Agents of transformation

Anyone who was hoping to hear Noynoy Aquino talk about the direction his administration would take in its last two years would be disappointed. Then again, that is to be expected: his State of the Nation Address in recent years were mostly about him beating the drum of his accomplishments, paired with a couple of blasts toward his critics, and a bunch of feel-good statements for his so-called bosses, and how they are the most important part of the Philippines' transformation from sick man to model.

Personally, I was disappointed to hear nothing about the revelations concerning misuse of the PDAF - more disappointed if you consider the fact that he didn't mention anything about it last year, either; his last SONA was around the time initial revelations of Janet Lim Napoles' scheme with legislators came out. I was also disappointed to hear nothing about the Freedom of Information Bill, which has been meandering in and out of the Batasan for years now - but, for a while there, momentum was picking up on the measure and it looked like a common-sense tool to ensure transparency and accountability would finally get a mention.

To his credit, though, he did address the Disbursement Acceleration Program, and in a much less combative mode than his primetime address a few weeks back: recognizing the Supreme Court's point that the scheme's spirit was legal but the methods weren't, he asked Congress to submit a P2.6 trillion supplemental budget for 2014. (Makes you wonder why they didn't do this in previous years.) He asked legislators to extend the government's land reform program and quickly pass the Bangsamoro basic law, and broadly outlined strategies to combat looming crises in water and power.

But, for the most part, his SONA this year was more about his accomplishments - arguably, another exercise in strutting his superiority over all that came before, of how he's such an awesome guy, of how his critics are insignificant and powerless. What made this year's speech different from all the others was his mood: he was less combative and more sentimental.

You can argue it's a sign of the times. Things have changed since his SONA last year. His approval ratings have dropped to an all-time low. He found himself at the receiving end of accusations he'd rather stay with his opponents: the seeming reluctance to prosecute his allies involved in the misuse of government funds, his combative response to the Supreme Court's decision declaring parts of the DAP unconstitutional... and then there's the seeming lack of progress, of how his pronouncements of his reforms working for the common Filipino not matching with what those common Filipinos experience on the ground. With three impeachment complaints on dock, it seems confidence in Noynoy was badly shaken.

So why still deliver his SONA the way he did in previous years - shaming government agencies, aggressive on things he clearly disagrees with, that sort? It's not going to inspire any more confidence in him. He's got only two years left as president, and - judging from what Sonny Coloma said - he does not want to be seen as a lame duck. Best to change tactics and muster what's left of his political capital to rally his allies to the finish line, more so now that the 2016 polls are looming and people will switch to election mode. Or maybe - this is me being cynical, maybe petty - maybe he's attempting to keep his party on top when those polls roll by.

No, maybe it's because Noynoy's delusions of grandeur have crashed the party yet again? "Kayo ang aking lakas," he would say again, but like before, it's coupled with the suggestion that all the good changes the Philippines is facing would not happen if he decided not to run for president in 2010, with the backdrop of popular clamor after the death of his mother, former president Cory Aquino. Was his speech intended to save his face, to ensure that people still see him as a reformer the country sorely needed, and a man who finally set things on the right path, rather than just another politician who put his and his friends' interests above the country's?

But being cynical is not what I want to do. Sure, I am a critic of this administration: if there's something I think is wrong, I write about it, publicly, foolishly putting my future prospects on the line. I acknowledge that, many times, my criticism has bordered on the personal - but it's mostly me annoyed at his stubbornness, his inability to accept criticism, his tendency to brand such criticisms - even from well-meaning folk - as distractions from those who have everything to lose when change comes by. ("Buo ang loob kong kaharapin ang mga nakakabanggang ito, dahil alam ko, iilan lamang sila, at di-hamak na napakarami natin," he said, the sole remnant of the hubris that was mostly absent from this year's SONA.) But I also acknowledge that, yes, Noynoy Aquino has done some good things for the country, and it puts us in a good position for the future.

There's no denying the second chances the Philippines received when Noynoy took the presidency. His image of integrity, his thrust against corruption in government - it inspired confidence among many people, from titans of industry to ordinary Filipinos. There was a feeling that, yes, here's a guy that might just get the job done. This confidence, coupled with the work of several government agencies, has led to other countries deeming the Philippines as a place to visit and do business in, judging from three credit agencies giving the country investment grade ratings and major countries lifting aviation sanctions, among others.

Noynoy's stubbornness has also led to some critical policies being formulated and strengthened. His support of the Reproductive Health Law has powered the legislation through a half-conservative congress and the political clout of the Roman Catholic Church, although it did end in a compromise measure that had the pro- and anti- sides claiming victory. He took the lead as China expanded its claims on most of the South China Sea, notably seeking arbitration with the United Nations despite the Chinese government's threats.

This stubbornness also meant a tendency to be narrow-minded on issues concerning the nation, in some instances going against popular opinion. His flip-flopping decision on the PDAF has left a bad taste for some; the accusations of "political persecution" (to quote Bong Revilla's supporters) regarding chasing those who allegedly misused government funds has dogged him in the past year. His unnecessarily aggressive defense of the DAP has been an unwanted pain. His insistence on belittling critics has suggested an immaturity that is not befitting of the presidency.

Some criticisms of Noynoy are not entirely of his doing, but rather a proof that the Philippines' problems are bigger than those dictated by who's in power. In several occasions Noynoy has found himself defending his allies, rather than the other way around - of his friend and former DILG undersecretary Rico Puno, during the government's botched response to the Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis in 2010 that killed eight Hong Kong citizens; or recently, of his budget secretary Butch Abad. It's disappointing that Noynoy, a man who portrayed himself as not like all the other politicians, has resorted to patronage to get things done (and thus lead to questionable results), although you can argue that pandering to numbers is a necessity in a government where allegiances shift and the power of the purse is most important. Also, the failure to bring the benefits of increased investor confidence to ordinary Filipinos - that much ballyhooed "inclusive growth" - can also be attributed to a culture that favors bosses over workers, although you can also argue that the government has the power to ensure equal opportunities for its citizens, whether in Manila or in the provinces.

Still, you have to admit - and I believe I've said this many times before, despite all those angry blog entries - that Noynoy has done something good for the Philippines. I believe I have also expressed many times before, in all those angry blog entries, my dislike for the fact that Noynoy has portrayed himself as being the one savior of the country, that without him we would have gone for the dogs. Not exactly. Today, in his SONA, Noynoy said he was happy with having started the transformation of the country, and he hopes that people will continue what he started - but the truth is, there will always be people working to make the country better, whether he is around or not.

All these years we have seen people from different sectors - businessmen, clergymen, civil society groups, the media, ordinary citizens, and yes, the government - do their part, however small it may be, to make this country a little better than it already is. The efforts were mostly disparate, although some gained enough traction to have a profound impact on our lives. Peace talks with the MILF lasted years before the Bangsamoro agreement was signed. The economy held its own despite the Asian financial crisis and its aftermath thanks to the efforts of many economic gurus. The media's vigilance has led to attention being given to important issues, issues that would not have been solved otherwise. I'm just barely scratching the surface here, but the point is simple: yes, the Filipino is indeed worth fighting for - and many, many, many of us think that way. This is why we criticize. This is why we complain. This is why we suggest, hoping in vain that government would make true on its promises of "participative governance", for once.

Yes, Noynoy Aquino was an important part in the ongoing - and still difficult - story of the Philippines. He just happens to be the right person at the right time, and while he has made enough mistakes to undermine this status, it is not right to deny his contributions. But it is not right either to give him all the credit, like he did in today's SONA, complete with (sincere) tears shed over the memory of his parents, who years previously gave us Filipinos a glimpse of better things to come for us. The Philippines is not what it is now because of Noynoy Aquino; rather, Noynoy Aquino is who he is now because of the Philippines.

Let's see what he does in his next two years then. Maybe he'll be more humble and just get to work rather than making sure his legacy is stain-free? I doubt it. 2016 is just around the corner, and distractions are inevitable.

And your responses...

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