Sunday, August 30, 2015

Real Solutions, please

My column, August 30, 2015 at The Standard.

It takes a lot before Filipinos snap.  Our capacity for patience and to forgive the inefficiency of public officials is legendary.  It took us more than two decades before we threw up our hands in the air in frustration over the sins of the conjugal dictatorship, and even allowed the family of the dictator to return to power eventually.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo lasted 10 years in office despite the supposed illegitimacy of her assumption to power and the many allegations of corruption involving her husband and her minions.   Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is now out of jail and back at the Senate despite being charged of plunder.  Many officials of the Aquino administration remain in office despite the mounting proof of inefficiency and ineptitude.  We’ve been complaining about the traffic situation in Metro Manila for quite some time now.  The response from our officials have ranged from the ridiculous (“it’s a sign of progress”), to dismissive (“it’s not fatal”).  Last Thursday, the President himself asked for more patience from everyone else and hinted of the return to the punitive odd-even scheme.
The reaction is typical of the insensitivity that has characterized the default reaction of government.  As usual, government is missing the point.  What people want are real solutions to the traffic situation—not another stop-gap measure.  Vehicle reduction through half-thought out schemes is a knee-jerk reaction; aside from it being anti-progress, it penalizes those who do not have the means to buy more vehicles.  It also shifts the effort of traffic enforcers to apprehending violators rather than helping move traffic along. There are more vehicles on the road because our mass public transportation system is completely unreliable.  I asked officemates and my students and most of them said they are forced to bring a car to work or to school because conditions at the MRT and LRT are subhuman.  If government brings back the odd-even scheme, how will employees come to work or students go to school?
Government has been quick to trumpet any sign of progress or development but has not adequately prepared for the consequences of development.  Of course there will be more cars on the road!  What we need are solutions that are strategic and comprehensive.  Even more important now, what we need from our leaders are genuine efforts to show sincerity and commitment to deal with the problem.
The long-term solutions will involve putting in place infrastructures and systems way ahead of time.  This means more effective and efficient mass public transportation systems.  The construction of the new LRT lines are taking so long and the purchase of those darned trains even longer.  Meanwhile, we have a Philippine National Railways train system that is basically a rolling coffin—why government has not maximized the use of the PNR trains is a question that baffles the mind.  More efficient traffic systems will have to be put in place such as better and functioning traffic lights and more effective ways of documenting traffic violations so that fines for violators are strictly enforced. Constructing more roads, skyways, overpasses, underpasses, tunnels in critical areas need to be programmed ahead of time. But there are a number of solutions that can be pursued quickly.   
First, construction activities on public roads must be strictly managed to ensure that these do not impede traffic unnecessarily.  In other countries, construction areas are fenced or even walled off to contain the construction activities.  In this country, contractors act as if everyone owes them a favor for some future convenience or benefit to be derived from their work.  The truth is that more lanes can be freed up for traffic if only contractors manage their activities with public convenience in mind —in most instances, lanes are blocked off simply because they have not cleaned up the debris, or they serve as parking for heavy equipment or stockpile area which can be done elsewhere.  In my neighborhood where a major public work is being done, streets have been closed off for two months already for no other reason other than sheer laziness or lack of strategic thinking on the part of the engineers—they just don’t care about anything else other than their jobs.
Second, improve the general quality of traffic enforcers.  The Metro Manila Development Authority must hire people who can apply some degree of critical thinking on their feet.  When traffic enforcers override traffic lights, they must make sure that they know the consequences of their actions—just because traffic seems to be moving in one direction does not mean they have succeeded in easing traffic, very often they just redirected it somewhere else.  Traffic enforcers who cannot be bullied and who can communicate should be preferred, not just people who stand there as a sentry.
Third, government must scale up public educational campaigns about discipline and the need for a collaborative approach to easing conditions on the road.  A major cause of traffic congestion is undisciplined drivers and the “me first” syndrome which results in clogged intersections.  People should be reminded constantly about the importance of traffic discipline and courtesy.  Part of this effort should be ensuring that people who are given driver’s licenses really know the rules on the road. 
Fourth, enforce the rules strictly, particularly on buses, trucks, and other vehicles with capacity to block traffic with just a bit of carelessness or minor error on the part of their drivers.  Most of the traffic on EDSA is caused by buses loading and unloading passengers at critical junctions.  Take out tricycles and other illegal vehicles on the road.  Strictly disallow parking even on side roads that serve as alternative roadways.
Fifth, sit down with all stakeholders to map out a comprehensive scheduling scheme that is mutually acceptable to all.  A four-day workweek or school week that is wisely spread from Monday to Friday and from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. may be costly in terms of electricity and other costs, but may help alleviate traffic congestion and help employees and students breathe better.
What we need are signs of serious and sincere thinking and effort; we need to see government being concerned and doing all that it can instead of the usual attempts to spread the blame around.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Breeding resentment

This was my column at The Standard August 25, 2015.
What can we make of the fact that the seeming display of conscientiousness on the part of some government officials has been met by a lot of howling? 
Two weeks ago, the initiative of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board to regulate application-based ride-sharing services such as Uber and Grab Taxi was met by virulent protests. This happened even when the agency made it clear that it really just wanted to guarantee the safety of the riding public and to ensure that the right taxes were paid by the entrepreneurs behind the new transport services scheme. 
And as we settled in for the three-day weekend, social networking sites were ablaze with fiery commentaries directed at the Bureau of Customs over the proposal to open balikbayan boxes to ensure that these are not being used to smuggle goods that would normally be subject to taxes.
In both cases, taxation was submitted as an issue.  It is a given that any discussion about taxes is bound to get an emotional response in this country.  Everyone agrees, of course, that taxation is the price people have to pay for the privilege of being called responsible citizens.  The problem is that most people believe they are already overtaxed; an assertion that is not entirely baseless given that the tax table for working people who are automatically subjected to withholding taxes is higher in this country compared to most of our neighbors. 
An even bigger problem is the perception that a huge chunk of taxpayers’ money is lost to corruption, or wasted on projects that are not necessary, or used to support the profligate lifestyles or advance the political careers of favored politicians.  So people do have a reason to balk when asked to pay more taxes. 
But what’s been riling people up is the fact that government seems more concerned with ensuring tax collection at the expense of more important considerations.  In the case of Uber and Grab Taxi, a transportation system that actually works even without government intervention!  More importantly, it’s a system that has provided a much better alternative to the poorly-run public transport system, which has increasingly become unreliable and unsafe despite regulatory oversight by government. 
In the case of the balikbayan boxes, the uproar is due to perceptions of government’s insensitivity to the situation of overseas Filipino workers, misplaced priorities, and well, mistrust in the people who run the Bureau of Customs. 
Any Filipino would know that those balikbayan boxes mean more than the goods they contain.  Those tins of Spam, packets of chocolates, bars of soap and pieces of apparel carry a lot of symbolism; we’re a people that likes rituals, channels affection and emotions through material things and through certain acts, and we find expression in the time-honored traditions of pasalubong, pabaon, and pabilin.  A balikbayan box not just a box of goodies, to the people at both ends of the system (sender and receiver) it represents fulfillment of a promise, or validation of one’s worth, or even a form of reassurance. 
Given the fact that OFWs are the ones that prop up this country’s economy, surely we can afford to give them a little break.  Allowing them and their families some privileges might be warranted.  Besides, the value of the goods smuggled through balikbayan boxes may not be really worth the effort; the resources could be spent more productively in pursuit of big ticket items such as luxury cars.  It’s basic Pareto Principle at work—why spend inordinate amount of effort on something that yields very little results?   There are more reasons to ditch the madcap idea.  It’s almost impossible to implement the proposal consistently thereby opening the system to accusations of favoritism and unfairness.  And there’s always the possibility of pilferage or corruption.
We can take some comfort in the fact that we have officials who seem to have the drive to implement programs that are unpopular.  One wishes, however, that the drive, the initiative, and the political will, be marshaled in support of programs that will truly make the most difference.   I think our leaders are wasting precious political capital at this crucial time on the eve of a national election on programs that showcase utter lack of strategic thinking and which breed resentment among the people.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lies and half-truths

This was my column on August 23, 2015
The campaign period for the 2016 elections has not officially started but that has not stopped a number of aspirants for certain elective positions from already unleashing their campaign propaganda on the electorate. We know that what these aspirants are doing is not illegal; they are not official candidates yet and precisely because the campaign period has not begun, the Commission on Elections has no jurisdiction over their political activities. But that doesn’t mean that their actions are ethical or moral.
To begin with, it is clearly indicative of blatant and shameless display of influence and resources.
Television ads cost a hell lot of money—the cost of a 30-seconder television advertisement shown repeatedly over a one-month period on primetime can reach hundreds of millions of pesos. Even if the candidate is independently wealthy, there still remains the question about how he intends to recover all that investment. Candidates aspire to be known as selfless individuals with qualities that would qualify them for sainthood but the fact of the matter is they are in it for a specific return of investment. It could be for monetary gain, which is why being in politics is also referred to as a career. It could also be part of efforts to consolidate power and influence in support of business, economic, or other family or individual interests.
The aspirants who are now flaunting their vast resources with those early campaign ads in TV or in various social networking sites are likewise contributing to increasing the inequities in our political system. Of course, expensive television ads do not guarantee victory as illustrated in the case of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s son who lost in the last senatorial elections despite having all those sleek ads. However, it puts ordinary people without economic resources at a clear disadvantage. This is why TV ads of politicians who used to be known as valiant champions against marginalization rankle; now that they are in a position of influence and power, they have become sellouts, turning their backs on their party-list background and advocacies. What a shame.
Everyone knows that the ads are political in nature and they are indicative of the intent to run for an elective post, but because the campaign period has not started yet and the specific positions these aspirants are aiming for are not advertised, there is no venue for anyone to officially question or challenge their assertions. Thus, aspirants can re-frame issues and bend the truth as much as they wish and get away with it.
But what is really infuriating about early propaganda is the manipulative way in which these are designed to condition the electorate into rethinking lies and half-truths.
For instance, I’ve come across propaganda that re-frames certain economic and historical data in an effort to make people believe that the country was better off during the Marcos dictatorship. This is pure arrant nonsense. I was already alive during the years of the dictatorship and I have very powerful and vivid recollection of the stark realities of those years.
There’s this yarn about how relevant experience is not a requirement for leadership positions. Again, this is hogwash. The only valid predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar or related capacity. There’s only one way to ascertain a person’s capability to deliver the requirements of a particular position, and that is to examine track record or analyze behaviors actually displayed in the past. Potentials are nice to have, but they are not predictors of the desired performance.
And what about those ads that shamelessly package certain aspirants as exemplars of selflessness with more than enough qualities to make them candidates for sainthood? Please. If these people are truly who they claim to be, there is no need to come up with sleek ads—actual critical incidents, unsolicited testimonials, actual documentation culled from reliable sources, and word of mouth would be more credible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Medical marijuana

My August 18, 2015 column.
As can be expected in a country where people in positions of authority and influence make the mistake of assuming that being able to hold themselves up to a higher moral standard gives them license to assert superiority over others, the issue of legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes was bound to encounter major hurdles.  There’s a lot of stigma associated with the use of marijuana for recreational purposes that most cannot imagine how something that’s illegal, immoral, and supposedly harmful could be allowed as medicine for the sick!
Just to clarify, it must be pointed out that medical marijuana is not prescribed as a cigarette.  It’s important to point this out because there have been people who have been fulminating about the evils of allowing the sick to smoke marijuana.  Medical marijuana involves extracting oil from the herb and mixing it with food.
One of the groups behind the initiative to legalize medical marijuana, a group of mothers fighting for the rights of children with Dravet Syndrome  was even publicly ridiculed by Senator Vicente Sotto.  The senator accused the mothers of having possibly caused the medical condition of their children.  Sotto surmised that the medical condition of the kids may have been caused by the fact that their mothers probably used marijuana when they were pregnant, a sweeping accusation not only bereft of any scientific basis but also indicative of grave prejudice.  Dravet syndrome is a rare case of epilepsy that cannot be controlled by medication; there have been documented cases in the country where kids with the syndrome suffered from as high as 300 seizures a week.  Those who have witnessed someone experience an epileptic seizure knows just how physically, emotionally, and psychologically debilitating it can be; imagine what it must be like for a mother to have to see her child having a seizure almost every two hours—and then get blamed by a senator for causing the suffering on the child.
Some hospitals in the United States have been using marijuana to treat children with the syndrome; they have produced encouraging results.  Marijuana has also been used extensively as palliative measure among terminally ill patients although its use as medical treatment has remained controversial.  Many continue to oppose the initiative for ethical, moral, and even scientific reasons. 
Families of patients, particularly those who are suffering from terminal illnesses, see hope in medical marijuana, not just as possible cure but as a means to reduce the pain that patients experience.  I had a friend who had terminal cancer and who used marijuana to dull the pain. 
Many see desperation in the efforts to push for the use of medical marijuana arguing that the impetus may be driven more by emotions.  However, it is difficult to argue with those who see it as a means of managing pain and discomfort.  Even the Catholic bishops’ group, in a move that surprised many, indicated their support for the use of medical marijuana “when all other options have been explored.”  The position of the bishops which was released over the weekend was cloaked in gobbledygook, but it basically advocated compassion for those who are suffering.
One wishes our doctors had the same insight, particularly that bit about having compassion for those suffering.  The various medical associations in the country went to town last week registering their opposition to House Bill 4477, filed by Rodolfo Albano III of Isabela, which seeks to legalize the use of medical marijuana.  Our doctors basically squelched the idea on the grounds that there is not enough scientific basis for the measure.  The Philippine Medical Association said the country does not have the capacity to conduct large-scale clinical trials to determine the efficacy of medical marijuana.  There are those who see politics behind the position of the medical community—legalizing medical marijuana would have disastrous consequences to the bottomline of drug companies, which spends for most of the representational and recreational needs of doctors in this country. 
My objection to the position of the medical community, however, is based on philosophical grounds.  I’ve always thought that medical and professional associations exist primarily as thought leaders—their main job is to push the frontiers of science.  The job of professionals and associations is to go where no one else has gone, to discover new things.  Thus, it is rather incongruous for professional medical associations to take on the position that a possible cure should not be pursued because it has not been studied yet.  It’s like saying doctors in this country have no brains and scientific rigor.  I am not saying that doctors should make prescriptions and recommendations indiscriminately —all I am saying is that the answer should not be a flat out “No”; they owe it to themselves, their professions, and to science to say “let’s give the matter serious consideration.” A more proactive response is to create the impetus for more rigorous studies rather than categorically denying the initiative.
The problem with the issue of medical marijuana is that there is a lot of static that confuses and confounds; and people do get preoccupied with these, rather than focus on the core issues.  In this particular case, it is about hope and compassion for people who are terminally ill. 
Unfortunately, as has been proven many times over, there remains no cure for closed minds.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tower of Babel

My August 16, 2015 column.

Like many others, I await with bated breath the decision of the Supreme Court on the Torre de Manila case. It’s a landmark case for many reasons, foremost of which is that it has turned culture and heritage conservation into a legal issue whose ultimate resolution has been put in the hands of a select few. Everyone is hoping, of course, that the honorable court would render a decision that not only resolves the long-simmering issue but also provides wise counsel that is comprehensible and acceptable to all stakeholders. Achieving the latter, of course, would be almost impossible given that the opposing parties in the case have already dug deep trenches to fortify their respective positions; as far as each party is concerned, theirs is the only correct position. Thus, any decision of the honorable court would be met by great jubilation, or alternately, great disappointment and consternation by either side.
So will the honorable judges of the highest court in the land find merit in the arguments of the culture activists who want developer DMCI Holdings to tear down the almost-complete 46-storey residential building because it mars the sightline of the historic Rizal Monument in Luneta Park, or will it side with DMCI which has consistently maintained the construction of the tower has not violated any law and that destroying the tower would send a chilling message to business and industry? Will culture and history get vindicated or will business and industry prevail?
I have refrained from commenting on the Torre de Manila issue because I was honestly taken aback by the rather intractable position both parties have taken on the issue. I understand the stakes are just too high. On the part of DMCI, we’re talking billions of pesos that would go down the drain – and possibly lawsuits from those who have bought units in the tower, as well as a number of reputational risks. On the part of culture activists, it is preservation of national heritage. But I maintain that a win-win solution could have been reached very early on if people were proactive and collaborative.
I am also for culture and heritage preservation (and I have staunchly supported a number of efforts in this regard), but I have always been turned off by advocacies that engage in demonization. To my mind, the possibility of enlightened debate is unfortunately killed when people start demonizing those on the opposite side of an argument. At the same time, I have been alarmed by the seeming insensitivity that DMCI has displayed all this time. Surely, DMCI has realized the Torre de Manila is not just an “issue” - it happens to be a tangible and fixed monstrosity that will not disappear from the public eye. It will stand there – a constant source of aggravation to many.
Thus, all creative solutions that have offered have been dismissed almost contemptuously by both parties. There were suggestions to make the darn building complement the Rizal Monument such as painting it over with the Philippine flag or with other designs. Someone proposed turning the monument around so that the national hero would have its back toward the building. Others have suggested lowering the height of the tower. Still others have suggested building some artistic structures within the park behind the monument so the tower is obscured when taking pictures from the monument. There were many more suggestions, all of which have been immediately dissed. Of course none of the suggestions were perfect solutions, but it would not have hurt anyone to project the attitude that they were open to working together to solve the problem. Like I said, we all know that the stakes were too high for both sides, but surely nationalism and patriotism is also about respecting the interests of other Filipinos?
Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court on the case will be, there are certain lessons that can already be drawn from the whole imbroglio. Quite frankly, the response of the culture activists and the government agencies concerned were not only late, it was also slow. It was also inadequate. It was like they waited for the tower to reach a certain height before they got their acts together, pretty much the way they begin caterwauling only when the demolition teams have already arrived at the scene to tear down national heritage structures. If they really are serious about their advocacies, a more proactive and strategic plan of action – such as getting our legislators to pass stringent laws and doing a comprehensive information campaign that would rally people to action - would be preferable to late-minute screeching. Business organizations need to be more sensitive to cultural issues because truly there are more important considerations than money in this country; having the law on one’s side does not constitute license to disrespect sensibilities of others. 
But above all, everyone must realize that nationalism is a concept that needs constant kindling and nurturing. Everyone seems concerned with how the tower would photobomb the national shrine, but not about the fact that the ideals, teachings, and works of the national hero seem irrelevant and alien to most of our young. Many were concerned about how the tower will mar the vista of a park they would not dare spend time in because doing so is beneath their social class. There are many more proactive manifestations of concern for cultural and national heritage sites other than liking status messages in social networking sites, starting with actually visiting these sites, patronizing businesses that support them, or just simply learning more about them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Air traffic congestion

My August 12, 2015 column.
I had to travel to Davao City last Friday to attend a family affair.  My flight was at 7:40pm.  I had already checked in through the web to ensure a seat and left for the airport very early.  The two-kilometer ride to the airport from Pasay City took an excruciating one hour and a half, thanks to the bedlam around the airport terminals caused by the construction activities in the area.  I made it to the airport with barely enough time for a quick bite.  Sadly, all that rushing was for naught.  The flight was delayed for almost two hours.  The culprit:  Air traffic congestion.   We arrived in Davao at almost 11:00 PM.
The trip back to Manila was even worse.  Our flight was supposed to leave at 2:30 PM.  We were at the Davao International Airport Terminal before noon.  I knew the flight was going to be delayed because all the other flights were.  Every single announcement in the public address system was about another flight that was going to be delayed due to air traffic congestion in Manila.  Each announcement was met by a collective groan.  We boarded the plane two hours later and waited.  And then waited some more, captive to the government’s ground delay program, which requires that planes traveling to Manila must first require clearance prior to take off to ensure that they do not end up circling Metro Manila waiting for clearance to land.  In our airports, boarding does not guarantee take off.  But better to make passengers stew inside airplanes that are parked in some runway rather than being delayed on air, right?  It’s a good stop-gap measure, but it doesn’t solve the main problem, which is that the air traffic congestion is resulting in untold misery to passengers who suffer from overly delayed or canceled flights.  We’re not yet talking about the costs to government, to industry, to the economy, and to individual citizens. 
Bear with me for a little more digression - I got to get home last Sunday at close to midnight.  The flight could not land at Manila due to weather conditions so we had to be rerouted to the Clark International Airport where we had to wait for another two hours before being granted landing rights in Manila again.  So overall, we were delayed for a grand total of more than six hours!  There were some people who missed connecting flights, but as I will point out later on in this piece, they were just happy to be alive.  Our innate tendency to be grateful for small blessings is one of the reasons why incompetent public officials get away with their inefficiency and incompetence.
Anyway.  Most of us are focused on the problems of the LRT and MRT and the various manifestations of mismanagement at the Land Transportation Office, we seemed to have forgotten the other major shortcoming of the Department of Transportation and Communication, which is its utter inability to address the problems around air transportation in this country.  It is true that there are ongoing improvements in our terminals in Manila and they are now constructing the quick exit ramps out of the terminals, but the problem of air traffic congestion has grown steadily worse.  It has become customary for all flights in this country to be delayed.  The problem not only causes inconvenience and gargantuan costs, it also poses a lot of safety hazards.
Thus, one of the major issues, among many others, that presidential candidate Mar Roxas has to address at one point in the next few months as the 2016 campaign gets underway are the problems of the DOTC, the department which he headed prior to his stint as interior secretary.  If there is a government agency that truly stinks in the eyes of the general public, it is the DOTC.  Of course Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya  should be made accountable for the fact that the problems, instead of being fixed, have only worsened and that the consequent aggravation these have caused to Filipinos have become more magnified over time.  Everyone knows about the many ways that the DOTC is making life difficult for commuters of the LRT/MRT system.  And just when people thought DOTC people have already reached the limits of their sadism, they have decided to implement the shift to a new ticketing system, in the process adding to the confusion and the general chaos at the train terminals.  Those who have renewed their drivers license in the last two months already know that the problems at the LTO are not limited to the fiasco over those overpriced and overhyped plate numbers.  Today, anyone who is applying for a drivers license have to wait for at least four months before they are able to get their plastic licenses - and that is if they are lucky.
Roxas must respond to the general perception that the current mess can all be traced back to the time he was at the helm of the department.  The imbroglio over the maintenance contracts of the MRT, the grand plans to develop various airport terminals that got lost in the political labyrinth of the Aquino administration (there was a time when scale models of the various proposed developments sprouted in all major terminals in the country, most of these have now been forgotten), the various fiascos at the Land Transportation Office - all these and many other aggravations are widely believed to be ideas that Roxas started but were later proved to be impractical or could not be implemented.
We had a Belgian national as a family guest recently.  He was a very genial person who had very nice things to say about Filipinos in general.  The one thing he couldn’t figure out, though, after being stuck in traffic for hours and after experiencing the bedlam at the LRT/MRT system, was how we could be so patient and forgiving of rank inefficiency.  I told him that we’ve been conditioned through the years by our government and religious leaders to be thankful for every little blessing that comes our way that our default attitude during difficult times is to always to see the brighter side of things.  I told him that anecdote about how Filipinos who survived being held at gunpoint would tend to thank criminals for being humane enough to spare their lives and take only their hard-earned money and valuables.  He thought I was being funny and went on to note that other wonderful trait of Filipinos - being able to find something funny even in the face of extreme difficulties.
But this is exactly the attitude that our government and our leaders want us to have:  To be grateful for their supposed selfless service to the Filipino people.  This was the inescapable subtext of the President’s recent State-of-the-Nation Address: This country could have done worse, we could have had another corrupt government, we could have all ended up in the gutter if not for the efforts of our leaders.  True, the efforts have been sorely inadequate, but we are supposed to be thankful for small mercies.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Charot vs chaka

My August 9, 2015 column.
Gayspeak is in the news, and sadly,
for the wrong reasons.
MalacaƱan Palace and the Office of the Vice President
have been trading barbs, using gayspeak. Presidential spokesperson
Edwin Lacierda started the catfight by calling
Vice President Jejomar Binay’s recent True State-of-the-Nation Address
“charot” - which is gaypeak for something that should not be taken seriously
such as a joke, a frivolous action or statement, or a charade.
Binay’s camp through spokesperson Joey Salgado came back with a more
catty response done in more colorful gayspeak: “Imbey ang fez ni Secretarush
dahil trulalu ang spluk ni VP. Pero ang SONA ng pangulo, chaka ever
sa madlang pipol dahil hindi trulalu” (roughly, “Secretary Lacierda is
annoyed because what the VP said was the truth.  But the President’s SONA
was derided by the masses because what he said was not true.”)
Aside from Lacierda and Salgado and their rabid supporters, I don’t think
anyone else was amused - not even the local gay community.
There were lots of eyebrows raised. In general, almost everyone
thought that the exchange was unbecoming of mature statesmen.  
Of course the bright boys in MalacaƱan Palace tried to give the
whole thing a positive spin. The usually earnest Communications
Secretary Sonny Coloma tried to deflect criticism of Lacierda -
and the Palace because darn it, Lacierda is the official spokersperson
of the President of the Republic - by saying that the Palace allows
gayspeak or any form of communication as long as “it speaks the truth.”
I hope the Palace remembers Coloma’s wise counsel the next time
someone takes the President to task for unfulfilled promises such
as those he made to the widows and families of the Fallen 44 and
the victims of super typhoon Yolanda by using colorful language.
To begin with, I don’t think anyone believes that Lacierda and Salgado
used gayspeak as a means of promoting the language, or granting it
legitimacy, or as a way of recognizing the gay community as a valid
source of commentary. Lacierda used “charot” to illustrate the extent
of his condescencion towards Binay; the choice of word and language
was deliberate. He picked gayspeak to give his message the required
level of derision. The subtext was clear: Just like gayspeak,
you are not to be taken seriously. 
If Lacierda, Coloma and company disagree, I dare them to
describe the President’s next speech or activity in gayspeak -
they can start by defending the government’s actions towards the
Yolanda victims as “keribels,” or describing the conditional
cash transfer program as “bonggacious.” Sige nga!  
Salgado’s retort may have been provoked, but the fact that
he responded in form proved that the VP’s camp is no different.
They are all insensitive.
It is also important to point out that while gayspeak is used
by the local gay community, it has a specific context.
Not even gay people use gayspeak in public occasions!
When heterosexuals appropriate gayspeak for their own purposes,
particularly as a political tool to denigrate or dismiss the worth
of others, it is far from ennobling. It contributes to marginalization.
When Joseph Estrada ran for office as mayor of Manila,
he made a lot of promises - essentially, he said that he was going
to be a better mayor than Alfredo Lim. Estrada’s first term as mayor
is almost ending and there’s very little improvement in the city.
I live in Manila so I am familiar with the aggravations on a daily basis.
Traffic in Manila has gone from bad to worst. Gridlock along areas
where there is a major construction such as in San Andres, Paco,
and Nagtahan may be understandable - but they can be alleviated
by some deliberate traffic management efforts. But bedlam in areas
where there are no construction projects is unacceptable, such as in
Vito Cruz Street, which is caused by buses that use the two-lane
street as terminal and by the presence of too many colorum tricycles.
In fact, there seems to be more of these colorum tricycles
everywhere in Manila.
Our neighborhood has been sleepless in the last month
because of a major public works project being done on our street.
The problem is that the contractors do their heavy equipment work
at midnight when everyone is trying to rest. This is because of
that darn truck ban in the city - the contractors can only haul the
concrete and the rest of the debris only at midnight.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Unforgiven

My August 4, 2015 column.

Like all other promising young high school graduates, Krisel Mallari could have the whole world ahead of her.  She dreams of becoming an accountant someday, and she has enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas where classes are supposed to start this week.   However, whether Mallari gets to enter UST, or attend college for that matter, remains uncertain.  It all depends if UST accepts the certificate of good moral character that has been issued grudgingly by the administrators of the Santo Nino Parochial School in Quezon City, the school where she finished high school as a salutatorian, mainly to comply with an order issued by the Court of Appeals.  The SNPS has refused to give Mallari a certificate of good moral character because she delivered a speech during her graduation that accused the school of unfair practices in deciding who should become valedictorian of the class.  The video of her speech (and the attempt to stop her from finishing it) became viral.
There are always at least two sides to any story so I will refrain from commenting on the merits of either Mallari’s complaints against SNPS or the wisdom of the school’s actions.  The various subplots and the personal accounts and opinions of those who claim to have inside knowledge of the controversy are available in the Internet for those who want the juicy details.  There are issues, however, that seem to be glossed over. 
Mallari is a minor and while it is her name and her face that is out there, no one is talking about the roles that her parents and authority figures are playing in the whole controversy.  It seems inconceivable that that decision to read a different speech during her graduation and the series of decisions she made thereafter were done solely by her.  Yes, there are many people who were scandalized by Mallari’s conduct during her graduation and they want her punished.  But there are also those who actually think she should be congratulated for standing up for herself and for taking a position, regardless of how unpopular that stand may have been. 
If Mallari made a mistake, what should be the extent of the punishment?  What considerations should be made on account of her? What about her parents and authority figures? A good moral certification is required for admission to any college or university.  Denying her the certification is tantamount to denying her the right to pursue college education and, consequently, her future.  And then there’s the question about whether that one act – that controversial speech during her graduation – should define Mallari’s whole character and fate. 
It is obvious that the animosity has reached such a point that people are burning bridges and making condemnations.  SNPS claims to be merely fighting for its rights and protecting its image and its students.  Mallari is fighting for her future.   Surely both are aware that there can be no winner in this contest and that the only way they can be redeemed in the eyes of the public is for them to find ways to forgive each other and to put the acrimony behind them?
It seems to me that SNPS has washed its hands completely of any moral responsibility it had or has in molding Mallari’s character. A teacher’s job is never done, they say.  Shouldn’t they also take responsibility for Mallari’s actions?  But at the core of the issue is the essence and nobility of the teaching profession; I’ve always believed teachers and educational institutions, particularly Catholic institutions, should be exemplars of values such as compassion, commitment, wisdom, loyalty, and yes, forgiveness.   In this particular instance, there are quite a number of parables from the Bible that come to mind including that of the lost sheep.  SNPS needs to seriously think about how being unforgiving reflects on the real essence of their school. 
But Mallari also needs to show humility and, yes, loyalty.  Her parents and authority figures must remind her that being rash and vigilant needs to be tempered with respect and tolerance.  She may have only been standing up for her rights, but she also hurt the school, her teachers, her classmates and schoolmates in the process. 
It is however amusing that this whole controversy was revived by the need for a certification whose reliability and relevance is questionable.  Whether Mallari has good moral character or not cannot be determined by a piece of paper and UST cannot pretend to be oblivious to the controversy.  At the end of the day, UST needs to make a decision based on its appreciation of the facts, not on the basis of one document.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Doctors are people too

My August 2, 2015 column.
Everyone, at one point or another, has to deal with a medical practitioner. We’re all mortals so getting sick is a certainty. In fact, the number of doctors one has to deal with and the number of interactions one is forced to have with them increase correspondingly with age. 
Like clockwork, I turned hypertensive when I hit 40. The signs of wear and tear surfaced soon thereafter. I undergo an executive check-up every year, but regular visits to doctors have become inevitable. I’ve experienced waiting in line for hours for consultation or for medical procedures. Because I have the worst case of gastroesophageal reflux disease, I have found myself in hospital emergency rooms on far too many occasions, doubling over in extreme pain similar in manifestation to a heart attack. I know what it is like to be a patient needing immediate care.  
My reaction when I read that tirade against doctors written by a columnist in a provincial paper (I think it went viral primarily because many people did not agree with what the author was saying) was to scoff at the writer for being out of touch with reality. The author basically ranted against doctors for being uncaring and unprofessional and asked if resident doctors have the right to be called doctors. Of course her question was ridiculous—residents are doctors who are taking up a specialization. It is irresponsible, however, for anyone to make generalizations of any profession. There are unprofessional, uncaring, incompetent doctors, but it is irresponsible to associate these traits with all doctors. At the same time, it’s very easy to harbor high expectations of doctors and to attribute God-like qualities to them just because they have the capability to heal people.
Of course, we all wish doctors could meet appointments on time, be readily available for patients and have more time for them, and be as nurturing, empathetic, and solicitous as we want them to be. But it is also important to put things in context. The reality is that even if they want to, doctors usually do not have the luxury of being warm and cuddly all the time. There are also situations when they need to be firm, stern, and unyielding—such as the time when patients are being ornery, obstinate, or disobedient.
Contrary to what many of us think, doctors usually don’t have control of their time or of the situation. Surgeries or procedures do not always start and end as scheduled, some patients require more attention and take up longer consulting time, and there are usually too many patients waiting to be attended to. But then again, the better doctors usually are the ones with more patients and nobody wants to go to a doctor without patients, so it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Of course the first thing that we ask of doctors is that they be knowledgeable. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a snooty doctor who can heal quickly and efficiently than someone who is smiling and accommodating but does not seem to know what he is doing.
But in general, it’s really the system that breeds the conditions that we often rant about – particularly in government hospitals. The lack of resources and facilities create the dismal conditions that are often blamed on the medical practitioners who always have more patients than they can handle. And even in private hospitals, there are protocols that doctors have to follow; they don’t make judgment calls such as who to attend to first, on a whim. At the same time, laboratory tests and medical procedures are now considered the definitive input into a medical diagnosis so doctors are most often required to wait for test results before making any intervention. 
There are doctors who are extremely nice and helpful, of course, but I will still submit that yes, most doctors should acquire more emotional intelligence. I believe that a major part of the healing process happens within the mind and heart of the patient and an empowering doctor can do wonders to help patients heal themselves, or at least speed up the process. Medical schools, hospitals, and professional medical associations should balance technical knowledge with courses that remind doctors to be more humane and caring.