Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last words

This may come as a pleasant surprise to some members of the Filipino community in Toronto who have been repulsed by the critical observations I have often raised in this blog. Particularly those who had been averse to criticism as if no one is beyond reproach. The time has come, therefore, to say goodbye to this blog. All those elated to hear this news will surely feel a great sense of relief—like an unexpected but wholesome Christmas gift. Good riddance, others would probably say.

There are myriad reasons for this decision to announce my blog’s ending just about the close of 2010. I was hoping when I started posting that I would eventually reach 200 blogs before shutting it down for good. Due to shifting priorities and lack of adequate time to produce quality posts that my readers so deserve, I have chosen to embrace a life of quietude, like that of a monk who has chosen to lead a more or less contemplative life apart from the world.

However, as it is against my nature as a contrarian, I will not go quietly into the night.

In my first-ever blog, I wrote that contrary opinions play a very useful role in understanding the truth or its meaning no matter how unpopular they are. Reactions to my postings confirm the loneliness of critical dissent, but not so much of the willingness to accept the truth. For in a multitude of times, truth is somehow what is perceived as popular, neutral and safe, even though by simple logical observation it could be wrong or false. The real truth, oftentimes, is drowned by the voices of the mob and consigned to oblivion.

One community leader’s reaction to my blogs is typical of the arrogance of a few who believe they are clothed with papal infallibility. This type of leader does not take criticism mildly, not just from anyone who is beneath their mighty position in the community. This leader had the audacity to make known to all and sundry that she would never back down from criticism, whether right or wrong, especially if it is coming from this blog.

Leaders like them should be subject to a public review of their performance, for the ideas they espouse, and their apparent disdain for democratic dialogue where contrary opinions are also allowed equal space and opportunity to be heard. But like other leaders in the community, they have barricaded themselves with like-minded officers who are timid and afraid to stray from the official line when circumstances demand.

Thus, our community leaders will continue to lead and think insularly, instead of engaging with the bigger civic society. Every year they will continue to stage beauty pageants, song and dance contests, parades and other events that do not reflect our rich culture and heritage, but those that perpetuate our bondage to our colonial past. Our community organizations, as they are now, will always be instruments for the community’s self-anointed cream of the crop, for highlighting and sharing their personal milestones and other anniversaries, not to mention their trips to foreign and exotic places. We will continue to be absent from bigger and more inclusive events that celebrate our kinship with other Canadians and their current priorities. We will prolong our marginalization, thanks to our leaders and elders who do not have the vision of our youth who have long recognized the need for greater civic engagement.

Perhaps, we need a community Ombudsman who will review and assess whether our leaders truly have the interests of our community at heart. Internal reviews are self-serving and no current leaders in the community will allow herself or himself to be painted in bad light by their own committees or organizations. This may sound unrealistic, but not unachievable by any means.

Our community is presently served by a proliferation of local newspapers run by so-called journalists and profit-driven publishers who are only interested in racking up advertising revenues. A by-product of free press and the free market, our local press has become billboards for posting social and family gatherings such as weddings, birthdays, coming-out parties of society debutantes, and personal and familial promotions. Whereas we could do with three or at least five of these newspapers, we are constantly barraged, biweekly or monthly, with more than 12 similar editions of local news from the Philippines and the latest entertainment gossips. It is not so much the quantity of newspapers, but rather the mediocrity of writing and reportage that these newspapers suffer from.

Improving the quality of our local newspapers can be a worthwhile project of the Filipino press association, as they can perform audits of these newspapers if they conform to accepted standards of professional journalism. But they have to know correct English grammar and syntax, a prerequisite towards change and improvement. This may appear more unachievable given the inherent stubbornness of many Filipino-Canadians to learn how to speak and write correct English, which stems from the mistaken belief that having English as the medium of instruction in schools in the Philippines exempts us from training or even re-learning it as a second language. That is why ESL classes are filled by people from nationalities (not Filipinos) who admit that they could profit from learning English for work and for integrating within the larger Canadian community.

Just as we need a watchdog for our local newspaper reporting, the same notion may also apply for our chat or email groups on the Internet. This would, however, be enormously difficult given the neutrality and unregulated character of the Internet. It can be done through self-regulation by chat groups such as those that belong to professional alumni organizations. You may think I am making too much of this, but if we publish our thoughts on the Internet, those who regulate us should also be responsible in maintaining that we observe not only decency and respectability but also proper and correct English usage.

Take for example this message from an alumni president wishing his members good wishes for the Christmas season. While the intent was clearly to spread the good news of Christmas, it somehow vanished when he included “the material things we possess” as among those blessings we should pause to reflect on. So, if you have a Lamborghini or palatial accommodation, be thankful for not being among the ranks of those who lost their jobs and their homes due to the economic downturn or those street people who have to seek shelter from the cold this frigid winter. The message stinks of insensitivity to others who may not be as fortunate like him and his kind. A few months ago, the same leader said that “there is more to Filipinos here in Canada than care giving.” The true message he wanted to convey got “lost in translation” because, without proper grounding in grammar, he missed the intricacies and nuances of the English language whose syntax and rules of composition can oftentimes limit one’s ability for self-correction. Too much credit is given to being UP alumni, not only for tribal pride but also as a guarantee for mastery of the English language.

In all these aforementioned instances, what is clear is the need for us to have a process of accepting criticism and for correcting our faults—whether these are mere ideas we espouse to the greater public, the way we exercise our leadership, or with the statements we publish that may expose our continuing difficulties in grappling with our second language. Fundamental to this process, however, is embracing an attitude of accommodation of the opinions of others—however difficult to accept—because they come from people we deem beneath our estimable stature.

During his last Sunday homily, our parish priest said that the true spirit of Christ’s Gospel comes from justice and love. This is also the simple message that we may wish to share with others this Christmas, that there be peace, hope, love—and openness—in our hearts.

To continue reading my blogs, please go to:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Note: I am not posting my regular blog this week but instead would like to share with my readers some excerpts from the blog written by Michael Moore, Oscar and Emmy-winning director, regarding his take on WikiLeaks and the arrest of its c0-founder, Julian Assange.

Why I’m Posting Bail Money for Julian Assange
By Michael Moore

Yesterday, in the Westminster Magistrates Court in London, the lawyers for WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange presented to the judge a document from me stating that I have put up $20,000 of my own money to help bail Mr. Assange out of jail.

Furthermore, I am publicly offering the assistance of my website, my servers, my domain names and anything else I can do to keep WikiLeaks alive and thriving as it continues its work to expose the crimes that were concocted in secret and carried out in our name and with our tax dollars.

We were taken to war in Iraq on a lie. Hundreds of thousands are now dead. Just imagine if the men who planned this war crime back in 2002 had had a WikiLeaks to deal with. They might not have been able to pull it off. The only reason they thought they could get away with it was because they had a guaranteed cloak of secrecy. That guarantee has now been ripped from them, and I hope they are never able to operate in secret again.

So why is WikiLeaks, after performing such an important public service, under such vicious attack? Because they have outed and embarrassed those who have covered up the truth.

WikiLeaks deserves our thanks for shining a huge spotlight on all this. But some in the corporate-owned press have dismissed the importance of WikiLeaks ("they've released little that's new!") or have painted them as simple anarchists ("WikiLeaks just releases everything without any editorial control!"). WikiLeaks exists, in part, because the mainstream media has failed to live up to its responsibility. The corporate owners have decimated newsrooms, making it impossible for good journalists to do their job. There's no time or money anymore for investigative journalism. Simply put, investors don't want those stories exposed. They like their secrets kept ... as secrets.

I ask you to imagine how much different our world would be if WikiLeaks had existed 10 years ago. Take a look at this photo. That's Mr. Bush about to be handed a "secret" document on August 6th, 2001. Its heading read: "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." And on those pages it said the FBI had discovered "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings." Mr. Bush decided to ignore it and went fishing for the next four weeks.

But if that document had been leaked, how would you or I have reacted? What would Congress or the FAA have done? Was there not a greater chance that someone, somewhere would have done something if all of us knew about bin Laden's impending attack using hijacked planes?

But back then only a few people had access to that document. Because the secret was kept, a flight school instructor in San Diego who noticed that two Saudi students took no interest in takeoffs or landings, did nothing. Had he read about the bin Laden threat in the paper, might he have called the FBI? (Please read this essay by former FBI Agent Coleen Rowley, Time's 2002 co-Person of the Year, about her belief that had WikiLeaks been around in 2001, 9/11 might have been prevented.)

Or what if the public in 2003 had been able to read "secret" memos from Dick Cheney as he pressured the CIA to give him the "facts" he wanted in order to build his false case for war? If a WikiLeaks had revealed at that time that there were, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction, do you think that the war would have been launched -- or rather, wouldn't there have been calls for Cheney's arrest?

Openness, transparency -- these are among the few weapons the citizenry has to protect itself from the powerful and the corrupt. What if within days of August 4th, 1964 -- after the Pentagon had made up the lie that our ship was attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin -- there had been a WikiLeaks to tell the American people that the whole thing was made up? I guess 58,000 of our soldiers (and 2 million Vietnamese) might be alive today.

Instead, secrets killed them.

For those of you who think it's wrong to support Julian Assange because of the sexual assault allegations he's being held for, all I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey. Please -- never, ever believe the "official story." And regardless of Assange's guilt or innocence (see the strange nature of the allegations here), this man has the right to have bail posted and to defend himself. I have joined with filmmakers Ken Loach and John Pilger and writer Jemima Khan in putting up the bail money -- and we hope the judge will accept this and grant his release today.

Might WikiLeaks cause some unintended harm to diplomatic negotiations and U.S. interests around the world? Perhaps. But that's the price you pay when you and your government take us into a war based on a lie. Your punishment for misbehaving is that someone has to turn on all the lights in the room so that we can see what you're up to. You simply can't be trusted. So every cable, every email you write is now fair game. Sorry, but you brought this upon yourself. No one can hide from the truth now. No one can plot the next Big Lie if they know that they might be exposed.

And that is the best thing that WikiLeaks has done. WikiLeaks, God bless them, will save lives as a result of their actions. And any of you who join me in supporting them are committing a true act of patriotism.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The problem with public opinion polls

Remember the 1980 movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy?”

A Sho native in the Kalahari Desert found a Coke bottle, his very first encounter with technology, and decided to return it to God because his people started fighting over it when he brought it home in his village.

The most recent Pulse Asia survey gave President Noynoy Aquino with a very high 79 per cent approval rating, which means that nearly eight out of every ten Filipinos like what the President is doing. This is like Noynoy Aquino finding his Coke bottle on Mendiola on the way toward understanding the challenges and intricacies of a president’s job. The President’s circle of advisers must be fully elated now that their boss’s popularity continues to shoot up even after the elections had already been decided. Or this could be much akin to Shakespeare’s witches in the first act of Macbeth, foretelling his rise to power as king of Scotland. Better beware of the next two prophesies, especially the last one that tells of Macbeth’s downfall.

Considering all the trials and tribulations of Noynoy Aquino’s first 100 days in office, the gods must be crazy to give him a very high passing mark as president.

President Aquino’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said that the survey spoke glowingly of “the people’s trust in the President and official family,” which includes Noynoy’s sisters who are known to be the President’s closest advisers. Lacierda added that the survey showed the people understood the President’s efforts to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption and poverty.

Either the Pulse Asia survey got it wrong or it has joined the ranks of fanatics in the Aquino administration in denying the truth. Skim through the following and decide whether Mr. Aquino deserves this very high passing grade for his performance in the early months of his presidency:

 The Supreme Court ruled that Aquino’s order to create a Truth Tribunal is
unconstitutional, setting a major obstacle to his administration’s campaign
promise to prosecute former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for corruption.

 The Morong 43, a group of health workers detained for alleged links with the communist insurgency, have called on Aquino to order their release so they can be with their families this coming Christmas. Aquino replied that he could not do anything and it is up to the courts to decide on their fate, which surprisingly reveals his ignorance of the law.

 Last November 15, botanist Leonardo Co was killed when the 19th Infantry Battalion fired at him and others while they were conducting work inside the compound of the Energy Development Corporation. The military alleged that Co and his team were caught in the crossfire between the New People’s Army and the 19th Battalion.

 “Kuliglig” drivers were violently dispersed after they were banned from Manila inner streets. So-called “Kuliglig” for driving three-wheeled unique Filipino contraptions through the inner neighbourhoods of Manila to make a living, they said they would agree to regulation if they are compelled, but not to be deprived violently of their right to work.

 According to a research conducted by IBON Foundation, Filipinos would be assuming the burden of repaying 44 billion pesos for Aquino’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program. The administration’s CCT program will be funded by borrowings from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, which increases the debt burden on the people, thus strengthening the argument against the CCT as a dole-out program that brings no significant impact on genuine poverty eradication.

 Cases of extra-judicial killings and other human rights violations continue to pile up under the Aquino government. With 20 extra-judicial killings under his belt, Aquino has surpassed former Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s record during her last six months in office.

 On August 23, 2010, a dismissed Philippine National Police office hijacked a bus carrying a group of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong in Rizal Park. The ensuing rescue, shown live on television, resulted in the fatal shooting of eight tourists and the police officer. The Philippine government admitted the rescue operations were bungled and the Hong Kong government responded with a “black” travel alert to the Philippines.

 303 days have passed since Noynoy Aquino promised to distribute Hacienda Luisita to their rightful owners, and Noynoy’s promise remains outstanding.

If the above incidents bother your conscience, then you must be wondering why the recent Pulse Asia survey gave Mr. Aquino a flattering appraisal of his early presidency. But if by a miracle or whatever reason you happen to agree with the survey, then you are probably also living in another planet.

It is not surprising that President Noynoy Aquino continues to sleep on his job since induction to the presidency. He was a do-nothing member of Congress, both as a senator and a representative. Noynoy is an accidental president, brought to the highest position in the land because of the legacy of his parents, and not by his own merit.

But what does polling public opinion really suggest? Or is it any helpful at all?

Politics in the United States and Canada rely quite heavily on polling numbers. Bad polling numbers could in fact be disastrous. No politician would dare champion unpopular schemes or even seek public office when his numbers in the polls are too low. During the Clinton administration, social security and other key issues were almost entirely shaped by poll findings. For example, when Bill Clinton planned to make parents responsible for their children’s crimes drew dismal support in public opinion, he quickly retreated and abandoned his plan. In Canada, the sitting Prime Minister is likely to call for an election when the polling numbers favour his party.

Our government and leaders have been putting too much weight on polls, as if this is the best way to promote democracy. Obviously, poll surveys have serious shortcomings which may not be curable under present circumstances. Even if respondents are absolutely honest and the highest technical standards are satisfied, opinions sometimes can be politically irrelevant. Wrong opinions may be possibly collected and when leaders follow this guidance, they could be poor alternatives to intuition or personal experience.

President Aquino’s spokesperson was quick to exploit the Pulse Asia survey by saying that it “is an indication that the President and the public are in harmony as to national goals on the way to pursue reforms needed.” At this early in the President’s term, Lacierda must probably have spoken too soon. The most he could have accomplished was to massage Aquino’s ego into believing he has been doing his job well.

Perhaps, Vice President Jejomar Binay was more circumspect and prudent in his response to his 78 per cent approval rating by seeing it more as an expression of optimism and confidence in the future. If at all, the Pulse Asia survey shows a glimmer of hope, not a very reliable approval rating of presidential performance.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Our gift of happiness

If you’re unhappy, blame the economy. Certainly for the Irish, it’s the economy, stupid. But if you are U.S. President Barack Obama, you may well add the Republicans and the Tea Party movement to your woes.

As the gross domestic product of most nations, big and small, continues to dwindle, governments are now starting to ask if it’s time to rethink the measure of a country’s growth or decline and whether it has anything to do with the level of happiness of the people.

The British (UK) government, for example, is set to include a “happiness index” in gauging the national mood, which would include measuring people’s psychological and environmental well-being. France and Canada are also looking at similar initiatives as the movement to think seriously about being happy goes global. Nobel economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have urged world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic product to one that includes measures of well-being and sustainability, and the world seems to be listening.

Even a poor country like the Philippines has jumped on the bandwagon. Senator Loren Legarda has suggested measuring whether economic activities make people live in a healthier environment, educated and better acquainted with their cultural roots. Legarda echoes the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) which the Kingdom of Bhutan practises in looking at their economic growth.

Bhutan’s concept of GNH is anchored on its four pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental and cultural conservation, and good governance. So far, however, the Bhutan government has only produced technical papers about its GNH philosophy, and no actual and practical way of measuring it.

This is why the UK government intends to add questions in its household survey which starts as early as next spring about people’s subjective well-being, with the purpose of attaining a more objective sense of how well people are achieving their life goals. There is a pervading air of nervousness in Downing Street with the prospect of testing the national mood amid the government’s deepest budgetary cuts in a long time.

But the problem in measuring national well-being or happiness depends largely on the accuracy of surveys and who are conducting them. Well-being is a multifaceted dimension and cannot be reduced to a simple question of how happy people are or how satisfied they are with their life. People may be satisfied with their basic needs if that is the only thing you may want to find out. They may be happy with their present state of health, their jobs or their income. Yet they may be unsatisfied with their government leaders, the way they make decisions or policies about the environment or solutions for criminality. And if the government is conducting the survey, it may be logical to expect that its questionnaire will include only matters which it may be held responsible, or those which would yield favourable responses about those who run the government and their performance. Public perception could be everything, and no sitting government will allow itself to be damned by a wave of popular discontent and dissatisfaction.

If the government is to be trusted with any type of “happiness” survey, then it should be willing to test its fairness by allowing validation of the results by non-governmental surveys from time to time. A replication of the official surveys will provide transparency and reliability as to their methodology or original or raw data, which in the long run, will make people trust this kind of surveys.

But let us keep ourselves grounded on the earth we are standing on right now. Why this sudden interest in measuring whether we are happy or unhappy? For one, it only shows how much we have become miserable with our lives to dwell on happy or unhappy thoughts, and even for governments to conduct official surveys to find out our state of well-being as a probable excuse for admitting a declining GDP. For instance, there is the perception that the rich are really getting richer, and they may not make for a happy society when you count and stack their numbers against the poor or even the fabled middle class. Is this a fair thing or not?

For us Filipinos, whether here in Toronto or in Manila, happiness is a state of mind that doesn’t need measuring. Our idea of happiness is very shallow, as we commonly attribute this to our nonchalant attitude of mababaw ang kaligayahan natin (our happiness wellspring is hollow). As one Filipino writer suggests, “we are a culture of conviviality.” We all embrace our basic values of pakikisama, hiya, utang na loob (friendship, shame, debt of gratitude) as opposed to Western values such as individual authenticity, freedom, virtue, etc. We favour maintaining smooth relations over being confrontational. We would prefer to suffer in silence rather than push our grievances, no matter how legitimate.

After centuries of colonization, we still remain imprisoned by this culture that values sociability for the sake of preserving harmonious relationships. We welcome foreigners to our land and homes with open arms, even let them exploit our natural wealth. Our culture of happiness springs from our good relations with our family, relatives, friends and neighbours – to be able to engage them in pleasant conversations, story-telling and sharing of jokes.

No wonder the Philippines has outranked the United States in the world’s survey of happiest countries. But the significance of this ranking hides our other more pernicious side, if we are to probe deeper into the culture that allows this generosity. For some of us, we appear to be benevolent only insofar as it will make us look good outside, or being caring only when it pertains our immediate family and relations.

Even as we have been transplanted abroad, our basic cultural orientation still radiates towards home. Away in a foreign land, it is still with our family and friends where we feel happiest. But to a certain limit. We do good and feel good where it puts us way ahead of or held in high esteem by others. Or we do good and feel good when it earns us points.

This weekend, graduates from the University of the Philippines here in Toronto are holding a Christmas shindig with singing and dancing that reminisce the nostalgic early seventies, with features such as Two for the Road with Joey and Elvira and Uncle Bob and Friends for the older ones, and Penthouse Live 1 with Martin and Pops and Friends for the younger set. Although the invitation suggested that attendees could bring Christmas gifts for disadvantaged children, this part was made “optional only.” That the gifts for the disadvantaged children should merit only second mention and a caveat to boot (just in case attendees would not be as well disposed to share at this season of giving as they are with the partying), says a lot on what we believe and value most.

Like the rich Filipinos back home who think giving to the poor is an act of charity that can be disposed of at will, alumni of the Philippines’ premier state university in Toronto have shown real benevolence or caring for the poor: they may or may not give it, depending on their predisposition or mood at the moment. But the partying will go on. We are a happy people, after all.