Matters under the radar

(Published in the Dumaguete MetroPost 22nd June 2014)

No, this is not about Bong Revilla’s privilege song number.

Because, as I wrote about JV Ejercito’s pending political dynasty bill a few weeks ago, there are other, more important, and more pressing matters on the legislative table that run the risk of being ignored because of all this pork barrel brouhaha.

First, and closest to my heart, is the Rubber Industry. In recent years the price of Philippine rubber has been plummeting as a result of bad practices in the sector. Many Filipino rubber producers hid rocks inside rubber latex blocks to increase their weight or mix bark into cup lumps to increase their volume. This has seriously damaged the reputation of Philippine rubber. As it stands there is no action I know of being done on this matter both in Congress and in the concerned departments. I appeal to the more sensible of our legislators (particularly Sen. Cynthia Villar and Rep. Mark Llanandro Mendoza, chairs of their Houses committees on Agriculture and Food) to look into this matter and see what can be done. The rubber industry is dear to me – I finished college thanks to the rubber trees my grandfather planted in Kidapawan.

Then there’s the growing clamour for a One Negros Region here in sugarland. From the fringe call it was some years ago, the movement has gained such momentum that it now calls for National attention. Ordinary folks here in east-side Negros may see this as an issue that does not concern them (because there are no song numbers?), but this affects us a lot: with a Negros Region, we don’t have to go all the way to Cebu to process our PRC or NBI or other department business on the Regional level, and with the cities of Kabankalan and Mabinay being proposed as Regional centres the move will boost their economy. We’re hoping for an Executive Order, but a law would also be welcome.

And on this note let me digress and say that I’ve been flirting with the idea of voting for Mar Roxas for President if he ever decides to run. The guy’s track record as a legislator (the law on equitable education and the one on giving the lowest of conflicting prices to costumers) and as a minister (he did start the BPO boom, though he was only DOTC for a while many airports now have wifi, and he’s doing something to fight the growing coconut plague in Luzon) are impressive, and it would be no exaggeration to say he had laid the groundwork for our current economic growth. If he does something stupid with this Negros Region deal, though, I might get turned off. If he begins singing ‘Call Me Maybe’ I will change my mind completely.

But back to legislation. Another important matter that went under the radar was the Senate inquiry into the country’s abominably slow internet connection. Led by senator Bam Aquino, the inquiry sought to address the anomaly that we as one of the highest users of the internet also have one of the world’s slowest connection and one of the world’s most expensive. It is serious enough that, according to a recent feature by the BBC, it hinders our growth as a regional hub for technological advancement. The inquiry’s first hearing last May only began scratching the surface: the National Telecommunications Commission only labels internet connection as a value added service and not as a basic service, as per a 1936 law (a pre-War law governs our internet good heavens). This means it is outside of the NTC’s regulation and is only market-governed. Providers then say there is not enough infrastructure to accommodate the number of internet users (read: cost cutting) leading to congestion (read: Enrile downloading porn) and consequently slow connectivity. Additionally, they claim that some LGUs (I hope Dumaguete is not one of them) charge very high fees, leading to higher prices and less money for infrastructure expansion. The most pressing task now is for the legislature to stop showbizzing and begin working on amending the telecommunications law to make internet a basic service that the NTC may regulate it. Another hearing for the inquiry is set for July, and here’s to hoping Jinggoy doesn’t distract it with his rendition of ‘Paalam Kaibigan.’

Finally, the problem with Fisheries. Last Tuesday the European Commissioner for Fisheries has warned of a possible ban of Philippine export of fish into the European Market if it does not fix its fishing regulations. As it stands our fishing industry is mired with illegal practices, and our produce contaminated by unmonitored catches. The EU is a big market, and this yellow card is cause for alarm – imagine the billions in revenue we will lose, and the many fishermen who will suffer from the decrease in demand. The revelation of this regulatory inadequacy is also worrying for the environment, as current practices may be unsustainable (I’m not living in a world with no bangus, no thank you). Congress must look into this matter as soon as possible, or our fishermen will suffer, our coffers will lose needed revenue for continued public service, and I may not get a chance to eat kinilaw again.

With all these serious matters on the legislative table, doesn’t it make you wonder why you voted for Bong Revilla in the first place?


The USEP Brouhaha, a year on

Around this time a year ago, I caused a stir online when I reacted to the University of Southeastern Philippines’ inclusion in the QS Ranking of the best universities in Asia for that year. It began with a Facebook status (back when I still had an FB account), but circumstances not wholly independent but not entirely motivated either by the expected backlash compelled me to deactivate my Facebook account. I then proceeded to clarifying myself on this blog.

So much has happened in that year, as all years go.

For one thing, I have since changed my way of public commentary. I have mostly renounced polemics, the stuff of my long gone student days, and now try to be gentle and constructive when I need to point out areas for improvement. The result of a combination of jadedness (‘ugh, nobody is scandalized anymore!’) and experience as a teacher, really.

For another, I have by now completely relocated to the state of liminality between not belonging in Davao anymore and not quite in Dumaguete yet. What do I feel about all it now? Apathy. The reaction was said by me the  involved Dabawenyo. I have ceased to be an involved Dabawenyo.

So there’s your reply to the news that Ateneo de Davao has replaced USEP in this year’s QS Ranking. I have also ceased to be an Atenista.

Congratulations to AdDU, I guess, and here’s to hoping they can still improve what they need to (I don’t want to bother listing those down). And best of luck to USEP too in their attempt to get in again in the future, and all that.

One thing though that still gets me (and it just goes to show how vain I am) is how articulate I was during that debacle. Reading the feedback to my post here, I still feel the dread of reading a new comment. And mind you the comments were painful – my grammar was nitpicked, I was dismissed as insecure (as if anybody needed to tell me that), and I was accused of being attention hungry (as if anybody needed to tell me that). But that the comments were there and that they were by people I didn’t know made them impotent: it is when friends are quiet in times of need that it hurts most. I thus responded to them with removed eloquence, in a way that I am satisfied with as I read them today: civil, sometimes mockingly polite, but always to the point.

Do I regret anything in that whole experience? The loss of a few friends maybe, but friends have always been disposable anyway. Have I changed my mind about USEP now? No, not really. But then again I haven’t updated myself much on it so I guess that opinion is obsolete (if you want you can update me so I can give the withdrawal so many USEPians are still probably praying for).

One important thing though that I learned from that debacle was who was petty and who was worth believing, that it doesn’t mean someone is a quote-and-quote serious writer, he/she/it is infallible, or even sensible. Exposure to culture, it seems, no matter how high, will not change bangaws to phoenixes (sorry Matthew Arnold). The experience also served as a valuable means by which to smoke out people I should purge from my life. I haven’t enemied them of course, just unfriended them, which is different, and worse.

Would I make the same reaction now if USEP still got in the list and I was still involved and updated? No, probably not either. I’m busy writing a novel!

Anak ng… do something better

(Published in the Dumaguete MetroPost 1st June 2014)
Political dynasties. Perhaps the oldest issue in Philippine politics once again takes the political spotlight with two bills in both houses of Congress passed to quell our age-old tendency to make government look like a family business.
The Senate version, authored by senator JV Ejercito, exemplifies the provisions of the two bills: individuals related to at least two degrees of consanguinity with an incumbent public official seeking re-election will be barred from being elected to public office in the same province in the same election as the incumbent in question.
True to his father’s populist legacy, JV has passed a bill that will surely please the masses. But it will pay for the more sensible portion of the population to reflect on this fresh attempt at anti-dynasty legislation and see if there’s any meat in it.
For one thing, the scopes of the bills are evidently limited: just on the provincial level, just on the same election. A precedent that exemplifies the failure of this limitation is perhaps one of the most notoriously successful political dynasties in recent times, the Ampatuans of Maguindanao. The clan, an archetypal Mindanao political family, spread out their sphere of influence first from within the province across different cities, then to different provinces to dominate the ARMM. Political clans will not limit their franchise to their own baluartes: on the microcosm, just our own Teveses here in NegOr expanded from Tanjay to other parts of the province. If anything, this bill might even compel clans to seek more influence by spreading out. At the very least it will only weaken small-time clans while leaving the bigwigs unscathed.
And that leads me to the second problem in the province limitation: what of the National players? Mindanao being largely in the Cebuano-sphere now, political dynasties of Cebuano origin have gone on to dominate Mindanao politics (remember that Vicente Duterte, progenitor of the present Duterte magic in Davao, was originally outsourced by then Mindanao big man Alejandro Almendras, himself a transplant, from Cebu). And that is not saying anything of the big players from Luzon. The Senate, a good litmus paper for the country’s political acidity, is filled with scions (if not founders) of clans that dominate the national landscape. And Malacanang, we must remember, is currently occupied by the fifth in his line to be on the national spotlight.
And its limitation to incumbent officials in the same election is even more limiting. Shrewd political players intent on prolonging their hold on a province will bide their time, take turns in seeking office, and even exert influence out of office – heck, the time between one anak ng succeeding his daddy could well be one long campaign period for anak ng in question. ‘The mayor is dead, long live the son/wife/brother’ is not compulsory in Philippine politics. Exhibit A: Grace Poe.
Our generation would call these bills halfassery.
But ultimately, my problem with this bill is what it’s against: political dynasties themselves. If we are to be morally utilitarian, we can argue that measures to bar political scions from seeking office is more evil than leaving the status quo be, for they will compromise the constitutional rights of said scions to participate in public activity, and all to let hypothetical non-scions get a chance to take part. In Britain, Tony Benn had to campaign against such ‘discrimination of the privileged.’ Further exclusion is no answer to removing exclusion.
And we must remember that any form of exclusion is detrimental in the long run because it limits our options to get capable people in office. And yes, we must admit, the pool of political skill among princelings is formidable. History is full of successful leaders who came to the democratic fore as scions: Pitt the Younger and Lord Salisbury in Britain, Quincy Adams and FDR in the US, and the incumbents Shinzo Abe and Lee Hsien Loong. Our own Chief of Staff himself isn’t doing too bad. The argument that members of Kamag-anak Inc. have an advantage for having first hand exposure to their incumbent relative’s office, if not having been groomed to succeed, has never been adequately refuted. Additionally, the arrogance we often associate with them may be advantageous too. ‘A princeling,’ writes Cheng Li of the Brooklyns Institute in Washington on China’s Xi Jinping and his ‘Crown Prince Party’ of CPC-dynastic scions, ‘has a sense of ownership of the country…the “owners” of the system finds it easier to fix the country’s problems.’ The sense of entitlement, along with the network of connections, may make it easier for them to exert their will.
The problem underlying all this, really, is not people from the same family being elected, but we Filipinos continuing to elect people from the same family. The problem of exclusivity is not caused by dynasties, dynasties are simply symptomatic of it, our voting culture is ultimately to blame for this. We Filipinos are so used to voting familiar names that we don’t care if said names have become trapos, and it’s getting in the way of us choosing better cloth. The same masses whom surveys consistently show are fed up with political clans are the same masses who keep said clans in power.
In Ancient China, the Song Dynasty significantly diminished the influence of a millennia-old nobility in public administration when they greatly expanded the Imperial Examinations. By choosing officials based on their merit (as judged by the rigorous civil service exams), a poor farmer’s son can, and often did, outrank a Duke.
If we can similarly focus our efforts on increasing the qualifications of our options for office (say making sure they at least pass the civil service exam), then we can be assured of qualified and capable officials. The problem of exclusivity on the ballot – of people electing based on family name – needs a change of culture, one which administrative emphasis on merit can help with. If the government stops favouring anak ng’s just because, we will stop electing them just because.
Of course attention also has to be paid to the other factors (and ultimately problems) behind the strength of Kamag-anak Inc: intimidation by private armies, vote buying, padrino-motivated voting. Political dynasties are only the bloom above the wasteland, we need to uproot the weeds by the roots.
We need to do better than this. As the cliché goes, we owe our descendants a better country than what we inherited from our forefathers. That thread of democratic inheritance at least we can all agree with.