Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When there is smoke

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

The rumor that was spreading like wildfire last week was that certain elements in the military were restive and were on the verge of staging a coup d’etat. I know. How very eighties, right? Uso pa ba yun? (are coups still in vogue?)

When someone sent me a text message “warning” me about an impending coup d’etat, my immediate reaction was to dismiss the rumor as the brainchild of someone with too much time in his hands. I figured that a coup is not very likely under the current dispensation because of a number of reasons.

First, regardless of how anyone feels about the competency level or the sincerity of this Aquino administration, it is difficult to argue with its current popularity. It’s just unthinkable for anyone to even try to wrest control from a government that has achieved, and continues to achieve, approval ratings that reach the stratosphere.

Of course, cynics raise an eyebrow and ask what exactly is the subject of those approval ratings when the whole bureaucracy is veritably on a standstill and government programs, except the high profile ones that merit media attention, are virtually on hold. This is because everyone in government is suspected of potentially being a corrupt person and each transaction is forced through a sieve that’s almost as impermeable as a latex condom. They claim that what is happening is the perfect example of the axiom “less action, less mistake, less criticism.”

But like I said, it is difficult to argue with popularity. So those who are increasingly becoming disenchanted with this administration just have to gnash their teeth in silence, seethe in private, and wait for their time to come. In this country, most everything that goes up eventually comes crashing down. As the folks say, “weather-weather lang yan (it’s all a matter of time).”

Second, any coup needs the support of certain key segments of the population particularly business, religious, and civic groups. A military junta is clearly not an option in a country where political patronage is deeply embedded in its culture. In a system where even military generals owe political debts to senior military officials, politicians, and businessmen, everything is subject to political favors. The complicity of certain key people has to be secured in order for a coup to be mounted. Obviously, no businessman, religious or civic leader would be stupid enough to lend his or her name to a military uprising in these times. The stakes are just too high and the probability of success practically negligible.

Three, a coup requires a critical mass of loyal followers for an inspiring revolutionary leader. No offense meant to the current leaders of our military establishment, but there is no one with the charisma or the perceived idealism of a Gringo Honasan or an Ariel Querubin or even an Antonio Trillanes among them. At least that’s based on what we ordinary citizens can glean from media reports.

There are more reasons why a coup is not likely to prosper (we’re not even talking success here), but you get the drift.

Admittedly, however, there are mitigating factors that can potentially be milked into becoming major issues worthy of an uprising.

There is the massacre of 19 soldiers in Basilan by forces allegedly belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The attack happened despite the fact that there is supposed to be a ceasefire and both the government and the MILF have agreed to pursue peace talks. It didn’t help that a second carnage happened in Zamboanga a few days after, killing another 7 soldiers and bringing the total number of murder victims to 26 in just three days. The number of casualties would eventually climb to 35.

As can be expected in an emotionally charged environment, there were those who advocated an all-out-war response. Some senators have even joined the chorus for retribution, demanding that the President “do an Erap” (former President Joseph Estrada waged an all-out war against the MILF when he was President although most people are of the opinion that was a diversionary tactic). Senator Panfilo Lacson, an ally of the President, intoned: “Peace in Mindanao cannot be achieved unless a tactical victory is attained first by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.” The senator waxed eloquent, saying “It is time to untie the hands of our soldiers to fight the MILF on equal terms and not be handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit.”

The President initially stuck to his guns insisting that “no one benefits from war.” Understandably, this stance was not popular among the ranks of the military men who have been itching to retaliate and avenge the death of 35 of their comrades. I talked to a relative who is in the military and he told me that many among his comrades saw the President’s decision as a sign of weakness and indicative of the disconnect that exists between Malacañang and the military hierarchy. There was also propaganda being spread among the ranks that the President was “sleeping with the enemy” as evidenced by his clandestine meeting with MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo last August. The President has since then authorized a military attack, although there has been efforts to downplay perceptions that the attack is retaliatory or directed at the MILF.

But what is probably more palpable among the ranks of the military and the bureaucracy is a sense of outrage over what many think as underserved second-class treatment from this new administration.

I was in a meeting with some career bureaucrats—all of them tenured CESO certified—recently and the conversation naturally drifted to a litany of gripes against the Aquino administration. Apparently, loyalty checks are now the order of the day in many departments and those perceived to have had ties with the former administration are now being eased out and not even politely. An example that was made was of this undersecretary at the Depatment of Transportation and Communication who has been unceremoniously told, in no uncertain terms, that she should consider her career in the public service over. Secretary Manuel Roxas II has reportedly asked for her resignation rather than having her placed in the CESO pool. No reason has been given except that she was identified with the former administration.

Listening to a litany of complaints against this administration has actually become the norm every time I meet up with career bureaucrats. The government prosecutors at the Department of Justice continue to be heavily demoralized because their secretary seems more interested in granting media interviews and speaking at various events rather than in actually managing the programs of the department. In fact, there is apprehension that the ongoing trial against the Ampatuans in relation to the Maguindanao massacre has been severely compromised by the ongoing search for witnesses that could pin down former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for electoral fraud. There are more stories of woe from the bureaucracy.

So yes, there is growing disenchantment among the ranks. But is there enough to bring the whole thing to a boil? I don’t think so. Not at the moment. But if this administration continues to treat bureaucrats with disdain and considers everyone as possibly corrupt, then we’re definitely in for rougher times ahead.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foolish beyond words

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

The norm of reciprocity is clear: You reap what you sow. If you submit a clearly ridiculous idea, of course you get pilloried and ridiculed in the process.

So I don’t know what Batangas Governor Vilma Santos Recto and her minions are complaining about. She was all over television last week expressing exasperation (in Tagalog nanggagaliiti) over what she thought was an “overreaction” to what she thought was a brilliant proposal: Putting up a sign on the slopes of Taal Volcano that proclaims to all and sundry that the volcano and the whole area around it belongs to the province of Batangas.

The proponents of the preposterous idea said it was about time that tourists who view Taal volcano from the slopes of Tagaytay City, which offer the best view of the “island within a lake within an island within a lake” are made aware that the world-famous volcano is not a part of Cavite but of Batangas. Taal is in Batangas, not in Cavite, the proponents of the idea want to insist. Someone who supports the idea said it clearly: “It’s time Batanguenos claim their stake in the Volcano.” I wanted to ask out loud: From whom? Who is claiming Taal Volcano as their own? Certainly not Tagaytay City.

But this kind of misplaced sense of ownership is the most harebrained idea I have ever heard.

The idea of putting up a sign on a natural wonder as if it were a property of a provincial government alone is clearly ludicrous. First, because the volcano is not anyone’s property—certainly not of the government of Batangas, nor of the people of Batangas alone. It’s a natural wonder that belongs to the whole country; in fact, if we are to be philosophical about it, it does not belong to anyone—it’s God’s creation and we are supposed to be mere caretakers of the wondrous creation.

Taal Volcano is not a piece of real estate that can be appropriated. What’s next? Will they charge admission for viewing the volcano? A “no trespassing” sign?

Second, because putting up a sign is clearly garish and tawdry and represents the worst kind of visual pollution. The inspiration behind the idea was supposedly the huge Hollywood sign in the United States. Copying an idea per se is not really a crime, but Recto and her supporters seemed to have glossed over the fact that the Hollywood sign does not mar a spectacular natural wonder—it was precisely put up to be an attraction in itself in the absence of anything else there worth gazing at. There’s a difference.

The people who have come up with similar examples of the same harebrained idea are of course indulging in parody, but they bring home the point. Who wants an “Albay” sign over Mayon volcano, or a “Banawe” sign on the slopes of the Ifugao rice terraces, or “Bohol” over the chocolate hills, or a “Laguna” sign on the side of the Pagsanjan falls? Why would we want a “Batangas” sign over the Taal volcano?

I know the other exercises in lampooning the idea bordered on the “personal,” but hey, people cannot be faulted for expressing outrage over what they thought was a personal affront. Taal Volcano and Taal Lake are part and parcel of national heritage and patrimony. Thus, the various parodies of the sign such as the ones quoting famous dialogues from Recto’s movies are par for the course.

Third, Recto and her minions are on the wrong track if their think they can boost tourism in the area merely by putting up a sign. I am aware that they talked about holistic approaches to tourism—although I honestly cannot fathom just how putting up the sign would directly increase livelihood - but tourists don’t come in droves to an area because there is a sign that proclaims where they are. As far as I know, tourists make a conscious decision to go someplace because they have heard of the area and do not just wander aimlessly around and then wonder where they are. And the locals don’t get a heightened sense of identity or love of province just because there is a sign that reminds them of their provincial roots.

Someone even pointed out in a social networking site that the proposed sign is pointless because the proposed dimensions are all wrong. Not that it really matters because adjusting the size of the proposed sign to the correct dimensions would not make it any more viable. But it illustrates just how half-baked the idea is. The proposed sign is supposed to measure 14 meters tall and 110 meters long. Given the size of the volcano, the proposed dimensions make the proposed sign hardly visible. It cannot be read from afar, the sign would merely look like a small house perched on the side of the volcano.

We are told that a parallel idea was to design the various floating restaurants and fish pens on Taal Lake in such a way that they form the famous Batangueno expression “Ala Eh.” An officer of the Batangas tourism office was quoted in some newspapers as gushing over the idea saying it would be “a dazzling sight especially if lit up at night.”

What can I say? The fount of ridiculous ideas seems bottomless. They really must stop ingesting whatever substance it is that they make them, well, stupid.

For the love of God, everyone and his grandmother—except the officials of Batangas, it seems—already knows that Taal Lake is gasping for breath because of the presence of too many fish pens in the area. Have people forgotten that we had a massive fish kill in the area early this year? Scientists have warned that the lake is in the advanced stages of eutrophication, which means more algal blooms and red tide. The solution that was being floated early this year was to stop allowing fish pens in the lake. And now, they actually want to provide the fish pens a veneer of legitimacy by turning them into a tourism attraction!

I am aware that cleaning up the Taal Lake and uprooting those unsightly fish pens is difficult because thousands of people depend on fishing for their livelihood. But it is an open secret that most of the fish pen operators in Taal Lake are foreigners who have introduced sophisticated ways of fish farming including the use of steel rather than biodegradable bamboo as main material for constructing fish pens and the use of sinking feeds that destroy the ecosystem. What we need are more integrated and coordinated mechanisms to save Taal Lake, not more signs.

The provincial government of Batangas should pursue more long-term programs such as cleaning up the lake so that it becomes safe for people to frolic in and for endemic fish such as the tawilis thrive once more. These would draw in far more tourists than any giant sign could.

The funny thing was that a friend actually brought up last week the possibility of someone conceiving of the idea of putting up signs as the only way of identifying natural attractions amidst the mushrooming of structures that mar anyone’s appreciation of their landscapes. Last week I wrote in this space about how Mount Makiling and Banahaw are slowly being covered by houses and other structures. My friend said that in the future, we probably need to put up signs that say “Mount Makiling” just so people would know they are already in front of the mountain. It would be tragic, we thought. Well, what is even more tragic is that there are actually people who think such an idea is brilliant.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Saving the towns of Laguna

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

I have been shuttling to San Pablo City and nearby towns in Laguna in the last month and while I continue to be captivated by the many charms of Nagcarlan, Liliw, Majayjay, Cavinti, Luisiana, Los Banos, Bai and Calamba, there is very little doubt that development has arrived in these once rustic towns.

There was a time when traveling to, say, Pagsanjan was a relaxing drive across rolling plains of green, or when the ricefields were ripe for harvesting, swathes of orange and gold. I remember having gone with friends to the town of Liliw some ten years ago to frolic in the cold waters of a river that, we were told, was then still safe to drink. Back then, people dipped right into the river, not in some man-made pool where water from the river had been diverted into by some enterprising person.

The changes brought about by development are becoming more and more evident each day, in a pace that has become faster and faster.

I am afraid that at the rate “progress” is happening in this historic home province of the national hero, large parts of glorious Mount Makiling would soon be covered entirely by houses and the breathtaking view of mystic Mount Banahaw will also be obscured soon by trappings of modern-day conveniences.

The sad thing is that most people I got to talk to were quite happy with the modern-day “improvements.” I don’t hear of activists screaming about cultural heritage preservation. As it is, many, most particularly the younger generation, were actually quite impatient with the pace of development. They bewailed the fact that Chowking halo-halo, for example, can already be had at Liliw and not in their own towns. Of course they’ve always had their own halo-halo stalls in their own public markets, but, well, it’s not served with a flourish, Chowking style, even if the ingredients are the same or perhaps even better because they are organic, or fresher.

In Nagcarlan and Luisiana for example, many couldn’t wait for Jollibee and Goldilocks to set up shop. I like eating Jollibee chickenjoy every once in a while and the cakes at Goldilocks are not bad either, but surely there are local equivalents that are just as tasty, perhaps even more nutritious. Fried itik (duck) at Cavinti is tasty, although in my opinion not quite as delectable as the ones in Angono, Rizal. But as if to make up for the lack of official Jollibee chickenjoy, a number of makeshift stalls have sprouted selling fried chicken, supposedly done with ingredients exactly the same as those of the national foodchain. I don’t vouch for the reliability of the information, in fact I really doubt if it is true , but someone whispered to me that the chicken pieces supposedly came straight from some Jollibee commissary.

Of course many think that having their own SM Department Store would be the ultimate measure of finally having arrived. It would be difficult to begrudge folks of modern-day conveniences. There is value to having Internet facilities even if one is relaxing in the pristine waters of one of the waterfalls in Majayjay or if one is simply contemplating the placid waters of the lake named after the town of Bai. And surely, a few other conveniences such as reliable cellphone signals, 24-hour drugstores and others would not be such a bad idea either.

But still, it would be tragic if, for example, the many stores selling shoes and slippers in Liliw were to disappear just because SM has opened a mall nearby.

Think how sad it would be if the makeshift stalls that sell local fruits in season and native delicacies such as special varieties of rice cakes and various food stuff were to disappear from the streets of Nagcarlan and Luisiana because bigger pasalubong centers have sprouted up, gobbling the little businesses in the area the way 7/11 has killed sari-sari stores in many areas of Metro Manila.

And just what would our lives be like if the rambutan and lanzones trees of Nagcarlan and Rizal were all felled to make way for the building of more subdivisions?

We have got to learn how to balance development with the protection of culture and the environment.

As it is, Calamba, Biñan and Los Baños are hardly worth visiting anymore because, quite frankly, they are now indistinguishable or difficult to tell apart from say, San Pedro, which is quite nearer to Metro Manila and therefore involve less travel aggravation.

If it is any consolation, there are efforts to try to save the environment. In San Pablo, for example, the use of plastic bags has been prohibited. In case you haven’t heard, plastic bags are the number one cause of waterways clogging. Those darn things pollute the environment for many scores.

We shopped at SM San Pablo Supermarket the other weekend and were pleasantly surprised to find that they use biodegradable paper bags instead of those ubiquitous plastic bags. The paper bags were more cumbersome and prone to easy tearing, but customers were allowed the use of shopping carts while inside the mall anyway, so one didn’t have to hug those paper bags the whole time. The lesson is that there is always a creative alternative to every wrinkle.

Unfortunately, our very short visit to SM San Pablo coincided with a major activity of the San Pablo Central School. They dubbed it their annual “playground demonstration.” I remember having gone through the same annual ritual as an elementary pupil when all of us would be required to wear a silly costume and made to gyrate to some improvised dance number or rhythmic activities (my parents referred to the annual embarrassment as character building). The difference was that we did ours in the Town Plaza or the school quadrangle, not inside some air-conditioned mall. We spent a few minutes watching little toddlers go through the motions of dancing an improvised “folk dance” that was as Filipino as a dish of pink salmon heads sinigang. The whole mall was teeming with kids in various stages of hyperactivity and their kith and kin. This is how we make our kids victims of consumerism.

At any rate, it would really be great if the leaders of Laguna would make a conscious and deliberate effort to preserve the various facets that make the province a natural heritage site. They can begin by saving old houses and structures. It’s probably too late to do that in Biñan where many of the old structures have already been torn down, but perhaps not too late for Pagsanjan, Nagcarlan and Liliw where a number of old houses remain. Efforts should be made to preserve old Municipal buildings as well as other historic sites such as underground cemeteries, etc.

I fervently pray that the churches in the towns of Nagcarlan, Majayjay and Liliw are left as they are and conserved properly because they are truly wondrous beyond words. In case you haven’t marveled the centuries-old heritage sites, Nagcarlan Church was the setting of the ABS-CBN soap Kampanerang Kuba (Hunchback Bell Ringer) while Majajay Church was the setting of the Filipino film classic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Godless Years).

Otherwise, I would encourage everyone to visit the towns of Laguna while there’s still some facets and artifacts of our culture remaining. These would probably be gone in a few years if nothing is done in the area of cultural preservation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wake up call

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

I was deeply immersed in preparations for a national conference in the last two weeks and I didn’t have time to think about anything else. I still have tons of emails to wade through, but there is one thing that I needed to get out of the way. So to the many friends and readers who cared to send me emails and the links to Geoffrey James Quartermaine Bastin’s scathing blog on Manila, yes, I got your ardent pleas for me to weigh in with my own two cents’ worth.

For those happily unaware of this latest tempest to hit the blogosphere, Bastin is a British economist who “has been traveling to the Philippines since 1991.” He recently wrote a scathing piece on Manila in a recent post in a blog (the original link of which, for some strange reason, has been inaccessible since Saturday night). The post went viral and seemed to have hit a raw nerve among many fellow Filipinos who felt that Bastin committed the most grievous of mistakes, which was to diss his hosts. I think most of the indignation directed at Bastin is borne out of the fact that we truly are onion-skinned about criticism made by “guests,” sometimes forgetting that the businessmen and tourists that come to this country don’t really owe us any favors for coming here. Because we are ingratiating to a fault, we tend to take it personally when foreigners say bad things about us, and our country. Yes, we love Inang Bayan to bits, but it’s really time for us to see the grime and the smell the decay.

Bastin prefaced his post with what seemed like an attempt to justify his negative review. He said he hated writing negative posts and that one “cannot and should not generalize about such a large country spread over thousands of islands.” And then he went on to rant about Manila being “a dump.” Ouch, indeed.

He said Manila “has got to be the disgrace of South-east Asia, all the more so because twenty years ago when I used to come through here en route to Papua New Guinea it was THE place in the region to come to for shopping and R&R. How the mighty are fallen!”

In Bastin’s opinion, “Ninoy Aquino International is exactly the same as it was all that time ago; the same awful green lino when you arrive, the same over-crowded Departure Hall, nowhere to sit if your check-in desk isn’t open. Once through security you find the same down-market shops, toilets that don’t work or are “under repair” and very few F&B places… The coffee in this over-priced lounge is awful…. Over-boiled and they don’t have a modern machines (which these days can be purchased even for home use) to produce fresh coffee from beans. NO ONE uses this old filter method anymore, at least no one that likes good coffee.”

And then he dissed the hotel he was staying in, the Discovery Suites in Ortigas Center: “It used to be very good and remains convenient for my business meetings. But the owners have invested nothing in upkeep and I stay in a room that has the same furniture, same carpet as it has always had; it smells musty. The TV is years old. The water heating system provides limited hot water for my bath. My room is not cleaned until I have to go and ask. The Internet (OK, free wifi in the room) is dreadfully slow and the room service food lukewarm.”

Bastin did say nice things about Filipinos: “The Filipino people are nice, and indeed they are polite—we Brits might say “smarmy”—obsequious or ingratiating are maybe less pleasant words. But they do try. That does take the edge off the sheer misery of a crumbling, filthy, depressing city and an economy that exists only on the remittances of the smart ones who have left.” Again, ouch!

And then he offered some armchair analysis, saying the Philippines “has the WORST growth history of any of the ASEAN countries—Cambodia which was torn apart by civil war up until 1997 has a first-class airport (fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on foccacia, freshly brewed cappuccino , clean lounges) and some great restaurant food and hotels. But the Manila, where the intelligentsia sneer at their Asian brothers and sisters for their lack of English, is beaten hands down even by little Phnom Penh and left standing by every other mega-city in the region.”

There’s more. “There seems to be a theme here: the Philippines has many natural advantages and in fact a talented people who provide services everywhere in the world. But there has been no re-investment in the country, neither by the public sector (hence the terrible airport facilities), nor by private industry. People might build a hotel, but they run it into the ground rather than trying to build a long-term institution. Philippines can be described as an extractive or exploitive economy, not one where people want to build sustainably long term. As I say, the smart one’s all want to leave.”

Bastin concluded with a suggestion: “If you want to see the Philippines: get through Manila as quickly as you can, it has nothing to recommend it. Go out to the islands, Cebu, Mindanao, up to the cool of Baguio and see the people in the countryside and some of the spectacular scenery. That’s probably worth the trip. Otherwise pick almost anywhere else in Asia and you’ll get a better deal. “ This hurt because I would pick Manila anytime over, say, Timor Leste.

Once I got through my own anger at the harsh words Bastin used, my rational mind kicked in and I realized that the guy didn’t say anything I haven’t said in the past in this space or elsewhere, although I would like to think, with a little less venom.

If we sift through the tons of indignant verbiage heaped on Bastin and his post, three things stand out. First, people felt Bastin failed to balance his views with a more constructive context, in short, he compared apples and oranges. Second, many thought Bastin should not blame Filipinos for the lapse of judgment in choosing a hotel (which people thought triggered the rant) that many Filipinos agreed is not exactly world class; many suggested other “better” hotels in the area. And finally, many thought he was being a “racist” for spewing insulting comments and making unfair and hurtful generalizations on the basis of one experience.

I, too, was hurt by Bastin’s rant. It’s always painful to hear bad things being said about us. I was particularly offended by the very grim prognosis he offered at the end of his piece when he wrote: “For the Philippines the question is surely will it ever emerge from the mire into which it has sunk? Very frankly based on my very long experience of the place I really doubt it, in fact it is a “disappearing” country if there is such a thing.” He didn’t have to be snippy. He could have toned down the anger. He could have resisted the urge to put us down as hopeless.

So yes, I think we cannot be faulted for reacting with equal indignation at the tone he used. But at the same time, let us not bury our heads in the sand and dismiss the observations made just because it was done in bad taste. The mature response is not to shoot the messenger but to show Bastin that we are, in fact, more “gentlemanly.” Let’s resist the urge to give him the dirty finger and instead use the message as a wake up call.

I remain hopeful that we can make still make things work in this country regardless of how many Bastins tell me otherwise.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

People first

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

Barring any act of God, forces of nature, and other unfortunate events, human resource managers from all over the country will converge at The Atrium of the Limketkai Mall in Cagayan de Oro City at 3:00 in the afternoon today for the annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines. The event is the biggest gathering of people managers in the country. This year marks the 48th year that the association is mounting the conference.

There are a number of interesting issues that the conference is tackling but before we get to these issues, allow me to tell you about how particularly challenging it has been to put together this year’s conference.

First, there were the problems brought about by the visitation of the trio of unwanted visitors, namely Pedring, Quiel, and Ramon. The frustrating part was that we actually chose to hold the PMAP conference in October this year (it used to be held regularly in September every year) precisely because everyone said typhoons usually visited the country during September so holding it on October would be wiser. Of course we now know that global warming has really altered whatever weather patterns we’ve been accustomed to in the past. Lesson number one: There is no longer such a thing as a typhoon-free month in this country anymore.

Unfortunately, everything comes to a halt in this country when there is a typhoon. Electricity goes kaput, transportation systems go haywire, prices of food go berserk. Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez has his job cut out for him if he truly intends to put the Philippines in the map as a conference destination.

When we announced that the PMAP conference was happening in Mindanao this year, many heaved a sigh of relief thinking that the conference would not be affected by weather disturbances. Mindanao is an island rarely visited by typhoons. People figured that unlike the other year when hundreds of conference delegates got stranded in Manila because of Typhoon Ondoy, at least people wouldn’t have to go through a similar scenario in Cagayan de Oro. Lesson number two: There is no such thing as a typhoon-free place in this country.

We now know Mindanao is not typhoon-free anymore. As I write this piece, Typhoon Ramon is threatening to wreak havoc on the Northeastern part of Mindanao and Central Visayas. We are storming the heavens with prayers that flights coming out of Cebu and Manila would not get canceled because this would definitely affect the conference as most participants and speakers will be coming in from the two key cities.

But the most frustrating challenge that we had to respond to, and which gave us the biggest headache, was the Philippine Airlines fiasco. It would require more than one column to narrate the many stories of woe that our participants had to go through in the last few days trying to make sense of or find fixes for canceled or rescheduled flights.

As human resource management professionals, we empathized with the situation of our colleagues at PAL and tried to make allowances for glitches brought about by the labor strike. Many of us chose to stick it out with PAL despite availability of flights in other airlines because we truly wanted to help the flag carrier project the impression that it is “business as usual” despite the difficulties. Still, we couldn’t believe the extent of unpreparedness that most of us witnessed in the last few days. It was as if there was no contingency plan in place. In many cases, check-in time took 30 minutes for each passenger. Lesson number three: Anticipate all kinds of scenarios, including a labor strike.

At any rate, we hope to be able to hold a successful PMAP conference this year, particularly since there is a lot weighing on in this event. It’s the first time that a major conference is being held in Cagayan de Oro and we truly wanted to showcase the city’s potentials as a conference venue. They are building a bigger and hopefully more modern airport, which they will share with Iligan City, and it is expected to be operational next year. There’s a lot of infrastructure being built around the city—flyovers are finally being built in strategic intersections to manage traffic better. And the tourism attractions of the city are unique and more sustainable (think white water rafting, ziplines, and forest canopy walks).

The theme of the PMAP conference is Tao Muna (People First), which is a reiteration or re-statement of what is probably the most overused cliché in management literature, which is that people are an organization’s most important or most valuable asset. The reality, however, is that while many organizations profess to put premium on people, far too many simply do so because of social guilt; they feel it is their social or moral obligation to do so.

There continues to be a wide gap between theory and practice particularly in terms of effective talent management. Many organizations don’t see people as capital; they think it is products, or technology, or facilities that underpin business success. Many organizations continue to consider payroll as overhead cost, benefits as superfluous, and training and development as perks rather than as investments.

Over and above the philosophical issues of what and how people should be treated in business organizations, there is the critical need to develop sound and sustainable strategies to manage people in the emerging business environment.

There is very little doubt that the world has changed and is still changing radically and yet there is very little being done both in terms of crafting national strategies or promoting best practices to protect, nay, effectively harness, Filipino talent as the main source of the country’s competitive advantage. For example, we all know outsourcing has become an inevitable business reality but we don’t really have a strategic plan that will guarantee sustainability of jobs or promote equity in the long run.

What we have at the moment are various knee-jerk responses from everyone. Most of the proposed laws that impact on labor that have been filed in both houses of congress are tragically either reactive or irrelevant, are designed to promote protectionism which renders them unsustainable in the global business environment, or have potentially disastrous consequences in the long-term. Government seems content in doing a balancing act—trying to establish a middle ground for the various conflicting needs and interests. Business and labor are often left to their own devices and try to make things work, but unfortunately, there’s just a lot of ideological issues that get in the way.

“People first,” the theme of the PMAP conference is therefore timely. It is also an urgent call to action. People are our only lasting source of competitive advantage. We need to craft better strategies, promote best practices, and encourage more proactive collaboration to better harness Filipino talent. Indeed, Tao Muna.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thank you, Steve

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

Add this piece to the thousands of tributes the world has heaped on the memory of Steve Jobs – visionary, marketing genius, innovation guru, maverick businessman, father.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want the chance to change the world?” he once asked John Sculley, Vice President of Pepsi Cola (Sculley resigned from Pepsi to join Steve Jobs at Apple).

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the microcomputer, or digital audio, or even digital video. But there is very little doubt in the world today that he pushed the boundaries and expanded technological frontiers. He changed people’s listening habits with iTunes and iPod, broke new grounds in digital filmmaking through Pixar, introduced products that didn’t pander to populist demands but instead catered to what he thought people needed, etc.

Of the many tributes made to the man, the one that probably struck a chord was this eulogy, reposted across many social networking sites and reprinted in many newspapers: “There were three apples that changed the world; the one that Eve ate, the one that fell on Newton’s head, and the one that Steve Jobs created.”

I am a proud Apple user. This column has always been composed on a MacBook. I do most of my office stuff and surfing at home on Macs despite the hassle of having to check for compatibility when sharing files. I own three iPods (an iPod nano which I bought eight years ago and which I have kept for sentimental reasons, an iPod shuffle which was given to me as a token during a speaking engagement and which I use when I am on the go such as when on a treadmill, and a trusty iPod touch which I carry with me everywhere). Although I still buy books, most of my reading is now done in my iPad. I used to own a Kindle, but since the Amazon software was made compatible with the iPad, I have decided to send my Kindle into early retirement.

My fascination with Steve started in the late eighties when a professor in graduate school used Jobs’ fall from Apple and his subsequent preoccupation with building NeXt Computer as case study in strategic management. I remember being awed by the man’s capacity to nurture a vision. I don’t remember the exact words of Steve’s vision for NeXt computers, but I distinctly remember just how revolutionary they were. He didn’t talk about building a business empire, or producing x number of computers, or other business indicators of success. I remember listening to him talk about changing the way people learn, about revolutionizing education, about building the future. He talked about introducing a breakthrough computer 10 or 20 times more powerful that what was there at that moment. It was very inspiring.

Through the years, the man’s ability to blaze trails never waned simply because he refused to be anything but a revolutionary. “We’re gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make “me too” products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it’s always the next dream,” he once said in a speech to launch a new Macintosh computer.

What added to the enigma was the fact the man didn’t mince words. He was renowned for making statements that shook up the establishment.

He shot down the use of focus group discussion, a staple among product managers and everyone else who want to make sure that whatever it is they are designing meet the needs of their target audience. “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give it that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new,” he said.

He took digs at Microsoft, IBM and the makers of the traditional computers: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

He also took potshots at Bill Gates. “Bill Gates’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger,” he told the The New York Times in 1997.

Steve didn’t get to finish college but was asked to deliver the Commencement Address to graduating students of Standford University in 2005. That address is probably one of the most popular speeches in history now as he reflected on what matters most in life and about his own mortality. I’ve read that speech many times and have shamelessly quoted liberally parts of the speech for various lectures. Here are some parts of the speech that I think bear repeating:

“Death is the destination we all share, no one has escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

As a human resource management practitioner, I have always admired the ways in which Steve introduced innovation even in the way he set up his companies and ventures. He recognized the value of people and hired only the best. He developed unique ways to induct and integrate employees into the Apple “family.” Each new hire at Apple had to meet everyone else – like in a fraternity. He would go out of his way to meet with everyone – in conference rooms, at hallways, even at the water station. He did away with bureaucracy in his organizations and focused on building a corporate culture that did away with conventional corporate structures, building “families” and “communities” instead.

Steve succumbed to a rare type of pancreatic cancer last week. But the man is even bigger in death. It is a testament to the great power of dreams that one man could make such a huge impact on the world.

Indeed, the world loves talent; but pays off big time on character. Steve Jobs (Steve to Apple fans) was hugely talented, but in the end, the major outpouring of affection that the world is bestowing upon him and his memory is mainly on account of the fact that he changed the world as we knew it and probably made it a better place.

Good night, Steve. Thank you.


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Flooded

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

A friend who was recently on board a plane that passed through Central Luzon told me that he almost broke into tears when he saw the extent of the flooding from high up. It looked really sad and desolate, he said. Large swathes of Luzon looked like giant lakes and in many parts one could only make out a few forlorn-looking roofs and the tips of some trees protruding from the waters.

We know the flooding in Central Luzon in the last few days has been the worst we’ve seen so far. We know this because we have seen the pictures, we have viewed the videos, and we have heard the plaintive cries for help and deliverance from thousands of victims - many of them soaking wet to the bones, hungry and thirsty, and with fear and panic written all over their faces.

I saw this video of a grandmother who was rescued after having been trapped inside her house for two days while the floodwaters were rising around her. She couldn’t articulate her feelings; there were simply no words to express the pain, the terror, and the helplessness. In the end, all she could say in a voice trembling with unspoken pain, “Tulungan nyo kami, parang awa nyo na” (have mercy, please help us).

We’ve seen pictures of various animals stranded on roofs. One such picture ended up occupying almost a third of the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It showed what seemed like an idyllic tableau of a dog, two cats, some chicken and ducks stranded on a roof (they were eventually rescued, thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists who weren’t amused at the picture). Although we’ve also seen images of people wading in the floods while tightly clutching in their arms their beloved pets, we have been told the rescue teams could only take in people, not animals. I dread the thought of how many animals—farm animals and domestic pets—drowned in the whole of Luzon.

We saw right in the front page of this newspaper a picture of a funeral procession being made across floodwaters, the coffin perilously perched on top of a boat. We are a people who honor our dead, come hell or high water. We learned that at least 59 people had perished in Central Luzon alone due to the flooding. And the numbers continue to rise. At least 16 villages in the town of Calumpit in Bulacan remain inaccessible as I write this column; we don’t know what has happened in those villages.

We heard stories of how mothers gave birth at the height of the flooding; some of them forced to immediately get up from their recovery beds and made to ride makeshift boats just so they could get to an evacuation center. One mother rode on a soft drink cooler while her newborn floated alongside on a washbasin. Thousands of children were cramped in evacuation centers, many of them eventually contracting colds, cough, and other diseases. In a bridge somewhere in Pampanga, a community of Badjaos took over a bridge and turned it into their temporary shelter, much to the dismay of the townspeople who want them evicted and sent back to wherever they came from.

The flooding has brought to the surface the extent of our problems in the area of population management. We’re seeing far too many children growing up under dangerous environments just because their parents don’t have access to reproductive health information and services. And as we pondered on the phenomenon, we heard that the Senate President has just expressed the opinion that even masturbation is a crime; it constitutes abortion. In a country where far too many children are growing up without access to basic care, education, and other necessities, he thinks sperm cells are alive and exist only for one single purpose—to mate with a female egg.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about forced evacuation in the event of calamities and disasters such heavy flooding. Our leaders debate over the wisdom of forcing people to leave their homes to relocate temporarily to God knows where. Nobody seems to notice that the evacuation centers—actually, classrooms—are hardly habitable anymore. These structures were not meant to be live-in headquarters of thousands of people. The mayor of Calumpit was heard on television chastising people who have been talking non-stop about evacuating people from the flooded areas—“with what and to where?” he asked. He said it would take 200 rubber boats to transport 20,000 people. Nobody had that many boats. And where would the 20,000 evacuees stay? In this country, talk is cheap.

And so once again, there are many of us who have expressed annoyance over the stubbornness of people who refused to leave their homes even when the floodwaters were rising. How could they put their lives at risk just so they could protect a few worldly possessions, we openly wonder. Actually I am aghast that there are people who actually ask the question. Some of us don’t just get it. For the very poor, a few plates and glasses, a television set perhaps, and a few chairs and tables represent their only claim to respectability. Many of them saved up for their television sets for years! This might not make sense to those who preach from their air-conditioned cars while sipping their designer coffee, but there are people in this country who take their slippers off when wading through mud because they don’t want their slippers to get soiled or destroyed. If their feet get wounded, at least it would heal, they reason out; but where in the world will they find the money to buy a new pair of slippers? How can one argue with poverty?

As usual, the search for someone to blame has started and many of our leaders have jumped into the quest with guns blazing and tempers on full throttle. What caused the flooding? Why didn’t we evacuate people at once? Why are the relief goods taking so long to arrive at the evacuation sites? What is taking the floodwaters too long to recede? Where is the President in the midst of all the chaos?

What is clear now is that the flooding was not directly caused by rainfall spawned by Typhoons Pedring and Quiel. Experts said the rains generated by the two typhoons did not reach 30 percent of the volume of rain released by Ondoy two years ago. What caused the massive flooding was the fact that all six dams in Luzon released water almost at the same time. Apparently, the people responsible for the dams did not coordinate with each other. As usual, the problem boils down to lack of coordination at the top levels.

But there are other factors that need to be taken into account. An expert from the University of the Philippines has pointed out that Pampanga and Bulacan are actually sinking every year because of the presence of too many deep wells in the area. It seems people are simply digging up wells unaware of the consequences to Mother Nature. There’s also the problem of rivers and canals and other floodways being overly silted and virtually blocked by garbage. And yes, our mountains are almost bald so their capacity to absorb water has also been severely reduced. What goes around comes around. In the end, we all know the search for someone to blame will eventually lead back to us.

The President of the Republic has not deigned to shake hands with the flood victims or even hand out a few token relief goods to the families who have suddenly found themselves homeless. We are told the President does not want to take away focus from the victims and is shying away from photo-ops. To this day, I still couldn’t believe that at a time of great tragedy when leadership by example is badly needed, when actual presence of the president is required to boost sagging spirits or to communicate concern, all the bright boys at the Palace could think about was politics?

This is the Philippines. We see the best and the worst during crises.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Not an ordinary labor dispute

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

One of the most frustrating things about the media coverage—and consequently, public perception—of the ongoing Philippine Airlines debacle is the effort to oversimplify the conflict as a simple labor-management dispute.

Bias, haste, inability to see the total picture, and just plain lack of information or resourcefulness are just some of the reasons why some media people tend to oversimplify the issue.

Of course the Philippine Airlines Employees Association wants to reduce the issue to a few simple and dramatic sound bytes. They know that for as long as they can project the impression that they have been oppressed, that their rights have been wantonly violated, that they just wanted to protect their jobs against the evil machinations of uncaring management, a significant part of the population will take their side. The wildcat strike they pulled off last week, which left thousands of people stranded during a typhoon, did not endear them to the general public, though. I don’t think any of those stranded passengers (and their friends and relatives) empathize with the union after what happened.

But in the overall scheme of things, it is a given that PAL management will lose the media game. The real issues are far too complicated to be reduced to a few sound bytes.

Thus, most people cannot be blamed for thinking that the issue boils down to a simple matter—greed on the part of either PAL management or if one had the time and the inclination to find out more about the issue, of the employees’ union. Depending on which side of the divide one happens to empathize with, either PAL management is at fault for being heartless and overly profit-oriented or the members of PALEA are just the usual bunch of militants who just want to continue to bleed the company dry.

At the heart of the PAL issues is the question of whether outsourcing is a valid business strategy. PAL wants to become more competitive (if we are to be honest, it just wants to survive at this point) and therefore wants to outsource its ground handling services—something that the other airlines, including Cebu Pacific has already been doing for the longest time. Most of the major business organizations in this country have also embarked on a similar business strategy —from SMART Telecommunications, to IBM, even Jollibee.

The jobs aren’t lost—they are just contracted to another company. So the claim that jobs are lost through the outsourcing scheme is just plain propaganda.

Theoretically, the people who perform the jobs need not lose their jobs as well provided they are willing to agree to the new employment relationship. Necessarily, they have to resign or be separated from the original company, which admittedly is psychologically painful in a culture where prestige is derived from the status of one’s employer. In this country, the second job related question asked of anyone after “what do you do?” is “what company do you work for?” In the case of PAL, the jobs are being outsourced to three other companies and the incumbents in the jobs have been offered a handsome separation package on top of their regular retirement benefits, and the opportunity to get back their old jobs; this time, though, not with PAL anymore but with the new companies to whom the jobs have been outsourced.

PALEA objected to the arrangement for a number of reasons. It is an employees’ union so it is incumbent upon it to oppose anything that threatens to change the employment arrangements of their members. At the same time, their numbers would be severely decimated by the outsourcing decision. Lest we forget, numbers are everything when it comes to labor-management issues and negotiations.

The issue has far-reaching implications on labor. Thus, it is not surprising that PALEA has the support of all the other labor groups. I don’t presume to know what is exactly in the hearts of the leaders and members of PALEA, but I think that it is understandable if they feel that it is their moral responsibility to stand up against outsourcing. They probably think that they owe it to the cause of the labor movement to sharply define the issues and their implications to people and consequently, to advocate for fairer treatment.

The Department of Labor and Employment has already ruled that the outsourcing program of Philippine Airlines is valid and legal. PALEA appealed the decision with the Office of the President, which also agreed with the DOLE Secretary’s ruling. PALEA has brought the case to the Court of Appeals where it is currently pending.

To my mind, however, we’re really just dribbling the ball, so to speak. In the end, it would be futile to rule against a global phenomenon. The issue of outsourcing is a phenomenon that, like globalization, cannot be stopped anymore. And it actually doesn’t make sense for us to try to stop it. The truth is that this country has benefited immensely from the outsourcing phenomenon. The industry has been employing hundreds of thousands of employees locally. Indications point to massive growth in this sector in the next few years. The projection is that the industry will be able to overtake the volume of remittances of overseas Filipino workers in five years if it is given the appropriate support by government.

It certainly smacks of hypocrisy if we rile against outsourcing and consider it invalid and illegal when we happily enjoy its benefits!

Thus, the PAL issue has grave repercussions on our overall ability as a nation to respond to global trends. While it may look like it only affects PAL or the employees who have been affected by the company’s decision to outsource its ground handling services, what is at stake is actually the viability of outsourcing as a business strategy in this country. What is at stake is not just sustainability, nay, basic survival of the flag carrier (incidentally, the PAL situation is not unique; it’s the same situation that many national flag carriers have gone, or are currently going, through); but the future of other industries as well. What is at stake is overall competitiveness of the Philippines.

One wishes, though, that we were more prepared as a country to manage the impact of the outsourcing phenomenon. Obviously, what is happening at PAL is indicative of utter lack of foresight. Of course the labor sector will not take the matter sitting down. We could have prepared better for all these.