Wednesday, July 25, 2007

No grand claims, no grand vision, just a little cheese

For the first time since President Arroyo came to power, I did not mind listening to her seventh State of the Nation Address (SONA) on television. It was by far her least provocative, most tourist-friendly and reconciliatory SONA, even though she used the much misused word “reconciliation” only once---in relation to Mindanao.

The speech was a complete departure from all previous SONAs, both in substance and in style. It made no grand claims, painted no grand visions, apart from wishing to see the Philippines become a modern society with strong institutions in 20 years, which we can either pursue or debate for the next 20 years.

It gave her critics not much room to nitpick. But it most certainly achieved its purpose, if its purpose was to deliver a speech that would still, rather than stir up, the political waters, and show the nation a side of Mrs. Arroyo’s character which her most devoted critics may no longer be prepared to grant her.

That she did not say much is a virtue rather than a defect. She made no extravagant claims you would instantly call “lies.” She made no provocative statements that instantly launched you on the war path. Her claims were modest, and so was her tone. She even deliberately avoided putting jewelry around her neck.

Instead of claiming credit for every little project that has come to a community or a region, she credited it to the local politician, regardless of party affiliation. She took you on a guided tour of the “super regions,” with well-produced maps, graphs, and statistical data, and on every stop, she pointed to a project and trotted in the congressman, governor or mayor who had helped to bring it about. Her own tourism people couldn’t have done a better job.

Somebody likened her to the Queen of England, distributing birthday honors. As my contact with British royalty is rather limited, I will only say she looked like a doting balikbayan grandmother distributing little pasalubongs to all her favorite grandchildren. She wanted everyone to have a little cheese. The result was the longest list of names---and nicknames, at that ---ever to grace a President’s speech that had nothing to do with the awarding of Philhealth insurance cards, DAR land titles, or TESDA diplomas. And just for having been mentioned in that SONA, many of these politicians will never be the same again:

Rufus Rodriguez, Nur Jafafar, Glenda Ecleo, Sim Datumanong, Au Cerilles, Rolando Yebes, Digs Dilangalen, Ros Labadlabad, Victor Yu, Evelyn Uy, Sammy Co, Boy Daku Plaza, Edel Amante, Leo Ocampos, Aido Parjinog, Hermie Ramiro, Bobby Dimaporo, Oca Moreno, Tinex Jaraula, Joben Miraflores, Art Defensor, Neil Tupaz, Rahman Nava, Monico Puentevella, Migs Zubiri, Miriam Defensor Santiago, George Arnaiz, Mian Mercado, Nitoy Duano, Benhur Salimbangon, Lina Seachon, Tony Kho, Bong Bravo, Governor Dalog, Jose de Venecia, Nani Braganza, Telesforo Castillejos, Vic Ortega, Caloy Padilla, Bongbong Marcos, Dick Gordon, Bong Revilla, Raffy Nantes, Danny Suarez, Mar Roxas, Ferge Biron, Teddy Boy Locsin, Ed Angara, Noli de Castro.

Even former President Ramos got his pasalubong. So did Chief Justice Rey Puno, just for being there. Some people had obviously wanted to give Puno higher visibility by making him join the legislators who had been designated to accompany Mrs. Arroyo to the session hall. That is not much of a role, and it is exclusively for legislators, who are specifically named for that function. For the Chief Justice to be there is to invite undue speculation.

The glad-handing did not end with the politicians. Mrs. Arroyo also trotted in some Filipino high achievers to prove the benefits of investing in science education, which we are not doing enough of, if you listen to everybody else. These included: biochemist Baldomero Olivera of the University of Utah, who has been named Scientist of the Year of the Harvard Foundation; Robert Buendia and Wilson Alba, for bringing home the gold from the 2006 International Math and Science Olympiad in Jakarta; Ivy Ventura, Mara Villaverde, Hester Maria Umayam, Janine Santiago, Melvin Barroa, and Luigi John Suarez, for winning various awards in the Intel Young Scientists Competition in New Mexico; Amiel Sy for dominating the Mathematics World Contest in Hong Kong; and Diona Aquino and her team for winning the Youth Innovation Competition on Global Governance in Shanghai.

While demonstrators clashed with police outside the Batasan over human rights, and the anti-terrorist law called Human Security Act in particular, Mrs. Arroyo astutely deflected attacks over the controversial enactment by spreading credit for it generously among her Senate friends. She tried to minimize the gravity of the HSA by limiting its intended use to the protection of power transmission towers in Mindanao. But in pointing out that its final version was “ably crafted” by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who first filed the bill in 1966, with Senate President Manny Villar and Nene Pimentel, she very subtly reminded those who like to attach the name of legislators to certain laws that they were looking at an Enrile-Villar-Pimentel law, rather than an Arroyo EO.

Those who needed to hear something about corruption were told that “unprecedented billions” had been “provided for anti-graft efforts,” and that the Ombudsman’s conviction rate had shot up from 6 percent in 2002 to 77 percent.

If this is true, then billions are being spent to go after the small fry, and virtually nothing to land the big fish. How much of these anti-graft billions had been lost to the anti-grafters is a big question in itself.

Some points Mrs. Arroyo made are not debatable at all. For example:

1) It is never right and always wrong to fight terror with terror.

2) We need laws to protect witnesses from lawbreakers and law enforcers.

3) We need electoral reform.

They only need to happen.

But we do not need “empowered special courts to guarantee swift justice.” We only need the courts to function as courts in order to guarantee swift justice.

We do not need “harsher penalties for political killings” or the “harshest penalties for the rogue elements in the uniformed services who betray public trust and bring shame to the greater number of their colleagues who are patriotic.”

The present penalties are enough. We only need the killings to stop, and the killers to be apprehended, prosecuted and punished. We only need the military and the police to take their oath to the Constitution seriously, and to resist those who will misuse them for their own ends.

We do not need a stronger law against election-related violence. We only need to enforce the present law and make sure killers are caught, prosecuted and punished.

Mrs. Arroyo said she looked forward to stepping down in 2010. Her term, which continues to be disputed by many, ends in 2010. Her statement, therefore, should not raise anxiety or provoke any undue controversy. But some of those who are already posturing for the presidency are worried.

They seemed most uncomfortable when Mrs. Arroyo said, “From where I sit, a President is always as strong as she wants to be,” and it drew the strongest applause from the gallery. A strong President and a weak people are an absurdity. But the poor quality of our mostly unprincipled and purely opportunistic “leaders” has given, and continues to give Mrs. Arroyo so much undeserved superiority.

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