Stark comparison

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

The tenure of the late president Benigno S. Aquino III can be likened to a painting. His manner of leadership and his goals reflect his life experience, which in turn shaped his feelings, emotion, character, attitude, and how he handled himself.

And like a painting, his tenure cannot satisfy every viewer. Some will interpret it one way, others in another way. Some will like it, some will not. But it is when the artist has passed that one gets to evaluate his painting more objectively, and then hopefully secure the appreciation it deserves.

I myself was ambivalent about his legacy, having served as ambassador and Cabinet secretary under his mother and her successor, Fidel Ramos, who to me were both charismatic leaders. But now on reflection, I realize that my ambivalence derived more from his leadership style which clouded my appreciation of the substance of his achievements. With his passing I have come to agree with those who describe him as decent, simple, self-effacing, but courageous, patriotic, incorruptible, and genuinely caring of the well-being of his fellow countrymen – ideals handed down by his parents. These virtues are appreciated even more because they stand in stark relief from the current occupant of Malacañang, who has people harking for the return of decency, dignity, and honesty that the highest office of the land demands. Leadership by example has never rung truer than when vulgarity, misogyny, and violence have become the norm of acceptable behavior.

Economy and foreign affairs

But more than his virtues, his achievements in uplifting the dignity and welfare of Filipinos are undeniable and can withstand comparison from even the most ardent supporter of his successor.  His drive for honest and effective governance, coupled with prudent macroeconomic and fiscal policies led to one of the fastest economic growth rates globally, actually, rivaling China. The Philippines scored its first-ever investment grade ratings by global credit rating agencies under his tenure. Foreign investments followed and the country was finally able to shed its “Sick Man of Asia” label.

That economic success and the stable conduct of foreign relations earned the respect of foreign leaders and international institutions, and had Filipinos basking in reflected pride. His decision to take China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration ranked as one of the most important foreign policy actions ever undertaken by the country. It was a courageous step and, in the end, a wise one.

Reversal of gains

It did not take long for Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, to reverse all these gains. While he was voted into office in the belief that he could scale up nationally the “Davao City” model of faster economic growth, lower crime, and less bureaucracy than the national average, he has proven to be unequal to the task. He anchored his presidency on the ultimately unsuccessful violent suppression of drug-use. He did so at the expense of effective governance, neglect of the economy, and mutually beneficial relations with traditional allies.

We have become the laughingstock of the world. We have a leader who is uncouth, misogynistic, rambles incoherently when not reading a speech which he often contradicts with off-the-cuff remarks. His “independent foreign policy” has proven to be nothing more than dismissiveness to the United States and subservience to China.

He portrays himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden; yet thousands of them have perished through his violent drug war, extrajudicial killings, and mishandling of COVID-19. He has impoverished them by denying them their livelihood by shutting down the economy – the longest running in the world – without a clearly-defined end game. He is poised to leave our country with a massive public debt burden that Aquino worked vigorously to reduce.

Moody’s says the Philippines “isn’t forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels of output until the end of 2022. In contrast, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam have all returned to previous output levels, while Indonesia and Thailand are on track to return this year.” The Philippine economy fell 14 percent (compared to its pre-COVID level) in the second quarter of 2020, and was still nine percent lower by the end of the year, placing it as one of the worst economic performers globally.

The Philippines faces deep economic and social scarring from the pandemic because addressing poverty, generating employment, and human development efforts are expected to be set back. Not only will the gap widen, but will result in a new wave of families falling out of middle-class status, negating efforts by the Aquino administration to reduce inequality. Meantime, a select few with influential ties will continue to make hay.

Duterte trolls

All of the foregoing explains why Duterte’s troll armies have intensified their efforts to destroy Aquino’s legacy, fearful that the reality of his achievement will undermine their paymaster when comparisons are made. More significantly, the trolls will want to attack so that Aquino will not be a rallying point for the opposition as his parents were in the past.

They will focus on the Luneta hostage fiasco, the Mamasapano incident and his administration’s initial response to Typhoon Yolanda. They will portray his laid-back demeanor as a sign of detachment. On this basis, they call his tenure a failure and his leadership wan, incompetent, and lacking care for the poor.

The reflections of the World Bank’s former country director can serve as a potent rebuttal. Motoo Konishi said that the prudent economic management of Aquino’s team created the huge fiscal space that the current administration is using to borrow to finance the heavy cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aquino’s Typhoon Yolanda Reconstruction Plan, with billions of dollars’ worth of assistance rolled out within just six months of the disaster, set a new global standard on disaster response. Konishi called it a game changer in the world of post-disaster reconstruction planning. He also pointed out that the Bangsamoro Peace Process and Organic Law progressed during Aquino’s tenure. As for the accusation that he did not care for the poor, Konishi said the Aquino administration “expanded the program to provide universal coverage of health insurance; doubled the families covered under the Conditional Cash Transfer Program that pulled 7.7 million Filipinos out of poverty (largest and one of the best managed programs of this type in the world); and nearly tripling the budget for social services (education, health and DSWD – unheard of increase in social services globally).” Incidentally, Karl Chua, one of the senior economists in Konishi’s staff is now the current NEDA director general.

As the election nears, the trolls will be relentless in denigrating Aquino’s legacy, spinning the incompetence of this administration into wondrous achievements, and vilifying every perceived critic and potential rivals. The next presidential election will likely be fought in social media. The Dedicated Duterte Supporter (DDS) are ruthless, formidable, and well-funded. Those who value democratic ideals, honesty, decency, competence, love of country, and care about the future had better realize the grave danger the country faces and act expeditiously in concert.

Nota bene

I will suspend my column until November due to health reasons. I urge my competent and patriotic friends in the Cabinet to do everything possible to bring balance/sanity to the incumbent’s actuations. History will look favorably on your role if you do so.

I would like to express my profound gratitude to my friend, advisor and devil’s advocate, Antonio I. Basilio, former diplomat and executive director of the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation. For many years, he has edited and contributed his literary and often eloquent style to my thoughts in the columns.

The nation is in urgent need of a return to the Aquino legacy of decency, dignity and simplicity.

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