Thursday, March 30, 2017

[Second Opinion] From 7,107 to 7,641

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Social media was recently abuzz with excitement over the revelation that the Philippines actually has 7,641 islands—not 7,107, as we have always thought. Actually, this piece of news is quite dated, but the initial disclosure was made during the heat of last year’s election season, which is probably why it didn’t generate that much publicity at the time, and why today it continues to make waves.

Some reactions were expectedly humorous. “High tide or low tide?” some netizens asked, alluding to Charlene Gonzales’ answer, in the 1994 Miss Universe pageant, to the question of how many islands make up the Philippines. Technically speaking, per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an island has to be “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.”

In any case, the new figure shores up our status as one of world’s largest archipelagos. Our country’s archipelagic nature has always been part of our national self-image and repute: We were “Las Islas Filipinas” and then “P.I.” (for Philippine Islands) before we became “RP” and “PH.” We still see this in our travel industry, where many companies include the word “island” in their branding (perhaps the only casualties of 7,641 are brands that make use of 7,107).

The change is a reminder of how knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is a matter of faith. Most of us never really counted the Philippine islands ourselves; we rely on “experts” to do it for us—but their methods are not perfect; results can change through time. It’s good for our critical thinking to be reminded of the contingency of “expert knowledge.”

Actually, geographers have known for quite a while that 7,107 was incorrect. On top of better surveying, Earth’s primordial forces have participated in the revision: In 1952, a volcano called Didicas emerged east of the Babuyan islands, rising to over 200 meters above sea level. That alone should have revised the figure to 7,108.

I wonder, though, how long the current figure of 7,641 will last.

In the first place, if the count included our territory in the West Philippine Sea, then we may have de facto lost some of them: The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling recognizing the Philippines’ claim does not change the geopolitical reality of a hotly contested Spratlys—and our weak position (as our President himself, alas, loves to say). China is actually adding artificial islands within our territory by converting poor coral reefs into concrete bases. Will it conduct the same environmental and judicial travesty on Panatag Shoal?

In the second place, there’s global warming: If sea levels were to continue rising, a return to 7,107, or even lower, is a distinct possibility, especially if we think in terms of decades or centuries. On this note, I’m glad the President signed the Paris Agreement, and climate leaders like Sen. Loren Legarda worked hard for it.

But even if all our islands’ existence were to continue, there’s a question of their integrity. Just by browsing our country’s satellite images with Google Earth, one can spot some islands that have been destroyed by mining, such as Semirara south of Mindoro and Hinatuan off the coast of Surigao. Surely, we need a Gina Lopez to prevent more of our islands from suffering a similar fate.

Thankfully, many islands remain pristine, some owing to their exclusivity (i.e., Lagen and Pamilican), others due to their sheer remoteness, which have insulated them from our destructive impulses. I think Filipinos should aim to see at least a few of these islands—beyond popular ones like Boracay—if only to discover our maritime heritage, rich culture, and astounding marine biodiversity. And hopefully realize what’s at stake when we speak of national security and environmental conservation.

My personal Shangri-La remains Sibutu island on the southernmost tip of Tawi-Tawi, which I visited back when I was a medical student. There, on an island as peaceful as can be conjured by the imagination, we were awakened by the adhan, lulled to sleep by the amihan, nourished by the bounty of Sulu Sea, and made to feel at home by our Tausug hosts.

Malaysia, they told us, was just a few hours away by pump boat. But who needs to go abroad when you’re already in Paradise?

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 30, 2017:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

[Second Opinion] The politics of compromise

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It was a foregone conclusion that the rubber-stamp Congress would pass the death penalty bill despite its many flaws. Even so, it was still interesting to look at how individual members voted.
Of course, few expected the political dynasts and the trapos to go against Pantaleon Alvarez’s marching orders; you have to be an Arroyo or a Marcos to pull off a dissenting vote and maintain good ties with the Speaker and the President. But for the supposed mavericks in the House, there was an expectation that they would at least put up a brave resistance.

It was disappointing then that Geraldine Roman—“the first transgender woman in Congress”—voted for the death penalty bill. The expectation, after all, did not just come from the idea that her open-mindedness in gender issues would translate to open-mindedness in other matters, but also from her previous opposition to the death penalty: Just last year she was quoted as saying that “people who make mistakes in society” deserve a second chance.

Roman explained her vote by saying that her own convictions notwithstanding, 85 percent of her constituents wanted the death penalty, and that as their “representative,” she was duty-bound to follow them. “I am part of the world of politics, and politics is compromise,” she told law students in Ateneo. “As much as I would want to follow my conscience to vote against the death penalty, I have the interests of the constituents, of my constituents in Bataan, in mind.”

What did she mean when she said that “politics is compromise”?

Roman herself provided a clue in her talk: “What about my other advocacies? Should I have held on to a sinking ship and ran along with me and my constituents and my advocacies? Try and understand my situation.”

Perhaps her justification is merely a sophisticated way of admitting that she jumped ship as an act of political self-preservation. But at the same time, I also see that her attitude is shared by many of our country’s leaders, which is why we must try to focus on where this attitude is coming from—and leave her alone for the time being.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment. Say you’re a passionate supporter of a certain cause, like the construction of dedicated walkways and bike lanes in our major cities. Having no other channel to raise your ideas, you post about them on Facebook. To your pleasant surprise, it goes viral! Then, amazingly, a government official invites you to MalacaƱang so you can present your ideas to the president himself!

“Very good! I will sign an executive order right away,” the president says, much to your elation. Finally, your vision of walkable and bikeable cities is within reach! But he adds a caveat: “Of course, I expect you to stop criticizing the drug war.”

Now you happen to be a critic of the extrajudicial killings—but you also feel that you’re in a unique opportunity to advance your cause. What would you do? The battle here, as is often the case, is not between good and evil, but between two forms of good. For legislators and even Cabinet officials, the choice is between focusing on their initiatives at the cost of leaving the presidency alone in other matters—or criticizing the president at the expense of losing the positions with which they can pursue their initiatives. Faced with the same dilemma, what would you choose?

Most of our leaders today are choosing compromise.

To some extent, this form of pragmatism makes sense in a system where the president is all too powerful: If he were a smoker, he may never order a nationwide smoking ban, but maybe we can get him to sign a law imposing a “sin tax” on tobacco. If he hates shabu with a vengeance, he may never adopt a harm reduction approach to drugs, but maybe he can embrace the same approach to reproductive health: That should, the thinking goes, be good enough for now.

But if helping to legitimize an unjust measure—or indeed, an unjust regime—either by open support or convenient silence, is the price for your initiatives to be supported, is it worth paying? I hope our leaders realize that there’s a very thin line between complicity and compromise.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 23, 2017:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

[Second Opinion] Why we need a second opinion

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When people find out that I’m a doctor, conversations often take a medical turn. Thus, I have come to know, from experience, that most people like to talk about their health and those of their significant others.

“My daughter nearly had an appendectomy,” a mother recounted to me recently. “We brought her to a clinic because of a stomachache, and after doing an ultrasound, the surgeon told us that she has appendicitis, and had to be confined as soon as possible for surgery! Of course, we believed him, and said that we will make preparations. But after we got home and she managed to poop, her stomachache subsided completely! Instead of going back to the hospital, we decided to consult another doctor, who said it was just a bad case of food poisoning!”

She concluded: “Imagine what could have happened if we followed the first doctor, and she got operated on! All for an upset stomach! That’s why I always go for a second opinion.”

To be fair to the first doctor, his recommendation for admission may have been a prudent course: While he might have made a diagnosis of appendicitis, he didn’t really propose an immediate appendectomy. Diagnosing patients is not an exact science; doctors need some time to make a definitive one. Even if a doctor makes a wrong diagnosis, I would still go back to them because they would have a better idea the next time around.

But the patient’s mother has reason, too, for some skepticism. Some studies show that up to 20 percent of all appendectomies are unnecessary—just as up to 15 percent of caesarean sections are actually unwarranted. When one’s life and health are at stake, surely we want to know as much as we can to make sure that the risks are worth taking.


In titling my column “Second Opinion,” I draw from my medical background to remind us that many of our society’s issues also need alternate ways of (re)thinking and (re)telling. All too often, dominant narratives go unchallenged, either because they are held by those in power, or because they have been held by our society for far too long.

The diagnosis of our country as a “narco-state,” the prescription of capital punishment, the prognosis of a disaster that can only be averted by authoritarian rule: All these require a second opinion—hence the enduring relevance of these editorial pages, and of responsible and fearless journalism.

But the need for different perspectives go beyond the vexing political issues of our time. The advent of late modernity and globalization’s uneven terrain has given rise to various technological, environmental, social, and ethical conundrums. Certain ideals of “development” and “progress” are taken for granted, leaving us with little or no time to reflect on their ramifications. Significantly, our country is faced with worsening inequities, which allow people living in Metro Manila to inhabit entirely different worlds: one of survival, another of decadence, and in between, a resignation to a never-ending commute.

But out of the multiplicity of issues at hand—from the existential to the everyday—the writer will always be pressed to choose which to highlight. In this, I bring in the tradition of social medicine, whose early exponent, Rudolf Virchow, once said that “doctors are the natural attorneys of the poor.” Is not malasakit (empathy) the logical and moral response to our intimacy with sakit (pain and suffering)? Our commitment indeed should not just be to art or truth, but also to social justice.

A second opinion, however, remains an opinion: It does not rule out the validity of the first, nor its own erroneousness. Moreover, like the cardiologist who sees a heart defect and the psychiatrist who sees a broken heart, it is entirely possible that we are looking at different parts of the same whole.

And so it is with the conversation I hope to join. From a monopoly of discourse, we should move not so much to dichotomies as to pluralities: a multitude of voices that can hopefully move us further in the ongoing work of understanding each other, making sense of our ever-changing culture, and finding our nation’s place in the world.

Note: Published on March 16, 2017, this is the inaugural piece in Gideon Lasco's weekly column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer entitled "Second Opinion" which comes out every Thursday: