Monday, April 25, 2011

The stink at NAIA Terminal 1

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

In news reports over the weekend, Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado promised that all toilets at the Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport would be clean, would have running water, and would be provided with paper and soap in the next two to three months.

I don’t know whether we should laugh or cry.

On one hand, it is a relief to know that something is finally going to be done about the stink at our main international airport. On the other hand, the context around the planned “improvements” is dismaying.

First of all it is exasperating that the people in charge of the international airport are doing the planned improvements only because the stink has caught the attention of the global traveling community. The web site “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports” (sleepinginairports.net), recently ranked the NAIA Terminal 1 the fifth worst airport in the world (the top worst in Asia) for the year 2010.

Honrado took a swipe at the Web site that gave NAIA Terminal 1 a bad rap by labeling it as a Web site “geared toward budget travelers who slept in airports to save on lodging.” He said Terminal 1 could not accommodate airport sleepers, given the space limitations. What he was saying in effect was that the Website was barking up the wrong tree.

Not that I want to fight for bragging rights to having NAIA Terminal 1 declared as the worst airport, but anyone with half a brain, a fairly good eyesight, and a functioning nose can easily conclude that the only reason we didn’t rank worst overall was simply because we’ve had less traffic compared to the other airports in the list – and yes, because a large percentage of those who give feedback on the website are airport sleepers. If one were to read the comments made by travelers in the Web site, the complaints against Charles de Gaulle, Los Angeles, or even Moscow had to do with facilities that weren’t even available at the NAIA Terminal 1 such as wi-fi and yes, sleeping arrangements.

So Honrado makes it appear that as things are, he is in fact doing us a big favor that he is responding at all to global criticism on the state of NAIA Terminal 1. If we really come down to it, what the heck does he think his job is if not to make sure that the terminal meets global benchmarks in terms of facilities and services to those using it?

The stink at the NAIA Terminal 1 didn’t happen overnight and it certainly was there when he came on board as general manager. What took him so long to get around to fixing the mess?

Many columnists and bloggers (including myself) have been whining about the state of our international airport for quite sometime now. Cecile Zamora Van Straten also known as chuvaness (www.chuvaness.com) has been writing about the mortifying condition of NAIA Terminal 1 for the longest time now, even posting in her blog damning evidence of the decay such as the horrible conditions of its toilets.

Honrado also makes it appear as if the state of the toilets at NAIA Terminal 1 is the full extent of the problems. I have news for him. The filthy state of the NAIA Terminal 1 toilets is the easiest to pinpoint because it is so blatant that it assaults the senses. But no sir, stinking toilets are a problem, but there are more insidious problems that plague NAIA Terminal 1.

The other facilities at NAIA Terminal 1 are just awful. There are no decent places for lounging, or for eating, or even shops for browsing. The carpets are in the same condition as the toilets—filthy and smelly. There are not enough chairs so quite a number of passengers have to endure the onset of varicose veins from standing around too long. The last time I went through Terminal 1, my companion had to sit on his carry-on luggage because he didn’t have the courage to sit on the grimy floor and he was feeling the onset of a cramp on his legs. The unspoken rule at the Terminal 1 is simple: If you find a chair, guard it with your life. At the arrival area, one has to fight for trolleys and cough up money to be able to use them.

The personnel who work in the terminal seem like they have simply been drafted for the job without any consideration for the critical role they play as the first and last Filipinos that travelers coming in or out of the country encounter. Many of them are surly, cannot give answers even to the most basic questions, and yes, prone to corruption. Someone referred to them as thieves in uniform.

One cannot help but get the impression that everyone in the darned stinking terminal is angling for a tip! The attendants at the toilets are particularly more notorious and they are not even subtle about it, they openly accost people to leave tips. Foreigners pointedly ignore them pretending they don’t understand; but Filipinos cannot pretend not to understand Tagalog so we have to endure the usual sob stories about how miserable their lives are and being made to feel guilty that we have the means to travel while our kababayan are left cleaning up toilets.

A number of studies have established a direct correlation between employees’ ability to do their jobs well and the state of their work environment. These findings must be relevant in this case because the problems in the other terminals (2 and 3) are not as pronounced as those in NAIA Terminal 1.

The customs people are just as corrupt, perhaps even more so. The last time I used the NAIA, I came in from a trip from Bangkok. I bought a few (less than 20 pieces of clothing items I bought at the weekend market, nothing fancy or expensive) for relatives. For some strange reason, my luggage had a huge X mark done in chalk when it came out. You cannot believe the kind of trouble I went through as I had to conduct a very public inventory of the contents of my luggage. They didn’t find anything because there was truly nothing that could be taxed and yet the Customs people continued to hassle me, insisting that they were only doing so because the x-ray machine saw something. Someone suggested I pay a fixed amount, a suggestion I quickly melted down with the fiercest glare I could manage. After almost thirty minutes, I pulled out a pen and notebook and went through the motions of documenting the whole thing while dropping hints that I was going to write the customs commissioner about the harassment. They let me pass through.

My best friend who works for an NGO traveled to Cambodia recently. He seemed to have experienced a sudden charge of nationalism after having seen Angkor Wat because he decided to declare in his entry form a silver band with a semi-precious stone worth about 20 dollars that he bought in Cambodia for his partner. Boy, was he hassled by the Customs people—they even insisted that he pay five times the amount of the ring. Of course they let him go after he started making a scene.

The annoying thing is that these things happen only to ordinary mortals. People with political connections are treated like royalty and don’t go the aggravations at our international airports.

Honrado’s promise that conditions at the toilets at NAIA Terminal 1 will soon be a thing of the past is a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Films for the holy week

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

In the spirit of the Lenten season I will take a break from annoying other people and passing judgment on the latest blunders of our leaders.

However, I will continue to express - as I have done in the past - my bemusement over the way many people are scrambling all over themselves to get out of Metro Manila for the Holy Week. I will continue to maintain that the Holy Week is the best time to be in the Metro - it’s the time when there are less people on the road and there is less pollution and noise. Of course, as a friend pointedly warned me, it wouldn’t be anymore if people finally come to their senses and decide to stay in the Metro during the Holy Week. Then again, we Filipinos are creatures of habit. We do things for no other reason except we’ve always done them a certain way. So I doubt very much if people will stop their annual exodus out of the Metro around this time of the year just because people point out how odd that practice is.

I realize of course that for many, it’s the only relatively long stretch of time that they could do so particularly since the Aquino administration has stopped what the previous administration referred to as “holiday economics.” There are only very few long weekends in 2011 so I can empathize with people who see the Holy Week as vacation time rather than as time for reflection.

Whether one is cooped up in the Metro or stranded somewhere in a beach along the fringes of the Ocean Pacific, the question remains: What to do during the Holy Week? Ideally, it is the perfect time for some spiritual reflection. If one is not up for the challenge, there’s always reading, of course. Unfortunately, not very many find reading a pleasurable activity nowadays.

So we’re really left with one other option, which is not necessarily a bad one: Watch movies on DVD. I personally have lined up a number of DVDs that I intend to watch at some point between tomorrow, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday; most of them DVDs of television series.

I know. Our bishops have come up with an advisory about not buying pirated DVDs. I will not go into the merits and demerits of our bishops’ latest advocacy; I will note however a very obvious and amusing fact: More pirated DVDs are sold around churches. In fact, what could easily pass off as the main depots for pirated DVDs are the two major places of worship and devotion in Metro Manila, which are the national Shrine of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo and the National Shrine of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran. As I said, it is Holy Week so I will try not to make fun of the obvious correlation.

But in case you are in search of suitable movies to watch during this season of reflection but have had more than enough of Charles Heston’s and Yul Brynner’s grim countenance in The Ten Commandments and similar fare, I have listed in this piece some of the movies I have purposely reserved for occasions like Holy Week. I think these movies are spiritual although not necessarily “religious.” I, however, maintain that more often than not subtlety works best than hitting people in the head with certain messages.

The Mission is one of those films that has seemingly everything going for it - a great director (Roland Joffe of The Killing Fields), a renowned screenwriter (Robert Bolt of Doctor Zhivago), great actors (Robert de Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, etc), and a genius composer behind its musical score (Ennio Morricone). It was a film dedicated to Ninoy Aquino, which gives it added significance to Filipinos. The movie is based on the events around the Treaty of Madrid in 1750 when Spain and Portugal were locked in a fight over territorial lines in South America. The movie is a majestic and powerful discourse on the quest for power and how religion and politics are potent forces in slavery and subjugation. It’s a movie that raises too many questions that one needs to ponder on.

Lorenzo’s Oil is a movie based on the real-life struggle of the Odone couple, parents of a boy (Lorenzo Odone) diagnosed with ALD or adrenoleucodystrophy, a genetic disease that progressively destroys the brain of young boys. The movie chronicles the boy’s survival, which had been mainly due to the single-minded refusal of his parents to accept the grim prognosis and their subsequent valiant quest for finding a cure - which led to the discovery of oleic acid as a cure for ALD. It’s an inspiring film that really talks about the power of faith and love.

Chariots of Fire is more renowned for its stirring Vangelis soundtrack, often used as stinger music for events. The movie is based on the true story of two men who run in the 1924 Olympic footrace against all odds. It’s an absorbing and inspirational movie about the triumph of the human spirit. The story is about sports, but in this particular movie, sports - or running, in particular - is used as a metaphor for life.

The Shawshank Redemption is a tale of friendship and survival but is really about the redemptive power of hope. The quotation “Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free” was a blurb from the film. The film is based on a Stephen King novella (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). This film paved the way for another King novel that did well in the box office - The Green Mile, which is another movie that should be in this list.

Freedom Writers is also based on a true story, this time about a high school class and their teacher who inspired them to rise above the tragic conditions seemingly imposed on them by society. It’s one of the few movies that successfully linked the Holocaust to contemporary setting; Anne Frank’s diary being a central part of the plotline.

Other movies that should be in this list that I would have wanted to write about but cannot due to space limitations are: Schindler’s List, The Kid, Pay It Forward, August Rush, Meet Joe Black, The Matrix trilogy, and yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It would be extremely myopic on my part if I don’t include Filipino films in this list. There are quite a number of Filipino movies that also offer rich opportunities for reflection among them Laurice Guillen’s recent films such as Tanging Yaman. But three Filipino films I would recommend are classics. Two Lino Brocka movies stand out for being excellent social treatises on corruption, morality, and redemption: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, which starred a young Christopher de Leon and Miguelito, which starred a young Aga Muhlach. Ishmael Bernal’s Himala remains unparalleled for storytelling and filmmaking, small wonder really that it was picked as CNN’s best Asian movie of all time.

And if you are really craving for a film along the genre of The Christ’s Passion but don’t want anything ponderous, I would recommend The Prince of Egypt which is one of the best animated films ever made.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Missing the point again

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

The cute little girl asks the cute little boy “Girlfriend mo ba ako?” (Am I your girlfriend yet?).

The cute little boy says “Ayoko nga, di pa ko ready eh. Demanding ng mga girlfriends! Gusto ganito, gusto ganyan. Ewan!” (I don’t want to. I’m not ready yet. Girlfriends are so demanding, they have many needs. It’s exasperating).

The cute little girl says coyly “Gusto ko lang naman ng McDo fries, eh” (But I only want McDo fries!).

The cute little boy’s face lights up and then reaches for change in his pocket “Talaga?” (Really?).

The ad was… cute. I have objections to it but they had nothing to do with what our bishops found objectionable.

If you haven’t seen the 30-second TV commercial or if you are wondering why you haven’t seen the ad being shown on TV since middle of last week, that’s because McDonald’s has already pulled it out after certain officials of the Catholic Church protested that it conveyed the “wrong message on relationships” to people. Thereupon, Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Yñiquez crowed “we are very happy that McDonald’s listened to our plea, that it agrees with the sentiment and the reflection of the church on the commercial spot.”

Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference Episcopal Commission on Family and Life was even more vitriolic in his criticism of the ad. He said that the ad was “very shallow” and “cheapened human relationships.” He also spewed quite a mouthful on what courtship and wooing should be between the sexes.

Perhaps the Church would have wanted the little children in the ad to declare their fidelity to each other, telling each other to wait until they were of the right age, etc? Would that have pleased the bishops?

And since when did unmarried, supposedly celibate, people (though I know many are not: one priest who continues to celebrate mass lives with a relative and they function as husband and wife and they have children!) become an expert in courtship and wooing and relations between the sexes?

The whole hypocrisy reminded me of a retreat on sex and courtship for young people conducted last week, supposedly in preparation for the Holy Week, by a priest in our parish. A neighbor who was there related that the priest shared “experiences” that he had prior to his becoming a priest, experiences that he said he regretted doing and which he discouraged the attendees from indulging in. It’s disturbing because any psychologist worth his name would easily tell you that that kind of testimonial is the quickest way to encourage people to go ahead and try something. Do kids avoid the mistakes their parents made just because their parents said they regretted doing it?

Anyway. What annoyed me about the position of the bishops was that, as usual, they missed the more pernicious moral implication of ads that target children and use children as models.

They worried about what they children were playacting about. Let’s get real, guys. All kids do that kind of playacting; we build playhouses for children precisely so that they can pretend to be mother and father with their own set of children. Is there someone in this country who didn’t indulge in that kind of playacting when they were of a certain age? Of course children would playact about being husband and wife, or about being lovers – isn’t that the most important part of the whole social structure of our society? I think we are underestimating children and their ability to distinguish what is real from what is fantasy.

Parents tease little kids about having girlfriends and boyfriends—I have a six-year old niece who claims actor Enchong Dee is her boyfriend; she swears she will marry him someday, too. Her parents think it is cute beyond words when she seethes every time Dee is paired with another actress in television shows. I dread what Yñiquez and Castro think of everyone who finds the little girl’s fixation with Dee adorable. Do they think we are reprehensible and unfit to become parents? I wonder what they would think of my parents if they knew that my mom and dad overtly matched me up with someone when I was a little tyke.

But the Church once again missed the more relevant point by about a mile.

The Church gets riled up about the possibility that kids might see malice in a TV ad, or that they might think that it is okay to have girlfriends or boyfriends at an early age, or worse, that children might think that it is okay to go into relationships in exchange for material things such as French fries— logical acrobatic deductions which, really, are more “shallow.” The church, however, does not get riled up with the very real threat that fastfood chains are slowly making children sick.

This is the more important point: French fries are bad for children! They should not be hawking greasy food that has been found to be a leading source of obesity among children; food that will clog up arteries, cause hypertension and other lifestyle diseases eventually.

There’s a global movement against fast food chains, particularly those that target children as consumers. In fact, Ronald McDonald has been retired as the official symbol of the global fastfood chain partly because it is veering away from its old image and packaging and now moving towards being a café with a more balanced fare.

As can be expected, people could not help but draw a connection between this latest tempest in a teacup and the Willie Revillame child abuse issue, which incidentally the Church was noticeably silent on. Apparently, McDonald’s gave up the ad just like that because of the public outcry over the fact that a six-year old was encouraged to gyrate like a macho dancer on primetime television.

One wishes that Revillame and TV5 took the same tack. It would have been a lot simpler and they would have gained more brownie points if they acknowledged their grievous error: That Revillame simply made an error of judgment. They could have reiterated that they meant no disrespect to anyone, that they didn’t really know how to deal with situations like the one that happened, and apologized profusely.

But no, they have turned the whole thing into a battle of egos. Revillame even threatened to get back at everyone who he said “judged” him. My challenge to Revillame is: Go ahead, sue every columnist, blogger, and every citizen with a Facebook or Twitter account who expressed his or her outrage over what he did to that child. Let’s see if he has enough resources to run after thousands of people!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mandated minimum wage

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

Labor Day happens in about a fortnight. It’s supposedly a day to celebrate the contributions of workers to the advancement of societies all over the world and commemorate gains the labor movement has won through the years. Of course it is also a day meant to put the spotlight on the fate of workers and to advance their protection and welfare.

It is a sad reflection of the times we live in that the importance of the day has been reduced significantly through the years. Today, Labor Day has become a highly politicized occasion. Worse, many people think it’s an occasion that offers relevance only for those who are part of the militant labor force. It’s practically meaningless to the rest of the members of the working class; in fact, there has been this seemingly deliberate effort to exclude from any commemoration of Labor Day anyone who has risen through the ranks of the corporate ladder as if they don’t qualify as workers anymore.

Labor Day has also become an occasion for gift giving in the sense that progressive groups tend to expect government to make announcements relating to new wage increases or benefits. There was a time when governments had to hold in abeyance any announcements of new programs for the labor sector until May 1 just to make sure there was something it could trumpet on that day that would seem indicative of its continuing concern for the plight of workers.

This year, there is the clamor for yet another round of wage increases.

Pending in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are bills that seek to provide a P125 across-the-board increase to all employees in the private sector. The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines has also officially filed a petition for an increase in the minimum wage before the wage board. There are also loud grumblings from the rest of the militant labor force and there is reason to believe that extreme pressure is being made on the President to do something that would pave the way for a new round of wage increases.

There are many things that are blatantly wrong with this scenario. We are clearly in big trouble when the issue of wage increases becomes reduced to a political game. Wage increases must never be subject to a popularity contest because the stakes involved are just too grave to be held hostage by a stampeding mob.

And let’s be clear about this: Determining wage increases is a mandate that is vested solely on the wage boards. Not even the President can order wage increases although it is a given of course that he can wield the power of his office to influence the wage boards. Congress must not interfere with the functions of the wage boards because the composition of the wage boards is already representative of the critical stakeholders on the issue, namely, government (represented by the Department of Labor, the National Economic Development Authority, and the Department of Trade and Industry), labor, and employers.

Unfortunately, the bleeding hearts in this country cannot keep their interfering hands to themselves.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, head of the Social Action secretariat of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, recently backed the demand for wage increases. The bishop is known for being progressive, of course; he is renowned for his involvement in various issues involving workers, farmers and other marginalized groups. He has joined hunger strikes, addressed conferences of various progressive groups, etc. Why he has not advocated that the Church distribute its vast landholdings to the poor or that bishops stop living like royalty or making money out of its various Catholic schools is of course baffling.

The good bishop premised his support on observations that “the prices of fuel, power, liquefied petroleum gas, transportation fares, and other basic commodities have been going up.” He said “everything seems to be increasing.” He called President Aquino’s move to give fuel subsidy for public transport “short-sighted.”

One cannot but help notice how aligned the bishop’s statements are with the rest of the clamor of the militant work force. There is this obvious campaign to convince everyone in this country that there is a supervening event that would justify another round of wage increases prior to the lapse of the prescribed one-year period for wage increases in July 1.

A supervening event is defined as “extraordinary increases in the prices of petroleum products and basic goods and commodities.” It is very clear that the recent increases have not been extraordinary and mainly limited to petroleum products on account of the conflict in the Middle East. The inflation rate is also nowhere near the double-digit levels—the recent forecast of the International Monetary Fund released yesterday pegged it at 4.9 percent. There is no supervening event that would merit wage increases at this point. But the wage boards should be in a better position to determine if there has been any erosion and how much.

I do take issue with the pronouncements of Bishop Pabillo that the government’s move to grant fuel subsidy is short-sighted. The current spike in the prices of oil is caused by the brewing conflict in the Middle East which may be temporary. However, a wage increase is permanent—once granted, it cannot be taken away anymore.

The impact of any wage increase is actually far more disastrous in the long run. In fact mandating wage increases, particularly minimum wages, is far more short-sighted option. The real impact of wage increases is not limited to the absolute amount of the increase as each peso has corresponding multiplier effect in terms of overtime and other benefits. Wage increases are passed on to the market and companies who cannot afford to do so are forced to lay off employees. So it becomes a matter of giving something more to a few while taking away jobs from a far larger number. There are other reasons why mandating minimum wages is a madness that is clearly untenable – we already have the highest minimum wage in the region (making us non-competitive as an investment destination compared to our neighbors), wages should be a function of productivity and most companies do offer productivity-based or profit-based increases and incentives, one-size fits all solutions are no longer applicable today, etc.

But the most compelling argument against mandated minimum wage increases is this: It only affects at most 15 percent of local labor. The 85 percent of local labor are comprised of unpaid family workers (11 percent), household workers (5 percent), employed in government-owned and -controlled corporations (8 percent), unemployed labor (8 percent), own account workers (32 percent), worked for private establishments – residual (21 percent).

We need to address the needs of the 85 percent that comprise local labor and the best way to do this is to create more employment opportunities. We certainly cannot do this if we peg minimum wages at a level that is prohibitive for start-up companies, particularly micro, small and medium enterprises. We certainly cannot hope to attract more foreign investors if we have minimum wages that are higher than the wages in the rest of Asia.

Mandating wage increases rather than leaving it to market forces and for the wage boards to deliberate is clearly short-sighted. It’s the best way to ensure that future Labor Day celebrations will be about bewailing the loss of jobs and the decline of workers who are actually part of the labor force.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Three hours at the LTO

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

Visiting the offices of some government agency in order to perform a civic duty or to comply with some regulatory or legal requirement is not something somebody in his right mind relishes—at least in this country. It’s definitely not fun. Renewing licenses, getting permits, paying taxes, etc. are things we wish we didn’t have to do, not necessarily because we begrudge having to shell out hard-earned money but more because we know we will have to put up with a number of aggravations.

I know this is not a fair generalization but don’t we all expect that we have to put up with large-scale inefficiency, perhaps even some corruption, and lots and lots of waiting everytime we have to transact business with a government agency?

I have been told that some government agencies have been able to streamline processes and that some have even been able to maximize the use of technology to improve turnaround time. But I guess whatever improvements have been made has not really been significant because the negative perceptions continue to linger.

Anyway. I celebrated my birthday recently and that meant enduring a trek to the national centers for interminable waiting also known as the Land Transportation Office. I don’t know anyone who looks forward to having his driver’s license renewed even if the renewal is now done only every three years. Sadly, the risks and disadvantages of driving with an expired license are simply untenable. It would be tantamount to wearing a sign on one’s forehead that communicates to traffic cops “Go ahead, mulct from me. I am easy prey.”

I am pleased to announce that just like in other government offices, the LTO branch that I went to was also a firm believer in the power of tarpaulin banners. I concede that tarpaulin banners are more durable and probably more convenient but for crying out loud, do all signs have to be on tarpaulin banners? I am sure there is more to this tarpaulin phenomenon than meets the eye and I fear that at some point we’ll all be complaining about “death by tarpaulin.”

They had tarpaulin banners that announced the steps to be taken for renewing vehicle registration and driver’s licences but alas, these were positioned towards the back of the hall rather than near the entrance where they would have helped people. This reminded me of similar signs I saw more than two decades ago at the Tayuman Branch of the LTO where I got my first driver’s license—the signs were written at the back of the building where the only people who could read them were those who were looking for a place to hang out quietly while waiting for the processing to be completed. Why bother to have these signs if they don’t help people anyway?

Unlike in other LTO branches where fixers hang around like flies at a banquet, I must note that the LTO branch I went to was fixer-free, or at least not a single one offered his or her services to me when I went there.

Strangely, what this LTO branch had in great abundance was cats—as in animals of the feline kind. I love cats and I am a proud owner of an orange tabby but for the life of me I couldn’t understand how a government office could become overrun by a clowder of cats; somebody must be feeding them to encourage them to take up residence there. The cats at this LTO branch weren’t shy either, they went about their business right in the hallway and blocked passageways. I didn’t know what to make of the fact that everyone had to tiptoe around them gingerly while transacting business.

Why aren’t our government offices designed to provide comfort and convenience to people? I still have to see a LTO branch that provided air-conditioned areas for people transacting business with them. Fortunately, the employees behind glass walls already enjoy airconditioning but President Benigno Aquino’s “bosses” are made to suffer the sweltering heat outside. The day I went to the LTO was a particularly hot day and I was wearing an office attire so you can just imagine the level of discomfort I went through. And for three long hours, at that!

The process started with the submission of my expired driver’s license to a guy who looked like he had been in a bad mood for the last ten years—he looked natural wearing a scowl on his face. This guy was wearing sunglasses although I couldn’t really blame him for doing so. His desk was situated right in front of the main door and the intensity of the glare from the noonday sun was enough to cause debilitating migraines. The guy asked me if I had a taxpayer’s information number (there are fortyish-looking people in this country who still have no TIN?), gave me a form to fill out, and then sent me off to undergo a drug test and a physical examination.

Another digression: The form asked for body statistics in the metric system which is what it should be because it’s supposedly the prescribed measurement system in this country. The problem is that most of the equipment that measures height and weight are still in the old English system. For example, most weighing scales measure pounds rather than kilos. This is just one more example of how deeply-ingrained the ningas-cogon attitude is in our culture, programs don’t really get fully implemented all the way through. The metric system was a great program that never really got fully implemented resulting in a confusing situation where some forms specify measurements in metric while others continue to require measurements in the old English system.

The drug testing and the physical examinations were really plain and simple livelihood projects designed to benefit some enterprising people. The drug test cost P300 while the physical examination cost another hundred pesos. I actually think there is value in requiring drug testing before anyone is given a license to drive provided the integrity of the test is guaranteed. Let’s make no bones about this: There is no way the current drug testing being conducted in LTO branches is foolproof. When I went to have my drug test last week, the clerk didn’t even look up from what she was doing in the computer to check if I peed into the designated plastic receptacle. In fact, she left the room briefly when I was there. I could have switched the urine sample easily and she wouldn’t have known any better.

Besides, I had the distinct feeling that they didn’t even subject the urine sample for testing. I was asked to go to another room to undergo physical examinations (a pleasant clerk asked me some questions while an elderly man sat in the doctor’s chair reading a sleazy tabloid) which was completed in less than five minutes. When I got back to the drug testing room, the results of my drug test was already done despite the fact that the plastic receptable containing my urine was still sitting there looking untouched.

Less than 20 minutes later, the application for renewal of my driver’s license was feed to an assembly line that took more than two hours to process it. The inefficiency rankled because it wasn’t really a busy day—there were only a handful of people transacting business with them on that day. To make matters worse, they broke for lunch with nary an announcement to the people waiting in line.

I could go on and on griping about the ineficiency at our LTO branches and in government offices in general but the exercise is probably futile. The sad thing is that most among us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we couldn’t expect government offices to be exemplars of efficiency and productivity. But then again, why not? In other countries, government offices are the benchmark of new systems and cutting edge processes. Not in this country, though.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Pilipinas got not talent

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

I have always found the first few episodes of each American Idol season so much more entertaining to watch than when the competition has already gotten underway and the contenders start showing off the range and depth of their singing talents.

This is because it is during the first few episodes when they feature their auditions process, which are always a rollicking fun to watch. I used to marvel at the audacity of the seemingly endless stream of clueless Americans who dared to audition for a singing competition even if it was painfully obvious that they were asleep when the good Lord was assigning musical talent.

An observation that I have formed is that the absence of talent is most often inversely proportionate to the presence of unwarranted grit and gumption. Thus, the people who couldn’t carry a tune even if their very lives depended on their ability to sing were usually the ones who were more blasé prior to the audition (as if the auditions were a mere formality, a fait accompli) and also the most indignant and resentful when they were (naturally) rejected.

“These Americans are crazy!” I used to mutter to myself while doubling over in laughter. Of course Filipino Renaldo Lapuz, he who caterwauled “I am your brother, your best friend forever” to acerbic judge Simon Cowell while dressed in Knights of Columbus finery, destroyed the whole experience for us. Lapuz singularly dispelled the notion that Filipinos are naturally musically gifted; worse, that we are a sensible people.

Well, it seems the Americans (or the Japanese for that matter if one is familiar with Japanese prank shows) are not alone in this predilection for embarrassing themselves publicly by passing themselves off as talented. We know we are a people prone to flagellating ourselves publicly and for natural tendency to self-destruct. But we’ve always taken pride in our inherent artistic talents. My goodness, we are a people who can outsing and outdance any other race on earth! But apparently, not all of us—as we are now painfully finding out, thanks to Pilipinas Got Talent.

In the last few weeks, people have been eagerly watching out for the weekend telecast of the auditions for Pilipinas Got Talent and not necessarily for the pleasure of witnessing the discovery of exemplary talent. At the rate the three judges have been hitting the show’s dreaded buzzer, the show should be re-titled Pilipinas Got No Talent.

The post-telecast discussions tend to focus on performers and performances that took breaths away for sheer idiocy or for abysmal lack of talent. It is now very obvious that we also got, in this country, lots of truly untalented people who also happen to be in serious need of psychiatric help. And not all of them are in politics.

Just last weekend, we saw people on the show performing acts of sadism, such as that performer who went through the motions of dancing while dripping hot candle wax on his body. Yeah, ewww. We witnessed people trying to pass off as talent the ability to make horrendous sounds such as the sound of infants in extreme pain. And of course a long parade of people who could not sing, or dance, or play musical instruments but insisted on inflicting themselves on the general public just the same. The only thing I haven’t seen on the show—or at least not yet- is someone giving himself a haircut while gyrating and singing, or someone juggling oxygen tanks with the tanks still attached to their bodies. Gruesome, I know. But that’s the kind of performances the show is being known for.

Watching Americans make fools of themselves was funny because they did it for self-expression or at least for the fun of it. Watching the long line of untalented people who audition for Pilipinas Got Talent is not funny at all because each one of those contestant had a sob story to tell. Most saw the show as their lifeline out of whatever tragic predicament they were immersed in. Each of those hapless contestants truly needed to be in the show for the money.

And this is when we begin to ask ourselves if, by watching the show, we also contribute to the exploitation of their pain and misery. We flagellate Willie Revillame for similar offenses but close our eyes to what Pilipinas Got Talent is currently doing. It’s the same thing. Actually, at least Revillame does his stuff sans intellectual pretensions.

***

And while we are on the subject, I must express my utter dismay over the way amateur performing groups in this country seem to think that getting on ABS-CBN’s Showtime is the barometer of their worth or talent. Oh please, many of those vacuous celebrities who sit as judges on the show and try to pass judgment on the various groups that perform before them hardly pass as artists.

I will concede though that at least the show offers opportunities for performing groups to showcase their talents.

I do have many problems with the show. For one, it has been masquerading as soap opera, what with the inordinate attention given to the drama that attends each group. And there’s always one— either one member of the group is sick, or has met an accident, or they are doing the performance for someone related to someone in the group who has met some tragic misfortune. The focus on the lugubrious has become tedious, even the judges and the audience have learned to ignore the way contestants have learned to milk their tragedy to get provide some social or psychological context to their presence in the show.

It’s summer and kids are on vacation so it’s probably not a major cause of concern at this point. But I do know for a fact that many contestants in that show who come from the provinces quit their studies just to be able to come to Manila to compete. And if they are lucky to win as weekly winners, they move on to the other levels of the competition and have to stay in Manila for the whole duration. This means being absent from their studies and eventually quitting school because obviously no school will allow a student to be absent for two to three months.

Why do I know these things? Because I had nephews from Davao who went through that rigmarole – they actually stayed in Manila for two months to be able to qualify for the grand finals. They quit school for the sake of joining the show. And worse, they had to endure extreme difficulties while in Manila because their funds ran out and they practically had to beg for their sustenance. Expenses for a group of 20 young people while they stay in Manila for months do not come cheap and the show only gives prizes to winners.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Defiance

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

The Office of the Ombudsman will not sack Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez III despite an order from Malacañang. Of course there is more to this story than meets the eye; but it all boils down to one and the same thing—people insisting on having their way, fairness and the law be damned.

There are those who insist that the defiance openly displayed by the people in the Office of the Ombudsman is uncalled for because it borders on the disrespect for the highest official of the land who has made no bones about the fact that he wants certain people out of that office. But then again, people in the Office of the Ombudsman have countered with an accusation that rankles: The highest form of bullying from the highest office in the land.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the current imbroglio involving the Office of the President and the Office of the Ombudsman is a proxy war. The real contenders in this bitter feud are supposed to be President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and his predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Thus, supporters of beleaguered Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez (who was impeached by an overwhelming majority of our congressmen allegedly upon orders of President Aquino himself) can be justified for their dogged support for the underdog in this whole sordid chain of events. Their reasoning is that they didn’t start this cycle of treating others with disrespect, that in fact they are simply doing so out of self-defense.

Of course the supporters of the President have a different version of events. They insist that the Ombudsman is the main obstacle that stands in their way of instilling decency in government.

The age-old question remains: Do the means justify the end?

Employees of Philippine Airlines who are members of its union, the PAL Employees Association, will also not heed an order from the Department of Labor and Employment for them to maintain the status quo while the case was submitted for compulsory arbitration by the National Labor Relations Commission.

The employees have likened the issue to a David vs Goliath fight, insisting that they have been left with no other choice but to fight back against the injustice and the oppressive acts of PAL and the Aquino administration.

As can be expected, the PAL employees have reduced the issue to a labor-management dispute. In reality, the issue is far more complicated than that. While the employees do come across as victims in the whole issue, it is not PAL management that is necessarily the culprit in the outsourcing phenomenon although it can be argued that nobody forced the outsourcing option on PAL management. The simple truth of the matter is that PAL management chose an option that was viable and legally available in an effort to take itself out of a slump. It was an act of survival. Government validated outsourcing as an option because it could not afford not to – doing otherwise would have been equivalent to killing the sunrise industry of this country, which is the business process outsourcing industry.

The PAL employees are fighting to hold on and maintain employment arrangements that they have been accustomed to, in effect turning down new options that have been made available to them. At the end of the day, this story may have has been made overly complicated by political interests; but at the core of the issue is whether or not outsourcing is a valid business proposition in this country.

Illegal loggers, particularly those in the Sierra Madre area, continued to ravage forests and cut down trees despite Executive Order No. 23 issued by the President February 3 imposing a total log ban across the country. Illegal logging is often romanticized as an act of desperation by poor people who are simply trying to eke out a living, but we all know that the issue is far more complicated that that. At the core of the issue is that illegal logging continues unabated because there continues to exist corrupt government officials and greedy businessmen who exploit tree cutters to front for their nefarious activities.

Willie Revillame has continued to proclaim his innocence and insist that he didn’t do anything wrong— that there was nothing objectionable - when he gleefully and repeatedly encouraged Jan-Jan, a six-year old boy, to gyrate like a burlesque dancer in his show last March 12. A number of agencies and experts have already come forward to denounce Revillame’s latest moral transgression, some going out of their way to explain exactly what was wrong and objectionable about what happened – but Revillame continues to be defiant, insisting on his own twisted interpretation of what happened.

I also wrote in this space last week my own objection to Revillame’s latest caper. I am glad that the Movies and Television Review and Classification Board (I really prefer to refer to them as the board of censors), the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and child psychologists like Dr. Honey Carandang have became involved in the issue.

But I am also flabbergasted at some reactions that are clearly over-the-top and verge on shrilly exaggerations. Someone castigated Manuel Pangilinan, owner of TV5, virtually blaming him for Revillame’s intellectual and moral degeneracy. Someone even went as far as digging information on the boy’s parents, noting the fact that the boy’s father works as owner of a beauty parlor and making irresponsible conclusions in the process.

These kind of exaggerated reactions and incivility are precisely what enable Revillame to continue being endearing to the masa. These shore up Revillame’s image as an underdog; as a misunderstood guy who simply needs direction and guidance rather than being treated like an outcast and a criminal.

Anyway. All these happened towards the end of last week, in barely a few days. But this pattern has been there for quite sometime now.

Of course our bishops and the other people in this country who claims to know God’s private telephone line has been openly engaged in acts similar to the above in the last year or so since the passage of the reproductive health bill has been actively pursued in Congress. Regardless of the many efforts to clarify provisions of the proposed bill, despite the many efforts to arrive at points of agreement on the contentious parts of the bill, despite various efforts to clarify the scientific basis for the bill, they continue to twist and obfuscate facts and the truth.

If the people who are supposed to be the role models in this country in terms of ethical and moral behavior are guilty of the same acts of defiance, then I guess it’s futile to expect others to behave with a little more circumspection.