The leaves for the forest

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

“Change” has been the mantra of all administrations since at least the Marcos period (1965-1986).

Ferdinand Marcos vowed to “make this nation great again” when he was elected in 1965, and to “reform society and save the Republic” when he placed the entire country under martial law in 1972. Both proclaimed intentions supposedly looked to the future, but the first was a hearkening to a past — the 1896 Revolution — in which greatness was defined in terms of both resistance to tyranny and commitment to social justice.

Exactly how the soon-to-be tyrant himself was going to restore the country’s greatness he didn’t say, and no coherent approach to achieving that proclaimed goal was in any evidence as his first term wore on. He did focus on the building of roads and bridges, which in the nature of things was no sign of greatness, only of routine obligations, if not of the same edifice complex that his wife and now widow seemed to have been afflicted with. Whether in Marcos’s time or today, the making of a great nation demands the final elimination of the land tenancy system, industrialization by Filipino entrepreneurs, and a break from the neo-colonial ties that bind the country to its former colonial master.

Despite the promise he made to justify the declaration of martial law, any possibility of reform — much less saving the Republic — was dashed to pieces when Marcos made himself absolute ruler of the Philippines by eliminating Congress, suspending the Bill of Rights, whipping the courts into line, arresting every critic whether politician, journalist and even gossip columnist, and transforming the police and the military into his private armies. He also had the support of his US patron, the government of which was at the time establishing and supporting dictatorships all over the world.

But change it was, nevertheless, although not the kind that for hundreds of years had driven the local uprisings and finally the Revolution that demanded independence and the restructuring of Philippine society towards eliminating poverty and achieving social justice. Marcos did change Philippine society, but for the worse, enshrining, among other odious achievements, the use of force and violence to confront the social and political instability that are the inevitable children of an unjust society, and institutionalizing the grossest corruption among the political elite.

“Change” can be a convenient buzzword to mask retrogression rather than progress. Change was nevertheless the theme of President Benigno Aquino III’s fourth State of the Nation Address, which, judging from all the detail that it contained, suggested that by “change,” he meant assuring children school buildings, citizens health care, a flood-free Manila, cash transfers to poor families, housing for typhoon victims, and profitable utilities.

There wasn’t enough time, said the usual Malacañang spokespersons, for President Benigno Aquino III to even mention, let alone discuss, such issues as extra-judicial killings, the Freedom of Information Bill, the killing of journalists, the escalating crime rate, or environmental degradation. Equally missing was what further steps in the economy are needed to continue the changes in society that are supposed to be taking place — which would have been helpful in giving Filipinos a clue as to what exactly is the big picture, the vision that Mr. Aquino has, if any, for this country.

Although Mr. Aquino did crow about the Philippines’ supposedly reaching “tiger” status, neither did he mention the rising unemployment rate, the increase in the incidence of hunger among the population, the gross human rights violations his police and military commit on an almost daily basis, and generally, the causes, other than his standard reply that it’s corruption, of the brutal and brutalizing poverty rampant in the entire archipelago.

Equally glaring was the absence of any reference at all to foreign policy despite the return of US troops to the Philippines, the plan to grant them and other foreign troops access to Philippine bases, the incursions into the West Philippine Sea of the Chinese bully, and the increasing difficulties attendant to what has become a national policy of deploying Filipino workers abroad.

About corruption he was less than perfunctory, devoting a few sentences in his address in which he promised to investigate the most recent corruption scandals that erupted on the eve of his SONA, among them the alleged $30-million extortion attempt on a Czech contractor by the MRT general manager and the 10-billion pork barrel scam.

There wasn’t enough time. But there was time enough in Mr. Aquino’s two-hour long speech for him to mention, and to even display his knowledge of, inter-cropping, salting fish, how many classrooms there are in the country, how many people trained by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) have found jobs, how many liver transplants were performed by the Dagupan Medical Center, the progress of ongoing housing and livelihood projects for soldiers, and even to imply that syndicates are behind the resistance to relocation by informal settlers, to praise the Philippine National police after regaling his audience with how many Glock pistols have been distributed to policemen, and even a side bar on the renovation of Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, etc., etc.

As for the bills he’d like Congress to pass, he mentioned the budget bill, or the 2013 General Appropriations Act, the Fiscal Incentives Rationalization Bill, and the Land Administration Reform Bill. The FOI bill was nowhere in sight, and apparently nowhere in his mind either — which makes perverse sense, since, unlike in his past SONAs, this time, Mr. Aquino was focused on his alleged commitment to changing society rather than on ending the corruption which, he had been saying since the 2010 Presidential campaign, was the cause of poverty. An authentic (meaning actually focused on enabling citizens to access government held information rather than on restricting that right) FOI bill would after all do wonders in exposing, and quite possibly minimizing, government and even private sector corruption.

But Mr. Aquino’s fourth SONA was nevertheless interesting enough, if only for what it revealed about the state of mind of one of the most popular Presidents we’ve ever had. Primarily it showed that he’s focused on the details — on the trees, even their very leaves, rather than the forest. Despite all that obeisance to “change,” the question still remains: exactly what does he mean by that word? Changes do take place as an inevitable part of any process. But towards what in this instance, and are they going to be enough to make a difference to the lives of the 98 million inhabitants of this archipelago? He didn’t say. There wasn’t enough time.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
July 25, 2013

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