “Whistleblowing and Truth-telling”

“The allegations of graft and corruption in the Armed Forces of the Philippines have once again brought to the surface the urgency of boldly pursuing mechanisms to curb systemic corruption in our country.

The bravery shown by former Commission on Audit Auditor Heidi Mendoza and former AFP Budget Officer Retired Lieutenant Colonel George Rabusa underscores the critical role of whistleblowers in the fight against corruption. Whistleblowers not only help curb corrupt practices, they also embolden other citizens to emulate their example and dispel the notion that integrity in public service is a thing of the past.

However, we are deeply concerned that our existing legal and social frameworks are inadequate and ineffective in encouraging whistleblowing and protecting whistleblowers. Given the extent of corruption in the country and the seeming high tolerance for irregularities, there is an urgent and critical need to ensure that we have a supportive environment that encourages, protects, and rewards whistleblowers. It is important that those who expose corrupt practices are not penalized for telling the truth and are protected from retaliatory attacks. We ought to legitimize and make it easy for people to speak out against illegal and irregular transactions.

Simply put, no one will come forward if the costs of telling the truth far outweigh the benefits; more so if it will imperil the safety and security of the individual and that of his or her family.

We strongly appeal to the President to certify the bill that protects and rewards whistleblowers as a priority measure.

We strongly appeal to our legislators to ensure that the courage and bravery of whistleblowers such as Mendoza and Rabusa are not wasted and that the officials accused of graft and corruption are persecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.

We call on all our leaders both in the public and private sectors to help foster a culture that makes truth-telling a legitimate and socially rewarding task. Corruption thrives when citizens tolerate irregularities and do not report them.

Whistleblowing is an institutionalized practice in the private sector as part of sound corporate governance; the same must be the norm in the public sector. Our inability to institutionalize mechanisms to curb graft and corruption effectively has far-reaching implications on our competitiveness as a nation. Integrity is the bedrock of sound people management and development practices.”

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Save Palawan

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

I receive quite a number E-ails requesting for publication of materials, press releases, column feeds, and pictures on this or that cause or event that it is almost impossible to read them all. But some of these I do read, particularly if they come from a reliable source. It is very rare that I publish open letters written by other people, but I am making an exception in this particular case for two reasons.

First, I think everybody must rage against the murder of Gerry Ortega. The circumstances around his death are just too incomprehensible. He was supposedly shot in the head by hired killers who were made to believe he was a child molester.

Second, the cause the good doctor espoused, which is now being picked up by thousands of Filipinos, was a worthy cause.

Palawan is known as the last frontier in this country. Anyone who has been to Palawan can attest to the awesome beauty of the place. In fact, Palawan’s underground river is still in the running to become one of the seven wonders of nature. It would be almost sacrilege to ruin it, which is what some businessmen are trying to do with the proposal to allow mining in the province.

Gina Lopez, who has made it her lifelong passion and mission to save and protect the environment has written an open letter appealing to Filipinos to help save Palawan by saying no to the proposal to allow mining in the island. Here is the letter:

“On January 24 a very dear friend and colleague Gerry Ortega was shot in the head dead. I was just with him that weekend - and a few minutes before he died what we were discussing over the phone was an anti-mining campaign in Palawan - given that on December two huge mining applications were railroaded - and they were to be near protected sites.

Gerry is dead but we will not let go of his dreams - and mine – and probably yours, too.

Palawan has 17 key biodiversity sites - which means it is part of the 70 percent biodiversity sites which are essential for sustaining life in the planet. It has two world heritage sites, eight protected sites. Yet if you see Palawan on the map you will note that it is a very thin island - which is 82 percent mountain. It means that if the forest gets denuded and the minerals excavated - the tailings seep directly into the sea affecting the coral reefs. The top soil is thin - and the island ecosystem is fragile.

Mining is not the way to go for Palawan. I have five ecotourism sites wherein the communities involved can now send their children to school, can dream bigger dreams. Mayor Hagedorn in Puerto Princesa has banned mining and logging - and focused on tourism and agriculture. From two flights a week, Puerto Princesa now boasts 10 flights a day. His revenues have gone up from several million to several billion.

Mining as an economic path in a magnificent “Last Frontier” is based on a paradigm of economic growth that is myopic and archaic. In this age of climate change and global warming any economic development that does not recognize and revere the web of life should be thrown in the dustbin.

Please, please support the ten million signature campaign to Stop Mining in Palawan. The richness of Palawan is the wealth and pride of the country, it is the wealth of the world. Log in to www.no2mininginpalawan.com. Register your vote and please, please send it to thousands others. You can also include your household by downloading the form printing it - and faxing it to 4152227 or you can scan it and send it to signatures@no2mininginpalawan.com. Questions can be sent to signatures@no2mininginpalawan.com.

This is for our country, this is for the future.”

I hope everyone can pitch in and be part of the effort to stop mining in Palawan. I concede that mining does have its benefits, but it would be foolhardy to allow it in an island that remains our best showcase of the wonders of nature.

***

In addition to requests of this nature, I have also been receiving quite an unusual number of scam e-mails. I am alarmed of the proliferation of these e-mails because I have been informed that these continue to victimize quite a number of people. These are e-mails that replicate the so-called Nigerian 419 scam.

What is amazing is that the current versions of the scam have become even more creative and particularly devious. The situations presented are no longer limited to the usual stories of millions of dollars of war bounties or unclaimed inheritance festering in a vault somewhere needing beneficiaries. Why, just this week I received notification that I have won a Yahoo United Kingdom lottery (the attachment, which was in PDF file even contained the official yahoo logo). Of course the amounts involved in these scams should be reason enough to automatically make one suspicious, particularly since the schemes being proposed and the participation being solicited is patently illegal and unethical.

Those among us who are familiar with the scam probably won’t fall for the various schemes and ploys being presented. But I am told that the scam continues to proliferate because many people still fall for it. Apparently, there are just too many people in this world who are either gullible enough or greedy enough to become willing accomplices to nefarious schemes to defraud governments, the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a series of banks.

It’s easy to judge other people for being gullible and for being stupid enough to fall for these scams. A study that I came across noted that most of the victims of these scams are those who are new to the Internet, mostly senior people. I think we should all do our part in making sure our friends and relatives know how these scams operate and warn them about falling victim to these.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Trying to be a foodie

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

The controversy around Big Bad Blogger has refocused attention on bloggers. Since I do not blog anymore (I don’t know if my absence from the blogosphere is temporary or permanent), friends and former readers of my blog are forced to read my column on paper or online. But I do continue to read blogs. And many of my former readers continue to leave messages in my blog or send me e-mails. This piece was requested by a reader of my blog.

A socialite blogger who is now referred to as the “housewife blogger from Dasmariñas Village” is the current toast of the blogosphere. Her blog is now one of those I check regularly (www.tinatagle.blogspot.com). If one has the patience and, okay, the fortitude to see through and beyond the dresses and the shoes and the bags and the sunglasses, one will actually find some substance. Reading her blog entries, particularly the ones that talk about her children, is a heartwarming experience. Mothers are truly amazing creatures; they do not always makes sense but they are always wise in their own unusual ways.

Tagle may reside in the enclave of the rich and famous and goes around town lugging bags, each one costing double what a middle manager earns annually, but her daily aggravations are practically the same as those of other mothers elsewhere. She just does them while balanced precariously on Manolo Blahnik shoes. And writes about them with dry wit and humor.

Anyway. The Big Bad Blogger controversy was particularly about food bloggers. Food blogging is a distinct specialization in the blogosphere and there are very few respectable food bloggers out there. Connie Veneracion, also known as The Sassy Lawyer, former columnist of this paper, is one of them (her blog is www.houseonahill.net). But there are a few others. Two of my favorites are www.marketmanila.com and www.dessertcomesfirst.com. I am sure these people are not in the same league as Big Bad Blogger.

I’ve never blogged or written about food and restaurants directly because I have always thought that it takes a particular expertise to be able to do justice to it. My taste for food and restaurants are decidedly simple and practical and I am a creature of habits —very bad habits. This doesn’t mean I don’t go out and try new things; I do that too, but only after someone I know has already been there and makes a good recommendation.

But someone asked me to weigh in with my own two cents worth on restaurants “to illustrate that writers don’t necessarily write about them because they are asked to or because they are paid to do so.” So here goes.

My all-time favorite restaurant is a simple no-frills café in Malate that’s been there for as long as I can remember. It’s called Adriatico Arms Hotel Café and as the name suggests, it’s on Adriatico Street and it’s part of a small hotel. The café does not even have linens on its glass-topped tables and most of the chairs are wrought iron pieces but the place has its own charm. The house special is Iberian Chicken, which you have to order at least three hours in advance. Yes, you have to call them, leave your name and contact numbers at nine in the morning to order it if you intend to have lunch there.

But it’s really worth it. My friends and I have been coming back to this place for more than ten years now – it’s almost like a monthly tradition. We go there to celebrate occasions, when we are trying to impress someone, or when we crave for honest-to-goodness mouth-watering food, glorious food. I am told that the chicken can also be had at Café Armas but my friends who ate Iberian chicken there swore the taste wasn’t the same. I guess ambience really has a lot to do with the dining experience. The café also serves other fare. If you failed to order in advance, you can take your chances, walk into the café and ask if someone ordered the chicken and failed to show up. It happens once in a rare while. But there are always other things on their menu. I recommend anything grilled with Cajun pepper.

I’m a Manila boy through and through so it is expected that some of my favorite restaurants would be in the Malate area. The original Café Adriatico near the Remedios Circle is still being renovated after it caught fire a couple of months ago. This restaurant has always been my “default” restaurant. If we’d have difficulty choosing a restaurant, we’d be sure to end up here because it is open practically 24/7 and it serves comfort food.

Fortunately, there are now many variants of the Café Adriatico franchise and they are all over Metro Manila. The names of the restaurants vary—Abe, Lorenzo’s Way, Fely J, Café Havana—but one can always find in the menu old favorites such as butterflied plapla (which is really deep fried tilapia) and Claude’s dream (which is buko pandan served with a twist).

My all-time favorite Italian Restaurant is also in Malate. It’s also been there for ages; the lone waiter is still the same old Manong that took our orders and brought our food to the table 20 years ago. The restaurant still has the same menu from way back. They have around ten tables and if you come late and a table is not available, it’s probably best to just go elsewhere because this isn’t a place for a quick meal. Diners linger for hours and for good reason. The food is good and served in a no-nonsense way and the ambience is homey. The restaurant is called Cosa Nostra, and it’s located on Adriatico Street just farther along towards Quirino Avenue. It’s a very small place—actually the ground floor of a two-storey apartment so it is easy to miss.

For Chinese food, we go to Binondo. These days, we go to Sincerity Restaurant (my all-time favorite Chinese restaurant - Smart Restaurant - has moved somewhere else). But going to Binondo requires major planning and lots of resolve so my kith and kin troop to Hap Chan whenever we feel a hankering for fried squid heads, steamed fish with garlic, and noodles. Hap Chan used to be this hole-in-the-wall along Malvar Street in Malate. It was a place where one dined surrounded by vats of steaming broths—the kitchen was where the restaurant was. It had no air-conditioning and the menu was plastered on the wall along with calendars of senators and congressmen that came with special handwritten dedications and messages. Hap Chan has grown into a chain with a number of branches located strategically all over the Metro. We go to their branch at the Cultural Center complex because it’s the one that is least crowded.

For very, very special occasions and when I have a craving for food that has obviously gone through a lot of thinking process, I go to Uno Restaurant along Tomas Morato in Quezon City. It’s futile for me to try to describe the kind of food serve there because I’d probably end up just putting exclamation points at the end of each adjective. Uno changes its menu often (there used to be two specials for the day which diners could choose from) and serve the best bread (they bake the bread themselves) and iced tea in town.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Taking chances

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

The Reproductive Health Bill finally got through the Committee on Population and Family Relations at the House of Representatives last Monday. This means that the bill will finally get voted upon by the membership of the House, assuming of course that it gets calendared for plenary debates. The result of the committee voting was telling: The bill was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the members, 14-4. And yet, the consolidated bill barely scraped through the committee level.

How a minority can overrule a majority is truly confounding although not totally surprising in a country where power resides among a handful of families and institutions. The fact that the bill finally is finally out of the committee level this early in the life span of this particular Congress is encouraging. However, it would be foolhardy to expect that the bill would get passed easily, if at all. We’ve been there before many times in the past. In the last Congress, supporters of the bill had the numbers but the measure wasn’t submitted for voting at the last minute as powerful hands succeeded in blocking its passage.

Already, the Catholic Church and its lobby groups are sharpening their knives. I hope that our legislators will continue to stick to their guns and continue to stand by their convictions despite the threats and the heavy pressure from the bishops. When bishops start calling on congressmen one by one, promising them eternal salvation or doom, we expect some of our legislators to cave in. But hopefully, there will still be enough principled men and women among our legislators who will continue to fight for what is right and necessary.

***

Another tragedy involving a bus happened Monday. This time, the bus was traveling to Manila all the way from Ormoc City in my home province of Leyte. The bus turned turtle along the tricky slopes of Pagbilao Quezon in a place aptly named Bituka ng Manok (chicken’s entrails). I have passed through this particular stretch of road that must have been designed by someone with a serious fetish for roller coasters many times in a previous life when traveling from Leyte to Manila by car was still novel and exciting.

The fact that we build roads that tempt the fates is beyond me, but I guess we’re like that as a people—we like to take chances. And many of our bus drivers and many of our fellow Filipinos do take chances.

That stretch of road had been declared off limits to buses and trucks for a long time now because it really was not designed for large vehicles (if we come to think about it, I don’t think it was designed for any vehicle at all) but the driver took his chances. The shortcut would have saved him at least two hours worth of driving. The passengers knew that the bus was overloaded, a couple of them didn’t have seats and simply plopped down on sacks of rice or cardboard boxes, but they took their chances. Rather than wait for another bus or forfeit fare money, they threw caution to the wind.

One of the victims of the Pagbilao bus accident happened to be a cousin of a friend of mine. He was coming to Manila to process papers for possible employment abroad. He said he took the bus because he was in a hurry and he was trying to save money. When I asked how much the bus fare was, he quoted an amount that was almost comparable to a plane ticket on one of those budget airlines. He didn’t know that plane fares are now affordable, thanks to Cebu Pacific, Zest Air, and Air Philippines.

I don’t think that buses will eventually go out of business because it still is the most practical means of public transport particularly when traveling short distances.

There’s that rather politically incorrect joke about why these accidents are happening during P-Noy’s watch. It’s because he promised in his inaugural speech that “kayo ang bus ko.” I know. It’s not funny anymore. It’s really sad that we continue to have these accidents on the road involving buses because they are preventable.

The larger issue is transport safety. Buses and ships are notorious for ignoring safety issues despite the fact that these two industries account for a sizable percentage of passengers on a daily basis. There’s a serious need for bus companies and shipping lines to professionalize the way they operate their businesses and put in place safety policies. The truth is that many of our bus companies continue to operate like mom-and-pop enterprises with no institutionalized policies on safety and security or even basic policies for employee qualification, discipline and welfare.

This is morbid but two specific norms among bus drivers are so prevalent. The first one requires that bus drivers who figure in accidents immediately flee the scene purportedly to avoid being lynched by relatives of the passengers. The second one is so horrifying to imagine, but I am told it is still the advice being passed around by drivers—that one about how it is more preferable to leave victims of road accidents dead. The latter is utterly callous beyond words.

Of course, terrorist attacks are exceptions but even those can be prevented.

***

Safety Practices—or the utter lack of them—are also being cited as reason why 10 construction workers plummeted to their death last week at the building being constructed by Eton Properties. As usual, we’re all caught up in the blame game as people frantically try to heap the blame somewhere else. All of a sudden, government agencies have also become very proactive and diligent! They have discovered all kinds of violations ranging from safety to employment to God-knows-what-else.

I also find it utterly contemptible that we continue to have businessmen who take advantage of workers. However, we must stress that keeping businesses ethical and making sure that everyone toes the line in terms of following employment laws is everyone’s responsibility. Government agencies must not tolerate abuses so as not to encourage deviations. We actually have more than enough laws in this country to protect and safeguard the welfare of our workers. The problem is that enforcement is weak. This is one area that government must never compromise on.

***

It’s exasperating that while there seems to be a lot of more important things that happened lately that we can focus our energies on, we’re still sidetracked by the occasional outburst that reflect, well, emotional immaturity.

Let’s take this recent snafu over the President’s new Lexus. Okay, so it is not his. It’s supposed to be either of two things: Lent by a campaign supporter or leased by a Presidential brother-in-law. The fact that they can’t get their story straight on the real provenance of that car is annoying but that’s not really the most objectionable part of the story. What gets most people’s goat is this dismissive attitude. Instead of an explanation, people get lectured for having malicious minds. Even worse, they don’t seem to grasp the reason why the President’s use of a car allegedly provided by a campaign supporter is sending eyebrows into the stratosphere. It just makes a lot of people uncomfortable that someone who crows about “treading the straight and narrow path” does not see anything wrong with the whole setup.

The matter could have been addressed more effectively with just a little wisdom and emotional maturity. A forthright explanation, supported by facts, and perhaps a light banter about the importance of ensuring the security and comfort of the chief executive of the land would have done the trick. In fact a joke about how unseemly it would be if the President’s convoy were to get stuck on the road because the presidential car malfunctioned would have done the trick. The matter would not have merited even cursory attention.