June 2013

Hold your hoses

Republic Act 10586 (the Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act of 2013) repealed mandatory drug testing for applications and renewals of driver’s licenses. You can now get a permit to drive without having to pay P300-P400 to pee in a little plastic canister.

“Thank you Senator Tito Sotto for authoring the bill. Thank you President Noynoy Aquino for signing it into law. I’m going to zip my pants now,” I cried to the heavens.

“Don’t put away your hose yet,” boomed Land Transportation Office (LTO) chief Virginia Torres’ voice from above. “I issued a status quo order because we have yet to implement the new law. We are not done crafting the IRR (implementing rules and regulations) yet. There are so many interpretations but the IRR will settle all these.”

“Say what?” I exclaimed.

“You heard me,” she said.

I blew my top and turned lawyer on her.

“Read Section 19 of Republic Act 10586 . That’s the clause that repeals the provision on mandatory drug testing under Sec. 36 of RA 9165,” I said.

“I am familiar with both laws, I don’t have to read them again,” she said.

I read the provision to her anyway,

“Sec. 19. Repealing Clause. – Subparagraph (f)., Section 56, Article 1 of Republic Act No. 4136, otherwise known as the “Land Transportation and Traffic Code”, as amended; subparagraph (f), Section 5 of Republic Act No. 7924, otherwise known as “An Act Creating the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Defining its Powers and Functions, Providing Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes;” SUBPARAGRAPH (A), SECTION 36 OF REPUBLIC ACT NO. 9165; and all other laws, orders, …regulations or parts thereof which are inconsistent with any provision of this Act are hereby repealed or modified accordingly.”

“So?” she replied.

“So that means you can’t conduct mandatory drug testing anymore!” I told her.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Ang difference is the mandatory drug test is when you apply ng lisensiya. This RA 10586 means you have the license already, you are driving a motor vehicle under the influence of liquor or drugs.”

“Do you know what repeal means?” I asked her. I quoted from my online dictionary, “Repeal means to revoke, annul, rescind, cancel, reverse, abrogate, nullify, declare null and void, void, invalidate, render invalid, quash, abolish, set aside, countermand, retract, withdraw, overrule, override, vacate.”

“I know what repeal means,” she said. “But like I told you it’s not clear exactly what RA 10586 repealed. We are going to thresh that out in our next technical working group meeting. Besides, we are given four months to come out with the IRR,” she added.

“Why do you need an IRR and four months when all you have to do is issue an order to stop drug testing? Just implement the law. fer crissakes,” I said.

“It’s not that easy,” she replied.

“It’s not a question of easy. Your mandate to conduct drug testing ended when Pres. Aquino signed RA 10586 into law. You have no more mandate. It has been revoked, annulled, rescinded…It’s that simple,” I told her.

“I don’t see it that way,” she replied.

“There is no other way to see it,” I insisted.

“Oh yes there is and I’ll find it,” she insisted.

“Somebody shoot me please,” I cried out in exasperation.

Luckily a friend happened by. He explained the situation to me, “The LTO issued 4.6 million driver’s licenses and permits in 2012. Do the math, 4.6 million X P300 per drug test = P1.38 billion for last year alone and the LTO has been conducting drug tests since 2002.”

“I can see what you’re getting at, my friend,” I told him.

He said, “I’m not saying someone is making money from processing applications for those labs and for monitoring and certifying them. I’m just wondering how that system works. I’m also wondering how strict the rules are on who can own labs and who supplies them with testing kits and all their other requirements. Suppliers and products also need to be certified, right?”

“Well, that’s for suspicious minds to figure out,” I replied. “But what do I do with this?” I was more concerned about the little plastic canister I had in my hand.

He shrugged.

Please President Aquino just tell Virginia Torres to cut the bull and implement RA 10586 immediately. She has gotten you in trouble before. Remember the heat you got from her involvement in that Stradcom controversy? Don’t let her get you in trouble again.

Smuggling and Sin Tax

Lucio Tan or his holding firm LT Group, Inc. is again in the news. The media quoted LT Group President Michael G. Tan, son of Lucio, that the company’s tobacco sales dropped by 40 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

This is the narrative of the Tan group, as reported by BusinessMirror (19 June 2013):

“The tobacco business of tycoon Lucio Tan under PMFTC Inc. took a heavy beating at the start of the year as a result of rampant smuggling of cigarettes into the country.

“The company said the smuggling of tobacco products worsened after the government imposed higher excise taxes on the so-called sin products.

“Michael Tan, president of LT Group Inc., said sales of PMFTC, maker of brands such as Marlboro, Fortune and Philip Morris, dropped by 40 percent.

“If the trend continues, Tan said, the government would also suffer as it stands to lose about P8 billion in taxes by the end of the year.”

The LT group is the co-owner of PMFTC, a merger of Philip Morris, Inc. and Fortune Tobacco Corporation. Since the merger, and in light of the most favorable treatment it got from the old law, PMFTC has become the most dominant tobacco manufacture, having more than 90 percent of the market share.

The message of the Lucio Tan group to the government and the public is: “We told you so.” During the intense debate on the sin tax, PMFTC led the assault to weaken the bill’s provisions, arguing, inter alia, that the increase in the tax rates would result in widespread smuggling, which in turn would reduce tax collection.

The LT Group and PMFTC are using the specter of smuggling to spook us, but their objective is to discredit the sin tax law.

But another tobacco manufacturer, PMFTC’s rival British American Tobacco (BAT), which surely would not countenance a rise in smuggling, dismisses Mr. Tan’s argument. BusinessMirror cites BAT that “the prices of cigarettes in the Philippines [are] still lower, compared to those in other countries even with the increase.”

Before the sin tax took effect, the direction of smuggling was actually outward—from the Philippines to other countries. The prices of Philippine tobacco products were significantly lower compared to the rest of the world or the rest of Southeast Asia.

The increase in tax rates, averaging 209 percent in the first year, has brought retail prices of Philippine tobacco products to the median level, as compared to the prices in other countries. Even then, comparing prices of cigarettes in the Southeast Asian countries (to strengthen the argument, we compare between the retail prices in the Philippines and the factoryprices in other Southeast Asian countries), we observe that the price differentials are small and hence do not translate into a serious smuggling threat.

The retail price of a Marlboro produced in the Philippines is double the price of the factory price of a Marlboro in Indonesia. But smuggling involves huge costs—the transport costs, the storage and distribution costs, the crime network costs, the bargaining or bribery costs and other transaction costs. Such costs, plus the risks, wipe out the price differential. Only when the price differential is so big does incoming smuggling become menacing. The World Bank gives the example of Brazil and Paraguay, where the price differential was about 900 percent.

In fine, despite the new high tax rates, which PMFTC calls “disruptive,” the incentive for inward smuggling is weak. The argument about the rise in smuggling does not convince.

That the incentive to smuggle inward is limited is not an excuse for the Philippine authorities to sidestep the issue. To its credit, the government is taking steps to counter illicit trade, including the use of a unique identification marking on cigarette packs. An advanced system, which we hope government will eventually adopt, is tracking and tracing. This system or technology monitors production (the tax is imposed on the volume of production) and follows the movement of the tobacco products throughout the supply chain—from the factory, to the distribution chain, and to the point of retail sale.

Replying to Mr. Tan, Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares said that the LT Group sales went down by 40 percent “but it’s not because of smuggling, it’s because some other companies have taken up their market share” (BusinessWorld, 21 June 2013).

The new sin tax law has removed the protection given to the legacy brands by removing the price classification freeze, in which the old brands were taxed based on their 1996 prices. The move to a unitary tax also translates into a level playing field at the same time that it discourages consumers from shifting to a higher-taxed brand to a lower-taxed product.

That sales have dropped precisely serves the objective of the sin tax. Time and again, the government has affirmed the principality of the health objective, by reducing consumption of sin products. The drop in sales by 40 percent is thus welcome news. This more or less validates what different models have predicted—a reduction of cigarette demand of up to 50 percent in the medium term.

Take note, too, that despite the sharp decrease in demand, tax collection has “already significantly increased,” according to Commissioner Henares. (She has yes to disclose the latest revenue figures from the sin tax.)

This is obviously bad news for the LT Group. Gone are the days when the Lucio Tan group boomed because of low taxes. It seems “LT” stands not for Lucio Tan but for “low taxes.”

Why we should let our taxes go fund moving informal settlers

Much has been discussed lately about the government funding moving informal settlers from danger zones like river banks to some other spot where their lives will be much safer, and our rivers, less polluted. The move of course comes from the flooding that sunk Manila (again) these past few days as the first onslaught of the monsoon season came.

The problem with informal settlers is nothing new. The problem compounded by the need of these informal settlers to find livelihood in the city. Some even get relocated, only to go back to the city to rent out land so they can be close to work. They keep the land they were resettled in. They improve it. Others are trapped in the vicious cycle, are one of the millions unemployed. We see their kids everyday for example, peddling wares, or offering to clean the windshield of your car, only to come out even more dirty than before and expecting to be paid in change. Perish the thought that you would only give a Peso.

The problem of flooding in Manila is also nothing new, as my Mom put it: worst when she was in school, and the waters would not subside so fast as they do today. Long after my mother and father graduated from University, my mother and I were likewise trapped in one of those habagat floods, and we’ve spent our fair share trapped in our car waiting for the water to subside.

Of course, neither problem is an excuse.

And both problems compound each other. The informal settlers along river banks for instance help clog the water ways. The Pasig River is virtually dead. This is, but part of the complex web of problems. Some of these rivers and waterways have died because commerce and industry have settled on top of them. Without care to the design or flow of water.

So why should our taxes go to resettling informal settlers? We each too have bills to pay. Mortgages, and taxes, smartphones and Macbooks to pay off, and for those parentals, the high cost of tuition fees to keep kids in air conditioned private schools. We each have our own little problem, and often, quite often the money you make doesn’t seem to be enough.

So imagine the rage of a taxpayer, whose well-earned peso goes to funding the move of informal settlers? Jobless. With so many kids. How can one expect to help fund moving them off those private lands, and public spaces to somewhere better? What happens to us who pay and work so hard?

You’ve never been poor until you’ve known what it’s like to have no money and have a loved one in the hospital, or cheat to have food to eat. You’ve never been rich or well-off until you can spend a million in a second, and neither blink nor care about the cost of anything.

Of course this is all a grey area. One can understand the no-dole out mentality. We worked hard for this! Everyone should. My father used to tell me that you can’t live alone. I never really got that lesson, until quite recently. I mean, how many of us, were given a break by someone? Someone hired us to do a job. Someone who loaned us money when we come up short some days. Or gave us a free pass, and a second chance to do better. Maybe someone helped us when we were sick and dying. Some advice, perhaps that led you to be a better person. Yeah, we worked hard to make pesos, and sometimes, we too make ends meet. Not everyone of those informal settlers do deserve that second chance; that helping hand; that makes their world, just a bit more livable.

There is another thing we need to think about. By helping move these informal settlers, perhaps we too are helping ourselves. Can you stomach the untold human suffering should a crisis prevail? To wipe them out? To see them sick and dying? What does that do to our soul? Knowing we could avoid the human suffering? Never mind the cost? And for another, isn’t nearly everyone in the Philippines, a taxpayer, courtesy of Value Added Tax?

Bill Clinton once talked about the Clinton Foundation’s initiative to rebuild Rwanda. He said something that struck home, thinking about legacies, nation-building, and what we leave behind: “When I think about the world I would like to leave to my daughter and the grandchildren I hope to have, it is a world that moves away from unequal, unstable, unsustainable interdependence to integrated communities — locally, nationally and globally — that share the characteristics of all successful communities: a broadly shared, accessible set of opportunities, a shared sense of responsibility for the success of the common enterprise and a genuine sense of belonging. All easier said than done.”

Then he went on. “Into this mix, people like us, who are not in public office, have more power to do good than at any time in history, because more than half the world’s people live under governments they voted in and can vote out. And even non-democratic governments are more sensitive to public opinion. Because primarily of the power of the Internet, people of modest means can band together and amass vast sums of money that can change the world for some public good if they all agree.”

This isn’t to say the situation doesn’t merit a review of the Lina Law. This isn’t to say, that the longer term solution is to build more factories, and more agriculture zones. We’ve seen that was the answer by our neighbors in Asia to the problem of poverty, and for us, that’s the same route. This isn’t to say that Metro Manila shouldn’t consider having just one government, so we can effect a single, unified Urban Design or that architects and designers shouldn’t now be required to account for flooding to avoid flooding; to study the effect of water flow; to consider earthquakes and other environmental factors as we rebuild Manila. Why we should let our taxes go fund moving informal settlers? As a Michael Jackson song said, “If You Care Enough For The Living. Make A Better Place. For You And For Me.” Isn’t that enough?

Those damned hackers

I fell for a fake press release while doing research for an article about transparency as mandated by the Fair Election Law.

There is an interesting controversy over the scope of section 5.2 of that law –

“During the election period, any person, natural as well as juridical, candidate or organization who publishes a survey must likewise publish the following information: (a) The name of the person, candidate, party or organization who commissioned or paid for the survey; (b) The name of the person, polling firm or survey organization who conducted the survey; (c) The period during which the survey was conducted, the methodology used, including the number of individual respondents and the areas from which they were selected, and the specific questions asked; (d) The margin of error of the survey; (e) For each question for which the margin of error is greater than that reported under paragraph (d), the margin of error for that question; and (f) A mailing address and telephone number, indicating it as an address or telephone number at which the sponsor can be contacted to obtain a written report regarding the survey in accordance with Subsection 5.3.”

Polling groups argue that 5.2 applies only to published surveys while the Comelec and those who asked Comelec to enforce the said provision insist that it extends to unpublished surveys as well. There is also some disagreement on whether or not the phrase “commissioned or paid for a survey” covers subscribers to a survey as well. Litigating who is right on what is what makes lawyering such a lucrative profession.

At any rate, Sec. 5.2 is intended to eliminate fake surveys. Subsections “c” to “e” provide for an objective determination of a survey’s credibility and reliability while subsection “a”, the so-called money trail, provides context to the survey.

Context, by itself, will not prove that a particular survey is fake. Only an objective analysis of a survey as provided by subsections “c” to “e” can do that. However, context can provide the basis for speculation that fuels doubts about an otherwise perfectly legitimate survey. So I began to wonder if that was the reason why UNA spokesman Toby Tiangco – after Social Weather Stations published a survey he did not like – started talking up the issue of survey financiers instead of rolling up his sleeves and dissecting the survey in question.

I went to the official UNA website (unasasenado.com) to hear it from the spin doctor himself; the website posted his correspondence with Mahar Mangahas of SWS regarding 5.2 (a). After reading their exchange and laughing because Mangahas lectured Tiangco on the science of polling, I went on and checked out the site’s other posts. That’s when I came across a press release that made my steaming hot morning coffee shoot out of my nose.

“Zubiri vows to make AIDs (sic) illegal,” trumpeted the press release. It quoted Zubiri saying, “I am going to file a bill that will make the acquisition of AIDs (sic) a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment.”

“Forget the transparency article and write about this insane campaign promise instead,” I exclaimed to my laptop. It immediately trashed all my notes on transparency and proceeded to search the web for related articles on the new topic, my laptop’s normal pre-writing routine.

Unfortunately, my laptop’s routine sent coffee shooting out of my nose again. This time because of a headline it found in the national section of this news site: “Zubiri to file charges vs hackers who defaced UNA website”.

The Interaksyon report quoted a statement from Zubiri, “I vehemently deny the statement or press release purportedly posted on the UNA website stating that I will file a bill if elected in the Senate making AIDS illegal. I have never issued such statement nor subscribe to that silly proposal… I am fed-up with these hackers. I had enough. Together with UNA officials, we will file a complaint with the Anti-crime Unit of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to locate these hackers,”

And so I wait with bated breath and scalded nasal passages for a report on the actual filing of the complaint by Zubiri “together with UNA officials” and the results of whatever action the Anti-crime Unit of the NBI will take. Damned hackers!

Philippine conservatism

On the problem of “jobless growth” and how to fix it

The last time the Philippines experienced an economic contraction was way back in 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. Since then, the country has posted 57 consecutive quarters of positive growth averaging 4.7 per cent in real terms year-on-year.

That may not be as fast as the Chinas or Indias of this world, but it is still pretty respectable considering the events both domestic and foreign that have occurred during this time (which include the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada, EDSA Dos and Tres, September 11, the dot.com crash and Enron scandal, the Oakwood mutiny, the global financial crisis, the Great Recession, and the current EU debt crisis, to name a few).

What do we mean by jobless growth?

Over the last seven years, 5.42 million net new jobs were created or an average of about 773,000 annually. This again is no mean feat. The only problem is that the labour force has also grown by about 5.49 million averaging an increase of around 785,000 new entrants per year 76,000 more than the jobs created since 2005.

If the growth of our workforce had been half as much, then the amount of jobs created would have been sufficient for the 2.8 million unemployed workers in 2012. If not for demographics, our unemployment rate would be much lower. Jobless growth in our context can best be described as a situation where economic growth fails to produce enough jobs to reduce the absolute number of unemployed workers in a sustained manner.

In the past, the economy’s inability to bring the number of the unemployed down was assigned to the growth rate not being fast enough. Instead of growing at an average rate of around 5 per cent, we needed to be growing at 7 per cent, or more.

Over the past three quarters, that is precisely the speed at which our economy has been expanding–above 7 per cent–which makes the employment figures for the April 2013 quarter all the more disappointing. Over the year, the number of those employed actually fell!

While we should not read too much into one quarter’s report (it is best to average four quarters’ worth of jobs data for the year to get a more realistic picture), it is still worth pondering how the economy could have expanded so much and yet not have made a dent in employment terms.

Examining “jobless growth”

Perhaps, much of the growth occurred as people moved from temporary and daily wage earnings into full-time, salaried employment as the labour force survey suggests. Increased income per worker rather than an increased number of workers might be a plausible explanation.

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The other could be the increasing “financialisation” of the economy as the banking and finance sector posted one of the highest growth rates among all sectors. This means that growth came more in the form of profits, bonuses and commissions paid to the business elite and their shareholders. Financialisation has been blamed for jobless growth in the West, more recently.

Then there is technological progress. The construction industry, for instance, may have grown the fastest, but the use of new methods and materials might have made it less labour-intensive than before.

The same applies to manufacturing. Our country once specialised in garments and toy-making which were conducive to sweatshops, but we have since switched to electronics and semi-conductor production which makes use of automated processes. The rapid growth in durable equipment that occurred in the first quarter could have allowed businesses to substitute capital for labour.

How Philippine conservatism is to blame

This would all be fine if those who profited from growth gave back a proportionate amount of their earnings in the form of taxes. Unfortunately, the collection of taxes went down as a proportion of GDP in the first quarter of the year. Despite the best efforts and reassurances of the current administration to lift the tax collection effort, their ability to generate tax receipts in a manner that would keep pace with the growth of the economy, remains very much in doubt.

The unemployment situation would be even worse if not for the mobile and adaptable workers that we have. Over the past seven years, the country has on average deployed 1.3 million Filipinos each year to work abroad. If we had not done so, we would have had double digit unemployment rates during this time. There would have been greater poverty, crime and social unrest, not to mention less consumption, savings and investment.

The residential and commercial property sector as well as financial markets would not be experiencing the boom we are currently witnessing. The credit upgrades that our political elite boast of would not be possible either.

Yet, despite the extra impetus provided by ordinary Filipinos who are forced to earn their living from abroad, often under difficult conditions, separated from their loved ones, the conservative forces in our society have successfully marshalled resources to maintain the status quo or keep it from changing rapidly instead of opening up our socio-economic life to the dynamism that it requires.

First of all, the demographic burden that we have discussed above has been caused by conservative forces hindering the development of reproductive health policies for decades. As a result, the Philippines will only see its population peak sometime in the latter half of this century based on current estimates. This has created a situation where the country’s current growth rate is unable to provide a sufficient number of jobs for those entering the workforce.

Secondly, the low tax-to-GDP level in the country has been set by the oligarchic business community in complicity with dynastic political families who have been unwilling to contribute their fair share to improve our country’s physical, social and economic infrastructure, the very thing needed to boost investment. Of course that doesn’t bother them because as the big fishes in a small pond, they are able to keep their stranglehold on the nation’s resources.

As the government relies on the private sector to fund major infrastructure projects, large domestic conglomerates have successfully cornered these contracts. The tepid pace at which Public-Private Partnerships have been approved is due to the fact that interest from the global investment community has waned. This isn’t the sort of public private partnership we need. The correct form of partnership is for the business community to pay the right amount of tax for the government to do the investing, not the other way around.

Thirdly, other countries with more progressive leaders have created sovereign wealth funds from their balance of payments surpluses to invest in their nation’s development; but, the inherent conservatism among our policy elite restrains them from tapping the massive stock of foreign reserves generated primarily not through exports, nor by foreign direct investments, but by foreign remittances, to fund the infrastructure needs of the country.

This innate conservatism was on display during the last election. I did a thorough evaluation of the senatorial candidates—their policies and legislative proposals—and two of the most topical were the ones to increase “skills matching” activities and loans to micro, small and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs).

Now I have nothing against skills matching, but we know that there are skills shortages that if plugged would only solve a tiny fraction of the unemployment problem, and yet so many senatorial candidates ignored the elephant in the room, the massive, long-term unemployed in favour of the small target.

Similarly I have nothing against MSMEs, but we also know that MSMEs do not generate as much new employment, at least the kind that matters, i.e. the full-time, salaried kind. And yet they take up an inordinate amount of attention in our political discourse. The new ventures with high innovation content, the kind that generates higher incomes and greater employment were not even talked about, save for one candidate who took on board the sovereign wealth fund idea to fund them, but failed to get elected.

How do we rectify the problem

The notion of the state performing the role of investor of last resort, the source of funds for projects that are deemed too risky by private capital markets but could have massive potential, is seldom talked about. This is because our history is littered with incidents where our business elite have exploited their connections within government to fund their own pet projects. Rather than being the lender of last resort, the government has been the financier of first instance, or the source of “booty capital”.

Of course, given our innate conservatism, marked by a high tolerance for social inequality and low tolerance for risk, there is nothing that prevents us from focusing on the small target, the low hanging fruit, the necessary, but insufficient conditions for mass employment generation. We can continue focusing on providing the right “eco-system” for innovation and investment, lowering the cost of doing business and the like.

But what should happen if our overseas workers start being turned back in droves? What if that seemingly limitless source of jobs for our swelling labour force starts to run dry, whether this be due to economic nationalism (as in the case of Saudi Arabia with its policy favouring locals), border disputes (as in the case of Taiwan following the shooting by our coast guard of their fishermen), or some other unknown factor? What then?

Without this safety valve, will our conservative leaders still manage to keep an ironclad lid on our social cauldron? Even before it comes to a boil, they need to re-examine the basic framework for growth and development that has embodied their consensus for thirty odd years. In the past they have been good at socialising the cost of their projects and privatising the (super-) profits. It is time that we gear up the state to be able to fund development and innovative risk-takers and to capture a fair share of their rents for our people’s benefit.

Independence

The Philippines celebrated its 115th Independence Day last June 12. And as expected, there were the usual pronouncements of doubt and mockery whether country was really free or not. Some even went on to entertain revisionist views on the actual date of independence saying that the date is meaningless since the country was only left on its own by the Americans on July 4, 1946.

As someone old enough to have lived at a time when the two biggest American military bases outside the United States were in the country, I find it both odd and funny, that the question on the country’s independence are being noisily raised online by those born after the US bases were booted out of the country.

While I cannot blame these younger Filipinos’ having a revisionist view of history, I cannot understand why they are capable of raising issues on the independence day’s verity and yet they are incapable of understanding the significance of June 12 in the continuing struggle for the country’s independence.

I am of the opinion that those who constantly raise the question whether the country today is independent or not are under the influence of those who fail to understand and appreciate the sacrifices made by those who died in the battles against the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese and even against fellow Filipinos belonging to various sides of political persuasions. And I do think that those who latch on to this view relied only on the perspective of their cynical Philippine history teachers without even trying to understand the country’s history on their own.

A country’s independence day is remembered because it was the day when the people of that territory declared themselves free from oppression of a foreign power. It is a characteristic of state which is reserved only for colonized, enslaved or oppressed nations. But more often than not, that day of declaration of independence marks not the end of the struggle for freedom, but only the beginning. As such it is misleading, as it is wrong to view independence day as the day when freedom from oppression was achieved.

When the Philippines declared its independence on June 12, 1898, it was proclaiming to the world that it will no longer bear the yoke that Spain has placed upon the country for more than three centuries. It was proudly standing up against the oppressor and claiming its right to stand free and proud of all that the Divine has endowed it. At the same time, it was also warning the colonizer that if need be, it will defend its claimed freedom to the death.

While there have always been questions raised on the Act of Declaration itself, specially in the message it contains between the lines and its references to what Aguinaldo always liked calling as the benevolent North American nation. A reading however of some authorities on history (I suggest OD Corpuz’s Saga and Triumph and Floro Quibuyen’s A Nation Aborted), will allow one to have an idea of the dynamics which made these things come to pass. And it will also grant us the understanding how we as a people, often in awe of foreigners, are easily swayed from that which we really want for ourselves, out of our generosity for these new found friends.

But the politics of 1898 should not reduce in any way, the sacrifices of martyrs like Fr. Jose Burgos, Jacinto Zamora and Mariano Gomez in 1872. It should not dilute the blood spilled by selfless Katipuneros who fought in the opening days of the revolution in August 1896. And it should not erase from our memory images of dead revolucionarios in the trenches, the hills and the towns who fought, first against the Spanish and then later against the Americans, to preserve the freedom they have decided to claim for themselves and for future generations of Filipinos.

It is only proper that we, later generations of Filipinos, beneficiaries of the freedoms fought for by our founding fathers and mothers, our revolucionarios, our soldiers, our guerrillas, our activists, remember Independence Day as the day when these selfless Filipinos offered their lives and limbs, their sacred fortunes, for a vision of a free Philippines where their sons and daughters would live in full appreciation of their Divinely-decreed freedoms, able to decide and realize their own destinies.

The independence of a country is not about being totally unencumbered of any debt or affiliation with another, but it is about that country, particularly its people, being able to chart its course towards the future. Independence is about a nation being able to freely decide for itself which relationships with other countries will it best reap benefits and how it shall pursue these relationships.

Back in my childhood days, one of the prevailing themes in movies and books was the relationship between Filipinos and Americans, more particular Filipino women and American servicemen. And there was the constant depiction that the Philippines was what we’d call in Cebuano as “di’ ko beh” or someone who outwardly refuses and yet deep inside desires an object or treatment. Movies depicted how Filipinos blatantly want to be left alone by Americans but pining for the first opportunity to hook up with the man from the Land of the Big PX.

Of course, all that changed on September 16,1991, when the Senate of the Philippines said that it will have no more of American military presence in a country which was free and democratic. And that single act of ending a half century of US domination of Philippine political and military affairs was one manifestation of the country’s never-ending struggle for independence. Since that day, we have been virtually on our own. Floating freely in the Pacific and facing various demands of statehood such as issues in the economy, governance, education and national defense.

A decade later, the Americans returned supposedly under the benevolent purposes of the Global War on Terror. But unlike a century earlier, they are no longer able to claim huge swaths of Filipino land as American. I wonder though how long they plan to continue staying considering that the War on Terror has already eliminated its number one target.

The presence of these American servicemen should wake us up to the reality that struggle for independence never ends. And in the decade since they were expelled out of the country, we have not progressed much in terms of defending our territory. If before we struggled against the Spanish, Americans and Japanese, now we are fighting to stave off the Chinese and Taiwanese from claiming our lands and seas.

These challenges to the territorial integrity of our country now threaten our sovereignty as a people. These encroachments on our lands and waters endanger our independence. And as a nation we must confront these issues soon else we wake up one day and see another flag raised in islands just beyond our weekend beaches.

If we desire to remain free and independent then we must constantly struggle against aggressive countries, ambitious politicians and big business. The celebration of our Independence Day is there to remind us of what others before us fought for. And it should also make us ask ourselves what we should be fighting for.

Fathers in fiction

Observed on the third Sunday of June by a number of countries, including our own, Father’s Day is an occasion for us to salute our fathers for their efforts, to reflect on how they have shaped and sustained our lives, and to celebrate fatherhood in general, including your own, if applicable (the jury is still out on owners of virtual pets, though).

The list that follows below was prompted by a writing assignment for Father’s Day in which I sought to follow a line of inquiry that seemed to me suitable for the event: how are fathers represented in our fiction? While the assignment ended up being shelved, I found the results of my research—which, owing to time constraints, must be understood as highly preliminary and provisional—to be intriguing: in three major works of Philippine literature, the father, even if acknowledged as heavily influential, is a present absence, invoked only in thought and speech by the other characters. Whether this is a symptom of a more general condition in our landscape of letters remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth mulling over, both as a phenomenon unto itself and as an indication of how fathers and fatherhood are made sense of in the larger arena of Philippine culture. (Elsewhere in the world, the novelist Andrew Martin explored the same issue in the realm of British fiction when he was asked to write and present the BBC documentary Disappearing Dad, and found that, in his survey of the English literary tradition, fathers are often missing or quickly done away with, as in children’s stories: “In the course of filming, I looked at a whole library-shelf full of children’s books, and dad had been killed off in almost every one.”)

Aeneas' Flight from Troy (1598) by Federico Barocci. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
Aeneas’ Flight from Troy (1598) by Federico Barocci. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

Duke Briseo
in Florante at Laura (1838) by Francisco Balagtas

Brought to life by way of the recollections of his son Florante, who for a good part of the poem is tied to a tree in a dark forest, bemoaning the cruel fate that has befallen him and those whom he loves, Duke Briseo is characterized as a father who practiced what might be known today as “tough love”. Florante declares that parental love involves ensuring that a child must not be indulged, spoiled, or cocooned in pleasure away from the world, for—in line with the long-held notion that suffering leads to improvement—he will be unable to develop the necessary fortitude to withstand the trials and tribulations of life otherwise, citing his own experience of growing up in what are arguably some of the darkest lines in Baltazar’s metrical romance:

“Pag-ibig anaki’y aking nakilala,
‘di dapat palakihin ang bata sa saya;
at sa katuwaa’y kapag namihasa,
kung lumaki’y walang hihinting ginhawa.”

“Sapagkat ang mundo’y bayan ng hinagpis,
namamaya’y sukat tibayan ang dibdib;
lumaki sa tuwa’y walang pagtitiis …
anong ilalaban sa dahas ng sakit?”

“Ang taong magawi sa ligaya’t aliw,
mahina ang puso’t lubhang maramdamin;
inaakala pa lamang ang hilahil
na daratni’y ‘di na matutuhang bathin.”

“Para ng halamang lumaki sa tubig,
daho’y malalanta munting ‘di madilig;
ikinaluluoy ang sandaling init;
gayundin ang pusong sa tuwa’y maniig.”

“Munting kahirapa’y mamalakhing dala,
dibdib palibhasa’y ‘di gawing magbata,
ay bago sa mundo’y walang kisapmata,
ang tao’y mayroong sukat ipagdusa.”

“Ang laki sa layaw karaniwa’y hubad
sa bait at muni’t sa hatol ay salat;
masaklap na bunga ng maling paglingap,
habag ng magulang sa irog na anak.”

“Sa taguring bunso’t likong pagmamahal,
ang isinasama ng bata’y nunukal;
ang iba’y marahil sa kapabayaan
ng dapat magturong tamad na magulang.”

Florante reveals that at one point, Briseo risks the grief of his wife Floresca to send his son, then 11 years old, to faraway Athens in order to study under the eminent and kindly teacher Antenor for nearly a decade. Floresca passes away before Florante can return, but, in spite of this unfortunate incident, Florante does not seem to resent his father’s decision, and in fact hails Briseo for the lessons that he has imparted, as well as mourns his beheading at the hands of the treacherous Count Adolfo.

Don Rafael Ibarra
in Noli Me Tangere (1887) by José Rizal

Don Rafael Ibarra, the richest man in the town of San Diego, is widely known to be just and honorable, and so it is a shock to his son Crisostomo when he comes home from Europe after seven years and finds out from Señor Guevara, an old lieutenant, that Rafael died in prison, accused, among other things, of being a subversive and a heretic. Worse, Crisostomo eventually discovers that Rafael was denied a proper place for his final rest: though initially placed in a grave, his body was later ordered exhumed and transferred to the Chinese cemetery, but ended up being tossed by the gravedigger into the river, on account of the weight of the corpse and the inclement weather. Determined to continue his beloved father’s good work, Crisostomo strives as best as he can to avoid trouble, even when he learns that Father Dámaso, the former curate of his hometown, had precipitated the persecution of his father, and considers him an enemy as well. Crisostomo finds that he cannot help himself, however, when, at a dinner hosted by Captain Tiago, which follows the ill-omened laying of the cornerstone of the schoolhouse that Crisostomo orders built for the village, Dámaso, “getting fat from so much scolding and so many beatings”, appears  and makes a point of insulting not only him, which he already did from the pulpit earlier that day, but also his father: outraged, Crisostomo pounces upon the portly Franciscan and takes up a sharp knife as if meaning to kill him, condemning the friar for insulting “what is to a son the most sacred of memories”, and challenging the members of the gathering to do the same:

“You who are here, priests, judges, could you see your aging father go without sleep for you, separate himself from you for your welfare, die of sadness in prison, sighing just to hold you, seeking one person to console him, alone, sick, while you are abroad… Could you later hear his name dishonored, could you find his tomb empty when you wanted to pray over it? No? You say nothing! Then condemn him!” (From the translation by Harold Augenbraum)

Don Lorenzo Marasigan
in A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes (1952) by Nick Joaquin

Also referred to as “el Magnifico”, the same epithet associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Republic of Florence during the Italian Renaissance and patron of such notable artists as Michelangelo Buonarotti and Sandro Botticelli, Don Lorenzo Marasigan is a scholar, a patriot who fought in the war for Philippine independence from Spain, and an artist who is said to have been a rival to no less than Juan Luna. While he never appears onstage during the performance, which is set in a house in Intramuros just before World War II, his presence, indexed by the titular painting that hangs on the fourth wall and thus is invisible to the audience, exerts great power. The great canvas, painted about a year before the narrative present of the play, depicts a scene described in the Roman epic Aeneid by Virgil: Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his back as they flee the doomed city of Troy (Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, is, curiously, not included). What makes the picture a striking and—for most of the characters—disturbing sight is that both figures bear the face of Lorenzo: one as a young man, and the other as an old man. Because of Lorenzo’s reputation, the dual self-portrait provokes fierce competing interests: Candida and Paula, the daughters who live with Lorenzo, refuse to sell the work despite the poverty that creeps upon them day by day, while their siblings and the other characters urge them to give it up, together with the decrepit family house and the once-glorious days that it represents. As their lives slowly unravel, Candida and Paula struggle to hold fast to their values, and they become estranged from one another for a time. Finally, Paula realizes that the painting reveals a path to emancipation, albeit not the kind that the people around them keep urging them to seek, and sets her feet firmly upon it, taking her sister with her—a bold, if not reckless choice that reunites them with Lorenzo:

CANDIDA: May God forgive me for ever having desired the safeness of mediocrity!

PAULA (rising and drawing her sister up): Then stand up, Candida—stand up! We are free again! We are together again—you and I and father. Yes—and father too! Don’t you see, Candida? This is the sign he has been waiting for—ever since he gave us that picture, ever since he offered us our release—the sign that we had found our faith again, that we had found our courage again! Oh, he was waiting for us to take this step, to make this gesture—this final, absolute, magnificent, unmistakable gesture!

CANDIDA: And now we have done it!

PAULA: We have recognized our true vocation!

CANDIDA: We have taken our final vows!

PAULA: And we have placed ourselves irrevocably on his side!

CANDIDA: Does he know?

PAULA: Oh yes, yes!

CANDIDA: Have you told him?

PAULA: But what need is there to tell him?

CANDIDA (rapturously): Oh Paula!

PAULA: He knows, he knows!

CANDIDA: And he has forgiven us at last! He has forgiven us, Paula!

PAULA: And we will stand with him?

CANDIDA: Contra mundum!

The Villain of the Story

Much has been written about “hackers”, self-described cyber-vigilantes like these guys— cynics and anarchists, self-styled to follow V, and not realizing that V at the end of the story gave his life that a new V— one who wasn’t an anarchist needed to be born. The modus operandi of these self-styled hooligans seem of course focused on proving one alleged ability. Create mayhem, disruption for the sake of mayhem and destruction under the guise of “helping the masses”. Here’s your chance to call the president! to make your issues known! As if there weren’t avenues to talk to the President on the media, on blogs, on Facebook, on twitter. As if, we have a president who tramples on all these. As if, actions like these don’t force governments to create weapons or to find ways to use PRISM.

Actions like these are uncalled for. And only wish to seek attention. Something, Hackers don’t really crave. What these so called hackers are doing is a far cry from the ethical foundations set forth in The Manifesto of old, where hackers hack because it was a way to learn; to go beyond the petty limitations of society.

See, these are not the kind of “hackers”, and “hacks” that should be honored. Real hackers scratch an itch so bad that they can’t stop thinking about it. The itch is so compelling you can’t stop thinking about it. Real hackers are idealists, and dreamers. Hackers build. And it doesn’t matter if it was C or hacking DNA!

Other professions can relate to this. Artists, lawyers, engineers, scientists, journalists, politicians and others can relate to that itch like this unknown mathematician who proved the elusive property of prime numbers. He was just an ordinary guy who even worked from a Subway sandwich shop.

The real hackers we should be praising are guys like these from Davao. The Pagesnapp guys bested 40 teams and they get to pitch before angel investors in Silicon Valley.

The people who we should be praising and finding are guys like these who, without coding experience are trying to save some languages from going extinct. Think of what things like this could be done to our own dialects and languages!

Hacking is a humble quality. It isn’t about proving how smart you are. It isn’t about mayhem. It rarely is about protest. It isn’t about proving you can find stuff. It is one that comes from solving real world problems. Real hackers scratch an itch so compelling you can’t stop thinking about it. It rarely is even about protest. Otherwise you’re the bully. You’re the Villain in the story.

Live and let love

“It’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia” – Barack Obama

I was surprised by the silence of the LGBT community over the statement of Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Episcopal Commission on Family and Life (CBCP-ECFL), regarding singer Charice Pempengco’s admission that she is a lesbian.

Fr. Castro said, “In this time of her life that she is experiencing an identity crisis regarding her sexual orientation, we would rather not pre-judge her…. Let’s hope that there will be people out there that will help guide her with her sexual orientation called same-sex attraction…We should help her journey with this same-sex attraction situation so that she will know that having a same-sex attraction does not mean that she has to engage in a [homosexual] relationship…. This, I think, is where her family and friends should come in and intervene to help her.”

That is prejudice dressed in pseudo-clinical jargon. Fr. Castro’s remarks can be excused if he had clarified that his comment on Charice’s sexuality was based on the teachings of his church. But he did not. Instead he diagnosed her clinically, as someone suffering from an identity crisis because of her sexual orientation and prescribed intervention as the cure for a malady that makes her want to engage in female to female sex.

Can Fr. Castro prove that sexuality is a choice rather than in-born? Besides, why does it matter if sexuality is in-born or a matter of choice? Outside of religious beliefs and ignorance, can one say that one form of sexuality is superior to another and that one is wrong and the other right? Why is sexuality even an issue in a pluralistic democracy? I’m at a loss as to why Fr. Castro felt impelled to comment negatively on Charice’s sexuality. Was he afraid that an epidemic of lesbianism will follow in the wake of Charice’s admission?

My online encyclopedia says “Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior.”

Heterosexism leads to non-heterosexuals being regarded as second class citizens who deserve to be deprived of “various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality.”

Fellow columnist Marie Yuviengco pointed that out in her essay, Marriage Pinoy-style. She cited legislated discrimination against non-heterosexuals. What kind of society would enact laws that legalize and legitimize discrimination? Ms. Yuviengco urged Charice to “campaign for the changes that have been so long overdue.” Rightly so.

In this country, the wall separating Church and State is porous, laws that are based on religion-specific values are enforced on both believers and non-believers alike. We are not the only democracy struggling with this problem. US president Barack Obama’s speech explaining his personal position on abortion and the role of the religiously motivated in a pluralistic democracy showed that America is also in the same bind.

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible,” he said. Obama’s insight also applies to the religion-specific opposition to same-sex marriage, divorce, and the RH Law.

Charice knew her sexuality at age five but she was forced to hide it until she was 21. She was locked up in a closet for 16 years! There are many Charices out there who are also locked up, unable to live and love freely, because of the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of our society. Fr. Castro encourages that mentality and in so doing fuels and perpetuates the prejudice and discrimination – the injustice – that non-heterosexuals have to suffer. Where is the outrage?

The Philippine Growth Spurt: will it last?

Image credit: NSCB.gov.ph

The latest release of GDP growth figures showed an upward growth spurt for the country. From a growth of 6.8 per cent for 2012 (revised up from initial estimates) to an unexpected year-on-year growth of 7.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, the numbers seem to provide both a strong signal to the world that the country now is back in business and a platform for the government to claim that its policy of pursuing clean, honest governance is paying off.

Having outpaced the growth of countries like China (7.7 per cent), Indonesia (6 per cent), Thailand (5.3 per cent) and Vietnam (4.9 per cent), and having done so on the back of an expansion of manufacturing and construction, has led some commentators to claim that the country has turned a corner or reached a “tipping point” from where it would now be on solid footing on a higher growth path.

There are only three things to point out here.

The first is the blindingly obvious: one quarter’s performance does not make up a trend. We cannot make any projections regarding future prospects based on this single observation. I would argue, not even the performance of the last 18 months proves anything. Remember 1997 when we thought we were about to take off? For those who were old enough to recall, remember what happened next? The same thing can be said of today’s situation.

Second is for us not to downplay the effect of the recently concluded elections. Malacañang has stated that this was an unusual GDP growth result for a non-presidential election year. You would expect them to say that, but the problem with their argument is the automation of elections, which makes campaigns more expensive by all accounts as cheating can no longer be achieved centrally at the provincial or municipal levels, as was the case prior to automation, but has to be done at the retail, grass roots level through vote buying.

We cannot discount the fact, particularly in this election which was dominated by entrenched political families, that money might have flowed massively unlike previous midterm elections. This would have meant that provincial and municipal incumbents hit the pork barrel pretty hard in the opening months of the year in a bid to prove to constituents that they were hard at work.

Government spending and construction growth were consistent with this view, along with financial intermediation, which again could have been linked to this. That does not necessarily mean that all this spending went to waste. It just means that a large component of the first quarter growth was seasonal in nature: determined as it was by the political-business cycle.

The third and final point I would make is that the Philippines becoming the fastest growing economy in the region is more about China decelerating than it catching up to China. The two are interlinked though. Let me explain.

During the last decade, China was the workshop of the world. It basically drained the swamp for ASEAN sucking in much of the foreign direct investments in manufacturing. During this time, the Philippines suffered a hollowing out of its industrial base, what little of it that it had.


At some point in this period, China’s income per capita overtook the Philippines’. Demographically, China also started to face the consequences of their one child policy as labour started becoming scarce as investments in China’s interior slowed the migration of workers out to the prosperous coastal regions.

The newly installed Chinese president has also indicated that the government would not sacrifice the environment in pursuing economic growth. Much social unrest now stems from pollution. They are seeking to transition the country away from its dependence on exports and investment. China has basically lost its cost competitiveness and will now have to grapple with the challenges of being a middle income economy.

Early this year, it was reported that inward foreign investments into ASEAN have for the first time equalled that of China. A structural realignment is now taking place. Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are now the new Chinas. The Philippines could perhaps be benefiting from this trend as well. It probably has less to do with what the government is doing, and more to do with external factors, as I have just mentioned.

All this now puts the onus on government, however, not to “muck things up”. Recall how it inadvertently pulled down growth back in 2011 when it pursued a de facto austerity policy? Let me take the opposing view now and say that this could be the start of a trend, a structural break in economic parlance. In that scenario the one thing that could potentially derail it is the “noise” that we create. Happily for the administration, it won a rare majority in the Senate and kept control of the house (assuming its alliances hold).

The mystery now is what it plans to do with that majority. The ball is in its court. If this sudden growth spurt is to be maintained, then for the next three years, the Aquino government will have to work hard to unclog the investment pipeline in infrastructure, skills and energy that are needed to power its economy through.

Will things like charter change, the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region, territorial disputes with our neighbours or some completely unexpected Black Swan event throw us off course? That I suppose is the burning question of the day.