The deadly raid on Zamboanga City by fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on Monday was deeply disturbing for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are pretty obvious, of course; no one anywhere should ever find themselves caught in the middle of a pitched battle.
But on another level, the attack by troops loyal to the “other” leadership faction in the country’s predominately Muslim south was a deafening warning alarm to the rest of the country, partly because of an unexpectedly harsh and misdirected reaction to it by a surprising number of people, and partly because of a reminder my friend Jojo Robles over at the Standard eloquently provided in one of his columns last week.
Robles points out that the rapid economic decline of the Philippines—which was the actual root cause of Marcos’ eventual ouster—accelerated in the roughly two-and-a-half years between Ninoy Aquino’s assassination and the installation of Cory Aquino as president, because the political situation in the country had become so volatile, as demonstrated by the almost-daily anti-government demonstrations of one sort or another that were held during that period, that foreign and domestic investors alike began fleeing to greener and safer pastures. The implication is that history may be repeating itself, or very easily could: Not since Marcos’ time has there been a common cause to unite such a broad swath of the Philippine population in disgust with their government as there is now with the ongoing “pork barrel” scandal.
So deep is that disgust and mistrust, in fact, that the news of the attack on Zamboanga on Monday was almost instantly met with skeptical reactions by the country’s large and increasingly agitated online community. While a large number of people, either out of (we hope) genuine distress and concern, or at the very least, as an exercise in civilized manners posted messages of sympathy and support for the embattled people of Zamboanga, not a few cried foul, declaring the battle a “wag the dog” attempt to distract from the bigger issue of the pork barrel.
Not only is that attitude terribly uncharitable to the people caught in the middle of what was—dog-wagging notwithstanding—a straight-up, live-fire military engagement, it misses the much bigger picture. The economic collapse of the last Marcos years was hastened by outright political unrest, but actually started a few years before that, when the weight of the external borrowing and the import-biased trade balance that characterized Marcos’ crony capitalism economic framework became too much for the country to bear; the looming economic crisis was, it is said, the opportunity that encouraged Ninoy Aquino to make his ill-fated return.
These days, of course, the Philippines does not have a doomed, exiled hero to spark a revolution, and that hero’s son as President has turned out to be a very poor imitator of Ferdinand Marcos indeed. But in other respects, the current situation has some alarming similarities. Just like Marcos, President B.S. Aquino 3rd has presided over an economy that has shown impressive growth metrics achieved with a fundamentally unsound approach, in this case based largely on consumption and labor export. Just like Marcos, President Aquino has ramped up government spending—including sharply increasing the budget deficit in the past few quarters—but has directed that spending to unproductive ends; in Marcos’ case, much of it was used to prop up government-owned corporations controlled by his close associates, and in President Aquino’s, too much has been diverted to unprogrammed lump-sum funds of questionable economic and ethical value, and vast expenditures for indigent support with little practical return.
And just like Marcos in his later years, the administration of President Aquino has been characterized by an alarming lack of managerial quality, and an overall raggedness in applying initiatives and building on outcomes. A few news tidbits from just the last few days are typical examples of the unimpressive output that has become par for the course in the Aquino 2.0 era:
• Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), the government-owned health insurance provider which is mandated by Republic Act 10606 to provide universal health coverage for all Filipinos, announced last Thursday (September 5) that it would be holding public consultations on the draft implementing rules and regulations (IRR) for that all-important law in a number of locations the following day (September 6). The problem with that is the 60-day deadline from publication of the law within which the IRR were to be finalized expired on September 2.
Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla frankly admitted in an interview on Monday that one- to two-hour rolling power outages during peak hours—a hint of one of the most-remembered features of the term of former President Corazon Aquino—may become necessary in Luzon in the next two years, due to the imminent shortfall of electricity supply.
• On the heels of yet more procedural delays to key infrastructure projects such as the North and South Luzon Expressways’ (SLEX) connecting road, the Metro Rail Transit 3 maintenance and operating contract, and the Light Rail Transit 1 extension to Cavite, it was revealed earlier this week that the Daang Hari-SLEX connector road, the first significant Public-Private Partnership project to get underway, has also been delayed by a design disagreement between the Ayala group tasked to build the connector and SLEX concessionaire South Luzon Tollroad Corp. (SLTC).
• And, in a topic that has become a personal favorite and will be worth an upcoming column of its very own, stakeholder fury over the month-old and thoroughly ridiculous Southwest Integrated Provincial Terminal at the old Uniwide Mall in Parañaque continues unabated, with the Cavite Provincial Board issuing a call for its suspension, and serious questions being raised about the disposition of fees being collected there, as well as the legality of the Metro Manila Development Authority’s lease arrangements.
Under entirely calm circumstances, these kinds of avoidable snafus would make sustainable progress difficult. Compounding them with political strife coming from several different directions—public outrage over government misuse and theft of public money, and the recent increase in direct violence from Muslim and Communist separatists alike (both of whose government counter-parties, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen and PhilHealth President and Chief Executive Officer Alexander A. Padilla, respectively, earned promotions for their efforts)—makes sustainable progress impossible. History repeats itself here with discouraging regularity; every day that passes without bold, effective action from the administration to find a new direction seems to increase the chances that history will repeat itself again, probably in ways that no one really wants.