Saturday, 22 December 2007

Religion In Politics

A RATHER interesting, and I’m sure totally strange (at least to most Filipinos) phenomenon, happened in British politics last week.

The newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats – the third largest party in Parliament after Labour and the Conservatives – openly declared on national radio that he did not believe in God.

I could almost hear the gasps among you who are reading this part of the article. What an outrage, you say. A man who does not have any religious faith? That’s just plainly unacceptable, isn’t it? And especially coming from someone who aspires to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth?

How would he govern then, if he were elected? Would he have a firm moral foundation on which his values would be based? What will guide his actions, and make him distinguish right and wrong?

Needless to say, to the Filipino electorate, a local version of Nick Clegg would never be acceptable. Any politician who aspires to be elected to public office must profess to be a man of faith.

Any mainstream religious faith would normally suffice, but usually it is the faith of the majority, in order to ensure the majority’s vote. Openly atheist aspirants to public office just would not stand a chance at all.

And yet in the West, just the opposite is true.

Tony Blair, as it is now known, is a firmly committed Christian – a secret Catholic in the land of the Anglican communion. While it is now accepted that he will eventually embrace the Catholic faith, none of his religious convictions were publicly expressed during his long reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. To have done so would have spelled disaster for him and his party.

For in the land of St. George, the land where the Protestant reformation first sprung, and the land that now professes to embrace people of all faiths within an open and secular society – any talk of the religious is considered out of bounds in politics.

Many people in post-modern Britain do not have any religious conviction. Thus, they regard anyone who holds any religious conviction – especially those who do so with great fervor and devotion – with a great deal of suspicion and mistrust.

While I personally do not agree with the strident, almost militant view against all religion that a lot of people here hold, it is difficult to argue vehemently against them either. Without their politicians openly professing their faith in God, and sprinkling their rhetoric with “Praise the Lord” with every turn of phrase, their society has not disintegrated, as we would assume in our local context.

Contrast this to the scene back home.

Almost to a man (and woman), all of our public servants profess to be adherents of a religious faith. More than that, many of them openly declare, and in fact advertise, their adherence to such faith. And yet, what do we get as a consequence?

It would not be fair to draw direct comparisons. After all, our society is totally different to the UK’s, and religious faith is just one of the many facets that make up our individual societies. But it would also be unfair not to make any attempt at a connection.

The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when asked what he thought of Nick Clegg’s declared atheism, replied that he considers it less of an issue, than he would Mr. Clegg’s stand on secular matters such as law and order, social justice and foreign policy.

In a society where openly religious politicians are routinely discovered to be engaging in acts of corruption, isn’t it perhaps time that we took a more secular approach to our choice of public officials?


Published in The Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Christmas Message

FUEL prices at their highest level ever. An imminent credit crunch that threatens to plunge the world’s economies into a major slowdown.

The mortgage market in the United States in the worst possible shape, dragging down those in other parts of the world along with it. Unprecedented climate change that has already taken its toll with severe flooding in parts of the Indian subcontinent. And especially for England, the prospect of a summer without a team in the European Football Championships!

Surely, events and occurrences to dampen the spirits of even the most resilient of men?

2007 surely was a testing year. And on all fronts at that. The economy, global security, and for the first time in decades – a natural phenomenon that seems to be spiraling out of our control.

We had always assumed that with globalization would come increased tolerance, understanding and integration among the world’s communities.

With all of us surfing the net, visiting the same websites, and playing identical video games, the thought was that we would all eventually “get” one another.

And yet, in some ways there has never been the opportunity for more misunderstanding, at any other time than today.

While most of the simmering anti-Western tension in the Islamic world is politically motivated, a part of it is not. There is certainly a strong undercurrent of resentment against what they see as the decay and moral decadence of Western civilization. All this just adds to their already strong conviction that when they attack targets in the West, they are not only redressing political imbalances imposed by their governments, but also “cleansing” the world of evil, vice and sin.

Back in the days when communities were isolated from one another, we were blissfully ignorant of others’ ways, and were therefore more tolerant of one another by default. For how else could we dislike something we had no idea about?

Today, however, the image of Paris Hilton coming out of a New York night club drunk, half-dressed and with a coterie of drooling men in tow could as easily be viewed in Los Angeles as in Islamabad. This kind of image, when superimposed on an ultra-conservative religious template, is enough to spark revulsion, hate and contempt for everything Western. And certainly, it is more than enough to convince those already armed with a political agenda that they are in the right, and the communities they set out to damage are in the wrong.

Time to reflect perhaps, if ever there was a better time to do so, on the message of that first-ever Christmas, when a child was born among the simple folk of Bethlehem, with a powerful message for all the world.

While we think our world today is a great deal more fractious and strife-torn, it wasn’t all that different in Christ’s time. The Romans were in town, and their way of governing would probably make today’s worst dictator look decidedly benevolent. In short, life was hard —much harder than the situation most of us are faced with today.

And yet it was in those very difficult of times that he chose to come among us, to give us hope.

Christ gave himself to mankind, by being born among them. This is the message of Christmas – the message of joyous giving, just as He joyously gave himself to the world, to save it from sin.

What better message for us to take, as we go forward in these rather difficult times? If we can give joyously of our understanding, our tolerance, our appreciation for one another, and our concern for the world we live in, then perhaps we could make a difference, just as He did on that first Christmas Day.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 15, 2007

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Blaspheming Teddy Bear

IT has probably reached Philippine ears by now, this strange, strange saga of a Liverpool schoolteacher in Sudan, who has been threatened with 40 lashes of a cane, for having allowed the children in her class to name their teddy bear Muhammad.

Sudan practices Islamic Shariah Law, where the crime of blasphemy to the Prophet Muhammad is punished rather severely. Unfortunately, naming a bear, albeit a teddy one, after the prophet is a grievous transgression – the rationale being that the bear is a “wild animal” (though a teddy bear surely isn’t, but the Sudanese don’t know that), and something “wild” is surely not in the prophet’s character.

To the West, none of this makes sense. In a society where secular humanism rules, and all religion is considered “superstition” and basically frowned upon, there is just no logic behind the Sudanese action.

Unfortunately, in the Sudanese world view, there is perhaps nothing wrong with what they have done, as far as they are concerned. After all, they are merely upholding their beliefs and traditions, and administering punishment to a Westerner who has broken their laws, just as if she was one of their own.

Echoes of Rudyard Kipling perhaps? East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet?

In more ways than we can measure the length of a twain with – yes.

Globalization has forced a convergence of sorts among different cultures and societies. Western consumerism — the new Socialism –- has conquered the world with the speed of the Internet. Trends like business process outsourcing (BPO) have allowed people of erstwhile different backgrounds to work and interact harmoniously and productively, enhancing social integration at a pace that would never have been possible previously.

Having said this, it has also emphasized certain key differences among our societies, and forced us to confront those realities that still separate us.Religion is one of those realities.

With the exception perhaps of the USA, most of Western society has shunned anything religious. Secular humanism rules all aspects of life -– from government, to education and the consequent social institutions they give rise to. Christians and Muslims alike are treated similarly –- as superstitious individuals who are not capable of rational behavior.

Not surprisingly, individuals have lost respect for all aspects religious.

The wearing of religious symbols of any kind is frowned upon in Britain, so much so that even small Christian crosses that are common ornaments for us cannot be worn to the office, at the risk of serious consequences. Even the celebration of religious festivities is downplayed. As we mentioned in this space before, holidays like Christmas have been renamed to strip away their religious connotations, and make them inclusive for everyone.

It is within this greater context that the “teddy bear” furor takes on more significance.

On the one hand, we in the West need to be more sensitive to those beliefs and values that people in other places hold dear. Our “rational” secular humanist values may make sense of the world for us, but they do not necessarily govern the world view of people elsewhere.

And for those of us in societies where the spiritual holds more sway over the temporal, perhaps we need a sense of moderation in our beliefs, especially when it comes to imposing punishment for transgressions that are more accidental than intentional, as this one surely was.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 08, 2007

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Indians Are Coming

IN the Filipino imagination, when one hears the title being spoken, it would probably connote images of American-Indian braves riding down the hill and encircling a convoy of pioneers, shooting at them with their arrows as the settlers desperately try to defend themselves with their hunting rifles.

And then from out of the blue, to the sound of the bugles, arrive the cavalry to chase the bad guys and rescue the beleaguered pioneers to safety.

Today, however, it is Indians of the real kind who are coming.

Not the ones dressed in feathers and war paint, but those who actually come from the country of India.

They used to come to the West to work in its factories. Some arrived as health care professionals in search of greener pastures. But whatever they came as, they came for one thing—a better life. Then, India was a poor and absolutely difficult country to live in. People were escaping their poverty in droves, to the welcoming shores of the affluent West.

Today, they come with a different agenda.

No longer seeking the material comforts of faraway lands, they come to conquer. No, not conquest as in taking over countries and establishing dynasties or anything like that. They come to take over businesses, or establish their own in distant shores.

Forbes Magazine reports that the top 3 Indian billionaires are now worth more than their top 40 Chinese counterparts combined. And they go on further to say that in the world’s top 10, with the dollar going the way it is, there will soon be more Indian than American billionaires in the group.

This may not mean a lot to most people. After all, businessmen are businessmen, wherever they happen to be from.

Being Indian, American or Chinese may indicate more an accident of birth rather than anything of great significance, as they tend to share the same characteristics, drive and ambition, irrespective of where it is that they came from.

While this is partly true, it is not an entirely correct conclusion. It is significant that in today’s global economy, it is entrepreneurs from the erstwhile “Third World” who are advancing rapidly in terms of wealth and affluence.

It is even more significant for us Filipinos because the ones who are succeeding look and act more like us, than the white Westerners who used to be the ones we exclusively looked up to when it came to building and creating wealth.

When Lakshmi Mittal’s group took over France’s Arcelor, it was not unlike the braves riding down the hill and firing arrows at the hapless “les pioneers.” He came and delivered a clear and unequivocal message to France and the rest of the developed world-–our time has come, and we are here to stay.

And yet while Mittal Steel was busy snapping up France’s Arcelor, China’s Lenovo acquiring IBM’s PC business, and Reliance Industries rapidly expanding its portfolio of businesses overseas, our own Filipino conglomerates have been unusually insular, and sticking closely to the home front.

Alright, San Miguel is alive and well in Southeast Asia, Chow King now has outlets in many places in Jakarta, and the Indonesians now munch on the same Jack and Jill snack favorites that we used to enjoy as kids.

But these are nowhere near enough.

Encircling our wagons and waiting defensively for the braves to arrive does not anymore qualify as a viable and sustainable long term strategy.

In a world increasingly without borders, and in markets now devoid of nationalities, only those with truly great ambitions will succeed.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, November 17, 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Ten Letters (Conclusion)

THE “Desperate Housewives” furor has compelled us to delay the conclusion of this series regarding our economy’s twin pillars of nursing and business process outsourcing (BPO) that we may weigh in with our views on the issue.

On reflection, the controversy that the episode generated has actually been a good opportunity to put the entire matter into perspective, and served as a reminder to our economic policy makers, just how fragile the foundations of our economy are at this present time.

As we have already discussed, cost and competence are key to maintaining our pre-eminent position, both in the export of healthcare, as well as the provision of BPO services.

Judging by our reaction to that offending line in the TV show, it seems that we are not as secure in the competence of our health workers as we ought to be.

If, for example, the criticism had been directed at the quality of say British, American or even South African health professionals, the comment would have probably passed relatively unnoticed. After all, why fret over something that is clearly untrue?

However, the fact that we collectively jumped up and down, and went to great lengths to demand a public apology from the show’s producers means we have ample reason to doubt our own true worth. We are clearly insecure, and not without good reason.

Judging by the Commission on Higher Education’s (Ched) own standards, the quality of our nursing education is greatly uneven across all providers. While there are clearly some outstanding institutions, there are also schools that are just riding the trend, and out to make a killing from the huge demand.

There is a very real danger that this could prove to be our undoing.

The scandal involving cheating during the nursing board examinations only proves that there are those nursing graduates who are not confident enough in their ability to pass the professional licensing examinations on their own merits, and had thus to resort to cheating to ensure that they do so. After all, to those who have undergone proper training, passing board examinations should not even be a major concern.

On the BPO front, though quality seems to be less of an issue, the means of ensuring it seem to be far from being the ideal solution.

In almost all call centers today, invariably most of the staff will be university degree holders, with some coming from the most prestigious of the country’s institutions. It is not uncommon, for example, for somebody coming from the University of the Philippines, De La Salle or Ateneo to be working in such places.

While this answers the need for quality in the short-term, by hiring “overqualified” staff into the industry, it is a problem in the long term.

Overqualified staff will clearly not be in it for the long-term, and will see this only as a short-term solution to a financial need, or further career advancement. Needless to say, in an industry where turnover is already high due to its nature, this creates an even higher staff turn, creating greater instability among the organizations concerned.

As for cost, call center operators with university degrees are likely not content to settle for subsistence wages for a long time.

The policy implications of these realities are clear.

Even as we need to train health professionals in even greater numbers, standards have to be better enforced than they are today, if those markets we currently serve are not to lose confidence in the skills of our exports. Today, this may be less of a concern as demand far outstrips supply, but this will not be so in the future.

As far as BPO is concerned, we have to stop relying on “over-qualification” as the means to ensure the workforce’s competence. Call center operators do not need to be university graduates (as they are not in most places around the world). Only if we strengthen our educational system across the board, can the BPO sector be assured of a constant supply of manpower that is fit for purpose, and happy to be where they are.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, November 03, 2007

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Political correctness

TWO months ago, there was a story that made big headlines in the United Kingdom.

A female employee of British Airways was dismissed from her job—not for poor performance, attitude, or anything else that we may associate with reasons for being fired. British Airways let her go because she insisted on wearing a small cross pendant to work.

Just last week, another British Airways man was re-admitted to work after having been suspended for a few days. The worker was not suffering from performance-related issues either. His offense? Hanging a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall of the employee staff room, which upset one of his Muslim colleagues, who then complained to management, leading to the man’s suspension.

This coming holiday season, many towns and cities will spruce up and decorate their public places, for the Winterval festival. They will put up festive trees in the town centers and hang festival lights along the main thoroughfares.

Notice the absence of something here? That’s right, Christmas isn’t in it.

Christmas is banned. Or at least the mention of it is. And why? Because according to the Birmingham City Council, which invented the term “Winterval,” Christmas is not an “inclusive” celebration. Not inclusive because it is a Christian holiday, and excludes Muslims, Jews, people of other faiths — and of course the non-believers — from participation.

And who could forget that infamous incident, sparked by a cartoon that was printed in a Danish magazine, rather misguidedly depicting the prophet Muhammad in “contemporary” images?

The incident was answered by outrage scarcely seen anywhere, eclipsing even the violent reactions to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. So serious was the fallout that it involved not only the governments of Denmark and the major Islamic states to diffuse it, even the European Union, the United States and the United Nations had to weigh in on the issue as well.

What is the common thread running through all of these incidents? PC. That’s right, PC. Political correctness or PC, as it is now more commonly referred to, is the common denominator.

Whether it is a Christian’s inability to wear vestiges of her religion, a rebuke to a young man’s desire to be constantly reminded of the image of his creator, a denial of a community’s right to celebrate a festival that it has always done for hundreds of years, or the curtailment of an editor’s freedom to publish cartoons for the education of the wider public — political correctness is behind them all.

In an increasingly diverse world, where populations mix and move freely, it is only appropriate that individuals and communities should treat each other with a certain amount of respect, and certainly with a great deal of empathy and understanding.

But there is a great danger to all this — the danger that free speech and freedom of expression — the bedrock on which our free and democratic societies are founded — will become the greatest victims.

Free societies entail give and take, and a certain amount of humor when it comes to opposing groups and interests talking about, or dealing with, each other. But this has to be two-way traffic, and not merely a one-way flow.

We are a good example of this, as a people.

Our jokes are peppered with humorous instances focusing on race, ethnicity, disability, and many other subject matters that are, by today’s standards, totally inappropriate. Michael V’s “DJ Bumbay,” a song parodying our stereotypical image of the Indian entrepreneur is a good case in point.

And yet, we have not learned to deal with situations where the joke is turned on us. That now infamous “Desperate Housewives” line comes to mind.

It would be a dull world indeed if every time we wanted to say, write, publish or sing something, we must first spend the time to think about each and every interest group that might take offense with our actions. Certainly, that would wipe out a great number of Filipino jokes that have ever been told.

And so, as we face the brave new world of ever-increasing globalization, we should perhaps go forth and be guided by the new Golden Rule of political correctness —“do not joke about others, what you do not want others to joke about you.”

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, October 20, 2007 (

Saturday, 13 October 2007

A final word, in desperation...

I will end my commentary on the whole issue by simply asking why we think it is perfectly alright for us to do this:

and this:

and even for one of our most respected politicans to say this:

but when anyone dares to poke fun at a segment of our population like this:

everyone immediately cries racism and discrimination?

Still Desperate over “Housewives”

The whole issue just refuses to go quietly.

In Internet blogs, and just about every online forum imaginable, everyone seems to be expressing their views on the controversy. And of course, there is the unceasing coverage on all of the mainstream media.

Not only ordinary folk, but politicians of all persuasions have been weighing in with their views – ranging from the reasonable to the absurd.

But what is behind all this uproar? Is it even justified? Are we doing the right thing to redress the wrong that has supposedly been done to us? Or are we perhaps acting in a way that is only going to do us more harm than good in the long run?

In one of our discussion groups, I was asked by a friend to elaborate on my views. I feel that it builds on the arguments I presented in the previous column regarding the same subject, and thus I am printing it here for the benefit of a wider audience.

Here is the full text of my reply.

Hi Rolando

The whole issue goes well beyond just academic equivalence here, in my view. I think many Filipinos reacted the way they did because for the first time (and on primetime TV at that) they felt like they were not really totally accepted and welcomed in their newly adopted homeland. It was almost like "hey, why make fun of me, I am one of you" sort of thing, I believe.

Here is probably where a bigger problem with the Philippines today lies – we are so USA-oriented, it’s untrue! Almost everyone wants to be in America, whether it is by hook or by crook. And this in itself causes a lot of problems.

It used to be that in the old days, only hardworking and upstanding Filipino professionals went to the US to work. Today, in this modern-day Diaspora when it seems every Juan and his dog has already moved stateside, it is not just our "model citizens" that we are exporting, but the dregs of our society are there too! You will have heard about Filipino criminal gangs in LA, surely?

This is always a problem with migration, and I see it everywhere I go to – whether it be in the US, Britain, any country in Europe, and even in Turkey and the Middle East. Any large migrant group is always subject to a certain amount of scrutiny from the native population, who feel in some way either threatened or disturbed by such presence in their midst.

I think we have now reached critical mass in the States that we cannot anymore keep our heads below the parapet. Like it or not, we are being noticed, in good and bad ways, by the native population, as well as all the other immigrant groups.

Let me give you an example. Insurers of product warranties in the UK have singled out Filipinos for one particular thing – the unduly high return rates of products prior to the warranty expiring, to have them exchanged for new ones. I was not sure why this was, until a friend of ours told me about what seems to be a modus among many Filipinos here. In his case, he apparently was having some "problems" with his PC, so in order to have it exchanged for a new one prior to the warranty expiring, he poured orange juice on it. Clearly, enough of us here must be pouring juices on their PCs for insurers to take notice!

As immigrant groups, we need to take the rough or the smooth, and criticism – whether warranted or not – is part of this in a free and democratic society, like the US is. Free speech has its blessings, but as we found out, it can bite too. But we cannot get too overly sensitive and politically correct about it, or we become labeled as whiners and whingers. A lot of the reaction I have seen seems to be bordering on mass whining.

We cannot anymore reverse the trend, like it or not. We will be a sizeable minority in the US for years to come, and we need to be prepared to take more of these on the chin. It took a long time for the Italians and the Irish to be accepted as equals in the US, and even today jokes about them are still aplenty. Filipinos will need to be prepared for this for a long time to come yet!

Kind regards


Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, October 13, 2007 (

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Desperate housewives

I was going to conclude Ten Letters this week, until a rather more interesting subject for discussion surfaced in my high school batch’s e-Group in the last few days. The issue concerns a throwaway (or so the scriptwriter thought) line in a recent episode of Desperate Housewives, where the character (and this we must bear in mind) of Teri Hatcher is in effect questioning the competence of medical practitioners from the Philippines.

Thanks to the mi-racle of modern electronic technology —no sooner had the line probably been spoken, when the snippet found itself all over the Internet, fuelling heated reaction from many offended countrymen—physicians and non-physicians alike.

On first hearing (I, too, found it difficult to resist viewing the clip on YouTube), I have to admit that I was rather shocked. Here was a popular character on primetime TV, actually saying something that cast aspersions on the capability of Filipino doctors, and by extension, on the abilities of all Filipinos to hack it in today’s global economy.

Had she said India, Sri Lanka, China, or any other country for that matter, I would probably have thought it was somewhat of a bigoted line for about a minute, and then I would have forgotten about the whole thing entirely. But no, she actually uttered the word “Philippines,” and thereby lay the whole issue for all of us.

Sometime ago, I too had the same line spoken to me (not in form, but in substance) by no less than an official of the United Kingdom’s academic recognition body.

In effect, what I was told was that my post-graduate degree was not even the equivalent of a UK undergraduate course, simply because the institute where I got it from was located in the Philippines. This, notwithstanding the fact that this institute happened to be only among a few officially accredited by global standards bodies in North America and Europe, in the company of Harvard, Wharton, London Business School, etc.

In the end I was able to prove my case, but only after having educational authorities in the Philippines, and the institute’s peers in the UK itself, back up my claim. My case was precedent setting, in that any graduate from the institute now seeking official recognition in the UK automatically receives it without question.

I was irate at the UK authorities in the beginning, but after careful reflection, my anger turned to our own education policymakers back home.

Philippine education, in general, is in a shambles, and it is not up to the standards that a developing economy ought to be aspiring to. I was able to extricate myself out of trouble only after proving that I received my degree from an “international” rather than a “Philippine” institution. In winning my case, I did not win a victory for our national educational curriculum, but only for myself and for the institute.

There is a bigger battle to be fought, and unfortunately I neither have the time nor the inclination to be leading it anymore.

Most of us who are offended by the remark are feeling insulted “personally,” because we think that we are not “inferior” to anyone, anywhere in the world. But in the cold light of day — stripped of any malicious intent and racist undertones — her character is not way off the mark.

Our medical education (and our entire educational system), in general, does not compare favorably with education in the West. The fact that our system still turns out good physicians (and good nurses, managers, engineers, etc.), in spite of its limitations, is an entirely different thing altogether. And that’s something we ought to be very proud of.

If we are to take something constructive, rather than just feel personally slighted by it all, I hope our education policy makers take heed and do something about our situation.

That our countrymen still manage to survive and even do well abroad is no thanks to the education they receive at home, but all down to their excellent skills at adapting quickly, and learning on the fly in their foreign environments.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, October 06, 2007 (

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Ten Letters (4)

LET'S get straight to the point.

As a country, we have never been that good in sustaining anything that is potentially of value. So many opportunities have been presented before us, and many more have been there for the taking. And yet, all we have managed to do is squander most of them away.

Today, the BPO industry and the export of healthcare (particularly nursing) workers to foreign markets are proving to be lifesavers for our economy, both without which we would be in even direr straits than we are at the moment.

It is perhaps a difficult thing to accept — that we as a country are either doing things that other countries find to be of little value (the whole essence of Business Process Out-sourcing), or find less rewarding to pursue (such as being a nurse in a developed economy).

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and although I am hardly labeling those in either sector as desperate, what I am really saying is that given where we are, we have really very little choice in which activities we do or do not wish to pursue. We have to, as a country, take on all comers, as they say.

The first thing to do is to admit that we have little choice in the matter, as this sets us in the right frame of mind to do whatever it is we need to do to be good in both, for as long as we can.

The second thing to realize is that we need to keep working away in being good at these things, because in an increasingly global eco-nomy, alternatives always abound, and we can be easily be substituted with very little notice.

And of course, the third fact we need to digest is that we cannot just rely on these two sectors to lead us into economic prosperity — many more answers will have to be found to the question of economic development, if we are to get anywhere.

These three “reality checks” serve as useful guides in formulating a whole host of policies, influencing such areas as education, tourism, finance, and economic development.

The first pillar is perhaps self-evident. Apart from the two sectors, we have very little to go by as a country anymore.

Bankrupted by years of inept leadership, and today still ruled by a bickering, selfish and morally corrupt political elite, nursing and BPO are opportunities that our Tagalog friends would call “kapit sa patalim.” I prefer this description to “last-ditch,” which somehow doesn’t quite describe the desperation as starkly. But you get the picture.

The second pillar is the one that needs a lot of work put into it, by everyone concerned. Two Cs determine whether we continue to be favored over other countries — cost and competence.

The first is particularly key to BPO, because by de-finition, business processes that are being outsourced, are those which are not considered by the outsourcer as being “core” to their business. For example, call centers for banks are considered necessary, but not key to their survival and success. Therefore they are willing to farm out the task to the lowest bidder.

Having said that cost is the pre-eminent consideration, competence is considered as standard — if you have it you get the business (providing you are the lowest bidder) but if you don’t have it, then you lose the business (even if you are the lowest bidder).

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, September 29, 2007 (

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Ten Letters (3)

I REMEMBER the days when I was an eager young man working in the financial services sector back home.

At that time, all the rage was about the furniture industry and how good we were compared to the rest of our neighbors in the Asean. Years before this, it was our sugar industry that was the darling of our economy.

What’s happened to them now, and why? Depending on your perspective — too much, and not a lot.

In the beginning, they made too much profit, but not a lot of it went into re-investment.

Flushed with our success, we made too much hype of them, but really not a lot of action.

And though there was getting to be too much competition, we never did a lot to strengthen whatever advantage we had.

As a result, although there was too much promise then, there is not a lot to show for them today.

It is a difficult thing to admit, but we need to face up to reality sometime — even in our economic policy, the “ningas cogon” syndrome is a difficult thing to shake off.

If we were athletes, we would be good sprinters, but poor marathon runners.

We get to the 100-meter line first, but once there we immediately set up our hammocks and take a long siesta. Meanwhile, everyone else, whilst seemingly jogging along at a much slower pace, will have passed us by and crossed the finish line before we wake up. When we wake up, we then realize how much ground we have already lost and decide to quit the race in desperation.

Count them with your fingers if you can — prawn farming, handicraft, garments, terra cotta, iron craft, wood working, dehydrated food, processed food, floriculture, tourism — you will run out of fingers and still the list goes on of sectors where we had shown a lot of early potential, but which never really progressed much beyond the promising stage. Or if anything did, it invariably had a meteoric climb to the top, but an equally precipitous drop to mediocrity or failure.

True, there are exceptions to be found within these sectors, but these are organizations that have survived due to their own efforts, and not because of any coherent strategy from the top.

Today, the apples in the eyes of our policy makers happen to be nursing, and the BPO (business process outsourcing) industry.

Much is being made of the successes we have attained in gaining a substantial share of the demand for healthcare workers in foreign lands. We cannot, it seems, produce enough nurses to meet the demand in overseas markets and have to open new schools year after year to fill the gap.

Call centers, too, are sprouting all over the place like mushrooms. A lot of times these days whenever I need to call a contact center from the UK, it is an American-sounding-but-quite-distinctly Filipino accent that I hear on the other line.

But what are we doing to ensure that the industries that now provide the lifeline to thousands of our countrymen continue to prosper and survive, instead of going the way our furniture and sugar potential went — with a lot of snap, crackle and pop in the beginning, somewhat of a big bang in the middle, but just total silence in the end?

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, September 22, 2007 (

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Ten Letters (2)

SERVICE industries are a peculiar lot.

Unlike manufacturing organizations — with their factories, equipment and stacks of inventory — many service-orientated companies have little by way of “hard” assets.

Take a restaurant, for example. Among the things of tangible value would be the furniture, kitchen equipment, some pieces of décor and possibly the building itself in which it is located. Apart from these, the refrigerator will probably contain a few days worth of food ingredients, but not much more really.

Clearly, as the Little Prince would no doubt have observed, what is of value in a restaurant business “is invisible to the eye.”

Call centers are even more spartan — just huge, open floor areas with lots of desks, computers and banks of telephones. Okay, maybe the air conditioners would be worth something, but I think you get the point by now.

In elaborating on his theory of competitive advantage, the eminent Har-vard management guru Michael Porter cites “intensive capital requirements” as one of the major barriers to enter any industry.

Automotive manufacturing, for example, is one such sector. Since it requires large capital investment which are often unavailable to would-be start-ups, those already in the sector are afforded some sort of protection from competition, at least for some time until potential entrants find a way to either raise funds, or do things differently that would require lower capital investment.

In many service businesses, “intensive capital requirements” is usually not a major barrier to entry. Almost anyone can start a restaurant, and for that matter, entering the call centre business does not seem to be such a difficult proposition. Whether the ventures succeed or not is an entirely different proposition.

As a country, we have chosen to hitch our future on the provision of services to the world. Nursing and BPO are two of our biggest revenue earners at the moment — and if we believe all the hype that surrounds them — will remain so for the foreseeable future.

As we have pointed out, this subjects us to potentially stiff competition from rival countries who wish to do the same things we are doing. And because services do not require a lot of investment, it will not be that easy for us to defend our position.

Take the case of the domestic service (domestic helper) sector, for example.

Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Africans, have undercut the going rates for our countrymen in the lucrative markets of the Middle East. As a result, these countries have managed to take a large share of our erstwhile monopoly in the region.

Nursing and business process outsourcing will not be exempt from the competitive pressures that the domestic service sector experienced. Even today, nurses from India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa continue to flock in large numbers to the same countries where our countrymen are headed, e.g. the United States and the United Kingdom.

BPO businesses likewise face stiff competition, especially from India, where the call center revolution first started.

And yet, we cannot escape the great responsibility of making sure that these service sectors survive and thrive amidst the growing foreign competition.

The lives of thousands of our countrymen, and the fortunes of thousands of others who depend on them, demand no less.

NOTE: Warmest greetings to my beloved wife, Cynthia Marie Arguelles Batuhan, who celebrates her birthday on Sept. 20.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, September 15, 2007 (

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Ten Letters

ALL in 10 letters.

That’s right. It seems that these days, the entire nation’s future rests on only 10 letters. Well, nine letters to be exact, but one is twice important.

B-G-I-N-O-P-R-S-U. The future of the Philippines is all there. Rearrange the order, repeat the “N” twice, and you can decipher the hope for our future.

What are they? Why BPO and NURSING, of course. Who can open a paper these days without seeing something on one or the other?

Whether to favorite destinations like the United States and the United Kingdom, or less favored ones such as Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, everyone’s ambition, it seems, is to go there and work as a nurse. So much so that in a nation where there seems to be a college or university in every street corner, we now have a shortage of institutions to meet the insatiable demand for nursing education.

Those who manage to escape the forces of the nursing magnet, or simply want to stay at home instead of roaming the world caring for the ill and infirm, end up mostly in one place — the call center. Business process outsourcing (BPO), or simply put, the export of work routines that foreign companies see as “non-core” and “non value-adding” to their organizations, has become the career of choice for our well-spoken and well-educated workforce, graduated from esteemed centers of learning like the Ateneo, La Salle and UP.

There’s nothing wrong per se to having a current competitive advantage in at least two sectors that provide mass employment for our young people. After all, the more of us are in employment, the less burden it will be for the state (and indeed for our families, relatives and friends) to provide the necessary financial support to those that would otherwise be out of work. And of course, tax revenues and remittance inflows from these sectors are becoming a larger and larger component of our gross domestic product.

For now, it seems, we at least have some answers to the all important question – “how shall we provide work for our countrymen?”

“For now,” because whether we realize it or not, nursing and BPO can only be the answers for so long. I have purposely alluded to this earlier in the piece, by saying that we have a “current” competitive advantage in both sectors.

By current, I meant the “here and now” only. Whether or not we still have this edge in years to come remains to be seen, and is something that we need to invest a lot of work into.

While both appear unrelated at first, there is a lot in common between BPO and nursing than we might think.

Both are in the service sector, with people being their most important resource.

And the nature of this resource is precisely where our future problems are likely to come from.

One thing we need to realize is that we are producing levels of these resources, OVER AND ABOVE what our local economy alone can fully utilize.

To use an old economy analogy, these are “export-orientated” sectors that need foreign demand, otherwise we will have excess production that our domestic requirements alone can never hope to utilize.

It is clear then that this “foreign demand” has to constantly be there, or we will have an excess of resources with little use for our own consumption.

But how robust and reliable is this foreign demand that we are talking about?

Can we rely on this to continue well into the future?

NOTE: Warm Greetings to my brother, Atty. Aristotle “Totol” Batuhan, who celebrated his birthday yesterday.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, September 08, 2007 (

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Faith tourism (the not so good side)

IT was a very fulfilling experience — having visited some of the holiest sites of the faith that I was born into.

A few years ago, while working in Turkey, my family also had the opportunity to see many of the places that feature prominently in the history of the Church, among them the church in the Byzantine city of Nicaea, where the wording of the Apostle’s Creed as we know it today was agreed upon; the Seven Churches of the Revelation; the Basilica of the Hagia Sophia — the ancient world’s rival to the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; the city of Ca-ppadocia; the House of Mary (one of the sites believed to be where the Blessed Mother spent her last days under the care of the apostle John); and the ancient city of Ephesus, where the apostles Paul and John continued their work of evangelization following the death of Jesus Christ.

There is something about actually being in places that are mentioned frequently in our prayers, where some of the Bible’s most famous passages were written, or where the first Christians went about preaching the good news to people outside the faith, that can strengthen the belief of even the most shaky adherents like myself.

Taking in the majestic grandeur of a place like Cappadocia, the tranquility of a lakeside summer city as Nicaea or the rugged landscape of the churches of Sardis and Laodicea, it is difficult not to feel strengthened by the resolve of the first converts to make it through, despite all the obstacles that stood in their way. For me therefore, personal pilgrimages are faith enhancing, and useful to believers of a faith — any faith for that matter.

This is where I also noted the other side of faith tourism — the one that is as less desirable as the spiritual elements are spiritually enriching — the business side of it. For I have never found commercialism and naked capitalism to be as rife and rampant as in the places where people of faith congregate and visit.

Never have I paid so much for a simple breakfast of egg omelette, toasted bread and coffee, for example, as I had in Lourdes — a princely sum of P1,500 for the privilege. This was no Shangril-La in the Pyrenees either — just a simple café staffed by some surly looking Frenchmen, who looked like the last time a smile crossed their faces was when the Virgin Mother appeared before St. Bernadette.

In Italy, the smiles were much more welcoming but the mark-ups were no less exorbitant. Around the area of the St. Peter’s Basilica, a bottle of water was selling for P300, and this was out of one of the roadside mobile food sellers, not in some fancy Roman bistro. No wonder the Italians always say the water in their many outdoor fountains tastes good — seems like they have no choice but to convince themselves of this, otherwise they would be spending all their disposable income just on drinking water!

I guess in the end, business will spring where an opportunity exists, whether it is to cater to the simply curious — such as the Moulin Rouge, or the fervently faithful like the Cathedral of the Sacre Cour (Sacred Heart) in nearby Montmartre.

The only thing that we can do, as the faithful devoted who flock to these sites in our thousands, is to be more discerning in how we part with our money. Like for a start, not paying P2,000 for a small statue of the pieta, which clearly looks like it was made in China.

Only then may we actually see a modern-day miracle coming out from some of these sacred places — the miracle of mass price reduction forced upon profiteering businessmen to win back customers boycotting their overpriced merchandise.

CONGRATULATIONS. Our congratulations to JM Batuhan, who won second place in the Essay Category, English Division of the 57th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Awarding takes places on Sept. 1 at the Manila Peninsula Hotel. Also our warmest felicitations to my son, Jacob Anthony Batuhan, whose work “Spartan War” was judged among the winners and chosen for publication in the Young Writers Writing Competitions for Secondary School Pupils, in the United Kingdom.

Published in theSun Star Daily, Saturday, September 01, 2007 (

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Faith Tourism

OVER the best part of the last week and a half, my family — along with my parents-in-law — spent our summer “holiday” in France and Italy.

It was not much by way of a typical holiday, I have to say. None of those long days lazing by the swimming pool with a cold bottle of beer in hand situations at all. Yes, there were still sight-seeing visits to the attractions, but not to the usual ones like theatres and shopping centers.

Due to the special request of my wife Cynthia, we decided that this year’s vacation was going to be a different one in every sense. First off, she wanted it to be with her mom and dad, whom she loves most dearly. Second, instead of the amusement parks, she wanted to take a pilgrimage of sorts to some of our faith’s most revered sites. On the year when she turns the age that most of us consider to be a turning point in our lives, she wanted to have time for reflection, rather than just relaxation.

So off we went; first stop — Paris, the City of Lights. Although known mainly for its romantic draw, Paris — unknown to me until now – is home to a good number of religiously significant destinations, among them the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre and the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Rue du Bac.

As a young boy growing up, the Sacred Heart School as well as the Asilo de la Medalla Milagrosa were familiar associations to me. Thus, actually visiting the places where these schools took their names from is really quite a fascinating experience.

Next, it was off to the mountains of the Pyrenees, to the small town of Lourdes where Our Lady appeared to a young French shepherd girl at the turn of the last century. I have to say that visiting the place was an experience quite like no other that I have ever had.

Nowhere have I ever been to before where I have seen so many people from so many countries, races and backgrounds than in that small town up in the French Alps.

Every country in the Christian world (and even many from those that are not) must have been represented there. There were so many people with all manners of disability, in crutches, walking canes, wheelchairs and even stretchers — all there in the fervent belief that they may yet be cured from the illnesses that afflict them.

After coming down from Lourdes, it was just a quick stop in Paris to recharge, and then we were off again, this time to the home of Catholicism — Rome.

Of course, no visit to the city would be complete without a stop at the Vatican.

The only drawback was that this time of the year, the pope was not around, preferring his summer home up in the hills of Castel Gandolfo to the simmering heat of the Italian capital. So we went up there too, to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father as he was delivering his usual Sunday message to the faithful.

The last stop in our Italian itinerary was to the little town of Lanciano, some three hours away from Rome. A small church there is home to what is acknowledged to be the first and greatest Eucharistic miracle the world has ever witnessed — that of the host and wine actually turning into flesh and blood during consecration in the Holy Mass. Documented by many scientists as actually being of human flesh and blood, the relics are still there for the faithful to behold — perfectly preserved all these years, though exposed to the elements, and free from artificial preservatives of any kind.
More next week.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, August 18, 2007 (

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Tipping the balance...finally

WE have covered a lot of ground on the subject of Business Performance Management over the last few weeks.

Our basic premise was that in most organizations today, it is very difficult to get all the parts working together as a coordinated whole. This is true especially in large and “professionally-run” organizations. While the people who work in them know their individual roles and responsibilities, not all have the entrepreneurial vision to understand what it takes to manage a total business.

We introduced the metaphor of an orchestra, complete with skilled and talented musicians, which without the presence of an experienced and competent conductor will not be able to produce melodious music.

Applying this to business organizations, we then explored the ill effects of the over-reliance on the “one version of the truth” from our accountants, which many still use to measure and manage the performance of organizations.

But as we took pains to point out, financial numbers show us only the effects of our past actions. They tell us precious little about what we need to be doing in the present, and even much even less of where we ought to be focusing our efforts on in the future.

One of the recent and most significant advances in management that has come about to address this major shortcoming in business performance management (BPM) is the introduction by Kaplan and Norton of the Balanced Scorecard.

Although both finance professionals by background, they realized the folly of relying on financial statements alone to run a business, and wisely pointed out that to both gauge ongoing performance and guide future action, a much broader perspective is required.

Today, at least on paper, many organizations seem to be using balanced scorecards in their BPM processes. In fact, a number claim to be employing it as their main BPM tool. And yet it is apparent that this seemingly widespread acceptance is nowhere near enough to redress the imbalance.

As the story told by my friend the Finance Director illustrates, old habits die hard.

Business organizations, despite their pretensions to having embraced the merits of balanced BPM measures, are still predominantly judged by their financial results. Whether such financial success was obtained at the expense of the business’ future viability, seems to matter little in the equation.

This happens despite the fact that over the years, many companies have been found to have “massaged” their numbers in various ways, to make it appear that their organizations have performed well, when in truth they were already in dire straits. When it comes to the crunch, financial numbers still take precedence over everything else.

It is difficult to work successfully toward a goal, unless a business knew exactly which goal it was wants to achieve.

Perhaps it is with this preceding statement that we can conclude our entire series on the Balanced Scorecard.

If we are to finally tip the scales towards having a BPM system that tells us the whole story about our businesses — we need to stop relying on financial numbers alone as the main criteria for determining which ones in our organizations deserve rewards, and which ones require punishment for their actions.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, August 11, 2007 (

Saturday, 4 August 2007

A balance of truths

EVER heard of Rashomon?

This acclaimed piece of work, from the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, explores the relativity of truth, i.e. the premise that there is no single version of what is “true” — this being subject to whichever point of view one happens to take on an event or incident.

If Kaplan and Norton were fans of Japanese cinema, I would not have had any doubt that their inspiration for the balanced scorecard came from Kurosawa himself.

Accountants often speak of “the one version” of the truth, appropriating this authoritative mantle for the “one set of numbers” that they produce. Many organizations still believe this claim, and continue to base their decisions on what this “truth” is telling them. In fact — and pardon the obvious pun — nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, let us take the event of an organization meeting or exceeding its planned budget. One of my friends who happens to be a finance director for a well-known consumer goods organization, told me that they had just made budget for the year. Consequently, they are all going to get rewarded with handsome bonuses. Under his “truth,” they have done very well.

After a lengthier conversation with him, however, it became painfully apparent that despite making their bonuses, they were perhaps no different from Nero, sitting back and relaxing while their business was rapidly going down in flames.

A major component of their budget achievement came from “cost-cutting,” an exercise that by now is as ubiquitous as the computer in any organization. For example, to ensure that they pushed maximum volume out the door, they re-allocated their advertising and media spending to consumer and trade promotions, enticing short-term purchases and filling the distribution pipeline in the process. Overall, they spent less, and seemed to have been able to sell more for their money.

However, looking at the other indicators for their business, things were not looking quite as rosy. Their flagship brands were under threat by the major multinationals.

Market shares, which only a few years back were in the double digits, had dwindled to single figures. Their distribution system, which in the past used to be their differentiating competitive advantage, was becoming less potent, with lower cost third party distribution vastly improving over time.

From another vantage point, this business could not have been any sicker. And from this version of the truth, management should have been reprimanded, not rewarded. The problem is, no one is looking at things from any other perspective, but the financial one.

Balanced scorecards, whatever connotations it may have on managers of organizations, are nothing more than the Business Performance Management (BPM) equivalent of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The set of measures that it attempts to capture are so designed, that at any point in time they are able to capture the many version of truth that exist — covering the past (financial indicators), the present (operational indicators) and the future (marketing, research and development, strategic indicators, etc.).

Problem is, organizations still have to make the mental leap that is needed to make balanced scorecards work as intended — that accounting numbers are but one version — among many — of the real truth.

Invariably, even among those actively using balanced scorecards in their organizations, their performance and reward systems are still heavily focused on financial results, clearly exposing which “truth” they consider to be more truthful than the others.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, August 04, 2007 (

Saturday, 28 July 2007

For Auld Lang Syne

WITH the gentle rhythm of the ocean waves lapping against the white-sand shore, the soft amber glow of the garden lights warmly bathing the lush surrounding greenery in a velvety hue, and the balmy breeze of a dreamily moonlit tropical night all conspiring to create the picture-perfect venue — the stage was set at last for the long-awaited event.

Twenty five years in the making, and logistically as challenging to coordinate as any of NASA’s space shuttle missions, all roads led to this place that night — the Ocean Pavilion of Shangri-la’s Mactan Island Resort and Spa.

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Many came from lands far away to be there.

From Connecticut, South Carolina and Flo-rida in the East, and Arizona and California in the West — those who now call the United States home made the long pilgrimage across the Pacific to be there. Those now settled in Canada came too.

On the other side, across the Atlantic, from Cheshire in the United Kingdom, via Jakarta, Indonesia — I made my own way back. Interrupting his official tour of Thailand, another one of us flew in just in-time — in true military precision — to join in the festivities. And while those residents of Cebu and other places in the Philippines may not have covered as much physical distance, all of them unselfishly set their important commitments and obligations aside, to be one with the rest of us that evening.

For the members of the University of the Philippines College Cebu’s High School Class of 1982, this was a momentous event that no one wanted to miss. It was 25 years and four something months ago, when we marched up on that stage to receive our hard-earned high school diplomas — and accepted the challenge from our teachers, friends, families and ourselves — to be the best that we can be. And to a man and woman, each of us has responded splendidly, in our own unique and individual ways.

Among our ranks we now count numerous doctors, lawyers, managers, scientists, engineers, businessmen and women, journalists, nurses, members of the clergy, as well as military officers — and whatever the career persuasion — responsible parents and individuals all.

Across the globe we have touched and improved the lives of many — treated the ill and infirm at home and beyond, engineered the success of countless businesses across a number of continents, ministered to the spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters, and defended the lives and liberties of the men and women of our country – whether in courts of law, or in dangerous battlefields without any law.

The diversity of our endeavors is perhaps only a logical outcome of our origins — after all, we are molded by the university renowned for producing exceptional leaders of men.

Yet there was something extraordinary in the way all of us made good account of ourselves, and this we can only attribute with gratitude to the mentoring and guidance we received from our beloved professors, many of whom were there that night to share the special celebration with us.

Far from being a pompous occasion attended by middle-aged men and women who, by the nature of their accomplishments we would perhaps expect to be preoccupied with their own sense of self-importance — it was a night without egos, just a magnificently joyous communion — a journey back into the gentler, kinder times of our youth — when for an evening everyone was young and 15 again.

Even our ageless teachers seemed to regain that extra spring in their steps, aided no doubt by the pride in their hearts at seeing their erstwhile young charges blossom into mature and responsible individuals.

I cannot quite remember how it all ended — and that’s probably because for me, and for many of us, it really never has.

As I journey back to the other side of the world — at once inspired and humbled by the reminder of where I came from 25 years ago — I take with me the wonderful memory of that perfect evening, with the famous words from the immortal song by the Scots bard Robert Burns still loudly ringing in my ears:

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne

To all my friends and teachers, let there not be any goodbyes this time around, just a fond farewell, and ‘til we all meet again.

NOTE: Special thanks go to the organizing committee (Marcelo, Randy, Virgil, Joy, Carlyn, Emi, Alma, Rex, Leslie and Naresa) for their kind generosity and indefatigable energy in putting together the perfect event. The series on the Balanced Scorecard will conclude next week.

Published in the Sun Star Daily. Saturday, July 28, 2007 (