POSTSCRIPT / February 6, 2003 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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‘Green card’ holders aren’t qualified, but…

EMPTY PROMISE: It’s now dawning on overseas Filipinos that the Absentee Voting Bill pieced together by a hurrying bicameral committee may be so legally flawed that it could end up as an invalid vote of confidence for them.

The main defect appears to be the bill’s manner of granting voting rights to Filipino immigrants who are already permanent residents of other countries.

Two key elements of suffrage under our Constitution are citizenship and residence. Allowed to vote under Section 1 of Article V are Philippine citizens 18 years or older who have resided in the Philippines for one year and in the barangay where they propose to vote six months immediately prior to the election.

Question: Do Filipinos who enjoy permanent resident status in other countries, such as “green card” holders in the US, satisfy the residence requirement in the Constitution?

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IMMIGRANTS UNQUALIFIED: To this pivotal question, the Absentee Voting Bill set for ratification by Congress impliedly says “No”!

But then, our lawmakers — pressured to pass the voting law promised for the past 15 years to some seven-to-eight million Filipinos abroad — have rushed a pill to cure that defect.

They have inserted a provision saying that if a Filipino immigrant permanently residing abroad promises in a sworn statement that he will go back to reside in the Philippines within three years, he will be allowed to vote.

In other words, the proposed law says that while these immigrants are still Filipino citizens, they are not Philippine residents legally qualified to vote — but that if they promise to come home for good within three years, they are suddenly qualified!

The irony is that the pill might prove to be worse than the infirmity it seeks to cure, as it might result in the upcoming law being declared unconstitutional.

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JAIL FOR NON-RETURNEES: Another question: What if a Filipino “green card” holder votes in 2004, but does not fulfill his solemn promise to relocate to the home country in three years (or after 2004)? The law says he will have to go to jail!

Even for us non-lawyers, there is something obviously wrong in the circumlocution resorted to in the bill to grant voting rights to Filipinos who obviously do not satisfy the residence requirement of suffrage.

If Filipino immigrants permanently residing abroad are indeed qualified to vote here, why the need for a sworn promise for them to return to the Philippines?

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TESDA PUT TO TEST: The Technical Skills and Development Authority (Tesda) is going through the now-familiar test of reform-minded officials being harassed by entrenched groups protecting lucrative rackets within the agency.

But Tesda director general Dante V. Liban, just six months on the job, is fighting back. Zeroing in on a notorious sector preying on singers, musicians, and dancers seeking overseas employment, Liban moved to transfer its screening function to the private industry.

The move cuts the bloodline of an insider syndicate with industry cohorts that has been raking in millions monthly from the issuance of the Artist Record Book to outbound performers for P20,000 to P30,000 without passing audition.

It will also rid Tesda of a chore best handled by competent private sector practitioners. Screening performing artists is just a small part of Tesda’s coverage that includes information communications technology, health care, food processing, agriculture, livelihood, garments, transport and automotive services.

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PREYING ON ARTISTS: The Artist Record Book is a basic requirement for talents planning to work abroad. The approved fee is only P1,000 per applicant, versus the syndicate’s P30,000. There are more than 400 talents being screened everyday.

Liban continued to roil the waters when he took in additional testing officers from the University of the Philippines College of Music, the University of Sto. Tomas, Philippine Women’s University, and the National Center for Culture and the Arts.

He is also filing charges against two union leaders for spreading reports that he spent Tesda funds for his Christmas cards and pocket and wall calendars last year.

“Except for the wall calendars, which were needed in all Tesda rooms,” he said, “I spent my own funds for producing the rest of the items.” He said the Commission on Audit can bear him out on this.

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NO COMPROMISE: Liban had actually been put on notice that the syndicate boasts that it was able to oust two previous Tesda heads and that nobody can lead the agency without the gang’s say-so.

He laments the syndicate’s blocking reforms and frustrating program to improve skills and competencies of workers without college degrees. He points out that “technical skills development is the strongest weapon of the poor to escape from the cycle of hunger, ignorance, and social injustice.”

For 2002, Tesda targeted the training of one million workers. Its total output as of November last year was already 1,156,116 persons trained, or 116 percent of the target.

“But this grand vision must be clothed in the armor of morality and transparency,” he said. “Under my leadership, there will be no compromise on moral integrity in the Tesda family.”

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WE TOLD YOU SO: Bad news from Romblon. Remember that Petron bulk plant in Ipil, Lonos, Romblon, that residents said posed pollution and other hazards to the seaside community? Petron went to great lengths assuring everybody that the project was harmless.

Resident Gene Reyes just came from there and reported that the Petron depot is starting to contaminate the adjacent residential lands and seashore with fuel leaks and spills and chemical wastes.

“It happened much quicker than we expected,” Reyes said, “less than a year since the plant began commercial operations last year.”

He reported that 15 residents living across the station, whose drinking wells were contaminated with gas and diesel fuel discharges from the fuel depot, have complained in writing to the Punong Barangay of Lonos and asked for an emergency supply of fresh drinking water.

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DEPOT NOT NEEDED: Teofilo Fondevilla, a Romblomanon and a highly-respected risk engineer of Jardine, Lloyed & Thompson, a Makati-based firm, found Petron responsible for at least seven “violations” during an ocular inspection last month of the facility’s exterior.

Affected property owners, such as the De Joya family, are reportedly preparing multi-million-peso suits against Petron, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and other entities responsible for the chemical pollution and degradation of their prime properties.

Residents have opposed the putting up of the bulk plant even before construction began in 1999 on health, safety, and environmental grounds.

They said that Romblon’s modest and declining dependence on fossil fuel makes a bulk plant unnecessary. In fact, the island’s heaviest user, the electric cooperative, ROMELCO, is already into solar energy and planning to put up powerful, high tech wind-powered turbines to provide most of the town’s electricity, in a few years.

A regular refilling fuel station for Romblon is more than sufficient, according to them.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 6, 2003)

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