Sunday, August 31, 2014

Grace and geeks

This is my column today, August 31, 2014.

I am not a fan of Senator Grace Poe, but I must grant that what she did last Friday gave the concept of “senate investigation” more gravitas.
As acting chairperson of the Senate sub-committee on public services which is due to start its investigation on the state of public transportation in Metro Manila, Poe took an MRT train to work Friday. 
Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya did the same a few days ago, but he took the easy way out.  Abaya rode the MRT train at about 1:00 pm, which is not rush hour.  He also had aides who made sure the secretary was not unduly inconvenienced (someone reported that ordinary commuters were even asked to wait until Abaya was inside a train). 
Unlike Abaya, the senator took the MRT during rush hour.  She lined up for forty minutes at the busiest station, the North Station, bought tickets herself, and boarded the train without the usual “assistance” extended to public officials.  MRT officials tried to intervene when they got wind of the Senator’s presence and tried to limit the number of passengers trying to enter the coach where the senator was, but the senator asked the officials not to give her special treatment.  It took her two hours to get to the Taft Station because of technical glitches.
We don’t have to ride the MRT trains to know that the system stinks.  We’ve seen pictures, heard the stories, and know a lot of people with a gripe to share.  But the problems will not be addressed until and unless our leaders really experience the difficulties up close.  The investigations that the Senate conducts inside air-conditioned rooms can be wrapped up quickly if our senators do what Poe just did, which is to see the problem up close.
As I write, my cardiologist cousin and her surgeon husband are having the time of their lives at the Dragon Con, the annual gathering of fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and other elements of pop culture.  A picture they posted in Facebook shows them proudly wearing Star Trek costumes; something which, surprisingly, elicited quite a number of likes and comments.  They looked like young kids on their first trip to Disneyland.  And they were not alone.  From what I gathered, this year’s Dragon Con is being attended by close to 60,000 people.  That’s a lot of geeks in one location!
Apparently, being a geek is not only acceptable now; it has also become a source of pride.
I am a geek.  I guess I have always been one.  Attending the Dragon Con and any of the Comic Cons that are held regularly in the United States and other key cities in the world is on my bucket list.  The guys on Big Bang Theory are my kind of people - people who think imagination is just as powerful as real life experience.  A friend who shares the same interests as mine couldn’t help himself; he sent me this message in Facebook:  “We were born at the wrong time.”
I am happy for the nerds and geeks of this generation then.  They are no longer the outcasts.  As the boy who grew up wearing thick glasses and who preferred reading books to physical activities – probably the only one who knew the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by heart– I knew what it felt like growing up as a geek.  I was teased a lot and although my parents made sure they didn’t show any sign of disapproval or disappointment, I could feel that they also wished they went up the stage to pin scouting or athletic medals in addition to the academic medals.
Growing up a geek had its disadvantages.  While many automatically equated being a geek with superior intelligence, most dismissed geeks as weird people.  At parties, I would get asked many times what I preferred to eat and people seemed surprised that I would eat whatever normal kids ate.  The advantage was that I wasn’t expected to do physical labor; I was never assigned part of the team that cleaned the classroom or pulled the grass in the yard although there were times when I wished I was allowed to get dirty too.
But I did spend a lot of time daydreaming.  I devoured comic books and imagined being a super hero.  Many think geeks cannot distinguish fantasy (or science fiction) from real life, but this is an unfair assumption.  We know.  But that doesn’t stop us from still pursuing the many possibilities in our minds.  For us, “what if” is a valid argument.
We are where we are today because there of people who never stopped dreaming, imagining, fantasizing, and conjuring possibilities in their minds. Hurray to geeks, then.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pusong Pinoy

This is my column today, August 26, 2014. 
We marked another cultural milestone Sunday night when the big winner of a local television show that claimed to celebrate and proclaim everything authentically Pinoy (thus the title of the show Pinoy Big Brother) was… a non-Pinoy!  Japanese-Brazilian model Daniel Matsunaga snatched the million-peso prize money and the title of being the ultimate Pinoy na nagpakatotoo (most authentic Pinoy).  There was much rejoicing… and as people came to their senses, the usual attempt at justifying and explaining what just happened.
I like Daniel Matsunaga.  In the few episodes of the show that I watched, he did seem like the most amiable and the most mature person on the show although it can certainly be argued that he probably had the most experience in dealing with different - and difficult - people as a model who had worked in countries not his own.  He was also, I think, older among those that were left in the Big Brother house.  And okay, the chiseled abs and the handsome face weren’t liabilities, either.  My reservations about his victory have nothing to do with Matsunaga the person.  I also don’t blame his fans and supporters.
But I am not sure ABS-CBN, the network that makes such a big to-do with being supposedly in the service of the Filipino people, should be commended for imposing on the Filipino psyche a tenuous definition of Pinoy identity for the sake of commercial considerations.  As today’s kids would say, anyare ABS-CBN (what the heck happened here)?
Matsunaga was supposed to have won on the merits of having manifested Pusong Pinoy (Pinoy at heart), an affectation that people grabbed and tossed around so conveniently, as if becoming Filipino or having the temperament and social identity of being Filipino was something easily accomplished.  I’ve always thought being Filipino was something even naturally-born Filipinos, have to live up to every day of our lives.  But like I said, it’s not Matsunaga’s fault; he probably does love being Filipino and genuinely wants to belong.  But we shouldn’t be so careless in ascribing national traits on public television.  More importantly, our media networks should be more discerning particularly when it comes to matters that have far-reaching implications on our fragile sense of nationalism.  PBB is a business project, but commercial considerations cannot be the only agenda.  There is more to television shows than just ratings and profit-making.  Even business needs to have a conscience.
The result of the voting Sunday night was a classic case study on how Philippine democracy works.  People were encouraged to vote based purely on emotional considerations and on commercial values that ABS-CBN promoted; the odds were heavily on Matsunaga’s favor.  As an international model, he clearly knew how to package himself.  Those in advertising would attest that a more direct link to the show’s title was afforded by the label given to him.  Someone with a Pusong Pinoy clearly had a more direct tie-in to the search than the shallow labels given to the rest.  In short, Matsunaga was a superbly crafted media creation.  And in this country, a media creation always triumphs in any election.  Someone with a better story creates greater emotional appeal, and media are more than happy to keep things at the emotional level.  Why bother with making people think, why go to great lengths poking people’s consciences, why make people struggle with difficult ethical dilemmas when there is an easy way out?  Media are content with promoting the easy way out which is to encourage people to simply vote with their hearts and guts, long-term consequences be damned!  So what if there were three others equally-deserving and probably more needy Filipinos in the slate, Matsunaga was Pusong Pinoy anyway, right?  The simplification rankles because matters of national interest are not as uncomplicated. 
Those who insisted that PBB was just a television show missed the bigger picture.  What happened last Sunday has far-reaching implications on matters of national preference, taste, and affections and those who should have known better in this country missed a great opportunity to deliver a powerful lesson on civics. 
I maintain that media networks have a strong responsibility to propagate a strong sense of national identity and nationalism.  I don’t mean that we should exclude foreigners and become xenophobic – but we must learn to strongly value our roots over global influences.  We must teach our kids to appreciate a more diverse and inclusive perspective, but we must make sure that we do not lose affection, and subsequently, preference for our own.  As a way of illustration, it is okay to make our kids appreciate foreign pop culture provided we go out of our way to show that our own pop culture is not necessarily inferior.  Given a slate of equal choices, we must teach our kids to pick Filipino, particularly when the Filipino choices are just as deserving and worthy.
As I wrote, ABS-CBN has taken the ice bucket challenge out of social networking sites and into public television.  I hope people do not lose sight of the more important issue in the whole campaign, which is that it is about propagating awareness and understanding of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis which is degenerative motor neuron disease.  I think it is great that people are jumping into the bandwagon.  Whatever the motivations, I think the noble objective wins out in the end.  Let’s just make sure we do not forget the advocacy behind the ice bucket challenge.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Exploiting kids

This is my column today, August 24, 2014.

I am surprised that not a single member or faction of the people that comprise the moral police in this country has spoken about the blatant child abuse, the level of duplicity, and the shameless exploitation that is happening in the local television show Pinoy Big Brother.  It is possible that the shenanigans that have been happening in the show are not registering in the radar since I understand many people have already stopped watching the show after the more interesting people were voted out and after that fiasco when a female PBB housemate was “pressured” to pose for a nude painting.  It’s also possible that people are now experiencing moral fatigue given the many morally questionable decisions that have been made by our leaders recently, all in the name of furthering the supposed moral fight.
I catch some episodes of the show when I am home and having late dinner or coffee, or when interacting with kith and kin in our kitchen where the television set is turned on to ABS-CBN soap operas, which the househelp watch.  The people in the house find the presidential sister a hoot, so they always make it a point to catch her late night talk show which precedes PBB. Truth be told, I have rarely been able to watch PBB for extended periods of time.  I get uncomfortable watching people, specially teens, being used like pawns for the sake of ratings.  I also cringe when difficult or traumatic personal circumstances are wrung out of people in an effort to make them interesting or engaging; there’s just something wrong in a set-up where tragic personal circumstances are equated with personality or talent.  So I have constantly admonished people in the house to watch something else less intrusive or exploitative.  
Of course I understand that there are people in this country who get some emotional high out of watching other people squirm in embarrassment as their little secrets are exposed in public – in soap opera fashion, complete with cliffhangers and maudlin background music.  There are also people who try to live vicariously by assuming there are parallels between their personal circumstances and that of, say, current PBB housemate Daniel Matsunaga; which is actually a long shot given that very few people would have the great fortune of having Matsunaga’s looks. 
Some people even believe the show’s staple justification for the emotional torture it subjects its housemates regularly, which is to supposedly help them become better individuals.  What the people behind the show has been unable to answer is:  Who gave them the license to become sole judge as to what is good for other people?  
But what I really find objectionable is the kind of emotional torture to which the show subjects its housemates.  In this particular season, for example, the show has deliberately misled, or lied to the housemates, or made them believe the worst, so many times just so they can bring situations to a new emotional high.  They should probably include an advisory to teens that lying to and misleading people are still not ethically acceptable.  They’ve also milked all the sordid details about the personal lives of the housemates – why parents separated, what siblings are fighting about, what their childhood was like, etc, etc.  I know the housemates volunteered to be subjected to the emotional torture and probably even signed iron-clad waivers and quitclaims, but the problem is that this particular episode featured teens, adults, and celebrities in one mix and the level of emotional maturity and resilience as well as tolerance for duplicity varies greatly.
In addition, the show has this penchant for pitting housemates and their supporters against each other – and even kindle intrigues that would become fodder for gossip.  I normally would consider this kind of petty intramurals par for the course in our culture, except that the subjects of the intrigues are teens; to be legalistic about it, children actually.  There’s also the predilection to engage and promote stereotypes about teens such as their supposed laziness, inability to make correct decisions, or their being irresponsible or intellectually immature people.   I wonder what Bantay Bata has to say on the matter; but perhaps one cannot really bite the hand that feeds it, so expecting a reaction from Bantay Bata may not be reasonable. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why another six years is a bad idea

This is my column today, August 19, 2014.

We are told that the friends and allies of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III are now laying the groundwork to ensure that the machinations to amend the Constitution and consequently, to enable Aquino to run for a second term, become successful. 
Aquino should be very, very wary.  With friends and allies like that, who needs enemies?
Quite frankly, Aquino would be crazy to want another term.  The writing on the wall is as clear as day—all the odds are not in the President’s favor this time around.  The friends and allies who want Aquino to remain as President beyond 2016 are not really thinking of what is good for the President, or for the country.  They are simply thinking about themselves. 
 Let’s be blunt here:  The chances of putative administration candidate Mar Roxas winning in 2016 is very slim.  Thus, the only way they can continue to wield power and influence is to retain Aquino in the Palace.  That is the only logical reason for the sudden change of heart on fixing the term limits of a president—something that used to be sacrosanct in the light of the late President Corazon C. Aquino’s staunch advocacy on the matter.
 Those who are saying that the President needs to stay in office to sustain and strengthen the supposed successes of this administration are suffering from a severe case of extreme myopia.  (Of course there are people who question the supposed gains the Aquino administration has made since 2010 but let’s not go there).  Furthermore, the premise is actually indicative of inefficient leadership.  Are they saying that out of the millions of Filipinos, there is no one who can do what the President has supposedly been doing—or even do it better?  Or  are they saying that the programs of this administration are so incomprehensible that no one else can understand or implement them?  And then there is the matter of succession management, which is the mark of a good leader.  Every leader worth his name accepts that he or she is not immortal and therefor trains a successor.  If there is no one else who can succeed him, what kind of leader does that make Aquino?
 Anyone who wants Aquino to serve for another six years after 2016 must really hate the guy.  It is obvious that the presidency is not exactly a walk in the park for Aquino—he has aged considerably since he came to power, he has become irritable and seemingly unpleasant, and I can only imagine the kind of toll the pressures of the presidency is making on his health.  Give the guy a break, let him go back to his three Gs—guns, girlfriends, and games (computer games, to be more specific). 
 And then there is the matter of the relatively short shelf life of presidents in this country.  This is painfully made obvious by the continued nosediving of Aquino’s popularity ratings. We are a country that expects and demands too much from a President and tends to blame that person for all our woes, whether systemic or trivial.  Why would anyone want to transform Aquino into becoming the most hated person in the country, which is a natural consequence for anyone who overstays in power in this country?  He should quit while he is still a revered figure among many.
 To those who are saying that the issue is more than individuals and that servant leadership requires extreme personal sacrifice, let me just repeat a point I already made earlier in this piece:  Aquino already had his chance, it is time to allow others to step up —and yes, there are many others out there with just the same virtues, ethics, and level of integrity if those are truly the criteria we want to insist on.  Those who continue to say that there is no one else who is qualified is only contributing to narrowing the options. 
 The problems and challenges that were present in 2010 are completely different from those that confront us now.  What we need is a transformational leader who will not only perpetuate governance in the country but harness it as a tool to attain algebraic growth.  We probably need a different set of competencies.
 But over and above all these, is another six years of Aquino really worth scrapping the constitutional prohibition that safeguards the country from another dictatorship?  Think about it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

DOTC cannot fix anything

This is my column today, August 17, 2014.

A friend who swears by folk beliefs thinks that we have accumulated quite an enormous backlog of negative karma in the last two years that the ghosts  that are supposed to be rampaging around this time of the year (we are right smack in the middle of the Ghost Month according to the Chinese calendar) are being particularly harder on us.  She thinks that Wednesday’s accident involving a MRT train that got derailed, crashed into a barrier, and barreled down on to street level of a very busy intersection last Wednesday, hurting scores of people and stranding tens of thousands of commuters, was just a harbinger of more unfortunate events that will unfold.  I told her I wished that the complications we face as a country and as a people were truly that easy to unravel and diagnose.  Hungry ghosts we can pacify with offerings of food and prayers. But what do we do with problems caused by a government agency that is simply unable to fix anything?
The efforts of the Transportation and Communications Department to ascertain what really happened last Wednesday are futile.  We all know what caused the MRT accident—any person with a rudimentary background in production planning could easily tell us that what happened was an accident that was waiting to happen.  The MRT system has been groaning from being overstretched for years now, it’s actually surprising that the system is still working.  We all knew that the trains have been overworked and that the system has been dangerously operating at more than double capacity for quite sometime now. 
We have also known for almost three years now that the current leadership at the Transportation Department has been incompetent—they have been unable to fix anything since they assumed office. 
The problems of the MRT have been there since they assumed office.  And yet, nothing has been done except make appeals for people to be patient as we wait for additional trains to arrive.  There have been no alternatives nor palliative measures offered.  Not even electric fans at congested MRT stations, or aides to speed up the queuing process.
The problems related to heavy traffic on the Manila runways have been there since the current administration took office.  There were lots of talk about enabling other airports in the country to operate at night to decongest the Ninoy Aquino International Airport runways at daytime and about other programs that were supposedly going to be implemented.  Guess what, flights are still delayed because traffic in and out of the NAIA is still very heavy. 
And then there’s the problem of the NAIA Terminal being the worst in the world.  This was already a source of embarrassment for the country as early as five years ago.  Local designers proposed a design and a plan and even volunteered their services for free—a gracious gesture that was unfortunately thumbed down by the administration.  Not only is the NAIA Terminal still the ugliest airport in the world, it has also recently gained reputation as the hottest spot in the planet—worse that the Sahara Desert, which is at least cooler at night.  It’s been almost one year since the airconditioning units at the terminal conked out and relief is still not within sight.
 But then again, we are probably being unreasonable here because this is a Department that has not been able to fix a problem that is probably the easiest to fix– the availability of plate numbers and stickers for new vehicles.  A few months ago, the Department went to town with pictures of the supposedly new plate numbers that are supposedly (again) tamper proof and easy to track.  Those are really great metrics to aspire for, but meeting a much simpler expectation is probably more important—availability.
 Because of the rank inefficiency and incompetence, the Transportation Department and the Land Transportation Office have decreed that those applying for registration of new vehicles cannot request for plate numbers that end in certain numbers.  Everyone will just have to accept whatever plate number the government releases.  This puts people with limited means at a disadvantage because they can end up with two cars they cannot use on the same day due to the vehicle reduction scheme.  Those with the means can work around the limitation by simply trading their cars or buying new cars.  There’s a really simple logic to the problem and the solution is very obvious and simple, but we’re dealing with an agency that is just unable to make things work.
 Are we really surprised the traffic situation has not improved and that our problems related to transportation has gotten worse?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bullying the Deaf

This is my column today, August 12, 2014.

The latest victim of cyber bullying was Mininio Buhat, a student of the De La Salle -College of St. Benilde, who was crucified in social networking sites last week over a status message she posted in her Facebook account.  The status message was shot through with grammatical errors and people immediately jumped at the opportunity to ridicule, mock, and bash her.  Many people gleefully reposted her status message making various rejoinders that basically turned her into an object of shame and ridicule.  Some comments were downright mean and cruel such as the one that told her to “hang herself.”
 The orgy of bashing and shaming could have continued unabated had film director Mike Sandejas not intervened.  Sandejas suspected that Buhat was Deaf based on how the message was constructed.  Hearing impaired people, particularly those who have been born Deaf, stress key concepts rather than use complete sentences.  Obviously, English is something that Deaf people are exposed to and learn only in school —and writing in English is something that most Deaf people only get to do when pursuing higher education.  Sandejas bothered to investigate before making judgments.  His hunch was right.  Buhat was born Deaf.  She is a student at the DLS-CSB where there is a program for the Deaf.  (By the way, if you are wondering why the letter D in the word Deaf is in uppercase that is because this is the way Deaf people want to be referred to; they would prefer being referred to as hearing-impaired, but if people want to refer to them as Deaf, they would prefer that the D be in uppercase to denote their uniqueness).
 To set the record straight, Deaf people deserve understanding and a little more leeway not because they are mentally infirm, but simply because they speak another language.  It’s a linguistic problem – they speak sign language and rely more on non-verbals.  Why is it that we make allowances for Non English-speaking foreigners who mangle the English language, and even find their atrocious grammar and accents cute but are so hard on others, such as the Deaf, or even Filipinos who carry their Ilonggo or Cebuano accents when speaking in English?
 Sandejas was more diplomatic and conciliatory in pointing out other people’s cruelty.  He blotted out the names of those who mocked and ridiculed Buhat in an effort to spare them from the wrath of those who came to Buhat’s defense.  I am grateful that Sandejas came to Buhat’s rescue; but I admire him even more for being wise.  First, he did not gloat over the fact that he proved himself right; there are just too many pompous pricks in the world already who are quick to assert their moral superiority every time they think they are proven right.   Second, he resisted the temptation to commit exactly what Buhat’s bashers made, which was to ridicule and shame others for making a mistake.  The way I see it, moral victory is attained only through humility and sincerity.
I hope that the bashers and bullies who pounced on Buhat learned a valuable lesson this time around although I think there are people who need more than one humbling experience before they become cognizant of their bullying behaviors or tendencies, if at all. 
One of the pernicious effects of the social networking phenomenon is the way it has provided bullies, haters, and bigots a readily available platform to indulge their needs, and often anonymously.  Unfortunately, there are too many people who are either gullible, impressionable, lazy or just too careless who are quick to join a bandwagon. They are quick to ride on an opinion trend without bothering to apply a smidgen of critical thinking, or at least common sense, or be bothered to check the facts, or notice the fine print.  A video of someone pointing a gun at another person or of a woman seemingly harassing a child, or an article that offers an unpopular opinion, or a  clearly misleading news article with a provocative headline can immediately become the most hated, shared, or commented item in the Internet for the wrong reasons. 
I don’t think the advent of the Internet has changed the rules around acceptable and unacceptable behavior of thinking, mature adults.  We’re still supposed to be nice and respectful towards others, or at least be civilized, even when we disagree, right?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Stories from a medical mission

This is my column today, August 10, 2014.

She sat in the back row and quietly waited for her turn, aided by a badly sunburned young man in tattered shorts and tank tops.  We had actually already stopped taking in new patients because those that were already in line to see a doctor was already more than enough for the remaining hour.  But there was something in her eyes that struck me—she looked like a deeply wounded animal valiantly struggling to get up and live. 
The young man was a tricycle driver who had just learned about the medical mission, ran home, bundled her ailing mother to come to the medical mission.  She had been having pain in her belly for almost a year already and since six months ago, she noticed that her lower abdomen was swelling.  She was steadily losing weight and was unable to do certain body functions properly.  The first and only doctor she went to pressed a stethoscope to her chest and abdomen and pronounced that she was retaining water in her system; she was prescribed medicines and was told to undergo advanced medical procedures in Tacloban City, a good 20 kilometers away from the town.  She didn’t buy the prescription; her son barely made enough to buy food for the family.  She said the pain was already intense.  Fortunately, we had an ob-gyne expert in the medical mission team we had a portable ultrasound machine.  As I had feared, hers was an emergency case.  She had what the doctors suspected to be ovarian cancer.  Her condition was already critical.  We made arrangements for her to be seen by another team of doctors, this time French doctors who were scheduled to do a surgical mission in a few days in Tacloban.  She and her son wanted to know if it was possible for the doctors to just prescribe medicines instead, which she promised she would take regularly.  The complications of cancer were beyond their comprehension.  I had to make arrangements even for transportation money as well as provisions for the trip to Tacloban. 
In another town, I sat down with a man who was in his mid-forties, but looked like he was pushing 60.  He had been working non-stop for most of his life.  He had been having leg cramps, dizziness and had difficulty seeing, plus a host of other symptoms.  The nurses in our medical mission team took his blood pressure and random blood sugar.  I was stumped.  His blood pressure was 210/140, his random blood sugar almost 300.  He said it was the first time he was tested for blood sugar but he had known he was already hypertensive as early as ten years ago.  When asked if he was taking maintenance medication for his hypertension, he said yes, he took medicines every time he felt that his blood pressure was high which happened about twice a month.  I had to explain yet again what maintenance medication meant.  In the end we had to give him at least six months’ worth of medication.
There was this mother with four children, all of which had various ailments.  The children were showing the obvious signs of essential vitamins and nutrients deficiencies.  After we treated the children, she confessed that she also came to seek consultation for certain ailments.  She turned out to be hypertensive and the doctors in the team suspected tuberculosis.
In the four towns that we visited in four days, we saw far too many children with a host of illnesses associated with very weak immune systems and lack of proper nutrition.  We attended to scores of women—mothers mainly—who were either anemic or had various infections.
And then there were the many elderly people who were hypertensive, diabetic, asthmatic, or had gout, arthritis, and a host of other problems that were not being addressed by regular medication.  In a poor country such as ours, children, women and the elderly are poorer.  When asked why they were not taking maintenance medications or taking the full dosage of antibiotics, they responded with amusement.  Where were they supposed to get the resources to buy medications given that their livelihoods were destroyed by the supertyphoon? 
In one of the towns, we were granted permission to hold the medical mission in the parish social hall.  The parish priest graciously offered to help us with medication – he said there were a number of medicines in the parish office left behind by previous medical missions immediately after the supertyphoon.  We checked out the stash and found boxes upon boxes of high-end and branded medicines including boxes of antibiotic in vials.  Most were already expired.  The parish hall was like a mini-pharmacy and they dispensed medications to parishioners that had prescriptions issued by local doctors but couldn’t do counseling.  This is yet another example of how lack of organization from the top (in this case regional and provincial leaders) results in wastage and how civil and religious leaders often end up taking over and making do with what they can, even on matters they are not qualified on. 
The doctors in our team, mostly Americans, couldn’t understand how people could be so nonchalant and fatalistic about health issues.  After talking to the patients and really listening to their concerns, I understood why.  What options do poor people have but to ignore their pains and ailments and to just rely on faith?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Intellectualizing poverty

This is my column today, August 5, 2014.

Since the hoopla over the buzz and the frills around the President’s 2014 State of the Nation Address - such as what was worn by whom, how many times people applauded and for what, and why the Presidential sisters wept, ad nauseum - have now died down, we now witness the attempts to focus on the more substantive parts of the President’s report.  I know that there are sectors who think the post-SONA discussions border on nitpicking, but I think that the discussion over the accuracy of the figures presented and the attempts to separate truth from the embellished facts are all necessary in the exercise of democracy. 
Like many others, I am particularly interested in finding out exactly how the government arrived at the 24.9 poverty rate that the President bragged about in his SONA.  Other groups cite higher rates - exactly how much higher seems to be dependent on the particular agenda of the group or person making the claim.  Poverty is obviously the major issue in this country and anyone who wants to brag about development actual progress must and needs to show proof of inclusive growth. 
Having said that, I must point out though that the subsequent attempts of some legislators to discredit the government’s conditional cash transfer program in the wake of the SONA is uncalled for, if not suspicious.  It seems too coincidental that legislators are now calling for a review of the CCT, particularly since the general citizenry seems bent on ending this penchant for giving legislators or the administration blank checks courtesy of the pork barrel system.
I know that the President brought the issue to the table by linking in his SONA the supposed reduction in poverty rates to the conditional cash transfer program.  But the calls to significantly reduce the CCT budget for 2015 and cast aspersions on the efficacy of the program is quite uncalled for.
Obviously, I believe in the CCT.  There are many things about this administration that I have reservations on, but the CCT is one of the programs that I fully support.  Of course the administration could be a little more honest and give credit where it is due and acknowledge that the program was actually the brainchild of the former administration, but that’s not as important as ensuring that the program is sustained.
I am not sure if our legislators go out of their way to really interact with the poorest of the poor in this country, particularly those in rural areas, who are beneficiaries of the program.  If they do, perhaps they would learn to moderate their attempts to intellectualize poverty.   All this talk about the need for long-term solutions and for master blueprints and sustainable programs are all wonderful - but let’s get real, people; poverty and the many issues linked to it such as hunger, sickness, ignorance, disempowerment, etc, are urgent issues.  Our leaders can continue to debate over what the more sustainable response to poverty is, but what do we do with the multitude who are hungry and the millions of children who are skipping classes today because their families just do not have the means to survive now? 
I understand the need for intellectual swashbuckling, but I have been travelling to Leyte almost every other weekend since Yolanda struck for relief, medical missions, and other rehabilitation efforts and I have personally met people whose survival in the last few months has been guaranteed only by the money they get from the CCT program.  
Senator Bongbong Marcos – who, if rumors are to be believed is preparing for a run for the Presidency – has gone to town in the last few days criticizing the CCT for being a short-term solution to the poverty problem in the country.  Well, Senator, what concrete long-term solution do you offer? The poverty problem is real, pervasive, and urgent.  Short-term measures are called for.  Of course the local governments are still smarting over the fact that they have no control over who gets to be in the list of beneficiaries of the program; I think it is best to keep it this way to ensure the integrity of the list of beneficiaries and to keep the program untainted by political machinations.
Quite frankly, a program that pours money directly into the hands of poor Filipinos is by any measure so much more preferable than a program that enriches people who walk the various corridors of power at the local, provincial, regional, and national levels. Simply put, I would rather we give money directly to people rather than course them through our legislators.  If the hundreds of billions of pork barrel money who got siphoned off by legislators in various schemes through the last few decades were given to the people directly, perhaps we would have had better chances of eradicating poverty in this country.
Unless someone comes up with a better idea, perhaps the better option is to allow the CCT to continue.  At least the billions of pesos have gone directly to the people - there is no accusation of the money having been siphoned off by some bureaucrat at the Social Welfare Department.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

A work in progress

This is my column today, August 3, 2014.

There were a number of things about the President’s fifth State of the Nation Address last Monday that I felt needed to be rebuffed and refuted – such as the government’s tall tale about quick, effective, and compassionate response during the Yolanda crisis – but I must say that overall, I found this SONA a much improved effort compared to previous ones.  If the President continues with his hopefully newfound stride, the nation should see the rise of Benigno S. Aquino, the statesman and President of all Filipinos. 
Of course the President highlighted the supposed achievements of his administration.  What leader in his right mind would deliver a report card that is short on accomplishments?  I am surprised that many people still find this part of the annual SONA objectionable.  I have no doubt that the figures and dates the President cited were all accurate; just that the interpretation of some of the data was clearly skewed and there was lots of reframing done on certain issues.  I am sure that anyone looking for lies in that speech would find them; truth is not always absolute, particularly when viewed in the context of political conflicts.
For example, and this has been pointed out with more emotions by the other victims of Typhoon Yolanda, the President’s version of the government’s response after the supertyphoon was woefully inaccurate.  It’s been eight months since the supertyphoon and the government still does not have an approved and implementable blueprint for the rehabilitation efforts – that’s how slow the government has been insofar as delivering assistance to the victims is concerned.  Just imagine how much worse it was during the first few days and weeks after the supertyphoon when all systems were down!  The government may have been able to bring in three C-130 planes the day after Yolanda reduced many parts of Leyte to a rubble, but that doesn’t mean people got what was on those planes immediately.  If it was true that enough reinforcements arrived immediately, then Tacloban City could have been spared from the fatal blow that finally sent it gasping for breath – massive looting and lawlessness.
There were many other things that the President chose to gloss over, or totally leave out from his SONA.
But like I said, this SONA was far more acceptable in terms of the kind of image that it conveyed about kind of a President or leader he has become, or is becoming.  
For once, the President did not come across as a whiny, spoiled brat that demanded recognition and compliance.  He did not use the SONA as a platform to demonize certain individuals and institutions as in the past although he did throw the occasional punch directed at his perceived enemies and critics.  And more importantly, he tried to speak directly from the heart.  Am not really sure if the last part created a change of heart among his most ardent critics, but I know that many people were moved by his attempt to show a more human side of himself. 
Of course one swallow does not make a spring, but I think the President deserves the benefit of the doubt.  He has barely two years in office and there remains so much to be done.  If he spends more time listening to the real needs of the people and responding with more empathy, he will be remembered both for the reforms he has made and for certain leadership traits.  
I have said this many times in the past and have been crucified for saying thus, but I will repeat it again now:  It had become easy for us Filipinos to find faults in whoever is sitting in Malacanan Palace and we’ve become so good at replacing Presidents.  I have always kept the belief that every President who placed his or her hand in the Bible and recited that sacred oath on his or her first day of office was driven by sincerity and the desire to serve and make a difference.  This President, despite the many human frailties, has admittedly tried very hard.  He’s a work in progress, but then again, so are we and this country.