Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baguio in the time of Napoles

The country’s at a crossroads at the moment: do we finally really go down that “Daang Matuwid” or do we continue on that road much travelled. One Janet Lim-Napoles is now in custody on a kidnapping charge.

The victim is one Benhur Luy who alleged that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim, detained him against his will. He’s one of several whistle-blowers that brought the alleged misuse of public funds amounting to about ten billion pesos out in the open. “Misuse” is such a kind word in this case, but let’s go with that. Napoles allegedly masterminded the scam in cahoots with senators and congressmen. Now that’s not news.

While I keep an eye out on the Napoles saga, I keep the other one on the goings-on in my own community – Baguio, the city of pines. They’re not totally unrelated. In fact, the issue of squandering public funds, the people’s money, is at the center of both the Napoles saga and struggle to stop the ongoing rape of Baguio.

Baguio has had its share of battles in it’s a bit over a century-old history as a city. I would have probably joined the clamor of members of the Philippine Assembly to scrap the then planned establishment of this highland R&R destination at the turn of the 20th century. So much money being spent for the benefit of mainly the privileged, the elite, mostly Americans who wanted a respite from the heat of the lowlands particularly during the summer months. The colonial government responded to the opposition by declaring Baguio as the official Summer Capital of the Philippine Islands in 1903, and that made the expenditure official, and therefore, necessary.

The Americans envisioned a city, and needed a visionary to turn that vision into an actual blueprint. Daniel Burnham was given the job to create the Plan of Baguio, which he completed in 1905. The plan included a warning to all of us against the “misdirected initiative of energetic lumbermen” that may “cause the destruction of this beautiful scenery.”

The much revered George Malcolm drafted the city’s charter, that, according to Robert R. Reed in his book, City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital, envisioned a city free from petty politics. In 1909, Baguio officially became a city.

Just a few hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, next on Japan’s scopes was Baguio City. In the morning of December 8, 1941, Philippine time, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Camp John Hay. Before that year ended, Japanese ground troops entered the city and Baguio, along with the rest of the country, was officially under Japanese rule. For the next four years, the city’s residents endured the ruthlessness of Japanese soldiers. Ms. Fe Muller recalled how as a young elementary pupil all of them would be herded to the general area where the Dangwa bus station behind the Baguio Centermall is today to watch the execution of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The gruesome spectacle served as a warning to everyone that a similar fate awaited those who would be found guilty of resisting Japan’s power.

Liberation came on March 15, 1945, but freedom came with a price: the almost complete destruction of the city in the hands of its liberators. The Americans carpet-bombed the city that killed countless innocent civilians including Baguio’s former mayor, Eusebius Halsema. Yet Baguio got back on its feet, and soon regained its status as the country’s top tourist destination.

Such were Baguio’s battles through the years, and Baguio rose to the occasion every single time. In 1990, a lot of people then have given up Baguio for dead after the devastating earthquake on July 16, some even abandoning their homes and leaving the city for good. But thanks to its people, the city was soon brimming with life once again, and was even heralded as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.

Today’s Baguio faces a new battle, this time against the exact same thing that Daniel Burnham warned us about: misdirected initiatives. Baguio’s leaders seem to be determined to turn Baguio, once naturally beautiful known for its healthful climate, into what it’s not: a smog-covered concrete jungle. They’ve cemented much of a rose garden and placed a gate and fences around it, and they want to put up more gates around the park. They want to cement portions of the Melvin Jones grounds to accommodate a permanent tiangge. The Baguio Athletic Bowl is now being handed over to a capitalist for “development.” Several trees stand dead at the Botanical Garden because they encased it inside a concrete parking and commercial building. Equipment costing 120 million pesos hardly made a dent in solving the city’s garbage disposal problem.

All that money, people’s money, being poured into initiatives that would render the city unsustainable. The very taxes that we pay empower them to disregard the sentiments of a community and the future of this city. And the more money there is, the more power our leaders believe they wield. Its pine trees, its heritage and source of pride, beauty and life, are seen merely as a hindrance to development and more concrete structures. 182 of them are on deathrow for being in the way of a parking and commercial building and our mayor says, “I cannot do anything.”

Meanwhile, Janet Lim Napoles surrendered to no less than the president himself. She was then whisked to Camp Crame to be “processed” away from media cameras, transferred the next day to an airconditioned room at the Makati City Jail, then later in the day the court ordered her transfer to a detention facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The “cell” looks more like a furnished apartment amid lush greenery. Pnoy now has the one in a presidential term opportunity to leave a legacy that would be celebrated and honored for generations to come – this is his Bagumbayan moment, his Cry of Balintawak, moment at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

And we, citizens of Baguio City, are also at a point of no return. We have two options: we can either sit idly by and watch our city being raped because the rapists believe that with a passive majority, they can easily get away with anything, or we can all stand up and put a stop to this heinous crime, work hard to bring back Baguio's natural beauty, defend its dignity and leave a Baguio that our children’s children can be proud of.

This is our moment, our very own 1904, or 1909, or 1945, or 1990. Only this time, we're not at war against another nation, but against a rotten political system. Only this time, it's not a natural disaster that's causing the destruction of our city but corrupt politicians with a misguided sense of progress and development.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My sculptor

18 years ago, I was led to believe by a lot of people that I was not, but "Of course you are," she said to me when I told her I didn't think I was ready to handle such a project on my own. Even if I was, I told her, I didn't think the client would choose a 21-year old upstart to handle the launching of their new product line over several established production outfits led by established directors and producers. "Just do it, honey," she said. So with much anxiety, apprehension and self-doubt, but buoyed by her faith in me, I put together my proposal and submitted it to the client.

To cut a long story from long ago short, I did end up producing and directing that project. She was right, I could.

The scene would be repeated over and over again in the next 18 years that followed. Once while writing a play, I noticed how a couple of lines I've written for one character rhymed pretty well and had a rhythm to it, and how I wished I could compose music so I could turn that play into a musical. There she was again, "of course you can!" I did go to a few piano lessons when I was about eight or nine, but I never went beyond memorizing a couple of grade one pieces and didn't really go as far as being being able to read notes well. But with her prodding and encouragement, that musical opened at the Baguio Convention Center in 2003. I have written two musicals and several other songs since.

Once, a cousin of hers asked if she knew anyone who could paint some kind of a mural. She came home that day to tell me that she had volunteered me to do the painting. I had to tell her that this time, she really did go a bit too far - I didn't paint, couldn't draw and couldn't even read my own handwriting at times. "But you can compose images on stage," she said, "I'm sure you can do the same on a four by eight feet canvas." Still, even if I "compose" a visual artwork in my head, I didn't have the skills to paint it myself. "I'm sure you can," she said again without a trace of doubt in her voice. A few days later, the "painting" I finished hung on the wall of cafe along Session Road.

I met her when she was working in Manila for a marketing firm. We moved (moved back, for her) to Baguio the following year and since then, she has taken on so many roles in my life: my producer, my production manager, my actor, my counselor, adviser, motivator, and many, many more. None of the all the things I have done in the last nearly two decades, I am doing now, and have yet to accomplish in the future would have been and be possible if not for her.

She's the sculptor who shaped me into who I am. And I thank her very much.

She's the friend who tells me to go slow when I'm driving too fast, take a deep breath when I'm feeling low, sings silly love songs to me in bed, who never hesitates to allow me that last bite on her burger or last sip from her glass of wine, tells me to straighten my shirt collar and stand straight. She's the best friend I have ever had who never stopped believing in me. She's the girlfriend I love holding hands with while walking down Session Road with or lying beside while reading a book under a tree. She's the mother of all five of our children who would do everything to help them realize their full potential.

She's my wife, RL, and I would like to honor her today, her birthday, and let her know that I am very happy that I am taking this life journey with her - over hills or down valleys, as long as I am taking the walk while holding her hand, I know everything's going to be alright.

Friday, August 9, 2013

True story

There was this restaurant run by a group of friends. Once only a quaint, hole-in-the-wall affair, it slowly grew to become one of the city's most famous restaurants frequented by both locals and tourists. They didn't only serve food, they made sure that every plate that left their kitchen was a work of art. The owners worked hard to set their little cafe apart from the rest.

While they weren't exactly a bar that people go to to get drunk, one day the owners thought that it was time for the restaurant to offer alcoholic beverages beyond wine and beer. So they applied for a liquor license.

They had everything they needed to merit a liquor license. But if you think that having all the requirements that our government needs to grant the license is enough, then you're wrong.

The owners applied for the license and refused to bribe anyone to get it - it was common knowledge that it's how you get things done up there. They had all that's legally required to get one, and they've paid all the legal fees that need to be paid. So they refused to pay "grease money," "padulas," to get the license. And they waited.

One day they got their liquor license - eight years after they first applied for it. That's how long it takes if you follow the rules. That's how long you would have to wait for government to deliver what's due to you if you stay within the bounds of the law.

Really? Eight years? My son asked. Does it really usually take that long? No, of course not, I replied. If you've got everything in place, then it should only take days, a couple of weeks perhaps, for the government to do their inspection, make sure all your other permits are in place and above board. But unfortunately, that's not how things work.

True story.

And that's why corruption is rampant in all levels of government. The bureaucratic red tape all but totally prevents the delivery of services that we're forced to play according to the rules of corrupt public servants. They become our masters, in fact, slaves because they believe their positions are those of power, and not social responsibility. And that's the reason why any call by the people or any attempt by a well-meaning government official to introduce changes that would eliminate red tape, it is met with stiff opposition by those in power. Red tape empowers corrupt public officials.

And corruption is why good roads are dug up and rebuilt for no apparent reason other than fattening the bank accounts of both corrupt public officials and unscrupulous businessmen. It is the reason why gardens are destroyed to make way for ugly, tacky, tasteless concrete structures and steel gates and fences. It is the reason homes were destroyed and lives were lost when a mountain from Irisan of garbage came rushing down the hillsides towards Asin Road. And it is also the reason why the moneyed can get away with the murder of hundreds of trees and the rape of our environment at the expense of our children's future.

So, I told my son, if you're one of those who slip in a 500-peso bill inside your diver's license to get away with illegal parking or driving without a seatbelt on, you're as guilty as the rotten policeman who receives the 500-peso bill. If you're one of those who gave "pangmeryenda" to the guy behind the desk so that you will be prioritized over those who cannot afford to do the same, or are too principled to do so, you're as guilty. If you're the business establishment owner who paid every single signatory on that permit a bribe to run your business, you're as guilty as the every single one of them who signed that piece of paper in return. Or if you're the one who sits idly by, not caring all these things, who even scoffs at the ones who go out in the streets to try to effect changes in our society, then you are indeed as guilty.

Guilty of what? Ruining our lives today and ensuring an even worse future for generations to come.

True story.