Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More madness

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


Last Monday I wrote about House Bill 4853, otherwise known as the Security of Tenure Act. The proposed law was submitted for plenary discussion by the Committee on Labor and Employment of the House of the Representatives just before Congress went into recess early this month. HB 4853 has two counterpart measures in the Senate. The first one, Senate Bill 171 was filed by Senator Antonio F. Trillanes while Senate Bill 858 was filed by Senator Jinggoy Estrada. Both Senate bills tackle the issue of security of tenure.

The Senate bills are essentially similar to HB 4853. But I must be stressed that Estrada—who is chairman of the Senate’s labor, employment and human resource development committee—and his staff seemed more open to getting inputs from as many sectors as possible and to an enlightened discussion on the matter.

The Senate bills do not contain the alarming provisions limited the number of probationary employees a company can hire at any given time to 30 percent of its total workforce. However, the Senate bills also prescribe a cap on the number of contractual employees that can be hired. Moreover, the Senate bills propose to shorten the probationary period from the current six months, to only three months; something that is untenable since it is obviously not enough time to determine an employee’s overall fitness for a job or conversely, an company’s suitability as an employer.

What we can glean from all these is that there is, undeniably, a concerted effort to push the measure.

Actually there were originally eight bills filed in the House of Representatives and four bills filed in the Senate, each one crafted supposedly to protect security of tenure of employees. Unfortunately, all of these bills operate from the same basic and faulty paradigm, which is that the goal of protecting the security of tenure of employees can only be achieved by curtailing the flexibility of employers. In short, the goal of promoting the welfare of employees cannot be pursued hand in hand with promoting business interests.

The reality is that there are already more than enough laws in this country that protect security of tenure of employees. The problem is that just like in other areas of our national life, we are very lax in terms of ensuring strict compliance to the laws.

This same generalization can be applied to our problems with traffic congestion, tax collection, agrarian reform, etc. There are more than enough laws to make things work. Unfortunately, strict implementation of our laws and ensuring strict compliance to them has never been one of our stronger suits. And to make matters worst, when things go wrong our default response is to create more laws, which only tend to complicate matters some more.

The other reality that is staring us in the face, which our legislators do not seem to comprehend, is that the proposed measure on security of tenure actually addresses only those employed in the formal sector, which comprises less than six million of the 32 million or so workers in this country. More than 76 percent of the total workforce in this country work in the informal sector comprised of those who are self-employed, subcontracted home-workers, informal employees in family-operated farms or businesses, unpaid family workers, uncounted numbers of workers toiling under the boundary system such as drivers, and domestic workers employed by households. The vast majority of workers do not stand to benefit from any such legislation.

If we truly want to do something to effectively address the welfare of workers in this country, we need to acquire a more macro, more comprehensive, and definitely more strategic perspective of the problem.

***

The news items that greeted us as we emerged out of the shadows of typhoon Falcon were stories about the President’s latest attempts at trying to be cute (which, incidentally, bordered on the politically incorrect) and the uproar over the mass same-sex wedding ceremony held in Baguio City.

Speaking at a formal ceremony to launch a Korean-operated power plant in Cebu last Monday, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III once again made public his fondness for pretty ladies. Media noted that the bachelor President’s wandering eye zeroed in particularly on television and radio personality Grace Lee. He capped his playful dissertation by saying that he should revive the Malacanan Palace in Cebu so he can find his lifelong partner amidst an area predominated by beautiful women.

I am sure a number of pundits and media commentators will be criticizing the President’s latest pronouncement related to his love life. Just a few months ago, Mr. Aquino publicly whined about media’s preoccupation with his personal life. It’s really ironic that the President has no qualms about inviting attention to the very same issue that he finds disdainful. Simply put, if the President does not want media to keep on speculating about the state of his love life, he should simply stop making references to it in his public speeches.

There were also lots of enraged faces and a surfeit of righteous indignation in the last two days over the fact that a number of same-sex couples “tied the knot” in ceremonies solemnized by the Metropolitan Community Church, a global religious community that blesses the union of same-sex couples. A local bishop condemned the ceremony while a sputtering local executive declared it illegal and immoral.

Why are we wasting energy and precious media attention debating over the legality of such unions? Of course the wedding ceremony was not legal— the laws in this country do not recognize same-sex unions. I don’t think the same-sex couples had any pretentions about the ceremony being legal and binding. I also don’t get why people are enraged over the fact that some citizens made a public declaration of their sexual orientation—last I heard, this is still a country that recognizes certain freedoms. The couples underwent a religious ceremony that is allowed under the tenets of their religious community; don’t we have religious freedom in this country as well?

And,pray tell, exactly how do same-sex couples threaten the stability of heterosexual marriages in this country? It’s not as if heterosexual people will suddenly change their sexual orientation and decide to enter into same-sex marriages just because some same-sex couples underwent a religious ceremony of their own.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Another madcap idea

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

On the heels of a human resources summit of HR professionals in Asia, I wrote in this space last week about my observations about the industrial relations situation in Singapore, venue of the summit. I talked about how enviable the situation in Singapore was —how the Singaporeans have a massive surplus of jobs, how even senior citizens could easily find employment there, and how the whole country seemed intent on creating more and more opportunities for growth, with everyone—government, business and industry, the labor sector, and the general population—all firmly committed to making things work. Singapore remains on a massive expansion mode driven primarily by a national vision that is fully committed to effectively harness the power of human capital.

Three days upon my return to beloved Philippines, I received news that sent shivers down my spine: Just before the House of Representatives went into recess early this month, the Committee on Labor and Employment submitted for plenary vote a consolidated bill purportedly designed to protect the security of tenure of employees which, if passed, would send Philippine competitiveness on its knees.

The proposed measure validates what many experts have long concluded about the state of industrial relations in this country: Hopelessly mired in destructive partisan politics. We seem intent on sabotaging whatever gains we’ve made in the area of competitiveness and enhancing employment and employability by insisting on short-term populist measures.

The proposed measure called House Bill 4853 not only retained all the onerous provisions of a previous draft measure (HB 303)—which, ironically enough, was already presumed to have been “shelved” after a series consultations between business representatives and a number of legislators—it proposes even more alarming provisions that would nip in the bud any hope of business expansion particularly by small and medium enterprises.

The business sector was already dealt a major whammy recently when government caved in to the demand of the labor sector for an increase in minimum wages. Legislating minimum wages is a madcap idea that curtails employability; as it is, we already have one of the highest minimum wages in the region, making it prohibitive for foreign investors to expand business operations in the country let alone bring investments into the country. HB 4853, known as the Security of Tenure Bill, is an even more insidious idea.

If, heaven forbid, the measure gets passed and becomes a law, the number of subcontracted employees a business can have will be limited to only 20 percent of its total workforce.

In addition, the bill proposes to make it a violation of the law if the company’s total number of probationary employees exceeds 30 percent of its total workforce. I know. It is incomprehensible.

These are just two of the more contentious provisions of the bill. In effect, our legislators have just sent word that expansion of business and creating more employment will become prohibitive and almost illegal in this country.

The 20-percent cap on subcontracted employees does not exclude security, messengerial, and janitorial services. Businesses that are retail-based such as banks, pawnshops, and those small franchise businesses (think Master Siomai) that you see in malls and busy intersections will be hit the hardest. Around 50 percent of the total manpower complement of banks and pawnshops and other similar businesses in this country are comprised of security guards; how are these companies supposed to operate without adequate security?

Our legislators insist that these employees should be hired as regular employees. But if companies are required to hire security guards as regular employees under the guise of providing security of tenure, then God help this country because certain rich businessmen/politicians with controlling stakes in major manufacturing companies would have instant armed private armies!

And think about the implication of the proposed 30-percent cap on probationary employees to the thousands of franchised businesses that employ two to three employees per outlet. If a stand-alone snack bar requires three employees to operate, the 30-percent cap would mean they could only hire one additional person every six months. This would mean writing finis to any plans of expansion! It is this kind of shortsightedness that strangles opportunities to create more employment.

It must be stressed, though, that the intent of the proposed bill is noble. Protecting the welfare of employees is a responsibility that everyone in this country must share. Security of tenure must be ensured. But there are ways to do this without necessarily endangering the viability of business. There are win-win solutions that can be explored.

We’re just talking about the impractical applications of the proposed bill. We’re not yet talking about the larger issues that the bill actually tackles, which is outsourcing. We’re benefitting immensely from the outsourcing phenomenon with many jobs in first world countries being brought to the Philippines. The business process outsourcing sector is experiencing a major boom; recent projections indicate that if this sunrise industry is carefully nurtured and allowed to flourish, the revenues that will be generated will overtake the volume of remittances of overseas Filipino workers in five years.

Unfortunately, outsourcing is being given a bad rap by certain sectors because of ideological reasons. It is unfortunate that certain sectors are reducing the whole issue into a Goliath versus David fight. It is a tragedy that ideological forces have turned the issue into an either/or proposition. This is not about whose interest must prevail because deliberately putting one party at a disadvantage in order to favor the other party results in a no-win situation. The provisions of HB 4853, simply put, will stifle employment and slow down expansion at a time when far too many of our countrymen need jobs. In the end, everyone loses.

The issue really is employment because if there are more than enough jobs in this country and people can afford to pick one job over another, we will not be even talking about the need for security of tenure. As in the case of Singapore, when people feel disenchanted with their employers, they simply leave and transfer jobs because there are more than enough to choose from. Such a setting forces employers to come up with better mechanisms to retain key talents and these programs are far more effective than any law on security of tenure. Besides, security of tenure should really be a joint responsibility of government and the business sector.

For the moment though, the workable solution is to produce more employment opportunities and to nurture an industrial relations ecosystem that creates jobs and more jobs. In such a scenario, HB 4853 would be deemed completely irrelevant.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Round pegs and square holes

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

With everyone watching each of his actions and decisions and telling him what to do and what not to do, I am not surprised that President-elect Benigno Aquino, or P-Noy as he reportedly wants to be called, wants to take a break and disappear for three days before he formally assumes the presidency. It must be really tough to be in his shoes right now.

P-Noy can take comfort in the fact that people still care enough to actually want to get involved. The worst thing that can happen to a leader, or to anyone for that matter—columnists included—is to be ignored to the point that no one cares for what one does or does not do. If it adds further consolation, his own mother, the late former President Cory Aquino, has been there as well. In fact, she was deluged with so much advice in the first few days of her presidency that she actually made it known that she did not welcome unsolicited advice from anyone.

Although it doesn’t look like it on the surface, I have it on good sources that the jockeying for positions in the incoming administration has resembled a veritable mad free-for-all slugfest. Except for Edwin Lacierda (Presidential Spokesman), Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr. (Executive Secretary), Corazon “Dinky” Soliman (Social Welfare Secretary) and Teresita “Ding” Deles (Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process), the names of the other putative candidates who have supposedly already been offered certain cabinet posts, keep on changing everyday. Very early on, Sonny Coloma was supposed to be certain of being appointed as Presidential Management Staff Head; recent development indicate that the post seems to be going to Julia Abad, daughter of Liberal Party campaign manager Butch Abad.

We are told that that the various interest groups within the Aquino camp are doing their own campaigns to make it appear that their respective candidates are the anointed ones. There are the stalwarts of the Liberal Party, there are the members of the civil society (they go by the generic designation volunteers’ group), there are the members of Kaklase Inc., there’s Kamaganak Inc., and the various influential individuals who are Cory loyalists. What happens is that every single time a name becomes public, the members of interest group that’s pushing for another candidate reportedly scramble all over themselves to discredit the anointed one, throwing as much mud as they can on the candidate until the supposed appointment quickly becomes a mirage.

I look at all these with amusement and with a certain degree of curiosity. Unlike others, I don’t feign disgust or mock alarm over the squabbling and the political equivalent of mud wrestling. Whether we like it or not, all these are part and parcel of politics; what we are seeing are textbook illustrations of legitimate political behavior. So to all those who continue to express disgust, dismay, or repulsion at what’s happening at the Aquino camp related to the selection of cabinet members, I have this to say: Where have you been? There is nothing that’s happening now that has not happened in the first days of any President-elect anywhere in the world. Fighting over the spoils of victory is an activity that is instinctive in the animal kingdom; we Filipinos just happen to do it with a little more hysterics.

Having said that, let me now express my disappointment over the flap generated when the name of Boy Abunda was floated as potential Tourism Secretary and the current buzz over the supposed imminent appointment of Jim Paredes to the post. The appointment of Paredes has not been officially confirmed. Paredes is trying hard to contain his eagerness to become Tourism Secretary but he is really such a ham as an actor; his body language betrays his efforts to appear cool and disinterested. Why he bothers to conceal the fact that he is interested in the post is beyond me because he is very much qualified for the post, as far as I am concerned.

It would be a lot simpler of course if the selection process for Cabinet posts were made public and formal and all that lobbying, jockeying and squabbling were laid out in the open. For crying out loud, there is nothing wrong with applying for certain posts. We do it every day in the private sector, why should it be any different for Cabinet posts? The problem is that certain people seem to think that openly coveting certain government posts is beneath them—they hem and they haw and spew gibberish about how they are willing to help in any capacity—even as janitor or messenger—when they really should just cut to the chase and declare their interest in certain positions.

Of course, we cannot do it the way the garrulous presidential sister would have it done—with a talent showcase, a lugubrious side bar about the candidate’s sordid past, and an opportunity to make it all about her. But something a little more dignified, formal, and structured, would be preferable. Perhaps a structured review of the resumes of those who have signified interest, a series of interviews would be good, even a public presentation of the candidate’s plans and program of action. It goes without saying of course that the people tasked with the selection process should be qualified for the job, as much as possible free of partisan political bias, and very important—aware of the strategic mandates of the various positions candidates are considered for.

This brings me to what my disappointment over the hullabaloo about Abunda and Paredes. It is tempting to just automatically dismiss the qualifications of these two people on the basis of perception about what kind of people they are and what they bring to the post. But doing so smacks of bigotry and prejudice because, really, perception is so much different from objective reality. Even more infuriating is the fact that others dismiss these two individuals on the basis of the fact that they are from showbiz. Okay, I am willing to grant that our experience with some—all right, many—politicians with showbiz pedigree has not been all that good. But indulging in mass generalizations is still dangerous.

At any rate, Abunda and Paredes are not exactly our regular run-of-the-mill showbiz personality with vacuous personalities. Abunda is not just a talk show host, he is a topnotch manager of his own production company and is behind the phenomenal success of many celebrities. He sits as adviser in many advocacies and is actually a sought-after speaker in many conferences. Paredes is not just a singer—he is a book author, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, and for many years now at the forefront of the civil society movement in the country. Paredes was host and the spirit behind Tatak Pinoy, that long-running television show that any tourism secretary would have benefited from.

The tourism post is critical because it is primarily a marketing post. I think that our relative failure in pushing tourism as a strategic contributor to the economy is mainly because of our utter inability to think out of the box. We’re stuck in this Field of Dreams—built it and they will come—paradigm. We should be able to learn from the Wowowee phenomenon—that show may be derided by the hoi polloi in this country but there is no mistaking the fact that that show pulls in more balikbayan than any other. Given a choice, more people will probably pick an hour at Wowowee than an evening at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

All I am saying is that we shouldn’t really be quick to judge people just because they don’t fit the square holes we have conjured in our minds.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes from Singapore

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

I am writing this piece in Singapore, venue of a summit for human resource management professionals in Asia which I am attending. The last time I was in this island republic was in the 1990s. I remembered being awed and amazed at the kind of progress this country was making then. When I arrived here last Tuesday, I almost wept with envy. Singapore has clearly left the Philippines behind in so many ways.

The reasons Singapore is so successful have been written about and discussed extensively. Of course a large part of its success is attributed to Lee Kuan Yew who provided Singaporeans a compelling vision and steadfast stewardship.

But Singapore’s success story boils down to one key factor: A human resource management agenda that put people development at the center of its national development plan. Singapore acknowledged very early on that people—Singaporeans—were its only lasting source of competitive advantage and consequently put in place a comprehensive program of action that aimed to develop the competencies and cultivate necessary values such as love of country and discipline. They invested heavily in the education of their children and spent a lot of effort teaching them the right values. Malaysia copied the same strategy and even India has jumped into the bandwagon.

I met up with a number of Filipinos who occupy middle-management positions in various companies here and validated two things. First, that many of our competent middle managers and information technology experts are being siphoned off the Philippines quicker than we could train them—no wonder we’re having difficulty filling up middle management positions in the Philippines. Most of our competent managers are in Singapore. Second, there are too many job openings in this country—they have tens of thousands of jobs that they are unable to fill.

Singapore’s laws are without doubt employer-friendly; they don’t believe in protectionism. The net result is that employers are not scared of expanding operations, which results in the creation of more jobs. Truly, if people have jobs and there are more job opportunities out there to choose from, people stop complaining about labor conditions— when they become disenchanted, they move to another company that offers better, friendlier, more competitive working conditions. Companies are forced to come up with better compensation packages and benefits plans to hold on to key talent.

This is something that our lawmakers need to think about: The solution is not to pass more laws that restrict employers and impact negatively on our competitiveness because what these do is simply tighten the job market some more. What we need is to create more jobs so that people have more options. Unfortunately, many of our lawmakers cannot see beyond their noses to see things from a more macro and strategic perspective.

I went to a McDonald’s store for breakfast last Saturday and was heartened to note that the restaurant’s crew included senior citizens in their 60s or 70s. I also noted that senior citizens were hired in many stores and restaurants in the city; many of the cab drivers are in fact people in their fifties or sixties. I was told they are better drivers because they are more careful and more solicitous. There are jobs even for senior citizens!

Let’s repeat this in the hope that our leaders get the message: If we focus on enhancing our competitiveness, everything else will follow naturally.

Anyway. Just to illustrate the vast differences in the way Singaporeans conduct their business compared to how we do it, the news items that hogged newspaper headlines here all week here were the efforts of government to reduce noise pollution emanating from their MRT trains, the outrage over the “rude” treatment two Singaporean women received from Malaysian guards at the Singapore-Malaysian border, the announcement of a former Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister that he wasn’t running for President of the country, and the Pink Dot mass action of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in Singapore.

Sure, there were also other “sensational” stories about conflict of opinions over an infant who supposedly died of “shaken baby syndrome” as well as stories that would qualify as tabloid material. These stories were buried in the inside pages of newspapers—not splashed across the front pages like they were matters of grave national import.

Singapore’s Land Transport Authority announced that it was putting in place measures to reduce the noise that emanated from the trains that crisscrossed the island from the early hours of the morning to midnight everyday. One can only wish that our authorities manifest the same level of concern for Filipinos who suffer from far worse aggravations.

I live a block away from the South Superhighway in Manila and quite near the railway of the Philippine National Railway Corporation. I am an authority when it comes to the level of noise pollution inconsiderate drivers and dilapidated railways and trains can generate!

Many drivers honk their cars unnecessarily even late at night and often for no reason really. Drivers here honk their cars when the light turns green, when they want to call the attention of another vehicle, when they have to summon an ambulant vendor, or when they are frustrated or exasperated. People don’t seem to realize that doing so adds up to noise pollution. And then there are the sirens of police cars, ambulances, firetrucks, etc—that are played up at maximum volume even when there is no need to do so such as when there is no traffic on the road! Those who live near the railways of the PNR and even of the LRT and MRT system can attest that these trains generate noise that can be reduced if only the authorities have empathy for those who reside nearby the tracks.

Many Singaporeans were outraged over the rude treatment two Singaporean women received at the hands of Malaysian border guards recently. The two women inadvertently crossed the border without having their passports stamped and they were handcuffed, made to strip, and do squats. The incident ignited a swift diplomatic action from the Singaporean government. Compare this to the way the Philippine government had to be pressured to do something about the treatment of two Filipina women who were mistaken for drug couriers in Indonesia.

What really caught my attention over the “withdrawal” of George Yeo from Singapore’s presidential contest was that he made the announcement in his Facebook account. He did not grant interviews to media nor subject himself to a public grilling. This illustrated the power of social media in countries like Singapore where everybody owns a laptop and has access to the Internet.

Finally, Singapore seemed to have made major progress in terms of being more tolerant of diversity issues. Last Saturday, the Singapore LGBT community and their friends and supporters gathered at a park to form a giant pink dot as a form of protest for government repression of their rights and liberties.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Being Filipino

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

My column last Monday (Independence Day 2011) triggered a spirited discussion among friends on whether the current generation is less nationalistic than, say, the generation of our parents or if the concept of nationalism has simply taken on a different meaning today.

Naturally, we couldn’t come to an agreement.

We burst into laughter when someone pointed out that our inability to come to an agreement validated very clearly that we were indeed, Filipinos. Apparently, this is has become one of our distinguishing characteristic—we cannot come to an agreement on practically anything, most importantly on major national issues. And worse, we do not seem to know how to manage our disagreements. This has been painfully obvious in the way we’ve managed the national discussion on the reproductive health bill and on the recent wrinkle in our lives—the divorce bill.

Adding fire to the spirited discussion was an accusation one of my friends came across in Facebook Sunday night at the height of the televised debated on the divorce bill. The biting accusation was directed at those who were avid supporters of the divorce bill: Parang hindi kayo mga Pilipino! (You cannot be Filipinos!).

I am not sure anyone has the right to question anyone else’s qualification as a citizen of this Republic. I don’t think there is a person in this country that is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. Unfortunately, this kind of self-righteousness is pretty common today among those who think they are made of sterner moral stuff such as those who are fiercely opposing the reproductive health bill and the divorce bill. Just to set the record straight, I am all for institutionalizing divorce in this country but I question the timing of the measure. I think we’re doing a major disservice to both the reproductive health bill and the divorce bill by imposing both on the people at the same time.

But what does it take to be Filipino?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are Filipinos.

There are a number of Web sites in the Internet that is compiling a list of the things that define what or who is a Filipino. The list cover a wide range of categories such as food (you are Filipino if you eat with your hands, dip everything into soy sauce with lemon, eat animal entrails with blood and fish heads, etc), house decors (you are Filipino if you have a giant wooden spoon and fork and a painting of the Last Supper in your dining room, a shrine to the infant Jesus in your living room, and a barrel man in one of your display cabinets), language (you are Filipino if you refer to the bathroom as a CR, you call people by making the pssst sound, and you call it a ballpen rather than simply a pen), and social norms (you are Filipino if you have to press the doorbell twice, wait for the phone to ring twice as well, your parents call each other Mommy and Daddy and you call all their friends uncle or auntie).

Very often we tend to define the question in the negative—what does it take to be considered a non-Filipino?

“Parang hindi Pilipino” (acts like a non-Filipino) is an accusation that is often hurled at Filipinos who are supposedly being inconsiderate to others such as when they refuse to grant favors to others or when they flagrantly violate Filipino social norms. It’s sad because in many cases the favors being asked for is unethical or borderline illegal such as not complying with regulations or looking the other way in the event of a violation. I remember the time when I was a volunteer for a national elections in the eighties and I was at the receiving end of such an accusation simply because I wouldn’t yield to requests that would have given certain candidates undue advantage.

Even sadder is the fact that people also resort to making the judgment to spite those who do not share their opinions or beliefs on raging issues of the day, as if they owned the franchise to being a Filipino. I can understand - from a purely intellectual level—how bishops can question a Catholic person’s Catholicism when that person does not share the Church’s stand on issues considered important to the faith. But I cannot see how questioning a person’s citizenship and nationalism is relevant in matters relating to non-religious issues.

There have been occasions when I have personally come across someone who had seemingly become a stranger to our culture; such as Filipinos who do not have the faintest idea why Mommy Dionisia Pacquaio’s antics is endearing to many or cannot empathize with our seeming predilection to make the same mistakes over and over again in the name of faith. I still don’t think these things make a person less Filipino that the person who can gobble half-a-dozen balut in one sitting.

I have an American friend who is often described as being more Filipino than the “average” Filipino. The American friend being referred to has been here in the country for two decades now, speaks fluent Tagalog and Cebuano, and has imbibed many of our cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, he has gotten into the habit of making the sign of the cross every single time he leaves his house, peppers his speech with po and opo, and has even learned to point with his lips. Unfortunately he cannot camouflage the color of skin or hide his Caucasian features. When he travels around the country, children still shout “Hey Joe!” to his face, and he knows that he still sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb during social occasions.

The diaspora has produced quite a number of individuals of Filipino descent who grew up abroad but self-identify as Filipinos. And if they have exemplary abilities such as when they are star athletes, have extraordinary musical talents, or when they have made name for themselves as beauty queens, movie actors or actresses, or when they have won elective posts elsewhere, we’re more than happy to certify that they are indeed Filipino even if they look Caucasian or cannot pronounce a single Tagalog word correctly.

So what indeed does it take to become Filipino? I will leave the anthropological discussion to my good friend Mike Tan (who is probably the country’s eminent anthropologist today). I am sure most of us can agree on certain non-negotiable traits and behaviors such as sustained efforts to uphold the laws of the country and to fulfill one’s duties as a Filipino citizen, manifested love of country, and faithful service to country and countrymen. Unfortunately these are motherhood statements that really don’t mean anything to most people today.

One wishes that we made conscious efforts to articulate our responsibilities as citizens the way we used to when we recited the Panatang Makabayan (Patriotic Oath) everyday when we were children. Unfortunately, reciting the oath is no longer required except in elementary schools. There are hardly any integrated efforts to educate citizens of their duties and responsibilities as well. We seem to presume that it’s all commonsensical. Unfortunately, common sense is really not that common.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Independence Day 2011

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

Yesterday was the 113th anniversary of the Declaration of Philippine Independence, more popularly known as Independence Day. One wishes that we all get the hang of calling the occasion Araw ng Kalayaan, but not many Filipinos even know that is the appropriate translation. Even better, one wishes that the occasion were given more significance particularly in light of the fact that love of country is supposedly the bedrock of this administration. To my mind, if we want everyone in this country to do rise to the challenge of becoming better citizens, we need to do a much better job of reminding them of the many reasons why we should love this country and how.

Apparently, the birthday of the national hero is far more important because a special day has been set aside this year as a non-working holiday supposedly to enable Filipinos to celebrate the occasion. To be fair, this year is a milestone year in terms of the annual celebration of Jose Rizal’s birthday, it being the hero’s 150th birth anniversary. Furthermore, the practice of “downgrading” the significance of national holidays was really the handiwork of the previous administration, which seemed to believe that the concept of “holiday economics” was far more important than remembering history or propagating national pride.

It is still disturbing to note that Independence Day is something that holds very little meaning to Filipinos today. There was very little—if at all—media attention given to the occasion. The celebration of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, even Father’s Day seemed far more important because most media organizations came out with ads and teasers to remind people about the occasions. Our television networks even came out with touching ads to commemorate these occasions. Most commercial establishments also came out with special displays or merchandising efforts to mark the occasions.

Sure, some malls did display the Philippine flag (many of them inappropriately or in flagrant violation of the law) but the effort seemed halfhearted. But overall, there was very little media attention to this year’s celebration—no waving of Philippine flags to the strains of Bayan Ko being shown on television, no commemorative features on our national heroes, not even a cursory discussion on nationalism. The major television event on Independence Day was a debate on divorce!

Some media reports justified the low-key celebration as being in keeping with the “simplicity” and no-nonsense tack of this administration. I didn’t know simplicity was synonymous with meaning; or that a no-nonsense approach meant reducing the significance of important national holidays.

Rousing national pride and love of country is probably more important today in light of the many challenges this country is facing. If this administration is really serious about harnessing the support of Filipinos in the service of its various programs, it has to do a better job of nurturing and keeping alive nationalistic fervor.

In fact this year’s celebration of Araw ng Kalayaan was made—should have been made—more significant by the brewing crisis in the Spratly area, which we have now named (belatedly, I am afraid) West Philippine Sea. Unfortunately, our leaders were more interesting in strutting around like peacocks in heat rather than in making sure a well-reasoned, better thought-out, more scholarly pronouncement on the crisis surfaced. It was embarrassing to note that our leaders were really unsure about what we should be saying and doing in the event the dispute escalates into a real conflict. I was aghast to witness the Senate President do the metaphorical equivalent of a puppy trying to be ferocious in the presence of a lion.

I am not sure it is to our best interest to openly express confidence that we have our backs covered by the United States of America. First of all, I think it is very presumptuous to make that kind of assertion because we are not Americans, for crying out loud. Second, I don’t think anyone can categorically claim with a hundred percent certainty that the Americans would rally to our side given the fact that we did kick their military bases out of the country. Third, we might be “good friends” but the US has far more to lose economically if they go against the largest country in this planet; lest we all forget, economics is a far more compelling argument than friendship.

I doubled over in laughter when a newscaster commented on public television that the USA would have to help us against China because we have many Filipinos in America. What rock has she been hiding from all these years—did she think the many Chinatown districts in the major cities of the USA were a recent phenomenon?

And as it is, the leftists in this country have already beaten everyone to the draw by denouncing possible US intervention in the matter and reminding everyone of the evils of US imperialism; not that we listen to them anyway.

There are those who are prepared to simply give up the country’s claim on the islands of West Philippine Sea despite the fact that many of the islands that we are claiming are clearly within Philippine territory—they are closer to Palawan than they are to China, for crying out loud. In short, simply cower in fear because a bully is threatening us with a high-powered firearm. We have practically given up our claim on Sabah despite the fact that the Malaysian government had been paying rent to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu—how do we explain the fact that we seem to have accepted the continuing deportation of Filipinos from the island?

I am not saying we should readily pick up firearms and prepare to die to protect our sovereignty although that’s exactly what we vow to do every single time we sing the national anthem: “...aming ligaya na pag may mang-aapi, ang mamatay ng dahil sa yo (it is glory ever when thou art wronged, for us thy sons to suffer and die).” But we should at least put up a good fight, not simply cower in fright in the face of provocation. Then again, we cannot even seem to care about our freedom and independence as evidenced by the lackluster attention to the 113th anniversary of Philippine Independence.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sacrilege

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

In commemoration of national flag days from May 28 to June 12, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III encouraged all Filipinos to display the Philippine flag at home, schools, offices, business establishments, etc. Unfortunately, the significance of the Presidential directive was diluted by the flap involving the display of an inverted flag in the president’s official Web site for a few hours on the same day the President issued the directive.

It was obviously an honest mistake. I just can’t imagine someone risking the President’s ire, and in the process his or her job, over a practical joke involving the flag. It’s possible that someone was simply careless or just didn’t know any better. The incident however was indicative of the cavalier way in which people in this country take the flag and what it represents. We all got riled up every time someone bungles the singing of the national anthem during one of Manny Pacquiao’s fights but we rarely notice the overly casual and often careless way in which some people display the Philippine flag during similar occasions. I have seen people use the Philippine flag like shawls during Pacquiao’s fights - they wave it around like a rag or lasso and then simply sling it over their shoulders when they get tired, or worse, just dump the flag into their bags; a friend told me that some people throw away in trash bins miniature Philippine flags after the revelry. I even saw pictures of dogs dressed up in Philippine flags.

Not very many people are aware of the specific provisions of Republic Act 8491, An Act Prescribing the Code of the National Flag, Anthem, Motto, Coat-of-Arms and Other Heraldic Items and Devices of the Philippines. The law actually provides very specific rules and prohibitions around the design, hoisting and display of the Philippine tricolors.

Probably in response to the President’s recent call, there has been a profusion of flags in government offices and in major thoroughfares lately, particularly in areas considered the bedrock of nationalism. Even certain malls and commercial establishments seemed to have had a sudden attack of nationalism. All these should swell the heart and make us all proud to be Filipinos. Sadly, that’s not the effect it makes on people.

I was in some parts of Laguna over the weekend and I was aghast to see hundreds of Philippine flags adorning the national road like decorative rags all the way from the town of Los Baños to the City of Calamba. All along the national road, there’s a Philippine flag that hangs from makeshift wooden poles every 20 meters or so. We’re celebrating the 150th year of Rizal’s birthday this year so it stands to reason that some towns in Laguna would go out on a limb to display nationalistic fervor. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have had the sense to ensure that the Philippine flags were displayed appropriately and in ways that inspire pride and honor. To begin with, the flags are exposed and left to the elements. It was raining hard when we were passing through and the flags looked pitiful being battered by heavy rain and wind. And horror of all horrors, each of the flags was pierced through in one corner with wire and harnessed to a post as if to ensure that they don’t get tangled up, a clear violation of the provision of the law that lists the following as a prohibition: “To mutilate, deface, defile, trample on or cast contempt or commit any act or omission casting dishonor or ridicule upon the flag or over its surface.” The effect was that the flags looked like symbols of bondage and suppression rather than of freedom and liberty.

At a mall I visited last week, Philippine flags of different sizes were dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers. It was clear that the flags were being used as decorative pieces. Everywhere else we see various examples of the same careless attitude towards the flag.

To help remind people of the law, let me quote here some salient provisions of Republic Act 8491.

Section 2 of the law’s declaration of policy states: “Reverence and respect shall at all times be accorded the flag, the anthem, and other national symbols which embody the national ideals and traditions and which express the principles of sovereignty and national solidarity. The heraldic items and devices shall seek to manifest the national virtues and to inculcate in the minds and hearts of our people a just pride in their native land, fitting respect and affection for the national flag and anthem, and the proper use of the national motto, coat-of-arms and other heraldic items and devices.”

The following acts are prohibited, according to Section 34: a) To mutilate, deface, defile, trample on or cast contempt or commit any act or omission casting dishonor or ridicule upon the flag or over its surface; b) To dip the flag to any person or object by way of compliment or salute; c) To use the flag: 1) As a drapery, festoon, tablecloth; 2) As covering for ceilings, walls, statues or other objects; 3) As a pennant in the hood, side, back and top of motor vehicles; 4) As a staff or whip; 5) For unveiling monuments or statues; and 6) As trademarks, or for industrial, commercial or agricultural labels or designs. d) To display the flag: 1) Under any painting or picture; 2) Horizontally face-up. It shall always be hoisted aloft and be allowed to fall freely; 3) Below any platform; or 4) In discotheques, cockpits, night and day clubs, casinos, gambling joints and places of vice or where frivolity prevails. e) To wear the flag in whole or in part as a costume or uniform; f) To add any word, figure, mark, picture, design, drawings, advertisement, or imprint of any nature on the flag; g) To print, paint or attach representation of the flag on handkerchiefs, napkins, cushions, and other articles of merchandise; h) To display in public any foreign flag, except in embassies and other diplomatic establishments, and in offices of international organizations; i) To use, display or be part of any advertisement or infomercial; and j) To display the flag in front of buildings or offices occupied by aliens.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Strategic thinking, still

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

The annual occasion for chest beating - and if one happens to be situated at the other side of the fence, heckling - also known as the grandest fashion event of the year, is upon us.

The President of the Republic is scheduled to deliver his second State of the Nation Address in a few weeks. This early, pundits are already second-guessing what they think the President would be saying then.

My fearless forecast is that the President will be sticking to three points. First, he will highlight the gains made in the last year in the areas of revenue collection, the generally stable economy, and the pockets of growth in some sectors. Second, he will justify his administrations inability to achieve successes in many areas to the previous administration and to his various critics. Third, he will continue to talk about the need for everybody to trudge along the “straight and narrow path.” I don’t expect him to make major statements about policy directions nor a categorical statement about controversial issues, which require a firm government position.

All eyes and ears, however, will be tuned in to what the President will say in relation to how he intends to organize or reorganize his official family. The one-year prohibition on government appointments for those who lost in the last elections has passed so it stands to reason that the President will be appointing some of his allies to key government positions. We know the President’s defeated vice presidential candidate Mar Roxas will be coming to work in Malacañang soon. There are a number of other names being floated.

This administration has only been in power for about a year so I think we should cut some Cabinet members some slack. It does take a little more time in this country before any government official is able to implement any major, not to mention comprehensive, change program because we happen to have a bureaucracy that has been designed to slow things down supposedly to ensure that “staff work” is completed and to foil corruption.

I used to be an avid fan of Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz and the leaders at the labor department until recently, when I had a disappointing experience with the labor bureaucracy. The professional association of which I am part of wanted to partner with the Labor Department on a program designed to benefit migrant workers and industry. The initial meetings with the key officials of the agency went well, we even sat down with Secretary Baldoz who gave the program her imprimatur. Unfortunately, programs can be driven at the top but have to be implemented below by underlings in the bureaucracy. And this was where we got snarled in the government’s proverbial bureaucratic Gordian knot as we got derailed by a turf issue and as people in the bureaucracy put up all kinds of walls and obstructions under the guise of fine-tuning program details.

This has been said many times but I want to say it again in the hope that if it gets said yet once again, something can be done about it: This inordinate preoccupation with bureaucratic processes is what slows down government’s ability to effectively respond to pressing issues. It is also what discourages private organizations and individuals to volunteer to help government. In the words of a friend who was with me in one of the meetings we had recently “why are we being subjected to intense scrutiny and suspicion when we are the ones going out of our way to volunteer our services?”

This is why Cabinet secretaries must begin by ensuring that the whole bureaucratic machinery in their respective departments is aligned with the speed and towards the direction he or she wants to go. Cabinet secretaries need to be visionaries and have media and public relations savvy, but they also have to be experts in change management and must have competencies in engaging a whole bureaucracy.

I have been told, for example, by relatively senior officials at the Department of Justice that while Leila de Lima seem to be making giant strides in terms of ensuring that the wheels of justice turn faster and more efficiently in this country, she’s practically a one-woman team as she allegedly has been unable to get the bureaucracy working with her and for her. A number of state prosecutors tell me that de Lima is relying on the media rather than harnessing the bureaucracy in support of her advocacies.

Tourism should be an integral component of this country’s growth. But after the “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” debacle, nothing - as in zilch, nada—not even a squeak has been heard from the Department of Tourism. It seems Secretary Alberto Lim has suddenly become media shy because we haven’t seen him making an appearance in media in the last few months.

There are many things we can do to attract more tourists into the country. But we need a more integrated development plan that effectively addresses the needs of various types of tourists, not just gambling high rollers and eco-tourism advocates. There are a number of facilities being built all around the country, but unfortunately, they are replications of the same thing. It’s the lechon manok syndrome at work – everybody is content with copying what is working and saturating the market with the same old tired ideas. If we come to think about it, how many ziplines do we really need in this country? It seems there is one being built in every town and city today.

The advertising congress this year is being held in Camarines Sur. It’s a huge congress that attracts a couple of thousands of local participants. I salute the organizers behind the ad congress for taking a huge gamble on a location that has not been designed to accommodate that many people, nor able to provide the facilities required for a conference that attempt to meet global benchmarks. From what I gathered, the ad congress will adjust their requirements to the limitations of the venue, something that international conferences will not or cannot do.

This is a problem that is clearly indicative of the lack of strategic thinking in this country and the sheer absence of an integrated tourism development plan. There are conference centers in this country but there are just two or three that have been designed to accommodate conferences with more than a thousand participants. Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur have a number of hotels and conference centers that can accommodate even 5,000 participants. The only venue in this country that can effectively host a conference with more than 1,500 participants is the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu City. In Metro Manila, only Westin Philippine Plaza can accommodate a thousand participants. There is the Philippine International Convention Center but it seriously needs a major renovation. The SMX Center at the Mall of Asia is primarily an exhibit hall and is not really conference-friendly.

If we want more visitors and tourists to come to the country, conferences are a captive market. There are hundreds of international conferences being held annually and the ones that are held in Asia are hosted by our neighbors. We just don’t have the facilities to rival those of our neighbors.

What about the other Cabinet secretaries? Like most anyone, I am dying to hear about what they have done in the past year, or what they intend to do in the next five.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Companions in life, for life

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

The success of a brand can be measured in many ways. From a marketing point of view, a brand is successful when it becomes institutionalized as the generic name of the product. This is certainly true in the case of a particular brand of toothpaste, film, photocopying machine, and even refrigerators. From a sociological point of view, a brand is successful if it becomes ingrained in the lives of people to the point that people use the brand as some kind of bookmark for the various milestones in their personal lives.

Thus, certain brands of products become ubiquitous parts of our daily lives. The chocolate drink that our mothers always packed in our lunch bags, which ultimately became comfort food for the times when we needed temporary relief from rainy days, heartaches, and all other kinds of letdowns. The brand of milk that substituted for breakfast every day because there was always no time to sit down to eat before the school bus arrived. The brand of chocolate we took pains to buy from our meager allowance and surreptitiously sent to a crush in high school. The brand of coffee that our parents bought all through the years and which became a regular fixture on a side table at the dining room because there was always someone hankering for a cup of coffee in the house.

I grew up in a family that was big, very big on loyalty towards certain brands. I can honestly and truthfully say that there was only one brand of milk that accompanied my growing up years: Bear Brand sterilized milk. Up until I was in college, I would still drink milk the way I did when I was still wearing short pants, which was straight from the can. I learned the routine from an uncle —get a can from the cupboard, wipe the top of the can with a clean rag, put the can in the freezer for 30 minutes, punch holes in the can, guzzle the whole thing straight up, and wipe mouth with the back of one’s hand. I don’t drink milk anymore today—at least not regularly—but the brand of milk in the house has remained the same.

Certain brands are a major part of our lives. They are companions in life, for life. This, in fact, is the message that Nestle Philippines wants to convey to the world as it celebrates its centennial this year, poetically expressed in the theme Kasambuhay, Habambuhay.

A hundred years is a long, long time indeed so the occasion deserves a grand celebration. But how does one celebrate 100 years of trust, loyalty, partnership? How does one commemorate special relationships built through many years between people and Nestle products? How does one preserve the poignancy of the heartache momentarily soothed by a cup of coffee or a glass of milk, or of a triumph made more joyous by a vat of ice cream or a carafe of iced tea?

Nestle came up with a unique and innovative idea: Ten short films about partnerships, each one showcasing a Nestle product.

The result is a remarkable collection of films that break new grounds in Philippine cinema. Sure, there have been many outstanding short Filipino films made before. But here we have films that successfully straddle the divide between art and commercialism; here we have a veritable cornucopia of films that attempt to celebrate the many ways in which advertising can transcend commercialism.

Each of the ten films showcase a particular genre. There’s drama, musical, fantasy, satire, romantic-comedy, even a Shakespearean parody. The common thread that pulls the ten films together is that they all celebrate partnerships, nurturing, and yes, the often tangential but strategic role of a particular Nestle product such as milk, seasoning, chocolate drink, instant coffee, etc.

The Howl and the Fussyket is dubbed as a family comedy of manners about a boy’s struggle to win a declamation contest in school.

Unplugged is supposed to be a feel-good adventure (which ends up as a lecture), on how people can detach themselves from modern-day gadgets and discover a new way to bond and reconnect.

Silup (Pulis or police spelled backwards) is a psychological drama about the special relationship between a cop and his grandmother.

Isang Tasang Pangarap (Hope in a mug) is a comedy that pays homage to Himala (Miracle), widely regarded as one of the best Filipino films ever made.

Sali-Salita (Wordplay) is a fantasy drama about the power of imagination and the factors that nourish a child’s capability to dream.

Oh! Pa Ra Sa T U Wa Yeah is a musical comedy about courtship and family support.

Downtown is a love story featuring two older people and the search for meaning outside of a long-lasting relationship.

Tingala Sa Baba (Look up below) is a coming-of-age film about two kids on separate sides of the economic divide.

Cooking Mo, Cooking Ko (Your cooking, my cooking) is a Shakespearean parody; basically a modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet involving two households at war with each other over culinary dominance.

Sign Seeker is a romantic comedy about how a man’s inordinate need for certainty results in hilarious situations.

It is obvious that a lot of resources were poured into the project and this is evident in the lavish productions. Each of the films is technically polished. Yet the strengths of the films are the stories, yet another proof that thinking is the foundation of all artistic efforts including and perhaps most especially, films.

My personal favorites are The Howl and the Fussyket, Downtown, and Tingala sa Baba. The Howl and the Fussyket has a very simple premise yet hits the viewer at various dimensions. Downtown is a masterpiece in quiet story-telling; it’s a film that reminds one of the brilliance of Mike de Leon as a director. Tingala sa Baba is unforgettable for the sheer profundity of its message and the innocence of the child actors.

I am told the films will be shown for free in various cinemas and will also be shown on television in the next few months. Truly, commendations are in order for Nestle and everyone who was part of the effort.