I have never subscribed to the idea promoted by the presidential debates and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that we can choose the most suitable candidate for the presidency on the basis of what they can say about their platforms or what they really stand for in 120 seconds or less, or how quick they are in answering questions, or how clever they are when pressed on a sensitive issue, or how skillful they are in jousting with another candidate.
In real life, we don’t clock or measure the prospective leaders of corporations or organizations in that manner, or judge them by their answers to superficial questions. Yet the fact is, the traditional methods of selection, based on record and ability, have usually come up with the best candidates for the top jobs or leadership tasks.
I know of no serious chief executive officer of a corporation, and no top flight corporate board, who would subscribe to such a sophomoric way of selecting his or her successor. If the same system in the presidential debates were applied in corporate selection and succession, the stock of that corporation would drop in the exchange.
Testing character and judgment
I raise this point on the eve of the final debate that will be hosted by ABS-CBN, in order to make the suggestion that it should be conducted as a serious litmus test for the character and judgment of the candidates. If we do not do it here, we will have no clue what or where the candidates stand on key issues of national life.
It is fair to ask this, because I dread the prospect of the Philippines severing diplomatic ties with the United States and Australia, just because their ambassadors were honest to express their views on the raging rape controversy surrounding candidate Rodrigo Duterte.
It is fair to ask this, because we stand on the edge of an election where one of the leading candidates is of unknown citizenship. She should be asked straight whether she qualifies under the strict mandate of the Constitution.
The other candidates have their own character issues to grapple with, and must be asked accordingly.
Knowing more than BS Aquino
As an opinion writer who has not yet made up his mind about whom to vote for in the presidential race – who is not in any way connected or allied with any candidate or any campaign – I hold on to my private litmus test, a series of tests really, for determining who I believe should be the next President of the republic.
The first test that I consider essential is that the next President will have to be far more knowledgeable about the world and the economy, and the threat of terrorism than President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd.
He must pursue an independent foreign policy for the nation, and should neither be led by the nose by the US or act belligerently toward China.
Six questions for the candidates
I think we will get a clearer grasp of the character and judgment of the candidates, if they are each asked a question about where they stand on the following issues that are uppermost in the minds of many Filipinos today.
First, is the candidate in favor of granting statehood or greater autonomy to the Muslim Filipinos, in the provinces in Mindanao where they constitute the majority of the population?
Second, as a nation of 100 million people, we are one of the few countries in the world that do not require its young citizens to provide a period of mandatory service to the nation, be it in the military or in government service.
Will the candidate support the passage of a law requiring young people, at a certain age, to render service to the nation, either in the military or in the government?
Third, Credit Suisse has ranked the Philippines as the 5th most unequal country in the world with the top 10 percent of earners making 76 percent of the income (up from 70 percent in 2007).
This means that there is high-income inequality and wealth concentration, and low social mobility in Philippine society.
Will the candidate support an increase in the minimum wage of all workers in the country? Should billionaires be taxed more heavily?
Fourth, the Philippine education system is in grave need of sweeping reform. The K-12 program has barely gotten off the ground. The public school system is in decline. Not one Philippine university today, not even the University of the Philippines, ranks among the top 100 universities in Asia.
Will the candidate support sweeping education reform to improve educational outcomes, by allocating a bigger part of the budget to education, by providing greater incentives for talented students to go into teaching, and teaching in poor neighborhoods, and by establishing an upgraded scholarship system in state colleges and universities?
Fifth, the conditional cash transfer program is a successful program of the Aquino administration. Will the candidate favor expanding and institutionalizing the Pantawid Pamilya (The4Ps) by law, and making CCT a guaranteed policy of the government to all families that qualify for the assistance?
Sixth, it is well known and acknowledged by many that the 1987 Constitution is in urgent need of reform, particularly its outdated economic provisions, which limit foreign participation in the economy, and its system of requiring the country’s senators to be elected by the entire national electorate.
Is the candidate in favor of allowing Congress, convening as a constituent assembly, to amend the Constitution? Will he favor making the senatorial election regional, to afford better representation of the regions.
A measure of courage and conviction
Each of my six questions requires a measure of courage and conviction to answer affirmatively. They will lose votes in some segments of the citizenry. They will also gain votes in others.
A candidate who answers all six questions positively would be a pleasant surprise.
Any candidate who does not show courage on at least two of these issues or questions should be judged as lacking the character to be President of the Philippines.
My litmus test is a personal one. Readers would probably have their own priorities in measuring the candidates.
Issues that are too easy to answer were not considered. Each issue and each question should demand some courage of the candidate to answer affirmatively.
I do not know whether ABS will consider any of these questions for its debate.
But whether asked or not, I lay them out here for the candidates to ponder. And I will cling to the illusion that I have here a test for knowing which candidate has it in him or her to be the President of 100 million Filipinos.