Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Controversy in SSS pension hike where my kumpadre, SSS Chair Amado D. Valdez, is man of the hour. Sen. Drilon would sound like a spoiler if he continues to object to hike. America and Philippines have at their helm men of enormous unpredictability---our two nations are truly in for interesting times.

SSS Chair Amado D. Valdez

In the seven months of the Duterte administration, there has never been a Cabinet meeting such as last Monday's, Jan. 09, that lasted for over seven hours, from 3pm.-10:20 pm.  Former UE Law Dean and now SSS Chair Amado Valdez had earlier called up Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, Jr., asking for time to defend before the Cabinet his positive stand on the pension hike for some 2.2 million SSS pensioners.  Valdez brought an actuarian and SSS President Emmnuael Dooc, and they sailed right into the heated arguments within the Palace meeting. Ang daming angal, recalled one insider.

At some point, Valdez, feeling enormous pressure, was ready to reduce the hike in pension to only P500 a month, matuloy lang, but President Duterte, who was clearly on his side, ordered the P1,000 hike for immediate execution, with the next P1.000 to be studied. Mr. Duterte indicated that he would sign the EO the following day. 


From the start the Cabinet was divided on this issue and arguments were quite heated on both sides. The anti-pension hike group---composed of the finance/economic cluster of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno and Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia---feared that a hike even of P1,000 within this month could cause a substantial drop in the SSS Reserve Fund. On the other side, the so-called “Pro-people” group, composed of the "Leftists"---DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and NAPC Secretary Liza Masa---wanted Mr. Duterte to take the plunge now, with the next P1,000 hike perhaps by 2019.

The thorny part actually came when Valdez and his allies argued that in order to effect the pension hike for THE 2.2 MILLION RETIREES without serious repercussions on the SSS capital, IT SHOULD BE COMPLEMENTED BY A 1.5% HIKE ALSO IN THE PREMIUM PAYMENTS OF SOME 33 MILLION ACTIVE SSS MEMBERS. The problem was that such adjustment will increase monthly contributions of active SSS members to 12.5% of their monthly salary credit---ranging from P15 to P740 a month, to be shared equally by the pension-fund member and the employer, according to the SSS.


This idea of a corresponding increase in premium payments from 33 million active members to help fund the pension hike for 2.2 million retirees met with stiff resistance from various quarters, and PRESIDENT DIGONG WAS CLEARLY CAUGHT IN THE SQUEEZE. But he had made that pension increase a cornerstone of his electoral campaign and at the wake for Presidential Legal Adviser Sal Panelo’s special child, Salvador Karlo Panelo III,  Mr. Duterte reiterated this promise in his usual colorful language (ang tunog ng p......., recalled someone).   

Just when everything seemed okay, however, Deputy Senate President Franklin Drilon had to weigh in on the Senate floor that the SSS Charter  (R.A. 8282 of 1997 in President Ramos' time, expanded from RA 1161, the SSS Act), does not allow it to raise premium rates from SSS members in order to increase benefits for its pensioners.  

At this point, Mr. Duterte has thrown all his cards with the pension hike move and given its wide scope of coverage, it would be a big political risk for anyone, including Sen. Drilon, to oppose it openly.  Let’s see which move comes next---a fascinating chess game indeed.


First, it’s most ungentlemanly for a man to invite a lady to an event and then “un-invite” her---and by text no less. Most of all, it was against state protocol to do so. 

I’m referring to the earlier invitation by Malacanang to Vice President Leni Robredo to attend the traditional Palace New Year vin d’honneur that President Duterte tendered for the diplomatic corps. The VP was extended the invite only to subsequently receive a text that she was being “uninvited.” It was, to say the least, very rude of the Palace protocol office to do so, for as has been pointed out, the two top officials of the land have always graced this annual diplomatic event every new year in Malacanang. 


Even though VP Robredo is no longer a member of the Duterte Cabinet, she remains the second highest official of the land, and protocol dictates that she be invited to the official function for New Year’s Day.

In fact, media commentators have noted that even former VP Jejomar Binay, who was at one point already at odds with President Noynoy Aquino was always invited and had always attended the vin d’honneur. What is happening to the Palace officials? Why can’t they see this and advise Mr. Duterte properly?

To rub salt on wounds, the “Daily Tribune” quoted Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar as saying that Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea has now suggested that an “exclusive 'vin d’honneur' be held next year for the VP alone.” That’s totally uncalled for even as a joke--- worse that it was made public by the Palace’s chief communications official.   


Incoming US President Donald Trump
If local media are having a bumpy relationship with our President, world media are spinning like tops over the way US President-Elect Donald Trump quarreled with major media outlets in a caustic and rude manner during his hour-long prime-time press conference, just a week before he takes his oath as the 45th US President.  Trump openly disputed allegations of the combined US intelligence agencies that Russia had hacked the US presidential elections to favor his win---even as he pooh-poohed as “phony” a supposed Russian dossier about his alleged salacious behavior in the past. Trump has also refused to answer queries about his divestment of his vast properties, as well as his refusal to divulge his income tax statements, which were roundly attacked by the “Office of Government Ethics.” 


Trump’s tantrums by now have scandalized the world, but I imagine that a majority of the US public must be feeling more horrified at what they are hearing from their incoming President. To citizens from all over the world, however, including media, far more worrisome perhaps is the background of Trump’s nominee for US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO. With Trump deprived of any political experience, having been a super-successful world property developer, one would expect him to pick as his chief diplomat someone deeply steeped in world politics and state-craft----perhaps a retired member of the US Congress or the career executive branch. 

But no, he chose someone much like himself---a business executive.


Tillerson, now facing the US Senate Foreign relations committee on his nomination, appears to have insufficient background to be able to competently run the State Department, the US’ most important agency in the light of its role as leader of the democratic world. But not only that, Secretary of State nominee Tillerson’s background also points out his having spent many years developing oil fields, particularly in the Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East and the Arctic fields.

Press accounts also note that Tillerson was a “familiar and popular figure in Moscow, awarded an Order of Friendship medal by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin in 2013.” They also stressed that he was “a staunch opponent of US and international sanctions against Russia for its aggressive behavior in Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimea region.”


Normally, such credentials shouldn’t worry anyone that seriously. It must be remembered, however, that allegations from the US intelligence community flew thick and fast in the weeks following the US presidential elections---and it stands by this claim until now---that Russian intel agencies had hacked into these elections---resulting in Trump beating front-runner Hillary Clinton in an incredibly astounding upset.     

But on the reverse side, the Duterte administration would probably cheer Tillerson’s breezing through the US committee, as the Secretary of State nominee calls for stopping China’s construction of artificial islands in waters disputed by PH in the South China Sea (known to us as the West Philippine Sea). Tillerson wants “a clear signal” that island-building in those waters by China should be stopped.

Indeed Tillerson’s a man after President Digong’s heart just as his principal, incoming President Trump, is pretty much like our own prexy in his unpredictability and volatility of character. Interesting times Americans and Filipinos live in. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

PH and US elections in the same boat, as accusations of hacking bedevil both. Object lesson in case of Comelec Chief Andy Bautista. Deputy Speaker Macapagal-Arroyo files bill protecting Veterans Hospital, her “prison” for four years. In a visit to her hospital suite one evening, I found her alone but cheerful despite the deafening silence---such tremendous inner resources.

Comelec Chair Andres Bautrista

Comelec Chair Andres Bautista, two commissioners and five directors of the poll body are being charged by the National Privacy Commission (NPC) with dereliction of duty in connection with the alleged hacking last March 20-27, 2016 of private information on some 76.6 million registered voters, quickly termed by media the "Comeleak." The NPC, chaired by Raymund Liboro, has asserted that the cyber-security breach was a violation of the Data Privacy Act of 2012 and “the worst recorded breach on a government-held personal database in the world” last March.

The NPC scored Comelec Chief Bautista’s alleged “lack of appreciation of data protection” and “gross negligence” of his duties as poll body head---asserting that the Comelec data-base may have been tampered with and compromised due to his failure to appreciate the gravity of the situation. 


I feel sorry for Andy Bautista as he is a decent guy. The fault, however, seems to be that he may have been the wrong man for the job. This is because his post calls for a high level of technical savvy and cyber-security know-how which this lawyer---who came directly from the PCGG top post and prior to that, a lucrative law practice and as longtime head of the FEU Law School---may not possess. 

This hacking episode should be an object lesson for future Presidents (Bautista was a P-Noy appointee). The job of Comelec Chair apparently calls for more-than-above-average comprehension of its technical aspects, in addition to the imperative understanding of election laws and how to implement them. On the other hand, it's also worth considering that had a more techie guy been appointed, perhaps he would be lost in the legalistic maze of the almost thankless job of administering our highly controversial elections.  

What’s also evident through the many years of electoral complaints about the Comelec is that whoever heads this constitutional office with its seven-year fixed tenure, the syndicates operating within would still be there and all the decent elements would still appear helpless. So deep-rooted are the operators, the syndicates. It is these that should be decapitated. 

Andy Bautista claims in his defense that he trusted the advice from the experts, but he has to come up with a better explanation about the "Comeleak."


It’s interesting that even as poll chief Bautista is accused of being technically non-savvy in the recent elections, to the point where he may have left the data-base of millions of Filipino voters at the mercy of home-grown computer manipulators, in the US, up to now---with the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th US president less than two weeks away---allegation that the US presidential elections may have been compromised by Russian intelligence has refused to go away.

This morning CNN came out with the following breaking news: 

US President-elect Donald Trump
The US intelligence community concluded in a declassified report released Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an "influence campaign" aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
The report was the first official, full and public accounting by the US intelligence community of its assessment of Russian hacking activities during the 2016 campaign.

"We assess that Russian President Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess (that) Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report said.
Trump earlier Friday downplayed Russia's role in the election after what he called a “constructive meeting” with top US intelligence officials.
Trump tried to defuse controversy over his criticism of the intelligence community and said he will appoint a team within 90 days to figure out ways to stop foreign hacking.”


Even as bipartisan members of the US Congress have called for thorough investigation of the alleged Russian hacking, the uncertainty about the TRUE AND UN-MANIPULATED results of the US elections would doubtless weaken and undermine Trump’s presidency----even as his severest critics assert that in this regard he doesn’t need any help, as he is himself his worst enemy with his oft-zany pronouncements (sounds like someone we know, ain’t it?).

This issue of election data base---and other sensitive data, for that matter, such as vital security and defense information---being tampered or hacked by outside forces would doubtless be raised again and again, not just here and in the US, but in other parts of the world, as our planet succumbs to increasingly advance cyber know-how and technology, especially in the sciences. Sadly, however, the world's dependence has also become so vulnerable to manipulation.


Former President and now House Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
   (ABS-CBN photo)

Former President and now House Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has filed House Bill No. 1240, seeking to return to the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) some of the benefits she derived from her four years of hospital arrest there. The Pampanga representative was freed on July 21, 2016 after the Supreme Court dismissed plunder cases filed against her by the vindictive P-Noy administration for lack of evidence. This was GMA's third legal victory since July, even as some of her former Cabinet members were indicted on the pork barrel issue.

The SC decision on GMA was upheld by the Ombudsman in recent weeks for the same lack of evidence, so that last Christmas season was a real blessing for her and her family. It was the first time in four years that GMA enjoyed being on NON-FURLOUGH in her La Vista residence.


IN HB 1240, Deputy Speaker Macapagal Arroyo seeks to protect and preserve the VMMC following reports that Ayala Corporation is eyeing the 55-hectare hospital property as future site of the North Integrated Transport System Terminal. Arroyo sought “to protect the hospital from sale or disposition” and instead argued that it be given its own juridical personality for greater flexibility and independence in its operations. Her bill supports VMMC with a bigger budget and places it directly under the Department of Defense.

I feel that it’s only right that VMMC be protected from sale AND disposition, if only, as GMA stated in HB 1240, "to recognize the invaluable sacrifices and services of our veterans and military retirees and their dependents.” Her bill will help ensure that “stability, viability and ample resources” would be there to entitle them to "quality medical and health services.”


There is a lot of sentimentality, too, in GMA’s filing of that bill protecting and enhancing the services of VMMC.  I recall being in the vicinity one early evening perhaps a year and a half ago, and I decided to drop in on her. Monday was no-visitors day and the police guards didn’t want to let me in, but I requested to be allowed even for just some minutes. One of them recognized me as a former military wife.

The hospital suite was cold and empty except for her and a care-giver and I found the silence deafening and depressing---no TV nor radio nor computer around. I don't think she even had a mobile phone. I thought to myself how, under such circumstances, through four years of imprisonment albeit in a hospital, it must be quite tough to retain one’s sanity and stay out of depression. 

GMA, however, was cheerful and we sat around for a while exchanging stories. Such inner resources, such strength this diminutive woman displayed. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Hallelujah, less fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but CBCP Prexy and Lingayen/Dagupan Archbishop Soc Villegas calls for stiffer fight vs. death penalty to be rammed thru in House. Recalling my Japanese balae’s traditional New Year’s Day lunch, with all the goodies she brought from Kobe, and how Senate President Jovy Salonga called to say he would have joined us---as the lunch composition sounded interesting and fun---had he been invited! I wish I did invite him.

My Japanese balae, Keiko Miki of Kobe, Japan

May I wish all of my blog readers a Happy New Year and the choicest blessings from the Lord in 2017.  May He smile on our country, keep it safe from disasters, man-made or natural, this new year. 

We mourn the horrible shooting on New Year’s Day in a swanky nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, by a lone gunman dressed as Santa Claus, who killed 39 revelers and injured many others. Here in our country, there have been several violent episodes lately too that killed a number of people such as in Hilongos, Leyte and in Midsayap, North Cotabato. 

In this new year let’s pray that killings of all sorts---EJK or not---would not occur. Let’s pray, too, that we draw away from the culture of death and violence, as symbolized by the pending bill on the revival of the death penalty in the House of Representatives, authored by Deputy Speaker Fredesnil Castro, that allies of the President intend to ram through by the middle of this month. 

May true peace and love reign in our hearts and may we also find meaningful solutions to the grinding poverty that afflicts a great number of our people.


Speaking of poverty, some friends high in government narrate that when President Duterte visited Singapore last year as part of his swing around ASEAN, he wept when he saw the glittering progress of that city state---in stark contrast to our grimy metropolis. That visit to Singapore, aides noted, only highlighted for the President dthe poverty that afflicts a great segment of our countrymen in the countryside, but most especially in the cities where they pour in from the rural areas in the hope of lifting themselves up from their abject situation. 

CBCP President and Archbishop of Lingaven/Dagupan Socrates B. Villegas

Very much related to the poverty of our cities and towns is the prevailing criminality which the President's allies now propose to tackle by reviving the death penalty. But as CBCP President and Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan Socrates Villegas who leads the campaign against death penalty, argues, such move would only afflict the poor as they suffer from the imperfections of our criminal justice, most notably its corruption. He cites, for instance, how only rich offenders can afford good lawyers and thus escape punishment, whereas many of the poor end up rotting in jail even for petty crimes. I’d also like to stress that to begin with, the poor are truly the victims of society’s injustice rather than its abusers, as they suffer from woeful lack of opportunities for adequate education and skills training.  

In this connection, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was quoted warning the Catholic Church against interfering in the passage of the death penalty bill “lest its proponents leave and look for another religious group.”  Alvarez stressed that the Church should respect the separation of Church and State as provided in the Constitution, but he should also realize that the death penalty is first and foremost a matter of morals and very much within the purview of the Catholic Church and other religions.

Besides, 126 countries around the world have abandoned death penalty as a deterrent to crime, while in the US, many states have also given it up even as that country as a matter of official policy still employs this punishment. 


Driving from Makati to my brother-in-law’s house in QC last New Year’s Eve for our clan reunion was a breeze---slight rain but no traffic. What’s even greater was that the showers helped Mr. Duterte’s campaign vs. the big deadly fireworks, so that by just past midnight things had quieted a lot and the atmosphere remained relatively clear---unlike in past years when thick dirty smoke would envelop the metropolis for at least two hours past midnight, forcing drivers to put on headlights.  

Thus, the drizzle and Mr. Duterte’s campaign helped the metropolis get away from what former senator and Climate Change Commissioner Heherson Alvarez called the “fireworks mentality,” resulting in our kinder treatment of the environment.  There were also far less episodes of patients with near-severed fingers.  


In this connection I was thinking of what my Paris-based friends, Aquilino “Jun” and Lilia OpeƱa, had told me over a skype call: how the Paris city government sought to combat the terrible pollution in the City of Light during the Christmas season by discouraging use of individual cars and vehicles. The alternative offered:  making public transportation, such as its fantastic subway system and buses free of charge and operating till the wee hours of the morning.  We cannot do that sort of thing here, however, as public transport is woefully inadequate.  If car owners stop bringing their cars, chances are, they’d be stranded or have to walk for kilometers on end.

Driving through deserted EDSA after midnight of Dec. 31 also made me realize how many provincial bus terminals line that major metropolitan thoroughfare on both sides---more now than in earlier years. I counted easily over a dozen of them! This has added to the horrible traffic on EDSA as those big buses maneuver in and out of the terminals and people flock to them.  Sometime in his first six months President Duterte had said he’ll move those bus terminals away from EDSA.  Let’s hold him to his word.


Each country and people has its own way of celebrating milestones like Christmas and New Year. There’s one New Year’s Day lunch that I remember quite vividly from many years back.

 My Japanese balae from Kobe, Keiko Miki (her son Keiichi is married to my daughter Christine) and her husband, Osamu (he’s now departed), had spent the Christmas season here and Keiko prepared a traditional New Year’s lunch for my husband and me and our children in their condo unit.

Dressed in a kimono, Keiko whipped together the lunch as we watched it blow by blow: the traditional ozoni soup (which was not miso-based as is popular in western Japan, but clear soup handed down by Keiko’s mother from Nigata in the eastern part), mocha (sticky rice cake), fish paste, dark beans called mame, veggies such as seaweeds and some egg-roe and of course, some Kobe beef which we washed down with sake (rice wine). What was great was that Keiko brought ALL THE STUFF FOR THAT NEW YEAR LUNCH  FROM  KOBE, and I learned that each item stands for something, like a good wish. 


I learned that it’s traditional for the Japanese housewife to put food in a basket for the next three days (in bento boxes, called osechi) so that she doesn’t have to do a lot of cooking---a kind of recess for her---except that Keiko logged them all from Kobe to Manila.

I described the entire New Year traditional lunch prepared by Keiko Miki painstakingly in my column in the Inquirer next day and later that evening, a call came from Senate President Jovito Salonga. “Bel, I enjoyed VICARIOUSLY the Japanese lunch you had described,” he said in his sing-song voice, “but had you invited me to join you, I would have come as it seemed such fun waiting for each turn of the traditional meal ceremony.”  

I wish I had invited him.