Monday, July 23, 2007

Who will lead the rebuilding of the Republic?

The President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) invites continued interest, even though it may have long lost its appeal to a good number of Filipinos. It provides the President an opportunity to report on what has been done the past year, and to anticipate to the nation what will be done until the next Congress. It also provides the opposition an opportunity to talk about “the true state of the nation.” The SONA, however, has mutated considerably from one President to another, and from year to year.

Under President Arroyo, the SONA has become primarily a show to convey the impression that she is firmly in the saddle, with the military and the police behind her, and that she also has the support of the local political leaders. All roads leading to the Batasan are heavily guarded on this occasion; close to the Batasan, the police, the military, the firefighters and their dogs outnumber and outflank any number of demonstrators, and freedom of speech and expression and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances are casually set aside by the combined power of the truncheon, the tear gas, and the water cannon.

Legitimate political authority needs no such demonstration. But Machiavelli’s epigones seem to believe that without such demonstration, questionable authority becomes even more questionable. With thousands set to march on the Batasan and Malacanang to protest, among other things, the unsolved disappearances and political killings, and the enactment of a Human Security Act that terrifies those whom it is supposed to protect and secure, the government may be expected to assert once again the same view of power to suppress the demonstrations.

Inside the Batasan, the galleries will be packed by rented enthusiasts to provide the applause that will make the SONA itself completely incidental. Normally, speeches are interrupted by applause when they are good, or when the audience is magnanimous or polite. In the case of Mrs. Arroyo’s last few SONAs, it is the speech that has always interrupted the applause. The number of times the speech interrupts the applause is then recorded by the obeisant and superficial political press as the true gauge of the SONA’s success.

By that standard, the Sermon on the Mount and the Gettysburg Address would have to be classed as utter failures. But by that standard, today’s SONA will yet again be described as an outstanding success, no matter what it says and what it does not. If the speech rolls out as predicted, it will be one great storytelling again of how wonderfully the President has done to improve the economy which, by definition, is supposed to be run by market forces rather than by executive pronouncement or fiat. The poor are poorer, but the rich are richer, and the powerful infinitely more privileged and afflicted with hubris.

A lot of statistics will most probably be thrown in to support the claim of economic growth. Increased dollar remittances by a growing number of overseas workers, rising international dollar reserves, hot millions at the stock exchange, a peso out to clobber the no longer almighty dollar, phenomenal Chinese investments. None of these we should inhale.

One does not need to bring in Benjamin Disraeli or Winston Churchill to see that “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Our polling entrepreneurs will suffice. If only nobody at the National Archives had ever forged a document, and our official population statisticians have at least been able to accept the data posted in the CIA Fact Book or the UN website, then the government’s statistical claims would probably be less suspect.

But, even if we were so minded to accept its claims, the government itself has provided the very reason why we should not. It has, by its own admission, failed to collect taxes! How can a booming economy and a government that cannot collect taxes ever coexist? It just doesn’t add up. The average taxpayer has had no way of evading the EVAT; it is the rich and the powerful that have managed to avoid paying all sorts of taxes. So, assuming, arguendo, that the macro-economy has performed as advertised, the government has certainly not.

There will also probably be an effort to highlight infrastructure projects that have somewhat changed the landscape. These should never be dismissed, but the only way these can be fairly appreciated is by showing their actual costs, and allowing everyone to see that nobody is making a $200-million overprice on every major project.

The rest of Asia is bustling with huge infrastructure projects which the various governments have been able to implement without any scandal or hitches. In contrast, we have not had a single major project that has not sailed into charges of bribery, corruption, and other irregularities. These include at least two multi-billion peso deals with China, and the new NAIA terminal, which has been sitting there unoccupied while our “international tourism” makes do with the equivalent of a domestic airport in most of Southeast Asia.

When will this ever change?

I shrink several sizes smaller every time I arrive from a foreign trip and go through the rundown terminal with no decent toilets and hardly enough immigration windows, while the PIATCO-built facility stands in the distance, unused, a monument to political impotence and graft. I have once suggested, and I will say it again, just in case they are listening, that the Department of Tourism now package and promote the old NAIA terminal as a tourism attraction by itself ---a relic of the last millennium which tourists all over the world should try to be photographed in, before it finally becomes extinct.

But to go back to the main thread, I believe it is imperative that the President should try to make a distinction between the state of the nation and the state of government, and between her view of the nation --- or for that matter, the opposition’s view of it --- and the nation’s view of itself. I believe it would serve her well, and all the other politicians too, to find out what the Filipino nation thinks of itself.

Physical infrastructure, even in an electronic age, is indispensable to progress. But even more indispensable is the moral, social, constitutional, political, and intellectual infrastructure of the nation. What is the state of that? That is what we would like to find out.

When young and old, leader and led, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered can no longer seem to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, then the moral infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. When those who rule and those who are ruled have two different and conflicting conceptions of justice, then the constitutional infrastructure has to be rebuilt. When only dishonest and unprincipled men and women run for and are elected to public office, and clean and honest elections remain a Utopian wish, then the political infrastructure must be rebuilt. When the simplest truths can no longer be understood, and otherwise intelligent men and women can only communicate in grunts, sound bytes and sub-literate text messages, then the intellectual infrastructure must be rebuilt.

A SONA that takes an honest look into all these will have to conclude that the urgent task of rebuilding the society and the Republic cannot wait, but that none of the pretenders on the scene seem capable of leading it.

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