The morning after Edsa

The strong state that Ferdinand Marcos built in 1972 became so wholly associated with human rights violation and massive corruption that when we got rid of it in 1986, we resolved never again to concentrate political power in any single branch of government. In reaction, we found ourselves swinging to the opposite model of a minimalist government that fastened its decision-making powers to a rigid system of checks and balances.

The experience with big-time corruption under the Marcos regime made the new government of Cory Aquino timid about starting large scale infrastructure projects.  One day, toward the end of Cory’s term, we were awakened to the consequences of this over-cautiousness by a severe power shortage that required costly emergency measures to address.

Threatened by a coup-prone military that had tasted power, and faced by a surge of populist energy from all directions, the government could not sustain its experimental stance to the country’s old problems.  It came to rely more and more on the advice and services of traditional politicians who operated by the tested methods of personal patronage.  With every election, the old political families that dominated pre-Martial Law politics came back to power, holding back the momentum of political and economic modernization.

The result of this is that everything we have done by way of reform since 1986 has been half-hearted – agrarian reform, democratization of our political system, electoral modernization, modernization of the economy, etc.  Every Edsa anniversary has served as a reminder of how instinctively we have gone back to the old routines. Nineteen years later, Filipinos are again desperately looking for an alternative. What that is is not certain.  But not a few otherwise sensible people have broached the idea of a wise and benevolent strongman as if it were a simple matter of naming him.

My own view is that we have not really given democracy a chance to work in our society.  I am not entirely sure what kind of political system will work for us, but I think that, regardless of the political choices we make, there are some basic realities we cannot ignore.

First, in the present state of the world economy, we ought to know by now that we cannot hope to gain anything unless we unite and rally our people around a clear set of purposes.  Far from receding in value, the role of the state has become more crucial; it has to take a more aggressive role in charting a roadmap for the whole country and coordinating the efforts of its various constituencies.

Second, development has to start from the development of the people – through the provision of the minimum conditions for sustained personal growth, beginning with quality education, and the meaningful inclusion of the poor in various areas of national life.  In the short and medium term, they must be provided with all the means necessary for them to be able to effectively plan their families.

Third, the private sector must be brought to a realization that the period in which we live is a critical one.  The same social inequities that breed resentful majorities also impede the growth of wealth. It is in the interest of those who have more in life to assist those who have been excluded and denied opportunity, without waiting to be prompted by the government.

Fourth, corruption is a big problem in our country, but it is not the main source of our problems.  It is rather an expression of our more basic problems – mass poverty and ignorance, patronage politics, expensive elections, an underdeveloped economy.

Fifth, our individual initiatives are valuable, but the more crucial arena of social change is the public one.  Whether we like it or not, the state remains our principal instrument for growth in the modern world. That is why the quality of governance is our most central concern.  This means combating patronage and celebrity politics, and encouraging and supporting those who genuinely can advance the interests of the nation.  We cannot do this without emancipating our voters from their basic needs, and without launching a relentless campaign to create intelligent and responsible voters.

Sixth, no nation can progress without first instilling national pride and love of country among its people.  National pride is to nations what self-respect is to individuals – a precondition for self-improvement. We must arrest our people’s dangerous descent to demoralization, and appeal to Filipinos who have made good abroad to help the country in these difficult times.

Seventh, there is no shortcut to development.  Most attempts at changing society drastically and fundamentally lead to violent civil wars from which too often nations are unable to recover. Genuine social change does not have to mean an all-or-nothing, cataclysmic overhaul of society.  In these times, we need a civil war like we need a bullet in our heads.

Lastly, some of our problems require simple and straightforward solutions, but many are multi-layered and complex.  Every initiative rests on certain preconditions.  It’s like rebuilding an old house – every part of the house you tear down exposes new hidden weaknesses. Everyday we are reminded of the truism that it is better to tear down the old house and build a totally new one.  Yet it is hard to imagine how you can do that to a whole nation.  We need greater patience, and patience is quickly running out.

Edsa prompts us to continue the moral obligation of hoping and working for a better country despite our monumental failures.

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