Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cigarettes Now in "Sachet" Pack

It is well-known that the Philippines has a "tingi-tingi" culture, as epitomized by the ubiquitous neighborhood tindahan where people can buy practically anything by the tingi. We are all familiar with the sachet-sized shampoo and conditioner, soap and toothpaste, heck you can even buy cooking oil in tube-sized ice-candy wrappers. But I thought I'll never see the day when tobacco multinational corporations in the Philippines will sell cigarettes by the sachet (see photo).
Each sachet pack contains five (5) sticks of cigarettes (see photo below) and sells for about P7.50 retail. Aside from the attractive plastic pack, there is also a cardboard "brace" at the back to protect the cigarettes from bending. I don't know if it is available in the city but I bought this in one of the interior towns.

As I am constantly trying to cut back on my smoking, I might just decide to buy Marlboro in a Sachet from now on.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mga Dunganon nga Tawo

The book "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar, Jr. has some very interesting insights on Ilonggo culture and the concept of the "dunganon nga tawo." Translated literally in English, the Ilonggo term dunganon nga tawo means "a powerful man" or a person of great stature. I believe dunganon (pronounced as is derived from the root word dungog which connotes pride or self-respect. The terms dunganon and dungog are seldom used by people nowadays since many Ilonggos find these quite archaic or "too deep" (madalum). If ever they used, it is usually by old folks, such as for instance a grandfather advising his grandson to: "Magtu-on ka sang maayo para tapuson mo ang kolehiyo kay para man na sa kadunganan mo."

But back when it was more commonly used, the term dunganon was used to describe any person who exhibits any or all of the following qualities 1.) acute intelligence, vast knowledge and a sharp mind; 2.) indomitable willpower and self confidence; 3.) generates wealth and an awesome reputation; 4.) excellent oratorical skills, ample capacity to dominate others and subdue enemies; and 5.) lastly, incredible luck and fortune. In short, a dunganon nga tawo is a person who not only exudes an aura of power and self-mastery but someone blessed with good luck - qualities that inspires awe and respect from his fellowmen. The anthropologist Alicia Magos of UP-Visayas made a pioneering study on this primeval Visayan concept. According to Magos, dunganon is derived from the root word dungan which she defined as "a life force, an energy, as well as an ethereal entity, a spirit with a will of its own that resides in the human body and provides the essence of life. Apart from denoting an alter ego and soul stuff, the dungan as presently understood refers to such personal attributes as willpower, knowledge and intelligence, and even the ability to dominate and persuade others. (Magos 1992, 47-50)." Under the concept, everyone possesses a dungan (or dungog if you prefer) albeit of varying strengths or "force levels" but only a select few are blessed to be born with very strong dungan. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the concept of the dungan finds many parallels in other cultures. The Chinese call it the chí, Christian doctrine calls it the soul and even Hollywood, in the blockbuster sci fi movie Star Wars, dub it simply as "The Force." The only difference is that in the Western ideology, the soul is depicted as either good or evil. Western philosophy sees life as a constant struggle to improve ourselves so that we eventually overcome the "baser" aspects of our being (hence, the one-dimensional characters of the "good" Jedi and the evil Sith in Star Wars). There is no such dichotomy under the primordial Visayan concept of the dungan. Instead, life is seen as a constant battle for ascendancy between and among people of varying levels of dungan or, to borrow Aguilar's words, "a recurrent negotiation over rank among adults of all social strata" (hence the title of the book "Clash of Spirits"). And in this constant clash of spirits, only the few exceptional individuals with very strong dungan reign supreme and become legends - mga dunganon nga tawo.

This belief in a spirit, a life force, a dungan that resides within us, is manifested in our present-day belief in the usug, wherein an infant gets sick at the sight of an adult stranger. It is believed that the child cries, vomits and experiences abdominal pains because the stronger dungan of the adult stranger upsets the presumably weaker dungan of the infant, hence the term "na usug" which, roughly translated in English, means "to nudge" or "to trip." To prevent usug, the adult wets a finger with his or her saliva and applies this to the infant to subdue the dungan of any approaching stranger. Many people to this day believe that an adult with an especially strong dungan can overpower and wittingly cause illness in another grown-up with a weaker dungan with just a light touch or a few words.

During pre-Spanish times, the datu (tribal chieftain) and the babaylan (shaman or priest) were the epitome of the dunganon nga tawo. Today, mention the word datu and it conjures a mental image of a person with a robust physique and regal bearing, an individual both wealthy and brave, a man comanding both fear and respect. Mention the word babaylan and it evokes in us feelings of dread and fascination, of sorcery and magical enchantments, anting-antings and hiwit. During the Spanish colonial period, the datu and the babaylan were replaced by the friars as the dunganon or "Big Men" of Philippine society. The descendants of the datu class they reduced to mere factotums (i.e. sacristans and gobernadorcillos) while the babaylans they drove away into the mountains and remote interior areas of Panay. With their "el arte de dominar el espiritu del Indio" (or the art of dominating the Indio spirit), these Spanish priests were able to completely subjugate the people and impose their will on our society for almost three centuries.

But not all Indios submitted to the friars. Quite a number, men of strong character and indomitable spirit - mga dunganon nga tawo - refused to be cowed by Spanish and later, American and Japanese, and resisted their rule. Dramatic individual examples of the dunganon during the colonial period were the mestizo Isidro dela Rama of Iloilo City and the babaylan Estrella Bangotbanwa of San Joaquin, Iloilo. In the book "Clash of Spirits," Isidro dela Rama is enshrined as a "great magnate" - impetuous, aggressive, prescient, original and shrewd:

"A consummate gambler, he supposedly began his career when he was 18 years old as a leaseholder of a small farm in Minuluan (present-day Talisay), Negros Occidental, with only 500 pesos as starting capital. He then proceeded to acquire vast tracts of land as well as a fleet of ships that plied the Iloilo-Bacolod and Iloilo-Manila routes. Driven by a vaulting ambition, dela Rama, after barely 7 years as a planter, was able to penetrate the exclusive circle of sugar merchants and warehouse owners at Iloilo. After 10 years in the lucrative sugar trade, he moved on to the most spectacular phase of his financial career as a large-scale importer of manufactured goods from Europe and North America. He reportedly used his own vessels to transport his imports, which were sold through his flamboyant shops in Iloilo and Manila. He travelled twice around the world and sent his two sons to study in Europe, one in Paris, the other in London. When Isidro dela Rama died in Manila in 1898, he left a fortune worth 2 million pesos.

Anecdotes about Isidro dela Rama suggest that he was possessed of an extremely strong dungan, the soul stuff that fortified him in his struggles and granted him enormous success. He astounded not only Indios and his fellow mestizos but Spaniards as well, including Iloilo City's harbor master, who tried to obstruct the movement of dela Rama's goods at the pier. Possessing the temerity to put himself above the law and exact his own form of justice, dela Rama publicly confronted the official with a gun in his hand, and got his way. His retort to Spanish abuses against the natives is encapsulated in a supposed quote: "Well, these injustices have never been committed against me, and anyone who does so, I either beat up or kill."

Dela Rama was also undaunted by Friar power. On one occasion, he was the only non-Spaniard among dignitaries invited to a banquet hosted by the Minuluan curate, Fr. Fernando Cuenca. One religious, who was new to the place, supposedly demanded in a loud voice why an Indio dared to impose his presence on that august crowd. With icy calmness, and without asserting his mestizo origins, dela Rama delivered his riposte: "I am an Indio and your reverence hold me unworthy of this gathering of Spaniards. Come down with me and, by my honor as a native, I assure you that I will smash your face."
(Source: "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar Jr. p. 159-160)

By the end of the 19th century, Spain's dominion over the Philippines was growing weak and this period was marked by a resurgence of the cult of the babaylanes. Various groups led by charismatic individuals waged "mini-rebellions" against Spain. Among the leaders in Panay was a certain "Dios Gregorio" and Clara Tarrosa from Tigbauan, Iloilo who claimed she was the Virgin Mary. Similar movements emerged in neighboring Negros island led by equally colorfully-named beings like the effeminate "Dios Buhawi," the black-bearded "Kachila" and the charismatic "Papa (Pope) Isio."

"A more spectacular demonstration of the resurgence of babaylan strength transpired in San Joaquin. Oral tradition among shamans of Panay recount 3 years of drought and famine that ravaged this town and left people dying of starvation and thirst, as all the rivers and springs had dried up. This was probably the same famine, mentioned in the Augustinian record, that befell San Joanquin in 1877 and 1878, when corpses were literally strewn around the town. According to the lore, people sought help from the parish priest, but he failed to induce rain. Desperate in his inability to alleviate the disaster, the curate advised the town leaders to call upon a babaylan known as Estrella Bangotbanwa, who ordered that 7 black pigs be butchered, shaved and covered with black cloth. She then took a black pig from the convent to the plaza, where she pressed its mouth to the ground until it gave a loud squeak. Suddenly, the sky turned dark and a heavy downpour followed. The butchered pigs and the sea crustaceans at the offering table sprang to life. Bangotbanwa had brought back rain and life to San Joaquin. Estrella Bangotbanwa's success over the Catholic Church has been immortalized through her elevation to the status of an ancestor (papu) with mystical prowess, and at present she is revered as the matriarch and founder of a group of shamans in Antique province."
(Source: "Clash of Spirits" by Filomeno Aguilar Jr. pp. 165-166)

A more recent incarnation of a dunganan was the late Rodolfo "Roding" Ganzon who, during his political prime, many Ilonggos considered as someone possessed of an exceptionally strong dungan. Like Isidro dela Rama a century before him, Roding Ganzon rose from simple origins to become Mayor of Iloilo City and later Senator of the Republic by virtue of his sharp mind, excellent oratorical skills, stubborn willpower and lastly, incredible luck. Other present-day examples of the dunganan in Iloilo City are Honorato "Tatoy" Espinosa (of Tatoy's Manukan fame) and Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. It is rather a well-known "fact" among Ilonggos that Tatoy has a "special" friend, a white duwende who resides in his lot, who has brought him suwerte in the restaurant business. From his humble beginnings as a fisherman in Villa Beach, Tatoy today is said to be a millionaire several times over and his Tatoy's Manukan has become an institutional landmark in Iloilo City. Tatoy's success story is a constant source of inspiration for the poor who no doubt dream that one day meeting their own duwende who will give them suwerte and deliver them from poverty. And who in Iloilo City does not have an opinion about Secretary Gonzalez? Irregardless of whether you agree with his politics or not, Secretary Gonzalez is undeniably a man possessed of a very strong dungan: not only does he possess a keen intellect, strong willpower, luck and the unconditional loyalty of his followers but he also has an uncanny ability to "subdue" his "enemies" - all the hallmarks of a classic dunganon nga tawo. And while Tatoy may have had help from his supernatural, "other-worldy" friends, Secretary Gonzalez I believe could also claim to have very powerful friends, albeit of the natural, "worldly" kind. If the two were born during pre-colonial times, Tatoy would easily have become a babaylan while Secretary Gonzalez in all probability would have risen to the rank of datu.

As a student of Philippine politics, I am interested in this idealized concept of the dunganon nga tawo because I am convinced that this belief in a primordial dungan, even in a subconscious level, somehow has an impact on how Filipinos, and most particularly Ilonggos, formulate their choices during elections. As we all know, politicians (especially the opposition politicians) love to depict elections as a contest between "good and evil." In fact, all the campaign speeches I have listened to always boils down to this same old message: "I am good, my opponent is bad. So vote for me." But applying the Clash of Spirits concept of the dunganon nga tawo, depicting elections as a fight between good and evil is like asking people in a bulangan (cockpit) to choose pula (the red fighting cock) instead of puti (the white cock) because the puti is evil . It is totally immaterial. This is because, under the concept of the dungan, elections are nothing more that jousting tournaments for mga dunganon nga tawo. During elections, voters are not looking for who is good or who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, who is better and who is not. People generally are not interested in a candidate's platform of government. What they are more interested in finding out is whether a candidate possesses the attributes of a dunganon nga tawo. People want images, not ideas.

This then will explain why the vast majority of Filipino voters do not go for the "most-qualified" candidate. This partly explains why Antonio Trillanes achieved a surprise victory as senator during the last elections despite having no money, negligible political network and limited experience. Trillanes fits the description of a dunganon nga tawo to a tee - fearless, outspoken, willing to fight for his beliefs - and I surmise people bought his underdog image. This also explains why Erap remains popular (as various surveys show) despite his being convicted for plunder because, like Trillanes, he fits the mold of a dunganon nga tawo - his rebelliousness against the hoity toity Establishment, voracious appetite for life, and legendary sense of humor - and it endears him to the masses. I suspect that some politicians have long ago discovered this facet of the Filipino psyche and have sought to manipulate their image and mannerisms to acquire the aura of a dunganon nga tawo - the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos easily comes to mind.

By way of closing, I leave you with this anecdote from the book "Clash of Spirits" of how hacenderos in the past used their hacienda workers' belief in the spirit dungan to exercise better control over them:

"Aware of the efficacy of the mirage that had been constructed around their class, many planters behaved in the mold of the strong dungan spiced with paternalism and acquired tremendous spiritual reputation in the tradition of ancient magical individuals. The rich planter Juan Araneta, for example, was rumored to have a spirit-guide called the Sota - a spirit being of small stature with a body that was half black and half white, a feature described in Ilonggo as kambang. It was said that Araneta possessed a commanding voice and was full of knowledge and wisdom. His reputed powers included the ability to heal, to take giant steps and to see from afar, to vanish before one's eyes and reappear in another place instantaneously, to produce objects from nowhere, and to fly on his magical white horse.

Hacenderos in Negros cultivated this image and a few actually fabricated situations to demonstrate their supposed magical abilities. To this end, some planters even resorted to asinine tactics like prying under the huts of workers to eavesdrop on private conversations, later using the information thus obtained to tantalize the workers. Other planters relied on technologies unknown to the workers, such as binoculars and dynamite, to perform feats for which the natives had no explanation except anting anting. The planter elite's spurious claim to spiritual wonders was given credibility by their generally aggressive dungan, their ruthlessness and the fear they evoked, their bravado and gambling, and the accumulated riches that were assumed to be a sign of commendation by the spirits."

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Reproductive Health (RH) bill

While the Senate is mired in a "double insertion scandal" (which to me sounds more like a title for a really bad porno movie), the House of Representatives is preoccupied with the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health bill. For more than a decade, population management proponents have been trying to enact an RH law but they could not even reach "first base." All the previous Congesses refused to hear it even on the Committee level. But this 14th Congress is different - not only has it approved the RH bill on the committee level, it is now debating it on the plenary hall. What is even more fascinating is that the RH bill has a very good chance of passing the House of Representatives (although I doubt very much if the Senate will enact their own version considering that we're nearing the election year). Still, even if the RH bill loses in the subsequent voting, the fact alone that it reached the plenary debate level is already a significant victory for the family planning advocates. The bill has broken the so-called "glass ceiling" and this development will hopefully pave the way for its easy passage in the next Congress.

I am very interested to know how the House will vote on this issue. Even now, it seems apparent that the fight will not be along party lines (or the traditional "majority/minority" lines) but along "generational" lines. Congressman Edcel Lagman and Janette Garin, the main proponents, are confident of the bill's passage and are claiming that they already have the 94 signatures required for its approval on the floor.
I note that most of those who signed in favour of the RH bill are the younger members (that is, those born in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the so-called Generation Me) while those opposed are the "senior citizens" in the House of Representatives, legislative stalwarts like Congresswoman Annie Susano, Deputy Speakers Raul del Mar and Pablo Garcia, and Congresswoman Ebbie Apostol (the one who withdrew her signature at the last minute) who I think were all born before the Second World War.

To put things in perspective, the generation of Congressman Pablo Garcia (who is 80-plus years old) grew up in a world much different from that of Garin, a thirty-something congresswoman. The Philippines was a much different place when they were coming of age before or during the war. Old folks have always thought of our generation as “spoiled” or “very lucky” – we have not experienced the degradations of war, we enjoy better health care and have many modern conveniences unavailable during their youth - and in many ways, I tend to agree that there is no better time to be alive than right now. “You never had it better, I had to walk to school 30 kilometers barefoot” is a common plaint of the older generation towards our generation.

But where I stand, it seems that things are really harder now than before. We are in a world wherein college admissions are increasingly difficult and very competitive, good-paying jobs are hard to find and even harder to keep (what with all the company downsizing and restructuring), and the prices of basic necessities like food, housing, health care and fuel have skyrocketed. Our generation has been “trained” to expect more out of life at a time when good jobs and nice houses are increasingly difficult to obtain. During Congressman Garcia’s time, it was possible to support a family on just one white-collar income. “Many young people comment that their parents were able to buy a house when they were much younger, and on much less income. The rule of thumb used to be that your house should not cost more than two times your annual income, and that you should spend about 25% of your income on housing. What a joke. Mortgage lenders now regularly increase this percentage to 40% and in a lot of markets people do everything they can to exceed this figure: borrowing down-payments, taking out interest-only loans, using adjustable-rate mortgages. That’s usually not so they can afford mansions, but just to buy into the market while they still can” (Source: “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, Ph.D. page 122-124).

Today, you need a college degree just to earn what a blue-collar worker in this country used to earn 30 or 40 years ago. Both my grandmothers on my father and mother’s side stopped working when they got married – it was not only accepted but it was expected. My grandmothers did not pursue a career, they stayed at home to raise their brood, and they were comfortable living on just their husband’s incomes. Today, single-income families are very rare because both parents have to earn an income in order to maintain a semblance of the middle-class lifestyle. The main reason why women work today is not “personal fulfilment” but economic considerations.

It took humanity 10,000 generations (or 200,000 years) to reach a world population of 2 billion people. Now, in the course of one human lifetime (70 years), the world population will increase from 2 billion to more than 9 billion. This steep and speedy rise in the number of people, not the population growth rate per se, is the root cause of the over-all lowering in our quality of life. We have to step on the brakes, or else the world will overheat. And the Catholic Church is not blind to this fact. Listening to the arguments of our Catholic bishops, I get the impression that they oppose the RH bill not because it seeks to curb population growth but mainly out of fear that condoms, pills and IUDs will promote promiscuity among our people, especially our youth. I don't know about that but the fact is, our people's sexual behaviour have shifted in time. For example, a study showed that during the 1960s, the average woman lost her virginity at age 18; by the late 1990s, the average age was 15. In other words, our parents started having sex in college while kids today do it in high school. Oral sex is now sometimes called the "the new third base" and casual "one-night-stand" encounters, which used to be viewed as very "un-Filipina," is also quite common nowadays. It used to be that sex was something you did with your wife/husband, then it became something you did with the person you love; now people have sex primarily for "recreation" purposes, much like jogging or golf.

I believe the RH bill will not exacerbate sexual promiscuity among our population simply because we are already promiscuous in the first place. And this behavioral trend, this “loosening of public morals” as Churchmen put it, is influenced more by TV and the movies than anything else. The fact is, no amount of effort will stop our people from having sex and what the RH bill hopes to do is to give Filipinos information to enable them to prevent having unwanted children. I now forget who said it but there is a saying “There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.” The RH bill will teach our citizens to be more responsible and plan their family sizes according only to what they can afford. As the book Freakonomics shows, "much of the crime drop in the U.S. in the 1990s can be traced to a surprising source: the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. After this time, millions of unwanted children were simply not born. Those children – all of them unwelcome, and many of them poor – might have been the most likely to drop out of school, get into fights, commit crimes and drink alcohol. The teen girls among them might have been the most likely to get pregnant. But they didn’t, because they didn’t exist." While I am against abortion and draw the line against legalizing it, I also firmly believe that government and the Church have a moral responsibility to educate our people towards the hazards of unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies.

It is unfortunate that the local Catholic Church has chosen to focus the population policy debate solely on pills, IUDs, condoms and other “abortificient gadgets” when there are other ways that they can work together to help government curb our population growth rate. In the grand scheme of things, artificial contraceptives is only a small part of population management and flooding our country with condoms and pills will not really lead to decreased population rates. Education is still the best contraceptive – in many countries, increased literacy rates have led to a reduction in pregnancies. In Kerala province in India, the population growth rate there stabilized to ZERO when provincial leaders embarked on a massive health and education campaign. It is a fact that better-educated women generally bear fewer children. In Singapore for example, a college-educated woman had an average of 1.6 children, a high school graduate also 1.6, an elementary-educated 2.3 and the unschooled woman 4.4 children. Lee Kuan Yew tried to offer tax incentives and income rebates to women on their 3rd and 4th child, but his “lucrative offer” got mixed results. The Catholic Church in the Philippines is one of the leading advocates of education, and private schools ran by religious orders are among the best in the country. Therefore, the Church could be an invaluable ally of the government in raising the literacy rate of our people. This is something that the two opposing sides can agree and work on.

Another effective population management tool is the improvement of our infant mortality rates. As the African leader Julius Nyerere said, “The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive.” If Filipinos believe that there is a good possibility that their offspring will die young, this is a strong incentive for them to have many children to ensure that at least some survive into adulthood to carry the family name. Lowering the infant mortality rate can be achieved through better child care, healthier nutrition and improved health systems, and this is something that the Church I believe is not opposed to. The lowering of infant mortality rate is another component where the Church and government can work together on.

The House of Representatives will again tackle the bill next week and we can expect another round of explosive and exciting debates on population policy. Bringing the issue out to the public is a victory in itself for both the pro and anti RH proponents and in this ''marketplace of ideas, I believe that it is the people who will decide whom to believe in the end.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Budget Season

In the Philippines, the onset of the rainy season signals the start of the budget process. The budget season is a time when the political elite of this country converge in Congress to enact the General Appropriations Act (GAA). The GAA is basically a blueprint of the government's entire operating budget in a given fiscal year. In this document one can see all the government's priority programs and projects for the coming year. I usually tell my reporter-friends that one can write one year's worth of news stories just by poring over the GAB (the GAA unenacted is called the GAB or the General Appropriations Bill).

The budget season officially starts when the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) submits the National Expenditure Program (NEP), a document about three inches thick, to Congress. But things only really start to heat up when the Committee on Appropriations schedule budget hearings. During this period, the parking lot of Congress is cramped with luxury vehicles (not to mention VIP drivers and police escorts playing pusoy dos in the parking lot) and its corridors is full of government functionaries anxiously waiting for their department's turn to present their budgets. The most sought-after personalities during this period are the Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Chairs of the Committee of Appropriations of both Houses since no addition, subtraction, "insertion" and "deletion" in GAA can be made without their approval.

By way of background, the Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse and this power allows legislators to tinker with and insert items in the GAB, thus the term "congressional insertion." The appro deliberations is what most politicians live for, and the budget season is the "reason for being" for the majority of congressmen and senators. There are actually congressmen who only appear in Congress during budget hearings, which is just as well because one may craft the best-written law in the world but if it's not in GAA it means nothing. Congress can enact a law granting P5,000 to each Filipino citizen but if it is not programmed in the GAA, it will not be implemented (thus the term "unfunded mandate"). There are people who say that congressional insertions are another form of pork barrel but I tend to disagree because unlike the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund), the implementing agency maintains control and supervision over the project. The unwritten rule in this game of congressional insertions is that a legislator can only realign - that is, juggle or transfer - funds and not add up to the pre-determined budget cap of a particular agency. For example, say the total budget of the Department of Justice is P7 billion. A senator can reallocate P50 million from the budget of the National Bureau of Investigation (which is an attached agency of the DOJ) and transfer the said amount to the Bureau of Corrections (another attached agency) so the entire budget for the Justice Department still remains at P7 billion. In short, it is a zero-sum game.

As they are the ones approving the appropriations bill, senators and congressmen are in their "all-powerful" mode while Cabinet officials, bureau heads and other state officials are in their "best behavior" form. The budget season is perhaps the only time when Cabinet secretaries are made to wait several hours for their turn to present their budget proposals, the only time when a single congressman can delay the budget of an entire department, and the only real opportunity for legislators to make government executives sit up and listen to them seriously. The threat of their budgets being slashed is a cause for grave concern for all Cabinet secretaries and this fear of their budgets "magically" disappearing is the reason why they have people posted in Congress round-the-clock. I've heard stories of senators shouting at Cabinet officials and there are congressmen who regularly threaten that they will give a certain bureau a one-peso budget for the entire fiscal year. This "harassment" by legislators used to be much worse until the GMA administration called the legislators' bluff. For about two fiscal years the government operated on a reenacted budget and all agencies received no increases in their operating budgets. But the downside of a reenacted budget was, as opposition legislators soon found out much to their chagrin, that it gave GMA the authority to do pretty much anything with the budget sans policy directions from Congress. So now, congressmen and senators I think are more circumspect when they oppose the budgets of particular agencies. The "I'll give you a one-peso budget" threat has become hollow, an empty threat. It is all for show anyway, as most legislators only pretend to "oppose" something in order to get the budgetary allocation needed for their pet projects.

Money is very important and without a budget, government agencies pretty much cannot do anything. The GAA sets the tone and dictates the pace and direction of government action. To illustrate better this point, let me just cite one item in the proposed budget. On the block right now is a proposal for a supplemental budget amounting to P15-billion for a Panay Relief Fund to rehabilitate areas in Region 6 devastated by Typhoon Frank. The measure was filed by no less than the Majority Floor Leader of the Lower House, Congressman Arthur Defensor, of the 3rd district of Iloilo and co-sponsored by all the congressmen in Western Visayas. Under the proposed supplemental budget, some P3.4 billion will be given to Iloilo City to bring financial aid to affected Ilonggos, to repair damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure, to assist farmers get back on their feet, etc. Another P3.4 billion will be given to the province of Iloilo and P2.8 billion to rehabilitate the province of Aklan. Implemented correctly, the Panay Relief Fund would make life normal to the victims of Typhoon Frank. Without it, people in affected areas will continue to be miserable.

Having worked in both Houses of Congress, I was able to observe first hand the budget process. One thing I noticed is that only a few legislators learn to master the "art of congressional insertions." One legislator I know who have mastered this art was the late Congressman Narciso Monfort of the 4th district of Iloilo. Congessman Narsing was a pitbull, and his relentless and incessant cajoling of government executives usually resulted in them getting what he wanted. I remember when I was still working for Mar Roxas at the DTI, he called me up in my cellphone at 7:00 in the morning to inquire about the status of his requests (he only made his requests the night before). Another "master" that easily comes to mind was my former boss the late Senator Raul Roco. Back when he was young, Roco worked in the staff of Senator Ninoy Aquino during the pre-Martial Law Senate so he knew the ins and outs of the budget process. Roco could charm his way around most career bureaucrats and if his charm did not work, he would easily flash that famous "mercurial temper" of his at some hapless official. And it usually achieved results. He became so effective that his fellow senators soon complained that he was making too many congressional insertions already. I remember after one hearing where we made another successful insertion in the budget of a particular SUC (State University and College), he turned to me with that signature naughty smile of his and teasingly said, "Ikaw talaga Ollie mahilig ka sa insertions."

Anyway, once the Senate and the House of Representatives have approved their respective versions of the GAB, a bicameral conference committee (bicam) is convened comprised of members from both Chambers to reconcile differing portions of the bill. The bicam is sometimes called the "Third Chamber of Congress." It is where the GAB is fine-tuned and gets its final "coating" so to speak. Many a congressional insertion have found their demise in the bicam. Last-minute insertions are usually made there. The budget season ends in December, usually just before Christmas when Congress adjourns for the yuletide holidays. If by January the GAB is not enacted by Congress, government will operate on a reenacted budget (meaning the previous year's budget).

Monday, September 08, 2008

On Libel, Press Freedom and the Right to Information

Last week I attended a hearing at the House of Representatives conducted by the Committee on Revision of Laws to deliberate a very interesting proposal: the decriminalization of libel. There are several bills pending right now in Congress which all seek to abolish jail sentences for libel and instead just increase the monetary fines as penalty. Congressman Gigi Aggabao of Isabela also filed a bill which differentiates "political libel" from "private libel" and his version proposes to preserve jail sentences for "private libel" (or those involving private individuals) while decriminalizing "political libel" (those involving public figures).

Retired Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza was one of the resource speakers and he made a well-researched opening statement and pretty much dominated the discussion with his deep knowledge of libel-related jurisprudence. It might interest people to know that historically, libel statutes where enacted because in the old days people in America and Europe would challenge each other to a duel (first with swords and later with pistols) every time one person felt his honor insulted by another. These periodic duels between "gentlemen" caused public disturbances thus lawmakers saw the need to craft laws that would settle more peacefully disputes involving personal honor. Thus, libel had its origins as a crime against public order and not as a crime against honor.

We Filipinos don't have a "dueling" culture. Granted, there might have been duels during the Spanish period but this was more or less limited to the Spaniards then living in the country or the Hispanized Indios (I seem to remember reading that Jose Rizal challenged someone to a duel but was talked out of it by his friends). Our abhorrence to direct, face-to-face confrontations is legendary and this, ironic as it sounds, might be the reason why a libeled person would rather just hire a hitman instead of openly challenging his opponent to a gun duel. This "allergy" towards open confrontation may partly be the reason why so many journalists are being killed in the country today.

Justice Mendoza made it clear from the start that he is not in favor of decriminalizing libel. He made two compelling arguments. One, decriminalizing libel may escalate attacks on the press as we will be taking the only legal means possible for a person to get the "satisfaction" of seeing his tormentor in jail. Two, decriminalizing libel would also be bad for public service. Since journalists can write libelous remarks without fear of getting jailed, no person of right mind would run for public office anymore. Difficult as it is to attract good people to join government, decriminalizing libel would be adding another "disincentive" and the only types of people politics will attract are those who don't care about how others perceive them and those who are insensitive to public opinion (in other words, ang mga "makakapal ang mukha").

Under present laws, it is very hard to convict someone of libel in this country because even if an offended party, say a mayor, was able to prove that what was written about him was false, he still have to prove it was malicious. Proving malice is very difficult. If the offended mayor has some evidence for instance that the journalist accepted money from his politicial opponent to hit him in media, then that could be sufficient grounds for a conviction. But it is very hard to pin down "malicious intent" and usually most libel cases are thrown out because of the inability of the complainant to prove malice on the part of the offending journalist. Recently, the Supreme Court handed down a memo instructing all judges "as much as possible" not to mete out prison sentences to journalists but to only impose fines on journalists found guilty of libel.

It is therefore not surprising that most journalists are unconcerned about their libel cases: they all say they will be acquitted in the end. What they are actually more concerned about is harassment. Harassment of journalists can take various forms - a telephone call to their publisher, anonymous death threats, malicious prosecution, etc. - the list could go on and on and is limited only by the imagination and "creativity" of the harasser. One resource speaker at the hearing, Benny Antiporda of the National Press Club, narrated that journalists would often be arrested on a Friday or a day before a long holiday so that they would be spending a weekend in jail. This actually happened to my journalist-wife who was charged with libel by defeated senatorial candidate Chavit Singson for an article she wrote in Newsbreak Magazine entitled "The Second Gentleman." (you can read my blog entry about it here. Also, a tip to journalists with pending cases: always carry P10,000 in cash on your person because you'll never know when that subpoena will strike). Of course, malicious prosecution happens not only to journalists but to anyone who have powerful enemies in this country, as Justice Mendoza correctly pointed out to Mr. Antiporda, adding that it should probably be tackled in another hearing or some other fora.

It is often said that the Philippines has one of the "freest" press in Asia. I remember that former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew derided our free press and claimed that "too much free speech" (if there is such a thing) has proved to be more of a bane than a boon to the Philippines. It would have been so easy to dismiss Lee Kuan Yew's statements if not for the fact that he was able to transform his tiny nation-state from being a malaria-infested Third World country into a First World one. It is hard to argue with success - Singapore is the only First World country in Southeast Asia - and sometimes I think Lee Kuan Yew may be correct. While it may be true that the Philippines has one of the "freest" press in Asia, it is also one of the most dangerous places for a journalist to be in in the world. Dozens of journalists are killed each year, mostly from the ranks of provincial media, and what is sadder is that most of their cases are not solved.

Appropriating for itself the role of watchdog against official corruption, the media in this country has generally adopted an adversarial stance towards government. The image that mostly comes to mind when Filipinos think of journalists is that of the hard-hitting, no-nonsense, investigative reporter who will go at great lengths to uncover the truth. This is what every reporter strives at and tries to project. But investigative articles and news exposes of official malfeasances have not prevented corruption in government. Corruption in fact has only worsened despite media's vigilance. The threat of being exposed in media is no longer an effective deterrent for corrupt politicians and, if anything, the almost daily exposes of corruption has only made the people inure to the widespread corruption around them. To make maters worse, some members of the press have become corrupt themselves and most corrupt politicians have also corrupt mediapersons in their payolas. So what do you do when some of the so-called watchdogs have been co-opted and "tamed" by politicians? What can you do when the people are jaded and no longer shocked by tales of corruption and scandal?

Going back to our topic, press freedom is anchored on the people's right to information and their right to self-expression and it is enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the said Declaration states "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." But on the other hand, Article 12 of the Declaration also guarantees the individual's right to privacy. It states: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation." So the question is, when this two universally guaranteed human rights collide which one is more supreme? Lawyers argue that the right to privacy takes a back seat to the people's right to know if an issue is imbued with public interest. Others claim that the right to privacy is absolutely inviolable and cannot be waived under any circumstances.

I tend to subscribe to the idea that the right to privacy is not absolute. I subscribe to the "sunlight principle"- any thing exposed to sunlight becomes clean - and I agree that public figures should not be allowed to hide under their right to privacy in order that malfeasances will be exposed. On the other hand, I also believe that private individuals should be protected from abusive media.

The only problem is, our congressmen cannot seem to find an appropriate definition for the terms "public figure" and "private individual." According to Justice Mendoza, the term "public figure" could refer not only to a politician but could also be anyone who is famous - a movie actor, a PBA player, a daughter of a senator, a prominent businessman, a newspaper columnist, etc. Everyone I think would agree that Senator Mar Roxas is a public figure - he is not only well-known throughout the Republic but he also actively courts public attention. But there are also people who, despite not actively seeking public attention become famous nonetheless like Lance Gokongwei for example. To his mind probably, Lance (I once saw him with his wife wearing only jeans and a t-shirt) believes he is a "private person" But the fact that his face is recognized throughout the country I think makes him into a "public figure."

The definition of who is a public figure and who is not is very important because it will determine who will be covered by the law currently being enacted. I recall that during the Senate investigation into the Jose Pidal controversy, First Gentleman Mike Arroyo sought protection under the "right to privacy" rule claiming that while his wife is famous, he has never courted public attention, hence he is a "private person." And the Senate bought his argument. In my opinion, Mike Arroyo stopped being a private person the moment he became the First Gentleman. Whether he likes it or not, whether he seeks publicity or consciously tries to avoid it is beside the point. The fact is, he is famous. And it could also be argued that the Jose Pidal case is imbued with public interest because it involves public money so the senators may have erred in their decision.

I sense that there is already a growing consensus towards the Aggabao version. which will decriminalize political libel but preserve the law for private libel. Everyone seems to agree that private individuals are entitled to be "thin-skinned" while public figures, since they crave publicity, could not. As they say, a person appearing before the TV camera should be able to stand the heat of the spotlight. The word "public figure" seems easy enough to define but lawyers have a way of complicating things, just like what happened during the deliberations for the Anti-Terrorism bill. Justice Mendoza suggested that if the lawmakers cannot agree on a definition, why not just leave it to the courts to decide, on a "case to case" basis, who is a public figure and who is not. But the problem with giving our judges leeway in interpreting the law is that it would potentially open it to abuse and result in arbitrary decisions.

Due to lack of time, the congressmen left the "public figure-private person" issue unresolved. The Committee on Revison of Laws will be conducting a third and final hearing on the proposal sometime this September and hopefully by then, the bright legal minds in Congress would have come up with an appropriate definition for the term.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sensationalizing SSL 3

I am terribly disappointed with how the national media has treated the Salary Standardization Law Part 3 (SSL 3) story these past few days. The issue has been sensationalized and blown out of proportion. Most of the broadsheets and TV networks pegged their news stories on President Macapagal-Arroyo getting a 100% raise. Most of the radio and TV commentaries I've heard are likewise critical of SSL 3. DBM Secretary Nonoy Andaya is the only voice I hear today defending the pay hike for our state workers. Not only did they neglect the plight of the 1.2 million ordinary civil servants in the country who are waiting for their long-overdue pay hike but pegging the story on GMA getting twice her present salary was completely erroneous. It made what otherwise was a non-controversial issue controversial and muddled the issue to the public. I have seen the draft copy of the proposed Joint Resolution for SSL 3 and I can say for a fact that the earlier news reports are incorrect. President Arroyo, Vice President de Castro, all the incumbent senators and congressmen are not covered by the increase. It was stated clearly in Section 12 of the said joint resolution. Also, there is a constitutional provision prohibiting lawmakers from profiting from a law they enacted (and this prohibition I was told has lately been expanded to include even the President and the Vice President) so the drafters did not even have to state it in the bill.

I have studied the pay hike table and I can attest that the increases are not that big. In fact with inflation projected to be in the double-digits, the salary increases contained in the SSL 3 will just be enough for our civil servants to escape penury and will not really allow them to buy luxuries in life. Strictly speaking, the SSL 3 will not really increase the buying power of government workers but merely adjust their salaries to inflation. I was informed that government will allocate some P20 billion for the salary increase of all state workers, excluding uniformed personnel (those in the AFP, PNP, BJMP and BFP) and those working in SSL-exempt institutions like BSP, GSIS and PDIC. The salary increase will be staggered into four (4) increments or "steps" and will be spread over four (4) years. The targeted date of implementation (assuming the joint resolution is approved by Congress) is July 2009.

Listening radio commentators lambast the bill, one would get the impression that we will be overpaying our government employees. Some are even angry, claiming that government people don't deserve a raise. Well, I'd like to ask that radio anchor to try to live on P20,000 a month these days. The fact is a senior reporter in ABS CBN or GMA now earns two times more than a government bureau chief. A call center agent today makes more money than a congressman's chief of staff. And yet we entrust these government servants with important tasks which have far-reaching effects on the community. We pay them measly sums and yet we expect them to come to office in neat barong tagalogs and to be paragons of virtue and not to steal from government. We look up to our elected officials to deliver our country from poverty and yet we are unwilling to pay them the just amount corresponding to the gravity of their jobs. I mean, get real. Government attracts poor quality personnel because the pay is ridiculously low. In fact, considering the wages we pay our public servants, I am not surprised that there is rampant corruption in government. What surprises me more is that there is corruption in media considering that most 0f those in the national press are already well-compensated by their media companies! At least, you can almost forgive a corrupt traffic aide because he steals in order to eat while a corrupt news reporter accepts bribes in order to buy fancy Lacoste shirts and take their families to vacations abroad!

Realizing their mistake, I know that news desks have tried to correct the earlier reports by coming out with stories focusing on ordinary state workers. But the damage has already been done - once said, you can no longer erase it away - and what should have been an uncontroversial issue has become the talk of the town. The tone has already been set - instead of getting sympathy and support from the general public, our government employees are now on the defensive and they have to explain and convince and grovel for their pay raise. And since the air is now "poisoned," the ratification of SSL 3 is now far from certain. Remember, elections are just around the corner and our legislators will be in no mood to pass an unpopular bill. Already, several senators have stated their objections to the bill based on the mistaken notion that GMA will benefit from it.

Of course, the Philippine press have always tended to "demonize" people in government. Hell, some TV networks have made their billions riding on their "exposes " on government corruption and political malfeasances. I have nothing against that because I believe everyone is entitled to making a decent living but I think reporters should also be more circumspect and sensitive in their reporting especially because it may affect the livelihoods of people. I hope that this should serve as a lesson for reporters to be more careful and checks their facts first in the future. But something tells me they will never learn because, after all, it is the "sexy"stories that sell newspapers and boost ratings. But I also think people are getting tired of the press demonizing government. Exposing abusive press people - now that I think is what will sell newspapers in the future.

For the people working in government, I'd like to share with you the fighting words of John Mc Cain's vice-presidential runningmate, Sarah Palin, during the Republican National Convention: "Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Hero's Welcome

Olympic hero Mary Jane Estimar is coming home to Iloilo this Friday (September 5) and members of her old wu shu club in Iloilo City, The Tinagan Club, are organizing a simple welcoming parade in honor of her silver medal victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. All Ilonggos are enjoined to come out to see her motorcade and give a warm welcome to our returning Olympic hero who is a true-blue Ilonggo from Barangay Dulunan, Arevalo, Iloilo City. There will also be a presscon scheduled for Mary Jane at around 11:00 am at the District Office of Congressman Raul Gonzalez, Jr. in Muelle Loney.

It is at the Tinagan Club where Miss Estimar first learned the rudiments of the sport. She must be a very gifted lady because I read she only started practicing the sport three years ago, yet she won the silver medal. After her surprise win at the Olympics, I foresee renewed interest for wu shu among Ilonggos and the Tinagan Club will surely gain more followers in Iloilo City. Even our congressman, Raul Gonzalez, Jr., is a wu shu practitioner himself and has been a long-time member of the Tinagan Club.

Aside from the Tinagan Club, the City Government of Iloilo and the Office of Congressman Gonzalez have also chipped in the expenses to be incurred for the parade. After all the death and destruction that has been happening these past several weeks, Mary Jane Estimar's Olympic victory surely is a welcome distraction and a much-needed morale booster for the people of Iloilo City.