Thursday, January 19, 2006

Court Room Black Comedy

I was in court again today, doing the slow drag, and waiting for the time my case would see the light of trial. There were twenty cases on the calendar, mine landed on number 15. As I waited for my case to be called, I found great entertainment in an exchange between a litigant, who was absent the previous hearing, and the judge.

The court had issued a warrant of arrest against the litigant and demanded that he gave an explanation for his absence. The man said he was in Isabela, a province nine hours away from Manila, and claimed he got sick with flu. The judge suspecting it was a lie, asked him why he did not have a medical certificate to back up his claim.

He said he didn’t consult a doctor, and performed self-medication.

The judge asked what medicine he took, and the poor guy looked puzzled.

Somebody whispered “Neozep”, which is a popular local medicine for the common cold.

And the poor guy said, “Neozep, your honor”

The Court berated him, and told him Neozep was for colds, as the entire court gallery chuckled. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing, even as I wished I had whispered Diatabs, instead.

The poor guy couldn’t say a thing, and the court told him that next time, it’s better to tell the truth, and ordered the lifting of his warrant of arrest.

Then, the next case was called, and a lawyer, who saw what happened earlier, stood up, his hands shaking, and said.

“Your honor, my client cannot make it today, because

he’s dead.”

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Not so Funny Story from the Philippine Military

I had a delicious snack of pancit habhab with an ex-soldier the other day. He retired in 1998, and naturally, I asked him how it was. He said in Marcos's time, they never had problems about supplies. But thereafter, his fellow soldiers had to live for days inside their foxholes in Davao, with literally nothing. This is of course very curious, as the military budget has been steadily increasing across time from the Marcos era to the present. This conversation reminds me of a post I made sometime in July 2003 after the Oakwood mutiny, in my Rule of Force blog. I am reposting it here with slight revisions to take advantage of the 100 hits a day that I've been getting lately.

I HAD A BOARD MEETING recently in a corporation which has a retired army officer as board member. During the light moments that often precede a corporate meeting, the discussion dwelt on the Oakwood Mutiny and our friend army officer told an anecdote on military corruption.

He said,

During the time when President Ramos was still Chief of Staff, he happened to visit a small army station in the south to inspect his troops in the field. The troops had very little to eat so they served him a variety of sweet potatoes or "camote". The General loved the camotes because it was a special kind, I think the violet variety, and inquired with the men if that was all they had. The troops said, that was all. The general was stricken with pity and resolved to do something for his troops.

When the General got to his headquarters, he decided to send five sacks of rice to the army station in the South.

Of course, when the five sacks of rice got to the regional commander, he thought that it was too much for the station troops. So the regional commander sent only three and kept the two sacks for himself.

When the three sacks got to the detachment commander, he thought that three sacks was too much for the station troops. So he sent only one sack of rice and kept the two.

When the sack of rice got to the provincial commander, he thought that the troops didn't need the rice, because they had enough camotes to eat. So he got the rice and sent only the sack.

When the station troops got the sack, they asked where it came from and found out it came from General Ramos who they remembered loved the camotes so much. They thoiught he was asking for camotes. So they packed the sack with camotes and sent it to the General.

When the sack of camotes got to the provincial commander, he thought sending the camotes to the General was an insult. So he got the camotes and sent a sack of rice instead.

When the sack of rice got to the detachment commander, he thought one sack of rice was too little. So he added two more sacks of rice and sent them to the General.

When the three sacks got to the regional commander, he thought three sacks was also too little so he added two more and sent them to the General.

Finally, the five sacks of rice got to the General, and he wondered how the five sacks of rice he sent to the lowly troops in that station in the south could find their way back to him.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Big numbers for the NPA means it may be time to go.

An ex-NPA cadre told me lately that his former comrades are happy about their stats for the last quarter of 2005. Joma's boys are claiming that they had more than 200 tactical offensives nationwide for the period - their best showing all time. I made a mental count of news reports of NPA atacks, and I figured the claim might be true. This is disturbing, considering that the ideological models for Joma's boys have all failed, and Filipino ideologues should have dropped this foolsih communist experiment by now. Instead, their numbers appear to be growing, while our military is being used by rightist tyrants for cheating elections and mounting soft coups.

What time is it then? It may be time to consider migrating to Canada or elsewhere to be free from the impending disaster. I swear I love this country, but the key players of its present history are all dumb assholes. It's no use. My wife and I are now seriously considering the Canadian alternative. See you all at the embassy.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The City of the Heartless (Makati Myth Part Three)

Everyday someone's house is getting foreclosed by a bank, and it will be matter of time before the house's owner is evicted from his home after foreclosure has commenced. A business gone awry, a partner stealing the profits, or a sudden drop in the dollar exchange -- it doesn't matter what your story is. To Makati banks with branches nationwide and even worldwide, the story is simple: You put your house on the line for loan. You don't pay, you lose your house. End of story.

Since many of the nation's premier banks house their head offices in Makati, a lot of Makati office people work to implement the story of every loan. In good times, people borrow money, banks collect. People borrow again, banks collect again. Happy cycles can be all alike. But once payment is missed, Makati banks rage.

When the peso made the sudden drop from PHP 26 to PHP 40 to a dollar towards the end of the Ramos presidency, Makati fought a war hitherto unknown. It was a war to collect from the losers of the foreign exchange crisis. Businesssmen who hedged on dollar loans doubled their liabilities overnight, and their collaterals became insufficient. Soon they would miss their amortizations. And so, bankers knocked on their doors, peppered them with phonecalls, and congested their beepers. The word of the day was "pay".

Freddie felt the receiving end of this war. A currency trader by profession, Freddie had been the darling of a Makati bank (the “Bank”) during the boom years. The Bank gave him a dollar credit line that he used to settle accounts. He was given 30 day term for his business, and at the end of each term, all he needed to do to renew his line was call, and his line would be revolved. His line was not renewed without his call, and he called only when he needed to do so. He made small margins on his trades. But the heavy volume of trading accounts were worthwhile.

The day the Thai baht (which in better times was trading 1 to 1 with the peso) slid to the dollar, the pressure was on the peso to slide down as well. Elsewhere, Mahathir of Malaysia imposed capital controls to isolate the Ringgit from speculators. In the Philippines, Pres. Ramos maintained his free market philosophy, and shrugged his shoulders as the peso soon tumbled to its all time lowest rate. Freddie saw it coming but the impact on his business caught him unprepared. As days went on, he was down 2 million US dollars on his line. He continued to trade, losing sleep at times but hoping he could recover it inch by inch. Then, he forgot to call. As the term was up on his line, the non-extension of the loan triggered an invoice for payment in a few days. With no inventory in his books, he missed his due date, the first time he ever did.

His default triggered a meeting among the junior and senior officers of the Bank. A month earlier, a simple call from the account officer would have been enough, but then the peso had slid down to PHP 40 to 1. Freddie’s loan was now equivalent to 80 Million pesos, and Freddie was not the only one with that problem.

Freddie was summoned to a meeting in the big board room of the Bank in the main branch in Makati. When he entered the room, six bank officers in nice suits and ties met him, asked him to take his seat right across the air-conditioning and directly against a strong lamp.

“You owe us mister. When will you pay us?” one of the men in suits started.

“I know your family. I can hunt you down,” shouted another.

The meeting went on for an hour, and Freddie was dumbfounded all through out. The group made no physical contact. But they called him names and yelled at him. All Freddie could do was reassure them that he was going to pay. They made him sign documents and post dated checks, as additional assurance that he would pay. Normally, he would have stood up and left the room, but there was something about the strong air-conditioning and the blaring lights caused him to do as he was told. Besides, it was really his loan.

I learned Freddie’s story from Jason, one of the men in suits in that room. Freddie was only one of six other persons who were subjected to the “work-out” meeting that day. It was something that they did on a regular basis on defaulting borrowers, but the Asian crisis, made them do it more frequently than usual. Later, Freddie’s home was foreclosed, and subpoenas for violating the bouncing checks law started to arrive. Freddie became a court regular.

The Bank was just one of the many banks based in Makati that unleashed their army of collectors and lawyers against Freddie and his similarly-situated borrowers. The process was heartless. Bank employees and officers had their jobs on the line, and their orders was not to stop until their banks got their money back one way or another. Some borrowers found a way to fight, employing lawyers adept with the art of delay. Others fled the country. Some ended it all with a bullet in their heads. But Makati's army was not allowed to rest until the debtors paid.

"How does it feel to be always on the wrong side?", a defendant in one of the cases I was handling for one of the banks asked me once. I brushed off the question then; I didn't feel anything. It was a job. Like many others doing work in the financial district, we were trained to think and mute our feelings. If we found a guy who defaulted on his car loan parking the car on the parking lot of a mall, it was automatic to call the sheriff and make sure the car was towed to the bank's garage. If house and lot had been foreclosed, it was automatic to secure a writ of possession and evict anyone found in the house, physically, if necessary. For at the end of the day, lawyers like the rest of the workers of the financial district, would be judged by the value that they bring to their employers. The value that made it possible for the rich to go to their offices in chauffered cars from the manicured lawns of Forbes Park, the value that made it possible for them to stay in the hotels and treat their friends to the big restaurants that only Makati could house, the value that allowed them to pay the brightest executives and lawyers to give their debtors the work-out they deserve, that was the value that mattered.

ONE MORNING AS I entered Makati through the corner of Ayala Avenue and EDSA, the rows of tall buildings on both sides of the avenue revealed themselves as a long dark tunnel. And at the end of the road was the majestic PS Bank Tower, looking like a jewel as it sparkled in the morning sun. It was like a vision from a dream. But not everything is what it appears to be. And most certainly, Makati, enclave of the rich, betrays the eye. Beware the myth that is Makati, for beneath the facade of splendor and wealth is the slow drag of the working class, learning that where the big players play, the small players don’t.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Finding Food in the Financial District (The Makati Myth Part Two)

Back in the mid-90s, the MACEA (the pseudo-government agency regulating the development of Makati) issued a zoning regulation prohibiting the establishment of food stores around the office areas in Makati. This meant that restaurants could not be located where people worked. The restaurants were lined up in and around the old Greenbelt mall. For lunch, the office workers had to walk or take a cab ride to where the food places were.

A group of enterprising people found a loophole in this rule. While restaurants where prohibited in office areas, vans and jeepneys that doubled as food shops were not. So every lunch time, vans and jeepneys would find an open parking space in the back streets, and became makeshift carinderias for the hungry and financialy-challenged urban professional. Hot food in styrofoams, most of the time salty and overcooked but amazingly cheap -- a good deal to buck the MACEA zoning rules.

For my lunch, I joined the secretaries of the firm who lined up for an old lady who sold home-cooked meals wrapped in plastic for thirty bucks to the office staff every lunch break. My favorite was sinigang -- a slice of meat, swamp cabbage, a few other vegetables, and lots of sour soup. The old lady offered the better alternative to the rolling food stores outside the building. And her meals had never triggered an attack of diarrhea, though one could never be too sure. That was fine, but working in a law office meant I had to put in long hours and lunch was not the only meal of the day that I needed to pay for.

Dinner would present another problem. Lawyers in the firm, I was told, stayed after dinner, because that was when the partners got back from their meetings to distribute work among us associates. So in the evenings, I usually went out to the streets to look for a balut vendor. I matched one balut with a pan de coco, and coke - a complete meal that got me ready for the night shift. When balut vendors were scarce, I had Lucky Me noodles as back up. Bulalo, chicken, pork and pancit canton flavors-- they all had one taste: salty.

There would be occasions that somebody would throw a party for the office with catered meals. That was when the office workers got to avenge their hunger during the day. Before the party host could even say “Let’s eat everyone!” somebody had already stashed away food in the fridge for the next day’s lunch. Others would fill up two plates -- one for lunch and another for dinner never minding the stares.

One day one of our bosses treated our group of young lawyers for lunch in a big hotel. Everyone of the group seized the opporunity to order food to their heart’s content -- big servings of steak and salmon, and lots of Japanese sushi. Each had the “Drink of the Month” that went with a free stuffed toy, a luxury that cost PHP 300 a pop. When we got back to the office, the group was chuckling, aware that the meal was a steal, and the boss learned the lesson of his life. “Dare not feed hungry young lawyers in an expensive hotel gratuitously, for you would pay dearly, and they wouldn’t care.”

In those days, Makati probably had the best hotels and restaurants in the country. But if you asked ordinary office workers if they had been to one of them, they would give you a blank stare. An average meal in one of these hotels and restaurants would cost more than a day’s salary. And it was simply idiotic to blow away that money on lunch when they had not earned the full day’s wage. So these hotels and restaurants were like ambitions that got ingrained in the minds of ordinary workers of Makati. One day, they thought, they would have enough money to eat pasta in Italianni’s. Meanwhile, they settled for the rolling stores and the anemic spaghetti in the styro.

(Next post: To work there is to lose your heart)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Makati Myth (Part One)

In my first year as a law graduate of the Ateneo Law School, which was then located at de la Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati City, I felt like Kobe Bryant on his first day as a Laker. To many of my generation, Makati was the land where the big people were. Large skycrapers, the Greenbelt Mall, and the imposing enclave of Forbes Park: these were the icons of affluence, and they were in Makati. To be in Makati was to be where the big players play. Yet, on each day of those years, the truth revealed itself about Makati. Beneath the facade of splendor and wealth is the slow drag of the working class, learning that where the big players play, the small players don’t. To get there is a nightmare. To eat there is to scrounge. And most importantly, to work there is to lose your heart.

It was the mid-90s, the heyday of the Ramos Presidency. The stock market was booming, and its boy wizards were sporting RAV4s and GLIs. Shortly after taking the bar, I took employment in a medium-size firm located near the old Ateneo, hoping I could get a piece of the corporate action. Accustomed to going to school in the afternoon on the MMDA Love Bus, I was late on my first day of work. I didn’t know the Love Bus would be scarce in the morning, so I had to take another bus with no air-con, driven by some driver who stopped everytime he saw someone standing on the roadside, even if obviously the person was not taking the bus. I felt my blood rise to my head everytime we stopped. And I would imagine myself kicking the driver off his seat, stepping on the gas and running over all the cars that blocked the bus’s way.

With me on the bus, were equally worried Makati office girls in there neat uniforms, looking at their watches from time to time. Those who could not bare it would alight, and hop on a cab mid-way at stoplight intersections. And all of us left on the bus would send them off with a glance, cursing our fate. By the time, I got to Buendia Ave., (they’ve been trying to make people call Buendia as Gil Puyat Ave., but the name simply refuses to stick), I was fifteen minutes late. I hailed one of those jeepneys plying the Washington St. Bel-Air route, and decided to hang by the rails in my long sleeves and tie. Poise was something I couldn’t afford on my first day of work. Still, I was thirty minutes late.

Going home from Makati after a hard day’s work was reliving the nightmare in the morning in reverse. The buses were packed, and traffic was bad. To negotiate a hundred meter distance in Ayala Avenue would sometimes take more than hour. And since, there was no other way to get home on a budget, there was no choice but fight for space in the bus where you could steal some sleep until you get home. I would often doze off in the bus, and would wake up just in time as the bus would drive by the corner of EDSA and Kamias Road. It was easy to mark the spot, because as the bus would pass by Nepa Q Mart, the air would be enveloped by the stink of that public market, enough to wake me up from whatever dream I had. It was a simple cue: once the air smelled of rotten fish, it was time to go.

This was how my daily routine went until I got my first salary, which helped me afford a cab ride to the office. And cabs were altogether a different game. If you were from Quezon City, and you wanted to go to Makati, the chances of a cab taking you there on a fair meter was one to four. Out of four cabs that you hail, only one would agree to take you there. Worse, the cabs were mostly old rickety Kia Prides or Toyota XEs. They reeked of leaking gas, with air-cons that rarely worked. By the time you alight from one of them, you would smell like you’ve been all over EDSA, sweaty and smelly. Some cabs would take you there at a premium, and if you could afford to burn your lunch money to get to Makati on time, you would have no choice. You get to Makati on time. You skip your lunch or feast on crackers and salty packed noodles.

Going home on a cab from Makati is an equally terrible experience. Very few cabs were willing to take people out of Makati. They preferred people who took cabs to move around Makati; as they could make more rounds, and make more money. And for ladies who manage to get a cab to take them home, sometimes it could get worse, as they end up getting raped or robbed.

That was how it went out there in Makati, enclave of the rich. The rich took their chauffered cars. The poor took the public transport that sucked. To get to Makati and enter its streets in the pre-MRT days, you had to hurdle the oppressive conditions of traffic and the madness of bus and jeepney drivers. If you had extra cash, you could take a chance on a cab, assuming you find one willing to take you there.

(Part Two: To eat there is to scrounge)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is the overseas remittance business being used to launder money?

I do not have the slightest idea, but the largely unregulated “padala” system is the perfect scheme for laundering illegal money, and this could all be done with the convenience of a telephone. A money launderer, for example, who wants to bring his money to Italy, can set up an office in Italy to receive remittances from Filipinos there. His Italian office will receive money from workers and then convey the message to the Manila office, which holds the hot cash. Then, the Manila office will deliver the amount equivalent to the one delivered to the Italian office to the family of the overseas worker for a fee. And presto! The money delivered in the Italian office is clean and ready to be deposited in a European bank. If the money launderer wants to spread his hot cash abroad, all he has to do is set up another office in another country, and he will have his hot money wherever he wants. Is this how easy it is? Unless the government regulates remittance companies, especially those operated outside the banking system, it’s as simple as calling on the phone.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Aphorisms on Unity as a Paradigm of Power

1. Power is a product of consensus. The majority does not act until the minority agrees. There is no minority or majority rule. There is only the rule of the united.

2. Unity is the fruit of sacrifice, and sacrifice, love.

3. The be all and end all of power is unity. Power is used only if it fosters unity; otherwise, it is not used at all.

4. The interest of the majority and the interest of the minority is the interest of unity.

5. In dissent, there is a fundamental affirmation that we are one. Agreement is a product of dissent and dialogue. It is the constant dissent and dialogue that leads to unity.

6. The medium and the message of power is unity.

7. Everyone has a place in this world. It is the failure and refusal to recognize this truth that led the world to wars. There is no peace unless there is unity.

8. Modern society's gravest sin is the marginalization of the minority. When the minority is unhappy, society is ill. The minority will be driven to violence. And the majority will respond with even more violence. It is an endless cycle unless the majority and the minority see dissent as an opportunity for dialogue. The fruit of dialogue is respect and understanding. The fruit of respect and understanding is unity. The fruit of unity is peace.