7/28/2015
Clear as day

I'm disappointed in Noynoy Aquino's final State of the Nation Address.

I'm disappointed not because of what he said. It's not because he said the same things he said before, albeit updated. It's not because of how he, six years in, still follows the same template in his speeches - hint at an evil past, talk about his initial qualms about becoming president, discuss how much better things have become since he took to power. Frankly, when I sat down to listen to the SONA, I expected all of that.

I also expected him to not mention some things. He did not mention the Mamasapano encounter that killed 44 elite policemen, not even while discussing giving better pay to government forces. He did not mention, again, the Freedom of Information bill, still languishing in the legislature after years. (Curiously, he mentions it favorably in the 2016 budget he recently submitted to Congress.) He was vague on his future plans for continuing the economy; despite a quick mention of two laws he recently signed, the Philippine Competition Law and the revisions to the cabotage principle, he focused on social services. It's not a bad thing, I must add, but he's hobbled by the need to appeal to the common Filipino listening in; the end result is the feeling that his accomplishments, however grand they may sound, don't look like much.

No, I'm disappointed because he did not set his direction for his last year in office. Sure, he asked the legislative to pass the 2016 budget. Sure, he expressed support for the passage of a law that prevents political dynasties from dominating government - the cynic in me thinks this is solely to fight Jejomar Binay; the absurd in me finds the sight of all the congressmen applauding loudly at this twisted. But his SONA, his last, was light on direction and heavy on nostalgia. (And thank yous. At one point I hoped an orchestra played him off like at the Oscars.)

But then, well, I should have expected that. Noynoy has been in a celebratory mood for years now. He's certainly been in a valedictory mood since last year, when he used the SONA to set the stage for his stepping down in office - obviously another conscious decision to portray himself as different from his predecessor, that gecko to power, that bitch, blah blah. And that is the nature of the State of the Nation Address.

I have been blogging about Noynoy Aquino for the past six years. It's a weird trajectory, this. Ideally you become politically aware when you're in school, when you're surrounded by outspoken people still strongly driven by ideology. And yes, I may have had some thoughts about the way our government acts during that time. But my political awakening began with the lead-up to the 2010 elections, the first in which I was a voter. Suddenly the rhetoric around me weighs even more, because I have to make a choice. Who do I think should lead this country for the next six years?

I voted for Gibo Teodoro, but not because I was all for keeping the status quo that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo set in her nine years as president. But most of you will likely not see it that way. No, I must have voted for corruption to continue. If I really have the best for the Philippines at heart, I should have voted for Noynoy Aquino, and no other!

Politics is like a car crash: it can be gruesome, but we can't help but stare at it. However disgusted we may be at the machinations everybody takes part in, we can't help but watch. Yes, those idiots have a whole country's future in their hands, and they're busy getting numbers to achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve. That country happens to be our country.

The selling point of a democratic system of government is that everybody gets a say. The downside to this is the everlasting quest for a majority. The more people pitch in, the smaller the chance for a majority is. As a half-plus-one majority becomes impossible, we settle for a simpler definition - as long as more people say one thing, that thing happens. Noynoy Aquino may have won the 2010 elections easily, but he only received 42% of the popular vote. That's no half-plus-one.

A few weeks ago I was listening to Albay governor Joey Salceda. He was talking about resiliency during disasters, his province becoming some sort of golden standard when it comes to civil response. (The timing couldn't have been better: monsoon rains were battering Manila then, triggering days of class suspensions.) He talked about how elected officials need a mandate - the support of the majority - to be able to effectively implement their reforms, their plans, their promises.

In our current system, I figured, that was tricky. Our political parties are fluid. Breakaway groups form as soon as one notable personality does not get his way. It all boils down to who has the money to wage the campaign, and maybe, to fake that mandate from the people to govern. This explains why we watch with interest as Grace Poe and Chiz Escudero dither about running for president in 2016. This explains why we fear for the worst as Jejomar Binay pushes on with his bid for the highest office in the land despite an extraordinary combination of a demolition job from administration allies and his corrupt practices as Makati mayor coming back to haunt him.

This explains why Noynoy Aquino, in his six SONAs, has to follow the same template over and over again: talk about the "evils" of his predecessors, spruik his brilliant "achievements" during his time in office, declare that Filipinos can finally hope again. He has to ask for everybody's support, over and over again, because politics in the Philippines is so shaky; you tend to be preoccupied with ensuring your mandate sticks. Thus, the obvious lying from presidential spokespersons when they say approval ratings aren't important.

To make this job easier, they reset the terms so it's easy to figure out who's ahead. You cannot be in the fence when it comes to the country's future, they say. You have to be on our side or the enemy's side. That's the mindset for years, if not decades, and unfortunately a president elected on visions of change had to do things the same way, too.

It's not like Noynoy Aquino had that problem, or rather, it wasn't as big as some of his critics (me included) would like you to think. Sure, there were still people who stuck to their anti-Noynoy rhetoric, but most of the reactions I saw during his SONA yesterday were less vitriolic, more understanding. I can't tell if it's because they're tired of being angry and disappointed, or if it's because they subscribe to the whole "don't be a negative, you hater" mindset. I didn't get a tinge of resignation in most of those comments, but rather, he's obviously doing a lot of work, so why don't we listen for a change?

Let's be honest here. There's no way Noynoy Aquino has done nothing for the Filipino people, the say way there's no way Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has done nothing for the Filipino people.

Wait, let me revise that. There's no way the Aquino administration has done nothing for the Filipino people, the say way there's no way the Arroyo administration has done nothing for the Filipino people.

Credit where credit is due. The Philippine economy could have been severely affected by the economic crashes in Europe and the US, but the policies set during the Arroyo administration helped it weather the storm, and even grow, albeit modestly. It primed the country as an investment destination for companies looking to outsource support staff. It put forward projects that would better connect the provinces and improve trade; the RORO system many of us now enjoy was opened in Arroyo's watch.

On the other hand, the Aquino administration bolstered government coffers with the introduction of the sales tax, as well as a zero-based budgeting system and improvements in procurement processes. It pursued social policies such as the controversial law improving access to reproductive health. It oversaw unprecedented economic growth for the country, and made itself more attractive to investors here and abroad.

But, of course, both administrations have their faults. The Arroyo administration was rattled by questions of legitimacy, and corruption scandals hounded it. (It's slightly funny how Noynoy portrayed the idea of children learning to say "I'm sorry" - inspired by Gloria's apology post-Hello Garci - as a bad thing.) The Aquino administration was similarly bothered by corruption allegations, notably the misuse of government funds through the Disbursement Acceleration Program, although they have deflected attention from it by arresting opposition figures charged with pocketing pork barrel.

The nature of politics, however, distorts this reality. The need for a mandate - the need to look like you have the overwhelming support of the majority; the go-signal to proceed with your plans, noble or otherwise - means what makes one look good, and what makes the other look bad, is played up. As a result, we lose sight of a few pretty important things. We tend to see just the bad, or the good, at the expense of objectivity. We tend to equate good leadership with instant change. We fail to recognize that we are in a long-term game, that we things cannot change in a span of just six years. We tend to conflate and confuse politics and governance, two things that work in tandem but are completely different from each other.

I've come to learn this in the six years I've written about the Aquino administration. Sure, I also got tired of getting angry, but I also got to see some of these people at work. For instance, a few months back, as part of the night job, I met Sarah Lope, who heads the supply chain division of the Department of Trade and Industry. Assisted by a team mostly composed of fresh college graduates, they are tasked with connecting with stakeholders in the supply chain industry, and looking for inputs into a road map outlining the country's policy on logistics. I think it should be done by now. It's a thankless job. It's a quiet job that does not get noticed by a lot of people. It's a job that works for the most part, but doesn't get played up because it's not sexy enough to get the most mileage out of.

I have also encountered, in the many times I have attended industry events, PEZA director general Lilia de Lima. She has been with the agency for a very long time - she joined what was then EPZA in 1995 - and has worked tirelessly to bring foreign investment to the country. Here's a government official whose work spanned four presidents, and whose rewards are being reaped today.

I used to be annoyed whenever government spokespersons dismiss critics by saying they don't understand what they're shouting about. When they do finally understand this thing, they say, they will see that it has nothing but the country's best interests in mind. Now, I'm not so annoyed. Yes, government spokespersons are still playing politics, attempting to polarize the playing field to gain the numbers. But there is a grain of truth to what they're saying. There are, indeed, many government workers who spend days and nights tirelessly advancing the Philippine cause. Unfortunately for them, what we see - frontline personnel who won't work unless you offer a bribe, facilities sorely lacking equipment and comforts, the daily deluge of queues - is what we equate with the government. We're more likely to say that this government is, to quote Jejomar Binay, "insensitive and inept."

Yes, I am disappointed that Noynoy again chose to celebrate his achievements rather than set the stage for his last year in office, but, yes, I will concede that it is his right to do so. But to the common Filipino, the apparently now non-existent classroom backlog is merely a number unless they can see those classrooms themselves. The smaller unemployment rate is merely a number unless they can be certain that these jobs are regular ones (and, hopefully, ones that offer mobility) rather than casual. There remains a disconnect between what the government says and what the people see. Noynoy came to power vowing to be a different breed of politician from everybody else that preceded him, but turns out it's too much to ask that his rhetoric be a little more grounded in his people's truth.

But that's what politics does for you. In a bid to have the high ground, and have the leverage to push through with whatever you want to do, you lose sight of the hard work that you know you have to do. Being in government becomes tedious work. Being in politics starts to appeal more. We end up with inflated expectations that nobody can follow through on, at least within the desired time frame. You all know six years is not enough to bring lasting change to this country, more so with the state of our political system. Why speak as if it is the case? Why can't anybody be real, for once?

Yes, Noynoy acknowledged - albeit through a sludge of mixed messages, momentum-killing video clips and thank yous to everyone but his vice president - that there is still a long way to go, that we have just begun on his so-called "tuwid na daan." That is a good message, a way to remind everyone to not be complacent after arguably the most stable presidency we've seen in a while. But then he framed that message with politics, well aware that the 2016 elections are coming and, to paraphrase him, all of the good that he's bestowed upon us might be gone in a snap. (Like Gloria singlehandedly put the Philippines in reverse, right?) He chose to subtly ask the Filipino to stick with his preferred course. He chose to suggest that any way that does not involve his colors or his blessings will bring us back to the dark ages, to a time of "kasalanan" and "pagdurusa." In that moment, he chose not to govern, but rather, to politicize.

To be fair to him, it is his final SONA before the elections. He says he might lose everything, so in 2016, his main task is to make sure that his anointed one, whoever that may be, takes over for him, the moment midday strikes on the last day of June. I was wrong when I called yesterday's address light in direction. For once, it's clear as day.

And your responses...

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