Friday, April 24, 2009

Why we are what we are

A long time ago, a Filipino client asked me to represent her on a claim she wanted to pursue against a car rental company for charging her credit card, in addition to the rental fee, the cost to fix the damages to the car which had been dented while it was parked on the street outside her apartment. My client came to Canada to work as a nanny and she was waiting at that time for her permanent resident status. This was the second time she had come to my office for help. The first time was a few years back for a petition to divorce her husband in the Philippines because she did not want to include him in her application for permanent residence status.

She rented the car for the weekend during her day-off. A week before, she was so thrilled to receive her driver’s licence. It meant the world to her. She could now buy her own car and drive around the city and visit places like Montreal and Niagara Falls. To drive her own car was one of her dreams in coming to Toronto.

The automobile represented to her the one biggest thing she could lay her hands on. For the first time in her life, she could be independent and could go anywhere she pleased. No more taking the subway trains or catching the bus during peak hours squeezing herself through a throng of sweaty bodies in the middle of summer or a crowd of people smelling of unwashed and mothballed winter coats and jackets in Toronto’s cold and frigid months.

Memories of years she spent in Manila riding in overcrowded jeepneys and buses or walking through muddy and always-flooded streets, easily dissipated in the air as soon as she took out the brand-new plastic driver’s licence from its envelope. She had been anxiously waiting for it for some time, feeling green with envy that some of her friends were already driving their brand-new cars. Had she stayed in Saudi Arabia where she first worked overseas, she knew she wouldn’t be able to drive because women like her were banned from driving on public roads in that country.

After buying her car, she dreamt of stuffing her apartment with all the niceties money could buy: a new plasma TV, a desktop computer with wireless Internet, a new Blackberry, and the finest pieces of furniture and modern appliances she could buy on credit. When it was about time to have a family, she thought of buying a house in the 905 area with a concrete driveway and a huge landscaped-garden in the back where she could host barbecue parties for friends and relatives in summertime.

Would this caregiver have been more interested in what is going on in public, with the plight of other caregivers like herself who are caught in-between abusive employers and greedy employment agencies, for instance?

Or would she care about other public causes like raising funds for breast cancer research, or petitioning the government to end domestic abuse, or rallying along with other women workers to demand more equal access to jobs?

From the way she recounted her story, my client’s avowed aspirations appeared no different from the dreams and hopes of Filipino immigrants and newcomers or even of the oldtimers to this country. The hope to succeed and to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours seemed to run across class lines, whether rich or poor.

Someone has said that Filipino values have been primarily those of the “economic man.” Filipinos tend to measure their relationships and their worth in terms of cold cash. “As human beings, our goals, our happiness, and our possibilities have been reduced to crude economic terms. We strive to enrich ourselves or our lives not by being much but by having much,” he said.

This seems true not only for Filipinos who have become successful overseas but also to those who have been likewise fortunate back home. The welfare of others doesn’t really count much in our estimation. The self is always the top priority, and what happens to society as a whole becomes only important to the extent that it impinges on our individual pursuits.

Because of this attitude to think only about oneself, many Filipinos have embraced the safety and comfort of being intellectually simple-minded. They have sunk to the level of the lightweight, conjuring escapes to entertain themselves from boredom and to keep them from thinking of more serious matters in life. A friend has observed how Filipinos of today have succumbed to a collective lassitude: they have become too lazy to think. Or perhaps, even afraid to think.

Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, in his pamphlet, “The Indolence of the Filipino,” wrote that “A man in the Philippines is only an individual, he is not a member of a nation.” This observation remains valid today. Back home, Filipinos are as divided and as estranged from each other since the colonial days of old. This lack of unity and harmony among the people is not geography’s fault alone. Mostly, people’s personal economic circumstances have driven them to fend for their own needs first before they could even think of the general good of the nation. People cannot be expected to cooperate in the name of national unity or for a larger social cause if they are still preoccupied with their personal and individualistic concerns.

The overseas Filipino behaves in the same way. The family’s economic well-being is more important than anything else. No time is wasted fretting about other people’s problems or of the state of the nation if they do not directly and personally impact on his life or on his family. He may join social clubs or other organizations like his school alumni or town association for the simple need for fellowship or camaraderie, or to enhance his public image, or to network with others who can potentially be helpful or useful to his personal pursuits.

Thus, it is easier to invite Filipinos to a social gathering where, for example, the main feature is watching a world championship boxing match between an adored and idolized Filipino boxer against a white or Mexican opponent. Especially if beer is served with home-cooked Filipino food as appetizers. But mobilize them to join a rally against exploitation of Filipino live-in caregivers or to protest against injustice and cruelty committed to a Filipino youth by city’s policemen, and nary a soul will show up except those few who are genuinely committed to social causes.

It will not be difficult to persuade Filipinos to come in droves to a celebration highlighted by singers and other entertainers or a beauty contest such as the Miss Toronto or Miss Canada-Philippines pageant. Ask them to join a political meeting and only the diehard social activists will show up. Importing celebrity entertainers from the Philippines could bring in bigger crowds than inviting a politician or a labour leader to speak in an open forum.

Even the deeply religious Filipino Christians among us are lukewarm to support causes or advocacies that espouse humanist values such as helping wipe out poverty or eliminating homelessness. Like the religious Filipinos back home, the overseas Filipino religious population seems content to express their devotions in attending masses or novenas more than once or twice, and in participating in prayer groups, chain letters and pilgrimages, or in other activities, which may be criticized, rightly or wrongly, as promoting an escapist religion that is disconnected from social reality.

Why is it so difficult for Filipinos to support social causes? Have Filipinos have become more materialistic? Perhaps the earlier deprivation of material things in life back home has made Filipinos in this new land pursue more materialistic objectives once given the opportunities. The colonial mentality ingrained by foreign occupations and an educational system that rewards individual efforts have pushed the Filipino to become more selfish, rather than selfless. Amassing material comforts has diminished whatever is left of the Filipino’s aspiration for a higher and nobler reason for living. Once basic needs have been satisfied, the effort to elevate to a higher hierarchy of needs appears to stop. Money and material things seem to be the apex of the Filipino’s achievement index.

Something must be wrong with the Filipino psyche. Many attempts to correctly identify what it is and explain why, including this one, have fallen short of expectations. And we better start with a new analysis or a fresher insight rather than keep repeating the observations of our Filipino historians or intellectuals, present and past, because we’re not getting the right answers or clues on what’s really wrong with us. We cannot keep blaming our colonial history, our miseducation, or the shallowness of our religion. We cannot forever rationalize our lack of collective vision or dream by pointing to our economic deprivation. We cannot simply escape towards the comfort and safety of a new life that is totally disconnected from our past.

The Filipino is not a mystery that cannot be untangled. We owe it to our forebears and to our children to lay the path towards a future that gives more sense, weight and meaning to life than merely buying a car.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The hyphenated Filipino-Canadian

Filipinos in Canada, perhaps also in the United States, are often conflicted about their allegiances. They seem ambivalent between two solitudes, the motherland they left behind and the new country they’ve chosen to live in.

Those who have difficulty adjusting to the foreign culture and the way of life in their new country simply have stuck to their roots. This is obvious in the food they eat, the groups they hang out with, their regional accent when they speak, but more than these manifestations of filial devotion to their motherland and its culture, is their world outlook. They think and talk with the point of view of the Filipino who has never left his moorings, i.e., almost everything to them is “Pinoy-centric.”

On the other hand, those who have integrated and blended well with the social fabric of their new community suddenly appear to be afflicted with “Pinoy-amnesia,” i.e., any reminders of their past and their roots have been summarily blocked out from their consciousness. Again, this is obvious in the food they eat, the groups they go out with, the way they talk with the airs and manners of those who are Canadian-bred, but beneath all these outward symbols of association with the foreign culture they have embraced, is a repressed and deep-seated longing for their motherland. Here lies the conflict in those who have become Canadians in every way of life yet inwardly pine over losing grip of their ancestral roots.

Thus, those who have remained steadfastly faithful to Filipino values and aspirations or the Filipino culture as a whole seem to be more at peace with themselves. They keep themselves abreast with Filipino current events, the politics in the old country, and everything there is to know or to follow, like their favourite television programs back home, or up-and-coming movies or sports news. The downside of this inner peace they have achieved is their loss of connection with mainstream Canadian society. They have remained virtual foreigners in their land of choice, and sadly, without a political voice. They are simply content to celebrate Filipino culture during Philippine Independence Day or other festivals that showcase Filipino local talents or entertainers imported from the Philippines. When they go out and vote during elections, they do so perfunctorily.

But those who become Canadians by virtue of their conscious assimilation into the main fabric of Canadian society have much bigger problems, for they are really the ones who are conflicted. They have forsaken their Filipino roots to become full-pledged Canadians, but they are still at the threshold of acceptance even if they think they have been fully integrated. This has led others to label Canadians of Filipino descent as an “invisible minority,” obviously due to their lack of political power and representation in government despite being the third largest Asian group in Canada, after the Chinese and the Indians.

This is similarly true in the United States. A Filipino-American author has called Americans of Filipino descent as the “hidden majority,” referring to a census that showed Filipinos in the United States are the second largest Asian group, right behind the Chinese. The author was wondering why most Americans don’t even realize that Filipinos are this big in number in America. “Unlike the French who know why there are many Algerians in Paris, or the British who know why there are so many Indians in London,” the author laments about the invisibility of the Filipino multitude.

It is quite understandable that those who have chosen to hold fast to their Filipino ancestry have no political clout or voice in their government through their own so-called leaders. This is a political choice they have made, partly because they do not have the necessary wherewithal to be engaged in the civic nation, and also partly because of lack of interest. Political involvement or civic engagement in their new society, as it is now more popularly called, hardly exists among this group. But gauge their interest in politics and what’s going on back home in the Philippines, and you’ll get a very warm response.

In the city of Toronto, which is traditionally the centre of economic prosperity in Canada, Filipinos have embraced what one Pinoy describes as a “leaderless lifestyle.” Although this could be a misnomer since there are several hundreds of organizations of Filipinos in the city, where every town and province in the Philippines is represented by its own association, or where every school, whether secondary or university, has an alumni organization. Even national heroes have their own respective followings, or even religious groups organized based on the intensity of their devotion.

It is “leaderless” probably because every organization pursues its own self-interest. Every so-called leader has his own agenda. Once in a while, these organizations may align themselves in a common cause, but eventually they part ways when the rationale for such an alliance wanes. Unity among Filipino-Canadians is ephemeral, and very difficult to sustain. It’s much more practical for each organization to exist on its own.

Someone has commented that “we don’t have a Filipinotown” in Toronto, apparently in reference to Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal or India Bazaar, which are little pockets in the city that represent concentrations of ethnic or national origins. But this may not be a negative thing at all because it could also indicate how seamlessly Filipinos have integrated into their communities without necessarily erecting walls around them and isolating themselves like private enclaves as other ethnic groups have tended to do.

Despite its increasingly growing population and the ease in how Filipinos assimilate into mainstream Canadian society, however, Filipinos still remain invisible and politically powerless. At least in the western Canadian provinces, Filipinos were able to elect members of the provincial and federal parliaments. Not so in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where only a handful of Filipinos elected to political office still languish in entry positions such as school trustee or local councillor. The GTA is now the home to the largest Filipino community in Canada with about 1 out of 2 Filipinos in Canada residing in the area.

What is most disturbing about Filipino political engagement in Toronto is the apparent absence and lack of interest of the second- or third-generation Filipinos, children of Filipinos who came to Canada as toddlers or those born and educated here in Canada. Why is this so?

Second- or third-generation Filipinos in Canada are those born in the 1970s and roughly are now in their early or late 30s. Majority of these youth have gone to university, and some have become lawyers, doctors, engineers or management and computer professionals. While they focus on their career paths, their parents and elders meanwhile continue to hug leadership positions in various Filipino community organizations. Because they have not had this opportunity to lead back home, this seniors group is still ambitious to lead no matter at what cost. With the exception of one organization run by young writers, photographers and visual artists, the rest of community or advocacy organizations of Filipinos in Toronto are in the hands of older leaders, perhaps a cultural legacy from the past where traditional villages and communities were led by elders.

Another possible reason why younger Filipinos are disinterested is the nature and purpose of most Filipino community organizations. Majority of these organizations have been established to assist new immigrants in their settlement, such as helping them navigate the government bureaucracy to get their SIN, OHIP or help in identifying job opportunities. Others are organized as mere social clubs. These organizations are not structured along political or ideological lines, e.g., whether they subscribe to the platforms of any of the political parties in Canada. On top of their objective to help in the resettlement of new immigrants, these organizations have also assumed the task of preserving Filipino heritage and culture for which they could get funding from the government under its policy of multiculturalism.

The combination of “leadership-hugging by elders” and the limited objectives of most Filipino community organizations have driven younger Filipinos away from engagement with their community. Some of them may have joined mainstream political parties, but in the process they have also lost the necessary connection with their community that can potentially provide them support and the numbers they need to either get nominated or elected to office. A drawback to this withdrawal of younger Filipinos from their community’s narrow involvement in mainstream Canadian politics is their loss of meaningful affinity with their parents’ culture and ancestry.

Just like all other immigrants to this country, Filipinos will always be connected to their past and this relationship can either be beneficial or disadvantageous, depending on how it matters in making one’s world view. Too much reliance on one’s past or too close ties to ancestral culture and values may hinder integration with one’s new environment. Abandoning one’s past, however, may engender an individual’s loss of identity. Both rigidity and conformism can exact a heavy price.

Filipinos in Canada do not have a choice of favouring one side to the detriment of his or her new identity. Stick with being a Filipino, who is authentic and true, or be a Canadian who is fully integrated regardless of colour or creed. Straddling both worlds appears to be the only rational choice; yes, to be both, and to reflect the best of both worlds. Bridging the two solitudes or balancing the differences and similarities of their two countries is not only practical but sensible as well, especially in a multicultural society. Herein lies a possible solution to the Filipino searching for identity and authenticity in a global community.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Finding the great Filipino leader

Should President Gloria Arroyo finally come to her senses and accept that she has no other choice but to respect and obey the Constitution of the Philippines, then by June 30, 2010, a new president will take the oath of office as the fifteenth president of the Republic.

But if she succeeds in the waning months of her presidency in changing the current presidential form of government to a parliamentary system, the likelihood is we will continue to see Mrs. Arroyo clinging to the leadership of her party, which for all intents and purposes, including cheating by all means, will capture the most number of seats in the new parliament. As party leader, she is in line for the position of Prime Minister or President, or whatever new title she calls herself, as head of the country’s government.

A number of presidential hopefuls have already made known their desire to run for president in next year’s national elections, including a current provincial governor who is on leave from his vocation as a priest, and possibly another religious leader who heads the Jesus is Lord Movement (JIL) in the Philippines, with the potential support from the Catholic group El Shaddai.

The Philippines has no shortage of wannabe presidents. In fact, we might as well start the presidential campaign now and call it “Everyone is a leader.”

Why this fascination for a “leader”? The Germans would probably stick their heads in the ground if asked to invest their hopes in the “fuehrer,” the German word for leader, which had betrayed them egregiously in the past.

Same thing for the British, although the English word “leader” does not evoke the negative response of its German equivalent. But the English word “leadership” has its origins from the ancient root “leith,” meaning, “to go forth and die,” as in battle. Even if we remove the connotation of violence and assume that “leader” represents a higher cause, the word still means the act of mobilizing one group to dominate or vanquish the other.

Either way, both descriptions seem to fit our present crop of Filipino leaders or leaders-in-waiting. At present, we have a president who is accused by many as acting like a German fuehrer, so reminiscent of the leader the Germans now are trying to obliterate from their consciousness. Or we have leaders-in-waiting who are eager and ready to annihilate each other.

Without a modifier like “democratic” or “collaborative,” “ethical or “transformational,” or perhaps, “dictatorial" or "authoritarian,” the word “leader” by itself is naked and sounds hollow. Just as the German word “fuehrer” appears ominous, especially for those who understand more recent history.

Many kinds of people, good and bad, loving and tyrannical, can be called a “leader” today. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader. So were Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Hitler was also a leader. So was Stalin. And we certainly have to call Osama Bin Laden, Slobodan Milosovic and Kim Jong Ill leaders as well.

So, what then is a “leader” and what is he or she like?

In the last 2008 U.S. presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, the Centre for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School, John F. Kennedy School of Government, developed 15 leadership questions for the presidential candidates to answer, questions deep and purposive so as not to elicit their usual stock responses and sound bites.

The first five questions revolve around who the candidates really were: their core values and how they influence the way they lead; attributes and competencies they value most and which will serve them well in the White House; weaknesses and mistakes or tendencies that may cause their presidency to fail; historical figures whom they have learned from; world view or experiences that helped them understand the values of others.

The next four questions relate to people who will join them at the leadership table: the composition of the high performing team that they would build; their ability to catalyze conflicting opinions and build coalitions; how they will create a more participatory democracy by giving people the opportunity to influence decision-making; and how they will keep the next generation—the young people—engaged.

How the two leaders will decide was the focus of the next two questions: their ability and willingness to be decisive, and how they will judge in times of crisis.

Finally, the last three questions concern how they will act and what they will act on: how they will overcome resistance to change; how they will create an environment for innovation within their leadership team; the first few things they are going to do to raise confidence at home and abroad; and lastly, their priorities that indicate desire to change or reverse negative views about the country.

The questions appear to stress three very important answers we’re looking for in a leader: one, a leader must have certain values that will serve him well; two, he is decisive yet encourages others to participate in making decisions; and three, he doesn’t shy away from conflicts but instead resolves them by bridging differences.

Suppose we are now deep in the presidential campaign and we have only a few more days to go to select from among, let’s say, six candidates, the next president of the Philippines. Assume, too, that Mrs. Arroyo has reluctantly accepted her fate as the outgoing leader and that she’s finally resigned to simply campaign for her vice-president to be elected as her successor. The rest of the presidential pretenders are one governor-priest on leave, a religious “cult” leader, and three sitting senators. Of course, there are others also running, about thirteen in all, but consider them as nuisance candidates.

Now, let’s ask them the 15 questions the Harvard Kennedy School asked from the two U.S. presidential candidates in 2008. Here’s a summary of their possible responses.

On core values, all of them seemed beaming with pride as they pounded their chests proclaiming how their religious faith has strengthened their resolve to do what is best to make the country great again, with all honesty, integrity and humility. As expected, this will sound familiar.

Every election time, all candidates for office in the Philippines always make promises to transform our country from a pile of ashes to a pantheon of greatness. Each candidate will summon the high heavens as they conjure up a city of God on earth, a place on top of the hill that is inhabited by happy and contented people. With two candidates from the religious sector and a dominantly Christian voting population, the others, to beat the odds, must have to sound equally as pious and as devoted to their faith if not as messianic as well.

In 1965, a candidate with such gift of gab captivated the entire country as he called upon every Filipino to make the country great again. Once in power, however, he ruled with an iron fist, ignored the rule of law, and imposed his own vision of a new society.

For almost twenty years, the country plunged into the dark abyss of repression, rearing up children moulded in the culture and values of the new society, who today have become our new leaders who are afraid to question authority and who consider dissent as subversive.

The helmsman of the new society has long been dead but his ideas and dreams still live. Consider how Gloria Arroyo tried and failed to emulate him. Others will surely attempt to put in place a newer version of the new society; just wait until this leader is elected to office.

You all know the answers to the rest of the questions. Undoubtedly, every candidate will appeal to the middle ground, promise to listen to both sides of the argument, and make reasonable compromise the touchstone of his decision-making.

Because we live in a less individualistic culture than the United States, every candidate will emphasize the collaborative or communal nature of leadership knowing that this appeals to voters. Once the candidate gets elected, the new president will fall back on the overbearing and arrogant mantra of leader-as-ruler that has been the legacy of the new society of the 1970s.

Will the new president be decisive? Yes, to the point of being dictatorial. Will others be encouraged to participate in decision-making? Yes, as long as it’s limited to giving assent and agreement to the president’s plans and ideas.

It’s probably still light years away before we will elect a leader among us who can ameliorate, instead of exacerbate, conflict. Someone who can be an advocate for the whole and has the capacity to work effectively on behalf of all the parts of the community. Someone who is able to bridge and link disparate and often hostile constituencies, or to act as a healing force between opposing sides.

It’s a tragedy that we have continuously failed to elect such type of leader when we are a more community-oriented people, rather than individualistic. Blame that on the values ingrained by the new society and our penchant for being American copycats.

To paraphrase an American commentator, perhaps, as a nation, we are suffering not only from a failure of our institutions, but more so from a failure of our leaders across those institutions as well.

Will the 2010 Philippine presidential elections inspire a great burst of hope just as Barack Obama did through sheer personal persuasion? May be, but only if we are going to have a real and true election.

Monday, April 06, 2009

There are issues bigger than Nicole's

To most Filipinos recently, Suzette Nicolas, aka “Nicole,” personifies what it means to recant one’s story.

In 2006, a Philippine trial court convicted Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, a U.S. marine, of raping Nicole. Why Nicole should change her claim that she was raped by the accused after three years have passed befuddles many.

Most rape victims don’t change their stories after the accused is convicted. The retraction does not have any legal weight in the appeal process where judges simply look at errors in law that were committed by the trial judge. But to the minds of many, including the judges hearing the appeal, Nicole’s retraction could be enough to suggest some reasonable doubt as to Smith’s culpability.

The retraction would also soften the impact of the possibility of a reversal of the lower court’s decision to convict Smith of a heinous crime since the victim has already recanted. By the time the decision is handed down by the Court of Appeals, the public would have already decided that Smith wasn’t guilty after all. It’s still going to be controversial without a doubt but it will no longer be that big enough to flame a thousand and one demonstrations and rallies on the streets in order to denounce Smith’s acquittal or for the militant organizations demanding the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to continue Nicole’s case as a rallying cry. The fire has been doused.

In Nicole’s case it is very obvious why she has changed her tune. First, in the civil case against Smith, Nicole’s retraction was necessary to mitigate the damages, but not to render Smith’s liability so pitilessly insignificant. How much is 100 thousand Philippine pesos as compensation for the agony and pain Nicole suffered? Now, her detractors can add her humiliation for playing Judas.

Second, although this is merely speculative, Nicole’s retraction is the price for a visa for her, and her entire family perhaps, to travel to the United States where she can start life anew and realize their family’s dream of moving to the U.S. someday. Approval of the U.S. visa could also be seen as part of the deal to settle the civil liability case against Smith. This part of the settlement seems beneficial to both the United States and the Philippine government which needed something to distract the militant protest against the VFA.

However one analyzes Nicole’s retraction, the invisible hand of the United States, with the complicity of the Philippine government, is omnipresent from the preparation of Nicole’s affidavit which included her retraction to the circumstances surrounding the settlement of the civil suit against Smith and the abrupt departure of Nicole to, where else, but the United States. The incumbent Arroyo government would prefer by all means that the rape case wither away because it was adding flames to the VFA protest and therefore endangering the continuous flow of military aid from the United States which the Philippine military needs to avert the growing strength of the Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao.

But no matter how loud Filipinos cry uncle and blame the United States’ meddling in this matter, the bigger stake lies in the status of the VFA which many quarters in the Philippines would like to scrap for being practically another military bases agreement, Nicole’s retraction left a bad taste in our mouths. To the militant anti-VFA groups, using Nicole’s case as battlecry to drive the American forces out of the country is so out of proportion to the appalling deaths of civilians and exodus of refugees in Mindanao as a result of the military operations conducted by the “visiting” American soldiers and their counterpart Philippine army against suspected Muslim rebels in the region. The fatalities and havoc caused by the American visiting forces in Mindanao, which represent an assault on Philippine sovereignty, should be the real trigger to launch a massive outcry against the United States. One rape incident is not going to accomplish this purpose.

Nicole and her family were never against the American visiting contingent in the first place. An American soldier raping Nicole would never change the family’s convictions. Nicole grew up interacting with American servicemen patronizing the canteen the family operated inside the Southern Command. Her former boyfriend was an American serviceman. Nicole’s previous liaisons with American servicemen had already cheapened her personal image to the eyes of many, and a rape incident that turned into consensual sex, as her retraction would appear to suggest, is nothing but almost foreseeable, especially if it could be their meal ticket to the United States.

Of course, only Nicole can explain why she recanted. But what would motivate a victim of a sexual offence or any crime, for that matter, to recant?

If Nicole made the retraction before Smith’s conviction by the lower court, it would almost be excusable although it does not serve the ends of justice. Many victims of sexual crimes either become uncooperative or recant their stories, thus prosecuting these cases is very hard and difficult.

There are numerous reasons why a victim of a sexual crime can become uncooperative or recant. These include fear of the accused, financial need, trying to keep the family together, and embarrassment or the stigma of shame. Police officers responding to a scene of sexual crime would normally approach the possibility of charges with the belief that the victim will be uncooperative or will recant later.

Nicole in her affidavit stated: “My conscience continues to bother me realizing that I may have in fact been so friendly and intimate with Daniel Smith at the Neptune Club that he was led to believe that I was amenable to having sex or that we simply just got carried away. I would rather risk public outrage than do nothing to help the court in ensuring that justice is served.”

Believing Nicole’s affidavit to be true, she was cleansing her conscience when she recanted her earlier story, to help the court ensure that justice is served. But nobody is buying into that.

The militant organizations which supported Nicole’s case from the beginning of the trial up until now should have foreseen the possibility that Nicole might recant. Our experience with the military bases agreement between the Philippines and the U.S. is replete with cases of Filipino women who had suffered sexual crimes and other indignities in the hands of American soldiers, but who were never prosecuted and brought to justice in Philippine courts because they were granted immunity under the agreement.

That the same travesty of justice would happen under the VFA is therefore not unforeseeable, especially if we have a government that is more than willing to forego of its sovereignty to kowtow with the U.S. government every time.

A Philippine news editorial suggests that “Nicole has irreparably damaged the Filipina globally.” With already a beleaguered Filipina image across the world, Nicole as the editorial would suggest, made the “global perception of the Filipina as a domestic helper, to the Filipina as a cheap one-night stand.”

That is stretching the argument too far. If one incident of rape could not persuade the government-of-the-day to scrap an onerous and subservient piece of agreement such as the VFA, how much more could it embody or redefine the image of the Filipino woman as a cheap slut? Over the years, the persona of a Filipino woman has undergone so many positive changes that she could now stand on stage with other women of other nationalities knowing she’s equal with them, and just as capable. We have many success stories of Filipino women in America and in the Philippines who have accomplished feats hitherto men can only achieve.

Nicole could be a stain that will go away someday, but she would not be an indelible character that would sully the Filipina image permanently.

Nicole has been through hell and back. She regained her dignity, perhaps not so much due justice, when Smith was convicted of raping her. That dignity was immediately lost when she recanted her story. No one will ever know what really happened; whether Nicole was raped or if she had consensual sex or whether she had been pressured to recant.

Everyone seems so engrossed with the sensational aspects of her story that we have forgotten that the one person who will bear this burden would be Nicole, a woman twice betrayed by her own government and by a superpower that touts to be the “friend of the world’s peoples.” For now, let Nicole move on. We have other bigger issues to fight.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Playing with compassionate capitalism

At least the U.S. economic recession appears to have done something good for consumers. Or not.

With auto sales plunging to their lowest levels in 27 years, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors are giving their car buyers payment protection plans if they lose their jobs or they are torn between buying a new car or keeping the old cranker.

Ford will cover payments up to $700 each month if consumers lose their jobs, while GM will pay $500 to customers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

These generous offers from America’s top two automobile manufacturers followed President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. government will back new-car warranties issued by GM and Chrysler, both companies seeking further federal assistance to bail them out of potential bankruptcy. Obama’s announcement is expected to boost consumer confidence about buying their vehicles.

Comedian Jay Leno, host of the “Tonight” show, will be performing for free at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 7, 2009, in what could be a little comic relief for Michigan’s high unemployment. Michigan’s unemployment rate has been among the highest in the entire United States.

The free show is designed for “anybody out-of-work in Detroit,” said the comedian. The unemployed will get tickets to the event, plus free refreshments and parking.

To help avert a double-digit sales decline, Hyundai Motor Co. launched a program in January 2009 that allows buyers to return their vehicles within a year if they can’t make the payments due to job loss or disability. Ford is also offering zero-per cent financing on certain car models. The auto company likewise announced it would partner with its dealers in introducing a program to help local charities affected by the economic downturn.

Drugstore operator Walgreen is offering free-clinic visits to the unemployed and uninsured for the rest of 2009. The clinics would provide tests and routine treatment for minor ailments for free, but patients will still have to pay for their prescriptions. According to Walgreen, patients will get treatment at its in-store “Take Care” clinics for respiratory problems, allergies, infections and skin conditions that would typically cost $59 or more for patients with no health insurance.

There are more examples of companies reaching to the bottom of their hearts in these very tough economic times. Australia-based outfitter, Intrepid Travel, has offered those let go of their employment a 15% discount on more than 400 of its tour packages since September last year. Those downsized, but who optimistically called their layoffs as extra vacation time, would surely love their offer of “Laid Off Take Off” deal.

Compassionate capitalism, as it is more popularly called, is not new. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, donated 48 million dollars in grants to public-private projects designed to boost incomes of poor small cocoa and cashew farmers in Africa, hoping the assistance would help farmers lift themselves out of poverty and reduce hunger. Similarly, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations have been generous donors to worthwhile projects worldwide even before Bill Gates and his wife Melinda came to embrace philanthropy.

Not being cynical, but does compassionate capitalism really work? Or is it really capitalism with a heart?

According to Maimonides, a great Talmudic philosopher, “The highest form of charity is to prevent someone from having to take charity.” Advocates of microfinance or microcredit, for example, favour giving a small loan at fair market value to the poor and the jobless so they can start their own small business. Exactly what Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank has been providing in bringing livelihood opportunities to the doorsteps of millions of poor Bangladeshi women.

Indian entrepreneur Narayan Murthy, founder of the global software giant Infosys and one of the world’s most admired business leaders, has called on India to practise compassionate capitalism as the only solution to poverty in the country. Murthy said, “If India has to solve its problem of poverty, we have to embrace capitalism. As evangelists of capitalism, we must conduct ourselves in a manner that will appeal to the masses.”

But the payment protection plans of Ford and GM for their consumers can hardly be called compassionate at all. They are all designed to keep consumers buying; hence, at best, they are marketing strategies that would eventually translate into more sales and more money to companies. President Obama’s assurance about warranties is the same thing, a mere booster for consumer confidence that would keep people buying even when their pockets have already dried up because there are no more jobs to pay them wages.

Walgreen’s free patient care is likely to attract more and longer line-ups to their clinics. So far, about 30 per cent of its “Take Care” patients were new customers to Walgreen. But it is certainly not a better substitute for comprehensive health care reform. It is called taking advantage of opportunities in an economic recession.

Helping GM survive the recession is indeed compassionate capitalism, and there is no doubt about that. This reminds us of one of the most notorious statements of the twentieth century attributed to a former GM president and later Secretary of Defence in the Eisenhower administration, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, what is good for General Motors is good for the country.” Perhaps, this is also the underlying reason why the Obama administration is rescuing GM.

Starbucks has also announced the impending closing of some of its retail outlets that have less than twenty per cent profit margin, calling them “underperforming.” But how many businesses in these recessionary times have a greater than twenty per cent margin? So thousands will lose their jobs because Starbucks isn’t making enough profit on these stores to satisfy their thirst for money. Wouldn’t it be amazing, in the name of compassionate capitalism, if Starbucks offered employees of those stores the chance to buy them as franchises and thus keep their jobs? Maybe Starbucks is just practising compassionate capitalism by allowing their competitors to survive.

How about a little dose of compassionate capitalism as the best way to thank your redundant employees? One U.S. manager felt pangs of guilt after firing some of his staff and the rush of depression carried on with his day at work. So he placed a “for hire” advertisement in Craigslist to help peddle his ex-developers’ skills after being forced to axe them. Is this type of compassion right?

Rich DeVos wrote in his book, From Compassionate Capitalism, “What we think about people matters a great deal. If we think of them as children of God, possessing a divine spark and having God-given worth, it follows that we ought to treat all people with respect and dignity. But if we think of people in a strictly material sense, devoid of any spirituality and gaining worth only through the state, then what happens? We need only to look at communist history to answer that question.”

DeVos is co-founder of Amway Corporation, an American company that has two million independent distributors in 70 countries around the world, including China. It has been investigated by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for allegations that its companies are pyramid schemes or cults. In 1983, Amway pleaded guilty to criminal tax evasion and customs fraud in Canada, resulting in a fine of $25 million dollars, the largest fine imposed in Canada at the time. In 1989, Amway settled outstanding custom duties for $45 million. Amway has been involved in several other cases which they settled out-of-court.

Would anyone be persuaded by DeVos about compassionate capitalism when there’s so much doubt on how Amway profited from its multimarketing schemes? This is not someone like Bill Gates or Narayan Murthy.

Compassionate capitalism in America is nothing but the same compassionate conservatism that has been levelled against George W. Bush, a rubric that sounded like welfare state although what it wanted to conserve was really the capitalist system. Worried about being considered heartless, thus losing the presidential election, Bush and the Republican Party opted for compassionate conservatism, which is actually more of the same, less government for more market capitalism

When the U.S. Congress approved the billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street and financial institutions like AIG, Citibank, Bank of America, et al, nobody described it as compassionate capitalism. Maybe that’s right, because the bailout money was spent mostly for millions of dollars in bonuses for Wall Street top executives, hardly an act of compassion for the poor and the needy.