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 (