Tuesday, July 23, 2013

“Sana Di SONA”

The 1987 Philippine Constitution does not say the President must deliver a State of the Nation Address (popularly shortened nowadays as SONA) at the opening of the regular session of Congress. It only states that “The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.”
For whatever the noble purpose behind this constitutional mandate to address Congress when it opens for business, it seems lost in the hype and build-up by the media and naturally by the President’s own men (or women) who want him to shine and sparkle. As it turns out, the SONA becomes an annual event for pomp and ceremony, just like the state of the union address of the US President or the Speech from the Throne in the case of the British Parliament or any of the commonwealth nations which continue to consider the Queen of England as their head of state.
Benigno Aquino III SONA composite courtesy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Notice the receding hariline. Click link to read full text of President Aquino's 2013 SONA,
To me, the only sensible paragraph in President Benigno Aquino III’s long and drawn-out SONA is when he said: “Tomorrow, we are submitting to Congress our proposed 2.268 trillion-peso National Budget for 2014. I am confident of your support and advocacy for the allocation of funds which was arrived at after careful consideration. This budget is not only a continuation of our reforms, but it will also accelerate our momentum towards long-lasting inclusive progress.”
Of course, this should not be taken literally. The Constitution gives the president thirty days from opening of Congress to submit a budget of expenditures and revenues which shall be the basis of the general appropriations bill to be passed by Congress.
Thus, the SONA has become nothing but beautiful music to the President’s ears and his captured audience, thin in substance but long in aspiration and hope. In fact, there is more sense in listening to SONA’s critics for they make you appreciate the honest truth that is missing in the President’s speech. One could only continue hoping to hear the truth instead of the SONA.
President Aquino’s latest SONA is purely aspirational, a call to continue the change the President has said he has begun in transforming our society. A familiar refrain we hear every time a new President speaks before Congress: “this nation can be great again,” or “we can dream again,” etcetera.
For Noynoy Aquino to declare he is proud to be a Filipino is expected of a nation’s leader. He cannot say otherwise or else reap the ire of the people. But to say “How wonderful it is to be a Filipino in these times” is equivalent to self-denial, to whitewashing the truth with a layer of lies. That’s why it’s better to listen to SONA’s critics, you hear the real story of the nation, not the one advertised, straight from the horse’s mouth.
“How wonderful it is to be a Filipino in these times” sounds like the country’s tourism slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
Let us take apart the President’s SONA by focusing rather on the bigger issues he has tried to sell to Congress and to the people at large.
The President spoke of a strategy of maximizing opportunities for all, especially for those most in need, which he calls, “inclusive growth,” that surprisingly sounded upbeat to some although in reality is actually a mere sound bite, more like “daang matuwid.”
Financial institutions such as the World Bank and development-focused United Nations organizations, including the Asian Development Bank, have defined “inclusive growth” to be “broad based growth, shared growth, and pro-poor growth”. By this definition, inclusive growth implies an equitable allocation of resources that benefits every sector of society. It also requires the creation of an environment of equality in opportunity in all dimensions of livelihood, a platform for people who are poor to access a good standard of living. Defined simply, inclusive growth means improved living standards for all, including the poor and those vulnerable to poverty. In short, it must be socially inclusive and not only for the benefit of a privileged few such as the oligarchic elite.
The underlying premise of inclusive growth is that societies based on equality tend to perform better in development. For example, countries with more equal income distribution are likely to achieve higher rates of poverty reduction than very unequal countries.
In his SONA, President Aquino said that “widespread opportunity is the key to comprehensive and sustained progress,” not equal opportunity (repeat: not equal) which is the cornerstone of inclusive growth. He explained the exclusive nature of his concept of inclusive growth by saying that “the only ones who will be left behind are those who chose not to venture onwards with us, simply because they did not seize the opportunity.”
Clearly, Aquino’s concept of inclusive growth applies only to people who join the government’s bandwagon, those who have access to opportunity and these are the people who will benefit from his government policies and programs. Under such circumstances where opportunities may be deemed widespread but not fully accessible to all, those who are poor and vulnerable in society will never be included to benefit from the President’s policy of inclusive growth.
Those who are poor are well known for their militant opposition to government lip-service initiatives, such as poverty alleviation programs like the conditional cash transfer program, more popularly known as Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). Because the poor have lost their trust in President Aquino, they would never link up and be beholden to this program.
SONA protesters clash with police as President Benigno Aquino III delivers his
speech before the Batasang Pambansa.  Elmer Labog, secretary general of Kilusang
Mayo Uno (KMU), says: "Aquino's grandioise claims of economic growth based
on cherry-picked economic indicators fail to hide the economic indicators that matter
to ordinary Filipinos. Landlessness is growing; unemployment is rising; wages are
being depressed; prices are soaring; and social services are decaying as they become
more scarce."
Aquino boasted in his SONA that there are now almost 4 million households that benefited from the program compared to 700,000 household beneficiaries when he came to office in 2010. But he forgot to mention that based on a poverty incidence of 27.9% or 26.8 million poor Filipinos and a projected population of 96.2 million in 2012, there would be an increase in the number of poor Filipinos to 3 to 4 million. This increase would wipe out the gains under Aquino’s 4Ps, implying that poor people are multiplying faster than the number of beneficiaries the government can enlist in the program.
Despite the government’s poverty alleviation program, poverty in the Philippines has remained unchanged. Not because the poor did not seize their opportunity under the Aquino administration, but because economic and income inequalities continue to persist and inclusive growth remains elusive. Even as the current administration keeps correcting and revising the official daily poverty threshold, the resulting low official poverty threshold would still show that there are currently between 38 to 68 million poor Filipino households, the worst scale of poverty in the country's history.
We can go through the litany of so-called achievements enumerated by President Aquino in his SONA one by one, and each one falls flat. Do not be mesmerized by his elocution, his ability to speak to the level of the masses, and being at home speaking in English and Pilipino. Obviously, the President has become a quick study and has now mastered the art of communication. At the end of the SONA, what remains important is the message, not the medium. The SONA is not an Oscar awards event and we don’t need commentaries on what the President wore or how he combed his thinning hair, the ternos worn by female members of Congress, and whether one needs a make-over.
Instead of SONA, our country deserves to be told the truth, not a bunch of lies or made-up statistics used to embellish the speech. Instead of pageantry and celebration, the President and Congress must buckle down to work. A simple laundry list of priority items to pursue is more than enough. Instead of wasting almost two hours of rambling before Congress,  President Aquino should have told members of Congress what important legislation needs to be enacted now or sooner so he can continue the job of serving his real bosses. That, he could accomplish in less than half an hour.
Some groups critical of the Aquino administration described the first three years as “ampaw” rule, like “hollow bread with a lot of air in the middle.” According to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), a think-tank based in the University of the Philippines, three years of Aquino governance only entrenched the oligarchic elite in the country. In other words, only the elite gained from three years of Aquino leadership yet the President, never worrying if his nose stretches, calls it inclusive growth.
Other militant groups listed at least 10 lies President Aquino claimed in his SONA but which will not be printed in newspapers controlled by the President and his friends, ranging from the lie of “rapid economic growth” to the lie that the ongoing armed civil unrest has been quelled.
Cenpeg has further rebuked President Aquino’s overhyped mantra of “Kayo ang boss ko” (the masses are my boss) as a hypocritical and meaningless slogan. This time the President talks about inclusive growth, another fancy concept, but does he really mean it? Or is it another “daang matuwid” gone crooked?
Sana na lang, instead of SONA.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The darker side of innovation

I’ve read recently that the Philippines has been ranked 90th in the 2013 Global Innovation Index (GDI) published by Cornell University, INSEAD business school, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Compared with other countries, the study said that innovation in the Philippines is only at par with Uganda and Botswana.
With a rating of 31.2, the Philippines is way below the top-ranked countries which have an average rating of 60.5. Surprisingly, the Philippines did not fare well among Asian countries, with lowly Mongolia even passing the Philippines with a higher rating of 35.8 and was number 72 among all countries.
Innovation. Photo courtesy of Dubey Classes of Innovation.

What does this latest GDI say about the Philippines? A new strain of AIDS has definitely hit us – Acute Innovation Deficiency Syndrome.
It’s not that we’re lacking in innovation or creativity as a people, but it’s somehow misplaced on matters that do not lift us a society, whether in business, politics or other endeavours. We have, as Nick Joaquin rightfully pointed out, a heritage of smallness.
One of the 84 indicators used by GDI in measuring innovation is the quality of higher education available in a country. The University of the Philippines used to be among the top-ranked universities in the whole of Asia, maybe between 1900 and 1950 or later. Now, UP is nowhere to be found among the top 100 of the inaugural Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings for 2013, although it ranked 67th among the top 100 Asian universities in the QS University Rankings for Asia, 2013.
A consolation of sorts to all diehard UP students and alumni is the news that three students from the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) were crowned this year's Asian debate champions after beating the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the final round of one of Asia's biggest debate tournaments. Ah, debating, we’re good at this. Just look at our own Congress where there are plenty of debaters of different stripes who walk all over the place. Here they can debate to death whether to eliminate the pork barrel system of allotting government money to members of Congress that traditionally are earmarked for improvements in their bailiwicks but sometimes surreptitiously end in their pockets. We call it “pork barrel” while the US Congress calls it “earmarks.”
Another consolation of a kind, this time to diehard Marcos fanatics, is the renaming of the UP College of Business Administration to Cesar EA Virata School of Business. Those who are young not to remember, Cesar Virata was the prime minister and finance minister during the Marcos martial law regime. Even UP bureaucrats have short memories of the oppressive Marcos dictatorship that it would honour one of the dictator’s devoted underlings.
We’re not lacking in innovation, for sure.
But all this talk about innovation and creativity could be overrated. In his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the Austrian-American economist, Joseph Schumpeter, developed a theory of economic innovation and business cycle based on the early works of Karl Marx which he called creative destruction. Schumpeter adapted his theory of innovation derived from Marxist economic theory, where it refers to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism.
According to Schumpeter, the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism would eventually lead to its demise as a system. Marx implied in his early works, notably in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, that capitalism not only destroys and reconfigures previous economic regimes, but it also continuously devalues existing wealth through events such as war, dereliction or regular and periodic economic crises which are necessary for the creation of new wealth. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the crisis tendencies of capitalism in terms of “the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces.”
While Marx admired capitalism’s creativity, he strongly emphasized its self-destructiveness. On the other hand, as Schumpeter praised and glorified capitalism’s endless creativity, he treated its destructiveness as simply a matter that relates to the normal costs of doing business.
The spirit of creativity and the concept of creative destruction could also explain how the human imagination ceaselessly continues to destroy things only to create new ones. For example, the scarcity of wood as fuel forced the discovery and invention of substitutes, such as the use of coal for heating, or the invention of coke for the production of iron.
Schumpeter envisaged the “innovative entry of entrepreneurs as the disruptive force that sustained economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies and laborers that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power derived from previous technological, organizational, regulatory, and economic paradigms.”
A modern example of how this creative destruction works is the story of Polaroid. Polaroid instant cameras have disappeared almost completely with the spread of digital photography.
As early as 1949, Schumpeter foretold the “railroadization” of the Middle West in America through the Illinois Central. While Illinois Central meant good business, it also spelled the demise of the old agriculture of the West.
Many companies that once revolutionized and dominated new industries have seen their profits fall as rival companies launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs. Xerox in copiers is a good example. The cassette tape replaced the 8-track, only to be replaced in turn by the compact disc, which was undercut by MP3 players, which will in turn eventually be replaced by newer technologies. Companies which made money out of technology which becomes obsolete do not necessarily adapt well to the business environment created by the new technologies.
The power of the internet has acted as a catalyst for creative destruction. It has allowed businesses to compete in markets outside of their geographic location, reach more consumers, create efficiencies and cut costs in manual processes as well as pioneer new techniques for doing business.
Newsroom of the Future, courtesy of Pablo Maria Ramirez Banares.
Huffington Post and Zero Hedge have been creatively destroying the domain of the traditional newspaper. Many newspapers and magazines, such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Newsweek, have stopped publishing their paper edition and gone online. Traditional alumni networks that typically charge members to network online are in danger of being wiped out by free professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Viadeo.
There is no limit to the human imagination. All because we put so much value on innovation and creativity. Anything goes, the sky is the limit.
This is true in our attitude to our environment and our resources. As Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap, “the beliefs in the unlimited substitutability of resources, in the primacy of economic institutions and policies, and in the exceptionalism of human beings and their modern markets often combine to produce what I can call unbridled hubris.”
The steadfast belief in the market as the core of every economic activity drives the impulse for innovation. It also creates a sour distaste for government, that government and all its regulatory powers are the antithesis of the free market. We want innovation that is free from all forms of infringement and encroachment by the State. Little do we realize that new growth or progress, as Homer Dixon argues, is fueled not by just “ideas that reconfigure the rock, soil, wood, water and air around us into miraculous things that serve our needs” – but it is a consequence also of “social factors like the political struggles that shape market institutions and policies.”
The innovation powerhouse called modern science indeed plays a huge part in the story of human prosperity. The perils that innovation brings, which we simply ignore as the costs of doing business, may also be the engine to destroy those things we have created so we can keep our innovative spirit running. Innovation may be largely responsible for our extraordinary flexibility in overcoming resource scarcities and other technical challenges, but there are certain social consequences that can cause economic distress, such as layoffs and massive unemployment due to obsolescence of working skills, economic imbalance and disparity between countries as a result of globalization, and other hardships that could push the free market into periodic paroxysms of crises which we have experienced from the recent Wall Street meltdown.
Marshall Berman devoted a whole chapter on “Innovative Self-Destruction” in his book, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, where he described the profound and cultural consequences of the processes at work within modernity.
Berman wrote: “The truth of the matter, as Marx sees, is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down. All that is solid -- are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Squatting as a basic right

Modern-day squatters are both poor and homeless.
In the Philippines, squatters are second and third generations of original settlers from the rural areas looking for a better life in the city. They have settled mostly on unoccupied and unused public lands which include river and railroad embankments, esteros (estuary in English), the space underneath bridges, and garbage dumpsites and landfills (like the infamous Smokey Mountain). Or if they have inhabited private lands, these are mostly abandoned or unused. Over time, these squatter dwellers have become the city’s wellspring of workers, whether in construction, factory, transportation, and maintenance, and other types of contractual labour that keep the underground economy flourishing. It is also fair to say that these squatter colonies are centres that attract criminal and gang activities.
Squatters in Manila. Photo courtesy of Ole Ronberg. Click link to view, Slums of Manila - Dirty
River - Part I by Christopher Wieser.
Eviction of squatters without resettlement is short-sighted and self-defeating because this encourages them to relocate to another squatter colony. Eviction by violence is certainly inhumane and disregards the legal and human rights of squatters. They have rights, too, regardless of their poverty. They participate in the political process called elections and pay their taxes just like other citizens. And like everyone else, they also have the right to own property, a right included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard for all.
Because the government has failed to improve the quality of life for the poor and to eliminate poverty and homelessness, the poor and homeless have come up with their solution – squatting. It is about time to think outside the box and consider squatting as a potential solution rather than a symptom of poverty and homelessness.
In the favelas (shanty towns) of Brazil, for example, squatters have been integrated and upgraded to the urban community rather than evicted. Many of the residents have managed to gain title to the land and are able to improve their homes.
In a capitalist society, people have always accepted the hegemony of private property. Squatting as a solution, however, challenges this hegemony. As basic as any human right, i.e., shelter and property, squatting for the purpose of claiming this right is justifiable. The right to property can also be argued as the more basic right to shelter and to inhabit land, rather than the capitalistic right to literal land.
The enforcement of the right to land and shelter is in keeping with the dignity of the person and full respect for human rights. This is echoed in the 1987 Philippine Constitution which assigns to the state a mandate to free the people from poverty by improving the quality of their lives. When the state fails in this obligation, the squatters who are most vulnerable are justified in asserting their rights in maintaining their human dignity and improving their quality of life.
The right to squat is also bolstered by the needs of the urban poor for shelter and property. Although interrelated, there is a difference between the rights argument and the needs argument. The poor have both the need and the right, but their right is not based upon their need for shelter but because property or land is a basic right. Under this view, the poor are considered as integrated citizens who have equal rights as their more affluent counterparts. In evicting them, the government denies squatters their basic right to property or land, and in failing to integrate them just like the poor in the favelas of Brazil, the government further compounds its failure in its obligation to treat them as equal citizens like everyone else in the community.
Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo courtesy of debbieaspin,
If we accept that squatters have this basic right to property or land, the needs argument entitles them to their illegally obtained housing because they have a greater need that surpasses the needs of the legal owners of the property. This was illustrated during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when squatters warned the new regime that if they did not provide decent housing, they would occupy vacant apartments in the city. Two days later, some three hundred homeless families took over empty apartment blocks in south Tehran. While the government quickly evicted the student squatters who joined the squats for political reasons, those families who squatted out of necessity evaded government eviction because losing their squatted homes was a threat to their well-being.
A similar phenomenon happened in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007. The Tower, an unfinished 45-storey building in the city centre that was supposed to be Venezuela’s answer to Wall Street, was invaded by several hundred men, women, and children, led by a group of hard-nosed ex-convicts who camped out there. A woman who was part of the invasion recalled to a writer with The New Yorker, “We entered as if into a cave, like pigs, all in there together. We opened the gate, and from that day on we’ve been living there.” She was frightened, but she felt she had no choice. “Everyone was looking for a roof over their heads, because no one had anywhere to live.”
Soon after, hundreds of vacant buildings in Caracas have been occupied by large organized groups of squatters known as invasores: apartment blocks, office towers, warehouses, shopping malls. Invasores now occupy some hundred and fifty-five Caracas buildings.
Both the Tehran and Caracas squats, which have varying lengths of squatting time, demonstrate that the needs argument works stronger than the rights argument in practice. Pushed to the point of desperation, the poor would act swiftly and this desperate need easily validates the needs argument, showing that it is much more difficult to enforce the basic right to property merely on the strength of the rights argument.
An understanding of distributive justice in John Rawls’ seminal work, A Theory of Justice, helps in appreciating equality in the right to own property as a convincing argument for squatting. Rawls explains his idea of justice as fairness with two principles. The first principle, the liberty principle, demands equality in basic rights for all people, such as the freedom of expression and the right to hold property, similar to the rights argument addressed here earlier. The second principle, called the difference principle, states that equal opportunity must be given to all people, and the only justification for inequality is if it results in the “greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.”
Rawlsian logic contends that property must be distributed in a manner that helps those who are less well off. Squatters have equal rights to own property, but the legal system and property system do not provide equal opportunity to own property in the form of housing. Squatters squat because they cannot afford property and the system does not compensate for this inequality. They cannot obtain jobs because they do not have homes, and they cannot rent or buy homes because they do not have jobs. It is a vicious cycle that the homeless and poor cannot rise above.
The hegemony of property under the capitalist system leads to greater inequality. Squatting challenges the cycle of poverty and homelessness by allowing them to gain property without the “proper” tools such as wealth or legal representation. If we accept that squatters have a right to own property, then it is the government’s obligation to provide them with the equal opportunity to obtain it. When they are not given this opportunity, squatters may take it upon themselves to own a home or property.
Squatters must be allowed by the government to stake a claim on a piece of unused land as their home and property. They may infringe upon the basic rights of others, the legal property owners, creating a conflict as one person who seeks to claim the right to own property violates another individual’s right to own property. In this case, Rawls second principle should resolve the conflict in favour of the squatters, wherein the infringement upon the liberty principle of another is acceptable so long as it results in a net benefit to the least of society.
Instead of evicting squatters through violence which the government easily takes as a logical solution to squatting, why not look at squatting as a possible solution to poverty and homelessness? The Philippines can learn from examples in other countries of various ways of legitimizing squatting, such as inaction in Costa Rica, redistribution in Kenya, and formal land titles in Brazil.
Riverfront living quarters in Manila. Photo courtesy of Frisno Bostrom. Click
link to view Brgy. San Roque, Navotas Violent Dispersal, Tudla Productions,
Costa Rica’s approach to squatting has been to silently accept and ignore the squatting issue. This does not mean, however, that Costa Rica didn’t do anything. It has formalized squatting through a legislation called the Homesteading Law which has also been applied in the Philippines in the early fifties to encourage settlement in Mindanao. The law allows squatters to acquire title if they stay for 10 years, but only if the property is untitled. Titled privately owned land is not legally attainable by squatters. But reality in Costa Rica shows that the law has been virtually ignored and squatter rule is applied. In effect, the government has allowed the informal property system to trump the legal property system by allowing squatters to ignore the law.
Another solution is the legalization of squats into formal land titles as a method of activating dead capital. Brazil is one country that has actually proposed to legalize extralegal property. It has decriminalized squatting and accepts it as a solution to the multiple land and property problems that Brazil has faced. Only the future will tell if the change in Brazil’s property system truly empowers the poor by allowing squatters to capitalize on their dead capital.
Kenya’s experience also shows how redistribution works in government repossession of all lands owned by absentee landlords and redistributing them to squatters. Land is redistributed to squatters, rather than to all citizens because squatters constitute the least-advantaged members of society and will benefit most from the land, following Rawls’ difference principle. It is not a revolutionary change in the property system, but the response has satisfactorily provided for an underserved sector of the population the government is responsible to serve.
The Philippines needs a more dynamic response to its squatting crisis. When the law no longer serves the people, as in the case of all squats, the law must change. The government cannot continue to ignore squatters until they decide that they need the land.
Those fortunate to have shelter also have a social responsibility to provide shelter to those without, either by providing shelter as the approach has traditionally been or by allowing them opportunities to find their own shelter. This is a social responsibility necessary to ensure the preservation of human dignity. Not a new exhortation, because in the Philippines, Gawad Kalinga, a social initiative to build communities to end poverty and homelessness, has already planted the seeds of this culture of caring and giving as a means to restore the dignity of the poor.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A modus vivendi

It’s depressing to see a pleasant exchange of opinions degenerate into a level of pettiness, sometimes even close to meanness that borders on mudslinging or defamation. While conflict is natural to the human condition, oftentimes we have lost the sense of “courtesy of the heart,” as Goethe would put it, and from which arises the purest courtesy in outward behaviour.
I’ve seen this happening in the Filipino community in Toronto, a sharp division engendered by a nasty spat among Pinoy journalists. On one side, a crusading local community newspaper hell-bent on bringing down a perceived political carpetbagger and all his boosters, pitted against the rest of the community who are pleading for fairness and civility.
Bigot, courtesy of dockdrumming.
The unwritten rules of public engagement are either not clear to most of us or others simply tend to abuse their liberties. This is not saying a spirited and hotly-contested debate is unhealthy and unwelcome. But when one side insists only on the wisdom of their arguments to the exclusion of the opinions of others, then the supposedly free exchange breaks down and paints us an image of warring tribal communities.
Vibrant intellectual discourse is the status quo ante in a social-political forum I have joined. But recently, the loud voices of bigotry and intolerance have hijacked the tone of conversations that some of the forum’s female members are up in arms. As one peeved member noted: “[It’s] difficult to hold a discussion with those who punctuate their statements with ‘end of discussion.’” Or when arrogance seems to betray one member’s better side of nature that he would instantly dismiss another member’s argument as “pure liberal crap” without offering any hint why. These intolerant members have turned themselves into what a Georgetown University professor would aptly describe as ““the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.”
One wonders why, given their reputation for open-mindedness and critical thinking, some forum members frequently leave their critical thinking and fairness at the door when it comes to matters that, perhaps, are so personal to them? Why are they close-minded on the opinions of others?
Liberalism, as a framework, not the ideology which may be repulsive to others, could provide a space for free exchange and development. It can be an effective device that allows a diversity of opinions and different ideologies to flourish and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Where there could be deep-rooted divisions over the significance or relevance of some arguments, the neutrality of the liberal state furthers mutual restraint or patience.
The display of self-importance by those members of the forum who are obstinate with their preconceived notions of moral superiority is almost akin to the Republican Party’s current uncompromising attitude in US politics, particularly against any initiatives by the incumbent White House occupant. Anything President Obama proposes, the Republicans thumb their noses. It reminds us of Wagstaff, the Groucho Marx character in “Horse Feathers,” whenever he sings “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
The problem is not that that we don’t reason anymore. These people do reason. But oftentimes their arguments only aim to support their conclusions, and allow no space for the opinions of others. To them, reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher that impartially weighs evidence or guides us to wisdom and understanding. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying their opinions and judgments to others, notwithstanding how others have thoroughly demolished their arguments.
China's death penalty. Photo courtesy of amnestysoffice.
For example, some members in this forum deem the argument against the death penalty for drug crimes as “liberal crap” without appreciating whether this form of punishment in all its weight and harshness is proportionate to the offence. They do not see the wisdom why other nations have already deleted this type of punishment in their books. They also fail to spot holes in the alleged evidence of the Chinese government that the condemned Filipino woman had been to China 18 times and might have been smuggling drugs that often. It is easy for someone who has no experience defending an accused and questioning the evidence by the Crown or prosecutor to accept without reservations the credibility of this evidence, despite the implausibility of a foreigner travelling to another country 18 times in 3 years on a tourist visa and somehow managing to squeeze in some 50 grams of cocaine in a suitcase without being caught. Unless the condemned woman was tortured during her interrogation and forced to admit this lie.
The opposite argument against the death penalty for drug-related crimes is not necessarily a position that condones the crime as some forum members would like to suggest. Of course, those that peddle in drugs must be punished for they are a menace to society. But the punishment must fit the crime to meet the standards of justice and reasonableness.
Another example of a collapse in rational thinking among some members of the forum is when they disregard the historical fact of the injurious consequences of the Marcos dictatorship and repression to the country as whole. It is all right for those deeply loyal to Marcos or those who continue to blindly believe in his yeomanship of the New Society to place him in a pedestal and pantheon of greatness. Nobody is taking away this right to worship Marcos the way they want. But to revere Marcos above all Philippine presidents despite what he did to the country is simply an act that can be construed as lunacy. History is clear how Marcos plundered the country’s wealth and enriched his family. The thousands of dead and disappeared are silent witnesses to his oppressive rule, yet some forum members refuse to reconcile themselves with this existential truth. No wonder the forum women-members are the most forceful in opposing the revisionist reincarnation of Marcos because as women and mothers they know full well the genuine pain of losing one’s children.
Marcos declares martial law. Photo courtesy of kidabobo.
The forum as a microcosm of an engaged society must adhere to its original purpose, to foster an exchange where reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. As we argue and debate, we also need to develop sympathetic relationships in order to understand each other instead of using reason to deflect opposing views.
Perhaps, we need to establish a modus vivendi, so we can agree to disagree and find ways to consensus and understanding despite the differences in our opinions. We have to refashion this liberal toleration that began in Europe in the sixteenth century. Our forum can be the flowering of our own project of toleration.
There is nothing sinister in the “L” word as one forum member seems to suggest. The ideal of toleration embodies two incompatible philosophies, two opposing contradictions. We have on one side, the ideal of a rational consensus on the best or better way of resolving our differences. And on the other side, the ideal that human beings can flourish and prosper in diversity.
Labels such as “liberal crap” and “stupid” have no place in our forum but we are all mature enough to take a punch to the chin once in a while. But if our goal is to facilitate the free flow of ideas in a marketplace of ideas, the one thing that cannot be tolerated is the idea of shutting down the marketplace with a dismissive “End of discussion.” It brings back those dark days of 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos put the country under authoritarian rule and shut down the executive, legislative and judicial bodies including the media and individual rights to keep himself in power.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Saving a life is never stupid

I’ve just been reading a scathing comment in a social-political forum criticizing the Philippine government’s intervention in the forthcoming execution by China of a Filipino woman caught entering the country with 6.171 kilos of heroin. In China, possession of 50 grams of drugs is punishable by the death penalty, usually carried out through lethal injection.
“Enough of this stupidity. Ignorance of the law does not spare anyone.......and stop spending our money for issues that are meritless,” the commentator wrote.
In 2008, 52 Filipino drug mules, mostly women, were caught by the Chinese
authorities  for drug trafficking. Photo by Ramon Asuncion, No Drugs. Click
link , China-Women
Await Execution in Death Row.
There are at least three important issues raised in this sardonic comment. One, it is stupid on the part of government to help its citizens caught for a crime, particularly a drug-related offence, committed in a foreign country. Second, the accused cannot plead ignorance of the law which is not a valid excuse. By the way, this issue has never been raised as a defence. And third, the government should not spend public money for issues without merit, such as this one.
Let’s set aside momentarily the sanctimonious mindset that the aforementioned comment appears to advocate and dispassionately analyse China’s harsh criminal justice system as it relates to drug-related crime.

China had a horrific past history of drug use as a consequence of the Opium Wars with the British. In 1842, there were two million Chinese drug addicts caused by illegal trade in opium. By 1881, the Chinese population of drug addicts had gone up to 120 million. The opium trade substantially weakened the Chinese state leading to its defeat in the two Opium Wars with the British.
Adding to this sordid past is that China also shares borders with two major areas of drug production, the so-called “Golden Triangle” area in the southwest and Afghanistan. The Golden Triangle produces up to 70—80 tons of heroin each year: the annual opium production in Afghanistan is more than 3,600 tons, much of which comes into or through China. With a population over 1 billion, the potential number of people using drugs in China is very large.
Thus, it is no surprise that China has adopted a harsh crackdown policy for drug-related crime, and it is underpinned by the idea that the harsher the punishment for the crime, like the death penalty, the more likely it is to deter individuals from engaging in it. However, from the perspective of both penology and human rights, China’s draconian policy of applying the maximum death penalty for drug offences is regressive in light of the fact that that many countries whose legislation at one time provided for the death penalty for such crimes have subsequently abolished it.

Chinese opium and pipe smokers. Photo courtesy of The Nite Tripper.
Under Chinese law, persons caught smuggling, trafficking in, transporting or manufacturing opium of not less than 1,000 grams, heroin or methyl aniline of not less than 50 grams or other narcotic drugs of large quantities can be sentenced to death. In assessing whether an offence reaches the threshold of severity necessary to impose the death penalty, Chinese authorities simply employ a quantitative model that treats all substances the same regardless of their content or harmfulness.
The Filipino woman whom China will execute in the ensuing days for the crime of drug trafficking was travelling as a tourist with an unidentified man when she was arrested at an international airport in a province near Shanghai in 2011. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, she was arrested with a male companion who was caught carrying 6.171 kilos of heroin in his own luggage. The male companion was able to obtain a reprieve of his death sentence for two years.
Drug trafficking in China is an offence punishable by death, a form of generalized punishment that fits all components of the crime no matter what the circumstances are, or the quantity or quality of the crime. The punishment does not differentiate if one is carrying 10 kilos or a mere pound of heroin. Worse, mere possession or the act of carrying the banned substance is considered drug trafficking.
In countries with a more liberal criminal justice system like the United States and Canada, such kind of offence is punishable by imprisonment, 10 years maximum. Possession of heroin or cocaine for the purpose of trafficking, of course, is entirely different and usually calls for life imprisonment. But it would not merit the spectacle of the scaffold. By any measure, the Chinese death penalty does not fit the crime.
It’s not just the repressiveness of China’s law on drug crimes but its judicial process often functions in a dogmatic manner. Yingxi Bi, a Chinese human rights scholar, has observed that the Chinese judiciary leans towards the death penalty when the quantity of the drugs has reached a level that has been determined to attract such a sentence. A recent survey found that 90% of Chinese judges favour the imposition of the death penalty, 93% of prosecutors were in favour, 94% of policeman, and 95% of lawyers. When a foreigner is charged before a Chinese court of drug trafficking, where else could one get an unbiased lawyer to defend him or her?
Criminal trials in China have been criticized for not observing international standards such as independence, objectivity and impartiality, which are important in protecting the rights of people facing capital punishment. Competent defence counsel is often lacking at every stage of the trial process. Furthermore, mitigating circumstances are not taken into account in sentencing.
Is the condemned Filipino woman ably represented in court by a competent defence counsel? Did the Philippine consular office assist in enabling the woman obtain counsel for her defence or in simply knowing her basic legal rights? Or is it too late for the Philippine government to intervene as the death sentence has already been handed down? These are nagging questions that remain unanswered. One could easily speculate that no assistance has been offered by the Philippine diplomatic office in Shanghai since the accused is a mere nobody and the late request for government intervention could just be a token of concern.
But if you are rich and powerful like former Congressman Ronald Singson, son of Ilocos Sur political kingpin, Luis Crisologo “Chavit” Singson, you can control the hands of fate. Represented by an able defence attorney, the young Singson pleaded guilty to drug trafficking before the Wan Chai district court in Hong Kong and was sentenced to a year and a half in jail for trafficking cocaine last February 2011. A month after, three Filipinos, ordinary and poor overseas workers, were executed by lethal injection by the Chinese government on similar charges. Adding truth to the irony that some are more equal than others.
From the standpoint of penology, imposing the death penalty to drug crimes is not reasonable and is not effective in preventing and deterring future offences. China’s policy reflects the ancient notion of “an eye for an eye,” that the death penalty fits the crime. Even under this very old concept of retribution, the central idea is that there should be an equivalence between the severity of the punishment and the harmfulness of criminal act.
From a criminal law perspective, drug-related crime is considered nonviolent, and does not directly endanger human life or cause injury. Absent any specific violent act associated with the drug offence, drug-related crimes are not on par with murder, terrorism or other acts resulting in death or serious injury. To reflect the gravity of the act, the punishment for drug-related crimes should be more lenient than that prescribed for crimes of murder or similar acts causing physical injury. To punish drug crimes with the deprivation of life is essentially to undermine the basic balance between crime and punishment.
Available data on drug offences in China in recent years hardly reveal the type of decline in crime one would expect if the death penalty policy was an effective deterrent. According to the Annual Report on Drug Control in China the number of criminal suspects in drug cases was 73,400 in 2008, which increased to 91,000 in 2009 and 101,000 in 2010. Chinese authorities investigated 89,000 drug-related crimes in 2010, which represents an increase of 14.5% over the previous year’s figures. In practice, China’s imposition of the death penalty to prevent and curb drug-related crime therefore seems ineffective.
In 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “the application of the death penalty to those convicted solely of drug-related offenses raises serious human rights concerns.” In his 2010 report to the General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health also affirmed that the death penalty for drug-related offences violates international human rights law. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also acknowledged in a 2010 report that, “As an entity of the United Nations system, UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature.”
The 'criminal number 2012', is a metaphor for democracy in China, where the
 death penalty is carried out by execution by firing squad. Photo courtesy of
 Benny, Chun Wai Yuen.
Going back to the earlier commentary made in a social-political forum, there is nothing stupid for any member of the human race or let alone the government to intervene and ask the government of China for reprieve or commutation of the death sentence. The hapless Filipino woman is not asking to reverse the Chinese court’s decision to impose the death penalty for her crime because she was ignorant of the law. On the other hand, it smacks of ignorance for those who continue to believe and argue that the woman committed the crime out of pure defiance of the law.
The Philippine government has a responsibility to its citizens abroad, whether they have committed abominable crimes or accomplished remarkable acts of achievement. Both criminal and hero reflect on us as a people.
It’s never without merit to assist a Filipino accused of a crime in a foreign land, especially if that country has the record for the most number of people executed for criminal offences. When a country’s judicial process is known to be wanting for fairness and reasonableness, the more our government should be vigilant that its citizens abroad have access to competent defence and protection of their basic rights.