Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Unfinished business

This was my column on December 28, 2011. This post is antedated in the interest of keeping this blog better organized.

The interlude between Christmas and New Year is opportune time to look back on the year that was and to ponder what is in store for the coming year. Around this time every year I usually reflect on the great and the not-so-great things that happened during the year and try—the operative term is try—to come up with resolutions.

A number of great things did happen in 2011 despite the lackluster performance of the Aquino administration in the areas of pump-priming the economy, getting critical programs the necessary boost, and even in terms of getting important legislation passed.

A number of global experts has offered relatively grim prognosis for the Philippine economy in 2012 on account of a combination of global and domestic factors although the government has remained oblivious to the threat and to the projections. We are being told that the government will hit the ground running in 2012, finally making up for the slack in 2011. How exactly this is going to happen is a major mystery.

It can be argued of course that the government in 2011 succeeded in getting the former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos detained and having Chief Justice Renato Corona impeached by Congress. The sad thing is that these “successes” also raised a lot of questions and there are lingering doubts about the long-term consequences of the rather Machiavellian way the so-called “moral victory” was rammed through people’s throats.

So anyone looking for really bright spots in the year-that-was will have to look at the feats of individual Filipinos. But then again, even professional boxer Manny Pacquiao’s victory over Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez was subjected to a lot of catcalls and protests. But yes, we produced another CNN Hero in the person of Robin Lim, a Filipino-American midwife based in Indonesia. Philippine movies made a comeback in 2011 with a number of mainstream as well as indie films breaking records at the box office. We didn’t do so badly in international beauty contests. Shamcey Supsup placed fourth overall in the 2011 Miss Universe while Gwendoline Ruais placed second in the 2011 Miss World pageant. I know. These are important, but....

President Benigno S. Aquino III on Christmas Eve vowed to work for a “brighter, merrier, and more prosperous Christmas for Filipinos” in 2012 and beyond as he and his sisters spent the day spreading cheer to 150 less fortunate children at the Don Bosco Technical Institute in Makati City. We shall have to add this promise to the growing list of promises he has made since he campaigned and eventually assumed office.

The big stories in 2011 were, unfortunately, about tragedies. The number of casualties created by the flash flooding that happened in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, and Dumaguete City in the runup to the Christmas season continued to rise even as disaster management officials have stopped the count allegedly due to a faulty reporting system. Barely two months ago, flooding also happened in Bulacan and Pampanga, leaving many towns submerged for weeks. The massacre of Filipino soldiers in Mindanao and the many road accidents that happened during the year likewise produced body count that caused many of us to hyperventilate.

As in the past, we continue to talk about the need to put in place programs that would ensure that the recurring tragedies would not happen again. But in this country talk is cheap, very cheap. Sadly, the political will to really pursue the programs remains wanting regardless of the much-vaunted commitment to serve the Filipino people and to trudge along the path of the righteous and the moral. In 2011, most of us were content to live in a yellow submarine.

The flooding in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was already foreseen as early as two years ago, but nothing was done to avert the disaster. As I write, some quarters have raised the alarm regarding the possibility of similar flooding in Mindanao on account of another typhoon hovering in an island that is usually not along the path of typhoons. I am not sure what officials are currently doing to avert another major tragedy. It must be noted though that the problems require long-term and comprehensive solutions; it will take more than giving people warnings and evacuating people from disaster-prone areas.

And so we are starting another year with a heavy baggage of unfinished business that threatens to make 2012 a year of strife, or at least a year of further divisiveness although hopefully, less tragedies.

The first two—perhaps even three—months of the year will be spent on the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. We expect the trial to be explosive given our legislators’ penchant for grandstanding and theatrics. Since the trial will most likely be televised live, it will eclipse all other teleseryes in terms of entertainment value. Sadly, I think that most have already prejudged the case. Some people have made sure that the minds of ordinary people are conditioned to think that Corona is guilty and I don't think any evidence or logical acrobatics can convince them otherwise. We can all try to convince ourselves that the trial will be impartial and that everything will be judged based on evidence and logic but we all know the impeachment is what the President of this Republic wants—he has made this clear on many occasions. This is a President that is uncompromising on matters that he considers an affront to his legitimate and moral authority. And impeachment, regardless of what our senators want to project to the thinking class, is a political exercise.

Currently relegated to the back burner owing to the tragedy in Mindanao is the fate of former President and now Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She is currently on hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Hospital in Quezon City, but we expect the legal fireworks around her case to explode soon. Similarly, there is the case involving former Commission on Elections chair Benjamin Abalos.

The list of unfinished business is long, long one. There’s the long-delayed passage of the reproductive health bill, the freedom of information bill, the fair competition or anti-trust law, the Whistleblowers Protective Act, the Data Privacy Act, etc. One wishes our legislators have been as swift to act on these critical measures as they were on the impeachment of Corona.

Also part of the unfinished business is the confirmation of Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman. People are second-guessing whether she would be re-appointed (a likely scenario) or replaced as a result of her non-confirmation by the Commission on Appointments. Although the conditional cash transfer program of the government is an institutional program of the department and will most likely continue even without Soliman at the helm of the agency, it must be noted that the program requires the stewardship of someone like Soliman who is immersed in development issues.

A two-year-old unfinished business is the Maguindanao massacre. Secretary Leila de Lima can huff and puff all she wants in an effort to get a slate in the Senate lineup of the administration in 2013—but the slow pace of the Maguindanao trial is reflection of the real state of justice in this country.

I will end this piece by reminding everyone of an unfinished business that is deeply personal to me—the murder of Renato Victor Ebarle Jr. two years ago. Although the suspect is behind bars, justice for the Ebarles remains elusive.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Remembrance and thanksgiving

This was my column on December 26, 2011. This post is antedated in the interest of keeping this blog better organized.

I personally get a little emotional during Christmas Eve and upon waking up on Christmas day itself because it’s when the memories of Christmases past come rushing back.

There is something about family gatherings on Christmas Eve that bring a tear to the eye even in the midst of the pandemonium and chaos of ensuring that the dinner table is groaning from the weight of the feast and that the gifts under the tree are all accounted for. These are the moments that make all the aggravations of the season—the traffic, the long lines at the mall, the crazy schedules—all worth it.

No matter how late we stay up on Christmas eve for the traditional Noche Buena and for the merrymaking that usually follows the feast, I have always woken up very early on Christmas morning because that was when my beloved grandmother and I would spend our special time together—just her and me, her favorite grandchild. Yes, I am a certified Lola’s boy who until high school couldn’t sleep without being cuddled in my grandmother’s bony and wrinkly arms. To this day, I still remember her scent—a powerful combination of baby powder, cooking ingredients, candles, and church incense (she went to church every day and sat in the front row).

Christmas morning was when my Lola would wake me up ahead of everyone else so we could open our presents together. I must have been a really dutiful boy because while my sibling and cousins couldn’t wait to open their presents (and would even cheat by tearing parts of the wrapping of their presents) I would usually wait until Christmas morning to open mine. Of course I realize now that the discipline was something my Lola ingrained upon me.

On Christmas morning, I would drag myself to the dining room where Lola would have already prepared a special breakfast just for me. The food were mostly leftovers from the previous night’s feast but she had a way of recycling that would make the ham and the embutido even more appetizing than their original form. The conversation we would have would be mundane but a lot more was unspoken, the morning air thick with genuine affection.

Of course, she also did it that way so she could privately give me my present, which was always much more special that those of my siblings and cousins. I always thought we went through the whole early morning arrangement so that others would not be jealous of the attention and of the special gift she had for me. It was only later on when I realized she really just wanted to have that special moment with me, just with me; she wanted to revel in the surprise and the glow in my face as I opened my special present—they would usually be books or toys that were more expensive (one Christmas she gave me a complete set of Hardy Boys books). Up until I was in high school, we would cuddle up in her rocking chair until everyone would wake up. This was our Christmas morning ritual, something I used to miss, but now look back to with fond affection and gratefulness.

My lola passed away when I was in third year high school. But to this day, I would still wake up very early on Christmas morning to open my presents and just sit in the early morning darkness of the living room deep in thought and reminiscences. It’s when I miss Lola the most.

Lola has passed on but her influence has remained strong in our family. She started many of our Christmas traditions and it is probably a tribute to her that we continue to sustain these traditions. These include the kind of food that you would find in our Noche Buena table— from the way the ham would be cooked (simmered in thick pineapple juice and mascovado sugar for hours and hours until the juices resemble a thick gooey concoction), to the kind of kakanin that we served as dessert. It was from her that I acquired my taste for very dark chocolate—the more bitter it is, the better.

Most of the special kakanin are, sadly, ordered all the way from Leyte because most of us among the younger generation just don’t have the patience and the temperament to prepare them from scratch. Lola slaved in the kitchen for days to produce those delectable treats at a time when everything was done manually; for instance, the grating of dozens of coconuts were done on a kudkuran (a bench with an iron grater).

There’s the special chocolate suman (called muron) that takes at least eight hours to prepare, I kid you not; a brown rice cake (puto) with a distinct taste because all the ingredients that are used are organic such as coconut vinegar instead of yeast, and my Lola’s almost obscenely rich leche flan with lots of lemon rind which melts in the mouth.

Of course, probably due to her strong influence, our clan continues to be ruled by women. My own mother cannot travel anymore so she stays in our home in Leyte but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to run my own household by remote control. And my own two sisters seemed to have inherited the genes in large quantities because they also take turns swooping down on my brothers’ and my own household to “fix” things and put sense where they think there isn’t.

We are a matriarchal society; this has been said more than often enough by many experts. Our families are tied together by strong women who often rule with benevolent dictatorship. This is certainly true of our extended family; to this day, we are ruled by strong-willed women who continue to preside over family matters, sometimes with assertiveness, often through gentle suasion.

Anyway. What got me thinking about the women in my family were the loving tributes given by the children of the late Carolina “Arling” Lapus Gozon Thursday night at her wake at Heritage Park. The four siblings— Benjamin, Carolina, Felipe and Flor —took turns sharing heartwarming personal stories about the courage and tenacity, the unshakeable faith and the overflowing affection, and the many sterling attributes of their Inay who passed away last week. She was 97.

I was personally moved by the many anecdotes about how the Gozon matriarch pretty much took control of everything in the family to ensure that her children would have the best education and the best future. I particularly liked the anecdotes that remind us that mothers truly know best and still manage to be full of wisdom even in situations when they don’t seem to make sense.

Truly, where would we be without our mothers? Or the other women in our lives—grandmothers, aunts, and our respective collection of ate?

***

Christmas is also a season for thanksgiving. There are many people I am grateful to. Family members and professional colleagues I could greet in person or send gifts to. But the people who read this column regularly also deserve my deepest gratitude and appreciation. I would like to thank all of you for continuing to read me. Thank you, George Sison for the vote of confidence regardless of what I write in this space. My appreciation also goes to regular readers who send me feedback every now and then—Grace Abella Zata, Reymyr Guantia, Aldous Viloria, Jonathan Chua, Nenette De Ono Molina, and the many others who go out of their way to pat my back on many occasions and sometimes point out typographical errors. Thank you, everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas amid a tragedy

This post is antedated.

I know people who still cannot comprehend how the flash flood in Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan City in Mindanao and Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental in the Visayas that claimed hundreds of—perhaps even more than a thousand—lives could have happened. The death toll has been steadily rising and grim pictures of the devastation are making people shake their heads in disbelief. That the tragedy happened in the run up towards Christmas magnifies the pain. This is supposed to be a season of joy and rejoicing; this is not supposed to be a time of tragedy.

My friends from Cagayan de Oro recounted how unprepared everyone is in this city for this kind of tragedy. I know. We are a country that does not believe in preparations; but our brothers and sisters in Mindanao even more so. Cagayan de Oro—and the whole of Mindanao—is not usually along the path of typhoons. Of course some people have been giving dire warnings about flash floods being a possibility in an area where forests have been disappearing at a faster pace to give way to development and where rivers and natural waterways have become silted due to pollution. But for the most part, most have stuck to the belief that they lived in a promised land where nature is at its friendliest best. Well, not anymore.

I don’t know if there is a message more powerful than what we have seen in the last few days. Many years of environmental abuse are taking their toll on us. Nature is fighting back; and in truly vengeful ways. Typhoons are getting stronger and stronger and, consequently, more devastating. Other forces of nature have also become more powerful. A whole month’s worth of rain can now be unleashed in a few hours’ time. We need to get our act together and help reverse the cataclysmic consequences of global warming.

This is why I am glad to note that more and more towns and cities are embracing environmental protection as an advocacy. This week, Antipolo has joined the number of cities that have banned the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. These are the two most common causes of pollution as well as clogging of waterways. Really, just imagine the sheer number of Styrofoam waste generated by the top fastfood chains!

Of course, we still have a long way to go to restore our forest cover, which is why we really need to have stronger political will in this country to ensure that first, we put in place a total ban on logging; and second, a total ban on mining. We just cannot afford to have more catastrophes of the kind that we are witnessing now in Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and Dumaguete.

My heart bleeds for our brothers and sisters who were severely affected by the flash floods over the weekend. My thoughts and my prayers are with them. We should really do what we can for them, particularly since it is the season of giving. We can scale down very lavish preparations for our Noche Buena and for the remaining parties and reunions and instead donate a percentage of the money to the victims. Let us donate to the National Red Cross—they are the ones at the forefront of the disaster relief operations.

I hope the President stops making excuses and shows the kind of stewardship that is most needed at a time like this. It is important that the President is seen as a leader who is on the ground, distributing relief, shaking hands with the victims, and condoling with those in grief. That yarn about how it wouldn’t be easy for a President to make travel arrangements is pure hogwash; he is President, for crying out loud, he can make things happen.

I don’t think it was a big deal that the President was out partying the night thousands of Filipinos along the swathe of the flash floods were disconsolate, trying to locate loved ones and salvaging whatever they could from the mud. It really wasn’t the fact that he attended a Christmas party and had fun; it was more because he still had to show that he cared enough for the victims. If only the President were seen directing relief efforts or personally condoling with the victims, that bit of news about his partying the night before would not have become an issue at all. Memo to the bright boys in the Palace: We don’t mind if the President attends parties as long as he does his job.

Given the scope and magnitude of the devastation in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Dumaguete, we should celebrate Christmas and greet the New Year with a little more commitment to truly make this world a better place for everyone. Here are some ideas about what you can do in this season of hope, love, and peace.

It’s not too late to give Mother Nature a Christmas gift. You can resolve to go easy on the non-biodegradable materials during the rest of the holidays and perhaps even the rest of the year. Instead of serving food on Styrofoam, you might want to consider buying biodegradable paper plates instead. Go easy on the fireworks—they pollute the air and create more waste. They are also bad for our physical wellbeing. You can plant a tree, or two, or even more. You can sign a petition to ban logging and mining in this country. You can practice recycling.

You can also help protect the environment just by conserving water and electricity. Water is actually a diminishing resource. For instance, if you are the average person, you probably turn on the faucet while brushing your teeth. You must stop this practice and use a glass instead; in the process, you conserve water. The same is true when washing dishes or clothes.

Do not overcharge your mobile phones. Most people charge their phones at night and leave them on while they go to sleep. This is an utter waste of electricity. You can try charging your mobile phone in the morning while you are eating breakfast or going about your morning rituals. This way, you do not overcharge your phone. You can also try unplugging electrical appliances that are not being used as they continue to consume electricity if they remain plugged to an electrical outlet.

On Christmas Day, recycle. Make sandwiches of the leftover ham and cheese from your Noche Buena table. With a few slices of apples and some strips of lettuce or cabbage, these can be transformed into delightful gourmet sandwiches. Wrap them in paper napkins and give these to the street children that are bound to come knocking on your car window at some intersections of the metro. These kids probably had to fight for a slice of ham and probably didn’t have queso de bola at their table on Christmas Eve. Your leftovers will definitely be a welcome treat for them.

Spend some quality time with your loved ones, especially the old and the young. Go to church. Pray for our country; God knows we need all the divine intervention we can get in these uncertain times.

Maligayang Pasko!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Neither black nor white

This post is antedated.

That was quite a mouthful the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago unleashed last week during a confirmation hearing at the Commission on Appointments.

Of course we have come to expect the senator to constantly amaze, dumbfound and even amuse us with her trademark feistiness and distinct eloquence. But last week’s lecture on theology, Manichean philosophy and populist philosophy during the confirmation hearing of Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman was classic.

We are truly going to miss Senator Santiago when she packs up and relocates to the Netherlands in March next year, when she assumes the highly coveted post as one of six judges of the International Criminal Court. Santiago is the first Asian woman from a developing state to get a seat in the ICC. The woman is in a class all her own, and no one has yet come close to duplicating her famous outbursts. We will just have to get used to seeing the dour faces and monotonous drawl of our other senators.

But to go back to her outburst last week, which was covered extensively by media, Senator Santiago put Soliman to task for being a convenor of the Black and White movement, the group that has abrogated for itself the identity as “civil society.” The BWM has on many occasions likewise positioned itself as some kind of the ultimate guardian of morality in this country, often issuing statements that they pass off as the authoritative and only viable position on many contentious issues.

“You know what is good and evil because God says so? Oh, yeah? Did God speak to you, members of the Black and White Movement?” the Senator asked Soliman.

I am very glad the Senator said what I have been saying in this space for many years now: The problem with some people in this country is that they impose their theology on everyone else. Worse, they claim to subscribe to a higher moral order and insist on a black-and-white categorization of issues but sadly, only when the situation suits them or is in their favor.

And this has been my beef with the BWM movement for many years now. They expect everybody to live up to a stringent moral order but they don’t necessarily apply the criteria to themselves. For example, they’ve always made a big deal that many of our leaders have lost any sense of delicadeza. Ironically, many among them have openly jockeyed for political appointments and are in fact using the BWM platform as launching pads for their own political agenda and candidacies. Where’s the morality in that?

Conversely, this, exactly, is what I find disturbing about what is happening in the country today. This administration is hell bent on making the former President accountable for various acts of corruption while in office—bribery, usurpation of authority, abuse of power, etc.,—under the guise of establishing a higher moral order. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have problems with that. We should make our leaders accountable for wrongdoing while in office. But we must make sure that we take the higher moral ground when we do so – not by words and by empty posturing, but in deed and action. This means we must adhere to due process even when no one is looking, even when we can get away with it, and yes, even when we believe in our heart of hearts that the accused do not deserve the fair treatment. Only when we do so can we actually have the moral authority to move forward.

But what is happening is that at the same time that our leaders are lecturing us about morality and good governance, they indulge in exactly the same acts that they claim are immoral. They accused the Supreme Court of having short-circuited the process that led to the issuance of a temporary restraining order in favor of the former President, but did exactly the same thing to ensure that the impeachment of the Chief Justice would sail through Congress swiftly and without hitch. They insist that the former President should be made accountable for abuse of power and authority, shady deals, and other corrupt practices but used exactly the same modus operandi to ensure that lawmakers would sign the impeachment complaint.

“In the BWM, there is no such allowance for the so-called gray areas. You’re either good you’re either bad, you’re either light or you’re either dark. That is my basic concern with this nominee, to look at the world only in shades of dark and light and not make allowances for human failures or for human limitations,” Senator Santiago was quoted in various media reports. “In the first place, who determines what is good, and who determines what is evil? That is the egotistic problem with black and white… who is to decide what is black and white?” the senator asked.

Like the senator, my objection to the hard line posturing of the BWM and by extension, the rest of the people in this country who insist on foisting on the rest of the population their moral scruples, is philosophical. Excuse me, not everything is black and white in this country; there is a context to everything.

Case in point: Just because I advocate due process, respect for laws, and adherence to civility does not make me an apologist of the former President. Oh please, that kind of labeling is just so passé and so tawdry. Just because I am disaffected by the fact that this administration has held hostage progress and economic development at the altar of morality does not mean I am anti-government.

More to the point, just because I agree with Senator Santiago when she castigated Soliman’s affiliation with the BWM, this does not mean I agree with the senator’s filibustering of Soliman’s confirmation as Social Welfare secretary.

I happen to think that Soliman is one of the very few Cabinet secretaries who are actually doing a good job.

I honestly don’t understand why people balk at the huge amount of money that Soliman is entrusted with for the government’s conditional cash transfer program, known as four Ps. Surely everyone knows that we do have millions of people in this country who are living in abject poverty; when you divide the total amount allocated for the conditional cash transfer program by the number of family beneficiaries, the amount is actually not that staggering anymore.

The problem is not that the government is spending billions on poverty alleviation; the question is why only now and why only that amount? We all rile about the high incidence of poverty but we don’t match our rhetoric with political will and purposeful action.

Besides, when we put together all the piecemeal programs politicians supposedly pour into so-called poverty alleviation we’d probably come up with probably more than what Soliman is spending for the four P’s program. How many politicians spend tens of millions every year on substandard school supplies for schoolchildren and for Christmas baskets? The amount is better spent on poverty alleviation program that are better conceptualized and administered in a more organized way such as the four Ps program.

The four Ps program is investment in the future of human capital. It’s necessary and important. It would be sad if the conditional cash transfer program gets stopped just because of Soliman’s political baggage. It’s really shouldn’t be that black and white.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Because they can

This post is antedated.

I’ve been asked many times this question in the last few weeks: Where do I stand in the midst of all these frenzied efforts to exact judgment at whatever cost and through whatever means possible?

The honest answer, which I have so far kept unarticulated until this writing, is that I view the whole sordid chain of events with pained resignation.

We’ve been down this road before and so far I haven’t seen any indication in the last few weeks that things would be different this time around. We still saw the same tactical mistakes that were committed in the past. They painfully illustrated just how easy it is for people in this country to bend rules in their favor when the situation calls for it and rile and flail around when others do it to benefit themselves. To my mind, it is the same kind of power play that marked the mad rush to judgment was still prevalent; the same smug attitude of the victors gloating over the prospects of seeing a vanquished foe reduced to a pitiful state, the same attempts to paint the government as cruel and oppressive and the same level of righteous indignation and protestation of innocence from the accused. Need we mention the efforts of some parties to squeeze themselves into the picture to bask in the deflected glare of the spotlight?

We know for a fact that we have a leader who wants to have his way at all costs. There are those who interpret his adamant posturing as political will; others label it as obstinacy borne out of a sense of entitlement and impatience. What we do know is that this is a leader who is not afraid to break protocols or be perceived as a bully, marshal his troops, and sink everything to get what he wants. History will be a better judge if this is necessarily bad or good for the country.

But I also know for a fact - and my nearly five decades of existence on this planet, gives ample proof of this - that what goes around comes around. Or as the wise and weary in this country tend to say, “weather weather lang yan” (it’s all a matter of who is in power). What is happening today is a variation of what happened a quarter of a century ago and even a decade ago. Sadly, we pretty much know how all these will end. The Marcoses and the Estradas are back in power and in the good graces of the current occupants of the Palace.

Strangely, people talk about how karma has caught up with certain people; in the process conveniently forgetting that they themselves are accumulating karmic debts that would have to be paid in some form in the future. This is the Philippines. We like doing the same things over and over again and yet expect different results every single time. That was how Einstein defined madness.

I am also aghast at the level of vindictiveness and the level of hatred being fomented all in the guise of accountability and justice. I have nothing against pursuing accountability and justice. By all means, let us make our leaders accountable for wrongdoing while in office and let us make sure that they pay for their sins.

But we don’t have to do the theatrics. We don’t have to foment hatred and encourage a lynching. We don’t have to turn ourselves into a mob. We certainly don’t have to destroy our institutions in the process. We don’t have to force changes just because we can, we don’t have to flaunt our power and influence just because we have the numbers. We don’t have to join the bandwagon just because it is the popular thing to do. We don’t have to shoot ourselves in the foot and commit another mockery of our democracy. We do not have to become the people we hate.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to argue with people in the throes of indignant righteousness. Not only do they fully believe in the infallibility of their positions, they also look down on those who happen to disagree with them, or even on those who simply happen to have a different opinion even if the opinion is not necessarily diametrically opposed to theirs.

And so here we are again caught in the middle of a contest of wills. We are being told that the battle is between good and evil, between what is moral and depraved. We are being made to believe that one side represents the true, the good, and the beautiful while the other side represents pure unadulterated evil. We are being conditioned to believe that all these is for our own good; that burning down our institutions and taking shortcuts that undermine what democracy is supposed to be about is justified because all these is for our own good.

Once again, the immortal words of C. S. Lewis come to mind. He said: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Things have gotten so bad that there have been days when it feels like we live in a parallel universe where everything is fueled by hatred; the level of which has to be maintained, otherwise the whole government and the country will come crashing down. So most everybody has gotten into the act including those who, barely a decade ago, were the most vilified in this country. Such is the tragedy of shortsightedness – most are just too happy to forget the sins of the past provided there’s a new object for vilification. Most are happy to ignore everything else as long as they get their pound of flesh.

So yes, I am mortified at how easily many among us become so consumed with hatred that we lose the ability to suspend judgment and allow due process to take its course. I am appalled by how easy it is for people to denounce perceived disrespect for due process and then turn around and do exactly the same thing that they have been condemning when doing so works in their favor.

The sad part is that all this negative energy that hangs in the air and this climate of hatred and discord make for bad feng shui.

Like I said, I view the whole thing with pained resignation. We’ve been through this before and I think we all pretty much know how it will end. Those in power will get what they want because that is just how things are in this country – whoever has power gets his or her way. Everything else is just good old fashioned moro moro. Lest we forget, however, we must remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Eventually, we see people for what they truly are, the chinks in the armor are revealed, and we discover that we cannot survive on good intentions alone. Actually, had there been anything in the form of accomplishment that this administration can crow about, all these would not be as bad. The tragedy is that the economy is in worse shape and government is on a virtual standstill.

What we know for sure is that we may go through great lengths extolling the virtues of democracy but when push comes to shove, we aren’t prepared to pay the price for strengthening it.

***

I wrote the preceding piece over the weekend in anticipation of a very heavy workload this week. At that point, the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona was still something that was being whispered about although deeply entrenched sources say the marching orders were already issued to congressmen. Why did they do it? Because they could.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Breaking traditions

This post is antedated.

The season for partying, exchanging gifts, and endless binging on food and booze is upon us.

We’ve read all the dire warnings from experts: More cases of cardiac arrests, hospitalization for hypertension, and ironically, suicide, happen during this season of merrymaking.

Unfortunately, resisting temptation is particularly more difficult during a season when everyone makes an effort to be nicer and more generous.

How exactly do you say no to bosom childhood friends you only get to see once a year?

How does one disengage from a reunion with relatives who travel kilometers to bask in the warmth of familial ties?

Who has the heart and the, well, stomach to say no to former officemates who made life under the worst kind of boss more bearable?

So we show up at parties, line up at buffet tables, play yet another round of Pinoy Henyo and yet another variation of musical chairs, and yes, guzzle vats of alcohol like there’s no tomorrow; diets and medical conditions be damned. After all, we can always resolve as a New Year’s resolution to have more fortitude the next time around.

But seriously, there are other ways to celebrate the season without necessarily consuming dangerous levels of substances that are bound to clog our arteries or pickle our livers.

I attended three such events recently. What can I say, there are benefits, after all, to this increasingly becoming insane drive to stage Christmas parties “differently” every year. I’m usually indifferent to efforts to come up with unusual themes, new gimmicks, and creative flourishes to the traditional Christmas party, but I now think the energy can be channeled towards achieving more productive and healthier results without necessarily forsaking the need for fellowship and rekindling the warmth of bonds.

The People Management Association of the Philippines, the premier association of human resource managers in the country celebrated the Christmas get-together differently this year. Last December 9 we trooped to the Philippine Educational Theater Association Center in Quezon City to watch a special production of the highly acclaimed musical Caredivas. We had cocktails at the PETA Center just before the show where we partook of traditional Christmas fare – puto bumbong and bibingka cooked right on the spot, paella balls, pan de sal at kesong puti.

Caredivas is what it has been touted to be: A splendid production with a big, big heart. The generally laid-back HR managers had a rollicking great time most eventually shed their initial reservations about watching a “drag show.” Caredivas is about five gay men who worked as caregivers in Israel at the time of the intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation) and who at nighttime would transform themselves into glamorous drag queens in a Tel Aviv club. It’s yet another take on the difficulties Filipino overseas workers face while working abroad – this time, told from the point of view of gay men and presented with lots of wit, heart, and yes, feathers and sequins.

It was a great way to spend a Christmas party. We were in stitches from the time the play opened to the time the characters took their bows and ran in their stilettos to the lobby to mingle with the audience as they were streaming out of the theater and gamely posed for pictures.

Many of those in the audience thanked the organizers for “exposing” them to issues of marginalized people and for opening their minds to the many ways in which discrimination is institutionalized in societies everywhere. If we come to think about it, what better message is there to ponder about in this season of love, joy and peace?

Unfortunately, Caredivas ended its run last night (Sunday, December 11). But there are many other productions that are running in other venues. Groups can also ask local theater or performing groups to mount special shows for them. Just allowing people to sit, relax and enjoy a great performance is also a great way to celebrate the Christmas spirit. In addition, we are able to support Philippine productions. I have nothing against foreign productions per se, but hopefully, for every Mamma Mia, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera that we watch, we can also take the time and effort to go out and watch a local production.

Former graduate school students of mine set up another “unique” Christmas Party last week. The theme they picked was “Organic Christmas” and the invitation specifically asked that attendees come in attires and bringing with them Christmas giveaways and presents that were organic – in short, no plastic and artificial or chemically laced stuff were allowed. The food was superb and could be ingested without guilt. The rice was organic black rice, the salads and vegetables were all organically-grown, and even the chicken was free-range. The juices that were served were also fresh.

The games were quite inventive – one such game involved inventorying the number of non-environmentally friendly stuff we were carrying in our person and the one with the least number was declared the winner. And we all went home happy with the Christmas gifts we received – presents we all agreed we were more than happy to keep or consume. I received bayongs of various organic products – from coffee, to chocolate, to juices, etc. Stuff I would love to receive more of.

The third party I attended over the weekend was a simple get-together which involved a meditation session, a sharing session, and yes, eating food that was good for the spirit and the body. The focus of the party was healing and reflection. I know some people out there may think that such activities would be completely not in sync with the spirit of the season but I disagree. Christmas is probably the one occasion that we need to do more reflection and meditation. As one bishop said, it’s not Santa Claus that is coming on Christmas; it’s Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Happy Holidays

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.

When a friend groaned last year about how the movable holidays that produced long weekends—which, by the way was yet another one of the long and growing list of “sins” of the Arroyo administration—have become a thing of the past given the Aquino administration’s supposed adherence to stronger work ethics, I told my friend not to fret. I assured him that it was just a matter of time before the practice got resurrected in some form.

I am a human resource management professional whose job description includes keeping a keen eye on holiday proclamations because of their impact on compensation and work schedules. Based on experience, I know that no leader can keep his or her hands off from tinkering with holidays. Our leaders may hem and haw and go through the motions of balancing the needs of industry (less holidays) and those of employees (more holidays) but at the end of the day, the temptation to yield to populist measures has always proven difficult to resist.

Let’s face it. Declaring non-working holidays particularly to create long weekends is the easiest way to get on the good side of working people. Even workers who are paid on a daily basis can’t resist the lure of enjoying a day, or two, or better still, three or four consecutive days off from work even if it means not receiving wages. And yes, there are millions of workers in this country who do not earn anything on days when there is no work for them—no work, no pay, remember?

But non-working holidays have become an important part of our laid-back and fun-oriented culture. When I was growing up, Ferdinand Marcos made popular the concept of “sandwich” days; the days that fell between a Saturday or a Sunday and a holiday were always declared non-working days simply because, well, they happened to be sandwiched between a non-working day and a holiday. Eventually, every President this country ever had regardless of political leanings or moral conviction invented his or her own justification to declare non-working holidays. And our politicians kept on adding more and more holidays to the growing (and still growing) list of holidays.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo legitimized the practice with what was eventually called holiday economics, a concept that required logical acrobatics to truly comprehend because she tried to mix in local tourism, GDP, and other economic indicators; not that a holiday requires to be comprehensible at the cerebral level to be appreciated. An extra day or rest is an extra day of rest, thank you very much.

Declaring non-working holidays is one of those populist decisions that seem benign on the surface. Sure, the business sector riles about the added expense and the impact on productivity, but after everything is said and done, everybody hunkers down to enjoy the extended time off from work. Heck, even CEOs like to go on vacation!

Thus, despite the much-ballyhooed intent to trudge along the straight and narrow path, long weekends were created in 2011. And guess what, there are more long weekends we can look forward to in 2012. To be fair, not all the long weekends was created by declaring non-working holidays. Most of the long weekends were created by serendipity –regular holidays for the year just happened to fall around weekends. And in the event that legal holidays are indeed moved to the nearest Monday, industry will no incur added costs provided—and this is a critical proviso— the announcements are made way in advance so companies can adjust their production schedules accordingly.

Malacañang released last week Proclamation 295, which declares the holidays for 2012. Based on the proclamation, there will be 10 regular holidays, five special non-working holidays, and one special holiday (for schools) in 2012. That’s a total of 16 holidays. Actually, the list was short of two more holidays – Eid’l Fitr and Eid’l Adha, the dates of which are usually announced later in the year when confirmation is made on the actual dates of the holidays based on the Islamic calendar. That makes 18 holidays in 2012.

This does not include yet the local holidays decreed by local governments—for example, each city and municipality in this country observes its own special day. And then there are days when work is suspended because of force majeure such as during very heavy rains, or when a typhoon makes a visitation, or when there’s a transport strike.

We can add to the list the various leaves employees are entitled to such as 15 days vacation leaves, 15 days sick leaves, seven days paternity leaves, 75 days maternity leaves, emergency leaves, birthday leaves, solo parent leaves, gynecological leaves, union leaves, ad infinitum. Theoretically, there will be employees who can be on vacation for as long as six months each year. Would you believe there are quite a number of bills pending in Congress proposing more leave benefits for workers? This is because our legislators do not know any other kind of benefit except leaves. There is a bill that proposes a family leave for parents who need to take care of sick family members. There is another bill that proposes an OFW leave for spouses of overseas Filipino workers. There is yet another bill that proposes additional maternity leaves for women. Yes, am not kidding.

So yes, the business sector does have valid reasons to howl every single time our leaders declare non-working holidays. We do have more holidays compared to our neighbors; thus we should stop wondering why we continue to hit record lows in terms of competitiveness. But if it is any consolation, at least the dates of the holidays for 2012 were released very early so business organizations have time to fix their production schedules around it.

Although Proclamation 295 already specifies the dates of the holidays in 2012, there is reason to believe that some of the holidays may actually be moved to the nearest Monday. This is indicated by the fact that Proclamation 295 went out of its way to cite Republic Act 9492—the law which provides that holidays, except those which are religious in nature, can be moved to the nearest Monday unless otherwise modified by law, order, or proclamation.

If this happens, there may just be 11 long weekends in 2012.

The first will happen January 21-23 as January 23 has been declared non-working day (Chinese New Year). The weekend of April 5-9 will be a five-day long weekend (Holy Week and Araw Ng Kagitingan on April 9). April 28-May 1 might be a long weekend since Labor Day may be moved to April 30 assuming the labor sector does not raise a howl. June 12 may also be moved to June 11 producing another three-day weekend in June. August 18-21 may be another long weekend because of Eid’l Fitr and Ninoy Aquino Day. August 25-27 is a three-day weekend as August 27 is National Heroes Day. October 26-28 is another three-day long weekend courtesy of Eid’l Adha. November 1-4 is a four-day weekend since November 1 is All Saints Day and November 2 has already been declared as special holiday. November 30 to December 2 is another 3-day long weekend because of Bonifacio Day. And finally December 22-25 and December 29-January 1 will be four-day weekends.

I hope people will have the means to take advantage of the long weekends to travel.

Happy holidays, indeed!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Oblivious and prejudiced

This post is antedated. This was my column December 5, 2011.

I have long ago stopped listening to Abigail Valte, supposedly deputy presidential spokesperson, because I still have to catch her saying something that makes sense, or failing that, at least something that I don’t already know from reading the papers or watching the news.

Every single time the woman is asked a question, she prefaces her answer with “as far as I know” or “based on what I know” which, if we really come to think about it doesn’t really inspire confidence. This is particularly since half the time she is simply regurgitating stuff that has already been said by another government official. The rest of the time, Valte tries to “think aloud” by issuing motherhood statements that doesn’t really reveal anything newsworthy, or every remotely noteworthy. Her stock answer amounts to something like “As far as I know, that topic is of major concern for the government and of course we will look into that.”

Of course many people think she is simply a diversion—a talking mouth that is not supposed to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Valte seems have become the de facto face and voice of this government more often than we care which is truly not a good sign. Valte doesn’t seem to know anything in terms of what the President actually thinks; so her official title of spokesperson is a sham. But then again, perhaps we are being too harsh. The poor woman is probably the typical official of this administration: clueless, detached from the real world, but nevertheless speaks with all the moral authority that can be mustered. In short, long on the morality aspect but short on actual performance. Unfortunately, we cannot feed people or make lives better with just good intentions. Nor can we stop HIV/AIDS infections with empty words and prejudice.

On occasion of the global celebration of World AIDS Day, Valte was asked to respond to concerns about the fact that the Philippines has been cited as one of only seven countries in the world that have rising HIV/AIDS infections. She responded in typical Valte-speak: “This is a point of concern for us but the DOH has already raised this in a previous discussion so we know the DOH is aware, the DOH is concerned and the DOH is acting and taking immediate steps to correct the rise.” Translation: I don’t have the faintest idea but I presume the DOH is doing something.

The poor woman was not only obfuscating, she was clearly oblivious to reality. Had she bothered to check, she would have known that officials of the DOH below the level of the secretary have been frantically pressing the alarm button on HIV/AIDS. Had she done her homework, she would have known that there is huge shortfall in funding requirements for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and that the DOH has refused to put more money into HIV/AIDS programs; its current secretary seems to think that HIV/AIDS is not a serious problem and by all indications wants to put it at the same category as renal diseases, his field of specialization. But of course, all these were too much for Valte to process.

I am not trying to be mean to Valte but the rest of the comments she made rankled because it showed in no uncertain terms just how officials of this administration are clearly oblivious of the real problems of this country. “We will wait for their update because the last time we talked—it seems it was early this year—they had a program to arrest the increase of these cases. This includes an information campaign.” Early this year? Oops, we forgot; this administration does not believe in Cabinet meetings. An information campaign? For crying out loud, this country has been doing information campaigns on HIV/AIDS since the time Juan Flavier was secretary of health but I guess Valte is happy being a vacuous talking head to bother with actually making sense.

Valte’s attempts to talk nonsensically about HIV/AIDS I can ignore. But Health Secretary Enrique Ona’s abysmal lack of political will to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS is unacceptable. Ona’s lack of awareness of the social and psychological issues around HIV/AIDS prevention and his utter insensitivity to the human rights issues of people living with HIV/AIDS and members of communities that are vulnerable to infection is unforgivable. What the heck, I will drop attempts at being politically correct since Ona did too: We have a Secretary of Health who is not only in denial in terms of the urgency and gravity of the HIV/AIDS situation in the country, his prejudice and tendency towards bigotry is showing.

According to a report posted by AIDS activist Jonas Bagas in his Facebook account, “Ona was booed and jeered at the Plenary Meeting of the Philippine National AIDS Council held Friday, December 2, 2011, after he practically endorsed a witch hunt of ‘homosexuals’ as an HIV testing strategy to address the growing HIV epidemic in the Philippines.” A video of the event can be seen on Youtube.

According to Bagas, “around 30 HIV and AIDS activists from organizations belonging to the Network to Stop HIV and AIDS in the Philippines jeered Ona and blew their red whistles, demanding that Ona exercise political leadership as chair of PNAC.”

“In reaction to the growing infection among men who have sex with men and transgenders in the Philippines, Ona proposed that the government’s interventions must be targeted, suggesting that parents should be contacted and asked if they have homosexual children and be told about their children’s ‘problem’,” Bagas reported.

This is the first time I actually heard a secretary of Health openly advocate a proposal that stigmatizes people. What was even ironic was that Ona raised his “brilliant” suggestion when the council was discussing the adoption of the United Nations Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The declaration strongly opposes interventions that increases stigmatization and discrimination against vulnerable populations such as men who have sex with men, transgenders, drug users, and sex workers.

The Philippines is one of only seven countries in the world that has seen a rise in HIV/AIDS infections. The rest of the world has been seeing a steady decline in HIV/AIDS infections while we are seeing an almost algebraic rise in reported infections. Clearly, there is a need to double, even triple HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

But this government does not get it. A sizable percentage of money used in HIV/AIDS prevention in the past has been sourced through funds from international donors, which has become more and more difficult to source. With no money coming from global funds, it is given that government will have to come in and deliver the funds. This administration has refused to do so. Ona insists that the current amount of spending by the national government is enough. Ona’s logic stinks because the infections are tripling and yet the total money available is short by about half of what is required. To make up for the shortfall, Ona has come up with his stigmatizing proposal to conduct a witch hunt of homosexuals.

We will have to pay dearly, very dearly in the very near future for Ona’s and this government’s inaction and indifference on HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, being aware as to who is to blame for the rise in infections in the country does not help reverse the situation. As usual, we, the citizens will just have to do what we can because it really seems that nobody is out there in the corridors of power.