Friday, October 22, 2010

In the Philippines, an ex-President’s namesake runs for a barangay post

I don’t know in other countries, but in the Philippines there is no law that prohibits a former President of the Republic—and my, a convicted felon, albeit, pardoned, at that—from running anew for public office.
There also isn’t any law that penalizes insult to the sensibilities of the unsuspecting, pliant masses—that’s the majority in us—who are also, by the way, short in memory that’s why they keep electing and trusting with power even the most idiotic politicians. And the crooks, the cheats, the drug dealers, the corrupt, the thieves, the quack, ad nauseam.

We can’t even punish those who, riding in the popularity or notoriety of some politicians, expropriate for themselves the popular or notorious names of these personalities just to get elected. If we can, then perhaps I would have been the first to advocate stoning these animals to death as punishment, which was allowed in biblical times. This suggestion was inspired by the news yesterday that a certain Jose Serra, a candidate for barangay captain, was stoned by irate members of the Workers’ Party. Don’t blame me; blame the news.

This is why the well-meaning among us could only shake our heads in disbelief when news came out that Joseph Estrada is running for barangay council member in Digos City in the October 25 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections.

Goodness gracious! What else does ‘Asiong Salonga’ needs to prove? Or perhaps, the proper question is, “What else does he would like to disprove?”

When former Trade and Industry secretary, the millionaire Jose Concepcion, lost in the 1987 senatorial election because his campaign slogan, “Isip Agila”, did not fly, I thought that was the end of his brief carousing with politics. But no. Subsequently, he ran for barangay captain in the rich enclave of Barangay Forbes and won. Mysteriously, nothing spectacular was heard of him as barangay captain and the rest of political Philippines, well, rested from his incessant exhortation for them to realize their dreams to become millionaires by transforming themselves into “People’s Economic Councils”, his pet economic strategy.

What if Joseph Estrada wins?

That will be good for our democracy. That will telegraph to the world the message that Filipinos are serious about their democratic values; that we adhere to the universal tenet of freedom of choice. That will inspire—some would say—countries like China to institute political reform ahead of economic re-engineering which, by the way, China had done in reverse and look where it had brought the Middle Kingdom: to the enviable position of being now the world’s number one economic powerhouse.

And et tu Philippines?

Well, the ultra-nationalists tell us not to mind our economic sustenance. It will come as long as we allow one-man-one-vote as the norm of our political life. Regular elections, these behind-the-times theorists say, will propel us to economic prosperity.

Joseph Estrada, the barangay kagawad candidate, must be thinking so. You may wonder about his motivation, but that’s not hard to divine. He wants power although his means of acquiring it insults me no end.

But what can I do? In this country where people are afflicted with the illness of imitation and the penchant for christening baby boys and girls with the names of Hollywood stars and other famous people, we are helpless and headed for another headline-grabbing gossip.

Thus, the candidacy of this upcoming Digos City politician with the name of the man from San Juan is a classic.

Joseph Estrada, the Digos City native, may retort that he, too, is helpless (he can claim innocence when his parents named him after the San Juan City overlord). In this case, it’s the voters who will decide his fate, a proposition that certainly will sit well with the apostles of American democracy Philippine-style.

Whatever, this does not appease me. I don’t want any Tom, Dick, and Harry using my name in vain, particularly putting it on the ballot.

The reason is simple. If that Tom, Dick, and Harry wins despite of my name or on account of it, and commits a crime, then I’ll be damned. My children would not like their father’s name tied up to a heinous deed.

In the meantime, I am happy that no politician, famous or trying to be one, has thought of expropriating “Nicon”. Thanks to my mother and my father who christened me with a name that turns off voters.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unlit cigarettes and lighted streets

I hate unlighted streets; streets that are pothole-ridden; untidy boulevards with dog and cat litter; stretch of concrete that bear no directional signs; streets that have no sidewalks because the allotted spaces for such have been expropriated by the uncivilized and unruly; and streets inhabited by hawkers, whose commerce ranges from peddling flesh to stale street food.
I hate more streets populated by criminal drivers who stay only a second and then without warning—not even a signal light for minimum courtesy—suddenly switch lanes and after the near-death experience of the aggrieved and over-taken fellow driver take pride in the criminal behavior. Such scum of the road should be guillotined, or worse, poisoned to death.

It is unlawful to strangle drivers without breeding? Tell that to the meek, not to me.

I am on a warpath. I want to spit betel nut saliva in the eyes of the uneducated hazards of the road.

If I were the chief of the Philippine National Police, I will set a daily quota for every police in uniform to haul at least two criminal drivers to Muntinlupa, on pain of being stripped his uniform if he fails to meet the requirement.

But because I am not a law enforcer (I am an undisciplined writer), I can only bite my tongue with my remaining molar in disgust over the scheme of things in our beloved country. In our streets, I should say.

The window to a country’s civilization—and civility—is its streets and their condition.

The street is the most visible monument to a cultured people. You don’t believe me? Go to Divisoria, or Tondo, and take a photo of a stretch of pavement. Then, hurry to Makati or The Fort and do the same. Now, go home and compare the photos. Write your observations in essay form. Title it, “My Street Adventure”. Be detailed. Tell me what you see and relate your childhood days to it. Decide for yourself if you are happy. If you are not, blame it to the streets that you photographed. If you are, good luck. We are not compatible, at least in our taste for streets.

Sometime ago, I wrote an essay for The Manila Times about the walkways of Tanauan City. In that piece, I described the sidewalks of Apolinario Mabini’s old town as conducive to thinking and contemplation because they are wide. I appreciated the fact that boulevards lined up and shaded by giant trees are a view to behold. I love wide sidewalks, particularly those with no disorderly and dilapidated structures that obstruct the view, say, a lamp post that has no lamp. Did you ever wonder why lamp posts without lamps abound in many parts of Manila’s city streets?

I love clean streets, even if they are narrow. At the subdivision where I live, the streets are just right but they are clean, at least the ones that intersect my house, because I make it a point to sweep them spotless on weekends when office work temporarily takes a day off.

The legend that Singapore is a ‘fine’ city emanates from the fact that in that First World metropolis one will be fined, and heavily at that, if you ever spit or throw gum, candy wrapper, or cigarette butt into the streets. Cleanliness is a virtue I long to see in Philippine streets which, by the way, double up as garbage bin, parking lot, and wet market. This causes our streets to choke in traffic.

Streets riddled with moon-like craters are abhorrent. When she was a year or two, my youngest daughter, Lilac, used to cry so loudly when, while travelling, the taxi or bus we are riding bounces up and down upon hitting a pothole. Lara remembers clearly Lilac’s hatred of ‘lubak’ that she often teases her little sister of this childhood episode. It has become a source of laughter in the family.

Stories have been told about people being robbed, molested, mugged, or worse, abducted and killed in dark alleys and unlighted streets. So, unlighted streets are a bane to one’s health and one’s mortal existence.

They are also signs that our cities—we—are Third World. Unlighted streets mean we don’t have money to pay for crude oil, crude oil being the fuel that runs our power turbines that produce electricity.

Dark streets are also lonely. That’s where lovers whisper and moan—while sharing and salivating in wet dreams. Unrequited, despondent, lonely hearts looking for ‘love for sale’ thrive in pitch-dark streets.

On occasions when I cannot avoid walking along a dark alley or an unlighted street, I usually have in handy my ubiquitous lighter and an unlit cigarette between my thumb and forefinger, just in case . . . . I also don’t stride casually along. I walk briskly, with eyes darting from side to side watching for a sign of a mugger. If one materializes, my planned stratagem is to feed him my cigarette and light it quickly and run for dear life.

Experiences also abound of newly-arrived provincial people getting lost in the city because of a sign-less street, or a street that leads to nowhere. I, being so forgetful of directions, dread to venture out into such streets. It should be no problem if our cities have street maps, like those in other countries, but alas, we Filipinos are not map readers so here’s one piece of advice: if you are lost in Manila, or Cebu, or Davao, don’t go to the police to ask for directions. Chances are, they also don’t know. Go to the tarot reader or look for a Madam Auring and ask her to predict where you are going.

Monday, October 18, 2010

For Juan, I wish you goodbye

Home, 9:00 P.M.--I have—before I could even finish this paragraph—puffed two sticks of Winston Lights.

On a rainy Monday night when you knew that howling winds were wasting houses and trees and crops in far-away Northern Luzon; when you thought people should be warmly tucked in their beds but were not because of a recurring nightmare that Juan will worsen into yet another Ondoy; and when your lights are on while everyone else on a typhoon’s path are fumbling in the dark because their electricity had been cut off, you can’t just sleep.

I can’t sleep. Sleeping would have been an injustice, a discourtesy to your fellow human beings who have to brave a night of apprehension that nature’s wrath could suddenly turn on them and rend their lives asunder just as Ondoy did to countless thousands in 2009.

And because I am incapable of injustice, I can’t sleep the sleep of the just. I commiserate with those who are suffering from Juan’s wrath by staying awake—and thinking.

And also writing.

So, what does one write on a rainy Monday night?

Well, there is the typhoon to write about. But there’s no new thing about it except that Juan is the strongest typhoon to pay us a visit in four years.

There is also the news that the Philippine Atmospheric and Geophysical and Services Administration, or very well known as PAGASA, is more prepared today to confront Juan than in July when we, the ‘boss’ of the current administration, faced not only the wrath of Typhoon Basyang but also the anger of President Benigno S. Aquino III because of the alleged ‘incompetence’ of PAGASA’s chief, Dr. Prisco Nilo, to correctly predict Basyang’s coming.

The President’s anger led to the sacking of Dr. Nilo, but his removal didn’t deter Typhoon Juan from coming. It only made him more determined to make his presence felt. Look at the Yahoo photos of the damage Juan has wrought.

It would also be interesting to write about how early preparation could mitigate the damage of natural calamities.

In July, Basyang caused over 1,000 Filipinos to meet their Maker early. Juan, as I write this, caused only four deaths.

How sad. You see, death, by any number and whatever its causes, diminishes me.

But how also comforting.

Since Friday, government authorities were already making preparations to ensure that Juan’s visit would be ‘smooth’, I mean, cause least damage. They issued bulletins: warned people to stack on food, water, candles, and battery (in the provinces, kerosene as fuel for ‘oil’ lamps). The police, the military, and the fire department readied their emergency disaster equipment, such as rubber dinghies, axes, ropes, paddles, life jackets, emergency lights, etc. Health authorities braced their doctors, nurses, and other health workers for emergency medical situations.

And Dinky Soliman’s Department of Social Welfare and Development, or DSWD, I heard, opened its warehouses of food stuffs, ready to be distributed, in case of food shortages. This is very unlike the situation in September 2009, when donated food and other items were reported to have rotten because the DSWD locked its warehouses shut and refused to distribute these to victims of Ondoy for reasons we don’t know why.

That’s how prepared we are today for Juan’s coming.

Of course, the only thing we are not prepared for is ourselves. How we will behave in the face of a calamity is unpredictable, as we were when confronted by life-threatening situations, like when a crazed police officer took a bus full of tourists in August and the police, in response, peppered the bus with bullets to practice their shooting skills.

That was a bigger, albeit, man-made calamity, we were caught flat-footed with.

I think I have made a point.

I’ll sleep the typhoon away and hopefully, wake up to the news that Juan has left.

Goodbye Juan. Don’t come back, please.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A migraine called the Bureau of Immigration

First, it flunked the test of obedience. Now, the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID) is guilty of in-your-face defiance.

By disobeying the express order of the President Benigno S. Aquino III not to use his image or photo in any way that smacks of political grandstanding and unfettered patronizing, the BID, whose charter dating back to 1935 is as antiquated as the mindset of some of the officials that run the agency, is showing its true color: it causes migraine to Malacanang.

It can recalled that immediately after President Aquino came to office, he warned all government offices against using his photo from being displayed in billboards and posters that ‘announce’ his ascendancy as President, or that tend to show his pre-eminence as the First Gentlemen of this hapless, undisciplined and unruly country called the Philippines.

It was a simple, but bold, governance masterstroke. Like the prohibition of the use of ‘wang-wang’, it was a sudden departure from the political-bullying culture of the era of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose photo with that perennial smirk—including those of her officials’—had adorned billboards, posters, handbills, calendars, forms, souvenir fans, pins, buttons, and shirts posters for nine years that I am just recovering from our polluted landscape.

The BID defied that order. It printed millions of departure and arrival cards with the photo of P-Noy.

When the President heard about it, he fumed and castigated the BID. We don’t know how he did it, but we know the BID later issued a press release saying it has stopped using the forms with the President’s image.

This is not true. Last week, the flight attendants of Thai Airways were still using the BID arrival cards in question: call that lying and disobedience.

Then last week, news came out about the so-called ‘Dra. Belo cards’.

The BID apparently had not learned its lesson, or was so hard-headed, that it printed millions of departure and arrival cards with the image of a doctor whose sole claim to fame is to have trimmed the waistlines, firmed up the flat noses and sagging breasts, and removed flab of fats of the moneyed famous and infamous, including celluloid stars.

Tasteless. That is, the choice of ‘endorser’ of the BID.

I said this not because I prefer the image of my labrador, Zorro, to be on the arrival and departure cards, but because if the reports are correct, the mangling by the BID of the use of the abbreviation ‘Dr.’ as “Dra.’ is inexcusable.

In correct English usage, there is no abbreviation as ‘Dra.’! The title, ‘doctor’, refers both to a male and female physician and its abbreviation is simply ‘Dr.’, with a period or full stop (.) in American usage, and without a period or full stop, if you go by British usage. Here, I’ll stop my lecture on punctuation . . .

. . . and continue excoriating the BID for its more serious offense—its defiance.

The BID claimed it was not responsible for the printing of the cards with the ‘Dra. Belo’ image. It reasoned it was its contractor, e.Xtend Inc., which was at fault.

Fine. Charles Stephen Sy of e.Extend apparently told GMANews.TV that there was no need to get the approval of the BID in printing the advertisement of the Belo Medical Group on the arrival and departure cards and that there was nothing ‘immoral’ with the cards. No one, really, said it was, as far as I recall.

"e.Xtend has the right to place any sponsors and advertisements as long as they are not contrary to the public morals or standards or compromise the image of the Bureau of Immigration," Sy was quoted to have said.

Well, Mr. Sy, I’ll tell you this: what you did already compromised the BID with the President. What you did had already put the BID in the list of government agencies that disobeys the P-Noy, and we, P-Noy’s ‘boss’, are watching.

Now, from the ‘boss’: Mr. President, sack Ronald Ledesma, the BID’s officer-in-charge, for causing you—and us—another unwanted migraine. We don’t deserve it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Communicating labour rights

Bangkok—How do you communicate to ‘a world gone flat’, as Thomas Friedman said, the right of a woman—working at a Bangladesh garments factory—to have maternity leave?

What should the Philippine government say, or do, to ensure that its increasing number of urban informal workers who have, at the height of the global financial crisis, transformed their homes into small business shops providing specific types of services, such as styling hair or Internet access, have a right to adequate social protection?

The People’s Republic of China, which as of this writing has over 280 million rural migrants looking for work in China’s urban corridors, have the right to find decent work and should not be prejudiced and discriminated against. How should that message be delivered?

Or what should be done to some countries that yearly trek to Geneva to attend the ritual of the International Labour Conference, but after exiting the global stage gathering of labour ministers go home and turn a blind eye to the oppression of migrant workers providing the sinews of their respective economies?

These, and many others, are the fundamental questions that the International Labour Organization (ILO) sought to answer as it convened on Monday 23 journalists, including myself, from 13 countries for a five-day training at the ILO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific here in Bangkok.

Communicating Labour Rights, a training course for media professionals, is the first such training to be held here in Asia.

Organized by the ILO’s International Training Centre in Turin, Italy, the training aims to equip journalists, reporters, editors, publishers, PR professionals, and press officers working in all types of media with knowledge about ILO and the work of its supervisory bodies, as well as international labor standards and how these are applied.

The course also aims to equip participants with skills which they could use in writing a wide range of stories that could inform national and regional debates on social and economic development. Part of the skills the course aims to teach is how to extract and use appropriate ILO data and information, such as international labor standards, that the participants could use in their coverage of labor and social affairs.

On the first day, judging from the participants’ enthusiasm to ask questions, as journalists are wont to, I readily surmised the training course would serve a very useful purpose.

I said this because the questions and observations indicate a glaring divide between the ILO—a UN body steeped in the tradition of polite debates, contemplative and meticulous study, and diplomacy—and the participants whose preponderance of daily life is dictated by a newsroom culture that requires constant struggle and immediacy.

To me, to bridge this divide is welcome, but it is a tall order.

And it showed when Jamela Alindogan, producer of Al Jazeera Television’s Manila bureau frankly said her network does not consider it news a gathering of executives in suites and ties who merely talk.

To this, Sophy Fisher, ILO’s regional information officer, calmly replied that the challenge for journalists is to discover what in the gathering was said, or decided, and reporting this because this could shape and influence public opinion or a national policy. In a larger sense, both were right.

It showed when Aoun Abbas, a reporter from Pakistan’s The News on Sunday, said that the ILO report saying hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis would lose jobs because of the recent devastating floods in that country never even made it to the front pages of Pakistani newspapers.

“Journalists and media professionals play a leading role in shaping the public debate about social and economic development,” said the ILO in its introduction to the course.

It explained: “The conditions under which we work—and the standards that govern them—concern all levels and all kinds of societies . . . Work related issues include immediate practical questions—wages, safety and health, discrimination, gender, social safety nets, child and forced labour—and broader issues, such as building competitiveness and productivity, creating employment-friendly laws and policies, labour migration, linking education and employment, and the right to organize and express opinions.”

In Asia and the rest of the world, ILO’s ‘practical questions’ are fundamental issues. Going local, in the Philippines, these are certainly essential. And therefore, Ms. Fisher’s challenge, which is ILO’s, is universal: how should we, as journalists, communicate these to our peoples?

How should we—in the light of our perspectives narrowed down by our own reporting environments and, as the ILO rightly pointed out, “pressurized by limited time and resources”—report and analyze these “complex issues in a way that draws audiences back, again and again”?

In the face of many of today’s world bodies, such as the ILO, refusing to play the “police officer” of the day, I am afraid only journalists could answer the question, merely because they are the most impatient and the “angrier” group of people who would like to see that these issues—these “rights”—are immediately enjoyed by all.

This is not to say that journalists don’t need help. They do, and the ILO, with its rich experience, its tripartite structure, and its hard-earned respect and enviable reputation as the global arbiter of labour and employment standards and issues, is very well situated and qualified to point the way.

And this course is the kind of engagement that could jumpstart the process of communication, of bridging the divide. Neither should now abdicate each other’s roles in the engagement, for much is at stake.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Reporting corruption

Bangkok—On Monday, The Nation, one of Thailand’s English daily newspapers, bannered a story about corruption, a familiar theme in the Philippines the obliteration of which the 100-days old government of President Benigno S. Aquino III is trying very hard to do.

The Nation says that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva needs the help of the Thai populace to tackle the rising incidence of graft and corruption in the land of muay thai and the elephant. It said the social media, like Facebook, and a video clip contest, should create ‘waves of actions’ to lick the menace.

“The public need(s) to be guided on how they should act against it (corruption),” the newspaper quoted Utis Kaothien as having said at a roundtable discussion on graft and corruption last week.

Mr. Utis is senior adviser to Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission. The panelists in the roundtable discussion, the newspaper reported, agreed that they should not wait for the government to act and that the private sector and the public must take a lead in fighting graft. They said reporting corruption is necessary.

The news comes ahead of next month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference, when delegates from all over the world gather in this charming capital to update one another on the progress of global battle against corruption.

President Aquino, this writer posits, should send an army of graft-busters to the conference, so that his war cry during the campaign—which carried him to Malacanang—will be revived and rejuvenated. Except in some pockets of the government like in the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Aquino’s battle is flagging.

I agree that reporting corruption, whether those done in private or public places, is a deterrent against the evil, but only a deterrent I say, not a cure.

Senator Franklin Drilon may, through the public hearings on the budget, report daily the corruption in many offices such as those in the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) whose former chief, now Rep. Augusto Syjuco, had allegedly used government money for unlawful purposes, but if Syjuco is not jailed, then the report may remain just that—a report.

He may bewail to high heavens the alleged corruption of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s lapdog, ex-secretary of Agriculture Bernie Fondevilla, who allegedly disbursed billions in agriculture funds ahead of the May 2010 elections, but if Fondevilla is not hauled off to jail, Drilon’s reportage of graft will remain just that—a temporary fodder to an excitable media.

For graft and corruption to be licked, the perpetrators need to be obliterated—punished. It’s as simple as that.

President Aquino’s strong-willed stand of pro-choice on the reproductive health issue should extend to the issue of graft and corruption. He should wield a bat and club the corrupt senseless.

Many Filipinos are crying for the blood of those who have pillaged the Republic and emptied the country’s coffers dry. You need proof? Read the feedback in the President’s website.

For example, in the National Labor Relations Commission, the quasi-judicial agency that arbitrates labor cases, there are about this office plenty of harsh words which the people are saying and which, fortunately, DOLE Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz and NLRC Chairman Gerardo Nograles are paying close attention to.

It’s a comfort that many NLRC commissioners are backing up Baldoz’s and Nograles’s call for reforms, like the creation of a National Efficiency and Integrity Board to, well, report and monitor shenanigans in the agency.

The NEIB, to be composed of labor, management, and government representatives, is envisioned not only to report and monitor, but also prevent and punish, graft and corruption at the NLRC.

The parallelisms in Thailand and the Philippines on the issue of graft and corruption are not coincidence. Both countries suffer heavily from corruption. Both realize that graft and corruption is a drag to good governance and economic rebirth.

Therefore, any concrete public action that will lead to the elimination, or even just to the reduction, of graft and corruption, is welcome.

Reporting it is a first step, but that first step should end up with the corrupt contracting pneumonia inside the cold walls and clutching at the cold bars of a prison. When that happens, many more people may be emboldened to come forward and denounce the termites eating up on our social frayed social fabric.