First of Two Parts
THE best part of President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s fourth State of the Nation Address was his admission that the Bureau of Immigration, the National Irrigation Administration, and the Bureau of Customs have performed badly. For the first time in the SONA, Aquino acknowledged failure, and not just in one, but in three major agencies.
BI and NIA had been castigated in recent weeks, and their heads shown the door. Immigration had allowed big-name crime suspects to flee abroad, while Irrigation had performed way below targets. But until Monday, the Chief Executive had refused to publicly acknowledge BoC’s failure, if not refusal to curb smuggling, repeatedly affirming his faith in Customs Commissioner Ruffy Blazon.
No matter that trade data from the International Monetary Fund showed a fivefold jump in contraband under Aquino, prompting rice farmers, hog raisers, and foreign business chambers to complain. This column had also constantly warned that firearms and narcotics were coming in through the many thousands of unchecked containers.
The presidential tune finally changed in his fourth address to Congress: “And here we have the Bureau of Customs, whose personnel are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence. Instead of collecting the proper taxes and preventing contraband from entering the country, they are heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and other items of a similar nature into our territory. The Department of Finance estimates that more than 200 billion pesos in revenue slips through our borders without going into public coffers. Where do these people get the gall?”
Sadly, that was perhaps the one truthful admission of grave shortcomings in a SONA replete with excuses, evasion and exclusion of paramount concerns.
In the nearly two-hour speech, for instance, not one nanosecond was found to mention the biggest challenge in the eyes of both Catholic bishops and 25 million poor Filipinos: despite Asia-leading economic growth, poverty, hunger and unemployment have all failed to improve much or have even worsened.
As expected, the speech trumpeted the 6.8 percent increase in gross domestic product last year, and the 7.8 percent in the first quarter this year, plus investment grade ratings and tourism gains. But nothing about the accompanying rise in joblessness to 7.5 percent in April from 6.9 percent a year before, the 19.9 percent mean hunger incidence and 52 percent self-rated poverty average last year, and the nil decline in the government’s own poverty figure between 2009 and 2012. Not to mention rise in poverty incidence as calculated by the National Statistical Coordination Board in nearly half the provinces since 2009, reversing gains from 2006, as noted by Rigoberto Tiglao’s must-read article on Monday and reported in the NSCB poverty statistics book (http://www.nscb.gov.ph/poverty/publications.asp).
While President Aquino can’t be expected to repeat criticisms against his administration, he is still duty-bound to present solutions to problems that he may not care to expound on. He didn’t do that in his last SONA. Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairman Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr. found “nothing much new in the speech, so I wish there’d be more roadmaps on infrastructure and timetables.”
The long-time PCCI stalwart probably got used to the Powerpoint SONAs of Gloria Arroyo. Her Super Regions framework focused on sectors of competitiveness in major regions, supported by massive infrastructure plans from north to south. She flashed maps, pictures, budgets, target completion dates, and clearly designated responsible officials and agencies. The detailed plans were drafted in marathon Cabinet meetings with each secretary offering department projects for the SONA and committing to deliver them according to specs and schedules to be cited in the speech.
In his address, President Aquino could have outlined a broad plan to generate more investment and jobs, especially in regions of high poverty and unemployment, which are already identified by NSCB and its mother agency, the National Economic and Development Authority. The vision and framework could also have addressed point by point the most crucial recommendations to boost investment repeatedly offered by the PCCI and the Arangkada group of foreign business chambers.
The SONA could have outlined initiatives to generate more investment and jobs in areas of proven growth and competitiveness for the Philippines, like business process outsourcing, shipbuilding, and mining, as well as new expansion sectors like retirement and medical tourism. And there was nil mention of programs to revitalize manufacturing—still among the biggest providers of quality full-time jobs in the economy.
Aquino did mention coconut, fishing and tourism, but the initiatives he offered for these sectors were too small and sketchy to have significant impact. Take the intercropping program for coconut farmers. In a nationwide sector with more than 3 million mostly poor cultivators, Aquino spoke of plans to plant other crops between coconut palms, which would benefit fewer than 60,000 farmers—a minuscule two percent of farmers depending on the industry.
Moreover, the SONA said nothing about the real and widely acknowledged solution to declining productivity and incomes of coconut farmers: harnessing the P200-billion coconut levy fund for massive replanting of trees to replace old palms well past their productive prime. For the past quarter-century, the cocolevy has been contested by farmers and its Marcos-era czar, Aquino’s billionaire uncle Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
For fisherfolk, President Aquino floated the idea of cold storage facilities, so the day’s catch need not be dried and salted, reducing their volume and value drastically. Nice concept. But no details on how many freezers would be set up, where, when, and by which agency, plus the budget. From this former Cabinet Secretary and SONA drafter’s recollection, such a fuzzy plan would never have made into an Arroyo speech without all those key details spelled out and committed by the agencies involved and their heads.
As for tourism, the President cited past gains and projected future ones, highlighting foreign media features citing Philippine destinations as prime must-see spots. But like the discourse on coconut intercropping, Aquino’s excitement over the overseas articles on local holiday sites missed the main issue in tourism development: sorely inadequate infrastructure and facilities.
It’s not promotions that the Philippines needs more of to pack in the visitors, but better, plentiful, convenient and more affordable accommodations, flights, land and sea transport, and other facilities, which Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia now provide at higher quality and quantity, and lower or comparable cost. The Tourism Act of 2009 was precisely enacted to generate more investment for tourism infrastructure, but that may be another of those Arroyo-era measures which Aquino is loathe to mention.
In sum, if the SONA were a term paper on what must be done to generate jobs to uplift poor Filipinos, Aquino would get at most a C-minus or a D. Sadly, the same poor grade awaits his discussion on the other half of his campaign promise—eradicating corruption. This will be covered on Friday.