August 2011

That sinking feeling

“Priest organizations around the country, both local and national, should realize that their membership has a serious image problem and undertake programs to improve it.” – Fr. Andrew Greeley

    Question: What is worse than Mideo Cruz sticking a penis on Christ’s face?

    Answer: A Catholic priest sticking his penis into an unwilling minor.

    Question: What could be worse than that?

    Answer: A bishop sticks his nose in and offers protection to the erring priest. (No pun intended.)

    She is seventeen, a parish scholar working as a housemaid in the priest’s convent. One day the priest called her to his convent room, told her he was fatigued, and asked for a massage. To her shock and horror, she ended up being massaged. Several days later the priest asked for another massage. He massaged her again. Eleven days later he asked for another massage. This time the young girl got more than a massage. And that’s probably what drove her to finally speak out, risking not only her scholarship but also the curse that the priest threatened to lay on her and her family if she ever told anyone about their massage sessions. Last week, the Agusan del Norte provincial prosecutor charged Fr. Raul Cabonce of the St. Anne Parish in Tubay, Agusan del Norte with two counts of rape, child abuse in relation to Republic Act 7610, and acts of lasciviousness.

    Cabonce denied the allegations and described them as “trumped-up” by his enemies. A judge will decide who is telling the truth. In the meantime what happens to Cabonce?

    He is taken into custody by his bishop, Juan de Dios Pueblos, and reassigned to another parish. Don’t be surprised, Pueblos is only following the Catholic Church’s standard operating procedure for sex scandals involving priests: keep it under wraps.

    When Bishop Crisostomo Yalung of Antipolo fathered a love-child with his mistress, the Church simply spirited him away to the US. The Church offered no explanation for his sudden departure other than that he left to do some “soul searching.”

    The Church acted in similar fashion with Bishop Teodoro Bacani who was reassigned twice following allegations of sexual misconduct, first from Paco to Caloocan and then from Caloocan to Novaliches where his secretary finally accused him of molesting her.

    Pueblos’ action comes as no surprise. What is surprising, however, is Bishop Oscar Cruz criticizing Pueblos for protecting Cabonce because Cruz was CBCP president when Bacani’s Paco parishioners wrote to him detailing Bacani’s activities. But Cruz simply dismissed the complaints saying, “I did not find the letter-senders credible.”

    Cruz is singing a different tune now. Did he change? Or is he just getting back at Pueblos?

    In 2008, Pueblos warned then CBCP president Bishop Angel Lagdameo that he “should be extra careful. He should distance himself from the influence of Archbishop Cruz. He should smell danger. If he does not listen to the majority, I think there would be moves to replace him as president of CBCP.”

    Pueblos, the Gloria diehard, tried to isolate Cruz, the anti-Gloria. Now it’s payback time. Cruz took a swipe at Pueblos for harboring the accused priest. He said Cabonce was “causing scandal and embarrassment to the Church” and added, “If the bishop concerned will not take this matter seriously, his other priests would learn the wrong way of being priests.”

    The thing is Pueblos does not see himself walking down the wrong path. He did not see that it was wrong to ask Gloria to gift him with an SUV for his birthday. He did not see that it was wrong to beg Gloria to lift the suspension of Sulpicio Lines, the owner of MV Princess of the Stars that set sail at the height of Typhoon Frank and sank with more than 800 passengers on board.

    The reason Pueblos gave for interceding on behalf of Sulpicio’s owners is classic, much better than the one he gave for the SUV.

    “I went to Malacañang the other day because of the request of the owner of the Sulpicio Lines…It’s the only livelihood they have. Kasi wala naming ibang source of income ang Go family kundi ang shipping industry so yun ang purpose ng paghingi ng tulong nila sa akin…They are also with the Oasis of Spirituality, so we have already a sort of relationship.”

    Pueblos knows corruption will not bring down the Church. Not in a corrupt country anyway. But sex scandals will. I hope he realizes that.

Aquino in China

Tomorrow, President Benigno Aquino 3rd would arrive in Beiing for his first state visit to the People’s Republic of China. It would be a second for an Aquino presidency to officially visit Asia’s undisputed economic, economic, and political juggernaut. Benigno 3rd’s mother, Former President Corazon Aquino had made a state visit to the Middle Kingdom in 1988 and met with modern China’s chief architect Chairman Deng Xiaoping. The China that the young Aquino would see would be an entirely different China that his mother saw in the ’80’s and the atmosphere that enveloped the state-visit of his mother would also be different from his.

In 1988, China was just on its early transition period of Deng’s opening-up and reform program. China is not the same China that we see today. Images and die-hard followers of a backward and ideologically driven state reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution era were still present. There was an uneasy tension between the leaders and members of the Communist Party of China and there was an intense desire among the young and the intellectuals to speed-up Deng’s program. In fact, a year after Corazon’s visit to China, the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre occurred.

How’s China a generation after Tiananmen? Numerous foreign media and governments’ vehemently criticized the Chinese government for suppressing the protesters. Western countries protested by sanctioning China and by suspending multilateral official loans to the Chinese government. China’s GDP dropped down to 3.8% in 1990, a steep fall from the 9.5% average year-on-year GDP growth since Chairman Deng’s modernization program was unveiled in December 1978.

But then China’s economy soon rebounded, and grew by an unprecedented 10% annually from 1991 to 2010, from Jiang Zemin’s administration to the current President Hu Jintao’s administration. In the past two decades, more than 400 million people were pulled out from poverty. Last year China officially surpassed Japan as the second largest economy next only to the United States. China has also become the biggest lender to the United States. From becoming the “world’s sleeping giant” to the “world’s global power” China has become one of the global leaders in any given human endeavour – from sports to science and technology to trade and industry.

How’s Philippines a generation after EDSA? In 1986 the world all over praised the Filipino people for its successful display of democracy and “people power”. Corazon Aquino successfully led the Filipino people in ousting the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Despite the international accolade, goodwill, and respect the Philippines had garnered in 1986, the subsequent years after the revolution would prove to be very challenging. The political instability that led to EDSA 1986 Revolution, new rounds of coup attempts, and catastrophic environmental events resulted in a very weak 3.4% GDP annual growth under the Corazon Aquino (1986-1992). Under Aquino’s successor Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), the Philippines gained a respectable growth rate of 3.8% year-on-year. Philippines’ 1997 growth rate of 7.2% was the highest for the past three decades. However, Philippines’ seeming economic flight was interrupted by the 1997 Asian economic meltdown and uneasy political transition.  Under Joseph Estrada’s short-lived and corruption-ridden presidency from 1998 to 2001 and politically unstable regime, the Philippines’ GDP growth blip to 2.9%. The year-on-year average of 5%GDP growth during the highly controversial and graft and corruption-ridden Gloria Arroyo administration from 2001-2010 are considerably better than the previous administrations GDP growth rate yet there has also been rising joblessness, persistently severe social inequality and growing numbers of poor people. The 2.6 million unemployed Filipinos in 1986 increased to 4.4 million in 2010. In 1985 the top 20% of families cornered 52.1% of total family income leaving the bottom 80% to divide the remaining 47.9% between them. In 2009, the net worth of the 25 richest Filipinos of P1,021 billion was equivalent to the combined annual income of the country’s 60 million poor. In 2009 six out of ten Filipinos were trying to survive on incomes of P82 or even much less per day for all their food and non-food expenses. Economic development in the Philippines after the 1986 EDSA Revolution has been so frustratingly slow. Last year, the only son of Corazon and Benigno Aquino II – Benigno Aquino III was voted overwhelmingly to the Philippine presidency amid high hopes that he would stamp out corruption in the government and somehow regain its lost glory.

In 1988, When Corazon Aquino made a state-visit to China, the relations between the two countries is almost in perfect harmony. In fact, many Chinese officials were so fond and impressed of Corazon, a Filipino with Chinese blood, visiting her ancestors hometown in Fujian and doling-out $15,000 to the locals. The only irritant that I can remember during that time is the prevailing sentiment among Mainland Chinese businessmen and investors that the Philippine government is giving more preferential treatment to Taiwanese Chinese. Another issue is the thinking among Filipinos that Beijing is still keeping in touch and giving aid to the Philippine-based communists. These two issues were successfully addressed during the high-level meeting of Aquino and Deng. Many Filipino-Chinese leaders have pointed out that it was Cory Aquino who gave the impetus for the further strengthening of the diplomatic relations between the two countries initiated in 1975 by Former President Ferdinand Marcos.

Fast forward to 2011, President Benigno Aquino 3rd is confronting irritants on two fronts with regards to its relation with China. On a state-to-state level, the issue about the Spratlys and the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea was not that thorny as compared today. Chairman Deng made it a non-issue to the Philippines. But now, it’s an entirely different Chinese game plan that the young Aquino ought to know how to play and win. And to tell you honestly, there is no easy way out of this debacale.

On another note, there was no issue on corrupted and unstable government deals such as the ZTE-NBN broad-band deal and the NorthRail project. It must be because of this that the Philippine-China trade seems to be deteriorating in the past few years. The value of trade between the two countries was already $9.71 billion in 2008 before it went down to $6.7 billion in 2009. I’ve heard that trade went well last year but what is glaring is that there is inconsistency on steady growth of mutual economic interaction. In addition, compare this to other ASEAN countries and you would notice how come we’re not taking advantage of China’s light speed growth and development.

On a people-to-people level, there was no sensational case as compared to the horrific August 2011 Luneta hostage-taking fiasco. Seen by the whole wide world. A yea after that incident, the image of the Philippines as a not-so-safe tourist destination has not yet been erased among many Chinese tourists. Based on my dealings with Chinese, people, my home country would be there last choice to go to in Southeast Asia. President Benigno Aquino3rd’s recent comment on the Luneta incident and connecting it with the Norway shooting was a remark that most Chinese find insensitive and inappropriate. No offense, but Aquino’s media team should brief him on Chinese mind-set and culture. Or better yet, spare the president from speaking on matters that his messaging team ought to do.

Amid the nice words sent by the diplomats of China and the Philippines concerning the high-level meeting of President Benigno Aquino 3rd and President Hu Jintao, the truth still remains. The relations between the two countries is shaky and unpredictable. It is far different from the Corazon Aquino-Deng Xiaoping time. China has come a long way since 1988 and Philippines seems to be have remained on the same era. I’m taking this from the speech President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s speaking engagement that I’ve attended. He said that the same social problems his father (Former Senator Benigno Aquino II) lamented is the same social problems he is now facing today as the president of the Philippines.

Despite all the challenges facing the Aquino presidency, may President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s first summit meeting with President Hu Jintao promote a people-centered partnership that will push for more trade, investment, media, culture, education and tourism exchanges between both sides and may it raise the level of Philippines – China bilateral relations to its highest level .

Mabuhay ang Republika ng Pilipinas at ang Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Zhongguo!

Image credit: Yahoo! News

FOI in Action

As a public servant in Australia, I have personally seen how the Freedom of Information operates in the real world.

In the department where I used to work, a lot of commercial feasibility studies were processed and kept “in confidence” due to the sensitive nature of such deals. A colleague of mine used to handle FOI requests a lot. He would sometimes show me the redacted documents he would photocopy and send back in response to them. Sometimes nearly the entire text of the document would be blocked out due to the private or confidential nature of its contents, and the fact that it was not necessary to know these details to understand the measures being considered.

We were asked to operate by a code of ethics which mandated us to treat such confidential information with utmost care. We were told to maintain correspondences including electronic mail whether internal or external to our department that might be subject of an FOI request. This created disk space issues for us. We had to exercise discretion in determining if these correspondences were important and sensitive enough to require archiving.

Many of the requests would come from the media, but some would come from ordinary citizens. “Joe Blogs” we would call them. There have been a number of instances recently that demonstrate how FOI requests can influence public debate over contentious issues of the day. One request in particular revealed the Federal government’s preparedness (or lack thereof) in dealing with refugees arriving by boat and the lack of appropriate resources deployed to manage the centers for holding them while their applications for asylum were processed.

In a world where the technology exists for the state or as in the case of the News of the World large multinational corporations to spy on its citizens or persons of interest, the FOI is a good tool to make the access of information less asymmetric. Several things are worth noting with regard to this right to information though.

First is that any Freedom of Information Act has to be followed by or work alongside a Privacy Act. As of now, the Philippines neither has one nor the other. There are certain pieces of legislation that protect the privacy of rape victims and of children who are subject to the judicial system or maintain bank secrecy of depositors even from the government (which in my view needs to be lifted for tax purposes). There is also a bill on data privacy that has been flagged as a priority by the president. Nothing other than a very general clause in the constitution however enshrines the rights of citizens to maintain their privacy.

In the US, the FOI was initially a tool for citizens to gain access to their own personal records. In Australia as in the US, an FOI request can be declined if it would lead to an unreasonable disclosure of someone else’s personal information, medical records for instance. These must be obtained with the consent of the individual. Section 8 clause c provides an exception to the FOI when,

the information pertains to the personal information of a third party natural person, unless it forms part of a public record, or the third party is or was an official of a government agency and the information relates to his or her public function.

Rather than dealing with the issue of privacy piecemeal through disparate contexts, there should be a law that applies more broadly this right and what it entails. Furthermore, government departments and businesses in general must be required to have policies covering confidentiality. A privacy act would simply make confidentiality the default setting but allow clients to waive their rights or give permission for their details to be shared under certain conditions.

Second, just as the right to privacy is not absolute, the right to information is not absolute either. The state can surveil or search a private citizen’s residence or belongings under certain provisions. Citizens should also be granted access to information subject to certain caveats as well. None of these rights to request or deny information should be abused however. Judicial review of cases is made possible by the draft bill to ensure that this is the case. An information commission would also help set the proper guidelines as in the case of Australia.

Third, aside from preserving the confidentiality of third party or commercially sensitive information, the FOI bill also exempts the state from disclosing information when there is a national security risk or commercial risk involved (as in foreign negotiations), when it involves matters that are sub judice or when it involves anything obtained by Congress in executive session.

This list should also be expanded to include all deliberations undertaken by Cabinet. In the Westminster system, cabinet, not the prime minister, makes executive decisions. This makes policy making a collegial process. When cabinet is deliberating on an issue, its members should be free to express their views without fear of reprisal. This is sometimes referred to as the Chatham House Rule. In the Australian context, cabinet deliberations are kept confidential for a period of time. Although the presidential system works differently, the same principle can be applied.

The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd broke his silence recently and exposed the individual views of those within his “kitchen cabinet” on an emissions trading scheme that partially led to his downfall prior to the last election. His statement implied that his successor, the current PM Julia Gillard did not believe in the measure at the time it was considered. This has put her in an awkward position, as she tries to sell a similar scheme to a skeptical audience, something that the confidentiality of Cabinet is meant to shield its members from.

Returning to my original point about seeing the FOI in action, I have to say that in practice, it hardly interferes with the way we conduct business in the public sector, which should provide reassurance to those that fear it being enacted. As someone who works “on the other side of the fence” I would still have to endorse the Freedom of Information particularly because it does aid in making government more transparent.

Sometimes, bureaucrats have their hands tied behind their backs and are unable to speak out or question openly the policies of their political masters. It helps sometimes to have citizens doing their part, advocating changes and seeking clarification on measures undertaken to support a given policy agenda. Towards that end, the FOI in practice has been a very helpful tool.

Questioning Heroes


Rizal Park. Image care of Wikipedia.

In our milieu it seems that heroes exist on another plane. So hallowed have they become that they are practically unreachable; their actions impossible to duplicate, their mental faculties so far beyond the norm that they exist in the realm of myth and legend. Take the case of Jose Rizal, our National Hero (even as some dispute that position). He has become so mythologized, his mental capabilities so lauded and his achievements so exaggerated, that we have lost track even of who he was, what he was trying to achieve, and why he was so important at the time. Practically every child has to study Rizal A to Z, and yet few Filipinos understand Rizal’s hopes, dreams, politics, and beliefs. That American-era phrasing of Rizal as a reformist, first and foremost, is still extant and dominant. In other words the realities of Rizal are subsumed by a remnant of colonial thought. His enduring legacy, his subversive, satirical, and revolutionarily nationalist qualities novels, are little understood; despite them being mandatory reading. Father John Schumacher once called them paths to nationalism. I wonder how many Filipinos could articulate how and why they are avenues towards independence.

Original cover of Noli Me Tangere. Image from Wikipedia.

While it may seem that I am taking aim at our understanding of Rizal, I am only using him as the first example. The same holds true for the general understanding of Andres Bonifacio. He, in his own way, has become so overly manufactured and packaged that he bears little resemblance to what is historically known about him. His heroic existence has become such that it overshadows the Katipunan, and that groups’ true composition and accomplishments. Much like how our heroic reconstruction of Rizal has practically obliterated the accomplishments and beliefs of members of the Propaganda Movement; a movement that began well before he was born. On the flip side, the method with which we have constructed our ‘heroic’ understanding of Emilio Aguinaldo undermines the importance of the Philippine Republic; though that is also intertwined with how we have created Bonifacio.

Sometimes heroes are built just on the strength of one deed or one statement. This holds true for Senator Ninoy Aquino; everything that came before in his life, his politics, his beliefs, were obscured when he was assassinated. After, he became an unassailable icon of democracy and freedom. What is known of his politics has been forgotten in the shadow of a one moment. In favor of constructing the icon of Aquino even some history has been rewritten and purposefully forgotten. How much is known about LABAN? What do we actually know about Philippine resistance during his years in jail? Or while he was in exile? Or between his assassination and the eventual overthrow of Marcos? Ah yes, but Aquino died for our sins, so that must constitute the entirety of the resistance during Martial Law. He died for the Filipino, and that is enough. But, in truth, maybe it is not. Death, like life, to have meaning has to be consecrated to a greater ideal and hope. Rizal did not just die for the Filipino of his time, he died for the Philippines that he envisioned; that he hoped and fought for. What was that Philippines?

To an extant, all heroes require a certain level of sanitization and myth-building. All history to an extent becomes propaganda, and heroes even more so. What differentiates is the historical evidence that is used as basis for that myth-building and to what it is consecrated. Heroes act as beacons for right action and stalwart defenders of the public national good. They are models to emulate, through their lives and deeds a people understand how a nation is built and what it means to be, in our case, a Filipino. However, at no point should the hero overshadow their time and circumstances. Heroes must be in service of something: An ideal, a vision, a nation. Else heroes exist for just for themselves. And that is the situation that exists in the Philippines today. Our heroes exist on their own; sectioned away from the period in which they lived, the men with whom they fought and died, the politics they espoused, and the vision for which they fought. We have reduced our heroes to the most superficial of meanings, and in the process, excised their national importance.

I am not a fan of consistently benchmarking and evaluating ourselves against other nations and cultures. I am, though, in favor of cross-cultural comparative analysis to help understand and clarify our local situation. In the case of heroes, the United States provides excellent examples of heroic myth-building in favor of creating a national sensibility. The United States is exceptionally adept at sanitizing their heroes, while never ignoring that they lived, and survive, in service of a greater secular faith. One example is how the Battle of the Alamo (which was for Texian Independence from Mexico) was adopted into the US national patriotic narrative, on the strength of one letter that was written during the thirteen day long battle.  Or how George Washington, which based on his contemporaries was an insufferable asshole, has become the Father of the Republic. The American Founding Fathers exist as an untouchable pantheon in their public consciousness. But their knowledge of them is built on the strength of deeds, an understanding of their writings and political beliefs, and the context of the period in which they lived. At the risk of being far too simplistic, contextualizing elements that are completely absent in our understanding of our Pantheon of Heroes. Heroes require meaning to remain relevant; meaning requires understanding.

Rizal was the intellectual force behind the Revolution, on that we all seem to basically agree (setting aside the reformist trope for a moment). But, what exactly did that mean? What was it about his ideas that were so compelling? What were his philosophical and humanist beliefs that underpinned his advocacies? Who influenced him and why? The same holds true for Andres Bonifacio. We adulate him, but what do we know about his politics and philosophies? What was he trying to build through the Philippine Revolution? How about Emilio Jacinto? Apolinario Mabini? The Philippine Republic? There are reams of surviving public essays, letters, and articles from the Reformists, Propagandists, and Revolutionaries expounding, arguing, and defining exactly what they were trying to achieve. Instead of offering a deeper understanding of our heroes and their dreams, we are fixated, for example, on the fact that Rizal was (supposedly) fluent in twenty-three languages. That does nothing to further our national understanding, or connect us to Rizal as the hero. What it does is continue to support Rizal the Mythic Hero. Lost is the post-Enlightenment Rizal; the thinker who remains quite revolutionary today. Lost is Jacinto, who argued against any form of racial or ideological bias; who wrote that ‘goodness’ and ‘nobility’ are not found in an aquiline nose, but in the rightness of action and deed.

We are desperate for heroes. At the drop of a hat we are ready to dub any and all, even for the most superficial and simplistic of accomplishments, a national hero worthy of praise and honor. We rush to their defense, we hold them close to our collective heart and proclaim this is who we are and we are proud! Damn any who disagree! And yet I cannot help but feel that rush to adulate any and all flows from our tragically weak understanding of heroism. We barely acknowledge, much less understand, the historical accomplishments and importance of our Great and Glorious Pantheon of Heroes; beyond some grotesquely reductive examples of ‘heroism.’ At the heart of our misunderstanding of our heroes is an almost perverse simplicity in action. Ignored are the intricacies and complexities of what they believed and were trying to achieve. The result, I firmly believe, negatively affects modern day interpretations of ‘Filipino’ and patriotism. Superficiality reigns and we erroneously equate mindless and romantic momentary passionate action with deep-rooted nationalism; for example, as in the case of the August 23rd Cry of Pugad Lawin (an event with little resemblance to history). Our current social and cultural construction of heroes is antithetical to fostering a sense of deep, abiding, and binding nationalism. By reducing heroism to singular moments with little context we irrevocably limit our sense of modern nationalism. Deeper and more significant engagement will be found in reconsidering their philosophies, understanding their historical circumstances, and being aware of their cultural importance. In other words we have to put our heroes to the question. That process, those answers, will uncover the realities of our heroes and inevitably lead to a greater and far more invigorating sense of Filipino nationalism. Our heroes can become what they were meant to be: Guides for the future Philippines.