7/22/2013
Perception

The media has this fascination with the more useless statistics whenever the State of the Nation Address is delivered. How long was it? (This year's, Noynoy Aquino's fourth, clocked in at an hour and 43 minutes.) How many instances of applause were there? (88.) How many of those were standing ovations? (I can't see a number.) How many times did the president cough? (8. Not bad for a chain smoker.) How many times did he buckle? (35.) Really, it's just trivia, packaged to vaguely describe how the president delivered his report to the nation, and how well he was accepted.

The more important statistics were, of course, in the speech itself. Since there's an insistence in recent years to use the SONA to trot out what this government has supposedly done - this tradition, which we borrowed from the Americans, was built to enable the executive branch to recommend the legislative agenda for the year ahead - we've heard number after number after big number, amounts and percentages put out of context, all arranged and assembled to paint a picture that things are going well, that tasks are being accomplished, and that everything is still under control.

Today, Noynoy's SONA was the usual mix of disembodied figures, civilian name-drops, blown whistles and, perhaps disappointingly, a very vague policy road map. But he really didn't aim to tell us all how far we've come. In his fourth address to Congress, Aquino decided to celebrate. Aided by all those context-free statistics, in his punctuation-free, emotion-free delivery, Aquino proclaimed that we are finally on the right track. Three years after he was elected president, we are on the right track, and all we need is to continue working together so that the future generations may live without any inherited problems.

"Sinabi po sa akin dati: Noynoy, simulan mo lang," he said, still breathlessly. "At sinimulan nga po natin, at ngayon, kitang-kita na ang layo ng ating narating. Ngayon, Pilipino, ituloy natin ang pagkakapit-bisig, sabay nating arugain, pabilisin, at palawakin ang transpormasyon ng lipunan. Ako po si Noynoy Aquino; ipinagmamalaki ko sa buong mundo: Pilipino ako. At talagang napakasarap maging Pilipino sa panahong ito."

Last month I attended a two-day presentation skills workshop, an office thing, mostly to help our salesman do better presentations to their clients. "Perception is more important than truth," our facilitator, a flamboyant theater-type with impeccable English and an endearing way of using the word "kulang", said. It doesn't matter whether we aren't well-versed in what we're talking about (although, of course, we have to); as long as you carry yourself and look presentable, people will respect you, and find you credible, and believe you.

She doesn't like Noynoy's style of speech. After all, she said - well, she didn't say these words, but you'll get my drift - what confidence do you get from someone who speaks of the country like he wants to finish as soon as possible because he has to go to the toilet?

But then again, nobody really watches the SONA for how Noynoy delivers the speech. That's minutiae, that's pub quiz material. People watch the SONA for what Noynoy says. And judging from what he said this year, everything is going well.

The imagery Noynoy (and his scriptwriters, his long-winded scriptwriters) painted with his speech is simple. One, the government is working for you, finally working for you. Gone are the days of darkness (exact end point: 30 June 2010) and now we're basking in the light of hope and renewed vigor in making our country work. You could be forgiven if you were overwhelmed by all those numbers rattled on non-stop, of smaller rice imports and more constructed classrooms and more graduates getting jobs. What matters is, the math is good (and they calculated it themselves, so trust them) and so things must be looking good.

Two, there's no stopping this hope and renewed vigor and stuff. It's an irresistible force; it will envelop us no matter what, and resistance is futile. The more skeptical ones just don't know what's hit them yet; they will see the light soon. The stubborn ones hanging on to old ways will be eradicated - that's how strong this light is. I might be using the wrong words here, but I feel it's suggested that, in the end, this light - this light he started, this light we carry - will cleanse the country of all the wrongs that's been done in the past. Of course, to get there, we must accept this light unconditionally. We need to change ourselves to move forward, to finally move forward.

Three, these changes will make the Philippines a country that's ready to face the world. We can finally be at par with the rest of the world's most progressive nations; we can be prosperous, we can be healthy, we can be truly independent. In the end, the results of our actions will be so far-reaching that our grandchildren's grandchildren will live without having to suffer through, off the top of my head, terrible traffic in EDSA and a lack of job opportunities.

Of course, that is all rhetoric. That's always been the problem with Noynoy Aquino: whenever he speaks, it's like he's still in the campaign trail, relying on promises rather than actions. This year's SONA is particularly lacking. No plan for further job generation; no plan for more contentious pieces of legislation like the Freedom of Information bill; no plan on dealing with an ever-precarious position in the international arena. (Personally, I'm disappointed he hasn't discussed the planned integration of the ASEAN nations into one market in 2015. It's something that will affect us all, and he hasn't even mentioned anything about it. Not even a reiteration that he does not want to amend the 1987 Constitution's economic provisions putting a limit on foreign ownership - one which just stopped FedEx from running their regional hub here.)

But now that I've thought of it - after months of going to industry events and seeing industry representatives talk about how well things are looking for the Philippines - I realize that Noynoy's SONAs are really there to paint a picture: that the Philippines is doing well, and can only do better, and it's all thanks to all of our hard work, but of course, it's all because of his presence, his being leader. I know, I've said this before. Noynoy believes his presence alone is changing the Filipino's approach to things.

But it might just be working. Foreign investors are, after all, looking at the Philippines again mostly because of perceived efforts to stamp out corruption. Three ratings agencies have put us in investment grade. Our GDP has seen record highs. Philippine Airlines can now fly directly to Europe because it no longer looks very unsafe. The foreign press are extolling the beauty of our islands, our beaches, our seas, our cities. Once again, we look good.

And when this idea of the Philippines looking good spreads further, then we'll inevitably go on an upswing: we get a better look from everybody else. You know how speculation goes. Somebody will whisper, something along the lines of, "hey, Manila has the most exciting food scene in the world right now!" and word gets passed on, and on, and on, until it becomes fact. The concept of wikiality, as introduced by Stephen Colbert: say one thing, and when enough people agree with you, it becomes truth.

Perception is more important than truth. Exactly why Noynoy is averse to critics, dismissing them as ill-informed or bent on returning to their old ways, why he'd rather students suggest solutions rather than rant on Facebook, why he wants the media to stop focusing on bad news and focus instead on the good news.

But of course, we've had enough of mere perception. Sure, surveys still suggest that most Filipinos trust Noynoy to do good for the country - he is, after all, seen as someone who cannot be corrupt - but the picture is not as rosy as he makes it out to be. These industry representatives who talk about how things are looking up for our country? They have reservations. The message I hear, personally, always go along the lines of "we will do well, but we ourselves can only do so much." The limits on foreign investment is still a deterrent, they say. The high cost of starting a business. Soaring cost of electricity. An inefficient transportation system. A lack of opportunities outside highly urbanized Metro Manila. And that's just off the top of my head.

The common people - the very ones who are supposedly beneficiaries of the irresistible light enveloping our country - have had enough of perceptions. Sure, things might be better, but where are the homes? Where's the food? Where are the jobs? I was talking to a taxi driver today, and he was annoyed that Noynoy would name and shame some people again during the SONA. "May ebidensiya na pala siya," he argued. "Bakit hindi pa niya paarestuhin agad? Bakit kailangang sabihin pa niya ngayon? Kaya naman niya, eh!"

For the past years - perhaps, as far as I can remember, and I am just 24 years old - the SONA has been more about posturing, about people being told that, yes, things are getting better, and that if anything looks bad, we can overcome it. For years we've been fed this rhetoric, even from well-meaning people, and we're tired of not seeing any positive change. This is why Noynoy Aquino was elected to office in 2010: not (just) because we're tired of corruption, not (just) because we're tired of wasted potential, but because we want someone who will actually bring concrete results. But all he's done is project an image of a country that's on its way up, speedily going up, when actually, it's barely left the ground.

Does anybody actually believe him when he says that? Perhaps his allies and his advisers and his cronies, and his army of drones who blindly take his word as gospel truth. And everyone who question him, sensibly or otherwise - the protesters outside Batasan Hills arguing about the lack of inclusive growth; the journalists working hard to measure promise against performance; the citizens cynical enough to not take everything at face value - they are denigrated, degraded, as unenlightened, as uncooperative bastards, as unbelievers who are keeping us in the dark ages.

Today Noynoy Aquino spoke, not to an audience of Filipinos around the world, but to an audience of allies, advisers, cronies and drones, applauding him 88 times, agreeing with every word he says, going home smug, thinking that they have done a good job. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to make it sound like it's all for us.

"Sa bawat Pilipinong nagtitiwala sa kapangyarihan ng maliliit na anyo ng kabutihan, kayo nga po ang gumawa ng pagbabago. SONA po ninyo ito."

Not really.

"Sa mga hindi panatag sa listahan ng mga tatakbo sa halalan, at kinatok ang kapitbahay para sabihing, 'Huwag tayong makuntento, magtulungan tayong humanap ng karapat-dapat na pinuno,' SONA mo ito."

Not really.

"Sa bawat estudyanteng mulat sa mga napapanahong isyu sa lipunan, at sa halip na magreklamo lang sa Facebook ay nagmumungkahi ng solusyon, SONA mo ito."

Not really.

"Sa lahat ng mga gumising sa nagtutulug-tulugan, sa mga nagmulat sa mga nagbubulag-bulagan, sa mga kumalampag sa mga nagbibingi-bingihan: SONA po ninyo ito."

We're skeptical, like we should be, and we're not really counted here, so no, not really.

And your responses...

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