Saturday, 28 April 2007

No thanks, Mr. Guingona

Not a lot has changed with Philippine Airlines.

During my last visit to the country, I was once again witness to PAL’s enduring legend as a metaphor of organisational ossification. PAL embodies the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and takes its iconic status very seriously indeed. Surely the airline is as close to being broke as any business can be, but I believe it isn’t totally so, or otherwise things would start changing.

Ever the old dinosaur, PAL has remained perpetually anachronistic. The Bacolod office in particular, where I was made to bear the consequences of their tried and tested “the customer is not always right” philosophy, seems to be frozen in time – with the same set of indifferent faces, the same tired looking computer terminals, and the same long queues of people frustrated at not being able to purchase flight tickets within a humanly tolerable time.

Consider this – a simple itinerary change to my ticket – which many airlines today would allow you to do online in minutes took me over three-and-a-half days to complete. No, actually I take that back. It was not me who completed the transaction – my wife had to send their office secretary to PAL to retrieve the amended tickets, as our patience had by then already worn thin from our various trips back and forth to their ticket office.

I have to thank PAL for one thing, however, which I never would have been able to accomplish had it not been for their perfectly executed delaying tactics. Yes I was able to read the local news – from cover to cover of all the leading national publications. The delay was that bad that by the end of it, I had memorised the names of the editorial staff of most of the daily papers.

One of the things that caught my attention was an open letter from one of our elderly statesmen of Philippine politics – Citizen Teofisto Guingona – who I believe is not at this time running for public office.

His open letter started as many other open letters would at this time of the year. Extolling the heroic virtues and the valiant struggles of the Filipino people against all forms of oppression and tyranny, he then goes on to admonish us to root out a problem he singled out to be a big one for this nation – that of corruption.

Having caught my attention, however, on an issue that I am also very passionate about, he just as quickly lost my interest as he had aroused it.

In his letter, Guingona trivialises the extent of the problem by asking us to be on the lookout for the “customs man at the airport” who asks for bribes to let us through without a hassle. He also warns us about the “BIR inspector” after grease money, in order to let us get away with paying lower taxes.

For a man I had previously admired as having more principle than most, Mr. Guingona did not impress me that day in the slightest.

The customs man at the airport and the BIR inspector on the take are such peripheral players in the issue of graft they may as well not have been mentioned at all.

The big players in this high stakes game are some of our highest officials in the land, who have sold our collective national soul to the highest bidder. They are in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and every public edifice which houses anyone of sufficiently high political stature.

Our BIR and customs men are merely privates in this game of generals. If Mr. Guingona had really wanted his letter to mean something, he would have known better than to heap the blame at them.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, April 28, 2007 (

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Despair in May

IF there should be times I do not wish to be in the Philippines, it would have to be during May of an election year.

Unfortunately for me, there was little choice, given my work schedule and my wife’s and son’s timetables, except to pick this time of the year to spend a much needed breather back home.

On the plus side—despite the depression that set in once I saw the same recycled names vying for public office—our family was able to enjoy the fantastic attractions of Bohol Island, in the company of my brother Totol, his wife Apples and son, JM.

The experience was that memorable, I decided to devote last week’s column to sing its praises.

But whatever it is that delights me, somehow it can never fully offset the sadness I feel whenever I see my country, going yet again through the motions of a national election.

It pains me immensely because—

Candidates for public office are again from the same old names—scions of well-entrenched political dynasties that have monopolized this country for ages, and have sadly brought it very little good.

Whoever the victors happen to be, majority of them will have nothing new to offer the country, except perhaps to set in train a series of scandals, corruption allegations and political crises, that would only serve to drag our country backwards, rather than propel its progress forwards.

I know that whichever crop of leaders get into power, there will always be another group of sore losers doing their very best to ensure that those elected will never have a chance of succeeding in office.

Our people have become so jaded with the political process, they now see it not as an opportunity to usher in change, but merely as another chance to make some extra money, to ensure that next meal on their table.

Despite the frenetic pace of development that I see among our neighbors as I travel around within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region, there is very little sign of it in the Philippines. Instead, the only thing that I can relate to in the country as far as Asean is concerned is that embarrassing scandal in Cebu, concerning the hugely overpriced lamp posts that were hastily erected along the route to the Asean convention—from Mactan airport to the North Reclamation Area.

We have an immense wealth of skill and talent from intelligent and well-educated Filipinos, who end up being tapped for the development of the Middle East, Europe and North America, but which our political leaders have no idea how to utilize.

While our health system continues to fail, and our sick countrymen die by the thousands from even the simplest and most easily curable diseases, the only thing our leaders can do is to encourage the tragic diaspora of our health workers to all corners of the globe.

Much as I would love to come back and help my country move forward, there is very little opportunity for me, and others like me here, and the only economically viable choice is to offer our globally marketable skills to the highest bidder.

As l leave my country behind, I have very little hope that things will be better the next time to come back.

When I return home at another May time, a few years down the road, as much as I would like to be writing something hopeful and triumphant then, I may yet again be composing a piece like this—so bereft of hope, so empty of promise, and so full of pain.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, April 21, 2007 (

Saturday, 14 April 2007

A Taste of Bohol Heaven

I WAS going to cap a series of pieces on corporate strategic alignment—which we had been discussing prior to the Holy Week break—when a number of events during my Easter holiday back home convinced me to defer the concluding article, in favor of more pleasant local matters.

This was our brief but very enjoyable getaway to Panglao Island in Bohol, during the first half of the Holy Week, which we took together with my brother Totol Batuhan and his family.

With all the hype and attention focused on that other Visayan island of Boracay, it is easy to forget that Bohol too has all the natural charms—and more —to rival the attractions of its more acclaimed cousin to the west. In fact, having revisited the island after last setting foot on it many years ago, I was astonished to discover that in a lot of ways, Bohol is a much better family destination than Boracay.

Unlike Boracay—which masquerades as Manila by the seaside—often frequented by drunken and rowdy college students on their summer break, Bohol is largely unspoilt, with no trace of the noisy crowds that have become mainstays of its rival vacation destinations. For families looking for some peace and quiet, as well as attractions to visit during their holiday getaway, this is a terrific advantage, which is why in my book, Bohol gets my vote over Boracay.

During our visit, which was a brief but eventful three days and two nights, we were able to pack in a gastronomic lunch cruise along the scenic Loboc river, dolphin- and whale-watching around Pamilacan island, snorkeling amongst colorful tropical fish in the Balicasag marine conservation reserve, touring historic sites like the centuries-old Baclayon Church, as well as observing tarsiers and flying lemurs in their natural habitat. Not to mention having our fill of Bohol’s delicacies, which are as numerous as there are hills of chocolate on this unique island.

Of course, the coup de grace to our total surrender to the charms of Bohol was our fantastic hideaway on Panglao Island—the boutique Amarelo Resort. Having already visited many acclaimed tourist accommodations in the Mediterranean, the United States as well as in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, I rank this one up there among the best, and definitely one to recommend to the discriminating international holiday-maker.

Owned and meticulously managed by former Baker McKenzie partner Atty. Doy Nunag—a native son of Bohol—Amarela is a tastefully furnished corner of heaven, an apt description given its vantage position overlooking the sea, with majestic views of the fiery sunsets and scenic moonrises over the idyllic island. And did I mention the food? No pot noodles in sight here, thank you very much. Instead the resort’s restaurant whips up a culinary offering comparable to the tastiest I have sampled anywhere else.

Having just opened last year, Amarela may not yet be as widely known as the older institutions on the island such as Bohol Beach Club. I have no doubt, however, that as word gets out from its many satisfied guests, it will get more and more difficult to get a booking in the near future.

Another Panglao attraction worthy of mention is this little gem of a place, simply called the Bohol Bee Farm. True to its name, it makes some of the finest honey products, as well as other goodies from ingredients organically grown and produced on its premises. With a scenic restaurant overlooking the sea, and serving original creations such as salads garnished with native flowers and herbs, this is yet another must-see for the discerning tourist.

Finally, just as it seemed our holiday could not get any better than it already was, we were given the warm Boholano hospitality by Tagbilaran Mayor Dan Lim, who graciously treated us to a wonderful meal at the Bee Farm, as well as a sampling of delectable goodies from the farm’s gift shop.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, April 14, 2007 (