[This is my Catalyst column in the aftermath of the second Aquino SONA]
The second Aquino State of the Nation Address (SONA) has come and gone. Its initial hype was coined as a guidepost for “social transformation.” The report was written and delivered entirely in Filipino, affirming its audience as the ordinary Filipino, referred to by President Aquino as his “bosses.” The heavy back-referral to the “Wang-wang” symbolism underlined his value approach to “social transformation.”
In the end, the SONA speech heavily emphasized an anti-corruption solution, from strengthening the anti-corruption institutions, appointing incorruptible people, to appeals for an anti-corruption cultural value change among government people and ordinary citizens. The speech emphasized the responsibilities of those in power as public servants beholden to and serving the people. The crusade against the “Wang-wang” mindset of government leaders throughout the SONA was deliberate in emphasizing this core transformation of leadership and government culture.
The speech fleshed out the Aquino campaign slogan of “No corruption, no poverty.” It thus defined its “Straight road” as basically conducting a good governance exercise, based on the rules of transparency, accountability, and service to the people. Repeatedly, it presented the first year accomplishments as a realization of the “Straight road.”
Well and good. However, it falls far short of the standards for genuine social transformation. The most glaring lack is the dearth of the political reforms that should have formed the backbone of such transformation. It does not speak of transforming the levers of economic and political power in favor of the vast majority of the people and replacing the current traditional politics that rely heavily on the “guns, goons, and gold” of political warlords and political dynasties. Strengthening the democratic institutions such as the political party system, elections and electoral management, judicial system, and the mass media, surprisingly, has been paid niggardly attention in the speech.
The heavy emphasis on value transformation is no different from the countless moral crusades of the past—which all failed because of the refusal to undertake basic reforms of the social system. The message is dangerously close to being a mere sop to the poor and the reform constituency that elected Aquino to power. Even without mention, the sacrificial wolf here is the Arroyo family and its coterie of cronies. It thereby impliedly absolved the other economic and political culprits who have conveniently (and opportunely) transferred their allegiance to the winning Aquino administration.
Certainly, there are reform measures mentioned in the speech, ranging from the oft-cited Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to small reforms in government delivery of social services, rules in business conduct, modernization of the armed forces and the police, to Marcos human right victims compensation. However, again, there is a glaring non-mention of highly-visible reform measures such as those in the areas of reproductive health, freedom of information, political party strengthening, and land use and land reform implementation. The speech was loudly silent on the need for charter change.
If social transformation is to be used as a yardstick for judging the SONA, then it dismally fails the standards for basic reforms, let alone the fundamental ones. It speaks, rather, of palliative reforms, cosmetic reforms, and values reforms. In the end, it speaks to the social and political elite to behave and treat the teeming poor as equals or—in the case of public officials—as their servants. Democracy is guaranteed in the Aquino tradition but it is not the content of the social transformation hyped as the roadmap of the Benigno Aquino III administration.
The people, then, need to realize for themselves the blessings of democracy. Aquino will not do it for them.