Monday, October 24, 2011

An excess of access

Melbourne—What a first-time traveller to Melbourne can immediately notice is how Australia, a continent of 22 million people scattered over a territory of 10,000 square kilometers, could easily be “accessed”.

Let’s begin by air. There is a direct flight via Philippine Airlines from Manila to Melbourne, but because of Lucio Tan’s troubles with the unions, a PAL flight to the land down under did not materialize.

From Changi in Singapore, the Singapore Airlines runs a daily seven-hour flight to Melbourne. Several other airlines, including Virgin Air and Airjet, fly out of Changi to disgorge an endless stream of tourists and business people to the City of the Southern Cross.

From the air, Melbourne is a large quadrangle divided into proportionate grids, which tells us how its planners envisioned a city accessible from all directions, with parallel boulevards, streets, byways, places, and causeways. You wouldn’t be lost in Melbourne, but you could lose yourself intentionally—if you are an on-foot explorer (I was!)—in sights and interests, like shopping which is an Eve’s apple to any traveller to Melbourne.

From the airport, access to the city is by train, tram, bus, or taxi. Melbourne has an extensive network of public transport that rivals the efficiency of any Europe metropolis. Like in Tokyo and other efficient cities, there are plenty of taxis, but if you are on a budget, the train and the tram is the way to go.

For Melbourne residents, the tram is the easiest means to go about their city. One can easily hop onto a tram and be in one’s destination in a couple of minutes with very minimal traffic. Signs in intersections are aplenty asking pedestrians to give way to the tram!

One can also go around by bicycle or by motorbike. Everywhere, there are plenty of bike hire stations and bicycle travelers can use the sidewalks, which are as wide as the streets, to reach a destination or a place of interest.

The City Circle Tram is a must for any first-time Melbourne visitor. It takes about three hours to “encircle” the Melbourne central business district via this public transport operated by Yarra Trams, one of several tram companies in the city. It is free and it has a piped-in sound system that provides visitor information to passengers.

I became a City Circle Tram fanatic on my last day in Melbourne. From the Hotel Victoria, the 125-year old hotel that is part repository of Melbourne’s colonial history—a Filipino manager who served as Hotel Victoria’s general manager for eight years tells the tale of Tina Turner sitting endless hours alone in the hotel’s second floor coffee shop sipping latte—was Flinders Train Station, housed in a Victorian-era building opposite Federation Square. Flinders is by the banks of the Yarra River, which one can cruise to see the southern edge of Melbourne by the sea all the way to the Victoria harbor.

It is on Flinders that I boarded the City Circle Tram, counterclockwise first, all the way to the Docklands and back. While on the moderately-lumbering tram, I saw the Australian Cinema and Moving Images building of steel and glass with an architecture that needs a hard look for one to understand. Every city it seems has an architecture that calls attention to itself and Melbourne’s ACMI is its entry to this phenomenon.

Along the way I saw (it was a sight-seeing ride; no dawdling) the Old Treasury Museum; then the Parliament House; State Library of Victoria; Flagstaff Gardens; Etihad Stadium; Victoria Police Museum; Melbourne Aquarium; and the Immigration Museum. The latter is a major place of interest, considering that Melbourne, in fact, all of Australia, was built on the toil and sweat of migrants.

Just to ensure I would remember for a long time the feel of Melbourne, I took another City Circle Tram tour, this time clockwise, using the same route and with the same places of interest in sight. This time I did not complete the cycle for I alighted on Queen Street, up north, and walked all the way to a suburb mecca of tourists: the Queen Victoria Market located by the Tram Route 55 going to the Melbourne Zoo.

The QVM—which I have repeatedly referred to as Victoria Court to the delight of my companions—is a cavernous haven for inexpensive buys of anything on sale in Australia, some of which are Italian leather goods manufactured in China. I spent something like AUS$80 on coming-home gifts at the QVM to show proof I had been there; then retired to Hotel Victoria in the late afternoon to prep myself up for the next day’s grueling 12-hour trip back to Manila.

But the best way to see, to savor, to smell, and to feel Melbourne is to walk.

I did. I traversed the city’s wide walkways and easily got myself drunk with the sights and sounds of a metropolitan hub just waking up on a lovely spring season. Block after block, I walked. I walked to have coffee along the cafes on busy Swanston, Bourke, Elizabeth, Exhibition, and Flinders streets. I gawked at bookshops; admired old colonial buildings; peeped though opal-selling houses; rummaged through stacks of Australian leather stores and souvenirs; and got a taste of Australian-Thai, Australian-Chinese, and Australian-Vietnamese food in an endless line of shops and bars competing for customers tired, hungry and thirsty after walking.

Now I know the secret of success of the food business in a city: make people walk to get them tired, hungry, and thirsty. And the way to do this is to maintain wide pedestrian walkways; keep them lighted, clean, and safe; then remove the physical distractions that send pedestrians nervous, such as vendors, muggers and hustlers, and mendicants.

Alas, in most of Manila’s streets, one walks at the mercy of the elements, of the known and of the unknown, because the authorities in charge of ensuring the cleanliness and safety of the city are mostly in hiding—themselves cowering in fear of being accosted, mugged, robbed, or infected with the city’s filth and pollution the moment they go out.

This is one reason why we are being laughed at by people around the world. Filipinos, I heard one say, is very meticulous and concerned about personal hygiene that they take a bath twice or thrice a day, while other peoples don’t. But in the aspect of ensuring their surroundings clean, Filipinos don’t give a hoot. Look at the city streets of Manila, Pasay, or any other urban town strewn with all kinds of refuse and you will know what I mean. But I digress.

Melbourne is a melting pot of peoples and cultures from across the universe. During my stay, I’ve met five taxi drivers of varied nationalities—an Italian, a Syrian, an Indian, a Turkish, and an Australian. I listened to a duo of Chinese and Australian pop singers performing along the sidewalk near the City Square. I met a Spanish waitress; became fast friend with a Kiwi attendant at the Pie Face cafĂ©; knew a Filipino service crew at the City Circle Tram; got introduced to a bright and obviously single female Atenean taking up her MBA at the Melbourne University; and spoke in the Bicol language with a long-time female employee at the Melbourne Human Resources Services.

The front officer at the Victoria Hotel with already an Australian accent but has no manners was a Chinese. At the QVM, I haggled with an Indonesian storekeeper; and got a lot of ribbing from a Slovenian trader. At the Australia Post along Little Collins, the employee who answered my inquiry was an Australian of Japanese descent.

Melbourne in October is a busy, festive city. The horse races, the concerts of foreign entertainers, the fashion festivals, and the arts exhibitions are all happening at this time of the year in Melbourne and making Melburnians’ cash registers ringing with tourist dollars.

I had been to Moscow, Paris, Geneva, London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Beijing, New York, Ontario, and Dubai, and other cities in Asia, Middle East, and Africa, but Melbourne, to my view, is one of the world’s most live-able cities. It is very friendly to foreigners. It is safe. It is immaculately clean. But if you plan to reside here, you must have a stable job because the standard of living is expensive, with the GST—whatever that means, but it means tax—staring you in the face every turn of the way.

But why was I in Melbourne?

It’s because I was lucky to be part of a team of National Wages and Productivity Commission officials who went on a mission to study Australia’s wage-setting system. The NWPC, the country’s wage-setting and business productivity promotions agency, is in the thick of formulating policy to reform the system of fixing wages in the Philippines and had planned this trip to study the Australians’ way of, well, paying their workers.

The team’s visit was underwritten by the International Labour Organization. The ILO is a partner of the Department of Labor and Employment whose Secretary, Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz, my boss, conceptualized the reform. It was Baldoz, therefore, who sent me to Melbourne.

The team was composed of NWPC Executive Director Ciriaco Lagunzad, Jr., his deputy, Patricia Hornilla; his two directors, Jeanette Damo and Ahmma Charisma Satumba; the Secretaries of the National Wages and Productivity Boards of the National Capital Region, Region IV-A, and Region XI, Aida Andres, Rovelinda dela Rosa, and Ruby Badilles, respectively, and myself.

As delegation head, Executive Director Lagunzad made sure we were focused on the mission. But that’s another subject I need to write about after this impression on an extra-ordinary city, which impression I felt needed to be laid down first before I explain the serious part of the mission.

That, Virginia, is called context.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is Ragipon making the Sibale fiesta in Sibale irrelevant?

Last week, I had an interesting exchange with Auntie Nel Yap, Sibale’s municipal agriculture officer, about—of all topics—the Sibale fiesta.

Sibale celebrates the feast of its patron saint, the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, every December 8. It used to be, many moons ago, that the Sibalenhons have only one fiesta celebration, and that takes place in Sibale. This fiesta is almost a week of festivities, with nightly dances and daytime pastime activities, usually basketball, buyang, baratilyo, parades, and left and right food feasts that could rival any in the archipelago.

When I was a child, one symbol of the fiesta is called ihaw. Ma-ihaw ka? This was a question often asked. At dawn on the week before the kapistahan, the quiet of the December air in the poblacion is rent by the cries of pigs being slaughtered. Having a sow or a boar to be slaughtered during the fiesta is a sign not only of a merry occasion. It symbolized the devotion of the citizen to the patron saint, and to the guests—relatives and non-relatives—coming to town for the annual get-together.

The Sibale fiesta, bordering on the bacchanalian, but reaching a religious crescendo with the biray on the morning of December 8, was one of the happiest experiences I ever had as a child. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of life in the island is the fiesta, which meant new clothes, no classes, and a lot of free time to play.

Comes now Auntie Nel pricking the conscience of the guilty on the matter of the fiesta. Home on the Sunday night after I came from Lipa City to oversee the conduct of the Ragipon 2011 Inter-Color Basketball Tournament (plug: Kusog Sibalenhon, Inc. is this year’s organizing host of the tourney) a prelude to the celebration of the Sibale fiesta in Lipa City, she texted me:

“Asi badaey kamo gi pista raha. Pisan kamo reli sa ato Sibale it pista. (Please don’t anymore     celebrate the fiesta there. Join us in our fiesta in Sibale.)

I was taken aback by the text message. Surely, this is just coincidental? But before I explain why was that, let me explain first what is that.

Nine years ago, the Sibalenhons in Lipa City and in adjoining areas, including Metro Manila, mounted a celebration of the Sibale fiesta by not going home to Sibale for the celebration. They celebrated the fiesta of Sibale in Lipa City. Anomalous? No, it was propitious.

The celebration was not without convincing reason. The organizers, who belong to the umbrella group called the Sibale Development Foundation, Inc., said their act was an act of faith. They would also like to pay honor and homage to the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, whose image is installed in the Sibale Parish Church, on her feast day.

And since it is impractical for them to go home on or before December 8 on account of the testy December weather and of the enormous expense entailed in coming home to Sibale for the annual pilgrimage, they celebrated the fiesta in Lipa City.

Reasonable, wasn’t it? In our times when people are already attending the Sunday mass on TV (there are even online burol!)—why not a fiesta away from the real McCoy?

And so, the celebration of the Sibale fiesta in Lipa City became a habit. An annual thing. It grew complete with Saturday novena; a basketaball tournament played every Sunday starting in September; benefit dances in between; and the main fiesta mass celebrated often by Sibale’s parish priest himself. There is even boodle-fight lunch on the day itself, which in Asi is called langkapi.

In time, the Sibale fiesta celebration in Lipa City acquired a life of its own, even a theme, called Ragipon. Ragipon has no direct equivalent word in English. It means en masse. Kumpol-kumpol is a near equivalent in Tagalog. And also over the years, more and more Sibalenhons in Lipa City and its environs have been coming to the Ragipon. Even some from Sibale come to Lipa to attend it.

And this was Auntie Nel’s beef. She reported that in one of the fiesta preparatory meetings in Sibale, mention was made about the alleged competition posed by the Ragipon, the Lipa City version of the Sibale fiesta, on the Sibale fiesta. She implied that the Ragipon, is taking the juice out of the fiesta in Sibale itself:

“Kag kami’y nag meeting, imaw it topic ka Ragipon. Asi kuno nak Disyembre ka inro pista, muyating waya ey it napauli. (When we had a meeting, the fiesta of Ragipon was the topic. They were asking why your fiesta is in December. Look, that’s the reason why no one goes home anymore for the Sibale fiesta.)”

She has a point, but she missed it big time. She also admitted in effect that the Ragipon is drawing the Sibalenhons’ attention away from the Sibale fiesta. But what I don’t understand was the complaint why the Ragipon should be in December, in short, why it should compete with the celebration in Sibale when, in fact, this twin, parallel celebration should complement each other.

"Pay naghihinanakit ara ka mga tawo. Asi kuno nak pinarungan pa. Dapat kuno ay sa ibang buyan. Lalo ey ngasing nak nagka-campaign kami sa lokal nak turismo. (The people are a little bit sore, wondering why it should be at the same time. They say your celebration should be in another month, now that we are campaigning for local tourism.)

Well, I don’t know about it, Auntie Nel, but the last time I looked, there was only one Lady of the Immaculate Conception and her feast day is December 8. To suggest another fiesta date for the island’s patron saint is heretic, unless you are changing the calendar of the saints?

Also, I was one of the very first to suggest when Mayor Boyet Cipriano assumed office that he should strengthen the local tourism council if it is local tourism that should be promoted as an economic growth strategy. The fiesta as a local tourism attraction strategy is valid, but worn-out.

The point is that if Sibale local officials would like to entice migrant Sibalenhons to go back to Sibale and return to their roots once in a while, as what a fiesta could—must—do, our local officials need to be a little more creative and innovative in thinking of ways on how to attract visitors, local or otherwise.

Thinking or even feeling that the Ragipon competes with the Sibale fiesta is rather a myopic view. The Ragipon has become popular because it is an amalgam of the religious and the social in a practical context. Migrant Sibalenhons troop to the Ragipon—support it—because they share the same religious fervor and piety to the Lady of the Immaculate Conception as their kin in Sibale.

They patronize it because in the place where they are now—and that is away from Sibale—they find in the Ragipon an anchor, a sense of identity and belongingness that make their migrant lives a little bit bearable.

But the most compelling argument why the Sibalenhons in Sibale should leave the Sibalenhons in Lipa City alone in their own devices, particularly in their observance of the religious fiesta, is the practicality of it all: they don’t want to go home in the first week of December because of financial constraint; because they don’t want to be off work even by a few days; and because they don’t want to go through the hassle of travel at a time of the year when the sea weather becomes unpredictable.

Or, one can also say that the Sibalenhons are just plain unsentimental about going home to Sibale every December. Take your pick.

It’s the same reason why many professed Catholics prefer just watching Sunday mass on TV instead of actually going to church. They don’t want to encounter the traffic; want to save transportation money; and choose to be safe in the confines of their living rooms.

Or, maybe they are just plain lazy in taking their being Catholics seriously.

Take your pick.

The PESO: Eleven at 11

Alice Fetalvero and I had only a brief chat during breakfast at the cavernous covered patio of the Davao Waterfront Insular Hotel, where the 11th National PESO Congress, an annual pilgrimage of PESO managers, was ongoing. The conversation topic was, of course, the PESO.
Manang Alice, as I call the former vice governor of Romblon, was ecstatic. She is newly-installed as provincial PESO manager and—credit the wise choice of Manang Alice to Governor Lolong—was already planning long-range on how to make the PESO—a most unusual and unique bureaucratic set-up—benefit the Romblomanons.

The Public Employment Service Office, you see, is an “orphan”. Abandoned by the lawmakers who sired it by not assigning a single peso for its operationalization and upkeep—until now, what a pity!—the PESO, for 11 years, has struggled to be alive, reeling on the ropes sometimes, gasping for air most often, as a result of legislative infantilism.

For where can you see a law creating an office but not providing for its roof, personnel, and resources? Only in the PESO law! The PESO law is an “unfunded” law, that’s what the bureaucrats call it, in chorus with the 250 plus and 23 senators who midwifed its birth. To me, however, it’s euphemism for Congressional castration.

So, the Department of Labor and Employment had to adopt the PESO by virtue of sacred and noble duty. The DOLE was at its philanthropic best by, singly and most energetically, pushing the PESO out of its incubator and nudging it to life. By giving the PESO skills, technical know-how, money, and most important of all, reason to live, which are people, the PESO has survived its infancy. It has grown up, exhibiting tentative steps at first, but steadily showing signs of strength and stability as it struggled to be relevant. Were it a grade schooler, at 11, the PESO would have been in Grade 5 by now: a budding adolescent.

Making it easy for jobseekers to meet their match in employers is the main responsibility of the PESO. Over the years, this principal work has evolved—increased, actually—to include the delivery of labor market information—an array of knowledge on where the jobs are; what occupations are in-demand; what the employers look for in workers; how much a particular skill pays, etc.) and services such as counseling, career coaching, training needs assessment, and ultimately, finding a job.

The PESO as a job finder? Yes, of course, given that the country has a working-age population habitually addicted to asking the government to do for them even the simplest of tasks. Like writing a resume? Or correctly filling-up an application form? Or making a referral just like what a politician does in his waking moment?

“Yes, all of those,” I told Manang Alice, “and more. The PESO should be able to cut the downtime that stands between the “job-ready” or “teachable-fit” worker and the discriminating, but exacting, employer. The moment the PESO does this—very professionally, effectively, and quickly—then the perennial problem of workers not finding the right job at the time of his own choosing and of employers not finding the right worker exactly at their time of need, will be eased. The moment the PESO does this—then Congress can be abolished for its fatalistic view of what a law is and should be.

To understand the PESO and appreciate its work, one has to listen to Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda D. Baldoz, who says that beyond the structure, the PESO should see itself as a whole and complete set of processes and systems that serves the people’s employment facilitation needs. It must be relevant to be useful. It must deliver correct labor market information. It should even be able to address a gamut of employment and unemployment issues jobseekers and employers face in a globalized world. From a mere intermediary, the PESO will have to transform itself into a frontline service hub capable of responding to changes, trends, and signals of the labor market in a moment’s notice.

I didn’t know if the participants in the Congress, hosted by Region 11, also struggled with the above questions like Manang Alice did. But I noted that one of the most anticipated and applauded Congress highlights was the announcement of Secretary Baldoz that PESO managers nationwide shall have a seat in one of the DOLE’s most important policy instruments, the tripartite Industrial Peace Council which is a dialogue partner of the DOLE.

This should happen soon. I have asked the Secretary how her plan could be realized and she said the government’s representation in the ITCs will be expanded to include PESO managers.

If Manang Alice gets a seat in the ITC as provincial PESO manager, say, for example, in the marble industry ITC, which by the way I don’t know if it exists, then she would be able to participate in the debates and policy discussion on matters relating to Romblon’s marble industry, the province’s only major industry with yet unrealized potential.

And while waiting for that, I suggest that Manang Alice make use of her new position—and the opportunity—to work for the institutionalization of the provincial and municipal PESOs; advocate for PESO best practices; conduct workshops on how to start a business and hold seminars on career development and social entrepreneurship.

This is big work, but knowing her as one who does not to back-off from a great challenge, I guess she can accomplish the task. I this field of employment facilitation, it is my opinion she could be of greater help to Romblon than when she is an elected official.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A most unusual gift

I listened to a very uplifting sermon last Sunday, courtesy of the Rev. Pastor Teofilito A. Rufon of the Odiongan Baptist Church.

My presence at Pastor Rufon’s congregation was not an accident. It was fate—and a recipe called Christian Faith—that carried my feet inside the OBC’s imposing cathedral, the newest in Odiongan’s rising skyline.

I was invited to the service by John, Pastor Rufon’s eldest son who, I kidded Ismael Fabicon, is fast becoming a soloist than a college professor. You see, John had a great time a day earlier when he belted out with gusto songs of the 1622: Unang Usbor, the Asi people’s only ethno-linguistic musical group. John has become a convert—to the strong brew of the Asi language—which was the reason for this latest Odiongan visit. But I am taking a detour. I will write about it later. The temporal can wait. The spiritual can’t.

First, the gospel music. Perched high up above the Pastor’s podium when I entered the Church was a group of men and women garbed in their bright red and green uniforms. They were singing. Ask me what melts my heart most and I will say to you: it’s singing.

The choir’s rendition of gospel music tore the air at the cavernous hall, cementing the solemnity of the service. I knew some of the Church’s hymns and I found myself singing, first under my breath, and later, briskly, as if I was a congregation member. I don’t know if somebody noticed.

Christ in the home—the Christian home—was Pastor Rufon’s sermon that Sunday. I winched the moment he forcefully described a home without Christ as the center. Well, a writer’s sanity is best restored not by writing alone, but by admitting self-guilt: I haven’t listened to a sermon for quite some time. I think the last service I attended was when a priest excoriated the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office for selectively publishing the names of bishops who received cars from the agency and that strengthened my resolve to take a time out from being seen inside a church.

Here is a pastor of a flock who remains within the confines of the spiritual, unlike some who bully others from the pulpit on matters sometimes of least concern to the faithful. Like politics. It was a welcome air, don’t you think? I loved it. I am a strong believer in the separation of the State and the Church, as the Constitution dictates, but alas, this in the Philippines is honored more in the breach and so I rest my case.

Being in the labor and employment department, I appreciated Pastor Rufon’s admonition to parents to “teach their children to work”, the letter “T” in his ABCs for a Christian home. He was right on target. So many parents today, many of them OFWs, “feed” their children and are not teaching them the value of physical labor. “Do not feed them,” said the good Pastor, “if they don’t work.” We need many more Pastor Rufons in our midst to help the government whittle down the number of the unemployed.

“Sig-ab ako sa kabusgan sa sermon it imo Papa,” I told John after the service. It’s true. I think it was de-stressing to nourish your soul from time to time. Thank you, Pastor Rufon for the Vitamin “S”—Spirit’s Supplement.

I thought that was the last for that day, but life, really, is full of surprises. After the service, John introduced me to Andrew, his brother in law.

Andrew’s heavenly occupation is as deacon and chairman of the OBC’s Board of Christian Education. On earth, he works for PhilHealth. Well, education for heaven and health for earthlings are compatible professions, but the good part of the introduction was that Andrew and his wife Melody were to host me for lunch, at their house surrounded by farms in Poctoy.

I remained there the whole afternoon of Sunday. I forgot the world after Domingo “Jun” Fetalsana, with his guitar; Vic Musa of the Land Bank with his violin; and John with his vocals and I sang Asi songs, with Tony Fadero of the Department of Agrarian Reform providing the applause. I left three of my most recent compositions for them to arrange and to blend. When I return, I’ll join the three for us to form a quartet—initially, we will call ourselves Ap-at nak Sungay—and we will mount a concert. Ready your ticket money. The concert will not be free.

From Andrew, I received a most unusual gift. No, it was not the lunch consisting of ginat-ang yangka nak de bago and fried tilapia, but another dose of spiritual food. He handed me “The Double-Edged Sword”, an outline of sharp sermons that he had compiled.

I browsed some of the sermons on my trip to Batangas that evening and, just as Pastor Rufon’s sermon earlier, I experienced a high. You ask why? The first sermon in the outline is titled “Emergency Tips”.

“Disaster and emergency come at unexpected times. Therefore, we must prepare to meet our God. Jesus teaches us that preparation is needed,” said the outline.

When you are on a ship; when you know the record of ships in the Philippines; when you know what shipwreck is; and you read these lines, I think it gives you an idea what to expect. And the sermon is ready with a prescription. Here, in a poetic form, it is:

2 Samuel 22:2 Get on the Rock
Isaiah 40:11 Stay in the Flock
Hebrews 10:25 Put the kids on Dry Dock
1 Peter 5: 8-9 Build a Roadblock

Thank you, Andrew, for putting me to sound sleep during my trip with your “Double-edged Sword”.

The Odiongan Baptist Church, I learned from Andrew’s gift, is doing well in terms of being a good corporate Christian citizen of Romblon, busying itself with activities most, if not all, of which are into winning souls for heaven. I like the Church’s Tricycle Ministry. I encourage Odionganons to attend the OBC’s Survival Summer Camp, given that survival in today’s frenetic world is on everyone’s radar, depending, however, on what was it that a person wants to survive from. I also encourage parents to send their children to the OBC’s vacation bible school. I had attended one when I was a child in Sibale and I certainly knew what it is all about. It’ll keep your children along P-Noy’s “Daang Matuwid”.

Pastor Rufon, I was surprised, has a radio program, “Mabuting Balita”, that has been going on uninterrupted for 13 long years. In Romblon, no one can top that. Of course, the good pastor’s record on radio cannot top Rep Budoy Madrona’s staying power in politics, but it’s like comparing apples and balimbing, with Pastor Rufon representing the good fruit, and Rep. Madrona the embodiment of the . . . forget about it.

God bless you, Pastor Rufon and your Church. Please don’t return the compliment. I was already blessed by a unique Sunday as the last I was with you and your faithful.

You may visit and, as a Christian, benefit from this very special website.

Romblon mining financiers have names

The Romblon Sun, in its May 30-June 6 edition, bannered a story expressing the desire of Sibuyan local government officials and anti-mining advocates for the revocation of a contract that allows mineral exploration on Sibuyan Island.

The newspaper did not name the officials, saying only that it has interviewed the mayor of San Fernando, but that is obvious. Mayor Dindo Rios, a good friend, allegedly said that the mineral exploration contract involved the 25-year mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) the national government entered into in 2009 with Altai Philippines Mining.

I have taken a cursory investigation of this in 2009 when the mining controversy erupted after the murder of San Fernando Sangguniang Bayan member Armin Marin. What I had found out is already unspoken public knowledge: elected and non-elected public officials, one way or another, from Rep. Budoy Madrona to the late governor and former congressman Perpetuo Ylagan to Sam Romero and some of his former colleagues in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to former governor Natalio Beltran III, his local mayors, police and environment officials, and even some self-confessed anti-mining advocates in the island, have all interest—and therefore, a hand—in the entry of mining in Sibuyan.

So let us not kid ourselves. Mining—and all the attendant noise and fury spawned by Marin’s murder—would have not registered in the radar of the province if officials of government and some citizens (even some anti-mining advocates!) did not take a glance, and thus, were not blinded, by the shining rays of the nuggets of silver and gold that the mining companies directed to their very eyes.

Here now comes Mayor Rios saying that the MPSA on Sibuyan was a ‘midnight’ deal and the Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for the Environment/Sibuyanons Against Mining (Sibuyan ISLE/SAM) lamenting it as not having passed through “formal and transparent processes at the barangay level.”

Of course, it did not, that’s why it was a ‘midnight’ deal, ano ba kayo?

That was in 2009. Today is 2011 and we are living in a different neighborhood, as Secretary Butch Abad say. Today, P-Noy’s matuwid na daan is the mantra, and part of the reforms the matuwid na daan policy is carrying out is ‘daylight’ transparency on all government transactions.

Corrupt officials in Romblon—and they are plenty and still thriving, if Vice Governor Mel Madrid is to be believed—don’t like ‘daylight’ transparency. They don’t want to be watched. They don’t want to be gossiped about. They are all over—at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, at the capitol, at the munisipyo and the barangays. They are present even at the Provincial Police Office, that’s why they don’t enforce the executive order that Gov. Lolong Firmalo has issued halting mining in the province.

Halting mining. I like this phrase because, first of all, Firmalo cannot enforce his order alone. He has to get the cooperation of the police and the local executives, cooperation which obviously not forthcoming. Ask the task force that he ordered created last year. This task force, which looks very good on paper, has yet to be constituted and has yet to meet.

Halting mining rings a bell because the PPO—led by Police Sr. Supt. Leo Tumolva—is apparently in cahoots with the miners, as evidenced by this text message from a Romblon Sun reader:

"Wla na tlagang pagasa na mhinto pa ang mina d2 sa magdiwang. Panu kc, mlaki ang share na nattangap mg myor mula sa mga financier ng mina. My aakyat nga n mga pulis dun sa bundok kaso pgdating dun wla na clang aabutan panu naitxtna kya sayang lang ang effort ni gov Firmalo na ipahinto ang mina ditto sa Magdiwang. Sna d lng s slita aksyunan n tlaga pagpahinto ng pgmina d2. Crang cra na talaga ang bundok ng Magdiwang dahil s mga illegal mining—0948706****

There you go.

Well, I have it on good authority that PSSupt. Tumolva is getting a handsome gasoline allowance from the governor as well as free board and lodging, but is the police director enforcing the law as he should? That’s my quiz for the week. Is he also receiving bribes from the miners? Ask him, Awe Eranes.

I have it also on good authority that Gov. Firmalo, when confronted by the dilly-dallying behavior of his provincial police director, responds that he has already recommended for his relief, or a replacement, but this is incorrect as my informant confessed. No less than DILG Secretary Jess Robredo, said the informant, denied this. Sus Maria Santisima.

In the meantime, let us grant the good governor the benefit of the doubt, in the same manner that we should grant Rep. Budoy the same benefit, that he is serious in his anti-mining stance.

But let us not doubt the Romblon Sun reader who texted the above message. Let us assume he/she was telling the truth about local officials and the police getting bribes from the mining financiers. And who are these financiers?

Last week, someone forwarded to me a text message (I will not mention the mobile phone number) naming names. Here goes the text message:

"Sir gud afternoon e2 ung mga lstahan ng mga fnancier noli patino. Boni patino. Gene patino. chito robea. perla rabino. pociano rabino. Erwin mesajon. buban. elmer rivas. antonio menese. Nag call s akn c dr bgay lhat pngaln nla. Ipalu up u rn s knya.

On this note, how I wish Rep. Madrona is not grandstanding when he filed House Bill No. 4415, “An Act Declaring the Province of Romblon a Mining Free Zone and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof.”

But he is, sad to say, if I know the legislative process.

It will take some time to pass that bill into law. Budoy knows this. His bill must undergo the scrutiny of public hearings under the auspices of the appropriate committee to which his bill has been referred. That committee has to write a committee report, which has to be approved before it can be reported to the floor for debates. At the floor, the bill will undergo amendments before it can be approved in its third and final reading.

If the House approves of Budoy’s bill, it will be sent to the Senate where a counterpart bill has also to be filed and to undergo the same process. If the Senate approves its own version of the bill, it will be sent to the bicameral conference committee—the so-called “Third Chamber” of Congress—where both bills will be reconciled on its conflicting provisions, if there’s any.

If approved in the bicameral conference committee, it will be reported back to the House and the Senate for ratification after which it will be enrolled and sent to the President’s desk for his signature.

I reckon this process will take three years, unless our good congressman lobbies hard for its enactment. But is he? Nah. So, he is grandstanding. He knows it will take a long time to have his bill approved. He knows that his bill is only good for press release, to fool gullible Romblomanons that he is serious.

In filing his bill, he knew the fat cats of the mining lobby will troop to his office. The lobbyists, I am sure, will invoke the Supreme Court’s approval of the Philippines’s Mining Act, which Madrona knew to exist, and therefore, he has to recognize. But the fact that he filed the bill despite this knowledge tells us that in effect, Budoy made the move not exactly with the end in view of halting mining—that phrase again!—but to attract the miners to deal with him, in his own terms, in his own sweet time.

Having said this, let us rally all Romblomanons to re-elect Madrona for another term, so that he will have his cake and eat it, too.

In the meantime, let the financiers and the illegal miners empty the bowels of Magdiwang of its gold.

The Romblon Sun columnists: eagle-eyed

I will write this week in praise and comment of the columnists of Romblon Sun.

I have been raring to do this because if the news are the soul and spine of a newspaper, the columnists—call them opinion writers—are its conscience. I have long wanted to highlight the conscience of the Romblon Sun, the only newspaper which has one.

Columnists are a noisy lot. They have opinion about everything and anything, and Romblon Sun’s opinion writers are not exempted. Indeed, they are noisier than the politicians themselves, one of the subjects they often write about. They also have eagle eyes. They see the relevant issues and write about these fearlessly.

To inform is one of the functions of a columnist. A columnist who fails in this function has no business writing opinion pieces. Columnists write opinion so that readers, informed of events around them, could make informed decisions. In this manner, columnists also teach.

If you will ask me if I read the other columnists of Romblon Sun, my answer would be yes. I read them because I want to learn from them, and so I could also be informed about what’s happening in the province. This is why I always make it a point to request Tony Macalisang and Awe Eranes to send me copies of my favorite provincial newspaper.

A few issues ago, Jun Fiedacan, the man behind Agrikultura at Teknolohiya wrote a full piece about the non-implementation of Romblon’s ten-year master development program.

He posited that because of frequent elections, we have not really gone far as a province because the comprehensive master plan has remained just that, a plan.

Jun says that frequent leadership changes are the culprit why no one bothers to carry out the plan. I say it is our divisive politics that hinder the implementation of such a plan.

“Sa kabila ng magagandang plano ng ating ibang kababayan na sumusuporta sa mga proyekto ng mamamayan, kapag hindi kapartido, hindi na sinusunod ang mga plano,” Jun wrote.

“Sana, kapag nagawa na ang master development plan, sino man ang nakaupo sa iba’t-ibang lokal na pamahalaan, dapat sundan ang plano dahil serbisyo ang ipinangako natin sa bayan,” he added.

I agree with Jun. Indeed, our leaders do not have the political will to implement a plan which they themselves crafted. I am even surprised that Romblon has such as plan. Where is it? Why isn’t it uploaded in the Internet for every Romblomanon to see?
The View From Here columnist Mario Fradejas, in his previous piece, took a dig at illegal gambling in Romblon, Romblon during the capital town’s feast day in early January.

“With information . . . from other reliable sources coming to our attention persistently, we are now inclined to give credence that indeed, there was illegal gambling during the week-long fiesta celebration of the capital town and that evidently, it was tolerated by the authorities,” Mario wrote.

One of the authorities he referred to was Romblon mayor Gerard Montojo, a lawyer and, according to Mario, was a former seminarian. Saying that Montojo’s being a lawyer and a former seminarian, as well as his being a believer in the patron saint of the town are compelling restraints against tolerating “a vicious and immoral activity as illegal gambling”, Mario expressed disbelief that illegal gambling could occur in Romblon, Romblon.

Well, Mario, I get your point. However, I can’t agree with your observation. Our very own Rep. Budoy Madrona is also a lawyer and a former seminarian and just take a look where we are now. On the balance, I think I will lay my fortunes with writers such as the late Manong Julius Fortuna.

Elmina F. Fallar’s take on the “Ills of our Educational System” is an excellent piece and a relevant examination of the Philippine educational system. I recommend this to all Romblomanon teachers if only to remind them that Manang Elmina is one of their own. She is a former teacher.

“We boast of a nation built around a foreign language, but we are indulging in pretense and hypocrisy. An independent nation that educate(s) its citizenry through the use of an alien tongue thrives on false pride and exaggerated self-esteem,” she wrote.

“In Asia, perhaps, the Philippines alone uses a foreign language as the principal medium of instruction in educational institutions; she alone uses an alien tongue to inculcate love of country, nationalism, and patriotism,” she said.

Not true, Manang Elmina. The Philippine Constitution of 1987 has done away with English alone as a medium of instruction in our schools. It has now a twin, the national language we call Filipino.

However, you are correct that English as a foreign language holds sway in many aspects of our life. It is the language of business and government, of many newspapers and books and literature, so much so that Filipinos are “forced” to learn and think in the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the Americans.

There are many issues that you have raised in your column, but I will comment about only one of those, and that is, language.

I am for developing and embracing a national language called Filipino, or whatever it will be called. But I don’t believe a national language should be imposed. It should be developed over time, according to use and the flow—the rise and ebb—of cultural and socio-economic development.

I am for our people to learn how to speak and write in English, the modern-day lingua franca of business and commerce and technology. We cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world without learning how to communicate with them in some universally-accepted medium. English is this language.

But over and above the national language and English, I am for my native Asi. I believe our educational institutions, at least from kindergarten to Grade One to Six, should be taught how to speak, write, and think in their native languages. Culture and history—and love of country, honesty, integrity, and patriotism—could better be imbibed by our children if they learn them first in their original native tongue.

Studies after studies have shown that secondary languages are easier to learn—easier to teach—if the learner is already very familiar and fluent in his or her native language.

My two daughters are good examples. I have taught them—and they have learned—how to speak my native Asi, which we use at home to communicate. They speak and write Tagalog, too, and English, and now, a scatter of Japanese, but it was easier to teach them something new because they understand the nuances and primary tools of the language I originally think in.

“The Philippine educational system, the system that never was, is not beyond redemption. This system that subscribes to the costly trappings of education, yet neglects its true essence and significance, is not the kind you and I would like to bequeath to future generations. What we need is an educational system that meets the demands of Philippine culture and society, regardless of foreign infiltration,” Manang Elmina concluded.

Those are strong words, Manang, and I agree. Perhaps, one of these days, I can write my observations on what constitute those demands and also about the ills of the educational system as I observe it from the other side of the fence.

The munisipyo as grocery store

If I were Gov. Lolong Firmalo, I would immediately conduct an investigation involving the mayor of Ferrol to find out why the municipal hall has become a grocery store instead of a public service office. The Romblon Sun photos of the munisipyo being used as a veritable marketplace don’t lie.

In the April 18-24 issue of the newspaper, Awe Eranes and Tony Macalisang reported that 200 beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, or 4Ps, the flagship program of President Benigno S. Aquino III for the poorest of the Filipino poor, was apparently being prostituted in Ferrol to benefit a few—and make the poor in Ferrol poorer still.

Who this few are, we don’t yet know, but if the Romblon Sun is to be believed, there is a corruption happening in the implementation of the program. Apparently, some wise guys from the munisipyo are profiting from the 4Ps by inducing, if not forcing, the beneficiaries into spending their cash benefits in groceries—noodles, sardines, rice, milk, laundry soap, sugar, and biscuits—which the munisipyo itself sells.

Clap your hands for the evil creativity of the 4Ps program implementors in Ferrol! Salute them for their ingenuity. They should be given awards ala-Go Negosyo!

Rowena Aguirre, one of the beneficiaries interviewed by the Romblon Sun about the anomalous business, had said that they would be delisted from the beneficiaries’ list of the 4Ps if they would not spend their money on grocery items peddled by the munisipyo. She quoted a certain Leonora Compas, the alleged grocery dealer, who had allegedly issued the threat.

“Tatanggalin daw nila kami bilang recipient ng 4Ps kung hindi sa kanila kami bibili ng aming mga kailangan,” said Edna Asuncion, another beneficiary. Asuncion also said the grocery items being offered by the munisipyo are over-priced, even if, as the Romblon Sun reported, student-youths under the Special Program for the Employment of Students, or SPES, were made to pack the grocery items. Ayaw ni DOLE Secretary Rosalinda-Baldoz nang ganiyan, di ba Bernie?

Well, I have good news for Mrs. Aguirre and Asuncion. Be not afraid of Ms. Compas. She cannot remove you from the beneficiaries’ list. It is only the DSWD which has right to remove or add a name to the list. Please text this anomaly to the DSWD-Mimaropa regional office at 0918-912-2813. That’s the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program hotline.

Now, we have names—and a question for Mayor Jason Fabila. Is Leonora Compas an employee of the munisipyo? If yes, what is her work and why is she engaged in the grocery business?

The Romblon Sun reported that there is a cooperative in the munisipyo running the grocery sting, but the coop, still according to the newspaper, is moribund and does not issue official receipts. If this is true, then Mayor Fabila has a lot of questions to answer.

The same is true with the municipal and provincial officials of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Foremost of these questions is whether they knew of this unofficial business operation happening in an official place involving the 4Ps.

It is a pity that these local officials don’t care a whit about the fate of the poor. They are heartless. But perhaps, they don’t understand the program, that’s why they don’t share the P-Noy’s administration’s vision in implementing this rights-based social protection program that aims to cut the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

For the information of Mayor Fabila and all local officials of Ferrol who may be involved in siphoning off the beneficiaries’ 4Ps benefits, the P500 per household and the P300 per child per month that the poor are receiving aims to ensure that 3-14 years old children go to day care centers and schools with 85 percent minimum attendance and that pregnant women and 0-14 years old children get basic health services.

President P-Noy hopes that by investing in the human capital of the poor, they are assured of a better future and will be equipped with necessary skills to contribute to their community and to the growth of the country as a whole. Because some local officials were mulcting the 200 4Ps beneficiaries in Ferrol, they are, in effect, defeating the purpose of the program.

Well, Ms. Vilma Foz of the DSWD regional office has promised an investigation of this glaring anomalous and corrupt act. She very well should, because even if this business involving an expired cooperative has already been made public by the Romblon Sun, provincial officials have not moved a bit to do the investigating themselves. It seems the 4Ps beneficiaries in Ferrol are being fried in their own lard.

In the meantime, the Romblon Sun could do either of two things. It could follow-up the investigation promised by Ms. Foz, or expose the corruption some more. I encourage Awe Eranes and Tony Macalisang to interview the provincial DSWD officer—is she Ms. June Recon?—to find out if she knew about this anomaly.

Also in the meantime, I shall furnish the Senate Committee on Finance and Public Expenditures a copy of this opinion piece, as well as the issue of the Romblon Sun where the report was published, so that Senator Frank Drilon, who chairs the committee, could initiate proper action.