So many words to say so little

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

If the State of the Nation Address (SONA) was treated as it ought to be—as an address to accompany the annual report of a very large corporation—it would have two basic and equally important parts: A summary of the enterprise’s accomplishments and performance over the past year; and a clear description of objectives for the coming year. The traditional approach to the SONA, however, is anything but businesslike; true to form, President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s fourth SONA this past Monday was long on self-congratulations, excuses and blame for things that are not working out well, and feel-good stories (presented this year in video form) from inspiring regular folks.
For those who enjoy trivia, that last feature of these kinds of speeches is a tradition started by US President Ronaldo Reagan, and an individual who is so highlighted by the President’s speech is called a “Lenny Skutnik.” Skutnik was a Federal employee, a regular guy on his way home from work, who on January 13, 1982, happened to be caught in rush-hour traffic in Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge when Air Florida Flight 90 fell out of the sky and crashed into the Potomac River. Stripping off his coat, Skutnik dove into the icy water to save the life of one of the injured passengers, and for his heroism was honored by Reagan in his second State of the Union Address a few days later; ever since then, every State of the Union Address has featured at least a few “Lenny Skutniks,” a routine that is copied here in the Philippines.

The Lenny Skutniks of the world are entitled to their little moment in the spotlight, but the SONA, delivered to coincide with the opening of Congress, ought to balance the feel-good praise with discernible goals for the period marked by the upcoming legislative session. In its English translation, President Aquino’s one-hour and 44-minute speech is 13,408 words long; of that volume of text, only 680 words are devoted to plans and actions to be taken, a ratio of about 5 percent substance to 95 percent self-aggrandizing fluff.

Self-aggrandizing fluff is an anticipated feature of the SONA, but President Aquino has overdone it this year. Complaining about that, however, would be as counterproductive as his taking nearly two hours to deliver a plan that could have been recited in about four minutes, so let’s focus instead on the initiatives.

In terms of the legislative agenda, President Aquino revealed a few priorities. He called for a 0.6-percent increase in the contribution rate to the Social Security System (SSS), saying that it will immediately reduce the system’s unfunded liabilities by P141 billion, or a little more than 10 percent. That is not going to be popular with workers or labor groups, and it still leaves a large fiscal gap in the SSS to be closed, but it is a good start assuming the math has been done correctly. The 0.6 percent is a minimally invasive increase, and if managed properly, can indeed help to extend the life of SSS funds. Other specific legislation the President addressed are the repeal of the outdated Cabotage Law, which was first passed in 1920 as the Jones Act; the Fiscal Incentives Rationalization Bill and the Land Administration Reform Bill. These are smart, forward-thinking initiatives, and we can only hope the President follows up on them by exerting his influence to see them carried out.

President Aquino also suggested raising the fares on Metro Manila’s light rail systems to reduce government subsidies; while this will certainly ignite a storm of protest, it is also a good idea, not only as a fiscal measure but as a means to potentially reduce the dangerous overcrowding of commuter trains. To deal with the capital’s paralyzing traffic, President Aquino ticked off a number of infrastructure projects to be completed in the near-term: two more transport terminals in Muntinlupa and Quezon City to reduce the number of buses on city roads, and three new expressways connecting the Circumferential Road 3 road in Caloocan, the Balintawak junction and Santa Mesa in Quezon City, and Buendia in Makati. For the rest of the country, however, the initiatives are a little less promising: A brief mention of otherwise unspecified intentions to build various kinds of infrastructure to benefit the fishing industry, a review of the same list of airport upgrades we’ve been hearing for the past couple of years, a description of the construction of a bridge in his home province of Tarlac, and a subtle assurance that the already painfully slow and problematic housing program for victims of 2011’s Typhoon Sendong and last year’s Typhoon Pablo will be nowhere near to being completed by 2014.

In agriculture, President Aquino offered almost nothing, save for a goal to develop more sites for coconut intercropping this year, and to heap praise on his partymate Frank Drilon’s efforts to improve infrastructure for rice farmers in Iloilo. Indirectly referring to the recent shipment of 45 metric tons of fancy rice to Singapore—an amount that can be carried with room to spare in one 40-foot shipping container—President Aquino apparently considers the “rice problem” solved, despite numerous detailed studies that suggest the only possible reason the country might not be officially considered import dependent any time before 2025 is that so much rice continues to be smuggled into the Philippines.

The most entertaining claim, however, was revealed during his description of his administration’s efforts to develop flood-control measures for Metro Manila. President Aquino pointed out that during Typhoon Ondoy, the water flow from the Sierra Madre mountains exceeded the existing system’s capacity by 2,600 cubic meters per second, leading to the disastrous flooding of the city. To solve this, the administration intends to complete the Blumentritt Interceptor Catchment Area by next year, which “will be able to catch the equivalent of 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.” All well and good, except a standard-sized Olympic pool only contains 2,500 cubic meters of water—once completed, the heralded Blumentritt project will provide exactly 14.56 seconds of flood protection for the metropolis.

Apart from the solid legislative initiatives, there is little else to praise in these reactionary and haphazard plans, and what was left out of the speech is hugely disappointing. The administration clearly has not yet developed an energy policy, and is either unaware or unconcerned that it has paralyzed the country’s mining and mineral extraction industry—something that, given the gas and oil reserves in the South China Sea, is supposed to be a key justification for President Aquino’s continued antagonizing of the Big Red Neighbor to the North. Nor was any acknowledgement, even a negative one, offered for calls to revamp the Constitution or existing laws to loosen up the Philippines’ restrictive investment environment, apart from the mention of the Cabotage Law.

“More of the same,” would have been a good enough report, and saved everyone a lot of time. But at least the speechwriters and fashion designers had something to do for a few days.


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