i’ve run through the gates of hell: dan brown vs. francis tolentino

“Sienna imagined they were going to feed poor fishermen or farmers in the countryside, which she had read was a wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains. And so when the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila – the most densely populated city on earth – Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.

How can one person possibly make a difference?

For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes. Manila had six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.

Amid this chaos of child prostitution, panhandlers, pickpockets, and worse, Sienna found herself suddenly paralyzed. All around her she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation…human beings become animals.

…She cleared the tears and grime from her eyes and saw that she was standing in a kind of shantytown – a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.

I’ve run through the gates of hell.”

These passages are from the new novel, Inferno, by Dan Brown – he of The Da Vinci Code fame (or infamy, depending on who’s judging). These are drawn from 3 pages of the 462 pages (including the Epilogue) of the novel. The contents of these three pages drew a 5-paragraph rejoinder from MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino.

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Sienna is Sienna Brooks, the other main character in the book. The main character is Prof. Robert Langdon, a Harvard-based symbologist whose character was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

Sienna Brooks is a doctor who grew up as a child prodigy with a genius-level IQ. Growing up, she struggled to fit in – as is apparently the case with many child prodigies. As she tries to find meaning for her life, a psychiatrist recommends that she stop focusing on herself and instead devote her energies to helping other people. She comes in contact with a humanitarian group which is how she finds herself in the Philippines.

She obviously did not have a memorable time in Manila. Sienna leaves Manila in a huff after an attempted gang-rape by three men in an informal settlement (i.e. squatter) area. The rape is averted when an old, deaf woman stabs one of the men in the back scaring the two other men away.

Atty. Tolentino, in his letter to Mr. Brown, expresses his disappointment at the “inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis”. He goes on to state his displeasure at how Manila was used “as a venue for a character’s…disillusionment in humanity”.  He goes on to defend Metro Manila in this manner:

 “More than your portrayal of it, Metro Manila is the center of the Filipino spirit, faith and hope. Our faith in God binds us as a nation and we believe that Manila citizens are more than capable of exemplifying good character and compassion towards each other, something that your novel has failed to acknowledge. Truly, our place is an entry to heaven.”

Nice. Duh…An entry to heaven? What has he been inhaling? Oh wait – yup, that pristine Metro Manila air.

Yes, yes – it’s a novel but let’s try some fact checking.

Manila – the most densely populated city on earth: check (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/evacuate-metro-manila/)2012.08.10 Pop Density

Poverty on this scale: maybe, maybe not (we certainly have mass poverty but i’m sure there are other places in the world (e.g. somalia, sudan, etc.) where things could be worse, on the other hand, we don’t know where else Sienna Brooks has been to)

Six-hour traffic jamscheck

Suffocating pollutioncheck (we’ve probably just been acclimated to it)

Horrifying (child) sex trademaybe (i just don’t know)

Panhandlers, pickpocketscheck, check (A police officer was interviewed on TV yesterday in a report on crime in Divisoria with the back to school sales going on. He advised women to put money inside their bras to avoid being victimized by pickpockets. He went on further to say that you should divide your money between your two pockets “para kung madukot yung sa kabila, meron ka pang natitira”. With cops like these – &%^$#@)&^).

Atty. Tolentino cites his disappointment and displeasure but his letter doesn’t really contradict any of the specific depictions which he describes as inaccurate. Instead he wails about the fact that the niceties about the metropolis that he mentions are not mentioned in the novel.

Chairman Tolentino is borderline being intellectually dishonest with this letter. It was he, after all, in his book – “A New City – A New Metro Manila, A New Future”  who alludes to all these symptomatic problems of Manila as a basis for building a new national capital (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/when-p352-billion-does-not-even-come-close-to-cutting-it/).

Akala niya siguro makalusot dahil walang nagbasa ng libro niya. I actually admired him for the courage that it took to write that book. Imagine the grief he must have gotten from Metro Manila mayors for daring to propose something as audacious as building a new capital and taking away their bread and butter. Pero ngayon, was that all just lip-service?

When I saw the news about Chairman Tolentino’s letter, I was actually more amused than anything. I was not, however, really thinking about writing about it. But, I witnessed something yesterday afternoon that changed my mind.

I was stopped at a traffic light along Taft Avenue when I saw what must have been part of some sort of gang war. What was disturbing was seeing the combatants who looked to be barely in their teens brandishing sticks, stones and box-cutters while sniffing plastic bags most likely containing rugby. These combatants appeared to have taken over the stretch of Taft from Pedro Gil to Quirino as their battleground with nary a policeman in sight. When I wrote about the loss of civility and our descent into chaos (https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/the-loss-of-civility-and-our-descent-into-chaos/), I wasn’t really thinking about this but this is just terrible.

This post is not about defending Dan Brown. I’m sure he can take care of himself (i.e. ignore Atty. Tolentino). Rather it is about acknowledging our dire problems and seriously and systematically work to fight them. Atty. Tolentino’s attempt to portray some sort of utopia is sadly way off base and is not reflective of the true state of Metro Manila. When we choose to ignore criticism of real problems, be it in fiction or in fact, we delude ourselves into thinking that things will take care of themselves. They won’t go away just because you paint an alternative reality for the sake of pakitang tao.

Sana naman we grow up naNiloloko lang natin sarili natin.

We may not have the worst poverty problem in the entire world like what Sienna Brooks perceives. But we have it and we have it really, really bad. No amount of (macro)economic growth can hide the fact that the majority of the Filipino people continue to wallow in a pitiful existence that we should all be ashamed of. Huwag na natin takpan. Atty. Tolentino’s assertion of Manila’s citizens being more than capable of showing compassion to each other will only acquire real meaning pag nagkaroon ng makatotohanang lunas ang mga kapwa nating mga Pilipino sa BASECO, Payatas, Bagong Silang, Lanao del Sur, Eastern Samar at sa marami pang lugar sa Pilipinas.

I already know that poverty in the Philippines will not be meaningfully resolved within my lifetime. But – that shouldn’t stop us from trying so that hopefully, we see meaningful progress in our children’s lifetimes. To do so, however, requires that we stop being onion-skinned with criticism or dire depictions of our problems alam naman natin na nandiyan ‘yan. If we continue to ignore this fact because naka-angat na tayo sa iba, bubulagain ka na lang isang araw to see poverty and its problems that you can no longer ignore because it is right outside your front door.



i am not running for Senator but…(a different take on political dynasties)

S&P investment grade confirmed!!! 😀 (How will a trapo now argue against success?) While we are giddy, and understandably so, the underlying task remains — that is, to see the trickle down effects of our efforts take root. That will come in time. We like-minded public officials, in that DoF attached agency known as the Bureau of Customs, remain committed to seeing the process through. Mabuhay!!!

– Atty. Juan Lorenzo “Jorenz” T. Tanada, Deputy Commissioner, Bureau Of Customs

Red herring is an English-language idiom, a logical fallacy that misleads or detracts from the issue.

– Wikipedia

MAKATI, Philippines – The current election campaign for 12 seats in the Philippine Senate can be seen as notable in the sense that 18 of the 33 candidates have either themselves held national office or are relatives of those who have. Thus, it is probably no surprise that many of these candidates and those running along with them are asked about their take on political dynasties.

Some kind of avoid directly answering the question, some use the “good dynasty, bad dynasty” rationalization to defend their candidacies while some use the “let the people decide” excuse. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has yet come out saying that the political dynasty provision in the Constitution should be struck down for being a violation of their right to run for public office.

English: Composition of the Philippine Senate.

English: Composition of the Philippine Senate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The framers of the 1987 Constitution sort of washed their hands of the issue by appending the phrase “as may be defined by law” to the political dynasty clause. In management, one of the considerations for setting goals is that it should be attainable. Unless some sort of miracle happens, the passage of an Anti-Dynasty Law by any Philippine Congress will fail the test of being attainable.

The goal of having an Anti-Dynasty Law is to sever the seeming monopoly of public office by a few. Political dynasties are said to spawn corruption and as PNoy’s line goes “kung walang corrupt walang mahirap.” Ergo – walang mahirap kung walang political dynasty. Such a neat storyline. Unfortunately, things are not that straightforward with simplistic generalizations.

Atty. Jorenz Tanada is a friend of mine. We met through our common love for football. We worked together in the organizing committee of the 2014 World Cup Qualifying matches that we hosted for our Philippine Azkals’ campaign in 2011. Prior to that, Jorenz and I along with a common friend would muse about his wanting to go into public service. At that time, he was thinking of seeking an appointive position with a government agency but was not sure how to go about it and had qualms about doing it through the “padrino” system. I haven’t asked him what happened but he either never applied for that position or applied but was not selected.

Just over a year ago, Atty. Tañada finally joined government as part of Ruffy Biazon’s team at the Bureau of Customs. I am happy for him not because he got THAT appointment but more so because he finally gets to do what he has wanted to do – be in public service in the true sense of the phrase.

Jorenz belongs to the Tañada clan of Quezon. He belongs to the fourth generation of Tañadas who have been in public service. The Tañadas, as a political dynasty, are respected and held in high regard. An Anti-Dynasty Law will likely cut short any dreams that Jorenz and his cousins have of running for any elective public office.

The Constitution sets rules as to who may run for public office. Those rules currently do not include disqualifying those who have the same last name as someone else in public office.

The anti-dynasty provision of the Constitution and the current clamor for the passage of an enabling law makes for good political theater. The question is – is it the right thing to do?

If we are to divine the apparent logic behind the anti-dynasty provision, we can take that it follows from the first phrase of Section 26, Article 2 which states:

The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” (Emphasis mine)

I would argue that the two ideas expressed in this provision are not necessarily a “buy one, take one” proposition. They can be taken separately based on the thought that equal access does not necessarily mean banning political dynasties nor that the prohibition of political dynasties does not necessarily mean having equal access.

Those who propound the anti-dynasty story make a presumption that the two go together which may not necessarily be true. Yes, our current situation does prevent people from being elected to public office or even think of running for one because certain advantages are conferred upon an opposing candidate belonging to a politically-entrenched family namely name-recall, better organization and (more often than not) more resources (i.e. money). Yes, an anti-dynasty law may prompt more people, who may otherwise be disinclined from doing so, to run for public office.

All these argue that an anti-dynasty law may indeed make running for public office a more realistic option. But then again, is this really what is meant by equal access?

We must remember that running for public office entails winning votes from more people than your opponent. Theoretically anyone can do that. Does getting the votes needed to win an elective position necessarily entail the passage of an anti-dynasty law? Our current reality may say yes.

I would, however, propound that the advantages of a candidate belonging to a political dynasty can be mitigated or even offset. A candidate just has to work harder and smarter to do this.

Name-recall? If you are worthy of the position that you are running for, there are ways to package your accomplishments and qualifications to generate name-recall. You may be starting further back relative to a well-known candidate but it can be done. Moreover, movie stars and professional athletes also have name-recall, so this is not solely the domain of political dynasties.

Better organization? Win the right people to your cause and you can chip away at this presumed liability.

More resources? It’s not necessarily having more resources that wins elections (though realistically it goes a long way), it’s also how smart you are with spending the resources that you have.

There are also existing laws which already address these items such as limits on campaign spending and others. Our enforcers just need to be serious and more forceful in punishing transgressors.

I devote Part 2 of this series to the anti-dynasty issue not necessarily because of where I stand on it. I do this to show our propensity to solve our problems by treating the symptoms rather than the root causes. Our problem is not that we have too many Arroyos, Aquinos, Cojuangcos, Cayetanos, Binays, etc. in public office. Our problem is that our system allows mediocre people to be elected to public office. Our problem is that when we elect mediocre people to public office, we leave the solving of our serious and real problems to people who are neither equipped nor capable of doing so. Note that being a member of a political dynasty is not a qualification for being mediocre.

Other than the citizenship, age, residency and literacy requirements of being a candidate for public office, the Constitution only requires that:

“…Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

The anti-dynasty debate is a red herring. It is propounded as part of the solution to our real and serious problems when it is not. The inequalities that it seeks to address are only real because we fail to address with real solutions, the underlying issues of income disparity and poverty. It is an issue that is taken seriously because we have not acquired the intestinal fortitude of confronting the real issues kasi mahirap and there is no political will to make decisions that will upset the unacceptable status quo.

In the meantime, an anti-dynasty law (if enacted) and by extension, the anti-dynasty provision of the Constitution, do real damage. They seek to deprive a Filipino citizen of his right to freedom of expression, his right of suffrage (i.e. being able to vote for himself), his right to equal protection of the law – rights that are enshrined in the same Constitution. It discriminates against someone solely because of his last name and/or fault and punish him for being born into a family which chose to serve the Filipino people.

For those who will argue that the rights of one end where the rights of others begin, we can debate the point relative to this topic. For those who will say that depriving someone of his right to be selected by his fellow Filipinos to be their leader will be for the greater good, I ask – is it really?

I, for one, would rather see someone like Jorenz be allowed to stick their hat in the political arena because, at the end of the day, his heart is in the right place and he is capable of making a difference – Tañada or no Tañada.

[Editor’s Note: Atty. Juan Lorenzo “Jorenz” T. Tañada is not running for any public office in this election nor do I know whether he ever will.]

(To be continued. In Part 3 – realism and the tough choices we need to make as a nation.)

I am not running for Senator but…(Part 1)

We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society, and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace, do ordain and promulgate this Constitution.

 Preamble of the 1987 Constitution


The maintenance of peace and order, the protection of life, liberty, and property, and promotion of the general welfare are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.

 Article 2, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution


The State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.

 Article 2, Section 9 of the 1987 Constitution


The State shall promote social justice in all phases of national development.

 Article 2, Section 10 of the 1987 Constitution


(Emphasis mine)


MAKATI, Philippines – Free the people from poverty.

Photo from Intellasia.net

Photo from Intellasia.net

The quoted passages above from the 1987 Philippine Constitution all come before Article 2, Section 11 which covers the guarantee of human rights. Whether by design or by circumstance, the framers of the Constitution seem to have understood the inequality existing in our country – an inequality which consigns the majority of our people to eternal poverty.

Article 2 is the Declaration of Principles and State Policies. It is supposed to convey who we are as a people and our aspirations as to how we would like things to be. All these, however, are just words.

Our company has our Annual Budget and Operating Plan sessions where we look at how we did in the past year and how we plan to do better in the following year. It is a gruelling event for those who have to present their performance and their budgets and for those who have to critique the people making the presentations. I noticed that the presentation preparations always seemed to take an inordinate amount of attention. This is, of course, relative. Relative to what? Relative to the amount of time they should be spending executing the plan that they present and monitoring their performance relative to their plan. I tell them – presenting a plan should be easy; the hard part is actually executing it.

So it is with our Constitution and its Declaration of Principles and State Policies. Declaring these principles and policies is one thing; making sure the principles are observed and the policies followed is another.  More than abiding by principles and following policies, however, it must be remembered that these are all just means to an end. And that end is to provide a better life for our people.

The good thing about our annual (and 5-year) plan is that there are specific and measurable benchmarks that we set out to achieve, there is a robust review process and accountability is easily identifiable. Such is generally not the case with government.

Despite that, it is sad that over 25 years (hey did we even celebrate this?) after the Constitution was ordained and promulgated, the promises it contains have not been fulfilled. Fairly typical, I would say.

In all honesty, other than lawyers, who actually gives a damn about the Philippine Constitution? For those who know it exists, well – it exists. For the vast majority of Filipinos, – ano ba ‘yan?

Making the Constitution and its promises come alive is a shared responsibility of the three branches of government. If we seriously think about where we would want our country to be, 28 years after the EDSA Revolution, we really haven’t gotten anywhere. To be frank, wala talagang nangyayari at mangyayari sa atin unless baguhin natin ang makitid nating pag-iisip.

We currently bask in the glow of (presumed) world attention (maybe I overstate this, oh well) due to PNoy’s TIME 100 appearance, the current absolute and relative strength of the economy and the investment-grade rating by Fitch. This attention does reflect acknowledgment of some substantive work particularly by our economic managers in the current and previous administration.

On the other hand, the poor in our country remain poor. I kinda felt for Dr. Arsenio Balicasan, the head of NEDA, for having to explain why the rate of poverty incidence had remained practically unchanged over the past 6 years blunting the otherwise rosy economic picture. It also lays to waste the (prematurely) touted impact of the centrepiece Conditional Cash Transfer program of the PNoy administration.

Of course, we hear and will continue to hear that “the trickle down effect of the economic growth that we have seen will take time before it reaches the rest of the population” or words to that effect. That sounds logical enough. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.

Lifting someone out of poverty is a simple proposition that is difficult to achieve under our current circumstances. It entails providing opportunities to generate income, ensuring the stability of that income and providing for mechanisms to save some of that income to build wealth. While our country is currently in the midst of an economic expansion, it is difficult to imagine this expansion as being significantly sustainable. It is also probably close to impossible to imagine it making a permanent difference to the rate of poverty incidence. Moreover, given that poverty incidence is calculated based on a rate as a percentage of the population, what this actually means is that mas dumami ang naging mahirap dahil tumaas din ang dami ng Pilipino sa kabuuan.

At this point, whatever lift that economic expansion has given to increase individual incomes, mechanisms to retain this income to build wealth are not accessible to all. That is assuming that the typical Filipino can even save. Sa ngayon – kung ano man ang kinikita, nagagastos kaagad kasi kulang pa nga ito sa pang araw-araw na gastusin. So – sino ang yumayaman? Sa madaling sabi ang mga kasulukuyang mayayaman ay lalong yumayaman, at yung kasulukuyang mahihirap ay mahirap pa rin. Walang “trickle down effect” kasi ang kasulukuyang kalakaran does not lend itself to this economic theory.

Everything in the Philippines is stacked against the poor. They have no meaningful voice, they are many but are not organized and oh yes – they have no money.

It is unfortunate but it will take a revolution in thinking and doing to change this sad state of affairs. Many who can do something about this don’t want to do it because it changes the status quo to which they owe their standing in life. Many more don’t know care. Those who care are either too few to matter or are pursuing the wrong solutions. And of course, there are always those who seem to care but are only out to get more votes.

Yet – a solution to freeing our people from poverty is out there. It has been done before. Many other countries are in the same boat as we are. Some have not done anything about it, some have done a little something about it and some are doing a lot about it. In his book, The Mystery of Capital, the economist, Hernando de Soto, cites these countries as having the following, among others, in common:

  • Strong underground economies;
  • Glaring inequality;
  • Pervasive mafias; and,
  • Flagrant disregard for the law.

 Sound familiar?

Yet, there is a way out.


(To be continued.  In Part 2 – the long, hard (but doable) road to freeing Filipinos from poverty and it’s not a through a POLITICAL DYNASTY LAW.)