President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address on Monday clearly reminded the nation that the race is on for the next president who will deliver Sona 2016. Even the TV cameras, presumably directed by the government since all the broadcast networks carried the same videos, got naughty at one point and showed Jojo Binay, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas in a 3-in-1 screen shot.
Mr. Aquino sees next year’s presidential election as a referendum on his “daang matuwid” (straight/honest path) philosophy, which, he boasted, would lead the Philippines to “First World” status within a generation.
I looked hard at the graph that was presented, prepared by the National and Economic Development Authority, and it does project that if we sustain current economic growth rates, we should reach First World status by 2041—one generation indeed. I wasn’t too impressed, though, at seeing the extension of the graph to 2057, with a caption “South Korea (2014).” Did it mean that in 2057 we would be at South Korea’s level last year?
But you know that all this talk about developed-country status is, literally, a dangling pie in the sky. What’s important is being able to move forward, and my concern with the Sona is the “all or none” stance that was presented: Stay with a Liberal Party candidate and we will progress.
We need something more concrete than “daang matuwid.” Albay Gov. Joey Salceda uses “transformative governance” to describe the current administration. It is a good term, but it has to be spelled out more concretely when the campaign comes, if we are to avoid another expensive political exercise driven by guns, goons, gold and glitter.
When elections roll in, people will vote based on a mix of perceptions and their experiences, all of which will boil down to asking if there is even a fighting chance for their children to finish college, to find a job without having to leave the country, to be able to get treatment for catastrophic illnesses like cancer.
This year’s Sona did give a sense that we’re making headway in these areas, but many challenges remain. Potential candidates would do well then to study Sona 2015 and how the people reacted. There are still expectations for the delivery of some important reforms, and success or failure in at least laying the foundation for those reforms will affect the chances of whoever Mr. Aquino’s anointed one will be (and it looks like it’s Roxas) in the presidential run.
To give one concrete example, when the President said it was time to pass the antidynasty bill, there was thunderous applause. I did wonder how many of those who applauded were themselves from political dynasties. But public sentiment is strongly in favor of such a bill, and passing it during the current legislative session—the administration’s last—will bring brownie points for legislators who run for reelection.
This is a good time then to pressure legislators and local officials on whatever advocacies we may have. I want to name six issues (limited by space considerations) for which there is strong public support but which were not given enough attention in this last Sona:
First is mass transit. The upper classes often do not appreciate how the availability of mass transit makes or breaks a family’s chances for mobility. Students miss classes or drop out or office workers miss work because they don’t have transportation money, or if they do, the traffic is so bad they can’t get to school or the office on time.
The President did try to clarify the problems with the MRT, shifting the blame to the private corporation handling the trains. But the Metro Manila public’s exasperation is not just about the MRT but the entire dismal mass transit system. It was encouraging to hear Mr. Aquino talk about new trains coming for the MRT, but what about the LRT, and the buses, jeepneys and tricycles? All kinds of studies have been conducted on mass transit, with very good recommendations, but we have yet to see a national or local official seriously implementing these comprehensive plans.
An example is a bus rail transit system for Cebu, which was proposed more than a decade ago, but which was shelved and only recently revived. We need to hear about how the BRT plan (which I hear is also being mulled for Metro Manila) will be linked to other urban renewal plans.
Second, the President talked about the increase in tax collections, which he attributed to a crackdown on tax evaders. I am sure Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares’ tough talk had some effect, but my reading is that Filipinos from middle—and low—income groups find taxation extremely oppressive, and tied to a still strong perception that the taxes do not translate to enough services and infrastructure.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been making a strong case for reforming income taxation, which has been unfair on the middle and lower classes. He mentions a “bracket creep”: A salary increase is frequently wiped out because one moves into a higher income tax bracket, which means more withholding taxes.
Third, there was no mention of food security in the Sona. I did not hear about the National Food Authority’s success in stabilizing the supply and price of rice, the latter always a sensitive political issue. A full stomach is a meal with affordable rice, and for the 2016 presidential election, we should ask candidates about their plans not just for rice but for ensuring adequate food in general. Raising a food-security issue will force the candidates to think hard about agriculture and the plight of farmers, who remain the most disgruntled sector of Philippine society.
Fourth is disaster preparedness. The President played on words, saying that people now trust Pag-Asa, the weather bureau. There have been many breakthroughs in the monitoring of the weather, including climate change, and politicians need to be pinned down to pledge continuing support for Pag-Asa and projects relating to disaster preparedness, especially from the perspective of social mobilization.
A fifth issue that must be given importance in the next election, and which I did not see highlighted in the Sona, is protection of the environment. Especially with the emphasis on economic development, we have to be more vigilant about “green costs” in development, and this can be in fields as diverse as tourism, the setting up of manufacturing plants, and mining. The next generation of politicians and local executives must show that they understand these costs and tradeoffs.
Sixth is housing. In previous Sonas, we were bombarded with statistics on the number of housing units being built by the government. This time there was only passing mention of housing for the police.
Private housing development remains beyond the reach of most Filipinos. I’ve seen this even among University of the Philippines faculty who are approaching retirement and yet have been unable to buy their own home. I’ve also seen too many Filipinos duped by housing scams, especially involving condominiums. And at the bottom of the economic and social pyramid, we still have thousands of informal settlers. We need a comprehensive national housing plan, and legislation to encourage housing that is affordable but of good quality, while providing strong penalties for swindlers and scams.
Whoever delivers Sona 2016 would have just become president, but she or he should be able to boast of having exercised transformational governance as a lawmaker, governor, mayor, or department head (did I miss out on any post?).
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