Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How much more money do you need to make?

This is my column for today, December 30, 2014.
As expected, the top three movies (I refuse to call them films) that dominated the box office in the ongoing 40th run of the Metro Manila Film Festival got royally snubbed by the jurors. The top three films snagged only one award—best child performer for Ryzza Mae Dizon.  In fact, at the risk of sounding like we want to rub salt to injury, it must be noted that the three movies failed to get nominated in many categories.  In the spirit of calling a spade a dirty shovel, the jurors declared the top three movies the worst of the lot.
The presidential sister who must not be named in this column, who not only lent her star wattage but in fact also bankrolled the movie she starred in, declared unapologetically on public television that she was quite happy with just the box office results, the critics and the jurors be damned.  After all, her movie, she said, had already earned the singular distinction of having made the biggest first-day gross ticket sales for a horror movie in the history of the Philippine movie industry.  The need to creatively invent distinctions is hilarious, even in a country that bestows titles and distinctions generously.   Did they really have to?
Some media networks made a big to-do with the fact that the President of the Republic, no less, spent Christmas day watching the two movies that featured his relatives.  It was a good thing nobody tried to make a spin equating his presence in the movie screenings to an endorsement of the two movies he watched.  And mercifully, he didn’t grant interviews after watching the movies; although it would have been interesting to witness how the President would have deflected questions about the overall quality of the movies or the acting skills of his sister and nephew.  That would have been a challenge even for people with superior diplomatic savvy.
So once again, the commerce versus art debate is on.  This time around, the embarrassing fact is that the inverse relationship is too glaring—the movies that got the jurors’ nod are not making money while those that were ignored are raking it in at the box office.  
I really meant to write mainly about what I thought were the developments and events in 2014 that made significant impact on the life of the nation but I was greatly annoyed by the continuing marketing blitz of the top three MMFF movies that continue to make a killing at the box office.  We are told that these movies already made hundreds of millions and the producers have already tripled, or even quadrupled their investment.  
The question I want to ask the producers and even the actors and actresses is:  How much more money do you need to make?  Or to put it bluntly, is there a limit to your greed?  One would think that these people would already be very happy and content with the gazillions that they have already made given the quality of the movie that they have foisted on the nation.   But they continue to appeal to the public to watch their movies!  
If they are truly concerned about sustaining the future of the movie industry that they claim to love, they should just be grateful for the undeserved fortune they have amassed and encourage people to go and watch the movies that truly deserve patronage.  For once, I would love to hear these actors and actresses tell people “Thank you for watching our movies, we’ve already made more than what we deserved—instead, please watch Bonifacio and English Only, Please.”
Anyway.  I think the most significant global development in 2014 has been the way social media has transformed into a platform not just for personal and political advocacies but even for business and other domains.  Most business organizations have started to build their presence in social media and have started to use the medium for advertising and product placements.  The people behind Facebook have already announced their intent to turn Facebook into the world’s global newspaper. This development represents a major shift in power and we will be seeing the many ways in which the shift will impact society in the next few years.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why you should watch "Bonifacio"

My December 28, 2014 column.

Everybody in this country knows that the Metro Manila Film Festival  ceased to be a showcase of serious filmmaking a long, long time ago.  Most of those who troop to the movie houses during the holiday season do so simply because it had become a Christmas tradition of sorts.  People like me do so as a token gesture of support for the major players of the Philippine movie industry, most of which reportedly make as much money only during the MMFF.  The MMFF is mainly a commercial extravaganza, but we continue to support it in the hope that doing so will help keep the Philippine movie industry alive. 
Fortunately for me, the nephews and nieces are now all grown up.  In the last three years I have been spared the torture of having to watch the mindless and pointless comedies and/or fantasy MMFF movies that kids are naturally drawn to.  We still watch MMFF movies, but we pick the ones that try to meet some other criteria other than just making money.  These are usually the ones that are ignored by everyone else which is good in the sense that one need not have to stand in line for hours to get tickets, but in the end is quite tragic because like Thy Womb in 2012, these movies will get pulled out from theaters shortly.  
This year, we cast our lot with Bonifacio Ang Unang Pangulo and English Only, Please.   I haven’t watched English Only as of press time, so this column will be about Bonifacio.   But my daughter did get to watch English Only on Christmas day and told me it was not a complete disappointment – in short, pwede na (it will pass muster), which, quite frankly, already comprises a major endorsement when taken in the context of the general quality of MMFF movies.
But I did watch Bonifacio and while I will not rave about it, I will still go on record as to recommend that you go watch it for three reasons. 
First, it is a movie with a noble intent, which is to try to make people appreciate Bonifacio’s role in Philippine history.  I do think history has been unkind to Bonifacio and that very little is known about the tragedy that befell the hero in the hands of fellow revolutionaries.  The whole movie does suffer from the weight of its own intent – it almost looks and feels like a lecture in many parts and one half expects someone to “process” the whole experience at the end of the movie.  But if it gets people to ask questions about what really happened to the national hero, then we can all overlook the shortcomings of the movie.
Second, the effort does yield some good results, particularly in cinematography.  The art direction is passable and some of the fight scenes are actually not bad.  I would gladly watch this movie over and over again than any of Bong Revilla’s MMFF entries.  The acting is not bad either.  Robin Padilla actually has his moments in this movie when we actually get to see Andres Bonifacio rather than the swaggering actor.  The characterization needed some work, but we can appreciate the effort given what they had to work with in terms of resources.  This is not a movie by Star Cinema, Regal Films, GMA or Viva films after all.
Third, and this is very important – because we all need to deflect attention from the movies that are emerging as the blockbusters.  Yes, the same type of movies that have made a killing in previous festivals and will most likely reappear next year and the one after that– unless we start supporting movies like Bonifacio which valiantly try to break the mold.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In the spirit of the season

My December 23, 2014 column.
It will be Christmas in two days.  While the major media networks are still going overdrive in getting everyone all worked up for the big day, it looks like most of us have already peaked early on.  Traffic was still bad over the weekend, but not as bad as in previous weekends.  We were at a major mall Sunday afternoon to catch The Hobbit and it was manageable—we were surprised that we could actually stroll leisurely around the mall and get seats in a restaurant.  My hope is that we have gotten the commercial and materialist trimmings of the season out and the next few days can be focused on enjoying the real essence of Christmas.  Here’s hoping the next few days can be spent in relative peace and tranquility, with less of the usual aggravations.
For most of us, this means reliving certain traditions.  There are many things that are great about this season of joy, peace, and hope but the ones that are truly heartwarming are the efforts to sustain certain Filipino traditions even as we are buffeted by strong forces of change.  Traditions provide comfort and solace and security and in a lot of ways help define who we are.
And so, while we are tempted to get annoyed at the pesky tots that come to sing Christmas carols at our gate every single night in the last two weeks without fail, there is some comfort to be had in the thought that many of them really do so for the fun of it.  I know this for a fact because that’s exactly my experience when I was young; I really didn’t care about how much money my friends and I made singing “Kadadya Ning Taknaa” at every door in our neighborhood.  I remember my harassed grandmother offering a bounty just so I won’t slip out of the house at night to join my friends.  But caroling was part of my growing up experience and I guess it taught me something about life such as dealing with rejections and even planning and leading.
The theme for our Christmas celebration at work was “Paskong Pilipino sa Buong Mundo” and it was a great opportunity to celebrate Christmas with all the Filipino trimmings.  We had a parol contest that was inspired by the various festivals in the country.
The household help and the adolescents in the house have been waking up earlier than usual to attend the Misa de Gallo since December 16.  I am aware that their diligence is driven by perceived necessity—apparently, they’ve been told that being able to attend all nine masses would mean having their wishes granted—but then again, I am sure the experience would still yield a lesson or two, or at least a memory they could fondly recall when they are older.  I am sure our Noche Buena fare would be a repeat of the same food that we’ve always had in past Christmas Eve dinners but I don’t think anyone would complain; in fact, I am sure there would be questions if my grandmother’s famous callos does not make an appearance this year.  Christmas is about traditions—from the Noche Buena fare to the gift giving and the trip to the movies to catch any of the film festival entries.  But I also know that every generation adds its own little touches and I think that’s all good —it enriches the overall experience and strengthens the traditions themselves.  For instance, the gift-giving has generally become more novel as the younger set introduced new procedures and the games and activities have become more interactive—thanks to the wonders of technology.  Pinoy Henyo is now played with the help of an iPad and they’ve been able to devise buzzers and timers and other innovative touches that make people like me feel more ancient.  So I think we can all continue to take comfort in the fact that while traditions may get reinterpreted and readjusted to suit the growing complexities of current realities, the essence behind these traditions will continue to be there. 
I do like Christmas because people are generally nicer and kinder and while many people would find the temporary reduction in temperament levels hypocritical, it sure makes the world or at least this country seem a little bit more peaceful.  In the last few days, we’ve had less of the usual political wrangling that has come to characterize our daily existence.
So despite these uncertain times, Christmas helps us remember that there’s still hope in this world.  Christmas is a wonderful time to be reminded that there are always great things in store for all of us if we continue to have faith in God, in ourselves, and in others.
From our house to yours, Merry Christmas everyone!  May your Christmas be meaningful and filled with all the great things of the season.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A theory to explain our traffic woes

My column for today, December 21, 2014.
It’s a seasonal thing.  Apparently, there are people in this country who believe the current traffic nightmare that we are experiencing in Metro Manila is a glitch that is tied up with the annual season of gift-giving and merry-making.  This theory would hold more water if not for the fact that our traffic woes are no longer just triggered by seasonal factors such as school opening and midnight madness sales.  The sad truth is that virtually anything nowadays can turn our major thoroughfares into huge parking spaces – a little rain, a road accident, a construction or repair, a long weekend, a brownout, pay day, etc.
It’s a symptom of the utter lack of strategic or systemic thinking in our country.  There is gridlock on our roads supposedly because no one is directly responsible for managing the whole traffic system.  We have 100 local executives around Metro Manila all trying to manage traffic in their respective cities and municipalities, completely unmindful of the fact that our roads extend beyond the confines of their respective fiefdoms.  If only our leaders were imbued with strategic thinking competencies, they would be able to come together to map out a comprehensive traffic solution that benefits everyone.  Perhaps they would also be able to program development initiatives such as major construction or rehabilitation projects in such a way that reduces impact on traffic and the lives of commuters and motorists.
And there’s the economic theory.  Supposedly, the traffic gridlock is the by-product of a burgeoning economy.  There is supposedly more money going around the system that people are buying more cars and flocking to supermarkets and shopping malls to burn money.  This is a really great theory to munch on, one guaranteed to bring a smile to the face – if one happens to be sitting in the comforts of one’s home leisurely sipping coffee and relaxing with their feet up on a stool enjoying retirement.  But if one were an ordinary work drone that gets caught up in a monstrous traffic jam every day, in the process losing sleep or precious quality time with one’s family, this traffic-as-a-result-of-growth-and-prosperity theory is like rubbing salt to injury.
According to some experts, this traffic problem is really a cultural thing.  It’s supposedly a metaphor for how things run in this country.  Everybody rants and riles about it, we have monstrous blame-storming sessions, but no one is actually willing to do something to help fix it.   When people are on the road, they break the very rules they rile about.  Traffic is also supposedly caused by our manana habit – people shop for Christmas presents at the last minute jamming not only our roads but even parking spaces that soon overflow into the streets, creating markets on sidewalks which block pedestrians, etc, etc.  This also happens during school openings and other special holidays where people wait until the last minute to book flights, or buy supplies, or get out of the Metro, or do their laundry, etc. 
An extension of the cultural theory is the social theory.  We just happen to be a people who have no issues with invading someone else’s personal space or encroaching into someone’s time or comfort zone.  We have no compunctions about turning three-lane streets into five-lane streets, or making a counterflow, or swerving into someone else’s lane.  We load or  disgorge passengers in the middle of the road, sell or buy stuff on the street, even talk to other drivers or passengers in other vehicles – with no regard for the inconvenience or annoyance this causes to others.  Somehow, we expect everyone to give way, or not to take offense when we break traffic rules – maliit na bagay lang naman (it’s only a small matter).  In this country, traffic rules are mere suggestions and everyone is expected to look the other way if no one gets hurt when someone violates something.
Have you heard of the engineering theory?  Apparently, there are structural and planning defects in our roads.  Certain roads were obviously not meant to accommodate certain amount of traffic such as densely populated areas that suddenly sprouted 40-storey condominiums or, astonishingly enough, huge malls!  Someone pointed out that a number of our underpasses and overpasses defy engineering or architectural considerations.  We’re probably the only country that built underpasses in areas that are flooded regularly, or for that matter, closed intersections and decreed U-turns instead in traffic-prone areas.
The most common theory, of course, is the enforcement and discipline theory.  According to many, our traffic problem is caused mainly by the utter lack of discipline among motorists, commuters, pedestrians, and the general citizenry.  Others allege that lack of traffic enforcers aggravate the situation although it can be argued that there are more than enough enforcers just that they prefer mulcting from hapless motorists rather than helping them get to where they want to go quickly.  
Goodness, at the rate we are going, it’s just a matter of time before we run out of someone or something to blame for the traffic problem.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Surprise visit, non-surprising finds

This is my column for today, December 16, 2014.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima conducted a surprise visit at the Bilibid Prison yesterday.  She had been riling about conditions at the prison for the longest time. She even scolded Bureau of Corrections officials last week for allowing the construction of a two-story structure inside the compound for the private use of inmates.  An irate De Lima finally swooped down with dozens of agents from the National Bureau of Investigation at Bilibid yesterday and came up with substantial proof that, indeed, certain inmates were enjoying privileges and luxuries disallowed of convicted criminals.  Among those discovered were a bathtub, air conditioning units, drug paraphernalia, closed circuit television and telecommunication gadgets.
“Someone will pay,” the Justice Secretary seethed.
I truly am amazed at our ability to be surprised over things like what the Justice Secretary discovered yesterday at the national penitentiary.
Seriously, folks, did we really think the powerful people inside prison languish in untold misery devoid of certain luxuries? Did we really believe the rich and powerful inside prison would not try to use their power and influence to get access to certain privileges?  We already know that inmates who are scions of the rich and the famous eat food that is delivered by their families, or by hired caterers, on a daily basis.  It really does stand to reason that they would also try to bring in certain luxuries such as appliances and offer to pay for electricity consumption.  And lest we forget, this is a country where influence and money are powerful currencies.
But now that de Lima has ordered a clampdown, of course the airconditioning machines, television sets, DVD players, laptops and cellular phones, etc., will disappear.  But, and this is a big but, only momentarily—only for the duration while everyone’s eyes are trained on the correctional system.  A few months from now, when things have cooled down, the liberties will be restored.  That’s the way things work in this country.
If de Lima and everyone else truly want our correctional system to operate like those in the United States, we must acknowledge two important considerations.  First, it will require systemic interventions and programs that will target social and cultural factors.  Second, we will need to pour huge resources into the system.  Our prison systems currently have budgets that will not allow inmates to live decently.  This is why correctional facilities accept donations as well as volunteers.  If we want to enforce laws stringently, then government will just have to step in and be responsible for everything including spiritual, medical, and even educational welfare of inmates.
Yes, things are not as simple as they seem.  In my column last Sunday, I wrote about some of the social and cultural factors that contribute to the seeming laxity that permeates our correctional facilities.  We’re generally forgiving and trusting as a people and we do have certain values that require us to treat marginalized people such as convicts with a certain degree of kindness and compassion.  We also do tend to defer to people in authority or those with economic or political power even if they are convicted criminals; they may be wearing orange uniforms with a huge letter P on them, but that doesn’t stop people from still referring to them as “Sir” or at least “Boss.”
I’m not sure it’s necessarily a sad development that more powerful people are ending up inside prison.  On one hand, it is disconcerting that a number of the supposed influentials in this country are being involved in dastardly acts; but on the other hand, it does say something about the effectiveness of our justice system when more people in power are unable to escape the long arms of the law.
But above all, I wish to reiterate that we do have a serious problem with the way we train the people that man our correctional facilities.  Criminology, which is the feeder course for policemen and jail guards, is not exactly the most attractive course for people with superior mental capabilities.  The people responsible for our educational system should really put in place more stringent standards for our criminology courses. 
As an aside, someone did ask me why I seem to have some first hand information on the system.  In the interest of disclosure, I do have relatives who work in the correctional system.  Up until the last five years, I used to spend some weekends at the National Penitentiary at Bilibid.  No, not inside the prison compound—but within the perimeter.  The Bilibid Prison is actually composed of hectares of land and the various facilities for inmates are spread across the wide area.  The recognizable castle-like white structure that is associated with the prison and most often used for movies and television shows is a very small part of the whole compound. But all around the compound are housing facilities for employees of the National Penitentiary; there are actually a couple of residential villages for private individuals within the perimeter, the more upscale one appropriately named Katarungan (Justice) Village.  Up until recently, the National Penitentiary area was similar in ambiance to the University of the Philippines in Diliman - quiet and expansive, with a lot of huge old trees and areas for sports and exercise.  We used to like going there to picnic or just to breathe in fresh air.  Unfortunately, the area had suddenly become overtaken by squatters and large parts of the compound have been carved to give way to the new highway that connects Daang Hari to the South Luzon Expressway.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why our prison system stinks

My column today, December 14, 2014.
For what seemed like the nth time, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima publicly scolded last week officials of the Bureau of Corrections for allegedly allowing high profile inmates at the National Penitentiary—more popularly referred to as Bilibid Prison—certain luxuries and privileges.
This time around, de Lima riled against the presence of a two-storey structure inside the Bilibid Prison supposedly being used as living quarters by a convicted drug lord. The Corrections people insisted that the structure was not being used as living quarters but supposedly as some kind of an activity center by Muslim inmates. The explanation was hilarious because the officials virtually admitted that they allowed inmates to build structures within the government compound. Regardless of the purpose, inmates just cannot be allowed to do as they please while in prison.
We’ve been hearing stories for quite some time now about how powerful inmates such as politicians, scions of wealthy families, and leaders of syndicates are actually the ones running Bilibid Prison. We’ve heard stories about certain high profile inmates being allowed midnight furloughs out of prison - presumably to go home to their posh condominium units or have a leisurely dinner and drinks at some watering hole, or about certain individuals having special quarters complete with air conditioning machines, televisions, laptops, and cellular phones. If I am not mistaken, the quarters are called “kubol” and inmates like the infamous mayor with the bad hairdo from a town in Laguna as well as a former representative from Zamboanga del Sur were found to be enjoying such comforts.
Quite frankly, we are not surprised that such a system is allowed in the Bilibid Prison - or even in other major correctional centers in the country. This is the Philippines and there are just too many social and cultural factors that make possible all kinds of deviations and exceptions for the rich, the famous, and the notorious. Lady justice is not blind, after all; at least not in this country.
First of all, economic power is still absolute power. And while we can all make a good argument for the fact that money cannot buy everything, it can certainly open doors, make the difficult easy, and make the impossible possible. In dire situations such as those prevailing in prison, money may not be the direct currency that is traded or bartered—it can be favors, or goods, or certain advantages which can be made possible when one has the economic resources or political connections. Conversely, money can be used to bring certain types of disadvantages to people who are less cooperative to the “requests” of powerful inmates.
We’re also a very social people and we also happen to value relationships. We build kinships with practically anyone we share space or time with. Thus, we have special bonds with schoolmates, batchmates, dormmates, townmates, workmates, busmates, churchmates, and yes, prisonmates. It is unlikely for jail officials and staff and prisoners not to develop some kind of friendship after years of being cooped up together in the same tight and suffocating place. If we really come to think about it, inmates and jail wardens are both outcasts in society. They live under basically the same conditions even if most jail wardens get to go home to their families and leave the confines of prison when they are off duty. But while they are at work, they are basically like prisoners themselves.
It is also very easy for us Filipinos to empathize with others, particularly those who have met misfortunes in life. We love underdogs - we root for people who are down and out. The joke is that there is not a single offender in any of our jails - everyone in prison in this country is an innocent person who has been accused and convicted wrongly. Our default tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt, particularly if that person has a credible sob story that rivals the plot of our popular soap operas.
And then, there’s the fact that we do tend to defer to authority figures even if they have feet of clay. This is why most of us disapprove of student protesters who express their political sentiments in ways that embarrass our leaders. A man may be a convicted criminal but he is still addressed as Congressman, Mayor, Sir, or at the least “Boss” in jail. It’s kind of difficult to expect people to say no to a seemingly harmless request such as to look the other way when “Sir” uses a cellular phone in jail. Of course one seemingly harmless request tend to escalate into other requests.
The conditions to build over-familiarity and even mutual trust are all there, particularly in our culture. This is not to say, of course, that nothing can be done to mitigate these factors. I am sure there are already quite a number of safeguards and operating procedures in place; the key is to ensure effective and sustained implementation. Simply put, what should not be allowed should simply not be allowed - no buts and ifs and certainly no exceptions allowed.
In addition to following the standard guidelines, regular rotation of jail wardens must be imposed to reduce the formation of special friendships between inmates and their jailers. The problem is that in places like Bilibid, the officers and staff are given special concessions such as housing facilities within the compound so it is difficult to switch people around. We must also make sure that officials and staff of the Bureau are paid reasonably well so that they are not easily enticed by bribes.
But over and above all else, the most critical area is the training and development of personnel who will man our correctional facilities. The stark naked truth is that criminology is probably the academic course that is most taken for granted by the educational system. It’s just unreasonable to expect jail officials to display certain higher competencies that our educational system has not trained them on. So in a way, the situation in our correctional facilities is not just the problem of the Justice Department. It is everybody’s problem because we all contribute to creating the conditions that make our prison system stink.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Lessons from another typhoon

My column today, December 9, 2014.

We spent the weekend alternately wringing our hands in worry and clasping them in prayer as Typhoon Ruby descended into the country.  We have family members in Leyte who were also victims of the strongest typhoon in history last year, so our concern was understandable particularly as relatives kept sending frantic text messages and making alarming posts in social networking sites about how strong the howling winds were, and eventually, how long drawn-out their suffering was.  Fortunately, mobile phone signals and Internet connectivity continued to be available as the typhoon barreled until they gave way at about five in the morning of Sunday in Tacloban and most parts of Leyte.  Sadly, most of Eastern Samar was already incommunicado as early as 9:00 pm of Saturday when Ruby made first landfall in the town of Dolores.
Although Typhoon Ruby did not pack winds as strong as those of Yolanda, it meandered along its path at a slow pace of 13-15 kilometers – almost stationary – and battered Eastern Visayas for about five hours before it seemed to have decided that it has had enough and moved on its way towards Masbate.  Supertyphoon Yolanda was very strong but it mercifully moved briskly.  It made landfall at around 7:00 in the morning and was gone by 9:00 am.  Of course it left behind a swathe of devastation never before imaginable.   According to relatives who experienced both Yolanda and Ruby, being battered by howling winds for five straight hours under pitch dark conditions was also quite traumatic. 
But as has been crowed about by many of our leaders, we seemed to have been better prepared this time around.  We really seemed to have learned from the supertyphoon last year.  It would take some time before people will get over their fear of being caught in the same situation as last year when they had to scramble for food and water for days after so many went overboard with the panic buying and the hoarding of basic commodities.  Local officials tried to downplay the fact that supermarket shelves were emptied and gasoline stations all over Eastern Visayas were pumped dry by Saturday noontime.  An interesting sidelight was the presence of heavily armed military personnel in the downtown area in Tacloban, including a military armor truck in the biggest mall in the city, as foil for potential looting activities.
Still the one key area that we must learn to manage better is communications.  We all know that meteorology is not yet a perfect science, but we must really find a better way to explain projections about a typhoon’s potential path and strength.  The divergence in the projections of various weather stations became a cause for confusion and downplayed the more important message which was that preparation was still required of everyone within the vicinity of the projected path or paths.   The one thing that everyone in this country has is a cellphone so we wish we are now able to use mass text messaging as a way of disseminating critical information about a natural calamity such as a typhoon.  And then, there’s the matter of providing local officials and media people satellite phones so that they are able to provide immediate factual updates on real time basis and eliminate the spread of rumors about whole towns being washed out to sea or the number of casualties rising to alarming levels. We must work harder to institutionalize a system that enables authorities to deliver accurate and reliable information quickly and efficiently to everyone.
As I write, information about the extent of the actual damages in Yolanda-ravaged areas are slowly breaking the surface.  What seems alarming is that most of the bunkhouses built by government for Yolanda survivors were practically wiped out.  Some structures that were rebuilt after the supertyphoon also showed damages, which seems to belie claims that the delay in the rehabilitation efforts were mainly due to the “build back better” thrust of government.
And once again, media personality Korina Sanchez has found herself in the eye of a controversy over politically-incorrect statements made during a newscast.  Sanchez made an off-the-cuff remark wishing Typhoon Ruby would spare the country and move towards Japan, presumably because Japan is better equipped to manage natural calamities.  Actually, her fault was she verbalized what many may have been inadvertently praying for when they wished that the typhoon would change paths.  But it’s a lesson that people like Sanchez should learn on account of her influence as a high profile media personality and as the wife of a public official with a moist eye on the presidency.  

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Hype vs substance

This is my column today, December 7, 2014.

I have learned never – as in never—to believe celebrities when they endorse films that they, or their friends star in, or are part of.  For example, when certain celebrities would proclaim on public television that their latest “film” is their best work so far, or that it offers valuable lessons in life, or when they stress that they have never before invested as much effort or emotions or resources as they have done on the film that they are promoting - I make a strong resolve to avoid that particular film. 
Experience has taught me that the actual quality of a movie is inversely proportionate to the level of hype heaped on it by people who are part of it. I prefer to hear directly from disinterested people who have actually seen the film, and yes, these exclude overzealous fans who shriek in front of TV cameras and sing paeans regardless of the quality of the movie or the performance of the stars they worship. 
There was a time in the past when I would still make exceptions for people that are somewhat renowned for having something else between their ears other than pretty faces.  Not anymore today.  The problem is that even talk show hosts, news anchors, reporters, radio disc jockeys, etc, have already gotten into the act of making money from all kinds of endorsements.  Today, entertainment writers need not write about films anymore to “promote” them.  Everyone else with some celebrity status has jumped into the bandwagon.  Everyone is promoting or endorsing something.  
Sadly, the same phenomenon has started to seep into the publishing world, thanks to the growing number of celebrities who have become authors, seemingly overnight. 
I don’t have objections about people who use their celebrity status as platform to push certain advocacies; in fact, I do admire people who put their popularity in the service of some great cause.  I also agree that since we live in a democracy, people should be allowed to pursue their dreams and aspirations, including publishing their own books.  However, there is an important caveat that should be followed:  People should not make false claims about their work or their output.  That’s not just tantamount to fooling people, it’s really prostituting one’s celebrity status. 
I don’t have anything against celebrities who write books.  They can write as many books as they want and publish as many as they wish.  However, they should stop proclaiming on public television that their books are the metaphorical equivalent of God’s gift to mankind particularly if the books in question are really nothing but a scrapbook of random ideas, most of them half-baked.  I am not even going to talk about measuring up to certain standards of style because, well, there’s just no accounting for taste.
I read most anything, or at least try to.  And I encourage kith and kin to read as well.  To encourage my kids and my nephews and nieces to read regularly I bring them to bookstores and pay for books they like on condition that they actually read what they pick up.  I also end up reading what they buy – and these are mostly books some celebrities recommended.  Believe me, most of those “books” written by radio disc jockeys and media personalities, are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.  Some of them are actually a collection of other people’s ideas, which makes one wonder why the authorship of these books is attributed to the celebrity “authors.” 
Unfortunately, it truly is difficult to argue with success.  Many of these books are best sellers, thanks to the propaganda machines of our media networks and the efforts of people who lend their celebrity status to commerce.  The end result is that media empires become richer while we continue to dumb down our population.
Having said all of the above, I do want to take the effort to commend blogger and TV personality Bianca Gonzalez for at writing a book that shows a great deal of thinking and effort.  Paano Ba ‘To: How to Survive Growing Up is an earnest, sincere, and in the end, noteworthy effort.  It’s a book that is worth reading because Gonzalez does not have pretensions of being intelligent or a great writer and therefore does not hit people on the head with ponderous prose and insights. And there’s really a lot one can sink his or her teeth into in the book, it actually has substance beneath the seemingly light touch, so in the end one does not feel shortchanged for picking it up and coughing up hard-earned money for it.  One wishes other celebrities were as forthright and as sincere as Gonzalez.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ona should quit

My column today, December 2, 2014.
I know it’s not okay to kick a man when he is down.  But I still think the honorable option that Health Secretary Enrique Ona has—in fact, should have immediately taken two months ago —is to resign from his post and allow someone else to take over. Ideally, someone with better management and leadership competencies, and hopefully, more charisma.  
Admittedly, the current Acting Health Secretary, Janet Garin, does not inspire confidence either, although she seems to have more media savvy on account of her background as a former legislator.   But if we are to go by her initial foray into public health issues, Garin is a major disaster waiting to happen, as validated by the way she handled the issue of the Filipino peacekeepers who were quarantined in an island off Corregidor as precaution against spreading the Ebola virus.  
Garin had science on her side when she insisted that the Ebola virus can only be transmitted by someone who was suffering from symptoms of the disease, something that no one among the Filipino peacekeepers had.  That whole episode could have been a powerful lesson on what the Filipino people must know about the Ebola virus and on the dangers of stigma directed against those exposed to the virus. 
Garin clearly flunked her baptism of fire, big time.  She could have seized the opportunity to come out swinging against ignorance and intolerance.  She would have infuriated many people, particularly those who are paranoid and prone to believe wild rumors.  But she would have scored major points as an advocate and fighter.  In the end, that is what differentiates the real leaders from those who were just in the right place at the right time. 
This I have learned from our many episodes of public bitter fights as a people—people will excoriate leaders for espousing unpopular decisions, but they will offer respect, albeit grudgingly,  for principled stand.  Garin came out a wuss in that sad, sad public test.
Ona has clearly lost favor from Malacanan Palace.  This is evident in the way the bright boys in the palace have distanced themselves from Ona and the issues being leveled against him.  This is an administration, after all, that tends to band together in support of each other during crisis situations.  That’s the reason why even the most unpopular cabinet members are still in office despite having been dragged across the coils of public opinion many times over.  Ona has clearly been left in the lurch to fend for himself.
But let’s call a spade what it is— a dirty shovel.  Ona has not really accomplished much in the four years that he has sat as health secretary.  I challenge anyone to name a single program that can be associated with him.  In fact, many people particularly those in rural areas can be forgiven for thinking that Eric Tayag, the dancing doctor, is the country’s top health official. Tayag has done more in terms of actually bringing health issues to the masses.
And there is one singular issue that can be held up as one clear reason why Ona must go.  He has not only failed to arrest the increasing rate of HIV/AIDS infections in the country—he has even set the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention and control programs back to levels unimaginable.  He has refused to listen to experts and activists on many issues.  For instance, just this year, he actually intended to make HIV testing mandatory despite the overwhelming presence of scientific and anecdotal data that says such a move is counterproductive, not to mention there being a law in place that expressly prohibits it.  The Palace had to step in to shut him up.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day.  The rest of the world paused to remember all those we have lost to the pandemic and to celebrate the many lessons we have learned through the decades of managing the challenge.  In most parts of the world, HIV transmission is on a steady decline but their governments and leaders continue to be vigilant to ensure that infection rates are kept down, preferably zeroed out.
We are one of only two countries in Asia where HIV infection rates continue to climb at an alarming rate.  Experts say that as many as 40,000 would be infected by HIV next year unless we do something dramatic. Government continues to be play mute, deaf, and blind to the wildfire around them.  And Ona is not just blind, deaf, and mute to HIV/AIDS—he just seems like he couldn’t care any less.