A strong speech
President Aquino’s last State of the Nation Address may have been the longest of his term (the 15 video presentations stretched the total running time to two hours and eight minutes), but it was not, as some critics have alleged, a rambling mess. Far from it. The structure was well-defined, the direction clear. He just had a lot to say.
We had hoped that he would spend less time defining the national situation as he inherited it in 2010 (“For us to appreciate just how far we have travelled, let us recall where we started,” he said, in the official English translation). We wished he had used the time detailing his administration’s achievements (“Tremendous perseverance, courage, political will, and faith in God and in our fellowmen were needed in order to breathe life into this ideal”) to also talk about those initiatives that went awry or did not do so well, as a lesson for those who will follow. We expected him to say goodbye, as his own mother did in her last Sona, but did not quite anticipate the sustained expression of gratitude (“Now, I will ask for some of your time to thank those who were our inspiration and partners”) which went on for very many minutes.
But, in all, the speech was a positive, and we sense that many of those who tuned in to the address gave it a thumbs-up, too. The use of easy-to-understand numbers to compare past and present and to measure performance was not unique to this Sona or indeed to this presidency, but the President’s lack of bombast and his use of Filipino spelled the difference. (In the use of the national language as the language of the Sona, Mr. Aquino has proven to be a trailblazer; it will be harder for his successors to return to English.) Perhaps the fact that he was under the weather last Monday (“I am not feeling too well right now,” he began) added to the impression of pained sincerity: At times his voice ran low, and he had to stop many times to cough or catch his breath. Not least, he was not above making a joke (of which there were many, of the muted variety) or responding to criticism.
The President made the strongest impact when, for the first time, he proposed imposing limits on political dynasties. “But I have [since] realized: There is something inherently wrong in giving a corrupt family or individual the chance at an indefinite monopoly of public office … I believe it is now time to pass an Anti-Dynasty Law.” This has been read by many as an attempt to contain Vice President Jejomar Binay and his family; any of the bills pending in the Senate and the House, if passed in their current form, would prevent the election of a vice president, a senator, a representative and a mayor from one family. But on its own a cap on dynasties can breathe new life into, and bring new blood to, Philippine politics.
To be sure, there were inexplicable omissions.
There was no mention of the freedom of information bill—a campaign promise in keeping with his accountability and transparency mandate, that became a bargaining chip in negotiations with legislators over other, more controversial bills in the last five years. The hope that he would push the bill in his last year and finally make good on his promise was a legitimate one.
There was no reference to the tragedy in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last January—only the worst crisis to overtake his presidency, and the cause of the most serious drop in his ratings. These have since recovered, but instead of using this return to normal as an opportunity to eulogize the police troopers who died in battle or to place the encounter which also claimed the lives of Moro rebels and civilians within a larger context, he was content to say nothing.
But, in fulfilling his constitutional duty to report on the state of the nation for the last time, he was able to achieve the specific objectives he set for himself, unequivocally. He sought to define his legacy on his own terms, and to define the terms by which his successor would be chosen. He succeeded.
He ended with a rhetorical flourish—not one of his strongest suits, but this time it proved to be effective. Taking his own advice about “moving on,” he dared to dream of a postpolitical Philippines, one that would be “more just and more progressive.” The phrase he kept repeating at the close—“Simula pa lang ito (This is only the beginning)”—he offered as both promise and prophecy.
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