Mong Palatino

activist, two-term member of philippine congress, southeast asian blogger


@mongster is an activist and former legislator who represented Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines

Is East Timor Now a Rich Country?

November 28th, 2015

Written for The Diplomat

Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Finance issued a press statement claiming that the small Southeast Asian nation is already among the richest countries in the world. It cited a report of the Global Finance magazine which ranked Timor-Leste’s GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis as the 87th highest in the world. The global survey involved 184 countries. In Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste ranked fifth behind Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Global Finance also factored the relative cost of living and the inflation rates of countries. It used figures from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database for April 2013

But La’o Hamutuk, a non-government organization, made a simple fact-checking and discovered that the statistics used for Timor-Leste were already outdated. It made reference to the latest IMF World Economic Outlook published in April 2015 which gave Timor-Leste a rank of 122nd (not 87th) in the world in 2013. Furthermore, the country’s ranking is expected to decline by six places in 2014.

“We all wish that Timor-Leste’s people were less poor, but wishing doesn’t make it so. We encourage policy-makers to base their decisions on evidence, and not to believe their own public relations. It will take smart thinking and hard work to bring Timor-Leste out of poverty,” La’o Hamutuk wrote on its website.

The group added that using the GDP to measure the country’s wealth is not consistently reliable. “The citizens of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste – especially impoverished rural residents whose lives are not reflected in these statistics – deserve better,” it reminded the government.

For many years, La’o Hamutuk and even foreign analysts have been urging Timor-Leste to diversify its economy, which is mainly dependent on petroleum exports. For its part, the government acknowledged the need to invest in other sectors and has committed to embark on non-oil ventures by realigning its state budget priorities.

A more detailed review of Timor-Leste’s economy is provided by Pacific Economic Monitor, a magazine of the Asian Development Bank. Its July 2015 issue analyzed the spending of the government, the country’s oil revenues, and consumer spending. It noted that government expenditure continues to be the biggest component of the country’s non-petroleum economy. This year’s government spending is reported to have increased by 33.4 percent. Total spending on public sector wages has risen but expenditures on goods and services and capital investment decreased. The report attributed the decline to the transition in government when a new Prime Minister was sworn into office last February.

The report revealed that the country’s total revenues fell 46.4 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Petroleum revenues declined due to lower global oil prices. Oil production also slowed down. But business activities improved as indicated by rising electricity consumption of the commercial sector, expansion of private sector borrowing, and higher volume of international flights.

The report also highlighted the continuing vulnerability of Timor-Leste to the harsh impact of climate change. It mentioned a 2011 study which estimated that in terms of economic impact, Timor-Leste could lose $5.9 million annually in the next 50 years because of earthquakes and cyclones.

It is clear that Timor-Leste faces various economic challenges – diversifying its economy, raising the productivity of its petroleum sector, collecting more revenues, eradicating poverty, and enhancing climate readiness. The government has the right to make a claim that Timor-Leste is already included in the league of the global rich. But it should not forget that there are serious obstacles to overcome if it wants to remain a wealthy country.

Myanmar’s Ribbon Movements Challenge Militarization

Written for The Diplomat

The appointment of military officers to various civilian agencies is being resisted by some sectors in Myanmar.

Last August, health workers launched a black ribbon movement to protest the entry of 13 military officers into the Ministry of Health. A month later, lawyers and some judges wore yellow ribbons to denounce the deployment of military officers into the Supreme Court.

Early this week, teachers vowed to promote green ribbons as a symbol of defiance against the hiring of army officials by the education ministry. In Mandalay, electrical engineers distributed blue ribbons after vacant technological management posts in the region’s Ministry of Electric Power were reportedly given to senior military officers. Meanwhile, some geologists working in the Ministry of Energy announced the formation of a red ribbon movement to protest the appointment of army personnel in the agency.

Authors and poets who are wary of the creeping militarization of civilian bodies in Myanmar have recently initiated a purple ribbon campaign aimed at stopping the continued nomination of active and retired army officials in various government agencies.

The ribbon movement began in the health sector. The announcement that senior army officials with no medical experience would occupy top positions in the Ministry of Health was widely criticized by doctors and other health professionals. Two days after this was reported in the news, a black ribbon movement emerged enjoining medical professionals to oppose the “military infiltration” of the ministry.

A Facebook page was set up, which quickly became popular. Organizers of the campaign immediately clarified that they are not backed by any political party: “This movement is not initiated, influenced, or encouraged by any political organization. We are simply opposing the dictatorial decision through a non-violent movement,” they said.

They also appealed for public support: “Anyone who would like to oppose the actions of the repressive military government who ignores human rights and the democratic norms of ruling the country based on the aspirations of the people can take part in this movement.”

Responding to the criticism, the ministry vowed that it will no longer accept further nominations from the army.

Inspired by the social media success of the black ribbon movement, a group of lawyers urged the public to tie a yellow ribbon on every court and to “rise up against the militarization of the judiciary.”

High Court lawyer Kyaw Myo Thu explained why his peers are protesting the appointment of former army officers in the judiciary: “We, the lawyers, are also acutely aware that having military superiors influencing from above can disrupt the ability of a civilian judiciary to make decisions freely.”

The campaign reached the townships of Pyinmana, Lewe, Tatkone, Zabuthiri, Ottarathiri, Pobbathiri, Zeyarthiri, and Nay Pyi Taw territorial council. In Pyay, a judge conducted a solo protest against the appointment of army officers in the Supreme Court.

This week, during the World Teachers’ Day celebration on October 5, the Myanmar Teachers’ Union bemoaned the lack of improvements in the education sector. Further, the group also criticized the practice of allotting high-level positions in the education ministry to retired army officers.

“We have nothing to say about those ex-military officers who have already been appointed to administer the education sector but we hope that no more ex-military officers will be appointed in the future,” a teacher said during the launching of the green ribbon campaign.

That army officials are rewarded with juicy appointments in Myanmar’s civilian sector is no longer surprising news. After five decades of military dictatorship, the country’s democratic transition continues to encounter formidable challenges. It seems that old practices die hard.

But the ribbon movements surprised many because these were spearheaded by ordinary citizens who resisted the prerogative of the army to dominate the leadership of various government agencies.

In the case of the black ribbon campaign, it was warmly received by the public, which forced the government to reconsider its appointments. The campaign didn’t dislodge the privilege of the military. But it revealed the insincerity of the military-backed government, which has declared its commitment to pursue democratic reforms.

The world is closely monitoring how Myanmar will conduct its election next month, hoping that it would lead to a more open and inclusive Burmese democracy. But the ribbon campaigns remind us that in order to expand civilian participation in the government, election reforms must be accompanied by bureaucratic adjustments.

On a positive note, the ribbon movements highlight the rise of new citizen groups and formations which are critical of the pronouncements of the government. They pose no threat to the establishment. But they could inspire more people to resist not just the militarization of civilian agencies, but also other privileges that the army has established to maintain its hegemony in Myanmar society.

Written for Bulatlat

A – Anakbayan is a youth group established in 1998 which became prominent in Edsa Dos and during the campaign for the abolition of ROTC. Anakpawis is a partylist group which is at the forefront of the campaign to pass the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill. Ang Bayan is the official paper of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the country’s unofficial alternative newspaper since it reports what mainstream media refuses or fails to publish. AOM or Arouse, Organize, Mobilize is how activists conduct political work among the grassroots. What about Akbayan? Well, in recent years the term has become synonymous with collaborationism and opportunism.

B – Bayan is a national multisectoral alliance and campaign center of national democratic mass organizations. Since 2001, Bayan Muna partylist has represented the country’s marginalized sectors in Congress. The common name for the stealing of taxpayers’ money by politicians, trapos, and political dynasties is corruption; activists call it Burukrata Kapitalismo: the use and accumulation of government resources by politicians to enrich themselves and to strengthen the political clout of their families. When activists extend an invitation to join a BMI, it means Basic Masses Integration; or community immersion activity either in the urban (including exposure to trade union work) or rural (farming commune, fisherfolk village, ancestral domain of indigenous peoples). Burgesya refers to the capitalist class. Burgesya Kumprador is local big business who acts as junior partner and promotes the interests of transnational or multinational monopoly capitalists. Pambansang Burgesya can be allies of the revolution since many of them are independent producers and entrepreneurs. Burgis has become a popular term to describe individuals belonging to the upper class and also those who act and behave like the rich. Bakwit is the Filipino word for refugees and internally-displaced peoples.

C – Criticism and Self-Criticism or CSC is a Maoist teaching which enjoins activists to acknowledge their personal and political errors in a collective or group meeting. In a CSC session, an individual also has the opportunity to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the political work of other individuals and the group as a whole. CPP was founded in 1930 which rallied many Filipinos to join the resistance movement during World War II. It suffered severe political setbacks in the 1950s but it was reestablished in 1968. Countryside or CS covers the areas in the guerrilla zone (sonang gerilya), the remote parts of the country, or the vast farming lands in the rural. CARHRIHL or Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law is a landmark agreement signed by the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) in 1998; proof that peace talks can produce concrete results.

D – The philosophy of Dialectical Materialism or DM is based on the writings of Marx who applied Hegelian dialectics in studying the evolution of capitalism in society. Marx pointed out that social contradiction generates change (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”) and he called this philosophical approach as the materialist conception of history (historical materialism). The Democratic Reform Movement or DRM was spearheaded by student groups which successfully campaigned for the restoration of student councils, publications, and campus elections in the early 1980s. Demo has multiple meanings: In the past it refers to street demonstration. Today it either means demolition or demoralized, the latter is for activists who temporarily feel uninspired to perform a political task.

E – Educational Discussion or ED refers to the study sessions, discussion groups, and lectures organized by activists about Marxism and other revolutionary topics. Expo is another term for BMI but most of the time it means a trip to the CS.

F – Fascism is used quite differently in the Philippines as it pertains to the repressive policies of the government, most notably during martial law. Any official who acts like a dictator is called pasista. Feudalism is supposed to be obsolete but it continues to stalk the country through bogus land reforms, landlordism, colonial policies, and decadent culture. The armed struggle in the CS thrives because of popular support against feudal oppression. First Quarter Storm or FQS was a series of massive rallies in 1970 which called for a social revolution to overthrow the oppressive system. An individual who makes activism his/her 24/7 commitment is called FT or Full Time.

G – Gabriela is an organization of women activists and an alliance of advocates of women rights. China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or GPCR inspired many Filipino youth activists to read Mao and apply his teachings to the concrete conditions of the Philippines.

H – Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon or Hukbalahap was the victorious liberation army which defeated the Japanese invaders in the 1940s. After the war, it became the Huks which attempted to topple the government in order to establish a communist state.

I – Philippine society has three basic problems: Imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Russian leader Lenin described Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism; it is moribund and it leads to war among imperialist powers in search of colonies and markets for their surplus products. The Philippines gained formal independence in 1946 but it remained a semi-colony of the imperialist United States of America which continued to wield political, economic, and cultural influence in the country even up to the present. Thus, the passion, the clarity of the slogan Imperyalismo Ibagsak! The Internationale is a Paris Commune song. It became the anthem of the global Left because it articulates the need for the proletariat of the world to unite and overthrow the whole capitalist class. Filipino activists have translated the song and even added some lyrics to it. Communist Internationale is the unity of proletarian parties all over the world. International League of People’s Struggle or ILPS coordinates global campaigns and unites people’s movements around the world. When activists mention IPO, it has nothing to do with stock markets. It means Ideological, Political, Organizational or the proper method of planning and evaluating a program, plan, campaign or individual work.

J – Justice for Aquino, Justice for All or JAJA was a popular formation in the 1980s which denounced the human rights violations of the Marcos regime.

K – Kataas-taasang Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan or KKK led the revolution for independence against Spanish colonialists. The legacy of Katipunan is kept alive, among others, by these groups: Kabataang Makabayan or KM is a national democratic youth organization established in 1964, Kilusang Mayo Uno or KMU is the country’s labor center, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas or KMP is the country’s largest peasant network, Kadamay is an urban poor alliance. Activists have another word for love and it becomes more special if shared with another person, your KR or Karelasyon.

L – League of Filipino Students initiated the campaign for campus democratic rights during martial law. It also actively fought for the rejection of the U.S. bases treaty. Lakbayan is a long march often organized by peasant groups. Lighting Rally or LR is like the flashmob but more militant.

M – Makabayan is an electoral political party whose founding members include progressive partylist groups. Maikling Kurso sa Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino or MKLRP is a short (but still very long) introduction to the history textbook of the Left: Philippine Society and Revolution. What is the mass line? Learn from the masses, trust the masses, the masses make history. In any political campaign, the essential task is to build the mass movement which can be developed through painstaking mass work of different mass organizations or MO (see AOM). Makibaka is both a verb (struggle) and a noun (revolutionary underground group of women activists). Many activists are students of MLM or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Communities and targeted sectors are informed about public events and campaigns through MPT or mobile propaganda teams

N – National Democracy or NatDem/ND is a political movement fighting for true independence and democratic rights. It is a struggle for national liberation against imperialist control, feudal bondage, and systemic corruption. After the victory of the national democratic revolution, it will be followed by the socialist construction of society. New People’s Army or NPA builds strength and red political power in the CS. NDF unites all revolutionary groups in establishing a coalition government. National Situation or NatSit is a common topic during activist forums and meetings. Noise Barrage is a form of protest in a particular place, building, street or even the entire city.

O – OPRS or On the Proletarian Relationship of Sexes, the CPP document on personal relationships, recognizes same-sex marriage and divorce. OUT or Our Urgent Task is another CPP document that provided the political framework on how to resist, defeat, and overthrow the US-Marcos regime in the 1970s

P – PSR, which was first serialized in the Philippine Collegian, remains one of the most read publications in the country. It is a major reference in the activist curriculum known as Padepa or Pambansang Demokratikong Paaralan. People Power ousted Marcos in 1986. People’s War is still raging in the countryside. There are 537 political detainees or Poldet in the country today. People’s Organizations or POs are based in the grassroots. Pulong Masa is a participatory activity involving MO members and the general public in a community.

Q – Quick Response Team or QRT is an emergency political action, picket, or rally.

R – The first Rectification or Recti movement (Kilusang Pagwawasto) led to the reestablishment of the CPP; the second Recti led to the resurgence of the ND movement in the 1990s. During the first Recti, the principal document used by activists to sum up the experience of the Philippine revolution was ‘Rectify Errors, Rebuild the Party’ or RERP. In the 1990s, the document was ‘Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Errors’ or RR; those who supported it were called RA (reaffirmists) while those who rejected it were known as RJ (rejectionists). Rectification is essentially an ideological movement. In the Philippine context, it exposed the political errors, blunders, excesses, and opportunism committed by some revolutionary leaders. The CPP is the only political party in the Philippines which has acknowledged and apologized for the mistakes it has committed in the past.

S – Serve the People or STP (Paglingkuran ang Sambayanan) is the most popular clarion call of activists. Less known but more radical is STR or Sa Tagumpay ng Rebolusyon. SND or Struggle for National Democracy is a compilation of articles and speeches written by KM and CPP founder Joma Sison; it’s the country’s answer to China’s Red Book. Like the KM, SDK or Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan organized and mobilized the youth during the pre-martial law years. When activists engage in a local political campaign or organizing, they first conduct a Sica or Social Investigation and Class Analysis. Sison’s article, SCPW or ‘Specific Characteristics of our People’s War’, is an important theoretical work on how to wage a Maoist-inspired guerrilla warfare in an archipelagic country like the Philippines. Strike (Welga) is the political and democratic action of organized labor.

T – Tibak for aktibista. TU for trade union. Baligtarin ang Tatsulok in reference to the political analysis that the 99 percent of the population at the base of the social pyramid are ruled by the elite at the top. TF or Task Force is often created to coordinate a specific or urgent campaign. Student leaders are familiar with the term TFI which means Tuition Fee Increase. Government’s inaction over skyrocketing oil prices is the reason why some groups and operators organize a Transport Strike. Taong-Simbahan is the Filipino translation of church people signifying the importance of getting the support of the religious in the struggle for social change.

U – Unyonismo, an essential task in the TU sector. UF or united front, it basically means alliance work. Many activists were forced to go UG or underground during martial law.

V – The petty bourgeoisie (intellectuals, professionals, government employees) is always Vacillating between the proletariat and the burgesya, but they can be organized to support and embrace the objectives of the revolution. The CPP calls itself as the Vanguard of the Filipino proletariat and the Philippine revolution.

W – Capital is the magnum opus of Marx but he also wrote short articles that elucidated some of his teachings like ‘Wage, Price, Profit’ or WPP and ‘Wage, Labor, Capital’. Welgang Bayan is a militant form of protest in the urban with broad community support.

XYZ – YS stands for Youth Sector. May they always reject the Yellows in the progressive movement. And may the Generations X, Y, and Z continue to study history, engage in politics, and uphold the message of radicalism, the ultimate XXX in society. In other words, at the risk of oversimplifying the language of struggle, may the flames of revolution continue to inspire them to raise the red banners of the mass movement until victory is achieved. Viva!

Written for Manila Today

They were bigger, louder, and scarier – not the dinosaurs, but the product placements. Disturbingly, I didn’t feel cheated. Perhaps I have been desensitized already into accepting the incestuous partnership of mass art and the corporate sector. Besides, it’s a Hollywood franchise film which was produced to entertain and generate an insane amount of profit. The moviegoers came to be thrilled and not to learn about science. Based on these standards, the film was rated a huge success.

Without excusing its flaws, the film also has insightful lessons to offer. However, its educational value is not about dinosaurs or tropical islands but its surreal depiction of the modern economic enterprise. What a strange way to appreciate science fiction but if we want more people to understand the monstrous behavior of greedy bankers and financial investors, then the film can prove to be instructive.

Consider these examples:

The original Jurassic Park ended in tragedy but instead of abandoning the project, it was revived and rebranded by new investors as Jurassic World. Never mind that it’s risky and that it already killed people, the temptation to build a moneymaking theme park seems impossible to resist. It’s irrational but apparently it makes economic sense. It’s actually Wall Street in real life. How many times did it crash? How many lives perished because of speculative trading in the stock markets? Yet Wall Street continues to be the world’s financial center. As long as there’s potential cash to hoard, Wall Street behaves like a recidivist. And every time it self-destructs, the world comes to its rescue.

Jurassic World cloned a new dinosaur species which was named Indominus rex. Its genetic makeup is secret but later we learned that it’s part T-Rex, part Raptor, and they were mixed with several species. What motivated the scientists to play God? They were told to create a new attraction that will excite visitors and drive more interest in the park. They succeeded in breeding a bigger dinosaur which turned out to be an intelligent but deadly albino monster. The Indominus rex is like the complex financial products that overwhelmed the market more than a decade ago. The mad genius bankers at the Wall Street lab concocted new derivatives and hybrids like the subprime mortgages that triggered the 2008 global financial crisis. They thought their risk taking inspired innovation but it only led to more disasters. Like the scientists who didn’t know what animal they created, the bankers were unaware of the exact content of the products they were selling. When it was time to collect real money from the real economy, the Ponzi scheme was finally exposed.

When the Indominus rex got out of containment, there were several opportunities to end its life and thus avoid further fatalities. But security forces were ordered to use non-lethal weapons because the company cannot afford to lose its latest investment. Indominus rex was ‘too big to fail.’ When prestigious Wall Street firms started collapsing, they were also deemed ‘too big to fail’ so instead of allowing them to fall, they received bailout funds. Their irresponsible behavior bloated their real value which allowed them to blackmail the whole economy. They were penalized in a form of reward through the taxpayer-funded cash support.

Indominus rex may be the alpha monster but it was the smaller, flying pterosaurs that caused more damage and mayhem in the main park. The birdlike dinosaurs killed and injured more people than the giant animal. It’s similar to what happens during an economic crisis. When stock markets crash, it’s the ensuing panic and confusion in society that leave more dislocations in many economies. The big crash is fearsome but the numerous aftershocks are more ferocious.

When the Jurassic World owner crashed his helicopter in the aviary, was it caused by a dinosaur attack or was it deliberate? It reminded me of bankers falling from skyscrapers during the Great Depression. Did the owner regret his decision to open the park? Before the Indominus rex tragedy, he articulated his vision of building a scientific park that would be embraced by many people and he said that profit is a secondary consideration. He sounded more like a visionary than a tycoon. Was this a caricature of some real life business moguls who wanted to be known as eccentric investors rather than as ruthless monopolists?

The attack of the pterosaurs was like a military air offensive. It’s a demo of what the dinosaurs are capable of unleashing if they are to be deployed for military missions. If we view it this way, Jurassic World suddenly looks like a Disney subsidiary of a corporation which also develops and sells expensive new technologies to the military sector. The park is destroyed but the lab products are stored and transported into a safe place thus ensuring the financial survival of the corporation. Isn’t this an example of how the military-industrial complex continues to operate in the 21st century?

The original superbads in the previous Jurassic Park movies are the uncontrollable carnivorous raptors. But in Jurassic World, they were resurrected as potential allies of the human race. Despite their notorious record, they were expected to side with the humans in the hunt for the Indominus rex. This led to deadly consequences because the raptors eventually helped the beast in killing the humans. Think of raptors in Jurassic World as the neoliberal policy. Laissez faire was discredited in the 1930s but it became dominant again in the 1980s up to the present. Despite its grim legacy of dispossessing the world’s 99 percent, neoliberal prescriptions remain the first option of many governments. When countries suffer from economic downturns, ‘shock and awe’ neoliberal doctrines are used which never solves anything. It even exacerbates the situation. The Indominus rex is part raptor in the same way that the neoliberal cure is directly responsible for causing economic miseries around the world.

Another original super villain is the T-Rex which helped the humans in killing the Indominus rex. It was also given the honor of having the last roar at the end of the film sequence as it asserted its dominance above the park’s mission control tower. It symbolized the triumph of the normal dinosaur species over the genetically modified Indominus rex. T-Rex is like the bailout program and traditional banking regulations which were implemented to rescue the ailing financial sector after 2008. These policies provided some relief but they failed to restore confidence in the financial sector. In fact, the global economy is still in tatters. That is why comparing the T-Rex with the current financial regulations is apt because it is a reminder that we failed to slay the capitalist beast that wreaks havoc all over the world. How long should we allow this monster to control our lives?

Jurassic World is worth the watch because formulaic plot aside, it showed us that despite our glorious scientific achievements, human behavior is still primitive in many ways. Do not fear the dinosaurs that are already extinct, but be cautious every time investment bankers and neoliberal economists are spewing out financial gobbledegook as to why austerity or wage cuts are good for the world’s developing nations.

Written for Bulatlat

The heat, of course. Is it going to be tolerable? Ah but the scorching summer temperature is like inferno on Earth. There’s also the humid air, succeeded by a brief but heavy rain, and then it’s sticky hot again. Rains are unpredictable but the heat is constant. Clouds deceive because behind them lurk the menacing tentacles of the sun. That’s why the umbrella is useful for various practical reasons: a defense gadget against the elements, a crime deterrent, a companion magnet, and a light but durable weapon when state thugs are ordered to attack.

After sensing the weather, I seek out the strangers beyond the crowd that is already gathering. Are the motorists curious? Are the pedestrians stopping to inquire? The bystanders are a group of their own; can they be persuaded to join our crowd? The vendors, the tambays, and other wandering souls – what are their stories, their daily struggles?

The crowd is getting bigger and my instinct is to find familiar faces and voices. There are backpacks, flags, banners, placards, pamphlets, t-shirt slogans, smartphones and classic Nokia phones everywhere but fortunately amid the frenzy I saw my friends and comrades. What follows is nonstop shaking of hands and rapid conversations about, well, almost everything: How’s the weather, how many are you here, yes I’m going to the fluvial parade, no I can’t join the forum, sorry I was late yesterday, I haven’t seen the movie, email it to me later, tag me in the photo, thanks for the graphics, oh I didn’t know you broke up already, are they really dating, I will visit them this week, here’s the magazine, let’s eat, I hope it’s going to trend.

The crowd is finally moving. I walk with others who are also eager and agitated to reach the destination. During the march, we saw some uninspiring structures such as the decrepit pillars of the LRT, sleazy movie theaters, budget motels, unfinished public works, the so-called green footbridge, abandoned art deco buildings, giant billboard towers. Through the tarpaulins plastered on sidewalks, we learned that the country’s king of contractualization is the new owner of an engineering school. One block later, another banner of a tycoon school owner and tax evader par excellence flaunts the board exam performance of some students. Nearby, a review center ad makes a similar boast.

These are dizzying images of urban reality which are also false indicators of modernity. But they reflect bad governance and chaotic metro planning. The decaying structure, however, is masked by the bright and colorful posters of consumer brands. What is rendered visible to all is the digital effects of the seemingly new. But I reject the seductions of these signifiers and I refuse to adopt them in defining my identity. Perhaps I can do this because my exposure to these visual temptations is restricted. But for those who traverse the same route everyday, have they been desensitized already? Or how do they play the game of resistance?

Suddenly, the march comes to a halt. A clearing opens up. The public space has been reclaimed. It is an event preceded by numerous sub-events in recent days and weeks. An event in anticipation of greater political moments. We made the event possible, we succeeded in mobilizing a crowd, we turned an idea into reality. But there’s lingering guilt and regret caused by unmet expectations. We could have done more, we could have gathered more, we could have aimed for more. Or maybe it was the tactics that mattered.

The self-assessment is getting more serious when a screeching sound distracted everybody. There’s always a technical glitch that disrupts the event. Small or big, minor or major, the interruption actually normalizes and formalizes the event. A defective stereo, a misplaced stage, a broken banner, a missing equipment. Once these problems are addressed, the program commences and hopefully it will run more smoothly this time.

And while this is all happening, my mind is somewhere else: Where did I put the USB? What is the name of that movie character who resembles this person beside me? Are the kids still in school? I think I should buy the shaving kit, or not. I’m craving for cream puffs. Did I pay the jeepney driver? Dinner at home but who’s cooking? Ah coffee, I need my coffee fix.

Then I saw the crowd extension. The police behind the barricades, another flank holding truncheons and shields, a police officer commanding the unit. Meanwhile, moving within the crowd are media people. Armed with cameras, they document the event. They are welcomed as potential friends and allies.

What is the role of the police and media in relation to the crowd? They are partisan non-participants of the event. But their intervention is always crucial. It is the police who placed the barrier between the citadel of power and the emergent crowd. Their every action provokes the crowd because they are seen as representatives of the state which ordered the blocking of the event. The state monitors the crowd through the ubiquitous CCTV monitors. It is Big Brother which instructs the police on how to engage the crowd. Ideally, the police can opt to listen to what the crowd is demanding but they are deployed not to think freely but to carry out a direct order. Can they contravene the hierarchy? Yes, but they instantly becomes part of the crowd.

The media, on the other hand, captures the encounter between the state and the crowd. They have access to history-in-the-making event by bearing witness to the dramatic interplay of politics, collective power, and direct democracy. Some are walking warriors of truth and ethics but some are there simply to sell news, spin the truth, and shoot the sensational. Why bother to tell the truth when it is the odd that rates high on mainstream networks? And so they frame the news by focusing on peripheral and incidental issues like traffic. They simplify and even distort the agenda for social transformation by highlighting an awkward sound byte. But like the police, they are disempowered too since the final decision on what to report rests with the senior editors in the news editing room.

Politics and truth making are decided upon by powerful people who are divorced from the battlefield. Through their privileged location in society, these virtual players of politics reign supreme in dictating the specific discourse that will be preserved and reproduced by opinion-making institutions.

Of course this is infuriating. Worse, apologists of the status quo are quick to legitimize the unequal existing order as a natural, objective state of the world. If you continue to dissent, you are labelled a troublemaker, a nuisance, a purveyor of obsolete truths. You ignore the taunting, you block the persistent rants, but sometimes everybody around you makes the same argument, and you silently succumb to this judgment under duress.

Multiple paradigms tempt you with language games and your mind unwillingly plays with these ideas. Plural perspectives, epistemes, simulacrum, habitus, elective affinities….and then you find yourself back in the crowd. What caught your attention? The fiery anti-demolition speech of an urban poor leader restored your focus, the farmer organizer who spoke about feudal oppression rekindled your passion, and the defiant human rights victim inspired you to remember the basics. The basics? That politics is hostaged by elite interest, that a fierce struggle for supremacy among classes defines any society, that there are truths worth fighting for, that the radical task is to hasten the arrival of the future. That there are discourses that destroy solidarity, narratives that serve the ruling classes, and progressive theories that teach us not just to interpret the present but to change the world.

It is always the crowd, the multiple as one, which rescues us from moments of indecision and passivity. That is why every time the crowd prepares to disperse, we celebrate not the end of an event, but the prospect of going back to the masses, embracing their struggles, and joining them in the future to startup that Big Event we sometimes call the revolution.

Written for The Diplomat

The 48th foreign ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Malaysia concluded by releasing a communique last week. As expected, most media reports focused on the position of ASEAN with regard the South China Sea dispute involving China. This is newsworthy because the issue has regional implications and the ministers were able to formulate a joint statement on a divisive topic. In 2012, no communique was released by ASEAN ministers in Cambodia because of divergent views on the aggressive activities of China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

This year’s communique tackled various issues and while China was mentioned in the document, it should not lead us to ignore ASEAN’s views on other less glitzy international matters. For example, the communique echoed the stand of ASEAN on the Palestine question: “We reiterated ASEAN’s support for the legitimate right of the Palestinian people for an independent state of Palestine and a two-State solution where Palestine and Israel live side-by-side in peace.”

It also expressed support for Iran nuclear agreement and the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba.

“We called for the timely lifting of all sanctions and embargoes imposed on Cuba.”

ASEAN also rejected extremist movements in the Middle East. “We condemn and deplore the violence and brutality committed by extremist organizations and radical groups in Iraq and Syria, whose impact increasingly poses a threat to all regions of the world.”

In addition, the communique also promoted moderation as the ASEAN approach of addressing conflicts.

“We recognized that moderation is an all-encompassing approach not only in resolving differences and conflicts peacefully but also for ensuring sustainable and inclusive development and equitable growth as well promoting social harmony and mutual understanding within countries and regions.”

Furthermore, the communique provided updates on ASEAN’s improving relations with various countries such as Australia, Canada, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Russia. It reported that Canada and European Union have expressed commitments to appoint an ASEAN ambassador.

It recognized the strategic role of the United States in “sustaining Southeast Asia’s rapid economic growth and maintaining peace and stability.” At the same time, it also affirmed its commitment to realizing the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area with an aim to achieve the target of USD 1 trillion on trade by 2020.

The communique is also useful to determine ASEAN’s assessment of its own socioeconomic situation. While many are worried about China’s military dominance, ASEAN is also concerned about its economic prospects as a more basic concern.

“The continued moderation in China would have an impact on the ASEAN’s forecast growth rate, given ASEAN’s strong economic linkages to China. The region is also faced with financial challenges as the persistent strengthening of the U.S dollar against domestic currencies, as well as the ongoing Greece debt crisis, which may cause volatility in the global financial markets,” the communique read.

A few days after releasing the communique, Indonesia reported lower economic growth while Malaysia’s currency was devalued. These troubling reports should make us realize that economic jitters, and not just the China ‘threat’, are hounding ASEAN countries today.

Aside from this, the communique also made reference to other regional problems such as the “irregular movement of persons”, people smuggling or trafficking, illegal drug trade, transboundary haze pollution, and climate change vulnerability.

“We noted with great concern that climate change is already having significant impact in the region, posing challenges to our environment, causing severe social and economic disruption and damage throughout the region.”

Finally, ASEAN warned China that its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability” in the region. It took note of Indonesia’s proposal to establish a “hotline of communications” between ASEAN and China to address emergency situations on the ground. It also endorsed the implementation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The 2015 communique issued by ASEAN’s foreign ministers reflected the unique perspectives and priorities of the regional grouping. Some were unhappy about its failure to directly make China accountable for its rude behavior toward its neighbors, while some appreciated that ASEAN was able to finally issue a stronger statement regarding the South China Sea dispute.

We should also be careful not to equate the communique with the actual commitment of ASEAN member countries. For instance, the communique declared full adherence to the protection of human rights even if many ASEAN governments are guilty of violating the political and economic rights of their citizens.

Overall, the communique is a reminder of the dynamic character of ASEAN as a political formation. On one hand, it strives to establish a more solid community of nations with an integrated economy. But on the other hand, it is also a group of neighbors besieged by transnational crimes, environment pollution, and the specter of a rising superpower represented by China.

Southeast Asia’s Transparency Problem

Written for The Diplomat

Most countries in Southeast Asia do not have a transparent budget process, according to a global survey conducted by International Budget Partnership.

The 2015 Open Budget Index used 140 observable facts and indicators to measure if a country’s budget system allows opportunities for adequate oversight and public participation. If a country scores a minimum of 60 out of 100, it is deemed to provide sufficient budget information and audit mechanisms.

In Southeast Asia, only the Philippines scored above 60 (the global average is 45). Indonesia and Malaysia performed above average with a score of 59 and 46 respectively. Thailand and Timor-Leste received ratings of 42 and 41. Three countries in the region were found to have a budget system with limited public participation and weak transparency: Vietnam (18), Cambodia (8), and Myanmar (2). There is no data available for Singapore, Brunei, and Laos.

The survey confirms long-held assumptions that many countries in the region continue to implement budget processes with little accountability and public engagement.

Of course, the problem is not exclusive to Southeast Asia: 98 out of 102 countries which participated in the survey lack adequate institutions and mechanisms “for ensuring that public funds are used efficiently and effectively.” In fact, only 24 countries scored over 60 on the budget transparency index.

But within the region, several common threads can be seen. The first is the failure of the government to include substantial public input and feedback in the budget making and implementation. The global average score for public participation is 25. Yet several Southeast Asian countries scored lower than this: Malaysia (12), Timor-Leste (10), Cambodia (8), and Myanmar (6). Even the Philippines, which scored high on this category and was singled out in the report for institutionalizing citizen participation in the budget system, was asked to “provide detailed feedback on how public perspectives have been captured and taken into account” in the whole budget process.

Another one is the absence of a strong legislative oversight of budget spending. Malaysia scored 15, while the Philippines got its lowest rating (36) for this indicator in the budget index. Last year, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that a disbursement program enacted by the office of the president was unconstitutional since it was not authorized by Congress.

There were specific recommendations for countries in order to make the budget process more transparent and democratic. Cambodia is urged to “hold legislative hearings on the budgets of specific ministries, departments, and agencies at which testimony from the public is heard.” Vietnam needs to consult the legislature first before releasing contingency funds, which were not identified in the budget law.

Juvinal Dias, a researcher of Timor-Leste NGO La’o Hamutuk, recommends the following to the government: “Make budget information available to the public, make opportunities available for public participation in the budget process, and strengthen fiscal oversight by the legislator and auditor.”

There are also simple but relevant reforms that governments can immediately implement. These include publishing budget year-end and audit reports (Myanmar), producing a pre-budget statement and making it available to the public (Indonesia), establishing specialized budget research office (Malaysia), and holding a pre-budget debate by the legislature (Philippines).

The budget survey is useful as a benchmark for governments, scholars, and civil society organizations in assessing the utilization of public funds in their respective countries. In Southeast Asia, it is a reminder that opportunities for corruption can be reduced if we make the budget process more open while strengthening mechanisms for inter-agency accountability.

Southeast Asia’s Color Protests

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s massive Bersih rally over the weekend reminded us of the colors used by protesters across Southeast Asia to symbolize and articulate their political demands in their respective countries.

Bersih (meaning “clean” in the local Malay language) started as an election reform movement that mobilized thousands of Malaysians in 2007, 2011, and 2012. This year, Bersih is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being implicated in a corruption scandal.

During all Bersih events, yellow was chosen as the protest color. It was a successful branding strategy which made yellow the symbol of the national movement for reforms in governance. A few days before Bersih 4 took place, the government enacted an order which criminalized the wearing of yellow Bersih clothing. The order described the printing, sale, and possession of the yellow Bersih shirt as a threat to security and the national interest.

During the actual Bersih event, police arrested 12 people for wearing the banned shirt. At least 100,000 people who joined the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur could also be prosecuted for wearing prohibited clothing.

Meanwhile, Najib downplayed the protest and accused the Bersih organizers of being unpatriotic. He made this statement while wearing red during a televised speech. His supporters vowed to mobilize a million ‘red shirts’ on October 10 to prove that majority of ordinary Malaysians still support the beleaguered prime minister.

One of the country’s prominent personalities who joined Bersih was former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The appearance of the 90-year old retired leader surprised many, since he was consistently against the holding of rallies during his two-decade rule. In a media interview, Mahathir called for people power to force the removal of Najib. He likened Najib to former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.

Mahathir’s analogy can be extended as well to the Philippine protest movement which challenged Marcos in the 1980s. Like Bersih today, Filipino protesters adopted the color yellow as a protest symbol against Marcos, whose trademark election color was red. “Yellow magic” became effective in persuading many ordinary Filipinos to resist Marcos, first through the ballot box and then subsequently in the streets, which led to the downfall of the dictator.

Will “yellow magic” also work in Malaysia? The Philippine example is a bit outdated compared to the recent conflict in Thailand, which involved dueling protesters and government supporters wearing yellow and red shirts. The Yellow Shirts are critics of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who were infamous for occupying the Bangkok airport in 2008. They succeeded in forcing a change in government but a new group emerged to counter them – the Red Shirts. This new group copied the tactics of the Yellow Shirts by blockading the major streets of Bangkok in 2010.

The daring actions and occasional clashes between these groups and the political parties that support them intensified Thailand’s political crisis. That in turn allowed the army to justify a coup in May 2014. And even before the army intervened, many Thais indicated their exasperation over the provocative campaigns of both the Yellow and Red Shirts by urging the public to wear neutral colors such as orange, white, and purple. At one point, Blue Shirts emerged, vowing to restore peace and order in society. Some suspected they were pro-government militia.

Though the coup last year ended the street rallies, Thais lost their right to organize peaceful assemblies. The military-backed government continues to ban protests and the public gathering of five or more people. Any color of protest is quickly rejected by the army as a threat to national security.

Whether it is Malaysia’s Bersih, the yellow fever of the 1986 People Power revolt in the Philippines, or Thailand’s current policy of outlawing protests organized by either Red or Yellow Shirts, the indubitable lesson from these distinct protest campaigns in Southeast Asia is that politics can never be color blind.

Written for The Diplomat

A few days after Philippine President Benigno Aquino III enumerated the achievements of his government during his final state of the nation address, a UN expert issued a report which highlighted the deplorable conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in various parts of the country.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Chaloka Beyani was in the Philippines for 10 days last month to review the situation of IDPs in Tacloban, Zamboanga, Cotabato, Maguindanao, South Cotabato, and Davao.

Tacloban was the ‘ground zero’ of typhoon Haiyan which battered the central part of the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people and it was the strongest typhoon in recorded history.

Zamboanga, located in the southern part of the country, was attacked by armed separatist groups in 2013 which displaced about 120,000 people.

Cotabato and Maguindanao are Muslim-dominated provinces where clashes between government soldiers, private armed groups, and revolutionary forces are known to be frequent.

South Cotabato is the potential site of the country’s largest open pit mining project. Davao is currently hosting some 700 Lumads (ethnic peoples) displaced by militarization in a nearby region.

Dr Beyani’s report on the present circumstances of Haiyan victims validated the concern of grassroots networks about the inadequate assistance provided by the national government.

“Many families remain housed in collective “bunkhouses” that do not meet necessary minimum standards for the provision of basic needs and services and create numerous safety and protection challenges, particularly for women and girls,” wrote Beyani.

He praised the leadership of the government for placing “institutional and policy structures and frameworks that have proved to be effective in the immediate crisis response period” but he also expressed concern about the “financial constraints on [local] authorities that have impacted on their ability to move forward towards durable solutions.”

He was questioning the “funding shortfalls” and the “waning” attention given by the national government to the IDPs.

He also noted the lack of transparency in implementing programs that affect the typhoon victims.

“A common concern expressed to me was the need to increase the level of consultation and information flow to IDPs to ensure that their voices and concerns are heard and included in future planning and their rights respected.”

The media focused on Dr Beyani’s assessment of the Haiyan recovery efforts which is understandable because of the global significance of the issue. After all, international aid poured in after Haiyan devastated the Visayas region and it is only right to ask authorities about the utilization or non-utilization of these funds.

But Dr Beyani’s report on other parts of the country deserves to be given prominence too since it involves the peace process and mining investments. These are issues which the international community should also be aware of.

For example, Dr Beyani described the situation in some parts of Cotabato and Maguinadao as a “forgotten crisis”.

“For many in this region displacement has become the pattern of life,” he wrote.

In South Cotabato, he learned that some leaders and members of the indigenous communities have been killed over the past years reportedly due to their anti-mining activities.

In Davao, he met Lumad leaders who cited the presence of paramilitary groups as the major factor that “creates anxiety” among indigenous communities.

Dr Beyani offered some concrete recommendations. He proposed the building of permanent housing for IDPs in Zamboanga, including the delivery of livelihood assistance to displaced fisherfolk. He also endorsed the passage of a law protecting the rights of IDPs which was vetoed by the president in 2013. He noted that the failure to enact the draft law “sends a wrong signal about the commitment of the government” to ensuring the rights of IDPs.

Reacting to Dr Beyani’s report, the presidential spokesman assured the UN expert that more funds have been allotted by the government to fast track the rehabilitation of Haiyan-affected areas.

Meanwhile, the country’s vice president and opposition leader mentioned the UN report as an indicator of the incompetence of the ruling party.

Human rights group Karapatan asserted the immediate pull-out of government troops in mining communities and other ancestral domains of indigenous peoples.

Dr Beyani will deliver his complete report next year. His concluding words should alert Philippine policymakers and other concerned stakeholders about the need to protect the country’s IDPs and indigenous populations: “Displacement, whether due to conflict or development, not only destroys the homes and livelihoods of indigenous peoples, but has an incalculable impact on their cultures and ways of life that are part of the rich and diverse heritage of the Philippines that must be protected or otherwise lost, perhaps forever.”

Leading Philippine Presidential Candidate Unveils Platform

Written for The Diplomat

Who will be the next president of the Philippines? Will it be administration candidate Mar Roxas, opposition leader and incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay, or Senator Grace Poe who is currently leading in the surveys?

Roxas is expected to continue the programs of President Benigno Aquino III, whose term will end in nine months. Binay was part of Aquino’s cabinet over the past five years but resigned his post last June and criticized the president. He vowed to lead a better government if elected next year.

Who is Grace Poe? She topped the senatorial race in 2013, which many attributed to the popularity of her parents: actress Susan Roces and actor Fernando Poe Jr. The latter ran for president in 2004 but lost to former president Gloria Arroyo.

As a neophyte senator who championed good governance and transparency, Poe’s popularity surged and many urged her to run for president as an alternative candidate. Even Aquino acknowledged her potential and even asked her to run as the administration’s vice presidential candidate. She politely refused the offer and instead declared her bid for the presidency last September 16.

“No one man or group holds a monopoly on ‘Tuwid na Daan’ (straight path)”, Poe said in reference to the political slogan of the ruling party. But Poe also hinted that she will not join the opposition when she praised Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign: “He has done much to curb corruption and I am thankful that it has restored the people’s faith in an honest leader.”

Poe also outlined her governance program. She affirmed some of the policies of Aquino, like the conditional cash transfer. But she also indirectly tackled the perceived failures of Aquino such as solving the heavy traffic in Metro Manila and improving the country’s public infrastructure.

“We will make infrastructure development our priority, whether in terms of streets, trains, airports, seaports or the internet. We should build more roads and trains not only in Metro Manila but all over the Philippines. We should ensure that our train project is awarded to a contractor with strong capability and track record in long-term maintenance,” Poe said alluding to the botched train contract signed by the government.

Poe vowed to increase the annual infrastructure budget to seven percent of GDP.

Furthermore, she also mentioned several issues that affect both consumers and businesses, including her commitment to reduce individual income taxes, lower the power rates, and apprehend criminals.

Poe also stated her position on the maritime dispute between the Philippines and its neighbors – specifically China – in the Asia-Pacific. “The West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is ours. We will protect our right through peaceful means, and according to international law. We will beef up our Coast Guard and armed forces so that we need not be intimidated by other countries.”

Poe said her government will draft an industrialization and information technology (IT) plan as part of an effort to encourage greater domestic production to create jobs. To combat corruption, she emphasized the need to pass the Freedom of Information bill. She also vowed to pursue peace talks with all armed groups operating in the country. She advocated the establishment of a separate Emergency Management Department that will focus on national preparedness, climate change and geo-mapping.

The following day, Senator Chiz Escudero was introduced as Poe’s running mate. Both will run as independent candidates. Escudero is seen as Poe’s mentor; in charge of expanding political and electoral machinery. During his acceptance speech, Escudero christened the candidacy of Grace Poe as GP or “Gobyernong may Puso” (“A Government with Heart” in the local Tagalog language). More importantly, he specified how the duo, if elected, will implement its election agenda.

“The next president will appoint and delegate over 5,000 people in government who will fill positions in 500 agencies, and will spend 18 trillion pesos over a six-year term,” he said.

The Poe-Escudero tandem will face tremendous obstacles, especially since they are running as independents. Poe is also facing a disqualification case since her citizenship is being questioned by some petitioners.

To be sure, Poe is a popular candidate. But this is not a guarantee of electoral victory or effective leadership. Now that her agenda for reform has been made public, one hopes that it will lead to more conversations and debates about the respective programs of all candidates. That will then provide an opportunity for the public to challenge or critique the visions and track records of all political parties.

Written for Manila Today

We are familiar with the economics and mechanics of education because these are often fiercely debated but the idea of schooling can still be improved if we initiate more conversations about the philosophy or philosophies that sustain it. Simply put, we should endeavor to give better answers to the question ‘Why do we need to go to school?’

It can be argued that the question is unnecessary since everybody is united in the goal of providing universal education. Besides, education is a human right and it is guaranteed by the constitution of almost all countries in the world.

But the question is not simple; rather it is deceptively simple, and it is necessary.

What are the ‘known knowns’ of education: that it promotes the social good, that it leads to social mobility, and that it nurtures individual talent. But education also has its ‘known unknowns’: that education can make us rich, or that at least it can help us get decent employment, and that it rewards those with talent and dedication.

The first set is publicly admitted and popularly endorsed; the second is privately affirmed. There are those who equate the first with the second and so they have no problem identifying with either category. The first is too broad and seldom elaborated which leads many to interpret the second as the particulars of the noble goals of education. This is wrong. But this thinking is rarely contested so we grew up believing that individual and social misfortunes are mainly caused by an obscene absence or lack of education. This is not entirely incorrect because education is an important factor that can address multiple social ills. The problem, however, is reflected in our other unrealistic expectations about what the schooling process can deliver.

That formal education as we know it enjoys our utmost confidence is unsurprising considering that we are constantly bombarded with messages that extol its value. For example, we have movies that simplify the correlation of scholastic achievement and career advancement, politicians who preach the centrality of education in the social reform agenda, overpaid technocrats who bemoan the disconnect of the academic and corporate sectors, and the most persuasive of them all: the hard work and sacrifice of families who financed the schooling of their children, a gesture of love and unforgettable proof of our faith in the power of education.

What exactly is wrong with these obviously benign motives? Well, to put it mildly, they narrow and distort the humanistic goals of education.

The desire to be rich is an old vice but the aspiration to be rich by acquiring a university diploma is a modern thing. It is an unhealthy impulse because it contravenes ALL philosophies of education. To cultivate wisdom actually requires a negation of materialistic pursuits. An educated person rejects transience as he or she seeks the truth about our existence. If the goal is to possess things, it is false education. In other words, we should not justify the hoarding of tangible goods by claiming that it is the consequence of academic excellence.

But is it wrong to pursue education so that we can acquire the skills that give us the opportunity to seek gainful employment? Again, this is a modern concept. Admittedly, a major aspect of formal education includes the training of individuals on how to properly live in the future world of work. Indeed, a school is a fun place to learn the trades in the company of friends.

But education should be more than just about job preparation. After centuries of preserving the idea of the university and after the painstaking struggle of transferring knowledge from one generation to another, should we readily accept the assertion that the function of modern education is to support the needs of the business sector? That the main role of schools in society is to promote efficiency in the employee-employer relationship?

What happened to the grand idea of producing philosopher-kings? What about citizenship? A school is more than just a repository of knowledge, it represents human civilization. It is where children study the classics, experiment with new concepts, investigate the reality of the present, and sketch the blueprint of the future. The school is supposed to be a disruptive force in society.

The radical campaign to institutionalize mass education succeeded in the 20th century but it was hijacked by corporate interest. Children of the working classes were provided with a specific set of values in schools that reflected the worldview of the ruling elite. Innovation was praised as long as it did not threaten the political order. Discipline and conformism were formally and indirectly endorsed at the same time.

Critical pedagogy was ignored in favor of practical objectives to help citizens confront the various challenges of modern living. Schools maintained its social character but overall its political role tended to favor conservative interest.

The capitalist principle of competition was transplanted in schools, which perverted the dynamism of the education system. As transmitters of official knowledge and incubator of progress, schools are viewed as an institution that can uplift the economic conditions of the poor. Unfortunately, schools in the neoliberal age performed this role by teaching children that competition is the key to success. The schools as ‘sorting machine’ elevated individual achievement as superior over other desirable social goals. Who can blame parents for wanting their children to live the good life? But once again, individualism prevailed by spreading the propaganda that we can escape poverty by focusing first on self-improvement. Instead of fighting the evils of society as a collective body, we abandon that crucial task to prominent, educated individuals. Instead of finding satisfaction in our participation in a group effort, we prefer to indulge in self-praise.

A college graduate is recognized for possessing the proper skills and attitude that made him or her successful. What is overlooked is the social capital that was invested that allowed the graduate to finish schooling. It is natural to feel good about ourselves but it is a mistake to assume that we completed our formal education without needing any subsidy or assistance from various social bodies.

Believing that we survived and surged ahead of others mainly by relying on our talent and perseverance, we flaunted this perspective that reproduced the superficial thinking that schools exist to breed a few outstanding individuals.

But schools can do more than merely transform us all into highly-skilled, productive, and obedient workers. Through schooling, we can still celebrate our humanity. We can still aim for holistic education to develop our full potential as a person. We can still learn to be critical citizens whose individuality is affirmed without undermining the rights of others. Collective work, not destructive competition, can still become the norm.

But this is only possible if we alter our understanding about the function of schools in society.
First, we must cease to view schools as a politically-neutral space.

Second, we must not divorce theoretical knowledge, which is obsessively protected in the academe, from practical politics.

Third, we should develop pedagogical practices that enhance our full humanity and promote collective values.

Fourth, we should build schools whose mission is to challenge tradition, and these inventive institutions should be given the freedom to implement their vision in society.

We can still live the good life, we can still become superstar intellectuals and scientists, and we can still aim for that elusive job. Schools will help us achieve these dreams. But this time we are working to realize these goals while building a better society because education is futile and self-serving if the world remains unfree, unequal, and unjust.

This means struggling to learn and learning to struggle. There is a nice word for it: Dissent.

Dissent is the unmentionable discourse in any school curriculum; it should be the core teaching goal of any place of learning. It is the ‘unknown known’ of schools which should inspire us to question authority, probe the present, imagine the new, and build a more humanistic world.

Written for The Diplomat

More than 250 licensed non-government organizations in Malaysia are planning to mobilize 30,000 people on September 16 to protect and promote Maruah Melayu (Malay dignity). The event also aims to show support for the beleaguered leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being implicated in a corruption scandal.

The event was clearly organized to counter the Bersih (which means ‘clean’ in Malay) protest last August 29 and 30, which gathered more than 100,000 people in Kuala Lumpur. Some leaders of the Malay Pride Rally have ridiculed Bersih as a Chinese conspiracy. To prevent the Chinese protesters from undermining the government, they urged their fellow Malays to join the September 16 gathering and to wear red in order to oppose the yellow color of Bersih.

This framing of the issue is rejected by many who insist that it is a distortion of the real politics of Bersih. While it is true that Chinese protesters were present during the Bersih protest, they were joined by Malays and other citizens who believe that Najib must resign and that a clean election is needed to promote good governance in the country. Last month’s Bersih, and the three previous Bersih protests, didn’t pit the Chinese versus the Malays, although some allies of the government wanted the public to believe that racial sentiments are undermining the country’s stability.

From the beginning, the issue was about corruption and abuse of power by the ruling coalition, which has been in power since the 1950s, yet leaders of the Malay Pride Rally continue to speak about Chinese machinations.

Even a lawmaker from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has warned against using the race issue in local politics.

“It is their right (to hold a rally) but we must not get into the mindset that Malaysia is only for one race. This will eventually cause tensions among the races,” said PAS lawmaker Mahfuz Omar.

This point was echoed by several influential Muslim organizations, which issued a statement against the planned demonstration.

“We do not redeem our honor and dignity by blaming other races whilst helping an embattled political elite cling to power,” the statement read.

Marina Mahathir, a human rights activist and daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is not convinced that the rally is worth supporting: “I have a problem trying to figure out what the so-called Red Shirts stand for. They seem to want to protest for the sake of protesting against protesters, specifically Bersih protesters.”

Mahathir was one of those who joined Bersih, though he claimed he was only supporting the call for Najib’s removal.

Meanwhile, some members of the administration coalition Umno have signified their intention to join the activity. Permatang Pauh Umno chief Zaidi Mohd Said clarified that the event is simply a show of unity: “This is actually a gathering to support the government. It is not racist.”

Though Najib arguably stands to benefit from the so-called Malay Pride gathering, the government has distanced itself from the rally and the police has refused to give a permit to the organizers.

Whether or not the rally ends up drawing more crowds than Bersih, it highlights a dangerous turn for Malaysian politics where the race card is increasingly being exploited by some groups and politicians to further their divisive political agenda.

September 16 coincides with Malaysia Day, which commemorates the formation of Malaysia in 1963. And perhaps some may find it proper to celebrate Malay pride. But the issue is not if the occasion should be celebrated, but how it is done. For scholars like Dr. Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi, Malaysians have a choice: they can wear the neutral color white to represent Muslims “who believe in humility and love of the brotherhood of man (in) contrast against the zealotry, bigotry and madness of the Red Shirt.”

Malaysia Silences the Press Amid Corruption Scandal

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s Home Ministry has suspended two newspapers for three months after the latter published a series of reports exposing corruption in a government-managed investment company that implicated Prime Minister Najib Razak. Meanwhile, a news website was blocked in the country last week after a government agency found it guilty of publishing unverified information in relation to the similar corruption issue.

The licensing permit of The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly was suspended because their 1MDB reports were deemed by the Home Ministry to be “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”.

The 1MDB issue refers to the controversial financial transactions of the company that allegedly benefited some politicians, including the prime minister. Early this month, the Wall Street Journal published a report linking Najib to a bank money transfer totaling $700 million. The government is currently investigating 1MDB as Najib denies the allegations. Some opposition leaders including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have called for the resignation of Najib over the 1MDB scandal.

The Edge is challenging the suspension order by filing a judicial review. It emphasized that its reports were based on hard evidence and that it has already handed over bank documents to government investigators.

“Our report is based on evidence corroborated by documents that include bank transfers and statements. How can the work that we have done be deemed as a political conspiracy?”

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has ordered the blocking of the Sarawak Report “based on complaints received from the public” that it is spreading misinformation about the 1MDB issue. Sarawak Report described the order as a “blatant attempt to censor our exposures of major corruption.” It dismissed the “strong arm, anti-democratic media clamp-down” as a futile attempt of the ruling party to hide the truth about the financial mess.

The blocking of Sarawak Report and the suspension of two papers of The Edge were viewed by many as an attack on Malaysia’s media sector. “Blocking a website and threatening critics with prosecution will not make the firestorm over alleged government corruption go away,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The Center for Independent Journalism asserted that the blocking of Sarawak Report “without a clear, legitimate purpose and without reference to a proper law authorising such blocking of content is a breach of the guarantee to freedom of expression.”

Meanwhile, uman rights group Suaram urged the government to uphold truth and transparency.

“This latest action by MCMC is totally against its own mission statement which is “providing transparent regulatory processes to facilitate fair competition and efficiency in the industry”.

The Lawyers for Liberty group reminded authorities that “journalism is not a crime.” It added that “Press freedom is an indispensable component of any modern and democratic society as it functions as a form of check and balance against government excesses. Such authoritarian behaviour unfortunately sends a chilling message to the press to self-censor on issues such as 1MDB or else they may invite retaliation.”

But Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who is the urban wellbeing, housing and local government minister and director of strategic communications of the ruling party Barisan Nasional, defended the suspension order issued by the government against The Edge:

“The government suspended The Edge publications because there was a real possibility that the contents of their reporting were not authentic. If this possibility turns to be true then the impact on the government and the economic stability due to irresponsible reporting cannot be understated.”

Aside from condoning corruption, the government is now accused of silencing the press. Reacting to the perceived media persecution, five local media networks have banded together and are planning to hold a public rally on August 8 to assert the right the free speech.


Written for Manila Today

How I wish I could hold the placard which reads ‘Authentic Fan’, take a selfie with it, and share on my social media networks. But I simply couldn’t do it because I am not an ‘authentic fan’ of the 2015 National Basketball Association champion Golden State Warriors. I do not even know the names of their players, their franchise history, and their winning strategy. Yet I was there during their victory parade in Oakland and celebrated the occasion with hundreds of thousands of ‘authentic fans’ from all over the Bay Area.Here’s how I experienced it: When I arrived in Oakland, a confetti of blue and yellow was raining down on 19th Street and Broadway, I reached the tail end of the parade in Snow Park, I think I saw some of the players near the public library, the march swept us in front of Laney College, and finally I found myself on the fringes of the civic center; too far from the main stage outside the Kaiser Convention Center but near enough to feel the spectacle.

So what was a non-fan doing there? I also wrestled with the question during the 35-minute train ride from Colma to downtown Oakland; and before leaving the station, I thought I convinced myself that I have answered it already.

I really have simple motives for being a joiner that day. But wait, it was not an ordinary day. It was 40 years ago when a similar event was held in Oakland. It took 40 years of waiting and struggle before the Warriors became champions again. This alone is enough reason to show up and participate in the street festivities.

The Warriors clinched the championship title and received their trophy in Cleveland but this victory has to be reaffirmed by their loyal fans in the Alameda County. The winning moment is only half-complete if it isn’t shared with the public.

I had to be there to witness the re-enactment of history.

Will history be made again next year? Maybe, but this year’s victory is definitely more special and memorable.

That’s basically it. I wanted to be present during the crowning of the Warriors. I was curious to know how the community will gather and express their pride on that historic occasion. I was there to congratulate the winners. I came to have fun in the company of an ecstatic crowd.

Besides, basketball is a familiar sports. I cannot understand American football and baseball (apologies to fans of 49ers and Giants) but I grew up watching and playing basketball. After all, it’s the unofficial national pastime in the Philippines. I may not be a fanatic but I appreciate the game. There was a time when I knew the slam dunk winners of the 1980s, we cheered for the Bulls in the 1990s, and we all wanted to be like Mike. Basketball was a major influence during our formative years. It was probably the kid in me that roused my interest to celebrate the basketball glory of the Warriors.

But it’s also more than nostalgia or a desire to relive the feeling of being young.

I was more intrigued by the Warriors phenomenon. When I arrived in San Francisco last month, everybody was talking about their Warriors. That it’s the best team in the league, that the players are all nice and talented people, and that this is going to be the year of the Warriors.

There seems to be a Warriors effect every time they win a game: Motorists are kinder, neighbors are talking to each other once more (“Hey buddy, did you see the game last night? It was a really good game, right?”), and strangers can instantly become friends by talking about the Warriors. Families and barkadas bonded by watching the finals. On a personal note, the games gathered relatives which helped in uplifting the spirit of my younger brother who was recovering from a heart condition.

Perhaps scholars can measure the social impact of the Warriors’ victory in the recently concluded NBA season. In terms of consumer economics, there was a lot of buying and advertising of Warriors-related merchandise. It’s probably good for the domestic economy but I am doubtful whether this is the right kind of stimulus that can reverse the hardships endured by working-class families. A $30 dollar original Warriors fan shirt? Ah, for the love of the team and the game! Somebody is definitely making a ton of money because of this spontaneous consumer spending.

But there are other ways of probing the various manifestations of the Warriors phenomenon. On my part, I wanted to verify the broad appeal of the team and the reach of their fan base. I wanted to size up their popularity beyond the TV ratings, the trending hashtags and the fan merchandise. One way of doing this is to check the crowd that will congregate in Oakland. And so I went to the Warriors’ parade.

The turn-out was impressive especially since it was not a weekend event. Fans did not disappoint by arriving in record number to celebrate the basketball victory of their beloved team. People from diverse backgrounds were there. The hardcore fans, the loyal cheerleaders, the new converts, the inauthentic ones like me, and Oakland residents mingled as one. All are assumed to be there because they are rejoicing for the Warriors.

Some parents carried baby strollers. Some students accompanied by mentors seem to be having a summer field trip in the lakeside park. Frontline families of the Warriors’ support team joined the parade. Local sponsors and institutions were represented as well. Meanwhile, enterprising individuals sold Warriors paraphernalia such as t-shirts, caps, framed posters, and banners which are cheaper compared to the official team store.

The feel of the crowd was electrifying. Of course there were some marchers who easily gave up the long walk (satisfied that they already got selfie photos of the players during the parade), tired rallyists who spread false updates about the available space or lack of it in a specific area of the plaza; there were loud fans, drinkers, smokers, and Republicans in the crowd.

But overall, the crowd was behaving like what it was supposed to do. A collective body exercising its power. A sea of warm bodies moving and interacting while remaining in place to stage a significant social and historic event. It is a crowd made self-aware of its massive presence and power to speak. They may not be able to buy the expensive arena tickets during the finals but here they are part of the game and here they are supreme.

It is a veritable proof of the persuasive appeal of a crowd, the creative coming together of the spontaneous, and the invincibility of a collective that exists to achieve a purpose. The multiple as one.

During the start of the program, a local leader mentioned the role of the Warriors in enhancing community unity. This cannot be denied. But the public must be reminded too that sports is not the ultimate mojo that can ignite the wonderful charm we call solidarity. Just a few months ago, Oakland was a site of resistance that echoed the struggle against racial discrimination and economic oppression. It did not reach half a million but nobody can deny that it was popular among the grassroots, that it united various segments of the population, and that it campaigned something in behalf of a collective.

We are told to fear the so-called irrational mob but what they really wanted us to reject is the rise of a politically-conscious crowd.

Struggle is noble and its beauty is reflected in the emergence of a crowd. When experiencing the vastness of nature, we feel overwhelmed. We appear tiny compared to oceans, canyons, cliffs, and mountains. But when we are part of a crowd, the effect is quite different. Instead of being intimidated by the presence of anonymous bodies, we feel empowered. We think we can be immortals. Suddenly, nothing seems impossible. Humanity will prevail.

A sports crowd is massive and dispersed; but the rulers often use it to distract the fighting potential of the masses.

Let the Warriors crowd celebrate today, let us have our moment. But tomorrow we will fight. Tomorrow, the community will confront reality. Imagine the Warriors crowd slaying other beasts in society.

Any crowd is potentially subversive. Authentic and inauthentic followers coalesce, strangers form networks, and voices become stronger. Warriors fans have a nice phrase for it: Strength in numbers.

Written for The Diplomat

“There is barely any sense of time in prison, there are no clocks in cells. Our only indications of time is the little light that seeps out from the vent. And everyday my cellmates would eagerly wait for that light to dissipate, knowing that another day has passed, and they’re one day closer to attaining their freedom.”

This is a sample of the prison reflections written by 16-year-old video blogger Amos Yee from Singapore. Yee was remanded for three weeks last month to assess if he is prepared to undergo reformative training. He was transferred to a mental health facility last week after a judge ordered him to be evaluated for autism.

What crime did Yee commit? He posted a video criticizing the late Lee Kuan Yew, the beloved founding prime minister of Singapore. He was charged for causing “distress” to his viewers. He was also accused of offending the religious sentiments of Christians and for posting obscene material on the Internet.

Many felt that Yee’s video was inappropriate, insensitive, and disrespectful. But many also felt the punishment he received was wrong and irrational. After all, Yee is only a teenager who happened to be vocal about his offensive opinions. It was a nonviolent offense.

Despite his age, Amos was nonetheless arrested and detained by authorities. Because of this, some believe he is already the world’s youngest “prisoner of conscience.” And through Facebook, we are able to learn his ordeal.

“I had never been exposed to sunshine. The closest thing I had to going outdoors was a daily (except for weekends), 1- hour activity called the outdoor ‘yard’ where inmates get to play basketball or sepak takraw. But we’re not doing it outdoors, but in a 5th floor enclosure similar to that of an indoor sports hall. And of course, there is no opening in the ceiling for cellmates to have direct contact with sunlight,” he wrote.

It is quite disturbing to read a prison diary of a teenager who is penalized for thinking differently.

“Cellmates, often thinking about the implications of them being in jail, or getting frustrated by the tedium of being in a cell, become enraged and hyperactive. In a state of restlessness and anxiety, they start singing high-pitched songs, punching the walls, banging their cups and boxes. The unrelenting sounds send me into a deep state of nervousness and apprehension,” Yee wrote.

Yee’s prison notes are posted on Facebook despite his incarceration, prompting many to speculate that he scheduled his posts or that another person is maintaining his account.

Regardless of who updates Yee’s Facebook page, it cannot be denied that he is in detention. His mother shares his experience: “Since his arrest in March and the many twists and turns in the court case, Amos is now exhausted, and yes, frightened. He has been so tired in Changi Prison where he is kept in a cell for 23 hours everyday, with the bright lights kept switched on most of the time, for the past three weeks.”

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Yee was treated as a regular prisoner. “By the time he was convicted, Yee had spent 18 days in jail for a nonviolent offense. When brought to court for his trial on May 7, he was handcuffed, had his legs shackled, and was wearing a prison-supplied t-shirt with “prisoner” emblazoned across the back.”

The United Nations Human Rights Office for South-East Asia described the criminal sanctions leveled against Yee as “disproportionate and inappropriate in terms of the international protections for freedom of expression and opinion.” It urged Singapore authorities “to give special consideration to [Amos’] juvenile status and ensure his treatment is consistent with the best interests of the child.”

By releasing Yee, it does not mean the teenager is correct about the way he articulated his views on Lee Kuan Yew and Christianity. Instead, it will demonstrate that the Singapore government is mature enough to handle the behavior of a teenager and that it can tolerate contrary views.

Why are the Elderly Collecting Cardboard Boxes in Prosperous Singapore?

Written for The Diplomat

Two weeks ago, Singapore’s Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin joined a youth group in interviewing some elderly cardboard collectors to learn more about the latter’s conditions, motivations and the challenges they face. The minister shared his observations on Facebook which immediately sparked an intense public debate over the country’s poverty situation, the hardships experienced by elders, and the government’s lack of adequate knowledge about the daily struggles of many Singaporeans.

What exactly did the minister write that provoked many to accuse the government of being insensitive to the plight of ordinary people?

First, he questioned the popular opinion about the economic situation of the collectors. “The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true.”

Then, he described cardboard collecting as a “form of exercise”.

“Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.”

Finally, he urged the public to rethink their views about the elderly collectors. “More often than not, people make judgements without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors.”

The backlash was instant. The minister was criticized for ‘whitewashing’ the issue. Some described his position as a naïve understanding of the problems facing many elders. Writer Kirsten Han reminded him and other public servants to conduct a better probe of the general situation of the cardboard collectors instead of making a conclusion based on a one-time encounter with the elders. “We shouldn’t romanticize their self-sufficiency, absolving ourselves of all responsibility at the same time,” she wrote.

Sociologist Daniel PS Goh acknowledged the sincerity of the minister but he pointed out the limitation of the interview to assess the real conditions of the people. “They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.”

Ariffin Sha of the Happy People Helping People Foundation insisted that it’s inaccurate to equate cardboard collecting with exercise. “Slogging it out under the scorching sun while pushing heavy loads is not something many do ‘for fun’ or ‘to exercise in their free time.’ If given a choice not to collect cardboard and rest or work somewhere else, most will take that choice without hesitation.”

Mohammed Nafiz Kamarudin, also from Happy People Helping People Foundation, is hoping that the issue will create more awareness about the existence of poverty in the country.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that Singapore is not always as the media portrays us to be, like very glamorous. We think Singapore is very rich and there’s no one poor, but if you come down to these areas you’ll see that some people barely earn enough for a meal in one day.”

Gilbert Goh, who works with an agency that assists unemployed workers, highlighted the need to give more attention to elderly workers in Singapore. “Our belief is that our elderly should not even be doing such tough manual work in our prosperous first world economy even though some may enjoy the work for personal reason. I have travelled widely to many first world countries and have never see their elderly work as hard as ours in their twilight years.”

For its part, Youth Corps Singapore, which conducted the interview with the minister, clarified that it is aware of the need to implement a more comprehensive program to improve the lives of the cardboard collectors.

“We acknowledged the need for a long-term solution; one that would perhaps get them off the streets, but in the short-term, we wanted to respect and support them in what they are doing and making it safer for them,” wrote Cheng Jun Koh, the leader of the project.

If the minister’s aim is to inform the public about the situation of cardboard collectors, then he has succeeded. In the past two weeks, the media have been consistently reporting about these elderly workers. The public learned that a kilogram of used cardboard could fetch about 10 cents and that collectors earn about $4 to $5 a day.

But the most important issue is the question raised by the youth group that inspired the minister to visit the cardboard collectors. “Why are there still cardboard collectors in our first world country?” This question is relevant as Singapore prepares to celebrate its 50th founding anniversary.