Decency and the presidency

Today belongs, of course, to our new president, Benigno “Noynoy”

Aquino III. That means it is also the first day we don’t have Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as president. What a great difference that realization instantly brings! It is as if a heavy curtain of demoralization is suddenly drawn, and quickly we regain our bearings.  Once more we can see our strengths and look to the future with hope.  There is buoyancy around us, and we feel there is almost nothing we cannot do from hereon to make things better for the nation.  As the new president tersely put it in his inaugural speech: “We can dream again.”

Every change in government brings with it such a moment of tremendous energy.  Tapping this surge of spiritual force, a nation can dramatically rebuild itself.  But great expectations also accompany transitions like this. President Noy knows this only too well.  He first saw it when fateful events made his mother president of the country in 1986.  He has said that he will do his best to turn the country around in the next six years, but he also warns that he is not a superman.  He need not worry.

Contrary to the general view, I think our people have been conditioned by successive failures of government not to expect much from their leaders.  They are aware that no government can possibly conquer poverty overnight, and so they have learned how to cope with extreme deprivation.  Indeed they have lived as if government did not exist.  They also know how corruption has become so widespread in our society that it may take at least a whole generation to purge it from the system and from ourselves.  No, they do not expect P-Noy to weave miracles in the next six years.

But this they expect from those who govern them: responsiveness, and, above all, decency.

That means basically: don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t cheat.  Don’t enrich yourself while in office.  Follow the spirit of the law, more than its letter. Do not ask your lawyers for advice on how to interpret the law in order to get what you want.  Ask them rather what is right and what is just.

Talk to the people and listen to them. Take time to converse with the youth, know their dreams and anxieties.  Live and travel simply, remembering always that it’s the people’s money you’re using.  Work hard, but be frank about what you can and cannot do.  Public service is a shared burden. Tell the people how they can help the government.  Lead by example.

There is a time and place for reporting on the state of the nation, its problems, the plans of government, and its accomplishments.  Please do not put your name and your photograph on every public project. These are achievements of the entire government, if not of the whole nation.  Our people will know when you have done your work.  If their leaders have served them well, they will feel the difference in their lives.  Only the insecure will find it necessary to remind them what government has done for them.

Resist the blandishments of people who want to name every conceivable highway, bridge, port, or building after your illustrious parents.  This naming disease, so pervasive in our culture, only trivializes the admiration and affection that a grateful nation has showered on them out of its own volition.  Let their memories dwell quietly in the hearts of our people.

Be focused on what you need to do.  But respect the nation’s institutions.  They have been battered beyond recognition, turned into personal tools of unaccountable politicians.  Do everything to rebuild them, for only in this manner will the people’s faith in their government be restored.

Serve the poor.  Look after the needs of the most unfortunate.  Their current miserable existence should not be passed on to their children. But don’t make political capital out of their needs.  You are not their patron, but the head of their government.

Treat your co-workers in government with gratitude and respect. They are not your servants but the nation’s.  Demand competence and dedication, but do not prejudge them.  Most of them love our country as much as you do.

Observe “delicadeza” even if you know you will never be jailed for violating it.  This Spanish word, which has found its way into our culture, is just another word for ethical conduct.   The penalty for lack of “delicadeza” is not imprisonment; for a president, it is worse – the withdrawal of public esteem.  Perhaps no one knows this better by now than your immediate predecessor.

Finally, you must know that government is not an exact science. As the world becomes more complex, you may sometimes make the wrong decisions.  If you think you have made a grievous error in judgment, and you need to explain it to the nation, do so in all sincerity, and without waiting to be told by a critical press.

At the end of his term, how shall we judge a president’s performance?  It is difficult to say.  Some will focus on the achievement of economic growth, some on the elimination of mass poverty.  Still others will look at the eradication of corruption from our public life.  I would argue that a good president is one who, by his abiding decency as a leader, makes us all proud to be part of this nation.