Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ikaw ba'y nalolongkot?

Ikaw ba'y nalolongkot?... Nababagnot?... Walang maka-osap?
Sige .... basahin mo blog ko..

Whistleblower Protection Bill: A License to Squeal

Two Fridays ago (May 19), I attended a conference at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. The whole-day conference discussed ways on how to institute a “positive whistleblowing culture” as a way to combat corruption in the Philippines. It was attended by top officials of the Ombudsman, DOJ, Sandiganbayan, NGOs, media, private corporations and members of Congress. Even former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and former BIR Commissioner Rene Bañez, who are seldom seen in public today, attended the said conference.

I attended the conference as a proxy for Congressman Raul Gonzalez, Jr., who was in Iloilo City at that time. I helped the Congressman craft his House Bill No. 3948 or “The Whistleblower Protection Act” and I went there to share my insights and thoughts on the bill. There are currently 8 versions of the bill in the House and 2 versions in the Senate. I am proud to say that we were the very first to file a whistleblower bill in Congress, which Malacañang has certified as urgent. I am happy to see the widespread interest and support that the bill has generated from the academe, NGOs, foreign-funding agencies and private corporations.

Whistleblower protection is probably the greatest element lacking in our government’s anti-corruption campaign today. While we already have a Witness Protection Program under the Department of Justice, our government does not have a clear-cut policy on whistleblowers, or people who expose anomalies and illegal activities that they witness in their work.

One reason why cases against corrupt officials are not filed in this country is that no one reports it. And why not? If you report an illegal activity done by your superiors, you stand to be demoted, “freezed” or fired from your work. You will be ostracized and avoided by your peers and officemates. Or worse, the corrupt official you blew the whistle on might decide to have you assassinated. Society view whistleblowers not as heroes but as “traidor,” “wala utang nga loob,” “nagmamalinis,” “gapa hero hero,” or “abi mo kung sin-o sya.” In other words, it doesn’t pay to be a whistleblower in this country.

This is the condition which House Bill No. 3948 (and all other versions of whistleblower legislation) hopes to correct. The said bill seeks to grant financial rewards to whistleblowers and protect them from reprisals like dismissals, demotions, “freezing” and assassination.

If you really think about it, whistleblowers serve the public interest and contribute to the overall reduction of graft and corruption by exposing wrongdoing in government. It is therefore to the State’s interest to protect whistleblowers. One good example is Dr. Jiang Yanyong of China who disobeyed his government’s gag order and forced China to publicly reveal the SARS virus. His revelation enabled the world to prepare and to prevent the spread of the virus. Dr. Jiang’s act of bravery probably saved millions of lives.

In the Philippines, we have SPO2 delos Reyes (who exposed the Kuratong Baleleng rubout), Chavit Singson (whose Senate testimony toppled Erap Estrada), Acsa Ramirez (who exposed wrongdoings in the Land Bank), and Sulpicio Tagud (who exposed anomalies in PEA) to mention only a few. Irregardless of your political leanings or personal opinion of these people, they without a doubt contributed to the public good by exposing the wrong that they witnessed in their midst. The State should therefore protect and reward these brave people who risk ruined careers, ostracism and bodily harm just to promote the public good.

In Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, everyone is a whistleblower, even children. Some years back, their City Council passed an anti-littering ordinance and people there would really report you to authorities if you throw even just a cigarette butt or candy wrapper on the street. Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a chain-smoker, and even their own mayor, Mayor Edward Hagedorn, learned this the hard way. A little kid saw them throw their cigarette butts and reported them to Barangay Tanods. Both were ticketed and fined for their violation. Plus, the kid was rewarded: the City Ordinance provides that informers or whistleblowers get a part of the fine collected from every anti-littering violation they report.

The condition in Puerto Princesa is what political scientists call a “positive whistleblowing culture.” It is an atmosphere wherein inappropriate behavior is generally challenged and questioned at all levels. Our country still has a long way to go to achieve this state since the pakikisama system is too ingrained in our culture. But by giving our people a “license to squeal” so to speak, the bill hopefully will serve as a catalyst that will embolden our people to blow the whistle on corrupt officials.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Iloilo City's New Tagline

Iloilo City has a new tagline: "The Next Big Thing." The line won the city government's tagline contest. A columnist for the Guardian, Tara Katherine Yap, claims that the new tagline doesn't quite capture the real image and "soul" of Iloilo City. What do you think?

Meanwhile, a confetti parade is being readied along Ayala Avenue for the returning members of the First Philippine Mt. Everest Team, led by Ilonggo Art Valdez. Well done. You do our country proud!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Is Population a Problem?

The population issue was in the news recently because GMA claimed that our population growth rate has gone done from 2.3% to 1.94%. She was criticized in the press for making an incorrect projection based on erroneous data.

A check with the PopCom website reveals that Western Visayas is well below the national population growth rate. Here are some interesting figures from PopCom:

1. Region 6 has an average population growth rate of 1.56% (the national average growth rate is 2.36%). At this rate, population in the region will double in 44 years (the national average is after 35 years).

2. In some Western Visayas cities, the population growth rate is negative. Silay City has a -2.76% growth rate while Sipalay City registered a -0.54 growth rate.

3. San Carlos City has the highest population growth rate at 3.34% followed by Talisay City which has a 3.17% growth rate.

4. Iloilo City by far has the highest population density rate in the region with 6,542 persons per square km. followed by Bacolod City with 2,748 persons per sq.km.

Kudos to the PopCom Region 6 people for a job well done! Congrats also to all Ilonggos who know how to practice responsible parenthood and family planning.

Have You Been To Guimaras?

Life in Paradise. A view of one of the many "undiscovered" islands in Guimaras the exact location of which I don't want to divulge lest it turns into another Boracay. Note the big rock protecting the beach from the sea, creating a tranquil mini-lagoon.

Friday, May 26, 2006

More on the Da Vinci Code Controversy

I don't know why so many so-called "Filipino church leaders" and moralists are making a big fuss over the showing of Da Vinci Code in theaters. As a novelist, Dan Brown only did to religious history what Michael Crichton did to science and technology: which was to make an otherwise boring topic more interesting to readers.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Promoting Iloilo City to the World

Local government and tourism officials are forever searching for ways to promote Iloilo City to investors and tourists. But while Aklan has Boracay, Palawan its El Nido, Albay its Mt. Mayon, and the Cordillera Region its Rice Terraces, Iloilo City sadly has no natural wonder to catch the attention of tourists. It has the Dinagyang Festival and the Paraw Regatta but both are seasonal, once-a-year events.

While vacationing in Boracay last January, I chanced upon a group of young Englishmen in one of the bars at Station 2. I was playing pool with a couple of my cousins when one of them approached our group to ask if they could play with us. At first, we played for fun and the pool match was punctuated with much laughter and tomfoolery (a British word) on their part. But eventually, we started playing for money. A best of 15, winner-take-all match. After 15 sets, the final score was: Philippines – 13, England – 2. We made money that night.

In between sets and glasses of beer, I would chat with some of them to find out more about their backgrounds and about life in England in general. It turns out that they are surfers, all 8 of them, and that they just came from La Union where apparently there are good surf sites. They heard about Boracay thru word of mouth - another group of surfers (Australians I think) who were also in La Union at that time told them about Boracay. Their group decided to check it out for themselves. Needless to say, they found Boracay a paradise and several promised to come back.

When I told them that I was from Iloilo City, I was met with blank stares. They have entirely no clue where it is. I tried explaining that Iloilo is in Panay but they also did not know where Panay is. Then it dawned on me: they did not have a faintest idea of Philippine geography. I then tried a different tack. I told them about their compatriot, Nicholas Loney, and how he “founded” Iloilo City by modernizing the local sugar industry. All their eyes lit up with patriotic pride. In the end, a couple of them even promised to visit Iloilo City.

I don’t know if they eventually made good their promise but that chance encounter with the group of British surfers pretty much gave me an insight on how Westerners think. It also gave me this idea: why not use Nicholas Loney, a westerner, as a visual peg to promote Iloilo City? Similar to what Singaporeans did during their early years as a fledgling island-state. They used a westerner, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (who founded Singapore to serve as a port for British ships in Asia) as their peg to promote their city-state as an investor-friendly haven to Western capitalists in Asia. And they succeeded despite the fact that Singapore has absolutely no natural resources (it even imports water from Malaysia). What it only had was its people. Singapore today is one of the most prosperous countries in Asia and is a favored destination of investors and tourists all over the world.

Nicholas Loney could be the city’s “image model” abroad; a familiar white face conveying a message that Iloilo City is a viable, investor-friendly destination for Western capitalists and a charming place to visit. Loney could be to Iloilo City what Raffles was to Singapore.

The adage “if you will build it, they will come” is no longer true. It is not enough to build a product. One also has to promote the product, be it thru advertising or thru word of mouth. It is not enough that food, health care and education are cheap, the road network and transportation system are excellent, and that the over-all quality of life in Iloilo City is okay. To attract tourists and investors, we actually have to find a way to communicate this to the world, be it thru advertising or word of mouth.

The Koreans discovered this not too long ago and are now flocking to Iloilo City by the hundreds. As I am not aware of any government promotions program specifically attracting Koreans, it is most likely that they learned about Iloilo City thru word of mouth. Undoubtedly, their arrival has been a boon to the local economy. If business is good now, imagine what would happen if we can multiply four times the number of tourist arrivals to the city.

One derives comfort from the fact that Iloilo City once was a cosmopolitan and very progressive city. Businessmen from all over the world migrated to Iloilo City to partake of the wealth generated by the then lucrative sugar trade. Since it had happened before, I do not see any reason why it cannot happen again.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

As Good As It Gets

In a recent survey conducted by the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) Policy Center, two cities in Western Visayas garnered top honors in its “2005 City Competitiveness Survey: Pinoy Cities on the Rise.” It named Bacolod and Iloilo City as among the best mid-sized cities to live in, together with Batangas City, Iligan City and San Fernando City, Pampanga. Released last February 2006, the survey was funded by USAID and the Asia Foundation.

The study defined city competitiveness as “the ability of a city to create and maintain an environment that sustains more value creation for its enterprises and more prosperity for its people.” It identified 7 elements that contribute to a city’s competitiveness:

1. Linkages (access to airports & seaports, public transportation system)
2. Human Resources and Training (schools, hospitals)
3. Infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.)
4. Cost Competitiveness (low tax rates, cost of doing business, tax breaks and incentives)
5. Quality of Life (malls, theaters, restaurants, beaches, other recreational facilities)
6. Responsiveness of LGU (red tape, quality of local leadership, corruption)
7. Dynamism of Local Economy (employment, businesses)

The study rated Iloilo City no. 1 in terms of human resources and training, mainly due to the presence of numerous schools and universities in the area that offer good quality education at relatively low costs. Iloilo City was also ranked second over-all in the “dynamism of economy” criteria. Bacolod City was ranked no. 1 over-all in “quality of life” and “infrastructure” criteria. This means that Bacolod City has the best road/bridge network and that Bacolodnons know how to balance work with recreational activities. In other words, life in Bacolod and Iloilo City is as good as it gets if you live in the Philippines.

With the rising cost of living, some Ilonggos might raise their eyebrows in disbelief and disagree with the findings of AIM. But bear in mind that the AIM survey is limited to Philippine cities, and it does not include New York, Paris or London. And if you go back and examine closely the 7 elements that make a city work, you will find that indeed most of it are present in Bacolod and Iloilo City. Both cities have an airport, a seaport, good schools, good recreational facilities, good roads and good leaders. Although the economy of Bacolod is in the doldrums, Bacolodnons somehow still manage to enjoy life as the survey showed that they topped the “quality of life” criteria. Although Iloilo City periodically gets inundated by floods and brown-outs, its economy is still rated as one of the most dynamic and its educational institutions ranked as among the best in the country.

If you really think about it, one can live and die in Iloilo or Bacolod without having to leave the city. You can be born in one of its hospitals, study in one of its schools, find a job in one of its business establishments, go to Mambucal or Villa Beach for relaxation during weekends, marry in one of its churches and be buried in one of its memorial parks. Everything is just one jeepney ride away. Not all cities in the Philippines have all these conveniences located within their area. In Metro Manila for example, one can live in Mandaluyong but go to work in Makati or Pasig, go to school in Quezon City, catch a plane in Pasay and go to Tagaytay to relax. Life in a big city, whether here or abroad, is hectic and stressful. The way I see it, the condition in Bacolod and Iloilo City are just about right. Both already offer amenities that you can find in other urban centers but without the inconveniences usually associated with highly urbanized cities.

So the next time you curse your city and think about transferring to Manila or migrating abroad, think first of this survey and ask yourself this question: maybe this is as good as it gets?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Golf in Western Visayas

I started playing golf several years ago primarily to socialize and meet people. Golf, then and now, was seen as an excellent venue to establish links, discuss confidential matters and close business deals with important people. But as time goes by, I find myself more and more preferring the solitude of golf rather than the company it provides. I enjoy playing alone more than playing with a group mainly because it gives me an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and free from the distractions of everyday life.

Before proceeding, let me point out three things. First, I am not an expert golfer. Far from it, my handicap is 30 plus-plus and will probably remain that way forever because my game has stopped improving. Second, I am no expert when it comes to golf courses. I have played in only one (Sta. Barbara Golf Club) out of the five golf courses in Western Visayas. Last, I am not rich and most often cannot afford to play golf every weekend. My equipment are all second-hand and I only play whenever I have extra money, just like any hobbyist who would spend their extra money on their hobby. Much of what I write here is second-hand knowledge (mostly from books, magazines and stories heard from golfer-friends) and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt.

Golf has never become a popular sport in Western Visayas mainly because of the “stigma” attached to it as a rich man’s game. Ilonggos see it as a game exclusively for hacienderos and politicians. But the irony is that all the exceptional golfers I know are not rich. They are caddies and struggling professionals who just have a natural knack for the game. Frankie Miñoza and Jennifer Rosales, two Filipino golfers making a name in the international golf circuit, are both of humble origins. Miñoza in fact started as a caddy in Davao.

Aside from being viewed as a “rich man’s game”, golf is also seen as an “old man’s game.” Most young people find the sport too sedate and dull. Unlike basketball, football or badminton, golf lacks physicality - it does not involve running, jumping, shouting, shadowing, faking, etc. The goal of golf is not to defeat your opponent but to conquer yourself. In golf, you are your own worst enemy: you win not by making your opponent commit mistakes but by not committing any. That, to me, is the beauty of the game.

So with that aside, here is how I rate the golf courses in Western Visayas.

There are currently five golf courses in Western Visayas. Undoubtedly, the best and most beautiful of the lot is the Fairways and Bluewater Golf Club in Boracay. Fairways and Bluewater offers first-class golfing facilities which are comparable to the best golf courses in Manila. It also offers a breathtaking view of the sea. Sadly, it is inaccessible to ordinary Ilonggos. I had the chance to play in Fairways during a family reunion in Boracay last January but decided not to play because their green fee was too expensive. Between spending money on golf or food, I chose the latter.

The golf course inside the Victorias Milling Company (VMC) in Negros Occidental is second. Despite the fact that I grew up inside the VMC Compound, I never got the chance to play there, having started in golf rather late. I have been meaning to go back and try it out but somehow circumstances always prevent me from playing there. The fairways and greens there are well-maintained and the course is just about right in length for me. Probably I am just biased because the place brings back childhood memories inside the community.

There are three other golf courses in the region: the Iloilo Golf and Country Club (popularly called Sta. Barbara) located in Sta. Barbara, Iloilo, Bacolod Golf and Country Club located in Murcia, Bacolod City and Negros Occidental Golf and Country Club (popularly known as Marapara) in Bata Subdivision, Bacolod City. What is notable about the three golf courses in Negros Occidental is that since it is located in the middle of sugarcane fields, you will smell the distinct odor of urea and fertilizers. If you are a long-hitter like Tiger Woods, you will love Marapara and Murcia because of its long and straight fairways.

The Iloilo Golf Club in Sta. Barbara is the oldest golf club in the Philippines and one of the oldest in Asia. It was constructed in 1907 by English (or Scottish?) engineers who built the railroad linking Iloilo City to Capiz for the sugar barons of Panay. The golf course features majestic, century-old acacia and fire trees. The downside is the golf course is surrounded by a thickly-populated community whose residents regularly use the fairways as a short-cut. So always be on the look-out when you hit your drive because you might hit a kid on his way home from school. Also, do not play there during summertime (from March to May) because the grass is brown. Through the years, the club management has made various improvements in the golf course. It now features a nice clubhouse, a charming locker and shower room, and smoother greens.

Because of the hard times, golfing in the Philippines today is in a slump. The once lively fairways and club houses are now hushed and gloomy. Nowadays, it is the Korean students who are taking over the greens.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

"Da Vinci Code" (the Movie) A Major Disappointment

I read the book a couple of years ago and watched the movie only last Friday. The movie was a big disappointment and it failed miserably to do justice to the book. The movie totally missed out on the book's major point - Dan Brown’s book is primarily about women’s rights and women empowerment: how Christianity squelched the original role of women (the Sacred Feminine) as important and co-equal members of society. The movie failed to convey this message but instead concentrated on the more controversial myths involving Mary Magdalene, Opus Dei and the Knights Templar. Nevertheless, people who haven’t read the book would probably enjoy the movie.

In pre-Hispanic Philippines, animism was the religion generally practiced by natives and women-priests called babaylanes administered the faith. While the datu (warrior-king) wielded military and political power in the barangay, the babaylan (priestess) complemented him by overseeing the health and spiritual needs of the people. When the Spanish friars came, they eradicated animism and persecuted babaylanes as witches and devil-worshippers. Even today, the Church and the general public frown on strong and independent-minded women, often labeling them as harlots and seductresses.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Origins of Ilonggo Stereotypes

The book “Clash of Spirits” (Ateneo de Manila Press) by Filomeno Aguilar, Jr. offers very insightful observations about the origins of Ilonggo stereotypes and society. Aguilar drew his conclusions from numerous oral interviews and his book offers a number of new information on how these stereotypes were formed thru the years.

One very common stereotype is that of the cruel haciendero. Even today, mention the word haciendero and images of a well-dressed, gun-toting, horse-riding mestizo chasing an escaping sacada come to mind. Another stereotype is that Negros-Ilonggos (or Negrenses) are more ostentatious and flamboyant in their tastes compared to their Panay relations, who are said to be more conservative and timid in their spending habits. Even in business and gambling, Negrenses are famous for being risk-takers while their counterparts in Panay are more cautious about investing in some new venture.

Aguilar asks: how did it happen that two groups of people, related by blood but separated by water, became so different in their outlook, attitudes and business practices?

Aguilar explains that during the mad rush to convert Negros into one big sugar plantation in the 1850-1880s, the island’s new hacienderos were forced to adopt novel business practices for their sugar plantations to be profitable. Labor was the key to a sugar plantation’s success or demise. Whereas in Panay, their fathers or elder brothers can rely on old laborers who have roots in their land for generations (commonly called tumandoks), the haciendero found a dearth of farm workers in Negros. Negros in the mid-1800s was an undeveloped wilderness. So the haciendero had to import seasonal laborers from Panay (called sacadas). Sacadas were paid using the pakyaw system: half of his salary is given in advance to his family in Panay and the other half upon completion of his 6-month “contract.” Food is usually provided for free for the duration of the work season and expenses for basic items are deducted against the salary of the sacada in the hacienda grocery store.

This system usually worked but there were some abuses. Sacadas would run away after their families have received half their salary. Some would transfer to another hacienda without completing their contract, get an advance from the other hacienda’s overseer and run away again. This practice became so widespread that many hacienderos went back to their hometowns in Iloilo financially ruined. To protect their investments, the hacienderos banded together and petitioned President Manuel Quezon to allow them to possess guns. And since sugar was the country’s major cash crop, Quezon granted their request.

Thus, Aguilar gives a new twist to the familiar movie scene of a horse-riding, sacada-chasing haciendero: like any other businessman, the haciendero is merely protecting his investment from absconders seeking to ruin his business.

To attract more sugarcane laborers to work in their fields, hacienderos in Negros had to show people that they have money and that they are “galante”. Flamboyant behavior and ostentatious living were used by sugar planters as a tool to induce workers to their plantations. For example, sacadas were attracted to work for legendary haciendero and shrewd businessman Don Esteban dela Rama because he seemed to treat money with contempt – he regularly gave away his cockfight winnings to the poor, donate big sums on charity events, shoulder the medical expenses of strangers, spend outlandish sums on jewelry, etc. Aguilar posits that this “bizarre” behavior has an explanation and that there was a method in Don Esteban dela Rama’s “madness” – he was trying to attract more workers to his farm.

The “Clash of Spirits” offers many more interesting insights on how stereotypes came about. During the olden days, rich Ilonggo families did not subdivide their landholdings. Instead, the family’s lands usually went to the eldest son on the condition that he will take care of his sibling’s financial well-being. Aguilar contends that members of the Jaro elite who immigrated to Negros were actually the second, third or fourth sons who were boxed out of their land by their elder brothers. These “poorer” relations of the Jaro elite left departed the relative comfort Iloilo for the promise of wealth in Negros. Crossing Guimaras Strait, these “lesser” sons and daughters of Panay left behind their inferior status brought about by the accident of birth to forge their own destinies. Aguilar concludes that the earliest settlers of Negros were primarily entrepreneurs and gamblers unafraid to take risks. And unlike their “richer” cousins in Iloilo, Negrenses have something to prove both to themselves and to their “betters”. They have to show that they are wealthier, more successful, more well-dressed, than their Iloilo relations. Thus, the stereotype of the ostentatious and avant garde Negrense was born.

Thru the years, descendants of hacienderos inherited not only the land but the ways, attitudes and practices of their forebears. But the original purpose and meaning of these practices have been lost to the succeeding generations. That is why it is always useful to examine and understand the lessons from our past so we can apply in our present. The problem with stereotypes is that they are not always true. And trying to live up to these stereotypes is one mistake we must avoid.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Da Vinci Code Fever!

The movie adaptation of the bestselling book, the Da Vinci Code, will be shown in local theaters sometime next week. The book, which was written by controversial novelist Dan Brown, has already sold 50 million copies worldwide and has spawned a whole literature of books on Catholic conspiracy theories and “alternative” versions of Christianity. The movie adaptation, which was produced at a budget of $125 million, promises to be a worldwide blockbuster just like the book. I read the book a couple of years ago and I could not wait to watch the movie to see if it will live up to the book. I will refrain from discussing the Da Vinci Code’s plot so as not to spoil the fun for those who haven’t yet read the book.

I have always been curious about the histories of religions and conspiracy theories involving the Catholic Church ever since I read the book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” sometime in the late 1980s. I recall that I had to wait for my father, who was also an avid reader, to finish reading the book and he would tell me snippets of information concerning the author’s theories about the Knights Templar, Mary Magdalene and her supposed marriage to Jesus Christ. When I finally got to grab the “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” from my father, I was disappointed with the book author’s verbose prose and undulated style of writing. It was really very hard to read.

Most of the theories presented by Dan Brown in the “Da Vinci Code” are nothing new. Most of it you can read in the “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” But the genius of Dan Brown lies with the way he weaved the different information available in a way that readers found entertaining to read. Although his book ultimately questions many basic beliefs of Christianity, what really grabs me is his effortless way of mixing art, religion and crime into a fictional novel.

The movie version of the “Da Vinci Code” is just one of several “setbacks” that the Roman Catholic Church has suffered in recent times. The “Da Vinci Code” was first published in 2003 and it caused worldwide consternation among conservative Christians. Then in April 2005, the whole world was jolted when Pope John Paul II passed away. Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian and one of the longest-serving popes in recent history, was universally loved and respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The new pope, Pope Benedict XVI, openly admitted that it would be very hard for him to fill the vacuum left by Pope Paul II’s death. Certain quarters in the Catholic Church hierarchy are concerned over the new pope’s perceived “ultra-conservatism.” Just recently, the Vatican’s move to ban the holding of hands during the “Our Father” and strict adherence to Catholic dogmas elicited some consternation to some Catholics here in the Philippines. Here in the Philippines, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the archbishop of Manila has denounced the book as blasphemous, but stopped short of calling for a ban.

Then just recently, National Geographic announced their discovery of the “Gospel of Judas” in Egypt. Said to be written around 300 AD, the “Gospel of Judas” would make us believe that Judas was actually the greatest of all the disciples because, with his betrayal of Jesus, he caused the crucifixion and ultimately the salvation of man. The said Gospel quotes Jesus saying to Judas: “you will exceed all of them (the disciples), for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Religious scholars now believe that there were initially more than 30 Gospels in the Bible and not only four (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and that the early Roman Catholic Church eradicated these other “gospels” to impose a simpler, more “standardized” Christian canon.

How should a Christian deal with all these emerging information?

I believe that all these information coming out will ultimately be good for the Christian faith. “Non-religious” people are again talking and debating about Christian doctrines whereas before, only Bro. Eli Soriano, the Iglesia ni Cristo and other fundamentalist sects are heard keenly discussing religious doctrines. I believe that you have to constantly challenge and question your beliefs for your faith to be truly meaningful. Faith untested is shallow. Ordinary Christians must therefore analyze critically these new information and decide for themselves whether to believe it or not. Church leaders cannot and must not dissuade their flock to explore these new information coming out, for God values faith rooted in informed choice more than religious belief based solely on ignorance and blind obedience.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Great Ilonggo Novel

As a teenager, I always dreamt of writing the “Great Ilonggo novel.” A novel about growing up in Ilonggo society that is so exquisitely written and painfully honest that it would remain in the hearts of readers forever. My models then were J.D. Salinger, author of “Catcher in the Rye” and F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.” These two classics, which delved into the hypocrisies of New York the high society and the treacheries of the Eastern seaboard elite, made a deep impact on me when I was a teenager and I resolved to write a similar novel about the travails and joys of growing up in Western Visayas.

Apparently, someone has beaten me to the draw. He is Vicente Garcia Groyon. And the book is “The Sky Over Dimas” (De La Salle University Press, Inc., 2003). What gets my goat is that Groyon is not even an Ilonggo but grew up in Quezon City. Another irritating fact is that he is a LaSalista. But that aside, the “Sky Over Dimas” is one good book, arguably the best fictional novel ever written about Ilonggo society. The novel, which chronicles the lives of a dysfunctional haciendero family in Negros, is both funny and moving. I will let eminent writer Alfred Yuson describe the book for you since I could not word it better than him: “Groyon’s familiarity with the Bacolod matrix of manners – surreally rich scions, weird personalities, outrageously decadent lifestyles – has endowed him with the rich material to mine and /or undermine for his fiction. The Sky Over Dimas reads exceedingly well, with its stylized construction serving the clear and illuminating prose as fine form perfectly following fluid function. It is clearly a worthy addition to the ranks of Filipino novels in English.” The book won the grand prize for the Don Carlos Palanca Award for Literature.

If only I didn’t play computer games as much and worry about having to earn a salary for my family, I would have probably written a better book. That is why I am excited to learn that a bill was recently passed in Congress that would grant financial assistance to aspiring book authors. The measure, which was authored by Iloilo City Congressman Raul Gonzalez, Jr., is a brainchild of his younger brother, Dr. Dennis Gonzalez, who is currently Chairman of the National Book Development Board. The “Brothers Gonzalez“ shepherded the bill thru the House of Representatives and are now lobbying for its passage in the Senate.

Book readership, especially among the young, is declining in the country. TV and radio has replaced newspapers as the main sources of news and information. Browsing around Iloilo City’s bookstores, one would notice a dearth of local books. These are the conditions which the bill hopes to address when it is enacted into law. By giving incentives to book writers, effectively freeing them from the day-to-day concern of earning for their family, more aspiring writers will be encouraged to take sabbaticals from their regular jobs and write their novels.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

GO GO Ilonggo!

The 1st Philippine Mt. Everest Team, which headed by an Ilonggo, is about to start their ascent to the world's highest mountain peak. This is the moment of truth. It's now or never! Good luck to Bacolodnon Art Valdez and his team. Go Go Ilonggo! (For more details, see www.philippine-everest.com)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Calle Real: A Living Museum of Iloilo’s Glorious Past

A multi-sectoral forum is scheduled on May 25 at the Iloilo Grand Hotel to discuss various ways to revive Calle Real (J.M. Basa St. today). Spearheaded by the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council (ICCHCC), the forum will be participated by representatives of the Iloilo City government headed by Mayor Jerry Treñas, Canadian Urban Institute, the local business sector, urban development experts and other groups. All the participants will be expected to give their inputs on how best to restore the “glory that was Calle Real.”

The “Save Calle Real” project involves the rehabilitation not only J.M. Basa St. but includes the entire “old quarter” of Iloilo City, which tumandoks (oldtimers) normally refer to as the “downtown” area. The project also includes Aldeguer, Mapa, Guanco and Iznart where most of Iloilo’s stylish Art Deco buildings are located.

Calle Real during the early 19th century was known as the “Escolta of the South.” The entire Western Visayas back then was in the midst of the sugar boom and Calle Real was the epicenter of the sugar import trade. It was where you can find all the wealthiest sugar trading houses, most elegant offices, trendiest bars and restaurants, and the leading shopping bazaars of the era. For Filipinos back then, Calle Real was the most “happening” place south of Manila, sort of like Ayala Avenue meets Malate-Adriatico. And because of its proximity to the bustling Muelle Loney port, it was relatively common to see British sailors on shore leave, American sugar traders, Scottish engineers and Chinese merchants strolling along its sidewalks.

The Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council would like to make things happen again for Calle Real. But in my view, the project has to overcome several obstacles for it to become successful and sustainable.

One, how do you alter people’s perceptions in order to again draw them to Calle Real? Nowadays, young Ilonggos feel it is not “hip” to be seen in Calle Real. They prefer to shop at airconditioned malls and party at restaurants located along the General Luna-Diversion Road strip. Even if the Iloilo City government can source foreign funding for the project, Calle Real suffers from an “image” problem which may affect the long term viability and sustainability of businesses along that part of the city.

Iloilo City planners may wish to look into how Manila revived its Mabini-Malate-Adriatico area, long regarded as Manila’s red light district. Today, that area in Manila is littered with the trendiest coffee shops, restaurants and bars, and is a favorite hang-out of Manila’s intelligentsia and foreign tourists. Tourists, both foreign and local, are forever searching for new and unique experiences and Calle Real could easily capture that “old world” ambiance that Malate is famous for.

But with the Iloilo City government announcing plans to sell and develop the Mandurriao airport into a new Commercial and Business District (CBDs), a second obstacle would be how to generate enough capital and investor interest to develop both Mandurriao and Calle Real simultaneously. Prospective investors and existing locators in Calle Real might become hesitant to plow in more money in the project if they see a new and more modern commercial area being developed in Mandurriao. Also, the local market might be too small to sustain multiple commercial districts in Iloilo. Office buildings in Makati and Ortigas, for example, are currently suffering from low occupancy rates because of the “over-construction” of the early 1990s.

In the past, Calle Real flourished because of its proximity to Muelle Loney which acted as the clearinghouse for the region’s sugar importation business. Businessmen chose to set up their businesses in that area because it was near the center of the “action” – the lucrative sugar trade. In fact, during those times, business establishments were judged based on their location vis-avis Muelle Loney: the farther you are from Muelle Loney, the less prestigious your office. But with the sugar gone and Muelle Loney operating more as a domestic terminal rather than an international port, Calle Real must find another reason for its existence.

Calle Real is a living museum, a surviving testament to Iloilo City’s glorious past. It is a mirror, an indicator of Iloilo City’s economy. When times are good, Calle Real is abuzz with economic activity. When times are hard, Calle Real is a sleepy strip. If given a choice, I would prioritize the rehabilitation of Calle Real over the development of Mandurriao. Calle Real gives Iloilo City its distinct character and unique identity whereas Mandurriao would make our city look more and more like any other city in the Philippines. Take out Calle Real and Iloilo would not look and feel like Iloilo. Develop Mandurriao into another mall complex and Iloilo would look and feel more and more like Manila or Cebu. Let us just hope that development of the old Mandurriao airport would take several years so as to give Calle Real enough time to resurrect itself.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Happy Days Here Again for Sugar Industry?

With the approval of the Bio-Ethanol Bill in the House of Representatives last November, hacienderos, millers and even small planters must be excited over the prospect of the “good old days” returning for the sugar industry. Authored by Bukidnon Congressman Miguel Zubiri, the Bio-Ethanol Bill will be a boon to the local sugar industry because it proposes the mandatory mixing of gasoline with ethanol. As you may know, ethanol is a by-product of molasses and molasses is a by-product of sugar.

Various interest groups have pointed out several benefits of the bill. Environmentalists say that gasoline blended with ethanol is “greener” and more environment-friendly. Economists argue that it will lessen our dependence on imported crude oil: they estimate that P32 billion in foreign exchange dollars can be saved annually because of this bill. Sugar industry stakeholders declare that the bill will give their ailing industry a much-needed shot in the arm by giving planters another source of income.

Some are wondering: if mixing gasoline with ethanol is good for the country, why couldn’t the oil companies just do it without waiting for government intervention? The answer is that no oil company would be willing to compromise its profits by diluting gasoline with ethanol without receiving any form of tax incentive from government in exchange. That is the reality. This is why government needs to intervene.

I remember that during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Marcos government tried to institute a similar program. I still remember it clearly because my mother, who then worked at Victorias Milling Co. (VMC) in Negros Occidental, was set to join the government’s “Alcogas” Research and Development Project. In fact, my parents sold their house at Canetown, Victorias in anticipation of our move to Bacolod. But world market prices of molasses suddenly went thru the roof and it became more profitable for planters to sell their molasses rather than convert it ethanol. After only a short trial period, government was forced to shelve the project because nobody wanted to sell molasses to them. In addition to this was the widespread perception that “Alcogas” would ruin your vehicle’s engine, probably because its composition was 60% gasoline and 40% ethanol. During the first two years of implementation, the Bio-Ethanol bill proposes a mixture of 95% gasoline and 5% ethanol and 10% ethanol in the succeeding years.

With gasoline pump prices nearing the P40 per liter mark, commuters definitely welcome any effort to develop alternative and cheaper fuels. I do hope that history will not repeat itself and that world market demand for molasses will remain at its current levels .

It is now up to the Senate to approve a counterpart version of the bill. Sadly, the Senate seems more interested in conducting investigations “in aid of legislation.” What is more bewildering is that the Senate today is headed by an Ilonggo, Senator Franklin Drilon, who definitely must be aware of the importance of the Bio-Ethanol Bill to the survival of Western Visayas’s largest industry. As Senate President, Drilon can easily have the bill calendared for public hearings and plenary debate. The “sugar lobby” is truly just a shadow of its former self and has lost much of its political clout. In the old days when hacienderos held sway over Congress, legislation such as this would have been enacted swiftly.

Perhaps what is needed is for more noise to be generated at the grassroots level to make our senators take notice. So whenever a senator comes to visit your locality, always make sure to mention the bill and push for its passage.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country According to Alex Lacson

One fellow Ilonggo is quietly influencing attitudes and inspiring countless Filipinos to do more for their country. Atty. Alex Lacson, who hails from Kabankalan, Negros Occidental, has surprised pundits and book authors with the success of his book titled “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country.” In just 8 weeks, “12 Little Things” has sold 2,000 copies and has since been reprinted several times.

I had the privilege of knowing and working with Alex Lacson last year. Even before he achieved nationwide acclaim, Alex was already a celebrity in his hometown. In fact, he was being pushed by civic and youth groups to run as congressmen for the 6th District of Negros Occidental to replace Congressman Lim-ao Alvarez, who was already on his third term, but he declined. I guess he was too decent to enter the rough and tumble world of politics.

Lacson consistently excelled in school. He first studied at the Philippine Military Academy but feeling that military life was not for him enrolled at the University of the Philippines College of Law, graduating in 1996. What strikes me most about Alex is his humility and idealism. His is not the “in-your-face” type of patriotism which we commonly see among leftists and activists that puts people off. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Alex wins you over with his sincerity and his courage to live by his personal convictions - a true southern gentleman.

"12 Little Things" is a practical and do-able guide for Filipinos who are overwhelmed or do not know what to do in the face of the current situation in our country. The book challenges us Filipinos, especially those who complain about everything, to show our love for country not only thru words but deeds. Anyways, here are the 12 little things every Filipino can so to help our country according to Atty. Alex Lacson (italics mine):

1. Follow traffic rules. “Sundon ang layi trapiko.” Indi mag-jaywalking, indi mag-singit, indi mag-over speeding.
2. Whenever you buy or pay for anything, always ask for an official receipt. “Pangayu-on pirmi ang resibo.” Para maka-kolekta EVAT ang aton gobyerno sa gin-bakal mo.
3. Buy 'Made in the Philippines', buy locally made, buy Filipino. Magbakal sang lokal.” Kung pareho man lang ang kalidad sang local kag imported nga produkto, bakla ang local (example Bench vs. Tommy Hilfiger).
4. When you talk to others, especially foreigners, speak positively of our race and our country.Hindi pagsuya-i ang aton nasud, lalo na gid sa mga foreigners (i.e. Koreans, Americans).” Dapat pa gani ipabugal mo ang lugar mo sa ila.
5. Respect your traffic officer, policeman, soldier and other public servants.Respetuha ang mga ga-serbisyo publikopara ka nila buligan.
6. Do not litter. Ihaboy ang basura sa basurahan.” Ibutang ang upos sang sigarilyo kag panit ka dulci sa imo bulsa asta makakita sang basurahan.
7. Support your church. (or charitable/ civic organizations).Suportari ang inyo nga simbahan kag maging aktibo sa inyo lugar.”
8. During elections, do your solemn duty. Iboto ang kandidato nga qualified, hindi lang ang kilala nyo. Bulig kamo sa PPCRV or Namfrel bantay boto.”
9. Pay your employees well. “Bayaran ang inyo empleyado sang sakto kag indi sila i-maltrato.”
10. Pay your taxes. Magbayad sang buwis
11. Adopt a scholar or adopt a poor child.Mag-adopt sang isa ka bata sa Hospicio de Molo or mag-adopt sang isa ka scholar. Kung indi mo kaya nga isa lang, mag-chip in kamo sang barkada or batchmates mo.
12. Be a good parent. “Manging maa-yo kag bul-anan nga ginikanan sa inyo mga bata. Kung wala ka pa bata, mangin maayo nga ehemplo sa mga bata sa lugar mo. In other words, indi magma-oy sa dalan.”

Alex Lacson claims that if only each Filipino follow these 12 commandments religiously, our country will become developed and prosperous.

Now that I have whetted your appetite, go buy the book!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Mysterious Isle

A view of one of the many "undiscovered" beaches in Guimaras. For just 2,500 pesos (US$50), one can rent a motorized outrigger (banca) from Ortiz or Parola wharves in Iloilo City and go island-hopping to the neighboring island province of Guimaras where many white sand beaches remain in their pristine condition. Just make sure to bring your own food as the many beaches there don't have facilities yet. Guimaras is touted as the "poor man's Boracay" and is being pushed as a cheaper alternative to Boracay which Ilonggos now find too pricey and too commercialized. One can also buy export-quality mangoes there very cheap.

An Englishman in Iloilo City

Near the entrance of the Iloilo City port stands the statue of Nicolas Loney, the British vice-consul who modernized the sugar industry in Western Visayas. Few Ilonggos care to know about this man, a foreigner, who brought about unprecedented development and wealth to the people of Iloilo City. Vestiges of the astonishing wealth generated by the sugar industry are still visible today thru the splendid mansions lining Jaro District today.

Nicolas Loney arrived in Iloilo City on July 31, 1856 to study the viability of exporting Philippine sugar to Europe. During that time, sugar was already being grown sporadically throughout Panay but not on a vast, plantation-type scale. In 1855, before Loney arrived in Iloilo City, Panay produced an average of only 750 tons of sugar a year. By 1860, five years after he arrived in Iloilo City, Philippine sugar exports rose tenfold to 7,500 tons!

Loney made this possible by first offering low-interest loans to hacienderos so they can have capital to hire workers to plant sugarcane in their vast tracts of land. He then offered to buy their sugarcane crop at attractive prices for export to Europe. He also exported modern machinery from England to replace the antiquated molinos and bought a fleet of ships (batels) to bring sugar from Negros and all over Panay to the Iloilo City port. The booming sugar industry gave birth to a myriad of ancillary businesses like banks, food establishments, schools, and shopping bazaars. Well-paying jobs in Iloilo City were available to qualified Ilonggos which allowed them to send their children to the best schools and to live comfortably and in style.

Undeniably, Nicolas Loney changed the course of history of Iloilo City. He convinced Ilonggo politicians and hacienderos to support his vision: to develop sugar as a major export crop and to make Iloilo City the center of the sugar industry. But what strikes me most about Loney was that he was able to achieve all of these at a young age: he was just 30 years old when he first arrived in Iloilo City in 1856. And like most great men of vision, he died young. Loney was only 41 years old when he died and he chose to be buried in Iloilo City, the city which owed him so much.

Today, sugar is no longer king of the cash crops and the astounding wealth brought about by the sugar industry are long gone. Stories are all that remain of that bygone era. As they say here in Iloilo City, “storya bilin.”

Nowadays, our government leaders are talking of mangoes being the next cash crop that will take the place of sugar. Others claim that that cash crop is our OFWs (nurses, DH, etc.) while others are excited about the prospects of tourism as the next dollar-earning “gold mine.” Still others are claiming that ICT (call centers, medical transcription centers) is the wave of the future. Whatever it is, one thing is certain: our leaders must get their acts together and push in one direction. We need a leader with a vision, someone who can unite our squabbling leaders and inspire our people to move towards achieving that vision. Perhaps what we need is another Nicolas Loney?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

US Immigration Reform Law Should Alarm Ilonggos

It seems that everyone in Iloilo City nowadays has a relative living and working abroad. Moreover, most of the people I know seem to be planning of migrating (especially to the United States) and those who do decide to stay behind are left wondering whether they are better off living abroad.

That is why the recent rumblings in the United States have aroused considerable interest among Ilonggo households with relatives working there. While our Labor Day rallies here turned out to be anemic, over a million immigrants turned out all across America to protest moves by the US Congress to further criminalize illegal immigration, restrict the number of undocumented aliens and bolster border security. Dubbed the “Day Without Immigrants,” the protest action called on illegal immigrants to boycott work or school and avoid spending money for one day to dramatize their plight and likewise show their economic muscle.

One protester, Melanie Lugo of Denver, succinctly summed it all up by saying: “We are the backbone of America, legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter. We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them.” Another protester, Puerto Rican-born Rene Ochart of Manhattan, said: “Everyone’s an immigrant here. The only real American is the Indian.”

So how does this event, happening thousands of miles away, affect us Ilonggos?
If the proposed Immigration Reform bill in its current form becomes law, expect the US government to implement a sweeping crackdown on illegal aliens in their country and thousands of Filipino TNTs (Tago-ng-Tago) will be deported back to the country. Moreover, it will be harder to get a visa as the US Embassy will be imposing more stringent measures on tourist visa applicants in an effort to limit the entry of Filipino overstayers in their country. A “softer” version of the bill, said to be favored by President George W. Bush, is now pending in the US Senate. The said version proposes a “guest-worker program” and offers illegal immigrants a path to citizenship thru amnesty.

Regardless of what version is enacted, efforts by the American government to reform their immigration laws is sure to have a negative impact not only on the lives of individual Filipino families who rely on the dollar remittances of relatives working in the US but on the entire Philippine economy as well.

This development should be a real cause for alarm for our high government officials considering the fact that only a couple of years ago, the Japanese government imposed a crackdown on Filipina entertainers. The “Anti-Human Trafficking” campaign of Japan resulted in 80,000 “Japayukis” returning back to the Philippines.

With the Philippine’s over-dependence on dollar remittances, we can ill-afford to lose another lucrative market for our most famous export, the OFW. Considering the impact of this legislation on our country’s economy, I wonder what our own government is planning to do to address this issue.

As individuals, we watch helplessly as these events in America unfold. The issue is quite complicated and the Americans are quite right in trying to rid their country of unwanted illegal immigrants. On the other hand, illegal immigrants undeniably contribute to America's development as the "Day Without Immigrants" rally unequivocally proved. At the end of the day, it is up to the decision-makers to hammer out a compromise "win-win" solution to the problem. But Filipino-Americans and Filipino TNTs must make their voices be heard in the current debate.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Ilonggos and "Urbanidad"

The current controversy involving a Filipino gradeschooler in Canada who was reprimanded by his teachers for his eating habits has touched a raw nerve among Filipinos, especially among Ilonggos. When I first heard about it, I thought the kid was eating with his bare hands (“ga-kinamot”) as some of our coutrymen are wont to do. But after reading a detailed news article about it in the web, it turns out that the Canadian teacher was offended by the Pinoy kid’s way of eating with a spoon and fork which she likened “to a pig.”

The “Filipino eating habit” controversy in Canada brought back childhood memories. I remember that as a child, me and my two sisters dreaded visiting the house of a grandaunt because she was very strict and very particular about table manners: do not put your feet up your chair, do not put your elbows on the table, chew your food at least five times, etc. I still remember how surprised and aghast my grandaunt looked when I appeared for lunch without a shirt on. One time, I accidentally banged the door while entering her room and my lola punished me by making me go in and out of the door repeatedly until I learned to shut the door quietly.

Looking back, it is only now that I understand and appreciate what my dear departed lola was trying to do: which was to teach her apos “urbanidad.” Although the concept of “urbanidad” is very hard to encapsulate in one sentence, it is basically a “code of good manners and right conduct” for city-dwellers. It is being sophisticated in your tastes and cosmopolitan in your outlook. It is also being tolerant of people who look different than you. When you hang your laundry (panties and all) in your front lawn, that’s “walang urbanidad” because you cause an eyesore in your community. When you turn on your stereo full-blast at 11:00 pm waking up all your neighbors, that’s “walang urbanidad.” When you go out of your house with only your shorts and tsinelas on, that’s “walang urbanidad.” It used to be that one of the greatest personal insults you can hurl someone is by telling him/her “wala ka urbanidad.” Today, it is seldom you hear people in Iloilo City use the phrase. Now, the phrase commonly used is: “daw taga-uma ka.”

Standards for "urbanidad" change thru the years due mainly to shifting mores. Moreover, different societies have varying standards for what's proper and what's not. But one thing remains constant: respect for yourself (i.e. the way you carry and dress yourself) and respect for others (i.e. being considerate of other people's feelings and sensibilities).

The "Filipino eating habit" controversy in Canada is one good exampe of clashing standards of "urbanidad." Usually, westerners eat by having soup first (with a spoon) and the main entree after (with a kinfe and fork). Us Filipinos use a spoon and fork because we like to have "all-in-one" meals. Filipino all-time favorite dishes like kare kare, sinigang and pochero are both soup and main entree. Try eating them with just a fork! The Canadian grade school teacher and principal must be unaware of this probably because they haven't travelled outside Canada and exposed to different cultures and cuisines.

On my part, I use chopsticks whenever I'm eating at a Japanese or Chinese restaurant because that is supposed to be part of the dining experience. During formal sit-down dinners, I eat like Westerners do (spoon for the soup and knife and fork for the main entrees) mainly because that is the way they serve the food.

Many Ilonggos find eating with chopsticks awkward and "bitin." We likewise find disgusting the custom of some Arabs eating "boodle-fight" style disgusting. But the point is we do not make it our official state policy to ban the use of chopsticks or eating "boodle-fight" style. What do you think will happen if the City Government of Iloilo passes an ordinance disallowing the use of chopsticks?

The point here is that we whould learn to be tolerant and understanding of each other. Once a certain group of people decides to impose its will and its culture on another people, expect trouble. Wars were fought in the past because of this. Canadian government officials should issue a public apology to the Filipino-Canadian family the school teacher offended. Urbanidad demands it.