Sunday, June 29, 2014

What national interest?

This is my column today, June 29, 2014. 

Having been reared by women– an aunt, a grandmother, and a yaya – who were diehard Noranians, I wasn’t surprised by the howl and the resentment created by the President’s decision to deny Nora Aunor the title of National Artist.  I grew up fully aware of Aunor’s magic among the masses, and consequently, learned to appreciate her immense talent as an artist.  She was and continues to be a cultural phenomenon by virtue of the fact that she rose to an exalted position on sheer talent, guts, and intuition alone – she wasn’t schooled and her talent wasn’t honed by academic discipline.  She also broke the mould of what a movie queen was supposed to be.  To many, therefore, she is the embodiment of what comprises a real Filipino artist.  The Presidential snub was therefore personal as it negated their personal choice and preferences.
When I became actively involved in theatre and in the arts, I was exposed to many more intellectuals and professionals who did not fit the stereotype of what comprised a Noranian but who were, nonetheless, unquestionably convinced that Aunor’s gifts as an actress were unparalleled.  Aunor’s status as the Filipino superstar may have waned through the years because of her many frailties as a person, but this has not diminished the respect and recognition of her talent and her contributions to Philippine cinema and the arts.   The many articles written by national artists and by many pillars of the arts in this country establish Aunor’s qualification to become national artist on grounds artistic merit.  I still have to meet anyone who questions the inclusion of Aunor’s name among those worthy of the title of National Artist.
The Presidential snub is therefore incomprehensible and indefensible.  And this is proven by the fact that to this day, no one among the bright boys in the palace has been able to given a cogent and sensible explanation why the President stripped Aunor of the honor and title.  Truth be told, the President’s apologists have been reduced to blabbering idiots who mouth nonsensical generic answers every single time they are grilled on the matter. 
The question that has been raised is so stark in its simplicity:  What was the reason why the President refused to confer the title of National Artist on Aunor despite the recommendations of the two bodies that were authorized by law to take care of the selection process?  No one has been able to make a direct answer; even the usually effusive Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma has been reduced to making trite responses about how the President action was within the bounds of law and dictated by the national interest.  Secretary Coloma, no one is saying the President’s decision was illegal – the question that begs an answer is “why?”  People want to know what national interest would be endangered by declaring Aunor a national artist.
And so we are left with the conjectures.  The prevailing opinion is that Aunor was snubbed on moral grounds, which rankles not only because moral fitness it is not part of the criteria but because it’s an area nobody is qualified to become ultimate judge of; so much so that the matter is not even part of the qualifications for the highest post in the land.
The controversy has once again illustrated the extent to which our current leaders are detached from and oblivious to the real sentiments and issues of the people.  Many have repeatedly raised the issue of the utter lack of emotional intelligence of the people in the current administration; this latest controversy has validated that lack of empathy and moral superiority are truly two of the more obvious manifestations of the malady. 
But there are two things that bother me the most about this controversy.  It’s really not about declaring Aunor a national artist anymore, although it is obvious that her exclusion for this year’s batch of national artists represents a major injustice.  First, it has become apparent that we haven’t really learned anything from the last National Artist debacle.  Second, that the process of choosing national artists remains embroiled in dirty politics. 
We all expected that after the national embarrassment created by the deletion and addition of names by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, our leaders have become wiser and would henceforth respect the process and the expert opinions of the respective boards and committees who have been empowered by law to take care of the selection process.  It is apparent that artists in this country remain subject to the whims and caprices of the powers that be.  It’s a shame that our leaders mouth words like freedom, respect for law, and democracy and claim to be vanguards of these concepts and yet make a mockery of these under the guise of protecting national interest.  So perhaps the student who was arrested in Naga for disrupting the President’s Independence Day speech was right after all.  Nothing has changed in this administration.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Much ado about garlic

This is my column today, June 22, 2014. 

There it was in the news.
For almost a whole week, we were treated to various discourses on the economics and politics of what has seemingly become a matter of national import.
The newscasts bannered the news of the shortage and the subsequent spiraling of its prices. Television reporters and crew swooped down on public markets to search for the elusive commodity, like it was gold.  Housewives lamented publicly about the adverse effect of adding a few pesos into their weekly budgets to cover the sudden spike it its price.  Restaurant and eatery owners talked about how they were coping with the problem; some talked about the creative and innovative things they were doing to cope while others delivered sob stories. Economists talked about the market factors that made a grave impact on the supply and demand of the missing commodity.  Ideologues screamed about the need for stronger government action to protect the rights of farmers and consumers.  Cabinet officials felt obliged to deliver intellectual discourses on the factors that caused the shortage and tried to deflect the criticism that the President was not doing enough on the matter.
The subject of all the frenzied discussion was the erstwhile ignored vegetable or herb that is garlic.  
Was it just me or was anyone else out there bothered, amused, and bewildered by the shortage of garlic, the consequent spiraling of its price in public markets, and the seemingly insane attention devoted to both developments by media and our leaders? 
And it wasn’t even a week when everything was all right in the political or global scene.  For one, there was the impending arrest and detention of three popular (or infamous, depending on where one sits on the political divide) lawmakers that was playing out in public like a sordid telenovella.  China and the Philippines upped the ante on the game of one-upmanship in the West Philippine Sea. Trouble was brewing in Iraq, and as expected, resulting in a number of overseas Filipino workers being caught in the middle; it seems there is always a Filipino caught in the crossfire anywhere in the world.  The World Cup had just started in Rio de Janeiro.
And there we were, debating and screaming our heads off over garlic. 
I know garlic is a common ingredient in practically every dish that is served in every dining table in this country.  It’s in every Filipino recipe – from paksiw to arroz caldo to pinakbet to embutido.  I am aware that there’s a whole cottage industry built around the alleged medicinal properties of the herb.  And then there’s the supposed potency of garlic in warding off aswang and evil spirits. 
I am not saying that the shortage and the spiraling of prices weren’t newsworthy.  But being witness to how these were turned into a national issue and a springboard for a major discussion on economics and politics was a bit disconcerting. 
Is our situation really that dire that we’re now experiencing shortage of something that used to be so commonplace one could easily find garlands of the stuff kilometers long in our national highways?  Or perhaps we’ve really become so reactionary that we’ve learned to turn every single issue into a major crisis? 
A friend who is prone to believing conspiracy theories told me the issue was probably a smokescreen designed to take focus out of the more pressing national issues.  Of course I thought he was joking, but he sounded so convinced.  Thankfully, the issue simmered down somehow as if we simply imagined the whole thing.  And I am told it wasn’t because government finally found a way to stabilize supply and demand; more like because our pundits simply moved on to other stories and ordinary consumers realized the spiraling of prices was not going to be helped by joining in the fray anyway.  In short, we all just realized everyone over-reacted.  As usual.
The question is:  What is it going to be about next time?  Onions?  Salt? Lemons?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The congressman as coach

This is my column today, June 17, 2014.

We all allow Emmanuel Manny Pacquiao a lot of leeway on account of the fact that he is the national boxing champ.  He has brought honors to the country, although it can be argued that there is so much to be desired insofar as his behavior and performance outside of the boxing ring is concerned.  Although he has supposedly turned his back on a number of vices that included gambling, drinking, and womanizing when he became a born-again Christian, he has also sadly turned into a Bible-thumping zealot and homophobe. 
But because he is Manny Pacquiao, the boxing champ that is adored by many, we choose to see beyond his many imperfections including the giant ego and the seeming predilection to make rash judgment.
It was confirmed last week that Pacquiao would be the Head Coach of Team Kia, the newest basketball team in the Philippine Basketball Association. 
I am not qualified to judge Pacquiao’s qualification to become a basketball coach, although as a human resource management professional I strongly advocate that people be appointed to high profile posts on the basis of proven competencies.  I know that Pacquiao plays basketball, but I am sure there are many athletes out there who are better players, who are more qualified to become Head Coach of a PBA team, and more importantly, who need the job more than Pacquiao. 
Unfortunately, Pacquiao’s status as a national boxing champ, his immense popularity particularly with the Philippine masa, and his clout in Philippine society as a sports icon and an elected congressman, are factors that are bound to catapult a new basketball team into the league of the more popular sports teams.  So, it’s a good business decision.  It’s probably also good for the PBA as the presence of Pacquiao in the court will probably translate into more attention, interest, and viewership.
Unfortunately, it’s not good for Congress, and ultimately, for the Filipino people.  We already look the other way when Pacquiao misses sessions in Congress while he trains for his boxing matches.  We know that his boxing gets in the way of the performance of his duties as congressman.
But what does it say of us if we allow Pacquiao to assume the post of Head Coach of a PBA team knowing fully well that the job is also a full-time job?  Even granting for the sake of argument that Pacquiao have powers of bilocation and that he can actually do both at the same time, there’s still the matter of his stature as a duly elected member of Congress.  As it is, it’s already bad enough that we see a member of Congress being reduced to a bloody pulp in the boxing ring twice a year; do we really have to watch Congressman Pacquiao being roundly booed by Barangay Ginebra fans or making wrong calls and decisions in full view of millions of basketball fans?
I think there should be limits to the extent to which elected representatives are allowed to make utter fools of themselves. 
Of course lawyers will always find a way to get around laws in this country, but I believe that there is potential conflict of interest particularly if Pacquiao is paid professional fees for performing his duties as Head Coach.  He would be performing two full time jobs in addition to his endorsements, his boxing matches, his television shows, etc.  Which one is his real job?
And then there is the matter of what his appointment as Head Coach means in terms of the qualification standards for basketball coaches in this country.  Does this mean anyone—as in anyone as long as that person has popularity and clout—can be appointed coach in the PBA? 
Those who think that the PBA is just a tournament and basketball is just a simple ball game in this country needs to wake up and undergo a reality check.  There’s a reason why big business is involved and why there is a commission that regulates the games.  In this country, basketball is not just a game.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cinematic arrest and detention

This is my column today, June 10, 2014. 
Are Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Bong Revilla Jr going to be arrested and put behind bars anytime soon?  And if they are, how and where will they be arrested?  And more important for many people, particulary for those who are passionate about putting a stop to this predilection of putting powerful people on hospital arrest or on vacation houses, where will the three senators be taken after their arrest?
There’s a clamor to have the three senators arrested within the grounds of the Senate of the Philippines, perhaps even during or in the middle of a session, and then hauling them to an ordinary jail where they would suffer all the kinds of deprivation a third-world jail offers from cramped cells, to unbearable heat, to lack of decent facilities.  The argument is that people in power should not really be given special treatment, particularly if they are accused of stealing gazillions of money from the public coffers.
Someone I know has even imagined the whole scenario, complete with musical scoring and set design.  He imagined soldiers in full regalia marching down the session hall of the Senate in the process interrupting a heated discussion, and amidst vigorous protests from senators about the need to respect the independence of the Senate and its stature as the bastion of freedom and liberty, the three senators are handcuffed, they are read their Miranda rights, and are then unceremoniously dragged out of the Senate halls, shoved into police cars, all the while being trailed by television cameras and journalists who broadcast the whole indignity live to millions of people.
I know. Our sense of reality has been seriously warped by telenovellas who bring dead people to life, make courtrooms throb with excitement, and enable the average person to articulate cinematic dialogues.  We wish real life would be as satisfying.
A more realistic expectation is a voluntary surrender for the three senators, brokered by individuals with pretensions of being this country’s senior statesmen.  In short, one cannot discount the possibility that backroom negotiations are, in fact, already underway and that someone has already scripted a scenario that is acceptable, or advantageous, to as many people as possible.
 Having the three senators arrested is easier; getting them convicted is the more difficult part.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three are eventually declared not guilty.  Very often in this country, justice is already considered achieved once people spend time in jail—or in some form of deprivation and isolation.  Take the case of the supposed perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre—the fact that they are already in jail while being tried in a special court is being hailed as a commensurate measure of success.  In some people’s minds, these people are supposed to end up in jail if they get convicted—and that’s where they are now, anyway.  Unfortunately, the whole setup creates underdogs.  We all know what happens to underdogs —they get public sympathy and get re-elected into office eventually.
I would prefer that the Ombudsman first build a tight case that would guarantee conviction.  Contrary to public opinion, we don’t have problems jailing people in this country.  But we do have problems declaring them guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
* * *
The piece of news that is being anticipated by the artistic community is the President’s announcement of the new batch of National Artists.  It’s been quite sometime since the last batch of national artists were declared.  It’s long overdue.  I think most everyone in this country who are literate can understand the need to validate the lifelong contributions of certain prominent and deserving artists to strengthening the collective soul of the nation. 
From what I gathered from my friends in the artistic circuit, the President has already approved the declaration of new national artists except that the announcement is being kept in abeyance due to a possible controversy.  Apparently, the Filipino superstar, Nora Aunor, has been stricken off the list due to supposed “moral” issues.  The move is expected to draw flak—as it should.   Nowhere in the qualifications for national artist does it say that someone has to be lily white in reputation to qualify for the distinction.  Quite frankly, this administration is inviting trouble with the exclusion of Aunor in the running.  To many, she is the embodiment of Philippine cinema.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Endless cycle

This is my column today, June 8, 2014.

In the last few days the weather bureau has been telling people in Metro Manila to prepare for the onslaught of rains.  We are told that the rainy season is supposed to officially begin anytime this week, or this weekend, or next week; I’m not really sure when anymore and I’m not sure our weather men know either.  I suspect that it’s not just because the ranks of meteorologists in the agency have been reportedly decimated by piracy courtesy of other countries who have offered decent wages and benefits; weather patterns are probably harder to track and predict today.  
In response to the clamor of many Filipinos who couldn’t stand another day of sweltering heat, our weathermen have been making all kinds of predictions about how thunderstorms and rains would be descending upon Metro Manila, but except for that freak downpour in some areas in Quezon City the other week, the rains have not materialized yet.
I can’t blame people for being impatient.  I’ve personally been looking forward to some respite from the very long and hot summer of 2014.  I am told that it’s been raining almost every day in some isolated parts of the country; but Mother Nature has seemingly decided to make people in Metro Manila and Luzon suffer from the heat just a little longer.
But then again, we do know that it’s just a matter of time before people the monsoon rains descend upon us.  In a few more weeks, people would start complaining about another kind of problem—massive flooding, monstrous traffic caused by heavy downpours, kids getting drenched to the bone because local officials and school administrators failed to suspend classes early, etc. 
We live in a country where conditions swing from one extreme to another and global warming has made things worse.  We just suffered what seemed like the hottest summer ever and I dread the thought of what the upcoming rainy season will be like - hopefully, not many Ondoy-like downpours this year.
Soon there will be water everywhere and the fears that we had just a few months ago as we watched the water levels at our dams dipped below critical levels would seem unfounded.
The truth is that the impending water crisis is real.  Just because most of the country get flooded at certain times of the year does not mean we can forget about water conservation. 
Water is not an inexhaustible resource.  Our water beds are drying up and there are many places in this country where wells dry up as soon as summer starts. 
Many countries have started to build water reservoirs under their highways and major structures such as gymnasiums.  They’ve also started to put in place serious water conservation and recycling efforts.  These are countries that are managing for the long-term; they are fully aware that decades from now, water would be an expensive commodity and would be a major burden to their economies. In countries like Singapore, for instance, they have water purifying and recycling systems.
Of course we’re not there yet.  Mother Nature has spoiled us with bountiful resources, including water, and most of us think that these resources will always be there.  Many among us waste a lot of water.  For instance, most people turn on the tap and let water flow continuously while brushing their teeth.  One of our neighbors use a hose and a sprinkler to water their plants including those in their second floor windows and veranda– it always looks like there was a major downpour in the neighborhood after they have watered their plants. In many towns and barrios, they have artesian wells where water flows endlessly 24/7 even when there are no users; a variation of this is the so-called “flowing systems” where communities install 40-feet pipes into the ground and allow water to burst from the pipe 24/7. This has replaced pneumatic pumps that required physical energy to draw water from the ground.
It’s difficult to teach people water conservation when they are surrounded by water.  This is an effort that requires strategic thinking and a systemic approach. Unfortunately, strategic thinking is not one of the strong suits of our leaders.
This means the cycle will continue.  In a few weeks or days, we will suffer from the destructive effects of a seeming oversupply of water.  And then after a  few months, we will be worrying about where to get our water supply.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Enough with the theatrics

This is my column today June 3, 2014. 

There has to be an objective, fair and less convoluted process to separate the proverbial chaff from the grain, the truth from the lies, in the ongoing national soap opera involving senators, congressmen, cabinet officials, fake non-government organizations, whistleblowers, and Janet Napoles. 
No one among our leaders has been sent to jail, condemned in public, or openly harassed on account of the fact that their precious names and their supposedly priceless reputations have been dragged across muck courtesy of the dreaded list, err, lists.  But at the rate our leaders are bellyaching and caterwauling in public, it would seem as if their hurt egos and the supposed slur on their precious names and reputations are the most important issues in the whole crisis.  Excuse me, senators, congressmen, and cabinet members, but the real victims here are the Filipino people, not yourselves.
I am not saying that people should not react with righteous indignation or vehement denials.  A simple denial and a commitment to set things straight at the right time and at the right venue is certainly called for.  A sober explanation, accompanied by an orderly presentation of facts to debunk files that are obviously inadmissible in court anyway, is probably a dignified way of responding to the issues.
I think many of our leaders are overreacting.  We’ve suddenly witnessed too many Miriam Defensor-Santiago wannabes threatening fire and brimstone and general mayhem. I get iffy everytime someone makes bold dramatic statements such as “congress being decimated” or “government felled on its knees” or “political systems crumbled ” by the Napoles scandal.  Oh sure, I agree that the kind of systemic corruption uncovered by the Napoles scandal is shocking, sickening, and disgusting.  But let’s get serious, we’ve dealt with far worse situations in the past and survived.  Congress will survive this.  In fact, I have a strong feeling many of those implicated will be able to successfully sterilize themselves and fling themselves once again on the voting populace. 
The problem is that everyone, most specially our leaders, are simply reacting to the issues.  No one, it seems, is in control of the situation.  No one - as in nada, zilch.   Certainly not Senate President Franklin Drilon who has suspiciously remained quiet as a mouse.  And certainly not the usually fiesty and ready-to-shoot-from-the-hips Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima.
The crying question that is in people’s minds is simple:  Who the heck is in charge here? What is the game plan to ferret out the truth?  How exactly is Janet Napoles going to be made accountable and when?  How come there is no special commission, or a special court, that has been formed exclusively for the multi-billion scandal if everyone is saying that it is the mother of all scandals?  If there are far too many lists, who will do an analysis and help the people appreciate the real facts so that they are not prone to political tactics?
Even the President has complained that “certain quarters” are muddling and complicating the issues by issuing irresponsible statements and documents. He has conveniently forgotten that it was his own cabinet members that leaked the lists and that many of his allies including those that are implicated in the Napolist are doing their own damage control activities, often issuing conflicting and convoluted statements.  Senator Alan Peter Cayetano has even produced a television ad and launched a full media campaign to counter the allegations and position himself as an anti-corruption crusader, contrary to what Janet Napoles and Benhur Luy claim.  Senators Chiz Escudero and Cynthia Villar, also allies of the President have issued vehement denials that were neither here nor there and did not give clear and credible argument that would make people believe that, yes, they cannot possibly be in cahoots with that Napoles woman.  As it is, the vigorous protestations only make many people believe in their guilt because as the saying goes, kung sino ang umaray, yun ang tinamaan.
We all want answers and the stark-naked truth.  We don’t want the theatrics and the dramatic confrontations; we want an organized, systematic, orderly, fair, sober, professional managing of the crisis. 
Enough already with the telenovela episodes.  It’s time for some serious and deliberate proactive response from our leaders.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Let the annual circus begin

This is my column today, June 1, 2014.
This column is a repeat of previous columns that I have written to mark what happens around this time of the year with stunning regularity: The bellyaching and screaming that coincides with the annual opening of classes.  It’s a ritual that we all go through every year.  
It begins around May when media networks announce which universities and schools are increasing tuition and by how much.  School fees are always increased annually because they are subject to market forces.  Obviously, operating expenses including salaries of teachers and administrative personnel go up every year and schools pass on the additional cost to students.  Amazingly enough, many people in this country are still able to summon righteous indignation at our universities and schools for supposedly being heartless and greedy and lambast the whole educational system – every year! 
Then it moves on to the search for cheaper school supplies and the many sob stories around how parents try to stretch their budget to be able to afford uniforms, notebooks, pens and crayons, and school bags.  It is always amusing when media people try to turn the whole thing into a class issue – how the rich shop in malls while the poor wrestle with everyone else at Divisoria as if the divide is that clearly delineated.  I know quite a number of rich people who also shop in Divisoria just as I know quite a number of lower-income people with highly specialized tastes—they think that a Mongol pencil bought at National Bookstore is of better quality compared to the same brand of pencil bought in a sari sari store. 
I know, though, that many politicians, local governments, and private institutions distribute school bags and school supplies to school children.  The problem is that for some strange reason the distribution always happens weeks after schools have opened and harassed parents have already bought school supplies.  I understand that organizations want to make sure that they distribute school supplies to kids that are actually enrolled in schools; but then again, if we really come to think about it, isn’t there value also if out-of-school kids actually find use for the school supplies at home to advance their own learning?  And then, there is the problem of the school bags carrying the name of the politician who supposedly spent for them.  I once visited the home of some relatives and found five of these school bags being used as storage for household odds and ends.  The kids didn’t want to use them because they didn’t want to be walking around carrying a bag that had the huge face of their mayor flashing his pearly whites.  I think families would appreciate the humanitarian gesture more if politicians and organizations don’t turn giveaways into advertising billboards.  I personally don’t have qualms using giveaway bags for as long as the name of the company or donors are not shamelessly splashed on them.
The whole annual frenzy comes to an emotional climax once the schoolyear officially opens and classes start.  Lo and behold, we become reacquainted with all the problems of our educational system.  This is when everyone becomes an expert on instructional technology,  classroom management, school administration, etc.  The lack of teachers, inadequacy of classrooms, lack of facilities, lack of books, etc, become stark realities once again and the whole country engages in collective blamestorming.  It is during this time when everything seems to be wrong with our educational system and the whole ineffectiveness and helplessness of our education officials are laid bare for everyone to gawk at.
Two weeks after, it appears as if all the problems magically vanishes into thin air, as if we simply imagined all of them!  
And this is why I tend to respond to the annual frenzy with a bit of disinterest.  I think we can best address the problems of the educational system if we actually discuss them objectively —without the circus that attends the annual opening of classes.  Better still, it would be best if we actually discuss the problems more strategically, taking into account the roots of the problems and with a view towards impelementing systemic and sustainable solutions.