30 April 2007

NPM reflections 1: On privatization

READER and fellow blogger Cris Jugo asks: "In what way would NPM go against 'populist policies'? Couldn't you implement populist policies using NPM?"

Our seven-day seminar on NPM finally ended today, and by way of reflection, I will address the issue of its compatibility with populism beginning with this entry. Which came up again and again throughout the week, precisely because our Latin American participants -- who are not exactly fans of Hugo Chavez and the other left-wing leaders in the region -- assumed NPM is automatically incompatible with populist policies.

That was actually the bone of contention in an exchange I had over lunch with a Brazilian participant who came from Porto Alegre, the city that pioneered the "participative budgeting" best practice and host to several editions of the World Social Forum.

I asked Luis Leonardo, who is an unabashed free market advocate, what he thinks of his hometown's innovation. He vehemently opposes the idea, arguing that some decisions made by the budgeting committees benefited only a few -- like buying a ice-freezing facility for some fishermen within the community.

Why don't they work their butts out so that they will earn enough money to buy the freezer themselves? Leonardo asked.

But what's wrong with a decision arrived at by a community? I argued. Is that not what democracy and NPM is all about, respecting the decision of the majority and allocating government resource to address what customers need?

Our debate extended into our final task later in the afternoon, where our group (comprising Leonardo and five others) was asked to defend privatization of government services against common opposing arguments. One of these had to do with excluding the poor who do not have the money for private services.

While I argued that successful privatization, as in the case of telecommunications and air travel in the Philippines, can actually make these services more accessible to ordinary citizens, it should not be pursued for its own sake. Critical preconditions exist -- such as the existence of private providers who can actually do better than the state in delivering these services.

A good example would be education. While public and private schools exist in cities and leading urban centers, making it possible to offer and implement a voucher system that can operationalize choice and promote competition, the same is not true in the rural areas. This market failure provides a justification for the state to come in and provide the service itself -- through the public school system.

These examples, I think, demonstrate a number of things. One, it is unwise to put our faith wholly on market forces to provide all the goods and services required by society. Two, it is a disservice to NPM to assume that privatization is the only way achieve a lean state; there are other tools that can pretty much achieve the same objective, such as decentralization. Finally, the devil is in the details; there is no one-size-fits-all formula to pursue NPM, and the choice of the most appropriate tools depends on a given context.


28 April 2007

Cologne Cathedral

WE SPENT the entire afternoon of the other day in Cologne, one of Germany's leading cities and the one closest to Gummersbach. Its main attraction remains to be the Cologne Cathedral, which miraculously survived heavy Allied bombing during the Second World War.

All major markings, including the directional sign within the Hauptbahnhof or the main train station as well as the city map provided us by the IAF, referred to this structure as Dom Cathedral, or simply the Dom.

The pictures here were taken using my cellphone. The last two are of particular interest; they were from two adjacent doorways to the church, similar at a quick glance, but there was something evidently wrong.

This reminded me of the first two of Dan Brown's trilogy -- the now famous Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons before that -- and sent my conspiratorial mind spinning. Especially when a black-robed-and-hooded young Goth, with piercings on his face and body, a throwback to the Medieval Age thousands of years ago, descended on the church steps and quickly disappeared into the crowd.


27 April 2007

The Gummersbach BürgerService

NO, THIS definitely is not a fastfood where you get the German counterparts of your Jollibee or McDo burgers; the English translation in our program calls it the Citizens Bureau. Yesterday, we went to the Gummersbach city hall to see it for ourselves.

The Gummersbach BürgerService is strategically located; as one climbs up to the Rathaus ("City Hall"), it is the first government office that greets you. Iris Karras, manager of the Gummersbach BürgerService unit, said it is equipped with the essential office equipment -- computers, internet access, scanners, printers and an automated queuing system -- that enable frontliners to serve their customers efficiently and effectively.

Set up in the '90s as part of the government's response to complaints about the quality of public service, these citizens bureaus serve as a one-stop-shop for the essential municipal services in Germany.

These include passporting and issuance of identity cards; payment of taxes and fees, including the dog tax; ticketing service for concerts, museums and all other cultural activities throughout Germany; and others that municipal governments provide to their citizens.

Aside from pooling staff from existing departments, they had to hire three more personnel to ensure service availability after office hours and on Saturdays, where people are freer to avail these, Karras said.

Leisure services, including sports, actually do not belong to those mandated by the state, Christianne Wenner of the KGSt (Joint Centre for Local Government Studies) explained during our session in Köln or Cologne later in the day. But politicians would save on these mandated services to free up more funds for the former because it helps them get reelected.

Before leaving for Cologne, we dropped and spent about an hour at the BürgerService. There we met the Guado sisters who hail from Zambales. The older of the two married a German and has been here for the last 30 years; her younger sister and her children are vacationing.

She is satisfied with the BürgerService, the former Ms. Guado said. They visited today to fix her sister's visa problem -- she was allowed to stay up to three months, her children only two -- so that they can go home at the same time.

When her number came up, the friendly frontliner motioned them to come over. My colleague Magnolia joined them to actually see how customers are being handled. Everything went smooth and easy; visa concerns are beyond the scope of the BürgerService, they were told. They were then referred to the German foreign affairs office, probably in Cologne, for the appropriate solution.


26 April 2007

The prospects of NPM among Philippine LGUs

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

GUMMERSBACH – One of the fascinating discoveries I made in the course of the ongoing New Public Management (NPM) seminar I am attending in this charming little German city concerns local governments.

In a previous column, I mentioned Civil Service Commission chair Karina Constantino-David saying that Philippine LGUs, notwithstanding of their own peculiar problems, are one of the good news about civil service in the country.

In this seminar, our Peruvian and German facilitators mentioned practically the same thing: that reforms along the lines of NPM -- which seek to apply private sector mindsets, processes and tools in the public sector -- have better chances of taking off at the local level. Maybe this shift was impelled by hard realities.

No matter how appealing the NPM principles are -- a lean state; separate decisionmaking, with politics deciding the strategic and the civil service taking care of the operative; lean management; a new service attitude; new models of control; decentralization; quality management; and product approach -- resistance to their large-scale implementation and scaling up is just too great at the national and federal levels.

There are, for instance, reversals in a number of countries that originally pioneered NPM such as the United Kingdom. The so-called “joined-up governance” espoused by the New Labour party under Tony Blair has effectively reversed efforts to “roll back the state” that Margaret Thatcher introduced in the late ‘80s. So much so that a 2005 study spanning seven “leading-edge” NPM countries jointly conducted by researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Oxford University pronounced it to be dead, arguing that the stage is now set for what they call “digital-era governance.”

But success stories from the federal state level downwards have come to the fore. In Brazil, for instance, governors in four of the 26 states were either elected or reelected with a strong mandate on the basis of public sector reforms and modernization. This goes against the grain of populist policies being espoused by the current Brazilian government, as well as the rise of left-wing regimes in Latin America.

In the Philippines, Naga of course is a “leading-edge” city implementing NPM, without us even knowing about it. When Mayor Jesse Robredo first became mayor in 1988, he introduced private sector tools and techniques at City Hall owing to his previous work with San Miguel Corporation; these include management by objectives and the Performance Pledge under the Productivity Improvement Program.

The Pledge, found in all city hall departments and offices, later became the basis for the development of the Citizens Charter, which documents some 140 or so services of the city government. Now on its second edition, the charter describes the step-by-step procedure in availing each service, the expected response time as well as the city hall staff responsible for each step. Available both in printed and digital format through the city website, a streamlined Bikol version is currently being developed to comprise charter’s 3rd edition.

All these innovative efforts happened rather instinctively, part of a process to continuously improve the quality of service delivery, now consciously centered on meeting the needs of its customers. We only came to learn that they are in fact an operationalization of the NPM philosophy when the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the Philippines invited Mayor Robredo to speak in a seminar it arranged for Philippine LGU officials last year at the AIM.

What do these developments mean? One, that NPM tools and techniques are applicable in the Philippine setting, especially in the context of our 15-year decentralization experience. But two, we still have a long way to go, especially in reversing the current situation where “leading edge” localities are more of the exception rather than the rule.


25 April 2007

Of dogs, death and taxes

AMERICAN statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin was quoted as saying "In this world nothing can be said to be certain but death and taxes." After listening from Dr. Monika Ballin, our last speaker in the final session that started at 7:30 pm after dinner, I would add Germans do the latter better than most.

Filipinos view dogs as their best friend, which is a paradox considering their liking for dog meat, which we call "karneng aw-aw" in Sagrada, Pili. In Grandview, two of our three immediate neighbors have dogs, prompting my daughter Pep to egg us to bring one of her grandma Yayang's puppies home. In Naga, vaccinating dogs with anti-rabies is one of the key services of the City Veterinarian Office headed by Dr. Junios Elad, Jr., aside of course from their usual dog-pounding chores.

Well, there are still some reasons to be thankful we live in the Philippines. Because in Germany, one of the 35 different taxes and fees a dog-owning citizen has to pay is the dog tax, levied by towns and cities. It dates back a century ago, when cities teemed with dogs that authorities decided to tax them as a means of discouraging the practice. Just like the champagne tax, it stuck ever since.

Although the rate differs by municipality, a dog tag costs 150 euros (about P10,800) for the first dog and 220 euros (about P15,600) for a second dog. Untagged canines will fetch a heftier fine when caught by authorities.

And why do the various levels of the German government need to do this? Because of a welfare system -- increasingly under huge financial stress -- that provides a sort of "full risk insurance" for their citizens.

"Especially by the end of the 1980s and in the early 90s, it became obvious that the overblowing public administration was impossible to be financed, even with increasing debts," Ballin explained. This set the stage for the increasing attractiveness of a "lean state," a central element of the New Public Management (NPM) philosophy.

But even in Germany and other European countries, NPM is not that widespread, especially at the federal government and state levels. Surprisingly, innovations are more pronounced at the local government level, similar to what is happening in the Philippines. I will discuss this in a later post.


23 April 2007

WAP, Wi-Fi and the cost of internet access

TWO QUICK technology-related notes:

1. I love WAP. Our party were already at the predeparture area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport when I called up Frank Mendoza, our city administrator and acting budget officer, to tell him about a file I previously emailed.

In our conversation, the need to forward him another email I sent to Mayor Robredo came up. In the absence of free Wi-Fi access at the airport, I told Frank: "Can I just do it when we reach Germany and I can already access a PC?" Frank said OK.

But forced by circumstance, I turned to my Nokia 6288, logged into my Gmail account via wireless access protocol (WAP), and tried something I never did before: forward a 1.8-MG email using my cellphone's WAP.

Did it work? When I finally got to check my email a few hours ago, one of the messages that come through was Frank's: "Got the guidelines and the powerpoint." Which means my attempt worked. My only worry is how my postpaid account will be charged, considering that Globe's WAP rates are levied by amount of information sent (P0.25 per kilobyte, if I'm not mistaken), unlike Smart which offers a flat P10 rate per 30 minutes.

If it were only the text characters comprising the message, that would be OK; if the attached powerpoint file that boosted up the message size to 1.8 megabytes is included, then I'm in trouble. I will find out when the billing comes through.

2. A freebie or a recoverable cost? One clear difference between the Philippines and developed countries I've been through is illustrated by how we treat the provision of internet access.

In Naga, as well as in Davao as confirmed by my colleague Magnolia, Wi-Fi is largely a freebie, a value-added service that hotels and coffee shops offer to their customers. You dine, for instance, at Avenue Square and you brought your WiFi-enabled laptop along; checking emails, posting blog entries, and doing most other internet stuff come in for free.

But here, internet access -- either via Wi-Fi or through the PC workstations at the ground floor of the Theodor Heuss Academy -- comes for a price. There are only two rates: 2 euros (about P144) per hour, or 6 euros (or about P430) for four hours. It was a little better in Vancouver, Canada; Wi-Fi access can be had for an hourly or or daily rate via a local telco.

When I was still studying in the UK, internet access was never free for a room connection. There was a flat-rate for us Fitz students embedded in our termly fees which need to be paid to the college -- equivalent to a maximum amount of traffic you can send or receive under your account; any excess amount is billed, although at a minimal rate.

I think the difference has to do with how we view and do business. In a developing country like ours, free Wi-Fi is a subsidized service that is part of a broader strategy to continuously attract customers regardless of the cost. This model is open to abuse by users, as with anything that is available for free.

In developed economies, it is a service whose provision entails costs that need to be recovered. As a result, the charging of user fees influence behavior, forcing one to be more careful and more strategic in optimizing the available resource. Like composing emails and blog entries offline, and maxizing browser tabs to open as many sites as possible, all at the same time when online. Which I what I am doing right now.



VENUE of our week-long seminar is Gummersbach, a charming city of 54,000 about 40 minutes from Cologne. Among others, it is home to the Theodor Heuss Academy (THA), the training arm of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

The Academy also hosts FNF's International Academy for Leadership (IAF), which arranged the "New Public Management: Lean State, Lean Government" seminar we are attending.

The facility sits on top of a hill right above the city center. At around lunchtime, eight of the participants already around (four Filipinos, two Sri Lankans and two Peruvians) went for a quick walk below. The picture above shows Gummersbach outside my room.

The one below show my co-participants negotiating the road downhill. From left: Ana Victoria Alva (Peru), Gayan Abeykoon and Ruwinie de Silva (Sri Lanka), Cheryl Marie Cristobal-Cipriano (Philippines), Carmen Vegas Guerrero (Peru), Magnolia Yrasuegi and Judge Rafael Cresencio Tan, Jr. (Philippines).

The rest are only arriving later today. A welcome program follows after dinner tonight.


22 April 2007

Off to Gummersbach

BY LATE morning, our party of four will fly to Gummersbach, Germany for a week-long seminar on New Public Management, courtesy of the the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

With me in the Philippine team are Dumaguete RTC judge Rafael Cresencio Tan, and two Davao-based ladies, Magnolia Yrasuegi, who works with a Christian radio station, and Cheryl Marie Cristobal, who works with the Department of Trade and Industry.

We will be joining another 20 or so participants from all over the world, selected from many more who joined the online phase of the seminar that started last February.

I wrote a number of entries while participating in that online seminar, which can be found here, here, here, here and here.

I'll try to blog from Germany as much as I can.


21 April 2007

A vote for Abang Mabulo

READER Alfredo Mariano sent me a note this morning about an email he read from the blog of the fearless Ellen Tordesillas. I am reproducing it in full.

I am not a Bicolano nor a voter of District 1 Camarines Sur but if I could vote for one person, I would vote for Mayor Sabas "Abang" Mabulo who is running for the congressional seat of Camarines Sur District 1 against the Presidential son, Dato Arroyo, who is not a Bicolano and has no public service experience. This is borne out of my experience of Abang Mabulo -- a person who leads me to believe that hope still exists in our country.

I was introduced to Kuya Abang while I was in college during a gathering of the Christian Life Community (CLC). Nine years ago I managed a video production about CLC members who were good role models. One of them was Kuya Abang who was our model for honest public service. As I uploaded his video online recently, I was very touched to see that the man I knew in the video back then is still very much the same man whom I know now.

He is still a man of competence. As I interacted with him in the CLC, I realized that he is a competent leader in the NGO he managed, a skill that was confirmed later on when he became "One of the Ten Most Outstanding Mayors in the Philippines in 2002".

Last year when I visited his town in San Fernando, we traveled on the road that he started to build in 1998 and it was a phenomenal experience. This is the man who was able to link the farms in the mountainous area of San Fernando to the market places in the lowlands through a participative approach. He had very meager financial resources for this road. But he got the Bicolanos in the nearby communities to help build the road. Not only was he able to build a road, he also employed his fellow Bicolanos. Now that is ingenious!

He is very much still a man of character. Truly a man of faith, I witnessed him discern with us in the community whether or not it was the greater good to offer himself as an option in this election. He is a man of integrity and courage even when all indicators point to hopelessness. He is a three-time recipient of the "Parangal sa Marangal" by the Krusadang Bayan Laban sa Jueteng. Kuya Abang is someone I admire and hope to someday be like as a person of commitment.

Many people say that his fight is not practical at all. After all, he is fighting the President’s son who has the political machinery and the financial and human resources to boot while he has a measly P200,000 for his campaign fund. But in the midst of its seeming impracticality is a fight for values and virtues that he believes in -- values and virtues that we as responsible Filipinos and committed persons try to live each day.

All of us are constantly invited to discern the greater good. From where I stand it is certainly Abang Mabulo, our alternative to the politics of patronage.

For more information about Abang Mabulo, please check out the Christian Life Community’s webpage for Abang at http://www.abang4congress.bravehost.com/.

Tinnah dela Rosa
Member, Christian Life Community
124A Esteban Abada St. Loyola Heights, Q.C.
I hope the entire First District will take heed.


A gathering of IFP fellows

IT'S BEEN four years -- make that five as Rhialyn Cheng went a full year ahead of the rest -- since our pioneering batch of International Fellowship Program (IFP) fellows began our studies, a good number of them abroad.

Yesterday, I had to miss the first of three political fora organized by the Caceres Commission for Communication (CCCom) in line with the upcoming elections next month because of a two-day meeting at the Philippine Social Science Council (PSSC) center here in Quezon City.

But it turned out to be a downer, as the expected slam-bang between Abang Mabulo and Dato Arroyo did not materialize. The latter was a no-show, using his father's current medical condition as an excuse, my colleague Joe Perez texted me from Naga. I think Vic Nierva's assessment here is a more compelling reason; Abang would have eaten Dato alive. But I digress.

A good number from our batch (which IFP-Philippines calls the 2002 Cohort) and the next (2004) turned up for the meet-up, with the end view of organizing current IFP alumni into an organization, plan its activities out and take on some critical tasks and services for departing and arriving fellows.

Having defined our vision-mission statement for the alumni association, after much wrangling with words and concepts which at times took some spirited twists and turns that our facilitator, Prof. Cecile Conaco would ably steer back on track, we will plan out our activities this morning and create a task group that will manage them for us.

Are we up to the task? The question surfaced after Ma'am Bambot Fernan, IFP-Philippines director, outlined the expectations of national alumni associations from IFP-New York. Reservations were initially expressed, but in the end, I think we became more comfortable with the possibilities this new challenge brings. Which is how it should be in the first place.


20 April 2007

Cast in an unflattering light

VIA THE GMANews.tv website, I chanced upon the latest online i-Report of the PCIJ, which casts outgoing Bulacan Gov. Josefina "Josie" de la Cruz in an unflattering light.

The blurb says it all:

Now in her ninth straight year as Bulacan governor, Josefina "Josie" de la Cruz, for many observers, remains one of the few reformists among local chief executives. Others say, however, that she had succumbed to traditional politics.
The tipping point, the report said, came after she made the following announcement two days before her 49th birthday:
"That's why I'm very excited about this," said Bulacan Governor Josefina 'Josie' de la Cruz. She paused briefly. Then it came: "But then my term ends May 30. So the truth is, to ensure that all I have worked for will not go to waste, I have allowed my brother, I have requested him, to follow me and vie for the post of governor."
Governor Josie's current travails illustrate a paradox in governance: the straight do-gooders are measured differently, in fact at a higher bar, than regular guys. The public does not suffer the former's mistakes gladly, unlike the latter's sins which they seem to have already discounted.


18 April 2007

Opportunity cost and the ‘Big Daddy’ syndrome

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

LAST Thursday, a program officer of the Canada Fund paid us a visit to appraise a proposal for the rehabilitation of upland elementary schools in the city. It turned out he and Peter Sutherland, the Canadian ambassador to the Philippines, were guest of Camarines Sur Gov. LRay Villafuerte at the provincial capitol the day before.

One thing he noticed, our guest said, aside from crowds that frequented the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex (CWC), were the tourism brochures of the provincial government, the CWC in particular; there was no reference to Naga at all.

It did not make sense, he added, considering that Naga, as the closest urban center to the CWC, has the basic tourism services that CWC’s clients would need; the only other option would be Legazpi but it is too far away. The easiest individual to get bored is the tourist; give him half a day or so at the CWC and he will start looking for “action” somewhere else.

This incident I think highlights the opportunity cost that we have to bear because of a continuing political rivalry that, for so long a time, has carved up a gulf between City Hall and Capitol.

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of something in terms of an opportunity foregone and the benefits that could be received from that opportunity. It is different from accounting cost, which has something to do with the price attached to any course of action.

Let us take tourism promotional materials as an example. They have an accounting cost, which would be the respective amounts the provincial government spent in producing its CWC brochures on the one hand, and the city government in producing its own, including their digital equivalents in their respective websites.

But in this case, the opportunity cost is bigger. It comes in the form of more visitors they could have attracted to visit both Naga and the provincial capitol if only they joined forces in cross-promoting their respective attractions, and the additional money these tourists would have spent locally and infused into the local economy. Cross-promotion is a cooperative endeavor that illustrates the value of synergy -- where the whole is greater than the sum total of its parts.

Now, why do we continue to bear this burden? It is because of a virus that mostly affects politicians, and those in the position of power, producing a condition I would call the “Big Daddy” syndrome. (This is different from the “Big Daddy” mentality that Inquirer editor John Nery wrote about to describe the continuing dependency of the Filipino on their government.) The Encarta Dictionary defines “big daddy” as: 1. somebody or something regarded with respect: somebody or something that is respected, powerful, or well known, and 2. paternalistic head: the head of an organization, especially one who exerts paternalistic control. Its most recent provenance can be traced to former Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez who -- in consistently failing to win against the New York Yankees -- called their hated foes his “big daddy.”

What are its symptoms? A superiority complex, defined as “an exaggerated sense of being better than other people,” and a lack of humility, leading to an inability to put the common good above one’s personal self. As such, they cannot stand sharing the same stage with their equals, preferring instead to be king of their own little molehills.

While difficult to cure because of massive egos involved, this condition is not entirely incurable; all it needs is a good enough dose of practical statesmanship – the capability to sacrifice one’s personal gain precisely because of his impartial concern for the common good, and a healthy realization that regardless of stature, he is but a speck in the stream of time.

Applied to our context, it is bowing to the collective wisdom of the Camarines Sur electorate, who will most probably decide to distribute power equitably among our existing political houses once the dust of the coming electoral battle clears up; exploring and finding a mutually acceptable middle ground; and engaging in some key collaborative efforts that can move our province further forward.


17 April 2007

The Naga City Youth Officials program

YESTERDAY morning, 45 young men and women, mostly college students, took their oath of office as this year's batch of City Youth Officials (CYOs), a program that dates back to 1989, probably earlier.

What stands out in this batch, which Mayor Robredo even noted in his message, is the gender imbalance in favor of women; by my count, only 9 of the 45 CYOs and one of the 12-person city council, are male. Quite expectedly, the city youth mayor, Nhel Russelle Monroy, is also a woman.

The list also included Rhea Jane Viñas, a marketing management student of Ateneo de Naga University, who was selected as city youth planning and development coordinator. She and her colleagues will serve for the duration of the annual City Youth Month, which Executive Order No. 2006-007 declared to cover the period from April 15-May 15.

Gil de la Torre, acting secretary to the Sangguniang Panlungsod who sat in the panel that interviewed Rhea Jane and the 44 other successful examinees, said the CYOs actually serve for a much longer period: their full term lasts for a year, and their stay at city hall reaches up to 45 days, during which time they receive an allowance equivalent to a city hall casual employee.

During this period, according to the EO, "youth officials will be given the opportunity to handle the operations of the city government except in areas which are policy determining or requiring monetary disbursements."

In a memo issued by Frank Mendoza, city administrator, all department heads and chiefs of offices were directed to ensure that their counterpart city youth official co-signs all official documents issued by their unit.

This program has been fairly successful, particularly in attracting the youth's interest in government. Four of its alumni joined the City Hall and eventually became department heads: David Casper Nathan Sergio, former Urban Poor Affairs Office (UPAO) chief and secretary to the mayor; Florencio Mongoso, Jr., Metro PESO chief, and a TOYM and Dangal ng Bayan awardee; Rolando Campillos, incumbent UPAO chief who took over when Nathan was kicked upstairs; and Joselito del Rosario, Public Safety Office (PSO) chief.

Sergio, in fact, is running for a seat in the City Council, on the strength of his being a former city youth mayor, student leader at the Ateneo, and architect of the award-winning "Kaantabay sa Kauswagan" program.

The selection process goes through two phases: a written exam, the top 45 of which will qualify for an interview with the designated City Youth Committee. This year, the committee was chaired by Allen Reondanga, the SK representative to the city council. Ranking is determined by combining scores in the exam and interview phases. The highest ranking applicants take the counterpart of the city's elected officials, down to the department heads, office chiefs and four officials of the Naga City People's Council.

This underrated, long-running program is perhaps one of the reasons why the Naga City Hall still attracts the more public service oriented young people from among the youth.


16 April 2007

A pretty quick BIR moment

I WAS pleasantly surprised with how fast I took me to file my income tax return at the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) district office, which is about a hundred meters away from city hall. In about 15 minutes or so, it was all over, notwithstanding the fact that today is the last filing day.

Ordinarily, one has to contend with the so-Filipino habit of doing everything at the last minute, which easily translates into hundreds of warm bodies that can be packed like sardines in that BIR office.

My experience last year was just like that, when I had to wait for more than an hour and patiently suffer through selfish efforts of some filers to get ahead of the line, no thanks to callous people who accommodates hand-ins from others. Today, there were none of those, as clients patiently waited for their turn.

The BIR staff were also very professional. The management, I think, put up more people and tables in strategic locations -- particularly at the city center -- which will accommodate the rush of deadline-beating taxpayers. It should explain why the volume early this afternoon was visibly thinner than last year's.

Now, if only the BIR will start allowing filing of electronic ITRs in the coming years; that certainly will be more convenient, particularly for 'wired' individuals like myself.


If public office were just today's phone line

IN NOVEMBER 1992, then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressed the premier gathering of Philippine businessmen, including newly elected President Fidel V. Ramos, and quipped that "98 percent of Filipinos are waiting for a phone line, and the other two percent are waiting for a dial tone."

That incident, I think, provided FVR the impetus to liberalize the telecommunications industry, so that by 2002, there was already a glut in the fixed line business. A landline connection became accessible, even for peripheral communities like Grandview which is 9 kms away from the city center, and my Sagrada hometown before that, which is 4 kms away from the Pili poblacion.

The rise of wireless telephony exacerbated the woes of fixed line operators like BayanTel, but greatly benefited the Filipino consumer. Last December, penetration rate reached 45% -- largely unexpected when Manny Pangilinan took over PLDT and Smart about three years back; the conventional thinking then was that 35% or thereabouts represents the upper limit of the Philippine market.

Now, imagine if the same singlemindedness were trained on the constitutional provision prohibiting political dynasties, in the process leveling the playing field and lowering the barriers to public office. Do you think it will encourage greater interest in politics, which Manolo feared is losing out to the so-called "cult of the market"?

It will not be the cure-all magic bullet, but I think it is a necessary first step towards Randy David's proposal for campaign finance reform -- which is even more bloody controversial -- and Urbano de la Cruz's redesign of our democracy that should eventually tie in the loose ends.

Popular opinion is against the continuing proliferation of political dynasties, as my previous post indicated. The intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution is clear for all to see; the modernistic aspiration is self-evident in that particular provision.

The problem is they equivocated and left the definition of what a political dynasty is, and its enabling law, to Congress which is dominated by conservative dynasts. It is just like mandating that having a progressive telecommunications system connecting every nook and cranny of the archipelago is in the national interest, yet maintaining the old PLDT's monopolistic stranglehold on the industry.

Jose Sison's column today in the Philippine Star puts Camarines Sur -- with five competing families: the Houses of Andaya (1st district), Roco and Villafuerte (2nd district + provincial capitol), Fuentebella (3rd district) and Alfelor (4th district) -- at a better footing compared to other provinces where a single clan has dominated public life for many generations.

But that is far from reassuring: The internecine conflict within the House of Villafuerte (LRV vs. nephew Jesse Robredo, and lately LRV vs. son LRay) is currently providing a semblance of free-market competition that cuts both ways: on the one hand, it has blessed Naga with a modernistic leader in Robredo; but on the other, it has resulted in opportunity costs arising from the lack of critical collaboration between the city and the provincial governments (which I will discuss in a future post).

But who knows what the future will hold, with status quo being maintained by an increasingly conservative, traditional Congress that, by its nature, cannot be expected to go up against its members' vested interest?

The disillusioned local elite will continue to tune out, opting to let the market, here but more and more outside local shores, fulfill their aspirations and the economic freedom they bring. The poor, on the other hand, powerless but not stupid, will continue their triennial raid on state resources, and the politicians' electoral kitty fattened by illicit money, because that is the time they -- and their vote -- are at their most valuable. The winning overlords will then make use of the interregnum to prepare for the next political wars.

Political economy can actually explain much of what is happening. Without a more level playing field, this vicious cycle will be difficult to break because our politics operates like inefficient natural monopolies.


15 April 2007

The 'bubwits' and Peñafrancia Resort

THE daughter, who lately began sounding like the feisty widow badgering the threatened judge, won out in the end. So yesterday morning, we motored to Peñafrancia Resort some four kilometers towards Mt. Isarog for a much-needed dip in the pool.

"We" did not include the two boys who not only had the advantage of an overnight swim at Nato beach during the Holy Week but are also preparing for the opening ceremonies of the summer basketball tournament in Grandview later in the day.

The resort, which had long been a fixture in Naga since my childhood, has two new big pools, both designed for kids and teenagers -- and of course, adults who can't swim:) They were tiled differently so that one had a continuously flowing blue Pacific waters, the other green Mediterranean.

They are surrounded by strategically located cottages accessible by car (particularly the ones overlooking the pools), so that one can park it just beside your chosen cottage. Entrance is P80 for adults, P50 for children above 3 years old; cottage rental is P200 (negotiable).

The hands-down scene-stealer yesterday were my two "bubwits," which is how we call Patricia Anne aka Nokie and Ophelia Bianca aka Buddy. The two pictures here give you an idea why, and how refreshing cool waters of a mountain resort can be in the hottest of recent summers.


14 April 2007

'Somos' comes back to Naga

YESTERDAY, as I was about to leave the office, I got a text from Bobby Ursua, our School Board pointman: "Gud pm. Iriga na ako." It was a short message from Ruby Abundabar, former officer-in-charge of the Naga Division of City Schools, confirming she had just been transferred to nearby Iriga City.

This is what Winnie Monsod wrote about towards the end of her Inquirer column this morning. Which Mayor Robredo complained about in this letter to Civil Service chair Karina Constantino-David. Apparently to no avail now, as Education Secretary Jesli Lapus was reported to have washed his hands on the matter, as he did in the aborted Bicol multimedia computer purchase.

What worries me is the scenario painted by Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado, who went on air yesterday morning to denounce what he believes as a brewing attempt by the camp of Rep. Luis R. Villafuerte to manipulate results of the upcoming local elections in Naga. Abundabar's transfer, according to Bordado, is confirmation that a 'grand design' is coming to fruition.

This portion of Monsod's column is central to the effort: "The division superintendent is, by the way, a member of the board of canvassers, where wholesale cheating can take place."

At the city level, the board of canvassers is defined under Section 221(b) of the Omnibus Election Code:

City board of canvassers - the city board of canvassers shall be composed of the city election registrar or a lawyer of the Commission, as chairman, the city fiscal and the city superintendent of schools, and one representative from each of the ruling party and the dominant opposition political party entitled to be represented, as members.
Ordinarily, presumption of regularity can be accorded to public officials as representatives of their own institutions. But it is difficult to do so these days, with this newest political machination and a city fiscal who was a Villafuerte partisan before his appointment to the DOJ, both taking place under a regime that has "plumbed the depths of cynicism," as John Nery calls it. With a distrusted Comelec yet to settle the issue of the dominant opposition party, it is even probable that the Robredo administration (allied with the Liberal Party-Drilon wing) might end up unrepresented at all in the board of canvassers.

These give credence to the so-called reprise of the 1980 election results for the Naga mayoralty, which is being whispered hereabouts. In that election, former congressman and Naga city mayor Ramon Felipe, Jr. (already a well-known national figure who would later chair the first Comelec after EDSA 1986) shockingly lost to then Vice Mayor Carlos del Castillo. That infamous incident happened at the height of Martial Law, when LRV was Marcos's trade and industry minister.

His current position as Kampi kingpin and putative House Speaker of the next congress approximates that zenith of Villafuerte's continuing political influence, his looming large in Camarines Sur politics. It appears "somos," as Inquirer columnist Manolo Quezon III calls the new golden rule -- he who has the gold makes the rules -- is back in Naga with a bang.


13 April 2007

Two quick notes on the CCCom briefer

THAT RATHER staid preliminary meeting called by the Caceres Commission on Communications (CCCom) at the Basilica yesterday afternoon spun a number of interesting sub-plots that would make for good storylines.

As a backgrounder, the CCCom has been conducting a series of Political Fora for the past four elections now, Danny de Leon said in his briefer. For the May 14 elections, there are three on sked, all of which will be held at the Plaza Quezon. The program proper starts at 7pm, with full media coverage spanning not more than three hours:

  • Congressional candidates for the 1st and 4th districts: Friday, April 20
  • Congressional candidates for the 2nd and 3rd districts: Saturday, April 21
  • Candidates for Camarines Sur governor and Naga City mayor: Friday, April 27.
The following only dawned to me this morning after I connected some dots:

1. Will Dato Arroyo show up? I will not be surprised if he doesn't. His representative, lawyer J. Agapito Tria II (who used to be NIA assistant administrator for administrative services, but apparently not anymore), begun laying "the predicate yesterday," to borrow the language of former Chief Justice Hilario Davide.

"Will you allow a representative to speak on behalf of a candidate: a proxy in other words?" he asked. Nope, CCCom said.

"What if a candidate really wants to attend, but is prevented from doing so for some reason, will it be OK if the moderator just reads his speech?"

"It is very possible in Dato's case, especially with the FG's medical condition," Doming Alarkon, representing 2nd District congressman Luis R. Villafuerte, chimed in.

The CCCom did not answer categorically. Danny de Leon, for one, thinks it is not acceptable -- who will answer on the candidate's behalf if the public raises questions about the speech? Fr. Louie Occiano said they will soon come up with a definitive decision. As I left, I saw Pito Tria in huddle Fr. Wilmer who is also a Tria, one of the moderators for the fora, apparently arguing his case.

We will have an idea by the afternoon of Wednesday, April 18, as the deadline for confirmation of participation by all invited candidates was set for 12 noon of the same day.

2. Character will be an issue. Especially how Gov. LRay Villafuerte relates to his father, which remains a primetime news stuff. The third general guideline of the fora states
The fora will strictly focus on relevant issues and concerns only. Character and personal assault, directly or through insinuation, are unacceptable.
The most active participant in the briefer -- an articulate Treo-toting guy whose name I did not get, but I have a feeling was there to represent former Tourism Secretary Eduardo Pilapil, who was put up by the elder Villafuerte to run against his son -- took issue with this guideline, considering that the second of three suggested items for each candidate's presentation dwells on personal integrity. (The others are competence and commitment to the common good.)

In the end, I think he got his way: the CCCom greenlighted a more acceptable rephrasing of his original loaded question, both of which centers on how a son treats his father. Final say, however, rests on a "panel of interrogators," whose composition will only be announced during every forum; they will screen all incoming questions to ensure they are within bounds of the CCCom guidelines.


12 April 2007

What I will do if I had DepEd's P150 million

AT THE MIDDLE of the election season, this story just breaks my heart. The lead gives it all away, but I will subtitle it as "DepEd-Bicol's equivalent of DPWH-Cebu's street lamps":

Malacañang has released P150 million to the Department of Education office in the Bicol region for the procurement of 600 desktop computers, along with educational compact discs, for elementary and high school students at a cost of P250,000 per set, according to sources at the DepEd.
Now, if I were DepEd-Bicol Regional Director Dominador Layon, what can I do if the P150 million suddenly falls on my lap? Assuming the transaction is straightforward and free from shenanigans, it can fund any of the following:
  • 9,585 entry-level PCs at P15,650 each. This is what the Naga City School Board paid All-Electronics for the computer acquisition it made for the just concluded school year. That will allow each of the 3,117 public elementary schools in the region to have 3 computer sets each, with 18 units to spare for each of the 13 schools division offices comprising Bicol. The datasets on public elementary schools in the country can be accessed here.
  • 20,833 units of the US$150-One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) notebook PCs at P7,200 each. These will allow all public elementary schools in Bicol to get six units each -- one per grade level. In addition, it will make available 164 additional units for each of the 13 divisions, allowing them to put up three pilot classes (at 55 pupils per class) where every child will have one laptop each for his use.
  • Two 29" TV sets and free Knowledge Channel connection to all public elementary schools in Bicol. The basic assumption is each connection costs US$50 (or P24,000 per set), based on the pricing structure here.
But then again, the Naga City School Board is not DepEd-Bicol, and the Robredo administration on top of our city hall is not President Gloria Arroyo's regime.


Asuncion's bleeding hearts

SAVE for a much earlier post which attracted 17 comments, 14 of which were spam, my most commented entry here already had 13, thanks to two persistent, anonymous commenters whose hearts, it seems, bleed for the fate that befell sacked Court of Appeals justice John Elvi Asuncion.

"Friend of a concerned court employee" picks bones with the legal aspect of the Supreme Court decision dismissing Asuncion for delayed action on pending cases, gross ignorance of the law, and manifesting undue interest in the PNB case.

"Anonymous," on the other hand, finds Asuncion's dismissal totally unfair, claiming half of the judges and magistrates in our courts are as guilty as he is, and opines that politics is behind it.

Both found my basic argument -- that if Asuncion truly feels he has been wronged, he should come clean and help in cleansing our courts by fingering his other equally guilty colleagues in the judiciary -- wanting, accusing me of being prejudiced on this case.

In the Planet Naga aggregator of the city government, a related news item on Asuncion earned another anonymous comment, asking whether it "means the city of Naga holds grudges."

This compelled me to read the SC court decision again, and visualize the events it described, hoping to find arguments or grounds that will support the position of my two persistent commenters. I am not a lawyer, but I think I can understand English well enough to make an informed, less biased assessment. (I remember Dean Bocobo writing something about this point on language and the law when the Panganiban Court was about to release its decision on E0 464.)

Unfortunately for them, the more I reread that decision, the more I am convinced that the High Court did the right thing. I may be prejudiced as a Naga resident and someone who works for the city government, but I already factored that in. And I still came to the same conclusion. Maybe it will help if "Friend" and "Anonymous" will also reread that decision with a more open mind and lesser bias for Asuncion.


11 April 2007

But only if we really try

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

ACCORDING to the 2006 report of the Department of Tourism, for the first time in years, Naga and Camarines Sur topped Legazpi City and Albay in terms of tourist arrivals (about 259,000 vs. 133,000), drawing in twice as more tourists as the erstwhile top regional destination.

What is lost in the above data is the remarkable fact that foreign travelers to this part of the region increased by 505%, from only around 4,300 in 2005 to about 26,000 last year. It also meant that in 2006, one of every 10 tourists who visited Camarines Sur came from abroad; the previous year, only it was only 3 of every hundred.

Why am I mentioning all these? Because according to former NEDA director general, now Ateneo de Manila professor and Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito, “the easiest and fastest way to create the additional jobs we so direly need is to further boost tourism in the country.”

Conventional theory requires the presence of the so-called four As – access, assets, accommodation, and activities or events – for tourism to take off. In a previous column, I already touched on access, pointing out that we are losing a big chunk of the market by default, owing to the Naga Airport’s short runway that cannot accommodate the new Airbus jets of Cebu Pacific Air, the country’s premier low-cost carrier.

Let me now focus on accommodation. To be sure, the city has fine hotels, like Villa Caceres, which is gearing up for yet another expansion. Fresh from their success with Avenue Square, the FLC Group is building its own 50-room hotel just behind their crowd-drawing property in the vibrant Magsaysay Strip that will be accessible from both Magsaysay Avenue and Balatas Road.

But what our local hotel operators are missing -- and this is true with practically all secondary urban centers in the country -- is the sea-change in the travel industry that is being powered by the Internet. Riding the coat-tails of eTicketing that has redefined how airlines fill their seats – by selling them directly to consumers – online hotel reservation services have empowered the individual, bypassing intermediaries like your friendly travel agents.

This comment by Romulo, a Pinoy who is now based in Europe, is typical:

I travel a lot in Europe and had always used the internet with all my bookings (to) get the best prices there could ever be. And choices that are a year advance so you can plan holidays a year ahead. Foreign nationals, especially Europeans, love to travel (to) sunny places but they plan things so far in advance. If the Philippines wants to bring in the money from tourist, travel companies based (there) should think about this.
In December 2004, our six-man study team -- consisting of then DepEd superintendent Nenita Ramos, Councilor Miles Raquid-Arroyo, Camarines Sur National High School principal Nely Abad, and my city hall colleagues Tess Zapata and Bob Ursua -- experienced the convenience first-hand. Armed with a credit card, internet savvy and a sense of adventure, we crisscrossed continental America on board the low-cost carrier JetBlue, starting from Long Beach, California and back, with stops in Oakland, New York and Washington D.C.. In every step of the way, we already knew our seat assignments in each flight, and had a hotel room waiting for us at every stop, even before we left Manila for the Los Angeles International Airport.

Now, imagine if you are a foreign national who wants to visit Naga to learn from its participative governance firsthand (like the 20-odd Canadian graduate students we are expecting next month), or a balikbayan wanting to have fun at the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex, and you have the same online travel planning capability that has been the standard elsewhere for many years now. Wouldn't you feel empowered and even more encouraged to push on with the planned trip, precisely because you have the first option to fix things online? And just imagine how many more travelers it can add to the record number of foreign visitors we attracted last year.

There are constraints, of course, to these types of transactions and to Philippine e-commerce in general, and the most recent issue of the PIDS Development Research News -- available here -- details them very well. The top reason why businesses won't try it -- cited by 45% of all respondents -- is their being not listed in an e-commerce portal or website.

But every time I make my hotel booking in Manila via AsiaTravel.com, and see that it covers distant places like Bacolod, Laoag, La Union, Butuan, and even Cotabato and Zamboanga far down south makes me certain putting Naga in the list is not an impossible dream. But only if our local hoteliers were to really try.


Every Juan can now fly, but not rebook online

FROM the GMANews website, there's an interesting blog entry by Ruben Canlas Jr. comparing the eTicketing services of Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific Air (CPA). No surprise there: CPA again trumps PAL in this department, highlighting the newfound superiority of the Gokongweis over Lucio Tan in the passenger aviation business.

What struck me though is this comment by Romulo, a Pinoy now living in Europe, especially the following money question, which he wants answered:

"How come the Philippines is not that known when the rest of the region is competing heavily in the tourist industry?"
Having stayed in the UK for a year, I can vouch for the same observation. For instance, there's this popular travel company -- STA Travel -- that specializes in providing for the needs of students. Aside from the de rigueur online presence, it regularly publishes a glossy travel guide covering popular destinations all over the world, especially during school breaks. An accompanying world map highlights most of Southeast Asia in brilliant colors, but grays out the Philippines. It made my heart sink.

Romulo's experience in arranging travel to the Philippines, I think, has part of the answer. While it is good that CPA, PAL and South East Asian Airlines (SEAir) already offer online booking and eTicketing services, the other leading carriers -- Air Philippines and Asian Spirit -- have yet to do so. To avail of their services, you will still need to go through the hassles of contacting a travel agent.

Unfortunately, even CPA and PAL's industry-leading eTicketing service is still short of international standards. Why? Because if your travel plan changes (and in all probability, it will), prompting the need to rebook your ticket, you cannot effect the change online. At best, you will have to call a telephone number (and go through the hassle of waiting on queue if others called in ahead of you, and being subjected to boring company spam), talk to a customer service rep, and then dispose of your business.

Compare that with Southwest, Ryanair and JetBlue (particularly the last two, with which I have had a pleasant first-hand experience) and you will see why to me, CPA and PAL's online services are still wanting. When I went through the hassle of rebooking my first CPA eTicket late last year -- still unused, with my everchanging travel plans -- I suggested this to the lady CSR. I even remember emailing the same to the company email add. I am still waiting.

If you want an idea how important the online revolution is, and the potential it represents, check out Wikipedia's entry on Southwest, the little Texan airline that started it all. The following tidbit is particularly enlightening:
southwest.com is the number one airline web site for online revenue according to PhoCusWright. Nielsen/Netratings also reports that southwest.com is the largest airline site in terms of unique visitors. In 2006, 70 percent of flight bookings and 73 percent of revenue was generated from bookings on southwest.com. (Italics mine)
If eTicketing in the Philippines is still not up to par, we haven't even talked about hotels yet, especially for the secondary provincial destinations that include Naga and Legazpi. But I will, for my Vox Bikol column this week.


10 April 2007

Beating the summer heat on a shoestring budget

WITH MY mother-in-law cooling her heels in Oas, with six boisterous kids constantly complaining how hot it is in Pacol, and a daughter looking for excuse to go swimming again -- with her Grandview friends across the street -- what's a harassed father to do?

Improvise, aside from maintaining a Jobian patience and a cheerful disposition in the toughest of situations. Just today, I tried the following with great success:

1. Cool melon-flavored milk. I hated milk when I was a kid. I think it was because my mother put in a little too much water during those difficult days of my childhood, diluting the milky flavor in the process. My kids too don't like it plain, except of course my last three who consume about a liter between them every night.

But put in ripe orange melon -- known as cantaloupe elsewhere -- and the situation changes. My standard mix, which I did again for breakfast, consists of one-half can of 370 ml evap, a quarter of diced melon, and enough water to fill to the brim the one-liter Nestea shaker. Add sugar and sweeten to taste, and voila! -- a milk drink everybody loves!

Always make sure there's a bowl of cracked ice on standby; they can push up the resulting glasses above six, just like how it is done in Jollibee or McDo, allowing older, bigger kids another serving.

2. Good old iced tea. For our lunch, I used that shaker this time to prepare iced tea, using a third of the 200-gram Lipton Honeymansi instead of Nestea. The trick is to add calamansi juice to the mix (squeezed from between 5-7 fruits), and enough sugar sweetener.

Together with the bowl of cracked ice (a must! to give justice to the name), I figure this concoction costed me less than P20, half of what I would have spent on a 1.5-liter Pepsi.

3. Mango-flavored milk. When I was preparing dinner, I was hoping to do another serving of what we had for breakfast, remembering quite clearly that there was still a quarter of the fruit left in the fridge. Unfortunately, Pep -- my melon-loving daughter -- already finished it for snack during the day. What I had was a kilo of ripe mangoes I bought at the corner of Penafrancia and Magsaysay on the way home, six pieces for P38.50.

So what the heck! Why don't I try a mango-flavored milk this time around? And you know what? I'm happy I did because the result was quite beyond expectation: a delicious mangoes-and-cream milk drink. The procedure was same as No. 1, except you use one-and-a-half of diced mangoes instead of one-quarter melon.

Together with bathing twice, one in the morning and another before bedtime, these affordable quenchers make the super-hot summer in Pacol much more tolerable.


Late suggested readings

THE following are week late, but I am putting them forward just the same as suggested readings.

1. I did not realize Randy David was Ateneo de Naga University's commencement speaker last March 23 until I read his column last Sunday. (That's what you get for being a non-Atenean, which can cut both ways.) But I had a feeling his address, which tackled a subject close to home -- the Filipino family -- can be found at the Ateneo website, and it indeed is.

I think whenever this modern-day Filipino prophet speaks, we ought to pause and listen.

2. Want to know how things really are at the local level? Then check out this fine piece by Cristina Montiel and Agustin Rodriquez, which the PCIJ website currently banners as its lead article. The following paragraph, I think, sums up the predicament of elected local officials:

Rather than imagining and realizing the development possibilities of their localities, local government officials are caught in a Sisyphusian task. On one hand, they are hard-pressed to access resources for projects that demonstrate their capacity to deliver but do not effectively respond to the problem of poverty. On the other hand, they are politically obliged to mobilize partisan, fickle, and temporary support for higher-level officials. If they fail to deliver on either side, they lose both sides. Given the immensity of the task, who has time to govern -- much less govern with dynamism and creativity?
3. I only found out that Vic Nierva aka Makuapo ni Handiong has joined Vox Bikol's stable of columnists when its pre-Lenten issue came out a week ago. This should give Vox one of the deepest benches among local papers insofar as the op-ed page is concerned. But his second foray is a pleasant stunner, giving us an insider's take into the Abang Mabulo-Dato Arroyo tussle.

Vic, who teaches literature at UP and has recently spent time translating English poems into Bikol in his blog, should honestly consider coming out with an English translation of that piece this time around.

And Vox Bikol should really, really make its online presence felt pronto.


09 April 2007

Pigs, Photoshop and politics

ONE OF the better, truth-telling Hollywood movies I saw over the weekend is Jason Reitman's Thank You For Not Smoking, headlined by a powerful cast that included Aaron Eckhart, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Rob Lowe, Katie Holmes and Maria Bello.

It's been lying there unplayed in my hard disk for some months now, courtesy of my brother Dennis aka Patty; my other brother Nelson aka Macky's raving endorsement finally spurred me to see it, and Ezekiel too when his Playstation 2 finally gave up. It was 90 minutes truly well spent.

This particular exchange during the Senate committee hearing scene between the anti-smoking Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (played by Macy), who proposes to slap the skulls-and-crossbone logo -- indicating poison -- on every cigarette pack, and his resource person Dr. Meisenbach is telling:

Sen. Finistirre: Why don't we just use words as we currently do? Something that describes the dangers of cigarette smoking?

Dr. Meisenbach: Well, the American public is not affected by masthead anymore. They need images. We've done studies which show that consumers react up to 80% more to imagery rather than words. The stats are there.
The way the ongoing electoral campaigns are shaping, not only did our politicians warm up to the idea, which marketing man Winston Marbella alluded to here, but some are indeed smarter than others when it comes to optimizing the visual media. In the words of Giancarlo Giannini's Rene Mathis, the Montenegro-based British agent in Casino Royale, "It's amazing what you can do with Photoshop these days, isn't it?

Locally, the tarpaulin streamers of Camarines Sur Gov. LRay Villafuerte easily stand out above the rest; they're far better than the airbrushed Manny Villar or Ralph Recto we have dotting the local landscape. Not content on capitalizing on the bevy of movie stars that have started to descend into the P300-million Camarines Sur Watersports Complex -- which his father Luis, Sr. promises to level back to ground in case his bet Eduardo Pilapil wins over his prodigal son -- LRay has also effectively leveraged his moviestar visage, and more.

While LRay in the flesh is as brown as you and me, the LRay on his streamer boasts of an almost caucasian white skin -- certainly not because of Eskinol or the milk content of Dove, but digitally enhanced by Photoshop or its rival picture editors. From afar, it even has the feel of a 3D-animation character, not quite unlike Cloud from the Final Fantasy series.

His father, while definitely outdone by his son in this department, has also taken advantage of what digital technology can offer. His posters and calendars feature an LRV that has a bright, shining and definitely younger face. If the House Speakership were to be decided on looks alone, he will soundly give JDV a beating.

Compare that with the conservative maroon motif of the F-100 tarpaulins that the Fuentebellas have set up all throughout the stretch of the road to Partido, starting from Anayan down to Nato where we recently went swimming, and the difference cannot be starker. No wonder, as Maryanne Moll pointed out in her comment to a recent post, the Villafuertes continue to loom large in the province.

But what takes the cake, to my mind, is the picture above, which is taken a few meters from LRay's walled abode along Maharlika Highway, about a kilometer from the Provincial Capitol. If Pigrolac ends up getting some party-list votes come May 14, I will not be surprised if these adverts are responsible.

If at all, they will not surely be sufficient to meet the minimum threshhold, not to mention the Comelec approval that Ladlad and other wannabe partylist groups failed to muster. Yet come to think about it, if Pigrolac becomes the default partylist for pigs, they will be in good company in the Lower House ruled by crocs.


07 April 2007

300 and Hollywood's entertaining lies

JUST finished my second serving of the controversial 300, which turns out to be the film version of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same title, which, in turn, is loosely based on the heroic stand of Spartan King Leonidas and his band of 300 warriors -- aided by more than 7,000 contingents from other Greek city-states -- against the invading Persian hordes of Xerxes.

The whole ruckus, abetted by the understandable outrage expressed by Iranians (who descended from the Persian empire of old) on how Zach Snyder's movie demonizes them and their heritage, stems from a misconception that 300 will do justice to history, the way its 1962 version, The 300 Spartans, at least tried to do. I had that expectation when I looked forward to this modern retelling, having seen that old movie many years back when Betamax was still king.

Of course, if you didn't know Frank Miller at all, it is very easy to fall into this trap. But after seeing 300 and Sin City, that black-and-white Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba et al-starrer, you will understand where Miller and Snyder is coming from. What they have done represents the convergence of good old moviemaking and videogaming, creating a world of make-believe that puts very little value on historical truths in the name of entertainment.

Check out this review from Rolling Stones, especially the 33 comments that came after, and you will see this point. Many of those who commented, and were rated useful by viewers, emphasized the computer-generated slam-bang action and their pure entertainment value, advising the few who raised valid points about historicity to see History channel instead. Why, even a Cambridge professor on Greek history who wrote a book on the Battle of Thermopylae, enjoyed 300, its spotty factual content notwithstanding. Never mind if the movie is actually one big Western propaganda that evokes the memories of Leni Riefenstahl.

While looking for Filipino movie reviews, I also chanced upon Tutubi's comment on Wyzemoro's entry on 300, leading me to his expanded take on the similarity between Leonidas and his band's heroism and that of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar on Tirad Pass. It was an important point that needs emphasizing and exploring, especially if you see it in the light of this entry by Torn and Frayed that questions, by way of the late National Artist Nick Joaquin, our common knowledge about the Filipino boy general's defense of Pasong Tirad.

I did not realize that Hollywood came up with its own take on Goyo's martyrdom, but it seems a movie was made based largely on a Chicago Tribune reporter's account of that event. But then again, it appears another instance of Hollywood's endless stream of entertaining lies that should always be taken with a grain of salt. Like the plausibility of Iran's two-week capture of 15 British sailors as a way of getting back at the English accent that dominates the movie currently demonizing them, which the world apparently loves.


06 April 2007

On names and nicknames

YESTERDAY afternoon, as has been our custom whenever the situation allows, we sent off my mother-in-law Corazon to her younger sister Pura and husband Miguel in their hometown in Tobog, Oas, Albay. We can afford to as the long holiday allows us to look after our kids ourselves for the whole day, freeing Mama from the formidable job of (grand)parenting them when we are at work.

The trip to Oas, our first after Reming, also marked the first time we brought Emilia Mikaela -- now more than three months old -- to our relatives, who I fondly call "the Tobognons." Only the five girls joined us, as their two elder brothers opted to stay in "Salaglada," which is how Budi called my hometown, Sagrada, Pili, when he was just learning to speak. The name stuck ever since.

Which highlights our family's penchant -- me, in particular -- to append unusual names to everyone in the family, some out of affection and the others for teasing, that would in time stick.

Mikaela, for instance, is variously called "Uling" (courtesy of her Lola Oas, who thought she was a tad darker than her siblings), "Buding" (mine, owing to her chubbiness and the round face that reminded me of Nanette Inventor's Doña Buding), and "Budina" (her mom's, who thinks she is our "babaeng Budi".)

Budi, of course, is Jack Ryan, called as such -- by me, I think -- after Lynn began calling Ezekiel "EK," which I quickly converted into Boke. If his older brother had a nickname, Jack too must have his own, and thus Budi was born.

I think Jack has grown to like his Indonesian-sounding nickname, so much so his Grandview friends and classmates call him as such. And it has brought forth a number of variants, depending on one's mood: Jack responds to such names as Budz when I am playful; Budino when I am angry; Budjack when his younger sisters are mad; or Adobo when he gets his mom's goat.

And it's not only our children. My brother Nelson, for instance, is more popularly known as Macky in Sagrada; our youngest Dennis is Patty. I can go on and on, but I won't; suffice it to say that behind every unusual or amusing nickname is a story worth telling to one's children and grandchildren when the time comes.

Our "Buding," three months and a week later.


04 April 2007

Staring poverty in the face

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

THE last working day for government agencies had me shuttling by FilCab van for what is supposed to be a quick trip to Legazpi. An unexpected power outage in the land of Mayon and the Tiwi Geothermal Plant stretched it by at least three hours.

As a result, my plan to get back to the office before 12 noon did not come to pass, forcing me to munch on a small Tortillos pouch, a handful of dried puto and a bottle of ice tea in what passed for lunch inside another van that would take me back to Naga.

While I was doing so, a crippled man in his early 40s suddenly popped in and earnestly began begging. “Puedi tabi manoy, manay makiolay nin dikit na tabang?” he repeatedly asked everyone inside the van, the frequency increasing with every passing moment that silence greeted his pleadings. I was not alone in pretending we did not hear him, as if he did not exist, choosing instead to look the other way, blankly staring into space.

But the more he was ignored, the more persistent he became. Moments later, after the van’s door closed and reopened again to accommodate a new passenger in the backseat, he began to directly address the lady seated to my right and later me. “Ika tabi ma’am, sir, pueding makiolay nin dikit na tabang?”

That episode kept playing back on my mind over and over again. It reminded me of a similar incident at City Hall, where a stocky woman in her 40s, from whom I would buy delectable steamed puto with bukayo fillings, suddenly appeared at our School Board office one afternoon.

Instantly, I knew it was for a different reason. “Did I somehow forget to pay the puto I got from you?” I asked her, as there were times I was out of cash and she would still sell me her wares on credit. No, she said; but can I give her another job as the putomaker from whom she would get her goods wholesale suddenly closed shop? Politely, I told her my work is not to give jobs to people, and referred her to the Metro PESO office which is just outside and from which the School Board unit only shares our small space.

In situations like these -- when poverty stares you in the face -- everything you learned in school and from books you have read, including the theories why poverty and depravation exist, start flying out of the window, seemingly inadequate in explaining why life must remain miserable for vulnerable segments of society when man has made tremendous advances in science and technology.

Management theory, for one, advises us to avoid owning other people’s problems because we might end up unnecessarily bearing a burden that to these people is no burden at all. Modern theories on poverty put the blame on existing societal structures that prevent people from fully realizing their capabilities. Free marketeers argue it is because of market failure, especially the market is not as free as it should be. Politicians point their fingers on the system, proposing instead a different one, which is claimed to have brought progress and prosperity elsewhere, as the “magic pill” that will solve all our problems.

But clearly, something remains amiss, and episodes that force you to stare poverty in the face serve as a grim reminder that it is a fact of life for many of our fellowmen, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. And being so inured to this evil makes us fail to consider the possibility that the solution to this problem does not really lie in our hands, but in somebody far greater than us.


03 April 2007

Tearing down the barriers to blogging

A FIRESTORM of sorts erupted in the aftermath of the first-ever Philippine Blog Awards, which Benito blogged about here and here. I don't know what triggered it, but Abe Olandres, the country's most popular blogger, came up with a quite defensive take on blogging, pronouncing that it is a privilege, not a right.

The money quote:

It is not for everybody. It is only for those who have internet access. It is only for those who have enough time on their hands. It is only for those who have something to write or say.
I don't know with you, but I will have to disagree with Yuga here, and agree with Benito -- for a slightly different reason.

Yes, the lack of internet access, time and facility for language are formidable barriers to blogging today. But their existence does not make blogging less of a right that every citizen should have the freedom to enjoy -- or decide not to enjoy at all.

In the same manner that simply because the Philippine blogging community today is a mostly elitist segment of society at large should deter ordinary citizens from wanting their voice to be heard and demanding their own seat on the table -- in cyberspace. To the contrary, it is our challenge to tear down these barriers, or at least die trying.

I am not sure if I will see it in my generation, but wouldn't it be nice, for instance, to see the school children in Naga's public schools blogging because it is how their English and Filipino compositions are to be graded, not through that antiquated theme book anymore?

In the same vein, the fact that decent education today remains inaccessible to a significant segment of the Philippine population -- particularly the poor, the constitutional provision notwithstanding -- does not make it less of a right and more of a privilege.

The day we begin to believe that it is so is the day we admit that aspiring for the good, old "
Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" is pointless, and that our modern Louis XVIs and Marie Antoinettes have the divine right to rule as kings.


02 April 2007

Revisiting political dynasties

ON PAGE 12 of Philippine Star today can be found 58 texted responses to the issue of whether political dynasties are good for the country; unfortunately, they are not available online.

The texters came from all over the Philippines, including a few who come from Bicol and one from Naga; with the increasing ubiquity of cell phones -- penetration rate for mobiles has reached 45% as of yearend 2006 -- I think they are a fairly accurate representation of popular sentiment in the country.

They also show how far detached our politicians are from ordinary citizens they are supposed to represent. It is another instance where Philippine theory -- expressed in the constitutional prohibition against political dynasties -- diverge wholly from practice, as Philip Alston noted in his damning report.

By my count, there are only three responses (5%) who look favorably at political dynasties, coming from places like Capiz (turf of the Roxases, led by incumbent senator and 2010 presidentiable Mar Roxas), Las Piñas (home to the Villar-Aguilar combine, headlined by Senate President and reelectionist Manny Villar, who is also expected to contest the presidency); and Cabanatuan (where the Josons have lorded it over since the birth of the republic). The rest (95%) are overwhelmingly against them.

Which means an argument can be made that political dynasties elsewhere failed to "make the country progressive," "deliver efficient and graft-free goods and services," and "get things done in the interest of taxpayers" -- the three reasons advanced in favor of this practice.

Yet here we are, having to contend with the pained reasoning of reelectionist Sen. Joker Arroyo who, in endorsing the candidacy of a Pampangueño carpetbagger for the 1st congressional district of Camarines Sur, sees nothing wrong with dynasties "because it is a fact of life tolerated all over the world." Later this week, he will headline a list of national bigwigs who will pay homage to the centennial of Fuentebellas of the Partido district, ironically being bandied about as "a tribute to the constituents"!

In the same article, former senator Tito Sotto rues the alleged difficulty of defining by law to what extent the ban should be made, trivializing it with the non-issue of political mistresses as a means of circumvention. Then there's this post which appeared in the Eleksyon 2007 section of the Inquirer, employing finely crafted legal goobledygook in justifying the practice.

But how about listening to the sentiment of ordinary cellphone-using folks who share the wisdom of the 1987 Constitution's intent to guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, precisely by banning these dynasties?

That's one of the things we haven't really tried yet.