Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends

As an American expat, I'm pretty much resigned to spending the rest of my life here in the Philippines.  In fact it's unlikely that I'll even be in a position or have the desire to visit the U.S. for quite some time to come, if ever. Yet, I've always felt that it's really too bad that my wife Lydia and I had to leave the States in the first place. However, based on our income as senior citizens, there's no way that we could have afforded to retire there as opposed to being able to enjoy a modest but comfortable lifestyle in this country for the same amount of

So when we think back on our lives in America (Southern California to be exact where we married and and spent 35 years of our lives together) it's with decidedly mixed emotions. Like most couples, we've experienced both good and hard times. But what makes it easy to for us to reminisce about the former are, of all things, the home furnishings that we brought with us to the Philippines, some of which we've had for many years and that have (for us anyway) enjoyable stories behind the way and places that we acquired them. Further, Lydia has arranged them so artistically that they more than compensate for our having to downsize to a small condo here vs. our roomy former apartment in California. 

But what makes our unit especially attractive this time of the year and fires up our recollections of days of old are the holiday decorations that Lydia bought years ago and insisted on taking with us and which she arranges in a beautiful display each December. Some of these items were very expensive and others Lydia made herself out of cardboard, wood,and plastic remnants but which look as intricate as the pricey ones that she purchased back in the 1970's at such places as Bullocks Wilshire, one of Los Angeles' erstwhile premier department stores. 

So if you're planning to move abroad, along with packing the necessities, don't hesitate to also include some of your treasured belongings even if they're nonessential items but ones that you consider to be part of your history. These possessions are of course no substitute for a personal willingness and ability to adjust to new surroundings and culture, and shipping them may entail additional freight costs. But the familiarity and fond memories that they provide can give emotional comfort and a sense of continuity during and after you settle in your new environment that will be well worth it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fil-Ams: Not Your Typical Ethnic Voters

While most of the world cheered the re-election of President Obama, many (most) Filipinos  in the Philippines and especially those living in the U.S. (Fil-Ams) did not share this sentiment and preferred Romney instead.  Here's the breakdown of the Fil-Am vote: 38% for Romney, 32% for Obama, and 28% undecided.

One explanation for Filipinos identification with the Republican Party (27% GOP supporters vs. 24% Democrats)   is colonial mentality, including an interpretation or a perception of what they consider to be the true  patriotic American mindset which as it turns out is actually the  extremist "old white male" mentality.  An  example of an individual who fits this profile is Marisha Agana, a Republican Tea Party candidate for Congress from Ohio who odiously compared Obama to Hitler.   Fortunately, she was defeated.

Paradoxically, however, most of the other Fil-Ams running for political office were Democrats and and did fairly well.  The percentage of  Filipino Americans residing in the candidates' respective locales varied. So this factor didn't seem to play a part in whether they lost or won.

Another reason—and likely that of  Agana—for Filipinos voters' rejection of Obama is their racism against African-Americans. This is likely a legacy  from the American colonial period in the Philippines when the American civilian and military administrators and soldiers were white and conveyed a sense of superiority (as did their Spanish predecessors) towards their "little brown brothers" along with (especially  from the numerous troops from the segregated American South) a hatred of blacks. So in a kind of a  pecking order, Filipinos wound up seeing themselves as inferior to Caucasians but superior towards Blacks and for that matter towards  darker skin co-Filipinos as well .  

Indeed, President Obama's first administration was in many ways a disappointment, and there's no guarantee that he will deliver on his campaign promises for the new term. But Fil-Ams have no less a stake in the socioeconomic progress of the U.S. than other Americans. And it makes no sense for them or anyone else to hitch their wagons to the Republican party whose reckless economic policies not only brought on the Great Recession, but whose "old white male" / right wing politics of exclusion and closed-mindedness are at the end of the day nothing but a travesty of the American way after all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Customer Service: A Study in Contrasts

My last post, "Indifferent Strokes from Business Folks",dealt with the poor customer service that I received from Sky Cable and how difficult it can be to get for many (most?) companies in the Philippines to take customer complaints seriously.

But that is not always the case. 

On  Oct.10 I purchased a take out order consisting of a pork liempo and pork barbecue stick meal at Reyes Barbecue which is a local chain that specializes in grilled native dishes.   Each item came with a packet of atsara (papaya relish). It turns out that the contents of both packets were spoiled. I returned to the store to notify the manager, but there was none on duty. So I told a line employee instead about the matter and emphasized that their entire supply of this product is likely inedible,

I wasn't  asking for my money back as the item in question was just a small part of the purchase. Yet I felt that the restaurant should be made aware of this quality control problem. My thinking was this time it was just a bad batch of atsara, which was easily identifiable even without opening the packet. But next time a customer might unknowingly wind up with an order that has a much more serious food safety problem, such as bad meat.

For good measure I went to the Reyes website and filed a narrative of my issue  in the "Contact Us" option.  However, I didn't really expect anything to come of it, which has been my experience in filing complaints or making inquiries with other businesses this way.  Imagine my surprise when just a few hours later I received a reply from the manager/owner of the franchise where I had made the purchase.  She apologized profusely for the incident which she acknowledged was inexcusable and said that the employee whom I originally discussed the matter had indeed brought it to her attention, but she didn't know how to reach me as I didn't leave any contact information at the restaurant. She even offered  to furnish  a new order of the above items on the house.   I took her up on it, and this time everything in the order was fine, including the atsara which was fresh and crispy.  

In short, a strong indication of a company's integrity and reliability is not just the service that it provides for customers in the regular course of day to day business but moreover how they respond when they've made a mistake. The respective attitudes of  Sky Cable and Reyes Barbecue in this type of situation are as different as night and day as is their worthiness of patronage by the public..

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Indifferent Strokes from Business Folks

Here is a narrative about bad customer service. It reflects the attitude of many companies in the Philippines which have made  an art of inefficiency.

Our  cable TV and Internet provider Global Destiny was recently taken over by another company, Sky Cable Corp. It would be too much for subscribers to expect a seamless transition in such a changeover, and sure enough, Sky failed to record some of our subscription payments in the course of the records transfer between the two companies and sent us a past due notice in early September  threatening disconnection of service even though our accounts were in fact paid current.

In response to this warning, I immediately phoned Sky.  They claimed that Global Destiny is still responsible for billing and referred  me to the Global Destiny customer service number which turned out to be unreachable.  I called Sky back but they still refused to assist. I pointed out that they now own our accounts and even changed the account numbers to accommodate their system, and most tellingly "Sky Cable" not "Global Destiny" is the name of the payee on their bill.  Finally the representative  appeared to relent and said they would look into the matter and call me back the next day. Of course, she didn't. Such is the state of customer service in the Philippines. Employees will tell you what you want to hear. This type of stroking is rooted in the local culture. But meanwhile, these reassurances sound so convincing that you really believe your grievance is about to be rectified.

So a few weeks ago I reported our problem to the regulatory agency  that oversees cable businesses, the Department of Telecommunications, and received an email acknowledgment that it had been received. While that's pending, a few days ago I asked the administrator's office of our condominium building  whether they had heard of any new information as we are not alone in our complaint. There were no new developments, but they gave me a contact person at Sky to whom I texted a brief  explanation of our problem. She promised to call back on Oct. 3 but that didn't happen. 

This morning I finally received a corrected bill for each account.This afternoon I also received a text from the contact person at Sky requesting that I refer my complaint to her supervisor. I understand if the rep felt that my situation was beyond the limits of her job responsibilities , but as a matter of business courtesy, the supervisor should be the one to initiate the contact.

Obviously, I'm glad that the situation has apparently been resolved, but if I hadn't persisted in getting it it fixed and wasted hours of my time in doing so, rather than looking at an accurate statement, I might now be looking at a "cable-less" blue screen on my TV and at a "cannot connect" message on my computer for my Internet service.

The moral of the story is that if ever you have a service issue like this one, don't assume that it will be resolved with one call to or interface with a representative. If the complaint isn't properly addressed on the second contact, get a supervisor or manager involved and follow up regularly. Escalate the matter and file a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency if necessary.  These steps won't guarantee success in getting issues settled in your favor, but failure to stay on top of them will almost ensure a disappointing outcome.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When "The Demands of the Business" Go Too Far

In The Philippines BPO (business processing outsourcing) operations for companies based in other countries, especially the U.S are an important sector of the economy. These companies transfer divisions such as call centers here in order to cut expenses, especially labor.  But there is a disadvantage of such relocations to this part of the world: This region is subject to severe  weather conditions, namely severe storms including typhoons at least nine months out of the year. The Philippines sits along the geographical ring of fire.  So there's also always the risk of earthquakes and volcanoes. The country also has a weak infrastructure that has difficulty handling the demands of 21st Century commerce. Thus, it's incumbent on companies who decide to relocate partly or fully here to do their homework so they'll know what they're getting into.    

The heavy rains and resultant flooding that Metro Manila experienced from a storm in August resulted not just in the loss lives and of heavy property damage.  Conditions were so bad that President Aquino called for (what turned out to be a two day) emergency suspension of work at most private business including BPO's and non-essential government offices.  Personally, I think that all things considered, this edict was a humane and practical decision. Yet according to "Philippine Daily Inquirer"columnist  Paolo Monticello, Aquino made a bad call because for one thing it overrode the BPO industry's own (unspecified) plans to deal with the situation.  Further, he says it reflects poorly on the country's ability to respond to such events. Businesses that send their work to the Philippines demand continuity in services, natural disasters not withstanding. They expect results, come hell or high water (literally).

Monticello gives the example of how well and quickly Japan's business sector took the Fukishima disaster in stride, and I likewise admire that country's intrepid response to that devastating calamity (See my post "Why Don't They Get It?").  But he doesn't address the consequences of what might have happened if the earthquake and tsunami had struck Tokyo instead, just as the Philippine economy would be in serious peril if a similar event were to strike Metro-Manila, the business center of the nation rather than some provincial city.

In his article Monticello gives a token nod to the need for worker safety during floods but doesn't offer solutions to the transportation disruption under these conditions.  How are employees supposed to get to their jobs?  Swim? And what about their own personal disaster-related hardships and emergencies at home?  As it turns out, a contributing factor to the flood in Metro-Manila was the city's aging pumping system. How can stranded BPO employees be held accountable for that?   Yet, as it is, some companies that do stay open nevertheless penalize their staff for not showing up

Moreover, call centers are usually not vital services on which the public depends for their very lives. If a BPO is closed because of severe weather conditions or other natural disasters, this is ordinarily at most an inconvenience to customers and not worth risking the lives of the staff.  I say this from the decades-long perspective  both as a  former call center agent in the U.S. who was occasionally prevented from reporting to work by such events as natural and civil disturbances.  On the other hand as a consumer I have also had to cope with business service disruptions from the same causes. But I recognize that sometimes  emergencies happen beyond anyone's control. That's part of life, and we just have to learn to accept it.

Monticello refers to uninterrupted BPO service in the face of natural disaster  as "keeping the lights on". He stresses that the Philippines can only compete with other countries for these businesses by supporting such goals. And that's all well and good to a point. But let's face it under disastrous circumstances, most  employers here can't guarantee transportation, safe working conditions, and at least partly paid time off for workers to deal with their own losses.  If Monticello doesn't recognize this fact, then when it comes to understanding the limits of  human physical and emotional endurance, he and like-minded business analysts are really in the dark.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Water Log

As bad as the storm was that just passed through Luzon , it's likely that sometime in the future, there will be an even worse period of prolonged and intense rain. And that doesn't even include  typhoons. So the question is whether or not the civil authorities learn anything from such disasters in order to be better prepared for the next one.

In 2009 Metro-Manila was similarly flooded by another disastrous storm,named "Ondoy" . One  difference between that calamity and this week's monsoon was that the former dumped a huge amount of water in an approximately six hour period, whereas this week's storm was spread out over two days. But the effect was the same in both instances: flooding, deaths, and property damage.  The local weather bureau, PAGASA   was caught flatfooted by Ondoy, and as result so was the local and national government.  However, this time,  PAGASA monitored the situation more closely, and civil authorities seemed to react more quickly and did a better job in deploying first responders. In turn this undoubtedly reduced the number of drownings that would otherwise have occurred. Also there seemed to be more emergency shelters available for those who were stranded or left homeless.

My neighborhood, Eastwood City, was relatively unscathed.  But had it not been for a seawall that was built immediately after Ondoy, this area would also likely have been flooded,which is what happened in 2009.  This week,just like that time, the nearby Marikina River overflowed from the frequent rains which had fallen continually over the past several days and for which the deluge on Tuesday and Wednesday was the last straw. Looking over the seawall, I observed that the community across the river--which lacks a corresponding protective barrier--was partly submerged.

On Tuesday, the President of the Philippines ordered (what turned out to be a two-day) closure of most government offices and private companies in the affected areas. This meant an interruption of delivery from suppliers to those businesses that stayed open, such as convenience stores. In turn this resulted in a shortage of some food items and bottled water.  This was worrisome as the latter product can become vital during flooded conditions because the safety of the municipal the water system can be compromised under such circumstances. Fortunately, that didn't happen--this time.

Just as government and businesses should plan for emergencies, it almost goes without saying that indiviuals should do likewise. Personally, I had become complacent and was ill-prepared for this storm. For example, at the first sign early  Tuesday morning that this was not an ordinary rain, I should have stocked up on essentials. In fact, that's something that I ought to have done long ago. Next time I hope to be ready. And inasmuch  as the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to natural disasters, as previously noted it's likely that "next time" won't be long in coming.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Expat's Credit Statement

As a retired bill collector who worked in this profession for many years in the U.S., I'm leery about charge cards, and I caution people to use them judiciously, if at all.   In fact I devoted a chapter to this topic in my ebook "Green Monday".  However,  there are times when having one may be practically a necessity, especially if you're traveling or living abroad. In fact, unless you carry a big wad of cash around with you (not advisable in the Philippines)  they are essential for such emergencies as sudden major medical expenses.

But if you make a transaction outside the States with a credit or debit / ATM card issued by American financial institutions, chances are many (most?) of them will assess a 3% currency conversion fee along with whatever other charges they levy. So it behooves expatriates to open a local bank account along with an ATM/ debit card and if possible a credit card as well.

For this and other reasons of convenience, I applied for a charge card at a bank here in Metro-Manila where I have a savings account and an ATM / debit card. Another reason I did this is out of curiosity  There are no credit bureaus in the Philippines, so aside from my business history with this financial institution I wondered how lenders gauge creditworthiness, especially on unsecured debt, which is the usual type obligation that is incurred with cards. What compounds the matter is the high degree of risk that financial services undertake when approving credit cards and other lending activity because the default rate is much higher than that in the U.S. And of course, like with American card issuers  interest rates and fees are also quite high (unless the cardholder pays in full each month) .

Yet credit cards have become a staple of the banking industry here and are very popular among consumers. Nevertheless, as a foreigner without employment or any other local means of support, I would have understood if I had been turned down.  To my surprise, however, the bank granted my application. I inquired about the basis for this decision (I Just can't leave well enough alone) and was informed  it was indeed the result of my account relationship with this institution which goes back a number of years.

Familiar amenities such as on line statement and payment options along with promotion bonuses are offered by many card issuers.  On the other hand, there is one big difference between U.S. and  Philippine financial institutions in the matter of recourse if the customer is dissatisfied with a purchase made using a credit card. Here the cardholder is on his/ her own in resolving this type of a dispute. The card issuer acts only as a billing agent and does not become involved in such complaints.

Like in the States, common sense should prevail in tending to one's financial matters.  So expats need to handle their credit dealings here just as aboveboard and conscientiously just as much or more so than they would back home. For one thing, In the Philippines, penalties for charge card fraud and abuse may include the lender's filing a criminal complaint of estafa (swindling) that could not only lead to a fine and / or imprisonment, but for  foreigners, deportation as well.  Another example of how serious Philippine financial institutions are when it comes to these matters, skipping out while owing a credit card balance of over 10,000 pesos is considered a criminal offense (intent to defraud).  In the U.S., a corresponding misuse of a card would be ordinarily  (but certainly not always) be treated as a civil matter.

In short responsible use of credit, like virtue, is its own reward no matter where you are. But for practical reasons of avoiding unexpected civil and / or criminal penalties while in a foreign country,  playing it straight is especially prudent.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

To Rep. Raymond Palatino: An "A" for Enlightened Effort

Just like in the U.S.,  freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution. Alas, also just like in the U.S.,  this mandate is not always observed.  An example of this breach can be found in government offices and facilities, of all places.  Roman Catholic religious services such as mass  and  group prayers are regularly conducted, along with displays of religious symbols in these venues.  In the City of Davao, for example,  "first Friday Mass attendance" is mandatory for municipal employees.

Such compulsory participation for government staff, especially for non-Catholic workers not only violates their rights but impacts the general public whom these employees are charged with serving as well.  Many government offices are closed at the the noon hour while the workers attend mass.

I can attest to this inconvenience. On Ash Wednesday I went to the National Kidney and Transplant Institute. for a doctor's appointment.  The NKTI is a government, not a Catholic hospital.  However,  when I arrived,  a mass was being held in the atrium, and almost the entire hospital staff was in attendance.  Fortunately, It so happened that I was early for my consultation, so to kill time I went to pick up a package at the nearby Quezon City main post office. Guess what. That facility was also closed, not just for the usual lunch break but also for almost an extra hour due to Ash Wednesday services.

So in protest of such practices and in response to complaints from some of his negatively impacted government employee constituents, Rep. Raymond Paltino, recently introduced legislation in Congress in the form of House Bill 6330,  the Religious Freedom in Government Offices Act, the purpose of which is to prohibit these practices.  As might be expected, the Catholics Bishops of the Philippines and other religious organizations and individuals denounced his efforts and made wild accusations about Palatino's motives and intentions.

In the face of certain defeat, Palatino withdrew his bill. But  even as he did so, the "The Philippine Star"a normally respectable newspaper, apparently couldn't resist taking a final cheap shot against him by misleadingly titling the article announcing his decision: "Lawmaker withdraws 'ban God' bill".
Palatino states that his intentions were just to put an end to the government's endorsement of a particular religion. It was a noble goal, and if nothing else his attempt set a precedent that may in time come to fruition. But until that day comes, workers who face religious coercion and people who want assistance  from government offices where the staff is at prayer instead of their service counters are out of luck.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

(A) Justice on Trial: Part 2

A few days ago I saw a political cartoon in the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" depicting "Juan dela Cruz" (a nickname for  the  individual  Filipino) keeping an eye on the impeachment trial proceedings of the  Supreme Court of the Philippines Chief Justice, Renato Corona. Along with  Juan dela Cruz was a symbol of the rest of  the world watching the trial as well.

Alas, the cartoon was only  partially accurate.  The Philippines has been transfixed by this event which was has played out since it began in January. But from what I can determine, internationally (except perhaps for Filipino communities abroad)  it was not considered a newsworthy event.

And more's the pity.  It was the first such removal of a Supreme Court Chief Justice in the nation's history.  The impeachment of the country's top jurist which was conducted by the Philippines Senate concluded yesterday.  Corona was convicted by a vote of 203.  He has agreed not to contest the verdict and will step down from his post (not that he had much choice. The Senate's decision is constitutionally final)    

There were several charges against Corona, including  accepting a legally questionable midnight appointment from former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as she was leaving office. But the charge on which he was finally tried and convicted was failure to report all his bank accounts on his SALN (Statment of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth ) which every government employee is required to file and complete accurately. How he amassed his huge fortune as a SC justice  about which claimed legitimacy  was besides the point and may  be taken up under separate investigative proceedings.

The impeachment trial itself had many twists, turns, and blunders by both sides.  It was capped last  week when Corona himself staged a dramatic walkout after submitting his testimony  which was a three hour speech that really did little to dispel  the likelihood of  his guilt. The manner of his attempted departure from the Senate and the building (which was stopped by security) was done in an apparent deliberate attempt to insult the senator--judges.  By conducting himself in this arrogant manner, he sealed his own fate.

The guilty verdict was a victory for President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III who had challenged  Corona's appointment as SC Chief Justice from the beginning.  Aquino ran for office on an  anti-corruption platform and Corona's removal is a feather in his cap toward this end. 

IMO the impeachment proceedings were carried out fairly. with the prosecution and the defense presenting their respective cases and witnesses  to the senatorjudges who with a few exceptions displayed no overall bias for  either side. But in the end, the evidence was overwhelming against Corona.I was especially impressed by 88 years old Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile who despite his advanced age is still as sharp as a tack and oversaw the proceedings as masterfully as an orchestra conductor.

And it is for the reason of this impartiality in a country where fairness and due process in legal proceedings are very uneven except for the wealthy and well-connected (and who could be more influential than a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?) that the world should have been made more aware of this trial. As a result of this lack of coverage, it missed an opportunity to witness a  possible sea change  in the dispensation  of justice in a country where such a transformation is long overdue.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Of Pipe Dreams and Alarming Demographic Trends

Newspapers in the Philippines abound with fine columnists.  One such journalist is  Conrado Banal whose commentaries appear in the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" business section.  Mr. Banal has his ear to the ground and is  authoritative regarding the topics about which he writes. In his April 18 column "High Economic Gloat", he expresses guarded optimism regarding the basis for the optimism expressed by two government officials in the matter of the Philippines economic growth, which they believe will take off if the country merges its manpower of 45 million young people who will turn 22 in 2018 and ready to start their careers, with the capital and technology furnished by other member countries of  the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN). This potential serendipitous confluence of economic sectors is referred to as a "sweet spot". And although he believes that the theory has merit, Mr. Banal's rightly placed concern is that this opportunity accelerated development for the Philippines won't come to fruition if the country fails to invest in infrastructure and education.

But there is the elephant in the middle of the living room (or perhaps I should say bedroom) that could spray a trunkful  of cold water on this plan and which neither Mr. Banal nor the two officials mention: The Philippines' natural resources and economy are already  being strained by overpopulation. And the above referenced 45 million youth who happen to constitute about half the total number of people in this country are a ticking time bomb. This is because that although in a few years, they will become economically productive, there's something else that they will be producing:


Think about it. One source places the fertility rate of Filipinas at 3.19 as of 2011 .  So even just half of these young people start having families about the time that they enter the labor force six years from now, they will add another 66 million to the population in the course of their reproductive years.

But wait. Some of their contemporaries are not even holding off until then to have kids.  According to the Philippine Star, the Philippines has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Southeast Asia: 53 for every 1,000 Filipinas ages 1519. One consequence of giving birth at this age is that it usually scuttles the mother's education and job opportunities. This is one reason that passage by Congress of the Reproductive Health Act bill which has been hanging fire for about four years and would facilitate family planning, especially easier access to contraceptives for the poor,  is so desperately needed.

At present, OFWs (Overseas Filipinos Workers) are propping up the local economy including the favorable rate of currency exchange with their remittances  from almost every corner of the globe back home to their families.  Yet this does nothing to address the issue of overpopulation here. For the same reason, it may just be magical thinking for the Philippines to pin its hopes on an ephemeral "sweet spot" from ASEAN.

The Philippines can neither continue to keep shoving off its hopes and dreams for a better society by relying on other countries to carry the country's economy.  Nor can it keep kicking the the population issue down the road for future generations to solve. For if the people do not shed their fatalistic mentality and fail to tackle these matters immediately, how can the Philippines expect to even have a future?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

(A) Justice On Trial: Part 1

As an expatriate residing in the Philippines, I believe it behooves everyone including non-citizens to keep up on local current events, including (especially?) those of a political and economic nature, and then draw conclusions about them.  After all, our lives here are often impacted such issues. But whether or not we are directly affected, I think that keeping informed shows respect for our host country. Following is a topic that has had the nation buzzing.

First some background. The administration immediately preceding that of the current leader, President of the Philippines, Benigno "Nonoy" Aquino was one marked by corruption and abuse of power by then President Gloria Arroyo. One of  her acts as outgoing chief executive was the controversial "midnight" appointment of the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona who readily accepted this position..

President Aquino, who ran on anti-corruption platform,  urged Congress to institute  impeachment proceedings Corona. The House of Representatives approved this action, and  the Senate has begun trial phase.

Aside from Corona's accepting the midnight appointment, which he knew full well was questionable to say the least, Aquino's biggest grievance against the Chief Justice was the Supreme Court's issuance of temporary restraining order against the Justice Department's hold departure on Arroyo, who was about to flee the country in order to avoid prosecution for her misdeeds while in office. Justice Department Secretary Leila De Lima defied the TRO and Arroyo was subsequently arrested for electoral fraud.

(A side note: This trial is an instance in which the Philippines can teach the U.S. about how to deal with our own biased and venal Supreme Court justices who have rendered such bonehead decisions as in  Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ,or Bush vs. Gore , Then there is the sphinx-like Justice Clarence Thomas [ never participates in oral arguments before the Court] who has yet to recuse himself regarding a conflict of interest regarding his wife's involvement in paid fund-raising and lobbying for an organization that opposes President Obama's health care reform plan which the Court is now considering.)

The impeachment trial, which has been televised live and has a wide following, is in recess until May 7. But whatever the outcome, based on various revelations including those in Corona's own testimony such as his unexplained wealth, inconsistencies in his SALN (statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth), and according to Pulse Asia a loss of confidence and trust by the people, he might already be damaged goods. Under these circumstances, it would seem to be in Corona's  best interests to resign in order to salvage the remains of his dignity which has already been greatly diminished by his unconvincing replies to the Senate's questions. More importantly, Corona's stepping down would also enable the Supreme Court to emerge from the shadow which this affair has cast on its reputation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Travel: It's More Glum In The Philippines

One year ago today, my wife Lydia and I returned to the Philippines from a (probably once in a lifetime) trip to Europe. Our departure and arrival point was Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Mania,  and even though horror stories abound about NAIA, we were fortunate to land on schedule and had a fairly easy time navigating baggage retrieval and Immigration.  And that's the point. Why should it be a matter of odds that some people luck out in their encounters with this facility while most other travelers' experience there is negative?

The difficulties that plague this airport include a shortage of amenities and inadequate facilities.  These issues are finally being addressed, but it may be a case of too little too late.  For example only now is Terminal 1, the world's second worst airport, finally undergoing rehabilitation. And scandal-plagued Terminal 3 which was to have been finished several years ago is still operating on about half its intended capacity due to construction delays and shoddy workmanship, including a collapse of part of the ceiling in 2006 and  again in 2011. (Completion is scheduled for this year, but after all the other postponements, I wouldn't bet on it) Then there are the congested traffic conditions and tie ups in the area  that make commuting to NAIA extremely frustrating (as is the case for Metro-Manila as a whole anyway) .

As a result of  these difficulties, government officials are considering  the designation of another airport instead as the Philippines premier point of arrival and departure: Clark International Airport (CRK).  This facility is also  known as  Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA) and  is located in Angeles City, Pampanga.  I've never been there, but my understanding that in terms of adequacy and efficiency, CRK  beats NAIA hands down.       

The problem is that CRK is about 89Km (55 miles) from NAIA, and the only means of commuting between Angeles City and Metro-Manila is by car or bus, which in bad traffic can take  23 hours. This is especially burdensome for travelers who arrive from abroad at one of these airports and have to connect to a  flight at the other.  But even for those visitors to the Philippines who are not making such transfers, it would make a bad impression on them to arrive at Clark instead of NAIA and then have to make the trek to Metro-Manila. The solution of course is high speed rail service between the two cities with stations at each airport.   Construction on this alternative has already started but only in dribs and drabs and is probably still years away from completion even though it was supposed to have been finished years ago.

So with all these self-inflicted obstacles, is it any wonder that the Philippines lags behind its neighbors in attracting tourism? This will continue to be the case until the government starts taking its commitments seriously.  President Aquino advocates the "straight path" to end corruption here. This policy is especially vital in the area of infrastructure. Whether by land, sea, or air, people and goods must be able to move about via a dependable, speedy, and efficient transportation system if the Philippines is ever to progress from its status as a third world country.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Contraceptive Rights Struggle: It's No Longer Just a Local Issue

Although the Philippines is officially, a constitutional democracy, the Church, through its controlling arm, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, wields tremendous power in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.  For instance at the Church's behest, the Philippines is the only remaining country in the world that still bans divorce.

Notwithstanding that this country is greatly overpopulated, the other area where the CBCP refuses to cede control to civil authority and individual autonomy is in the area of family planning, specifically access by the people to contraceptives through government assistance. The Reproductive Health Act which was introduced in the Philippine Congress over two years ago in an attempt to place birth control decisions in the hands of the people has been languishing  there for two years as a result of pressure from the CBCP to stall—or as it would prefe—to kill it altogether, even though its backers have made concessions to the Church  that have watered down this legislation.

It didn't help matters that the RH bill was introduced during the administration of President Gloria Arroyo who was hostile to the use of contraceptives and who helped the bishops dig in on their position. However,  the current President, Benigno  Aquino, favors the right of the people to have access to artificial means of family planning. His staff  has tried to engage the Church in a dialogue regarding RH bill, but the CBCP has done nothing but give them the runaround on this matter, pretending an intent to cooperate, but instead negotiating in bad faith.

Even though the Philippines was officially granted independence from the U.S. in 1945,  there is the often heard compliant of continued undue American influence on Philippine society—and not without justification. But the U..S. is now getting a taste of  this same type of interference  by the Catholic Church and conservative evangelical Protestants in its own political realm that the Philippines has endured since the days of the Spanish friars. In the U.S. the bone of contention likewise involves the individual's right to contraception access and women's personal autonomy for pregnancy termination decisions as well.   As might be expected, the aforementioned religious lobbies oppose these rights, and like their counterparts in the Philippines some of them have even equated the use of condoms, birth control pills, and  IUD's with abortion.  

In the U.S. the matter recently came to a head when the Obama Administration issued a mandate that employers, including religious-based organizations (but excluding houses of worship), such as Catholic hospitals must furnish their employees with health benefits that include contraceptives.  So of course, these institutions protested, claiming that their "freedom of religion" was being violated. But the fact of the matter  is  that such  medical centers, schools, etc. hire workers who may not subscribe to their employers beliefs,  and  it's the rights of these employees to have this coverage, period.  (It so happens that most  American women including Catholics use birth control anyway.) Nevertheless, Obama offered a compromise: The faith-based employers  would no longer be on the hook for this benefit.  Instead, the insurance providers would do it, and on the latter's own dime.

At first, some Catholic organizations decided to accept this proposal, but the the American counterpart to the CBCP,  the United.States Conference of Catholic Bishops stepped in and nixed the deal, just as the CBCP has welched on supposed conciliation toward the  Reproductive Health Act. One wonders if the USCCB has borrowed a page from the Catholics Bishops Conference of the Philippines' playbook in order to prevail in this matter.

Not surprisingly, prominent Republicans, who of course are religious conservatives and believe that government should not control people's lives except in their bedrooms,  back the USCCB in their refusal to go along with Obama's counter offer. Anything to embarrass him and to exploit the issue.  In fact one GOP Congressman, Roy Blunt has put forth a so-called "rights of conscience" amendment that would allow employers to refuse health car services  for their employees based on the former's  moral beliefs, no matter how arbitrary or capricious.

In short, in both the U.S. and the Philippines ecclesiastical authorities and their political supporters are meddling where they have no business or standing. In doing so they are undermining citizens' right to individual freedom of and from religion.  And no matter which country is influencing the other in this violation of both constitutions, the rights of the people in each of these nation to make some very personal choices in their lives are in grave peril.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's All In The I-Cards

I guess with my luck it would be too much to expect  that two successive annual trips to the Bureau of Immigration to pay the annual report, (a P310  yearly "head tax" required of resident alien residents), would go off without a hitch.. On two such treks, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, I was robbed and pickpocketed respectively en route. Fortunately I had no such incidents in 2011.

This year, I did not wind up a crime victim when I went to the satellite office in Makati a few weeks ago. But almost as bad was the news from that office. They would be unable to process the annual report for my wife Lydia because unbeknownst to us, her ACR-ICR I-card had expired. This biometric piece of plastic with an embedded computer chip serves mainly as a form of identity and streamlines many of the cardholder's B.I. dealings. All foreign permanent residents in the Philippines are required to have one. Unfortunately, Lydia's and my cards don't show an expiration date which we learned is 5 years from the date of issue. According to Immigration, the newer "models" now display this ending date.

Obtaining a replacement requires a trip to the main B.I. headquarters in Manila (Intramuros district). It was with  extreme trepidation that I faced the prospect of going to that office.  I recalled from years past how decrepit and poorly maintained the facilities were, with a matching attitude of its employees.  But at least Lydia wouldn't have to endure  this hassle.  As a senior, she is exempted by Immigration from such appearances . As her spouse, I could do that for her.

My last visit to B.I. headquarters was about four years ago. So when I arrived there yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the place had improved. The exterior had been given a facelift, but more importantly, the inside given a complete renovation, including the C.R's.(restrooms) which previously could only have been  described as abominable, and that's putting it nicely.  The customer service also seems friendlier, and there are roving information reps to answer questions and direct applicants to the appropriate areas.

When  I arrived at about 6:30 a.m, there were already people seated waiting for the service windows to open at 7:00. Within a few hours the place was packed. (Unfortunately, the interior makeover didn't include adding more space).   Woe unto those who arrive late.  Not only will there be fewer or no seats left  but their waiting time for service will be much longer. This is why it's essential to arrive as early as possible; You snooze, you lose.  Yet, even though I was among the first batch of people to be serviced, the entire process still took about 3 1/2 hours. (Note: B.I. transactions differ in complexity. Your time may vary. So take along something to pass the hour(s). And due to the above mentioned  physical space limitations and seating,  it's advisable to limit the number of your companions.)

Speaking of batches, one reason for the long wait is that when applicants turn in their forms to the clerks at the service windows for processing, as the forms are completed, they are placed in a pile.  A department worker then emerges  with the stack and calls out the names of and distributes these forms to those who are awaiting them.Obviously, it's important to stand by and not to miss such a "call out" announcement.  The next one may not be for another 45 minutes or so   Then it's on  the next window to start the process all over again.   

Finally I was finished.  It was such a feeling of relief knowing that not only had I completed this task  but also that Lydia's annual report fee was also automatically collected upon payment for the card. I was given a claim check to present when picking up the new card, which should be available in about three weeks.

Right about that time, my own I-card will near its expiration date, so when I retrieve Lydia's card. I can also renew mine as well. Hopefully, it will take less time to go through the mill the second time around.  For despite the improvement in service, there were a few missteps including procedural miscommunications that I now know to avoid.  I wouldn't say that I'm looking forward to going back there, but with the Bureau of Immigration's new look and feel, at least I no longer dread it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Big Bang

The numbers are in.  Metro-Manila deaths and injuries over the New Years holiday from  fireworks mishaps and stray bullets were overall greater than last year's figures despite hopes by the authorities  for a decrease in such casualties.

Adding to this sad state of affairs this year on which should be a festive occasion was the extreme air pollution on New Years morning. This was caused by the soot and ashes drifting over the city from the large number of firecrackers that celebrators began setting off  in the morning of Dec. 31. This smog is a yearly event, but due to wind conditions, this year visibility was so severely hampered that incoming air traffic had to be diverted from the Aquino International Airport to other facilities

So given the hazards posed by pyrotechnics, should they be banned from Metro Manila except as authorized public display events? At first glance, that seems like the impossible dream. Fireworks, especially individual use of firecrackers to celebrate various holidays, are a deeply ingrained tradition in the Philippines.  Stemming from  centuries old Chinese cultural influence, the custom was originally based on the belief that the loud noise from firecrackers would drive away evil spirits. But now they are simply a source of holiday fun, sometimes the malicious kind. In the rough parts of Manila, revelers even throw lit firecrackers at passersby.

This leads to another difficulty in enacting a ban on private possession: the lack of public discipline in Philippine society. There are probably as  many safety laws on the books in the here as there are in Denmark. But they're nearly impossible  to enforce when so few people obey them and public officials charged with enforcing them are bribed to look the other way. So  would a statute banning these explosives be worthless? 

Not necessarily. Believe it or not, there are firecracker-free zones in the Philippines. One of them is Davao City (population approx 1.5 million) where 94 people were arrested for violating the prohibition and which had zero injuries caused by fireworks over the holiday and as a result, hospitals there were not swamped as they were in Metro-Manila.

To be sure,  the problem of dangerous fireworks is just one of many problems besetting Metro-Manila. However,  solving them requires the exercise of political will. Maybe imposing a ban and actually implementing it might send a message that the government is getting serious about improving public safety by penalizing personal irresponsibility.  It would be a small step, but at least it's one in the right direction.