A Republic of Letters

by Juan L. Mercado

The President “ain’t” deaf.  Press  Secretary Cerge Remonde gave  that spin to  Ms Arroyo’s  sensible order  to  Finance Secretary Margarito Teves:  scrap  taxes, clamped  by Bureau of  Customs, on  imported books and reading material.

“Books give light to my eyes,” the Ibanag proverb says. Thus, “President  Arroyo  wants books to be within reach of the common man,”  spinmeister  Remonde  explained.  “She  believes reading as an important value for intellectual formation, which is the foundation of a healthy public opinion necessary for a vibrant democracy.”

Manuel  Quezon  III  opened  protest  sluicegates  by  showing,  in Inquirer columns, that  Finance Department Order 17-09  fractured  the Florence Agreement.  The  Philippines is party  to this 1950 treaty. It  would  spur “free exchange of ideas and knowledge”, Quezon wrote.  Tax  collectors  instead clamped  on a premium for ignorance.

Customs  claimed  that the   word  –“only”–  in  Republic Act 8047 authorized  taxes by way of exception.  Nonsense.  “The word seems to be a Customs intercalation,”  constitutional  scholar  Joaquin  Bernas, SJ  noted.

” I  don’t  believe  Congress  would attempt to repeal a treaty commitment by the mere insertion of one word,” he added.  “Neither may Customs attempt to insert for whatever purpose what Congress did not insert”.

This book  levy  uproar  resembles the  firestorm  that  earlier  engulfed  Cebu City officials.  Vice-mayor  Michael Rama and  Councilor Joy August Young  tried  to padlock the 69-year old  Rizal  Memorial  Library.
Like our  taxmen, they cited  “reasons of economy”.

But  citizens, who built  the library in 1939, beat them back. Today, the library is undergoing a million-peso renovation.  That’s  a significant victory too. This is, after all, a  country where  half  of those  between 7 and  21 don’t read anything –  not even comics.   And  by grade four,  many students  still  can’t   read.
Illegal book taxes interlock with   flawed textbooks.  Antonio Calipjo Go, for example, documented, for over a decade,   errors that studded  science and  English textbooks  Some  columnists  pounced  on Go  They  didn’t  question  his  findings or concern  over  mis-educating students. Rather, they fretted  over  publishing moguls’  balance sheets. A Senate probe fizzled.

Twelve years after the Lower House  documented  textbook errors,  German national Helmut Haas —  who  lodged  the complaint —  found flaws yet again. His Grade 5 son’s copy of “The Wonderful World of Science” textbook claims   “algae as a fish,” and “dust as a minute organism”.

“The  Department of Education’s committee on instructional material has not done a single thing since the 1997 inquiry,” Haas told Sun Star.   “How will the Philippines come out of this economic situation when they teach this in schools?”

Led by Rep. Raul del Mar, the  inquiry found error-filled textbooks proliferate nationwide..  The problem stems from negligence and apparent graft. Then Education secretary Ricardo Gloria promised reforms.

Nothing came of that too.  So, is it any surprise why our kids landed in the cellar of the last three International Mathematics and Science tests?

“The best  way of  gauging  enlightenment of  a nation is to  examine the attitude of its officials towards books,” Manila Chronicle’s I.P.  Soliongco wrote in 1957. “If this test were applied to the Philippines, it would be found we’re one of the most backwards in the world,” the late “Yeyeng” wrote.

Quezon  provided this  overdue test.  Amor propio,  however, prodded  customs bureaucrats to stonewall, noted Rep. Teodoro Locsin, Jr.  That underscored  the bureaucratic mindset.

We have no monopoly  on  narrow-minds.  The  paranoid  Burmese junta bans even  travel books like “Lonely Planet”.  Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry  uses the draconian  Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 to ban over 45 books lest they “disrupt peace and harmony.”

Expect  Beijing  to explicitly ban the Chinese version of  the hottest item on the book circuit today:  “Prisoner of  State: The Secret Journal  of Premier Zhao Ziyang..”

The Politiburo  thrust their former secretary general into house arrest for protesting brutal suppression  of  Tiananmen  Square protestors  20 years ago, come  June 4.  Jose Maria Sison and other Filipino communists cheered  that massacre.

Zhao died in 2005.  But  he smuggled  out 30 hours of  secret tapes.  Zhao’s daughter, Wang Yannan,  told  BBC that  she knew nothing of the book until  the  English version  appeared  this month.. In it,  Zhao denounced the killing of protesters on 3-4 June 1989 as a “tragedy”.

“On the night of 3 June, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire,”  he writes. “A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted,… “If we don’t move toward this goal ( of  democracy)  , it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy.’

“One day, China will have to change its view of Tiananmen Square”, says Bao Tong, Zhao’s secretary. Jailed  for  seven years, he admits to smuggling the tapes.. But he can no longer accept interviews “starting right now”, he told a CBS  team.. Websites which carried Zhao’s memoirs are now blocked.

Such developments impact the Philippines.  If Customs  had its way, we would know of them only if we paid taxes for books.  Within  a  library, books form “a republic of letters,”  philanthropist  Andrew Carnegie wrote.”  That’s  the  real   matatag  na  republika.  Ask Cerge Remonde.

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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