FOR 2 hours and 15 minutes, the nation gave its undivided attention to President Benigno Aquino 3rd as he delivered his 6th and final State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.
It was his longest and most applauded constitutionally-mandated speech, punctuated 157 times with rounds of applause.
The President’s speech was also interrupted seven times by his incessant coughing.
Before proceeding with his speech, the President apologized for not taking the traditional red carpet walk at the main lobby of the Batasang Pambansa, home to the House of Representatives, in Quezon City, saying he was not feeling well.
Like in previous SONAs, the President started his speech by criticizing the administration of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“Noong mga panahong iyon, maski bata, natutunan na ang salitang scam [During her time, even a small child learned how to use the word scam],” Aquino said as he recounted the multimillion-peso fertilizer fund scam, the allegedly anomalous NBN-ZTE broadband deal, among others.
Arroyo, an incumbent congressional representative of Pampanga, is under hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City over plunder charges.
Just as the President enumerated the faults of his predecessor and bragged about his accomplishments, he turned apologetic toward the end of his speech and admitted that he is “not perfect.”
He said he wants to be “judged” by history as he proclaimed that he had “fought the good fight” from the time he assumed the presidency in 2010.
“Ginawa ko ang pinakamainam na desisyon batay sa kaalaman at kakayahang mayroon tayo sa panahong iyon. Kaisa-isang interes ko ang kapakanan ng aking mga boss. Ginawa ko ang lahat upang iwanang mas makatarungan, mas maunlad, at tumatamasa ng makabuluhang pagbabago ang ating bansa. Hahayaan ko na pong kasaysayan ang humusga [I made the best decisions based on what I knew and what I was capable of at the time. My only interest was the welfare of my boss. I did everything so that I would be able to leave a nation that is just and more progressive and one that enjoys the meaningful reforms that I have instituted. I will just let history judge me],” Aquino added.
He has referred to Filipinos as his bosses when became President in 2010.
Citing his favorite verse from the Scriptures, Aquino declared, “I fought the good fight. I finished the race [and]I kept the faith.”
In his speech, the President cited the importance of continuing the “legacy” of daang matuwid (straight path), saying he will continue to be of service to the people long after he had left the presidency if they would embrace such legacy.
Aquino apologized for previous shortcomings by his government.
“Mga boss, aaminin ko: Hindi ako perpekto. Minsan, binigo tayo ng ilang inasahan nating alam dapat ang kanilang trabaho… Hinihingi ko po ang inyong pang-unawa sa mga bagay na ito [My bosses, I confess: I am not perfect. Sometimes, some of those we trust fail us… I would like to ask for your understanding],” he said.
The President was optimistic that the country will reach “First World” status in one generation of his daang matuwid principle.
According to Aquino, the 2016 elections will be a form of “referendum” for this principle where the people would choose whether to continue “treading the path of good governance.”
The President urged the people to elect a new leader with the zeal to pursue reforms, which he said had led to high growth in a country impoverished by rampant corruption.
In his last annual address, Aquino said his high-profile anti-corruption campaign led to a more business-friendly Philippines, creating more jobs that ushered in 6.2 percent average annual economic growth in the past five years.
“If the transformation is not cut short, this will just be the beginning. What we’re saying is, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he added.
Aquino, who is constitutionally limited to a single six-year term, described the May 2016 presidential elections as a “referendum on our daang matuwid [straight path].”
The term refers to an anti-graft campaign that saw his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and three opposition senators thrown in jail and put on trial for alleged misuse of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.
Despite his success in his pro-reform agenda that has seen the Philippines earn investment-grade status for the first time, the President is struggling to endorse a successor to follow them through, analysts said.
Monday’s SONA was attended by three of the presumed leading contenders — Vice President Jejomar Binay and Aquino allies Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd and Sen. Grace Poe.
Aides said Aquino was set to endorse a preferred candidate later this week.
They added that he was torn between the popular Poe and Roxas, who lost to Binay in the vice presidential race in 2010 after giving up his own presidential campaign to clear the way for Aquino.
The President, in his speech, singled out Roxas for praise as a man of “mettle and integrity,” in a possible indication of his choice.
As he spoke, dozens of rain-drenched activists armed with bamboo poles that held their protest banners attacked shield-bearing policemen who stopped them marching on to the Batasang Pampansa complex in Quezon City.
They burned a giant effigy of Aquino on top of a Metro Rail Transit 3 train, saying his failure to fix the capital’s creaking rail system symbolized his failure to improve the lives of the poor.
Aquino also asked lawmakers to pass key reform legislation during his remaining 11 months in office.
These include the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would give minority Muslims self-rule in Mindanao, ending a separatist revolt that has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives since the 1970s.
The bill has stalled in Congress amid public outrage over the January deaths of 44 police commandos in a clash with Islamic rebels, including those from the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in the peace talks.
The President took an indirect swipe at Vice President Binay and members of his family who were among the audience as he made a pitch for the passage of the Anti-Dynasty Law.
He did so as he heaped praises on Roxas, who was sitting among members of the Cabinet (See related story).
Aquino also made pitch for a measure on the rationalization of Fiscal Incentives, the Unified Uniformed Personnel Pension Reform Bill and the proposed 2016 General Appropriations Act.
He took the opportunity to thank the members of his Cabinet, except Binay, who recently resigned.
When it was Roxas’ turn to be thanked, the President minced no words in expressing his appreciation for his Interior chief.
Roxas is the presumed standard-bearer of the Liberal Party but is lagging behind Binay and Poe in recent pre-election surveys.
Aquino is expected to “anoint” Roxas anytime this week.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple said there is nothing new in Aquno’s speech.
Casiple added that while he believes that the President was able to come up with several achievements, he failed to introduce actual reforms he could leave behind for the next administration.
“He [Aquino] failed in the reform side, it is disappointing because there is no change in the political set-up as well as in the economic set-up,” he said.
Casiple noted that the difference between rich and poor remained unchanged.
“It is the rich ones who were able to take advantage of the economic growth,” Casiple added.
When asked how he would rate the President’s performance, he said he is giving Aquino a score of four of 10.
Another analyst, Malou Tiquia, said while it is sad that the President did not include the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill on his list of priority measures, the inclusion of the anti-dynasty bill in the priority list is a welcome development
Although she said that working on passage of this bill is already late since the filing of certificate of candidacy is less than three months away, the version of the bill should be base on straight path advocacy of the Aquino administration.
Tiquia expressed concern about a possible watered-down version of the anti-dynasty bill, noting that if that happens the proposal will not change anything in 2016.
Tiquia, who writes a column for The Manila Times, said she will give the President’s SONA a passing grade, considering that he was able to show figures on his data and the list of his administration’s accomplishments.
Like Tiquia, Sen. Poe also expressed disappointment over non-inclusion of the FOI bill in the President’s SONA.
She said she believes that the bill would protect the reforms introduced by his administration.
According to Poe, the FOI bill would be an effective instrument for the people as it would allow them to look into all government transactions and make sure that there are no irregularities.
She, however, acknowledged achievements of the Aquino administration particularly in the economy that saw an increase in investments.
WITH AFP, CATHERINE S. VALENTE AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA