FedEx to close Subic facility

I was alerted to the impending closure of the FedEx Asia hub at Subic by the always excellent Asia Pundit. My initial feeling was dismay. A Filipina friend is married to one of the FedEx pilots and I have met quite a few members of the FedEx Subic community over the years. I always hoped that FedEx’s presence here might entice other major corporations into Subic and then to the rest of the Philippines. Certainly the guys in Subic “living the life” love it here. I can’t imagine they’ll have nearly as much fun choking to death in Ghuangzhou as they did on the base.

On reflection, the FedEx decision was not affected by recent political events in the Philippines. Major corporate decisions like this take years of planning. The runway at Subic just wasn’t long enough and I guess FedEx was worried about getting left behind as its customers and competitors poured into China.

“We do not need two Asia-Pacific hubs," FedEx Chief Executive Frederick Smith said at a news conference in Guangzhou. "As markets change, growth patterns change, you have to go where your customers go."

What the implications of this will be for Subic I hate to think. It is already looking very run down with the housing stock shamefully dilapidated. They are going to find it almost impossible to attract another tenant of FedEx's stature.

Unusual Philippine links

BagpiperFrayed found this great portal for Philippine links the other day. Among other delights, I discovered this gentleman advertising his services. The Espiritus of Nairn, I know ‘em well.

"My name is Roy Macgregor-Esposo Espiritu, the Philippines’ first and only Filipino bagpiper to date. I am a Filipino of Scottish descent from the Macgregors of Nairn, Scotland. Growing up in a family that is well in touch with its Scottish roots, I grew up listening to the music of Scotland and the Great Highland Bagpipes."

Governor Grace Padaca at Arroceros Forrest Park

This afternoon I met one of the true superstars of Philippine politics, Grace Padaca, Governor of Isabella, at Arroceros. Her defeat of the Dy political dynasty was one of the only positive results of last May’s elections. It is not surprising that it took a woman to stand up to the goonish Dys; that just seems to be how it runs here (look at the courageous women journalists at the Philippine Center for Investigative journalism). What makes Grace remarkable is that since the age of three she has been crippled by polio and needs crutches to get around. There’s a lot about her on the web, but because I know how lazy you are I decided to google her and give you a link.

I thought Grace was wonderful, she was friendly, witty, charming and, well, gracious. She seemed to have time for everyone. She made a brief speech and read an extract from R. Zulueta da Costa’s anti-American poem “Like the molave” (today was the 144th birthdate of national hero José Rizal):

“Not yet, Rizal, not yet. Sleep not in peace:
There are a thousand waters to be spanned;
There are a thousand mountains to be crossed;
There are a thousand crosses to be borne.
Our shoulders are not strong; our sinews are
Grown flaccid with dependence, smug with ease
Under another’s wing.
Rest not in peace;
Not yet, Rizal, not yet . . .”

It is very encouraging to see how progressive opinion in the Philippines has rallied around the cause of Arroceros in recent months. Father Robert Reyes (the Running Priest) has been a tower of strength and he was at the park today (as he is most Sundays). So too was Nicanor Perlas (winner of an Alternative Nobel Prize, and President of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives). Other recent visitors have included artists Bencab and Araceli Dans, Bea Zobel, and Winnie Monsod, among many others.

There are many features of the Arroceros controvery that are incomprehensible to me. (1) Most mystifying of all, why is Mayor Atienza so hell-bent on destroying such a beautiful resource in the city he is supposed to be safeguarding? (2) Why is he doing everything he can to be hated by all the most progressive thinkers in the country? Is it really worth destroying his reputation over this “teachers’ building”?

Calling an Israeli a “Nazi” …

… will, never, ever, be accepted by them, so it is no surprise that the Philippine ambassador to Israel is on his way home after his crass comparison over the weekend. It is unfortunate, though, that Migrante, which does excellent work defending the rights of overseas contract workers, has chosen to support the former ambassador:

“it is the Israeli government that should issue to the Philippines an apology for its treatment of migrant workers and not the other way around”, said Migrante chair, Connie Bragas-Regalado.

If what ambassador Modena and Migrante say is true, Filipino workers do suffer discrimination in Israel and they are right to bring this to the attention of the Israeli government. Still, ambassador Modena’s comments revealed complete lack of any sense of proportion and diplomacy and will have done more harm than good I am sure.

It would be interesting to know whether ambassador Modena is a career foreign office official or a political appointee. I hope the latter, since it would just go to demonstrate yet again what a lousy system the rewarding of political cronies with diplomatic postings is.

Malaria in Palawan: what they don’t tell you

where every island has its own special adventure

Let’s just hope yours doesn’t look like the guy on the left. The reaction of “Palawan officials” to the deaths of three high-profile broadcasters in Palawan from malaria is predictable in its way. No doubt the Spanish tourist office downplays deaths from legionnaires’ disease, Thai officials are desperately trying to show that Phuket has recovered from the tsunami, etc.

Nevertheless, the reassuring comments coming out of Palawan officials in today’s papers don’t seem too honest to me.

Provincial Gov. Joel T. Reyes said that although malaria was endemic in some places in Palawan, urban areas-including resorts and tourist destinations-were safe… Governor Reyes said the habitat of malaria-carrying mosquitoes was usually found in the remote barangays or villages with dense forest areas, swamps and slow-moving rivers and lakes.

No problem then! Unfortunately Governor Reyes is being a bit economical with the truth. I have personal experience of malaria in El Nido, Palawan’s swankiest tourist resort. A couple of years ago, we spent new year at a small resort there. The only other guests were an Italian couple and their young child. When we all returned to Manila the Italian woman started to feel ill. She was not initially diagnosed as having cerebral malaria so her parasite count grew alarmingly high, in fact she was close to going into a coma. Luckily a friend at WHO arranged for her to be examined at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Alabang and she survived, but I don’t think there was much in it. What would have happened if the mosquito had landed on her two-year-old daughter doesn’t bear thinking about.

More reassuring words came from Representative Mitra:

"It is safe to visit Palawan. And malaria is avoidable, preventable and curable."

Let’s take those one at a time. Malaria is “avoidable and preventable” if you take precautions. But you only take precautions (prophylactics, insect repellents, etc) if you anticipate there is a risk of catching the disease, right? And with people like Governor Reyes and Representative Mitra doing their best to keep people ignorant of the risks, my guess is that most visitors don’t safeguard themselves, I know I haven’t when I've visited Palawan (after all, not many people vacation in “remote barangays or villages with dense forest areas, swamps and slow-moving rivers and lakes”).

Mitra is also right to say malaria is curable (though of course this whole story blew up because three people died from the disease) but only if the drugs are available at local health centers. But are they? The corruption in the Philippine health system which prevents reasonably priced drugs reaching the people was exposed by the PCIJlast month and I'd be very surprised if health were adequately stocked with antimalarials.

Mitra did say one thing I agreed with though:

“The wild comes with mosquitoes. They come with nature … The price of biodiversity includes the presence of insects," he said.

The implication is that visitors should not expect to be able to take just the “nice” aspects of Palawan’s wilderness without the downside, and I agree with him there. You want nature lite, watch Discovery Channel. Still, if Reyes, Mitra and the Palawan tourist industry are so keen on taking the tourist dollar, they have a responsibility at least to provide accurate information on the risks tourists face and at the moment they do not. At the Palawan Tourism Council website, for example, you will find a lot of guff about lush tropical vegetation, eco-tourism, and “nature at its best” but you will search in vain for that nasty word “malaria”.

Were the stabbings of two Filipinos in Tiananmen Square related to anti-Japanese protests or a twist of fate?

Two Filipino tourists were stabbed to death in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last Tuesday. The elder of the two, Emmanuel Madrigal, was described by his family as “looking Japanese”. You and I might feel that the coincidence of extensive anti-Japanese rioting and the murder of a Japanese-looking tourist might bear some investigation, but this is not the view of the Philippine government:

The DFA refuses to even consider the question [of a link with the anti-Japanese riots]. "That is a conjecture and highly speculative. We have not received reports of that kind," Undersecretary Jose Brillantes told the Inquirer. … His excessive caution seems defensive, an unwillingness to rock the diplomatic boat at the exact moment it is about to reach port. Chinese President Hu Jintao is arriving this week for a three-day state visit, in yet another milestone in Philippine-China relations; pressing the Madrigal case may be upsetting. [This quotation comes from an excellent Inquirer editorial.]

Instead, the Philippine and Chinese governments are closing ranks around the “ran amuck” explanation—i.e., this was a completely unexplained event, without any discernable cause. Philippine readers of Brilliantes’ remarks may detect in them an echo of a popular reason trotted out when, for example, a journalist investigating corruption is gunned down. Take the murder of journalist Gene Boyd Lumawag last year: “Colonel Domingo Tutaan, Southern Command chief of staff, said the killing of Lumawag suggested it may have been a "thrill killing."

Brilliantes and Tutaan clearly inhabit the same scary world, where one can easily be knifed to death when visiting a world famous tourist site or gunned down while taking a stroll at twilight like Lumawag. In this universe full of arbitrary and unexplained events no blame can fall on the authorities charged to protect us, since how can one guard against “amuk” or “thrill killings”?

Madrigal is not an ordinary name in the Philippines, however, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the government’s “unexplained event” hypothesis challenged in the coming weeks, whether or not this causes difficulties in the relationship with China.

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism weblog

One of the Philippines’ most admirable institutions, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), has launched its own weblog, which can found here. Long may it prosper.

Apart from anything else, the PCIJ weblog will help to focus attention on the seemingly neverending killing of journalists in the Philippines and the government’s shameful lack of urgency in bringing their murderers to justice. To my knowledge, not one person has ever been prosecuted for murdering a journalist in the Philippines. The victims are nearly always killed because of their investigations into corrupt officials, so you would think that the police would have a reasonable starting point for their investigations. Yet, time and time again, the victims’ families are left frustrated by official inaction. The statement from the family of recently murdered journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat (quoted on the PCIJ blog) says it all.

While we understand that investigators are now doing their job, it makes us anxious to know that nearly two weeks had already passed since the assassination, yet we still have to receive word as to who killed Marlene and who conspired in her assassination. As an unsolicited advice, may we enjoin probers to look at the wider angle — that of investigating high ranking government officials for their probable involvement in this crime? Is there someone in high places who may have a hand in the killing?

The killing of journalists in the Philippines has been covered several times in torn and frayed: see here, here and here.

Get real Philippines

KidsA member of “get real Philippines” has asked me to publicize their site and I am happy to oblige. I am not sure whether this website is linked in any way with Nic Perlas—whom I wrote about a while ago—but the concept is similar; addressing the factors that hold the Philippines back in a holistic way.

I turned straight to an essay on population control by Manuel Gallego III, since without family planning and population control it is hard to see how the Philippines can "get real". [See these two sites for opinions that family planning in the Philippines is “genocide” or “fascism”.] Gallego provides data projecting that in the period to 2050 the populations of the UK and Japan will decrease by 2% and 25% respectively, while that of the Philippines will increase by a staggering 86% to almost 154 million. I have read estimates that are even more pessimistic and put the Philippines' population doubling time at 29 years. The implications of that are just too much to take in.

Gallego also proposes a number of practical measures to help the Philippines achieve zero population growth. This is where it gets tricky.

Some of his suggestions are non-controversial, such as tax deductions for institutions practicing zero population growth and free college education for families with one child. Others are extremely contentious, such as eliminating welfare benefits for families with more than one child. Since that means “free” public education, which is available today up to the high school level to all Filipino families at a nominal cost, the social implications would be huge and, to be honest, I am not sure that ending free schooling would really drive down the population growth rate.

Nor do I agree with the proposal to provide free powdered milk for each family having only one child — this just encourages enormously wasteful expenditure on infant formula when study after study has shown that breast milk is best for babies.

Most controversial of all is this proposal:

Compulsory sterilization and elimination of voting rights of parents of street children. While this example hardly qualifies as an incentive and may indeed be branded an outright violation of human rights, consider the following statistics on street children in the Philippines:
• There are 50,000 to 70,000 street children in Manila. Action International Ministries
• There are an estimated 1,200,000 street children in the Philippines. Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), 1991 Jubilee Action, 1992
• It is estimated that there are 1.5 million street children working as pickpockets, beggars, drug traffickers and prostitutes. End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT)

I doubt whether this would ever fly—the problems that arose from the compulsory sterilization campaign in India during the “Emergency” in the 1970s would surely put any other Government off repeating the mistake. I’m against it, but in passing I should mention that over the weekend I was talking to someone who works with a charity for streetchildren who said basically the same thing. The views of people like her, who are left to deal with the consequences of irresponsible parenting, have to be taken into account, though, as I said, I don't think coercion is the way to go.

Gallego’s suggestions are intriguing but I don’t think anything will beat easy access to contraceptives and public awareness campaigns.

Anyway, although I have mentioned a few areas in which I disagree with “get real Philippines”, I think it is a great site with lots of thought-provoking stuff on it. Check it out—you’ll like it.

“Prostitution is now the fourth largest source of gross national product in the Philippines”

You have to be a little suspicious of this claim.

Prostitution in the Philippines has become a multi-million dollar industry and is now the fourth largest source of gross national product, a report on child pornography said Tuesday.

The Philippine National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) divides the economy into four sectors: agriculture, industry, services, and “net factor income from the rest of the world” (NFIROW). “Services” (under which prostitution presumably falls) is the largest of these sectors—for the last quarter of 2004 the figures (in millions of Philippine pesos) were agriculture 234, 151, industry 441,869, services 713,797, and NFRIW 94,992—yet bearing in mind the size of the transport, communications, banking, and tourism sectors I’d be surprised if “prostitution” could even claim fourth place within the services sector, let alone compete with food, beverages, tobacco (from the industry sector) or coconut, sugar cane, and fisheries (from the agriculture sector).

Now if “political prostitution” were included it would be a different story of course.

Does the world look down on the Filipino?

An e-mail supposed to have been written by Art Bell, a radio DJ in the States, is circulating again.

Here is a taste.

As we've all come to notice, in the past few decades, Filipinos have begun to infest the United States like some sort of disease. Their extensive involvement in the U.S. Armed Forces is proof of the trashy kind of qualities all filipinos tend to exhibit on a regular basis.
And so on. If you want to read the whole of this “hate letter against Filipinos” you can read it here. The only problem is that the e-mail seems to be a hoax. Concerned about his personal safety, Art Bell has denied ever writing it and has stated that it does not reflect his views. He needn’t have bothered, because, as its continued circulation shows, the “hate letter” has a life of its own, presumably because it seems to validate many Filipinos’ assumptions about how the world perceives them.

Nor is this an isolated case. A few years earlier another e-mail claimed that Mariah Carey had made a racist statement about Filipinos at one of her concerts, but this too turned out to be hoax.

Just before Christmas, in an attempt to make her curious hoax about her daughter winning a competition in Australia more credible, Faye San Juan’s mother added a clever twist. Everyone knows, she said, the world looks down on Filipinos.

But does it? One of the perplexing aspects of this national pathology for inventing slights, writing them up, and e-mailing them to everyone you know is that the image of Filipinos is actually a very positive one in most countries.

Filipino communities abroad suffer from few of the negative racial stereotypes applied to, for example, the Chinese and Jews (obsessed with money), British (snobbish), Polish and Irish (stupid), French (arrogant), Africans (violent), Vietnamese (drug dealers) … I could go on and on.

Filipinos, on the other hand, are generally seen as hard-working, uncomplaining people, who stay out of trouble, lead hard lives, but manage to stay pleasant and cheerful through it all. They usually integrate well—in part because of their English skills, but also because of their facility with other languages (there are 40,000 Filipinos in Milan, for example). They seldom live in ghettos, unlike many other immigrant groups. They have excellent social skills and these raise them in the esteem of indigenous populations.

In an article a few months ago about the same Art Bell e-mail, Conrado de Quiros notes that Filipinos in America are not perceived by marketing folk as a distinct ethnic group at all. While advertisers feel that if they are to reach, say, the Hispanic community, they need to add a specific Latino twist to their material, Filipinos are considered to be so integrated into the American mainstream that no specific ethnic elements are needed to reach them.

Even when Filipino communities abroad do become visible, as at Sunday afternoon gathering places in Hong Kong and Singapore, I wouldn’t say that other people look down on them. If anything, they admire the kabayan spirit that allows a new arrival immediately to join her or his language group.

When I was in Britain last October, I was chatting with someone who worked with Mencap, a charity dealing with mentally ill. Mencap’s homes are tough, stressful places, but the one he works in had just been made immeasurably more pleasant by the arrival of several Filipina care givers. He just couldn’t find enough nice things to say about them and the contribution they had made.

It is true that Filipinos, and specifically Filipinas, experience prejudice and discrimination when they are abroad. In many countries they are exploited, violently treated, and even raped and killed. However, it seems to me that this is not so much because the perpetrators despise Filipinos per se; their often harsh treatment is usually because Filipinos abroad often have to start at the bottom of the ladder. They are exploited, along with foreign workers from other developing countries, because they constitute a large part of the international proletariat class that has grown so enormously over the past 20 years. The fact that so many countries are keen to employ Filipinos would seem to support the theory that Filipinos have a good international image compared with that of other immigrant populations.

If that hypothesis is correct, why do Filipinos seem to believe that the rest of the world looks down on them?

One of the central tenets of Marxism is that being creates consciousness and not vice versa.

We set out from real, active men and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process (The German Ideology).
What is this Filipino belief but an “echo” of the life process of a people who spend their days cleaning other people’s houses, tending their sick, and sailing their ships? Many Filipinos abroad occupy responsible managerial positions of course, but in general the balikbayan experience is of life at the bottom of the totem pole.

As one of my Filipino colleagues once put it, perhaps life really is like monkeys in a tree. The people at the top look down and all they see are smiling faces. The people at the bottom look up and all they see are assholes. Perhaps that is what it is all about.

Note:I am sure the image of the Filipino is more nuanced than I have made it appear and more positive in some countries than in others. If you are a Filipino living abroad, a foreigner with views, or if you just have something to say, please add a comment below.

Human rights in the Philippines

The U.S. Department of State 2004 country report on human rghts practices in the Philippines was published on 28 February and can be found here.

As the Chinese government recently pointed out, the idea of the perpetrator of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib lecturing anyone on human rights is rather curious. The Philippines document is a good piece of work though -- well done lads.

Philippine religious cults: no end in sight

EcleoToday’s Inquirer profile of Jesus Christ Followers, a small but apparently violent cult, brings some of the wackier fringes of Philippine religious life into focus. I’d love to attend the forthcoming court hearing where six children aged 11 to 19 intend to show their “brilliance” by defending themselves. They are in custody following a pitched battle with police, who had been asked by the parents of a 16-year-old to rescue their daughter from the cult.

Wielding steel pipes, sticks, rocks and human excrement wrapped in plastic, JCF members fought policemen on Jan. 28, leaving three officers injured. Twenty-two JCF members, many of whom suffered injuries, were arrested.
I think we are going to see more and more stories like this. The declining influence of the Catholic Church, the poverty of the official education system, the absence of balikbayan parents, a corrupt political process, and a lack of moral leadership--in short, the collapsing centre of Philippine life--leave acres of space for quacks and charlatans like Emilinda Tionco, founder of Jesus Christ Followers, to tout their wares to gullible people with nothing much to lose.

The big daddy of recent cult leaders is of course Ruben Ecleo. Even a passing familiarity with his story is enough to demonstrate that the Philippines is no ordinary country. Bald, gun toting, shabu taking, harem having, and, it appears, wife murdering Ecleo was headline news in 2002. In January of that year, his wife was found inside a garbage bag in a ravine near Cebu. An autopsy showed that she had been strangled.

On the run, Ecleo holed up in Dingat, his private island off Surigao, with members of his cult. Five months later he was arrested after a Waco-like invasion left 20 cult members dead.

At the height of the standoff, a member of Ecleo's cult did some tidying up in Cebu and massacred Ecleo’s dead wife’s parents and two other members of the family. The assassin was then shot dead by the police (making it difficult to establish Ecleo's role in the multiple homicide, if any).

Astonishingly, despite the seriousness of the crimes of which he was accused, Ecleo was granted bail in March last year. More deaths followed. In October, one of the main prosecution lawyers in his trial was murdered. In December, a member of Ecleo’s cult was charged with her murder. More than two years after the murder of Ecleo’s wife, I can see no evidence of the case against him proceeding.

Ecleo’s dark tale is written in blood, by an author heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. The fact that the so-called strong republic is unable to protect its citizens from such a fantastic Kurtz-like figure and his murderous followers is testament to the Philippine state's illusory qualities; despite the president's tough statements, it appears incapable of performing even the most basic functions.

Dennis Roldan: actor, politician, gambler, kidnapper

The life journey of Dennis Roldan is one of those Philippine morality tales that crop up every once in while. Handsome Dennis was a film star back in the 1980s. When his career burned out he became a congressman for QC from 1992 to 1995. After that, the world sort of forgot about Dennis Roldan until he appeared in Monday’s newspapers clad in one of those natty orange and black “DETAINEE” t-shirts, accused of kidnapping a child.

Despite the precipitousness of his fall, there is nothing too extraordinary about Dennis Roldan. In fact he seems to have made the obvious choices that are open to a good-looking Philippine man in search of a thrill. When his (one need hardly say) undistinguished tenure as congressman ran out, he became a high-roller, losing, it is reported, millions of pesos on cock-fighting. Dennis was slipping and sliding by now, rumoured to be heavy into shabu (methamphetamine)—oh, Dennis, your life is such a cliché!—and in need of some fast dough.

He also (surprise) took a mistress. After all, Dennis wouldn’t be a member of a certain type of Philippine male if he didn’t have Lady Macbeth behind him. From what we know of her, Suzette See Wang, is quite a character too. Seeing her man floundering in reservoirs of debt, she decided that she would help him to kidnap the three-year-old child of one of her Chinese-Filipino friends. They decided to demand 250 million pesos ($5 million) to help resolve Dennis’s financial problems. . What a nice girlfriend to come up with such an ingenious plan to help her man.

So Bonnie and Clyde kidnapped her friend’s child. According to Teresita Ang-See, there are witnesses to Dennis's participation in the job:

She claimed police had witnesses present when the kidnappers seized the boy outside his nursery school at the Ortigas Center in Pasig City.

During the abduction, Ang-See alleged, Roldan and Wang were on board a vehicle that served as a back-up to the Honda CRV sport utility vehicle (SUV), into which the boy was initially dragged after he was abducted.

"Later on, the kidnappers transferred the boy to Roldan's car," she alleged. "He was really involved. The boy saw him and Suzette."

They then put the little boy on the phone to his mother asking to be taken home. Charming. It seems that Dennis and Suzette had been a wee bit ambitious and ended up with just 3 million pesos, about 1% of the ask. Their amateurish escapade was busted by the police (boy, they must have been really bad) Dennis was arrested and immediately tried to shift the blame to his partner in crime. Suzette then “attempted suicide” by standing on a ledge being photographed and then tried to slash her wrists (weep for this poor woman). She was taken to hospital with light lacerations and released the next day.

It’s a hell of a story. They should make a film of it.

Now if you really want to gamble, let’s have a wee bet on when Dennis “finds God” shall we?

Gambling: the victimless vice?

I hope the Arroyo government picks up on one obvious lesson from the Dennis Roldan drama. There are victims of gambling, both individual and societal. Ask the family of the little boy kidnapped by gambling debtor Roldan. The plush Stanley-Ho-financed Hyatt Hotel on Mabini, the cockfights at pits all over the country, jueteng … they all leave a trail of broken families, lives and residual crime behind them. I’m not suggesting gambling should be banned, but I don’t think the government should be promoting it as enthusiastically as it does (please see previous post). Gambling is not a public good.

Booming Philippines?

It is so rare to read anything positive about the Philippines in the world's media that it seems churlish to complain. Still, I did think the FT took Romulo Neri's upbeat comments a wee bit too much at face value in its very positive article on the Philippines last week. The question of whether mining is really the way for the country to go is a big, big environmental question that was not addressed at all.

I don't know about the rest of you who live here, but I do think that the economy is picking up a little. The construction industry is always a bellwether for the rest of the economy and I reckon there are more construction sites in Manila now than at any other time in the seven and a half years I have lived here. Capitalism is notoriously cyclical and even the Philippines can't stay at the bottom for ever, so I guess a recovery of sorts is overdue. Who will benefit from this boomlet is another matter entirely of course.

The FT article is subscription only I am afraid, but here are some extracts:

The Philippine economy has been growing at its fastest for more than a decade and is looking forward to further rapid expansion this year in spite of a global economic slowdown and rising domestic inflation.

Romulo Neri, the economic planning secretary, said gross domestic product was forecast to grow by as much as 6.3 per cent this year, largely due to the expected inflow of foreign investment into mining projects and government plans to increase infrastructure spending.

Citing the latest estimates, he said the economy probably grew by 6.2 per cent last year, the highest in 15 years, on bumper farm output and rising exports. The official 2004 figures will be released on Monday.
Several Chinese companies pledged last week to invest at least $1.3bn (€998m, £690m) in Philippine mining ventures. A Philippine trade delegation said it had won commitments to gold, copper and other mining projects.

Foreign investment in mining was opened up in December when the Supreme Court upheld a 1995 law allowing foreign companies to control up to 100 per cent of big mining projects.

Investors seem to have agreed with Mr Neri. This week Philippine shares hit five-year highs while the peso climbed to its highest in eight months even after Standard & Poor's cut the country's credit rating.
Manila sold $1.5bn worth of 25-year global bonds yesterday, up from the original offer of $1bn because of strong demand. Analysts said the bond was oversubscribed partly because the risk spreads were much higher compared with the last bond issued.

Iglesia ni Bicol

You can’t help but wonder about the future of the Catholic church in the Philippines. It’s true that the older Catholic churches blend into the environment more easily than those of its brash competitor, Iglesia ni Cristo, so there are probably more of them about than is immediately apparent. It’s also true that the only Mass we looked in on – with the priest in full moral flow (“some of these teenage girls, they have bigger stomachs than anyone”) – was packed. No doubt the Church continues to exert enormous influence in ways that cannot be discerned through a car window.

Still if you are in a car driving the Bicol, what strikes you as the towns flash by your window is Iglesia, Iglesia, Iglesia.

Iglesia ni Cristo is a Philippine protestant sect that has adopted a sort of fast food approach to religion. The formulaic Iglesia churches are a brilliant exercise in branding, they come in four sizes but all are instantly recognizable from their green or orange roofs and distinctive portals. Although INC, McDonalds and Jollibee achieved national coverage in the 1990s, we saw far more of Iglesia’s fast religion establishments during our drive through Bicol than McDonalds or Jollibee restaurants. I guess readers will have their own views on whether that is a good thing or not.

Photos of FPJ's funeral ...

... can be found on the BBC website.

FPJ wake at Santo Domingo church

I visited the FPJ wake at Santo Domingo church yesterday. I’m not quite sure what I expected but I didn’t anticipate an orderly line stretching back about a mile. Anyone who thinks Filipinos can’t queue should see how the masa do it. I had plenty of time during the half hour or so it took me to stroll from the front to the back of the line (going the other way took 3-5 hours) to ponder the meaning of FPJ but I am no closer to understanding the hold he has on these people.

Perhaps it was FPJ’s on-screen taciturnity that endeared this half American but quintessentially Filipino action star to his fans. His followers are also voiceless and alienated from the circles of power — Tagalog or dialect speakers in a country where the medium of business, politics and power is still English; darker skinned than the mestisos who dominate the television screens; more poorly educated and inarticulate than the middle class fleeing the Philippines for work in the computer businesses of Daly City and London. Perhaps every FPJ fan nurses a dream of one day rising up, like FPJ in his movies, to waste his oppressors. The silent man pushed too far.

FPJ’s massive popularity is also in part because he is perceived as having a good “heart”. Filipinos will forgive people anything—their incomplete education, their illegitimate kids, their American passports—if only they have a good “heart”. It was her “heart” (and her glamour) that helped to keep the masa in thrall to Imelda for all those years, and her perceived lack of a “heart” that prevents them from ever really warming to Gloria.

So now FPJ is gone and Erap is in jail, who is left for them to look to? Who will provide these hundreds of thousands of mourners, this silent majority of Filipinos, with their sense of belonging?

In political terms, FPJ’s death and the possible exile of Estrada (see next post) may mark the end of a short-lived period of populism in the Philippines. For six years from Estrada’s massive election victory in 1998 to FPJ’s disputed defeat in 2004, the masa, the patient queuers, the excluded, could still believe that they had a champion. With the departure of Erap and FPJ, the Filipino elite that still swans around Makati, while poorer year on year it is true, is virtually unopposed.

"Much that is characteristic of the Filipino"

Some countries wear their national culture lightly, others continually beat themselves over the head trying to figure out what it means to be, say, Japanese or Filipino. One common conclusion in the Philippines is that there is in fact very little indigenous culture; since the arrival of the Spanish, everything has been borrowed or stolen from elsewhere.  Although it’s true that defining what is distinctively Filipino is difficult, I’ve never really bought that theory.  Today’s Inquirer editorial on the release of Filipino hostage Angelito Nayan takes time off from national self-flagellation to draw out the distinctively Filipino aspects of the crisis: 

Nayan's statement was brief, eloquent and touching, not least because of his earnest reminder to his countrymen that another Filipino remained in the hands of his captors. Robert Tarongoy remains a hostage in Iraq, where he has been held in captivity since Oct. 1.

The ordeal of Nayan brings to the fore so much that is characteristic of the Filipino. First is the talent possessed by so many Filipinos, including Nayan, who did outstandingly well in school, and belongs to a rising new generation of Filipino diplomats. Second is our ability to do well -- and be useful -- in practically every part of the globe. Third is the combination of humor, faith, optimism and resilience that not only allows individuals to overcome any ordeal, but which brings Filipinos of all ages and faiths and backgrounds together.


It is interesting to compare Nayan’s reception with that awaiting the released Japanese hostages a few months ago. 

Hacienda Luisita

The Philippines is a country replete with symbols.  Almost every day I find myself saying “that just sums the whole place up”.  My allegories are not all negative by any means, but it is hard to put a positive spin on the deaths of 14 strikers and their children at Hacienda Luisita on Tuesday. 

Frayed and I were shown around Luisita a couple of years ago.  My first impression was the decrepitude of the sugar mill – I hope they don’t have any strong winds in Tarlac any time soon because that place isn’t going to put much resistance.  Second, our guide explained that the folks at Luisita were glad that Erap wasn’t around any more because he tried to end the protectionist policies that preserve places like Luisita in their feudal splendour (and mean that poor people in the Philippines, a major sugar-producing country, have to pay more for sugar than Europeans).    Third, like every visitor to Luisitsa, I was struck by the beautifully manicured 18-hole golf course – how many “farms” do you know with golf courses?  Fourth, it was impossible to ignore the impoverishment of the squatter settlements that housed the workers of Luisita (and to contrast them with the relative comfort of the workers at the Del Monte plantation in Cagayan del Oro, which we visited about the same time).  Finally, where were they all – Peping and the other owners of Hacienda Luisita, Inc?  Were they at the farm minding business?  Of course not – those lovely green and white hacienda houses were all empty.  Everyone was in Manila or abroad having a great time spending that good sugar money.

All this (the golf course, the houses in Dasmarinas, the extractive relationship with the hacienda) has to be borne in mind when reading the workers’ side:

Earning more than P190 a day, the farm workers take home an average of P9.50 after deductions due to loans and advances, said Rene Galang, president of the United Luisita Workers Union. He said management had decreased their working days, or mandays, to once a week, which means the worker and his family have to subsist on the P9.50 for the week.

More on Gene Boyd Lumawag

Gene_boyd_sunset In the immediate aftermath of the murder of yet another journalist in the Philippines (see yesterday's post), the military was quick to point the finger at the Abu Sayyaf.  Now they have come up with another possible explanation:

Colonel Domingo Tutaan, Southern Command chief of staff, said the killing of Lumawag suggested it may have been a "thrill killing."

Both explanations let the military off the hook; if the killing was the work of the traditional bogeyman they can say they are already waging war on the abu Sayyaf, if it was just a motiveless killing how can they be expected to investigate it?

Yet the text message that circulated yesterday said that Lumawag was doing a story on corruption, might that not provide a motive?  Today’s Inquirer story notes that other journalists investigating the collection of illegal tolls have received death threats. 

Are the authorities too lazy to investigate the killing or do they have something to hide?  Here is the national union of journalists: 

"Gene's colleagues say the Abu Sayyaf or any other Moro rebel group had no reason to want him dead. He has covered the Muslim insurgency with professionalism and had just been part of a team that featured the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Also, we must point out that the Abu Sayyaf has been known to kidnap, but not murder, journalists," the NUJP said in a statement.

The group said the authorities should look into reports that Arguillas and Lumawag were in Jolo to do a story on corruption.

"Hasty pinpointing of blame could withhold justice from Gene and his family. If indeed the suspects were members of the Abu Sayyaf, authorities should explain why the group had targeted Gene for murder, and try to investigate if the suspects were working for other groups or individuals," the NUJP said.

Gene Boyd Lumawag: another dead Filipino journalist

Gene_boyd_grandma This cute photo was taken by Gene Boyd Lumawag.  Why have I put it on the blog?  Because he is now dead, that’s why.  The 26-year-old photojournalist was shot in the head last night head while investigating a corruption story in Jolo in the Philippines.  Last year the Philippines killed more journalists than any country apart from Iraq.  See here and here, for more on this blog on the killing of journalists in the Philippines.  When is the government going to start taking this issue seriously (and that means more than just describing it as a “dastardly act”?  It is so sickening that this young and talented photographer should lose his life in this barbaric way. 

The authorities have immediately tagged the Abu Sayyaf as the suspects.  They may be right, but it is also a convenient explanation and I haven’t heard a motive yet.

JOLO, Sulu -- Gene Boyd R. Lumawag, 26, photo editor of MindaNews, was shot dead at the intersection of Serrantes and Marina streets in downtown Jolo, Sulu. He was on his way to shoot the sunset from the pier of Jolo when felled by a lone bullet from a caliber .45 handgun. He was hit on the forehead just above his right eyebrow. No one at the crime scene could say how it happened. Not even the police or the Marines. They said they arrived at the crime scene with Gene Boyd already dead. Gene Boyd died on the spot. At 9 pm Army investigators said that Gene Boyd was gunned down by suspected members of the “urban terrorist group” allegedly of the Abu Sayyaf. Gene Boyd was looking forward to his first coverage of eidl fitr, the celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadhan.

Once again: only in the Philippines

Every once in a while the local newspapers publish a story that has it all.  The story of Faye Nicole San Juan, 12, touches most of the bases; the triumph against the odds, the charm, the confusion, the strangeness, the betrayal, the “startling coincidences”, the persecution complex (“I grew up knowing that Filipinos are looked down on”), more confusion … Anyway here is Faye’s story, it seems she won a competition in Australia.  But then again, perhaps not.

Tree spirits have the last laugh

In the Philippines, established religions such as Catholicism, born-again protestant sects and Islam all have to co-exist with more primeval belief systems. Every once in a while these make their way into the papers:

In 2001, Jimmy Gatulla was one of the people who helped cut down a 200-year-old pine tree standing in the middle of Loakan Road that was said to be enchanted and inhabited by spirits. Three years after the 15-meter (49.21-foot) tree was cleared from the road, Gatulla died in May after a tree fell on him while working in a forested part of Dominican Hill here.

Gatulla, 40, an employee of the city engineer's office, was said to be the first person "taken by the spirits" that lived in the Loakan tree.

The tree was cut down on Nov. 5, 2001, after environment officials certified that it was dead and the Department of Public Works and Highways deemed it a road hazard.

On Oct. 23, Gatulla's family contacted members of the Spirit Questors Baguio to help them "talk" to Gatulla.

"When we arrived at his family's house (in Barangay Pinsao), I immediately saw (his spirit) in front of their house. I thought he was waiting for someone. Later, we found that he was waiting for his child to come home," said Maria Elena Catajan, a Questor.

The Questors, composed of Catajan, Emerald Mariano and Dion Fernandez, then formed a circle and began to contact Gatulla's spirit.

Gatulla spoke in the Ilocano dialect during the about hour-long séance. Mariano translated Gatulla's messages for the rest of the group.

"When we told him that he had died, he was surprised and said he did not know he was dead. He did not even want to believe that he is already dead. We thought that among the people who were present during the cutting of the tree, he was the one who was nearest to it, kaya siya ang binawian (so the spirits took their revenge on him)," Fernandez said.

Asked how many spirits used to dwell in the tree, Mariano said, "Think of a dormitory."

He said the Questors would usually ask a spirit if he or she would like to "cross over" or to move on to another world.

Fernandez said Gatulla was reluctant to move on because he wanted to ensure that his family would receive his death benefits. Gatulla left behind his wife Nora and five children.

My part of town

Nice photos of Manila can be found here. Here’s my part of town, the Bay: Manila_bay

See -- Manila can look beautiful sometimes! Please forward to any moaning friends you may have.

Miserable life

This is one of those photos with a lot of "meaning", I'm just trying to figure out what that meaning is. If you are a Filipino or have lived here a while, I guess this will strike some sort of chord, however hard that is to categorize. If not -- hey, welcome to the Philippines! The photo was taken by my friend Lucy Morgan, whose blog can be found here.

Is making everyone fat the best way to fund development in the Philippines?

I'm still thinking about the World Bank proposal to fund fast-food franchises in the Philippines:

• The World Bank has a large health programme – I wonder what people there think about this plan? Hasn’t the book Fast Food Nation made any impact on these people at all?

• Presumably even the World Bank would balk at funding tobacco farmers, but is encouraging people to eat cheap hamburgers much better? Obesity is a global pandemic. This is from the World Health Organization site: “As of 2000, the number of obese adults has increased to over 300 million. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the obesity epidemic is not restricted to industrialized societies; in developing countries, it is estimated that over 115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems.”

• Funding fast food franchises doesn’t just have health consequences. As the sassy lawyer points out, the proliferation of fast food outlets will damage Filipino cuisine. And what about the further despoliation of provincial towns that will follow the opening of new hamburger restaurants all over the place?

• I reckon this plan shows just how influenced by an American business model the World Bank is.

Arroceros: please read this letter published in the Inquirer

Please read this. I really hope the controversy over his plans to build on Arroceros makes Mayor Atienza see sense. Does he really want to be remembered as the destroyer of one of the most beautiful parts of Manila?

World Bank loan to Jollibee

Even in this smelly London Internet cafe, I still find time to check out the sassy lawyer. She has an astonishing story about a World Bank loan to Jollibee:

MANILA : The World Bank’s private sector financing arm will put some of the 100 million dollars it plans to invest in the Philippines into local fast food chain Jollibee Foods.

International Finance Corporation (IFC) country manager Vipul Bhagat told the BusinessWorld newspaper the body wants to help both the company expand in the provinces and entrepreneurs who want to run their own Jollibee restaurants. [Channel News Asia]

Sassy's righteous indignation is spot on: "The provinces are the only places left where ethnic Filipino cuisine thrives and they’re about to be deluged with Jollibee. And then what? The future generations are supposed to define Filipino cuisine according to the Jollibee menu? Talk about killing the Filipino culture…"

Arroceros: Manila’s last lung

I can’t imagine a more pleasant place for a picnic than leafy Arroceros Forest Park, especially now that artists have been encouraged to come and paint the trees and the Pasig river on Sundays. The recently constructed river walkway makes it particularly charming.

Do please come to support the park, especially now that Mayor Atienza has resumed his dark warnings of paving it over. Any city in the world would be proud to have a jewel like Arroceros – the fact that it has somehow survived in our polluted and congested metropolis is almost a miracle! If Manileños allow it to be destroyed I’ll just lose all hope – you wouldn’t want that to happen would you?

Arroceros is just upstream from Quezon Bridge, on the south bank. If you go by LRT get off at Central and you’re right there. By car it is a wee bit more complicated – the park is just behind Mehan Garden, near the Comelec offices (and of course near the Central LRT station). Parking is easy.

Who knows, with your help the dream to turn it into a sort of “left bank” of Manila, with artists sketching strollers by, may come a little closer. It would be appalling if Mayor Atienza were to destroy it as he did the Jai Alai building.


This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poor house

Manila experienced an intensity 4 earthquake while I was away last week. So where is the best place to stand or sit in an earthquake? Douglas Copp thinks he has the answer.

"Simply stated, when buildings collapse, the weight of the ceilings falling upon the objects or furniture crushes these objects, leaving a space or void next to them! This space is what I call the "triangle of life". The larger the object, the stronger, the less it will compact; the less the object compacts, the larger the void, the greater the probability that the person who is using this void for safety will not be injured."

And what of the one piece of advice most of us know about earthquakes: stand in the doorway?

In Copp's experience of crawling into 875 collapsed buildings, everyone who tries to shelter under doorways is killed. If the door frame falls forwards or backwards the ceiling will drop from above; if the door frame falls sideways you will be cut in half by the doorway. Though most authorities have now stopped publishing instructional pictures of people sheltering under doorways, the message has not yet got through and many people's first attempt at survival is to stand in these vulnerable spots.
However, Copp's claims are vehemently disputed by Marla Petal in an article last week. "Worse than urban legend: dangerous advice!"

My personal advice once the toaster starts to slide off the shelf would be to turn on your computer and conduct a thorough survey of the earthquake information available on the Internet. If necessary, supplement your Internet search by consulting reference works. Even visit your local library if necessary. Then weigh all this information and make a clear and objective decision on the best place to lie, sit or stand. Unfortunately if your building is still bouncing around by this stage I don't think this is an earthquake -- it's Armageddon and I'm not sure that any pearly words of advice from Copp or Petal are going to help you much. Just put on "Sin city" by Gram Parsons and open a beer.

Silliman alumni donate jewelry to government

imelda_ruby_braceletsPatriotic graduates of Dumaguete’s Silliman University have gathered together their baubles to help the government out of its 3 trillion peso hole. Very touching I’m sure – now if a certain Tacloban high school were to follow suit we might really be in business. Check here and here for more on Imelda's jewels.

The real state of the Philippine economy

Economic data are always complex and often contradictory, so non-specialists need some guidance on what is actually going on. Winnie Monsod provides this expertly in her column today. In a nutshell, the bad news outweighs the good:

… average nominal family incomes grew by only 2.5 percent. When we take into consideration that the general level of prices, or CPI, as mentioned above, went up by 14.9 percent, that means that even if average incomes went up, the amount of goods these could buy went down.

Progressive times

I joined the Progressive Times group recently and I'm glad I did -- see deuterium post below.

I've found out more about the supposedly vast reserves of deuterium in the Philippines, though I am no clearer on whether these are (a) complete nonsense, (b) a scam, (c) a seasonal issue that surfaces from time to time, or (d) the answer to all our problems.

I have one suggestion though and that is that, if you join this group, you click the option that says something like "no e-mails thank you, I'll read the discussions on the website". These progressive folk are avid e-mailers and they'll fill your in-box more quickly than you can say "heavy water".

More on killing of journalists in the Philippines

Congressmen and former newspaperman Teddy Boy Locsin provides part of the explanation for why most murders of journalists in the Philippines happen in the province:

I always tell our reporters, whether in the Daily Globe or Today, to be very careful about crossing some self-important local boss or village chief or politician or policeman. The lower in the totem pole, the more likely he is to wield a club or pull out a gun, and the more eager he is to use it. He has nothing to lose because he is a nobody.

My father, who was afraid of no one, and spent his early days as a journalist eluding a tank sent after him by President Quirino, would tell his boys the same thing: always pick on the big shots -- presidents, senators, justices, maybe congressmen. They tend to react to libel with letters to the editor. But anyone lower -- governors, mayors, chiefs of police -- won’t know enough to write a letter to the editor when a bullet is so much more convenient to send. More to the point, libel a congressman and he will offer to buy your good opinion; libel a cop and he will wait for you outside your apartment door.

Thanks to the sassy lawyer for the link.

Typhoons Aere and Chaba

25_august_typhoonWell, we've sure got some heavy water in the Philippines this morning and a lot of it is lying in a trench right outside my office. My boots are soggier than General MacArthur's.

Philippines: the untold riches that always lie just around the corner

philippine_trenchThe world's largest reserves of deuterium, or heavy water, are to be found in the Philippine trench. I had no idea what deuterium was until a couple of days ago, but thanks to an article in the Cebu Freeman I now have some notion. All our worries are over.

"Deuterium is used in the production of (hydrogen) Li-Hy Fuel now used in Canada, America, Germany and some parts of Sweden to provide fuel for cars, trucks, jet planes, etc. including solid hydrogen for the spacecraft Challenger and Columbia. Deuterium can replace gasoline, LPG, LNG, Avgas, etc. in powering all types of internal combustion engines. It does not emit pollutants or any harmful carbon monoxide and does not cause any environmental problems because it is in a member of the water family. Emissions are nothing but water vapor or steam. Deuterium as hydrogen fuel can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, and as heavy water fuel for reactors in electric power generation."
And where is it?
"[It] is obtained from the deep trenches of the world and the world’s largest deposit of deuterium is in the Philippines - a big deposit of 868 miles long, 52 miles at widest point, and 3 miles at deepest point, replenished by nature 24 hours a day after deuterium travels more than 12,000 kilometers from Central America to the Philippines through the span of the Pacific Ocean when planet earth turns on its axis from west to east in unending perpetual motion."
Wouldn't it be wonderful if, after all the gloomy forecasts, "this untapped source of energy were to make the Philippines one of the richest countries of the world"?

Sadly, the deuterium dream has been kicking around for a while (there was even a satirical play called "Deuterium" based on what happened when the Philippines became the richest country in the world). The play won a Palanca Award in 1990, but in the intervening years the Philippines has made little progress up the prosperity ladder. Mind you, oil has never been $50 a barrel before…

You can receive more information about deuterium by writing to:

What does it take to convict the rich in the Philippines?

The Philippine National Police and the Justice Department are doing what they can to prove once and for all that if you are wealthy you can literally get away with murder. Life will be so much simpler once everyone accepts that and people stop whining about “justice” and “equality before the law” and all those other airy-fairy notions that clearly have no relevance to the modern world.

Case number 1. Jaworski Yap shootout. Back in June, a shootout between rival gangs of rich kids at Greenhills shopping centre left 60 shells scattered over the carpark, six cars damaged and Senator’s son Ryan Jaworski in hospital with bullet wounds in both legs. Details are can be found in an earlier post. This, however, was not enough for the City of Mandaluyong’s city prosecutors, who earlier this week dismissed the criminal cases against Jaworski, Yap and their buddies for lack of "probable cause." The prosecutor said that the police failed to establish the basic fact that the respondents fired at one another.

This absurd decision has produced a lot of hot air from incoming DILG Secretary Angelo Reyes (see today’s Inquirer) but I'd be very surprised if that results in “scions of wealthy families” Jaworski and Yap ending up behind bars.

Case number 2. Robbie Martel. I dunno what you’ve got to do to persuade these prosecutor fellows, but it looks like it has got to be something pretty bad. Senior state prosecutor Robert Lao has dismissed a charge of frustrated parricide filed against businessman Robbie Martel by his estranged wife Melissa Mercado Martel. The details of this case (admittedly told from Melissa’s point of view) can be found in Rina Jimenez-David’s column back in April, reading her article it is hard to disagree with the newspaper editorial that described it as a “monstrous decision”. She wrote again about the case this week.

The implications of the Jaworski Yap case are covered in today’s Inquirer editorial.

General MacArthur: why ruin a perfectly good pair of boots?


I had never heard of Carl Mydans until he died a couple of days ago aged 97, but I knew his most iconic photograph, General MacArthur striding through the Leyte foam on his famous return to the Philippines.

I’ve always thought there was something a bit dodgy about the photo though. Why walk through the sea when a boat could deliver you safe and sound onto the beach or a pontoon? Stanley Karnow has a colourful explanation that doesn’t seem to be followed by any other commentators:

MacArthur inadvertently strode into the most famous scene of his career when a harried beachmaster, too busy unloading supplies to provide his party with a boat, barked, “Let ‘em walk”. Cameras caught him wading ashore, his scowl a look of determination. (In our image: America’s empire in the Philippines, p. 313)

So a “beachmaster” said to one of the most famous generals in the US army “Let’em walk”? That seems a bit improbable to me.

MacArthur staged a re-enactment the next day:

MacArthur landed at Leyte's Red Beach on October 20, wading because his craft hit a sand bar; and he liked the photo-opportunity so much he repeated the wade on White Beach the next day for the whole press corps. [Karnow has it that the re-enactment was “in Luzon”]
Wherever it was, the “re-enactment” showed MacArthur was very well aware of the power of the photograph of his famous “return”. He was an extraordinarily egotistical and image-conscious person, so my guess is that this stuff about “sandbars” and “beachmasters” is baloney. MacArthur walked through the water because it looked meaner than tip-toeing onto a pontoon. And he was right – I wouldn’t be writing this post if he hadn’t sacrificed those boots. General MacArthur and Carl Mydans – spinning their way into history.

Post script: I haven’t read what American Caesar has to say about the photograph – if you have, please leave a comment. I’d be interested to know.

My Manila

I know from re-reading old posts that this blog can sound a little querulous – so how come I love living here?

One reason I haven’t tried to explain why I like this city is that I’m afraid I’ll come up with the same banal reasons as all the guidebooks – the smiling people, the juxtaposition of America and Asia, etc. Anyway, here goes:

1. The smiling people! The Philippines always does pretty badly in economic indices when compared with, say, Hong Kong. This might lead you to expect Filipinos to be utterly miserable and people from Hong Kong to be blissfully happy, but, as we know, exactly the opposite is the case. If the objective of living is to get some sort of enjoyment out of it, then, superficially at least, the backslapping Filipino in a crowded and dirty jeepney has done much better than the harassed Chinese trader manoevring his Mercedes through the crowded streets of Central.

Take the office I work in. I’ve worked in several countries and this is the only office where you can be guaranteed of a smile when you walk down the corridor. That might not make much difference to some people, but it certainly helps me get through my day.

I can’t say whether all this happiness is actually good for the country though. If Filipinos did not seem so blissfully content with the current mess somebody might come along and actually try to improve the place. Still, on a purely personal and day-to-day level (which is perhaps where most people here live), I would rather be surrounded by smiling Filipinos than the living dead on the 6.10 home to Guildford.

2. Manila doesn’t change a whole lot. In the seven years I’ve lived here I’ve seen the odd new building, the occasional “beautification project”, even a new public transport system (the MRT). In essence, though, it is the same as the city I came to in 1997. That’s not a good sign economically of course, but I’ve lived in booming and rapidly changing cities and on balance I prefer Manila’s timeless quality, even if the warp it is stuck in is not a particularly charming one. To live in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where familiar neighbourhoods can be razed and whole cities constructed virtually overnight … well, that would just make me feel small and powerless and alone.

OK – that’s enough positive vibes for one day. I’ll thrill you with more dazzling insights in the days ahead. Now, on with the vitriol…

Melissa Mercado-Martel: Department of Justice drops charges

"Unbelievable" – that was frayed's comment when she sent me the link to this story announcing that the Department of Justice is dropping the frustrated parricide case against the Roby Puyat-Martel. See Rina Jimenez-David's column back in April for details of this landmark case for women's rights in the Philippines – it's worth reading.

Tam—Awan artists at le Soufflé

healingBen Cabrera and the Tam-Awan Village artists from Baguio will exhibit their
works at le Souffle at the Fort -- Leonard Aguinaldo (see picture left), who recently won the ASEAN Art Awards grand prize, will be one of the artists featured. There is an opening tomorrow -- 13 August, 5.00-6.45.

Andres Bonifacio's Nazi past

actionfigure4My fellow blogger Pupuplatter is a lazy fellow, posting only once or twice a month, but what posts they are.

July included a detailed description of how a sculptor transformed a model of a shouting Nazi soldier into Andres Bonifacio. For more detail on what Pupuplatter describes, correctly in my view, as “a daring act of postcolonial appropriation” please see the sculptor’s own site here.

Choosing a head sculpt of Bonifacio took me a long time since I want my work to be perfect. Finally I’ve chosen a head sculpt of a German Nazi shouting, his expression is perfect for Bonifacio motivating the Filipinos to fight for freedom. The problem is to make the face look like him. I need to sculpt the face to make it look like Bonifacio. Sculpting the face is the hardest & most crucial (make or break) part. No matter how nice the rest of the artwork & diorama, if the face does not look like the person you are replicating to, it will defeat your purpose.
The whole description is quite charming, if a little eccentric. actionfigure2

Meanwhile, in “the real Philippines”

From a simple visit to his dentist, Manolo Quezon spins out an elegant and thought-provoking essay on the diminishing expectations of the Philippine professional class in today’s column. The sting lies in the tail: “In the real Philippines, government is irrelevant, because the only way to get by is to have a heart-to-heart talk with a service provider and haggle”. That’s the weird disjoint between the vision of the Philippines in the papers and TV and everyday life. The stories in the media are all President this, government that, but in the real Philippines you’re on your own to fight for your part of a diminishing pie. As Quezon says, if even doctors do not earn enough to afford the basic trappings of middle class life, there is a problem:

To live in a society where the professions, which once gained respect and assured their practitioners advancement in life, are now increasingly irrelevant, is a crushing, horrifying fate. The erosion this has on our work ethic must be profound. To be a doctor, and be looked at by your peers as someone assured of success … only to discover that you do not have any patients who can afford the care you were trained to provide, this must breed cynicism and despair. It is a no-win situation. No wonder so many opt out and try their luck elsewhere.

As always, Manolo Quezon has posted a link to the column on his blog. The comments are worth reading too.

The sad fate of whistle-blowers in the Philippines

Juan Mercado had an excellent article on whistleblowers in last week’s Inquirer. He pointed out that:
THE LITMUS test to determine if governments tackle graft seriously is how well they protect "whistle-blowers."

"Governments must create an environment that encourages, instead of penalizing, citizens who denounce venality," declared 135 countries--the Philippines included--at the 9th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Durham, South Africa.
Yet in the Philippines there are few prizes for revealing corrupt practices:
Acsa Ramirez whipped out a whistle on a tax scam at Land Bank. Instead of being protected, Ramirez found herself presented as one of the crooks, by President Macapagal-Arroyo, no less, and by the inept National Bureau of Investigation agents.
Angry sustained protests--some from this paper--erupted over this gross injustice. Government grudgingly backtracked. Loss of face was deemed more important than fairness. …
Remember Rear Adm. Guillermo Wong? This ramrod-straight Philippine Military Academy graduate wrote a thesis on "Norms of Honor." It was a study on the standards of ethical conduct by Philippine Navy officers.
Wong used those standards in denouncing Marine purchases of thin Kevlar helmets and malfunctioning HK-MP5 assault rifles. Only the amount of P266 was left from a P64.9 million allocation for a Marine base. But roads, sewage and electrical systems, etc. were non existent.
The admiral, his critics sneered in retaliation, was a "compulsive whiner," even as a cadet. He often "did the right things the Wong way." The brass shoved Wong into "floating status." That's an office table with a solitary telephone connected to nowhere. The Navy's Office of Ethical Standards, nonetheless, admitted "a prima facie case existed" on the worthless tin helmets, missing machine guns and Marine base funds.

The Philippines: gambling republic

rouletteMichael Tan touched on a huge social issue in his column on Friday. As he pointed out:

We know that after Erap was ousted, the issue of gambling as a social problem dropped out of the public's mind, except for occasional news about a crackdown on small jueteng and masiao operators. It almost seemed as if we went into national denial, hoping that the problem wasn't too serious, and that it would go away, together with all its associated social maladies: wrecked family budgets; squandered savings; neglected, even battered, spouses and children; alcohol and drug dependencies; severe depression.
Yet the government is actively courting Asia’s gambling csar, Stanley Ho, who was seen in Pampanga during the election campaign (who mentioned anything about campaign financing?). His influence has been acknowledged in the opening of at least one swanky new casino in Manila:
"Stanley Ho has indeed reentered the Philippine gambling scene with the direct involvement of his long-time partner Cheng Yu-Tung, through his Chow Tai Fook Group of Companies, in a newly opened casino at the Sheraton Marina hotel in Malate, Manila.
It doesn’t stop there. In the small stretch of Mabini in between Qurino and UN there are no fewer than four brand new casinos within walking distance of each other: a new VIP Casino Filipino at the Ambassador Hotel, the casino at the Sheraton mentioned above, one at the Citystate Tower Hotel and one opposite the Baywatch on UN. Add to this the long established casinos at the Pavilion on UN and the Heritage at the western end of EDSA and a new Stanley Ho-funded casino at the Hyatt and it seems that the only growth business by the Bay is gambling.

However, casinos are no longer the guaranteed tourism money-spinners that they once were. In the 1980s, gambling resorts like Genting Highlands in Malaysia were able to make a fortune by sucking in the new-rich beneficiaries of the Asian economic miracle. Since those days many other countries in Asia have opened casinos; if the Philippines wants to become a gambling den it has to ask itself what its comparative advantage is over, say, Malaysia, Korea or even Japan and Singapore, both of which are considering liberalizing rules governing gambling.

And the answer is of course cheap sex. Alongside those new gambling dens a host of new karaoke bars have sprouted, many with Japanese characters and signs recruiting “Japanese-speaking GROs”.

No city has ever managed to keep organized crime out of either gambling or prostitution and Manila won’t be the first. When we remember the already strong links between “gambling lords” and mainstream politics in the Philippines (it was after all a dispute about a new gambling franchise between Atong Ang and Chavit Singson that led to Estrada’s fall) the implications of those new casinos by the Bay will be far-reaching.

Santi Bose (1949-2002): art is long, life is short

boseI never met Baguio artist Santi Bose, but I think he would have approved of the free-flowing evening in his memory at Penguin in Malate on Saturday night. The party was to launch Espiritu Santi: the strange life and even stranger legacy of Santi Bose, a large-fomat tribute volume, full of memories, critiques and reproductions of his work.

Music was provided by Santi’s daughter Mutya, two women called (I think) Reggae Mistress, a couple of people from Pinikpikan and various others who wandered up on stage to jam. There were even some foreigners dancing and making fools of themselves, tut, tut. Reggae Mistress were a blast – at last, a Manila reggae band with an understanding of Jamaican music that stretches beyond Bob Marley’s “Legend”. I have always been a fan of dancehall acts like Yellowman and these girls have got the style down pat, even toasting a few Tagalog songs.

I’m a late arrival on the Santi scene, but I’ve loved his work ever since seeing the paintings in the book Vestiges of War (also launched at Penguin) and most of all the recent retrospective at the CCP, which just blew me away. Espiritu Santi is a worthy tribute to the artist and the man; beautifully laid out, full of insightful and moving articles, and with a good colour reproductions of his work. And hey, it’s only 800 pesos!

There are many highlights – I particularly liked John Silva’s take on the way Bose manipulated history

“he was always coming up with new strange depictions of some historical moment … he’d laugh and laugh, congratulating himself with such a subversive thought and was off to his canvas. The finished product was usually a radical masterpiece”.
My favourite piece though was the honest and moving article by Lilledeshan Bose, another of Santi’s daughters. The article was reprinted from the Inquirer and can be seen here.

If you have any interest in the cultural history of late 20th century Philippines, the Baguio art scene, or if you just like beautiful books, I’d recommend you shell out 800 pesos for this lovely book. I don’t think you’ll regret it. It is available from Water Dragon, tel: (632) 894 3811, e-mail:


Why do Filipinos need a bribe to compete for a gold medal?

So any Philippine athlete who wins a gold medal is to get P 10 million. Why? Without a huge financial incentive they won’t try so hard? Whatever happened to personal glory or even old-fashioned patriotism? I wonder why everything in the Philippines seems to revolve around money.

Jaworski and Jinggoy: peas in a pod

Here's a theory. Children of rich and powerful people can turn into spoiled brats anywhere (c.f. Mark Thatcher and the Bush daughters). But in weak states, where, instead of being a neutral arbiter, the forces of law and order are held hostage by personal interests, these people feel that they have a "right" to do literally anything (see post of 18 June on Jinggoy Estrada). Plus they have virtually unlimited access to guns. Because their fathers are often goons, or surround themselves with goons, these kids often receive little schooling (why bother when Daddy will give you anything you want) and end up with goon values.

Just where this can all lead was graphically illustrated last Monday night at a shootout in Greenhills between gangs led by Ryan Jaworski, 30, son of outgoing Sen. Robert Jaworski, and Elton Yap, 14, son of businessman Tony Yap (who was, apparently, accompanied by one bodyguard for each year of his short life).

The spat began – of course – with text messages, with the Jaworski camp apparently calling Elton bakla (gay). By the time the boys had really got going around 60 shells -- from an M16 assault rifle, a 9mm pistol, and a .45 cal. pistol – littered the scene of the shoot-out. The windshield of Elton's Honda CRV was shattered (this is the 14-year-old remember). At least six other parked cars were also damaged. Ryan Jaworski (nicely described in today's Inquirer editorial as "no stranger to the police blotter") was in hospital with bullet wounds in both his legs.

It is surprising therefore that lawyers for both camps have claimed that their clients were not armed (huh?). (Unfortunately for the Jaworski camp, the papers have discovered he has no fewer than 11 guns registered in his name. See the Manila Times story for a full listing of the Jaworski armoury.)

If Gloria really wants to make a progress on the law and order issue, she could do worse than make a few high-profile prosecutions of the "scions of wealthy families" as the press loves to call them. But of course she will do nothing as usual and the story of the great Greenhills shootout will end up in the Inquirer's "whatever happened to" column.

Typhoon Helen: the storm that sunk a thousand bands

Weather in Manila sometimes seems to rise up from the ocean depths rather than descending from the skies. Yesterday for example, it was actually quite sunny and bright, yet the churning waters of Manila Bay looked more like the North Sea in February. About 20 little yachts zipped merrily across the whitecaps in the fresh Habagat wind.

One of Typhoon Helen's principal victims over the weekend was the Fête de la Musique at Eastwood, which was rained out. What a bummer. This year's fête had a fantastic programme, with over 100 bands covering everything from ska to lounge music. We particularly wanted to see Rivermaya, Nancy Drool, Tropical Depression, and Barbie's Cradle, among others, but ended up not seeing any of them. At about 10pm the heavens opened and that was pretty well it. Most of the spectators and a lot of the equipment got soaked, which meant that even the bands playing at the indoor venues cancelled. There were rumours that a couple of the outdoor stages collapsed.

Ah well, that's rock 'n' roll. And this is Christopher Marlowe (just to make you feel a bit better if your Saturday evening was spoiled):

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Just another jeepney murder

Juan, the office assistant in my apartment building, was stabbed to death in a jeepney late on Thursday night. It seems he was the only passenger when three men entered the jeepney and held him up. It’s not clear what happened next, but apparently Juan resisted, probably to protect his cellphone, and one of the men stabbed him in the heart. The men were apprehended by a film crew from ABS-CBN and taken into custody. Juan had clung onto his cellphone though and one of the crew phoned the first number, his boss in the office, to give her the news.

You learn more about people when they are dead than when they are alive; my father’s death taught me that.

Juan was a quiet little guy who looked at least eight years younger than his 24 years.

The fact that he wore red shoes was taken as a sign that he was gay, though it seemed rather flimsy evidence to me. However, it turns out that Juan used to frequent a gay demi-monde in Quiapo, across from the McArthur Bridge where he was murdered. It is known as a dangerous area and his boss had warned him several times to avoid it.

A young man venturing into a risky area in search of sexual adventures is not that unusual, it must happen every night in every city of the world. Juan’s misfortune was to live in Manila, large parts of which are run by crime syndicates that bribe and intimidate the police to look the other way.

I don’t know whether this has something to do with Catholic fatalism, but no sooner had we heard the dreadful news than stories started to circulate that Juan had somehow anticipated his passing. He was supposed to have “been in a strange mood” that day. One of the guards said that when he left the apartment building after work he had looked up at it fatefully. Who can say? Perhaps there was more to Juan’s death than meets the eye. We’ll never know for sure now.

Chin-Chin Gutierrez’s collection of Philippine lullabies

chin_chinChin-Chin Gutierrez, actress, eco-warrior, telenovella heroine and now world music star has already had a hit in Paris with a live performance of her album “Uyayi: A Collection of Philippine Lullabies”. A Filipino friend in Paris went to her recent performance at the Alliance and said she brought the house down. Now she is to appear on a world music radio station in France. I heard about the “Uyayi” project while Chin-Chin, Butch Perez and others were still researching lullabies all over the archipelago and thought it might end up in the “worthy but dull” category. I was wrong though -- I loved Chin-Chin’s pure voice and the playing of Bo Razon and company as soon as I heard “Uyayi”.

The CD is available at a limited number of outlets -- I bought my copy at the shop at the Ayala Museum in Glorietta.

I’ll leave the last word to Chilean musician Osvaldo Torres Veliz:

"This is the face of the Philippines that we have been longing to see," Osvaldo remarked, "and it's time to show it to the world."

Values formation in the Philippines

The Inquirer columnist Michael Tan has written two excellent columns this week (Wednesday and Friday) on the role of values in Philippine society (see “avoidance of conflict”and comments on “Looking for an alternative Philippines” below). Personally, I think that the Lee Kuan Yewesque “presidential commission on values formation” that we have been promised is a waste of energy that will produce a lot of hot air about pakikasama and not much else. Quoting the American business writer John Kotter, Tan points out that:

"In a change effort, culture comes last, not first … A culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over some minimum period of time."

"avoidance of confrontation of any kind, an endless elasticity of evasion and spurious amiability"

No, that’s not a description of the Philippines, but of Brazil in A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb, reviewed in the current Guardian. Some societies are just like this – for better or worse – and those of us familiar with clearer lines and the judge’s gavel are just going to have to come to terms with it.

I thought about the avoidance of conflict in the Philippines (and its inevitable corollary, a huge number of unresolved issues) when reading Manuel Quezon III’s interesting review of a new book by Augusto V. de Viana on the “collaborators” during the Japanese occupation. The “Anglo-Saxon” way of dealing with members of the Philippine government during the Japanese occupation would probably have been a rush to judgement and a series of Nuremberg-type trials. There is something to be said for that approach, problematic though it can be in practice, and there were some half-hearted trials conducted by people’s courts after the war. However, the policy that was adopted by the Commonwealth Government – which was, broadly speaking, to do nothing – was probably fairer in the long run.

A series of trials in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Manila with the blood of victims of Japanese barbarism still fresh on the streets would almost certainly have been harsh on those who, like Jose. P. Laurel and Jorge Vargas, had kept the country running during the occupation. Yet history has been much kinder to them. In Quezon’s words:

“Essentially [de Viana] is in agreement that Laurel and company were patriots, and that there was, in fact, a certain solidarity between the officials of the Commonwealth government in exile and of the officials who stayed behind.”

Whether that approach was correct in France, where some collaborators were not tried for their crimes until 40 years after the end of the war, is another matter. The context is all.

Augusto V. de Viana, “Kulaboretor”, Santo Tomas Publishing House.

This post continues some of the ideas in the "comments" under "Looking for an alternative Philippines" (below).

Jamby and Juday

jamby_and_judayOf all the bizarre campaigns in the recently concluded Philippine election, Jamby Madrigal's must have been one of the most curious.

The Power of ‘Juday’

Jamby Madrigal, one of the wealthiest senatorial candidates of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP), has finally made it to the top 12, based on the March 27-April 4 Pulse Asia survey.

Aside from having her own helicopters to take her to vote-rich communities, Jamby’s strength lies in her principal endorser, popular actress Judy Ann "Juday" Santos. In her campaign speeches, she often tells the crowd that Juday had wanted to come but either had missed the plane or was busy shooting a movie. She then promises that she will surely bring Juday if voters help her win.

The former National Youth Commissioner of ex-President Estrada throws plastic bracelets to the huge crowds who often attend KNP rallies. She tells them that wearing the bracelet is like wearing Juday’s bracelet.

With such a Juday-oriented campaign, Madrigal has had to warn voters not to write Juday on the ballot instead of Jamby.

Jamby also has to avoid making slips speaking in Filipino. In a recent KNP sortie in Tagum, Davao del Norte, after the audience had swelled from around 500 to 10,000, she mistakenly insulted the big crowd when she said: "Ang kapal ng mga tao dito." ["The people here are so shameless" when she meant to say "There are so many people here"]

Jamby/Juday currently stands fifth in the Namfrel senatorial poll and is virtually guaranteed a place in the new Senate.

Filipiana in Paris

Today's Inquirer has an interesting article by Ambeth Ocampo on Filipiana in Paris. I have copy of one of the books he refers to -- "The Diary of a French Officer on the War in the Philippines 1898" -- I'll review it in a subsequent post.

Election process is symptomatic of lack of trust in Philippine society

The labour-intensive and repetitive polling system reflects the very low level of trust throughout modern Philippine society. Take those yellow and pink forms that are filled in when you buy, say, an electrical appliance. It is some unfortunate filing clerk’s job to add all these up to make sure that the results tally with the till and that no-one is pilfering 20 pesos here and there. Restaurants and stores in malls have security guards not just to protect them from marauders, but also to intimidate employees and to discourage pilfering. When they leave work SM employees are searched as thoroughly as if they had been working in the De Beers diamond mines. Attendants at gas stations ask you to check that the meter begins at 000 because otherwise you would naturally assume that station would cheat you.

Just about the only place where I have seen a trust-based system is the way jeepney fares are handed customer-by-customer to the driver. Everywhere else the starting point seems to be, avert your eyes for one moment and the other guy will rob you blind.

The really sad thing about all this is that in traditional Philippine society honesty was the norm – dishonesty was considered weird, aberrant behaviour. Here is literary critic Isagani Cruz on Chinese-Philippine trade in the 12th century.

Chinese traders allowed Filipinos to come aboard their boats and to take whatever they wanted, without receipts or any sort of identification system. Several months later, when the traders would visit the islands again, the Filipinos would give them pearls, shells, nuts, cloth and other native products, in return for whatever they took the last time. This inherent honesty helps to explain why trickster tales were widely popular in pre-colonial times. The dishonesty of the trickster (variously called Pusang, Pusong, or Pilandok) was funny only because it was considered unusual conduct. Isagani Cruz, “The Philippines”, Traveller’s Literary Companion to South-east Asia

A culture of trust is what Francis Fukuyama calls “social capital”. In the long-term, the lack of such social capital may prove even more damaging to the Philippines than its relative economic poverty.

Spousal abuse

Heroine of the week must be Melissa Mercado Martel for busting free from enormous pressures from her own and her husband’s families and filing charges for attempted murder against her husband. She’s landed a blow for battered wives throughout the Philippines. Well done too to Rina Jimenez-David and the Inquirer for putting the story on the front page of Saturday’s paper. [Sorry, the Inquirer's archives are down so I can't give a link -- check Rina's column on 17 April.]

Philippine politics: always a dangerous game

Carmen Guerrero Nakpil's review of Illustrado politics by Michael Culliname points up the similarity between politics in the early 20th and 21st centuries.

"Ilustrado Politics", recently published by the Ateneo University Press, Michael Culliname, professor of Asian history at the University of Wisconsin and Madison, draws a well-documented picture of the politics and politicians here at the beginning of the 20th century, specially of the two avatars, Quezon and Osmeña, during which things were no different from the scandalous, mud-slinging, rough-and-tumble nasty deadly game we practice today.

Thanks to Manuel Quezon's blog for the link.

Put in the son of the katipunero

Also at the Ateneo was Roco’s running mate Hermie Aquino. His talk was nothing special – in fact perfect sidekick material, interesting enough to keep people just awake, but no competition for the main event. What was really special was his account of his family background.

The fact that the uncle of Ninoy Aquino (who would have been 72 if he had not been assassinated) was running had registered deep in my subconscious as being a bit weird, but the full story is really amazing.

Hermie’s father was Servillano Aquino, the revolutionary leader of Tarlac during the Philippine revolution against Spain (1896-1898) and the war against the United States (1988-1902). Sentenced to death first by the Spanish and then by the Americans he escaped both sentences. His outlived his first two wives, married for a third time late in life and at the age of 75 had another child, Hermie.

If this were part of a magic realism novel you might just about accept that, but in real life? The son of an 1890s revolutionary running for public office in the era of Britney Spears and Osama bin Laden? It really impossible not to be amazed almost every day of your life in the Philippines.

The "two nations" of the Philippines

Randy David examined the rise of the masa vote in an excellent piece Sunday’s Inquirer.

"The masa or the poor have not always played such a decisive role in our elections. Up to the time of Marcos, their numbers were part of what analysts call "command" votes. These are votes that ward leaders, stewards of bailiwicks, political parties, and other interest groups confidently promise and deliver to their principals. Command votes have diminished over time, mainly, I think, as a result of the political emancipation of the poor from their traditional patrons and handlers."

When the Filipino political elite remember the good old days, it is the reliable “command” votes that they recall most fondly. According to this rosy view of the past, “a man’s word was his bond” – if a mayor promised his town's support he could be relied upon to show up on election day to "deliver". The fact that democracy is supposed to be about the majority deciding (rather than the minority commanding) didn't really come into it.

No wonder the country is cursed with an “up yours” political culture. Even their supporters have a pretty good idea that jokers like Erap and FPJ will screw up. However, their seemingly illogical decision to vote for them can be justified, first, by the fact that supposedly well qualified candidates like Ramos and Gloria never did anything for the masa anyway, so what is the difference, and second, by the argument that this may be a bad decision but at least its my decision so … up yours.

This zero sum approach to politics is inevitable in the Philippines' harshly divided society. Nowhere is Disraeli's famous description of the "two nations" more applicable than here:

"....Well society may be in its infancy," said Egremont... "but say what you like, our George rules over the greatest nation that ever existed."

"Which nation?" asked the young stranger, "for he reigns over two... Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws'

"You speak of -" said Egremont hesitatingly, "the rich and the poor?"

Cockfighting now and then

Last week I went to my first and probably last sabong (cockfight). The fights themselves were as distressing as you might expect. The longest lasted about seven minutes, the shortest about ten seconds. A brief flurry and suddenly a lump of feathers lay comatose in the ring. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The betting was fun though. In each fight one cock is a meron (have) while the other is a wala (nothing). As with horse racing in Britain, to become really addicted to sabong gambling you have to be a sort of mathematical genius. The way it works is that the odds are posted on a board and you place your bet with your Cristo, a bloke who hangs around near you. Say you place 500 pesos on a wala, your Cristo then has to find a counterpart whose punters have bet on a meron. That’s often tricky, especially if there is a red hot favourite, so, as fight-time nears, the shouting rises to fever pitch as the merons and walas try to match up. The impressive bit is that as the fight begins, the yelling and hand-waving suddenly die away to nothing and the fight begins in an eerie, almost stately, silence.

No-one has described cockfighting better than Rizal. writing at the end of the 19th century (which is where, I think, this barbaric spectacle should have stayed).

“The handlers held the birds with subtle skill so as not to be slashed by their razors. A breathless silence fell; one might have thought that all present, except the two handlers, were dolls out of some nightmare waxworks. The gamecocks were brought together, the head of one held tight while the other pecked at it and infuriated it, and afterwards the reverse…Then the birds were brought face to face, nearer and nearer, so that each wretched fowl might recognize the enemy that had plucked out its feathers and which it must now fight. Their hackles rose and their small round eyes met, vibrant with hatred. The moment had come: they were placed on the ground at a certain distance from each other and left alone. [Rizal goes on to describe the opening of the fight “beak against beak, breast to breast, steel spur against its fellow, wing to wing” until both birds are gravely wounded.] At last in a supreme effort, the white cock hurled itself forward to give a final blow; it nailed its spur in one of the red cock’s wings, where it was caught in the bones; but the white cock had itself been hit in the breast, and two birds, panting, exhausted, drained of their lifes’ blood, one joined to the other, were still, until the white cock fell, blood spurting out of its beak, its legs jerking in its last agony. The red cock, bound to it by the wing, remained standing beside it, but little by little its own legs crumpled and its eyes closed.” Noli Me Tangere (trans. Leon Ma. Guerrero -- the link above is to the Locsin translation).

Electile dysfunction

This really is a funny show. Philippine political culture has its frustrating aspects, but I’d be very surprised if there was another country in Asia that could stage three hours of sustained political satire with the verve, energy and wit that Dyords Javier and his team bring to this show. But then Filipinos have better raw material to work with, let’s be honest.

Note: About 80% of the show is in Tagalog, but even if your Tagalog is as lousy as mine you can pick up the gist if you have a reasonable knowledge of current affairs.

Is that a rock I see before me?

The thrilling life of this blogger knows no limits. Last weekend, frayed and I, well known rugged adventurers, headed for the hills with a bunch of Assumptionistas to dip our well pedicured toes in the wilderness and check out white water rafting and kayaking. I think I can safely say that a more metropolitan and unheroic gang it would be hard to imagine, yet we had a wonderful time, one and all, so far as I know. As we caught the overnight bus home on Sunday night I thought, not for the first time, the Philippines is such a wonderful country, how come no-one comes here?

Intramuros deserves better than this

I walked through Intramuros a couple of times last week and found it rather dispiriting. Given the amount of fuss that has been created about Gordon’s “revitalization” of the area I was expecting something special. Stupid me. Instead, I saw walls defaced by political slogans (mainly in support of the mayor’s son, Kim Atienza), ugly plastic signage and plastic chairs, signs saying “drop your rubbish here”, with no bins beneath them …. in other words cheap tack that makes the Manila’s premier tourist site seem ugly and dirty. Gordon’s sound and light show has been attacked on all sides, most recently by Ambeth Ocampo in a splendid piece called “Gordon’s latest folly”:

PEOPLE are still talking about the Department of Tourism's Light and Sound project in Manila's Intramuros [Spanish-era "walled city] that went way over its initial 70-million-peso budget to 130 million pesos (in some newspaper reports 170 million pesos). It has a theme-park atmosphere, and going through the experience should remind people of the "horror house" in carnivals. This one is a horror house both literally and figuratively. It may be entertaining for children, and that should be its reward, except that it is supposed to be an overview of Philippine history and an inspiring show on Jose Rizal, and this is where it fails. Miserably.

Kidnapping redux

The tragic death of 32-year-old Betti Chua Sy in a botched kidnapping attempt last week, the subsequent arrests and shootings of two kidnapping gangs, and the rash of follow-up kidnappings have pushed kidnapping to the top of the political agenda. Right where Ping Lacson wants it to be.

The weakness of the Macapagal-Aroyo government’s law and order policy and the manifest incompetence of Ebdane, Wycoco and Reyes mean that there is really no need for opposition politicians to encourage kidnappings, they have just become part of the natural order of things. At midweek the number of people kidnapped in 2003 amounted to about 165, according to Teresita Ang See of Citizens Action Against Crimes group . That’s about one every two days, though in September and October the rate was about one a day. The figure must be much higher now; today’s Inquirer story on the Gelica Dy kidnapping mentions six people who were kidnapped or killed in kidnapping attempts in the last 48 hours alone.

Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that Ping Lacson stands to benefit hugely from the government’s inability to prevent the rising tide of kidnappings. Up he popped yesterday with a piercing analysis of the law and order situation: “If I were president I would make examples of the kidnappers … we [would] execute someone every day, except Sundays”. I’m sure the busy executioners will be grateful for that day of rest.

Killers on the loose

Here are some memories of Betti Sy that circulated by e-mail last week:

FYI - Betti was my classmate and the valedictorian of our UP MBA
Class (1997). She was also summa cum laude of her UP undergrad class. She passed away at age 32 bec. of a botched kidnapping attempt - she was shot by her captors (apparently she resisted when they tried to take her from her car). According to TV reports, the kidnappers are now targeting not the super-rich, yung middle rich nalang. Betti's family owned a small plastic mfg. firm but it was not big so she instead worked for Coke as a commcl. finance manager. Objectively, she was really a good person – no airs nor quirks despite her incredible brains - quiet and always smiling - she was effortless even with the most difficult subjects in MBA (e.g., derivatives, an elective class I nearly flunked). She spoke during our graduation (valedictory speech). Siguro it's true nga that maagang namamatay ang mababait (w/c means matagal pa ako). The email below was sent by our prof. in UP - Melito Salazar (he taught our Business Policy class in MBA). Let's pray for Betti's soul and for our hopeless country!! And let's be extra careful always!!!!!!!

I was with Betty's parents yesterday. Her Mom recalled how religious
She was. Always carrying her bible. In fact, they couldn't find it with her belongings and her Mom told me she hoped the killers read it and repented for their sins. Betty had promised to bring her Mom and favorite nephew to Malaysia for Christmas. This showed how generous and considerate she was.

As I talked with her Dad, who loved his only daughter so much, and
listening to his memories of Betty, I not only shed tears of sadness
for Betty and her family but also for our country, whose best and the
brightest are at the mercy of killers on the loose. So our talented young die or leave for pastures, where their talents can flourish, with no need for connections and where as my daughter says " the system works"…

Let us pray. But let us also continue to do good and to help make
Things better.

Melito Salazar, Jr.
MBA '74

Betti Sy was someone who could easily have got a job abroad, the most fervent wish of most of her countrymen and women. She was exactly the kind of intelligent, committed citizen the Philippines needs to stay if it is ever to drag itself out of the hole it finds itself in. This was her reward – to bleed to death at the hands of incompetent thugs and to be stuffed in a Paranaque trash can.

“Quick getaway”?

The mechanics of a kidnapping are graphically described in the Inquirer’s story of yesterday’s kidnapping of 10-year-old Gelica Dy:

Inspector Romeo Ricalde said Dy and her nanny were about to go down from their maroon Honda Civic (UCZ-793), which had parked in front of the school at the corner of Quirino Avenue Extension and Zulueta Street, when the three suspects approached.

A witness said the suspects carried a baby Armalite and a 9mm and a .45-caliber pistol. They were wearing bonnets when they got down from their vehicle.

One of the suspects yanked the door on the driver's side open and, seeing Responso attempt to resist, shot him on the left side of the face. The bullet exited below his right ear. An investigator who refused to be named said it was the female suspect who shot the driver.

After Responso was shot, another suspect went to the other side, yanked the door open and tried to grab the girl, a witness told the Inquirer. However, the petite De Dios shielded the girl with her body, prompting the suspect to shoot the nanny in the back. Despite being wounded, however, the nanny tried to hold on to her ward.

"Even if she was already bleeding, she did not want to let go of the girl, which is why the kidnapper kicked her)," said the witness, an old man who carried De Dios to a car that brought her to the hospital, said in Filipino.

Dy was then dragged to a waiting vehicle.

As this was taking place, the third suspect opened the two other doors of the car and pointed his firearm at the witnesses.

Another witness, a longtime resident in the area, said that before the suspects fled the scene, one of them pumped several bullets from a baby Armalite into the air to scare off the witnesses.


Drama queen

Media coverage of the accusations and counter accusations surrounding the break-up of the Kris Aquino--Joey Marquez romance has kept more “serious” news off the front pages and I can understand why that pisses a lot of people off. Still, the affair is not an entirely trivial matter. In the New York Times profile of Kris a few months ago she said she wanted to run for senator in 2010 (sorry, you have to register to get access to the article). Marquez is already mayor of a city in Metro Manila who presumably aspires to higher office. More generally, domestic violence and possession of firearms are issues that need to be widely covered.

But of course that is not why half of the Philippines has spent the last week ravenously consuming every sordid detail of the Kris-Joey bust-up. Love her or loathe her, Kris reflects many of the characteristics of the society that spawned her (and perhaps deserves her). A sociologist is going to write a great PhD thesis on the phenomenon of “Kris” one day, but in the meantime the best analysis I’ve read has been in a paper called “Incredible Kris” by Katrina Stuart Santiago from UP:

Let us not be blind to what Kris Aquino already is and will continue to be ... She's a media person who rakes in millions of pesos making commercials that raise women's material needs, who batters women's confidence by telling them to get whiter, smell better, have bigger boobs, and who parades her jewels, expensive clothes and shoes - flaunting her wealth, literally and tastelessly - on nationwide television in this poor Third World nation. This Kris is not and should not be seen as separate or distinct from Kris Aquino "the battered live-in partner". Kris Aquino is one woman, and she makes this whole nation live with and suffer her adolescent contradictions every time she washes her dirty laundry in our faces.

Excellent. (By the way there is a very funny parody of Kris's "adolescent contradictions" on a spoof Kris site.)

I’m not about to defend Kris. I agree with just about everything that Katrina Santiago says about her. Still, I’m sure a large part of her tiresomeness derives from the way she was thrust into the public eye after her father Ninoy’s assassination.

At a very young age she was given the idea that she had only to appear to have the crowd swoon, that every little thing she did was “cute”, just because she was “Kris”. The comedown from darling of the nation to ordinary mortal must have been pretty steep, but, hey, shouldn’t she have recovered by now?