Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What were we thinking?

My February 24, 2015 column.

There was a time, no so long ago it seems, when we still would ask, “did he really say that?” or “what was he thinking?”  Not anymore today.  There are those who have started to take to the streets reminiscent of the heady days when outrage was best expressed in physical protest rather than just calling people names and posting cuss words in social media. Most of us, however, had gotten into the habit of simply rolling our eyes or just taking a deep, long sigh wishing it would be June 2016 when we wake up tomorrow.  
Most of us do want Benigno Simeon Aquino III to finish his term, and even willing to look the other way when the haciendero inside gets the better of him; except that he seems to be doing a lot of that lately.  Worse, Aquino seems to be going out of his way just to shoot himself in the foot; it’s like he is truly looking for more trouble.  The recent display of the monumental lack of empathy and the inability to dissociate himself and his family’s supposed “misfortunes” from current issues were outrageous because unlike during the arrival honors for the fallen 44 when his personal presence was expected, most people – the families included – would really prefer that he live the life of a hermit until next year’s elections.  It would be best for everyone. 
Equally outrageous are the relentless barrage of warmongering that’s happening in various media platforms.  Of course everyone is entitled to make utter fools of themselves - senators, congressmen, local executives and actors included.  One wishes, though, that people who advocate total war in Mindanao stop for a moment and imagine what it would be like to have war happening in one’s own village – perhaps even in front of their houses.  Perhaps the chairperson of the Bangsamoro National Movement for Peace and Development Agakhan Sharief’s admonition last Friday to actor Richard Gomez who has been making incendiary statements in various social networking sites for the actor to go to war himself strikes a raw chord since Sharief is a Muslim who is also pushing for the Bangsamoro Basic Law. 
But a friend, a Christian who happens to live in General Santos City basically said the same thing himself in a post he made in his Facebook account: “Sure, let’s have war.  Let’s have it in front of your house.  And to make sure you know exactly what you are advocating, make sure your families are trapped inside with no food and water and with no means of escape.  When you finally get a taste of the horror that you want inflicted on others, let’s hope you don’t get to hear others mock you about how going to war is necessary to achieve peace.”
I am tempted to also wonder aloud if Senator Chiz Escudero will also be investigated by the Senate for potentially violating the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees or Republic Act 6713 which prescribes that elected officials and government officials and their families lead modest and simple lives appropriate to their positions and income and to refrain from extravagant and ostentatious display of wealth.  The honorable senator who fancies himself a morally upright individual and likes scolding people publicly and shooting wry potshots at the targets of his ire is supposed to be one of the two poorest senators according to his statement of assets.  And yet, he obviously spent gazillions on his wedding to actress Heart Evangelista.  To top it all, his choice of principal sponsors - practically all the big players in industry, who often find themselves crossing swords with legislators on key issues – smacks of potential conflict of interest.  Clearly, walking the talk and keeping an arm’s length is a concept that is alien to many of our leaders.
Finally, I feel I need to weigh in on the controversy created by a columnist in another daily who claimed that drugs are prevalent at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde.   The columnist basically blamed the College for his daughter’s drug use and made conclusions based on hearsay. I used to be connected with the College on part-time basis and I know for a fact that the College has very strict policies about drug use.  Any responsible parent or adult should try to understand and get the full context of an issue before judging one’s child or any child for that matter (there are thousands of students at DLS-CSB who are now suspected as drug users).  It is easy to accuse and act moral; the more difficult thing is to be known for fairness and wisdom.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Better than the original

My February 22, 2015 column.
Reworking movies or musicals with a cult following is a difficult thing to do because it is almost always impossible to replicate the context that made the original work endearing.  It’s an almost no-win situation because in the minds and hearts of the cult followers, nothing would ever come close to the original.
Friends have been bugging me endlessly to watch “That Thing Called Tadhana” the local indie film that created quite a splash and subsequently went mainstream.  I finally got to watch it a few days ago and I am mightily glad I did.  It is essentially a local version of the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which traces the story of a couple who met accidentally on a train, fell in love, parted, met again, etc.  Just like Before Sunrise, Tadhana features just two characters (Angelica Pangilinan and JM de Guzman).  The couple met at an airport in Rome in unusual circumstances, got to know each other inside a plane, and upon landing in Manila decided to make a trip to Baguio and Sagada on a whim.   We already knew they were going to hit it off, but we were happy to go along with the ride – that’s how successful the movie was. Halfway through, one begins to forgive the people behind the movie for filching an idea, and actually becomes grateful they did it.  In the end, the movie acquires its own legs and is able to stand on its own merits.
So much has been said about the many great qualities of the movie, but it really is the performance of Pangilinan and de Guzman that carries the story through.  It is funny, poignant, and yes, unabashedly sentimental in a delightful way.   But in the end, what makes the movie worth going out of one’s way to watch is that it’s that type of movie that simply tells a story in the best way possible which is to tell it naturally, simply, and honestly, without insulting people’s intelligence or making pretensions about how brilliant it is.  
I grew up as cult follower of early James Bond movies and like most people of my generation, clung to the belief that nobody did Bond better than Sean Connery. I thought that the recent Bond movies lost the charm that made the early Connery and Roger Moore version endearing maybe because they had to appeal to the new generation whose definition of an action movie involved ear-shattering music and explosions every minute and a storyline that puts characters perennially on the edge.
We found ourselves watching Kingsman:  The Secret Service on Chinese New Year by accident.  The movie we wanted to watch had been unfortunately pulled out and we didn’t feel like joining the long queues for Fifty Shades of S&M.  I am glad we did.  Kingsman was absolutely enjoyable.  It’s a movie that pays tribute to the old spy movies, but in a reverent albeit witty way.  The movie looks and feels like an old Bond movie, complete with the references to what makes a real gentleman.  But make no mistake, the movie is also very current.  Next page
Kingsman serves comedy, satire, action, fashion, violence, political and social commentary in a coherent and delightful way.  You just have to go watch it.
And finally, Ballet Philippines most ambitious project opened last Friday: Manhid The Pinoy Superhero Musical.  Manhid was first staged in 1991 as a collaborative work of bright and promising student artists at the University of the Philippines.  The artists would later prove their genius.  Paul Morales who directed the 1991 production is now Artistic Director of BP.  Kanakan-Balintagos (Aureus Solito), the writer composer is now an internationally acclaimed director.  Vince de Jesus who wrote some of the songs is one of the top musical directors in the country.  And of course the Eraserheads have redefined the local rock scene.
The current staging of Manhid takes the political piece to new heights.  The staging is more polished and everything else (except for the sound on opening night) had been done ten times grander and better.  This is the way to pay tribute to a beloved material – by reworking it in a way that clearly that allows the inherent genius of the original to shine.  Kudos to Paul Morales and Ballet Philippines for the courageous move!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cure worse than the disease

My February 17, 2015 column.

What does it say of us as a country and as a people when
on the very weekend when we were supposed to celebrate
the various permutations of love, a number of our bishops
called a press conference to openly ask for the President’s head,
supposedly as a sign of accountability for the death of the
44 soldiers in Mamasapano Maguindanao while a huge
billboard meant to celebrate “love for all kinds of love”
was mutilated, supposedly on orders of advertising authorities? 
Of course we don’t expect people to accord Valentine’s
Day the same level of importance or reverence as Holy Week;
 we don’t expect people to postpone or reconsider major decisions
 or pronouncements on account of Valentines.  But the timing
still struck a discordant note because it seemed indicative of the
level of intolerance operating in our society.  It seems to me people
 are once again making a rush to judgment without really
considering the implications of their actions.
I have always been wary about people who think a change
in leadership in this country is the quickest solution to every crisis. 
First of all, it’s impractical and unrealistic given the nature of
our bureaucracy.  A change at the top would require a domino
effect all the way down as most of those who run the government
bureaucracy are political appointees.   The transition before and
after would require more than a year —which is the remaining
term of the President, anyway.  And that is assuming the President
does decide to throw in the towel, which is very unlikely.  If the call
 to make the President quit snowballs, this would mean a major
distraction for our leaders—the President and his allies would be
more preoccupied with consolidating power rather than on focusing
on what really needs to be done to move this country forward. 
And then there’s the matter of whether there is valid reason for
 a resignation, which is naturally a highly debatable issue. 
By any reasonable indication, it seems that a resignation
at this point is a cure worse than the disease.
The timing of the bishops’ call does stink for another reason—
it comes on the heels of the President’s infamous dig at certain
bishops during the welcome ceremonies for Pope Francis at
Malacanan Palace.  It’s difficult not to see political behavior
on the part of the bishops particularly when we look at the
particular roster of the bishops that made the call for the
President’s resignation. 
I think we should all allow the truth on what really
happened at Mamasapano to surface first before we start
 trying to rock the very foundations of this country.  People
who profess to love this country, or to champion certain ideals
and values such as truth, fairness, and justice, should consider
their actions in the context of what truly represents
the common good.
Also during the weekend, one of the billboards that top
local clothing brand Bench, put up supposedly to celebrate
“love for all kinds of love” was mutilated.  The billboards
showed four couples in various affectionate poses: Gloria Romero
and her grandson Chris Gutierrez, actress Solenn Heussaff
and her fiancé Nico Bolzico, lesbian couple Carla Pena and
Ana Paredes, and gay couple Nino Gaddi and Vince Uy.
The billboards created quite a splash with many reacting
positively to the diversity-inclusive message.  Unfortunately,
people woke up on Friday to find that the hands of the gay
couple Gaddi and Uy were haphazardly painted over, as if
to cover the fact that the lovers were holding hands. 
According to a Bench executive, it was the adboard
(the Ad Standard Council) that disapproved the ad;
however, the Executive Director of the ASC denied having
a hand in the censorship claiming that they do promote
self-regulation rather than censorship.  Towards Sunday,
there were loose talks about the controversy being created
by Bench to generate more publicity for the brand;
something I seriously doubt.
The backlash created by the censorship led into a viral social
 media campaign to “paint their hands back” which indicated
massive social support.  The fact that nobody has come forward
to claim responsibility for the decision and/or the action to
paint over the billboard can also be interpreted as reaction
to the backlash.  Divining the truth around the mysterious
billboard may not be as important as the quest for answers
to the Mamasapano massacre, but there are certain things
we know for sure.  First, there are quite a number of people
in this country who make rash decisions and actions.  
Second, intolerance remains a disease that afflicts many. 
And third, the price of freedom and liberty is eternal vigilance.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Momentary relief

My February 15, 2015 column.

One of my closest female friends, who think of herself as feminist, told her husband a few years ago not to send flowers to her office on Valentine’s Day.  She made a long discourse about how consumerism had taken the thrill out of the supposedly romantic gesture, about how the practice has robbed many women who were not in romantic relationships of their self-esteem, and how the thousands of pesos spent on flowers that would wilt in a few days were better spent on more worthwhile pursuits and purchases.  Her husband obliged, of course; I think happily at that.  
On Valentine’s Day, she was the only one at work that did not get flowers.   She said she didn’t expect to feel bad, but she really did.   She tearfully told her husband her realization over dinner—that her attempts to intellectualize and politicize valentines were puny in the face of massive efforts to remind women of certain entitlements on special romantic occasions.  The following day, she promptly received a large bouquet of roses from her husband. 
That wasn’t the end of the story though.  She went home that night a little upset because the belated valentines gesture made her the center of attention at work.   She got ribbed for having a forgetful husband.  Some joked about how only mistresses celebrated valentines the day after February 14.   As could be expected, her husband could only throw his arms in the air in frustration, muttering something about how it is truly impossible to try to understand women.
The point of the story is really about how consumerism and social pressure have altered the way Valentine’s is perceived or celebrated.  On our way to Baclaran Church last Wednesday we took a short cut through a side street in Pasay where the motels are.  We were taken aback by the in-your-face advertising employed by some of the establishments.  One offered a short short-time rate of an hour, which had us wondering the kind of intimacy that could be achieved in 60 minutes.  Let’s not go into the more indelicate forms of advertising targeted at certain fetishes; suffice it to say that people do make liberal generalizations about what love and loving involves and what valentines is supposed to be about.  It is on occasions like these when I feel like strangling the people who are adamantly against sex education or any forms of discussion about sexuality despite overwhelming evidence that says more people are getting more sexually active and only need the slightest excuse to exercise their sexuality.
When I was a in high school, valentines day was about exchanging a red cartolina paper cut out of a boy and girl offering hearts.  We painstakingly traced the pattern into a cartolina paper ourselves and cut it ourselves.  Last week, a nephew asked for money so he could buy a bouquet of flowers at Dangwa and a box of branded chocolates for the girl he had MU (mutual understanding) with.  There were concerts everywhere and an officemate told me he couldn’t get reservations on most of the high-end restaurants for a family dinner scheduled last night.
If everyone is in the mood for love, how come there’s so much hate and blaming going around?  And how come many people seem to be raring to go to war in Mindanao? 
I guess valentines, just like many other holidays, religious or otherwise, are really just momentary diversions for most of us.  Love is something we celebrate once a year.  So please enjoy the rest of this weekend of loving as tomorrow, we will get back to the usual screaming and blaming and chest-beating.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Pambansang Epal

My February 10, 2015 column.

These are confusing times for the country.  We continue to grapple with the painful questions related to the massacre of 44 police officers in Mamasapano:  What really happened? Who was the Pied Piper who led the fallen 44 to their deaths?  Are the rumors about the involvement of US military people and certain national officials—the President included—in the planning and the actual monitoring of the military operation true?  Who is really telling the truth?  Should we continue to trust the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?  Is the Bangsamoro Basic Law—and by extension, peace in Mindanao—still worth pursuing at this point? 
Since no one in government has come forward with a plausible theory, a convincing explanation, or at the very least a reassuring statement so far, many are pinning their hopes on the results of the various inquiries that have already started. 
Unfortunately, if we are to go by previous experiences with similar inquiries I am afraid we’re in for more confusion in the next few days.  We do have this penchant for turning inquiries into soap opera-like confrontations - complete with major emotional breakdowns, big bold dramatic cinematic dialogues, and the occasional comedy.  And lest we forget, most of these inquiries can hardly be described as objective; the people who are supposed to champion impartiality usually end up badgering witnesses and pushing for their own political agenda.  They either end up defending allies or prosecuting political opponents.
A high-profile case such as the Mamasapano tragedy is expected to make or unmake political careers.  At its essence, politics is really about the distribution of advantages or disadvantages, so we expect a lot of political behaviors to surface in the next few days and weeks as people try to use the tragedy either to advance their careers and interests or to fortify the blame being heaped on others.
We are therefore not surprised that Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in his latest attempt at helping achieve clarity in midst of the confusion,  provided the all-important context of how things were during the time his father was President.  He pontificated thus: “I remember as President, my father was knowledgeable about every military operation.  The President would know about an operation this big.” In his rush to fortify President Aquino’s culpability for the massacre, the senator seemed to have become afflicted with temporary amnesia.  He has conveniently forgotten that military operations during his father’s dictatorship committed horrible atrocities that make the Mamasapano tragedy seem like an ordinary daily encounter.  The military, during the dictatorship, conducted hundreds of operations that killed thousands.  Tens of thousands more lost their homes and were deprived of human rights, salvaging was the order of the day, and people got arrested and detained simply for expressing dissent. 
Another nonsensical comment from the senator was that bit about how the MILF soldiers who had a hand in the death of the fallen 44 would end up becoming policemen by virtue of the BBL. It’s a generalization that is not supported by logic or fact unless the senator has powers of precognition that we are not aware of.
And then there is the Presidential sister who must not be named in this space.  The garrulous sister has been on a verbal rampage recently trying to take up the cudgels for her brother and in the process stirring up all kinds of controversies.  Her attempts at acting like the President’s overprotective mother is absurd (he is President of the country for crying out loud who should be able to speak for and defend himself besides being much much older) and frankly, does more harm than good to the country, her brother’s administration, and herself.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The good, the bad, and the ugly

My February 8, 2015 column.

For the second time within an eight-day period, the Commander in Chief addressed the nation Friday evening, supposedly to set things right, shed more light, and to placate a citizenry enraged by the massacre of 44 policemen, and infuriated by government’s subsequent mishandling of the crisis.  It was the first time that the President appeared publicly after being given the silent treatment by members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Forces whom he gathered for a dialogue.
The good thing was that the President seems to be responding to public clamor for more empathy and for more direct accountability for the tragedy.
This time around he veered away from the usual speech template that many have found tiresome and annoying.   There were no direct references to the past administration, nor were there overt efforts to draw attention to himself, and his and his family’s supposed sacrifices for the sake of the nation.  He also took responsibility for the tragedy that befell the fallen 44 although it wasn’t clear what he actually meant when he said he was “taking responsibility;” for what exactly? 
What clearly resonated with many was the seeming show of resolve to deal squarely with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front even if the group was not named directly in the speech.  The tough stance seemed to respond to the clamor for retributive justice.  It was also obvious that the president was trying his darndest best to convey empathy – even directly addressing the family of the fallen 44.   
The bad thing was that the speech raised more questions than ever before.  
People who expected some clarity on a number of contentious issues were sorely disappointed.  Of course we expect that a full accounting can only be done after the conduct of an objective and comprehensive inquiry (and with at least nine groups intent on conducting their own separate investigations, it will take time and effort to arrive at a consensus), but surely the President of the Republic already has answers to the major questions 12 days after the tragedy happened.   The President announced that he accepted the resignation of General Alan Purisima but it wasn’t clear why.   If Purisima didn’t engineer the whole fiasco, what is he being punished for?  If one were to subject the President’s speech to an objective analysis, one will arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the main message was the effort itself.
To my mind, the ugly part of the speech was the way the President validated certain things that have been whispered about for the longest timenow.   He confirmed that he did – and does – have a close personal relationship with Purisima and that he is the kind of leader that allows personal relationships to cloud his judgment even in the face of overwhelming reasons for letting go.  Second, the concerted efforts to deflect the blame somewhere else was more palpable.  The supposed questions that keeps him awake left no doubt as to the culpability of the ground commanders, in particular, SAF commander Getulio Napenas.
But even more alarming was the apparent effort to ride the bandwagon of resentment towards the MILF and the terrorists.  We now have a common target for all our hatred and a potential salve to our collective hurt.  If we get Abdul Basit Usman dead, then we can all move on from the tragedy.  If only things were that simple.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Wake up call

My February 3, 2015 column.

The sight of grown men in uniform crying in public is a difficult thing to watch.  It makes us realize the full extent of the grief, the disappointment, and the helplessness that must be in their hearts.  Watching hundreds of policemen march on a major thoroughfare to show solidarity for fallen comrades is not easy, either, because it is indicative of anger and resurging militance. 
My February 3, 2015
I still don’t think that what happened last week will result in a coup d’ etat as some idle minds have suggested.  A military uprising will require the support of civil society, business, and the Church.   Sure, the President has alienated powerful forces in both the military and the church recently (not to mention Noranians who are still smarting over his refusal to make Nora Aunor a national artist for personal reasons). But let’s get real, people.  There’s barely a year and half left in the President’s term and regardless of the major character flaws that have resurfaced, the he still has his loyal yellow brigade.  Not many of them are like singer Leah Navarro who braved the ire of netizens by staunchly defending the President’s conspicuous absence at the arrival ceremonies for the Fallen 44, but let’s make no mistake about this—they are still there.  As proof, a major broadsheet has continued to downplay its reportage on the anger and the outrage over the President’s latest faux pas.
What happened last week, though, is a major wake-up call for the President and his administration.  In two weeks, Benigno Simeon Aquino III has transformed from being a teflon President to being one of the most ridiculed and reviled persons in social media.  I couldn’t believe the extent of the anger and the venom that flooded social networking sites when, first, it became clear that he skipped the military honors for the 44 soldiers for a social activity and, second, after making a eulogy that once again draw attention to himself and his family’s supposed sacrifice for the sake of the nation.  Many people thought he was being arrogant and insincere, as usual.  Of course these accusations are not new as the legendary lack of empathy and the so-called “haciendero” temperament have hounded him since the 2010 campaign.
The derision, though, has emboldened many people to openly declare how this President is making Joseph Estrada and even Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo look more competent.  I know.  It seems presidents do have a shelf life in this country and it does seem our collective memory on the performance and frailties of our leaderrs is largely influenced by the actuations of the incumbent.  This is both good and bad news.  
But even major tragedies offer powerful lessons that will help us become better and enable us to move forward with greater resolve.   I hope our leaders have been reminded of the role expectations demanded of them during crisis situations.   People do want leaders to manifest  concern and solidarity with them in times of grief; and lest we forget, pakikiramayis among one of our most cherished values.   Former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarno learned this lesson painfully when she was spotted shopping at the height of the mass demonstrations in Jakarta; so did Queen Elizabeth who was forced to shed her usual stoic demeanor in response to clamor for the royal family to show solidarity with the people during the death of Princess Diana. 
This is a time for mourning and for reflection.  It is important at this time for our leaders not to agitate the situation further particularly since what is at stake is the chance to end decades-long of war and strife in Mindanao.  Let us not replicate the irresponsible actions of some of our politicians who propped up the bandwagon effect, forgetting that the war in Mindanao is a very complex problem that is precisely rooted in the very behavior that we are seeing now —a rush to judgment borne out of lack of empathy and understanding of the issues at stake.  Most of us do continue to perpetuate the stereotype that our Muslim brothers are troublemakers and rabble rousers whose claim to Mindanao is without basis.    
At the same time, let us please not cheapen this period of mourning with tawdry antics and reckless statements.  Students from an exclusive school were supposed to have launched a campaign to cut their hair and wear “bangs” to show their support for the peace process and the Bangsamoro Basic Agreement.  The presidential sister who must not be named in this space boldly pronounced in her television show last Sunday that the engagement of celebrity Toni Gonzaga was the kind of inspiring story that the country needed in order to move forward from the tragedy.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


My February 1, 2015 column.
It is difficult not to get furious at the death of the 44 members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police at the hands of people we are supposed to be negotiating a peace agreement with.  The feeling turns into outrage when we consider the circumstances that led to their death and the subsequent bungled attempts to explain, and then to make amends, for what happened.   We claim to be a nation of heroes but sadly do not seem to know how to treat heroes with  dignity until after it is too late. 
This recent tragedy called to mind what happened in August 2010 when eight Hong Kong tourists were killed in a disastrously bungled hostage incident at the Rizal Park in Manila.   The senseless tragedy happened because of lack of coordination and a seeming recklessness bordering on stupidity among those we expected to know better.   To make matters worse, both tragedies were aggravated by a monumental lack of empathy on the part of our leaders who didn’t seem to know how to behave in crisis situations.  Small wonder, really, that it took years before the people of Hong Kong were able to forgive our leaders.
Last Wednesday was a time when the nation groped for answers.  It was a time when we wished the leader of the country acted with moral courage – to claim ultimately responsibility as Commander in chief, and to promise deliberate and swift action to deliver justice.   But as usual, we had more of the obfuscation and the tiresome attempts to focus the attention somewhere else. When the bodies of the fallen arrived in Manila on Thursday, we expected the President to be right there at the tarmac to receive them, to lead the nation in paying tribute to their heroism and to show their families that they had the support and prayers of the whole country behind them.  We were all sorely disappointed.
Just as disappointing was the way many of our politicians inserted themselves into the frame shamelessly milking the tragedy to advance their own political agenda. 
But perhaps most disappointing was the way many of our leaders rode the bandwagon and reacted rashly either by withdrawing their support for the Bangsamoro Basic Law or calling for outright war.  This is a difficult period for the nation as we try to make sense of the tragedy that turned the 44 police officers into sacrificial lambs for an inchoate cause but the last thing we expect our leaders to do is to react blindly based on emotions.  Now more than ever we need leaders who will stand as beacons of reason and wisdom, people who shed light rather than ignite anger.