Posts Tagged ‘manila standard-today’

pop goes the world: common sense isn’t all that common

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 2 September 2010, Thursday

Common Sense Isn’t All That Common

You groaned – I heard you. I’m not surprised – we’ve heard that hoary old aphorism many times before, and can cite horrifying instances from experience to prove its veracity. Thinking people often bemoan how crooked reasoning has supplanted logic and common sense, which have gone the way of either eight-track tapes (unused), steak tartare (very rare), or Jose Rizal (dead).

While not confined to those in government service, the dearth of critical thinking skills in that sector provide many jaw-dropping examples that, sadly, impact upon public interest. Here’s one incident that will make you indignant at how our tax pesos are spent, as recounted by University of the Philippines-Diliman professor emeritus Dr. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo:

“From February 2005 to May 2010, I was vice president for public affairs of the UP System, serving under UP president Emerlinda R. Roman. Under me were the Information Office, the Office of Alumni Relations of the UP System, and the Gurong Pahinungod.

“Because UP was preparing for the celebrations of its Centennial in 2008, our work load—heavy at best—became considerably heavier. A slew of other tasks was added to the regular responsibilities of running three newspapers, maintaining the UP System website, producing regular magazine-sized reports, writing and sending out regular media announcements, providing support for the Office of the President during the annual presentation of the UP Budget to Congress and the campaign in Congress for the approval of the new UP Charter, and providing communications support for the offices of the other vice presidents.

“Among these additional responsibilities were President Roman’s alumni caravan, which took us around the country to involve UP alumni in the celebration and in the fund-raising campaign; and several special projects—a coffee table book, another book called Kwentong Peyups, a short documentary film, a UP history book project, supplements for the print media, and several Centennial contests (for the Centennial logo, the Centennial literary award, the Centennial song, the Centennial short film, etc.).

“My Assistant VPs and I worked long hours, including weekends, and out-of-town trips. Throughout this period, I continued to teach graduate courses–sometimes one, sometimes two, each semester.

Dr. Hidalgo (with graduate student and author April Yap) teaching a master’s/PhD creative writing class at UP on her birthday last month. (Photo by Camille de la Rosa)

“On one such weekend in June 2006, Lydia Arcellana (AVP and Director of the Office of Alumni Relations) and I had a lunch meeting with a group of UP alumni at Dulcinea, a restaurant on Tomas Morato.

“On 14 September 2006, UP received a subpoena from the “Task Force O-Plan Red Plate” of the Office of the Ombudsman, directing it to submit my driver’s trip tickets “and all other appurtenant and relative documents authorizing the use of government vehicle (assigned to my office) for the period 13-28 June 2006.” It contained the ominous threat that failure to do so within three days of receipt would “merit the filing of criminal charges” as well as administrative charges.”

The document, says Dr. Hidalgo, did not state what these “charges” were. Then-UP vice president for Legal Affairs and now UP Law School dean Atty. Marvic Leonen submitted the trip tickets and detailed the nature of Dr. Hidalgo’s job. Nothing more was heard from the Ombudsman, and they assumed the explanation and documents were satisfactory.

Four years later, on 12 July 2010, the Office of the Ombudsman wrote claiming that on 25 June 2006, the car assigned to Dr. Hidalgo was seen “in front of Tonton Thai Massage on Tomas Morato Street at 3:30 pm.”

Says Dr. Hidalgo, “The strange thing is that the accompanying photos…showed the car to be parked in front of—not the massage establishment named—but the restaurant Dulcinea with the sign above its entrance prominently shown.”

On this flimsy basis, the professor’s “…driver and I were being investigated for graft, and for “dishonesty, grave misconduct, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service,” having caused “undue injury to the government, consisting in (sic) the unnecessary consumption of fuel and undue wear and tear of the vehicle…a flagrant wastage of government funds,” that showed “utter disregard on (sic) the policy that public officers and employees should uphold public interest over and above personal interest.”

Dr. Hidalgo, a published author well-known in literary and higher education circles, retired as a full-time UP professor and VP for Public Affairs last May. I met her for the first time in June when I signed up for her Creative Non-Fiction writing class this semester.

She describes herself as “an elderly academic” possessing an “impeccable record of 20 years of public service and numerous awards, for both my teaching and my writing. The latest is the title Professor Emeritus, surely one of the highest honors UP can confer on one of its own.”

On August 9, Dr. Hidalgo received another ‘order’ concerning the “administrative case” against her, and she complied by sending more affidavits with the same facts she had already mentioned before.

“I feel most aggrieved,” she says. “Given the countless cases of blatant graft and corruption involving billions of pesos, which seem to be resolutely ignored, why am I being singled out for this harassment by the Office of the Ombudsman?”

Now what is graft? It is “money, property, or a favor given, offered, or promised to a person or accepted by a person in a position of trust as an inducement to dishonest behavior: bribe, fix, payola.”Attending a meeting with alumni on a working weekend to raise funds for the state university is now graft?

Not only does the Office of the Ombudsman need to buy themselves a dictionary and hire a writer with a good grasp of grammar, they also got their facts wrong as to time, place, and purpose. Dr. Hidalgo says, “As indicated in the trip ticket earlier submitted, we had left Dulcinea at 1:30 pm.” How could they have still been seen in the area at 3:30pm, as alleged? The people who took photographs of the car did not check inside the establishments in the area to see where the passengers and driver of the car really were. Where is the proof that Dr. Hidalgo and company were actually inside Tonton Massage?

What I also found beyond strange is that it took the Office of the Ombudsman four entire years to process this. Dissertations have been written in less time.

The thinking mind reels in disbelief at how much time, manpower, paper, ink, and other resources were poured into this one solitary incident. Rather than going after the large sharks who have gorged themselves with money and perks at government and taxpayers’ expense, as splashed in recent headlines, the Office of the Ombudsman is flagrantly wasting government funds and resources to hound, with a nuisance non-case based on erroneous facts, a little old lady schoolteacher who rode a red-plate car one working Sunday afternoon.

Why is Dr. Hidalgo being singled out for this unwarranted attention? Makes you wonder if she gave someone a grade they weren’t happy with when they were in college. Is that what this is all about? Because, as common sense will tell you, this is not what the public is paying the Office of the Ombudsman to do. ***

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pop goes the world: sorry, we aren’t trained

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 26 August 2010, Thursday

Sorry, We Aren’t Trained

That is what the acronym “SWAT” stands for in the Philippines, say many in the aftermath of last Monday’s hostage-taking bloodbath.

Former senior police inspector Rolando Mendoza’s frustration over what he perceived was an unjust termination of his bemedalled service in the police force drove him to hijack a tour bus full of visitors from Hong Kong and demand his reinstatement.

When this did not happen and instead an inept SWAT team took a sledgehammer to the back window of the bus, he slew eight of his captive tourists.

Brave but inept policement prepare to storm the bus. (Click on pics to go to image source.)

Hong Kong erupted in anger. According to the Associated Press, several dozen protesters chanted in front of the Philippine embassy there: “Strongly condemn the Philippine government for being careless about human life!” “Filipino police incompetent,” blared Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily News on its front page. The South China Morning Post said the incident was “a wake-up call” to improve gun control and security measures.

Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, in charge of the police, was quoted by AP as having said, “Had we been better prepared, better equipped, better trained, maybe the response would have been quicker despite the difficulty. All the inadequacies happened at the same time.”

This painful admission underscored the galactic incompetence of those involved in the rescue attempt – the negotiators; the SWAT team members; the government officials who panicked and could not be reached by indignant Chinese diplomats demanding news and the safety of their nationals.

People who had their photos taken in front of the horror bus have been accused of insensitivity.

It also pointed to another tragedy brought about by corruption. There should have been enough funds for equipment and training. The delivery of basic social services such as law enforcement should have been prioritized by government.

Sadly, this hostage tragedy was not the only violence that humans committed against their fellows around the world.

Last week, a South Carolina mother suffocated her two toddler sons, strapped their corpses into her car, and pushed the car into a river before fleeing the scene. Upon her capture, police officers said she showed no remorse for her deed.

On Sunday, a Virginia man killed three family members and wounded four others in a property dispute.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed 32 people at the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu. The attack followed a day of fighting in the Somali city in which around 40 others were slain, bringing the death toll to over 70 in just 48 hours.


In her column about torture last Monday, MST opinion editor Adelle Chua referred to psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s theory of the “Lucifer effect”, or how good people turn evil through the “pervasive yet subtle power of a host of situational variables” which can “dominate an individual’s will to resist” and cause him to perform actions that he would ordinarily consider evil.

Yet could there be a deeper, underlying cause for all this human rage and cruelty? Eccentric intellectual Howard Bloom, in his controversial 1995 book The Lucifer Principle posits that human evolution can “explain the fundamentals of human nature and the broad sweep of human history”.

Primal rage, he says, lurks within our reptile brains, and “a strange thing happens when humans and other animals are cornered by the uncontrollable. Their perceptions shut down, their thoughts grow more clouded, and they have a harder time generating new solutions to their problems.”

Experiments with rats have shown that faced with electric shock punishments, those given some sort of control (being able to leap to an unelectrified platform) avoided a brain-dulling endorphin surge, “remaining perceptive and alert”.

The rats without control, subjected to shock after shock, suffered from systems flooded with endorphins and were unable to “retain and act on vital information.”

In short, Bloom said, “Control, in humans and rats, energizes the mind. A lack of control can cripple mental powers”.

Perhaps this explains Mendoza’s actions. Freed bus hostage Ng (who did not give her first name) said that Mendoza at first “did not want to kill us, but since the negotiations failed, he shot to kill people.” His lack of control over the hijacking, adding to the loss of control in his own life, pushed a desperate man over the edge.

Many who watched the hours-long live coverage on TV said that it was apparent to them that Mendoza was not thinking clearly. Political science doctoral student and Lopez, Quezon mayor Sonny Ubana said that Mendoza’s use of violence as a way of settling his problems is “not part of our culture; we tend to seek amicable solutions.”

Moreover, by choosing foreign nationals as his victims, Mendoza violated the norms Filipinos hold most sacred – that of hospitality and its accompanying accommodative behavior. His culturally and morally aberrant actions, many opined, were proof of his mental breakdown.

One cultural meme that he got correct was that of the angry man running amok.

Mendoza’s fatal move of taking and slaying hostages was his way of regaining the control he had lost over his employment situation, which had defined him. Being a cop was his identity. Shorn of his badge and rank, he was a nobody, only a shell filled with rage.

For the Philippines and the world, this lamentable crime points to the lack of control of law enforcers and government over extreme situations such as these; the lack of control over corruption; the lack of control of an entire society over one lone killer.

A recent survey says the Philippines ranks twelfth globally on the “net happiness” scale  despite low per capita income. Are we as a people too high on mind-dulling happy endorphins to think rationally and logically, so that we give police badges and guns to untrained men who either go berserk or who through their inadequacy botch the rescue of berserker victims?

Ours is not the only nation where violence takes place. The Internet is full of stories of murder and mayhem every day. Yet this particular incident could have been avoided or its tragic effects averted or mitigated.

Sorry, world. We aren’t trained to take control.   ***

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pop goes the world: ‘orosman at zafira’ and divorce

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 19 August 2010, Thursday

“Orosman at Zafira” and Divorce

For its 35th season, the Dulaang UP of the University of the Philippines is putting on a series of productions kicking off with Francisco Baltazar’s “Orosman at Zafira”, running up to August 29 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater at UP-Diliman’s Palma Hall.

For those who remember having to slog through Baltazar’s epic poem “Florante at Laura” in high school, “Orosman” is the same in flavor; the dialogue is heavy reading in archaic Tagalog and hard to follow, although the narrative, as brought to life by cast members, can be comprehended from the talented and excellent performances.

Reed screens decorate the set and are moved around to create spaces, emphasize separation, and otherwise indicate location. At the beginning, the title of the play is cast upon the screens in light, which fades and shifts to a rainbow of coruscating lights.

Suddenly a woman’s low, husky tones ululate in distinctly Filipino cadences, followed by the doom-doom beat of tribal drums. At those sounds, something primal surges within, a call of the race deep within the blood that hearkens to the rhythm of forebears as the reed screens separate to reveal the singer/narrator, Zelima (played superbly by Tao Aves), clad in flowing robes, mourning the deluge that has overwhelmed their land: “Sa aming bayan, dilubyo sa aming bayan. Tatlong pacha, isang kahariang mahal; nagalit ba ang dakilang Allah, at nangyari na ang dapat na mangyari?”

Then unfolds the story of power and wealth, love and sorrow, life and death, played out in dance and song and words. The women of Baltazar’s “Orosman” are powerful: Tasy  Garrucha enchants as Zafira, princess of the Marueccos tribe, while Jean Judith Javier’s Gulnara, the beloved of Sultan Mahamud, Zafira’s father, convincingly portrays a complicated love. Both turn warrior upon the assassination of the sultan; do not be misled by the flowing gowns and the soft voices; the dulcet tones turn harsh with anger, the gowns stripped to reveal men’s clothing while staves and other weapons are waved at the moment of battle.

As the drama unfolded, I realized that the spirit of warrior women still lives in Filipinas today. Infidelity is endemic in our culture and is cause for much heartbreak in relationships. Our laws are biased towards men, who can only be charged with concubinage upon submission of proof that they have set up a household with a woman not their wife. Women, on the other hand, only have to fail once and be caught in a tryst with their lover to be charged with infidelity. Is that fair?

There are also no strict safeguards for battered women and children, despite the Violence Against Women and Children law which was only passed a few years ago. What recourse is there for Filipino women in the present day to escape from the trap of loveless marriages scarred by infidelity and violence, the wife-beating husband in the arms of another woman, often providing no support for the children?

House Bill 1799 is one such solution. Called the “Divorce Law” and proposed by women lawmakers who are among our modern warrior women, it provides a better option than the costly and lengthy annulment that is the only means at the present for unhappily married Filipinas to be emancipated.

Have you noticed how the proponents and supporters of the bill are women and progressive men, while its opponents are traditionalist men? The reactionary male lawmakers and their like-minded fellows who seek to keep women entrapped at their convenience are selfish and fail to take into account the feelings of the women who yearn for freedom and the chance to start life anew, perhaps find a man who will truly love and cherish them. Why can’t they let go?

These hidebound fogies see women as property, theirs to bind and loose at their whim, blind to the rights of women to live their own lives as they see fit, while they engage in affairs left and right. That is not fair or moral or right. If a marriage is not working, for whatever reason, why not accept that fact and take steps to set both parties free to start anew? That is better than for unhappy couples to stay together for the sake of appearance – that is hypocrisy.

Baltazar’s women took matters into their own hands when it came to love and war. Today’s women need to keep to the law of modern society; wielding swords and bows are not an option. Yet Filipinas are not without weapons – we have our brains to think and our bodies to act to support a law that is long overdue and that will give women that which are our rights and should not be withheld by those who wish to retain their power over half of the population.

As examples of strong and loving women, Zafira and Gulnara are inspirations. Some of the other cast members include Jay Gonzaga (Orosman), Kevin Concepcion (Aldervesin), Roeder Camañag (Boulasem), Acey Aguilar (Zelim), Neil Ericson Tolentino (Mahamud), and veteran Ronnie Martinez as Ben-Asar, Mahamud’s vizier. Directed by Dexter Santos with original music by Carol Bello, “Orosman at Zafira” is a must-see. Call Dulaang UP at 926-1349 for tickets and playdates. ***

Photos from Prof. Amy Bersalona of the UP-Diliman College of Arts and Letters/Dulaang UP.

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pop goes the world: psst! hey, taxi! v. 2

I’ve been inundated with work the past couple of weeks and am struggling to surface from the depths, swimming upwards to the light and air while fending off sharks, straining seawater through my teeth to obtain plankton for nourishment, and beating deadlines.

For last week’s “Pop Goes the World” column (August 12), I revived an earlier blog post and added social commentary and analysis, as the earlier essay was merely descriptive.

Click here to read the piece at Manila Standard-Today Online.

I had this interesting conversation, apropos of nothing, with an assistant general manager at work yesterday. What makes it special is that I just met her last week:

AGM: “I liked your ‘Psst!”

Me: “Excuse me, whaaat?!”

AGM: (takes my hands) “Psssst!”

Me: (totally clueless) “Sorry, Ma’am, I don’t know what you mean.”

AGM: “Your ‘Psst! Taxi.”

Me: (bright light dawns) “Oh. You read my column? Thanks, that makes two of us!”

AGM: (smiles) “Oo naman.”

I love you, ma’am. <3

UPDATE, 7 Apr 2012: MST recently revamped their website and the link is lost. Here’s the column as it appeared in full in print:

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 12 August 2010, Thursday

Psst! Hey, Taxi!

Cabs are everywhere in Manila, except, of course, when you need them most—when you’re in a hurry, and when it’s raining.

Let’s say you find one. Slipping into it, you expect a swift, safe ride to your destination in air-conditioned comfort. But have you reckoned with your taxi driver? Over years of riding cabs, I’ve observed there are two kinds: the silent and the not.

A quiet cabbie is restful, soothing. You tell him where you want to be taken. “Escolta?” He nods, puts the car in gear, and drives. He knows the fastest and easiest way to get to your destination. The entire trip, not a word escapes his lips. You lean back on the seat, perhaps shut your eyes to rest them. You listen to the radio if it’s on. The silent types usually don’t have it on; if they do, it’s tuned to a soothing station that plays pop or ballads, the volume at a discreet level.

But what if you end up with the just-won’t-shut-up type? This is the kind I get 90 percent of the time. It seems I have the kind of face that cabbies like to talk to.

In my experience, loquacious cab taxi drivers fall into the following categories:

The Political Pundit—His radio is nailed to a talk show where the host spends hours swearing at corrupt politicians. The Political Pundit is well-informed on current events and discusses issues such as the global recession and the fuel price hikes, usually from his own point of view as a cabbie.“Those @##$ raised the price of gas, but not the taxi flagdown rate!”

The Missionary—His radio is tuned to a religious station with a preacher interpreting a Bible chapter in an excited tone, or he plays gospel music on his stereo. At first he is quiet, gauging you. Then he strikes. “Are you a Christian, sister? Are you saved?” He goes on to lecture his viewpoint while refusing to acknowledge your own. Debating is futile and only leads to a pounding headache.

The Lonely One Looking for Someone to Talk To—This one usually is heartbroken over a woman—could be girlfriend, wife, or mistress. Knowing he will most likely never see you again and that you’re a captive audience, he pours his heart out, venting his ire about the woman who has done him wrong, or to whom he has done wrong, and so is suffering a (momentary) twinge of remorse about.

The Guy Who Loves to Hear the Sound of His Own Voice—He will talk about anything with hardly a pause for breath. The weather, his oras ng garahe, the weather… At some point, to escape the endless and boring flow of words, you seriously contemplate jumping out of the cab, committing suicide, or strangling the driver.

The Sage—This is a philosopher who delivers words of wisdom, sometimes cryptic, sometimes straightforward. One told me, “Filipinos are hard-headed. Ayaw nating nadi-disiplina. Gusto natin tayo ang nasusunod.” He then outlined a plan to pen jaywalkers in a shed at road corners or dividers for a couple of hours “to teach them a lesson”.

The Man of the World—Over the years, he’s observed trends in human behavior and shifts in societal mores. One early morning, my cabbie pointed to a young woman in sunglasses, tank top, and miniskirt: “She’s a bar girl, on her way home from work. I’ve had a lot of them in my cab, often with their unemployed younger lovers. It’s a growing trend among women who work. Even professionals.” I asked him to tell me more about kept men. “I started noticing it in the ‘90s,” he said. “For men nowadays, ‘money talks’ na. Wala nang delicadeza.”

The Flirt—His spiel goes something like this: “How old are you, ma’am? You don’t look your age. You’re very beautiful. You have kids? You must have married young. How’s your husband doing? Oh, you’re hiwalay? May I have your cell phone number, then?” All this delivered with a cheesy grin and the honorific po liberally sprinkled like glitter, so as not to offend.

As an acculturated Filipino, in all cases my response is a stock repertoire of noncommittal phrases—“Uh huh.” “Ay, talaga po?” “Ganoon po ba?” “Kawawa naman.” “Tsk, tsk.” Friends of Western mentality scold me: “Say it’s none of their business! Or tell them you’re busy and you want to rest.”

So why do I even bother to reply? In Philippine culture, to ignore someone who has begun a conversation is rude. A person who does so would be deemed hindi marunong makipag-kapwa. Even a perfunctory response is expected as the minimum.

For the Filipino, the other’s—the kapwa’s—business is also their own. Kapwa has been translated as “togetherness”, a concept tied to a Filipino’s sense of self. To be inconsiderate to the kapwa who is hindi ibang tao is more than the height of discourtesy; it puts society itself in jeopardy. Early tribes needed to cooperate to survive; this holds true today. In the overseas Filipino workers experience, the first thing most Filipinos do when arriving in a foreign country is seek out kababayans to help with settling down and fitting in.

Whether you get a silent or a talkative cab driver, you get taken to where you want to go. Getting the gabby ones are a plus: annoying, maybe; irritating, perhaps; yet always interesting. You get off at your destination having learned something more about current events, Filipino culture, and—only if you are discerning and willing to learn from everyone you meet—the human condition.   *** 

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pop goes the world: a feminist manifesto, with popcorn v. 2

I was so swamped with work I wasn’t able to write a “Pop Goes…” column from scratch for the August 5 issue of Manila Standard-Today. Instead, I asked my editor to use a ‘reserve’ article I’d originally written for this blog, adding a few more paragraphs containing details not in the original.

Click here to read the piece at Manila Standard-Today Online.

UPDATE, 7 Apr 2012: MST recently revamped their website and the link is lost. Here’s the column in full as it appeared in print:

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  5 August 2010, Thursday

A feminist manifesto, with popcorn

Some three years back, an engineer I knew sat me down at a small cafe at the place where I worked at the time, ordered popcorn, and told me he was going to give me an “important talk”. Advice of the unsolicited sort – actually, any kind of information – intrigues me.  So I sat and waited for the popcorn.

The engineer spoke in a sympathetic manner, like he really wanted to help, like he knew what was best. He was aware my ex had bailed years ago to be with someone fifteen years younger. “We need to find you someone else,” he said, “but men find you intimidating. That is why you have admirers but no serious suitors.”

“The popcorn needs salt,” I replied.

“We talked about you,” he said, “and we all agreed you’re smart, good at what you do, and pretty. You could even be a real stunner if you lost a few pounds and were a few inches taller.”

“Popcorn’s better with butter. Hey, alliteration!”

He moved the bowl of popcorn away from me. “You’re too intellectual. Everyone is afraid that they won’t be able to hold up their end of a conversation with you.”

As if I were going to deconstruct Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or debate the merits of the Reproductive Health Bill on a first date. I do have some social skills; that kind of thing is appropriate only on the second date. (Heh.)

“Pay attention to this. You’re not getting any younger. And you have to lose weight,” he added. My fingers were curled around the edge of the popcorn bowl; he rapped them with a spoon.

I rubbed my knuckles and mused over what he said. What struck me most about our talk – other than that he kept taking away the popcorn and that the waiter never did come back with salt and butter – was his matter-of-fact assertion that because I was short, plump, of a certain age, and, worst of all, possessed of a functioning brain, no Filipino male would be attracted to me. It was the most absurd drivel I had ever heard.

Yet it was an honest thing he said. Because that is the reality in this society, and that is how many Filipino men perceive women – as sex objects for whom youth, big breasts, and a tiny waist are assets while maturity, a mind, and an independent attitude are liabilities.

Apparently, to gain the attention of a man, I have to lose weight, wear high heels, dumb down my conversation, and fake my age or turn back time.

Some from other cultures might think differently. An Australian male friend once asked why I remained unattached. With us was another friend, a Filipino male – a lawyer – who said bluntly, “Filipino males do not find her attractive. She’s over thirty and has two children.” The Aussie said, “But she’s smart and pretty! And her kids are wonderful!” The lawyer shrugged. “But she’s not young. It’s not her – it’s our culture. Her best bet would be to find a foreigner.”

He was telling the truth, though it did not speak well of his fellow Filipino males. A couple of years later I saw him one late night, holding the hand of a beautiful woman much younger than himself as they crossed the street.

I’ve asked many male friends of all ages and from all walks of life, why the Filipino male predilection for the young and intellectually immature. Their reply? “Take our word for it. Ganoon talaga.” That’s the way it is. The phenomenon is not confined to Filipino culture – how many elderly non-Filipinos have we seen around with giggling twenty-somethings on their arm?

What a sorry state this society is in when it comes to male-female relationships. It is this crooked mindset that causes cosmetic surgery clinics to thrive, marriages to crumble, and some women to feel demeaned, miserable, and used while others take advantage and do the using, digging what gold they can, all this further reinforcing a cruel cycle of gender dynamics based on economics, power, and lust.

It is sad that four hundred years of organized religion in this country has not made any headway into changing this state of things. Instead, it has been entrenched in the culture – a far cry from, say, the 16th century, when some Filipino tribes decreed monogamy and possible execution for adulterers of either sex.

Will Filipino men ever change the way they treat women? Will we Filipino women realize that we are partly to blame in the way that we raise our children with this same mindset?  When will we say, “Enough!” and realize that we deserve to be treated better? ‘Equal’ would do, for a start.

For my part, I will always rebel against the chauvinistic norm of this society and instead of forking over my money to a cosmetic surgeon for a liposuction, I will finish my graduate studies. I will grow my brain instead of my breasts, and shrink my ignorance rather than my waist. And if I have to walk this world alone, then joyfully will I make the journey, for I would rather be free than a slave.

But if someone wishes to make the trek with me, with complete acceptance of my children and who I am and all that I do, I might accept his company, for the road is long and it goes ever on.

He can bring popcorn and I butter and salt, and we will talk and he will not be intimidated by my references to obscure books and theories. He may be of any race or age, as long as his mind and heart are as free as mine. He will put the bowl of warm buttered salted popcorn in my arms, and feed himself and me as we walk in love and laughter till journey’s end. ***

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pop goes the world: a culture change is in the wind

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 8 July 2010, Thursday

A Culture Change Is In The Wind

Even before his proclamation, when it became clear that one Benigno Aquino III won the most votes in the recent national elections, a torrent of well-meaning advice and suggestions by way of mass media flooded him, most of them having to do with much-needed societal and governance reforms.

In the newspapers, on TV, and in the social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), the issue of government corruption tops the list of items that need to be addressed. Commenters unite in saying, “President Noynoy, crack down on the corrupt!” For changes to occur in the structure, the leader has to bring them about both by mandate and by example.

It is inspiring to see how P-Noy started with simple changes that had a personal impact – no wang-wang (sirens) and other traffic privileges for himself; no more presidential plane, he says he can fly commercial (in contrast to his unlamented predecessor who was prevented from buying a P1.2 billion executive jet by public outcry). He arrives early for appointments and beats traffic by leaving his house earlier than he’s used to.

It is appalling to see how the new vice-president, Jejomar Binay, was caught by news media blatantly ignoring traffic rules by running a red light and turning left on a “No Left Turn” street. His comment? “But I didn’t use wang-wang.” He also said that even if he left early, traffic would have been heavy anyway. Yeah, right. Seems to me someone just doesn’t want to give up the “privileges” he’s been used to. Ignoring the rules mandated for others sets you apart from the majority and makes you feel special and powerful. Insecure much?

Binay with Erap on the campaign trail in 2010. Image here.

P-Noy has been criticized for focusing on “insignificant” matters while bigger issues require solutions, now na! Come on, give the guy a break. It’s his first week on the job, yet already his actions have triggered a perceptible shift in the culture of privilege. Hope for fairness has lifted many hearts. Ordinary citizens are using digital technology to take pictures and videos of wang-wang and traffic violators and uploading them to the Internet. Perhaps public shaming will result in a change of behavior. For a test case, we’ll see if it has an effect on V-Nay.

University of the Philippines communication professor Dr. Joey Lacson calls this “a shift in the communication environment” – policies emanating from the top will trickle down and bring about changes in society, where new knowledge and awareness may lead to a change in attitude and practice.

Yet how effective as a catalyst for behavorial change can P-Noy’s example be? To return to the issue of endemic government corruption, will the way the president lives his life be enough to foster better behavior among unscrupulous government officials and employees?

My sister Aileen arrived for a vacation last week from Dubai, where she has been based the past 15 years or so as an overseas foreign worker. She went to the National Bureau of Investigation in Quezon City the other day to obtain a police clearance and was dismayed to see the shabby building, obsolete fingerprinting equipment, and long lines that snaked in three coils to another building. “On what does the NBI spend its annual budget?” she asked.

At Window 1, she was required to pay a fee for the clearance. At the next window, she was assessed another five pesos for “fingerprinting”. “The man taking the money,” she said, “had stacks of coins in front of him. And he wasn’t behind the counter. He did not issue a receipt. What was the extra five bucks really for and why is it not included in the amount I was charged at the first window?”

Fixers asked for P350 to enable her to jump the line and get her clearance faster. They swarmed around her and the other people in line as security guards and employees watched, obviously aware of the system. Since they do nothing to stop it, it leads one to assume that at least some of them are in on it too.

I rode a cab to school yesterday. The taxi driver, Virgilio T., complained that when he went to the Land Transportation Office at N. Domingo to renew his driver’s license, he was told to return after ninety days for the card. At the same time, he was approached by a fixer and told that for a fee, he could get his license in just two weeks. “If they can print the card in that short a time,” he said, “why do they make us wait three months? Why do they have to extort money from us for them to do their job?”

These are just two instances of how deeply embedded the culture of corruption is in government, at all levels from top to bottom, the difference being a matter of scale – the big fish take billions from government contracts, the small fry are content with the steady trickle of coins.

How do you tweak the communication environment in this situation to bring about a positive cultural change? For starters, P-Noy and his team need to craft clear policies that spell out the types of unethical behavior and their corresponding penalties, then strictly enforce them without fear or favor. Consistency in implementation is necessary for credibility.

Next, P-Noy needs to be true to his policies by living a squeaky-clean life and continuing to be a good example, to enable changes in organizations to occur via the trickle-down effect. It’s a tough act, but then who said being president was easy?

We as citizens can to do our part by not giving in to the desire for convenience by refusing to engage in graft and by exposing the corrupt. Like P-Noy, no more wang-wang, no more fixers, no more getting out of traffic violations by showing the card of this or that government official. Or showing the face of a government official – that means you, V-Nay.

“A change is gonna come,” sang Sam Cooke, and we can share that optimism, for we can already feel the winds of change blowing. How refreshing they are.    ***

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pop goes the world: signs of the times

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 1 July 2010, Thursday

Signs of the Times

With yesterday’s inauguration of the country’s new president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and vice-president, Jejomar Binay, a wave of hope washed through the nation, borne on tides of symbolism centered around Aquino.

This phenomenon made his presence ubiquitous and insinuated into the fabric of everyday life, whether or not you thought about it consciously.

The most obvious signs were on a direct level – his photographs plastered on the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines, which were filled with stories about his future plans for the government and anecdotes about his personal life. Television shows spent hours speculating on what his administration would accomplish. Billboards sprouted left and right, bearing congratulations to “Noy-Bi”. Merchandise bearing his face and that of his parents – former president Corazon Aquino and the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr. – were available at every price range, from cheap umbrellas and bandannas to pricey Parker and Lamy rollerball pens.

On a more abstract level, the signs also abounded.The color yellow, campaign motif of his mother, was everywhere. Publication editors carefully chose photographs and layouts awash in the color. Shop windows in malls displayed mannequins wearing yellow clothes.

At the Quirino grandstand yesterday, the sea of yellow-wearing spectators lapped to the fringes of the public park. While Noynoy himself chose to wear a traditional ecru barong tagalog, others close to him wore yellow – among them his sister, Kris Aquino, and significant other, Valenzuela councilor Shalani Soledad, who wore a simple yellow gown designed by Rajo Laurel.

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Laurel had asked Soledad if she wanted to wear another color, but she declined. In doing so, she, and others similarly clad, reinforced yellow as a symbol standing for Noynoy. By extension, to a deeper level of signification, yellow also serves as a sign for what he stands for and has promised – hope and change.

Apart from the existing signs to which society has attached meanings, new signs are being created. For one, the nickname “P-Noy” (President Noynoy), that he uses as a way of branding himself. Being informal in tone, it also makes him seem more approachable, “one of us”, and connotes trustworthiness and humility.

Meanings may be found not only in artifacts (things) but also in actions and behavior. P-Noy has time and again declared that he will not live in Malacañang Palace or the Arlegui mansion, where he resided with his siblings during the presidency of his mother. He says he will continue living at their small family home in Times Street, Quezon City.

P-Noy’s refusal to dwell in homes heavily associated with his unpopular predecessors – Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – may be seen as a way of distancing himself from their negative actions, eschewing luxury and grandeur, and carving a fresh start for himself as he remains rooted in the tradition of family.

It is interesting to note how an entire system of signs has sprung up around P-Noy and the phenomenon of his rise to power – something that did not occur to this extent for Marcos or Arroyo, perhaps because of their unpopularity.

A society’s system of signs and symbols, which is constructed within its culture, performs an important role in social life. It impacts the way people communicate by providing another “language” through which ideas and concepts are exchanged, and actions and behavior influenced. This links to the concept proposed by some communication scholars that communication not only helps people navigate within reality, it also creates reality.

Communication scholars and those interested in semiotics may look forward to interesting times as the culture of P-Noy, his family, and his administration will certainly continue to provide fodder for study.

Yet the pressing concern for citizens is whether President Noynoy will live up to the virtues carried in these signs we’ve mentioned. In his inauguration speech, he promised to carry on the legacy of his parents (again using this reference as a sign pointing to the accomplishments of his parents, and associating himself with those). Again, another layer of meaning may be discerned, pointing to P-Noy as “the good son”, “the champion for change”.

But will he uphold democracy and deliver change and reforms as promised? Or will promises again be broken, and the meaning of the signs be rendered naught or shifted to the negative? Will P-Noy be able to create an improved reality for Filipinos? The whole nation anticipates that the signs of the times will point to a brighter and better future for all. ***

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pop goes the world: ignorance is not bliss

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 24 June 2010, Thursday

Ignorance is Not Bliss

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and other Roman Catholic church and conservative groups recently launched a high-profile campaign against the United Nations-backed sex education courses to be taught in elementary and high school this month.

Moro Islamic Liberation Fund Da’wah Committee head Sheik Muhammad Muntassir also issued a protest, saying “This is like preparing the child to be competitive for the next world of sex.” (sic)

They believe the Adolescent Reproductive Health program, implemented by the Department of Education, will promote promiscuity among the youth and erode religion-based moral codes.

Let’s take a look at recent demographic statistics. The country’s population is at 96 million and rising at roughly 2% yearly; 7 out of 10 new mothers are teenagers; an estimated 64,000 abortions are performed on teenagers yearly; and the incidence of HIV/AIDS cases spread through sexual contact have risen sharply the past two years.

Proponents of the sex education course say that ignorance and lack of knowledge  contributed to sex-related problems such as the population explosion, high rate of teenage pregnancy and abortions, and increasing number of AIDS cases.

Opponents say the course will teach teens to be promiscuous. (Given these numbers, aren’t they already?) They argue further that giving young people access to this kind of information will encourage them to engage in sexual behavior. According to Human Life International executive director Dr. Ligaya Acosta, “(This) is actually a course in systematic behavior modification, designed to change the child’s entire belief system.” She claimed that “researches around the world substantiate the fact that the more contraceptive programs are aimed at the young, the more pregnancies, abortions, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, and cancer of the cervix results.”

In other words, one may argue both ways about knowledge – that it both deters and promotes a certain behavior. A paradox if I ever saw one.

Meanwhile, in cities across the country, mayors, other local government officials, and health-care workers are doing their part to provide solutions. When lawmakers failed to pass the Reproductive Health Bill during the last session, the mayor of a large Metro Manila city remarked, “I don’t wait anymore for Congress and the Senate to act. I see the problems first-hand, so I help directly and immediately by handing out condoms and contraceptives.” What was the reaction, I asked, of the clergy in his area? “Wala,” said the mayor. “None.”

Perhaps the Church officials in that city are turning a blind eye because they see for themselves the pressing need for such steps to alleviate these social problems, which are seen as contributing to the problem of poverty.

Something needs to be done. The question dividing society now is, will the sex ed course help or harm?

The conservative and religious crusaders say matters such as family planning and sex are best taught by parents at home. But not all children have parents – how about the families of overseas foreign workers? Not all children have parents who are knowledgeable about the science, facts, and theories behind sex education and gender issues. We wouldn’t have these problems to begin with if they were, now would we? Also, parents who do have the knowledge may not be comfortable discussing sex with their children, and vice versa.

In a classroom setting, where gender and sex matters will be discussed by a trained teacher in a clinical manner, young people would be more likely to learn more and freely participate in the discourse and exchange of information. Ideally, from a communication viewpoint, this awareness and knowledge should translate into a change in attitude and practice.

The DepEd has offered to show the course modules to the public for feedback. In this way, those concerned may have a hand in shaping these sensitive and necessary lessons and ensure that our children will receive the information they need to conduct their future sexual behavior along safe and responsible lines.

If there were no such course taught, where would the curious adolescents go for the information? To each other? That’s like the blind leading the blind. To the Internet? Now that, according to one study, is made up of 34% porn, though that may be exaggerated.

Isn’t it best then, that trained instructors be given the task of enriching our children’s knowledge, rather than let them grope along unaided, finding out for themselves in the back seats of cars and in the delivery rooms of hospitals?

CBCP Legal Office executive secretary Atty. Jo Imbong and 30 other parents filed a suit against DepEd to halt the program, saying it was the “first step to reclaim our culture,” against “the forces that are reshaping the hearts and minds of our children.”

But sex ed courses were started only last year. How can it be a force that “reshapes hearts and minds”? If sex ed courses do contribute to promiscuity, teen pregnancies, more abortions, and so on, as Dr. Acosta asserted, then why do we now have such high figures all across the board for these without having had sex education? Therefore such courses cannot be blamed for the increased sexualization of our youth.

It is a growing phenomenon around the world. Where is it coming from? May I direct your attention to the glowing screens in your house – the television and the Internet. Mass media and advertising for the past several years have shown a pattern of sexualization of girls at younger ages; males, to a lesser degree but still at a marked rate compared to before.

I’d say it started with Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” video in 1999. From then on, the clothes got shorter and the moves more obscene. Today artists such as Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Shakira writhe across the stage, semi-clad. We have our own versions of sexy dancers gyrating half-naked on the daily variety shows, with unequivocal names like “Sex Bomb”.

The Sex Bomb Dancers in 2008. Photo by Ben de Leon here.

The cultural sexualization of the youth is a global trend. It is alarming, true. But because of rapid advances in communication technology, these types of media are easy to access and consume. This is now our culture, whether you like it or not. Unless you are North Korea or an Islamic country, there is no way no control this trend without taking away people’s basic rights to information and freedom of expression.

Why not fight information with information? Foes of the Adolescent Reproductive Health program are doing a disservice to the UN and DepEd efforts to equip our youth with what may be their best weapon against unwanted pregnancies, HIV, and sex-related issues. Ignorance is never a good thing.     ***

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pop goes the world: do we need another hero?

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 3 June 2010, Thursday

Do We Need Another Hero?

President-elect Noynoy Aquino has come under public scrutiny lately for not wanting to quit smoking and for short-listing television talk-show host Boy Abunda for a high government position.

Stop laughing, this is serious. The smoking thing started when Aquino was asked if he would quit for World ‘No Tobacco’ Day on May 31. Obviously uncomfortable with the question, he said he is not inclined to give up the habit as it would pressure him more – and forget about the promise he made to quit smoking if he wins the elections.

Aquino steps outside Carmel church for a smoke. Image here.

In a recent speech, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon called tobacco use “ugly and deadly” and urged “all governments to address this deadly threat.” The World Health Organization says tobacco-related diseases are the second-highest cause of death globally after hypertension, killing one in 10 adults. It is an epidemic that is “preventable” with the strong support of government.

For this reason, Department of Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral and several non-government organizations have urged Aquino to kick the vice, citing “leadership by example” and the difference he could make in the lives of the country’s smokers via his example. However, Cabral acknowledges that it’s Aquino’s choice to continue, “as long as he does not smoke in front of others or harm them with his smoking.”

Come on, he’s not going to light up in the bathroom or closet. He’s the president and he’ll smoke where he pretty darn pleases.

Cabral perceives Aquino as having influence as a role model, which is a symbolic function. A role model is a person whose way of life serves as a source of inspiration for others to transform themselves for the better. He becomes a sign for what is good and worthy of emulation.

Why is he seen as such? As a public figure, he lives his life in the media, his behavior and actions subject to everyone’s observation, deconstruction, speculation, and outright fabrication. That comes with the territory. Don’t complain. You can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Yet Aquino remains cool and unflappable. He makes decisions as he deems fit. For one, he mused on tapping Abunda’s media and marketing expertise for the government, also citing his stature as an “icon” and his effectivity in communicating ideas to his audience. Noynoy has said he wants to offer Abunda a position as undersecretary or assistant secretary – pretty high up the food chain for someone who is not career government.

Pundits criticize this choice, saying there are many other candidates better suited for the position. Abunda himself has defused the situation by saying that he wants a “simple life”, and that he is still under contract to the ABS-CBN network. A successful businessman, he certainly earns more in entertainment and through his other entrepreneurial activities.

Boy Abunda: celebrity icon. Image here.

Apart from the connection via friendship (Abunda is very close to Noynoy’s sister, talk show host Kris Aquino, and was also the family spokesperson upon the death of Kris and Noynoy’s mother, former president Corazon Aquino), the president-elect is showing just how powerful the influence of popular culture is. Because Abunda, by dint of his engaging performance on air, has become wildly popular among his viewers, he is seen as an “effective communicator”. For running a successful talent management company, he is deemed to have marketing and business skills of the caliber to run a government agency.

What does that say about the Filipino, when the incoming head of state – his image also largely a product of popular culture – relies upon the icons of media to help with the “marketing” of a country?

It says that the power of popular culture should not be underestimated, and that those who wield it have immense responsibility, for they can use their influence for good – or evil.

Looking at Aquino’s choice of Abunda from another angle, it is the acquisition of the talents of people from showbiz (and other private industries) for the public good, or “privatization”. In the US, a comedian wants Steve Jobs to become president and reverse the economic meltdown. He did it for Apple – two million iPads have been sold since it was launched two months ago, and its market capitalization has surpassed Microsoft’s, for years the giant in the IT world. The idea is, if it works there, it’ll also work here. But that’s not necessarily so. Private success does not always translate into public effectivity.

To sum up, Aquino is not a “good role model” for refusing to ditch cancer sticks and for being swayed by popular culture and personal agenda when making some decisions that have national repercussions.

But we didn’t elect him to be the national role model or hero. That’s Jose Rizal. We voted Aquino in as president. His job is to make the right choices, set the right priorities, and do what needs to be done. Government corruption, poverty elimination, culture of impunity – the list of issues that need reforms is inexhaustible.

The National Hero’s image on a banknote.

Good governance is the toughest job of all – harder even than quitting smoking. And if the president struggles, we all struggle – the political equivalent of inhaling second-hand smoke.

A Wise Guy friend says, “Stop looking for messiahs. Wala sa Wowowee at Star Talk ang pag-asa. It’s not the president’s job to create co-dependents; dapat lang maiahon niya ang bayan sa kahirapan.” And it is our job as citizens and members of media to keep him on track, give him feedback from the grassroots, and tell him whether or not he’s doing the job we elected him for. ***

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