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Form and substance

The last time I wrote a piece for this space I titled it “Go for the bold!” (3/12/16) and basically laid out a case for decisiveness rather than timidity in implementing government programs and projects. I had observed that it was this lack of decisiveness that prevented the now outgoing administration from making more of a meaningful success of the six-year opportunity its term represented. I made this observation before the presidential election took place. Now, it would seem that timidity is definitely on the way out and boldness may indeed be in.

Certainly that is the case with respect to President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s unorthodox (to put it delicately), expletive-laden ways of presenting his views, which some have described as shocking, offensive and unpresidential. Others counter that setting aside the distraction of his brutal street lingo, he is simply a straight-shooter (pun intended) who values truth, however hurtfully stark it may be, rather than the euphemisms (often hypocrisy) of political correctness. They add that his hate of criminality’s ability to destroy the fabric of society, particularly the youth, is deep and passionate, and that he is a man of action rather than words.

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This debate, while not totally insignificant, is really more about form than substance since it’s still in a sense early days and the starting gate doesn’t open for the Duterte administration till July 1, after which it has to begin the process of facing day-to-day realities and meeting high expectations with substance much more than form.

To some extent a glimpse of what that substance might be was provided with the announcement of the incoming administration’s eight-point economic agenda. It’s wide-ranging and covers both targeted reforms which saw little or no progress under the outgoing administration (i.e., amending the economic provisions of the Constitution, income tax reform) and the continuation/strengthening of current policies and implementation of programs that proved effective in the past and that only need some tweaking or more decisive action (i.e., conditional cash transfer, private-public partnership structure and plans). Some items in the agenda may take longer to realize than others partly because they require what then President Fidel V. Ramos called “CSW” (complete staff work) and partly because of the need to course them through Congress. Among these is the contemplated total overhaul of the political structure via federalism.

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Because of this, I believe that the President-elect and his chosen Cabinet would do well to select and implement from among the various items in the agenda those that would respond to the needs for which a decisive majority voted them in and are doable within the first year of the administration. Otherwise, they would risk being bogged down in a quicksand of interminable debate and extended quid pro quo processes; they would lose the momentum that accompanies every new administration’s honeymoon period, and erode their credibility as people of action who can turn campaign promises into reality.

This challenge is a bit similar to the one successfully faced by the Ramos administration at the start of its tenure, when it had to very quickly deal with the power shortage that threatened to bring the economy to its knees. In this regard, President-elect Duterte indicated his immediate priorities to be: restoring law and order, rapidly implementing infrastructure projects, addressing the traffic mess in Metro Manila, and greatly improving delivery of public services. The next step is translating these priorities into action items.

Concerning law and order, it would seem that his rough and tough talk has already borne fruit as some local governments have taken the initiative to implement a curfew for unaccompanied minors and a ban on public liquor sales beyond midnight. As for infrastructure and the related traffic mess in Manila, he could begin by implementing those projects that have long lingered in the pipeline and that would result in the decongestion of the metropolis, such as MRT7 and the transfer of the international airport to Clark. (It’s an idea that should be appealing to incoming Transportation Secretary Art Tugade, who formerly headed the Clark Development Authority.)

Improvement of the delivery of public services could be immediately felt through moves that would simplify the tax reporting system; abolish Bureau of Internal Revenue regulations that complicate and discourage commerce; halt the penchant for defining good governance to mean the endless production of regulations and mandated seminars; and restore the efficient computerized system at the Land Transportation Office, which was unnecessarily and unjustly disrupted, thus resulting in the ongoing incredible delays in the issuance of driver’s licenses and car plates.

For Mindanao, with the appointment of the experienced Jess Dureza, he should be able to jump-start a more inclusive peace process negotiation without the participation of Malaysia. He may also wish to reignite the BIMP-EAGA project, which could strategically position Mindanao in the Asean Economic Cooperation context.

The debate about form will likely continue even as President-elect Duterte indicated his likely metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly once he actually takes office. But if he quickly demonstrates decisive action on matters of concern and substance, most wouldn’t mind that he float like a butterfly but sting like a bee.

Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary. He was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

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TAGS: decisiveness, federalism, law and order, Rodrigo Duterte
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