Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Political patronage

My April 28, 2015 column.
It’s too bad the case of John Phillip Sevilla, the beleaguered former chief of the Bureau of Customs, happened at a time when the country was preoccupied with many other seemingly more pressing things. 
There’s the historic boxing match between Filipino champion Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather happening this Sunday, which many in this country are looking forward to like it’s the Second Coming.  I understand that Pacquiao is identified as a Filipino in all his fights and carries the national colors onto the ring.  But seriously, folks, let’s not get overly carried away with the metaphors about how Pacquiao is risking his life for the sake of Filipinos everywhere in the world.  We all want him to win over the trash-talking Mayweather, but our fortunes as a nation are not directly connected to Pacquia’s triumphs or losses.
There’s the eminent execution by firing squad this week of May Jane Veloso, the Filipina convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia – presumably today, if the last-ditch efforts to convince Indonesian authorities to be more merciful fails.  What I truly want to know is this:  Why do we always scramble for solutions to problems like these at the very last minute?  Where was everyone else when Veloso’s case was still being tried and when all the legal remedies could have really made a difference?
And then there’s the ASEAN summit in Malaysia where the issue of China’s bullying tactics in the West Philippine Sea is expected to attract controversy. Does anyone really expect China to accede to ASEAN countries?  Note that countries and major personalities have tried to intercede for Tibet for many years, but with no apparent success.  If we want China to stop annexing the Philippines, we just have to do more than complain and flail around.
Anyway.  Sevilla’s case deserves close scrutiny because it highlights the many things that stand in the way of attaining good governance in this country. Sevilla had been doing a great job at the BOC and deserved all the support he needed.  Unfortunately, he was instead given the equivalent of a kick in the posterior.  Yes, he resigned – but given that his resignation was not irrevocable and based on his public pronouncements, it was evident that the guy just wanted validation that MalacaƱang had his back.   As we all know, not only was his resignation accepted without question, he was also replaced pronto.  The message to Sevilla was unmistakable:  You are not irreplaceable so good riddance!
Much has already been written about the implications of the Sevilla resignation on the tuwid na daan program of government.  Sure, what happened is indicative of how the administration seems to be ditching principle to ensure that the next occupant of MalacaƱang is someone from the Liberal Party, or at least someone who will not do what Benigno Simeon Aquino III did to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  But what has been glossed over is the complicity of other forces in sustaining the system of political patronage in the country.  Since we are not hearing condemnations addressed to the Iglesia Ni Cristo or the Liberal Party, what everyone seems to be saying is that political parties are expected to indulge in illegitimate political behaviour anyway and religious sects such as the INC are perfectly within their rights to demand special favours in exchange for their solid vote during elections.  Of course ethical leadership is critical in sustaining an ethical culture, but the President cannot destroy the monster by his lonesome.  Destroying the system of political patronage is a challenge that must be shared by everyone else in this country.
I know this has been said many times and more eloquently by others, but changes cannot happen unless everyone else is willing to help make them.  For example, I wish people and organizations support candidates during elections because they truly believe in the cause that candidate is espousing and not because they expect to receive political advantages afterwards.  I dream of a day when an elected President makes a public accounting of all the contributions he or she received during the campaign and proudly declares during the inaugural address that he or she considers all his or her political debts paid. What makes the system all the more disappointing is that the groups who are supposed to champion ethical behavior are most guilty of propagating political patronage. We can criticize the INC for exerting pressure on certain politicians and political parties or for lobbying for certain causes, but let us not forget that the Catholic Church pretty much engages in the same political tactic in support of its various advocacies.  And lest we forget, we also propagate political patronage when we distribute disadvantages as a form of punishment for disagreeing with our own causes and advocacies. It’s one thing to withdraw support, it’s another thing to actively campaign against someone else to the extent of engaging in sabotage or demonization. 
What we learned from the Sevilla experience is that political patronage remains deeply entrenched in our system and comes into play aggressively in times like the present when political parties are consolidating their forces and resources to ensure victory in the 2016 elections.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Books that dumb down

My April 26, 2015 column.
“You must write a book!” When I was younger, this was the suggestion often made at social occasions to someone who has had a string of achievements, or had a colorful life, or went through a major learning experience. The suggestion was indicative of how people used to equate being a book author with a certain threshold of wisdom, or at least quality experiences – the idea being that one writes a book so that people can learn vicariously from the author.  
For example, I recently picked up Armida, the book on Armida Siguion-Reyna because I knew it would yield a veritable trove of insights. Siquion-Reyna has been a strong force in the local culture scene, thanks to her feisty disposition and the many causes and battles that she immersed herself in, from propagating the kundiman, to producing and acting in movies that dared to explore new themes, to abolishing censorship, etc.  This is the same reason I picked up and read similar books in the past about titans of industry, national artists, and other distinguished personalities.
Although I buy and read all kinds of books, I do have a particular bias for Filipiniana books, or at least what is being passed off as such. I try - and the operative term here is “try”- to read as many Filipino authors as I can. I must admit that I am not always successful in the attempt; many Filipino authors are just “difficult” to read and not just in the literary sense.  
Publishing a book seems to be the “in” thing for local celebrities and as a result there’s been a cottage industry of books authored by radio and television show hosts, local stylists, models, and yes, actors and actresses. 
I am told the two best-selling books of Morning Rush disc jockeys Chico Garcia, Delamar Arias, and Gino Quillamor started the trend. The books were compilations of the funniest entries to their morning show’s daily Top Ten segment. The books were a hit because the entries were admittedly funny, and because the show has been on the air for decades they happened to have a wealth of material waiting to be compiled and published. The problem was that everybody else followed suit. 
Others also put together the stuff that they dish out regularly in their radio shows and packaged them into what they are passing off as, well, books. The results are embarrassing because the published products are pitifully threadbare, both in terms of quantity and quality of material. The books basically confirm what many have suspected all along - there’s really not much to go by in terms of substance once we’ve taken away the fluff, the hysterics, and the antics from these people and their shows. 
Other celebrities have also jumped into the bandwagon. I was surprised to discover that a young television star has come up with a book, which basically gives advice on how to survive break-ups. I still am not sure what exactly has made her an expert on break-ups. Two of the country’s top female models have also co-written a book on what it is like to be them. These are in addition to the growing stack of books written by other local celebrities on basically the same topic – themselves. Even the supposed bestseller book on how to make one’s mother proud, which is being shamelessly hawked by someone with supposedly unquestionable integrity, has turned out to be quite a dud - it’s basically a compilation of snippets of commentaries and testimonials of some famous people, and definitely nothing that has not been said more eloquently in other books or magazines.
Of course I am aware that everyone has the right to express themselves and publish as many books as they want. They are not pointing guns at people to coerce them into buying the books after all.  But surely everyone realizes that by lowering the standards of published materials, particularly books, we’re contributing to the already massive efforts - by movies and television, among others - to dumb down Filipinos? 
Heaven truly help us if these books authored by celebrities become the new standard of what a book is supposed to be.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Breaking the cult of personality

My column today, April 21, 2015.

We know the countdown to next year’s national elections have started because politicians who think they deserve consideration for national posts have intensified their efforts to get noticed. 
I was in Davao City for a few days the other week where all the telltale signs of a movement to launch Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for a national post was pervasive. There were tarpaulin signs all over proclaiming Duterte as everyone’s champion (“Atin To”  or in Cebuano - “Ato ni, Bai”).      I was told by relative and friends that a tri-media campaign in Mindanao was already operational.  At the Davao International Airport on my way back, I was on the same plane with a horde of Duterte campaigners.  They were all wearing yellow shirts that displayed Duterte’s unsmiling mug on the front and a smashing fist at the back.  They were carrying all kinds of campaign materials including rolled up tarpaulin posters.  In the past, Duterte would immediately and openly squash rumors or suggestions about his interest in the Presidency; he has not clearly confirmed his candidacy, but he has not denied that he is seeking the highest post in the land either.   
Vice President Jejomar Binay continues to be a strong contender for the presidency despite the  massive vilification campaign directed at him.  We all know Binay still wants to run for President because he has continued to fortify his political base.  I met members of the powerful fraternity that Binay is part of and they swore there is a silent but serious campaign effort that is continuing.  There will be people in this country who will campaign and vote for Binay even if the man becomes unrecognizable underneath all the muck that has been thrown at him.  Thus, all those tarpaulin posters hanging all over Makati in the houses of loyal supporters nationwide that says “Binay Pa Rin” (we’re still for Binay).
We all know Senator Alan Peter Cayetano really wants Filipinos to consider him for the presidency because he has been doing everything to be noticed.  The poor guy has displayed all possible shades and variations of anger – from indignation to being livid to being openly confrontational – in a desperate bid to be recognized as a nationalist firebrand in the wake of the Mamasapano massacre.  He has tried to balance things off by resurrecting a television ad that packages him as a cuddly pro-people leader.  Nobody outside his rabid supporters seems to be seriously considering Senator Antonio Trillanes for the presidency but that has not stopped the man from floating himself as a possible candidate.    This is the only possible explanation for the senator’s recent idiotic attempts to engage the whole Judiciary and the law profession in a brawl.
The two other putative candidates, Senator Grace Poe and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, have not publicly declared their political plans for 2016 but there is no doubt that there are efforts to sustain public awareness about them. Thus, despite the general absence of positive confirmation from either, they continue to be considered strong contenders for the Presidency next year.
I know it is still too early to expect anyone among the six contenders to spell our their platforms and plans of action for the country, but one hopes that we begin to see efforts to put in place mechanisms to examine candidates beyond the cult of personality that they and their supporters have built. 
Duterte is being packaged as an invincible local executive who cleaned Davao of insurgents, instilled order and discipline, and in the process, transformed the city into a modern Utopia. Binay is still widely regarded as a benevolent champion of the masses, a modern day Robinhood who fought the rich to benefit the poor.  Cayetano is being packaged as a staunch defender of nationalist ideals in the mold of Claro M. Recto.  Trillanes continues to draw strength from his revolutionary background as a military officer who stood up against a supposed corrupt regime.  Poe continues to leverage on the epic popularity of his late father.  Roxas as the possible administration candidate, is banking on deflected glow of the supposed successes of the Aquino administration. 
These are obviously not enough.  We must start convincing the electorate that there is more to leadership than perceptions about character and personality.  We must start educating voters to see beyond the sheen and polish of imaging and public relations packaging.  We have to push the discussion beyond motherhood statements and generalities.  We need to put in place the structures that will enable the electorate to objectively examine the competencies of those aspiring for national positions.  And we need to do all these now while the campaign has not officially started. 
If we do not, we will repeat the mistakes we have made in the past.  Unless we break the cult of personality that permeates our electoral system, we shall continue waking up midway through a term of a sitting president wondering how we were all mistaken about the real worth of the person we voted into office.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

In search of talent

My column today, April 19. 2015.

Between trying to catch up on our reading and trying to observe some traditions, what got us preoccupied during the recent Holy Week was watching reruns of episodes of Asia’s Got Talent on cable television. The show has since then moved into the semifinals and we’ve tried to catch subsequent editions of the show whenever we could. AGT is being held in Singapore.
The auditions were the usual merry mix of genuinely talented artists, not-so-talented but superbly packaged performers, people with average talent but huge egos, and the usual bunch of dimwits who tried to elevate some perverse or weird ability into an art form. Shows like AGT are difficult to watch because it is almost impossible to compare objectively one performing art discipline to another. It eventually boils down to individual preferences. But it’s often unfair because classically trained artists such as great ballet dancers or superb cellists cannot hope to win over a group of breakdancers who make our jaws drop not really because they are better dancers but because they perform routines that could kill them. 
I always cringe when I see Filipinos who perform bizarre performance numbers, who flagellate or set themselves on fire. In AGT, there was this Filipino impersonator who put on some kind of performance art that involved taking off layers of Halloween costumes from his body. He was buzzed off midway. To be fair, we do not seem to have a monopoly of performance freaks. We noted that there were similar acts from other Asian countries as well. 
There’s no Filipino among the judges, but the show is ably hosted by Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez, two Filipinos who made a mark in the Asian version of The Amazing Race. Nelson and Fernandez are great on the show, bringing with them the perfect blend of eloquence, playfulness and professionalism. I hope other Filipino celebrities who are tapped to host similar talent shows, particularly the ones held in the country, are watching. Hosts are supposed to enhance the whole viewing experience, not detract from it. They are supposed to move the show along - seamlessly and effortlessly, sometimes with humor, but always providing helpful information that makes the audience appreciate the experience better. Hosts are not supposed to call attention to themselves with tawdry shtick copied from some standup comic in a cheap comedy bar.                  
As can be expected in a talent search, particularly one held in Asia, Filipino talents have been making quite an impression. In last Thursday’s semifinal round, 10-year old Gwyneth Dorado and the Velasco Brothers shared the limelight with a dance group from Japan, a harmonica player from Taiwan, a tambourine player comedian from Japan, a sand artist from India, a trio from Indonesia, and a dance act that combined ballroom dancing with acrobatics from China. The last act automatically got a spot in the finals when they earned the judges’ golden buzzer last Thursday. Filipinos can still vote for Dorado and the Velasco Brothers by texting AGT5 to 2929 or through Facebook until tomorrow.
As far as I know, at least three other Filipino talents, namely, the shadow play group El Gamma Penumbra, human beat box wonder Neil Rey Llanes, and singer Gerphil Flores are scheduled to compete in the next semifinals episodes. El Gamma Penumbra and Flores sailed straight to the semifinals when judges Anggun and David Foster pressed the golden buzzer after their performances during the auditions.
It’s obviously too early to make bets on who will finally win the talent contest, although rooting for the Filipino acts is perfectly understandable. But then again, it’s a contest where winners are decided by popular vote, so there’s really no guarantee that the acts that display the best talent showcase will win. Pretty much like the contests that are held here, it’s the performer people can relate to or empathize with who end up going home with the top prize. Of course, those backed up by organized groups with resources also tend to dominate.  This is why we just have to support our own artists if we want them to win. There’s reason to be proud: the Filipino talents in AGT are comparable, if not better than the others.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Going digital

My column today, April 12, 2015.

We finally gave in to Sarah Geronimo.  We believed her claim, done through caterwauling and lots of gyra-ting, that buying that darned magic black box would improve our lives dramatically.  As it turned out, we were not the only gullible people in this country.  The first two stores in the Mall of Asia that we went to had already sold all their stock.  We got ours from a computer store.  As promised, the contraption did improve the quality of the images and the sound emanating from the TV set; we are now able to examine closely the intricate patterns of Kabayan Noli de Castro’s tie or appreciate the sophisticated lighting designs of the soap operas of ABS-CBN. 
Television in this country has gone digital. 
The black box came with its own antennae and, not surprisingly, its own ABS-CBN cellular SIM card.  We understood why when we switched on the black box and got connected.  Certain services can be had by texting a specific number and keying in a specific number that appeared on the television set. In short, it’s just a matter of time before other services become available on demand or by request.
Does this mean we will finally be able to let go of cable television?  Not immediately, but I hope eventually.  Not that it will really make a lot of difference in terms of choice of service provider since the number one cable TV provider also happens to be a sister company of the media network that has pioneered digital TV, so it will just be like changing the pocket to which we deposit our money into. But hopefully, we get better choices and better value for money.
There was a time when cable TV delivered all – as in all – the available television channels as part of the basic subscription.  Two decades ago, cable TV offered anyone with a subscription (or a hacked account which could be done so easily by connecting a splitter to someone’s valid cable connection) a window to a hundred television channels from all over the world.  It was admittedly wasteful.  I know there are people out there who think heaven is having the option to watch an Indian or Thai soap opera, assuming they could work through the language barrier, but we humans have unfortunately been wired to have only one processor and could only watch one show at a time.   
My problem, however, with the cable TV provider is that they have shifted to bundling cable channels.  The basic bundle, unfortunately, does not include the channels that I happen to watch more often so we ended up paying more for the additional channels such as certain sports and lifestyle channels.  In short, they’ve found ways to squeeze more money from subscribers.  The marketing strategy is ingenious but quite basic.  First, entice people to buy by offering the whole package and once people are hooked, slowly shift to a system where people pay more for services that are customized to their needs.  This is pretty much how the telecom companies fleeced people.  They initially offered unlimited broadband and then forced people to upgrade to gain more speed or go for customized packages that have different pricing schemes.  Thus, when a certain telecom company announced that it was offering free Internet with their SIM cards, I knew there was going to be a catch eventually.
The inescapable conclusion is that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.  Digital TV is being offered for free now (we just have to pay for the gadget), but we all know it’s not going to stay that way forever.
We can all take consolation, however, from the fact that we’re not really totally at the mercy of big business.  If one is not in a hurry, all the television shows are eventually made available for free in the Internet anyway.  Or if one so wishes, one can buy the DVD and watch the shows at one’s leisure.  The discs can be bought from legitimate or not-so-legitimate sources, but that’s another column altogether. And then there’s this whole new frontier in the Internet– Apple, Netflix, and others are working on apps that will make TV freely available through the Internet.  Television sets will no longer be needed to watch TV shows.  So eventually, even the magic box will be rendered obsolete, unless of course it evolves into something else... and I’m sure ABS-CBN has already that part fully covered.  I am sure they have thought through the various options even before they launched the product.
There’s just one headache though.  Internet connectivity will be critical.  Unfortunately, we do have one of the slowest and most expensive Internet connectivity in the world.  The world is advancing by leaps and bounds and everyone is moving at hyperspeed.  We run the risk of being left behind simply because our leaders are not as proactive or strategic, and big business is just focused on making quick money.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Snafu time

My column today, April 7, 2015.

We know the Lenten Season has expired, and with it all our resolve to be better Christians, because everyone has resumed a fighting stance and everything seems back to usual.  
The newspapers yesterday carried a token picture and a story about Christ’s resurrection, but 99 percent of the news was already about political conflict and the usual litanies of what doesn’t work in this country. 
The House of Representatives announced the resumption of hearings on the Mamasapano massacre amid strong warnings from the so-called Makabayan bloc that they would not drop moves to make the President of the country answerable for the Mamasapano massacre.  Legislators started positioning themselves on both sides of the Bangsamoro Basic Law debate.   Senator Alan Peter Cayetano accused Mindanao Peace advocate and actor Robin Padilla of being a political assassin of the Tingas – his family’s political rival in the fiefdom called the Taguig-Pateros area.  The finger-pointing has returned along with the resumption of the recurring blackouts in Mindanao and other places.  Some educators and yes, certain legislators who need to get media mileage in the runup to 2016, renewed their call to scrap the K+12 program. This is unbelievable but yes, they are still at it despite all the massive preparations to greenlight the program.  Meanwhile, the key cities of Makati and Iligan continued to have the absurd spectacle of having two mayors each. 
Yes, we’re back to normal, which basically means living in a country where leaders behave like children.  
The pissing contest that happened between the Land Transportation Commission and the Metro Manila Development Authority last week was a classic illustration of the kind of  problems we have in this country.  On Holy Wednesday last week, the LTO implemented its “No Plate, No Travel” Policy – it being April 1, 2015.  No, it wasn’t because it was April Fools Day, although the timing certainly looked appropriate; it was simply because that was the date when the LTO’s policy was supposed to have taken effect.  LTO spokesperson Jason Salvador insisted, in various reports, that they were just “implementing the law.”
My problem with catch-all justifications such as “we’re just doing our jobs” or “we’re just following orders” is that they negate the fact that officials, particularly those in leadership positions, are being paid to think and act like rational people and not as mindless robots.  Salvador also conveniently left out a very important context: The implementation of the very law he was defending had already been deferred and postponed many times when the LTO was still having major problems with the production of the new license plates for vehicles.  In short, they arbitrarily postponed implementation in the past when it suited them but immediately went ahead with the strict implementation when they were finally ready - other stakeholders be damned.
MMDA chairman Francis Tolentino was justified in branding LTO’s move last week as “cruel.” Why implement it at a time people embarked on a massive exodus from Manila? I am not sure Tolentino’s claim of “unconstitutionality” was valid although it sounded like music to the ears – a high-ranking government official finally taking up the cudgels for ordinary citizens and going against another government agency!  We really should be challenging more actions of government for the way they encroach on human and civil rights.
Of course we want the LTO to implement laws and to set high benchmarks in terms of operational efficiency.  If their claims of having zeroed out their backlog in the delivery of plates is indeed true, then they deserve commendation.   Lest we forget, the backlog was epic.  The thing is, the LTO is not the only stakeholder in the matter.   It needs to collaborate pro-actively with everyone else including car distributors, policy agencies, and yes, the MMDA, precisely because they don’t even have the manpower to apprehend violators of the “no plate, no travel” policy.  In this context, the implementation of the policy was not workable on many levels.  The MMDA refused to implement it, car distributors blamed everyone else, and as usual, ordinary citizens suffered the effects of the snafu. 
Thus, what could have been a wonderful bit of news (the LTO finally doing something right!) ended up as a snafu simply because many of our leaders just don’t know how to work together with others, or for that matter, to make things really work. By the way, in case you don’t know the word snafu was supposed to have derived its origins as an abbreviation for “situation normal, all things f****d up.”

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Holy week traditions

My column today, April 5, 2015.

We’ve always made it a tradition to prepare something—a vegetable dish or native delicacy—on Good Friday to share with some of our neighbors in San Andres, Manila. In our hometown in Leyte, this tradition is observed by almost everyone so much so that between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm on Good Friday, the streets would be full of people walking to and fro, with various containers of food in their hands.  This tradition was supposed to have been inspired by the miracle of the Last Supper when bread and fish was multiplied as an act of sharing.  Thus, when families sat down for lunch on Good Friday, they invariably sat down to a feast of vegetable and fish dishes and a selection of delectable desert.  I know—people in other places fast on Good Friday.  To our credit, we can insist that at least the feast is 100% vegetarian.
I haven’t been home for Holy Week for almost a decade already but I have always missed our town’s Good Friday tradition.  I’ve always had this hankering for various types of guinataan and other types of kakanin on Good Friday.  So in the last two years, we’ve been sending out kakanin to our neighbors - just out of habit without really expecting anything in return.  Imagine our surprise last Friday when the neighbors reciprocated.  
I learned, however, while trawling the net that the tradition of sharing food on Good Friday is actually observed in many provinces, although not in an organized way as it is in my hometown.  I noted quite a number of friends posted photos of delicacies (mostly variations of guinataan), which they said they also also shared with their relatives and friends.  I also came across many posts where people reminisced about traditions that marked the way they celebrated the Holy Week in their respective towns and provinces.
When I was growing up, all the boys in our town spent a good part of Good Friday preparing pala-pala, a bamboo instrument that made a loud clacking sound.  It was the sound of the pala-pala that accompanied the Good Friday procession around town.  Visita Iglesia was not yet in vogue when I was growing up, although the different barangays and the various socio-civic and religious organizations took turns doing vigil of the Santo Entierro at the main church.  The whole town would come out barefoot on Black Saturday morning to do the Stations of the Cross all over the poblacion.  A live reenactment of the passion of Christ was part of the activity.
For most of us kids, Easter Sunday was noteworthy for being the day when we finally got to eat meat after one whole week of subsisting on fish and vegetables. For me, however, Easter Sunday held a special significance.  From the time I was four years old up until I was in Grade four, I played a special role in the dawn Easter Sunday salubong (the meeting of the risen Christ and the Virgin Mother).  I was the angel tasked to lift the black veil that shrouded the Virgin Mother and symbolized grief and sorrow.  Once the veil was lifted, a choir of little girls would sing the Regina Coeli and the whole procession would return joyfully to church for the Easter Mass.
The salubong has understandably acquired better production values today thanks to more advanced audio-visual technology as well as pneumatic tools.  The designated angels are now fitted with harnesses, or placed in trucks or forklifts that go up or down easily.  During my time, the whole theatrical production would probably qualify a citation from the Department of Labor for working conditions unsafe for children.  I was either tied to a makeshift swing, or placed inside a basket, or even simply lowered from a balcony window by someone clutching at my garments.  In one occasion, we had to repeat the whole salubong because I accidentally lifted the Virgin’s crown and hair along with the veil.
The Holy Week, which ends today, is not just a religious celebration.  We are all shaped by the many traditions that we were exposed to growing up.  They become part of who we are and will always help explain our current values and beliefs.