President Noynoy Aquino (PNoy) will be giving his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) soon. Like his first SONA, his speech will most likely be full of motherhood statements similar to all the previous speeches he had delivered since he announced his plans to run for the Presidency in 2009. There is very little hope that his speechwriters will come up with something more substantial or that has something we can use as a basis for clinging on to any kind of hope that this current administration could bring about real “change”. You can bet your hard-earned Peso his second SONA will be filled with a long list of the former administration’s “faults” as usual.
What PNoy has to say is likely to be something that we’ve all heard before. There was nothing to indicate in his first year in office that he plans to advocate any changes in the country’s institutions, systems or culture, that can actually help move our country forward. As mentioned in my previous article, PNoy is “from the pampered oligarchy” and therefore part of the problem. This fact seems to escape most of the people who voted for him even after a year of seeing mediocre performance on the job. PNoy has become so predictable that it is hard to imagine what motivates him to report for work nowadays.
In a 1987 article published on The Atlantic, James Fallows described how PNoy’s late mother, the former President Corazon “Cory” Aquino gave a performance exactly the same as how her son is performing now. Here is what he had to say:
[...] “on my second trip to the Philippines, in the summer, many Filipinos told me that Aquino had become strangely passive in office, acting as if her only task had been to get rid of Marcos and ride out the periodic coups, rumored and real. As long as she did those jobs–that is, stayed in office–she did not feel driven to do much else.”
When I realized that Fallows wrote his article in 1987, I felt a little bit disgusted that once again, it seems that another Aquino and the family minions are taking Filipinos for a ride. In retrospect, it is not hard to imagine Cory or PNoy acting “passive in office”. Rumor has it that neither of the Aquino Presidents were actually in control because it is alleged that their loyalty to their family and friends who benefit from the status quo must come first before the welfare of the people. To believe that PNoy can really make a difference in the next five years is to believe in the Tooth Fairy. The prospect of PNoy realizing what he has to do and then set out to give an above average performance one day is very dismal, indeed.
Fallows’s almost three-decade-old article had a lot of wonderful insights into the recent history of the Philippines that remained relevant over the subsequent three decades after former President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted. It would serve PNoy well if anyone from his administration would bother to take the time to read Fallows’s assessment of the Philippines then and see where the author was right about our economy and our culture. Practically everything he wrote about us is true. PNoy needs to take what he said into account and acknowledge that something has to be done to prove that he is serious about tackling our problems.
In 1987, the population of the Philippines was only 55 million. Fallows’s foreseeing that Philippine population growth would sustain its two-point-five percent clip to bring the population to over 100 million in two decades was dead-on. The Philippines was as predictable then as it is today.
China, whose citizens Fallows described as “human beasts of burden” was still considered poorer than our country. In this paragraph, he made comparisons between the conditions of the poor in communist China and that in “democratic” Philippines:
“It’s not the mere fact of poverty that makes the Philippines so distressing, since some other Asian countries have lower living standards. China, for instance, is on the whole much poorer than the Philippines, and China’s human beasts of burden, who pull huge oxcarts full of bricks down streets in Shanghai or Beijing, must have lives that are among the hardest on the planet. But Philippine poverty seems more degrading, for reasons I will try to illustrate through the story of “Smoky Mountain”.
Fast-forward to today; China just passed Japan in the second quarter of this year to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States after three decades of growth. The Chinese are no longer the “human beasts of burden” Fallows described ealier while the Philippine economy is still stuck in reverse with a population of almost 100 million and growing. Of course, it has to be mentioned that China applied economic liberalization, which helped them achieve unprecedented growth in such a short amount of time.
Again, Fallows’s description of the Philippines in 1987 is how anyone would describe the Philippines now:
“The government reports that about two thirds of the people in the country live below the proverty line, as opposed to half in the pre-Marcos era. There are technical arguments about where to draw the poverty line, but it is obvious that most Filipinos lack decent houses, can’t afford education, in some areas are short of food, and in general are very, very poor. The official unemployment rate is 12 percent, but if all the cigarette vendors, surplus bar girls, and other underemployed people are taken into account, something like half the human talent in the country must be unused.
Still, for all the damage Marcos did, it’s not clear that he caused the country’s economic problems, as opposed to intensifying them. Most of the things that now seem wrong with the economy–grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, land-ownership disputes, monopolistic industries in cozy, corrupt cahoots with the government–have been wrong for decades. When reading Philippine novels or history books, I would come across a passage that resembled what I’d seen in the Manila slums or on a farm. Then I would read on and discover that the description was by an American soldier in the 1890s, or a Filipino nationalist in the 1930s, or a foreign economist in the 1950s, or a young politician like Ferdinand Marcos or Benigno Aquino in the 1960s. “Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.’
Fallows seemed to echo the same realization I expressed in my previous article, South Korea: the country that the Philippines could have been — that South Korea was in the same position as the Philippines in the 1960s:
“Officials in both South Korea and the Philippines have pointed out to me that in the mid-1960s, when the idealistic (as he then seemed) Ferdinand Marcos began his first term as President, the two countries were economically even with each other, with similar per capita incomes of a few hundred dollars a year. The officials used this fact to make very different points. The Koreans said it dramatized how utterly poor they used to be (“We were like the Philippines!’ said one somber Korean bureaucrat), while to the Filipinos it was a reminder of a golden, hopeful age. It demonstrated, they said, that the economy had been basically robust until the Marcoses launched their kleptocracy. Since the 1960s, of course, the Philippines has moved in the opposite direction from many other East Asian countries.
But it’s not like corruption is exclusive to the Philippines. Up until the 1990s, corruption in South Korea was so rampant that the country was hardly called democratic:
The situation with the Koreans in the 1990s was so similar to what is happening to Filipinos now that if you read the following excerpt from the book Asian Values, Western Dreams by Greg Sheridan, you will not be able to ignore the striking resemblance of the Korean political setting to our current political setting, to wit:
“In an earlier conversation in 1996 Kim Dae Jung had gone so far as to call into question South Korea’s basic democratic credentials. “I don’t believe Korea is a democracy,” he said at that time. “President Kim Young-Sam has failed to implement democracy. During the election in 1995 the ruling party committed every type of election fraud, spending money everywhere and exploiting the activities of North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone. Television is totally under the control of the State.”
To be sure, Philippine elections in the past and even the recent one in May 2010 were mired by allegations of fraud in the form of vote buying and rigging of election results, the latter not prevented even by new electronic voting systems. Likewise, mainstream media in the Philippines which includes a major television network and a leading newspaper is owned by oligarchs who are also friends and relatives of the incumbent President, Noynoy Aquino. In short, the powerful elite who exert a strong influence on the electorate controls the media.
It is obvious that authoritarian rule has done more good than harm for the Korean people overall. It instilled discipline and a strong sense of nationalism in its people.
Korea has certainly come a long way. And their coming of age was remarkably fast. Three decades ago, Korea was even poorer than Malaysia and Mexico. Now, its “GDP per capita has surged by a factor of 10 to $17,000.00 more than double the levels in those countries. GDP growth was 0.2% in much of the rest of the world was contracting, and is estimated to be 6% this year” according to figures obtained from TIME magazine.
Can the economy save the Filipinos?
It is interesting to note that Fallows seems to think that the Philippine economic history of having an open market in the past during the American occupation had something to do with why we lag behind in building our own industry. He said that “the countries that have most successfully rebuilt their economies, including Japan and Korea, went through extremely protectionist infant-industry phases, with America’s blessing; the United States never permitted the Philippines such a period. The Japanese and Koreans now believe they can take on anybody; the confidence of Filipino industrialists seems to have been permanently destroyed”.
His view on the Filipino people’s general lack of ingenuity and competitiveness in the presence of foreign investors is not something that the proponents of economic liberalization will agree on.
So it would seem that even when the economy was open to free foreign trade competition in the past, Filipinos struggled to find their own niche in the market. It remains to be seen then, if modern day Filipinos could really find their way out of their dire economic circumstances through innovation and entrepreneurial skills even if we allow foreign investors in. James Fallows seems to believe and I tend to agree, that Filipino culture tends to succumb to a child-like state whose hand needs to be held while crossing the streets even in the 21st century. This is evident in the fact that most Filipinos still believe that the U.S. will be coming to our country’s aid if we ever get embroiled in military operations with an outside force. It is obvious that most Filipinos still can’t shake the idea that “that America is the center and they are the periphery.”
Our culture is the culprit.
PNoy’s second SONA will not be any different from his first or his 3rd, 4th, 5th or even his final one unless he acknowledges himself that there is a need to change the culture of impunity in our society. It is difficult to imagine how he will address the people’s call for him to find a resolution to the allegations of cronyism and favoritism that is hounding his administration early into his term. As the country slogs through another monsoon flooding, the rain is not strong enough to drown out reports of PNoy turning a blind eye to what is dubbed the anomalous activities of his “KKK”:
Minority congressmen in the House of Representatives have filed a resolution seeking an investigation of Aquino’s alleged cronies, whom they have labeled “KKK” or kaibigan (friend), kaklase (classmate) and kabarilan (shooting buddy).
It is quite ironic to note that former President Gloria Arroyo’s son, Mikey is now emphasizing that “there’s less food on the table. And yet the only thing people can relate PNoy to is his dates with different girls and his fancy for luxury sports cars”.
As every pundit would know after years of analyzing the Philippine setting, politics is “just a recreational sport for a few dozen families from the landed oligarchy; a ball which is passed on from one family to the next.” The people who plan to watch PNoy’s second SONA would be better off spending their time on something more productive.