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11:39 PM July 23rd, 2013

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By: Conrado de Quiros, July 23rd, 2013 11:39 PM

It was the longest State of the Nation Address by far, and you kind of dread the thought of how long it would be by the time P-Noy gets to his last one. It got better toward the second half, but the first half, where he enumerated his administration’s gains, was not without its torturous moments.

At some points, it conjured the memory of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Sonas when she would unfailingly, and interminably, recite a litany of her accomplishments. Except for two very basic differences.

One is that P-Noy spoke in Filipino whereas Gloria spoke in English. That is no mean difference. P-Noy’s Sona, it must be said again and again, remains inspired in its being delivered in the language the masa understands, and delivered quite eloquently in it. It lends credence to his dramatic pose that when he reports  about the state of the nation he is reporting to his people, who are his boss. You do not report to the people, or your boss, in a language they do not understand.

Two, and the more important difference, is that P-Noy has credibility whereas Gloria did not. When Gloria delivered her Sona, we generally ignored it because none of us believed it anyway. Not even her allies. She could claim to have jumped over the moon for all anybody cared. When P-Noy delivers his Sona, we generally listen to it. We want to know how far we have gone. We accept his claims as true. We may debate their importance, we may debate their significance, we may debate their sustainability. In fact, we may debate their interminability. But we will not debate their truth.

Finally, we have a president we can believe. That is as startling a transformation as you can get.

Transformation was the theme of P-Noy’s fourth Sona, and there is much in it to debate in weeks to come. The first part of his speech had to do with the physical transformation that has swept across the country, the second with the moral, or psychological, or attitudinal one that has taken root in the government and among the people. The first part is the easier to buy.

His enumeration of departmental accomplishments was meant to show the physical transformation. While at this, he should really be more judicious about it in the next two ones: Scouring the length and breadth of the executive branch is not comprehensive, it is tedious. It does not impress, it assails. He put the case more dramatically last year, when for the first time in a long time we were almost shocked to learn how many schoolhouses had been built, how much grain had been reaped, how much infrastructure had expanded, how much the economy has grown, how much global and popular confidence the government has earned.

Even with Monday’s Sona, I continued to be struck by the thought that if we just put our minds to it, if we just removed corruption, or the resolute dedication of public officials to make hay while the sun shines, there were no limits to what we could do. The hay would be more abundant, everyone would have a share in it, the sun would shine longer. Seven—or, in P-Noy’s case, six—years of plenty is arguably a gigantic transformation from seven—or, in Gloria’s case, 1—years of want.

It’s the cultural or attitudinal transformation that’s more problematic. This, too, P-Noy introduced in the last Sona, noting that a change in values and attitudes, or in behavior, was noticeable among government officials. Gone, or going, was the wang-wang mentality or predatory instincts of officials, to be replaced by more selfless and dedicated service. He restated his case last Monday, which is where the Sona treaded on shakier ground. While there has been some real changes in public service, I don’t know that they are enough to warrant that assertion.

One thing at least we can be sure about, and that is that P-Noy is personally sworn to the cause. He wants to lead by example and will not abide those who will not follow. He made that abundantly clear—a high point in his Sona—when he called out the public officials who persisted in clinging to the old mentality, the errant mentality, the wang-wang mentality. He particularly singled out the heads of irrigation, immigration, and customs. It was enough for Ruffy Biazon, who alone remained in the government up to that point, to tender his resignation after the speech.

It’s impressive, P-Noy’s willingness to call out the recidivists, or indeed shame them, as he has done on a number of occasions when invited to the anniversaries of government offices. Indeed, going beyond public officials, as he showed when he spoke at the anniversary of ABS-CBN. But will this sustain the “cultural revolution” in the bureaucracy, if at all the spark has been lit and it is raging? We’ll soon know—after P-Noy leaves in 2016.

Which is a question worth asking, which is a question P-Noy himself asked last Monday. Will the transformation he has begun, if not wrought, carry through to the next president, the next administration, the next generation? His own answer was, yes, the new culture among public officials and the willingness of the people to take part in their governance will make it so. Change will not be stopped.

I myself am not so sure about it. The transformation of public officials into a cadre of dedicated civil servants and the people’s willingness to fight for their rights, having tasted them, remain at this point more articles of faith than of fact. The daang matuwid is a long and winding road and can always be swallowed up by the rampaging overgrowth.

Still, that we can even contemplate the possibility of these things happening, that we can even debate the likelihood of these things happening, it’s indication enough of how far we’ve gone in but a few years. Who knows? Maybe we’re on the threshold of a real leap forward.

The threshold of a real transformation.

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