Thursday, January 27, 2005

Multiple lives

Multiple lives

Posted 09:59pm (Mla time) Jan 26, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 27, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ANOTHER Australian newspaper has given local readers a rare insight into one of our reclusive -- and controversial -- Filipino businessmen, Eduardo Cojuangco.

As Australia's oldest (founded 1831) daily, the Sydney Morning Herald arguably packs the most clout in Down Under's largest city. Herald's measured style outstrips the influence of Rupert Murdoch's sensation-packed Daily Telegraph.

In "The Two Lives of the Boss," the Herald's Kate Askew underscores contrasts in the Cojuangco that Australians and Filipinos see.

Earlier, Sun Herald's Frank Walker reported how Australian courts tracked Ferdinand Marcos funneling, between 1982 and 1985, almost $169 million from the shell Lichtenstein foundation Vibur. Laundered funds set up, in luxury, a then-pregnant former Playboy model, Evelyn Hegyesi. Her daughter was named Analisa Josefa. "Marcos' mother was Josefa," Walker wrote.

Padding about, without bodyguards, in his $3-million Spanish style-hacienda in Mudgee (population: 8,500), New South Wales, "Cojuangco could be any gentleman farmer and horse breeder," Askew writes. "He leads a private life and does not mix with Filipinos living here."

But his $1.78-billion bid for a dairy company, National Foods, made via publicly listed San Miguel Corp., thrust him into the limelight. "National Foods' high brand integrity is vital to the Philippine company ... San Miguel is hardly a well-known brand here." If the deal is sealed, "40 percent of the Philippine company's revenues will be sourced in Australia."

But life isn't simple on home soil for the insulari who "became extraordinarily wealthy during the Marcos regime," then scrammed with them to Hawaii, a step ahead of furious people power crowds.

"Unlike Marcos, Cojuangco wound his way back to the top when the time was right," Askew notes. He hitched his wagon to Joseph Estrada who won in 1998, but whose corrupt government was ejected by People Power II.

Cojuangco "bought himself a couple of years' grace with the Arroyo government." He yielded seats on the San Miguel board and leveraged a 15-percent (now 19.1-percent) investment by the brewer Kirin. "Arroyo remains wary of Cojuangco," even as San Miguel revenue grew by 21 percent under Cojuangco's watch.

The coconut levy, however, haunts Cojuangco. So does the tough Haydee Yorac, chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). How did Cojuangco nail 20 percent of San Miguel? the PCGG asks. And were additional shares of San Miguel bought with the levy, which, as the Catholic Bishops' Conference noted, cronies controlled?

The anti-graft court and the Supreme Court have ruled that coconut revenues are public funds. Cojuangco's legal counsel, Estelito Mendoza, emphasized to the Herald that the recent ruling did not relate to Cojuangco's own stake of 19.2 percent in San Miguel. That's to salvage part of the loot, scoffs the Philippine Peasant Institute.

In retaliation, "the Brat Pack" of Cojuangco's Nationalist People's Coalition tried to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide. "The complaint was thrown out," Askew recalled.

Are those the same forces at work in the new moves to downgrade the PCGG from an independent agency into an attached office, allegedly for efficiency and economy? "The voice is that of Jacob, but the hands are that of Esau."

Levies bought the First United Bank, then being offered for sale by no other than Cojuangco. It became the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB). For every nine shares issued to so-called coconut farmers, Cojuangco got one, Yorac says in a paper she wrote for the Herald.

In addition, he managed the bank for a decade and chose all its directors. Martial law dictated that all levies were deposited with UCPB at zero interest. More significant, who was the unnamed principal who snapped up 20 percent, dipping into the levy? Yorac asks.

When people power erupted on Feb. 25, 1986, the identity became clear. "Stock certificates of these holding companies endorsed in blank were found in the hastily abandoned bedroom and toilets of the former occupants of Malacañang."

Many Filipinos believe the country should now move beyond legal arguments. "Half of the country believes Cojuangco used his position with Marcos to build up his own interests," the Herald notes. Others commend him for standing up to the foreign coconut industry.

After winning the Fernhill Handicap with the Gai Waterhouse-trained gelding Clonmel in 2000, Cojuangco gave one of his rare public addresses. "I enjoyed Australia the first time I came here to buy a horse in 1959," he told the crowd. "This is my second country. My family, my grandchildren, they also love it."

Thanks for his benevolence from local businessmen elicited this response from Cojuangco, "It's no good having a pocketful of pesos if you can't spread a little sunshine," Herald racing writer Max Presnell reported.

Do that, asks Lea Kuizon, an aging small coconut planter in Bato, Southern Leyte. Kuizon's mother died holding coco levy certificates that never paid a centavo. He fears that will be his fate, too.

Kuizon has good reasons. A cash-strapped Arroyo administration has signaled it will siphon the levy to keep its head above the water. Looting is not lovelier the second time around.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Diaspora as economic clout

Diaspora as economic clout

Posted 11:22pm (Mla time) Jan 24, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 25, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

AT THE GLOBAL Networking Pinoy convention in Cebu, you could slice the palpable altruism. How could "Global Pinoys" help a country skirting democratic debility? asked the delegates, a thousand or more Filipinos, of the diaspora. That was a take on John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural theme: "Ask not what your country can do for you...".

Over at the Cultural Center's Karangalan conference, the same value resounded. Delegates sought to mobilize "excellence to create a visionary Philippines," organizer Nicolas Perlas explained. "Without vision, the people perish," Isaiah wrote.

Will that goodwill create a critical mass enough to shatter crony governance that has brought this country to the brink of "democratic exhaustion"?

Retire-and invest-here, President Macapagal-Arroyo suggested at the Cebu forum organized by heiress Loida Nicolas-Lewis and the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations. Filipinos are, in fact, already the world's third largest remitter of hard currency, after Indians and Mexicans.

Use your economic clout to sledge hammer acceptance of reforms at home, First Pacific's Manuel Pangilinan suggested. Dismantle today's systems where personal relationships measure worth. Replace that with a meritocracy, where excellence is rewarded. Otherwise, the best and the brightest Filipinos will continue to pull up stakes at the first visa.

By happenstance, both conventions got underway just when former National Security Adviser Jose Almonte presented before the Foundation for Economic Freedom a provocative asking what most delegates had in mind: "Can We Deal With Our Problems Democratically?"

The Potato Famine of the mid-1840s drove one out of every four persons in Ireland to migrate, Almonte recalled. Here, embedded, self-reinforcing, crony governance crafts policies to further feather nests. In the process, they shove educated, innovative Filipinos abroad.

Ironically, they're welcomed by advanced countries needing talent. Thus, at last count, we have dislodged Mexico as the world's largest supplier of labor, the Asian Development Bank reveals.

The Philippines' strength is in it's people, the paper asserts. They're talented, inventive, educated and flexible-qualities many Global Networking and Karangalan delegates personified. In other countries, Filipinos flourish. But at home, they're stymied by governance of elites, by elites, for elites.

In oligarchic Philippines, "the top 10 talk to each other and politics and business are cross-hatched," Kate Askew of Sydney Morning Herald writes on a "Global Filipino," businessman Eduardo Cojuangco .

"In Australia, Cojuangco leads the life of a landed gentleman and racehorse breeder," the Herald notes in it's extended article, "The Two Lives of the Boss." But life is "not necessarily as simple on his home soil" for this tycoon.

During this thrice-a-year visit, Cojuangco parks his private Hawker Siddeley HS 125 jet in the New South Wales town of Mudgee (population: 8,500). His $3-million Spanish-style "hacienda" houses yearlings and sprawls at Gooree Park.

This "arguably richest man in the Philippines" avoids publicity. "But a window into Cojuangco's private existence opened on Dec. 30, when the one-time Philippine presidential candidate and crony of the late Ferdinand Marcos waved $1.78 billion under the nose of the board of the big Australian dairy company, National Foods," the Herald said.

Australian business circles concede "National Foods is as good as in the hands of the Philippine brewer." Cojuangco's offer is equivalent to 12.4 times historic earnings before taxes. It thrashed the only rival, Kiwi dairy company Fonterra. Today, Cojuangco is well on the way to becoming a major player in Down Under's dairy industry.

At home, Cojuangco's problem pivots around the Presidential Commission on Good Government's fight to return what it alleges are funds stolen from coconut growers, the Herald notes.

Corruption buster, Haydee Yorac relentlessly leads the drive. "From all appearances it appears that (Cojuangco) is managing SMC well," Yorac says. She emphasizes "appearances." When asked if Cojuangco has been good for the Philippines, all Yorac says is: "It was bad for the coconut farmers."

Supreme Court decisions will define part of that future, the Herald says. In fact, both the anti-graft court and the Supreme Court have already ruled that coconut levies are pubic funds.

"Asian business media regularly compares Cojuangco with Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: tough operators who've successfully made the transition to politics with qualities which, some argue, serve their countries well."

Will that track record square with Karangalan and Global Networking initiatives? With damaged institutions, the current governance cannot deliver, the Foundation of Economic Freedom's paper notes. "Let the market redeem our governance."

Is economic muscle-flexing by diaspora citizens the only recourse left to reduce crushing disparities? Are the Cojuangcos, Thaksins, Berlusconis the alternative remaining for countries that are increasingly crowded and whose people are impoverished, ill-fed and, as Indonesian scholar Soedjatmoko said, "badly in need of understanding themselves"?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Improbable tutorial

Improbable tutorial

Posted 05:49am (Mla time) Jan 20, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 20, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

CAN tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh in Northern Sumatra offer a tutorial for a press grappling here with heightened violence? Improbable? Read on...

Tidal waves drowned half of Serambi Indonesia Daily's 200 workers and flattened its presses. Serambi is one of 10 papers operated by PT Indopersta Primamedia. Nearest to the quake's epicenter, the paper was the hardest hit.

Yet, five days later, Serambi reappeared on newsstands. Edited by survivors, it was published from a small jerry-rigged plant in Lhokseumawe, a grueling five-hour drive from Banda. Tsunami slashed its circulation from 25,000 to 10,000.

"Sermabi published essential information on where to find food, medical help and news of relatives and friends," the World Association of Newspapers noted. "It is a saga of remarkable courage."

For two weeks following its comeback, Serambi was distributed free. Even in the best of times, the paper struggled as it publishes in a region wracked by a violent independence movement. Today, it's sold for 1,500 rupiah (16 US cents).

"How could they publish five days after the disaster, with half the workers lost and no ads?" asked Director Sentrijanto. "The answer is: They felt it's their responsibility as the only local newspaper published in Aceh."

Serambi is a tale of rare journalistic grit. But for those who'd muzzle the press here, it's a stinging tutorial.

Assassination is the ultimate censorship. Since 1986, there have been 59 journalists murdered. (Martial law curbs prevented a body count during the Marcos dictatorship.) No triggerman, let alone mastermind, has been convicted. "Can we really say we enjoy freedom of the press when it must be practiced under the shadow of a gun?" editor Teodoro Locsin Jr. wondered aloud.

But these assaults recently metastasized into a more vicious form: Arsonists are the new censors. Masked gunmen lobbed a Molotov bomb into a P35-million Outside Broadcast (OB) van of ABS-CBN. "Group K" owned up to the fire-bombing. It charged the network with "biased reporting" against the late Fernando Poe Jr. in the presidential election.

Smarting from "living-high-on-the hog" reports while in Hong Kong, ousted President Joseph Estrada weighed in. He endorsed incendiary retaliation. The fireball should be "a lesson to the media who are one-sided," Estrada told the Inquirer.

There are corrupt journalists, fumed the man necklaced with plunder charges. "Some of you are worse than “kotong” (mulcting) cops. Kotong cops go away when you give them money, some of your colleagues come back for more again and again." He should know.

A press card does not exorcise moral rot. And some newsmen serve as megaphones for the powerful. "A free press is not necessarily an angelic press," Judge Samuel King wrote.

We have professional lapses from inaccuracy, biased commentary to superficiality. Many "substitute easy cynicism for hard reporting." The current court case on the right of reply underscores that.

Serambi is about a craft demanding a commitment that, as Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, almost resembles the priesthood.

"Nobody ... who is not ready to live only for the profession can survive in this incomprehensible and voracious craft," this Columbian editor and novelist wrote. Here, "the end product is finished when the story is done, as if it were the end of everything -- but never leaves one in peace, because it restarts again, with even more ardor, the following minute."

That ideal prodded Serambi's decimated staff to restart the paper. It's the same "fire in the belly" that shaped the life work of journalists like Teodoro Locsin Sr., Mochtar Lubis, Joaquin "Chino" Roces, Katherine Graham, Jose Burgos Jr. and Tarzie Vittachi, among others.

Columnist Amando Doronila cited "three lessons" after Manila Times owners knuckled under Estrada's pressure: "First, no president succeeded in gagging the press within a democratic system. Second, economic pressure and other forms of blandishment -- including tax investigations -- failed to silence it as an institution within a system of checks and balances. Third, it took a dictatorship to curtail press freedom, but not completely."

Estrada initially welcomed (later recalled it as a "joke") arson as a solution for press failings, real or conjured. This is consistent with his dislike for the media that could not be cajoled into subservience.

"Estrada interprets his conflict with the press in class terms," Asiaweek wrote in August 1999. "The oligarchies of this country, he says referring to wealthy media magnates, don't want me to succeed in my program to help the poor."

That rationale underpinned his failed drive to cripple the Inquirer by getting "friendly" advertisers to back out. "What the President apparently wants is for us to publish only the good news," this paper editorialized. "We cannot do this just to be in the good graces of the President -- or any president."

The Serambi Indonesia Daily's tutorial may strike a chord in the press here. But Estrada's belated retraction of flame-throwers as redress for press grievances shows this example will be lost on this "leader of the opposition."

Not surprising. He can't even tell whether his name is Jose Velarde or what.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hard slog as dance

Hard slog as dance

Updated 00:09am (Mla time) Jan 18, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the January 18, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

SCHOOLS have reopened while hotels have taken down their "Fully Booked" signs. Pilgrims, balikbayans and out-of-town pickpockets are leaving, as Cebu ends its colorful Sinulog festival honoring the Santo Niño.

This year's rites set records: from a religious procession of 700,000 to street parties and 46 contingents from Misamis to Pampanga choreographing versions of the prayer-dance to the Niño. Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia and Margot Osmeña, the wife of the city mayor, sashayed as lead dancers at the packed Sports Center. Cebuana-now-Canadian soprano Lilac Cano belted out native songs to a standing room audience. Crowds lined the sludge-polluted Mactan channel shores as a fluvial parade of 86 boats (one ran aground) scattered flower petals on the "galleon" with the Niño. That gut reaction evoked Luke's description about "crowds pressed forward" along Galilee's shores.

Ferdinand Magellan sailed up what was, in 1521, a pristine channel, with the Flemish icon of the Child. Given to Sugbu's rulers, the second Spanish expedition rediscovered the Niño in 1565. Over the centuries, the Child has drawn the desperate, the skeptics, even the cynical.

That mix nurtures legends. Some nights, an old tale goes, the Child walks the streets, comforting, healing. Mornings, amor-seco or "dry love" grass stud the Child's cloak, some swear. Botanists dub that weed andropagan aciculatus. All the yarn means, they shrug, is that the place is semi-arid. Cebu's forest cover is down to almost zero.

Given local affection for the Santo Niño, the Vatican permits the local church to set aside the third Sunday of every January for the Infant. But does devotion coexist, in Jesuit psychologist Jaime Bulatao's image, on a "split-level" with amoral conduct? Is worship sealed off from deeds?

Mayor Tomas Osmeña prays to the Niño -- and orders that the Child's Fifth Commandment be scrapped. "Pull the trigger," he tells policemen when dealing with suspected rapists. "I'll take care of the legal fallout."

Mayor Thadeo Ouano welcomes the Niño to Mandaue yearly. Yet, one of Asia's biggest shabu lab pitched tent in his fiefdom-without his knowledge, he insists.

Indeed, "there's a marked dichotomy between faith and life, between worship and activity," an earlier Cebu Pastoral Assembly noted. So, how do the vulnerable, specially the children, fare in a "split-level" society? "Are our children getting any better?" asks the Food and Nutrition Research Institute.

Malnutrition stunts 4 out of every 10 pre-schoolers in Cebu City, the 5th National Nutrition Survey found. Compare that to Siquijor's two. In Mandaue, 37 percent were anemic, higher than Bohol's 28 percent.

By age eight, classmates tower 11 centimeters over the ill-fed kids, a mid-1990 joint study by North Carolina and San Carlos Universities showed. IQs were markedly lower. Corrosive hidden hunger was tracked, at its devastating worst, in math and languages.

So did the 41st (out of 45 countries) ranking of Filipino students in the 2003 International Mathematics and Science Tests validate this finding? The linkage can be debated. But Edwin Markham's anguished query resonates: "Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?"

"Nutritional improvement within the 11 years (being compared) was not even five percent," the 5th survey update complained. "(At this rate), it will take maybe half a century before we can eradicate the problem of malnutrition."

Nationwide, one out of three among over 9.3 million schoolchildren is a puny underweight, alongside their Singaporean or Thai counterparts. Koreans or Chinese tower over another 3.2 million who are stunted.

Fund shortages kept the 6th National Nutrition Survey from drawing up a province-by-province breakdown. But the same dismal pattern persists. Six out of 10 infants, up to a year old, are anemic. Scrawny mothers often give birth to premature kids who, by age three will be stunted, the Asian Development Bank notes.

Worse, ill-fed kids can be sapped "from 10 to 14 percent of intelligence quotient (IQ)." That damage is irreversible. No pork barrel will re-light addled brains in dwarfed kids.

The three nutrition surveys document persistent inadequacy of an essential service. But "throwing more money at this problem will not solve it," says the World Bank's Development Report. "Services work when poor people stand at the center of its provision... When voices of the poor are heard by politicians, that's when providers have incentives to serve."

Broaden the poor's choices and participation, so they oversee and can discipline shoddy providers, the World Bank suggests. "Community-managed schools in El Salvador, where parents visited regularly, lowered teacher absenteeism and raised test scores."

Second, increase citizen participation by making relevant information available. Service delivery surveys in Bangalore, India, led citizens to pressure politicians to help ignored communities.

The third tack is, reward effective service providers and penalize the inept. Cambodia pegged salaries of medical workers to the health of households.

There's no alternative to the hard slog of reforming delivery systems, jammed by politics. Yet, that is prayer in its most concrete form in a schizo society that screams for redress to the Niño who said: "Let the little children come to Me..."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Cellar status

Cellar status

Updated 01:14am (Mla time) Jan 13, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 13, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

YOU should see the e-mail flak. Hackles are up because the latest International Mathematics and Science Tests reveal Filipino students huddled, yet again, among the tail-enders. Jammed between Morocco and Botswana, our kids limped in putting our country at No. 41 among 45 countries in Math. In Science, we trailed behind Lebanon but were ahead of Botswana at No. 42.

Asians were again topnotchers. Singaporeans led, followed by kids from Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei and Japan. Indonesia was ahead of us in slot 36.

So, when do we scramble out of this cellar? We've been stuck in this boiler room since the release in 1966 of the first TIMSS results. Then educators "were shocked because among 41 countries, the Philippines ranked second in Math and third in Science" -- but from the bottom, noted the United Nations Philippine Human Development Report.

When the second TIMSS results came out three years later, we still hadn't budged from the bodega. At 37th place, we were second to
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the last.

The decay started 65 years back, when we clipped seventh grade. Obviously, the rot can't be reversed overnight.

Our kids get 10 years of basic schooling, much of it of sub-standard quality. Other nations provide 13, sometimes 14, years. Even poorer Asean countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia support 11 years.

Good schools do not come cheap. Singapore spent $1,582 per school kid when the first TIMSS were held. We allocated $138.

"So where did this 'Wow ang galing ng Pinoy' blabber come from?" e-mailed a California writer to Pepeton J'Anton's website, "Pusong Pinoy." "Let's get real because without education, we can't make headway, given international competition. Galing ng Pinoy? Can you shine shoes?"

That fuming is understandable. Schools that don't educate infuriate Filipinos abroad. On becoming a Canadian, grandmother Rosario Fuentes e-mailed how she still helps relatives study to break free from the penury she knew in Masbate. "Buhay namin ipre-prenda, sa educacion san anak ninda (We pawn our lives for schooling of our children)."

"Those statistics are about as grim as they can be," Dr. Remigio Lacsamana in Florida writes. "Our teachers in Pampanga and Tarlac public schools were well qualified, particularly in English, Mathematics and Sciences. So what went wrong?"

Teachers are one factor. It's a pity President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's agenda does not find improving education as one of the top priorities. In America, there's a constant push to upgrade educational standards. We must reverse our downward spiral. The country's future hinges on education.

Today's 600,000-plus teachers make teaching the country's largest professional occupation. Teacher training and stripping away non-teaching job require priority.

"We moved to Canada right after I finished 3rd year high, so I experienced the differences," Cesar T from Toronto writes. "In the Philippines, we memorized answers and were spoon-fed. Here, you earn the mark you get ... If students will become laborers, does it matter what mark they got? Why is the passing mark 75 percent when in reality it's only 50 percent? So whose fault was it that we did so poorly in the high school readiness test? Issue ba ito?"

Yes, it's an issue. Last May, 700,000 of 1.4 million kids who got elementary school diplomas flunked the High School Readiness Tests. In Cebu City, all 67 elementary schools failed.

"This means majority of those enrolling in first year of public high schools know only 27 percent of what they were to have learned in elementary school," the respected Council of Private Educational Associations (Copea) pointed out.

Mentors did as poorly. In a qualifying exam for school principals, "teachers made the cut-off point only after education officials lowered the passing rate of the 200-item test from 150 to 100."

Onli in da Pilipins. Other nations insist additional knowledge be gained. Here, we shove down the standards instead.

This is educational “dagdag-bawas.” Grades are padded [“dagdag”], so the ranks of flunkers are thinned out [“bawas”] by "passing." Knowledge gaps remain and the fiction of passing is kept. The result is a flunker's treadmill.

"Whom are we kidding?" the UN Human Development Report asks. "Our first two college years in the Philippines are often regarded as the equivalent of third and fourth year high schools" in other countries, says Copea. "The freshman course in most colleges comes out as a remedial course on high school English, Mathematics and Science."

A pass-at-any cost syndrome spills delusion over generations. Unable to read or communicate, half-literates sport devalued diplomas that can't get them jobs. Token gestures, like Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña's notebooks with his mug photo, subsidized by taxpayers' money, are useless.

Needed are sustained and structural educational reform from bridge programs to adequate funding. They can be postponed only at extortionate cost.

"The best in education should be for those in the worst of social conditions," Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith writes. The alternative is "surrender to voices of ignorance and error."

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

'Runyon's Law'

'Runyon's Law'

Updated 10:54pm (Mla time) Jan 10, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the January 11, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

DID "Runyon's Law" trigger the roulette that's snarling Cebu courts over a murder involving an affluent cult leader who packs political clout?

Perched on his off-Times Square Algonquin Bar stool, New York journalist Damon Runyon wrote his "law" by dusting off Ecclesiastes' the "race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," and adding: "But that's the way to bet."

So, did Judges Galicano Arriesgado, Olegario Sarmiento, Generosa Labra, Anacleto Caminade and Ireneo Lee Gako Jr. bet on "Runyon's Law"? They bailed out from trying the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association's Ruben Ecleo Jr. for killing his wife Alona Bacolod.

"Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow, as a haven or refuge for those who otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak or outnumbered," US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote. But the five inhibited themselves from trying PBMA's "Supreme Master."

None will admit attempts to suborn them. All insist they didn't "chicken out." Bloody murders, however, dog those involved in this case. A gunman massacred all but a handful of the Bacolod family. Another assassin gunned down Arbet Santa Ana Yongco, a plucky lady lawyer who prosecuted Ecleo.

The PBMA disowned the triggermen. But Ecleo critic, Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña, sneers at the disclaimers.

Last December, police intercepted eight PBMA members with Armalites, silencers, grenades-and SWAT uniforms and wig disguises. They were heading where Osmeña was to be guest speaker. Most sported PBMA rings. But they denied knowing each other. Neither did they explain how they got in the same van, headed for the same place. The PBMA disowned the botched whatever-it-was plot. But some Kafkaesque sense may emerge by rereading: "Guns, Goons, Gold -- and God." Written by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism's Marites Daguilan-Vitug, the book probes, in one of five studies, "how politics and religion combined into a potent, if not deadly brew, in the Ecleo fiefdom in Surigao."

For four decades, Ruben Sr. was venerated as a "god" by his constituents, many members of the family's PBMA, Vitug writes. On his death in 1987, he bequeathed the community and cult to Junior, "a rock musician, more interested in perfecting his guitar-playing skills than in governing the town of Dinagat."

"Ruben Jr. was arrested for parricide and found positive for shabu." Thousands of followers rose to defend their "divine master." Vitug writes: "The violent clashes between arresting officers and the PBMA left (22) cult members and one policeman dead. Much of it still holds true, though PBMA now boasts an even bigger and more fanatical following."

This inhibition roulette's latest twirl dumped the case on Cebu City's youngest regional trial court judge, Geraldine Faith Econg. She promptly directed the "master" to heed bail restrictions and stay put in Cebu City during the trial, or face arrest or jacked-up bail. Ecleo has shuttled between Manila and Dinagat for "medical tests." Econg also sought independent medical opinion.

"Lawyers spend a great deal of time shoveling smoke," Justice Holmes once said. Thus, they forget that "the life of the law has not been logic but experience."

With their experience of five inhibitions, Ecleo's defense panel now badgers the lady judge to back off. Econg should inhibit since "she showed bias" by denouncing name-your-price offers, the defense argues.

"Hang In There Judge," Sun-Star Daily bannered its report that the Integrated Bar of the Philippines objected to another inhibition bid. There was nothing unethical in the judge's order for Ecleo to stop gadding about, the IBP said. "To give in ... would mean the defense get what they have been wishing for: to shop for a friendly judge and ultimately, to transfer the hearing of this case outside Cebu. We were not born yesterday."

The Supreme Court, in fact, recently dismissed a score of corrupt judges and disciplined others in Cebu. One had a bizarre "Runyon Law" spin-off. The Court fired RTC Branch 60 Judge Ildefonso Suerte for hurriedly convicting, last March, a "fall guy," Cedric Devinadera. Out of the blue, he "confessed" to having helped murder Ecleo's wife. He pinned the blame on the wife's brother. If his testimony is upheld, the "master" would go free.

But a judicial audit found that Suerte took on Ecleo and other cases, despite an earlier Court resolution barring him from handling new charges. The audit supported the IBP's protest that Suerte and public prosecutors knew "there was a pending, and highly publicized, parricide case against Ecleo before another court." The "conviction" was scrapped.

Citizens want a "juez con cojones." A "judge with balls" was the irreverent but admiring compliment paid to Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma in martial law's court of Ferdinand Marcos lapdogs.

The Sandiganbayan anti-graft court's Teresita Leonardo-de Castro is a juez con cojones. She struck down Eduardo Cojuangco's bid to hang on to the coconut levy. So is the Supreme Court's Justice Maria Alicia Martinez. She ruled that Juan Ponce Enrile, Cojuangco and nine others face a P9.6-billion graft charge.

Many are keeping their fingers crossed that Econg will measure up to that model of tough women judges. "A good woman," the Pampango proverb says, "is worth many rubies."

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Blood money

Blood money

Updated 02:15am (Mla time) Jan 06, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

CASH-STRAPPED Malacañang lofted a trial balloon for a fire sale of sequestered 27 percent of San Miguel Corp. stocks. The baratillo proposal followed the anti-graft court's ruling upholding two earlier decisions declaring that the coconut levies used to snap up SMC and United Coconut Planters Bank shares were taxes, not Marcos cronies' slush fund.

"The Sandiganbayan decision...should further strengthen our fiscal position," said Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye. But he "did not elaborate on how and when government planned to sell the SMC shares," Inquirer's Gil Cabacungan wrote.

Instead, Bunye dove for the nearest bunker. Expletives erupted after this hint about the Palace dipping into the levy. This is, after all, blood money. Martial law edicts extorted them from helpless coconut farmers. Indeed, "there's much law at the end of a bayonet."

Assassins ambushed former Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez, who was among the first to assail the levy. "It was the communists," shrugged the dictator. Ferdinand Marcos crafted Presidential Decree 276 to Executive Order 828. These enabled a cabal to milk hybrid seedlings and copra mills and have a monopoly of coconut oil exports.

Like Robert Mugabe's brutal rule in today's Zimbabwe, the Marcos regime "turned deaf to the sighs of orphans and drank the tears of children." In a blunt 1996 open letter, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal and 95 other religious and civic leaders wrote: "Levies were taxes imposed on farmers through abuse of state power... These are public funds owned by the Filipino people [but] it is claimed and controlled by Marcos cronies."

By then, the levy had ballooned to P100 billion. Men have killed for 30 pieces of silver. Thus, the Estrada administration scrambled to ensure the cronies' grip on the levy.

"Estrada's shoddy Ultimo Adios [were] Executive Orders 313 and 315," the Cebu Daily News noted in a Jan. 22, 2003 editorial. "Issued shortly before People Power 2 yanked him from Malacañang, these midnight directives insisted the coco levy were private funds.

"Erap dumped levy funds on the laps of the 'moneybag' aristocracy while invoking the name of impoverished theft victims. The grossest betrayals are always masked by a kiss."

Under Chief Justice Hilario Davide, the courts shattered the gridlock of 800-plus feet-dragging motions, lodged over 17 years by Marcos cronies to hang on to the blood money. Levies were public funds, the Supreme Court ruled.

In reaction, Cojuangco's Nationalist People's Coalition's "Brat Pack" in Congress tried to impeach a magistrate who sought to end the gorging.

The Sandiganbayan's First Division buttressed further the Supreme Court's ruling by upholding two landmark decisions that forfeited, in favor of the government, "coco levy-funded shares that cronies of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos acquired in SMC and UCPB," Volt Contreras reported.

In decisions penned by Presiding Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, the court junked reconsideration motions filed by Cojuangco and his co-claimants, the Philippine Coconut Federation (Cocofed) and martial law overseer and now Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile.

Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta and Francisco Villaruz concurred with the Sandiganbayan's earlier ruling. The defendants must prove the levies "became legitimately private funds," the court said, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rehashed old arguments which the court had trashed earlier. "It's high time that...coconut farmers who contributed to it, and the entire industry, be given a chance to reap the benefits due them."

In their no-nonsense May 2004 ruling, De Castro and associates awarded to the government the 27-percent block of prime SMC shares. In July 2003, the court forfeited 72.2 percent of UCPB's outstanding stocks in favor of the government. "The shares are ordered reconveyed," De Castro wrote then.

These forthright decisions uncorked a flood of suggestions on how levy funds could be used to rehabilitate an industry pummeled into sunset status by the massive plunder of unrepentant cronies. Even Johnnys-come-lately in radical Left fronts (often a cubby-hole with computer and fax machine) churn out press releases on the issue.

The method is a valid issue for national debate. Among ideas circulating is that of a permanent trust fund, drawing only on the interest, to underwrite programs. This long-term method was examined when World War II Japanese reparations were in the pipeline. That, too, was blood money. But the piranhas got there first. And corruption dissipated the use of reparation.

Our track record with trust funds is not gilt-edged. A Marcos apparatchik in mufti, Erap never grasped the concept of accountability. Under President Fidel Ramos, the Armed Forces Modernization Fund disappeared without a trace, leaving soldiers with worn-out boots, shoddy uniforms and tin helmets.

As bill collectors snap at her heels, President Macapagal-Arroyo toys with the idea of a levy assets' fire sale. That'd be theft, the second time around, of powerless farmers' blood money. To turn "deaf to the sighs of orphans and drink the tears of children" demands a strong stomach.

Will the President beat off the temptation to snitch by yielding? Her shoddy reappointments to the Commission on Elections raise doubts. But that's the demon of skepticism which the President, who prayed with pastors, said should be exorcised. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

'Seeds of time'

'Seeds of time'

Updated 00:38am (Mla time) Jan 04, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the January 4, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"IF you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow and which will not."

That was how Banquo expressed to a Macbeth titillated by ambition the deeply human desire to glimpse into the future. And that desire drives much of 2005 crystal-balling.

But there's nothing murky about what we must do, if we're to beat the social and economic tsunamis roiling ahead. In their paper "The Deepening Crisis," University of the Philippines professors cautioned last August about such dangers.

Holiday hangover notwithstanding, the reforms proposed have become even more urgent. We need about 30 years to catch up with Thailand, business consultant Peter Wallace noted in "Does the Philippine Have A Chance?" In 1970, Manila was Bangkok's "twin." Now, Vietnam is poised to overtake us, unless key sectors are overhauled.

Take the linchpin of governance. Government here, to use Balzac's imagery, seems a "giant mechanism operated by pygmies," Nine years back, Ilocos Gov. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was convicted of tax evasion, Senate President Jovito Salonga and Ambassador Sedfrey Ordoñez recall. That decision became final seven years ago. Yet, Bongbong merrily thumbs his nose at the jail as today's pygmies lack the grit to enforce the law.

Contrast Marcos Jr.'s impunity with how Seoul jailed, without fuss, Presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, along with 14 former generals. That's political will. No wonder, Korea pulled ahead of us economically in the 1960s, said UP's Arsenio Balisacan and Dennis Mapa. Korean GDP per capita income is $16,950, while Filipinos lag at $4,170.

Similar gridlocks occur in electoral reform, infrastructure, population, insurgency, agriculture, armed forces, ecological policy, urban growth, etc. These are daunting problems. But they can be resolved, if political gut is brought to bear.

But Malacañang, Congress, the opposition, the military, down the line show precious little of backbone. Unlike the Magi, pygmies don't break out of comfort zones and go on tough journeys. Thus, Congress further embedded tax breaks for favored tobacco companies while clinging to its pork. When will Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. heed the courts' repeated ruling that the coconut levy are public funds and return that to the treasury?

"[Government] goes on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful for impotence," as Winston Churchill said in a 1936 House of Commons address.

Change, however, swirls beyond our borders--and control. Between the 1980s and 1990s, exactly 91 countries--from the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile to East Germany--sent dictators packing. At century's turn, 140 out of nearly 200 countries held multi-party elections.

But that democratic tsunami has dissipated, notes the United Nations Human Development Report: "Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World." Inept governance sapped basic services and stoked popular frustrations. Al-Qaida feeds on festering resentments, seeking to clamp on an Islamic caliphate.

Old-fashioned juntas have barged back. Others like the Philippines are stalled in a transition to nowhere, bogged down between democracy and its "dysfunctional politics" and indulging in fantasies about "benign dictators on white chargers."

Delayed reform left us little elbow room. That little is whittled away further by a barely literate electorate that a failed educational system mass produces. Out of every 100 kids who enroll in public school, 33 drop out before Grade six because of poverty. "Two boys to every girl repeat grades from the first to third grades," notes the UN report, "A Common View, A Common Journey." "The ratio deteriorates to nearly three boys for every girl repeating in the first year alone" in high school.

Can a nation of dropouts, fed on a diet of soap operas, survive in cyberspace 21st century?

Contrast the vision of our "leaders" with that of their foreign counterparts. Joseph Estrada offers "alternative leadership." His vocabulary is limited to his knee-caps and wangling yet another pass from house arrest.

Before the tsunami hit Banda Aceh, Indonesian President Susilo Yudhono said his concerns could be "boiled down to two words: China and India." Beijing's economic clout and India's advances are altering the region's strategic balance.

How the world responds to "the rise of India and China in the coming decades will define this century," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong writes in the Economist. "Better for Asia to have two prospering and stable giants, rather than two backward and troubled ones."

But change demands painful adjustments. "There'll be winners and losers," Lee warns. "Countries which prepare their peoples for the changes, and move early to anticipate the strategic shifts, will have the advantage..."

Governments must "look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not." They need to persuade peoples what needs to be done, set clear directions and shift policies where called for, Lee says. "The starkness of our situation leaves no room for complacent delusions," he adds.

Tell that to our pygmies--and a people content to be wheeled to the poor house, high on pork barrel and an "Eat Bulaga" level of national discourse.