Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why the fight has not ended

This is my column today.

The country commemorated over the weekend the 26th anniversary of the people power uprising that has come to be known as Edsa 1. The President, some members of his Cabinet, and some key players of Edsa 1 including former President Fidel Ramos and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile gathered at the People Power Monument to relive the heady days in 1986 when millions of Filipinos occupied the highway, stopped tanks with their bare hands, and pacified with prayers and flowers the armed soldiers sent to obliterate them to smithereens.

The question that was top of mind over the weekend was: After 26 years, are we better off as a country and as a people? Put another way, have we successfully purged from our system the evils that we swore would never again bedevil this country and the Filipino people? After 26 years, can we categorically say that we have regained our freedom and our democracy? These are painful questions to ask because we all know the answer to each of these questions. It’s a resounding no.

The President, himself, called on the people “tapusin na natin ang laban ng EDSA” (let’s bring to its conclusion the fight we started at EDSA). The fighting words only served to highlight the fact that practically nothing has changed in this country after 26 years. The fight has not ended; nor has it really brought significant changes in the country’s life.

Yet another Aquino, the son of the woman who rose to power on the wings of the people revolution, is in power. The Marcoses, the Romualdezes, and even the Estradas are back in power. The body of Benjamin Romualdez was welcomed like a hero in Tacloban City over the weekend and Joseph Estrada linked arms with the President as they vowed to continue the moral fight.

The yellow forces are once again proclaiming the absolute ascendancy of their own brand of morality. It’s the kind of selective morality that favors supporters—for instance, note how the head of the National Bureau of Investigation was unceremoniously kicked out of office without any benefit of a hearing on suspicion of wrongdoing while the chief of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation is being hailed as a victim despite existence of proof of wrongdoing. Ask anyone who deals with government agencies and you will be told the same thing – corruption has grown worse.

The country is still a Third-World country, corruption is still systemic, oligarchs continue to rule, and the numbers of those who are hungry and without jobs continue to increase dramatically.

We make speeches about how freedom and democracy have been restored in this country and close our eyes to parallels between the years leading to 1986 and the present. I was a student activist when Edsa 1 happened. I spent years fighting an authoritarian regime that had the whole country under a tight grip. We successfully kicked out a dictator in 1986; a despot who tried to impose his own version of what was right and desirable for the country, a dictator who controlled the Supreme Court and the military and had no qualms about using the resources of the whole government bureaucracy in support of a new moral order he called “The New Society.”

Of course it is being argued that the authoritarian tendencies of the Aquino government are justified because they are in pursuit of “The Straight and Narrow Path” which is supposedly for the good of everyone. But then again, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the worst kind of tyranny is the one that is “exercised for the good of its victims; those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Real changes in this country can only come if our leaders and those in a position to make changes stop romanticizing and moralizing our problems. We need to wake up and see the grime, smell the decay, and realize that our problems are much more complicated and systemic and cannot be solved by rhetorical discourses and populist posturing. For example, corruption cannot be solved by running after a few people and embarrassing them in public; we need comprehensive strategies and institutionalized value formation programs that strike at the core of the malaise. But as we speak, there is no program to speak of; there is no roadmap to guide the journey. What we need are real leaders, people with strategic vision for the country who are willing to work hard and dirty their hands and not sit around and bark orders like despots. And certainly, we don’t need more preachers who see themselves as belonging to a higher moral order; we have more than enough bishops in this country.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Worth pondering on

What follows is a comment left in my post last Monday. It was written by someone who claims to be a relative of Marvin Reglos, the victim of the Lambda Rho Sigma fraternity hazing. I hope we can all empathize with marvin's family and do what we can to ensure that he gets justice.

"you are the first person i have seen wrote a blog regarding the death of my nephew. i am abit skeptic on the way Sec. De Lima acted in the presence of what she so called "brods" allegedly accused of the murdering Marvin. if she really is for the "truth" and "justice", she could have used her power to bring forward all of the accused(20 or so i guessed) students who participated in the said hazing incident.

How can an ordinary family like us fight the likes of people behind the Greek Lettered brotherhood?
how can we follow up on the situation when in fact most of our family is in the province and the investigation is being conducted in Manila?

i hope and pray that the justice we are seeking will not be affected by the people associated in one way or the other with the Greek leter brotherhood namely, the Lambda Rho Beta and Lambda Rho Sigma."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Death in the name of brotherhood

This is my column today.

Marvin Reglos, freshman law student at the San Beda Law School, died last week in the hands of people he aspired to call brothers. He wasn’t the first to offer his life in the name of brotherhood. He wouldn’t be the last.

In the same week that Reglos was murdered, hazing was very much in the news as the Supreme Court handed down the final decision on the death of Lenny Villa, victim of the same circumstances that killed Reglos. It took 21 years before the Villas got justice — and it wasn’t even the kind that solved more than two decades of pain and longing.

In the same period, key personalities in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona openly acknowledged each other in the middle of the proceedings as “brods.” Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile recognized the following as his fraternity brothers: Corona’s chief defense counsel former justice Serafin Cuevas, members of the prosecution team Raul Daza and Arthur Lim, and Senator Judges Edgardo Angara and Franklin Drilon. Sigma Rho is indeed an influential fraternity and the open recognition and public recognition of affiliation must have sent many members of the fraternity giddy with pride. Thereupon, pundits also pointed out the other configurations present in the trial — most members of the prosecution, defense, and senator-judges inevitably got classified into Aquilans, Utopians, Alpha Sigmans, Upsilonians, Alpha Phi Betans, Delta Lambdha Sigmans, etc.

The power structures in this country are deeply intertwined with the fraternity system. Right now, it is bad; very bad news.

Any doubts about just how prevalent and deeply ingrained Greek-letter organizations are in Philippine politics and society should have been obliterated with the admission of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that she was co-founder of Lambda Rho, the sister organization of Lambda Rho Sigma — the very same fraternity whose name was embossed on the shirt that Reglos was wearing on the day his body was badly mutilated and reduced to pulp.

De lima has vowed an “honest-to-goodness” investigation into the death of Reglos. There’s a part of me that desperately wants to believe that she can do it. After all, this was the same woman who openly defied the Supreme Court last year. But in the same week that she mouthed those assurances, the leader of the fraternity was able to appear at a press conference as a non-suspect despite the fact that a car present during the hazing rites was already traced to a relative of his. I am not saying that the Justice Secretary is incapable of going against his “brods” but we can’t help noting how she said she would “appeal” to them to cooperate; a complete departure from the fighting stance that she uses to treat everyone else.

It will take more than fighting words to eradicate a system that is considered hallowed and sacred. Being part of a fraternity is considered a badge of honor, particularly if the fraternity is a major force in this country. These fraternities deliberately make admission to their ranks difficult, thus the continued proliferation of hazing despite a law (Republic Act 8049) that specifically renders it illegal.

The death of a young and promising man is tragic and I am sure many among our leaders will huff and puff in public. But we all know how all these will end. The death of Reglos will be another sad footnote to a system that considers such tragedies as unfortunate aberrations and exceptions to the illustrious history of the system. Oh sure, two or three people will probably fester in jail. But those who prop up the system, those who lend their names and provide all kinds of support and resources to glorify the system — they will continue to be worshipped and exalted.

This is the way we do things in this country. We make some token sacrifices, make a few fighting speeches, demonize certain people because these represent the easy way to gain popularity and project the impression that we are doing something. We all know, however, that the bigger problem continues to fester under the fluff and is threatening to surface later in far more ugly ways and forms. But who cares, right? That’s for another leader to take care of. And we wonder why things don’t really get fixed in this country.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Respect is earned

This is my column today.

Aurelio Gonzales, the honorable representative from the third district of Pampanga, has raised a howl over what he perceives as unfair depiction of congressmen in Philippine movies and soap operas. He filed Resolution 2140 appealing to the local movie and television industry to “minimize, prevent, or stop typecasting congressmen and congresswomen as villains or crooks in movies and television telenovelas, in order not to create stereotypes or negative public perception against members of the House of Representatives.”

I empathize with the congressman. In general, I object to any form of stereotyping, especially negative stereotyping. But I would have empathized with the congressman more and would have joined his advocacy if his resolution were more inclusive. Unfortunately, it seems the guy is also afflicted with an acute case of myopia—his ego is clouding his judgment and he couldn’t see beyond his interests as a congressman. Just like Niel Tupas, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut over matters and in times when not saying anything would have been the wiser course of action. I would have supported him if he riled against stereotyping of the elderly as senile and unproductive people, of women as sex objects and baby factories, of gays and lesbians as promiscuous objects of ridicule, of deaf people as mute and stupid, of… well, I could go and on, but you get the drift. There’s a long list of people in this country, mostly minorities, who have long suffered and continue to suffer from unfair stereotyping and bear the brunt of far more negative repercussions than just “negative public perception.” But Gonzales does not care of about them; he is caterwauling only because he thinks his image as a congressman is affected.

For crying out loud, how exactly does a “negative public perception” against them translate into actual harm? Philippine movies have always featured elected officials— congressmen, governors, mayors, even the President of the Philippines—as villains or as vacuous people from as far back as I can remember. We still continue to elect them into office, get them as sponsors in baptisms and weddings, give them choice seats at public affairs, and tiptoe around them. What exactly is the imminent danger to congressmen who are not exactly underdogs or considered a minority in this country? There is just no way that congressmen can be considered victims—they who wield considerable power such as impeaching a chief justice without the benefit of a hearing and conjuring small ladies and other various tricks to miraculously produce bank statements. Certainly not, if one has millions of pesos of pork barrel at his disposal!

A congressman whining publicly about being stereotyped is absurd because there are many more groups of people in this country that are in far worse situations than the imagined victimization of congressmen.

At any rate, I do not think that the depiction of congressmen as criminals is a norm in Philippine movies and soap operas. I don’t think that congressmen in particular are singled out as default villains in movies and telenovelas the way governors or mayors are. And in movies and telenovelas that do, I don’t think the use of congressmen (or other authority figures) as villains is a reflection of bias against them; rather, it’s a reflection of sloppiness and just plain lack of artistic talent on the part of writers and producers. It’s a trite plot device and everyone knows it. Taking offense and imagining slight is not just indicative of lack of a sense of humor; it is also quite frankly, indicative of a closed and intolerant mind.

So Congressman Gonzales, it’s not really personal, sir. It’s a literary device. It would be absurd if doctors watching, for example, Budoy, would take offense at the fact that the villainess in the soap opera happens to be a doctor. Or if businessmen were to take offense at the fact that almost all movies feature a sleazy and unprincipled businessman. Or what about the fact that there is always a corrupt policeman in every telenovela? Movies and telenovelas need to illustrate ethical dilemmas and the fact that they feature an occasional congressman as crook is not a slap on the face of each congressman. I can point out that my grandfather used to say that whoever says “ouch” got hit, but let’s not go there.

I think it is important to remind Gonzales that respect is earned and that a good image is something that is cultivated and nurtured consistently and painstakingly through hard work. If congressmen do their jobs well and lead clean lives, no amount of typecasting in movies and telenovelas would affect them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Leadership is badly needed

This is my column today.

I have long given up illusions of the impeachment trial being fair, impartial and an exemplar of outstanding—or at least competent—legal wrangling. As I have said in the past, there is only so much certain people such as Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile can do to maintain the integrity of the proceedings.

All the ingredients for epic failure just happen to be present. First, you have a complaint that was rammed through Congress without the benefit of a hearing and subsequently found to be so defective that the Chief Justice’s defense team has been able to make mincemeat of it without breaking sweat. Second, it now appears that the prosecution had no evidence to speak of prior to the impeachment hearing (no wonder it objected vigorously to a pre-trial). Third, the prosecution team has repeatedly shown what can only be described as gross incompetence all throughout the hearings, enabling the defense team to gleefully—and sometimes, irresponsibly - take advantage of the blunders to embarrass, lecture, or even ridicule them. Fourth, and probably most important of all, the political nature of the proceedings and the political leanings of the characters in the impeachment trial have become increasingly obvious some people don’t even bother with subtleties anymore.

And so, what I feared most has come to pass. The conflict between the executive and the judiciary branches of government has now degenerated into a street brawl, with no less than the President of the country and the Chief Justice engaging each other in a very public, very ugly exchange of unsavory accusations and innuendoes. In the past, the President was content with making innuendoes and simply allowing his lieutenants to do the attacking. He has dropped all pretenses of leaving the matter in the hands of the senators and has signal the launch of a more mass-based campaign to oust the Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Corona has likewise shunned the dignified and venerable image that has traditionally cloaked justices of the Supreme Court and has decided to engage his detractors mano-a-mano. He told the President to also explain his own Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as well as make public his psychological records. Corona’s attack was unprecedented. Justices of the high court usually behave with probity and propriety. But then again, his supporters say he has been provoked enough or driven to desperation.

If the top officials of the country are now throwing mud at each other and calling each other names, it’s only a matter of time before things make a turn for the worse.

There are those who think that the whole downward spiral could be averted if Corona makes the ultimate sacrifice and resigns his post. Unfortunately, Corona’s supporters also argue that a resignation would precisely defeat the essence of what Corona is fighting for which is the independence of the judiciary and the authoritarian tendencies of the current administration. Besides, the stakes for Corona are already too great—his personal and professional reputation as well as that of his family is already on the line. The impeachment trial was supposed to be the constitutionally provided avenue to get out of the impasse. But the way the prosecution has been bungling the case does not exactly inspire confidence.

Of course the kind of information that is being revealed in the impeachment trial are too damaging for Corona that it seems a resignation even after an acquittal seems necessary. It seems this is his game plan, anyway. However, it would be irresponsible to make a judgment at this point when the defense has not even started presenting its rebuttal and its own witnesses.

But it is obvious that what we have today is a leadership crisis. So far, only Enrile is stepping up to the plate, all the rest—and I do mean all, including those in the Judiciary—seem oblivious to the great need for leadership and stewardship at this critical junction. In fact, this whole series of events could have been avoided if diplomacy, some strategic thinking, a win-win approach to negotiation, and just a little less pride and obstinacy were practiced. Unfortunately, we live at a time when some people think such things as popularity and a mandate and a sense of moral authority entitle them to do whatever they want.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentines day and hypocrisy

This is my column today.

There are days when I wish there’s a device that automatically triggers off alarm bells when hypocrisy reaches untenable levels in this country. If there is something that we have a constant oversupply of, it’s hypocrisy. There are just too many people in this country who really need to subject themselves to regular and earnest reality checks.

Take the case of the Catholic bishops’ recent thinly veiled threat to government on the issue of distribution of condoms on Valentine’s Day. Consider what the archbishop of Jaro Angel Lagdameo said: “The Church is against the distribution of condoms especially on Valentine’s Day because we know how the use of contraceptives affects the morality of our people and our society in general.” By saying “they know” how the use of contraceptives affects the morality of our people, are our bishops talking from personal experience? I’m not being facetious. The church is establishing a causal relationship between contraception and morality so they must know something scientists don’t. No wonder the whole church is caught up in a series of sexual scandals.

The Church does not want people to use condoms, but is quite happy and content to ride along with the hoopla and the gimmickry that encourages people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Sure, they prattle on and on about fidelity and chastity but don’t really back their words with specific and concrete actions and programs. In fact, most religious organizations sponsored mass weddings to celebrate Valentine’s, effectively sending the message that as long as people get married eventually it is okay to indulge in sexual relations.

The whole world is involved in a global conspiracy to pressure people into celebrating love in big, grandiose and passionate ways. Malls and department stores, media channels, and everyone else scream exhortations for people to go out and express their love for each other. Establishments in the hospitality industry from restaurants to hotels to motels roll out the red carpet, complete with rose petals and crispy pata. The church doesn’t direct its ire on the whole phenomenon that for all intents and purposes pushes people into having sex on Valentine’s Day; it just doesn’t want the government to distribute condoms. In short, they don’t care if people have sex, they just don’t want them to use condoms. What hypocrisy!

Lagdameo’s gibberish was amplified by Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo who used Valentines day to assail the reproductive health bill pending in Congress. He said that the RH bill, when passed, “would boost sex liberalization in the country, which could also lead to an increase in sex crimes.” There is no scientific data that backs up the statement. The bishop packaged a personal opinion as a definitive statement of fact. It was an irresponsible statement to make.

It should be pointed out that the strict morality imposed by the Church among its members has not really prevented sexual crimes within the hierarchy. The church spends too much time talking about sex liberalization and sexual crimes but refuses to acknowledge the alarming levels of sexual crimes committed by its members. Again, what hypocrisy!

But then again, the Church has been at it for centuries so I can understand the reason behind the bishops’ doubletalk. What I cannot understand is why the government is kowtowing to the bishops on a matter so grave that it makes the difference between life and death for many. Responding to questions on whether the government intended to distribute condoms as HIV/AIDS prevention strategy on Valentine’s Day, Health Secretary Enrique Ona parroted the bishops stance by saying the government “was promoting abstinence and monogamy among Filipinos to combat the disease.” Let’s cut the crap and simplify what he really means— the government under his watch is not doing anything at all to stop HIV/AIDS infections.

Ona is oblivious to tons of scientific data that prove the efficacy of promoting condom use among certain populations to manage HIV/AIDS infections. For the first time in three decades, we have a health secretary who just does not care about the rising rates of HIV/AIDS infections. And yet this government actually crows about “caring” for the people and “serving” the people. The dismal failure does not just smack of hypocrisy; it’s a crime.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Let's not break the law

This is my column today.

There is an important factoid that many people seem to conveniently gloss over regarding the temporary restraining order that the Supreme Court released last week. The order stopped the impeachment court from compelling the Philippine Savings Bank to divulge information on the foreign currency deposits of Chief Justice Renato Corona. It was PSBank that sought the TRO. It wasn’t Corona or his defense team that went to the Supreme Court to seek relief.

So I am aghast at the pronouncements of the bright boys from MalacaƱang that the TRO was “a brazen effort to derail the proceedings.” The TRO was issued because PSBank sought to protect its name and take up the cudgels for the banking industry. Peso deposits is another thing, but the law on foreign currency deposits in this country is clear and absolute: these deposits are protected by law and not even a court order can compel a bank to reveal information relating to these deposits. This law actually makes sense. Foreign investors need to be protected. Otherwise, they can be held hostage by competitors, corrupt judges and officials, and people with connections. Banking is primarily built on trust. If customers cannot expect banks in this country to safeguard the confidentiality of accounts, then we will be in serious trouble.

The TRO may be related to the impeachment, but the TRO issue is larger than the bank accounts of Corona. PSBank did not seek to derail the proceedings unless the President and his spokesperson are insinuating that PSBank - and Metrobank, the second largest bank in the country which is the mother bank of PSBank—are in cahoots with the Chief Justice, which, if we come to think about it, is ludicrous because no tycoon in his right mind would dare cross a President bent on staking everything to get Corona.

PSBank has courageously stood its ground, as it must. The reason may have nothing to do with Corona. The bank is not playing politics. It has to protect its name as a trustworthy repository of not just the money of its clients but of their trust as well. I am sure that all other depositors of PSBank are closely observing the impeachment wondering if PSBank can stand its ground for their sake.

If media will just bother and get the views of the leaders of the banking industry they will find that most if not all support the stand of PSBank. One pillar of the industry was overheard last week saying he would be more than happy to go to jail for the cause.

The President’s lecture about how the foreign currency deposit law was not meant to protect criminals is appreciated, but he used the wrong context. There is an anti-money laundering act in this country and there are ample safeguards to ensure that the system is not used for criminal purposes.

It is quite irresponsible for many pundits to insinuate that banks are doing the country a disservice by supposedly “not helping in the quest for the truth.” Oh please, this quest has long resembled a witch-hunt. Besides, such a quest does not have to result in wanton disregard for existing laws. We don’t have to burn the whole house down in order to flush out a suspected criminal—we just need to do our jobs better. The problem is, our leaders want to do things the easy way and strut around like everyone owes them a favor for doing their jobs.

Our senators and congressmen must be reminded that they have a solemn duty to uphold the laws in this country. They create the laws, for crying out loud. They should stop flailing around if banks adhere to the laws of this country; if they think the laws are wrong, they only have themselves to blame for not doing their jobs, which is to amend laws.

And there’s really an effective and quicker way to get out of this impasse. All our leaders—the President, members of the cabinet, senators, congressmen, local officials should all declare publicly to allow banks to reveal the contents of their foreign currency accounts. Until then, let’s stop the hypocrisy and stop asking banks to break the law.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Breaking the law

At least three people who know that I am a banker (has been for more than 20 years now) asked me the same question today: If I were Mr. Pascual Garcia, would I have done the same - refuse to disclose the contents of the dollar account of Chief Justice Renato Corona?

My answer: you bet I would do the same. I would have told the senators: Your honors, I will do anything you want me to do except one thing - I will not break the law.

The bank secrecy law on foreign currency deposits is crystal clear. It says banks cannot divulge the contents of a foreign currency account unless there is a consent from the depositor. Not even the Supreme Court can compel a bank to make the disclosure. The law was designed to protect foreign investments in the country.

Those who insist that we disregard laws in order to get to the truth are in effect saying - it's okay to break the law as long as the intent is good. But it's not just about breaking a law, it's also about sending a chilling message to the investing community - banks in this country cannot guarantee secrecy of their deposits or accounts.

Those who insist that the Senate sitting as impeachment court can do anything it wants to do and that it can come up with its guidelines are missing the point. The impeachment court was created by law and should operate within the confines of the law as well.

The congressmen and senators should recognize one thing - it's their job to craft laws; it's their job to protect the integrity of laws in this country. They cannot advocate breaking the law when it suits them.



Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Disaster unpreparedness

This is my column today.

When I switched on my cellular phone upon landing in Manila from Cebu last Monday noon, I was alarmed by the surge of messages inquiring about my “condition.” From what I gathered, the earthquake struck Cebu barely a few minutes after the plane I was riding in took off from the Mactan International Airport.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, by the time I was able to retrieve my baggage and leave the terminal building, I already had more than enough details about the earthquake including firsthand accounts from relatives who swore the earthquake was so strong they thought it was the end of the world already.

But technology is truly a double-edged sword. It enables people to spread information rapidly. Alas, technology does not distinguish valid information from those that are not such as unfounded rumors and irresponsible messages that provoke panic and strike fear in people’s hearts.

A nephew told me that they had to scamper to the top of the tallest building in their campus in light of text messages that said a tsunami had already hit the downtown area of Cebu. We saw footages of people in various places in the Visayas running around scared, some on the verge of a breakdown. Mercifully, the panic didn’t result in a stampede. The same situation was replicated in various places Monday afternoon as variations of the government warning on a possible tsunami got more and more ominous each time the message got forwarded from one cell phone to another. It was revealed later that the original warning was merely for people to stay away from coastlines. Unfortunately, people do tend to exaggerate things and blow things out of proportion when in the throes of panic.

Memo to the people at the Phivolcs: Terse announcements during a crisis situation tend to provoke panic and render people incapable of making sound judgment. It is best to over-explain warnings and alerts.

One would think that because we are on first-name basis with natural calamities, most of us would already know how to behave in crisis situations. If we are to go by what happened last Monday, we’re definitely not there yet. In fact, we seem to be sliding back in terms of overall preparedness for disasters. Based on what we observed last Monday, local governments remain practically helpless in dealing with crisis situations and national government offices don’t really inspire confidence either. The gaffe about the tsunami warning, the absence of real-time information about conditions in towns that were closer to the epicenter, the mixed and often conflicting reports – all these and more indicated just how inadequate our level of disaster preparedness is.

One of the most disturbing things about what transpired last Monday was the way most people in schools and offices reacted to the earthquake. In most schools, students and pupils were left to their own devices. I saw videos of elementary pupils scampering around, many of them in tears while their teachers were practically rendered catatonic. In many offices, people simply started running to the nearest exit, some even taking elevators to get to the ground faster. In many malls, security guards didn’t seem to know how to manage the situation—some seemed more concerned with making sure there would be no looting rather than ensure the safety of people.

We really need to make sure that disaster drills are conducted regularly in our schools and even in offices to make sure that people know how to behave on reflex. If we do it often enough, it becomes part of our conditioning; we will all know how to behave without being told. We also need to produce more information and educational materials on what to do during natural calamities and make these available to everyone.

***

I am not sure it is politically correct to point it out but the earthquake literally took the spotlight out of the ongoing impeachment trial. Most people (including myself) made it a point to watch the newscasts to learn more about the extent of the earthquake and promptly switched channels when the reportage about the earthquake was over. The trial has become boring and tiresome to watch; particularly since it became obvious that the prosecution does not have the goods on the chief justice, after all.

All this gibberish about Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as well as about taxes are amusing to me because if we are to tone down the level of hypocrisy, we would all be acknowledging the elephant in the room: Everyone in this country does not declare the right value of his or her assets or net worth. Everybody in this country tries to get away from having to pay taxes on their income or transactions. Of course those of us who are paid fixed salaries are automatically deducted withholding taxes, but most everyone tries to get around the law.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Not a matter of bad luck

This is my column today.

When presidential adviser for political affairs Ronald Llamas was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs, the public reacted with amused incredulity. Ang malas naman nya! What bad luck!

Many eventually called for his resignation primarily to spare the President from having to agonize over what is presumed to be a difficult ethical dilemma. Oh okay, there were those who maintained from the very start that Llamas deserved the boot for giving face to a guilty pleasure many in this country indulge in. But if we really come down to it, most everyone in this country agree with the President’s dismissive posture when he said he has more important things to attend to than pirated DVDs, presumably the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice and the …well, the impeachment trial.

I empathize with actor Ronnie Ricketts, head of the Optical Media Board and his team (which now includes another actor – Cesar Montano, rumored to be gunning for Ricketts’s post). How do you press on with the fight when no less than the President of the country declares on public television that the piracy problem in this country is the least of his concerns? Ouch, indeed.

And it certainly didn’t help matters when Ricketts admitted, also publicly, that buying pirated goods per se is not illegal in this country. I know it is not illegal; but for crying out loud, he didn’t have to shoot down his office’s main mandate. He could have coached the message in a way that communicated the importance of not buying pirated goods even if there is no legal impediment for doing so.

Of course the issue is not just about the fact that a cabinet secretary was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs in a public place. It’s not just about film and music piracy anymore. It’s now – supposedly - about the need for public officials to tread the straight and narrow path, a path that has acquired some complicated turns and bends.

But let’s first get back to the issue of that blurry but incriminating picture showing the presidential political adviser with a stash of contraband materials. That picture established certain facts, all of which are linked to each other like a Gordian knot.

First, despite the posturing of Ricketts and his team at the OMB, piracy is alive and thriving in this country. Second, that there are malls and legitimate commercial centers in this country that continue to sell or allow the selling of pirated goods. And third, that even the high and mighty in this country is not beyond patronizing pirated goods.

So is Llamas simply an unlucky person who happened to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time? I don’t think so. I know for a fact that the man is not stupid; there is a reason why he has the President’s ear and I don’t think it’s simply because Llamas belongs to that elite group that composes one of the three K’s (in this case, kabarilan or gunmates). Carelessness, perhaps? I don’t think so. This is a man with finely tuned political and survival instincts.

The answer becomes painfully obvious when we contextualize the current behavior against previous behavior. This is the second time that Llamas figured in a similar incident. Not so long ago, television cameras took damning evidence that he had long firearms in his vehicle. Sadly, the behavior is reflective of what seems to be the prevailing attitude of smug entitlement of many officials of this administration. Some have labeled it as the hacendero complex – the belief that certain things are morally right (or wrong) because they who are in power say so. Let’s note that Llamas has said he has apologized to the President but has conveniently left out the part about apologizing to the Filipino people.

I know many of us try to project this impression that we are epitomes of morality because we do not patronize pirated DVDs. The truth is that technology has made it almost impossible for ordinary mortals to distinguish pirated goods from those that are “originals.” Pirated blue ray discs that come in tin boxes and fancy packaging can easily be passed off as the real thing. Oh I know, there are certain ways one can differentiate the real McCoy from the counterfeit, but quite frankly who has the time or the inclination for that kind of nitpicking and quibbling?

Many of these movies and music are converted into digital form anyway which makes them virtually impossible to keep track of. I know lots and lots of people who do not patronize pirated DVDs and look down on people who do so but for a completely different reason. Why spend for pirated DVDs when you can download the darn thing from the Internet? Why carry around discs when you can simply copy the digital files from someone’s USB? Really, who can honestly say that they haven’t patronized – whether wittingly or unwittingly – pirated products?

The piracy problem is not going to be solved by simply conducting raids and passing more stringent laws. Even police authorities buy pirated DVDs (yes, I too have seen a number of policemen leafing through stacks of and buying pirated DVDs in stalls in Baclaran or Quiapo). Even if we do miraculously succeed in burning down the tons of DVDs that are produced everyday in this country and the factories that produce them, piracy is not going to stop. It will simply morph into other more creative forms. Advances in technology and limitless human creativity will always pave the way for newer and cheaper ways of sharing materials.

Part of the answer is in significantly reducing the price differential between original and pirated materials. If original DVDs cost only a little more than pirated materials, there is no reason for people to resort to buying pirated versions. And please, spare me the crap about how doing so would make the movie or music industry keel over. If people only regulate their greed the cost of non-pirated materials would be a lot cheaper. Most of the cost that is passed on to consumers includes advertising and the ridiculously expensive rates of celebrities.

So yes, buying pirated DVDs can also be interpreted as a form of rebellion.

If Llamas were not a cabinet secretary of an administration that aspires to very high standards of morality, being caught with a stash of pirated DVDs would not have been such a big deal. But sadly, Llamas is not an ordinary person. And this administration has aspirations of being far from ordinary.

Should Llamas be sacked for buying pirated DVDs? I don’t think so. However, the fact that this is the second offense would seem to justify such a move.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Ripped off!

This is my column today.

There was a time when traveling around the major cities in this country gave one a distinct feeling of being in a completely different place each time.

I used to love going up to Baguio and browsing along the various little shops along Session Road and the stalls in the public market for unique finds. Most of the shops along Session Road are now closed and the stalls in the public market don’t really offer anything new anymore, as sales have not been brisk enough to encourage the development of new products. I know my friends in SM will put me to task for saying this, but big business is killing specialty shops. At the rate things are going, it will only be a matter of time when even the ubiquitous sari sari store will have to give way to 7-Eleven and the other convenience store chains that have sprouted all over our urban centers.

Going to Cebu used to mean discovering finds along the many shops along Colon Street or Mango Avenue. Every city in this country boasted a row of specialty shops and stores that sold local products and the works of craftsmen in the area: San Pedro and Claveria in Davao City, Cogon in Cagayan de Oro, Zamora Street in Tacloban City.

Not anymore. Today, there’s SM, Robinsons, Gaisano, and company. You don’t walk up a street, you ride escalators or just promenade along pathways inside a mammoth structure. In some cities, they are building bigger and more malls. In Davao and General Santos cities where I found myself over the weekend, new SM malls were in the finishing stages. It would be the second SM mall in Davao and the first in Gensan.

I dread the day when outside of topography, each city in this country would be an exact replica of the others; when one would go to Butuan City in the south or to Vigan in the north and dine in exactly the same restaurant that could be found everywhere else. This is because every mall in this country offers basically the same fare everywhere. When my officemates brought me to the newly renovated KCC mall in General Santos City over the weekend, I felt like I was back in Mall of Asia in Pasay. The stores were the same, the restaurants even more. Needless to say, the products were the same; only the faces of the people were different. If all our cities would offer the same stuff, what will be the point of going anywhere else in this country? Why go to Zamboanga if your dining choices would be limited to the same cuisine that you would find in Makati anyway? La Paz batchoy, the original, is readily available everywhere so going to Iloilo to experience it is no longer an inspired idea.

Making the same products and services available everywhere does not, unfortunately, mean delivering the same level of service quality. Branches or franchise stores of established brands in the provinces offer the same products sold in Manila and at the same prices but one is expected to put up with inferior quality both of the products and of the service delivery– it’s as if people in the provinces don’t have the right to the same level of quality and efficiency as people in Metro Manila. In fact, salespeople in the provinces tend to have misgivings about serving customers who are from Manila because they allegedly tend to be “difficult,” impatient and demanding. I wish brand owners would take the trouble to define their customer service and quality standards and train their personnel to measure up to the same standards regardless of whether their branch is in Makati, Iloilo or Kidapawan.

I was in Davao City Saturday until yesterday (I am writing at the Davao International Airport – a huge complex that, alas, only had one functioning x-ray machine for baggage and no wi-fi) and I just have to write about a negative experience I had in a Bench store at this city’s G Mall.

I had lunch with a nephew I haven’t seen for quite sometime last Monday and G Mall was the closest to his university. G Mall aspires to world-class standards but fails dismally. The security procedures border on the nonsensical - I was asked to produce receipts for the shopping bags I bought at the nearby Aldevinco market and which I was carrying into the mall. The female guards went through the motions of inspecting bags, but were not really looking at what were inside the bags as they were so busy chatting with each other.

My nephew needed to do some shopping so we ended up at the Bench store inside the mall. They had a sale. A giant tarpaulin announced that the items in a particular bin were on sale. We looked at the items and my nephew picked a shirt. It didn’t have a price tag so we sought the help of a sales clerk. She went to check and came back to tell us that the shirt was no longer on sale, it was already being sold at regular prices. She picked up the bunch of shirts of the same kind from the bin and told us they would hang them back again in their regular display racks. I shrugged.

I picked up another shirt, one that had a price tag on it indicating its regular price, which was crossed out, and handwritten under it was the sale price, which was about 30 percent off the regular price. A sticker indicating the sale price (the same as the handwritten price) was also on the tag. While my nephew and I were going through the pile, a customer angrily dumped some shirts back into the bin, muttering something about “false advertising” before walking out of the store in a huff. I wondered what the fuss was about but let it pass.

When it was our turn to pay, imagine our surprise to discover that two of the shirts we were paying for were at “regular prices” rather than the sale prices indicated in the tags. I complained and pointed out the discrepancy to the cashier. I pointed out the two sale prices indicated on the tag – one written in ink and another one in sticker. She curtly told me that the shirts were no longer on sale. I told her that the Trade Industry department’s stand on the matter is clear – customers should pay for goods based on the prices written on the tag. Right in front of me, the cashier simply took off the sticker and was about to cross out the price in ink when I told her to call the manager.

Apparently, the manager was the guy who was sitting nearby just observing the exchange. He told me they received the “memo about the end of the sale” very late and had not had the chance to change the price tags. I told him they should bring the goods to storage and take out the tarpaulin sign – why continue to display the items when they knew they were no longer on sale? I lectured him about how it wasn’t fair for customers to spend inordinate time picking through an assortment of goods that they thought were on sale only to be slapped regular prices at the counter. He looked at me like I was from another planet.

In the meantime, a line was forming and people were starting to cast dagger looks towards my direction for holding up the queue. I figured I needed to consummate the sale so I could write about it. To be fair, I did tell them that I was going to write about the experience but the manager didn’t look like he cared anyway.

I was told by friends in Davao that this practice is rampant in provincial outlets of many established brands. They announce a sale but charge customers regular prices just the same. They get away with it because most people don’t complain; apparently, the attitude of store managers is that provincial people are lucky the brands are being brought to the provinces. The practice has to stop.