Michael Tan: Pinoy Kasi

Pinoy Kasi: the UNOFFICIAL website of anthropologist Michael Tan's Philippine Daily Inquirer opinion column. For more information, visit his official web site at: http://pinoykasi.homestead.com/

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Filipino cities


Filipino cities
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:47am (Mla time) 08/03/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- Whenever I’m in Cebu or Iloilo, I go through the ritual of discussing with my friends the possibility of moving from Manila and living there.

The reactions are always of two kinds. One is great enthusiasm, “Yehey, yahoo, now na,” sometimes accompanied with job offers. The other, which used to surprise me, is: “But why?”

“Why?” I would retort. “Because I’m not sure I want my kids to grow up in Manila.” I would mention all the problems we have: pollution and traffic, malls and fast-food (read junk food) joints on every corner, the extreme consumerism.

I then turn to the attractions of Cebu and Iloilo (and occasionally, Davao). Cebu and Iloilo have a certain Old World charm, metropolitan yet small town, of department store (yes, they still have them) clerks who will engage in a bit of banter, of istorya-istorya while they’re wrapping up your purchases. And I remind my friends of how close they are to nature. You can live in the middle of Cebu and yet see both the mountains and the sea, and if you can’t, well, the sea’s never more than an hour away.

But my friends warn me about not having good bookstores, no good libraries, no good concerts, no good European films and how they look forward to visiting Manila to get those things. I smile back and explain that even in Manila, I don’t have time to watch the not just good but great films and concerts at UP, where I teach. As far as I’m concerned, I could live even in one of the smaller cities like Tagbilaran and still get a cultural life of sorts, via DVD (again, assuming I have the time to watch) and high-speed Internet (these days you can subscribe to Internet services like High Beam Research and Questia and get access to thousands of books and journals).

Some of my friends would persist: “You won’t have anyone to talk to here.” They would claim there’s no intellectual life in Cebu and Iloilo. Perhaps most shocking is, “We don’t have good schools here for your kids.”

So I actually end up defending my friends’ cities: “But Iloilo is like Athens: you have schools on every corner.” And I’m serious, it’s not just the number of schools, but some rather innovative and progressive ones.

Let me assure my friends in Manila that I’m not about to move . . . yet. I have too many commitments here that will make that move difficult. The biggest factor that keeps me in Manila are my parents, who are quite old. Both are big-city people who think of any place outside of Manila as “probinsya.”


It’s not snobbery on their part. The paradox is that even if our smaller cities now have malls and other trappings of modernity, they do lag behind in terms of economic infrastructure and many social services.

I’m going to be specific now and refer to the experiences of two of my former employees who did pull up stakes here in Manila to move back to their home cities, one in the Visayas and the other in Mindanao. Both now have regrets about having moved back and are asking me if they can do a reversal, a “balik-Manila.”

Yes, they say, the air is cleaner and they have the mountains and the sea, but they’re overwhelmed by problems. The kids complain all the time, missing Manila. It’s mainly their friends and the malls and “gimmicks” of Manila, but the parents have greater concerns. They moved back thinking that it would be easier to make ends meet, with better prospects for small business ventures amid lower costs of living.

They were wrong on both counts. The costs of setting up businesses, even in small cities, can be quite high. Rent and utilities aren’t cheap, while potential customers haven’t been coming in because the purchasing ability is just too low. And yes, they do see now the problems of lower standards of education, especially as their kids are about to enter college. One of them wonders if her very ill mother might be better off in Manila for specialized care.

Their sad experiences remind me that more than many other countries, the Philippines is plagued by having one primate city while the others remain quite neglected by the national government. In Thailand, Indonesia and China, capital cities are still prime attractions, but they are primus inter pares (first among equals). Shanghai has as much, if not more, allure than Beijing. In Indonesia, Yogyakarta’s Gadja Mada University puts up stiff competition against the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. In the Philippines, the best universities are still concentrated in Manila.

Rethinking cities

The Philippines is supposed to be 64 percent urbanized, but “urbanization” is a relative term. We’ve had an epidemic of municipalities converting themselves into cities, with even the League of City Mayors complaining about the newcomers not coming up to standards.

The UNFPA’s latest yearbook suggests new ways of looking at urbanization. In the past, development planners tried to discourage migration from rural to urban areas, fearful of squatters and urban poverty. Today, the thinking is that we should encourage such migration because it alleviates rural poverty. One interesting research finding is that cities can be more eco-friendly because they can be more efficient in terms of using land and other natural resources.

But poverty alleviation and environmental conservation depend on how much government is committed to ensuring that the cities have adequate housing, jobs and social services. The problems we have today is that city politicians welcome rural migrants because they become cheap labor and bring in more votes during elections, but provide them very little by way of economic and social services.

Another point raised by UNFPA is that countries should develop several urban centers so hordes of rural poor don’t stream into the capital city. I’d add here that we need a major cultural shift as well, to get Filipinos to move away from “Manila imperialism.” We forget that Cebu and Iloilo were originally considered to be more sophisticated and advanced than Manila, centers of “urbanidad” or a sense of civility and civilization. If they’re losing that urbanidad, it’s because they try too hard to imitate Manila. If they could just keep their small-town charm and urbanidad, they might attract more professionals, artists and business people.

Meanwhile, those of us in Manila should also expose our kids to other urban centers, from Vigan and Tuguegarao up north, down to Zamboanga and General Santos in the south, so they can expand their horizons and their ideas of what a city should be. Hopefully, someday they will have more choices and options of where to live. Even better, they can contribute toward recreating and revitalizing our urban areas.

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Fat and thin


Fat and thin
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:35am (Mla time) 08/01/2007

Back in the 1980s when I was working with a nongovernmental organization, we had a British volunteer who would occasionally come into the office sulking. We’d speculate, often correctly, that someone had again greeted her, “Uy, Rose, ang taba-taba mo ngayon ah." ["Hey, Rose, you’re become so fat.”]

Sounds brutal, doesn’t it? Rose would always point out that in Britain and in many Western countries, such a remark was rude and offensive.

With time, she did come to accept that such statements, including the converse “Uy, ang payat mo ngayon ah” ["Hey, you're so thin"] are meant as greetings, said only when you’ve acquired some familiarity with the person. It’s a versatile greeting, with different meanings, depending on who says it and in what context. Sometimes it’s just an expression of endearment, usually said by grandparents when they see their favorite "apo" [grandchild]. Other times the statements can be a form of scolding, as when parents (and in our nosey extended family system, uncles and aunts and grandparents) want a child to put on (or take off) weight.

There will be times, too, when it is said in jest, like tricycle drivers would do to Rose, who was well liked in her community, especially because she was so “Kana” and yet could speak Filipino. The tricycle drivers, Filipino-style, would greet her and then rub it in by asking passengers, “Urong nga" ["Move over”], even if there was enough space.


Language has its social and historical context. In the past, if you told a woman, “Ang payat-payat mo,” she’d feel bad because it had connotations of illness. Her husband would feel slighted, too, by the insinuation that he was not a good provider. Today, telling a woman she’s becoming thin -- “Pumapayat ka” -- might get her to profusely thank you, maybe even get her to treat you to a sumptuous meal.

I do worry that in this 21st century, the fat-thin greetings have become counter-productive. We live in an age where we are bombarded, through mass media and advertising, with what society thinks is the ideal body size. For women, that’s usually on the thin side, sometimes bordering on emaciation. For men, it tends toward the hunk, with flat abs and pectorals bordering on ... can I use the term buxom-y?

Imagine then the impact on women when you say, “Ang taba-taba mo ah” or even “Tumataba ka ah.” Think of a woman going through a midlife crisis with a philandering husband.

The excessive attention to body conformation, reinforced by our traditional greeting, can be disastrous as well for very young girls. In Spain, pediatricians last year were able to convince the fashion industry to stop using excessively underweight models in their shows. The pediatricians’ appeal came about because young Spanish girls watching the televised fashion shows with all the very thin models had become excessively anxious about putting on weight, with many lapsing into anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder where they literally starve themselves.

Anorexia is no joking matter. It can kill, slowly and painfully for both the patient and family members. This eating disorder, together with bulimia (excessive eating), has arrived in the Philippines. I know of middle-aged women who are anorexic and trace it back to a childhood when people were always commenting about their being “taba.”

Paradoxically, the “taba-taba mo” barrage can also drive people to bulimia or excessive eating. In this case, the person feels so frustrated and helpless that she turns to food, and more food, for comfort.

Body image

I’ve always been thin, and on the receiving end of “payat-payat mo ngayon” and “pumapayat ka” greetings. My grandmas and aunts always did that affectionately, forcing me to eat more but not quite succeeding in getting me to gain weight. Metabolism, I’d explain to them when I was older—if I eat more, I just end up becoming more physically active. The only time I gained weight significantly was when I stopped smoking, quickly gaining 15 pounds, and then shedding five and settling in.

I know my weight, and I’m happy with it, these days with a vengeance. I run into long-lost friends who used to go, “Ang payat payat mo” in a “You’re-so-skinny” tone. Now they make the same statement in a “I-hate-you” tone, followed by a green-with-envy question “How do you manage to keep so slim?”

But I did resent it when people used to do that you’re-so-skinny statement because there were many times when it was inappropriate. That was usually when I’d be under great stress from work and so getting a remark like that wasn’t helpful.

Body image ties into self-esteem. If a person is already stressed out, it doesn’t help when your comments make them feel even more downtrodden. Learn to say something else like, “Daming trabaho yata, ano (Lots of work)?” said in a sympathetic tone, rather than “Pumapayat ka,” which comes through as tacky and critical.

I thought about that again recently when an older relative went into a battery of medical tests simply because people kept greeting him, “You’re losing weight.” He had asked me about it and I assured him he was just the right weight. In fact, I felt he could actually lose a few pounds and be healthier. Unfortunately, our society still expects older people to be on the heavy side, a sign of affluence.

Anyway, this older relative went through the expensive and excruciating tests only to find there was nothing wrong with him. But there, that’s where “You’re losing weight” remarks can be thoughtless, even harmful. Be especially careful if the person does have an illness like cancer; commenting on how thin he is would be outright cruel.

It will take time for us to get rid of this nasty tradition of fat-and-thin remarks, but meantime, I’d advise you to watch out with younger and older relatives, making sure they don’t take such statements too seriously. If you’re the one on the receiving end, remember people’s intentions with the greetings are usually benevolent. I’d also do a bit of reconfiguring with the words: when they say “taba,” think of yourself as “voluptuous” and when they say “payat,” think “slim, sensual, sexy.” Smile back and retort (silently, of course), “Eat your heart out.”

Dormant accounts

With some space to spare for today’s column, I felt I had to warn readers about dormant bank accounts. Many of us rely now on ATM accounts without bank books and sometimes even without mailed statements or correspondence of any kind. So you might not be aware that under new central bank regulations, a checking account that has not been touched for a year becomes dormant. (For savings account, the old rule of two years still holds.) After that, your bank begins to deduct P250 a month from your funds.

I found out the hard way. Worse, with that one bank, they changed the minimum maintaining balance without notifying account holders, so besides the P250-a-month deduction, they began to deduct another P550. Their way, I guess, of telling us to eat our hearts out.

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Folk knowledge


Folk knowledge
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:57am (Mla time) 07/27/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- Is there any scientific basis for the belief that mushrooms emerge after thunderstorms? What about the belief that planting fruit crops at early dawn increases the chances for larger fruits?

A book published back in 1998 by the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Science and Mathematics Development (now Nismed, the “N” for “National”) reviews the empirical basis for such beliefs and practices from agriculture, fishing, food and nutrition and medicine. I’ll get back to the mushrooms and planting in a while, but let me first talk about the book’s focus, captured in its title: “Philippine Folk Science: A Sourcebook for Teachers.”

I bought the book many years back and remembered it recently while preparing a paper for a conference organized by the International Organization for Science and Technology Education (IOSTE). Appropriately, UP Nismed hosted the conference, which had sustainable development as its theme. I was requested to deliver a paper on the relationship of culture to science education and sustainable development.

Culture and knowledge

As a medical anthropologist, I’ve been training medical students and physicians to become culturally sensitive in their clinical practice. The IOSTE request was somewhat more challenging, but the links were still fairly easy to make. Sustainable development means development in a way that does not jeopardize future generations. That does become a challenge especially because our development models have always emphasized massive consumption of resources. It was presumed that the more you consume, the more rapid the development.

When sustainable development came around, science educators found out that they had to rethink their curriculum. Can you do “modern” science using smaller-scale technologies? Maybe even more radically (and this was where my presentation came in), can we return to local beliefs and practices -- the ones so often labeled as “backward” and “primitive” -- to advance science?

For several decades now, even before sustainable development came into vogue, anthropologists have been exploring “indigenous knowledge” (yes, with its own abbreviation, IK), arguing that such knowledge has much to offer. Some of the earliest work around IK was conducted in the Philippines by anthropologists. In 1957, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organization published a book, “Hanunoo Agriculture,” by Harold Conklin, describing the agricultural practices of the Hanunoo, an ethnic group living in Mindoro. Conklin documented the Hanunoo’s vast knowledge of their natural environment, which they applied to shifting agriculture, or "kaingin."

I’m sure some readers reacted to that word, thinking immediately about soil erosion and destructive floods. But kaingin need not be destructive. When populations were smaller and people had access to large tracts of land, they knew how to move from one part of their land to another, planting in some plots and allowing others to rest. It was a system that worked, with its own IK.

This is a good time to return to the examples I gave at the beginning of this column. Why the field of mushrooms after thunderstorms? Because the sudden downpour causes dormant mushroom spores, already in the soil, to germinate. The lightning fixes atmospheric nitrogen, which, when it reaches the earth, is used as a nutrient by the growing mushrooms.

And planting at dawn? The authors of “Philippine Folk Science” say it makes sense because that’s when soil is moist and solar radiation is low.

Folk science

“Philippine Folk Science” was compiled by a team of Filipino scientists that included Dr. Vivien Talisayon, dean of the UP College of Education and one of the conveners of the IOSTE conference. She told me that some Western scientists dislike terms like “folk science,” pointing out that “science is science.”

They do have a point. You have science when people formulate a hypothesis (in Tagalog, "kutob") that is tested by observation and experimentation, and when they’re open enough to revise those hunches based on empirical evidence.

Business corporations have always been quick to recognize the value of folk science and IK, sending expeditions out to remote areas to gather information about medicinal plants, food crops and other natural products that have commercial potential.

In my IOSTE presentation, I reminded the science educators that tapping into IK isn’t a matter of extracting knowledge, it’s also being open to new ways of looking and thinking. Paul Sillitoe, in his book “Local Science vs. Global Science,” points out that Charles Darwin got some of his ideas about evolution from the natives of the Galapagos Islands. The natives could tell which islands tortoises and finches (a type of bird) came from, by looking at parts of their anatomy. Darwin realized, from those observations, that the anatomical differences were actually adaptations to different environments.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in traditional “wellness” practices. The example I gave at the IOSTE meeting was Buddhist meditation. Formerly scoffed at as a faddish practice that worked only on the gullible, meditation is now the subject of research by neurologists and psychologists. Monks are wired up with electrodes so researchers can figure out what goes on in their brains and their bodies as they meditate. The studies show there are very real physiological changes during meditation, with many favorable effects. The most startling are findings that meditation (and, we know now, mental exercises) allows the central and autonomic nervous systems to “regenerate” or compensate for damaged parts. Medical scientists now talk about “neuroplasticity,” or how the nervous system can be trained and exercised to prevent or slow down dementia and senility.

I don’t want to romanticize all that indigenous knowledge; certainly, there are many irrational beliefs that persist, but you find them as well among “modern” scientists, even with doctorate degrees, who stubbornly cling on to outdated theories.

Science -- “indigenous” or “modern” -- thrives best in an environment where there is dialogue and peer review. At the UP College of Medicine, I’ve convinced professors not to use terms like “primitive” and “superstitious” to refer to folk practices. We’re making some progress there, a recent example being a group of medical students looking into “pasma,” a folk illness. I’m going to describe their fascinating findings next month.

Yes, “Philippine Folk Science” is still available at UP, but I hope we’ll see more publications of that type. IK and folk science consist of accumulated experiences through several generations that need to be validated, but the first step is to rediscover them, together with our young so they take pride as well in things local. Unless we do that, we’ll lose all that knowledge, together with all their potential contributions to sustainable development.

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Children’s medicines


Children’s medicines
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:38am (Mla time) 07/25/2007

The first bill filed in the new Congress was the proposed Cheap Medicines Act. More accurately, the bill was re-filed since it had been proposed in the last Congress but didn’t make it as a law. The bill went through rough sailing, facing tough opposition from multinational drug companies.

Among those lobbying heavily for passage of the bill are advocacy organizations working with the elderly. They’ve rightly pointed out that the country’s expensive medicines have been a terrible burden especially for the elderly, and the families that have to foot their medical bills. Because the elderly are more vulnerable to chronic ailments, they have much greater dependency on medicines, many of which have to be taken on a daily basis. Even with the 20-percent discount offered to senior citizens, the monthly bills for medicines easily run into the thousands, wiping out their savings. The elderly are literally held hostage by the drug industry with a grim message: Pay up, or suffer.

How costly is costly?

But sometimes we forget that there’s another large segment of the population that’s also held for ransom: the children. About 100,000 Filipino children die each year, many from diseases that are preventable and curable.

Let’s tackle the preventable deaths first. Vaccines play a key role in preventing many of these deaths. Fortunately, the government does provide free BCG (for tuberculosis), DPT (diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough and tetanus), OPV (oral polio vaccine) and hepatitis B vaccines. Additional vaccines for flu, chickenpox, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) have to be paid for with private physicians, and these can run into several thousand pesos. As far as I know, they’re not reimbursable with PhilHealth or with private health maintenance organizations.

There are many other diseases that are not preventable through vaccines. The leading cause of illness and death among children are acute respiratory infections. Children are also especially at risk for gastrointestinal infections that can cause life-threatening diarrheas.

Aldrin Santiago, a pharmacist friend of mine, and his wife, a pediatrician, helped me to look at some of the costs of treating infectious diseases. The most common antibiotic used for respiratory tract infections is amoxicillin. More or less, for a seven-day treatment course, you would need two 60-ml bottles of the 125 mg/5 ml suspension, for a total cost of about P140 if you buy Amoxil, one of the brand name products.

In cases where there is resistance to amoxicillin, doctors might prescribe cefaclor, which is more expensive. A 60-ml bottle of the branded preparation Ceclor costs P274 while a 100-ml bottle is P466. For upper-class Filipinos, that may not seem a lot, but for most Filipinos, that wipes out more than a day’s wages, if they are fortunate to even have a job in the first place.

Children also have their share of chronic ailments, asthma being the most common. A 60-ml bottle of Ventolin (salbutamol) costs P108, good for about four days. That’s P25 a day. Consider yourself lucky if your child responds to the oral dose. Others have to use rotahalers, with one cap costing P80.

Even multi-vitamins can set back a family’s budget. A 250-ml bottle of Enervon-C syrup costs P165. That’s about 50 daily doses, each of which would be about P3. The poor will probably buy the smaller 60-ml bottle for P52, which works out to P4.30 for a child’s daily dose, about the price of a pack of instant noodles that poor families use as a meal.

And if they find their child isn’t gaining weight despite a voracious appetite, they’ll probably think of intestinal parasites. But a single dose of albendazole suspension, sold under the brand name Zentel, is P47.

Cutting costs

If you work out unit costs, children’s medicines are always more expensive than those for adults. This is because the medicines come as drops for infants and suspensions or syrups for older children. For example, a 15-ml bottle of Biogesic Drops costs P50. The bottle contains 1500 mg of paracetamol. This is equivalent to three Biogesic adult tablets, which cost P8.25!

My pharmacist friends say you can buy the adult preparations and then mix your own suspensions but there are problems here about making sure the ingredients are evenly mixed and giving the right dose to the patient.

A safer cost-cutting measure is to look for generic preparations, but the range of generic alternatives for children is actually smaller than that for adults. And where they are available, the differences in costs may not always be significant. For example, a 60-ml suspension of Amoxil (125 mg/5 ml) costs P69.50 while its generic equivalent from Ritemed is actually more expensive at P70.25. On the other hand, the 250 mg/5 ml version of Amoxil suspension is P102 while Ritemed’s equivalent is P99.25.

With cefaclor, you have a choice. A 60-ml bottle of Ceclor (125 mg/5 ml) is P274.50, while Ritemed-Cefaclor is P137.50, exactly half the cost of the branded preparation.

Compare the following costs of salbutamol (60 ml suspension): Ventolin is P108, Asmalin P80 and Ritemed P48. Once when I was buying Ventolin at a drugstore, the woman next to me whispered: “It’s cheaper at Children’s Medical Center.” She was referring to the parallel imports the government is doing, where the same brand name, brought in from India, costs less. These drugs are sold in government hospitals.

Parallel imports are in fact part of what the Cheaper Medicines Bill hopes to do. Before the last Congress ended, there were two versions of the bill, with different ways of dealing with patents and other controversial issues. The new Congress will have to tackle all these issues again, but in the long run, let’s hope lawmakers will also begin to look at the long-standing question of production. We still are almost totally dependent on imports of pharmaceuticals. It’s time for the government, or for a large Filipino company like United Laboratories, to come up with genuine competition against the multinationals. In Thailand and India, low-cost medicines from government and from local companies have forced multinationals to bring down the costs of their products.

The President referred to medicines in her State of the Nation Address last Monday, claiming that in 1999, only 11 percent of Filipinos said medicines were affordable, while today the figure is about a half. The President did not indicate who conducted the survey, but even if we take that 50 percent figure to be true, we still have to ask: Why does half of the population still have to suffer because they can’t afford medicines?

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Public spaces


Public spaces
By Michael Tan

Last updated 06:43am (Mla time) 07/20/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- “And some of them are even locked,” Gilda Cordero Fernando texted, in response to my article last Wednesday about how the few playgrounds we have are not very child-friendly.

Politicians, and often parents themselves, do not see how important it is to have children’s playgrounds, especially in cities. In rural areas, children at least have the space to run around in, to explore and to socialize. In urban areas, without playgrounds, children are confined to homes, munching away on junk food while watching television. When they do go out, it’s to the malls. Then when they grow up, we wonder why they’re obese and asocial, if not downright hostile to people.

We hear all kinds of excuses for not having playgrounds: no budget, no personnel, no space. Corollary to this, I hear people often complaining that Filipinos have no sense of public responsibility. Create a park and they’ll vandalize it and litter and spit and pee on it, expecting government to clean up after them.

I’d argue that our lack of a sense of public responsibility is directly linked to our lack of designated public space. I’m using the term “designated” to emphasize how we can make spaces meaningful to people, to the point where they begin to care for those spaces. And if we have enough of these meaningful public spaces, then we encourage people to care for them.

Sidewalk gardens

I actually see this happening in urban poor areas, including those with informal settlers (the current politically correct term for “squatters”). I’ve been working in Quezon City in some of these places, which are densely populated with very little open space left. To give you a concrete idea, in one lot that was less than 1,000 sq m, I found 18 households with a total population of 127, plus assorted dogs, cats, chickens, pigeons and one pig.

One day on my way to visit that community, I noticed on the sidewalk right outside their settlement that there was a whole bunch of “alugbati” (a native vegetable) growing. I asked around and found out the informal settlers had planted it, together with “malunggay” (horse radish). As I looked closely, I realized they also had two “sampalok” (tamarind) seedlings.

Don’t think of the sidewalk as a concrete walkway. It was actually a patch of soil, about half a meter wide and two meters long, already with an old tree. I’m certain it’s public property yet the community had appropriated it. There were no set rules on who would care for the patch, but the plants, which are really quite hardy in the first place, were thriving and people would come and harvest as they wished.

All over Metro Manila, I’ve found similar patches, with all kinds of stuff being grown in them. In one place in Malate area, a barangay (village) even allowed someone to begin selling seedlings from the plants he had cared for.

All this reminds me of the “allotment” system in Britain and the Netherlands, where cities have certain areas, divided into little parcels, where people can plant. It’s not surprising you have that in Western Europe, because these are highly urbanized, very densely populated countries. Yet they also have a long tradition of social democracy, which includes looking for ways to provide public space, with services, to everyone.


Now why couldn’t we have that here as well? Each barangay could have their public space, which could then be planned in such a way that it becomes space for people of all ages. Public spaces, especially those in cities, shouldn’t be an extension of the concrete jungle outside. They should offer a safe oasis for both parents and children. In China, many playgrounds end up as a place for the elderly as well, who bring their grandchildren to play while they themselves socialize with the other elderly, under the trees. The playgrounds come to life because with so many people, you have vendors coming in, even musicians and “installation artists” like the ones who pretend to be statues. Oh the children love that.

Parents complain all the time about their adolescent children going off and disappearing. Yet if you did have public spaces, they’d use them. Never mind if they disappear from time to time behind a tree; if it’s a public space with many people, there’ll be enough social control to limit their activities. The problems arise when there is no public space and adolescents have to create it for themselves. They’ve been known to use even cemeteries for that.

Public space is “tambayan” (hangout) space, that term derived from the English “standby.” And standby need not be idle. People will assume responsibilities, looking after the children, cleaning up, maintaining a garden.

Rules would help: no work, no share in the bounties of such a multi-purpose public space. Again, I’ve seen how people volunteer for barangay work; they’d be as enthusiastic caring for public property. Urbanites would rediscover food plants, maybe even medicinal plants. Many plants, “tanglad” (lemon grass) for example, are both for eating and for medicine anyway.

Environmental groups could come in teaching recycling and garbage segregation and composting. And the children would have a playground that exposes them to nature as well, even as they learn that vegetables grow on land, not in a grocery freezer.

There’s something called the social cascade effect, where people imitate others when they see a good thing going. I suspect we’ll end up having a problem of having too many people wanting to get into the act.

I have a friend who lives in a subdivision. She owns two adjoining lots, one with her house and the other an empty piece of land. She began to plant vegetables and flowers on one empty lot and soon people were asking if they could get a cutting of one plant, seeds from another. Then she had people offering to help her water the place, in exchange for the right to harvest some of the plants.

Continue with our present system of private space, including locked playgrounds, and the young will retreat even more into their MP3 cocoons. Give them public spaces and they will develop a greater sense of communal responsibility. Who knows, maybe we’ll even end up with a nicer, kinder nation.

Missing email

To a different matter, my friends and I have started noticing disappearing email. Many email servers that deal with corporations or institutions (the University of the Philippines, for example) now have a spam filtering system so any incoming email that seems like an ad or a chain letter automatically goes into a separate folder besides the regular “Incoming Mail.” It’s a good service, but it can be annoying too in the way it can sequester important correspondence, including memos from your boss! It’s happened to me many times in the last few weeks so I’ve made it a habit now to check other folders. If you use Norton Anti-Spam, that program also creates its own folder so check that too.

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To run, to fly


To run, to fly
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:23am (Mla time) 07/18/2007

For years now, traveling around the country, what has disturbed me most about our governance is the lack of priority given to public spaces. In many towns, the most conspicuously absent are children’s playgrounds, an absence made even more alarming by the presence, in every town and city, of a huge cockpit arena. Cockfights over children’s play -- no wonder the country is so messed up.

In fairness, I’ve noticed that in the last few years more cities and towns, as well as richer subdivisions, have put up playgrounds. Sadly though, these playgrounds often seem underused, or even avoided. My article today will look at some of the reasons this happens, reasons that are so basic they end up being overlooked.


I’ll use Manila as an example. Sometime last year, I noticed that playgrounds had popped up throughout the city. They had swings and other play equipment, painted with eye-catching colors. Yet I could sense immediately that something was wrong. Most times when I would pass through, even on weekends, they only had a few children playing.

One weekend, I decided to put on my anthropologist-journalist hat and do a bit of cultural investigation. I visited three playgrounds and began interviewing the people there.

The parents and children did appreciate the playgrounds. What was so interesting was that several parents explained that they had grown up in rural areas and wanted their children to have a taste of their own childhood when they had spaces where they could run.

The children echoed their parents’ sentiments, and I could understand why. All of them were from urban poor communities, where there was no space at all to run, except the streets, which were too dangerous.

This doesn’t mean that playgrounds are only for urban areas. The need to run is so much part of our human evolution. (Why do you think people get such a high when they jog?) For children though, running is all the more important for conditioning their muscles and fine-tuning their motor coordination. Yet notice how in Filipino families we’re always warning children: “Don’t run, don’t run.”

Let me get back to the interviews. I asked the parents what they thought about the swings, slides and seesaws, some of which were quite fancy, even imported. “Maganda,” most of them replied, in a tone that suggested a polite “nice.” With more probing, I realized that some of them were actually afraid of the equipment. They feared the children falling. I assured the parents that children are usually quite good about calculating their risks, but I could see why they were worried, and I will get back to that point shortly.

I also asked the parents how often they came to the playgrounds. “Paminsan minsan" ["Occasionally"], most replied, citing busy schedules, whether in offices or in homes, as their main reason. But several also mentioned something I had been anticipating: “Masyadong mainit.” ["It's too hot."]

The heat. One could argue that there’s nothing you can do about that considering this is a tropical country. But I could see -- no, feel -- what the parents were saying. Even toward the end of the day, the playgrounds were hot and, worse, there was no shade. The playgrounds were actually built on places that used to have trees but our wise city officials cut them down. So what we now had were (I can’t call them playgrounds) empty lots with play equipment. This is in a country where parents fret not just about the heat but also about their children (daughters especially) becoming “maitim” [dark-skinned].


Here then is some friendly advice to our local government and subdivision officials: Don’t drive nature out when you build playgrounds. It’s better for the children and it actually costs less to build ecologically friendly playgrounds.

The problem with many of our playgrounds is that they build on distorted concepts of “modernity.”

There’s a particularly useful Internet site (www.freeplaynetwork.org.uk) that interested mayors and parents can visit. Click first on “Places of Woe,” where they have pictures of what a playground should not be, and you’ll find they look exactly like our playgrounds: some steel swings and slides, no trees, and concrete floors.

Cemented grounds are said to be “safer” but I wonder. I thought about the parents I had interviewed in Manila’s playgrounds and realized their fears were not so much of the swings and slides per se than of the possibility that their children would fall off and land on concrete. It’s different if they fell on grass, or even on gravel and pebbles, which you find in natural settings.

All over the world, there’s been a trend toward playgrounds for “environmental learning” that sees the value of playgrounds with grass, stones and trees. The freeplaynetwork site describes playgrounds as places to engage with nature, to be sociable and solitary, to create imaginary worlds, to test boundaries, to construct and alter surroundings, to experience change and continuity, and to take acceptable levels of risk. All those functions can be reduced to one objective: preparing our children for adulthood and the real world.

If you use this environmental learning philosophy, then you realize you don’t need to buy expensive steel play equipment. So much of our “junk” could be recycled for the playgrounds as raw materials that the children can use to play with, from box crates (do you see kids building their own playhouses?) to used tires (do you see swings?). Last year, after the supertyphoons, we could have harvested the trees that fell. Branches as well as the trunks, when sawn off with different heights, are wonderful for children to climb, balance themselves on and jump off from.

Our skills at improvising should extend into play equipment, and we shouldn’t worry about imitating those expensive imported stuff. The Europeans emphasize the need to mimic the realities of natural environments in playgrounds: using uneven terrains for example, and in play equipment, having ladders with uneven spaces in between. That way, children develop not just their motor skills but also their ability to recognize depths and distances.

I’m going to talk more about these playgrounds on Friday, showing how they can be integrated into a broader plan of public spaces. For now, I hope our local government officials will get people to think more about properly designed playgrounds. For better or for worse, children never forget their childhood. Years from now, they will be telling their children, maybe even grandchildren, about the good mayor who first created this wonderland of a playground for them.

Maybe Unicef, the European Union and other European embassies can think of how they can help our officials to access materials on creating safe learning spaces for children, places where you can tell the kids: “Go run! Go fly like the wind!”

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Crossing borders


Crossing borders
By Michael Tan

Last updated 01:51am (Mla time) 07/13/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- For many years now, I have been hearing Filipinos joking about the need to grow a moustache or beard before going off to work in the Middle East because, they claim, without the facial hair, a man becomes too “feminine” and, by extension, attractive prey for men looking for male sexual partners.

Nadya Labi, writing in the May 2007 issue of the American magazine, The Atlantic, describes how amid the extreme sexual repression in Saudi Arabia, there’s actually a frenzy of homosexual activity. One reason is that access to women is so restricted, and so the men turn to each other. Many of the men do not think of themselves as homosexual, and rationalize that they are going after men who look like women.

Appropriately, Labi’s article is titled “The Kingdom in the Closet” to highlight the many paradoxes surrounding homosexuality in Saudi Arabia. Men openly look for other men in shopping malls, and through the Internet, yet they are always in danger of being arrested by the "mutawwa’in," the religious police fielded by the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Labi describes the atmosphere in Saudi as one of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the phrase originally used to describe the US policy about homosexuals in the military. Officially, homosexuals were barred from the US military, but everyone knew they were there, and as long as they kept quiet, they wouldn’t be expelled. In Saudi, it’s an entire nation that works on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, keeping all its homosexuals in the closet.

Now comes the overseas Filipino worker (OFW). I once attended a "despedida" [farewell party] for a very flamboyant Filipino "bakla" [gay man] who was leaving to work in Saudi and remember how his aunt sternly reminded him “to behave,” with the threat: “Sa Saudi, pinupugutan ang ulo ng mga bakla" ["In Saudi, they behead homosexuals”]. Several months later I asked how “Jun” (not his real name) was and his relatives showed me pictures of him in drag (dressed as a woman) in Saudi. He was apparently having the time of his life, with claims that Saudi men were queuing for him (“pila-pila sila”).

I thought of Jun reading The Atlantic article, especially because it had a photograph of someone with long flowing hair, a crown and a bouquet of flowers. The caption read: “Francis, in drag, the winner of a private beauty pageant held by Filipinos in Jeddah.” Such beauty pageants are common, but not without risks. There have been raids and arrests and if participants are caught having sex, they could be liable for very severe punishments. Saudi law actually prescribes death for sodomy or anal intercourse.

Perhaps the out and out Filipino bakla are lucky in that they know how to skirt the rules. The Philippines isn’t exactly that liberal so life here gives sufficient practice for the bakla when in comes to a life of happy subterfuge.

Labi mentions Filipinos several times, including one hilarious story about how 23 of them were arrested while holding a drag beauty pageant. They were dragged (pardon the pun) to the police station together with the evidence of their crime: wigs and makeup and photographs. Herded into a cell, the drag queens began to argue among themselves about who looked “the hottest” in the photographs.

Then there was Jamie who grew his hair long and kept it under a baseball cap, but still ended up arrested by the religious police who saw the long hair as “proof” that he was homosexual. At the police station, the police challenged Jamie to prove he was not homosexual -- by walking. Jamie apparently flunked the test but he was lucky: his employer came to his rescue. He has since cut his hair. And maybe grown a beard.

The ones who face greater perils are the non-bakla Filipinos, especially if their physique leans toward what might be perceived as “feminine”: slimness, a beardless face, maybe a bit too light-footed when walking. If they do get seduced or propositioned, they might not know how to respond. Just a few weeks ago, a Filipino OFW was beheaded in Saudi. His crime? He had killed a Pakistani taxi driver who tried to sexually assault him.


OFWs need to be prepared for other forms of sexual repression. Filipina nurses learn to practice their profession wearing a "hijab," or veil, or even the "burqa," which shields the body from head to toe. They learn to avoid looking straight at a man, because that could be misinterpreted as seduction. Those working as domestic helpers are vulnerable to sexual harassment, and even if the sex is forced on them by the employer, they can still be accused of adultery or fornication. Again, every move is suspect: one Filipina told me how, working in a home, she had once come out from the bathroom with her hair wet, and this was interpreted by her male employer as a “signal” that she was available, i.e., her wet hair indicating she had bathed and was ready.

Woe to the Filipina who has children out of wedlock, since the baby can be used as evidence of sexual misbehavior. Fortunately, the authorities in the Middle Eastern countries seem to have become lax on this point; usually they just deport the women back to the Philippines, together with their babies. Literally hundreds of such illegitimate children have been deported back to the Philippines together with their mothers.

And they’re the lucky ones, considering that adultery is punishable by death.

Solutions? I’ll admit I’m at a loss here except to say the pre-departure orientation seminars given by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) should emphasize discussions of differences in sexual norms across the world, and the consequences of breaking the rules.

Perhaps OFWs can be taught some strategies for dealing with sexual harassment, maybe even invoking religious conservatism to defend themselves. They can tell the seducer that their behavior is “haram” [forbidden] and that they will be reported to the religious police.

I know though that’s easier said than done since many OFWs are not in the position to defend themselves.

We also need to consider the broader context of OFW sexuality. One of my colleagues, Dr. Sol Dalisay, is involved in a Southeast Asian research study of “cross-border sexuality” and finds that the overseas escapades of Filipinos aren’t a simple matter of libido. The Filipino is so used to having large groups of friends here at home. When they leave to work overseas, they suddenly find themselves isolated. Incurable romantics, the Filipino will fall in love easily, with fellow Filipinos, with people from their host country, or other expatriates. Sex will often come into the picture. Many will be able to deal comfortably with the cross-cultural divide when it comes to sex, but others may have to pay for their attraction -- not fatally, we all hope.

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‘Sipsip, sulsul’


‘Sipsip, sulsul’
By Michael Tan

Last updated 11:53pm (Mla time) 07/10/2007

I’ve been asked to prepare a paper for a conference on management and culture, with a particular focus: What are the main challenges that face leaders in the Philippines when it comes to organizational dynamics? When I was first asked that question, two words flashed immediately in my head: “sipsip” and “sulsul.”

Sipsip and sulsul (imagine them as terrorist twins or a two-headed monster) make no distinctions, feasting on small, medium and large offices; government and private organizations; businesses, political parties and religious groups. They’re also a plague in many families and clans, turning even the closest siblings into the worst of enemies.

The sipsip and sulsul certainly aren’t specific to the Philippines. You find them everywhere, but in the Philippines, they seem to thrive particularly well because of a particular configuration of social and historical circumstances.

Let me first describe the two creatures and their feeding habits, and then talk about the environment that allows them to do so well.


Sipsip is actually the younger of the twins, and the more visible and audacious. Literally translated as “to suck,” sipsip means sycophancy, an excessive and insincere flattering. An American slang term, “brownnose,” is particularly graphic in the way it describes how the sycophants stick to you, the brown nose the result of the way they follow you, from behind, to demonstrate their loyalty.

Much of sipsip is verbal, often conducted by several people who form a hallelujah chorus of sorts. In the Philippine setting, sipsip is also often acted out, the sipsips trying to outdo each other to do things for the big boss.

Psychologists know that the exuberance one feels after getting praise is always fleeting, which is why leaders can develop an addiction to their sipsip brigade, constantly in need for additional and larger doses of adulation.

Sipsips can be dangerous because they form a cordon sanitaire, shielding their master from any kind of bad news. The sipsip is there to assure the leader that he (or she) can do no wrong. Often employed to do public relations as well, the sipsip takes care of assuring the public -- whether constituents of a politician or clients of a corporation -- that all is well under the helm of the Great Leader. Eventually, a leader surrounded by sycophants loses touch with reality, which is why the family, the corporation or even an entire nation, begins to fall apart.

There are two kinds of sipsips. One is the underdog sipsip who is fairly low in the pecking order and simply needs to survive by licking the boots of whoever is higher up. He is usually the backup voice in the hallelujah chorus and doesn’t do too much harm, except to his own self-esteem.

The more dangerous sipsips are the ambitious ones, trying to worm their way into the power structures. They’re usually not too competent in what they do, and therefore have to find other ways to get promotions. By currying favor with the gods and goddesses, they often end up not as wielders of power themselves but as influence peddlers. The organization then begins to fall apart because a premium is placed on whom you know within, rather than on job performance.


Sipsip’s twin is "sulsul," a difficult term to translate. The closest English translation is “to goad” but sulsul also has connotations of constant, incessant intrigue. Like sipsip, sulsul goes for the ego but beyond that ego, it feeds also on a leader or administrator’s insecurities. Sulsul is an older twin of sipsip, tending to be more cunning in a vicious way.

A "sulsulero" [person that does "sulsul"] is usually already unpopular in the organizational structure, so to survive, he or she has to find ways to shield the boss (or, in families, a patriarch or matriarch) from those enemies. And what better way to do this than to identify the boss’ insecurities, and to paint a picture of the office under siege from particular enemies -- the sulsulero’s adversaries, of course?

Like the sipsip, the sulsulero works on the boss day in and day out so that even a fairly smart administrator might eventually wonder if perhaps there’s some truth to what the sulsulero is saying. Who was it that said that if lies were repeated often enough, people would believe them?

The character Golum in “Lord of the Rings” comes to mind when one tries to picture a sulsulero, a pathetic, sneaky weakling of a character. To some extent, yes, many sulsuleros are that way, but the more dangerous ones are those who come through with a benevolent demeanor. First, the sulsulero convinces the administrator that there are serious problems caused by certain people, and then he presents himself as the one and only reliable person to solve those problems, or to protect the leader from the enemies. In the end, the leader relies on a small cabal of sulsulero advisers, not knowing that they are the biggest scoundrels of them all.

The irony is that often, the sulsulero works on the staff as well, using gossip to create more intrigues and discontent sometimes against the very leader for whom they proclaim their loyalty. Like the sipsip, the sulsulero ingratiates himself to both the leader and co-workers as an intermediary who will bring the solution to all their problems.

Twins’ father

As I mentioned earlier, sipsip and sulsul are not unique to the Philippines, but they do become greater problems in our setting because the two trace their paternity back to our feudal structures. Our social structures -- from the family to the most modern corporations -- are rigid hierarchies that are mainly based on age, class. It is not easy to access superiors, and to be frank in bringing up problems so such hierarchies create spaces for sipsip and sulsul.

How do we break that cycle? Leaders themselves, and that includes heads of clans, should be more discerning, learning to detect the empty praise of the sipsip and the vicious intrigues of the sulsulero. Because our feudal structures are so built on age and seniority, an older administrator should be especially aware of his vulnerability to becoming surrounded by the sipsip and sulsulero, and eventually becoming isolated from the world.

Even more importantly, we need to move away from the transactional politics that characterizes our feudal politics. Transactional politics is based on an exchange of favors, which encourages the sipsip and the sulsulero. We need to move toward a meritocracy that rewards competence and performance rather than praise and intrigue. When that happens, people will be motivated to be good at their work, rather than spending time on sipsip and sulsul.

Sure, there will always be Golum-type sycophants and sowers of intrigue lurking around, but they will be hard pressed to find a sympathetic ear, from fellow workers, or from the boss when everyone’s too busy working.

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‘Tom yum’ talk


‘Tom yum’ talk
By Michael Tan

Last updated 00:44am (Mla time) 07/06/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- One of my joys in life is having a Southeast Asian "barkada" [group of close friends], and being able to have meetings with them a few times each year. The "barkada" consists of professors from various universities in the region -- the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam -- that have formed a consortium on gender and sexuality.

We greet each year with a "wai," the Thai way, bringing the palms together like the Indian "namaste," or with a handshake followed by a hand brought back to the heart, the Muslim way. We ask about each other’s families and exchange photographs. I’m the late starter with parenting, so I get to boast more about my babies.

Even if we live in a region where honorific terms are important -- Pak (Uncle), Ajan (Professor), for example -- we greet each other by first names. Yes, congratulations were still in order such as when Darwin of Gadja Mada University became a full-fledged Professor Doktor, even as we wait for two more junior colleagues -- Giang of Vietnam and Irwan of Indonesia -- to finish their doctoral studies.

Away from each other, we send greetings for the many holidays of our diverse cultures: the Filipino Christmas, the Muslim Eid Al Fitr, the Thai and Lao Songkran (New Year’s Day in April!). We sent regrets to Pim of Mahidol for not being able to join her wedding on a cruise down the Chao Phrya River.

Then, too, we’d dash off anxious e-mails and phone calls for less auspicious events: the tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia, the earthquake in Yogyakarta, Philippine typhoons, the Thai coup, the attempted Philippine coup (led by now-senator Antonio Trillanes IV).

GNP, corruption

Sometimes we sit and compare GNPs (gross national product) growth rates, not actual figures but rough ones. One time, Giang of Vietnam told us about how their newspapers were always comparing the Vietnamese GNP with that of Singapore, and how many decades it would take to catch up. Other times, we’d compare perceived corruption ratings from Transparency International, again kidding each other, hey, has the Philippines overtaken Indonesia yet? We know the rankings are relative. Corruption is corruption, whatever the rank, and the ones who suffer most in all our countries, regardless of ranking, are the poor.

Liberals all, we worry about the rise of fundamentalism in our countries, particularly the Islamic variety in Indonesia and the Christian version in the Philippines. We share common stories of conservatives blocking HIV/AIDS education campaigns, of bars being closed down only to drive sex workers underground and beyond the reach of educators. We worry about how women are once again becoming sequestered with the same kind of “save the family” rhetoric, even as thousands of our women are exported as domestic help, caregivers, entertainers.

In fairness, the Indonesians are impressed with what the Philippines has done for overseas workers. Even with all our problems, we do have more regulations and safety nets in place than the Indonesians, who entered the overseas labor export market much later than we did.

Interestingly, the Thais are worried not about the exported labor but about the illegal migrants who stream into their country, mainly from Burma, and who are always vulnerable to abuse.

Tsunami and fog

At a recent meeting, we remembered the Asian financial crisis that began in Thailand in July 1997, 10 years ago. Dubbed as the Asian flu, the crisis began when foreign investors lost confidence in the region and began to pull out their speculative investments from the stock market and from foreign exchange dealings. The first tremors were in Thailand and then spread like a tsunami to neighboring capitalist countries: Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia.

The Thais called it the "tom yum" crisis, referring to a soup made from galangal ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, fish sauce, chili pepper and various other condiments. The blend is hard to describe: hot but mildly sweet.

Which was how the effects of the financial crisis were characterized. Bangkok’s infamous traffic disappeared overnight as millionaires found themselves laden with debt, trying to get rid of their luxury cars, condos and jewelry at rock-bottom prices, often with no takers. There were bargains to be found everywhere, including five-star hotels offering rooms for as low as $40, cheaper than our three-star establishments, but again there were few takers.

The Philippine peso dropped from about 25 to the dollar to 48 within a year. Inflation and unemployment rose. If it had not been for remittances from overseas workers, our GNP would have turned negative.

The crisis alerted us to how closely interconnected Southeast Asian countries had become. If one country sneezed, we’d all come down shortly with flu.

A few years ago, we did have another kind of experience with that interconnectedness, when Indonesian smog from forest fires reached neighboring countries, causing local outbreaks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Sometimes though we shouldn’t wait for actual physical contagion to learn lessons. During our last consortium meeting, Darwin told me about a disaster in East Java last year, when a company drilling for natural gas somehow triggered mud flow from a nearby volcano. One village ended up covered by six meters of mud. Some 400 hectares of farmlands ended up inundated. The culprit, a company called Lapindo, eventually promised to pay $420 million for reconstruction.

I thought about that mudflow recently, after reading about how a South Korean company was trying to set up a spa by tapping into Taal volcano.


Ten years after the "tom yum" crisis, Thailand has recovered and so have we. Back in the late 1990s, we all wailed about our deteriorating currencies. These days we cry about how the US dollar has become too weak, to the point where I’ve had Manila taxi drivers offering change in US dollars. No one wants the greenback.

Today my Southeast Asian "barkada" sees some similarities with 1997, when foreigners were coming in with hot money to play with our currencies and stocks. When they lose confidence, they can just pull out, and leave us wondering what hit us. One country messing up could mean the entire region suffering.

I try to be optimistic, arguing that reforms have taken place in the banking system, in government regulations, but I know there’s a bit of whistling in the dark there.

Good times and bad, we’re in it together, and the “club” is expanding. China and Vietnam, newcomers to the global market system, are developing almost recklessly. When China’s stock market dipped a few months back, the New York Stock Exchange followed suit, and so did the Philippine Stock Exchange.

One time over lunch and yes, "tom yum," we talked about governance in the region and wondered that maybe we do live now in a post-State era, in which we manage to survive not because of, but in spite of our leaders. "Tom yum" talk, pungent and spicy.

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Good food


Good food
By Michael Tan

Last updated 01:40am (Mla time) 07/04/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- The squeeze continues on Chinese exports, this time with the United States imposing stricter guidelines on the entry of five types of farm-raised seafood because of fear of contamination from unapproved drugs and food additives.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an “import alert” last week on shrimp, catfish, eel, basa (a fish similar to catfish) and dace. Under the import alert, importers must provide independent testing to prove the seafood does not contain contaminants. The FDA said they took action after years of warnings and visits to Chinese fishponds showed no signs of improvement.

I suspect the US government has other political reasons behind the all these restrictions, but this does not mean we should be taking the US moves for granted. There are very real issues of safety, especially for food, that need to be confronted. With our close trading ties with China, we should also be looking at what they export to us. I’ve already written several columns about this, including one just last Friday about the growing list of countries taking action against Chinese products, from toothpaste to car tires.

The latest US restriction, however, brings up still another issue, specifically around food. Just what is it that makes us want to keep importing food, and what should we be doing, for the long term, to cut down on this dependence?

'De lata'

After my column came out last Friday, I got feedback from different people, mainly expressing concern that our government might be too lax about imported items. Over the weekend, I read that our Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) was checking out reports about the Chinese government closing down 180 food manufacturers using formaldehyde and other contaminants.

A BFAD official pointed out that we are not even sure if these products are exported. I agree, but that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. It would be useful for the BFAD to check with the FDA’s database of banned imports. According to The New York Times, in May alone, the United States turned away 165 shipments from China, including monkfish that was “filthy and unfit to be eaten,” frozen catfish nuggets with animal drugs and tilapia contaminated with salmonella (a kind of bacteria). In April, 257 shipments were rejected, including 68 involving seafood. That included frozen eel with pesticides, catfish with salmonella again and “filthy” frozen yellowfin tuna steaks.

Our desire for imported foods dates way back to, or maybe even before, the colonial period, when we began to equate “good” food with imported products. Under the Americans, “good” food meant processed foods, with the wonders of food processing dazzling Filipinos as a sign of modernity. To this day, many Filipinos still crave imported canned foods like "carne norte" (corned beef, christened as meat from the north) or Spam (which always shocks Americans, because the food has a totally different class connotation in the United States).

Christmas was a time when the imported foods were at an even greater premium: apples and oranges and "keso de bola" (cheese). Today, it doesn’t have to be Christmas before one finds these imported items. With import liberalization, we have opened our doors to all kinds of products, from Thai fish sauce ("patis") to dried apricots from Turkey and fruit juices from South Africa.

The variety can be enticing, especially with the aura of exoticism attached to these foods, but we forget that together with the exotic qualities, we might want to know more about the imports: Where were they planted? How much pesticides were used? What preservatives and additives were used? Have the foods expired? Did the foods go through our regulatory boards, or were they smuggled in?

Another issue is the impact of these imports on local agriculture. We are flooded with Chinese fruits, many cheaper than local ones. Instead of supporting our farmers with better roads so they can get their fruits quickly and more efficiently into the markets, we’ve allowed the imports to come in with no limits. The results can be disastrous: We’ve seen how cheap vegetables from Australia have practically killed our own vegetable industry in La Trinidad, Benguet, with many farmers now shifting to cut flowers.

If you like some of the imported fruits, vegetables and herbs, find ways to grow them here. Recently a neighbor gave us luscious longan, a Chinese fruit, grown from seeds of imported fruits that they had bought locally. Last weekend, too, I found some mouth-watering canistels being sold in the Lung Center Sunday market. Canistel? That’s the English name for "tiesa." The ones being sold in the Sunday market were big and sweet, foreign varieties but grown locally. I’m open to that kind of experimentation, so long as local varieties are not displaced.


Let me deal now with the recent US Food and Drug Administration’s import alert. The issue here is the way Chinese farmers have been raising fish and shrimp. These are farmed in ponds in large numbers, which make them prone to disease. To prevent the disease outbreaks, the farmers use antifungals and antibacterials that are banned by the United States. These include nitrofurans, malachite green and gentian violet, long-term exposure to which have been correlated with cancer in laboratory animals. The Chinese farmers also use fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which the US government bans for aquaculture because of fears this will bring about antibiotic resistance in the future.

The new FDA directive alerts us to the growing fears in developed countries of the links between bad livestock and aquaculture practices and public health. In the Philippines, we have to worry not just about Chinese imports but also about local products and contamination by hormones, steroids and other drugs. There are laws regulating the use of these pharmaceuticals and other food additives, but implementation is not easy.

As in agriculture, there is a tiny but growing organic movement with livestock raisers. You can find products now like free-roaming chickens, meaning poultry allowed to roam freely rather than being kept in cages and fed hormones and antibiotics. There are also eggs from free-roaming chickens. These products are still very expensive because of economies of scale, but maybe in the future, with a greater demand for them, we will see prices coming down.

That’s going to take time, since we still need to re-educate ourselves and our taste buds to redefine good food as fresh food, preferably grown locally and organically. Sometimes, I wonder if that will ever happen, given the barrage of mass media messages pushing the imported, processed foods and the lack of government support for small farmers who want to go organic with agriculture and livestock.

If you’re wondering, yes, native chickens have always been free-roaming.

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By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:46am (Mla time) 06/29/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- A few months ago, I wrote about the need for the Philippines to be more vigilant about imports from China. Since then, there has been a number of exposés and scandals that raise even more questions about the safety of such imports.

Just yesterday, the Chinese government closed down 180 food factories after their inspectors found that industrial chemicals -- formaldehyde, illegal dyes, industrial wax -- were being used to make candies, pickles, crackers and seafood products. Formaldehyde and its derivative formalin are preservatives used, for example, on textiles (which makes your eyes water when you go to a textiles shop). Formalin is also used in embalming.

Yes, I did note the macabre metaphors, linking Chinese exports to death. This is not an exaggeration. Note some of the other recent incidents:

This week, the US government ordered a New Jersey importer to recall 450,000 radial tires used for pickup trucks, sports utility vehicles and vans. The tires had come in from China and lacked a safety feature that prevented the tires from separating. The tires were being sold in the United States under the brand names Westlake, Compass, Telluride and YKS.

In April, pet food ingredients sent from China to the United States were found contaminated, causing the deaths of several animals. The following month, three states in America banned catfish imports from China because they were found to have been fed an unauthorized antibiotic. (The Americans are careful about these antibiotics in human food because these can cause antibiotic resistance.)

In Panama, more than 100 people died last year after consuming cough syrup laced with diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical. The same chemical has also been found in Chinese toothpaste, prompting Australia, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to ban such imports.

The Chinese government is responding, aware of the growing backlash against their products. In May, they actually sentenced to death Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of their food and drug safety agency, for corruption. Zheng was an executive of a pharmaceutical firm before he became the first director of the food and drug safety agency. He headed the agency from 1998 to 2005, and was convicted for accepting bribes from pharmaceutical companies, but during his administration, there were numerous other scandals involving food and drug safety.

With all these exposés, we need to be checking on our own imports. They do not necessarily have to come in directly from China; some of these products may even come in through the United States considering how so many “stateside” goods are now actually made in China.

Questioning imports

Certainly, unsafe imports aren’t limited to China. They can come from one of many of our other trading partners, including the United States and other developed countries. One recent example was the problem of rusty infant formula tin cans from Wyeth, a large American multinational. Wyeth had to recall thousands of these products. (If you were away the last week, do look up the last few days’ newspapers, where the serial numbers of the cans were published in full-page ads paid by Wyeth.)

In 2000, Firestone had to recall millions of tires that had the same problem as the Chinese tires being recalled now. Firestone’s tires were linked to increased risks of rollover of light trucks and sports utility vehicles with some 271 documented deaths and hundreds more injured before the tires were recalled.

When you get down to brass tacks, our vulnerabilities go back to the way we look at imports. Anything imported, especially from Western countries, is seen as superior to our own. We need to be more critical about these products and realize that West is not necessarily best. I’m thinking now of food supplements, touted as “natural remedies” and “herbal drugs,” with suggestions that these are completely safe. The “Made in the USA” print further glorifies these products. The fact is that food supplements are coming under greater scrutiny now in the United States because of problems of safety and efficacy.

Under current laws, these products are not subject to the strict rules applied for regular pharmaceuticals, which is why the laws in the United States (and in the Philippines since we copied the American regulations) stipulate that such products should not make any therapeutic claims. Yet I’ve actually caught local radio ads for these imported products, where they rattle off all kinds of illnesses that the supplements supposedly prevent or cure ... and then ended it all with “No Therapeutic Claims Approved”!

Given our weak regulatory environment, consumers need to be very vigilant and critical. I want to give one more example here, and this is the problem of steroids being used for weight gain and bodybuilding. Just this week, American wrestler Paul Benoit strangled to death his wife and son, before committing suicide. Steroids are suspected in this bizarre case because they can cause psychosis.

Yet steroids are easily available in the Philippines, sold even in sporting supply stores. Even in urban poor areas, men can buy steroids a few tablets a time, thinking they’re for weight gain or to put on muscles. And what’s striking is how the buyers will say, “Ay imported ’yan, Stateside,” to suggest that they’re very effective -- and safe.

The flood of Chinese imports raises another issue: People will argue that these products are priced low and therefore allow even the poor to avail of more consumer items. I will not debate the cheapness (and I mean cheap) of the products, but have two very simple questions.

First, what are these cheap imports doing to our own fledging industries? Our local industries, ironically owned by ethnic Chinese as well, have closed down, unable to compete, with some of the businessmen ending up now as importers.

Second, does cheap really mean lower costs in the long run? I’ve bought some of these products and because they break down so quickly, I’ve realized you actually end up spending more because you have to keep replacing or repairing them. Worse though are the inferior products that you might end up taking only once, the foods and medicines, with not too pleasant results. Cheap? It’s your call.

I’m hopeful that China will get its act together, partly because of pressure from outside. As more countries and governments complain, and ban its shoddy products, China will have to raise its manufacturing standards and clean up its corrupt bureaucracy. Just as “Made in Japan” moved from its shabby connotations in the 1950s to excellence today, we just might find “Made in China” meaning high quality in the future.

But even if that happens, I still hope we don’t end up continuing as mere importers of these products.

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Formula wars


Formula wars
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:13am (Mla time) 06/27/2007

It’s almost formulaic, the way the drug companies argue their case for advertising and promotions, whether for medicines or for breast-milk substitutes (milk formula). I’m saying formulaic because they use the same scripts over and over again, whenever there are attempts by governments to regulate their advertising and marketing strategies: “People need access to information, and we’re providing it through our advertising and marketing campaigns.”

The current battle over milk formula started last year when the Department of Health issued new and stricter regulations on the promotion of milk formulas. There were already existing rules and regulations under a Milk Code, but the provisions were frequently being violated, with the Bureau of Food and Drugs handling 63 reported violations of the code between July 2001 and December 2004. After the government issued the new regulations, the drug industry took it to court on grounds that this violated their right to free trade. As the case dragged on in the Supreme Court, the industry shifted its focus, arguing now that the new rules will prevent the companies from providing information about child nutrition and impeding free choice among mothers.

Let consumers decide, industry will argue. They should add, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). The playing field here is just too skewed. Advertising is powerful because it uses mass media, taking on a semblance of expert authority and finding its way into our subconscious because of its frequency. Think of some of the drug ads you’ve seen, and their claims. I can hear “Ako pa,” a macho guy attributing his virility to a vitamin. And from way back in childhood, I can still hear the catchy tune for Tiki Tiki vitamins. (See? You’re humming it now, aren’t you?)

A 2006 report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (pcij.org/i-report/2006/breastfeeding.html) cited AC Nielsen figures showing that P2.3 billion was spent for advertising infant formula during the first half of 2006 alone. Note that's half a year, and only for advertising in the media. The health department’s entire budget for one year is only P13 billion, so there’s hardly anything for education on infant and child nutrition.

During the last few days, local media have been featuring a clinical professor from the Ohio State University, who argues in behalf of the companies that many mothers will find themselves in situations where they choose not to breastfeed, or cannot breastfeed, and that they will need access to information, provided by the companies, to make the right choices.

Informed choices

I can accept that many mothers will indeed find that they cannot breastfeed, not so much for physiological reasons than because of having to return to office work. But the question for the drug companies is simple: Is their information really going to help mothers make informed choices? If, for example, a mother has to return to work, are the drug companies actually providing information about the options for the mother besides infant formula -- for example, using a breast pump to get the milk and storing this in the refrigerator?

The industry’s “information” is just too skewed toward promoting milk formula, from infant booklets given in hospitals to new mothers, with advertisements for milk formulas and weaning foods, to the packaging itself. My own son is on formula simply because I’m solo parenting (yes, I know there are claims that men can induce themselves to lactate but...). But even as I use formula, I do resent the way the manufacturers still attempt to drum up their ludicrous IQ messages in the packaging. I have a can of Gain in front of me and it has “IQ” written all over the can. Psychologists can tell you this is insidious, almost a way of saying: if you shift, you might be taking away all this IQ-enhancing milk from your child.

I’d trust industry more if it would stop playing with the facts. On television the other night, I heard claims that breastfeeding continues to be widespread anyway in the Philippines, so why regulate the formulas. I heard a figure as high as 85 percent cited, but that refers to mothers who initiate breastfeeding, and that could be even for one day alone.

What are the figures that matter? First, only 16 percent of mothers will use exclusive breastfeeding for six months, which is the recommendation of the World Health Organization -- a small minority. Second, the last National Demographic and Health Survey found that the median period of breastfeeding nationwide was only 0.8 months. Yes, the decimal point comes before the 8, meaning it’s less than a month.

Industry spokesmen have also challenged, sometimes with indignation, Unicef’s figures about milk formulas being related to some 16,000 infant deaths in the Philippines. They want proof, but again that’s all so formulaic, making them sound too much like the tobacco companies who continue to insist that there is no direct proof showing that smoking kills. It reflects a lack of understanding of scientific medical research, which can show only correlations rather than direct causation. With such poor scientific sense, industry’s claims to being able to provide sound medical information become highly suspect.

Wish list

If the formula manufacturers are serious about their claims to providing information, then let them expand on the initiative of Nestlé’s Wellness Campaign, which has included a categorical statement that there is no scientific evidence to support IQ improvement from one of the infant formulas. Nestlé was the main target of consumer groups many years ago because of its aggressive marketing of milk formula and it seems to be learning that public relations can pay off.

Just a wish list for the companies to prove that they’re interested in medical information for better maternal and child health:

How about launching, in their own offices and factories, facilities for mothers to breastfeed and to store breast milk? How about spearheading a campaign with other corporations on the value of breast milk? (Using the language of profits, we could argue that breastfed children are healthier, which means less absenteeism from mothers who would otherwise have to stay home to care for a sick child.) How about more programs on TV, with media-wise doctors and nutritionists, explaining good child nutrition in general, to include, I’m willing to concede, a role for milk formulas? (Sure, maybe even tackle the question about breastfeeding men.) Finally, how about sponsoring medical experts to talk about how long a child should be on milk formula? (Some of my pediatrician friends say I can shift to regular milk after the child turns 2. Others say 1. Still others, including the late Benjamin Spock, suggest a total shift away from cow’s milk and the use of soya instead.)

There are enough opportunities out there, to be funded from the industry’s P21-billion annual revenues, for the companies to prove they’re genuinely interested in promoting infant and child nutrition.

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