State of our values

PRESIDENT AQUINO’S second State of the Nation Address was a good speech, but not the kind that is expected at the opening of Congress. It was not so much a discussion of the state of the nation, as it was a meditation on the state of our values as a people. In this lies its power as well as its weakness.

It was an effective speech, not least because it was completely in Filipino, and thus directly connected to the mass audience outside the halls of Congress. P-Noy’s folksy delivery greatly enhanced its ironic eloquence. He was talking about the abuse of privilege directly to the members of the nation’s most privileged class. The speech was high-minded not because it defined a grand vision, but because it talked about the kind of values and mindsets that impede social change. The President was telling the nation, in effect, that we could hardly begin to make plans for the country unless we rid ourselves of those entrenched habits that have long become dysfunctional in our time. Two of these are the “wangwang” mindset and the crab mentality.

Wangwang—the emergency sirens and blinking lights that are installed in motor vehicles to enable their owners to claim privileged space and get ahead of all other motorists in the streets—has become the President’s favorite metaphor for entitlement and its abuse. This device is a code for exclusivity and hierarchy, double standards, and the sense of priority and exemption attached to personal connections. It has become the emblem of the most brazen form of privilege in our society.

To the exclusiveness of a “wangwang culture,” P-Noy holds up the promise of an egalitarian and inclusive social order, where the poor participate in the enjoyment of progress, and where the rich and powerful must fall in line and wait like everyone else. Such a society would be inclusive in many other important ways. It will recognize the positive contributions of every citizen, regardless of their station in life. It will affirm all actions that enhance the common good as part of an effort to create a society that takes pride in the collective achievements of its people.

This kind of speech, which seeks to reinvigorate national morale, has to be given by a president at one point or another during his administration. It projects the presidency not only as a seat of political authority but also as a fountain of moral leadership. This role particularly suits Benigno S. Aquino III because of the special route he took to get to the nation’s highest office. This was a road paved by the heroic deeds of his illustrious parents. All its signs are moral.

It was the correct speech for the inaugural and perhaps for a valedictory. But I am not certain it is the right state-of-the-nation speech for a president particularly as he embarks on his second year in office. It risks sounding merely rhetorical, and short on specifics. It precludes any attempt to weave technical information into the principal moral thread of what is essentially a homily.

The context of any speech is important because it dictates the kind of expectations the audience brings to the occasion. A year has passed since P-Noy assumed the presidency. It is more than enough time for a new president to gain a perspective on the lay of the land, what its constraints and possibilities are, and what tools and resources are at his disposal. The nation is eager to know how the political leadership sees things, what its goals and priorities are, what the overall strategy is, and what it hopes to achieve at least in the coming year.

It is not fair to say that the P-Noy administration has focused on the corruption of the past government because it lacks a vision of its own. I believe its key areas of concern are quite clear; indeed Cabinet clusters have been formed around each of them. They are: (1) economic development, (2) good governance and anti-corruption, (3) human development and poverty reduction, (4) peace, security and justice, and (5) climate change and environment. We can assume that every provision in the new budget touches on one or the other of these areas. The details of this national plan are in the Philippine Development Plan.

I have read the Plan, but I fail to see how it differs from previous development plans. My impression is that it is not daring enough in its thrusts. Its bland orthodoxy does not do justice to the reformist—almost revolutionary—sentiments that buttress this presidency’s mandate. While it is impossible to talk about every national issue in one speech, the President could have devoted a good part of his Sona connecting the plan’s main dots.

It is true that a lot of chimney sweeping has to be done after nine years of an administration that corrupted nearly every institution of society. Still, the new leadership has to let the people know where it wants to take the country. It is not enough to say we must deal with corruption resolutely, or that economic growth must be inclusive. These are expected of every government. But what is the strategy? The eradication of corruption can indeed save precious funds, but, clearly, in itself it is not a plan for ending hunger or reducing poverty.

The President says: “We have fought against the wangwang, and our efforts have yielded results. Just this year, the number of Filipinos who experienced hunger has come down. Self-rated hunger has gone down from 20.5 percent in March to 15.1 percent this June—equivalent to a million Filipino families who used to go hungry, but who now say they eat properly every day.” I’m sorry, unless I missed the connections, to my mind that is quite a leap.