my choice (part 2)

Iloilo City – F. Sionil Jose, propounds that a president strongly backed by the military would be the solution to our problems. A Marcosian solution one thinks. Behind his thinking, however, is the allusion to the fact that we are such a poor excuse as a nation that we need a dictator or at least a strong president to get us all in line. The lack of discipline, the abject disregard of the rule of law, the lack of purpose, the being mayabang na wala namang ipagyayabang, the pretentiousness, the every person for himself mentality (just look at the traffic), the national inferiority complex – all these need to be eradicated for us to really change and fulfill our potential as a nation. F. Sionil Jose believes a Lee Kuan Yew-type leader is required (my interpretation).

It is hard to accept that only a military-backed dictator will be able to launch a revolution to “re-form” our institutions.

The Philippines and the Filipino people is/are an impressionable lot. Rather than a military-backed dictatorship, we need a visionary leader who will also have the “sticktoitiveness” to push through with the necessary steps to build on a broad-minded vision. Someone who will have the balls to say what needs to be done and actually get it done. Someone who will argue by force of reason and logic rather than someone who will do so with the barrel of a gun pointed at your head.

Our Constitution, with its imperfections, is a relatively good one. We argue on the constitutionality of things based on technicalities. This misses the point. Our Constitution is a set of aspirations and promises. Sadly and very frustratingly, our institutions which are tasked with fulfilling these promises and thus getting us closer to these enunciated aspirations have failed us. The presidential oath of office binds our President to protect and defend its Constitution. It would have been better had the phrase “and fulfill its promises” been added. Regardless, we need someone who will understand this and do so.

Sadly, there is no one in the horizon for 2016 who seems capable of doing so.

my choice

Part 1

ILOILO CITY – Filipinos have a myriad of maddening ways of selecting their individual choices for President, or any other candidate for elected office for that matter. Most stop at whoever is popular (in election-speak, name recall). Next is sino ang kakilala ko or kakilala ng kakilala ko or kakilala ng kakilala ng kakilala ko….you get the point. Then there is the choice based on the physical and non-physical attributes of a candidate like sino ang guwapo or maganda, sino ang mukhang mabait and so on.

Once a choice has been made, any criticism of that choice is taken as a personal attack on oneself. We become defensive and the initial response can be any of a number of ways rationalizing one’s choice. And when it happens that all manner of rationalization doesn’t work and are overwhelmed by the superior argument of another, the position hardens instead of succumbing to reason and logic. The hope is that we get the last word when our candidate hopefully wins and we can tell that other person – “O? Ano napala mo? Talo naman kandidato mo? Hehehe…”.

Of course, I generalize and not everyone is like that. I would venture to say, however, that a significant number, if not a majority, of the 50 or so million Filipino voters are just like that. That – is a sad state of things.

As with anything – the first step in making a choice is to know what or who I am choosing from. In this case, who are my choices for President.

My own personal conviction and principles lead me to recognize just 3 legitimate candidates – Jejomar C. Binay, Manuel A. Roxas II and Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

Rodrigo A. Duterte

On February 3, 2016, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) dismissed the disqualification cases against Mr. Duterte. These cases were anchored on the argument that his becoming a candidate was defective.

Martin Dino filed his Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) on the last day of the filing of CoCs on October 16, 2015. His CoC indicated he was running “for the position of MAYOR, City/Municipality of PASAY CITY…” A closer of examination of his CoC, which is typewritten (as opposed to being handwritten) raise a lot of questions among which is – did he submit the right form for whatever office he was running? It certainly looks different in format from the other candidates’ CoCs. Mr. Dino signed the CoC which contains the phrase, “I hereby certify that the facts stated herein are true and correct…” and this document was notarized.


Martin Dino’s Certificate of Candidacy. Source:


On October 29, 2015, Martin Dino withdrew his candidacy for whatever position he was running for and soon after the PDP-Laban enacts a resolution nominating Mr. Duterte as the replacement of Mr. Dino for whatever position Mr. Dino was running for. After hemming and hawing, Mr. Duterte accepts the nomination on November 21. His stated reason for running for President was that he did not want “an American President” referring to the proceedings at the Senate Electoral Committee which had just dismissed a petition questioning the citizenship of Senator Grace Llamanzares.

On December 17, 2015, accepts Mr. Duterte’s CoC for President as substitute for Mr. Dino. Less than two months later, on February 3, 2015, the COMELEC’s First Division “…ruled to deny all petitions against Mayor Rodrigo Duterte” for lack of merit. Among other things, the COMELEC’s First Division said that Mr. Dino had filed a valid CoC.

Section 4, Rule II of Resolution No. 9984 issued by the COMELEC on August 18, 2015 specifies the “Contents and Form of Certificate of Candidacy”. The first item required is the “office aspired for”. The same Section also indicates the forms for various positions including the one for President which is labeled as Annex F.


Certificate of Candidacy for President. Source:

The rules are very clear. I cannot, in good conscience, agree with the ruling of the COMELEC’s First Division which allows Mr. Duterte to run for President. This ruling runs counter to its own rules as specified in Resolution No. 9984. It is clear that Mr. Dino did not submit the right form for the CoC. From that point on, his candidacy for whatever position he was running for, particularly for President is invalid. Yes, it is a technicality and an administrative mistake. Taken by itself, it probably is something many can ignore but I will not, for we Filipinos have to learn to follow rules. There can and should be no compromises on this case. I’ve had enough of shortcuts which lead us to nowhere. Accepting Mr. Duterte as a Presidential candidate under these circumstances is just something that I cannot do.

magkano ang dignidad ng pilipino?

The problems of the country are many. The solutions are elusive. You look to the next presidential election for someone who can build on the gains of the current dispensation. Revolutionary progress is what you long for, someone who can lead us towards a great leap forward. Sadly there is no one who fits the bill.

Why the great leap forward? Well, the world has left us behind. And the gap only grows wider as we bicker among ourselves on petty things like who graduated from Wharton or problems of our own making, e.g. Metro Manila traffic.

Even if we were somehow able to correctly diagnose the root cause/s of our challenges and start working on the right remedies for these problems, we would still be at least half a generation away from seeing and feeling tangible progress. This is what makes the conduct of the current presidential race unbearably frustrating.

This early, I see the 2016 election as another lost opportunity in a long line of missed opportunities. The current line-up of candidates focuses so much on destroying each other. This leads me to believe that none of them have a comprehensive plan for government which would at least start to chip away at the gap between us and the rest of the world or dig us out of a hole that we have been digging for ourselves since well – forever.

I cannot even disagree with anyone’s platform of government because either they don’t have a sensible one or don’t have one at all. Motherhood statements as the entirety of one’s platform of government are so frustrating because of the sense that they are made for the sake of having a platform. They lack the substance that would make one believe na nag-iisip ang taong ito. And to think that having such substance is just the first step towards progress. The actual doing and what comes before that are certainly more important in attaining tangible progress. It is sad but wala akong nakikita na kandidato sa pagka-Presidente na nagdadala nito sa hinaharap natin na halalan.

My imagined ideal candidate would:

1. Focus on the elimination of barriers that keep the majority of our people poor. Economic inequality has engendered social inequality made worse by the fact that we don’t admit that it exists. Tangible steps towards this would include:

– a total makeover of the educational system which currently produces uncompetitive graduates. The educational system should be made more rigorous with students who fail being made to go back. Substantially more funding should be channelled to teacher education to make them better, well – teachers.

– remove economic barriers which have served to protect entrenched interests. This would include the removal of foreign ownership limits on industry to generate competition; a competition law with teeth; amendment of existing laws which limit competition.

– building on agrarian reform by re-directing or otherwise increasing financial and technical support to the beneficiaries of the program. We have spent so much on buying land to be distributed yet the promise of better stewardship of the land by the beneficiaries has not been realized as evidenced by agriculture continuing to be a dead industry.

– incentivising research and development in agriculture and manufacturing/ technology. We cannot forever be servants to the rest of the world by an overly skewed focus on providing services (e.g. OFWs, BPOs). We need to be building things para sila naman bumili sa atin.

– a strong Freedom of Information law.

2. Reduce the size of national government. We are definitely not getting our money’s worth with the inefficient delivery of government services. Continue to reduce the number of GOCCs by privatizing what can be privatized and shuttering those which have outlived their usefulness or failed their mandates. Reduce administrative/services positions of line agencies by further automation/ technological solutions. Remove layers of middle-management. Consolidate what can be consolidated. Do attrition through normal means (retirement/resignation) and extraordinary means (one-time separation benefit). Use some of the savings to increase compensation of smaller bureaucracy to match private sector compensation to attract more candidates for public service.

3. We cannot beat China, or any other interested country for that matter, in a shooting match over our territory. The best we can hope for is a military that can hold on until help arrives from allied countries. That is not being defeatist, it is being realistic. As such, our military should be built through training (including on strategy and tactics), organization and equipment focused on finally ending internal insurgencies. The police cannot do it. Do not overspend on a military that will not be able to withstand external aggression on its own. Continue to be aggressive with multilateral initiatives to defend our territorial integrity.

4. Stop focusing on resolving the problems of Metro Manila and start focusing on the problems of the whole country. Build infrastructure elsewhere. Be more aggressive with geographic economic incentives to build industry outside the current capital. Give people in Metro Manila incentives to go to other economic centers.

5. For the second time, rebuild our educational system. This is that important. Make it simple – math, science, english, critical thinking. Make it more difficult, more rigorous. Provide support for after-school programs (nutrition, tutoring) for those who need it.

6. Give more to local governments. They know more about what they need. They are closer to the people, they will become more accountable the closer they are to those they serve. Some local governments will be better than others. Some local governments will be more corrupt than others. That is what we have now, so what’s new. By giving more resources and responsibilities to local governments, those which are better at governance will reward those they serve with a better quality of life. Give people the opportunity to come closer to determining their own destiny. To curb excesses, strengthen national accountability bodies (COA, Ombudsman, CHR). Yes – this is a path towards a Federal state. The Philippines can no longer rely on a national government to do everything for everyone.

7. Most crimes that are committed in our country can be directly correlated to poverty or the lack of economic opportunity. This not only includes crimes against property but also crimes against people. Problems in our criminal justice system are mere symptoms of a more insiduous problem which are meant to be addressed by the other points in this platform. Yes – there are other crimes that fall outside the economic opportunity generalization and its solutions lie in making these difficult to commit, making them easy to detect and prosecute and making their consequences severe (motherhood statement, I know, but can be addressed later).

These would be the things I would lay out as a platform of government. It is a platform whose ultimate aim is more than the eradication of all forms of inequality in our country but rather ang pagkakaroon ng dignidad ng bawat Pilipino sa sarili niyang bansa. A dignity that allows him to provide for the needs of his family sa marangal na paraan. A dignity that allows him to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in his own country. A dignity that he knows will allow his children to be proud of him in his own country.

they cannot teach what they do not know (part 2)

ILOILO CITY – The primer of the Department of Education (DepEd) on the K-12 Basic Education Program states the following:

Enhancing the quality of basic education in the Philippines is urgent and critical. Education outcomes in terms of participation, completion and achievement rates attest to this urgent need. The poor quality of basic education is reflected in the low achievement scores of Filipino students in the National Achievement Test and international tests like TIMSS.

For something that the DepEd considers “urgent and critical”, as it well should, it offers the following as the framework for a solution:

One reason behind this is that students do not get adequate instructional time or time on task. This is partly due to the congested curriculum. The current 10-year basic education curriculum is designed to be taught in 12 years…Thus, the Department of Education in collaboration with various government and non-government stakeholders has developed the K to 12 Program which aims to improve basic education in the Philippines.  

If this is the entirety of the solution to an “urgent and critical” issue then I daresay, we are screwed. It doesn’t give you much confidence in the technocrats, bureaucrats and other crats in the DepEd when you cite one reason for this crisis, re-build the entire basic education framework around this and fail to cite the other reasons. Moreover, this one reason is not even given the courtesy of being tagged as the primary or main reason, if it is that. Finally, how serious does the DepEd and its crats really think of this when all they say is that this exercise is meant only to “enhance the quality of basic education in the Philippines.” To enhance is a wimpy way of doing something for the sake of doing something.

There is no quality to the basic education system of the Philippines. The products of this system cannot read with comprehension, write with any form of coherence, do math without a calculator nor understand basic scientific principles. Instead this system provides false hope to many who see this as a way to escape the grinding poverty that they find themselves in.

Reading, math and science are the core competencies that an educational system must provide in as comprehensive a manner as possible to produce competitive citizens. The system must not only do so comprehensively but also make sure that the students that it serves MASTER these competencies. It is not enough that students go through these subjects as matter of course, again, the students MUST MASTER these competencies.

It is under this context that I firmly believe that adding two years to the Basic Education Program is not enough. And no, I do not mean adding more years. In math – 10 x 0 equals 0, 12 x 0 is still zero. To translate, if we do not improve the rigor and substance of the system, its products will still gain zero no matter how many years you add to it.

Rigor and substance.

The basic education system must be made rigorous i.e. difficult. In other words, hindi puwede yung pasang awa. Education is not just about the learning per se, it is preparing kids for life. Life is not an easy thing. So why should make the way to prepare for it, easy. Secondly, by cheapening and lowering standards, you also demean children by in effect saying that hanggang diyan ka na lang when what we should be doing is challenging them, driving them to do more. For if we do not, we will grow another generation of citizens who will continue to adhere to the lower standard of puwede na ‘yan.

I mean substance in education to be a deepening of comprehension of core subjects as opposed to providing a breadth of subjects taught superficially. Again, basic education should force students to MASTER core subjects and not just know them. If they fail to do so then they must be forced back to do it again and again. For what is life without its failures. What is more important is what we do after we fail. Our kids must be taught that there are no shortcuts in life. It is through hard work, perseverance and the overcoming of obstacles that we become successful.

Rigor and substance.

It is unfortunate but the reality is that we cannot do this now. See when DepEd settled on that one reason for the failure of our educational system, that kids do not have “enough instructional time or time on task”, they missed out on an even more important reason – the inadequacy of our teachers.

This is not meant to insult nor demean the thousands of schoolteachers out there who day in and day out heroically try their best under the most trying of circumstances to teach. It is not their fault. It is instead the fault of the system and indeed our own that we as a society have over time diminished the stature of our teachers. Yes, they remain respected but in a sort of nakakaawa naman sila way.

As the common saying goes, teaching is a noble profession. When we think that, however, there is a slight hint of condescension and the impression (or maybe the reality) that teaching as a profession is a sacrifice.

The task of teaching the young is the most important obligation of society. Yet we do not accord the required level of importance and appreciation for the teaching profession. In one measure, teaching indeed becomes a sacrifice for when have we heard of a teacher becoming rich. Maybe under our current reality, the economic value we place on the teaching profession is laughable. In a sense,it is so because becoming a teacher relative to becoming an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer is indeed easier. More economic value is placed om professions which are perceived to be harder to get into. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We already know that the Philippine educational system is messed up. One only has to look at the quality of products that it produces. Products that are not competitive.

We need a revolutionary change to our basic education system. The first step should not have been K-12. That is the “doing something for the sake of doing something” way. Yes, we will need it at some point but it could have come later. Sadly, the question as to whether we are prepared for K-12 is now up in the air (see The first priority is teaching the teachers for how can they teach (and I mean teach in the true sense of the word) what they do not know. How can our teachers provide rigor and substance when they themselves were products of a system that was easy and superficial?

This revolutionary change should upend the way we think about things. Teachers should be among, if not, the highest compensated professionals for they do more for our society than all the other professions combined. By changing this dynamic, the best and the brightest among our youth will gravitate towards the teaching profession and from them we can pick and choose who we entrust our future to. Having said that, becoming a teacher should become a difficult academic and intellectual path. Enough of puwede na ‘yan.

Yup – I know what you’re thinking. It’s a nice and noble aim for who can argue with the thesis of this article. But unrealistic? Difficult perhaps but not impossible. As with many things that our country faces, we will need to make hard choices. What do we do about the several million badly equipped teachers which we now have in the system? Under a new and more rigorous teacher training program, most would undoubtedly fail and I say this without being condescending. Yet, if we are to remain true about saving our children from the shackles of poverty and deprivation, the unqualified will indeed have to go. Of course, we have to provide them with the opportunity to elevate themselves to the level that will now have to be demanded. Yet I fear that so many will still fail.

In the meantime, we have to toughen up the teacher training institutions that we have. We also need to weed out the unworthy diploma mills that contributed to the diminution of the teacher. To those that survive, admissions and the training within these institutions will have to be demanding.

Hard choices. That is really what we have left ourselves with after allowing our society to acquiesce to our decline as a nation. What was once an educational system to be proud of is now nothing but a system that awards (to paraphrase what Joe Pinsker of the Washington Post said) …”a diploma (that) starts to look a lot like a receipt printed on fine cardstock. It is proof not that one has learned something in college, but that one has paid for it.”


PASAY CITY – Jojo Binay. Mar Roxas. Grace Poe. One declared, one anointed and one undeclared presidential candidate. In 20 months and 29 days, we will all go to the polls and elect a new president.

As the years pass by, you begin to feel the optimistic future begin to slip away. You begin to feel a sense of despair at the growing feeling of helplessness at the thought that our country will never be what you want it to be. Given the significant problems that the country faces, the selection of what you hope would be a transformational president becomes even more important. Is it too late to hope that such will happen in your lifetime?


illustration credit:

We need radical solutions to our problems. Baby steps will not do. To do that, we need a leader with the moral courage and the intestinal fortitude to battle the powerful and deeply-rooted institutions (formal and informal) which will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

The prospective candidates for the 2016 polls are of the establishment. It is difficult to divine whether they have a true grasp of the problems that we face much less the solution to these problems. Our problems as a nation are not just those that are tangible (poverty, corruption, crime), so much more is intangible or things we do not accept and recognize as problems.

There is no sense of Filipino nationhood. We profess to be one nation but what is that rooted on? We are one nation by a geography drawn by and cemented by foreigners. Like the former Yugoslavia which eventually broke up to become Serbia (Serbs), Montenegro (Montenegrins), Croatia (Croats) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnians), we identify more with being Batangueno, Ilocano, Cebuano, Waray, Ilonggo, etc.

Our current crop of leaders are too inward-looking and narrow-minded. The majority of them have no sense as to the radical changes that need to be undertaken to make the country, a nation that is for all. Most have no discernment of where or what our country should be – a lack of vision. Those with vision have very limited or narrow ones with little understanding or specificity as to how to achieve such a vision. Many shy away from radical measures because for them “para que pa?”.

The writer, F. Sionil Jose, propounds that a president strongly backed by the military would be the solution. A Marcosian solution one thinks. Behind his thinking, however, is the allusion to the fact that we are such a poor excuse as a nation that we need a dictator or at least a strong president to get us all in line. The lack of discipline, the abject disregard of the rule of law, the lack of purpose, the being mayabang na wala namang ipagyayabang, the pretentiousness, the every person for himself mentality (just look at the traffic), the national inferiority complex – all these need to be eradicated for us to really change and fulfill our potential as a nation. F. Sionil Jose believes a Lee Kuan Yew-type leader is required (my interpretation).

To lift all of our people from poverty does not go far enough although it is a good start. Really, we need to free Filipinos from that mental state that makes them set imaginary glass ceilings and does not allow them to throw off the chains of mental bondage. We need to empower ourselves to think that we can go far beyond our current circumstances.

For this to happen, the way our current institutions are set up and function will have to radically change. Many laws that we currently have will have to be amended or thrown out all together. As the Peruvian economist, Hernando Soto, said, institutions are important and their ability to reform their legal systems contributed to successful examples of now-developed countries. The problem we have are that our institutions are corrupted and do not have the ability nor the willingness to think beyond themselves. This consigns us to the status quo which benefits the few at the expense of the many.

It is hard to accept that only a military-backed dictator will be able to launch a revolution to “re-form” our institutions.

The Philippines and the Filipino people is/are an impressionable lot. Rather than a military-backed dictatorship, we need a visionary leader who will also have the “sticktoitiveness” to push through with the necessary steps to build on a broad-minded vision. Someone who will have the balls to say what needs to be done and actually get it done. Someone who will argue by force of reason and logic rather than someone who will do so with the barrel of a gun pointed at your head.

Our Constitution, with its imperfections, is a relatively good one. We argue on the constitutionality of things based on technicalities. This misses the point. Our Constitution is a set of aspirations and promises. Sadly and very frustratingly, our institutions which are tasked with fulfilling these promises and thus getting us closer to these enunciated aspirations have failed us. The presidential oath of office binds our President to protect and defend its Constitution. It would have been better had the phrase “and fulfill its promises” been added. Regardless, we need someone who will understand this and do so.

Sadly, there is no one in the horizon for 2016 who seems capable of doing so.




it’s (really) more fun in the philippines (for a few)

Photo credit: REUTERS/Erik de Castro

Photo credit: REUTERS/Erik de Castro

MAKATI, Philippines – On May 15th of this year, the Philippine Stock Exchange index hit an all-time high of 7,403.65 points. The euphoria of multiple upgrades by the credit rating agencies and the perceived positive outcome of the national elections still had to wear off.

Thirty seven days later, the index closed at 6,182.17 – a massive 16% drop in just over a month.

Forgive my Monday-morning quarterbacking but this steep and costly fall was bound to happen at some point. I just didn’t expect it to happen this fast. I don’t think any of those stock market pundits did either. I feel for those who bought stock on May 15th, they’ve lost a lot of money. What makes it worse is that they were led to believe the market would keep on going higher. That’s what you call a rude awakening.

The Philippine stock market will surpass the high that was hit on May 15th. As to when that will happen, who knows? Anyone who tells you that they do – they’re lying.

Stock prices are ultimately driven by the ability of companies to generate income. Theoretically each company stock has some intrinsic value of what it’s worth. Each stock market analyst worth his salt has some target value for the stock of a company. How he arrives at it – well, there are many ways which includes putting his finger in his mouth, taking it out and figuring out where the wind is blowing. The analyst will always be proven right because unless a company blows itself up it will eventually report income that will justify an analyst’s target price.

The problem is that when you impute time into the equation, very few analysts can say when the pay-off will be. In the meantime, when the stock market and the stocks that comprise it go into a free-fall, very few have the guts to tell an investor – “I’m sorry, I made a mistake let’s get the hell out and fight another day.” Most likely, poor Mr. Investor will hear something like – “it’s okay, things will eventually get better” or “the fundamentals remain intact” or whatever other well-worn gobbledygook that has been peddled out in the past. All this as Mr. Investor sees the value of his investment go down from P100 to P98 to P95 to P85 to P60… And, eventually Mr. Analyst starts becoming real scarce and leaves Mr. Investor poorer for the experience.

I still believe in investing in the stock market. It works if your know what you’re doing. Many analysts remain stuck with theory, “rule of thumb” thinking and conventional but outdated investment philosophies to do well by their clients. The advent of technology has changed the ballgame to the disadvantage of small investors and out of touch fund managers. A buy and hold strategy works for a steady market but not for a small, very volatile and illiquid market like the Philippines. The old adage that the less you trade, the better is no longer always true. Controlling trading and other friction costs to maximize returns no longer works when stocks fall more than 20% regularly. It’s better to spend P5 to sell a stock when it falls P10 when the chances are momentum will make it fall more than P20.

Using macroeconomic data to project the growth of the stock market works only up to a certain point. Ones fortune lies in knowing the individual company stock that you are investing in. How well is that company positioned to take advantage of economic growth? The sad part is that the Philippine stock market and indeed the growth of the Philippine economy will always be hamstrung by our economic situation which does not allow for the full benefits of economic growth to trickle down to the majority of the population. Much as many knowledgeable people choose to ignore it, the benefits of economic growth will, for now, continue to be captured by a relative few.

What that means is that while there is growth, many companies will not be able to fully capture its benefits because the majority of our population will not benefit from it and have the money to buy more things and services from companies who make these things and offer these services. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that the Philippine economy is growing very fast. My real beef is that it is sad that not enough of our people get to enjoy this and improve their lot in life.

In a sense, we still live in a feudal state where only a few control the economy. You can’t really blame these few for that. What really breaks my heart is that we will continue to be in this feudal state because the cards are stacked against anyone in the bottom 90% of our population who dare dream of joining the privileged few. That is the reality we find ourselves in and unfortunately none of the candidates for Congress in the last election said anything even remotely close to addressing this problem in a realistic and game-changing manner. For how could they when they themselves (well at least most of them) belong not to the top 10% but to the top 1% of the nation’s economic elite.

The status quo is hard to change. Indeed, it is MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES for those who can afford it.



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

Photo courtesy of

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: 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:

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 (, 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.