A man for all Filipinos

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

A few days ago we celebrated the feast day of St. Thomas More. The "man for all seasons" was a celebrated scholar, public official, lawyer, and -- of course -- a martyr for the Church. He is known in popular culture through the play (and subsequent award-winning movie) A Man For All Seasons. He is the patron saint of at least one law school here in the Philippines. He is also one of the most misunderstood of saints.

The thing with Thomas More is that his martyrdom has been given a significance by most people that is disconnected from the actual context of his death. Most people look at Thomas More and see his defiance of a king. They take inspiration for their own disobedient attitude by looking at More’s alleged following of his own conscience. The truth was actually quite different. Because the simple fact is, Thomas More did not want to die.

Thomas More lived the life of a successful professional. He was not a mediocre man unable to get things done and incessantly intrigued against his betters. He was the "better." Due to a combination of hard work, savvy, and brilliant intellect, Thomas More rose to become Lord Chancellor. He had a big house in Chelsea, comfortable income, and the respect of his peers. This was a man who would not have given it up if he had a choice and, indeed, tried every legal skill he had at his disposal to escape death.

He certainly had several opportunities to return to the graces of King Henry VIII. But he could not accept the Act of Succession’s anti-papal assertion, that Parliament had the authority to legislate on matters relating to religion and thus undermining the authority of the Pope. Added to this was his refusal to recognize Henry’s divorce from his wife Catherine.

From this, two things should be apparent: the first is that Thomas More, rather than being the model of the disobedient rebel, is actually the paragon of obedience. For he was obedient to his king, following his instructions whenever a task was given him, and carried out work even though the work may seem to him needless or unreasonable. And he was a loyal subordinate to his superiors, which, prior to the King, was Cardinal Wolsey.

His death, rather than being a symbol of disobedience to authority, was instead a perfect illustration of obedience. Thomas More died not because he was following his own personal conscience or emotion. He died because he was obeying the dictates of his faith. In this case, he was completely subverting his will to that of God’s. And this obedience to God was based not on mere muddled hodge-podge thinking of his individual concept of right or wrong. No. This obedience was intelligently and methodically culled from a highly considered and deliberate reading of the Bible, the Church’s teachings and doctrines, and the Church’s traditions. His understanding of doctrine was such that he even wrote learned treatises on the matter, including classics such as The Four Last Things and A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.

Thus, his death was not because he wanted to disobey his king. He did not die because he thought his ideas and himself greater than the king. He died because he could not bring himself to obey his king as he had to obey, after careful study, a much higher authority: his God. This is the only way to make proper sense of Thomas More’s last words: "I die his majesty’s good servant but God’s first." We have to look at those words in the context of his obedience. Otherwise, those words would seem like mere cheap sarcasm.

The second thing we could get from the life of Thomas More was how he simply worked well, without complaints, and giving it his best in every task that was assigned to him. In fact, the reason why his martyrdom had such poignancy and resonance was because of all the material wealth and professional success that he had to give up and sacrifice.

Though Thomas More is remembered for his martyrdom, we have to note that of the 57 years of his earthly existence, 56 of that was spent in ordinary, constant, and conscientious work. This is important. Because most of us will never have an opportunity to die for our faith. Neither should we look for it. Instead, what we should be looking at and find inspiration in Thomas More’s life is how he spent years and years just doing the work that was assigned to him, work that he did cheerfully and well.

When you think about it, this country’s problem really stems from a lack of saints. And when you look at Thomas More’s life, Filipinos don’t really need the drama of martyrdom to be a saint: just practice the virtue of proper obedience and learn to do your job cheerfully and well.


Trade's ever-changing moods

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Amidst news that Philippine merchandise growth slowed down last April and employment concerns were still unabated, with the World Bank providing mixed signals as to its expected scenario for the Philippine economy, the incoming administration faces an international trade situation remarkable for its ambiguity.

The uncertainty with regard to the direction of international trade is backed-up by a seeming loss of interest by people with regard to the subject. Almost a decade ago, one could not go through a week without one trade forum happening around Makati or Manila. Today, the reverse is true. The only forums on trade right now actually focus on how to slow down trade. And even then, the size of the audience (as well as the repetition of the faces one sees) doesn’t really encourage greater interest for the topics that need to be discussed.

Which is really a cause for concern because when one thinks about it, trade really is a nagging matter that wouldn’t go away even though we try not to think about it. It’s the boogeyman that would still be there even if we hide for hours under the covers. And the ironic thing about it is that the trade boogeyman brings us benefits, despite what the anti-trade people keep on harping about. Considering the coming change in government, now is even a more crucial time to determine the direction of our trade policy.

For direction is certainly what’s needed, considering the hazy picture. BusinessWorld recently reported that the numbers for April 2010 showed our merchandise export growth grinding to 27.4%, its weakest performance in five months. Month on month, the export contraction amounted to 14.5%, lower than March’s 17.1%. These numbers should be read within the context of the World Bank’s "Global Economic Prospects Summer 2010: Fiscal Headwinds and Recovery." In it, the World Bank pegged Philippine growth prospects lower than that of China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Vietnam. In fact, Philippine growth prospects for its GDP of 4.4% was even lower than Vanuatu’s (4.5%) and Cambodia’s (4.8%). All this also under the context of the World Bank’s regional forecast of 8.7% growth for 2010 and 7.8% in 2011. Vic Abola of the University of Asia and the Pacific, however, disagrees with the World Bank prognosis, saying that Philippine growth could still wind up at 5.9% or "even higher." He may have a point as consumer confidence went higher than expected, particularly following the recent elections.

Confidence is certainly needed, following the operation of the ATIGA, as well as reports that APEC ministers recently agreed in Japan to push ahead with the Bogor Goals, which seeks to open trade by 2010 (for developed country members) and 2020 (for developing countries). Also discussed were plans for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific or FTAAP. Thankfully enough, the APEC ministers also came out full force on their declarations against protectionism -- committing to a moratorium on any new trade barriers, at least until 2011 (whether or not such violates WTO rules).

Indeed, protectionism seems to have been kept at bay (despite the triumphant gloating of anti-trade advocates). Recent data has indicated that trade barriers have been contained (although an increase in trade remedy measures is certainly there). On the whole, the commitment of countries with regard to protecting the gains of liberalized trade seems to be quite healthy. Which therefore should make countries focus on a more specific concern and that is trade finance.

As WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy noted recently, "trade finance is the oil that keeps the wheels of global trade running; hence our active interest and ongoing participation in global initiatives to address the impact of the global financial crisis on the availability and cost of trade finance. The fact is that around 80 per cent of world trade is financed by some form of credit." Thusly, while "liquidity is less of an issue, the problem remains one of aversion to risk, particularly in smaller players in smaller markets."

Mr. Lamy, meanwhile, laudably continues his lonely crusade to seal the Doha Round by this year. Frankly, nobody really believes that it could be done, with the US close to having its midterm elections, fears of a double-dip recession, and a president whose focus and commitment to trade is muddled at best. Part of the problem lies with trade’s continued success: world trade increased by 25% year on year (seen from the numbers for last March). Total country exports (also year on year) went up by 27%, along with imports (albeit at a slightly lower 24%). The motivation to close Doha right now simply isn’t there.

All this again proves a repeated point of this column: that while our politics insists in being local, economics -- unfortunately -- is international in scope. If we can’t grasp this fact, we might as well just focus on this:

"There’s a zombie on your lawn;
There’s a zombie on your lawn."


Mindanao: not peace at any price

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

In Malaysia last June 3, 2010, the Philippine government agreed with the MILF to continue peace negotiations upon the assumption of the presidency by Noynoy Aquino. The "Declaration of Continuity for Peace Negotiations" between our government and the MILF, according to Ambassador Rafael Seguis, chief government peace negotiator, "will provide a smooth transition to the next administration," providing "closure to this stage of the peace negotiations with a clear statement by both parties that we will preserve our gains and accomplishments, and work our best for the continuation of the talks."

Indeed. However, it must also be stated that we are actually entering a crucial phase in the peace process precisely because of the transition of power. This early, President-elect Aquino should provide assurances to the people that the missteps in the past will not be repeated and that the territory of the Republic will remain.

Because while indeed we should aspire for peace and work hard to resolve the "legitimate grievances and claims for the people of Moro ancestry and origin," the same should still not override the interests of the Republic. Peace is, of course, always something to be desired, but if there’s one thing that we Filipinos should know by now, it is that peace at any price always ends up costing way too high. Somebody once said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, so far, with the MOA-AD as an example, the Philippines has demonstrated that such road is not only paved with good intentions, it’s furnished, lighted, and gilded with it.

To recall, the MOA-AD essentially began with acknowledgments from the government of the Bangsamoro rights. Then it goes on to identify the Bangsamoro as the natives, Muslim or not, of Mindanao, including Palawan and Sulu at the time of colonization, their descendants, whether mixed or of full blood, and their spouses. The MOA then designates the territory of the Bangsamoro as the land -- as well as waters, airspace, and atmospheric space -- embracing the Mindanao-Sulu-Palawan geographic region. The Bangsamoro Juridical Entity is mandated to have jurisdiction over those areas, including "territorial waters", as well as the use of resources. Finally, the BJE is free to enter into any economic cooperation and trade relations with foreign countries, establish trade missions in other countries, and enter into environmental treaties.

With that, inadvertently or not, our government gave the MILF the license to create another state at the expense of the Philippines. As the Supreme Court rightly pointed out, the MILF actually got all the requisites of a state as provided under the 1933 Montevideo Convention: people, territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Not only that, the government also conceded to the BJE the application of the status of "associative state," which the Supreme Court again rightly struck down as being wholly inappropriate because such concept indicates the existence of an entity that is on its way to being a separate state. A state, it must be emphasized, that will get portions of OUR territory, OUR resources, and OUR people.

Unfortunately, what the Supreme Court could not do (because it legally can’t) is to recall Philippine entry into UN General Assembly Resolution 61/295, which allowed indigenous people the right to "internal" self-determination. It’s quite limited in scope, allowing merely for their economic, social, and cultural development (along with a certain degree of autonomy). While definitely a far cry from granting anybody independent status or statehood, the timing of our signing to this Resolution in 2007 was unfortunate, being at the height of the negotiations and the crafting of the MOA-AD. There was simply no compelling reason to sign on to that resolution, aside from being "good international citizens" (whatever good that brings us; I don’t even know why foreign governments have a say in this purely domestic matter), and it merely created the effect of government admission of the strengthening of the MILF’s position.

For some bizarre reason, certain sectors are only too happy to point to East Timor as a model. But why would we want that? That’s Indonesia’s decision. This is the Philippines. Furthermore, the concept of self-determination is inapplicable in Philippine peace discussions as the clear and overwhelming declaration of international law is that ethnic, religious, or cultural groups have no right to self-determination. Again, thankfully, the Supreme Court pointed this out.

Ambassador Seguis should be commended for his statement "of adherence to the Constitution" and that the government shall not "negotiate and adopt an agreement that is outside the boundaries of the Constitution." Nevertheless, the Philippines is already in a tremendously difficult position regarding future negotiations. Increased vigilance from everybody is now a must. And civil society is encouraged to put the same energy with which they forcefully campaigned for Noynoy to monitoring the propriety of this peace process.

Pinakawalan na nga
Sabah at Spratly’s, pati pa ba Mindanao?


UE College of Law strengthens academic instruction

UE Newsmakers June 3, 2010

The UE College of Law (UE CLaw) continues to recruit highly skilled and qualified faculty members in pursuit of its retooling program to strengthen academic instruction.

According to Dean Amado D. Valdez, the new additions to the UE CLaw faculty this first semester, SY 2010-11, teaching commercial law, political law and civil law are: lawyers Tristan A. Catindig, an authority in Commercial Law and a 1990 Mercantile Law Bar examiner; Jeremy I. Gatdula, 2009 Political and Public International Law Bar examiner; Ernesto L. Pineda, Civil Law Bar Exam reviewer and former DOJ Undersecretary; Jose Domingo L. Tan, Chief Legal Counsel, JAKA Investments Corporation; and Rodolfo B. Dizon, 1979 Bar Exam 11th placer.

Profs. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and January A. Sanchez, who topped the 1990 and 2004 Bar Examinations respectively, are also members of the UE law faculty.

In a related event, UE CLaw’s welcome lecture for its freshmen and upperclassmen, among other interested parties, for free, entitled “How To Be a Top Rate Law Student”, on Wednesday, June 17, from 6-9 p.m. at the UE Pre-Bar Review Room, will have Bar topnotcher, reviewer and examiner Prof. Abelardo T. Domondon as lecturer. For further info, visit the Dean’s Office, 3rd Floor, Dalupan Sr. Bldg., UE Manila, or call at tel. no. 7355471 loc. 323 or 324.


Of the Bar exams

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

It’s the season of the Bar reviews, with the Bar examinations a mere four months away. The yearly cycle of new graduates badmouthing the Supreme Court and the torture that is the Bar exams thus goes on. However, the truth of the matter is this: the Bar exams are here, accept it. And pass it.

For the "Bar" has to be passed, no two ways about it. Those eight exams spell the difference between wasting four years of your life and being labeled "ah-tur-neh" for the rest of it. To a degree I find baffling, our society has put an inordinate premium on lawyers over that of scientists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers (and definitely contrary to what people think, not all lawyers are thinkers) such that thousands every year attempt to join the so-called "noble profession" without first contemplating if they’re actually fit to be lawyers. Good ones, I mean. Recent passing levels range from around 16-30%, with last year’s Bar exams registering a generous (and quite charitable) figure of 24.58%. This means that three out of the four people you see in the Bar review room will fail. The mortality rate is even higher for those who didn’t pass the first time around.

I was an Examiner for Political Law and Public International Law for the 2009 Bar exams. I was awed by the assignment and indeed found it difficult. However, the difficulty was not with the fact that I had to check 50-100 booklets every day for the next five months. No. It was the surprise and disappointment I felt at the quality of the answers given by the examinees.

Considering the bookstores, cable television, and Web sites available to them, a number of examinees displayed a profoundly unsatisfactory command of the English language (don’t even bother complaining: constitutionally, English is an official language of ours). Many examinees showed difficulty complying with the rules of grammar (and logic) necessary to properly explain legal concepts or express coherent thought. To pick a random example: question Part II, No.16, of the Political Law exam contained the question "If you were to judge this case, will you exonerate [defendant]?" was met by numerous (and I mean numerous) answers of "Yes, I will exonerate her as she is guilty." How anybody could graduate from law school without knowing the meaning of the word "exonerate" is beyond me. This is not to mention the appalling writing style adopted by most examinees, which verges on the pompous or pretentious.

More importantly, a quite extensive number of examinees are not familiar, oftentimes are frighteningly unaware, of the basics of public international law and its (along with foreign laws) relationship with domestic law. This is significant considering the increasingly globalized world that the Philippine legal profession has to engage, with perhaps no field of local law remaining untouched by international law. Furthermore, a sizeable number of examinees displayed a marked lack of confidence or trust in our domestic law, even at times expressing the highly erroneous idea that our Constitution and laws and our citizens are or should be subservient to international law or the dictates of the international community or organizations. This betrays an ignorance of the fact that the proper functioning of international law precisely lies in states energetically asserting their interests and being confident of their sovereign rights.

This also indicates why the Philippines has a seeming problem with regard to its international relations or commitments. Not only do we have a scarcity of lawyers practicing or studying international law, the few who do seem to have this bizarre (and highly misguided) fixation that international law, institutions, or commitments should override or have priority over that of our own domestic law, institutions, or interests. Hence the impression of the general public (rightly in my view) of trade treaties being overly generous to our trading partners or peace agreements that are obviously detrimental to our national sovereign objectives.

Finally (and interestingly), most examinees displayed a patent absence of any sense of principle or consistent philosophy in their answers. While the same has its advantages and disadvantages (i.e., in terms of intellectual flexibility), nevertheless, what is also noticeable is the examinees’ lack of commitment or adherence to any idea of strengthening Philippine institutions. Instead, the examinees seem to have emphatically formed a high degree of devotion to individual freedoms but without attaching any purpose, direction, or corresponding duties to the same.

I really hope that public international law (as well as conflicts of law) be given greater units en route to getting the Bachelor of Laws degree. We really need more lawyers who can defend the interests of the Republic with greater competency. And we need more teachers smart enough to ably put into the minds of our law students the necessity of a moral compass, and that our lawyer’s oath and legal ethics are not a mere jumble of words but a way of life.