Friday, January 29, 2010

Big business and trapos

is the familiar word Filipinos have come to use in describing the country’s traditional politicians. Literally translated from Spanish, trapo means “dishrag,” quite an appropriate term for our local politicians, who, by any stretch of imagination, are perceived to be corrupt.

Today, our understanding of trapo has very little to do with being traditional but more with being dirty and immoral. A twist of irony because to be traditional originally meant to stick to one’s moral standards.

We are in effect conducting a useless and expensive democratic exercise in electing trapos to office. The enormous amount of money spent in electing trapos could have been better put to use on social and economic programs that the people direly need.

Candidates for president and vice-president in the Philippines are allowed by law to spend 10 pesos per registered voter. Assuming there are 5o million registered voters, this is 50 million pesos per candidate, or roughly $1 million (U.S.) each candidate. Add a counterpart fund of 5 pesos per voter that a political party can spend, or a total of approximately $1.5 million for one candidate. And this is just scratching the surface. If we add cheating expenses incurred during the actual election and counting of votes, the total cost could reach about 5 billion pesos (approximately $1oo million U.S.) per presidential candidate, an amount estimated by Senator Manuel Villar, a presidential aspirant, in an interview in October 2009. While this figure is way beyond the allowable expenditure limits, every candidate knows how to avoid the law governing election finance because there is no effective enforcement of said election laws.

Reality Show: Only the rich can be elected

The real issue is not so much about election spending and regulating campaign financing but the fact only the rich can be elected to public office in the Philippines. This is true from the beginning of time, more than one hundred years before the National Assembly created by the revolutionary Malolos Republic in 1898 and to the democratic institutions ushered in thereafter by the American colonial regime.

While democracy was introduced in the Philippines under American tutelage, it was a dysfunctional democracy in many ways. The Americans nurtured a legacy of patronage-based politics that relied on public funds that passed through the hands of national legislators. They also ensured the perpetration of an elite political system that excluded the masses, a continuation of an oligarchy for the benefit of the landlord class. Even though the electorate had expanded to include non-elites in subsequent decades, a national oligarchy has been so well entrenched to maintain control of the political system until now. So those who have the financial resources or their anointed representatives are elected many times over to the detriment of the ordinary citizen’s political engagement in governance and decision-making.

No matter what electoral reforms like campaign financing or expenditure limits are adopted, only the rich and their chosen delegates will always be elected to power. There is truism in the words of a great American Republican kingmaker who said in the late 19th century: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

U.S. Supreme Court backs big business spending

The idea that money talks in politics is recently reinforced by the latest decision of the United States’ Supreme Court which struck down the longstanding ban against corporate financing during political campaigns. In short, American corporations, according to this decision, are free to spend as much as they want to elect and defeat candidates during elections. With this ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has dealt a big blow to democracy and plunged the country to the robber baron era of the 19th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court likened corporations to people and are therefore entitled to the same First Amendment rights, i.e., that artificial legal constructs (corporations are creations of the state to make money) have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have, to speak out in support of their political candidates.

What is disturbing in the U.S. court’s decision is the majority’s claim that, unlike contributions, which are still prohibited, independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” This has led a major U.S. newspaper to react in its editorial: “If Wall Street bankers told members of Congress that they would spend millions of dollars to defeat anyone who opposed their bailout, and then did so, it would certainly look corrupt.”

Reacting to the shameless judicial overreaching by the Supreme Court, U.S. President Barack Obama called the decision a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

‘Legitimate’ money and ‘grey’ money

Regardless of what Philippine election laws say about election financing, there are two categories of funding sources for Filipino politicians: “legitimate” money and “grey” money. The big contributors to “legitimate” money are businesses, especially Chinese businessmen who are considered more politically vulnerable and prone to use cash to curry certain favours and business advantages.

“Grey” money, on the other hand, comes from operators of illegal economic activities, gambling, smuggling, prostitution and drugs.

In addition, the ruling party has also the distinct advantage of tapping government resources to ensure that their anointed candidates win. Despite legal prohibitions, the party in power has the unlimited resources of government and its machinery to help their candidates. The ruling party is in a powerful position to secure contributions from business sources because of the party’s control of government contracts, licenses and other favours.

Election a contest of promises

It is therefore much clearer for corporations and businesses to corrupt the political process in the Philippines. Businessmen and corporations place bets on candidates with the greatest chances of winning so they can recover their investment once these candidates are elected. This is why they prefer the trapo to win rather than throw support on some odd crusader for good and honest government.

While some Americans may find it difficult to see the effects of stricter campaign finance rules in reducing corruption in government, which the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court justices also failed to comprehend, businesses and corporations in the Philippines, however, determine the ultimate electoral outcome by the sheer power of their money. Just like American corporations and their lobbyists in the U.S. Congress, big Filipino business corporations also shower large contributions on politicians because they want to gain access to government decision-making and shaping of policy. They would not spend the money if they get nothing in return.

Tighter restrictions on campaign money are obviously important in curbing corruption, and this is not an academic issue. At the same time, they can also level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.

But this is not going to happen in the Philippines. For as long as the culture of patronage pervades our political life, elections will always be nothing more but contests to determine who can give more and promise more.

Replacing our dysfunctional political system with one that will result in greater democratization represents a daunting challenge. This struggle for a new form of governance, however, cannot be accomplished by merely joining a moral crusade against the evils of traditional politics.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why choose the lesser evil?

This coming national election in the Philippines will not be an ordinary one.

While a successor to incumbent president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be crowned, the election can also be a prelude to a possible shift to a parliamentary system of government if Arroyo wins her congressional seat in Pampanga and becomes the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Everyone knows that Arroyo wants to continue as leader of the country and this is her last chance to force an amendment of the Philippine Constitution by way of a constituent assembly.

It will also mark the holding of the country’s first fully automated synchronized national and local elections with about 16,655 elective positions up for grabs by at least 90,000 candidates and close to 48 million voters participating. There are major gridlocks expected. The Automated Election System has been criticized for lack of transparency and other major technical inadequacies that could engender massive fraud. Automated cheating is said to be foreseeable and the failure of an honest election a possibility.

There are sectors raising the alarm that the elections might likely result in a constitutional crisis leading to a holdover presidency. Assuming the elections are able to hurdle the glitches of an automated system, still the most important consideration that the electorate must confront is the political agenda that each presidential aspirant is offering to the people. Are there articulated platforms that distinguish the candidates from each other? Do they represent meaningful reforms in public governance and possible changes in people’s lives? On the other hand, are they more or less the same?

The theory of the “lesser evil” that drives people to favour a candidate from the other has been with us since we became free to elect our country’s first president. Especially when there are no marked significant differences in what the candidates bring to the table. Before, we were used to a political duopoly whereby we had only two indistinguishable choices, either the Liberal Party candidate or the Nacionalista Party candidate, or whoever is the lesser evil of the two. With multi-parties and nine major presidential aspirants, we now face a fallacy of false choices, or simply the choice of who is the least evil of all.

Is the lesser or the least evil the best choice?

Despite the number of presidential candidates to choose from, our limitations are defined by their lack of meaningful and distinct strategies in restoring faith and hope in a government that has been riddled with lack of accountability, corruption, abuse of presidential power, an ineffective justice system, human rights violations, etc.

It seems that all the candidates are simply offering themselves as a mere replacement for a highly discredited president – and not the necessity of instituting meaningful reforms. The real question is what they will do when elected president, rather than simply put a new face in Malacanang. Their record of performance, their financial, political and other ties, and their philosophy of governance, not their media bites and sounds, will determine if they have the wherewithal and moral standing to deliver once elected to the highest office in the land.

When there is not much hope for this to happen, voters become boxed in by the lesser-or least-evil option, which is not the best alternative if people really want political transformation. This lesser-evil or less-nefarious theory makes no sense in our present situation where meaningful reforms are badly needed because the government cannot afford to keep taxing the people’s hope and faith in a system that is rotten to the core.

The choice between a bad or a less bad candidate seems an unconstructive and self-defeating option. It is an apathetic attitude, an acceptance of our own powerlessness. It reflects a fundamentally pessimistic approach to life and disregards the potential for creative alternatives.

It advances the old argument that one should only cast a useful vote rather than a principled one. It is based on the perception that change can only happen within the present body politic, thus enforces the status quo in place and can result in the frustration and disenfranchisement of many.

If we consider ourselves an integral part of our nation’s long historical continuum, then the lesser evil conundrum has no place in it. We should not be content with less evil; rather, we should stand for what is right. Evil is evil no matter that it is less. To do the right thing must be our goal even if this takes our whole lifetime to achieve.

Some may criticize this as plain naïveté and that a refusal to participate or not to vote could be a waste of time. The system cannot be changed through democratic means, they would say. What is really needed is a revolution. A revolution, indeed, might be the only alternative if we continue our willingness to embrace the lesser evil, instead of shunning the system so that it will take notice. The issue is about convincing people to express their voice at the polls and demand that real alternatives be offered.

The “civil society” movement in the Philippines is growing stronger. It offers real and meaningful alternatives that respond to the people’s clamour for effective leadership and governance as well as social and economic reforms. Reforms cannot be entrusted to traditional politicians who have repeatedly failed so miserably, and who are the ones to be blamed for our country’s political, social and economic disintegration.

This coming election will also gauge how much this movement can influence its outcome. If nothing positive happens, there is always the next election before we head for the hills.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Recognizing ourselves

According to psychologists, misattribution is one of the seven fundamental “sins” of memory’s transgressions. Misattribution is usually associated with false recognition, and oftentimes, Filipinos are culpable of this sin.

In November 2008, I wrote a story a friend told me regarding a group of Filipino nannies recruited by a Toronto employment agency to work as live-in caregivers in Toronto. Most of the nannies were recruited in Hongkong and promised work visas to work in Toronto.

Toronto is the dream destination of every Filipino woman working overseas as a housekeeper or nanny. Unlike other countries, a live-in caregiver in Toronto has a pathway to permanent residence, and eventually to Canadian citizenship. More than fifty per cent of Filipino Canadians in Toronto have come to Canada by this route.

However, the nannies had no clue that their work contracts were a fraud. There was no work waiting for them upon their arrival in Toronto. Their agent housed them in a cramped basement and forced them to take on temporary jobs without pay in exchange for accommodation and food.

My friend who also heads an advocacy organization for Filipino live-in caregivers cautioned me to keep mum about it. The nannies were caught in a dilemma whether to report their situation to the authorities or face deportation. They approached the Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Toronto but only to be told there was nothing they could do with their problem. The Labour Attaché said it was up to their agency to comply with their contractual agreement.

With their deportation looming should they tell Canada Immigration, the nannies decided to accept their fate. In March 2009, their story came out in the Toronto Star, one of the city’s mainstream newspapers.

Last December 12, 2009, the federal government announced changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program that included the Juana Tejada Law and an extension of another year for caregivers to apply for permanent residence upon completion of their work contract. The province of Ontario similarly passed legislation that will give protection to caregivers from unscrupulous employment agencies which were also prohibited from charging nannies with placement fees.

But the best part of this story is how Filipinos gave due or false recognition to those who help in improving the plight of our nannies.

Remember the Philippine Labour Attaché? He arranged a special dinner to recognize an investigative reporter (not of Filipino descent) of the Toronto Star for his series of articles exposing the bogus hiring of nannies and other temporary workers in Toronto. No recognition was given to my activist-friend who was the source of the reporter’s stories and who fought and still fights for the rights of the stranded nannies. Local community newspapers and other advocacy organizations, which covered and supported the nannies’ plight, were also ignored, as if they did nothing to help their kababayans in need. That same Labour Attaché who told the nannies before that nothing could be done about their situation.

Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister for immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism was showered with praise when he announced the changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program last December 2009 in a meeting attended by leaders of the Filipino community. Some of the leaders even cried in jubilation reassured that employment agencies will now be watched closely and that caregivers could now bring up their complaints without fear of reprisal from their employers.

Juana Tejada, who died from cancer shortly after acquiring permanent status, was honoured with the adoption of a law named after her. Mr. Kenney was called a “champion and a hero” by his new army of Filipino supporters.

Not to be outdone, the president of a Filipino alumni association in Toronto splattered his unabashed gratitude on a lawyer who helped in shepherding Tejada’s case before Canada Immigration. He even called the lawyer “the prime mover” and “main inspiration” of the movement for caregiver reforms. It would have been remarkable if his services, as a gesture to a dying woman, were pro bono.

Gene Lara, a community organizer in her senior years, took Juana Tejada under her wings when the latter’s application for permanent residence was refused because of her stage 4 colon cancer. Gene gathered all the local community journalists to publish Juana’s sad story and lobbied ferociously to have Juana’s health care coverage restored.

Meanwhile, a leader from another community organization questioned why Juana insisted on staying, instead of going home to the Philippines where her family and relatives could look after her. That same leader must now be grinning widely in praising Mr. Kenney for making the Juana Tejada Law possible. How about Gene Lara? Nobody remembered what she had done for Juana. Mila and Oswald Magno, the couple who started the worldwide petition for the Canadian government to grant Juana’s dying wish, were also relegated to oblivion.

When the stranded nannies wanted help, Pura Velasco, a diminutive woman and former nanny herself but a steadfast and untiring advocate for Filipino caregivers took their cause, wherever and whenever it was possible to air the nannies’ indignation and appeal for public understanding and popular support. Along with other nannies and former caregivers, Pura took to the streets and organized protest rallies before Canada Immigration and the Philippine Consulate in Toronto. Did anyone recall Pura’s efforts? Nobody remembered what she had done, just like Gene Lara.

The most ardent supporters of caregiver reforms in Toronto are activist-organizations like Migrante Ontario and the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), yet community organizations that never really extended meaningful support to the caregivers’ cause like the Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC), Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) and Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre got priority billing for recognition.

Filipino community leaders in Toronto are giving too much credit to politicians. The changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program are very small. In fact, they do not address the real concerns of caregivers for genuine reforms: 1) an end to the live-in requirement and 2) immediate permanent resident status for caregivers. The first is at the core of the exploitative nature of work in the homes of their employers. The second, the federal government would not accommodate, for fear that it would encourage them to switch work and leave their contracts earlier. If the caregivers were given the option to work as live-in or live-out, that at least is a huge and partial victory for them.

Protection from abuses of employers and employment agencies is long overdue.

Nannies have long been excluded from provincial protection because the law is not clear in the first place. While caregivers are subject to federal immigration law, labour protection is a provincial jurisdiction. Nannies have become victims of two levels of jurisdiction that kept passing the responsibility between them.

The Juana Tejada Law (not really a law but a regulation) serves a symbolic purpose, and is not the general rule. How many nannies would be in a Juana Tejada condition but only a miniscule number? This is already addressed in the law which allows applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, exactly the reason in granting permanent residence to Juana Tejada.

Yet, our own Labour Attaché, who is supposed to look after the interests of overseas Filipino workers, and our community leaders would not hesitate to pay homage and tribute and even hail as heroes and champions those that did not directly have a substantial role in achieving these minor reforms.

This reminds me of the first EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986 where the business sector, the Roman Catholic Church and the moderate groups took ownership of the people’s protest against the Marcos dictatorship when it was about to fall. National democratic groups and their worker, peasant and student allies who were responsible for continuing the difficult struggle against the repressive Marcos regime were displaced and pushed aside. The heroes of that revolution were now the opportunist military officers who crossed over to the side of the people, the business leaders who switched allegiances because Marcos was about to be overthrown, and the Church which removed its blessings on the government it used to cuddle.

The same phenomenon is repeated in Toronto, and possibly in other places, too, where Filipinos gather and live. From our history, we could cite Aguinaldo, a member of the ilustrado class who took away from Bonifacio, the unschooled Katipunan leader and from the working class, the leadership of the revolutionary government. In smaller situations, we probably have the same behaviour repeated many times over. Why so? Perhaps, the answer lies deep in our hearts. Our small omissions have metastasized into a collective failure of memory as a people.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The illusion of pluralism

Canada’s federal minister for immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism Jason Kenny recently re-ignited the debate on whether multiculturalism has brought Canadians together or kept various cultures separate in Canada. This is a not a new conundrum. For many doubting Canadians, multiculturalism is still an enigma and Canadians continue to grapple with the effective utility of such policy that envisaged the enrichment of Canada’s culture by taking into account the contributions of all ethnic groups.

When the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced in 1971 his government’s policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework, he stressed that while Canada had two official languages (English and French), there was no official culture for Canada. In his speech before Parliament, Trudeau said: “There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the aboriginal peoples and yet a third for all others.”

Now, Mr. Kenney is arguing for a pluralistic society, which he said is more apt to describe Canada where different cultures work together, where there is no “them,” only “us.” It seems Mr. Kenny is standing on the soil south of our borders for he sounds like talking more about the American idea of the “melting pot” where all immigrant cultures are mixed and everyone is assimilated without state intervention. But even the melting pot paradigm never realized the integration of all Americans into a cohesive body polity. Black Americans were able to evolve their distinct culture just as the Latinos similarly sustained and nourished their own culture. While Americans are wary about integration of new immigrants through their melting pot strategy, they are equally concerned about the false promise of inclusion through multiculturalism.

So, is this the end of Canadian multiculturalism? Maybe this is after all the same diversity, yet by another name.

Trudeau also emphasized in launching Canada’s multiculturalism, the first country in the world to adopt it, that “a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians. Such a policy should help to break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies.”

But look at Quebec, Trudeau’s home province and witness how it falls short in the economic integration of new immigrants compared with other Canadian provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia. New immigrants to Quebec are finding the province a difficult place to call home. Quebecers are more demanding of immigrants other than Canadians to drop their customs in favour of the majority. Quebec has even instituted a controversial policy that required new immigrants to sign a declaration accepting Quebec’s “common values,” which state for example, that speaking French is a necessity, and that men and women are equal.

Quebec has always resisted multiculturalism since its inception. Many Quebecers view multiculturalism as a ploy to downgrade Quebec’s distinct society status to the level of an ethnic minority culture under the domination of English-speaking Canada. That this is inconsistent with the special compact between the founding peoples of Canada, the English and the French. Thus, until today, Quebec designates its policy as “interculturalism,” which is concerned with the interaction between culturally diverse groups without implying any intrinsic equality among them. Diversity is tolerated and encouraged, but only within a framework that establishes the unquestioned supremacy of French in the language and culture of Quebec.

On a larger scale, is this not exactly the multiculturalism that Trudeau had envisioned for Canada? All ethnic or minority cultures are to be respected and sustained the way immigrants want them, but under the rubric of a bilingual Canada where English and French, and their respective heritages, are preserved and enriched, if not as the constructive dominant culture.

Even as a matter of policy, the Canadian government has interchangeably used the terms pluralism and multiculturalism, recognizing that Canadians today reflect a vast diversity of cultural heritages and racial groups on acount of centuries of immigration. Instead of assimilating immigrants which was the initial government strategy, it was dropped in favour of multiculturalism in order to embrace cultural pluralism while at the same time encouraging all Canadians to participate fully and equally in Canadian society.

What Mr. Kenney, therefore, is suggesting is not at all a novelty. It’s the same design cut from the same cloth. But what the federal minister failed to account for is the government’s obvious scheme of manipulating ethnicity for political gain. Take for example Mr. Kenney’s various meetings and discussions with Filipino community groups regarding issues of immigration and the Live-in Caregiver Program. At first blush, you could see an adept politician who is deeply concerned with issues that matter to these groups. But then Mr. Kenney, of course, is also largely interested in the Filipino vote as he is with other ethnic votes. Nothing in these encounters between Mr. Kenney and the Filipino community indicates a sense of political empowerment, or of a powerful political engagement of an ethnic group in government decision-making.

The same can be said for other ethnic communities as they compete for federal largesse for their respective heritage or so-called multicultural programs. Most of the funds granted to ethnic groups ultimately are spent in festivals that to Mr. Kenney conjure up images of “kiosks at folk fests -- food, folklore and festivals” or his other favourite alliteration, “song, sari and samosas.” Or among Filipinos in Toronto – the annual Santacruzan and parade of lechons, plus the frivolous beauty pageants and the copycat Filipino Singing Idol contest. As if these festive celebrations are all that make up the culture of ethnic communities or the yearning of ethnic groups to be taken as equal political partners in nation-building.

Mr. Kenny should be carefully aware that the pluralism he so desires could be nothing but a loud noise.

A disengaged ethnic community, too uninformed on many issues or a host of perspectives that really matter to them and to their integration in the larger Canadian fabric is a compelling threat to pluralism.

If the federal government is only interested in paying lip-service to multiculturalism as a symbolic equalizer, ethnic communities will remain at the fringes of political power, or as distinct enclaves isolated and separated from the mainstream culture. There is also the growing intolerance to new immigrants from countries unfortunately linked to terrorist threats and religious fundamentalism that may engender layers of discrimination which could be disguised as necessary for reasons of national security.