A Miracle?

Original Photo by: tim ellis via Compfight cc
Original Photo by: tim ellis via Compfight cc

“Thank God, it’s a miracle.”

“Prayer works!”

“There is power in prayer.”

These are some of the comments accompanying the news that the execution of Mary Jane Veloso had been postponed. Veloso is a Filipino migrant worker to Indonesia who was arrested last 2010 for allegedly smuggling 2.6kg of heroin to the country, but who maintains she was duped into doing so and was a victim of human trafficking.

Veloso was scheduled to be executed, along with 8 other prisoners, last Wednesday (April 29, 2015), but was spared at the last minute. Many people (including the victim herself) attributed this turn of events as an act of divine intervention (a miracle), and use it as proof of the power of prayer.

Make no mistake, I am as happy as anyone that she was given a reprieve and a chance to prove her innocence. I take no pleasure in the death of someone who was merely a victim, rather than the true perpetrator of a crime.

However, I think that what happened was hardly a miracle, and that prayer had little to do with it, and even if it did, God has to stand in line behind some people whom we ought to thank first.

A miracle, after all, is an event that cannot be explained by natural or physical laws. If Mary Jane had mysteriously disappeared from her jail cell and then reappeared back home in the Philippines, that would be a miracle. If she had stood in front of the firing squad and came out unscathed after the gunmen fired, that would be a miracle. But this is not the case.

As for prayer, if no one had done anything  except prayed — no rallies, no appeals, and so on, and yet she was spared, then something might be said for prayer. But that is again not the case. It was human action and human solidarity and human compassion, that stayed the execution. While Mary Jane might have a longer lease on life, it’s not entirely a happy story as the eight other prisoners’ executions did push through. They reportedly sang the Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace,” until they were felled by the bullets. One of them, Australian Andrew Chan, was a Christian and a pastor. What happened to their prayers? Could you face the relatives of those who died and say that what happened was a miracle and that they should thank God for answered prayers?

If we should thank anyone, it is the people who made all of this happen. Thank you to the Indonesian government and president Jokowi Widodo, who literally held Mary Jane’s life on the tip of his finger, and actually still does (as the execution has not been cancelled but merely postponed pending further investigation). Whatever other criticisms are hurled at him, the victim at least owes him thanks because he had a direct hand in sparing her life.

We should also thank our own president for making a personal plea. Again, criticisms abound on how it was his government’s delay in pursuing the case that led to a last-minute effort, but I’m not going into that now. At least, there was effort, even if it came in the final seconds, and it worked.

We should also thank the recruiter, Maria Cristina Sergio, for coming forward and turning herself in. Granted, she did it to save her own skin and to plead innocence against Veloso’s accusation that she was the one who planted the drugs on her — but her act, even if done for selfish reasons, was instrumental in staying the execution. So thank you, anyway.

Then, of course, there are the many concerned citizens and activists both here and abroad who showed their support by holding vigils, rallies, online appeals and so on.

These are the real heroes — people helping people. The sooner humans stop fantasizing about divine salvation and start realizing that no one is going to help us but ourselves, the better off we will be.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me. Join our next Filipino Freethinkers Davao Meetup on May 9, 2015 (Saturday) 730pm to 1030pm, Coffee at Yellow Hauz, V. Mapa St., Davao City.

Lee and Yee

I have been thinking lately about the freedom of speech, the cost of leadership, and Amos Yee.

I recorded a Filipino Freethinkers (FF) podcast last Monday hosted by FF Founder and President, Red Tani, along with fellow FF member, Jon-jon Rufino. We started by talking about Amos Yee, a 16-year old Singaporean who posted a video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead.” The video was an 8-minute rant against Singapore’s late founding father and his leadership style which contained multiple expletives as well as an unflattering comparison with Jesus Christ (which some Christians found offensive). Yee was arrested and charged with “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person”, distributing obscene material and harassment.

I had two initial reactions when I first watched the video. The first was, this kid certainly has some guts and the second was that he did have some valid points, though I felt a lot of what he said was exaggerated and blown out of proportion. The profanity didn’t help as well as it only served to distract from what could have been valid points. Since then, I have had a little more time to review the video (which you should watch to fully appreciate this article) and read more about the incident.

Yee began by calling Lee a “horrible person” and an “awful leader.” While he may have his reasons for thinking so, I find these claims wildly exaggerated. I mean, if this is a portrait of a horrible person and an awful leader, what adjective is left that we can use to describe the leaders we have, and the ones we’ve had for the past several years? You may call him a dictator, which he rightly is to some degree, but an awful leader could not have transformed Singapore into a first-world country in less than 50 years, and made as much of an impact on the world as he has done.

Yee then called Lee a totalitarian, and then flashed images of Mao, Stalin and Hitler, inviting comparison between them. Again, I find this hyperbolic. Hitler’s body count alone numbers in the millions. I think even Ferdinand Marcos would have a higher body count than Lee. I don’t find the comparison fair or valid at all, except in a very remote sense.

The parts of his rant that I agree with is when he talks about Lee curtailing civil liberties and suing those who question the government. The fact that he was indeed arrested and charged proves his point better than if the government had just left him alone. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, to be disrespectful, and to be vulgar. Used intelligently and sparingly, these can be quite effective in delivering a message. But those who use them often and indiscriminately only come across as crass, juvenile and immature — which he probably is, being an angsty, disgruntled teenager and all — and that is punishment enough. I think the Singaporean government missed out on a rare opportunity to prove Yee wrong on this point. Instead of jailing him, they could have invited him to an open dialogue to settle the matter.

Yee then made an interesting point about how Lee focused on materialistic prosperity and in chasing that ideal, sacrificed happiness. He said “He honestly thought money and status equated to happiness, and his failure to understand how false that was really showed – leading us to be one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most depressed. Ultimately, how do you quantify a great leader? It is by how he creates a place where people are able to live happily and prosper, based on their own unique attributes, and he hasn’t. So no matter how rich the country he made is…it doesn’t mean a thing.”

Again, it is a brilliant point with a faulty conclusion. It is true that money is not everything, but it is something. If you are sick or hungry, it is better to have money than to be without it. If you have loved ones going through financial difficulties or emergencies, isn’t it more fulfilling to be able to extend some assistance rather than helplessly watch them struggle because you yourself are neck-deep in debt? It is certainly not true that what Lee did “doesn’t mean a thing.” Had Lee not brought Singapore out of poverty, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think of Amos Yee begging out on the streets or living in a cramped shanty, instead of being able to record his rant from the comfort and privacy of his own room.

Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect a leader to provide happiness and satisfaction for all, as different people will have different levels and expectations of happiness. However, Lee’s leadership style was probably the most appropriate for his time in order to propel Singapore from being a backwater town into a world class destination. It may not be the right brand of leadership for the current issues of the country (as I’m sure there are many other Amos Yees hiding in the wings), but that is a problem for the current government to consider. Leadership styles should not be static, after all, but must also adapt to the situation at hand.

However, results do not lie, and based on results, Lee Kuan Yew, despite all his faults and despite the rants of a disgruntled teenager, still has my admiration and respect for what he has done for Singapore.

 Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


The Ten Commandments (of George)

Photo Credit: stratoz via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: stratoz via Compfight cc

One of the most important things I learned in school was to befriend the smartest person in the classroom. In elementary and high school, that was Anthony. In college, it was Rochelle. When I started my M.A. in Education around 10 years ago, there was George.

He was quite an unassuming character at first, but when he was called to answer a question, he showed an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge, citing information that was beyond the material given to us. To this day, I continue referring to him as David Hume’s neighbor, as he would sometimes talk about this long-dead philosopher as if he were his best friend.

Anyway, George continues to be an educator while I have gone on to other pursuits. Yet, I still enjoy reading his many insights about education as he posts them on his Facebook wall. Here is a recent message that he gave to his students which he has given me permission to reprint (as long as I mention him and David Hume in the same sentence). Also, they are not really commandments. I just needed a cool title for this article:

  1. There are many real gaps between industry practice and educational practices. There are also gaps between what your parents want and what you want. And there are gaps between what the school is saying and what it is really doing, between what it wants to do (what the vision and mission say), and what the school is really doing (through their teachers). There are gaps between the industry and the economy, between classroom and practice. In short, only 1% or even less is relevant.
  2. We are producing graduates who want to be bosses but industry has no room for them at the moment. You did not study to end up as a clerk, but that is what is available now. You don’t want to be audit assistant, but that’s what’s there. Why are you being choosy? The problem is that you are living in a colored world, painted by people who don’t know what is really going on. Wake up!
  3. Educators don’t know what is going on in industry. We are at least trying to narrow the gap, but a lot of teachers would teach the same subject matter over and over again for the past 20 years, using books that were printed 20 years ago or even in the 1950s.
  4. Teachers teach for the test. They worry that their students will not pass the board exams. But when we asked the industry bosses, they said they don’t care so much about the board exams. They need actual skills, not papers.
  5. We choose programs that are oversubscribed – HRM, IT, Business. Yet what does industry around us need that they have difficulty finding? – geodetic engineers, forklift operators, carpenters. We are not filling the needs of industry. And don’t say TESDA, they kinda…you know what i mean.
  6. We are a consumer economy. We only want to study, to be able to graduate, and finally, to be able to buy the things we want, someday. But that will leave you guys employees all your lives. Where is production there? What do we want to do? To build cars, or build the industry of building cars? We always choose the former. Hence, we fall behind.
  7. We are producing graduates who are individualistic – who compete against each other for grades. No wonder they tend to bring that attitude in industry. But teamwork is what is really necessary. I have been saying this for a long time, that I want to give open-notes exams. Because in real life, you open your notes. I want to give group exams, because you don’t do problems in life on your own. You will be forced to work with people who aren’t your friends, and whom you don’t like. It is not show friends, it is show business.
  8. Our exams are pathetic at times. They do not prepare the students to real life scenarios. They don’t make them critically think. They don’t make them speak business English. These two are the top 2 skills and competencies they need in industry.
  9. You should not be a diva, but a team player. They do not need Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants. You should have social skills. You cannot be a solo performer. You will never ever make it if you don’t hone your social skills. You develop that through extra curricular activities in school. Be active in student groups. Volunteer from time to time.
  10. Finally, and most importantly, you should develop leadership skills. You can’t do it overnight. You only do it through inches and inches of conquering yourself, who you are, eliminating the things that make you weak, and highlighting on the things you are very good at.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


How You Can Help Someone Today

One of the hottest media topics in the recent months is the Bangsamoro Law, the Mamasapano Encounter and its aftermath and implications. It is a topic I have not written on because frankly, I am not that well-versed politically and I don’t consider myself competent enough to make a fair commentary on the issue.

Today, I would like to talk about it, but not to give my opinion on whether government should push through with the Law or not. What I say about it won’t really matter anyway as I have no real political influence. Rather today is about me taking a break from my usual armchair discussions and talk about something concrete that we can do as common people to help those in need. In a past freethinkers meetup, someone asked, “Are we just going to spend all our time thinking and discussing? Then all we are doing is intellectual masturbation. What about actually DOING something?”

In our meetup last March 28, 2015, our guest speaker was Ms. Bai Ali Indayla of Kawagib, a Moro Human Rights Organization. She was kind enough to share her experience of the current situation in Central Mindanao, as well as her experience and “war stories” growing up in Maguindanao. What struck me most was that at this very moment, thousands of real people (our fellow Mindanaowons, fellow Filipinos, and fellow humans) are suffering while our lawmakers are sitting comfortably in their plush chairs debating on whether to mount an all-out war or not, and while millions of us facebook warriors are busy updating our walls with calls for peace or war, or making fun of Pnoy, or debating whether that dress is white or blue.

Perhaps it is time for us to take a break from making a lot of noise and actually do something that matters, like volunteering to help or digging into that wallet and donating P100 instead of spending it on that cold Mocha Frap. For those who want to help, but don’t know exactly how, I am reproducing below a solicitation letter asking for volunteers or assistance in cash or kind for a peacekeeping mission in Central Mindanao this coming April 16-18, 2015 by the The People’s Council for National Unity, Reform and Peace Convenors (PCNURP):

Despite announcement of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that its All-out offensives ended on March 30, its troops in areas of Central Mindanao has continued its military operation. The All-out offensives since February 25 has disrupted the lives of over 125,000 individuals who were forced to stay in makeshift tents as evacuation centers, some in schools and home based evacuees. The humanitarian crisis now happening is manifested by deaths of elderly women and a child due to dehydration and disease as a result of congestion in evacuation center, poor health and sanitation condition and scarcity of food they are experiencing. These were all reported by evacuees and documented during the Peace and Humanitarian Mission organized by People’s Council for National Unity, Reforms and Peace (PCNURP) on March 10-13 in Shariff Aguak and Datu Saudi, Maguindanao.

Peace and Humanitarian Mission on March 10-13 in Maguindanao has four components: Medical, Relief, Psychosocial Intervention and Documentation which served around 600 beneficiaries for Relief goods distribution, around 200 patients (medical mission) and children in evacuation centers. It was also concluded during the mission that evacuees get only minimal assistance not enough for their daily needs as they’ve been displaced for already more than a month.

Another round of Peace and Humanitarian Mission or PHM 2 will be launched coming April 16-18 in Maguindanao area to response to the call of evacuees for help. Our objectives:

  1. Provide immediate food, medical, and psychosocial aid to the evacuees;
  2. Gather information to the extent of damage of war;
  3. Present the current situation in Central Mindanao for public information, and;
  4. Call for an end to the indiscriminate militarization in Central Mindanao.

Hence, we invite you to join our mission and solicit any amount or in kind donations for the evacuees. We know that you share this concern for human rights and peace with us.

For inquiries and confirmation, please contact the Mission secretariat, Althea Amoguis at mobile number 0946-8664307 or Bai Ali Indayla at 0946-9640794 and email us at peoplescouncil@gmail.com

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


The Man Who Moved A Mountain


I just finished reading the incredible story of Dashrath Manjhi, also known as the “Mountain Man,” who devoted 22 years of his life to a singular task — carving a 100-meter path through the Gehlour Hills in Bihar, India using nothing but hand tools. It was not an act of madness nor a desperate attempt at seeking fame or of breaking some world record. Rather, it was an act born of tragedy, fueled by love and a genuine desire to help his community.

Manjhi was born into a community called the “Musahar” who are generally regarded as the lowest among the castes in their particular state. They are not allowed to own land. Ninety-nine percent of them are illiterate and their main meal consists of roots, snails, or rats. The word “Musahar” literally means “rat eaters.”

They lived in a small village surrounded by a range of mountain hills called the Gehlour hills. In order to travel to a nearby town which was supposedly only a few kilometers away, one had to take a circuitous route that extended that short distance to around 55 kilometers.

It was in 1959 when tragedy struck. Manjhi’s wife, Falguni Devi, was traversing a particularly treacherous path on the mountain when she fell and got injured. Manjhi had to take the long road around the mountain to the nearest doctor, who was around 70 kilometers away. Because of this, Devi did not receive timely medical treatment and passed away.

He was so moved by the senselessness of her death and did not want anyone else in their community suffering her fate. So he took it upon himself to do something about it, probably knowing full well that a nobody like him petitioning the government for a road would be even more futile than digging through the mountain with a spoon. That is not what he actually did but it was close. He took a hammer and chisel and began chipping away at the mountain.

And so from 1960 to 1982, he would work as a farmhand, helping farmers till their fields. In his spare time, he would chisel away at the mountain. At first, everyone thought he was crazy and they laughed and jeered at him. But as time went on, the villagers saw how serious he was and they pitched in to help him in small ways (they were very poor, after all) like bringing him food or giving him a little money to buy new tools.

When his work was done, he had carved through a path 110 meters long and 9.1 meters wide, and he got rid of around 7.6 meters high worth of mountain. His efforts effectively reduced the distance one had to travel from 55 kilometers to just 15 kilometers. The government later on recognized him for his efforts, building a 3-km metalled road, as well as a hospital, and named both after him.

There are many lessons one can glean from Manjhi’s life — of hope, courage, perseverance, duty and so forth, but what struck me most was his singular focus and dedication on completing a task he had started, no matter what the odds. In a world where we are so used to multitasking, where we do many things at the same time (and often finish very few or none at all), he threw himself at a single task and achieved remarkable results given his meager resources.

Manjhi breathed life to the principle that if one wants change, one has to start with oneself, to the best of one’s ability. Jesus said that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed could command a mountain to go jump in the sea, but I have not seen anyone do that with even a clump of dirt. Manjhi has shown, however, that if you want to move a mountain, it isn’t enough to rely on some sort of faith magic that many televangelists are selling. The only faith one needs, rather, is the faith in one’s ability to effect change in one’s community.

In the words of Edwin de Leon, who wrote an article in the Inquirer called “Is A Secular Church Inevitable?” (which has since been blocked by Facebook):

Sorry, but there is nobody ‘up there’ to change anything. The sooner humankind accepts this, we will be more at peace with ourselves knowing that our destiny depends on us alone and not from any prescription from ‘ancient literature.’”

Amen to that.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


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