Flotsam & Jetsam No. 43: My Midori

FOR THE past 18 months or so, I’ve been using a Midori notebook. I like it because it’s slim and can fit into my shirt or coat pocket, like a passport; it’s fountain pen-friendly, and I can always put in a new refill. I’ve had other notebooks but this is the most practical one for me, again because of its size and slimness (and that leather really ages nicely).

Penman No. 110: Witnessing the World

HillCoverPenman for Monday, August 18, 2014

 

IN MY other role as an editor rather than a writer of books, I take raw manuscripts from Iclients and friends and transform them into something publishable and popularly readable. I’ll write more about editing as a profession one of these days, because it’s an art unto itself that bears all the challenges but very little of the glamor and rewards of authorship. In the meanwhile, I’d like to talk about one of my most recent editing projects, a book about travels around the world by someone who has to be the most happily peripatetic (that’s a fancy word for “footloose”) person I know.

Julie Hill was a client before she became a friend. We were introduced to each other more than ten years ago by Jimmy Laya, who knew Julie and her late husband Arthur back from when the Hills lived in the Philippines, where Arthur represented the Ford Foundation. Then based in Southern California, Julie wanted to write a book about her life and travels with Arthur, who had just died of cancer; together, the couple had journeyed around the world, from Australia to Afghanistan, from Bangkok to Minnesota, from Samoa to China. Julie—born an Alexandrian Greek, trained in chemistry, and later a telecommunications executive—had all these stories to tell, and she needed an editor to help her tell them.

Jimmy put us together, and Julie’s first book, Promises to Keep: The Travels of Arthur and Julie Hill, came out in 2003, published by XLibris. This was followed a few years later by her second book, The Silk Road Revisited: Markets, Merchants, and Minarets (Author House, 2006). Not one to spend her widowhood moping, Julie has been actively engaged in all manner of civic pursuits, especially in her patronage of the Scripps Research Institute. Just last month, she published her third book, again with me as editor, Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery (Author House, 2014).

Julie retains a special place in her heart for the Philippines, to which she returns every now and then to visit with old friends. (In turn, Beng and I pay Julie a visit in her lovely home in Rancho Sta. Fe every time we see our daughter Demi in San Diego; Julie knows I love chocolate cake and always has a scrumptious slice of it waiting for me.)

There’s a wonderful anecdote from Julie’s first book about an encounter that she and Arthur had with then UP President Carlos P. Romulo, whom she describes as “a great raconteur.” They told each other stories about how they traveled to America, all of them being foreign graduate students, and when Julie said that she traveled by steamship, CPR asked her about, of all things, the cutlery. Julie recalls:

“’What was the cutlery like?’ asked Romulo. I was dumbfounded. Why did he take an interest in cutlery? He proceeded to tell us that he crossed the continent from Vancouver to New York on the Canadian Pacific Railway. During his journey, he systematically ‘acquired’ a set of cutlery. ‘What a better way to regale my professors at Columbia University than with cutlery embossed with my own initials: CPR!’”

In her new book, Julie takes us in hand on her journeys to around 20 countries, from Asia to Africa, to places such as Papua New Guinea, Mali, Bhutan, Botswana, and Ethiopia. She doesn’t take just the well-trodden tourist paths, but goes to the heart of the native culture, engaging with the locals to do what all good travelers (more than tourists) do: discover and reaffirm the universality of humanity. Not everyone has the ability and the resources to do the kind of traveling that Julie does, so I suggested the book title to her (taken from one of her essays), to take “privilege” in both senses of the word: as the ability to afford things, but also as the unique opportunity to see things few others could. And with that privilege comes the responsibility of witnessing and reporting.

In her introduction to the book, she writes:

“The art of adventure is the art of being bold enough to enjoy it. On a safari I must have spent hours tracking the footprints of wild animals; for other travelers the hours were too long and boring; after having seen one giraffe the others seemed all the same to them. But for me the tracking process was a fascinating adventure and locating that pride of 13 lions was an unparalleled reward, a golden joy. I could hear the muezzin in the Middle East (so much more inspiring when it is not a recording) calling the faithful to evening devotion. To me, the muezzin’s call—whether in a remote Central Asia bazaar or resounding among the tufa walls and spires of Timbuktu—is like a congregation of mountains praying.

“In my travels I have discerned a similarity among people who bear the same universal aspirations: all want their children to lead a better life and have a better future than theirs; they all cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die. We share so much, but still have to work at understanding one another…. On my travels, I have been privileged to spend time in the privacy of people’s homes and to learn of their rituals, such as the jewelry handed to the eldest daughter from generation to generation in Mali’s Djennè. An impromptu invitation at a village up in the mountains of the Caucasus brought me to a wedding, sipping vodka and dancing in a circle with other women…. Every time I was treated by my hosts as a friend, as a confessor, and I have tried to vindicate their trust by bringing their stories to life.”

In a message to her after the book was published, I told Julie that I had just watched a TV documentary about Aleppo in Syria—the subject of one of her best essays—and about the destruction that Syria’s current civil war had wrought on the ancient wonders of the place. I was almost in tears, I said, to see the Krak des Chevaliers being bombarded; without even having been there, I felt more invested in the world and in humanity, thanks to her book, for which I—in turn, as editor—was the privileged witness.

(Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery is available on Amazon.com.)

 

Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014

 

FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

(Image from dujour.com)

That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.

IMG_4568

At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Penman No. 108: Writing as a Job

Penman for Monday, August 4, 2014

 

PEOPLE OFTEN ask me about my work as a professional writer—meaning, someone who makes a living out of his writing, rather than someone who just loves to write the occasional poem for sharing with friends.

There are, in fact, quite a number of people in this country who can be considered professional writers: regularly employed journalists, ad-agency copywriters, screenwriters, textbook writers, and even professional bloggers, among others. But except for the few who possess the talent and the gumption to churn out popular novels, there are really no professional Filipino writers of creative work like fiction and poetry, because there’s no market for these products out here. The typical Filipino reader would sooner buy the latest iteration of Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey than, say, a new novel by my friend Charlson Ong.

That’s why fictionists like Charlson and me have turned to writing other things for other people—biographies, histories, speeches, audiovisual presentation scripts, and even advertising copy—to supplement our incomes as teachers and columnists. But let me hasten to add that it’s more than money—as welcome and as necessary as the money is—that drives us to do this. For me—and I’m sure it’s the same thing for the others—it’s the challenge of doing something different, often something with a clear objective and a well-defined if limited audience, such as a company history, as opposed to a novel that you float like a balloon into the night sky.

At UP, where I’ve taught a course called “Professional Writing” that seeks to equip our English majors with some practical skills and attitudes, I tell students on Day One that “There’s writing that you do for yourselves, and writing that you do for others, and never get the two mixed up.”

Like my father, who wrote speeches and correspondence for politicians, I’ve been writing for others nearly all my adult life—I earned my first paycheck for a TV drama script I wrote when I was 16—so I approach professional writing with the dry eye of the frustrated engineer that I also happen to be. (This also means that, when I revert to my own fiction, I can do so with extravagance and exuberance, although fiction has its own rigor and discipline; the poets themselves will tell you that “poetic license” is really anything but license.) Over the past three decades, since my first book (Oldtimer and Other Stories) came out in 1984, I’ve published nearly 30 books of my own, aside from books I’ve edited for others. Many of these were limited-circulation books, like those I wrote on the Philippine geothermal industry and the Philippine flag, so you would never even have heard of them, but they served their specific purposes, so the job was done.

Let me offer some advice to those who want to get into writing as a living.

First, drop the ego and the angst. I knocked on a lot of doors and was paid almost nothing (and sometimes nothing) for my earliest jobs, but each one taught me something about writing and about the business of writing, both the good and the bad. Take every job as both an earning and a learning opportunity. Prepare to be edited, contradicted, and countermanded, sometimes by people who know less about writing than you (if they knew as much, they probably wouldn’t have gotten you). Give it your best shot, and leave the rest to the client. Suck it up, have a beer, then move on. (You’d be surprised how easily and how well the world can move on without you.)

Second, learn your trade and your tradecraft. This means mastering your language, both in terms of grammar and style, and appreciating the nuances that every job will involve. Write bilingually; adjust, absorb, adapt.

Third, get interested in subjects beyond writing and literature. Read the papers. Acquire a working knowledge of business and economics, politics and public affairs, history, science and technology, sports, and entertainment. This versatility will enhance your marketability. To do a job well, you’ll need to understand and even to enjoy what you’re writing about.

Fourth, set your own opinions aside. Unless you’re writing under your own byline or are being hired for your ideas, you don’t need to personally believe in and stand by everything that’s being said—you’re speaking for someone else, and your own opinions could get in the way. If your own ideas and principles matter more than the job, then say no and walk away (I’ve done this, quite a few times)—it’s the fairest thing to do, both for the client and for yourself.

Fifth, learn to multitask. These days, I typically work on three or four book projects at the same time, in various stages of completion. Life’s too short to have to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next one. Each project takes about 18-24 months, so I’ve learned to pace myself. I’ve also learned to delegate work—to assign more basic research and drafting to good assistants, so I can focus on the final organization and styling of the material.

Sixth, know the business and what business means. Use contracts, observe deadlines, pay the taxman, pay your assistants well, buy a good suit and a good pair of shoes. Keep and respect confidences. Unless you’ve been shortchanged, don’t badmouth a client from whom you gladly took a check.

Seventh, simplify your life. You can only produce so much by also giving up so much, which for me means a vastly diminished social life. I’ve pretty much given up partying or going out with friends; my only indulgences are my pens, the biweekly poker night, and traveling with Beng (of which I can never have enough, which is why I do all this). But I’m happy, which in this world is the hardest job of all.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 107: Small Loans for Big Dreams

WS-Butch-1Penman for Monday, July 28, 2014

 

IT HAD been a few years since I last sat down for a chat with the accounting and business guru Washington SyCip, whose biography (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper, published in 2009) I had been privileged to write, so I was only too happy to oblige when our mutual friend Marlu Balmaceda asked if I could spend some time last week to shoot the breeze with Wash.

Both Wash and I had aged a bit since we started working on his book back in 2006—I more so than he, who last month turned 93. Having just gotten my senior card in January, I’ve been feeling entitled to some relaxation, but Wash SyCip was right at his desk in his old 14th floor office where I last saw him, working away, surrounded by a growing menagerie of owls, turtles, and roosters, the gifts of friends. On the wall was a Chinese painting of a dignitary, perhaps the Emperor himself, seeking the counsel of a wizened turtle. Wash caught me looking at it and told me what the turtle’s sage advice was: “Take it easy.”

As cool and dapper as he is, Wash makes it look like he’s taken it easy all his life, but I know for a fact—having chronicled that life—that it just isn’t so. No slouch could’ve put up and sustained what became the regional accounting giant SGV.

But this time, Wash wasn’t talking about himself, but about a new program for education that he and a friend began three years ago, called the Zero Dropout Education Scheme, which seeks to put and keep poor Filipino kids in school. “The country’s biggest problem remains poverty and the wide gap between the rich and the poor,” Wash says. “For me, education is key to alleviating poverty, but ironically, the poorer you are, the more children you have, so half go to school and half don’t. Those who don’t will stay illiterate, and will be resigned to poverty all their lives.”

Seeing that illiteracy still afflicted millions of Filipinos, Wash resolved to do something about it and committed US$1 million of his own money to a fund aimed at the problem. Helping him along was his friend, the Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist Paul Kazarian, who pledged to match Wash’s contribution dollar for dollar. But even with that funding, Wash was modest and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t do the job by himself. “I don’t really know the poor, and how best to reach them,” he admits. “So I got in touch with CARD-MRI, which has been a leader in Philippine microfinance, to help us out.” Radiowealth Finance Corporation has also geared its CSR program toward the Zero Dropout scheme, and committed to provide P30 million.

The Center for Agriculture and Development-Mutually Reinforcing Institutions or CARD-MRI goes all the way back to 1986 when Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip and 14 other rural development practitioners got together to set up CARD specifically to help empower women in poor communities. In 2008, it received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. “With over 1,400 units all over the country, CARD had a network in place we could tap for our program,” Wash says.

Initially available to CARD members, the Zero Dropout scheme offers small renewable loans ranging from P1,500 to P3,000, at a monthly interest rate of 1 percent. “Basic education may be free,” Wash acknowledges. “But families still need money for school supplies, slippers, clothes, and other expenses. That’s where we come in. We’d like to provide not just the money, but an easy way of getting it, with as little red tape as possible.”

As of March this year, the program had supported over 46,000 students through loans totaling over P160 million, out of which P130 million in principal and P6.5 million in interest has already been paid back. They expect to hit 100,000 beneficiaries by year’s end.

While most beneficiaries come from Region IV-A (the Calabarzon area), the program has expanded to the ARMM in Mindanao, where the dropout rates are the highest. Typical beneficiaries include Lucena native Lilia Fernandez, a mother of nine who works as a manicurist alongside her husband, a construction worker; her son Erick dreams of becoming an engineer.

Unlike the government’s conditional cash transfer program, which gives cash direct to poor beneficiaries, Zero Dropout is a loan program. “They repay the loan through microfinance, by increasing their income with a loan for a store, a tricycle, and so on,” adds Wash.

If you think poor borrowers can’t or won’t repay their loans, think again. CARD has made a name for itself making sure its system works, basically because it’s led by people from the very grassroots it serves. Wash tells this story: “I had CARD’s management people over for dinner at my house once, and discovered that none of them were from Makati or Manila. They were all from the rural areas, and they were mostly women, very bright women. I was very impressed with their dedication. CARD knows its clientele. It works with groups of 20 women who guarantee each other. I’ve attended meetings with these groups and I can see that our poor communities are full of people with initiative and drive.”

I came away most impressed by an incident that Wash related: “When Yolanda hit, 8,000 students under the program were affected in Leyte and other places. My first reaction was to cancel their loans, as the least we could do to help. But Dr. Alip said, Wash, no—the poor are more honest than the rich. And as reconstruction took off, the loans also began to be repaid, even if the borrowers had lost their homes.” If that’s not inspiring—in the context of billions lost to crooks and scammers—I don’t know what is.

Penman No. 106: Penguins and Paranoia

Tango_Makes_3Penman for Monday, July 21, 2014

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote a piece extolling the emergence of dissident themes and voices in Singaporean literature, particularly in the novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, who reminded us how much of that city-state’s wealth and power grew on the back of its underclass. I’m sure that there are many voices harsher and more strident than Suchen’s among Singapore’s younger writers, which is good. We’ve long expected this kind of literary insurgency to happen, as it is almost invariably the writers of any nation who form the spearpoint of social protest.

As I said last week, many Filipinos—whether mistakenly or not—take Singapore’s enviable prosperity as the result of a pact with the devil of authoritarianism, a compromise between getting fed well and shutting up. So we’re glad to see Singaporean society loosening up and speaking out, and to meet the humans behind the industrial facade. Surely, we’d like to think, Singapore’s economic ascendancy and its emphatic claim to full modernization deserve to be crowned by a more liberal, compassionate, and inclusive democracy. A rich nation should be able to afford more, not less, freedom.

Or so we thought. Very recently, Singapore’s government delivered another rude reminder of how deep in the dark cavern of the feudal mind its ministers remain, even as their citizens have begun to step out into the sunlight.

At issue was the decision of the National Library Board—supported by the Information Minister—to remove three children’s books from the shelves and to destroy all remaining copies, out of fear that the books, because of their unusual content, would condone and promote homosexual behavior. (Singapore still has a law criminalizing sex between men, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.)

Reports say that the banned books include “And Tango Makes Three,” based on a true story about two male penguins that raised a baby penguin in a New York zoo. In “The White Swan Express,” children are adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race, and single parents. The third book, “Who’s In My Family,” includes gay couples among different types of families. Because a conservative parent complained about these books, an internal review was undertaken by the NLB, which then deemed them unsuitable and subject to removal and destruction.

Not surprisingly, Singapore’s writers, artists, and academics—the liberal types every authoritarian regime fears and detests—are up in arms over the decision. Three prominent judges have resigned from the board of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, and writers’ and gay organizations all over the world have denounced both the homophobia and the Hitlerite evocation of bookburning that the NLB action embodies. They point out, fairly enough, that conservatives who disagree with the books have a choice not to read them, but that others should have the option and opportunity to read them should they want to.

One of the strongest voices raised against the NLB was that of Suchen Lim, who last Thursday keynoted the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference at Singapore’s Arts House. (I should’ve been there, but thanks to Typhoon Glenda, my flight was canceled and I couldn’t rebook myself in time to catch my two events, so I decided to stay home and mend our typhoon-battered roof.) The Singapore Straits Times would report on Suchen’s impassioned attack on the NLB thus:

“Lim, 65, was a single parent to her two sons and was also brought up in a single parent family for a time before her mother remarried. She said the removal of these books was a disappointment.

“’In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don’t count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility,’ she said.

“The audience in the Chamber of the former Parliament House stood and applauded her words, including Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi and Singapore writers Verena Tay and Josephine Chia. Also present was writer Felix Cheong, who along with fellow authors Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan and Prem Anand, withdrew from an NLB panel discussion last week, to protest against the withdrawal of the picture books.

“Cheong, 49, wore a brand-new T-shirt decorated with three penguins, a logo which has been adopted by those against NLB’s removal of the books.”

Had I been there, I would’ve stood up myself and cheered Suchen on, even at the risk of being blacklisted and turned away the next time I present myself at Changi’s immigration line. The fight against prejudice and censorship knows no national boundaries, which is why I’m writing up this issue for Filipino readers who couldn’t care less about Singapore and gay penguins.

In truth, I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore and have been the appreciative guest of both its government and of my fellow writers there. A couple of years ago, its tourism ministry took me, among other journalists, on a tour of Singapore’s cultural landmarks, including the National Library, and we were suitably impressed. I wrote glowing reports about Singapore’s emergence as a new cultural hotspot in Asia. Why not? The view from The Hub—a glass bubble at the top of the library—was breathtaking, and I was moved by a special exhibit their ultramodern library had of their prominent writers’ memorabilia. When, I thought, would we come around to making these investments in books and culture in the Philippines?

But as I noted last week, there are always two sides to Singapore, and this book-banning incident reminded me of (for us Filipinos) a much sadder story from almost 20 years ago, when Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, convicted of murder, was about to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi prison. As the editorial writer then of the now-defunct Today newspaper, on the eve of Flor’s execution, I looked helplessly at this painful spectacle and remarked:

“Something went terribly wrong with Flor’s dream—whether through her fault or someone else’s, as now seems highly plausible, only God for the moment knows for certain. Two people died, allegedly by Flor’s maddened hand, and that was tragic enough. Today, Flor Contemplacion will die in turn in judicial payment for those lives—and that, too, will cause untold sorrow, especially among her people who have rallied to her defense.

“But almost as saddening, perplexing, and infuriating as these losses is today’s freshest reminder of savagery in what had been held up, for all the world to see, as the very model of civilized society and behavior in our time. And this was hardly the savagery of individuals gone amuck, but the institutional primitivism of a government which, for all its claims to modernity and discipline, has finally revealed nothing but its simian brain and tom-tom heart. Flor’s execution will be a quick and convenient end; any further complications, by way of entertaining an appeal for a stay and a reinvestigation, would have strained the brutish simplemindedness of Singaporean justice.”

They were harsh words for a harsh situation, and even as I subsequently accepted and enjoyed, with not a little guilt, Singapore’s official hospitality, hoping that things had changed, I never quite lost the suspicion that beneath the First-World ease was a hair-trigger reflex that could be set off by any perceived threat to stability and security.

A government that fears that the carefully constructed and presumably robust society it has built can be unraveled by the affection between two male penguins is exhibiting not just ignorance but paranoia. One has to wonder of what use it is to tout such 21st-century marvels as the Marina Bay Sands—and, yes, a state-of-the-art National Library—when the consciousness that directs the place is stuck somewhere in the 16th century.

But before we Filipinos beat our chests and congratulate ourselves over how much more open we are to such modern concepts as tolerance and acceptance, let’s not forget that our own public officials share something with their Singaporean counterparts. When our President denied the accomplished actress but alleged drug user Nora Aunor the National Artist Award for fear that honoring her would encourage Filipinos to run out for their nearest dose of shabu, it showed that governments everywhere don’t have the foggiest idea of how art and artists work. But they do know that art works—much more effectively than government PR—and in that knowledge, perhaps, lies the source of their fear and disquietude.