Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Character flaws

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

I also don’t approve of Pinoy bashing particularly when it’s done for no other reason except to make fun of ourselves and our (many) weaknesses and peculiarities.

But there are times when we really need to take a long hard look at ourselves to discover how we compare with others particularly during crisis situations. The objective is not so much to inflict harm on our collective ego but more to help us realize that there are more proactive—and infinitely better—ways to respond to certain situations. We can always learn from reflection.

In the last two weeks there has been this ongoing comparison between the way Filipinos and Japanese behave during crisis situations. The general drift of the comparisons has, as can be expected, been embarrassing for Filipinos. Obviously we pale in comparison to the very orderly, disciplined, and almost stoic way in which the Japanese have been behaving in the face of the enormous difficulties that they have had to contend with in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that hit the country last March 11, the tsunami that the earthquake unleashed, and the possible threats of radiation coming from the problematic nuclear power plants in Fukushima.

Media has been patiently documenting the many ways in which the Japanese have shown remarkable discipline and nationalism under circumstances which others—presumably Filipinos in particular—would have considered license to behave irrationally.

The world has seen pictures of Japanese people patiently waiting in line for food, water, and fuel for hours and hours and even under heavy snow. Such a situation, had it occurred in this country, could have resulted in utter bedlam and confusion with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else. I saw one particularly heartbreaking picture of Japanese elderly stoically standing in line in a very orderly manner for water, with the seemingly endless line snaking around and around a football field. I cannot imagine Filipinos being as disciplined; I am sure some people would have found an excuse to cut into the line.

When Typhoon Ondoy struck the other year and brought with it massive flooding, many saluted the inherent resilience of Filipinos and the way the spirit of bayanihan was rekindled. But we also witnessed the many ways in which many people took advantage of the tragedy for selfish personal gains; not that the behaviors were representative of the behaviors of all Filipinos. We also witnessed how easy it was for many to cast blame on everyone else.

The difficulties being experienced by many people in Japan today are probably a hundredfold worse because it’s still winter there. And yet we don’t hear of Japanese people openly cursing their government or blaming everyone else for their woes. They trudge on with their lives uncomplaining. They have taken responsibility for rebuilding their lives and in helping their fellow countrymen rather than expect help from their government.

A text message that I received over the weekend noted other areas of comparison. The text message said “Here are some things that we can admire about the Japanese: No local government officials grabbing credit for the relief operations, no Japanese pretending to be victims in order to corner relief goods for themselves, no media people getting in the way of relief operations, and no politicians pasting their pictures on relief goods to gain political mileage.”

Observations like these are amusing, but they also hurt because they illustrate a certain weakness in our character—most of us do have the tendency to put personal needs and interests over and above those of country and fellowmen. And let’s face it, many of our politicians are shameless enough to exploit tragedies for personal political gain.

True, we also have our own strengths as a people, but there’s a lot that we can learn from the Japanese.

The bank that I work for has two offices in Japan and while we cannot fault many Filipinos for wanting to leave Japan out of fear for their lives, we also cannot help but note the way Japanese people choose to stay in Japan at a time like this. As a Japanese friend wrote to me in an email “this is the time when we Japanese must stay in the country to show to the world that Japan remains stable and strong.” Many of our Filipino employees have flown the coop but the Japanese nationals remain steadfast in staying put in Japan to help convey a sense of normalcy even amidst rising panic.

We’ve seen footages of Japanese husbands tearfully bidding wives and children goodbye, sending them off to safer places while they choose to stay where they are out of love for their country. We’ve heard of the hundreds of Japanese workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plants risking their lives to stem a meltdown from happening.

In contrast, we can’t help but compare the way many of our countrymen have given up on the Philippines. Some of them even openly expressed their belief that conditions in the country have become hopeless as a way of justifying their decision to migrate to other countries.

Japan will emerge from this crisis an even stronger nation because their number one strength is the character of their people. One wishes that our leaders recognize this as well and begin putting in place programs that strengthen love of country among Filipinos.

***

While we are on the subject of character flaws and people who seem not to have qualms about exploiting other people’s tragedies for some personal gain, we might as well talk about how Willie Revillame and his staff indulged in the most blatant kind of exploitation recently. They showcased in their show a little boy with a most “unusual” talent: Gyrating like a macho dancer. Videos of the particular Willing Willie episode has been immortalized in YouTube so in case you haven’t seen the grotesque incident, you can easily access it.

The whole thing reminds one of that little girl who did a strip tease act in Little Miss Sunshine, the movie that was shortlisted in the Oscars for best picture a couple of years back. The difference is that this little boy was crying while performing and was obviously confused about the appropriateness of what he was doing. For some strange reason, quite a number of people—including those in the audience that night that lapped up the performance like it was an act from cirque de soleil—found the video of the little boy gyrating like his whole life depended on it cute and endearing.

What was even more shocking was the Revillame didn’t see anything wrong with the whole thing and even egged the little boy to repeat his performance over and over again! They even closed the segment by putting the little boy on a makeshift riser to gyrate while they all doubled over in laughter.

So this is what we have become as a people, we have been desensitized enough that many among us don’t see anything wrong with a little boy performing a very adult act on public television.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Caste system for learning

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

In the interest of disclosure, I will state for the record that I am a human resource management professional who, when the opportunity presents itself and there is no conflict of interest involved, also accepts management consulting jobs including conducting training programs and seminars and speaking at various conferences and other learning forums. I have conducted training programs and workshops on leadership, communications, team building and strategic planning and thinking for various executives including local officials. I have spoken a number of times at conferences organized for barangay officials and leaders. Most of these were conducted in hotels and conference centers, some of them in resorts in Bohol, Cebu, Davao, La Union, etc.

I don’t see anything wrong when local governments bring local officials such as barangay captains to a beach resort for a training program provided they have allocated funds for the purpose, expenses are properly documented and accounted for, and the learning content of such programs have been carefully designed for optimal learning.

In short, the whole experience is meant and designed primarily as a learning experience rather than as a junket.

I find the current brouhaha over the fact that 330 officials from Pasig City’s 30 barangays recently went to Boracay to undergo a three-day training program an exercise in hypocrisy.

Some pundits pretend to be incensed at what they refer to as “ostentatious extravagance” on the part of the Pasig City government. Others said that the trip and similar activities are an “utter waste of public money.” I understand that other cities and government agencies have been dragged into the fray and are now being made to account for the training programs that they conduct out of town.

All these because someone who fancied herself a crusader for public accountability wrote a letter to the editor of another daily complaining about the fact that barangay officials from Pasig invaded Boracay early this month. The editors of that daily smelled a good story and sensationalized the whole thing. Of course I am willing to bet whatever little savings I have that employees of this daily hold their training programs in similar environments, perhaps even more expensive settings.

I will not deny that many of these “lakbay aral” (roughly, learning trips) and out of town seminars are really junkets. But it would be dangerous to generalize and categorically say that all of these training programs conducted out of town by government bodies (and even private institutions) are such. I have been in many programs conducted in some resort where the learning content was so packed the participants were only given a couple of hours to really enjoy the resort’s attractions.

So why are these programs conducted in such a setting to begin with? Simple. First, because these resorts offer packages that make it easier and more convenient for organizers to mount such training programs. Second, many of these resorts and training centers have been designed to be conducive for learning and therefore maximize the learning process. Third, believe it or not, when all the costs are accounted for, holding conferences in training centers and resorts is actually more cost-effective. Take my word for it. When one takes into account the manpower costs of running major seminars (for example those for 300 people) such as all the preparation prior to, during, and after the event as well as the administrative nightmares of arranging facilities and everything else—the costs can really be staggering.

Of course there are different types of resorts and training centers and some of them are more expensive than others. Thus, it all boils down to the budgeting process—getting the venue that fits the resources of the agency sponsoring the program.

But I find it objectionable when people suggest that we ought to have some kind of a caste system for leaning opportunities such as seminars and workshops. In this particular case, the general drift of the discussion was whether the venue was appropriate for the occasion and the participants. Let me be more blunt: Whether it was right to hold a seminar “merely” for barangay officials at a posh hotel in Boracay (it was learned later on that the seminar was held at the Boracay Regency Hotel but the participants, it turned out was billeted at a less expensive hotel). If it were for private companies would it have created such a stink? If it were for governors and mayors, would people have raised an eyebrow?

So my quick answer to the question of whether it is right to have a seminar for barangay officials conducted in a posh hotel is a vehement: Why the heck not?

Where is it written that barangay officials do not have the right to eat in five-star hotels, cannot set foot in posh surroundings, should not be entitled to training programs conducted in a nice setting?

I find it really annoying that most of us take it for granted that our senators and congressmen and generals and their families have millions of pesos at their disposal for travel and representation, travel first class, and stay at five-star hotels but we raise a stink when “lowly” barangay officials are allowed to set foot in a first-class hotel for a seminar, many of them for the first time in their lives! Why should we begrudge the three days that they spent in Boracay for a seminar on how to manage their barangays more effectively? Are we saying that our barangay officials are not worthy of going through a learning experience conducted in a nice environment?

I actually believe there is wisdom in taking participants out of their comfort zones and bringing them to a completely different environment where they can relax and focus on learning new things. This is particularly relevant for local officials, who need to see, smell, touch and taste “best practices” rather than just learn these theoretically. And when we really come to think about it, there is a lot of learning that can be derived from traveling. The problem is that many people have this paradigm that traveling is a luxury reserved only for the rich. But I guess not for “mere” barangay officials, huh?

I have been in many situations when the whole learning process was severely compromised and was practically rendered ineffective because participants could not concentrate on the learning because of so many interruptions and because everything was “business as usual.” I have learned that people often cannot do things differently when the learning process does not enable them to see things differently; and this usually means physically bringing them to a different setting where their minds can be conditioned to see things from a different perspective.

As somebody once said, if you consider training expensive, consider just how expensive ignorance is. And if anyone is going to invest in learning —they might as well go all the way and make sure that the whole process paves the way for real learning otherwise it will just be an utter waste of time.

The question that people should be asking is not whether a seminar workshop or barangay workshop had to be held at a five-star hotel in Boracay. Such a question hints at discrimination. The question should be whether they actually learned from the experience or not. We should be making people accountable for results.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A week of bad news

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

A major earthquake struck Japan and unleashed a tsunami that wrought more devastation on its northeastern coast and sent the rest of the countries in the Pacific basin in panic.

The conflict in Libya reached fever pitch over the weekend as the United Nations Security Council , after expressing “grave concern at the deteriorating situation, the escalation of violence, and the heavy civilian casualties” voted to authorize member states to “act as required to prevent harm to Libyan citizens.” The resolution declared Libyan air space a no-fly zone, strengthened the arms embargo against Libya, and reiterated the freeze on Libyan assets in foreign banks.

Although Libyan despot Muammar Gadhafi promised to abide by the UN Security Council resolution, he nevertheless dashed off angry letters to the Council and the Presidents of the United States of America and France. He denounced the foreign intervention in what he called a purely internal affair. In a move eerily reminiscent of Ferdinand Marcos’ machinations before he was ousted from power by a mass-based uprising, the Libyan dictator blamed everyone else but himself including the international terrorist network Al Qaeda for Libya’s current woes. At least most of our overseas Filipino workers are already home safe except for a few thousands, mostly nurses, who continue to courageously man hospitals.

What has become an even bigger cause of concern is that the internal conflict that besieged Egypt and then Libya has spilled over to other Middle Eastern countries as well. Also last week, forces from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia staged a military intervention in Bahrain in an effort to keep the ruling group in power. The potential fallout from the power struggle between the Sunni Muslims (the ruling power in Saudi Arabia and UAE) and the Shiite Muslims (the ruling power in Iran and Lebanon) has graver consequence to the world, and to the Philippines in particular.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is one of the world’s strategic supplier of oil. We all know what happens every single time the supply of oil is impeded somehow – the world is sent into a tailspin of debacles as prices of commodities go haywire. Already, the prophets of doom have been having a field day issuing various doomsday scenarios. One such scenario is that prices of oil in the Philippines will jump dramatically overnight and will hover around the P100-200 per liter range. I dread the thought of what this would mean to a country such as ours, which is heavily dependent on oil for practically everything - from electricity to transportation.

Skyrocketing prices are one thing; massive unemployment is another thing. If the unrest in the Middle East escalates into a full-scale conflict we will have a major headache in our hands as millions of overseas Filipino workers in these countries start trooping back home. Obviously we don’t have enough jobs for everyone as yet. If remittances start running dry, which, in case we have forgotten has been what has kept the Philippine economy afloat in the last two decades, then we are clearly in big, big trouble.

As if these were not enough, we were dealt yet another blow in the gut when our neighborhood bully flexed its political muscle yet again.

The Chinese Ambassador to Manila announced also last week that the three Filipinos on death row in China will be executed “sooner or later” despite the reprieve granted a couple of weeks ago after Vice President Jejomar Binay personally made an appeal to the Chinese authorities to spare the lives of the Filipino drug mules. “The verdict is a final verdict,” the ambassador said stoically. Thereupon, the Philippine government made known its intent to prostrate itself once again upon the Chinese authorities. I hate to sound like an insensitive clod, but really, this cycle has got to stop. The reason why we are treated like doormats is precisely because we allow ourselves to be treated like such.

I’ve said this before but I will say it again: I know that it’s impossible to put a price on human lives, but at a certain point we have got to learn how to draw the line between saving lines and saving national pride and honor.

I know what many of you are thinking: Well at least most of the dreadful things that happened last week were warning signs, forebodings in the horizon that may or may not come to pass. Not really. Last week also saw the worst flooding ever in many parts of the Visayas. My home province of Leyte was inundated by heavy rains; so heavy in fact that areas that have never seen flooding suddenly found themselves submerged in several feet of floodwaters.

Our farm in my hometown of Abuyog, for instance, has never been submerged in floodwaters because it rests in relatively higher ground beside a hill. My parents were frantic last week to see floodwaters quickly inundate the area submerging hectares of rice crop. What was heartbreaking, which send a sister into tears, was that the crop was due for harvesting in a few weeks. This sad development was replicated across the whole province as the floodwaters destroyed millions of pesos of crops. My sister sent me a plaintive text message bewailing the tragedy and wondering how farmers would be able to recover from the loss.

In times like these, we can take comfort from the fact that we still have families and friends, that the tragedies may have destroyed material things but have hopefully not broken the spirit. We can definitely learn from the resilience of the Japanese people. There is hope even in the midst of the most abject circumstances.

Summer treat

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

Initially wanted to submit a piece about the way Congress handled the impeachment proceedings against the Ombudsman. However, I decided to ditch the idea because, really, what else is there to say that has not been said yet? Besides, the last few days have been depressing enough what with all these bad news coming our way from all over. I think we need to take a short break from politics.

Well, the weather bureau has announced that summer 2011 will be a welcome respite from the annual tradition of untold suffering from extreme heat. I think this is good news for many reasons. One, the consumption of electricity will hopefully not be as pronounced as in previous seasons. Two, this would mean less expenses for parents who would not be forced to bring their kids to the mall everyday to cool off. Three, a cooler summer would enable schoolchildren to enjoy their vacation from school.

Of course there are people in this country who refuse to put credence in whatever prediction our weather bureau makes and they cite quite a number of instances in the past when such predictions did not come to pass (and in some cases the exact opposite happened). By the way, I know the local weather bureau has a formal kilometric name, which also sounds overly pompous which I why I refuse to use it.

But whether it is going to be a scorching summer or not, I guess there is no stopping people from indulging in certain traditions associated with the season.

There was a time when this meant trudging up the hills of Antipolo to bathe in the waters of Hinulugang Taktak, offer prayers to the Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, and, because we are a people that cannot conduct our affairs without a indulging in a feast, gorge on a lot of suman sa ibos (a variety of rice cake) and mangoes. These days, bathing at the Hinulugang Taktak would be worse than being exposed to the radiation fallout from the nuclear power plants in Japan; that’s how polluted it has become.

Thanks to the wonders of consumerism, the current version of the pilgrimage to Antipolo is a trip to Boracay. This has become a status symbol of sorts for many people in this country; as some of my students tell me, summer is not complete if one has not frolicked in the white sands of the island. I am aware though that the percentage of time people actually spend on the beaches while in Boracay is miniscule compared to other pursuits – namely, partying, partying, and more partying – but who are we to argue about the real definition of fun?

I wish though that Filipinos discover other destinations in this country that are comparable – in my opinion, even better – than Boracay. There’s Bohol, for example, which offers a lot of other attractions in addition to its white sand beaches and rich marine life. There’s Samal Island in Davao, more popularly known as home of the world-famous Pearl Farm Resort, but which offers quite a number of more reasonably priced but just as awesome resorts and islands. There’s a whole row of towns in Camarines Sur. And of course, there’s always La Union and Pagudpud up north.

The onset of the summer season in these islands is announced by the sudden appearance of a number of makeshift stalls that sell a variety of goodies associated with the season. When I was younger and when global warming had not yet messed up nature’s calendar in a big way, the onset of summer was made known by the sudden abundance of certain local fruits such as santol, mangoes, and watermelons. The availability of these fruits always coincided with the onset of summer.

When I was growing up in Leyte, summer inevitably meant spending quite a number of hours tending to a makeshift fruit stall along the highway where we sold fruits that we harvested from trees in our farm.

But of all the goodies associated with summer, the most ubiquitous would be the halo-halo. I was driving around the San Andres area in Manila over the weekend and couldn’t help but notice the many makeshift stalls that have sprouted, all selling their own version of what is probably the country’s official summer delicacy. What the lemonade stand is to the United States, the halo-halo stand is to the Philippines.

In some parts, the neighborhood halo-halo stand is really a very simple affair – just a table, some jars of ingredients, and a manual ice shredder. Others are a little fancier such as the one I saw in one street corner over the weekend – a specially designed glass cabinet with wheels and compartments for the various ingredients. I have also noted the availability of plastic glasses complete with stylish covers similar to the ones used by Starbucks for their iced concoctions. Our halo-halo vendors have gone a long way, indeed.

But of the many halo-halo glasses that I have consumed through the years, three automatically come to mind as the most unforgettable.

It is sad that Digman’s halo-halo is no longer available in most of our malls in Metro Manila but there was a time when Digman’s halo-halo was considered the benchmark, the authoritative halo-halo, in town. Digman’s halo-halo offered the tagline “Sang dosenang halo, sangdosenang sarap” (roughly, a dozen ingredients, a dozen delights). The dozen ingredients included two varieties of beans (red beans and garbanzos or chick-pea beans), ube (purple yam), macapuno (sweetened coconut), nata de coco, kaong (palm sugar), langka (jackfruit), corn, sago (tapioca pearls), sweetened bananas, gulaman (gelatin), and pinipig (fragrant rice flakes). I never really got to try the concoction served at its original outlet in Bacoor Cavite, but in the late eighties up to the early nineties, Digman’s could be found in the fastfood areas of most major malls. My friends and I used to have our fix from the basement of Landmark Department Store in Makati. We would eat halo halo with siopao. What made Digman’s halo halo enticing was that the colorful ingredients were often displayed in huge heaping bowls. Sadly, Digman’s halo-halo slowly disappeared from our malls when more global fares invaded our market. I think the closest clone of the Digman halo-halo is the one served by the fastfood chain Chowking.

The other unforgettable halo-halo that I’ve experienced was the one we bought in Arayat Pampanga a couple of years ago. It was called Kabigting’s halo-halo and was unforgettable because of its simplicity – it featured just three ingredients: corn, beans and pastillas. This particular halo-halo was very creamy because it used carabao’s milk. Unfortunately, Kabigting’s halo-halo is not available in Metro Manila so one has to travel all the way to Pampanga to savor it. I am told though that it is now available at the Marquee Mall along the North Expressway.

My favorite, and mainly because it is relatively available all-year round in various stalls around Luzon, is Razon’s halo-halo. Razon’s halo-halo is also remarkable in its simplicity: It only has three ingredients, namely, sweetened banana, macapuno, and leche flan. But what is probably noteworthy is the almost sand-like consistency of the ice that they use.

Global warming may bring a number of changes in our lives but it is always heartwarming to note that certain things never change. Hopefully, halo-halo will always be staple fare in the summer of our lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

False alarm

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

Here’s what I really want to know: Who are these people who are churning out all these doomsday scenarios and what exactly do they get from instigating panic and fear among the populace?

Do they get an emotional high when they know of someone who almost becomes catatonic after, say, receiving that message they started about a radioactive cloud from Japan slowly drifting to the Philippines? Do they get their kicks from knowing that thousands of students were sent home by one of the largest universities in Metro Manila because parents and students kept on badgering school officials about the alleged threat to lives?

The first text message, which I received last Monday at 12:32 pm, had this ominous warning (some words have been spelled out in full for clarity): “BBC FLASHNEWS: Japan government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. Remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precaution, radiation may hit Philippines at starting 4:00 p.m. today. Please send to your loved ones.”

I was told there was a mad rush to buy betadine solution in the last two days so at least some people benefited from the text message somehow. I am glad there was no mention of iodine tablets or there could have been a spike in the demand for them as well. Text messages like these make life difficult for a number of people such as administrators who make critical decisions to safeguard others.

The second text message, which I received at around 7:00 p.m., was even scarier. This time, it was in Taglish and was evidently started by someone who was in a state of panic: “WARNING: 4:30 in the afternoon sumabog ang isang nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Kapag umulan daw mamaya at bukas, wala daw lalabas. Kapag lalabas ka, siguraduhing hindi mabasa ng ulan dahil delikado ito at posibleng masunog ang balat nyo, makalbo or magka-cancer. Have Mercy. Please pass.” (Roughly: A nuclear power plant in Fukushima Japan exploded at 4:30 in the afternoon. If it rains later or tomorrow, don’t go out. If you do, make sure you don’t get wet as your skin might get burned; you might lose hair or get cancer.)

Our househelp received a similar text message with some minor variations, indicating that people liberally tampered with the original message and decided to add his or her own piece of advice. What is it that compels people to issue their own advisories to the world—fractured English and all, and worst, shot through with erroneous and baseless information? While we are at it, what is it that encourages others to spread such advisories without even bothering to check the veracity of the information?

It’s frustrating because when we come to think about it, it really is easy to verify information today. The Internet is available 24/7 and media networks, both global and local, post advisories that are updated almost on real-time basis. Even government agencies have websites, for crying out loud. The first text message I received, and which I understand was the one that was forwarded like crazy perhaps because it was supposed to have originated from the British Broadcasting Company, was easy to verify: One simply had to log on to the BBC Web site to check if the network did issue the advisory. Obviously, it didn’t; and while the BBC site did not have an advisory specifically refuting the text messages (they probably are not aware of our penchant for spreading false information) there were a number of items on its Web site last Monday that clearly indicated that the threat of a radiation cloud or acid rain happening in Japan or its neighboring countries was not imminent. Or at least, not yet.

Most local media networks and government agencies also went to town Monday refuting the text messages. Government officials who are usually not seen on television during “normal” times such as the Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo were suddenly very visible, hopping from one television show to another. It’s sad that we only come to know and hear about these people during crisis situations; science and technology are topics we should be devoting more attention to as a country but sadly, they’re not “sexy” enough for media attention. At any rate, I am not sure that people were really listening to what our scientists and officials were saying because the early morning shows yesterday were still asking the same questions over and over again.

Rumors spread under three conditions —when there is ambiguity, when there is anxiety, and when the issue at hand is perceived as life-threatening. All three factors were present in large quantities last Monday.

The problem with discussions about radiation and nuclear power plants is that aside from the fact that the topic is too technical for the average person, we also tend to either talk above people’s heads or focus merely on creating headlines.

For example, it was almost hilarious watching the hosts of one morning show grilling Montejo no end on variations of basically the same questions: Is there a possibility that the seasonal direction of winds change in the next few days and begin blowing south? How can we be sure that Japan is telling the truth about the real radiation situation? In the event a radiation cloud begins drifting towards the Philippines, what should people do to protect themselves? Are we really sure? Doubly sure? No wonder people are panicking, we keep on feeding their fears by reiterating the same doomsday scenarios and articulating their worst fears instead of focusing on the facts. To put it simply, let’s stop telling people not to panic because by doing so we only reinforce the concept further. Rather, let us explain the facts clearly and calmly using a more positive and empowering approach such as focusing on what people can, not what they cannot do.

The threat of radiation from nuclear power plants has once again revived the issue of whether the country should have its own nuclear power plants. What I find strange in the ongoing discussion is that people seem oblivious to the fact that the current radiation threat is coming from another country. We worry about a possible catastrophe that can be brought about by a meltdown should we operate the Bataan nuclear power plant but close our eyes to the fact that some of our neighboring countries have nuclear power plants that can easily affect us. For example, Taiwan has six nuclear power reactors and three active nuclear power plants. In case people have forgotten, Taiwan is much closer to the Philippines that Japan. Vietnam plans to build at least 10 within this decade and Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are also planning to build their own plants.

I am not saying we should have our own because everyone else has. All I am saying is that the discussion cannot be made in a vacuum; and certainly is best done at another time when people can be more objective about the matter. Why do we insist on having this conversation now when we are years away from having a nuclear power plant should we decide to have one?

At any rate, I’d like to see more proactive efforts to educate people on the dangers that come with allowing panic to get the better of us including believing in hoaxes and in spreading false alarms. Clearly no good can come out of these.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Disaster preparedness

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

Many things can be written in the aftermath of 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan and the tsunami it unleashed last Friday - but where and how do we begin?

I’ve seen quite a lot of really horrifying things in the more than four decades that I have lived in this planet, but the images we saw over the weekend set new benchmarks. The extent of the devastation left most of us with our mouths agape, searching for the right words to describe the horror.

Truly, we are all puny to the wrath and fury of Mother Nature.

Like most people, I cannot imagine how it would feel like to experience an earthquake of that magnitude. The 7.7-magnitude earthquake which brought the Hyatt Terraces Hotel in Baguio City and a number of buildings in Cabanatuan and other parts of Luzon crushing to the ground in 1990 seemed to pale in comparison to the earthquake that struck last Friday. But those of us who went through that experience in 1990 can still recall the unspeakable terror. I was at that time attending a training program high up at the penthouse of a high-rise building in Makati and believe me, it felt like the whole building was about to crash to the ground.

We are told by experts though that the strength of an earthquake does not automatically determine the kind of devastation that would follow. The 8.8-earthquake that struck Chile last year caused relatively less devastation compared to the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti also last year. It all boils down to the level of preparedness as well as the level of earthquake engineering that is in place in a particular country.

There were no clear indicators yet as to the real extent of the damage wrought by the earthquake that hit Japan last Friday, although most experts were optimistic that the direct casualty from the earthquake would be much less precisely because Japan is a country that takes seriously disaster preparedness as well as compliance with building regulations designed to withstand powerful earthquakes. Apparently, most of the devastation was wrought by the tsunami—in some areas, 40-feet meter high walls of water—that swept cars, ships, buildings and everything else along its path.

If such devastation could happen to a country like Japan where people are more conscientious about disaster preparedness and where government imposes stricter controls on earthquake engineering, imagine the kind of destruction that could occur to a country like the Philippines! We don’t have earthquake drills in this country, much less tsunami drills. Most houses in this country are constructed without the benefit of earthquake engineering. Many of our coastlines are dotted with squatter colonies composed of shanties that stand no chance of surviving a tsunami.

In this context, the sighs of relief that many heaved on account of the fact that the natural disasters spared the country seem justified. I am not sure though that gloating about how lucky we are, or how blessed we all are, or even about how special we are in the eyes of God, speaks well of ourselves as a people. Surely, the Japanese are not children of a lesser God.

But as usual, many religious zealots could not help themselves. At the Holy Mass I attended yesterday morning, I felt like walking out of the Church in the middle of the homily because the priest tried to establish a connection between natural disasters and what he said were the total breakdown of values in society. Naturally, the priest launched into another tirade against the reproductive health bill effectively threatening the faithful that support of the bill, which he said is the handiwork of the devil, will invite more disasters into the country. This is the kind of narrow-mindedness and prejudice that we have to put up with from our religious leaders in this country.

There are many lessons we can draw from the tragedy that happened over the weekend. It’s important that we learn from what happened because the probability that a similar catastrophe will befall us is high. As many experts have been saying all this time, it’s a question of when.

We need to aggressively put in place programs that would increase our level of preparedness to deal with similar disasters. For example, we need to make sure that all building projects strictly comply with earthquake engineering requirements. This applies to high-rise buildings as well as residential houses that are just as susceptible to collapsing during a massive earthquake if not built to standards.

We need to put in place various disaster preparation programs. The tsunami alert that was issued last Friday was successful because there was more than enough time from the time the tsunami struck the northern coast of Japan and the time it was supposed to hit islands along our eastern coast. But it won’t always be like what happened last Friday, we won’t always have the luxury of time.

A sister and her family and some cousins live along the fringes of the Pacific Ocean in Leyte. When I called her last Friday to warn her about the tsunami, she told me that they were already on their way to higher grounds because the community leaders of the town including school officials immediately went to work informing people of the danger as soon as they heard the news. Of course the information that got passed on from one person to the next in the streets were exaggerated, some bordering on irresponsible rumor-mongering. This naturally caused quite a number of blood pressures to soar to the stratosphere, but at least most people were able to respond to the warning. We need to make sure that in the future we are able to deliver information and warnings in a much better way—faster, yes; but also with focus on accuracy.

We also need to put in place programs that would enable us to respond in a more coordinated and effective way to the aftermath of a disaster. Relief and recovery efforts are always difficult after a disaster—but planning and preparation always make efforts more effective.

We may be puny in the face of major natural disasters, but there’s always many things we can do to mitigate the impact of such disasters.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Soap opera

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

Sometimes it seems to me that we’re all living in a soap opera in this country. The situations we often find ourselves in are surreal and the level of histrionics is often unbelievably, well, soap operatic. There are times when we half expect certain people in power to publicly break down in tears and start spewing cinematic dialogues—oh wait, these have, in fact, happened!

Take the case of the current travails of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. This long drawn-out drama has been hogging the headlines for quite some time now and the twists and turns of the real-life controversy have become even more complicated than the average soap opera.

If we are to believe Gutierrez, she is the hapless victim in the whole sordid chain of events. She is supposed to be the suffering heroine whose rights have been and continue to be mercilessly trampled by the oligarchs in this country. Of course she claims to be innocent and righteous. Her loyal supporters, which incidentally count everyone in the Office of the Ombudsman, insist that Gutierrez does not deserve the kind of treatment she has been getting from almost everyone lately. They have hung huge banners proclaiming their support for Gutierrez, one such banner covering practically the whole fa├žade of the huge imposing edifice that serves as the seat of power of the Ombudsman.

On the other side of the fence are the accusers of Gutierrez who, as can be expected, paint the Ombudsman as the witch that holds prey in her gnarled hands the very concepts of justice and progress and practically everything else decent and right in this country. In fact, there are those who insist that this country will not be able to move forward unless this current Ombudsman is taken out of office. The President himself has let loose the proverbial dogs in Congress to go after Gutierrez.

A subplot that has added further complications to the whole soap opera is the fact that the matter of whether Gutierrez can be impeached or not was still on appeal at the Supreme Court when the proceedings were resumed. There was a time in this country when actions pertaining to contentious issues were put in abeyance pending the final decision by the proper authorities. Thus, parties in a highly contested litigation observed the status quo until their case was decided on with finality and this usually meant going all the way up to the Supreme Court. People waited and allowed the other party the right to exhaust all legal remedies before they go for the kill. Apparently, this is not the case anymore today. Our lawmakers, and the President himself, teach us by example that there is no more need to wait for the Supreme Court to issue a final ruling before they start officially skewering a person in public.

As if these were not enough, there’s also the other subplots involving conspiracy theories about how certain congressmen are using the impeachment process to sanitize themselves as they themselves have pending graft cases in the Office of the Ombudsman. It’s all very engrossing and admittedly entertaining; if only all these weren’t so damaging to the country and to our collective mental health.

This particular soap opera will reach yet another high point this week as Congress goes through the motion of submitting the articles of impeachment to the plenary for voting. We all know it’s a formality, of course. Even Gutierrez has already conceded that it’s a done deal. The only reason we still have to go through the whole thing in a very public way is so that we can allow our leaders some precious moments on primetime to do their big dramatic scenes. The soap opera must continue. Abangan.

Still on the subject of soap operas, let me share with you that the very few times that I caught Mara Clara, the ABS-CBN tearjerker, on television (I eat dinner at our kitchen where the other people in my household converge to get their daily soap opera fix), I was so incensed by the level of villainy displayed that I made a mental note to write about it.

In case you have been blissfully unaware of it, an updated version of the soap that catapulted Judy Ann Santos to superstar status in this country is enjoying resurgence in local primetime television. This time however, the villainess Clara is a thousand-fold more cruel, devious, scheming and manipulative. The few episodes that I watched showed the character was made to do all kinds of evil things I actually wondered why parents allow children to watch the stuff.

It is easy to explain why the Clara character has to be so downright bad —this is so that the protagonist Mara’s character would shine in contrast. The more suffering she is made to go through the better to allow the actress to shed copious tears and make her character more endearing. Villains in soap opera are likewise portrayed as sexual predators who use their power to seduce leading men. One would expect that Mara Clara is spared from this stereotype because the lead actors are supposed to be in high school for crying out loud. Unfortunately, it seems the people in ABS-CBN truly don’t care about these things because they just had to include the love triangle angle as another complication in the soap opera. The problem is that this soap opera is directed at a very young demographics—people who cannot yet fully distinguish real life from soap operas and this was painfully illustrated by a more recent “development.”

Last week, however, someone sent me a link on Facebook to a You-tube video of a little girl bawling her lungs out in front of a television set. She was supposed to be caterwauling over the “death” of Mara, the lead character of the soap opera. From what I gathered from the avid fans of the soap in my household, the character of Mara was supposed to have figured in a major explosion in one of the recent episodes and subsequently “died.” We all know of course that killing the lead character in a soap opera is a total no-no in the Philippines so it’s really all part of the efforts to further thicken the plot. Characters in local soap operas always get resurrected from the dead—it’s the most convenient way to resolve or unravel the most complicated complications. This matter of dead characters coming back to life has become a standard fixture in Pinoy television that almost every soap opera features the same guessing game at one point or another in its serial life: Is the character dead or alive?

But to get back to the point of this column, there was that little girl on You-tube immortalizing for all eternity the extent of her heartbreak over the death of her soap opera heroine. The fact that she was bawling her lungs out was already indicative of the kind of torture the people behind the soap opera inflicts on people; the fact that the little girl’s grief was recorded and posted in the Internet smacked of further exploitation.

But wait, there’s more. The video was actually featured in the newscasts of ABS-CBN! The network actually used the video of a little girl who was disconsolate because she apparently has not been taught the difference between real life and soap operas. It gets worse. The news story was actually an obvious plug for the soap opera, which is of course on the same network. It is truly amazing how low television people can get for the sake of ratings!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Too little, too late?

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

So, acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario is in the Tunisian capital of Tunis to personally oversee the evacuation of Filipino overseas workers from conflict-torn Libya. Del Rosario’s physical presence so close to Libya (reports indicated that he would have wanted to go to the Libyan capital of Tripoli had there been flights available) has sent quite a number of eyebrows into the stratosphere.

There are those who insist that whatever direct benefit to be gained from del Rosario’s physical presence in the area is purely symbolic. The job of welcoming Filipinos streaming out of the border between Libya and Tunisia, arranging flights back home, and providing various forms of assistance can be delegated to bureau chiefs. There’s also the matter of security. It’s a romantic gesture devoid of practical significance, critics say.

But there are also those who laud del Rosario’s courage and hands-on approach to managing the crisis. I think it’s the first time that someone so high up in the bureaucracy took a more direct hand in managing a crisis affecting overseas Filipino workers.

I know this is not the right time to engage in blaming but we really must try harder to become more proactive in managing crisis situations involving Filipinos abroad. The conflict in Libya did not happen overnight—there were indications that the problem would escalate to crisis proportions very early on. In fact, most other countries already pulled out their nationals from Libya as early as three weeks ago! A friend who has a sister working as a nurse in Tripoli shared that in the hospital where his sister works, only Filipino nurses are left behind; the others have already been evacuated out of Libya by their embassies.

We continue to celebrate the arrival of each batch of Filipinos streaming in from Libya. Most of these overseas workers have been able to get home because of the efforts of their employers. Most of the Filipinos who truly need help in Libya are still in that country. And I fear that the horror stories will begin surfacing soon.

Is del Rosario in the area to deflect forthcoming criticism?

***

I am glad that President Benigno Simeon Aquino III spoke up “to set the record straight” on renewed attempts to rewrite history by Senator Bongbong Marcos.

Marcos last week said that had his father, the later dictator Ferdinand Marcos, not been thrown out of office during the Edsa 1 uprising, the Philippines could have become another Singapore.

P-Noy rebuffed Marcos by saying that, on the contrary, the Philippines would have gone the way of Libya if the Marcoses had not been thrown out of Malacanan Palace in 1986.

I understand why Senator Marcos—and his mother and siblings—continue to insist on a different version of how things were in this country during the period when they ruled like monarchs. Family honor is an important value for many Filipinos; sometimes the matter is romanticized to outlandish extremes such as when sons or daughters commit murder to avenge a family’s honor. Besides, it is obvious that the Marcoses still have grand political plans for themselves thus the need to constantly deodorize their image as well as that of their father’s.

Defending family honor is one thing; conjuring rosy hypothetical scenarios is another.

Senator Marcos’ insistence that this country could have done better if they had been allowed to continue being in power has no factual or empirical basis whatsoever. In fact, all indications point to the contrary. The country was in terrible shape economically and politically, as well as in other facets of its national life in the years leading to Edsa 1. There was absolutely no way that the country could have survived, much less prospered, had the Marcos dictatorship been allowed to continue wrecking havoc on the country and on Filipinos.

The Marcoses have the brazenness to assert their twisted version of the way things were when the dictator was in power because Filipinos, in general, have a short memory and are thus prone to forgive easily, and because the Aquino administration continues to be hell bent on demonizing Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Hopefully, P-Noy’s recent attempt to put the Marcoses in their place is also indicative of this government’s position on whether or not the remains of the late dictator could be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Ferdinand Marcos might have been a decorated Filipino soldier (assuming those medals were indeed authentic) but what he did to the country and to many Filipinos during his reign of terror does not entitle him to be buried alongside Filipino heroes. It would be the highest form of sacrilege.

***

I wrote in this space the other week about the plight of Filipino seafarers, particularly new merchant marine graduates who aspire to get jobs on board ships through local manning agencies.

Most of the candidates are forced into months—in many cases, even years—of forced servitude by the manning agencies. They are exploited mercilessly, made to function as unpaid and overworked messengers, janitors, drivers, and servants of employees of these manning agencies in exchange for the promise of employment.

I received a number of E-mails in response to that particular piece, most of them from seafarers themselves and their families. These E-mails essentially validated what I already wrote previously about the unfair and illegal practices of most of the shipping companies and manning agencies.

One email sender confirmed that the practice of requiring candidates for employment to render service as “utility personnel” is the standard in the industry. Apparently there are just too many candidates for employment; there are just too many Filipinos who aspire to become seafarers thus allowing shipping companies and manning agencies to get away with mass-scale exploitation. In many instances, one email sender said, candidates for employment have to beg manning officers just to put them in a waiting list to become utility personnel. In short, the shipping companies and manning agencies get away with bloody murder because there are just too many people who are not just willing, but in fact begging to be victimized.