This evening I stood behind a woman at Seven Eleven who bought three packets of Marlboro Lights for P110. What kind of an incentive to quit is that? Even someone on the minimum wage here can easily afford to kill themselves by smoking cigarettes.
To give you an idea of how incredibly cheap that is, a pack of Marlboro in the UK costs £5.50, about P460. Three packs would therefore cost the equivalent of P1,380, or over 12 times more than they cost here.
So since a flat cigarette tax would have such huge benefits for both government revenues and for public health, why isn’t this tax implemented tomorrow? Because, as an article in the British Medical Journal put it, “the Philippine tobacco industry is "the strongest tobacco lobby in Asia".
Hell, Lucio Tan, the owner of Fortune tobacco doesn’t even pay his current taxes. Those of you with long memories will surely remember how during the presidency of Tan’s friend Erap a tax evasion case in 2000 was conveniently thrown out because the Department of Justice conveniently forgot to file a records request on time (thanks Erap!)
A Philippine court has dismissed a 25.27 billion peso tax-evasion case against Lucio Tan, a Chinese-Filipino tycoon and close friend of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, on a technicality, media reports said Thursday.
The Court of Appeals dismissed the case against Tan, 66, because the Department of Justice filed a records request 11 days late, the reports said.
Even as I type this I am sure the domestic and the US tobacco companies operating in the Philippines are preparing some nice fat brown envelopes to make sure that that inconvenient IMF report is quietly shelved.
“I never got invited. You don't go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am," Spitz told AFP in Hong Kong.
"I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost—it is."
"They voted me one of the top five Olympians in all time. Some of them are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me," he said. "Yes, I am a bit upset about it."
Now a stockbroker and motivational speaker, Spitz also thinks he could have won eight golds himself in Munich if only he had had the chance.
"I won seven events. If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too," he said.
Spitz, whose brief stint in show business in the 1970s never quite matched his success in the pool, said he attended the Athens Olympics four years ago—when Phelps also tried to break the record.
"They did not once put my face on television," he recalled. "But as soon as the swimming was over, and Michael Phelps didn't break my record, every time I went to beach volley, they put my face on the volleyballs."
Spitz said it would have been a great idea if he could be the one presenting the gold medals to Phelps, who has for years been candid about his ambition to eclipse the mark of seven golds.
And Spitz thinks Phelps will succeed—for one very good reason.
"He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did," Spitz said. "He reminds me of myself."
The socioeconomic structure of the Philippines may be as fixed as the stars in the heavens, but its substructure is amazingly fluid.
Filipinos have a more casual attitude to names than most. The other day I met someone called Grace. At least that is what everyone calls her but it turns out her name is really Sophia, nickname Pia. So where did Grace come from? “When I came to my Manila everyone called me Grace, I don’t know why!” Perhaps in a few years, Grace/Sophia/Pia will add an “h” to her one of her names to give it that little bit of class.
Has any other country had a head of state with a stage name? President Estrada/Ejercito/Erap (two of whose charmless sons carry the name “Estrada”, with the lovely JV bearing his dad’s natural name “Ejercito”) with his famously hazy family boundaries and interrupted presidency is a good example of impermanence in Philippine life.
The fluidity of familial life here is partly a consequence of the wanderings of the priapic Filipino male. Last week, for example, a friend told us that he was startled on a visit to his family home by a reference to his bunso (youngest sibling). “But I am the youngest”, he protested. Well, it turns out he wasn’t the bunso of the family, although it must have been a bit traumatic for him in his forties to discover he had a younger half-brother.
Traumatic but not at all unusual; I am sure almost all Filipino readers will know of similar tales.
Families are loosely structured in other ways too. A few years ago I noticed a new photo of a baby on my assistant’s desk. Since she had not manifested any of the usual physical changes to that precede the birth of a child I assumed the baby must have been a niece or a nephew, but it turned out that a younger and poorer relative had had got herself in trouble and my henceforth my assistant would be bringing up the child as one of her own.
Only yesterday, Frayed and I were offered a baby! There was even a “viewing”!
The reasons for all this are quite varied, and, include the generosity of Filipino families; the notion that wealthier families have a responsibility to their poorer kin; the balikbayan (overseas worker) experience; the prevalence of intense poverty that makes it impossible for some mothers to bring up their children; the discouragement of contraceptives by the Catholic Church and politicians like former Manila Mayor Atienza; and, as mentioned, the habitual infidelity of many husbands.
Nor are the consequences necessarily bad. The famous adaptability of Filipinos, which enables them to blend into apparently radically different societies with relative ease, probably has its roots in the shifting tides of family life. From an early age Philippine children experience change more frequently and have to learn to accommodate it.
* One of the best discussions of Philippine names is Matthew Sutherland’s “Rhose, by Any Other Name”, 10 years old now but as relevant as ever.
An American friend tells me that this video has been doing the rounds for a while but I saw it for the first time a couple of days ago. Fair play to the cop, who seems genuinely concerned about the man in his charge.
You wouldn’t think even the Americans could find anyone stupider than George W. Bush, but they are doing their best with McCain. There are so many things wrong with his pitiful attempt to compare Obama with Paris Hilton I don’t know where to begin. I’ll just let you suffer through it—it speaks for itself.
But at least McCain’s brainless effort allowed Paris to make this cute reply:
Most of the articles that have appeared since the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Sunday have focused on his political role as “the conscience of a nation whose writings exposed the horrors of the Communist Gulag and galvanised Russian opposition to the tyranny of the Soviet Union” as The Times put it.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Solzhenitsyn’s deeply political books should be viewed in this way, especially as he ended up on the right side of history, but it’s a shame that these early judgments have underplayed his greatness as a writer.
I spent much of my childhood in the Scottish version of the Gulag, known as a boarding school, and I can still clearly remember my absorption in both The First Circle and One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich; I have the well-thumbed copies beside me now. The genius of a great writer like Solzhenitsyn is both to both make his fantastic and distinctively Russian world as unique as a Siberian snowflake and yet to let it cover the earth with its truths about the human condition.
I read Cancer Ward when Frayed and I took the Tran Siberian Express to Moscow a few years ago. I took it up without enthusiasm—does anyone start a book with such a title eagerly?—but within a few pages I was drawn into the claustrophobic world of the hospital as completely as I had been transported to the prison camps 30 years earlier. Cancer Ward is a wise, readable, and even funny book—I was so delighted to rediscover my old friend Aleksandr as I bumped over the rails of his native land. What makes Solzhenitsyn's books so strangely alive is the way the characters’ little lives are starkly etched against the vast immovable backdrop of the institution, whether the hospital, prison camp, or simply “the system”, as in another great novella, For the Good of the Cause.
As`any Singaporean will tell you, it is the littleness of things that drives the totalitarian state. This is something Solzhenitsyn understood so well.
It is the minutiae that will get you committed:
She swallowed: “I don’t understand … What was it you actually did?”
“What did we do?” He drew on his cigarette and blew out the smoke. What a big man he was, and how tiny the cigarette looked. “I told you, we were students. If our grants allowed it, we drank wine. We went to parties. And you know, they arrested the girls as well. They all got five years.” He looked at her intently. “Imagine it happening to you, being taken away just before your second semester exams and put in a dungeon.” (Cancer Ward)
And it is the minutiae that will pull you through.
Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him cells; they hadn’t sent his squadron to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought the tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.” (the end of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich)
Anyone who has fought the suffocating power of the institution will understand that passage.