An alarming SONA

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President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s fifth  State of the Nation Address, or SONA as the annual event is known here in the acronym-happy Philippines, was significantly different than the previous four.  It followed the same basic pattern as the others— heavy on references to how belabored his administration is by inherited problems, and making liberal use of cherry-picked, and in some cases, utterly dishonest factoids to boast of limited achievements— but it was more emotional, more self-important, and as a result, far more alarming.

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It was alarming for two reasons. The one that was not entirely unexpected was the almost complete lack of substantial vision in the speech. Certainly, there was no shortage of motherhood statements and vague triumphalism like “achieving positive transformation,” “the straight path to lasting and inclusive growth,” and “a new system that will benefit all,” but there was virtually nothing to define how these pep-rally ideas will be converted to measurable results; of the 10,214 words of the President’s speech (in its English version), only about 560 could be generously considered to describe plans for the near future.

It is perfectly normal for the sitting President to highlight his or her achievements for the year. Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo—whom Aquino did not neglect to serve a heaping helping of blame for the travails his government must face, although he did it more subtly than usual—was also quite the self-promoter, but in contrast to Aquino she was more business-minded about it. Her pattern, apparently borrowed from the style of the last few US presidents, was to follow up a boast with a statement of what the next step for that particular subject would be, so that the address overall would be roughly balanced between looking back and looking ahead. Aquino’s ratio of 4.5 percent forward-looking substance and 95.5 percent fluff meant that all but about six minutes of his speech on Monday was a waste of time for anyone who wasn’t simply interested in watching him talk.

That leads to the second reason the speech was alarming, something that is defined by a term that has been floating around the media sphere for the past couple weeks: Exceptionalism. Despite repeatedly—so much so that it actually started to sound smarmy—referring to the Filipino people as “my bosses,” early in Aquino’s speech he referred to himself as “the father of the country.” That is an incredibly disturbing self-image for a democratically-elected leader (and one who was elected by a mere plurality, at that) to have, and it first revealed itself the first time he used the sobriquet, in his defiant defense of the Disbursement Acceleration Program unanimously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The general tone of the entire SONA was especially reinforced by its last few minutes—reportedly ad-libbed by Aquino—which made an emotional appeal for the nation to support him and whoever he might choose as a successor, and was very much an assertion of that any progress the country has made has been due to his persona rather than a political or strategic program. He even went so far as to brand critics as enemies of the people: “My Bosses, they are against you,” a point of view that was emphasized by police and military units using water cannons to drive a crowd of demonstrators (said to number between 7,000 and 12,000 people) away from barricades on Commonwealth Avenue.

That may explain why Aquino did not deign to offer many plans or objectives for the coming year; having convinced himself he is a benevolent dictator, he assumes the country can, in turn, simply assume that whatever he might undertake will be right and proper, and that details before the fact would simply be irrelevant distractions. That may also explain why, in contrast to previous SONAs, the Official Gazette as of late Tuesday evening still had not made available the Technical Report that accompanies every SONA, despite repeated requests that it do so.

Nonetheless, there were actually a few plans—more like hints, really—that provide a fuzzy view of at least some of what the Aquino Administration intends to do between now and the middle of 2015, and those are worth an open-minded assessment, although none are terribly impressive upon further review:

• Addressing the probability of future water shortages in Metro Manila—Aquino noted that two major water projects, the construction of the 600 million liters/day Kaliwa Dam in Quezon Province, and the rehabilitation of the aging Angat Dam in Bulacan, have been approved by his Administration.

The P14.4 billion Kaliwa Dam project, also known as the New Centennial Water Supply Project, was approved in May and is scheduled for bidding in December 2014, with the awarded contract to be finalized by August next year. An ambitious project, it will also involve the boring of a 27-kilometer water transfer tunnel from the dam to water treatment facilities closer to Metro Manila; if everything goes as planned, the project is scheduled to be commissioned in 2020.

The Angat Dam project is a little more problematic. The “repair of lines” Aquino mentioned is part of the Angat Dam and Dike Strengthening Project (ADDSP), which was actually approved by the government back in September 2012. In October 2012, following a legal challenge to a contested bidding process, the Supreme Court awarded the sale of the dam’s hydroelectric power facilities to the government-controlled Korea Water Resources Development Corp. (K-Water), which also made K-Water responsible for carrying out the rehabilitation project. That rehabilitation has yet to commence, for reasons that no one can satisfactorily explain.

• Ordering the “coordination” of relevant parties to find solutions to the power crisis—Disappointing everyone who expected the President to do more than merely acknowledge the deepening electric power rate and supply crisis, Aquino merely noted that he had tasked Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla “to coordinate with the Joint Congressional Power Commission, the Energy Regulatory Commission, members of industry, and, most importantly, the consumers, in order to increase our capacity to respond to this problem.” Interested stakeholders in the power sector—which include everyone who uses electricity, one way or another—would probably have preferred an actual “response” over mere “capacity to respond.”

• Announcing the importation of yet another 500,000 MT of rice—While he did not actually categorically say the rice would be imported, only that the authority to do so had been given to the National Food Authority, Aquino spoke at length in his speech about how importation would be used as an economic weapon against speculating rice hoarders, leaving the impression that more imports were planned before the end of the year. If true, this would raise total imports in 2014 to 1.8 million MT, at a total cost of roughly $788 million. While past years’ boasts of approaching rice self-sufficiency were always unrealistic, the efforts toward that goal, such as they were, did lead to some improvements for farmers; with those aspirations now just dim memories, the new plan does not bode well for the Philippines’ long-suffering agriculture sector.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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4 Comments

  1. There is something more worrying than the cash cost of importing an extra 500,000 MT rice. The rice itself won’t start to rot in 6 months — the common variety has a shelf life of 2 years or more, so if we happen to import a little too much this year, we can import less in the future, and meanwhile, extra supply can only be good for keeping prices in check.

    More alarming is that this erroneous information on “6 month rice” got into presidential decision-making. This reminds me of Colin Powell sharing details of (nonexistent) Iraqi WMD to the UN.

    The populist language of the SONA is also alarming because it suggests that the administration is not as self-confident as its “numbers” in Congress suggest. For those who would like the stated reformasi agenda to continue, it is worrying that this administration, long accustomed to popularity, might resort to circuses (or worse) to shore up its popularity. It is worrying if the cabinet is thinking more about election.

    The statement on the power situation emphasized “the consumers.” This suggests that the administration will first try to encourage energy conservation. ECCP has been suggesting this. After all, the 500 MW shortfall is only 5% of national capacity, and only projected to last a year.

    The statement on power is also significant for what was not said. There was no mention of ’emergency’ nor ‘barge’ nor any hint of nationalization.

  2. I thought that the National Security is a very important issue that SONA should have included. The “in & out” of the country particularly the Muslim problems (including Abu Sayyap) and the Spratley were probably given importance. The government has been too complacent and dependent on USA. How much assurance do we get in case of greater conflict.

  3. P. Akialamiro on

    After reading this column, the SONA itself reflected the real state of the nation. Sad!