Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 27 July 2016


The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is a major occasion when the president has the eyes and ears of the nation all to himself.

As in a ballgame, the SONA is the grand moment when the president has the ball and directs it in order to score the goal. Since he directs the ball, the president could also lose control of it through mishandling or mistake.

In this first SONA, however, President Duterte does not lose control of the ball. He meandered, sometimes even whimsically by going off-text, but he did not lose control.

An elaborated brief address is long. The prepared text was tested to be only 38 minutes for oral delivery. However, the delivered speech turned out almost three times as long.

The new president irrepressibly went out of text to convey his direct and innermost thoughts on some of the subjects he touched.

The result was a SONA that provided us a colorful and a deeper measure of the intimate and salient thoughts in the presidential mind.

My preference is for a briefer text with clear and informative messaging. But how do we know that the speaker, especially a new president delivering his first SONA, believes, owns and controls the message in what he reads?

The SONA is a document of analysis and a program of action, however generally stated. It is not simply a piece of paper to be read and then forgotten.

When we meet a new leader for the first time in his first SONA, it is more reassuring if we had fuller certainty about the extent of his commitment to his words.

We already had indications of the seriousness of his war on drugs and criminality even before he had delivered the SONA. He hit the ground running on the job. For the war on drugs and criminality moved at high seriousness in the early days of his presidency.

Analysis. In my own view, a SONA should be able to provide a proper analysis of the state of affairs of the nation. This is prelude to the discussion of the program of actions and policies of government.

Surprisingly, he throws away preliminary and settles on the task at hand.  He said he would focus action on the present and not be bothered by being pulled back by the problems of the past.

He would aim his sights on accountability of those who had sinned against the public. He therefore departs from the usual practice of putting blame on the past administrations.  He puts on notice those in the government to do their duty to be true to their work as public officers.

At all times of course, the ills of any nation are a legacy from the past. He chooses not to look for blame but to steer those in government to remain clean. That is his solemn promise for his government.

In his inaugural speech he said:

(T)he problems that bedevil our country today … are corruption, both in the high and low echelons of government, criminality in the streets, and the rampant sale of illegal drugs in all strata of Philippine society and the breakdown of law and order….

For I see these ills as mere symptoms of a virulent social disease that creeps and cuts into the moral fiber of Philippine society. I sense a problem deeper and more serious than any of those mentioned or all of them put together.

Erosion of faith and trust in government – that is the real problem that confronts us. Resulting therefrom, I see the erosion of the people’s trust in our country’s leaders; the erosion of faith in our judicial system; the erosion of confidence in the capacity of our public servants to make the people’s lives better, safer and healthier.

Vision.  From hearing the delivery of the SONA, there is no explicit statement of the vision that he foresees for the nation.

In the inaugural speech, he proposes reforms that will move the nation forward. In the SONA, he puts forward some details in these reforms. Judging their nature and in contrast with many other SONAs by other presidents, these reforms constitute true and meaningful change if he succeeds to put them in place.

“Vision” must necessarily come from change. It does not need to be plainly and explicitly spoken even though that is desirable.

Many reforms as suggested in this SONA if and when adopted will help to push the nation’s living standards forward. Meaningful change produces rising welfare for those affected.

Meaningful change induces measurable improvements in economic terms, such as rise in per capita output, improved incomes and consumption, even productivity.

But there are moreover political, social, and other measures of well-being also to be thought of. In fact, many of the changes contemplated are in the non-economic areas. They seep into the economic impact, if they are accomplished.

Further elaboration would mean rising health standards, lengthening life expectancy, rising educational levels for the work force, increasing freedom of choice, widening consumption ability and growing human capital improvements.

These specifics would be easy enough to measure. But they would follow only if the reforms proposed are achieved.

Expectations, or programs of government initiated during his administration. The programs of government of President Duterte in this SONA are many.

In particular, the SONA touched on big, transformational issues, in which President Duterte went off-text to make further elaborations: (1) the war on drugs and criminality; (2) human rights cannot be used as a shield by criminals in the drug war; (3) corruption in the government and reduction of red tape and delays in dealing with the public; (4) maternal health, family and church and state relations; (5) unilateral ceasefire with the communist rebels (CPP-NPA-NDF) designed to negotiate the long time rebellion; (6) the Bangsa Moro solution, within the constitutional framework and including the MILF and MNLF; (7) constitutional reform toward federalism; (8) mining standards and the protection of the environment; and (9) the South China Sea decision in favor of the Philippines and how to proceed forward with peace in mind.

The economic issues are not any less important, but they take second-billing to many of the big ticket issues cited above. Even then, the measures are substantial and also “big-time,” especially the (1) promise of tax reform in income taxes and in taxation generally; (2) correcting the traffic gridlock in Manila and emergency powers for the president; (3) railway transport and airport expansion for Manila, the Visayas and Mindanao; (4) power development, coal, and the environment.

(To be continued: issues in implementation of programs.)