The SONA in the President’s mind
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - July 24, 2019 - 12:00am

I would have wanted the State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be filled with more optimism and positive encouragement. This was not the SONA we got from President Duterte last Monday. Instead, what we got was an uninspiring discourse that dwelled on his preoccupations and legislative agenda. The SONA’s saving grace was that it was laced with candor. In many ways, it gave us an inside look at the workings of the president’s mind.

Among the interesting insights gathered were that apparently, the President prefers to appoint military men to key positions, not to ingratiate himself to the armed forces but simply because they are easier to give orders to. We learned that he is not a blind Marcos fanatic after all what with his expression of disgust over the plunder of Coco Levy Funds and how the former despot abetted the crime. Considering the number of times he spoke glowingly about Bong Go, we now know that the new Senator not only has the President’s ear but also his heart. We also sensed the President’s mixed feelings about his job. In one breath, he spoke about being sick and tired of it all and wanting to resign. In the next, he vowed to finish his term like a proverbial eagle in flight.

There were two themes he spoke of at length – the state corruption in government and China’s illegal occupation of the West Philippine Sea.

What baffled me was that the President did not talk much about the economy. I found it odd since the economy is the brightest story in the Duterte narrative. The fact that it was not expounded upon tells me that the economy is not as much a priority to the President as his administrative agenda is. It also tells me that the economy is in such a good position that there was no need to dwell on it.

But it is impossible to approximate the true state of the nation without talking about the economy. Two weeks ago, I attended a pre-SONA conference conducted by the economic cluster of the cabinet. While the conference was meant for economists and businessmen with facts, figures and statistics aplenty, let me just say that the economy is doing well and that we are beginning to see its fruits trickle down to the grassroots.

Unemployment is now at 5.2%, the lowest in 50 years. Poverty also decreased to an all time low of 21% from 27.6% just three years ago. Note, this occurred despite a rise in population by 1.5%. Per capita income increased to $3,303 from $3,162, allowing us to graduate to an upper middle income economy this year, three years ahead of schedule. Even more encouraging is the fact that all 17 regions posted high growth last year with 14 of them growing faster than Metro Manila. All these suggests that finally, economic growth is becoming inclusive.

Standard & Poors upgraded the Philippines’ credit rating to BBB+ Stable, a notch below the much coveted “A” rating. Foreign direct investments are up, tax collections are up and debt remains at manageable levels.

What was disheartening to me was that the President failed to include much needed economic reforms (outside the TRABAHO bill) when he narrated his priority bills to Congress. Certain statutes are needed to enable the economy to grow beyond six percent without overheating. Among them are the revisions to the EPIRA Law, the Retail Trade Act, reducing the negative list of industries for foreign participation, among others. I hope these bills are given due attention by Congress regardless.

The President’s expressed his immense frustration over the prevalence of corruption in government. For every transaction, there is a commission, for every action, there is extortion. It is a national embarrassment, he opined. He further said that “the greatest enemy is us” and that “we are our own tormentors and demons.” How true it is.

The President called on Congress to prosecute grafters at the Pag IBIG Fund, PhilHealth and Bureau of Customs regardless of their security of tenure.

The forceful manner by which the President spoke about corruption, his endorsement of the death penalty for drug related crimes and plunder and by saying “blood might be what will cleanse the nation of corruption” alludes to a possible bloody war against corruption. The use of the word “might” indicates that the President is still tentative about it.

I say, if a bloodbath is already ongoing for the drug war regardless of the diplomatic blowback, it might as well be applied to thieves in government. They are the greater evil in society as they are predators of the weak, the powerless and those without options. We need to quell corruption if we are to move forward as a strong, equitable nation.

The President spent a considerable portion of his speech talking about the conflict in the West Philippine Sea. In a nutshell, he said that while both countries are claimants to the disputed waters, China has the advantage because it has both territorial possession and the military might to defend its illegal occupation. To assert our claim by force will surely lead to war. He is not ready to create more widows and orphans. Besides, he disclosed, China has missiles aimed at Manila which can obliterate the capital in seven minutes.

I think the President is being defeatist and one dimensional in this case. To him, it is a war or no-war scenario when in fact  there are other ways to assert our claims without being confrontational. Among them is by invoking the rule of law and insisting that China pay the consequence for breaking international treaties, by using diplomatic persuasion and/or controlling global opinion over China’s abusive tactics. We are no longer in the 18th century where military confrontation is the end-all-be-all in resolving conflicts among nations.

When the President expressed his intent to dig for oil in the disputed territory, Xi Jinping said, “there will be trouble.” This is telling of the Chinese psyche. The Chinese are not friends. They take what they want and will use force if needed. We can therefore understand the chilling effect on the President.

That said, we must understand that China is a predator with expansionist ambitions. They will take more and more until we push back. Being extra amorous toward them is not helping our situation, neither is procrastination. We must face the situation squarely with the viable options available to us. This is one aspect of the President SONA’s I did not agree with. Everything else was as expected.

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