On the Insensitivity of the Region 12 Hymn

Tribal Leaders in Kidapawan have raised an uproar over the regional hymn being mandated by the Department of Education for Region 12.

The leaders contend that the lines ‘mga Muslim, mga Kristiyano, at mga iba pang tribu’ reflect an ignorance in history and serve to marginalize the Lumad.

The full lyrics of the song can be seen here.

The Lumad are justified in raising this matter. The mere dismissal of the Lumad as ‘iba pang tribu’ just shows their othering, and their position in that sequence further implies their marginal position, mentioned merely almost as an afterthought. This is a gross injustice to the Lumad, who are Mindanao’s original peoples. This is why when I write about the tri-peoples of Mindanao I always write ‘Lumad, Moro, and Settler.’

The lyrics also show an ignorance in the sociopolitical complexities of ethnic and religious identity in Mindanao. The mention of ‘Muslim’ and Kristiyano’ only adds to the erroneous conflation of ethnic identity with religious identity. The more politically correct terms for the three peoples (at least in my experience) are Lumad or Tribal Peoples, Moro, and Settler. The Moro are the Islamized tribes but they are defined as an ethno-linguistic identity (a Tagalog who has converted to Islam can’t be a Moro).

The saddest part about this whole debacle though is that this is DepEd mandating it. It is the department which manages the country’s education system – the country’s learning and thinking – and yet it does not even understand the postcolonial and regional nuances of the tri-people arrangement. And because this is government we’re talking about, the mention of Muslim and Kristiyano may be taken as institutional religious segregation, a violation of the Constitutional provision on separation of Church and State.

This is far from the first manifestation of the ignorance of Philippine educators. For generations our teachers have called the regional languages like Cebuano and Hiligaynon as ‘the vernacular dialect’ (in the dismissively homogenizing singular). And I grew up hearing my teachers calling the tribal communities ‘indigents,’ the word ‘natives’ used in pitying condescension. ‘Settler’ and ‘Christian’ have always been conflated, and nobody ever taught me the audacity with which the Islamized tribes owned the colonial label of ‘Moro’ as their own.

If our own government and its teacher-bureaucrats aren’t even sensitive to Mindanao’s issues, how on earth do we expect our kids to?

 


On Senior High School Students Interviewing Filipino Writers

Recently in Mindanao, local writers have been surprised to receive emails and private messages on social media from senior high school students about their life and work. These questions and requests for interview seem to be from requirements being asked in school, an innovative class activity, I suspect, by idealistic young teachers who want our young people to get in touch with our local literary scene.

This is of course unprecedented, specially among local writers, as Filipino literature in general is largely underrated, unread by the Filipino readership. This is particularly the case with the youth, which largely consumes foreign literature, and if there is ever local consumption it is limited to works of popular fiction, very far from the literary crop.  Our writers rarely get so much attention.

How, you ask, did the writers react to this sudden surge of attention? Scorn.

Many writers decried the intrusive nature of the interviews. Others deplored how the students did not even bother researching basic information about them before asking. Still there are those who called on the teachers to teach their students to be formal enough and write a request letter. And others simply complained that with the barrage of interview requests, they don’t have time to write.

 

There is, first and foremost, nothing mature or professional about bashing senior high students on social media. If there are rude requests from them (and admittedly there have been), simply tell them off or ignore them without making it public that you have done so.

Then there is a certain arrogance to demand that any interview be conducted in formal terms.

This, I think, reveals the underlying elitism that so defines our literary – and our artistic – community.

The pervasive attitude among artists, specially writers, is that their art – and their dedication to the field of art – makes them important, somehow worthy of utmost respect and veneration. The artist is a sacred person according to the Filipino writer (many will always think of the celebrity of Neruda or the venerability of Hugo), and one ought not to treat them the way one would treat other, more ordinary people.

Filipino writers dismiss the dearth of readership they should be getting as the result of the unwashed masses’ lack of education and breeding. They scorn teenage Filipinos for reading Wattpad novels and Kilig Romances. Ironically they do so while espousing generally Gramscian ideologies.

The Filipino writer has long decried the lack of attention, and when she finally gets it, she complains it is not in the necessary note of reverence she thinks she deserves.

The truth of the matter is (and it is a painful reality I am saying as a writer myself), a writer who is not read is an irrelevant writer, and the vast majority of our so-called ‘literary writers’ are irrelevant writers who are not even read by one another. We are no important Hugos and Nerudas to whom formal letters of request have to be given so interviews can be asked, it is just downright arrogance to demand something like that when a polite, even if informal private message on Facebook, would have done.

There is even more arrogance in those saying students ought to research about the writers first. It assumes, first of all, that the writers in question are important enough to be on the books (trust me, even National Artists sometimes have very little information out there). They also forget the fact that in the Philippines, Filipino books and other material that deal with Filipino writers (academic journals, literary magazines, etc.) are both often prohibitively expensive (a 350 peso novel is average), and excessively difficult to find. I cannot even find anywhere the birth places of so many Filipino writers that I have to ask from common friends. This all just goes to show how out of touch our writers are to their own realities.

But I think the biggest manifestation of delusions of grandeur are in those saying they don’t have time to answer questions because they have to write. How utterly snobbish can you get. You refuse to entertain what can be your potential readers because you have to write stories and poems nobody will read.

It is very counterproductive. One of the frequent reasons cited by less egotistic writers as a reason why Filipino literature remains so inaccessible is because our writers are not introduced to our children. That is now being remedied, and even if the efforts are facing challenges, the sheer snobbery with which writers respond to them are far more damaging to the efforts than whatever glitches these first efforts may have.

We need our kids to start appreciating our very good body of local literature, but how do we expect them to like our work when their first experience of it is a writer publicly humiliating them on social media?

 

 


I Hate Basketball

I hate Basketball

It is the sport the Americans taught us Filipinos, displacing our traditional sports. It is a legacy of American Colonialism. Filipinos still obsess over it today like the little brown Americans that we are, keeping our worldview still strongly American-shaped. It is the sport that makes Filipinos think the Celtic people are from Boston.

It is the sport major Filipino TV stations in the country choose to cover on prime time news, some game between one American basketball team against another American basketball team in far away America. It is the sport they choose to cover instead of business and economy, instead of arts and culture, instead of goings on in Mindanao. As they tell you that local news is not really that relevant, it is the sport they choose to dedicate an entire channel to.

It is the sport they make you play in school because it builds character, because a competitive sport that involves stealing some ball from one another and slamming it into a ring is a great way of developing good behaviour. Because Music, Arts, and Physical Education are all taught in basic education as one subject, and because the vast majority of Filipino teachers are illiterate in music and the arts, sports – Basketball – gets a disproportionately higher amount of attention.

Besides it’s a sport, a tasked-based lesson, no need to make students memorize the names of instruments or hard-to-pronounce names of French artists.

It is the sport they encourage you to play in school because you can get University scholarships by being good at it. Forget writing or drawing or playing an instrument. Heck, research papers don’t even get you as much financial assistance in school as basketball does.

It is the sport they encourage you to play even if your chances of making a career out of it in the Philippines are as slim as modeling. And all the while they tell you off for being a writer or artist because ‘you can’t make money out of art-art.’

But because there are a few who do succeed in the slim chance, they encourage you to play it anyway even as they crush your hopes of being a successful musician or painter. Play it well enough and they’ll make you into a model. Play it well long enough and they’ll elect you as Senator. Who cares about historians and novelists, Filipinos know it is the basketball players, actors, and boxers who make great legislators.

It is the sport they encourage you to play so you don’t do drugs. As if drug dependency is really all just a matter of distracting our stupid young people.

It is the sport the government encourages you to play to promote good health, even as tobacco and alcohol remain ridiculously affordable, and the air pollution – about which nothing is being done – is so bad it is easy to get bronchitis.

It is the sport of the cool kids, of the real boys, from the astigs in the kanto to the heartrobs in Arneow. The girls won’t cheer for you in high school no matter how good you are in chess, but shoot a few hoops and they’ll gladly lose their virginity to you on JS prom. It is the sport men like to pretend they’re good at to make up for their short penises.

Only dorks and faggots choose to stay in libraries and, like, not play basketball.

And so it is the sport the macho father forces on his son to sweat away the bayot out of him, and the sport the pot-bellied father in-law expects his prospective son in-law to know.

So whenever you ask me if I follow basketball, and even if I politely say I don’t know it too much you still push the topic, this is what I think about it.

I fucking hate basketball.


In defence of those in Mindanao not affected by Martial Law

Understandably, Mindanao is divided over Martial Law.

In response to outcry from Manila over Duterte’s declaration of it over Mindanao in response to the Marawi crisis, many in Mindanao have taken to social media to insist Martial Law reassures them against the spread of terror. I am one of those who have been very vocal on that score.

Since then there is growing dissent to this view from within Mindanao, most crucially from those directly affected by the Marawi crisis. Civilians are being killed by the indiscriminate firing and the air strikes, it is argued.

This reaction comes in the context of the discourse of Mindanao identity, a contentious and deeply divisive problematique which pits Lumad against Moro against Settler. People in Mindanao claiming to feel safe under Martial Law, viewed through one lens of such a context, are in fact merely bourgeois Settlers serving to silence the Moro subaltern, blind to the plight of the most vulnerable in the island. (this is a very rich topic to discuss and I think it deserves a separate discussion altogether).

True enough, the Settler community has always been guilty of silencing the two other peoples of the island, just as the Moro has been historically guilty of silencing the Lumad.

But I contend that the present situation is not so straightforward.

The problem with any subaltern perspective is that it always thinks because its problems are indisputably the most pressing and serious, it is the only perspective worth taking, its concerns the only ones worth considering.

Of course it is horrible that civilians are dying in Marawi, of course we have to find a way to avoid it, of course many Lumad will not even have IDs to present at checkpoints, of course Martial Law is a double edged sword.

But in this complicated, deeply divided land, one man’s bane is another’s boon.

This is a terrorist crisis, the tables might turn anytime, and we who are currently privileged and safe may suddenly be the ones being brutally mistreated, accusing those who are currently suffering of being privileged.

Can you imagine what horrors non-Muslims face (and the possible advantages the Moros have) if an Islamic State was established? And worse, the heat of warfare may breed a communist totalitarian regime like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which may well make even being educated a crime.

There are many historical examples of this recurring horror already, of the marginalized suddenly oppressing the originally privileged and using their marginalization as justification for oppression.

How many of the privileged Tutsis in Rwanda did the Hutus slaughter? What atrocities did the working class revolutionaries in China commit to the scholar-bureaucrat class during the Cultural Revolution? How did the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh take advantage of Western interventionism and local resentment to destabilize governments and perpetuate the systematic slaughter of non-Muslims – and of Shiites – in the Middle East?

It is being close-minded to insist people are being selfish just because their security comes at the cost of that of other’s.

‘We’ feel safe in Mindanao because of Martial law, and that plural first person pronoun may not include everyone, but it includes a significant portion of Mindanao’s population, one which is now at risk of being actively and deliberately neglected. The current victims are not the only ones affected by this crisis, everyone is at risk.

And it is no coincidence that I am also against the class struggle being advocated by the communist terrorists – it is rooted in divisiveness and exclusion, responding to silencing and oppression with more silencing and oppression that only perpetuates a vicious cycle of endless conflict.

We who are urban Settlers are not silencing the Moro or the Lumad subaltern here (if we are, we do so unwittingly).  As a matter of fact hearing them plea against the horrors they suffer under Martial Law is very welcome, as it helps improve the declaration’s implementation.

But with their response to our positive attitude towards Martial Law, they’re already bordering on wishing to silence us, seething with resentment at what are perceived as intentionally committed injustices.

They versus us.

The dispossessed Moros are playing right into the Extremists’ hands, sowing hatred and division among themselves against non-Muslims. And the privileged but morally self righteous in Manila (and even in Mindanao) are only making it worse by amplifying the message of divisiveness.

The message all this UP-centered opposition to Martial Law is sending to the ordinary Moro is simple: ‘You’re a victim, this Martial Law was declared to oppress you, the non-Muslims like it even if you’re suffering, hate the non-Muslims.’

And all for what? In more practical terms, do you think these suffering sectors will be safer without Marital Law? Do you think the situation will be better if the declaration was revoked? If we are to be silenced for our shortsightedness, what better alternative is there?

Can we not simply work together to address the problem at hand and improve one another’s solutions so that they work for all, instead of bickering about being excluded?

Extremists, communist terrorists, and Imperial Manila are all pitting our three peoples in Mindanao against one another.We must resist this, we must resist the temptation to think only from our own perspective, Lumad, Moro, and Settler alike, and try our best to listen to one another.

Now is the worst time to be divided as peoples living together in this beautiful, beautiful land.

 


Why people in Mindanao don’t mind Martial Law

(Featured in the Esquire Website’s Unpopular Opinion section)

As always there is war in my country.

But as always, two different wars are waging in Manila and in Mindanao.

In Mindanao the Maute group – sympathizers of International terrorist group Daesh – are assaulting the Islamic city of Marawi in Lanao. Duterte has declared Martial Law over all of Mindanao. In response the Communist insurgents – another group of terrorists – added to the fire by bombing my city of Kidapawan, injuring 2 policemen.

In Manila, the war is between those who are supportive of the Durian President, and those who are condemning him for being Marcos 2.0. Fears of human rights violations (already there because of Digong’s bloody war on drugs) are being aired, and rallies have been and continue to be organized by university students and others to oppose the declaration of Martial Law.

But this time, there is a war between these two wars.

Anti-Martial Law activists are under fire for intervening with Mindanao’s business, Pro-Martial Law Mindanawons are being accused of Regional closemindedness.

I do not begrudge the activists in Manila for rallying, that is their constitutional right and I celebrate their freedom to do so. I do not agree that they have no say in the debate of Martial Law’s appropriateness.

But I am still accusing them of Manila Imperialism.

Here in Mindanao the paramount concern is the threat of terrorism (which was the motivation behind the declaration of Martial Law in the first place). Texts messages and chats are being circulated from city to city of bombings being plotted in Malls and other city centers, images circulate on Facebook of the chaos and violence in Marawi and the ongoing acceptance of refugees in Iligan. Amidst the Budots and the Basketball tournaments, a faint climate of worry hangs in the air over Davao.

And once again, Manila has hijacked National attention by insisting its own experience with Martial Law is more important than fears of terrorism.

Sure, remind us of Manili and the killing of Favali and of Ilaga and of all the horrors of the last Martial Law in Mindanao,  I’ll be the first to preach the importance of remembering historical injustices (Favali was buried just ten minutes from my ancestral home in Kidapawan). It is almost arrogant to assume the Mindanawon does not know his/her history, and even if he/she doesn’t, there is nothing but the top-down education system – centered in Imperial Manila – to blame for not teaching local history.

All the injustices and fears of history repeating itself are second priority when public safety is at immediate risk. There are three peoples in Mindanao, each of them with their own harrowing experience of the Marcos years, but the attitude of Mindanawons to Martial Law is far more complex and far more nuanced that just fear of a heavy-handed government. All this talk of rights possibly being violated because of abuses under Martial Law only reveals Manilenos’ imposition of their own experience of military rule on Mindanao.

And we here in Mindanao don’t need Martial Law to have our rights abused, rights have been abused here for centuries. Bud Dajo, the Manhunt for Mangulayon, Malisbong, Manili, the Estrada offensive – Mindanao earth is no stranger to blood being spilled. Remember that military rule was declared in Maguindanao after the Maguindanao Massacre.

Marcos’ Martial Law was a horrible thing for Mindanao, but it was not the first, and it certainly wasn’t the last horror we have seen. Military rule itself did not leave a bad taste in our mouths.

If anything, a Mindanawon President leading Martial Law in Mindanao for many means order, security, and a firm command of the crisis. Whatever abuses may be committed by government forces, they are a preferable evil compared to the much worse threat of a Taliban State or a Khmer Rouge being established here.

Right now we don’t need history lessons, we need solutions. Martial Law is the only solution being presented to us, and instead of giving alternatives those critical of the move are simply indulging in the thrill of being outraged.

We here in Mindanao try our best to understand. It would be best if those in Manila try to understand us too.


Laksa!

Laksa is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, the Malay world’s great contribution to world cuisine. Whether Lemak (with coconut gravy) or Assam (with sour soup), Laksa demonstrates the intensity that so pleases the Malay palate.

I’ve been to Singapore three times and to Malaysia four, and on each occasion I made it a point to try as many kinds of laksa as I can. Here are some of them.

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Geylang Laksa, the most typical form of the curry-style Lemak laksa, is touted as the best laksa in Singapore. It has an interesting history, dating back eighty years from an old man who sold laksa on the go along Geylang road.

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Penang Laksa is the most typical form of Assam laksa. This one is from a stall near Singapore’s Aljuneid station, and is the best Assam laksa I’ve had. The sour soup is rich and glorious with mackerel pulp

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The best curry laksa I’ve ever had is the Mee Kari from Nura Kasih, a stall in the food centre on the corner of Jalans Rajah Muda Abdul Aziz and Jalan Abdul Manan Nordin in Kuala Lumpur’s Kampung Bahru. What is known in Singapore as ‘laksa’ (curry laksa) is called ‘mee kari’ – curry noodles – in Malaysia, with the term ‘laksa’ being applied by default to some form of Assam laksa. In Malaysia too curry laksa is served with chicken, in contrast to Singapore’s seafood. The Mee Kari in Nurah Kasih is flavoured with star anise and cinnamon, with the whole spices served with the soup.

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Not all Lemak laksa has curry. Laksam, a kind of laksa distinct for its thick chunks of dough as noodles, does not have curry. Like most Malaysian laksa it’s served with slices of raw stringed beans, which can be unpleasant to the uninitiated.

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Johor laksa is a very particular kind of laksa. It is the most popular hybrid laksa, being both Lemak and Assam (with a sour coconut curry broth). But what makes it distinct is it uses spaghetti noodles.

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There’s a quirky stall along Singapore’s Balestier Road that sells Mee Hon Laksa, or laksa with rice vermicelli. It makes the rich coconut curry broth much more enjoyable because the thickness of the noodles is no obstruction. It’s almost like the broth was solidified.

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Katong Laksa is another uniquely Singaporean laksa. The chopsticks in this picture were never used, Katong laksa is distinct for having the noodles scissored into smaller pieces so the laksa can be eaten with only a spoon.

I hope to try all the kinds of Laksa out there, and as I try new ones this post will be updated!


Meeting Miguel Syjuco

Syjuco

I finally got to meet the most successful Filipino writer in the world.

Miguel Syjuco was disarmingly friendly, as he had always been online. Perhaps it was the death threats.

The Man Asia prize winner came to Davao at a very politically charged time: a consistent critic of the Duterte administration, he has been very vocal with his concerns about the many victims of alleged Extrajudicial killings in Metro Manila and other urban areas.

When he confided on social media that friends were warning him about his safety as he entered the baluarte of a politician he publicly criticized, Syjuco received a barrage of death threats, which only seemed to confirm his friends’ concerns. I had assured him there was nothing to fear, and he went to Davao anyway.

I met and hosted him as a Duterte supporter, as one who has been so since I was young (I had urged our then mayor in this blog to run when he was not even making national news yet), and whose family is passionately pro-Duterte.

But above all that, I met him as a genuine fan: I had read Ilustrado some years ago, when the Cebuano writer Januar Yap gave me his copy, and was floored by the skill of its writing. I still believe it is the closest anyone has come to a Great Filipino Novel, and ought to be taught in all schools instead of Rizal.

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My now missing copy of Ilustrado. I lent it to someone and I forgot to whom. I had a shaky hand with this photo!

Miguel came over for four main reasons: to see Davao for himself (he had not been here since the 90s); to lay the groundwork for a possible project with Ateneo de Davao; to give a workshop to my old club in Ateneo, SALEM; and to chat with my ninong, DCPO director Alexander Tagum.

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Miguel with SALEM

In between excursions we would chat about politics, the Philippine literary scene, and some humorously bad jokes. He’d share personal struggles, his family’s not always successful foray into politics, and having to overcome the mob of pro-Duterte netizens who gang up on him.

In the lobby of the Marco Polo while he, I, and Nal had a drink on his first night, I joked that I hope he stayed safe, who else would win the Nobel for the Filipino people. He laughed it off with a National Artist’s name, though I was dead serious about him getting it. The only flaw Miguel Syjuco has as a writer is that he hasn’t written enough yet.

He has been saying he enjoyed Davao, though I feel he didn’t see as much as he should have. I’m hoping he finds time to return and see the Philippine Eagles.

Did we disagree while he was here? Surprisingly not much. What we learned early on online was that nobody is ever really entirely pro or anti anything. He wasn’t entirely critical of everything Duterte, as I was not entirely supportive of everything the President does.

We both agreed that the current climate of polarization, of painting everything black and white, is not productive for both sides and is unleashing a mob of hateful fanatics. Where the Duterte administration can improve with feedback, it turns a blind eye because all negative feedback is viewed with violent suspicion. Where it does good, the critics refuse to see because they only see the EJKs and a man who speaks nothing but murder.

And we both saw that while we stood on opposite sides of a political divide, we are linked together by a renewed passion for our country and its people.

On his last night while we lounged in the Marco’s lobby, a gunshot pierced the busy Davao evening. It turned out a guest who was surrendering his pistol to the guard accidentally fired a blank.

I asked, jokingly, if he thinks RJ Nieto had meant that as a warning.