Monday, January 26, 2009


The Fed was right. Maybe next time, Andy Murray will learn to wait until he’s got a grand slam trophy in his hands before indulging in fits of braggadocio.
Unlike the top three male seeds at the Australian Open, fourth seed Murray won’t be playing in the quarterfinals. He lost to Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in five sets.
Jeez, the guy’s ranked 14th, ten spots below Murray’s current level.
The Scot (whose game I do like) had pretended at the start of the Australian Open that the only players worth his time and energy were the three ranked higher than him – numero uno Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, current title holder.
The last two had questioned why London bookies had set their hopes on Murray. (The answer: You don’t argue with national sentiments, especially when it's been a seven-decade wait.)
Murray replied with something snotty and sophomoric and circuitous, his cockiness fueled by recent non-grand slam successes, which included victories over all three of his betters.
Nadal (the only guy at the Australian Open who has yet to drop a set) didn’t even bother to respond. He prefers his forehand to do the talking most of the time.
Federer, who survived a five setter with Thomas Berdych, was as acerbic as his gentlemanly demeanor could get. Following that win, the Fed – who didn’t look that winded -- challenged Murray to five sets “any day.”
"He's younger so he's probably not so experienced. In the end it becomes very mental, and I know that this is where my biggest strength always comes into play. That's why I'm always going to favor myself in a fifth set."
Turns out, his quarry was sent scrambling by a more lowly opponent. And I’m waiting to hear what the Joker – him of the slashing wit and the pantomimes – has to say about the departed Scot.

Friday, January 23, 2009


As celebrities go, Michelle Obama’s inaugural outfits weren’t that extravagant. (That’s a relative term, of course. I probably shall spend my entire life without ever wearing a $1000 dress, much less a $6000 ball gown.) Still, I’m curious about the ethical ramifications of fashion in the White House.

Who should pay for the First Lady’s outfits? Half a dozen designers each prepared several clothes and gowns for the First Lady to choose from. Does she return the rest or keep them just in case she feels like wearing one or two more to over affairs?

The First Lady doesn’t get a salary. Does she get a clothing allowance? Michelle isn’t a poor woman and her husband wrote two best-selling books, but given the standards expected of the US First Lady – poor Mrs. Carter was crucified for wearing a gown twice! – I’m sure it’ll be a drain on the pocket, especially since she’s taken a leave from work.

The news reports also confuse me because they cite past criticism over Nancy Reagan’s penchant for “borrowing” gowns – that’s something like movie stars do? Yet they seem to indicate that Michelle’s practice of borrowing jewelry is okay. And, hey, those aren’t all costume jewelry!

The Chicago Sun-Times (,CST-NWS-jewelry22.article ) says: “The Rodkin jewelry isn't cheap; the chandelier earrings Obama wore with her camel-and-black ensemble at the concert are valued at more than $17,000.” Surely, the diamond drop earrings that went with the Jason Wu gown are even more expensive.

News reports say everything worn to the day inaugural and the ball will become part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. But not everything the First Lady wears will. If Mrs. Obama makes a practice of um, borrowing jewelry and clothes how will that affect governance when the designers and manufacturers face, say, trade or environment or tax issues?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Street interviews indicated many Filipinos cared more about the fate of dinner on the morrow or the next week than the words of a black man with names reminiscent of a Muslim dictator and terrorism’s turbaned pied piper. But if some of us didn’t get it, Filipino broadcast stations drew on financial and technological resources and manpower to remind viewers and listeners that, whether we like it or not, our fates are twined with those of the 1.8-million tearful folk that filled Washington D.C.’s historic Mall one bright winter day.

If that didn’t quite convince you, the sight of The Manila Bulletin the morning after Barrack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America, would.

Enough Obama-mania had reached across the ocean to breathe new life into the staid paper, which devoted its entire front page – normally the repository of press releases from favored politicians -- to the man one other paper had tagged “President of the World.”

There are enough examples -- including many humiliating ones -- to remind peoples around the globe that many of the vagaries of life on earth rest on how the US of A turns. Lately, the scale has been overwhelmingly tilted on the side of painful.

The US, under the leadership of its 43rd president, George W. Bush, bludgeoned even its closest allies and blustered its way across the world stage. It wasn’t enough to drag civil liberties back to the dark ages with White House approval of the use of torture and abduction and indefinite detention without access to lawyers or evidence; Bush and Dick Cheney harangued us to cheer while they sacrificed human rights – including that of their compatriots – on the alter of the anti-terror campaign. As they orchestrated the spread of their unique brand of democracy, Bush and Cheney also trashed lessons on transparency and accountability drummed into us by aid agencies their government controlled. There was little bidding on the lucrative Iraq contracts that went to favored Halliburton and even less punitive action following probes into over-pricing, ghost meals and supplies, reckless exposure of workers to danger, even into the tainted water served to the men and women dubbed as heroes of the war on terror.

Perhaps the most tragic offshoot of Bush’s presidency is, that his excesses actually fanned sympathy for madmen who think nothing of blowing thousands of innocent civilians into smithereens. Simply put, the last eight years gave democracy a bad name. Undoing that damage is Obama’s great challenge, other than having to shake a global economy, prostrate on the altar of excess, back to its feet.

Where giants tread, opportunistic dwarfs follow. Academics and militants will tell you that we owe the US our democracy but also the finer of the black arts that often make a travesty of that noble idea. The latter, and the green light given by Bush to despots – as long as they stayed in his camp – encouraged President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to twitter and simper and sniff at reports of mounting extra-judicial executions, which were met with more killings and threats against complainants and witnesses.

Malacanang has reacted with bravura to the exit of its great, white brother. The US needs us, Philippine officials point out. Love is still in the air.

Even under Obama the US will put its interests first, true. But Mrs. Arroyo’s administration risks embarrassment with its cavalier dismissal of 44th’s ideals. Just in case the Palace folk were too deep into brandy on the day of Obama’s inaugural, here’s what he said: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

Madame President, FYI. There’s a new kid in town.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Whose right? Who's Right?

"Mafia Fans Hounded Off Facebook" --For one nasty moment, I thought Facebook had cracked down on our Mob It’s actually a very interesting case of how anti-crime advocates harassed supporters of two jailed Italian mafia bosses...
ROME, Italy -- Fans of Mafia supremos Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano have been hounded off of Facebook after Italy's anti-Mafia movement spurred thousands of people to infiltrate their pages.
The appearance of Facebook pages glorifying the two jailed former godfathers late last month sparked outrage among the victims of Mafia crimes and politicians.
Some have decided to fight fire with fire.

I peeked into “ gruppo creato per la santificazione di BERNARDO PROVENZANO.” Initially thought it could have been tongue in cheek -- a case of lost in translation -- but Agence France Presse seemed to treat it seriously.
At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I must say ambivalence is what the article arouses here.
Sure, the fact that the various anti-mafia groups have several thousand members each is gratifying, a sign of the growing resistance to the Mob. In contrast, the fans of the Mafia bosses are in the low hundreds. It the above page was any gauge, they do seem to be rather fringe folk.
But as much as I’d support the anti-Mob activists’ right to rail and rant and post screeds or oratory videos. I do not think their noble intentions excuse issuing threats.
Stormy statements, yes; threatening, no. A big no-no. Shortcuts are the way of the Mob, not of the righteous.
The Italian mafia buckled only partly due to the hunt of the Carabiniere. More decisive was the bravery of judges, many of them martyred, and of citizens who bravely stepped up to testify against the crime lords. Not all the witnesses were Mob insiders turned informants.
AFP quoted an anti-Mob leader (sister of a slain judge) saying the offensive was an alternative to banning the groups, which “would have given them more publicity and they would probably complain of censorship"
What happened, she said, showed that, "This kind of self-policing and internal dialogue is the most effective method. "Civil society has shown itself capable of reacting to those who sing the praises of the godfathers." Who was it who said that, if you start using the enemies’ weapons, you could wind up like them?
Who was it who said that, if you start using the enemies’ weapons, you could wind up like them?

Censorship takes many forms. As the victims of the Mafia know only too well, force often guarantees success of the censorship campaign – the most extreme case being the silence of the dead. But it’s not just government or organized groups like the Mob than can enforce censorship. Social networks in the past have often acted to muzzle outsiders and stifle legitimate dissent. The majority is itself a natural threat and the wielding of its power, however indirectly, always has repercussions for better or worse.
I may sound a bit like a free speech anarchist. Perhaps. Several years back, at a Bangkok conference on child abuse, I got into a tangle with some Amnesty International folk who said no newspaper had any business printing a letter from a self-confessed paedophile that obviously was defending his, er, mentoring of young people. As far as I was concerned, his acts deserved imprisonment; but I wasn’t going to put a gag on him.
Someone said, thoughts are the origins of actions. Hell, how many of us read or watch porn, including simulated force, and feel aroused without in the least being tempted to act this out? The fact that a few do does not make a crackdown legitimate. It’s just another version of blaming the media.
It’s a little bit like what I feel when asked why journalist groups defend even the “dirty” colleagues gunned down by irate subjects of their attacks.
Truth is, it is easy to defend the clean, the brilliant, the righteous. It is when we are called to defend our more problematic brethren that our commitment to a free press, free speech and free expression are most tested.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Good intentions

I’m having a hard time making heads or tails of the Alabang Boys scandal.
If the allegations are true – and if a review of past decisions on anti-narcotics cases bears this out – it would show in graphic terms the breadth and depth of drug cartels’ reach. If, on the other hand, the charges raised by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) officers are baseless, then we may be in for a witch hunt that could last till elections.
Except for the families of the three suspects, who have obvious self-interest at stake (and I won’t begrudge them that), both sides raise the banner of noble causes.
It can tear you apart. I am passionately anti-drugs, having seen too many relatives and friends succumb to narcotics’ evil call. I am also passionately pro-human rights. I rather envy those three young men. Last I looked, even court rulings sometimes aren’t enough to spring suspects from left-leaning or Muslim groups, or anyone considered an enemy of the state. Often, final vindication in the Supreme Court comes after decades of incarceration. Isn’t that the reason for the penalty clause in the Anti-Terror Law and laws providing compensation for miscarriages of justice?
Here then are some questions for all the gentle folk concerned:
1) Since when did prosecutors become so cavalier about the disposition of possibly dangerous criminals? How can State Prosecutor John Resado think it’s okay to ignore a standing mandatory review order, and then let the cops handle the problem of missing suspects should a review overturn prosecutors’ dismissal of a case?
2) Is it SOP for Justice Department officers to ignore the fact that they have a Secretary? Why? Shouldn’t the President just assign someone else with enough energy to oversee everything?
3) How can government lawyers say it’s okay to ignore a Secretary’s resolution (in this case, penned by Simeon Datumanong) because they don’t want to get into trouble? Do they have a paper trail of their attempts to inform their superiors about the lousy, dangerous regulations imposed on them?
4) It’s one thing for Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor to ask why suspects remain held even with a resolution of dismissal; it’s an altogether different story when he breezily allows his secretary to deliver privately-sourced but public interest-bearing documents without personally establishing legitimacy. Have the inmates taken over the hospital?
5) How come Gonzalez, who has chewed officials and enemies for much, much less, doesn’t have it in his heart to even display displeasure towards Verano -- who engaged in manipulation and misrepresentation at his expense?
6) Guys who stage such creative buy-bust operations can surely do entrapment. Does PDEA really want us to believe it does not have the capability to trace calls? Why didn’t it seek help from other law enforcement agencies? Is there no one you can trust in law enforcement? Is the situation that hopeless?
7) If he can bandy names like Joe Tecson (without really verifying if he had the right man on the other end of the line), why can’t Maj. Ferdinand Marcelino name his mistah would-be briber? The mistah’s civilian identity is no excuse; civilians aren’t exempt from the law. Surely, the righteous Major isn’t telling us he has one standard for the world and another for his mistahs?
I will grant Marcelino his sincerity. And I will grant that there are too many specious and suspicious arguments advanced by the DOJ’s lawyers. But I wonder how scrupulous are law enforcers in ensuring that cases are built up properly.
Here’s unsolicited advice for the young Marine officer: You once turned down the Magdalo because you didn’t believe in short cuts. Well, don’t change. There are many, many forms of corruption and not all involve money. Be as disciplined in casework as you are with your morals.
Prosecutors have a job – to green light a case for trial or throw out an indefensible one. After all, they’re the ones who engage in courtroom skirmishes. Even the best prosecutor cannot salvage a shoddy case. To do the latter with regularity, you would have to be working in a dictatorship where laws are an afterthought. And for god’s sake, stop whining about technicalities. Too many autocrats use that same term for civil liberties.
That said, may the force be always with you. And may you find a government prosecutor equal to your zeal.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

So What?

*Another yearender epistle, actually bits and pieces from two succeeding columns.

It may have been asking too much of US President George W. Bush to hope that two missed shoe-throws at him would prompt a more introspective insight into the hellish debacle he has wrought in Iraq.
Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi committed the deed during what should have been a triumphant Bush victory lap in Iraq. For his gesture, and for calling the American President a dog, al-Zaidi got tortured into apologizing. Given the human rights record in the so-called Green Zone, he’s probably lucky.
The journalist, who has spurred arguments among peers, Muslim or otherwise, may have taken the wrong tack in reminding Bush of the repercussions of his actions in the aftermath of 9/11.
In the context of the times, it was like insisting on a debate with a schoolyard bully whose idea of resolving conflicts is a fist smashed against a face or, better yet, several fists while cohorts hold a victim helpless on the ground. But anything more vigorous could have ended in a spray of bullets and upped the casualty quotient in that part of the world. (I don’t agree with his action; I’d rather reporters report. But he also represents the perpetual dilemma of a journalist: How neutral is neutral when one’s country is going up in flames and the wails of the damned echo night and day?)
In another important sense --that is, if he truly wished a sudden conversion for Bush -- al-Zaidi failed in his mission.
Bush’s response was limited to a quip about the journalist’s shoe size. His forehead crinkling in the manner of the “Mad” magazine guy, Bush gave the verbal equivalent of a finger flip. What was the tantrum all about? he asked reporters.
That is typical of Bush’s rather fragile hold on reality and his perversely unique take on the responsibilities of the US Commander in Chief. For example, Bush likes to claim his invasion of Iraq led to the dismantling of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an interview with ABC News after the show-throwing incident, when reminded by journalist Martha Raddatz that Iraq didn’t have an al Qaeda presence until he invaded the country, the US President replied: “Yeah, that’s right. So what?”
A President who can make light about a) the lies he peddled his people to bully Congress into approving a war, and b) his approving the use of torture (though he doesn’t call it that) for perceived political enemies, will certainly not be impressed by a references to widows and children.
Bush never got the underlying threat of the journalist’s symbolic gesture. But some sectors of the US government are having nightmares imagining a hostile world that takes up shoes against Americans.
There’s very much likelihood for those kinds of antics as there is a potential for the gesture – a joke now in the West – to morph into a more sinister campaign.
Like any other act of desperation by the weak, show-throwing will probably target the innocents. That is, until the madmen in charge of the martyr assemblylines discover the merits of provoking a murderous response from tense soldiers who snap at a hail of leather and canvass.
Bizarre, right? But that’s exactly what to expect as a legacy of Bush’s world. Enemies will always lurk in the bushes. But with Chief Executives like Dubya, you actually open the gates for them bad guys.
We close the year with a prayer for those young American troops in hostile lands. May they have the grace and the humility and wisdom to not press the trigger when resentful hosts start throwing shoes at the US’ imperial soldiers.

Old as Time

*This was written as a column for the yearend issue of The Philippine GRAPHIC

Old as time

Sex and scams; it’s a toss-up which one is the oldest profession.
They were probably hatched by twins with fingers on humankind’s pulse: the illusion of happiness, on the one hand; the illusion of success, on the other. Both promising instant gratification and, both, at times, exacting a grievous toll.
Ponzi scams – where investors buy nothing but promises of hefty returns – have been around since people switched from barter to tender. The illusion is maintained by paying off initial investors from what latter investors put in. The tower of joy crumbles when new investments can no longer meet obligations – and that always happens as sure as the sun shines in the East. Yet the scam thrives in its various forms, sometimes bankrupting populations of entire countries (Albania, for one).
Conventional wisdom is that Ponzi scams lure the poor and desperate, the lonely and the idle and unproductive. Truth is that, Ponzi victims include society’s richest folk. It’s the attraction of easy profit. There is no accounting for greed.
It is the Ponzi credo of “more, more, more” that permeates the bigger scandal that is the US and global financial meltdown. Lack of accountability is the root problem behind the traditional and criminal schemes that imploded worldwide these past months. And it is sometimes difficult to parse between the traditional and the criminal.
Financial bigwigs often cover up their fumbles by falling back on the small print that admonishes investors to keep track of their funds. When the going is good, few people bother to ask where and how.
The $50-billion Ponzi scam presided over by Bernard Madoff – no less than a former chairman of the Nasdaq – was a three-decade, high-flying operation that had a barely-there accounting and compliance arm.
Madoff’s “victims” range from middle class couples to retirees to family trusts to the International Olympic Committee Federation to Japan’s Numura and many major banks and financial funds. Most of them had finance savvy. They were just too enamoured with ROIs to even care about where the hell these were coming from.
Now, one hedge fund manager has committed suicide in the wake of the Madoff scandal and, worse, anti-Semites have found a bone to nibble on.
Which is a tragedy. Sure, Madoff is Jewish but crooks come from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Many of his clients were Jewish but a big, big number were non-Semites. Their greed had nothing to do with creed. That they blithely accepted huge profits without question is not much different from how the world, media included, jumped up and down as hedge fund managers and all other wunderkinds and wise lions of the marketplace kept chalking up those spectacular profits before the crash.
The rumbles of bigotry -- also long a bane to humankind -- are something to watch out for these days. As much as Barrack Obama’s election to the US Presidency gives us hope for a gentler world, we also have to face reality. When bad times come, the other, the stranger, always becomes a figure of suspicion and mistrust.
Obama himself is a barometer. While the campaign went on, critics accused him of being a Muslim and a liberal or communist and, by implication, a terrorist. Then he appoints as chief of staff the very Jewish Rahm Emanuel, and gets the same amount of grief. And, more recently, his invitation for Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer has sent screams – from all sides now – rising in decibel.
The quicksand is spreading for hope’s herald. Obama has no time to lose in the task of calming the very troubled waters of his nation and the world. Hatred is almost always an offspring of fear. There are more than enough madmen awaiting this obscene birth. (Send rants and raves to

Turning, turning

Here's one from Bloomberg, on "Obama Team Reviewing ‘Buy American’ Plank in Stimulus"
Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- President-elect Barack Obama’s advisers are looking at including a “buy American” provision in the economic-stimulus legislation that the incoming administration has made its first priority.
“We are reviewing the buy American proposal and we are committed to a plan that will save or create 3 million jobs, including jobs in manufacturing,” said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Obama’s transition team.

I love Barack but increasingly hear protectionist undertones in his messages. It actually started early in the presidential campaign.
Each country has to watch out for number one. That's not my beef.
But I think the world has not done enough reminding the US government (and its big power allies) that, not too very long ago they told us little people from the third world that nationalism was a dirty thing, a relic and hindrance to progress.
They told us a lot of things, didn't they? And twisted our arms and actually imposed sanctions when we dragged our feet on the path to globalization and liberalization.
Now... we got the US and friends nationalizing banks and other big firms (even as media seems to be burying the fact that many of these scams would never have happened if US regulators didn't allow so many of its rich and famous to launder funds -- read AIG and those offshore insurance havens; ditto for Maadoff-- so much for compliance watchlists).
In the late 90's, Asians heard the sermon: Let your greedy, secretive, ponderous, crony cabals drown in the swirling floods of history! Now, the powerful are saying: Shoot, we can't let them drown; it'll be the end of the world! (Because of globalization, thank you :)
Just a few years back, the developed nations were kicking down the doors of our industries, forcing many to their knees at the altar of "competitiveness." Soon after, our liberal friends were calling for a boycott of Walmart because of its cheap goods from China.
I'm not proposing to turn back the clock. But I do urge all the little folks out there to make some dents in the arrogance of the world's rulers.
It may be futile to dream of an apology Then again, it'll never come if no one demands for one.