Sunday, March 30, 2014

There's more to bathing than hygiene


This is my column today, March 30, 2014.
Several related news items in the last few weeks caught my attention.  First, the results of a recent Social Weather Stations survey which said that Filipinos ranked toiletries (bath soap, toothpaste, etc) as more important than, say, rice or sugar.  This had some academics stumped because of the way it redefined the notion of what comprises basic survival needs.  Then there was the human interest story about National boxing champion Emmanuel Manny Pacquiao’s amused reaction to Timothy Bradley’s revelation that he (Bradley) does not bathe for the entire week leading to his fights in keeping with the superstitious belief that doing so negatively affects one’s chances of winning.  Pacquiao was supposed to have reacted with incomprehension; like most Filipinos, not taking a bath was an alien concept to the boxer.
And then there were the usual seasonal pictures of people flocking to the beach - in the case of some Metro Manila residents, to the breakwater area at Roxas Boulevard – to get respite from the summer heat.  We know that the Health Department has issued advisories warning people that bathing in the murky waters of Manila Bay posed clear and present danger to one’s health.  I guess making people cognizant of danger is difficult if the consequences are not immediately palpable.  Many just pick immediate relief from the scorching heat over possible skin problems, diarrhea, or other medical conditions associated with ingesting polluted waters.
Anyway, the inescapable conclusion is that bathing is something that is part of our DNA as Filipinos. 
We’re so fastidious about bathing and to a large extent personal hygiene that the activity always figures among the various lists of the top distinguishing characteristic of Filipinos anywhere in the world. 
Indeed, you are a Filipino if you absolutely must take a bath at least once a day regardless of the conditions.  I remember one time when I went up to the mountains of Sagada with a group of mixed nationalities during the Christmas break in the nineties; our foreigner friends were amused with how the three of us Filipinos in the group went through all the trouble to heat water and make all the other preparations just to be able to bathe in near freezing temperature.  Similarly, one is supposedly a Filipino if he believes that there is no point in going to the beach if one does not take a dip in the water; lolling around on the beach or baking dry under the sun just do not qualify as beach activities for Filipinos. 
We bathe for hygiene purposes.  We do equate having good character with the ability to adhere to certain standards of personal cleanliness.  I still remember the learning sessions on Good Manners and Right Conduct during my elementary days when our teachers repeatedly hammered the idea that being poor was not an excuse to be unclean, that there was dignity in wearing old clothes as long as they were not stained or dirty, or that having body odor, dirty nails, or uncombed hair were signs of bad upbringing.  But this is also because being clean and exuding a nice scent are also linked to our notions of attractiveness and desirability, thus “amoy beybi” (smells like a baby) or  “amoy bagong paligo” (exuding an after-bath scent) are standard dialogues related to intimacy.  
But more importantly, I think this is also because bathing for us is a social, even communal, activity.  In our culture, a family outing is most often a trip to the beach or to a resort with a swimming pool and the whole activity is dubbed as a “bathing activity” (maliligo) rather than as an excursion or a vacation.  Families eat, drink, play games, sing, dance and do all kinds of social activities in between taking dips or frolicking in a body of water. 
While growing up in the province, my siblings and cousins and I would bathe together.  Sometimes we would do it around a communal well while our mothers and aunts did their laundry, or we’d take a short trip to the artesian well where water flowed freely from a contraption  powered by a generator.  On weekends, we would even walk a few kilometers to a river to bathe and play games, and yes, we would bring soap and shampoo even if we were bathing in a body of water.  I guess this is where that classic joke about province lads soaping themselves up while bathing in a swimming pool comes from. 
This was why, in my first job after college as a culture and language resource person for the United States Peace Corps program, I readily understood the need for a learning module that taught American volunteers to the Philippines how to bathe publicly using a malong (for women) and loose shorts (for men).  The skill that women employ when bathing publicly while clad only in a strip of cloth seem effortless for Filipino women who grew up in the provinces. 
Well, summer is here and unfortunately the costs associated with going to a resort with a swimming pool have become prohibitive.  But we’re an ingenious people so we come up with innovative solutions.  Pools made out of inflatable plastic have sprouted in our neighborhood particularly during weekends.  The other night, the nephews in our house have cleared the area in our terrace where they will to set up an inflatable pool in the next few days.  Resisting the urge to join them will be very difficult.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Summer of 2014


This is my column today, March 25, 2014.
Several related news items in the last few weeks caught my attention.  First, the results of a recent Social Weather Stations survey which said that Filipinos ranked toiletries (bath soap, toothpaste, etc) as more important than, say, rice or sugar.  This had some academics stumped because of the way it redefined the notion of what comprises basic survival needs.  Then there was the human interest story about National boxing champion Emmanuel Manny Pacquiao’s amused reaction to Timothy Bradley’s revelation that he (Bradley) does not bathe for the entire week leading to his fights in keeping with the superstitious belief that doing so negatively affects one’s chances of winning.  Pacquiao was supposed to have reacted with incomprehension; like most Filipinos, not taking a bath was an alien concept to the boxer.
And then there were the usual seasonal pictures of people flocking to the beach - in the case of some Metro Manila residents, to the breakwater area at Roxas Boulevard – to get respite from the summer heat.  We know that the Health Department has issued advisories warning people that bathing in the murky waters of Manila Bay posed clear and present danger to one’s health.  I guess making people cognizant of danger is difficult if the consequences are not immediately palpable.  Many just pick immediate relief from the scorching heat over possible skin problems, diarrhea, or other medical conditions associated with ingesting polluted waters.
Anyway, the inescapable conclusion is that bathing is something that is part of our DNA as Filipinos. 
We’re so fastidious about bathing and to a large extent personal hygiene that the activity always figures among the various lists of the top distinguishing characteristic of Filipinos anywhere in the world. 
Indeed, you are a Filipino if you absolutely must take a bath at least once a day regardless of the conditions.  I remember one time when I went up to the mountains of Sagada with a group of mixed nationalities during the Christmas break in the nineties; our foreigner friends were amused with how the three of us Filipinos in the group went through all the trouble to heat water and make all the other preparations just to be able to bathe in near freezing temperature.  Similarly, one is supposedly a Filipino if he believes that there is no point in going to the beach if one does not take a dip in the water; lolling around on the beach or baking dry under the sun just do not qualify as beach activities for Filipinos. 
We bathe for hygiene purposes.  We do equate having good character with the ability to adhere to certain standards of personal cleanliness.  I still remember the learning sessions on Good Manners and Right Conduct during my elementary days when our teachers repeatedly hammered the idea that being poor was not an excuse to be unclean, that there was dignity in wearing old clothes as long as they were not stained or dirty, or that having body odor, dirty nails, or uncombed hair were signs of bad upbringing.  But this is also because being clean and exuding a nice scent are also linked to our notions of attractiveness and desirability, thus “amoy beybi” (smells like a baby) or  “amoy bagong paligo” (exuding an after-bath scent) are standard dialogues related to intimacy.  
But more importantly, I think this is also because bathing for us is a social, even communal, activity.  In our culture, a family outing is most often a trip to the beach or to a resort with a swimming pool and the whole activity is dubbed as a “bathing activity” (maliligo) rather than as an excursion or a vacation.  Families eat, drink, play games, sing, dance and do all kinds of social activities in between taking dips or frolicking in a body of water. 
While growing up in the province, my siblings and cousins and I would bathe together.  Sometimes we would do it around a communal well while our mothers and aunts did their laundry, or we’d take a short trip to the artesian well where water flowed freely from a contraption  powered by a generator.  On weekends, we would even walk a few kilometers to a river to bathe and play games, and yes, we would bring soap and shampoo even if we were bathing in a body of water.  I guess this is where that classic joke about province lads soaping themselves up while bathing in a swimming pool comes from. 
This was why, in my first job after college as a culture and language resource person for the United States Peace Corps program, I readily understood the need for a learning module that taught American volunteers to the Philippines how to bathe publicly using a malong (for women) and loose shorts (for men).  The skill that women employ when bathing publicly while clad only in a strip of cloth seem effortless for Filipino women who grew up in the provinces. 
Well, summer is here and unfortunately the costs associated with going to a resort with a swimming pool have become prohibitive.  But we’re an ingenious people so we come up with innovative solutions.  Pools made out of inflatable plastic have sprouted in our neighborhood particularly during weekends.  The other night, the nephews in our house have cleared the area in our terrace where they will to set up an inflatable pool in the next few days.  Resisting the urge to join them will be very difficult.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Desperately seeking answers

This is my column today, March 23, 2014


As I write, almost everyone on earth, including experts, are still scratching their heads in   frustration and bewilderment over the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.  There have been a number of promising leads, all of which turned out to be duds. 
The question that has been raised repeatedly—and in increasing level of exasperation- is this:  Given the rapid advancements in aviation and surveillance technology, how is it still possible for a commercial airplane with 239 people on board to simply vanish from sight and to remain missing despite the combined search efforts of 24 countries and even after two weeks? 
There are a number of sobering realizations that we can draw from the MH370 tragedy, foremost of which is that most people on earth don’t seem to have rudimentary knowledge of geography after all.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who didn’t seem to have an idea of just how vast the Indian Ocean is, or for that matter, the South China Sea.  It appears that most people had this expectation that a single airplane flying over the South China Sea would be able to cover the whole area between the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China in a matter of hours.  And when Australians reported “credible” sighting of two significant chunks of debris in the Indian Ocean, it seemed most people expected ships to immediately arrive at the exact location within minutes of the sighting. 
It might be a good time to remind everyone that contrary to the common expression, ours is not really a small world.  Yes, this whole phenomenon called globalization has dramatically cut through boundaries of time and space, but no new technology has been able to shrink physical distances.  Before anyone expresses dismay over the seeming slow pace of finding debris in the Indian Ocean, a little sense of perspective might help—searching for a Boeing 777 in the Indian Ocean is like searching for a paper clip in an area the size of a several hundred football fields.  
Many technical details have surfaced about the way aviation computer systems, radar technology, transponders, communication systems, airplane security, etc, actually works that many have suddenly become experts on these subject matters overnight. Most of the details are gobbledygook and may be difficult to comprehend, but the bottomline is this:  Nothing in this world, not even the most advanced technology, can be 100% infallible, accurate, or reliable. We can put all kinds of sophisticated gadgets on airplanes, but it still impossible to foresee all kinds of possibilities.  There’s always room for error or an unforeseen event.  The best we can do is simply to mitigate risks.  It’s important to point this out because there are people in this world who continue to insist that what happened to MH370 is not theoretically possible.  Kids, it’s a depressing thought, but yes, anything bad can still happen today.
A number of theories have been forwarded that attempt to explain what could have happened to MH370. 
In pursuit of the hijacking theory, the personal circumstances of every person on board that plane, particularly those of the two pilots, have been subjected to intense scrutiny.  Related to this theory is the terrorist conspiracy angle from which the conjecture that the plane is now hidden somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan is derived from.  There’s the ghost plane theory which forwards the rather disturbing possibility that something—possibly a fire—happened on flight which killed everyone on board and which turned the whole plane into an auto-piloted coffin that drifted for hours along a computer guided path until it ran out of gas and supposedly crashed into the vast Indian Ocean. And then, of course, there’s the alien abduction theory which requires no explanation. 
What all these tell us is that in the absence of the truth or of any empirical fact, everyone who feels qualified to come up with a theory can be relied upon to invent or propound one.  Of course, we’re also reminded that there truly are lots of loonies in this planet, but then again, we don’t need a missing plane to tell us that.  Perhaps we should really leave the theorizing to the experts.
Like everyone else, I pray that the mysterious disappearance of MH370 is solved soon and that all people on board are found safe and sound. 
In the meantime, we can take small comfort in the fact that mishandling crises does not seem to be a characteristic that is specific to Filipinos.  It appears to be a global malady, after all.
The disappearance of MH370 reminds us of the staggering truth that, indeed, there is still so much in the world that mankind, despite advances in science and technology, just does not and cannot control. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Honor among cadets

This is my column today, March 18, 2014.


At the onset I must stress that I do find it admirable that cadets at the Philippine Military Academy are standing firm on a matter of honor. It is heartening to note that idealism continues to exist among our youth, particularly among those who are being trained to be­come leaders of the military ser­vice. Yes, our military people must adhere to a higher code of honor  and those who are still in the PMA must exemplify higher adherence to the same since they are supposed to represent the new breed of offi­cers who will champion the neces­sary and much-desired changes in the military establishment. One, of course, wishes that they stood up with the same strength of con­viction on a number of occasions on the past when graver matters of honor were at stake.
Having said that, I must also stress that I find it frustrating that the same cadets have easily suc­cumbed to a classic case of group­think and have since then unable to consider seemingly divergent points of views even when these have grave repercussions to one of their very own. I get it: Cheating and dishonesty cannot be tolerated among the ranks of military cadets. But surely, we can all get a little sense of perspective on the grav­ity of the punishment that should be meted out particularly when the administrative process has been found to be riddled with so much subjectivity and anomaly. Those who wish to prescribe standards of honor on others should first make sure that they do so using honorable ways. Put another way, those who wish to talk about honor should first try to be what they pre­tend to be.
But sadly, it has been very clear that the PMA hierarchy already fell victim to groupthink on the case of cadet first class Jeff Aldrin Cudia very early on. In fact, I am afraid that the phenomenon has extended to the whole Armed Forces of the Philippines bureaucracy. Everyone has already closed ranks on the idea that what is at stake on the matter is the honor and integrity of the PMA as an institution and by extension, the essence of what makes up the core of the officer ranks of the AFP. The message behind the pronouncements of the administrators of the PMA and a number of its alumni and echoed by the members of the graduating class is unmistakable: We will de­fend our hallowed traditions and anyone who disagrees with us is clearly ignorant, misguided, or just plain wrong.
Thus, I did not expect the President to have allowed Cudia to march at the PMA graduation last Sunday despite the recommendations of the Commission on Human Rights. To have done so would have earned the ire of the military establishment. It would have been akin to bringing along a persona non-grata to an exclusive party, or if one wants to be more graphic, bringing a helpless puppy to a den of angry mongrels.
One can almost see and hear over the din of the current debate Jack Nicholson’s famous Colonel Nathan Jessup in a A Few Good Men pompously thumbing his nose down on civilians who pry on the ways of the military, pretend to know better, and demand ac­countability: “We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!”
It is unfortunate that the PMA hierarchy and everyone else in the AFP have responded to the Cudia issue with a dismissive attitude bordering on effrontery, as if or­dinary citizens have no business meddling in the affairs of the PMA or the military establishment. Ex­cuse me, generals and colonels, but last I looked the government and the military remained accountable to the citizenry of the Republic. If I am not mistaken, the money that is used to keep the PMA operational also comes from the tax­es that citizens pay including the salaries and perks of military of­ficials. Furthermore, the issue at hand happens to strike at the core of the nation’s well-being given how military generals do tend to end up holding cabinet positions or seeking elective positions. And then there’s the matter of military involvement in a number of scan­dals.
But over and above everything else is the matter of what really com­prises honor. We all like to make dramatic speeches and gestures that supposedly stress the importance of imposing codes of honor and about adhering to a clear sense of what is right or wrong but often sacrifice fairness and our sense of humanity in the process. The cadets at the PMA are correct in disciplining Cu­dia for having supposedly breached their code of honor. But then again, where’s the honor in enforcing the whole might of an institutional bu­reaucracy in order to bludgeon to a whimpering pulp an individual whose faults—seeming careless­ness and lack of judiciousness – are not exactly beyond redemption? Where’s the honor in abandoning one’s very own at a time when he needed compassion, understand­ing, and yes, justice? Are the PMA cadets trained to think like robots who cannot distinguish the various shades that characterize intent? If PMA cadets cannot fight for one of their own, how can we expect them to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Registration plates are not the problem


This is my column today, March 16, 2014.
The Transportation Department announced last week that starting April, the registration plates of all vehicles in this country would have to be replaced and owners would have to cough up an additional 450 pesos for this latest money-making venture of government. This would be in addition to the various money-making ventures that are already in place in various Land Transportation Offices in this country – from the ridiculous physical examination for drivers conducted by non-qualified personnel, to drug testing, to smoke emission testing, etc.
The bureaucrats regurgitated a long list of justifications for fleecing us yet again. We have been told that the new plates are supposed to be tamper-proof and have more security features than the vaults of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. But then again, if we spend the same amount of time thinking of ways to improve the way we execute and implement our brilliant plans than we do in thinking up ways to make money out of citizens, we probably would not have the kind of problems we have in this country now. The problem is execution, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation, folks.
If we really come to think about it, the problems related to switching and stealing of vehicle registration plates are not caused by the size, color or design of the plates. They are caused by failures in our systems- in particular, laxity in apprehending perpetrators of various illegal measures and in meting punishments to those who are caught violating laws. Changing the registration plates per se will not result in dramatic improvements because we happen to be the most ingenious people in the world particularly when it comes to circumventing laws and regulations.
And then there’s the other complication that the LTO has chosen to be mum about, but which will create a major uproar: How to ensure that vehicles will still get the same ending number on their registration plates.
Note that everyone who submitted applications for new plates since last year has been told by the LTO that they cannot pick the ending number of their plates precisely because the agency’s backlog is so huge that assigning preferred numbers would tie them up in an administrative nightmare for years. Can you imagine the kind of uproar it would make if families with more than one car would end up with registration plates with the same ending numbers for all their cars?
***
I marked a special personal milestone last week. I turned 50.
Although I grew up in a family that always celebrated birthdays, I’ve never felt compelled to celebrate my birthday in a major way. There’s always dinner in the house for family and friends who would remember and, well, there’s the usual simple lunch at the office, but I still have to feel the urge to go out and rent a function room in a restaurant, or close down a bar, or hire a band. Maybe when I am 75, perhaps.
But I seemed to have missed out on the memo that said marking half a century of existence was a major cause for celebration. One of my closest friends from my college years chastised me for not letting everyone knew that I was joining the ranks of the golden boys – they could have made the trip to Manila and roasted a few pigs, he said. When people learned that I was celebrating my 50th, they somehow seemed more enthusiastic and sincere with their greetings. What was intended as a simple lunch at the office transformed into a party as officemates ordered balloons, put on a program, and surprised me with a few more flourishes such as a photo booth.
One of my mentors set things in perspective with a text message that essentially welcomed me into the fold of those who were “in the youth of old age.” She said being 50 is a blessing in a country where many people don’t reach 30; being 50 and being relatively healthier is a big deal in a country where most begin showing medical complications associated with old age at 40. My own mom still smokes cigarettes and drinks beer at 75, but two of her siblings did succumb to heart attack before they reached 50, so I sat up and came to terms with the sobering facts about my own mortality.
Given my frenetic lifestyle and the fact that I eat stress for lunch and dinner, I guess it’s indeed a small miracle and a source of great wonder that I am still writing this piece today. Truly there’s a lot to be thankful for. And as if to drive home the point more empathically, I started feeling tightening and numbness on my neck and back the day after my birthday. The doctor asked for x-rays and it looks like I will be undergoing therapy for some lumbar problems – in addition to the usual body wear and tear. So yes, I am now fully convinced every day is a major blessing and every birthday an occasion for thanksgiving. So to everyone who remembered me last week and sent warm thoughts and greetings, thank you very much!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An idea that has failed twice


This is my column today, March 11, 2014.
There is, once again, frenzied talk about converting the Pasig River into a passageway for commuters as a means of helping alleviate traffic in Metro Manila.  The idea is to offer to commuters an alternative ferry service that will traverse Guadalupe in Makati to Quiapo in Manila, passing through strategically designated ferry stations along the Pasig River.
It’s an idea that is brilliant on paper.  It’s theoretically feasible.  And the idea offers various promising and romantic possibilities; Pasig River, is after all immortalized in our history books as the gateway to Manila as well as source of life and sustenance during the time of our ancestors.  We are told that the river used to brim with life that people fished, swam, and washed clothes in it.  So why not, indeed?
The answer is painfully simple:  Because we have tried it before and it didn’t work.  In fact, we tried it at least twice already and failed both times.  We first tried it in the mid-eighties.  It clicked for about a few months.  But interest in the service gradually diminished and the number of trips got reduced until the ferry service operator finally gave up. I knew this because I lived near Fort Bonifacio and worked in Binondo around that time and I did try taking the ferry service to work for a number of times.  I still shudder at the thought of what commuters had to endure during the hour and half it took the ferry to navigate the murky waters of the Pasig River from Makati to Manila.  The idea was resurrected a couple of years ago. Once again, there was initial interest in the ferry service.  But the same thing happened; commuter patronage of the service eventually diminished.  The service was eventually discontinued.  Here’s why.
First, because the river is so filthy and the stench so powerful. It sticks to one’s clothes that  inhaling toxic fumes and getting stuck in traffic along Metro Manila roads is a more tolerable punishment.  Boarding up the windows and making the ferry boats air-conditioned seem like a good solution except that there is something incongruous about riding a boat and not feeling whiplashed by fresh air.  Besides, glass windows do not really alter the many advanced signs of decay that just seem more pronounced along the banks of the Pasig River.
Second, I am not sure if there are statistics that say traversing the Pasig River is safer than the negotiating the extreme obstacle course that characterizes our roads but it seems one’s chances of survival are higher on land than on murky waters.  It is a psychological factor—but who wants to experience flailing around in those waters? What parent will gladly allow his or her kids to use the ferry service?
Third, because traffic in Metro Manila is a seasonal thing.  There are days when traffic on our roads comes to a complete standstill but there are also days when it seems everyone decided to either stay home or be more disciplined on the road.  Also, traffic does lighten up during weekends and when schoolkids are on vacation so there goes the business aspect of the ferry service. 
The proposed revival of the Pasig ferry service is an idea that is doomed to fail—again—unless our government addresses certain environmental factors first. 
But the idea is not beyond salvaging.  I am sure that the ferry service would work if government offers it for free to commuters.  If people don’t have to cough up hard-earned money, people will ignore the stink of the river or the depressing sight all around.  If we subsidize cost of fares in mass transport systems such as in the MRT/LRT and in the PNR trains and increase the number of trips, there will be less people cramming into jeepneys and buses.  The lines at the train stations will be longer, but will find less reason to complain.
Seriously, folks.  Instead of wasting precious resources on traffic management programs that don’t work, we should just use the money by providing direct services that will take people off the roads.   The more people we take off our gridlocked roads and into alternative transport systems, the better for everyone.  Yes, it is going to cost government; but the cost can be recovered by additional tax revenues produced by efficiencies that result from less gridlock on our roads.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

State of unpreparedness

This is my column today, March 9, 2014.


A major development that is about to happen in a few months that very few people seem to know, or at least care about, is the impending Asean integration in 2015.  Yes, we are following the European model, which gave birth to the European Union and we’re supposed to begin the integration in a few months.  I know what you are thinking:  Why haven’t we heard a squeak from our leaders about it?
While the integration is not expected to immediately make major direct impact on our lives, the implications of eventually being part of one economic, security, and social community are quite staggering.  Obviously, the ten countries that comprise the Asean (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) are not on equal footing on various indices.  Given the fact that some of our neighbors are already galloping way ahead of us on various measures of competitiveness, how do we ensure that the Asean integration does not unnecessarily bring us serious disadvantages?  Put another way, how do we ensure that there is inclusive growth for all?
The sad thing is that regardless of our level of preparedness (or the dismal lack of it), there really is no turning back now.   The Asean integration has been on the table for quite some time now and countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have already prepared long and hard for it. They are ready.  And true to form, we have not even gotten our act together yet.  We’re not talking yet about how exactly do we position ourselves in the Asean community; we’re still stuck in the discussion about whether we should join or not, as if not joining is an option.  Last I looked, most of our leaders seemed to still be in denial about our lack of options. 
Let’s take for instance this wrinkle about adjusting our academic calendar to that of our neighbors.  The more strategic thinkers have immediately seen the wisdom and necessity of conforming to the Asean norm.  Changing our calendar to align with our neighbors is really the practical and wise thing to do.  We’re the only one that has a different academic schedule – one that is already problematic as it is because it happens to start right when the rainy season starts and when typhoons begin their annual visitation to our islands.  But as usual, Philippine democracy must be practiced, which means that every stakeholder must be consulted and everyone who happens to be holding a microphone and has access to media is considered an expert.  And as can be expected, most cannot help but debate and go into analysis paralysis.  Someone made a big argument of the alleged futility of adjusting our academic calendar to that of say, Thailand and Singapore, since he said the number of exchange students or faculty members between the Philippines and these countries is minimal anyway.  In his excitement, he seemed to have momentarily forgotten that the misalignment of academic calendars is precisely one of the reasons why exchange programs won’t work.  
There are days when I do wish that we have a way of making our leaders pay for wrong decisions that unfortunately set us back - sometimes too far back.  Unfortunately, many among our leaders do need to have a serious reality check.  Many have a misplaced sense of our collective importance to the world; they think that the world should adjust to us, that we continue to hold sway over our neighbors, or that we are somehow insulated from external factors.  I cringe every single time someone insists that we’re better off than our neighbors in many areas.  Hard, irrefutable data just do not support that assertion.  We’re not up there anymore among the top three or four countries in Asean in terms of overall competitiveness.  In most competitiveness indicators, we rank lower than Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.  Horrifyingly, we even rank lower than Vietnam in a few indicators.
I am not saying we should simply roll over, surrender, and not put up a decent fight.  But there’s a whole lot of difference between accepting the cards we are dealt with and focusing on how to play the game and simply staying out of the game because we think we are made of better stuff.  Amor propio just does not win points in today’s competitive world.   
And really, seriously... we need to start getting our act together for the Asean integration.  It’s really about time government unveils whatever plans it has to ensure that we are fully prepared to compete and win when Asean becomes one community, which starts happening next year.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Tacloban dancers' message of hope and thanks


This is my column today, March 4, 2014.
It’s always great to hear bits and pieces of good news emanating from my hometown, Tacloban City, after hearing nothing but heartbreaking news for months since the supertyphoon struck last November.
We all knew in our hearts that Tacloban would rise again, and not just because Taclobanons are resilient people, but because there are many people all over the world who are reaching out and doing all they can to help.  I know this has been said many times and in various ways, but I will say it again:  Thank you, thank you to everyone all over the world who joined the massive outpouring of help for Yolanda victims.
Tacloban City, and the other towns in Leyte and Samar, however, continue to need all the help they can get.  Although conditions are getting better every week, the painful process of rehabilitation and rebuilding continues. In a few weeks it will be graduation season and I can only imagine the pain that many will feel when they note the significant reduction in the number of graduates in many schools. Yes, many of those we lost in the raging waters caused by the storm surge were children.
But as they say, life goes on.  And many kids in Tacloban are trying to get on with their lives and their pursuit of a better future. 
I heard last week that one of Leyte’s top dance companies, the Leyte Dance Theatre, was not only back on its feet but preparing for its nth series of shows in the United States.  This is a bit of great news because LDT’s dance studio was among those badly destroyed by the supertyphoon.  In addition, the group’s dancers were all affected - many of them lost family members, their homes, and important belongings.  Rehearsals and going on a performance tour would probably be the last thing in their minds after what happened.  I know this because I know quite a number of them.  I have been supporting the group in whatever way I can because the members are mostly students from average-income families and the group does a great job of preserving and celebrating Waray culture through dance. 
But then again, dancing and performing can also be great therapy.  And the staggering force behind LDT, danseur and choreographer par excellence Jess de Paz (who also happened to be my sociology professor in college) knows this too well, after having mentored numerous dancers through many years and after kindling and nurturing the growth of LDT through many ups and downs and all kinds of struggles and difficulties in the last 20 years.  Ensuring the continued survival and growth of a dance company in one of the least developed regions in the country is a herculean task and de Paz is still at it despite having reached retirement age because he looks at it as a mission.
I have written about this many times in this space (and in my Sunday column in this paper): The arts is not usually given the attention it rightfully deserves in this country for many reasons.  We’re a developing country and many among our leaders think that the arts is something we can do without (has President Benigno S. Aquino ever sat through a play or a performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines or elsewhere?).  But we cannot do without the arts because without it, we would not have a soul as a people and as a country. And probably because we’re innately talented as a people, most of us seem to think that our gifts do not need to be nurtured or celebrated or supported.  Heck, there remains tens of thousands of talented Filipinos waiting to be discovered on Youtube. 
But there are groups like LDT and people like de Paz who soldier on despite overwhelming odds.  Thankfully, there are people all over the world who allow them to do what they do because they do it so well. And so, from April until June this year, LDT will go around the United States to perform for various groups in a series of fund-raising shows intended to help Yolanda’s victims in Leyte.  This is the sixth time since 1997 that LDT will be performing around the USA.  This time around, LDT will be performing around California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. 
I hope the new members of LDT will be granted visas by the US embassy so they can continue bringing a glimpse of Filipino culture and sending our message of gratitude to everyone in the US who supported us through the worst natural disaster to hit our country.  We’re crossing our fingers that the US embassy in Manila would appreciate what LDT is trying to do and give the kids of LDT the opportunity to continue performing for a global audience and at the same time, allow them the much-needed chance to heal.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Peddling a hoax


The first thing that hit me while watching the February 24 ABS-CBN late-night news report on the supposed “mysterious disease” caused by a “flesh-eating” bacteria that was allegedly spreading like an epidemic in Pangasinan was that the whole reportage was too dramatic to be taken seriously. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction, but truth seldom comes packaged in modern-day theatrical ways. Most often than not, truth comes in stark simplicity.
The ABS-CBN report was too scripted for comfort and seemed more like a documentary feature than a news report. The reporter Jasmin Romero was wearing a surgical gown and a mask although she still didn’t look like she was in danger of contracting something as common as, well, the common colds. The interviews and the shots of the patients and their families showed tell-tale signs of directing—the technical crew obviously had lots of time to block, rewrite, and reshoot. The background information provided on the two patients, their families, and their situations tended to focus on their deprivations; I half-expected to hear some sappy orchestral music playing in the background as musical score while the patients and their family members recited their litany of woes. The footages were too graphic, and some of the allegations (such as worms and ants allegedly coming out of the lesions) were clearly meant to shock rather than inform and educate. No sir, the whole thing didn’t come off as newsworthy.
The more analytical would also note the obvious lack of empirical facts in the story to merit credibility. How can two measly cases be considered an epidemic? And there was obviously no outbreak as the relatives of the two patients, who unlike Romero were not wearing protective gears, were clearly uninfected with the skin disorders.
But if - as ABS-CBN newsreader Julius Babao intoned - the item was really a piece of breaking news, the reportage should have had urgency and alarm written all over it. But as it turned out, it looked like a poorly-researched segment for, say, Ted Failon’s public affairs show, that someone in the news department picked up and given a sensationalist spin. Someone in ABS-CBN clearly made a monumental gaffe and others seemed to have allowed that person to run amuck with the story.
Unfortunately, it seems not too many people in this country are naturally suspicious or cynical. It does seem like we truly are a country of gullible people. I didn’t give the news story credence because I have seen a couple or two special reports on National Geographic that narrated the travails of people with rare skin diseases—I even saw that feature on a hapless woman that had advanced psoriasis—nails were growing on many parts of her body like scales. But apparently many people did give the ABS-CBN story credence and promptly went into full panic mode. A digital file of the newscast was the most forwarded video the following day. By lunch time, the story had started to spiral out of control and more flourishes have been added to the original story.
ABS-CBN promised a continuation of the report in which the reporter was supposed to establish a link between the two cases and the recent prophesies of self-titled prophet Vincent Selvakumar who predicted that a flesh-eating disease would spread from Pangasinan to the world. But public uproar, particularly in social networking sites, seemed to have armed ABS-CBN with a social conscience so the story was not only taken down its website, a public apology (or what was passed off as one) was issued.
One can always cast doubts on the sincerity of media networks, but the incident clearly illustrated just how easy it is for people to believe media reports, even those that are clearly spurious. This has been said more eloquently by others, but seriously folks, how does something nonsensical and alarmist such as the report on the “supposed epidemic” get through a battery of editors, production managers, hosts and newsreaders, and directors? More importantly, why did it take so long for ABS-CBN to withdraw the story and issue an apology?
At the same time, the incident clearly illustrated just how easy it is for people to believe news reports. Even when government authorities had already declared the supposed epidemic a hoax, there remained individuals who insisted that something sinister was afoot and that a conspiracy was in the works. In this country, media are more credible than government. This is why media must practice responsible journalism and broadcasting. We cannot afford a repeat of what happened.
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Because I am running out of space I will keep this simple and direct to the point: Please watch Repertory Philippines’ latest production August: Osage County. We caught a screening of the play last Friday and were enthralled by the brilliance of the material and the excellent staging. The whole cast led by Baby Barredo and Pinky Amador was stunning. There’s a movie version of the Pulitzer winning play and it stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. The movie has been gaining some buzz in the run-up to this year’s Oscars (where Streep is nominated again for outstanding performance. I would advise you to catch the play first before the movie gets shown on local theaters.