Combat fatigue
BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven () - September 11, 2003 - 12:00am
Everybody seems to be suffering from "combat fatigue", including the Senators. Many Senators are already abroad. Since the two weeks’ vacation period for our solons – who’re often on vacation, anyway – is at hand, quo vadis the "Jose Pidal" investigation?

Ignatius "Iggy" Arroyo – who’s been stonewalling and crying out for his "right to privacy" – may yet get a reprieve, not from being vindicated but from the rising sense of ennui.

Senator Panfilo Lacson’s spokesman, former Erap-time political adviser Lito Banayo, perhaps had a point when he replied to demands that Lacson bring his charges to a real court, rather than to the so-called "court of public opinion", that the courts, from Regional Trial Court level to the higher courts, were "controlled" by the GMA Administration. This may, in a sense, be true.

For example, "The Firm" (you know what I mean) has put so many nominees and assets in place throughout our justice system, as well as a number of Usecs in strategic places, that the group’s influence will linger on long after GMA and even "Jose Pidal" have departed from the corridors of power.

In the meantime, where’s Lacson himself? Banayo said earlier that he’s Down Under in Australia allegedly gathering more "evidence". Will the kangaroos and kookabooras "talk" down in Oz? The only person of controversy we recall who was there recently was BW’s Dante Tan.
* * *
In any event, I spent two and a half days in Hong Kong, from last Saturday to Monday. You cannot imagine what a relief it was to be in a city where nobody was talking about "Jose Pidal", Udong Mahusay, and Itoh-na.

Indeed, in Hong Kong there didn’t seem to be anybody named "Toh". The closest sounding name to it was the 7th floor coffee shop in our hotel, the Island Shangri-La, which was called "Cafe Too".

Frankly, I was curious to see how Hong Kong was faring after months of being in the grip of the SARS virus. I hadn’t been to that metropolis of 6.78 million people for an entire year. I found Hong Kong still miserably short of tourists, its economy hurting.

Hong Kong has been gamely trying to lure tourists back, but recessions in Europe mean fewer European arrivals while America’s own economic woes and the rising costs of its commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan have drained American pockets and there are fewer traveling Americans (particularly since they are wary of becoming victims of terrorists or anti-Americanism in many foreign climes). Most of all, "fear of SARS" has kept people away from HK.

My wife and I didn’t spot anybody with a face mask any longer. Everything appeared cheerful and back to normal. It rained incessantly, though, through most of Saturday and Sunday, with the sun coming out only on Monday morning. However, rain or shine, Hong Kong remains hot and humid.

What relatives living there told us is that there have been a mounting number of suicides owing to financial hardships and the despair that accompanies it. Many Hongkongers, used to better times, have fallen into penury and are having trouble coping with it. (Who could, really?). From boomtown to bust, that's what happened.

It just makes you humble. One day you’re on top of the world, the next near the bottom of the heap. Life is like that.

Last Monday’s South China Morning Post, my alma mater (I used to write a weekly column in that newspaper), confirmed this in a six-column headline in the "City" section. The headline blared forth: "Depression Fears as Suicides Soar".

The report by the Post’s Patsy Noy said: "The suicide rate hit a record 16.4 per 100,000 people last year, mainly linked to depression – a mental illness that costs Hong Kong millions of dollars in medical costs and lost productivity.

"Doctors and nurses have urged the government to spend more on psychiatric and counseling services for people suffering mild depression now, rather than face heavier socio-economic losses in future as patients’ mental health deteriorates further.

"Medical researchers have shown that four out of five suicides are caused by mental disorders, mainly depression."

Lee Sing, professor of psychiatry at Chinese University, was quoted as asserting that 60 percent of people who attempted suicide were found to suffer from depression.

The latest data from the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention reveal that some 1,100 persons killed themselves last year – i.e., 16.4 per 100,000 of the population, as compared with 11.3 per 100,000 in 1996.

Director Paul Yip Siu-fai of the Center said about 40 percent who killed themselves were in the 30 to 49 years age category. Sixty-six percent were men and 36 percent were out of work.

Dr. Yip estimated it cost HK $25 million in medical costs in 2001 to treat the injuries inflicted by the roughly 1,800 people who attempted suicide. He said suicide was "a complex phenomenon", but added he believed "financial pressure had played a significant role in the rise of the suicide rate".

Allen Yung Chan-lung, honorary president of the Hong Kong Chamber of Small and Medium Business, in a separate article, averred: "It is sad to see an upward trend of suicide cases. People choose to kill themselves because they no longer have confidence in their future."

What he observed is especially significant: "We are not surprised to see people commit suicide because of financial problems, especially among the professionals and businessmen who were once successful and may not be able to face bankruptcy."

In the Philippines, we cannot be insensitive to Hong Kong’s plight since it intimately affects us. Let’s not forget that there used to be 150,000 or more Filipino OFWs, many of them domestic helpers and yayas, working in Hong Kong. Many of them have had to come home, the contracting economy freezing them out of employment.

Then there’s rising competition, I’m told, coming from Indonesian "household helpers" or domestics, who accept much lower pay.
* * *
Yesterday, this writer met with the senior executives of the Lopez Group in a no-holds-barred and interesting assessment of what’s in store this coming year.

The Lopez Group, of course, was led by my former Ateneo classmate, Oscar "Osky" Lopez, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Benpres Holdings Corporation and the Lopez Empire, together with Manolo Lopez, who heads Meralco.

It was good to get together with these old friends. I had started out in the old Manila Chronicle when Osky himself, the son of the famous tycoon and patriarch of the Lopez Empire, Don Eugenio "Iñing" Lopez, was also a "cub reporter". Then, with my closest friend in the family, the late Geny Lopez recruiting me, I hosted a talk show in ABS-CBN called Impact. It had been on Impact that Ninoy Aquino Jr. exposed the "Oplan Sagittarius" martial law plan of Apo Ferdinand E. Marcos. It had been a prime time Tuesday night program. Three days later, Ninoy and I were arrested and taken to Camp Crame, then, the following day, dumped into maximum security prison in Fort Bonifacio.

Geny Lopez had fared just as badly. To compel Don Eugenio "Iñing" Lopez to give up his multimillion peso empire, the Marcos dictatorship shut down ABS-CBN, the Manila Chronicle, and arrested Geny on the trumped-up charge of conspiring to assassinate Marcos himself.

I remember Ninoy saying to me, gazing at the building across the wall of our own prison compound in which, it turned out. Geny was confined, along with several others: "Gosh, that other compound even has sentry watch towers! Macoy must hate those prisoners over there more than us."

That made me laugh. I proded Ninoy in the ribs and quipped: "Don’t kid yourself, Superboy. In the eyes of Macoy, you’re Public Enemy Number One!"

Geny’s prison-mates, we learned later, were Serge Osmeña, now Senator, Ben Guingona (the businessman brother of Vice President Teofisto Guingona) and Joe Guingona, Meralco’s Vice President), Jess Cabarrus, and a few others.

Don Eugenio was told by FM that if he wanted his son Geny freed, he should surrender his businesses to the regime. (Meralco, if I recall right, was taken over by Kokoy Romualdez.) However, Marcos reneged on the deal, and kept Geny in jail in Fort Bonifacio. Iñing himself had to flee to San Francisco as the screws were tightened on him and the family. The patriarch – whose word was once the Law for the powerful Sugar Bloc – died in exile, unable to see his son regaining freedom.

Two years after Iñing’s passing, Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña made their now famous "eskapo" from their Fort Bonifacio security prison, and were whisked off to safety in the United States. (The Great Escape was even made into a movie.)

The first briefing yesterday was brilliantly conducted by Dr. Emmanuel S. de Dios of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, who also collaborates with Pulse Asia.

My presentation followed on the political and social arena.

Just to demonstrate how politics overshadows economics and business all the way, most of the points I had intended to discuss were covered by Dr. de Dios before I got to the rostrum myself.

It was a happy reunion, though, for this former "Lopez Boy", now an Old Boy, with my old "family." Would you believe it was in the Manila Chronicle that I won my first "Journalist of the Year" Award from the National Press Club and Stanvac – in 1956! I won it for an 11-installment frontpage series exposing American meddling on every level of government here, entitled, The Truth About US Advisers in the Philippines.

Looking at AGILE, which has its agents at the elbow of major department Secretaries and bureau and agency heads in the GMA government, I can see that we’re sadly right back where we started.

The late Apo Marcos, who was most guilty of that sin himself, had a good term for that.

He called it "backsliding".

DON EUGENIO FORT BONIFACIO GENY GENY LOPEZ HONG HONG KONG JOSE PIDAL KONG LOPEZ MANILA CHRONICLE
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