2012.12.30    A question of heroes 

Of the varied fare produced by this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, it was “El Presidente”, the film depicting the life of Gen. Emilio Aquinaldo, that I was most eager to watch. Films about a nation’s heroes are always tricky affairs. If they show nothing new about the persons or the circumstances in which they lived, they risk becoming utterly boring. If, on the other hand, they set out to project heroes in a new light, they are likely to face the question: What is fiction and what is fact?

 2012.12.27    The care of our children 

The Feast of the Holy Innocents brings up in a most vivid way the mass killing almost two weeks ago of 20 school children at a public elementary school in Connecticut.  It is a good time to reflect on the varied meanings that this unspeakable deed has summoned in every culture regardless of religion. 

2012.12.23    When prophecy fails 

I glance at the sky for signs of anything unusual.  Just a while ago, the noontime sky was slightly overcast.  Now, a steady breeze is whooshing in from the northeast and is all but dispelling the low hanging clouds.  The sun is out, and I am starting to regret that I woke up too late this morning to go motorcycling or bird watching.

2012.12.20    Which way for the Church? 

The idea of a humble Church – a Church that respects the authority of politics and of science while insisting on the autonomy of faith and morals – is one that fits the complexities of modern society.  It carves out a continuing role for religion in a world that is becoming increasingly differentiated into separate functional spheres, where the meaning of life is supplied not by a single dominant center but by a plurality of angles.  Understandably, it is an idea that does not sit well in societies that believe religion’s social purpose is best achieved when it is able to impose its will on every institution in society.

2012.12.16    Julia at 12 

Last December 9, my granddaughter Julia turned 12.  We held off celebrating her birthday in deference to the hundreds of children in Mindanao who had perished in the wake of typhoon “Pablo.”  But hearing about the young girl, Imee Sayson, who was fished out of the mud alive after being buried for 24 hours by the mudslide that entombed her village in New Bataan town, filled me with enough hope to revisit Julia’s birthday and view it in another light.

2012.12.13    Disasters and the poor 

The devastation caused in Mindanao by typhoon Pablo is, for now, largely measured by the number of dead, injured, and missing people.  The number of recovered bodies has reached 714, says the NDRRMC.  About 900 more are reported missing.  Thousands of others suffer from wounds and various forms of injury, not to mention deep trauma, but only a few can be attended to in clinics and hospitals. The scale of the destruction is becoming clearer as the attention shifts to the staggering number of families who have lost their homes and their livelihood.  The prospect of starvation and disease looms before them.

2012.12.09    Mindanao’s resonance to ecological risk 

The benign climate — that was the first thing that was pointed to me about Mindanao in the early 80’s when I used to go there as part of a research team studying the banana export industry. Throughout the year, its winds were steady, gentle rain irrigated its fertile soil, its mountains were lush and its rivers deep, and above all, it was never visited by typhoons. That was the reason bananas thrived there. 

2012.12.06    Crime and the mass media 

The word “ubiquity” refers to the quality of being everywhere. It captures succinctly the perception of a whole society being engulfed by crime – that is, if one goes by the early evening news on television.  Crime reports bookend the rest of the news so routinely that crime is no longer “newsworthy” in the sense of being surprising or interesting.  Is this the reality we live in, or is it something that is magnified by inordinate media attention?

2012.12.02    Political wisdom 

In a speech at the Far Eastern University last November 22, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago mocked the nation’s political system, in which she has played a prominent role, as one dominated by the ignorant.  “Let me summarize the problem with Philippine elections,” she told her young audience. “Of the 50 million voters who will troop to the polls in May next year, the greater majority are not intelligent, they are not educated for voting, and the candidates they choose are not educated for serving.”

2012.11.29    A sociology of scams 

Scams tell us a lot about the nature of our society – more than about the gullibility, greed, or ignorance of our people.  Sociologists try to understand how these criminal schemes work not by figuring out the motives and interests of the individuals they victimize but by determining the types of social relationships they are able to tap.  Moral terms like gullibility and greed contain no analytic value. But, the degree to which communications in a society like ours remain undifferentiated may explain why scam victims are quick to entrust their money to swindlers with no economic credentials or record.  

2012.11.25    The good, the bad, and their lawyers 

In the wake of the shocking November 23, 2009 massacre in Maguindanao, the Ampatuan patriarch and his sons, the principal suspects in this heinous crime, began a frantic search for sharp lawyers who would take up their case and defend them.  One of those sounded out was my brother Dante, a litigation lawyer with many years of experience in criminal law.  He did not know any of the Ampatuans, but he knew many of those who had been initially hired for this difficult case.  A huge acceptance fee was hinted.  My brother turned it down without hesitation, politely saying he already had a crowded schedule.

2012.11.22    Educating the Filipino family 

Last Monday morning, I found myself in the basketball court of a remote village in Bataan province, quietly observing a “family development session.”  The young energetic woman who was conducting the proceedings is a “Municipal Link,” one of 2250 social workers expressly trained for the government’s greatly expanded conditional cash transfer program, known locally as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).  About 30 household heads, all women except one, were in attendance at this particular session.  They meet once a month for about an hour depending on the topic to be discussed.

2012.11.18    Inflation of trust 

The victimization of thousands of small investors by a dubious company styling itself as the “Aman Futures Group Philippines, Inc.” is of great interest not only to law enforcement authorities but to students of society as well.  How a business firm with no credentials or track record was able to entice thousands of people in a small city to part with their savings should tell us a lot not only about the Filipino mind and culture, but about the nature of modern society itself. 

2012.11.15    Scams and the freedom to err 

Reading recent reports of thousands of people being victimized by another pyramiding scam — this time operating out of the cities of Cebu, Pagadian, and Pasay — I found myself entertaining two different reactions.  “Serves them right,” I thought, “for not using their commonsense and being blinded by greed.”  But, then I wondered, “Shouldn’t the government have known about this and stepped in before more small investors were robbed by this pack of swindlers?”

2012.11.11    America’s ‘fiscal cliff’ 

Moments after it became clear that United States President Barack Obama had won a second term, the media began to talk about the “fiscal cliff” facing government.  This is a striking metaphor.  CNN’s talking heads assume that everybody knows what it means. But, like many who do not regularly follow the economic news, I’m hearing it for the first time, certain that it is not a standard trope in economics.

2012.11.08    Two systems 

In the closing hours of this year’s US presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties were reported to be mobilizing their battery of lawyers to quickly respond to issues that could affect the outcome of the vote.  This is quite unusual. So stable has the American political system been that legal challenges and electoral protests are seldom seen in US political exercises. 

2012.11.04    Political transitions 

By an interesting coincidence, the two most powerful nations in the world – the United States and China – will choose in the same week the leaders who will govern their respective peoples, and, by extension, shape the conditions for peace and development in the rest of the world.  Filipinos cannot but take a keen interest in these transitions, not just because many of us identify with America’s fate and reserve the deepest suspicions for China.  It is also because these two countries show us two contrasting systems of governing a society that invite us to reflect on our own.  

2012.11.01    Departures

The social practices surrounding death are probably among the most definitive of a people’s way of life.  What we do in the face of our loved ones’ passing, how we prepare them for burial or cremation, etc.  – speak eloquently about our understanding of the meaning of human existence.  Perhaps it is safe to say that we tend to know more today about how to live than how to die.  

2012.10.28    The ‘new evangelization’ 

When the Vatican proclaimed 2013 as the “Year of the Faith,” I wondered if this meant a rethinking of the ecumenism that has long characterized the Catholic Church’s respectful relationship with other faith communities. My interest as an observer of social institutions was heightened even more by the topic chosen for the Synod of Bishops recently convened in Rome: “The new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.”

2012.10.25    The ‘indispensible nation’ 

In their final debate, which focused on foreign policy, US President Barack Obama called America “the indispensable nation,” echoing a phrase coined during the Clinton years.  The less eloquent Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, came up with an equally glowing portrayal of his country as “the hope of the earth.” Wow. We know that America is a great nation.  But hearing such songs of praise from its own politicians is disturbing. One can’t imagine the leaders of China or Russia getting away with extravagant self-depictions like these without world media commenting on their arrogance and implications.  

2012.10.21    Print is dead, long live the mass media 

The announcement that Newsweek, the magazine, will cease publication at the end of the year, and will henceforth be available only in digital form, is seen by media observers as marking the end of an era.  It has revived talk about the impending death of the print media. But I suspect the issue goes much deeper.  I think we are looking at the end of the mass media, as we know them, and their reinvention as communication forms of the Internet. 

2012.10.18    Crumbs from the master’s table 

The Commission on Elections has embarked on the unenviable task of cleansing the party-list system by weeding out groups that do not measure up to its understanding of what it means to represent a “marginalized” and “underrepresented” sector.  This is a job that has long been waiting to be done; tackling it is far from easy.  Every decision the Comelec promulgates canceling the accreditation of an existing party-list group is sure to be challenged at the Supreme Court, if not in the streets.

2012.10.14    Marilou Diaz-Abaya: A tribute 

When film and TV director Marilou Diaz-Abaya succumbed to breast cancer at 57 last Monday, Oct. 8, I remembered the strange conversation we had a couple of years back.  She had just learned that her cancer had returned after a wonderful absence of more than a year.  From out of the blue, she asked if I would speak at her funeral. “Of course,” I blithely said, thinking it was a joke.  Sensing her seriousness, I quickly added, “You need not ask, Marilou; it is what the dearest of friends do for one another.” Last Friday, at the Ateneo College chapel, where the wake was held, I finally got to deliver the eulogy that had been forming in my mind since her cancer advanced to stage 4. This is a shortened version of that tribute.

2012.10.11    The long journey to peace 

The “framework agreement” jointly drawn by the negotiating panels of the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a significant advance in the protracted quest for peace in Muslim Mindanao.  But, even as we bank on the inherent infectiousness of peace agreements, we should be wary about expecting too much too soon.

2012.10.07    Political influence 

The approval and trust ratings of the country’s top public officials, as reported in Pulse Asia’s latest survey, probably tell us more about the nature of Philippine politics than they might suggest at first glance. President Aquino’s ratings are at 78 percent, up by 11 percent from the previous quarter, which is unusually high for a president after being in office for two years.  Vice President Binay’s are quite astounding – an approval rating of 85 percent, and a trust rating of 84 percent.  Senate President Enrile’s ratings are not far behind: 72 percent approval and 68 percent trust. If these are indicators of political legitimacy, then we may say that no previous government has been perceived to be more entitled to exercise power than the present one. 

2012.10.04    What’s wrong with political dynasties? 

What’s wrong with having a father and son (Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and candidate Jack Ponce Enrile), or a brother and sister (Senators Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano), or two brothers (Sen. Jinggoy and candidate JV Ejercito-Estrada) sit together as senators in a 24-member chamber? What’s wrong with having the wife succeed her husband for the same position (candidate Cynthia and outgoing senator Manny Villar)? Or a son his father (candidate Juan Edgardo and outgoing senator Edgardo Angara)?  A lot.

2012.09.30    Postures of power 

On the front page of the Inquirer the other day, there is a fascinating photograph of the main personalities who came to the book launch of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s memoirs.  This picture is worth a thousand words.  It shows four seated figures: Imelda Marcos, Cristina Ponce Enrile, Juan Ponce Enrile (JPE), and Benigno S. Aquino III (P-Noy), and is captioned “No permanent friends, only permanent interests.” I think one would have to be of a certain age or to know a little about Philippine politics to draw that message from the picture itself. 

2012.09.27    The price of autonomy 

Universities in the modern world have been able to host some of the most path-breaking advances in knowledge by providing an environment in which independent thinkers may pursue intellectual work without fear. But developing this capacity is not the easiest thing in the world. Universities need enormous amounts of resources that cannot be met by student fees alone. 

2012.09.23    Forty years ago 

Martial law aimed to wipe out the communist insurgency, but ironically it turned into the single most important recruitment tool of the communist movement. How did this happen?  

2012.09.20    Communities of memory 

A few days ago, I participated in a forum to explore the purpose and methodology of establishing a “museum of memory” that would contain and preserve memories from the dark period of martial law. The concept behind this is prompted by the strong feeling that today’s young people hardly have any idea of what happened during the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship.  The premise, of course, is that the memory of this period must not be allowed to fade because, if Santayana is correct, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

2012.09.16    The genes of our nature 

As we get older, we realize we begin to look more and more like our parents.  This recognition comes to us in a flash, and usually we pay no heed to it. In ironic resignation, we accept the annoying mannerisms, the volatile temper, and even the illnesses as part of the genetic package that our ancestors bequeathed to us.  Sometimes, though, it makes us wonder how we would have turned out if we did not have our parents’ genes.

2012.09.13    Marcos and martial law 

Before it became wholly associated with the suicide terrorist attacks against the United States, Sept. 11 used to be remembered as the day Salvador Allende, Chile’s first elected Marxist president, was killed in the course of the military coup that installed the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.  That tragic event started the reversal of democracy throughout Latin America.

2012.09.09    Taxation without protection 

Like many government employees with fixed incomes and meager savings, my wife Karina and I have worried about not being able to help our children when they start searching for a permanent home of their own. Our situation is not very different from that of lower-middle class employees in the private sector who hope to own a house at some point. Unless they work for a company with a housing plan, they usually end up renting apartments all their lives. Responding to this need, Hasik, the NGO that Karina headed in the 1990s, conceived of a housing collective for its staff that could serve as a model for young people who are just starting to save for a house.

2012.09.06    God, law, psychology, and CJ Sereno 

In a democracy, the religion, or lack of it, of Supreme Court justices (or any judge, for that matter) is expected to carry no weight in the discharge of their official functions.  What the public cares about is that their decisions are founded on a sound appreciation of the facts and of the applicable laws.  In this regard, newly-appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s religiosity should have been as uncontroversial as her age or her gender.

2012.09.02    Stem cells of youth 

Recently, I listened to a friend recount his “stem cell treatment” at a medical spa in Europe.  The treatment costs about a million pesos.  The clinic where it is done has lately been attracting hundreds of Filipinos in search of the modern version of the proverbial fountain of youth. 

2012.08.30    Academic freedom in Catholic universities 

Responding to the question I raised in this column the other day – Whether the Ateneo de Manila University can call itself Catholic and, at the same time, invoke academic freedom — a reader sent me an Internet link to the web page of Neumann University (http://www.neumann.edu/mission/identity/franciscantradition.asp). This school in Pennsylvania describes itself as “a Catholic university in the Franciscan tradition.”

2012.08.26    The Ateneo and the Church 

Can the Ateneo de Manila University call itself a Catholic school and function as a university at the same time?  A question like this may strike Filipinos as somewhat strange, considering that many of our venerable universities in this country are Catholic institutions. Yet, it is bound to arise when the ideas of professors in such institutions clash with the teachings of those in the Church. Indeed, the question is almost inevitable.  Every university worth its name, regardless of who established it, will assert its autonomy in the pursuit of knowledge.   One expects no less from the Ateneo as a university.

2012.08.23    Naga City’s Mayor Jesse 

In 2000 the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation chose Naga City Mayor Jesse M. Robredo as its awardee for government service.  The award citation summed up the reason for giving him the award thus: “In electing Jesse Robredo to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his giving credence to the promise of democracy by demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.” 

2012.08.19    The day my laptop died 

As soon as I pressed the power button, the Windows logo appeared on the laptop’s screen with the familiar assurance: “Starting Windows.” But nothing else happened after that. For the first time in its brief mechanical life, my barely one-year-old computer failed to say hello.  It was as if it found itself in a daze, desperately grappling with the sudden loss of its own memory. Finally, a blue sky with a little white bird and a twig approaching a faint light appeared on the screen.  “Oh no,” I muttered in horror, almost certain that my poor machine had been attacked by a virus. The hard disk drive itself had crashed. 

2012.08.16    Home along the estero

Human beings are not rats.  And one need not be a pauper to know that it is not fun to live under bridges, inside drainage pipes, or along esteros.  According to government estimates, at least 125,000 Filipino families in Metro Manila live under such conditions.  These families make up about 90% of the city population that is most severely affected by calamities during bad weather.  This is a scandal. Their collective vulnerability testifies not so much to their poverty as to the systemic failure of our society.  

2012.08.12    Learning from Calabantian 

Lahar, a Javanese word for mudflow, entered the vocabulary and consciousness of Filipinos only in 1991, soon after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.  Geologists appropriated the term and had been using it since the early 1900s to refer not to mudflows but, in the words of Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, to “rapidly flowing mixtures of rock debris and water from a volcano.”  We have long associated volcanic eruptions with boiling lava flows that glisten at night but pose no immediate threat.  Pinatubo radically changed all that. 

2012.08.09    Monsoons and an American soldier 

From the many that are mass distributed and forwarded via the Internet, one e-mail landed in my inbox which referred to the torrential rains that fell on much of western Luzon and the Visayas in the past few days as God’s way of telling us that we are making a horrible mistake in pushing for the passage of the Reproductive Health bill.  This is bound to happen: people making preposterous connections between unrelated events in order to bolster their convictions.  They will read moral judgments in Nature’s ways, even if this means perpetuating a religion based on ignorance and fear, rather than on love, discernment, and hope.

2012.08.05    The will to give 

A lot of people may have all the money in the world, and still feel they don’t have enough.  Every asset they acquire serves as a prod to gain more.  They become slaves to their possessions. Others have very much less in comparison, and yet they think it’s more than what they need.  Their wants do not grow with their wealth. Their cup quickly overflows; they can’t stop giving.  They remain in control of what they have and what they want to be. All this makes one ponder what it means to be wealthy.    

2012.08.02    The Church, GMA and the RH bill 

As Congress prepares to vote on the controversial Reproductive Health bill, all eyes are focused on the bishops of the Catholic Church. They have done everything to thwart the passage of the bill, including intense person-to-person lobbying for every legislator’s vote. There is no surprise there: the Church has taken a strong position against artificial contraception. And Church leaders are within their constitutional right to campaign against the bill which, among other things, intends to allocate public funds to make contraceptives available to those who may want them but can’t afford them. 

2012.07.29    The helmet law 

Over the past week, thousands of motorcycle riders throughout the country descended on the offices of the Department of Trade and Industry seeking a small sticker for their helmets.  Like recruits for a ragtag army waiting to have their weapons inspected before marching to war, they waited for harried DTI personnel to paste an ICC sticker on their helmets attesting to their worthiness.

2012.07.26    Garden country 

While visiting Singapore last week to attend the 80th birthday celebration of a dear friend, the architect and urbanist William Lim, I wondered what it was that a traveller would find most beguiling in a small city-state like this.  I started to count Singapore’s ways: its orderliness, its predictability, its cleanliness, the all-round safety it offers, and the visible effort it exerts to create diversity under regulated circumstances.  When I was younger, these were the same contrived qualities I associated with dead places.

2012.07.22    State of the nation’s governance 

Two years after he became president, it is perhaps easier to define the core values to which President Benigno S. Aquino III subscribes than to formulate the vision that orients the direction of his government.  The commitment to ethical governance is felt everywhere, permeating the exercise of executive power, but the general program that the government wishes to pursue remains elusive.

2012.07.19    The call to boycott Chinese products 

A group of Filipinos based in the United States, convened by prominent business leader Loida Nicolas-Lewis and lawyer Ted Laguatan, has called for a boycott of China-made products as a way of protesting China’s bullying behavior in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). They are not talking of a government-supported initiative, but of a purely consumer-led boycott driven by patriotic sentiments.  What are the chances of such a call gaining any traction in the Philippines?

2012.07.15     The silence of Asean 

For the first time in its 45-year history, the Association of South East Asian Nations failed to issue a joint communique at the end of its annual conference.  This self-imposed muteness merely confirms what the Philippines has long suspected: that Asean members will do nothing to disturb the beneficial economic relationship they each enjoy with the giant next door. The meeting may have been the wrong time and the wrong place for any of the 10 member-countries to discuss their common problems with China.  But, the organization’s silence in the face of repeated Chinese bullying signals a subservience that is appropriate only to tributary states.  

2012.07.12    The portrait of the Filipino as Dolphy 

Here’s a question for those who, in the wake of Dolphy’s death the other day, may be discussing the late comedian’s impact on the Filipino consciousness:  In his portrayal of the two TV-movie roles in which he made the greatest impression, namely, the impoverished but easy-going padre de familia in “John en Marsha” and “Home Along da Riles,” and the Pinoy bakla in “Facifika Falayfay” and “Fefita Fofongay,” did Dolphy perhaps romanticize poverty and encourage the treatment of gays as abnormal?

2012.07.08    The ‘God particle’ 

A few days ago, my 11-year-old granddaughter, Julia, who is in Grade 6 at Miriam, a Catholic school, came up to me asking: “Lolo, why did God create the world?” It was a question her teacher in Christian Living Education had given to the class to think about over the weekend.  “Hmm, let me see,” I said, quite flustered, but trying not to show it.  

2012.07.04    The ‘uncovering’ of Anderson Cooper

I’m writing this on July 4th, the Independence Day of the United States of America.  We used to celebrate our own independence as a nation on this same date, until we decided that we owed it to ourselves to mark our full emancipation as a people by going back to June 12, 1898, when our ancestors declared their independence from Spain.  This did not prevent us, however, from following the American path, particularly in matters of law and culture. 

2012.07.01    Edru: the Lebanese connection 

Pedro Reyes Abraham Jr, the all-round performing artist everybody fondly calls “Edru,” officially retired as a member of the University of the Philippines faculty last June 4, capping his teaching career with a month-long tour of the Visayas where, together with his students, he tirelessly performed and lectured for the common folk.  Like many of us who entered UP as freshmen in the early ‘60s and stayed on to teach after graduation, Edru completes a cycle of academic life spanning exactly half a century.

2012.06.28    The Egyptian transition 

Following the ouster of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has taken the first step towards building a modern democracy.  Last Sunday, it proclaimed the first-ever democratically elected civilian president in the nation’s history.  It is not easy to read from the outcome of this closely contested election what urgent hopes and needs the people were expressing through their votes. 

2012.06.24    Baptism and faith 

Though I’m not a regular church-goer, this does not mean I am faithless.  Most of the things I believe in I learned growing up in a Catholic family.  Later in life, I realized these are found in equal measure in other religions.  They are the beliefs that help us find meaning in life, set lifelong goals, keep going, live for others. Reason or science has little to do with them. They are what the writer Simon Critchley sums up as loyalty to “the infinite demand of love” – a fidelity that requires much of what we are and what we have, even though it is not founded on any guarantee or certainty. Faith, he says, is the “enactment of the self in relation to this infinite demand.”

2012.06.21    The fate of our mother languages 

This school year, when public school teachers begin using twelve of the country’s mother tongues as languages of instruction in the first three years of grade school, they may find that employing the local language for writing and reading won’t be as easy as speaking it. They have to persist and not give up easily.    

2012.06.17    The ethic of responsible restraint 

Twice during the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, petitions were filed before the Supreme Court praying for its intervention in the unfolding process at the Senate.  The first sought to abort the trial on the ground that the complaint endorsed by the majority in the House of Representatives was not properly verified.  The high court responded by calling for the submission of written memoranda, but it did not stop the trial.  The second petition was for the purpose of preventing the Senate from opening the bank accounts of Corona on the ground that their absolute confidentiality was protected by law.  The court issued a temporary restraining order to that effect, and the Senate voted to comply with the TRO.

2012.06.14    Koko’s dilemma 

One can sympathize with Sen. Koko Pimentel’s dilemma as he ponders the wisdom of joining the senatorial slate of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) for 2013.  How can he run in the same party, campaign on the same stage, and endorse the candidacy of a person he has accused of electoral fraud?  Koko was the principal victim of the “dagdag-bawas” fraud perpetrated in Central Mindanao in the 2007 elections.  He had to file an expensive, time-consuming, and heart-breaking protest to recover the Senate seat that rightfully belonged to him. He had to wait for four years before Juan Miguel Zubiri, who took his seat, would resign in recognition of the validity of his protest.  Today, it is sweet irony that Koko occupies the chair of the Senate committee on electoral reforms, which aims to eliminate cheating in the nation’s elections.

2012.06.10    Corona’s crusade 

Right after being removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona announced that he would go on a lecture tour to launch a crusade for transparency and judicial independence.  No doubt, this is an important and timely crusade. But, one can’t help asking if the former Chief Justice is the right person to spearhead it. The record shows that he didn’t care much for transparency or judicial independence.

2012.06.07    The case for ‘deschooling’ society 

Forty years ago, a radical philosopher by the name of Ivan Illich rocked the world of education by suggesting that children’s learning needs would be better served if they were not made to go through the institutional “funnels” of regimented formal education. He advocated, as an alternative, the formation of “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” The book that made him famous was aptly titled “Deschooling Society” (1971).

2012.06.03    The uses of education 

If I were a young parent today with the choice of where to send my child for basic education, which school would I choose? There is no simple answer.  One’s choice of school would depend, first of all, on the kind of education one thinks his child needs.  In turn, this would depend on the kind of prospects in life a parent wishes the child to have in the future.  

2012.05.31    A god in ruins

Most of us do not get to know the names of the members of the Supreme Court because, unlike politicians, they are seldom in the public eye.  Neither do we remember how they look, apart from the thick robes they wear.  It is as it should be.  We stand in awe of the members of the court not for who they are, but for what they represent.  They are the best examples of figures of pure authority.  Indeed, one may be forgiven for thinking they are the gods who control our destinies. But, in truth, what they represent is no more than the condensed power of society.

2012.05.27    Accommodating the Chief Justice 

Justice wears a blindfold because it is supposed to only hear the voices of the individuals that come before it, and not see and be affected by the statuses they carry with them. The tenacity of justice is especially put to a test in an impeachment process, an institution that has been devised precisely to try highly-placed public officials who may not be charged before the ordinary courts. This is not at all easy in a hierarchical society like ours, where class, politics, kinship, and religion insinuate themselves at every point in the administration of law.  

2012.05.24    The star witness

On the 40th day of his trial, the Chief Justice himself took the witness stand. The head of the impeachment court, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, graciously welcomed him, assuring him that he would be treated with utmost respect befitting his position and the institution he represents.  Barely acknowledging these gestures of courtesy, the star witness took the oath and proceeded to deliver not what was supposed to be a brief opening statement, but a well-rehearsed soliloquy. 

2012.05.20    Corona’s word 

In many ways, tomorrow’s caucus of the senator-judges is probably as crucial to the impeachment case as the much-awaited testimony of the accused chief justice.  We may recall that some of the senators, after hearing the explosive testimony of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, expressed a need to verify the findings of the Ombudsman by summoning the head of the anti-money laundering council or the bank managers themselves. 

2012.05.17    The Ombudsman’s lantern 

It is catchy and has rhythm.  It is the phrase that beleaguered Chief Justice Renato Corona used to describe the diagram of his alleged multiple bank transactions: a “lantern of lies.”  The curious reader will be forgiven for turning to Google to find the meaning and provenance of this fascinating idiom.  Lanterns and lies seem to contradict one another.  Lanterns are supposed to brighten, not darken, to give out light, not lies.   

2012.05.13    A shoal by another name 

China refers to Scarborough Shoal as Huangyan Island.  The crucial word is not Huangyan, but the nature of the disputed territory.  Is it a shoal or an island?  What’s in a name?

2012.05.10    Oaths

After watching the impeachment proceedings at the Senate for several weeks now, Filipinos will have become familiar with court room rituals and conventions.  Many such conventions have to do with the oaths we take.  “Swear him in,” the presiding officer barks before a witness may begin to testify; whereupon, that person is prompted to repeat the statement: “I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  When a witness appears to be giving conflicting statements, a senator-judge may warn him thus: “May I remind you that you are under oath.”  All these may suggest that oaths do make a difference — that is, a person is less likely to tell a lie under oath than if he had not been explicitly sworn.  Is this so? Why?

2012.05.06    Asia for the poor

Chennai.  These days, all eyes are on Asia.  While the economies of Europe and North America are tumbling down one by one under the pressure of a continuing financial crisis, those of emerging Asia are flourishing.  Nowhere is this burst of economic dynamism more palpable than in China and India, the two largest nations in the world that were once regarded as the emblems of underdevelopment.  Yet not everyone is happy over Asia’s rise.

2012.05.03    Debt-driven inclusiveness 

Waiting in line for my turn at a Landbank ATM in the UP campus the other day, I started to fret seeing the queue wasn’t moving.  Two women were hogging the machine and serially withdrawing money.  They shuffled what looked like a deck of plastic cards while routinely consulting a small notebook.

2012.04.29    Engaging China 

It’s been three weeks now since the start of the standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal, a group of mostly submerged rocks in the West Philippine Sea that the Philippines and China are claiming as part of their respective territories.  While a diplomatic way out of the impasse is being sought, a complex signaling exercise involving the deployment and withdrawal of maritime vessels is also going on.  What further complicates matters is that the standoff began just a few days before the start of the US-Philippine joint military exercises.  The Philippines insists the two events are unrelated, but that is not how the situation looks from a geo-political perspective.

2012.04.25    Personal security 

The other night, just before 9, a gunman aboard a heavily-tinted vehicle fired four shots in the direction of my house inside the University of the Philippines campus.  Because the bullets hit something very close to where I was at the time, I instinctively ducked but didn’t feel alarmed. I was quite sure the shots were not meant for me or my wife, or anyone living in the house. I do not know why anyone would have any motive to frighten or hurt me. I called the campus police and reported the matter. Then I decided to go out and check. 

2012.04.22    The realpolitik of size

You don’t pick a fight with someone bigger than you.  But if you must defend yourself, you need to find an ally as big as he is, or get the backing of other small entities that may feel similarly threatened.  Such support has its own costs. It may mean giving up certain things in return, or going against some cherished ideals.  That is what realpolitik is about.  It may seek cover behind principles, but, in essence, it is political conduct based on a clear calculation of long-term interests and a sober recognition of the pragmatics of power. Realpolitik applies to persons as well as to states.

2012.04.19    The unsinkable Erap

As he marks his 75th birthday today, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the one the masses adoringly call “Erap,” has all the reason to look back at his sturdy political career of 45 years, and say he’s not done yet.  No other president, apart from Ramon Magsaysay and Cory Aquino, has been able to retain the loyalty and adulation of the ordinary Filipino as much as Erap has. 

2012.04.15    The right to the city 

On a day like this, at the beginning of what threatens to be a long hot summer, Metro Manila’s residents search desperately for outdoor places where they can spread a mat, read a book, take a nap, or laze around with the children in the cool shade of big trees.  Alas, outside of the UP Diliman campus which becomes a public park when it closes its tree-lined oval to vehicular traffic on Sundays, there are hardly any other accessible green parks left. The green sheltering metropolis is long gone.  

2012.04.12    What’s wrong with our politics?

The Inquirer editorial yesterday got it right: “Same old, same old,” referring to the familiar names that are expected to adorn the 2013 senatorial slate of the newly-registered United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).  UNA’s list includes Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Cynthia Villar, Alan Cayetano, Jackie Ponce Enrile, Gringo Honasan, JV Ejercito, Joey De Venecia, Jamby Madrigal, Ernesto Maceda, etc.  But, it must be said, in fairness, that the ruling coalition’s list cannot be so different. 

2012.04.08    ‘Interbeing’ 

The term “interbeing” (“Tiep hien” in Vietnamese) was coined by the Buddhist monk, Thich Bhat Hanh, to refer to the interconnectedness of all things.

2012.04.05    Burma’s long march to democracy 

Nothing perhaps could be more embarrassing for a nation’s leader than to represent his country in a forum abroad just after his administration has been decisively defeated in an election at home.  An electoral repudiation is an eloquent way of telling the world that a president has lost the right to speak for his people.  

2012.04.01    My grandson X

Not many names begin with the letter “X”, and this is probably the first thing that is different about my third grandchild, Xavier, the firstborn of our youngest daughter Jika.  The name that his parents have given him is of Basque origin, and is not easy to pronounce.  While most Filipinos would say “Zay-vyer,” the older generation would probably render it the Spanish way: “Hah-vyer.”  His father, Brice, who is French, tells us that the correct pronunciation is “Gzahv-yeh,” with no nickname.  Of course, nothing deters Filipinos from abbreviating all names.  As I held him in my arms for the first time last night, I nicknamed him “X.” The little boy looked at me from the corner of his dark grey eyes, and gave me a beatific smile.  He seemed to like it.

2012.03.29    Pacman and religion 

Saranggani Representative and iconic boxing champion Manny Pacquiao appeared on GMA-7’s early evening news the other night in his latest incarnation – religious preacher. 

2012.03.25    The ‘altruism’ of China’s death convicts

China is probably one of the most practical nations in the world when it comes to the treatment of condemned criminals. They are not merely executed.  As soon as they are killed (usually by a shot in the head), their warm but lifeless bodies are rushed by waiting ambulances to a nearby hospital, where their healthy organs are harvested for immediate transplantation to patients who urgently need them.

2012.03.22    Public opinion on the Corona impeachmen

The first of the much-awaited public opinion surveys on the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona has just been released. Pulse Asia’s nationwide survey was conducted between February 26, or two days before the prosecution rested its case, and March 9, before the defense panel began presenting its own witnesses and evidence. The findings are quite startling, though not entirely unexpected.  

2012.03.18    Endgame

It’s been two months now since the historic impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona began.  Week eight opened with the defense panel taking its turn to offer its own evidence.  The public had waited for this with much anticipation.  Days before, Mr Corona hopped from one radio-TV program to another to announce that all questions about his properties will now be answered, including his supposed dollar deposits.  But what a great disappointment the week has been. 

2012.03.15    The return of the mother tongue

Something is about to happen in Philippine education that may have a deep and enduring impact not only on the intellectual development of Filipino children but on their relationship with their communities as well.  The Department of Education announced recently that from June this year, when the new school year opens, any of 12 major local languages spoken in different regions of the country will be taught as a subject and used as a medium of instruction from kinder to Grade 3.  This crucial shift, known as “Mother Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education” (MTB-MLE), is part of the K to 12 basic education reform program.  The new scheme has yielded positive results in 921 schools across the country where it has been piloted. 

2012.03.11    A battle for sympathy 

Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona will not take the witness stand “unless the need arises,” his lawyers say.  Instead it is his wife, Mrs Cristina Corona, who will answer questions about his statement of assets and liabilities.  One can only marvel at this manifestation of spousal sacrifice.  It is, after all, the husband who is on trial here, not the wife.  Mrs Corona’s readiness to take the blows for her husband is admirable. It affirms the Filipino wife’s role as the rock of the family. But what does it say about Mr Corona?   

2012.03.07    Balancing the political and the legal

Where do we draw the line between law and politics? As a student of institutions, I subscribe to the theory that the boundaries between the political system and the legal system, far from being carved in stone, are continuously negotiated.  This is so even in mature democracies like the United States; it is true even more in transitional societies like ours, where institutions are in flux. 

2012.03.04    The ‘upper’ house

The word “senator” — like “sir”, “senior”, and “senile”– comes from the Latin “senex,” meaning an old person. In many countries, the senate is largely an honorary assembly of wise elders who occupy their seats either by inheritance or by appointment.  Not so in the Philippines, where the Constitution treats the Senate and the House of Representatives as co-equal and autonomous chambers of the legislature.  Indeed, because they are elected by a nationwide vote, our senators see themselves as national figures and think of their position as one step removed from the presidency.  It is significant that their term is twice as long as that of congressmen.  For these reasons, the public cannot be faulted for thinking that the House of Representatives is called the “lower house” because it is somehow lower in the government totem pole than the Senate.

2012.03.01    Gridlock culture 

Political observers in this season of impeachment and popular mobilizations cannot but see the Iglesia ni Cristo’s massive gathering at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila the other day as a “show of force.” But, if the INC crowd indeed carried a message other than a religious one, what might it be and who was its addressee? The speculation is that the target is the Aquino government.  And its message supposedly is: “We are strong and we are still around. We helped you in the last election.  Do not take us for granted.” 

2012.02.25    The ‘brod mystique 

When Representative Raul Daza stood up last week at the Senate impeachment trial to introduce himself as the prosecution lead counsel for the day, Presiding Senator-Judge Juan Ponce Enrile formally acknowledged him, and fondly called him “brod”.  Enrile then quickly turned to the senior defense counsel, Atty Serafin Cuevas, and likewise referred to him as “brod.” Broadly smiling, the venerable defense lawyer impishly nodded to the chair, and forthwith called out the other “brods” among the senator-judges — Sen. Edgardo Angara and Sen. Franklin Drilon.  This is not how lawyers address one another; it is how frat men call their brethren from the same fraternity.      

2012.02.22    The algorithm of kindness

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, calls on the faithful in our predominantly Christian nation to perform acts of kindness and sacrifice for the less fortunate.  They are the poor who are forced to live with little hope in our highly unequal society.  They are the sick singled out by fate to suffer a slow debilitating death.  Or they may be the momentarily needy, forced by circumstances to turn to friends, kin, and strangers for help.  The call to selfless kindness is one of humanity’s hardest tests.

2012.02.18    The lawyer’s ‘Umwelt’

Ordinary people who have been watching the impeachment trial at the Senate wonder why lawyers cannot seem to ask the most logical questions in the most direct way.  Like: How much money did the Corona couple keep in the bank right up to the day they simultaneously withdrew all their deposits?  What were the sources of these deposits?  If the withdrawals were made out as manager’s checks, have these checks been negotiated? By whom?  More to the point: if impeachment is a valid reason for breaching the confidentiality of peso accounts, why can’t the impeachment court ask all the major banks to report all accounts kept by the Corona couple in their banks?

2012.02.15    A lesson in autonomy

Day 17 of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona will likely stand out as one of the most instructive episodes in this fascinating process.  What makes it so is the short impromptu speech made by the presiding officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, right after Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago furiously scolded the prosecution panel for allegedly using “fake” documents to secure subpoenas for Corona’s bank accounts. Enrile gallantly took full responsibility for the issuance of the subpoenas. 

2012.02.12    Constitutional crisis

My understanding of a so-called “constitutional crisis” is that it occurs when the basic law of the land can no longer regulate the conduct of a nation’s collective life.  This happens when an existing constitution is superseded by political events, as in a revolution, war, or coup d’etat. Or, when there is a stalemate between the legal system and the political system, with neither one willing to recognize the authority of the other. I do not believe we are in a constitutional crisis as a result of the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order stopping the presentation of foreign currency accounts at the on-going Senate impeachment trial. Nor are we in any immediate danger of falling into one. 

2012.02.09    The Constitution and foreign troops

If only because every so often it haunts us like an annoying ghost from an exultant past, it is worth remembering that the 1987 Constitution was ratified on February 11, 1987, exactly 25 years ago.  On this day, the entire government of President Corazon Aquino, together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, swore allegiance to the new Constitution.  The event was more than symbolic.  It signified the end of the extraordinary powers under which Cory had ruled the country since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. It paved the way for the return of a republican system in which governmental powers are to be exercised by three separate and co-equal branches.  It authorized the establishment of a Congress and the calling of legislative elections in May that year.

2012.02.05    The trial that matters 

Many have correctly noted that Chief Justice Renato Corona is being tried in two venues: in the Senate convened as an impeachment court, and in the mass media serving as the court of public opinion.  Some find this situation unacceptable, believing that innocence or guilt must be based solely on the law and the evidence, and not on what the public may think.  They consider it intolerable that the merits of a case are being discussed inside and outside the court.    

2012.02.02    The outsider 

The price you pay for being in the public eye, I remember telling my old friend Ronald Llamas after he took the high-profile job of Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs, is that you must avoid doing what every other person takes for granted as normal. Like buying pirated DVDs, or rummaging through fake branded goods and donated second-hand clothes at tiangges and ukay-ukays. Don’t smoke in public places, I told him.  Observe speed limits. Never xerox entire books; they’re protected by copyright. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Declare your assets faithfully, no matter how meager they are. Be careful about your personal life. You’re no longer an ordinary mortal: you’re now a government official. 

2012.01.28    Political but fair 

It is obvious to anyone who has been watching the impeachment trial at the Senate that this is not an event that non-lawyers would find easy to comprehend or, even less, feel confident to wade into. Despite the laudable effort of the presiding officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, to make them less rigid and technical, the proceedings have not been easy to follow. The whole discursive field remains inhospitable to those without any training in courtroom procedure — including, I imagine, a good number of the senators themselves. 

2012.01.25    A crown of distrust 

On the fifth day of his impeachment trial, Chief Justice Renato Corona’s lawyers objected to the presentation of evidence that meant to prove that he had accumulated ill-gotten wealth. They argued that this particular charge is not in any of the original articles of impeachment; hence the evidence offered is irrelevant.  

2012.01.22    A nation of lawyers

In any highly-publicized courtroom trial, the biggest beneficiary is the law profession itself.  Nothing advertises the attractions of lawyering more than the sight of virtuosos and novices displaying their flair (or ineptitude) at direct examination, cross-examination, and argumentation. For laypeople, this is what law practice is about.  As a result of the impeachment drama now showing daily on television, there will likely be a spike in enrolment at law schools this year — as if there were not already too many lawyers in this country.

2012.01.19    A test of institutional maturity 

It is worth stepping back from the personalities involved in the ongoing impeachment trial of the Chief Justice if only to appreciate the broad issue of institutional maturity that it poses. Our political system, more specifically Congress, is on test here.  Can it discharge its power to impeach without being arrogant and arbitrary?  Our legal system, more specifically the Supreme Court, is also under scrutiny.  Can it discharge its power of judicial review without appearing vengeful and biased in favor of its embattled chief? 

2012.01.14    Impeachment: can it do any good?

Many reasonable people who are not explicitly for Chief Justice Renato Corona have warned that impeaching a member of the high court, let alone its chief, could undermine the judicial branch of government.  If this happens, they say, the rule of law would be weakened. Tyranny would reign.  Judges would become timid, leaving no one to review or check the conduct of politicians. 

2012.01.12    The sacred and the profane 

Every devotee who joins the procession of the Black Nazarene comes to offer a pledge (“panata”), or to honor one previously made.  A “panata” is deeply personal and is purely voluntary.  Often, it is passed on from generation to generation.  The devotee asks the spirit of the Nazarene to enter the core of his being.  He has wishes and intentions for himself and his loved ones, but he does not press these as demands or entitlements.  He leaves it to the Nazarene to determine their worthiness.  In return, he makes a lifelong pledge to attend the procession every year, and to visit the icon whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

2012.01.08    Between law and politics

At no other time is the line between law and politics more blurred than when Congress holds impeachment proceedings. Charges called “articles of impeachment” are filed. Congressmen don the role of prosecutors, and senators constitute themselves as a jury. They conduct a trial where evidence is presented and evaluated, and witnesses are summoned and questioned.  At the end of the process, a judgment of guilt or innocence is handed down.  Such events normally belong to the legal system.  So, why is a political body like Congress turned into a courtroom? 

2012.01.05    Impeachment as a political process 

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed so many unfit and corrupt people to public office during her presidency that, by this measure alone, she should have been impeached several times over.  For, apart from treason, nothing perhaps can be more injurious to the State than to have people like them run the government. Yet, her political allies in Congress and loyal magistrates in the highest court repeatedly came to her rescue each time she was threatened.  Today we are reaping the consequences of allowing an unaccountable president to remain in office for a long time.