Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 25 July 2012


The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is the annual occasion when the President, as the nation’s leader, submits a report to the people . It is a major occasion for conveying major messages to various listeners and to spell out his vision of the nation’s future.

The SONA’s many audiences. The SONA has different listeners as it is delivered. The SONA’S first audience is the nation’s citizenry, the electorate at large. In a democracy, the electorate is the all important source of political power, so the SONA is principally addressed to the sovereign people, “ang boss ko.”

The second audience of the SONA is the people’s elected representatives. These are the President’s colleagues as actors on the political scene. The President can exert leadership here by spelling out his legislative agenda. In fact, the SONA is an address before a joint session of the two houses of Congress.

The third audience is represented by the President’s co-workers as administrators and public servants in government. The SONA is the vehicle by which, through words and actions, the President can inspire and press his co-workers to action. For this audience, the President has to lay out his plans, his hopes, as well as his marching orders for good government.

The fourth audience is an important motley group. It includes businessmen, investors, and foreigners alike. It is not an accident that the diplomatic corps is part of the audience. Diplomats are the eyes and ears of other sovereigns. Businessmen and investors want to gain signals and information from the SONA to understand the country’s policy directions.

This diversity of audience requires that the SONA cover a wide ground. The SONA doesn’t have to be a long address nor even be encyclopedic. This one is long, one hour and a half. What is required is that it should touch sufficiently on those aspects of messaging while keeping internal cohesion. That cohesion comes from a clear enunciation of the leader’s vision for the country.

How did the 2012 SONA deal with the various messages? Let’s see.

Main accomplishments. The SONA began with the usual parade of accomplishments of the government during the first two years of the president’s six year term. Most important among these is the achievement of economic growth and continued prospects for growth and stability during a period in which other countries are hit by difficult world conditions.

 The SONA highlights the boosts that the country has received in the international commentary: the improving economic environment, the credit upgrades by major credit rating companies and the positive investment endorsements coming from major investment banking groups and institutions.

The SONA connects these improvements in the economy to the administration’s program of good governance. These gains resulted from the eradication of privileged position in the running of government (walang wang-wang). The savings of public funds arising from the fight against corruption which have has led to a rise in actual government spending for programs of government.

The SONA is full of numbers – statistics supporting various programs. This array of statistics touch on various sectors of the economy and emphasize services for the country’s poor as well.

They contain the listing of recipients of CCTs (conditional cash transfers), a program of direct cash release to help alleviate the needs of the poor subject to conditions. Health services to promote vaccination, the health of mothers, and the fight against dengue are cited.

Also reported in the SONA are budgetary improvements – a hefty increase of 44 percent for state universities – and the construction of new classroom buildings and the purchase of additional textbooks. These are to reduce the serious backlogs in education.

There were other important components. Projects in transport and communications are mentioned that deal with transportation infrastructure especially in roads, rail transport for commuters, and the country’s airports.

The military sector was also addressed, in particular, what could be done for the men in uniform.

Theme or vision? The list of achievements recorded above come somewhat loosely. If there is a unifying theme, it is elusive. The emphasis of anti-corruption (or governance) activities dominates the good governance theme. Toward the end the rhetoric rises, emphasizing that good governance makes reform possible. It seems that from this that the President expects good economic results to arise from this effort.

This is the dominating impression that one gets from hearing this SONA. The stress on anti-corruption is ever-present. Much has been said about the achievement in this area. The removal of the Chief Justice, the work of the new Ombudsman, the corruption charges against the previous president, these are themes that get a repeat.

Omission of economic reforms. One of the strangest aspects of the SONA is its lack of mention of the need for more economic reforms. Except for the mention of the budget, only three bills are mentioned in this SONA. And these bills are already in the process of passage in Congress: the sin tax, the reproductive health bill, and the AMLA (anti-money laundering) bill. No other set of legal initiatives are listed in the SONA and the President did not mention any programs that he wants to see done.

Leadership requires getting the government to examine the gaps in economic and social reforms. The proposed mining law that became the consequence of the recent executive order on mining development does not receive any elaboration in the SONA. This is a very important sector for the future of the country.

Does Congress need no prodding? Should the latter undertake its own suggestions of reforms? Just on this morning as Congress reconvened after the recess and to make way for the SONA, both the Senate President and the Speaker spoke before each chamber and announced that they would seek the amendment of the restrictive provisions of the Constitution as part of their agenda in this session.

In the SONA, the President did not mention any reference to these issues. If he does not do something about encouraging more foreign direct investments by improving the environment for their entry, does he believe that he can channel a large inflow of foreign investments by simply remaining quiet?

The fact is that the country needs to give a greater dose of encouragement for more investments. Of course, he acknowledges this at the outset of the SONA. But investments, both domestic and foreign, do not take place just because there is an economy waiting to be tapped. We have to try hard to make the investment environment competitive and easy-to-do business with.

Within the ASEAN, the Philippines is uniquely positioned today because of its improved economic situation. But we have to work hard to strengthen that position if only to assure that promised and anticipated flows of new investments that are destined for us do not go elsewhere in the end.