Sunday, September 3, 2017

Essay: The art of 'hugot' in our republic of 'sawi'

"...the crater lake at the end of the trail was shaped like a heart."

by Gideon Lasco

Winner, Palanca Awards 2017 (Second Prize, Essay Category, English Division) 


DATELESS AND LOVELESS, I tried to avoid this year’s Valentine’s Day by boarding a plane to Tacloban and backpacking in Eastern Visayas until the craze subsided. In what turned out to be a roadtrip with my Tacloban-based friends, we ended up climbing three mountains - Mt. Kali overlooking the San Juanico Bridge; Mt. Pangasugan in the wilderness east of Baybay City; and, on February 14 itself, Cabalian Volcano in Anahawan, Southern Leyte. With no cellphone signal and roads so rough that it tested the limits of our pick-up truck before the trail itself would test our legs, the volcano was the farthest place I could ever hope to be: deep in communion with nature; lost in its verdant beauty. But if I had expected that it would make me forget about the ‘Day of Hearts’, I was gravely mistaken, for the crater lake at the end of the trail was shaped like a heart.

I would later find out in social media that I wasn’t alone in being reminded of my lovelessness. In fact, there was as much noise on Facebook about being single as there was about being with someone. And the viral videos and posts that people were talking about were not so much about professions of love accompanied by chocolates and flowers; rather, they were about sorrow and tears. It was tablea, not Toblerone; roses with thorns, not just petals.

One of videos, “Crush”, was a story of unrequited love: The protagonist has had many years of sweet moments with his beloved, but in the latter’s wedding, he turns out to be a guest, not the groom - the proverbial best friend who would have preferred to be the boyfriend. Another video, “Vow,” was that of love lost to the unexpected but inevitable finitude of life itself. Dying of terminal illness, the protagonist-husband nonetheless manages to live on in a most bittersweet way: by carefully choreographing his wife’s first Valentine’s Day without him.

All those videos, and all my friends’ posts about how alone (but not necessarily lonely) they are, hint at a different kind of love being celebrated in Valentine’s: one that grows - not diminishes - in the face of obstacles both surmountable and insurmountable. Recently in my hometown of Los Baños, Laguna, people were intrigued by the mystery guy who put up pink tarpaulins everywhere that read: “Will you marry me again, Ms. Janeth?”; my friends marveled at the “sweetness” and diskarte of the guy despite the anticipated futility of his efforts.

Shakespeare, of course, touched on the theme of uncertain love ("For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”); so did Miguel de Cervantes (hence poor Don Quixote) and, for good measure, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose great hero Aragorn spurned the love of Eowyn, shield-maiden of Rohan. In Yukio Mishima’s “Spring Snow”, the beautiful Satoko foretells the doom of her relationship with her sweetheart Kiyoaki:

The path we’re taking is not a road, Kiyo, it’s a pier, and it ends someplace where the sea begins.

But while it is also true for other cultures, I suspect that the trope of uncertain love has particular resonance in the Philippines. Our very first novel, Pedro Paterno’s “Ninay” (1885), involved not one, but two tales of ill-fated love. Jose Rizal, who wrote of the failed romance between Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara, himself experienced what loss of love felt like when he and his childhood sweetheart Leonor Rivera were prohibited from seeing each other by their families, effectively dooming their relationship.

Then there's our original genre of love songs - the kundiman - said to derive from "kung hindi man" (if it's not meant to be): both a reference and tribute to the uncertainty of love. The lyrics of some of the most famous kundimans are revelatory of this inclination to delve in the sorrowful and the tearful. For instance, in Nicanor Abelardo “Nasaan ka Irog?” (1923), the singer searches in vain for his beloved, who seems to have abandoned him. But even so, he pledges undying affection:

Tandaan mo irog / Irog ko'y tandaan
Kung ako man ay iyong ngayo’y siniphayo,
Manga sumpa’t lambing pinaram mong buo
Ang lahat sa buhay ko ay hindi maglalaho’t
Magsisilbing bakas ng nadgdaang tang pagsuyo

(remember, my beloved)
Even if today you have given me pain
And have banished our promises and care
All shall not vanish from my life and
Shall remain footprints of our foregone love

Many years later, in a more upbeat tempo, Eraserheads would echo the same sentiments of loss and longing. “Magasin” (1994) is a reminiscence of a love affair with a girl who later     becomes a famous model. Although she is already beyond his reach, the singer tries to relive their relationship, even joking - quite poignantly - that she was “still a bit ugly back then”. The band's most iconic song, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is likewise of a love that is not realized. In that song, the protagonist relives the past as a way of preempting the future, and the ‘huling El Bimbo’ - the last dance - is the one that plays forever in the protagonist’s head.

Today our popular culture remains full of references and tributes to uncertain love. A few years ago, egged on by a romantic comedy starring Jennylyn Mercado and Jericho Rosales, everyone began debating about the existence of a love that is “forever”. The debate rages on today, but many seem firmly on the side of “walang forever”: a phrase that I see even in  jeepney art- a decent barometer of the times.

Then there’s the recent emergence of “hugot lines”: sentimental expressions 'pulled' from our deep reservoir of emotions that use everyday experiences as metaphors for one's ill-fated romance. This genre, whose genealogy can be traced not just to the kundiman, but also to the bugtong, has been embraced by people from all walks of life - a testament to its wide appeal. Here are a couple of examples:

Sana ang tao parang cellphone, namamatay nang kusa kapag nagloloko. (I wish people were like cellphones, they automatically die when they go crazy)

Ampalaya: minsan gulay, minsan ako. (Bitter gourd, sometimes a vegetable, sometimes myself)

The witticism of hugot draws from its double entendres, the invocation of words that are both emotional and physical attributes (i.e. ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’) - else, human and non-human (a cellphone that ‘goes crazy’ is one that ‘hangs’; a person who ‘goes crazy’ doesn’t necessarily hang himself).

It takes some talent to come up with a successful ‘hugot line’; it works best if it flows seamlessly from everyday conversations and draws from people’s shared experiences. After  a magnitude-5.4 quake shook parts of Luzon, I checked my Twitter account to confirm whether what I felt was indeed an earthquake, and here’s the first thing I saw:

Buti pa yung lindol, naramdaman mo, ako hindi. (I envy the earthquake, at least you felt it - unlike me.)

As a hiker, I have witnessed how these ‘hugot lines’ have become everyday fare in the trails - not just in Mt. Sawi in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija - a recently-opened hiking destination whose christening was not spared from the zeitgeist of the times. As we were trekking in that volcano in Southern Leyte, our guide warned us to take care, lest we be pricked by the rattan thorns. Trying my hand in hugot-speak, I ventured:

Okay lang sa akin ang ma-tinik. Sanay naman ako na masaktan. (Getting pricked is fine with me. I’m used to getting hurt.)

Part of it is of course just for show: Filipino humor has always involved a certain degree of self-deprecation. But there is oftentimes a grain of truth to one’s ‘hugot lines’; one’s own love life is recruited as a subtext that makes them all the more funny and meaningful. Hugot, indeed, allows us not just to pay tribute to the importance of love in our lives, but also to romanticize our states of lovelessness.


WHY IS IT that the state of being sawi (literally ‘Ill-fated’ or ‘doomed’, but nowadays more commonly referring to ‘ill-fated in love’) resonates with many Filipinos? I have a feeling that our collective hugot runs deeper than our personal experiences and draws from something larger that ourselves.

Our very nation, for instance, can be seen as sawi in the sense of the ill-fated loves we’ve had for the people who led or ruled over us. Viewed in this lens, our first love was Spain, which, from the very beginning of our colonial relationship, we looked up to, if not politically or ecclesiastically, then culturally and aesthetically. The ladino Tomas Pinpin reports that as early as the 16th century, Filipinos were copying Spanish ways:

No doubt you like and imitate the ways and appearance of the Spaniards in matters of clothing and the bearing of arms and even of gait, and you do not hesitate to spend a great deal so that you may resemble the Spaniard.

Many years later, Donya Victorina, the wig-wearing, powder-applying social climber in El Filibusterismo, would serve to personify this enduring aspiration. Not surprisingly, her ambition was to have a European husband:

All she really wanted was to “Europeanize” herself…thanks to a few finaglings she had gradually succeeded in transforming herself so much that by now even Quatrefages and Virchow together would not know where to classify her among the known races.

The Filipino regard for Spain, however, was not requited; in exchange for our admiration of their ways, we received heavy taxation and bondage; we called Spain ‘mother’, but she never really thought of us as her beloved child. Thus we were drawn to Jose Rizal, and later, the indios bravos of the Philippine Revolution. But alas, all of them would fail us - or fall into the hands of the enemy. Rizal, who inspired an entire generation to take up arms, was felled by the Spanish in the park that now bears his name. Only a few years after Filipinos got introduced to him and his extraordinary life, the man who represented so much of our aspirations was dead, leaving us with his final love letter:

My idolized Country, for whom I most gravely pine,
Dear Philippines, to my last goodbye, oh, harken
There I leave all: my parents, loves of mine…

Andres Bonifacio, the “Father of the Revolution” who idolized Rizal, was himself ignominiously executed by his fellow revolutionaries in a mountain in Cavite, with not even a grave to mark his remains. And who can forget the “Boy General”, Gregorio del Pilar, dead at 24? His farewell note, written in a cave in Tirad Pass on the eve of his death, may not be as literary as Rizal’s, nor his death as glorious, but it is equally haunting:

The General has given me a Platoon of available men and has ordered me to defend this Pass. I am aware what a difficult task has been given me. Nevertheless, I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. I am doing everything for my beloved country. There is no greater sacrifice.

They were, as ill-fated lovers, too young to die.

From the heartache of the Philippine Revolution and the ensuing loss of so many of our best and brightest men, we tried to move on, and it was during this time that America seduced us with promises of prosperity and modernization. And like a lover who will sacrifice even her own identity for her beloved, we embraced America’s ways, adopted its customs and language: we were afflicted with what historian Vicente Rafael calls “white love”.

It was an unequal, and in many ways unrequited, love to begin with (they patronizingly called us ‘little brown brothers’), but we still pressed on in our adulation of Uncle Sam, with some going as far as to campaign for the Philippines’ inclusion as a state among the ‘United States of America’. Though far away from snow, we dreamt of White Christmas; though far away from apple orchards we allowed an apple to stand for the first letter in our alphabet, ignoring the more common (and more delicious) atis. In her moments of lucidity, my late grandaunt - who was incidentally a case of sawi because she refused to elope with her lover to her eternal regret - would sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, the anthem they used to sing in flag ceremonies, with no small nostalgia.

The Japanese were too violent, their occupation too short, to be considered a love - theirs were a lust for territory and power. Consequently, our response was resistance, not romance. It was only many years later, when they came in the form of emotional and loveable anime characters, and when we had learned to love sushi, ramen and of late, matcha, that we were able to embrace the land of cherry blossoms. The face of that new Japan was not Musashi, master of combat, but Murakami, master of prose - and himself a master of hugot. World World II, indeed, remained a chapter in our love affair in our America: the most trying and yet the most noble. No longer “little brown brothers”, we were made to feel that we were true comrade-at-arms fighting side by side with the Americans.

After the war, we were free at last from foreign rule. But the ones who took their place - our own leaders - likewise failed us, either by choice or tragic circumstance. Ramon Magsaysay, our best hope, was doomed by a plane crash in Cebu. The word “sayang” defies translation, and is the only fitting word to describe moments that are characterized, all at once, by loss, regret, disappointment, and sorrow; it was what the people must have felt when they mourned their “guy” in Malacañang.

Ferdinand Marcos was another bright hope who orated in his inaugural speech that “this nation can be great again”. At first many believed him, but he was ultimately corrupted not so much by lupus but by his lust for power. And so we were once again sawi in our hopes, a state made all the more bitter by our being overtaken, one by one, by our neighbors: first Singapore, then Malaysia and Thailand, and now, even Vietnam.

Indeed, the leaders that we were enamored of failed us, but even so, our capacity for faith and love has remained boundless. In our refusal to give up, we render ourselves vulnerable to false love, but at the same time, open to the true one. Will somebody come to rightfully deserve our affection? Some say that he has already come in the form of the current president, but for many others, the search continues.


OF COURSE, POLITICS alone cannot explain our feeling of being sawi; I also think that it has something to do with the circumstances of many Filipino.

In the first place, inequity - i.e. the differences between the rich and the poor - is so wide that many lovers must have to first and foremost bridge the socio-economic gulf between them and their families. Abelardo’s “Nasaan Ka Irog” and the same-titled film that grew out of it are based on the true story of a thwarted love affair between an impoverished maiden and a rich heir - Abelardo’s friend. This trope of wealth differences between lovers: housemaid and haciendero’s son, houseboy and rich heiress, has been carried on by various actors and actresses, from Nora Aunor to Nadine Lustre.

The primacy of family in Philippine society is also why our love affairs are often beyond our control, and hence, prone to failure. The now-defunct practice of pagtatanan was a sanctioned form of defiance that gave space for lovers to override the dictates of their parents, but it is ultimately successful only after their eventual sanction. That our national hero himself, Jose Rizal, failed to overcome the wishes of Leonor Rivera’s parents speaks of the paramount importance of family. Years after his heartbreak, he would plead for his sisters to accept his beloved Josephine Bracken.

Then there is also the diaspora that displaces lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, the Filipino and motherland; a diaspora that drove Joma Sison to write of his longing for mangoes - and the Pinoys of Winnipeg to brave a frigid winter day for the opening of a Jolibee store. In our Internet age, virtual connections sometimes suffice to take the place of physical togetherness: Once, someone posted an endearing photo on Facebook of a man gazing intently at his iPad, his face betraying the joy of talking with someone he loves.

But just as frequently, physical separation leads to an emotional one: as I have experienced the hard way, willingness to travel from Manila to New York can water down to a point that traveling from one end of Manhattan to the other is too much of an inconvenience. Indeed, feelings are like sand: you can build them into a fairy-tale castle but they can wash away as soon as the ramparts take their final form.

Finally, our country’s being beset with calamity further adds to the uncertainty of our loves and our futures. Yolanda, alas, has been politicized beyond recognition, but to the people of Tacloban, it remains raw - and is populated not by politicians that marred the relief efforts but loved ones that they lost - or lived through the situation with. Indeed, what they remember the most is not the foul stench of corruption, but that of dead bodies lying on the streets for several weeks. After we arrived in Tacloban from that volcano with a heart-shaped crater, my hosts recounted tales of heartbreak, like that of a young man who couldn’t hold on to his wife’s hand as the fierce waves swept away their house and overwhelmed them. Hours later, after having lost consciousness, the man wakes up and finds his wife lifeless. He cries an anguished farewell:

I should have been the one swept away by the waves! I wish I were the one who perished because I can’t live without you.

Because the Filipino condition is so fraught - difficult, diasporic, disaster-prone - love has always been a risky proposition. Our loves, like our lives, are full of uncertainty, and while for some of us, love endures, for many others, it succumbs to the exigencies of fate. Remarkably, however, we are able to say “Bahala na si Batman!” with a sigh and keep going. “It was fun, too,” my friend said of Yolanda as we drank tuba in their house in Tacloban. “We were huddled together in one room, our entire barangay. We had nothing to eat and had to scour the warehouses and desperately wait for the relief goods, just like everybody else. But it was also fun,  she narrated, managing to laugh even as she fought the tears.

Diskarte - the art of ‘making do’ with whatever resources are available - plays a big role in dealing with these struggles, which range from the existential to the romantic. Coming home from Tacloban to Los Baños, I was surprised to see that alongside the pink tarpaulins for Ms. Janeth, another set of tarpaulins have cropped up in response: “Mr. Rodel, Yes na yes! I will marry you again!” Against all odds, it seemed that love has won.

Can my own sense of diskarte redeem me from my own state of lovelessness? When I think of Yolanda and its enormous human toll - as well as the profound heartaches of people all around me - I realize that my struggles are nothing, but at the same time, their life stories give me hope that the heart-shaped lake at the end of the trail is not the end of my journey. Surely, I too can overcome the obstacles that lie ahead.

And when all else fails, I guess there’s always hugot, which may not be a way to find love, but can help find a way out of it - and perhaps back again.


THE STATE OF being sawi does not diminish a person’s worth; if anything, it only enhances his  stature in the eyes of others. Our heroes, thus, could easily be the guys who failed to realize their loves - not just the victors. Similarly, the underdog-ness of the Filipino makes his achievements all the more remarkable, like the security guard who becomes a cum laude graduate in the very school where he goes on duty; the tricycle driver’s son who tops the medical board exams, or the lover who manages to win over his beloved not because of his wealth or physical superiority - but because of his love itself: its passion, its ingenuity, and its capacity to transcend even its perceived limits.

I would like to think that the same is true with our nation. We carry on: a people full of hope, made richer - not poorer - by the tragedies and disappointments we've faced and the handicaps we’ve had to deal with. Through kundiman lyrics past and ‘hugot lines’ present, our emotions have been transmuted into humor and sublimated to art. Undeterred by our failings, we continue; unencumbered by the weight of our feelings, we press on. But even as we move on, we keep holding on to the memory of a past that may yet return in the future - and to the hope of a future that we can almost experience, even as it never seems to arrive.

For the Filipino, indeed, possibility can just be as real as certainty, and memory can just be as palpable as the here and the now. In tapping into this view, the person who does hugot reveals the depth of his emotions and in the process shows his heart intact: an open invitation to those who are willing and able to fill it. Similarly, for all our nation’s hurts and pains, we remain ready to hope, ready to believe, and ready to love.

And therein, I suppose, lies the strength of our republic of sawi.

April 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

[Second Opinion] Japanese punctuality, Filipino time

The author with friends at the summit of Mt. Fuji
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOKYO — Whenever I’m in Japan, I cannot help but marvel at the people’s punctuality.

A recent experience was illustrative: My friends and I had just left Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture and were aboard the bus back to the train station, but just as it was about to depart, a passenger rose, talked to the driver, then faced the other passengers. In between apologetic bows, he asked if it was okay for us to wait for his friend who should be arriving in one or two minutes. He hadn’t even finished talking when his friend arrived, running. The friend was late for just over 30 seconds, but such a delay sufficed for him to make a public apology.

How did the Japanese acquire such an acute sense of time?

For a facile answer, one could cite a highly efficient and reliable transportation system — from extensive subway systems to the famed shinkansen — that makes it very easy for people to fulfill their commitments. Because it takes exactly 33 minutes from Asakusa to Shibuya via the Ginza Line, I know exactly which train to take if I’m meeting someone at Hachiko’s.

But even the Japanese who are in the Philippines are known to be punctual, which tells us that there’s more to their sense of time than the infrastructure that enables it.

Surprisingly, scholars aver that the Japanese sense of punctuality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historian Takehiko Hashimoto notes that Westerners in the mid-19th century actually complained that the Japanese were always late! It was only decades later, as part of the Meiji-era reforms, that punctuality was institutionalized. Children, for instance, were instructed to arrive 10 minutes before the start of class.

A second wave of time consciousness — one that pervaded the people’s everyday lives — came after the war, aided by the proliferation of wristwatches, heavy industrialization, and the inculcation of Western values. Surely, this sense of time, too, fostered the rise of a hyperefficient transport system, making Japanese punctuality a “coproduction” of culture and infrastructure.

As for the Philippines, while it is easy to blame our tardiness on the traffic and the unpredictable weather — or label it as an immutable “mentality” — one way to look at it is to consider how time has always been relative, and not just in Einstein’s sense of the word.

Anthropologists point out that “clock time”—i.e., seconds, minutes, hours — is in itself a modern invention: Until very recently, events dictated the pace of the day in most societies. A colorful example of this “event time” is “alas-puno” — or when the jeepney leaves, not at a certain time, but when it is full. Moreover, temporal categories were broader: umaga, hapon, gabi—allowing for more pakiramdaman (“feeling each other”).

Even in professional contexts in the Philippines today, there is more leeway: Arriving one minute late will likely not merit an apology, but one hour would. Then there’s a “politics of time,” too: Some can arrive “fashionably late” because of—or to assert—their importance. Indeed, people’s conceptions of time are shaped by others’ expectations, even as these expectations also change over time.

Sometimes, I think the Japanese can be punctual to a fault: On a hike up Mount Fuji last year, our guides wanted to schedule everything — including sleeping and waking times — removing the fun in climbing Japan’s highest peak. My Nagoya-based friend Jeion also feels that the overreliance on schedules can lead to a “domino effect” when things go wrong. “Filipino time,” with its flexibility and improvisation, may be suited for situations beyond our control, or when time itself need not be micromanaged — as when one is on vacation.

But the Japanese sense of time remains a valuable trait, not just for self-improvement but also for national growth: It is no coincidence that the 1950s-60s — when the Japanese began to adopt their modern conceptions of time — also marked the beginning of their “economic miracle.”
What we should strive for, then, is neither a full dismissal of Filipino time nor a full embrace of Japanese punctuality, but the ability to make use of both.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

[Second Opinion] In defense of the millennials

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It is human nature to find fault in the next generation. The Baby Boomers were critiqued by their elders for eschewing traditional values, but they in turn critiqued the Gen X-ers for being too carefree, unfocused, even cynical. Although it is fashionable to say “the kids these days,” accompanied with a sigh, the suggestion that the so-called “millennials” are exceptionally different from generations past has little factual basis.

The perceived frivolity of emojis, for instance, can be seen in the context of every generation deploying linguistic playfulness to set itself apart — and adapt to technology. Just as the youth of the ’40s and ’50s inverted words to the annoyance of their ermat and erpat, the youth of today are inventing acronyms and metaphors: I hope they don’t find this essay TL;DR — or worse, boring AF.

Much has also been said about how millennials are addicted to selfies. But self-photography has always been important for Filipinos. In the past, people went to great lengths just to have their self-portraits, even going to studios, and buying albums and photo frames to “display” their pictures — a function now taken over by Facebook and Instagram.

And what of their supposed overdependence on the internet? This I take as a valid concern (more on this later), but take note that every new technology — from electricity to video games — is perceived thus by those who did not grow up with it. Haven’t parents been railing against TV for the past half-century?

Finally, student civic engagement is derided as naive, as if the “grownups” in 1972 viewed the students of their time any differently. Surely, the young ilustrados and the revolutionaries who came after them were likewise derided for their “juvenile” ideas, but today nobody questions the wisdom of Rizal, who incidentally saw the youth as the hope of the nation.

An entire generation defies generalization: There are many “millennials” who do not have access to the internet, let alone smartphones. On the other hand, I know old people who are more hooked to Facebook than their grandkids. However, there are significant social and technological changes today that affect most millennials the most.

Social media, for instance, has created a new way of “separate togetherness:” Folks can be together at one dinner table but worlds apart in their smartphones. It has also created a problematic form of validation—through “likes” and “shares.”

The near-universal availability of information from the internet, moreover, can lead to the complacent idea that everything can be found in Wikipedia, searched in Google, or, as a last resort, crowdsourced through Reddit.

The comforts and technologies of today can indeed engender a sense of entitlement and laziness. But at the same time, they can also create new forms of responsibility. In this age of screenshots and virality, one learns early on to be responsible for what one posts in social media. In an age where teachers can easily check for plagiarism through search engines, one learns that simply relying on a quick Google search for assignments won’t impress anybody. Not anymore. So it always works both ways.

Similarly, while the virtual world may have greatly expanded, the internet has also allowed for an easier exploration of the real one: Traveling and going outdoors have gotten much easier. And while it has given rise to trolls and cyberbullies, it has also given voice to fact-checkers, real-life communities and support groups.

The challenge, then, is to maximize the good and mitigate the bad, of the technologies and trends we are faced with today. And, instead of blaming millennials for modernity’s problems, to think of how education can be responsive in a time of information overload and a dearth of critical thinking.

Throughout this piece, I’ve tried to defend millennials from unfair critique, but critique itself is most welcome. As a millennial myself, I think we need to be challenged more, and so by all means keep challenging us.

Someday, we will also realize our mistakes.

By then, perhaps we would have earned the right to lament the “decline” of the next generation.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

A version of this article appeared in Thailand's The Nation:

Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Human rights are for crybabies"

Some people ridicule the whole idea of human rights, saying it’s only for crybabies. My response to them? That’s exactly why it’s so important.

I had never thought much of babies until recently when I became an uncle. Baby Tori, my sister’s daughter, was four months old when I first saw her, and she was truly precious, a joy to behold. When you hold a baby for the first time, you are filled with wonder at seeing a human being’s frail beginnings—and with an awesome responsibility for someone so innocent and powerless.

Baby Tori, to my sister’s relief, is no “crybaby.” But as with all babies, there can be no predicting her behavior, and sometimes she would cry when we’re in church or a restaurant, raising our anxiety. In medical school I learned that crying can mean many things: It can be a sign of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, fear, or desire for companionship—but as my brother-in-law says, “parents are usually more worried than others.”

Of course, the other churchgoers or diners do not seem to get annoyed at Tori for crying; most of them throw sympathetic glances our way. They understand a four-month-old’s capabilities, because most of them have also experienced caring for babies.

To be honest, I used to hate being seated next to a baby in a bus or an airplane. But when it happens to me nowadays, I find myself more understanding. I think of my niece and I am filled with happy memories. Surely, no one has the right to get in the way of her sense of wonder for a world that to her mind remains beautiful.

Crying babies can be a metaphor for the voiceless and the powerless of the world, who, like infants, can only cry for mercy and justice. Human rights, after all, are not for those who have the ability to exact freedom and comfort with their own means. Our due is responsibility, not remonstration, and life can go on without anyone intervening on our behalf.

But human rights are still important, because others do not necessarily share our experience of the world. Just as it is hard to understand why a baby cries, it can be difficult to comprehend others’ pleas. When people march on the streets to protest unfair wages or indiscriminate airstrikes, we can easily dismiss them as causing traffic, because we do not have hungry children waiting for us, or homes at risk of being collateral damage in a war. Without empathy, there can be no solidarity.
And guess what? We need others, too, if only because someday we may be the ones who are in need. Isn’t life a cycle, and the babies of today the ones who could take care of us tomorrow? When we lift them up and protect them, we are not just valuing them, we are valuing ourselves and the rest of humanity as well.

Some say that human rights are being used as a tool to discredit governments. But isn’t this the very discourse that reduces human rights to mere talking points? Surely the political ramifications are secondary to the very real consequences for people on the ground.

Then there are those who concede that human rights per se are important, but the problem is that the human rights of “criminals” are being prioritized over those of the “victims.” But how can we label people as “criminals” when their right to due process is not respected in the first place? Besides, the issue of human rights is not a zero sum game, in which valuing one comes at the expense of devaluing the other. A strong and credible justice system—and not politicians — should decide whether people are hiding behind human rights as a shield.

If, like Kafka’s Joseph K, you find yourself wrongfully accused, labeled a criminal, a terrorist, or a drug user, will you not protest? And when, under pain of death, your pleas of innocence are dismissed, will you not cry?

And so when it comes to human rights, don’t think of the issue in political terms, or as an abstract and naive concept. Instead, think of the babies and children closest to your heart. For them and for those like them in spirit, we must keep fighting for human rights: the last and only resort for the weak and the defenseless.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

[Second Opinion] The delusion of quick fixes

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

By 1980, it is predicted that Manila may have expanded so much that it may include Infanta, Quezon province. This will be a city, therefore, two sides of which are harbors. One on the Pacific Ocean and one on Manila Bay or the China Sea side.” We will never be able to tell if Ferdinand Marcos, who delivered those words in his 1976 State of the Nation Address, was genuinely convinced that his New Society would usher in a transformation of Asimovian proportions.

Regardless, he is not alone in imagining — or claiming — that dramatic changes take place in our country in a short period of time. “Three [MRTs] will be completed in 2004, one in 2005, and another one in 2006,” declared Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her own Sona in 2001. “Before I step down, all the land covered by CARP will have been distributed,” Noynoy Aquino pledged on the same occasion in 2012. Two years later, he would trumpet the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike, assuring that bidding would take place very soon amid hearty applause.

Perhaps one can fault our former presidents for making empty promises. But one can also ask why such promises were seen as plausible at that time. And why the same plausibility is accorded the current president’s pronouncements: Kill me if I don’t resolve crimes in 6 months. “Just give me a little extension of maybe another six months,” he would say later, only to eventually concede that the promise was a ‘miscalculation’ and that his term is not enough.

The political expediency of quick fixes taps into people’s impatience in a broken system that they feel has not worked for them. They also draw from our people’s penchant for blind faith — i.e., an uncritical acceptance of what our politicians say. We ask presidential candidates what they plan to do for our country, without interrogating how exactly they plan to do it.

The problem with most quick fixes, however, is that they break the continuity that’s necessary for most programs to succeed. In DOT, for instance, the changing of slogans — from “Wow Philippines” to “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” to “Experience Philippines” — is undertaken by every new administration, as if it would miraculously allow us to finally beat the tourist arrivals of Thailand and Malaysia (both of whom, by the way, have maintained their respective slogans for the past decade).

Another is they lead to desperate and drastic measures that are ultimately detrimental to our nation. Instead of building a comprehensive approach to our drug problem, the government embarks on a ‘war on drugs’ without addressing why people use drugs in the first place. Death, whether in the form of suspected drug users getting shot or criminals getting executed, is valorized, despite the overwhelming historical and scientific evidence that it is not just inhumane, but ineffective.

And then there’s martial law, which is being touted today as a magical solution for Mindanao’s problems — even though, as my colleague Oscar Franklin Tan pointed out, it does not actually add to the already awesome powers of the presidency. Completely untethered from any sense of history, some even wish for martial law to be declared over the entire country, thinking  that it would return us into an imagined utopia. Alas, many of our leaders tolerate these untruths, betraying a complicity that is just as expedient for them as the myths they enable.

“Federalism,” too, is trumpeted as a panacea for our republic’s maladies, as if it would overhaul our broken political system and rid us of the pernicious culture of patronage. While federalism is a legitimate long-term aspiration for the country, the way it is presented by today’s political actors, as yet another silver bullet, misses the mark, even as it once again hits people’s longing for change.

Quick fixes can take the form not just of programs or platforms, but individuals, as when they too are touted, and uncritically accepted, as the answer to our problems. And here is where the gravest danger lies. Over 40 years after a Philippine president presented himself as our nation’s savior, the last thing we need is another fake messiah.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

[Second Opinion] Remembrance of typhoons past

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Typhoons were a big part of my childhood. Surrounded by the forest trees on Mount Makiling, our apartment in the UP Los Baños housing area was particularly vulnerable to the storms’ effects.

The anticipation for a coming storm began with Ernie Baron’s prognostications on “TV Patrol,” in which he would point his weatherman’s stick at the Pacific in order to show the position of the looming storm. As the storm entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility, it would acquire a Filipino woman’s name (“Rosing,” a strong one, was particularly memorable, it being the name of my paternal grandmother).

Signal No. 2 sufficed to cancel classes in elementary school, but sometimes even after Signal No. 3 was raised there would be blue skies, or just some cloudiness, in which case we would play our favorite outdoor games: patintero, siato, or taguan. Otherwise, we would just stay indoors. Looking back, I would attribute my penchant for reading books to the many days when there was nothing else to do.

The apartments — a housing project for UP faculty — were thankfully sturdy, but because we were surrounded by trees, even a slight wind could cause a branch to fall on electric wires, cutting off power. And so even before the first gusts arrived, we already expected “brownouts,” which sometimes lasted for weeks.

After the storm, we the neighborhood kids would scour the forest for sticks that we could use for siato; the best were from fallen branches of kape and kamagong. The brownouts — and trips to a water outpost a few kilometers away — may continue for days or weeks, but everything else was back to normal. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, it must have been a tremendous effort on my mother’s part to make sure that we could go back to school—with ironed uniforms and packed lunches—despite the lack of electricity.

My childhood experiences are just one thread in the Filipino struggle to face the storms that come our way. Safe in their mansions and gated villages, some children may never even have heard the ominous sound of a fierce gust of wind; a typhoon’s sole consequence will be to have no classes. For others, however, the experience is far worse.

A few years ago, a typhoon swept Laguna and felled many trees, including most of my maternal grandmother’s rambutan. When my mother visited her the next morning, my Lola Belen was in a state of shock, unable to process the sight of so many fallen rambutan days before they were to be harvested. How much more shocked, I thought, are Filipinos who wake up to destroyed houses, or those who could not sleep because of floods? Typhoons call us to empathy — a realization that the blind force of nature affects people differently—and we have to factor in others’ experiences, not just our own.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Tacloban, where my friends opened up about their experiences of living through “Yolanda.” They said: “It wasn’t the typhoon per se that devastated us, but the aftermath. People were not people anymore: Some were willing to kill for a sack of rice. And the stench of dead bodies permeated the air for several weeks…” As they proceeded, it became clear to me that the full impact was beyond narrative.

Even so, Tacloban itself has risen, and my friends show no sign of defeat. “It makes you stronger, knowing that you lived through Yolanda,” one of them said. What shines through in their accounts, like a candle in a dark stormy night, is a resilient spirit: one that we can neither romanticize nor underestimate.

“What do you do,” I once asked an old woman in Catanduanes, “when the roofs are detached?” She laughed. “We chase after them,” she said, perhaps half-jokingly. “And nail them back.” Which reminded me of what my Lola Belen told me in the wake of the storm, weeks later: “We will plant new trees. It will only be a matter of time when there be rambutan again.”

With our planet’s climate changing, and our future ever more uncertain, I fear that there will be stronger typhoons, with greater impacts, ahead of us. But I know enough of the Filipino people to say that we are capable of weathering any storm.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 6, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Dahan-dahan sa dahon-dahon"

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer 

We Filipinos have a rich heritage of herbal medicines. Long before Dr. Nelia Maramba’s pioneering research and the Department of Health’s “Sampung Halamang Gamot,” Filipinos have been using herbs as remedies. In my own research, I encountered pine needles being used for contraception in the Cordilleras, kamangyan as treatment for asthma in Leyte, and the popular tawa-tawa for dengue all over the country.

In some way, this is good because many of our common ailments do not really require medication. Most cases of cough and cold, for instance, will get better even without any treatment, and patients end up attributing their recovery to whatever they were taking — be it an antibiotic, a vitamin, or an herbal medicine. Moreover, beyond a placebo effect, many herbs have very real benefits, as more and more scientific research is revealing.

But our soft spot for herbal medicines is being capitalized upon by various companies to sell all kinds of products. Some of these products actually have very little “herbs” in them: Dr. Bryan Lim, an infectious disease fellow at the Philippine General Hospital whose quip inspired the title of this piece, laments that some “herbal” powders promising to treat diabetes actually make it worse because they’re mostly sugar.

Others, while having actual herbs, are marketed as wonder drugs that can cure all kinds of diseases. Despite disclaimers of having “no approved therapeutic claims,” these products often come with implicit and explicit claims that even some radio newscasters attest to: a different way of being bayaran.

What’s more worrisome is when these herbal products are being presented as cures for serious conditions, particularly cancer. It is bad enough that patients are made to pay for unproven therapies, but what makes it worse is when these products take patients away from proven treatments that could have saved their lives. Any kind of therapy has an opportunity cost, which is often missed out in people’s decision-making processes.

Finally, there is also a chance they can cause actual harm. Contrary to the public’s perception that herbal medicines are largely harmless, they can be overdosed — and they do have side effects. Herbal supplements, considered technically as “food” but are often taken as medicine, remain a regulatory grey area, making it hard to ensure safety.

The appeal of herbs, of course, comes from the long-held idea that “nature heals.” To a certain extent, there is truth to this: A nutritious diet, coupled by a healthy lifestyle, can certainly make a big difference to our health. The industrialization of food and today’s sedentary lifestyles, on the other hand, have undeniably contributed to the rise of noncommunicable diseases.

But we must also bear in mind that the past was no Garden of Eden. Even when everything was “organic,” people had cancer, and it cannot be denied that modern medicine, with its vaccines, antibiotics, and novel technologies, has saved millions, if not billions, of lives.

On top of this discourse of “natural vs. artificial,” the appeal of herbs lies in the power of testimony. For scientists to be able to say something conclusive, they demand rigorous clinical trials—not just anecdotal evidence or animal studies. For many, however, a blog post can be more convincing—and celebrities more authoritative. Desperation, of course, can predispose people to cling to false hopes.

Having said all that, I have to stress that we should be open to the potential of herbal medicines, and thus support further research to validate their uses. But what we should be against is making false claims and raising expectations as to what they can do. Toward this end, government agencies and medical societies should be vigilant and critical in the way certain products are advertised. (This, by the way, also applies to pharmaceuticals — but that’s for another piece.)

Meanwhile, we must strive to create an environment of critical thinking: one that will empower the public to make informed health choices. When it comes to herbal medicines—as with all kinds of promised cures — a dose of healthy skepticism will go a long way.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, June 29, 2017

[Second Opinion] Colombia beyond the drug wars

One of Fernando Botero's sculptures in Medellin (Photo by the author)
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — Colombians have a reputation for being friendly, and even before my plane touched down in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, I was convinced of it. My seatmate, upon discovering that it would be my first time in Colombia, took it upon himself to furnish information about his country. “We have mountains, beaches, historic towns,” he began, listing the attractions of a country that is all at once Pacific and Caribbean, Andean and Amazonian.

“A lot has changed from the 2000s. It’s now completely different,” he said, adding: “For the first time, there is a middle class. Did you know that Colombia is South America’s third largest economy?”

It did not take long for me to experience the middle-class Bogota of which he spoke. The bike lanes, the chic centro comerciales, the well-manicured parques, the branches of Juan Valdez Café with fast internet: All of them hint of an economy that has grown—at least for some segments of the population.

“It’s an exciting time to be in Colombia,” Daniel Buritica, a social entrepreneur, told me, confirming my impressions. “Young people are not bound by old ways of thinking, and are looking ahead.” Last year, Buritica organized a summer camp where he brought together former FARC rebels, paramilitaries, and victims—an attempt to heal the wounds of the conflict. I could sense that his emotions over the conflict run deep, but so is his optimism for the future.

The tension between trying to move on and remembering the past is more palpable in Medellin, a charming highland city where the mere mention of the name Pablo Escobar can still offend locals. For many, he is best relegated to oblivion—not notoriety—even as some continue to view him as a Robin Hood who built football stadiums and helped the poor.

Equally a source of discomfort is a discussion of Colombia’s recent history—and today’s divisive politics. One major point of contention is how to deal with the FARC: A referendum last year was defeated by a hair, but President Juan Manuel Santos has persisted with a fragile peace deal. Meanwhile, Alvaro Uribe, the iron-fisted ex-president, wants a tougher stance. He remains popular, and many are convinced of his view that Colombia is becoming the next Venezuela. As in the Philippines, social media is rife with fake news.

Perhaps the only thing that can rival politics in provoking people’s passions is football, but it is nowhere near as polarizing. While cities contest their La Liga with ferocious intensity, a national football team—currently ranked by Fida as fifth in the world—brings them together, and the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao are sources of pride.

Visiting Colombia’s museums and reading its critical histories, one can find its history of colonization and exploitation depressing; even the distinctive art of Fernando Botero cannot hide the violencia of the past, both remote and recent. Atop Bogota’s Montserrate or aboard Medellin’s cable cars, one cannot deny the visible and enduring social disparities.

On the other hand, one can just as easily see an ebullient side to Colombia, one whose anthems are the upbeat songs of Shakira and Carlos Vives. The people I meet fall somewhere in between, like the petroleum engineer in Bogotá who works part time as an Uber driver, or the tour guide in Aracataca who cannot forgive Steve Harvey for mistakenly announcing his compatriot Ariadna Gutiérrez as Miss Universe 2015. As travelers, I guess we must recognize the complexity of each country we visit if we are to truly learn from it and form a balanced, even if incomplete, view of what it’s all about.

I will leave Colombia with much fondness, and not just because of its beauty or the warmth of its people. Like my beloved Filipinas, this is a country that is misunderstood by the outside world, and one that has been forced into a history not of its choosing. But somehow, it is pulling itself through, which gives me hope that we, too—despite our many contradictions and flaws—can overcome the struggles in our side of the Pacific.

As I learned in my trip, we are only an ocean apart.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

[Second Opinion] Unlimited rice, empty stomachs

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I don’t think Cynthia Villar anticipated that her comments on prohibiting “unlimited rice” will draw so much resentment and ridicule. But as she probably knows by now, “unli rice” is not just a gluttonous indulgence for Filipinos but also a compensatory recourse for those with limited means. I hope she also realizes that prohibitionism is not always the answer to our health problems.

To be fair to the senator, however, the idea of discouraging Filipinos from eating too much rice has been raised by experts for many years. In 2012, PhilRice lamented that each Filipino wastes two tablespoons of rice every day, “which, when not wasted, could result in import savings as high as P6.2 billion and could feed 2.6 million hungry Filipinos in a year.”

Her pronouncements mirror PhilRice’s lament and actually sound like something a nutritionist would say: “If possible, we should shift to brown rice so Filipinos would eat less and so that finally, we can be self-sufficient… Unlimited rice is bad for the health. We should learn how to eat more vegetables.” In this, the doctor in me heartily agrees with her.

Of course, what drew the most attention was her misguided suggestion that fast-food chains’ offerings of “unli rice” be prohibited. But now that she has backed down from it, her overall concerns remain salient. Leaving the specifics of rice sufficiency to the economists and agriculturists (which Cielito Habito discussed in his latest column here), what can we do to improve our state of (mal)nutrition?

To appreciate the magnitude of the problem, we have to bear in mind that one in three Filipino children remains stunted. Aside from making Filipinos among the shortest in the region, stunting has dire consequences for children’s health and overall development. Rice, in this context, remains very important because for many Filipinos, it is the main source not just of carbohydrates but also of protein. Ironically, while many are eating too much rice, the poor need more of it.
Instead of prohibiting unlimited rice, a more positive approach is to incentivize the offering of whole-grain (i.e., brown, red, or black) rice, which satiates the eater faster, has more fiber and vitamins, and is easier to produce (even if longer to cook). Surely, increased demand will lower prices.

Another is to go beyond rice and encourage the consumption of other kinds of carbohydrates. Granted, our very word for eating, “kain,” is linguistically and cognitively related to the word for rice, “kanin”—many Pinoys don’t feel full if they don’t eat rice. Also, our viands are prepared in such a way that their flavors are balanced by rice: Can you imagine eating kare-kare by itself?

There are alternatives, however, that can take the place of rice—though we may need to  develop more recipes for them. Despite their lowly reputation, root crops like kamote, gabi and ube are uber-healthy, not to mention easy to grow. There’s white corn, too—which UP Los Baños scientists recommend mixing with rice.

But beyond carbohydrates, a big problem is protein energy malnutrition—the lack of ulam caused by the prohibitive cost of meat and fish. In olden days, Filipinos had more diverse sources of protein: Even insects (now recommended by the World Health Organization) were part of the diet.

What may be more culturally acceptable and practical today, however, are beans and legumes. As the Food Nutrition Research Institute’s Charina Javier tells me, farmers usually plant these in between rice cropping cycles to enhance soil quality. Encouraging the public to embrace beans and root crops, alongside being “rice-ponsible” (as the Department of Agriculture puts it), will surely go a long way.

But what of the urban poor with nary a place to lay their heads, let alone plant crops? Ultimately, we must also address the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition, which include the flooding of our markets with cheap but unhealthy food, the miserable plight of our food growers, and, above all, the extreme poverty that leaves people with no choice but to eat what little — if any — food they can find.

In this age of “unli rice,” no Filipino should have to live with an empty stomach.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

[Second Opinion] Following the footsteps of Rizal in Europe

The author at Rizal Park in Madrid
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MADRID, SPAIN—The restaurant Viva Madrid, where Jose Rizal and his fellow ilustrados used to hang out, is still open on Calle Fernandez y Gonzales; it was founded in 1861 (incidentally the year our national hero was born). The dinner there—tapas y vino tinto—was a fitting end to a day of retracing Rizal’s legacy in the Spanish capital. That afternoon I visited Rizal Park, which looks very similar to our own in Luneta—but with the advantage of not having a Torre de Manila behind it.
As a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, I made it my “side quest” to follow Rizal’s footsteps in the continent where he, too, once studied. From grade school onward we had been taught a lot about Rizal, but I was eager to study him in a different light. What can we learn from Rizal the traveler?

Rizal never managed to visit the Netherlands, so my quest began in neighboring Belgium, where he published “El Filibusterismo.” That he had to delay the Fili’s publication due to limited funds speaks of the difficulties faced by our hero; but at the same time, he showed much diskarte during his stay, managing to publish articles in La Solidaridad and even go to the gym.

Paris featured prominently in his travels: He was actually there when the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in 1882. Although our hero was mesmerized by the “City of Lights,” what must have struck him more were the French ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité—ideals that doubtless influenced his writings and aspirations for the Philippines.

Rizal also visited Rome and London, capitals of European empires past and present, and many other cities such as Barcelona, Milan, Munich and Litomerice, to name just a few. The breadth of history in these places—spanning millennia—surely inspired him to reflect on his homeland with a broader historical perspective: one that is in brilliant display in “The Philippines a Century Hence.”

One of my memorable Rizal-inspired trips was to the German towns of Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld, where our hero stayed with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family. Lingering in the small park that the town had put up for its illustrious guest, I pictured Rizal practicing German, writing “Noli Me Tangere,” wandering in the Odenwald hills—and I could only marvel at the genius of the man who saw no boundaries.


In his travels across Europe, Rizal reminds us that we cannot harbor a simplistic view of the continent, which, from Paris to Prague, from Riga to Reykjavik, has had a diversity of experiences. Instead of looking at it solely on imperial terms, we should realize that some of the ideals that inspired our revolutions actually came from it: Europe itself, after all, was a colony of its kings. And If Europeans are vocal about human rights, perhaps it is borne of their past, which, like ours, was full of unspeakable suffering.

Rizal also commends us to ensure that wherever we are, our hearts should not be far from home. When he was in Brussels, he wrote about building a school in Calamba; when he was in London, he wrote to the women of Malolos. The Philippines was always his reference point, and today, with more and more Filipinos going and living abroad, we have much to gain if we allow other countries to inspire us about what can be done for our own.

Finally, Rizal in his European journeys exemplifies the importance of an international outlook: one that strikes a balance between patriotism and the idea of a universal brotherhood. Faced with the splendor of Europe and the varying attitudes of the people he met, Rizal felt neither insecure nor resentful, even if he had plenty of reasons to feel that way. Instead, he took a more enlightened path: learning as much as could, opening himself to new experiences, communicating his ideas in reasoned tones, and building friendships along the way.

As we mark his 156th birthday on June 19 and as our nation undertakes a much-needed conversation about our national—and postcolonial—identity, Rizal’s legacy can continue to inspire us. May we follow his footsteps not just in Europe but throughout the world.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Friday, June 2, 2017

Opinion: A sad day for the country and the planet

Photo by Fernando Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News
NEW YORK CITY - Today we are confronted with two troubling and depressing developments - an attack in Resorts World Manila that left at least 36 dead, and Donald Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement.

As per the Philippine National Police, in the Resorts World incident, a lone, "foreign looking" gunman was said to have barged into the casino, opened fire and stole chips - before setting himself on fire. The ensuing fire led to intoxicating fumes that suffocated most of the victims.

Coming at a time when the Philippines is trying to deal with terrorists in Marawi, and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the Resorts World incident has raised anxieties, especially among those who fear that it would be used a pretext to declare Martial Law. Reassuringly, government officials themselves have sought to downplay the development, stressing that it's not and shouldn't be considered a terror attack, let alone an attack from ISIS. But this raises the question: What was the basis for the SITE Intelligence Group - media's sole source for the earlier news - to claim that ISIS is claiming responsibility? How would they define a "ISIS attack" anyway? Given the very consequential nature of news of this nature, we need to ask these hard questions.

As a developing story, speculating or raising conspiracy theories is unhelpful, but even so President Duterte should quickly move to calm a nervous nation by giving reassurance that the incident will be dealt with appropriately - without resorting to disproportionate measures. Much will also depend on the level of professionalism of our uninformed services, and of course, our vigilance.

Meanwhile, here in the US, Donald Trump just announced that he will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Though long expected from the world's most powerful ignoramus and America's "worst-ever president", it still comes as a sad turn for the planet, given how the US is by far the biggest carbon polluter in history - and Trump has been preaching about "fair share".

What should give us reason to hope, however, is the stiff resistance he is facing, both here and abroad; even China has been vocal about its support for non-binding but still very crucial Paris deal. "Make our planet great again", said new French president Emmanuel Macron - fast becoming one of the faces of enlightened global leadership. More reassuringly, American cities and companies are saying that they will stand by the agreement regardless of what Trump says or does.

When it comes to our looming - and ongoing - environmental and political crises, I wish that we in the Philippines will have the same resolve.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

[Second Opinion] The many voices of Martial Law

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

We cannot pretend otherwise: The nation is sharply divided on the issue of martial law, which President Duterte declared over the whole of Mindanao.

Those who support martial law see it as a logical and commensurate response to a serious threat about which President Duterte has long been warning. In this narrative, enemies of the state have joined forces—drug lords, terrorists, and even the political opposition, and they must be stopped lest they rend our nation asunder. “He knows what he’s doing,” they say of Mr. Duterte. “He’s from Mindanao; why will he harm his own people?”

Those who oppose martial law, on the other hand, see it as a disproportionate response; many fear that it is the next step in the President’s creeping authoritarianism. They cite the precedent of Marcos’ martial law—openly admired by Mr. Duterte even as it was marked by human rights violations. They worry that while the 1987 Constitution has checks and balances against abuses, the institutions tasked to perform them have become inutile and largely subservient.

This debate has taken on an even more divisive turn as some are framing it as a matter between the people of Mindanao and those not from there. “Isn’t it ironic? The people who complain are from Luzon, but martial law is here in Mindanao,” a friend from Davao said, echoing a common refrain in social media. He has a point, but can he speak on behalf of the whole of Mindanao, with all its many voices?

To make sense of people’s attitudes toward martial law, we need to understand where they are coming from. Some people cite the nondeclaration of martial law in Zamboanga City during the 2013 siege as an argument against it, but, as local broadcaster Ronnie Lledo tells me, many in their city actually feel that martial law should have been declared, given what they went through.

For many lumad all over Mindanao, perhaps martial law will be seen as “nothing new,” given the longstanding militarization of their homelands. We speak of “Muslims in Mindanao” as if they were one group, but they, too, have diverse sentiments: Many support martial law, but are gravely concerned about collateral damage. Others are bitterly opposed to it, citing the Moro experience during the Marcos regime.

As for the people of Marawi City, martial law is but part of the ongoing crisis. “This is the saddest Ramadan for us,” they cry, as they narrate stories of survival, escape, hunger, fear and suffering, alongside appeals for humanitarian aid. It is a sobering thought that many Filipinos remain in the crossfire, and that the death toll, civilian and military, continues to rise.

All these are legitimate voices, but theirs are not the only ones. As the death of Senior Insp. Freddie Manuel Solar—who hails from Baguio City—painfully reminds us, the soldiers and police officers in the frontline come from all over the country. Surely their families also have the right to be concerned on whether the fight we’re fighting is just and warranted.

And so does the rest of the nation, including the youth. Omid Siahmard, a UP Manila student from North Cotabato, urged people to stop generalizing their experiences of “feeling safe”—and called for an end to the air strikes, citing the death of a friend’s uncle. Shall we dismiss voices like his? Must we draw lines of legitimacy on the basis of age, region, institution, or religion?

And should we ignore the past? If Digong can invoke the memory of Bud Dajo, should we not invoke the memories of Malisbong? Or, for that matter, Pata Island and Manili?

Personally, I am worried about where this situation might take us: The President’s recent pronouncements (and jokes) are not very reassuring, and neither is humanity’s track record in handling unconstrained power.

But I worry, too, about the divisiveness that martial law is exacerbating and bringing about—a divisiveness that plays into the terrorists’ goal of undoing our cherished institutions and values. As the emerging narratives from Marawi should remind us, there are many voices out there, and the least we can do is listen, especially to those who are affected the most by this deepening crisis.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 1, 2017:

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Spectator

by Gideon Lasco

It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.

I was there when it happened—the emperor’s grand parade. Everybody was excited. Ever since the two tailors came, the town had been talking about it: the clothes made of the finest, most exquisite fabrics in the world; clothes that, rumor had it, were so lofty and noble that they could not be seen by the feeble-minded.

Looking back, nobody really asked why the emperor was so obsessed with clothes or parades. Nor did we ask why we ourselves were so excited. Perhaps we did not yet learn to question why we do the things that we do. All I remember was that everybody was talking about it. Even though, just like today, it was not easy to earn a living in those days, everyone—men, women, and children—wanted to watch the parade; and on the day itself, the whole city was full of people: the farmers let go of their plows and the fishermen their nets just to watch the spectacle.

Perhaps we all wanted to forget how difficult our lives were.

The parade started with much pomp and grandeur. The palace gates opened as the trumpets were sounded, and then marched the foot soldiers, the knights, the ladies-in-waiting in their beautiful dresses. Finally, accompanied by two handsome pages, came forth the emperor.

As soon as the emperor emerged, people gasped and sang praises of how beautiful his clothes were. To be honest, at first I really didn’t see anything; what I saw was his grotesque nakedness. But very soon—I swear—I thought I could see a faint veil enveloping him. As he walked across the moat towards the town square, I could even imagine a halo of gold surrounding him. And so I joined the crowd in amazement and wonder.

Then suddenly, a little child cried: “But he has no clothes!”

At first no one paid him attention: I only heard because I was close enough. I saw the fear in the eyes of his parents as they tried to hush him, but the boy was stubborn, and kept repeating: “But the emperor has no clothes!”

The crowd, unsure of what to do, fell silent, riveted by the boy’s words, partly out of astonishment, partly out of fear. The boy kept shouting, beginning to wonder why nobody would respond, let alone agree with him. The silence of the crowds only amplified his cries, until almost everybody could hear them.

Then, while we were still transfixed by what was going on, the royal guards came, and without saying a word, took the poor child away, muffling his mouth with their hands. His parents were too terrified to resist, and the best that everyone could do was to act as if nothing had happened. The parade went on; the crowd kept cheering, but I could sense that something had changed, and I did not dare look at the emperor, fearful of what I might end up saying or thinking.

It was only when we finally got to our homes that the people talked about what happened, and that we admitted to each other that the emperor had no clothes.

By then, we found out that the boy had been killed, but nobody dared ask why, or how. We were angry and anguished, but most of us remained silent. Only when the emperor dared to parade again in his repulsive nakedness did the memory of the boy inspire us to finally shout in unison the truth: a shout that would eventually lead us to the palace gates and finally into the throne room, where we, at long last, realized that we had been blind not just to his nakedness, but to his tyranny.

We knew in our hearts that the boy ought to be a hero; an example for generations to come. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of our own guilt; the conspiracy of silence that would haunt us to our graves. Thus, we told the rest of the world that we had listened to him from the very start.

(Note: Essay; Originally published in The High Chair 22: July-December 2016)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Second Opinion] (Un)protected areas

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Philippines is so rich in biodiversity that many species have not yet been discovered or documented. I realized this when, after blogging about my hike up Mount Mantalingajan in Palawan, a French scientist contacted me about one of the photos in my write-up. When I asked what’s so special about the picture, she told me it was one of the very few that existed of an orchid, which was so “new” it didn’t even have a scientific name!

Years later, when I was planning to climb Mount Victoria—also in Palawan—I was told by my birdwatcher-friends to be on the lookout for the Palawan striped-babbler, a bird found only on the island’s high mountains. Being a novice, I failed to spot it on our first day.

But the next day, just as we were ascending to the summit, a bird approached me: It was my friends’ prized find, with its distinctive yellow and gray stripes! I was dumbfounded as it came to within a meter of me, as if curious at the sight of a strange animal wearing a backpack. It lingered for a while, even following me for a short distance, until it flew away.

I was delighted at having seen the Palawan striped-babbler for the first time, but a greater sense of awe came to me when I realized the significance of the bird coming that close to me. Could it be that it had not yet learned to fear humans, and the place I was visiting was so remote that harmony still reigned between man and nature?

Sadly, most other species have very bad experiences with humans. Proof of this is the ever-dwindling number of Philippine eagles, whose lives have been a great escape from hunters and lost habitats.
We need more protected areas—a designation that will provide resources to safeguard endangered species and protect whatever habitats they have left from destructive activities like logging and mining. According to Dr. Mundita Lim, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Biodiversity Management Bureau, only 93 of the Philippines’ 228 “key biodiversity areas” enjoy some legal protection.

The case of Cleopatra’s Needle in Palawan is an example of just how difficult the process can be: It took several years and painstaking work initiated by the Center for Sustainability, a local NGO, to have it designed as a “critical habitat.” Unsurprisingly, many land developers and politicians get in the way. On this note, I am heartened that the Senate just passed the expanded Nipas bill authored by Sen. Loren Legarda; I hope the House will follow suit.

But legislation is just the first step. Many areas, like Ipo Watershed near Metro Manila, have been declared “protected” but encroachment continues. Forest rangers are outnumbered and underpaid, not to mention vulnerable: In 2011, Jojo Malinao, a ranger who fought illegal logging on Mount Makiling, was shot dead by an unidentified man. Alas, it is just not the biodiversity areas that need protecting but also those whose job is to protect them.

President Duterte and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu can prove their commitment to the environment by pushing for more protected areas and giving teeth to the many laws that exist. As for individual Filipinos, the least we can do is to develop an appreciation for our protected areas by actually visiting them—and demanding that our leaders do more to protect them.

In our age where pragmatism seems to trump long-held principles, perhaps some will dismiss my call as naive. But isn’t the naivete on their part? The bird I saw in Palawan is not just alive, it also gives life: It participates in the ecosystem of the forest. The forests, in turn, sustain us by maintaining water stores, preventing floods, sequestering carbon emissions, providing livelihoods, among others. When Nueva Ecija was flooded by Typhoon “Lando,” farmers pointed at the scarred mountains of the Sierra Madre. One of them told me: “If only they didn’t destroy the mountains, our rice fields would not have been devastated.”

His message, like that of our scientists, is clear: Our mountains, our forests, our mangroves and our coral reefs—they have long been protecting us. But they can only continue to do so if we protect them, too.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 25, 2017:

Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Second Opinion] What Ginebra taught me about fanaticism

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When we were in grade school, my classmates and I were largely divided between Ginebra and Alaska, the rival PBA teams of the 1990s.

I was a big Ginebra fan. On Sundays when my family would visit our grandparents in San Pablo, Laguna, I would watch games with my Lolo Basilio, who rooted for the same team. The next day, I would excitedly discuss the game’s results with my classmates—and if Ginebra won, we would gloat at our pro-Alaska classmates. Although the ensuing argument would sometimes escalate to verbal and physical scuffles, it generated mostly laughter as we tried to outinsult each other’s favorite players and coaches—our favorite target being Tim Cone (who, ironically, is now Ginebra’s coach).

It was the height of Robert Jaworski’s coaching career, and the Ginebra lineup was led by the likes of Marlou Aquino and EJ Feihl (the “Twin Towers”), Noli Locsin (“The Tank”) and Bal David (“The Flash”). Providing comic relief was Dodot Jaworski, and The Big J himself (he was a playing coach, after all). When the outcome was certain, they would bring in Dodot, and his moves—whether good or bad—were gleefully received.

One of the high points of my Grade 5 days was being brought by my dad to Araneta Coliseum to watch a PBA game. In that memorable game where Ginebra won, I joined the crowd in cheering for Gordon’s Gin (as the team was then known) with the unbridled excitement of a 10-year-old.

The referees were a big part of the narrative; there were times when we felt they were being unfair. But they would also make decisions that were favorable to Ginebra’s “never say die” tactics, to which we were happy to turn a blind eye. No matter the outcome, no matter what Jaworski and his boys did, we stuck with them. Win or lose, Ginebra pa rin!

My devotion to Ginebra faded with the disappearance of that legendary team: Jaworski eventually ran for the Senate (where he didn’t have as much impact); Vince Hizon was pirated by the MBA, that fleeting rival to the PBA; the others eventually retired. But the idea of a “Barangay Ginebra” lives on, and Gary Granada’s anthem continues to resonate with many Filipinos:

Kahit hindi relihiyoso
Naaalala ko ang mga santo
O San Miguel, Santa Lucia
Sana manalo ang Ginebra!


My memories of being a Ginebra fan resurface today as I try to make sense of the fanatic nature of our political engagement. Much as we rallied behind the charisma of one Robert Jaworski, no matter what, many people today are rallying behind political figures with as much passion and zeal.

Much as we insulted other teams with glee in the past, there is also the tendency today for political rivals and their partisans to resort to vilification and name-calling. At some point the attacks turn foul.

To some extent, a certain amount of fanaticism is to be expected: It is a well-documented phenomenon in psychology and the social sciences. Belonging to a team provides a sense of identity—one that empowers people to behave in ways they wouldn’t as individuals. When their team wins, they bask in “reflected glory,” but loyalty is not always tied to victory. Significantly, sports fans are known to exhibit a lot of cognitive bias—the tendency to rationalize defeats by blaming it on others, not on their own teams’ mistakes, while taking full credit for any form of triumph.

The same goes for politics: Just as it is natural for us to idolize sports stars, it is also natural for us to idealize politicians as heroes or saviors, to defend their every move, and to turn a blind eye to their faults.

Even so, I hope a sense of sportsmanship would prevail in our politics, which, like sports, can only work if we all respect the rules of the game. Indeed, just as a true basketball fan’s loyalty should be to basketball itself, and not to any player or team, a Filipino’s loyalty should be foremost to the country and our rules of law, not to its political players.

But who, you may ask, will blow the whistle, call the fouls, and implement the rules? Aside from well-behaved teams and fans, our political system badly needs one other thing: unbiased referees.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 18, 2017:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Second Opinion] Make Duterte great again

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Contrary to the creative imagination of fake news websites, Nasa never said Rodrigo Duterte is “the best president in the solar system.” I wasn’t informed of any survey undertaken to reach that conclusion, and, I suspect, neither were the Martians.

But who wouldn’t wish for a Philippine president to gain such a distinction? Even when the competition has weakened in the age of Donald Trump, it will still be a great honor that not even the medal-loving Ferdinand Marcos ever received.

Some, of course, would say that President Duterte is the great leader we’ve been waiting for, while others would argue, with as much passion, that he was never great to begin with. (The idea of “making Duterte great again” was just a provocation that was never intended to satisfy partisans of either side.)

Those of the first persuasion point to Davao City as living proof of Digong’s greatness: a city that he lifted from chaos and poverty into orderliness and prosperity. But others beg to differ, citing the testimonies of Edgar Matobato, Arturo Lascañas, and, long before them, the jeremiads of Fr. Amado Picardal.

Personally, I think the fact that Mr. Duterte was able to win a broad coalition of support in the presidential election—across social classes, regions, and political affiliations—is an undeniably great accomplishment. He has gained such a devoted following that he joked once that he can already establish an “Iglesia ni Duterte.”

He was so popular at the dawn of his administration that he could have moved us away from partisan politics, simply by fulfilling his Trudeauesque vow of appointing a diverse Cabinet. Unfortunately, despite inspired choices like Judy Taguiwalo and the unfairly caricatured Gina Lopez, he has not been immune to the favoritism that undermined previous administrations, as evidenced, most recently, by his brazen appointment of Mocha Uson as assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations office.

He could have, moreover, followed up his call for unity by reaching out to his political opponents, including Vice President Leni Robredo who went out of her way to find common ground despite being unjustly vilified. Instead, he resurrected the Marcos specter by allowing the burial of the dictator’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

He could have embarked on a bold and inspiring rhetoric of national renewal and solidarity. Instead, his speech has been marked by invectives worthy of Hugo Chavez—and an obsession with the “war on drugs,” informed by the misguided idea that drug users are beyond redemption—and the dangerous notion that the police must be defended regardless of their actions.

And for all the promise it evokes, his “independent foreign policy” has been characterized by kowtowing to China: a disappointing act, coming from our commander in chief. While his outreach to neighboring countries and his special attention to overseas Filipino workers are commendable, surely he can do better on matters of national dignity and sovereignty.

As Mr. Duterte’s first year in office draws to a close, he must channel his political capital to the many other issues our country faces today; he must do so in an inclusive, not divisive, way. Drugs, of course, remain a serious problem, but the problem should be addressed comprehensively and humanely. Importantly, it should not be used as a pretext for impunity or authoritarianism.

Now it cannot be denied that this administration has some great ideas. I, for one, am looking forward to badly needed infrastructure projects and tax reforms. I am still hopeful that peace with the communist and Moro rebels will come to fruition. If Mr. Duterte is what it takes to address Mindanao’s historic grievances and make its people feel part of the nation, surely that has to count for something. But all these—and indeed his entire legacy—can be eclipsed by his broken promises and the deadly war on drugs.

So how do we move forward? The President’s “climate change of heart” leaves the door open for future turnarounds, but much will depend on his supporters and close allies. Who among them will have the courage to acknowledge his mistakes—and tell him to change course?

Greatness has been waiting, but alas, Digong is riding a jetski toward the opposite direction.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 11, 2017:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

[Second Opinion] More expensive in the Philippines

by Gideon Lasco 
Philippine Daily Inquirer

For music fans, Coldplay’s recent Asia tour was a reminder that it’s more expensive to attend live concerts in the Philippines than in other countries. My friend who went to Taipei pointed out that the expenses for her trip—hotel, airfare, and a VIP ticket—came out even cheaper than buying an equivalent ticket in Manila.

I could live without watching Coldplay in Manila and, I imagine, so could most Pinoys. But it is not just music concerts that’s more expensive in the Philippines; I worry more about those that are closer to our everyday lives.

Medicines, for instance. I cannot forget the account of a lymphoma patient when I was training in the Philippine General Hospital: The patient’s family members would fly to India just to buy Mabthera (Rituximab); it was cheaper to go there—airfare and all—and buy the drug for around P30,000 a vial, than to buy the same vial here for P90,000.

Today, a 20-milligram tablet of Adalat (Nifedipine) costs around P40 in our drugstores—but the exact same brand or preparation only costs P2 in India and P5 in Malaysia: a dramatic difference for hypertensives who take it daily. Despite the passage of the Generics Law, pharmaceuticals in the country—branded and generic drugs alike—remain among the most expensive in Asia.

Then there’s electricity: We have one of the highest power rates in the world. Despite our vast potential for clean energy—geothermal, hydroelectric wind, solar—the fact that our power rates are second highest in Asia is both ironic and tragic, even as the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant continues to mock us.

Telecommunications, including internet, are also pricier in the Philippines. In Singapore, MyRepublic’s monthly plan for 1 Gbps costs around P2,100; Globe Telecom offers a similar plan for P9,499.

Finally, tax rates in the Philippines are also among the highest in the region. If your annual income is P500,000, the tax rate here is 32 percent compared to just 10 percent in Malaysia and Thailand. That the Duterte administration is looking at tax reform is a welcome step—but what of reforms in the pharmaceutical, power, and telecommunications sectors?

In an Esquire Philippines article, Maan d’Asis Pamaran explains the steep price of the Coldplay tickets by drawing from an industry insider. She writes of a baffling host of fees: On top of bringing in the artists, securing a venue, and giving royalties to local music associations, “there is also an entertainment tax, a local government tax, working visas—and yes, believe it or not, barangay and police clearance!”

In a way, a similar piling up of costs can also explain the steep cost of medicines. As a longtime regulator tells me, the high prices are not just because of the manufacturing and research, but also because of retailers who pursue profit maximization, celebrity endorsers, ads with catchy jingles, a battalion of medical representatives, and, of course, doctors, some of whom are provided incentives (free meals and conferences abroad): an inconvenient truth for the medical profession.

As for electricity, experts point to the privatization of power (beginning in the late 1980s and culminating in the Epira Law in 2001), kilometric red tape, as well as our lack of energy diversity, among the reasons for high cost. Alas, the overlapping oligopolies that control our power and telecommunication sectors have done nothing for our cause, even as they themselves have earned massive profits.

Unfortunately, we have taken the high cost of these things for granted. When a poor family cannot afford medicines, we think it is because they are “poor,” forgetting that it can very well be because the medicines are expensive—unnecessarily so. We have gotten so used to Meralco’s price hikes that only groups like Bayan Muna routinely react to them with outrage.

Moving forward, I think we need to first realize that this is not normal; we need to get to the bottom of why this is so—and hold to account the people who have benefited from the status quo. The ensuing loss of competitiveness, and more importantly, the toll on ordinary Filipinos, is a price we shouldn’t have to pay.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 4, 2017: