Penman No. 193: Knowledge as Capital

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Penman for Monday, March 28, 2016

 

 

THE UNIVERSITY?of the Philippines (UP) campus in Cebu City hosted the second presidential debate a couple of Sundays ago, and with education on the debate agenda, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. UP—so far, our only “national university” so designated—may be more than a hundred years old, but it continues to grow, particularly in places like the Visayas, Mindanao, and Central Luzon, where the demand for quality higher education is as great as ever.

Not too many people may have been aware of it, but in preparation for the debate—and indeed for the next national administration—UP President Alfredo E. Pascual commissioned a study by the university’s think tank, the Center for Integrative Development Studies (CIDS), to look into where we are in the regional scheme of things and how we can expect to catch up and compete with our more advanced neighbors.

Copies of the paper—titled “Knowledge-Based Development and Governance: Challenges and Recommendations to the 2016 Presidential Candidates”—were provided by UP to the staffs of the presidential candidates in advance of the Cebu debate. But knowing most politicians’ propensity to go for the sound bite and dwell on the personal, I tend to doubt if more than one or two of the candidates or their staffs found the time and the focus to read it.

It would be a pity if that indeed were the case, not only because of all the work that UP put into the paper (CIDS was backstopped by the offices of the President and the Vice President for Academic Affairs), but because of all the opportunities for development that we will likely miss, again, if our political leaders don’t heed what our top academic minds are saying.

The full text of the paper can be found here: http://www.up.edu.ph/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20160315-UP-Knowledge-Paper-Final.pdf. For the benefit of our readers (and maybe the odd politician who will read this), I’ll unpack the technical jargon and get to the core of what the paper says and proposes.

It opens with an indisputable premise: Education is indispensable for economic development. More education means less poverty and income inequality, because it drives innovation and productivity, and helps people adjust to new challenges and opportunities.

But of course we already knew that. In a society like ours, we all look to education as the way out and the way forward, which is why our people slave for years overseas to put their kids through college. So sacred is education to the Filipino family that every candidate for public office, especially the Presidency, feels duty-bound to extol its virtues.

To be fair to the present administration, it’s put its money where its mouth is, for the most part. The study notes that “Since Benigno S. Aquino III assumed the presidency, government expenditure on public education has enjoyed annual increases. Out of the education sector‘s PHP364.9 billion budget for 2015, PHP43.3 billion was given to state universities and colleges—a 13.8 percent increase over the 2014 allotment…. Over PHP3 billion was made available for scholarships under SUCs and more than PHP2 billion for scholarships administered by the Commission on Higher Education. A total of PHP316 million (roughly 0.09 percent) was earmarked to fund research.”

That sounds good, but sadly it’s still not enough. The rest of our ASEAN neighbors spend an average of 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on education, but we try to make do with 3 percent. That’s why even our best universities lag behind their global and regional counterparts. The study notes that “In 2014, the University of the Philippines ranked only 8th out of the top 10 universities in ASEAN. In 2010, the Philippines ranked 89th in the global Knowledge Economy Index, far behind Singapore, which placed 19th.”

With all the new phones, computers, and call centers we see around us, we might be led to believe that the Philippines has become a high-tech haven, but that just isn’t so. (“We may be No. 1 in voice operations,” I once heard President Pascual say in relation to BPOs, “but were just around No. 9 in non-voice, which is where there’s more value-added. We need not just call center agents, but software engineers!”)

In its summary, the study observes that “Our level of technology remains low in quality and scale, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. To catch up and move ahead faster, we need to raise our scientific and technological skills, which only better and more focused education can achieve.

“This calls for massive government investments in high-level knowledge capital—the so-called ‘suprastructure’ of economic growth. This human capital will create a knowledge-based economy driven not just by brawn but brains, tapping into one of our richest but least developed resources.”

In other words, and to put it plainly, we need more brainpower—more nerds, if you will—of the kind who can innovate, produce, do trailblazing research, and network with their global peers. That kind of knowledge can reap sizeable benefits for our economy, as it’s done for Singapore, China, Korea, and a host of other countries who’ve invested in their “suprastructure.”

But PhDs don’t come easy and don’t come cheap. UP argues that our government should have a plan to produce them systematically. The object of our educational system shouldn’t just be producing hordes of college graduates who can’t find good jobs, but graduates in fields and with skills that the economy actually needs. The best of them should be sent abroad for advanced degrees, and then brought home with sufficient incentives and an environment conducive to research. The UP paper goes even farther and recommends that in areas where we lack expertise, world-class professors and researchers should be enticed to teach here and work with their local counterparts, in the same way that Singapore was able to considerably shorten its learning curve.

While much of this will occur in science and technology, the paper wisely notes that “Because values are important in setting the right path to growth, the promotion of science and engineering should be closely integrated with the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to ensure the holistic development of the Filipino.”

To spread the work and its benefits, the UP paper envisions a hubs-and-spokes model of development anchored on regional centers of excellence in certain fields—possibly even other national universities beyond UP.

There’s a lot more to be found in the study that was UP’s gift to the candidates—and thereby to the nation—but whether any practical good comes out of it will depend on the political leaders who govern our fortunes, and, ultimately, on us who vote them into office.

(Kindly note that as a “think paper” subject to further discussion, the study mentioned here does not necessarily reflect the position of the UP academic community as a whole, but rather of the researchers and offices involved.)

 

Penman No. 192: Reveling in the Risqué

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Penman for Monday, March 21, 2016

 

 

ONE THING?I always knew but have seen more evidence of lately is that fact that when women get together, wonderful and even magical things happen. I suppose it has to do with the female predisposition to cooperate (versus the male impulse to compete). Case in point: the hugely successful literary reading billed as “Wordello,” which I plugged in this corner last month.

It had been conceived as a fund-raising project by the ladies of the Likhaan Creative Writing Foundation for the benefit of, among others, the UP Institute of Creative Writing (which I head, so I have a million reasons to be appreciative). But it turned out to be much more than just another reading of poetry and prose, mindful of how such events rarely go beyond sedate, even solemn undertakings where people stand up and mumble before politely attentive audiences.

This was one evening devoted to reveling in the risqué, to pushing the boundaries of the acceptable in a way that brought us back to the freer, more spirited Sixties. Remarkably, it had been organized by a group of middle-aged women as proper and as pedigreed as they come, people you’d normally associate with golf and afternoon tea. But the Likhaan ladies are also very fine writers in their own right, mentored by no less than Jing Hidalgo, and quite a few of them have taken classes with us in UP, so it was no surprise to find them indulging their subversive side.

I’d never been to the venue at the Green Sun on Chino Roces Avenue Extension, and when Beng and I got there last March 5, we expected to walk into just another hotel-and-restaurant lobby setup. Instead, a large corner of the place had been transformed, just for the evening, into a virtual bordello, with ladies in bare backs and slinky black lingerie well, slinking around. When I found my bearings, I was glad to run into and to chat with old friends like writers Charlson Ong, JB Capino (on a home visit from Illinois, where he’s been based), Carla Pacis, Cecille Lopez Lilles, Mabek Kawsek, Linda Panlilio, Bambi Harper, and Cesar Aljama, as well as BenCab and Annie Sarthou.

Most of the readings proved appropriately racy, and I had to explain that I had come as a bashful patron, choosing to read something fairly short and chaste. But elsewhere in the room, something smoky and sexy was going on. We had to leave a little early for another commitment that evening, so I asked Likhaan Foundation’s Chichi Lizot, the writer-translator busybody behind the project, to tell us what happened next, and how they put on such a good show in the first place. Here’s Chichi’s summing-up:

“We had heard of ‘poetry brothels,’ not only in New York and Paris, but also in other parts of the world. Were we ready for it here? The idea of presenting poetry, bordello-style, in a land of taboos was both daunting and exciting. It was then that ‘Wordello,’ coined by a poet and friend who joins some of us for drinks every so often, RayVi Sunico, was born.

“Working on the concept, pinning down sponsors, inviting poets, and finding a venue accessible to all began six months ago. Creating and feeding our social media sites got going in December. A handful of active members found friends along the way willing to help, spurred by the untrodden approach towards literature. There is something about the forbidden that excites.

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“Then came the evening of Wordello. Stepping into its entrance of beaded curtains after going through the ultra-modern corridors of Green Sun was like being transported into a secret world—of red, orange and magenta, of incense, alcohol, and erotica. It was a den of iniquity. It was Moulin Rouge—and much more. There were candles and Persian lamps. Carpets. Palm trees. Griffins standing guard. And in a cage, a masked executioner wielding an axe.

“The youngest in the audience must have been fifteen, the oldest, ninety-two. Some came in their chauffeur-driven imports, the others in jeepneys—any clothed, or rather, unclothed, comme il fallait. And as they hobnobbed with friends and strangers alike, they discovered a tarot reader of a monk in a nook somewhere. In a tent draped in extravagant silk, a body calligrapher was engrossed in a woman’s back, oblivious to spectators. Books and art pieces were up for grabs in different corners, incongruous yet fitting. The lively activity at the bar provided no respite to bartenders only eager to please. Omnipresent conversations thrived.

“And then from nowhere, a young poet delivered a line. Loud and clear. A male voice cried out from another corner. The room was stunned into silence. Yet another demanded attendance—this time female—delivering utterances from across the expanse of subdued light. Fifteen poets in a flash mob of sorts embarked us on a journey, harbingers all, of what was about to unfold. Their words were tame in comparison to the almost three hours of poetry, skits and the performing arts—mostly unbridled and unafraid. One or two in the audience left after the fifth number, scandalized. Most stayed, to either endure or embrace the words spoken by the inimitable and the sans pareil, and the fledgling.
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“The place was packed, denying access to waiters serving bar-chow. Seated comfortably in deep couches were the elderly. Many were happily relaxed on intricate pillows, risers, and carpets on the floor. Chairs had to be added in every space possible for the weary, but quite a few were content standing behind the bar or around divans, mesmerized.

“Sensei Shinobi, who performed the Japanese art of bondage on a defenseless but willing wisp of a woman, was saved for last. As we turned into voyeurs, watching with awe the dexterity with which Shinobi beautifully and artfully crafted rope around the young woman’s body, no one dared breathe. It was art in the sublime. And as he hoisted his model on a single metal ring that dangled from a scaffolding, and then twirled her around, a pin could have been dropped and heard.”

Bravo, Chichi, and merci beaucoup! Until the next iteration of what now deserves to be the year’s sauciest literary event.

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(Photos by Vidal Lim)

 

Penman No. 191: For Love of Art and Artists

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Penman for Monday, March 14, 2016

 

 

MUCH AS?I’d want, I can’t possibly go to all the literary and arts events I get invited to, so I’ve occasionally had to deputize my wife Beng (June Mercy Dalisay to others)—a painter and an art restorer—to do the kibitzing for me. Or, I should really say, for herself, because, as president of the Erehwon Art Foundation, she often has more immediate reasons than I do to meet with artist-friends and luminaries from the arts world.

One recent event I was truly sorry to miss was a special raffle and auction held last February 27 for the benefit of Beng’s dear friend Norma Liongoren, doyenne of the Liongoren Gallery, sister, mother, and confidant of artists young and old. The Church Café, a Bible study group founded by Norma, initiated a fund-raising project for her, called “For Love of Norma.” The group was composed of writers Alma and Mario Miclat, painter Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, writers Fe and Roger Mangahas, sculptor Julie Lluch, and Magel Cadapan, Norma’s gallery assistant and curator.

Norma’s artist friends donated almost 150 artworks to the cause, and Simoun Balboa, manager of the Sining Kamalig gallery in Cubao, lent the venue. A mini-concert and performance was put together by pastor Ed Lapiz, together with the Day by Day Ministry, Kaloob Dance Group, and Jerry Dadap’s Andres Bonifacio Concert Chorus.

The event proved a resounding success, with the spirited bidding raising a substantial sum for Norma, who very graciously and bravely left her hospital bed to join the party with her husband Fred to personally give thanks. The audience—all deeply moved by Norma’s gesture—included writers Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Menchu Sarmiento, and Wilson Lee Flores, gallery owner Silvana Diaz, artists Junyee, Gus Albor, Adie Baens Santos, Anna Fer, and Ato Habulan, diplomat Al Vicente, Quezon City busybody Ruby Palma, pulmonologists Rene Cheng and Julius Dalupang, activist Princess Nemenzo, GSIS museum head Ryan Palad, and journalist Jenny Juan, who emceed the event. Beng helped organize the auction-raffle, which lasted well into the evening, along with businessman and art collector Sonny Go.

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A few weeks earlier, Beng also attended a media event organized by her friend Ricky Francisco, an independent curator and fellow conservator, at the Fundacion Sanso in San Juan. This time I’ll let Beng’s words speak for themselves:

“It was a sunny afternoon when I walked up the steps of the new and modern building of the Fundacion Sanso. I passed through a lobby with minimal furniture but glimpsed lovely watercolor paintings that filled the walls.

“I was late and the media event had started. I tried to be inconspicuous and sat between sculptor Toym Imao and a dignified elderly gentleman who turned out to be the artist himself, Juvenal Sanso. He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and said a few words. He didn’t say anything and just nodded his head. Later I would know why.

“Gilda Socorro Salita, managing director of Fundacion, briefed the guests and media people on the series of events for the celebration of Sanso’s 70th year as an artist. The retrospective includes art exhibits at the Ateneo Art Gallery, the Vargas Museum, and the Lopez Museum. By the time this report comes out, the first in a series of exhibitions will have started, entitled ‘Other: Zobel and Sanso,’ an exhibition of prints and drawings at the Ateneo Gallery. This exhibition is free and runs until May 20. As a memento of the afternoon, the media kits given to everyone included a charming bookmark lifted from an old plate and printed on cream paper by Pandy Aviado.

“The guests began to leave but I decided to stay behind so I could talk to Sanso some more. But it was Ricky Francisco and gallery owner Jack Teotico whom I found myself with. Jack was one of the founders of the Fundacion, which serves as a repository of Sanso’s personal collection of artworks, books, and other mementos representing seven decades not only of creative work but also of travels and lasting friendships nurtured and preserved despite great distances. An old friend from our UP days, Jack invested not only funds but also much time and effort in gathering good people to run the gallery and museum.

“When I asked Jack why the artist seemed to have a hard time hearing, Jack told me the story of how, during the Second World War and when there was heavy fighting between the Japanese and Americans in Manila, a bomb landed just a few feet away from Sanso. He sustained injuries on his arm and still has tiny bits of shrapnel embedded under his skin. However, his hearing was greatly affected, and he remains practically deaf on the left side.

“The afternoon settled quietly into dusk as I was transported to many places and events from stories Jack and Ricky narrated—Sanso as a child of an affluent family in Spain, his country of birth; the blue-eyed Sanso as a young boy in Sta. Ana, Manila speaking fluent Tagalog, playing with boys of his age and forging strong friendships with his playmates, especially one with Henry Sy; Sanso as he diligently worked on his drawings with his teacher Alejandro Celis; Sanso as a student at the UP College of Fine Arts in Padre Faura and his friendship with artists Araceli Dans and Larry Alcala; and his entry ‘Incubus’ winning first prize in a competition held in the 1950s and sponsored by the Art Association of the Philippines then headed by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma.

“It was time to leave but before I did, I treated myself to the mesmerizing display of visual delights that represented Sanso’s beautiful watercolors from the Brittany series as well as the paintings representing memories of Para?aque and Cavite. Sanso’s haunting and mysterious images in the retrospective Elogio de Agua or Hymns to Water keep running like a lovely brook in a quiet corner of my heart. The exhibit can be viewed until October 1st at Fundacion Sanso, 32 V. Cruz St., San Juan City, Metro Manila.”

Many thanks, Beng, for that glowing report, which makes we wish I had been there to chat with the artist (and now I’ll know to stay on his right side). I’d always been engrossed by Sanso’s dark waterscapes and their vegetal inhabitants, made even more intriguing by the total absence of human figures.

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I did, however, tag along on a day trip up to Baguio last week with the folks of the Erehwon Art Foundation led by Beng and the foundation’s chairman, Boysie Villavicencio, on a very special mission: to receive the donation of an etching press to the foundation by none other than National Artist Benedicto Cabrera. I’ve been a frequent guest of Bencab’s at his museum because UP’s summer writers’ workshops have always begun with a visit with Ben (except this May, when we move to Los Ba?os), and I’ve watched that museum grow from a few stakes in the ground to the breathtaking complex and tourist attraction that it’s become.

Bencab was as gracious as ever in meeting us, and his donation of one of his two etching presses will be a great boost to Erehwon and to other Filipino printmakers. The press used to belong to National Artist Arturo Luz, who gave it to Ben in the 1990s. Erehwon is now planning a printmaking workshop with Fil de la Cruz, Ambie Abano, and other noted printmakers leading novices into the art.

As a former printmaker myself, I just might reignite this old passion, this fascinating interplay of paper, ink, and metal. It was at the old Printmakers Association of the Philippines (PAP) workshop and gallery on Jorge Bocobo in Ermita that I met Beng in the early 1970s, so without art and a shared love of it, we’d never have married, and this column-piece would never have happened.

Penman No. 190: A Makati Staycation

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Penman for Monday, March 7, 2016

 

THE WORD?“staycation” must have been invented for people like my wife Beng and me, who now and then like to laze around in a hotel away from home, though not too far away that we’d have to book a flight or take a long bus ride. For those who’ve been living under a rock, a “staycation” is defined as “a holiday spent in one’s home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions.”

For us Pinoys, a staycation is halfway to heaven. It’s neither home nor Hawaii; usually, it means parking the car and one’s brood in a local hotel, then spending the weekend pigging out on restaurant fare and TV marathons, scouting the nearby shops, and flopping around in the pool. So it’s not free, but it won’t break the bank, either.

Of course, there will be people who—for perfectly good reasons—will ask, “Why even bother? Why not just stay at home?” Yes, sure, home won’t cost you a thing, but that won’t do what a staycation does, which is to play and pretend for a blessed couple of days that you’re somewhere or someone else, like a tourist in your own country. A fancy word critics might use for the experience is “defamiliarization,” which is looking at the same old things with new eyes, producing unexpected effects.

Well, Beng and I got a pleasant dose of defamiliarization a couple of weekends ago when a friend generously passed us a staycation package that she and her husband couldn’t avail themselves of, and we found ourselves at the door of a hotel that we’d never really noticed before, in a neighborhood we’d never really lived in before.

The neighborhood, of all places, was Makati. Both steadfast northerners, Beng and I have lived in Quezon City nearly all our adult lives, and crossing Guadalupe Bridge—despite the many thousands of times we’ve done it for business and pleasure sorties to the south—still means crossing a psychological barrier. Makati was always just a place for shopping or for work, or otherwise for attending some bash at a big hotel. And I realized that until that weekend, it had probably been at least 15 years when we last slept over in Makati, thanks to our daughter Demi who was then working for a big hotel chain.

So it was about time we got a bit cozier with our southern metropolis, and off we went to the City Garden Grand Hotel at the corner of Makati and Kalayaan Avenues, a 33-storey, 300-room structure that I vaguely remembered seeing rising but had never stepped into. (An older and smaller cousin, the City Garden—minus the “grand”—was just across the street, and I almost mixed up the two.) The drive up the parking ramp was a bit steep and the elevator could have used a shot of adrenaline in its pulleys, but that would turn out to be the first and last of our complaints.

We were booked into a junior suite on the 30th floor, with a spacious living room and entertainment area (and a large sofa that could have easily slept one more) plus a bedroom with a king-size bed; the suite also contained one big bathroom and two toilets, two TVs, a full-size fridge, a microwave, and a coffeemaker—plus, let’s not forget that most essential of today’s amenities, free wi-fi. In other words, it was a hotel easily at par with its four-star counterparts in Hong Kong or Singapore in terms of creature comforts. We were on the north side of the building, so throwing our curtains open revealed a vista we weren’t used to seeing—our part of the city, stretching from the Pasig to the hills of Antipolo.

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An even better view could be had just two floors up, as we soon discovered. The City Garden Grand’s piece de resistance is arguably its 32nd-floor Firefly roofdeck bar, which offers a nearly 360-degree perspective of Manila and its environs. (A terrace on the 33rd floor is used for weddings and other special events.) Looking southward at sunset, Laguna de Bay shimmered on the left and Manila Bay glowed on the right, while behind us the darkening north soon lit up like a bed of stars. With a cold beer in hand, the swimming pool bubbling in a corner of the roofdeck, a barbecue on the grill casting its savory spell, and the city twinkling at our feet, we felt utterly transported. The sense of estrangement was enhanced by the preponderance of foreigners in the hotel’s clientele—Australians, Brits, and Germans, it seemed to me, who were leveling up from backpacking.

Beng’s a huge fan of breakfast buffets, and even more than dinner, we both look forward to a hearty breakfast to start the day with, and will often judge a hotel by its breakfast buffet; we’d rather live with a smaller room than a skimpy spread. In this respect, the City Garden Grand passed with flying colors, offering a range wide enough to please everyone, from mushroom with truffles to crispy dangguit (and the menu rotated from one day to the next, providing even more variety).

But the best was yet to come, as we were to discover at dinner. Beng and I usually prefer to go Chinese, but as a set dinner at the hotel’s Spice restaurant on the 7th floor was included in the “Love and Luck” package, we decided to give it a try, despite my well-known and admittedly strange aversion to fine dining. Dinner proved a pleasant shock to my pedestrian palate, from the organic mixed salad of shrimp toast and edible flower in strawberry vinaigrette to the broccoli and garlic soup with beetroot foam and focaccia bread to the entrée of beef wellington with bone marrow sauce (Beng’s choice) or sous vide of New Zealand salmon with brown butter asparagus (mine). (I may be a culinary philistine, but I’m addicted to food and cooking shows, so I knew at least what sous vide involved and meant—in short, scrumptious.) The dessert of deconstructed strawberry shortcake with berry coulis and chocolate marble proved too much, on top of everything—we ordered just one and happily had the other taken out.

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We were so impressed that we asked to see the chef, and were even more floored when he turned out to be no imported Frenchman or Swiss but an entirely homegrown 24-year-old, Ariel “Yeye” dela Umbria, a proud graduate of NCBA’s HRM program.

The surroundings of a hotel are always part of the package, and Beng and I were glad to spend the weekend exploring Century City Mall (just a couple of blocks away) and the Greenbelt-Glorietta area (a longer 20-minute walk, but good for the exercise). Of course, the entire Kalayaan-Jupiter district is a prime restaurant and entertainment zone, which we’ll revisit at greater leisure one of these days.

Meanwhile, our warmest thanks to that friend for the weekend break and for giving us more reasons to enjoy the metropolis; 30 floors up, it never looked so good.

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