Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Philippine E-Passport

Last August 11, 2009 the Department of Foreign Affairs launched the Philippine Electronic Passport with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the guest of honor and recipient of the first Philippine E-Passport. The launch was preceded by a ribbon-cutting of an exhibit on the history of the Philippine passport from the Spanish period to the present.

It is gratifying to note that many people found the exhibit interesting. I'm proud to have been its project coordinator just as I am proud of the art work put into it by my friend Gerry Suliguin. Many people contributed their bits and pieces to make the event a success, and to them I give many thanks as well.

Reproduced here is an article by UP Prof. Butch Dalisay in the September 14 issue of the Philippine Star that made mention of the exhibit (and my name!).

Thanks, professor!

Smile - you're on an ePassport
PENMAN By Butch Dalisay
September 14, 2009 12:00 AM

One of the great side benefits of being a writer — in both journalistic and literary capacities — has been the opportunity to do a bit of traveling abroad, something I’d dreamed of feverishly since childhood, when we accompanied a departing neighbor to the old Manila International Airport and when I saw that Pan Am jet take off for the pink horizon.

Many decades and a couple of dozen countries later, I continue to be thrilled by the prospect of travel, despite the aches that now attend every long flight and my general desire to come home after a week or two. I still look forward to — and save up for — my annual visit to my daughter, mother, and sister in America, and am gratified when an invitation comes along (a rarity in these recessionary times) to fly off to some literary festival at the host’s expense.

Thus, one of the things I’m very careful about is my passport, which I keep along with other important documents in a small fireproof box at home. I’ve collected quite a few passports over the years, even given that I started traveling fairly late — at the ripe old age of 26 in 1980, on my first visit to the US. Now and then I look these passports over, and marvel at how such a hairy and reed-thin young man could metamorphose into this fat and balding creature I wince at every morning in the bathroom mirror.

About three weeks ago, I came across a press release from the Department of Foreign Affairs announcing the imminent availability of a new kind of passport — an ePassport, a state-of-the–technology travel document with whiz-bang features aimed at preventing tampering and fraud. As a self-styled techie, I was instantly intrigued. Now, I’ve never lost a passport, and I can’t see anyone wanting to steal my mug, but I’m hopelessly attracted to anything with a computer chip and a hologram, and while I had nowhere interesting to go until mid-October, I convinced myself that a new ePassport was the thing to get and to try. I remembered how my old green one wouldn’t register at the self-check-in kiosks in Stateside airports, requiring some manual intervention by a bleary-eyed clerk.

I noted the date that the DFA was going to begin taking applications for the new ePassport — August 26 — and made an appointment online at the DFA website (www.dfa.gov.ph) to be there on that day and be among the first in the queue.

There are a few things I need to make clear at this point. Since the current number of ePassports is limited, the DFA is giving them out for the time being only for renewals, not for first-time applicants. There’s a list of requirements and some paperwork to complete — all the forms are online — and you do need to make that appointment online and be prepared to appear in person at the DFA office along Roxas Boulevard on the day and time slot reserved for you, as indicated in the e-mailed confirmation you’ll get pretty quickly; this is something your travel agent can’t for you just yet. And don’t forget to bring P950 for the new passport.

Having done all of these, I turned up at 9 a.m. on August 26 at DFA’s Gate 2 (another entrance on the Libertad side), through which all passport applicants pass. I found my way to Window 28, where ePassport applications are received, only to discover that I had filled out the wrong application — the one for the regular maroon machine-readable passport, which remains a valid option for most people until the ePassport can be fully regularized. This, of course, is every paper-chaser’s Kafkaesque nightmare: shuffling around the bureaucracy from window to window, from room to room, only to be apprised of more requirements or to be told the dreaded words that government clerks seem trained to recite in a monotone, “Come back tomorrow.”

Thankfully the clerk who took my form seemed understanding enough, and even smiled when I found the presence of mind to ask to see her supervisor, so I could explain myself. I hadn’t intended to use my media connection to gain any advantage in the process — and indeed, I never do — but having sincerely applied and fallen in line like everybody else, I thought I might as well identify myself as a footloose writer intrigued by this newfangled technology, which I certainly was that morning. I was directed upstairs to the office of the chief of consular affairs, who turned out to be a very pleasant man named Renato Villapando. He and his assistant Fernando Beup seemed to know me from my writing — another happy surprise — and promptly walked me through the rest of the application procedure. (It emerged that I had caused the foul-up by applying a few hours too early — the proper form for the ePassport was uploaded after I went online — so Asst. Sec. Villapando had to approve my modified application personally.)

I took the opportunity to find out more about the DFA’s new baby. Given our country’s position as one of the world’s chief suppliers of skilled labor (not to mention Disneyland tourists and Hong Kong viajeras), the DFA processes an enormous number of passport applications every day — a number that jumped from 500 in 1980 to 3,000 at present. With all this traffic, some passports don’t pass through the DFA — the fake and tampered ones, which often lead to grievous consequences for the holder. Thus, the DFA under Sec. Alberto Romulo has given high priority to improving passport security, leading to the ePassport, an innovation now adopted by more than 60 countries worldwide, including five other Asean countries.

What exactly is so special about the ePassport? The maroon MRP meets minimum global standards for security, but the ePassport has enhanced features like an embedded microchip that contains the photograph and personal data of the bearer. It employs biometric technology, and has invisible digital watermarks readable only under UV light. And here’s one neat trick: your passport photo is actually made up of microletters readable by a special decoding lens. In other words, until the next criminal genius comes along, this document is virtually tamper- and counterfeit-proof.

Oh, yes — when you apply for your ePassport, do come in your Sunday best and with your hair nicely done. Smile — but no teeth showing, please. I discovered that they’ll take your digital picture on the spot; the old passport photo will soon be a thing of the past. I came with my crew cut standing on end and my shirt collar wilted by the morning heat, an ignominy I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my new ePassport’s five-year validity.

It takes a few weeks to receive the new passport, so be sure you’re not going anywhere in the meantime. Also, your old green or maroon passport remains valid until its expiration date, although you can choose to renew and upgrade it to an ePassport now, following the process I outlined earlier.

And if you have time, visit the very interesting exhibit on the history of the Philippine passport — from Rizal’s time to ours — in the DFA lobby. Among other snippets of information, you’ll discover that President Ramon Magsaysay never traveled abroad while he was in MalacaƱang. Apparently, it isn’t just technology that’s radically changed.

* * *

Friday, June 20, 2008

Beautiful "Ploning"

Perhaps the most beautiful Filipino film of 2008, "Ploning" opened in Philippine cinemas with the calm of Cuyo Island in Palawan during the summer. Hardly anyone noticed its opening. But for the fortunate ones who were able to see the film, it was a moment to behold and to be proud, for here at last is a Filipino film that does not wallow in self-pity and masochistic self-flagellation, nor mires itself in the social-realism of third-world cinema that is saturated with slum, grime and crime.

In many respects "Ploning" defies conventions in Philippine cinema by not resorting to melodrama or theatrics. There are no villains here of the vicious kind, no love-interest for the leading lady, no distracting musical score. Here is only cinematic artistry--from first-rate acting to cinematography that captures Philippine setting and sunlight so magnificently as an Amorsolo painting.

"Ploning" is a return to the barrio, to the good, old values of the country folks. It is a glimpse into the lives of people still connected to their community, neighbors, family and friends. Gentleness and kindness thrive here, as if time stood still in order to be seen, perhaps confronted, so that today's generation of Filipinos would know that they were once generous and full of heart for their fellowmen.

Yet, for all its seemingly ideal setting--in a seaside community yet to suffer from the assault of modernity--"Ploning" does not cater to escapism, nor does it cater to idealism. Simply, it is about the pains of everyday life and all the meaningful and beautiful little pieces that can be had from living through it.

Like the calm waters of the Cuyo seas, the lives of the characters ripple with tensions and suppressed emotions. Beneath their strong countenance are their losses, frustrations, anguish and hopes that are so palpable one cannot help but be crushed as the story begins to rush towards a most poignant end.

Lea Salonga in Seoul, June 16

(Lea's poster and information leaflets for her concert in Seoul. Photos grabbed from Seoul Arts Center website).

While every Filipino was busy with life in the Philippines, the country's international star Lea Salonga held a successful concert in Seoul, Korea last June 16. It was attended by approximately 2,000 people. Below is an article written on the concert by Cathy Garcia, a Filipino writer for The Korea Times.

Seoul, South Korea - International Filipino star Lea Salonga received standing ovations from a wildly appreciative Korean audience during her first solo concert here, Monday evening.

Salonga performed 22 Disney and Broadway songs during the two-and-a-half hour concert at the packed Seoul Arts Center. She is the first Filipino to perform in Korea’s foremost complex center dedicated to arts and culture.

In an interview before the concert, Salonga said she wasn’t sure how many people would attend.

"I have no idea how many people would actually come to the concert. If we’re going to be able to fill up the concert or if there will be only 10 people,” she said.

"My attitude is, if there are 10 people there, these are the 10 people who really want to see you. So you do you best for them no matter what,” she added.

Salonga didn’t have to worry about the attendance because more than 2,000 people, mostly Koreans, attended her first solo concert here.

Wearing a deep brown pantsuit, Salonga started the show with a stirring performance of “Go The Distance” from the Disney animated film “Hercules.”

She sang songs like “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King,” “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid” and “Reflection” from “Mulan.”

Since the song “A Whole New World” from the animated film “Aladdin,” is a duet, Salonga picked a Korean man from the audience to sing with her.

For the second part of the show, Salonga appeared on stage wearing a long blue gown and performed Broadway hits like “On My Own” and “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables”; “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line” and “Something’s Coming” from “The West Side Story.”

The Korean audience was very appreciative of Salonga’s performance, enthusiastically cheering and clapping after every song.

Salonga gave a heartfelt rendition of “I’d Give My Life For You” from “Miss Saigon.” She told the audience that since she gave birth to her daughter Nicole in 2006, she had a stronger feel for the song’s lyrics.

After her final song “Everybody Says Don’t” from “Anyone Can Whistle,” the audience gave thunderous applause and a standing ovation for Salonga.

Three encores

The exuberant response from the Korean crowd obviously surprised Salonga so much, that she returned not just for one encore, but three encores.

Salonga was also surprised to learn her wedding song “Two Words” is popular among her Korean fans. The song was not originally on her program, but was a last-minute addition due to her fans’ special request.

When she came out for the third time, Salonga laughingly said, “We ran out of songs.” She gave the audience a repeat performance of “Everybody Says Don’t.”

After the show, around a hundred Korean fans and handful of Filipinos lined up to get Salonga’s autograph.

Chung-ah Lee, a 22-year old student, said she was a big fan of Salonga’s after listening to her songs in Disney films “Aladdin” and “Mulan.”

(Lea's concert poster in Korean).
"I had goose bumps while listening to her sing ‘Reflection’ and ‘A Whole New World.’ Her voice was so clear and strong. She is very pretty. I hope she comes back soon,” Lee said, after the concert.

There were only a few Filipinos in the audience, including Philippine Ambassador to Korea Luis Cruz and embassy staff.

Alfonso Delgado, a Filipino accountant, said Salonga’s performance blew everyone away.
“The highlight for me was when she sang the song from ‘Miss Saigon.’ Her story about having a child made the song more personal. Her performance was a real showstopper,” Delgado said.

Concert organizers said ticket sales for Salonga’s concert were quite good for an artist who has not released an album in Korea. Tickets ranged from 30,000 won (P1,275) to 180,000 won (P7,650).

Her brother Gerard was also the concert’s musical director and conductor. The all-Korean Mostly Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied Salonga’s performance.

Also performing with the orchestra were Joey Quirino on piano, Robert Dennis De Guzman on guitar, Joji Magadia on bass and Jorge San Jose on drums.

Cathy Rose A. Garcia, GMANews.TV

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The University of the Philippines at 100

(The UP Oblation. Photo grabbed from J. Dalisay's blog).

One hundred years ago today, June 18, 1908, the University of the Philippines (UP) was founded. It was perhaps, and still is, the best gift to a country that has always been hungry for knowledge. From the day of its founding to the present, the UP remains the premier institution of higher learning in the Philippines. It is in fact the flag bearer of Philippine education. Many of the most notable personalities of the country trace their roots to this university, among them are Presidents, scientists, senators, educators, diplomats and national artists. No person can be so proud as not to belong (or want to belong) to this institution that has produced the most eminent intellectuals and public figures.

Yet for all its glories and accomplishments, the UP has also been criticized for having nurtured the most "subversive" of minds and even those considered to be the most corrupt. The founders of the many radical political and social groups have studied here, and many powerful politicians accused of graft and corruption trace their education here as well. Some carry this case to the extreme, arguing that the Philippines would perhaps be better off without the brainy people of this university. After all, if the country is run mostly by the smart ones from the UP, why is it in so miserable a condition?

But think of the Philippines without the UP. For all its faults and deficiences, it is undeniable that this institution has done more than any other in helping the country achieve its goals for a better future. A large chunk of the country's scientific research outputs are from the UP; the most esteemed and influential scholarly journals and publications are from here as well. All these have helped push the Philippine agenda for development in more ways than one.

Perhaps it is worth noting that it is the UP alumni themselves who are the most critical of the university. This is not surprising given its strong tradition of intellectual freedom. The UP is a university that respects and adheres to the philosophy of diversity of opinions. In fact, it is known that when you pose a question in class, you get a hundred different opinions and arguments in return. Such dynamism is undoubtedly proof of the university's strong intellectual base, and this will surely continue to be its bedrock of strength in the next 100 years.

UP, ang galing mo!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Let Me Brood

I sit all day brooding. If I could make a fortune out of it, I would already be a billionaire. But since I couldn't, the least I could wish is for brooding to be cool and fashionable. Yes, even without the wealth of this world, I could at least be desirable, the object of every silly girl's affection who think that because I look vulnerable I would make for a fine friend, or a sweetheart maybe. Or perhaps because they think I couldn't hurt them more than I could hurt myself. Oh, yes, I'm the handsome poster boy of loneliness on every adoring girl's bedroom walls. I'm so pretty it hurts.

I see myself in pictures brooding, in monochrome, beside the sea, with the sunset as backdrop, or wading waist-deep in a pond, in the jungle, or a stream maybe, or framed by a window of a dilapidated bus somewhere in Manchuria, or leaning against a worn-down lighthouse, perhaps contemplating the meanness of the world, or my own.

I'm lonely, and everyone sees it in my eyes. I stare far into the distance, and my eyes reflect my thoughts, some think my soul. It's an old soul they see. No, he's just a boy. What could this old soul or boy be thinking? No one knows. For no one understands. The brooding beauty is burdened, for he has to carry the weight of the ugly world.

To brood is to work. It's a difficult job. Or a mission. Brooders convey the bleakness of the ordinary. They aspire for a kinder world and hope for the kindness of strangers. They open the eyes of people, inspire them to sympathy and affection, even protection. They plea for your heart and your soul. They plea for your own salvation. So let me brood.

(Brooding beauties, from top to bottom: River Phoenix, James Dean, and Winona Ryder).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Discovering the ASEAN

For all the campaigns aimed at promoting awareness of the ASEAN, ordinary Filipinos still remain largely unaware of their neighboring countries. The Philippines with its colonial heritage still leans heavily towards the West. This Western bias is reflected in every aspect of Philippine society and can never be missed in the content of the country's mass media. When in the Philippines, hardly can you escape the heavy influence of the West, from the silver screen to the airwaves. You would think this were Europe or America--especially America--in Asia.

Important moves have been made to address this lack of awareness about the ASEAN. Social studies textbooks tackle the ASEAN as a regional organization, cultural and educational exchanges are being done, athletic competitions are being held, etc. Still, these are not enough. Compared to the knowledge ASEAN peoples have of more prosperous East Asian countries like Japan and Korea, their knowledge of fellow Southeast Asians is miniscule. The economic status of these prosperous countries could be the main reason for their long outward reach. It appears that as a country becomes prosperous it attracts more attention, consequently drawing interests to its popular culture. Take the case of Japan's cuisine, manga, and Hello Kitty, or even Korea's hallyu that has swept much of Asia. Even China and Chinese culture are starting to appear hot again owing to its rising economy and its hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games.

While working for the big economic boom, ASEAN countries could give more focus on cultural exchanges to foster more knowledge about member countries. A good starting point is through a liberal exchange of artists to showcase their talents within ASEAN. Southeast Asian movies could be shown in theaters in the region, singers could hold concerts in any city, writers can do book-signing in any place they choose, etc.

The benefits of such a program would be enormous: It could facilitate and hasten the opportunities for understanding better than what textbooks can do. This is because the power of actual contact and interaction with other people is much more immediate and lasting. The truth is, until the people themselves comprising the ASEAN take interest in each other's cultures and peoples, the hope for a working regional grouping would still have a long way to go.

So who are the personalities that can jumpstart the ASEAN fever? Let the Southeast Asians decide.

Stars from and for ASEAN (from top to bottom): Lea Salonga (Filipino), Vanessa Mae (Malaysian), Witwisit "Pchy" Hiranyawongkul (Thai).

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Food Crisis and the New Crisis of Capitalism

By F.V. Beup Jr.

We knew it had to come sooner or later: food would have to precede everything else. After humans have exhausted the world's resources to churn out goods for the market, in the end what really matters is survival.

If we pause and think for a while, the common notion of progress is that we have all the material means to make our life easier and more convenient. Capitalism has responded to this notion very successfully by providing not only the tools and talents for the manufacture of goods for utility but more so for providing the incentives necessary for these tools and talents to be maximally exploited. Progress has almost become synonymous with wealth created from the sale of goods in the market for profit. To create more wealth, you must always have something to sell. It is in this manner that capitalism is credited for having lifted millions out of poverty, making it the most successful economic system man has ever deviced. But how far can you go into manufacturing and selling before you exhaust the market? More importantly, how far can you go through this practice without exhausting your resources to produce goods?

The latter part of the 20th century (and the present) seemingly circumvented this problem by entering the age of "knowledge economy" whereby people could make profits not only by selling material goods but by selling ideas (intellectual goods, if you may) as well. For a moment it appears that there is a whole new world where money, or wealth, can be made without ever having to sell something tactile. The mouse-clicking, idea-selling salarymen or entrepreneurs sell and shop in their offices, bringing the market into their computers where everything appears infinite, inexhaustible. Many of those who belong to this "knowledge" generation have nary an idea that there is a real world out there where goods that find their way to the supermarkets and the cybermarket have their very origins from the ground, that is to say the earth. And the earth's resources are finite. This appears unimaginable particularly to those who have not been to the countryside and observed how the most basic of commodities are produced, particularly food. For these people food shortage is nothing but surreal.

How did it come to this?

It used to be that wealth could be made with the sale of the land's produce, and so owning land was something that everyone was willing to die for. Industrialization slowly pushed away the importance of land in favor of manufactured goods, and subsequent developments in technology further relegated it to the far recesses of man's memory. Manufacturing earned far better profits than farming. Besides, food could be grown in great quantities, more than enough to feed the world, thanks to agricultural research and scientific food production. In addition, food could be processed, preserved and stored more efficiently. Food could also be imported from agriculturally productive countries, thanks to market liberalization. Altogether, these have spawned a culture so utterly detached from the processes involved in growing food that almost a whole generation has grown believing that everything can be had if one has the money. Perhaps the ultimate sin of the knowledge economy is its overdependence on cash and near-complete indifference to land and its cultivation.

In the meantime industries have to keep on producing goods for consumption to pursue the ever-urgent demand for growth. But after everything else has been produced and bought, after every need and urge has been satiated (if ever it could be satiated), where do we look for further stimuli to growth? Let us pause for a while and think of the earth's resources having been completely exhausted. There is nothing more to produce as there is nothing more resource left to be used as raw material. Does this mean the end of growth and economic development?

While indeed capitalism has created unprecedented wealth for billions of people worldwide, it has also been criticized for having failed to lift the rest out of poverty. This, people point out, is the crisis of capitalism. In a sense this is true, but what else do we have for alternative? The present food crisis presents a new problem for capitalism in that it poses a grave choice between sustaining economic growth and human survival.

Perhaps the crisis of capitalism lies not so much in its failure to lift everyone out of poverty as in its failure to define what is enough for itself. Food, and the lack of it, may just spell the end of capitalism, or at least wound its bloated pride. Historically, however, capitalism's tenacity to adapt and survive challenges has always been astounding. Let's see how it hurdles this one.

Monday, April 14, 2008


By F. V. Beup Jr.

In my very brief stint as a History teacher a year ago, I once discussed in class the importance of rice as a staple in Asia. Looking now at the problem of rice shortage in the Philippines and elsewhere, I'm so glad I delivered that lecture at a time when no one seemed to care about this precious grain.

I remember that at the end of the semester I asked my students to write an essay on what they had learned from my class. Out of 200 or so students, at least one said that she learned from my class how important rice was. Which is to say, that my effort at imparting some knowledge and responsibility among the young toward this staple had not been completely lost. Especially on this one student.

(Rice fields of the International Rice
Research Institute. Photo grabbed
from BBC website).

The history of rice as an important source of nourishment goes back several thousand years. Historians credit its discovery and widespread cultivation as one of the major social, political and economic movers of rice-consuming Asia. This is so because rice-cultivation entails the harnessing of water to irrigate the paddies, and this in turn requires an enormous amount of human labor to accomplish. The maintenance of the paddies as well as the backbreaking task of planting and harvesting rice make social organization and cooperation imperative. Rice became so important that, in some cases, it could take the place of money. In pre-modern China and Japan, debts and taxes could be paid in rice.

More importantly, however, rice made it possible to feed more people. With more of this grain cultivated, harvested and stored, people could afford to have and support more children. In turn, the children themselves became useful in the tilling of the fields. Occassionally, there would be some problems with the harvests creating social and political unrest. It is for this reason that rice becomes a very political commodity.

Yet it is not so much of the shortage in rice that is the problem than the rapid population growth. Historically, the supply of rice has never kept up with the rise in population. The French historian Fernand Braudel in his book, The Structures of Everday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, saw rice as a victim of its own success: by being able to feed more people, rice also made possible the rapid population growth that would outstrip its production. Braudel made that comment several decades ago. That comment may as well have been made at present, specifically with reference to the Philippines.

In Asia rice does not only function as a staple. It is also the center of many rituals pointing to its great importance. This is not surprising at all. The Japanese's mythical goddess Amaterasu was said to have cultivated the rice fields to feed the Japanese people. That is to say that rice plays a very important role not only in the survival of the Japanese but it also occupies a special place in their consciousness. Rice cakes made from glutinous rice are used by the Japanese on special occassions particularly during Japanese New Year. This is also true in China and Korea where various traditional rice cakes are served on special occassions. To some extent (particularly in the provinces), Filipinos also like to prepare sticky rice delicacies (ex. biko, ibos, sapin-sapin, etc.) on special days like All Souls Day and Christmas. I have not yet come across a history of Philippine rice delicacies, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they really take their cue from cultures that have a long tradition of rice-cultivation.

Not surprisingly, the old civilizations of Asia are also the ones that show more respect for rice. For example, you can rarely see, if at all, Japanese and Koreans wasting rice. They cook and eat what is enough for them. This observation has led me to comment in my History class that these countries eat rice as if they were poor. Compared to them, the Filipinos eat rice as if they were wealthy. My comment of course is not without basis. The (Philippines)Bureau of Agricultural Statistics and the Food and Nutrition Research Institute estimates that each Filipino wastes 1 spoonful of rice everyday. That amounts to 22 million pesos and can feed the Filipino population for 14 days. I do not need more proof to believe that information. I look around me every meal and I see the wasteful practice everytime.

So, what can we learn from these? First, we know that rice can feed huge populations, but it cannot always do this when population grows at a much faster pace. Rice shortage is obviously not just a problem of supply. Which brings me to the question of how the Philippines manages its population (if at all). Second, we know that respect accorded to rice is rooted in culture, and respect for the staple eventually works in favor of the people through savings and, yes, the concomitant responsibility. How then can we help solve the rice shortage problem? You're a good student; you already know.