IN academic circles, a self-taught person is usually or technically called an “autodidact.” According to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, an autodidact is a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education. It is derived from the Greek word, autodidaktos.
To say that President Benigno Aquino 3rd is self-taught is not extraordinary or off-the-wall. Former senator and executive secretary Joker Arroyo has called him an autocrat and fiscal dictator in a country that is a constitutional democracy. Former senator and former information secretary Francisco Tatad has called him a “demented president.” Columnist and former ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao has called him “a big liar.” Columnist and political science professor Alex Magno has branded him an egotist.
The labels are not mutually exclusive. They are all describing the same man—the 15th president of the Philippine republic.
I cite these critics’ credentials as former public servants to show that their opinions of Aquino are not willful partisan attacks, but the well-considered judgment of men who think highly and seriously about our public life.
To say that he is an autodidact does not conflict with these characterizations, because he can logically be self-taught, and autocratic, demented, mendacious, and egotistical at the same time.
I offer this fresh perspective on Aquino as a tool for making sense of the bewildering kaleidoscope before us that shows us by turns a president discoursing on the budget and public finance, a president discoursing on the law and the Constitution and arguing with the Supreme Court, a president discoursing on art and culture and its awards of achievement, a president undertaking jaw-dropping decisions in our foreign relations, a president haranguing us on infrastructure and public works, a president discoursing on education, a president embarking on a major peace initiative in Mindanao expending billions of public funds, and above all a president who is making new and unprecedented demands on Congress.
All these initiatives and decisions have taken place without the visible signs of the advice and counsel of reputable think tanks and expert advisers.
He is a product of self-study. And his decisions, like them or not, are entirely his own.
The signs of self-education in the presidency are many, and we can only discuss a few of them here.
1. The President on the budget
First on my list of curiosities are Aquino’s actions on the budget, and his obsession to redefine and change the way we have traditionally prepared, approved and spent the national budget
In July 2010, in his first State of the Nation address, Aquino excoriated his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for allegedly having spent already over half of the year’s budget, leaving him with virtually nothing for the rest of the year.
“Our budget for 2010 is PhP1.54 trillion. Of this, only PhP100 billion—or 6.5 percent of the total budget—can be used for the remaining six months of the current year. Roughly 1% of the total budget is left for each of the remaining months.
“Where did the funds go?”
Almost immediately, it was uncovered that the president was wrong and confused.
As of June 30, 2010, according to the national treasurer, cash disbursements of the government amounted to close to P789 billion. This meant that close to P752 billion pesos or 48 percent of the budget remained unspent.
He was challenged by accountants and the political opposition on his understanding of the budget and fiscal accounting.
Aquino did not acknowledge his mistake. Instead, he embarked the following year on a policy of underspending. When the economy tanked, sending the GDP down to just over 3 percent, he and Butch Abad invented the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which defunded many public works projects, impounded the budget for the modernization of Tacloban’s airport, created savings illegally where there was none and implemented the cross-border transfer of funds.
Flash forward to July 14, 2014. In a nationwide TV address, Aquino delivered his defense of the DAP and his criticism of the Supreme Court’s ruling on DAP.
In paragraph 3 of this address, he declared without batting an eyelash:
“When we assumed office last June 2010, the 2010 budget was still in effect, and we likewise inherited the proposed 2011 budget. Of the P1.54 trillion set aside for the government for the whole of 2010, only P100 billion—or 6.5 percent—was left for the remaining six months of the year. You really have to wonder: Where did the money go?”
His thinking is the same. The words and the figures have not changed. He is invincibly ignorant about the budget. Not even God can force him to acknowledge that he made a mistake.
Now, he is engaged in a campaign to make Congress pass a law and resolution that will overturn the SC ruling and enable him to enjoy the fruits of the DAP.
2. Aquino on the law and the Constitution
In the same SONA of July 14, 2014, Aquino displayed his self-taught knowledge of the law and the Constitution.
“We did not transgress the law when we implemented DAP. The Constitution and the Administrative Code are not at odds with each other.
“In fact, we were surprised to find that the Supreme Court decision did not take into account our legal basis for DAP. How can they say that our spending methods are unconstitutional when they did not look into our basis? Even until now, Section 39 of the Administrative Code is in effect, along with its other sections.
“It is clear that the Supreme Court has much to consider that they may better clarify their decision regarding DAP; perhaps they can even identify DAP’s negative effect on the country.
“We will appeal the Supreme Court’s decision. We will do this by filing a Motion for Reconsideration, which will allow them to more fully and more conscientiously examine the law.
“There are those who say that this decision might be a personal vendetta against me—that I am being dared to act in the same vindictive manner against them. All I can say—as the President, as the father of this country—is that we need temperance and forbearance—we must comply with due process…
“My message to the Supreme Court: We do not want two equal branches of government to go head to head, needing a third branch to step in to intervene. We find it difficult to understand your decision. You had done something similar in the past, and you tried to do it again; there are even those of the opinion that what you attempted to commit was far graver. Abiding by the principle of ‘presumption of regularity,’ we assumed that you did the right thing; after all, you are the ones who should ostensibly have a better understanding of the law. And now, when we use the same mechanism—which, you yourselves have admitted, benefit our countrymen—why is it then that we are wrong?”
The effrontery of a non-lawyer lecturing 14 Supreme Court justices on the law and the Constitution is beyond cringe-worthy. It is a slander against our democracy.
It is curious that we will not find in any of Aquino’s speeches —not in the DAP speech, and not in the fifth SONA—the term “the rule of law.” He apparently does not believe in this.
He does not intend to be ruled or tamed by law and reason. He believes only in his powers and privileges as president.
3. Aquino on art and culture
As my last exhibit of Aquino’s apparent auto-didacticism, I will cite his handling of the proposed national artist award for Nora Aunor, which shows his total lack of understanding and appreciation of the field of art and culture, and his unflinching belief that what he thinks is always right.
The award was proposed in keeping with the time-honored process of vetting and selection that has been observed by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
With little awareness of what the award seeks to honor, with no background or interest in art and culture, and without the slightest curiousity in the career and achievements of the actress-singer and what she signifies to millions of Filipinos all over the country and the world, Aquino inexplicably refused to endorse Nora for the award, and raised as an issue her arrest in the US for drug possession (despite her being cleared of charges).
The incident triggered a firestorm of controversy, and the public, and our arts and entertainment communities rallied behind Nora.
It was felt by many that nobody could be more worthy of the title of national artist, and no one could bear the award with more dignity than her.
Nearly everyone believed that it was a serious misjudgment on Aquino’s part to refuse her the honor. Some in the Left thought that this is the straw that could break the back of his presidency.
And then there are those, including this writer, who believe that it is wrong to mix culture and politics in the national artists awards. It is no service to art and culture to place the final decision in the hands of the President.
But on this matter, Aquino will swear till his last day in office, that he did the right thing.
Beware a lame duck democracy
Because President Aquino is now on the last 22 months of his term, before he departs on June 30, 2016, it is now fitting to call him “a lame-duck president.” He cannot succeed himself.
This closing period will be a critical time for our nation because besides Aquino, key members of his administration will remain in charge, unless sooner replaced or resigned.
And also because the 16th Congress is proving to be the most subservient and irresponsible the nation has ever known.
The executive has never been more dominant in our political system than it is today– ironically under this president who brought the barest credentials to the presidency, and the least training for running a government and the shaping of public policy.
As long as Butch Abad is around, we the people have to fear for the integrity of the budget and the security of the national treasury.
As long as the 16th Congress is in office, we have to brace ourselves for new laws and regulations that could shake up national life.
As long as a self-taught man is top banana, our constitutional democracy is hostage to fortune.
We have to guard against our democracy becoming “a lame-duck democracy.”