Sound economics and jejemon politics
by Karl Allan Barlaan and Christian Cardiente
In 2010, it was no accident that the words “botched” and “bungled” became nearly as popular as word of the year “jejemon.” All three connote a dire lack of absence in knowledge and expertise—“jejemon” in spelling and grammar; “botched” and “bungled” in leadership and management.
“Jejemon” was chosen by members of the Filipinas Institute of Translation, the UP Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, UP College of Arts and Letter, Department of Education, and Commission of Higher Education in July 2010 from among a host of other words that also included “Ondoy” and “Ampatuan.”
“Botched” and “bungled” became the mass media’s adjectives-of-choice to describe the August 23 Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking that lasted for 11 hours and ended tragically in the death of eight foreign nationals. Then only 50 days in office, President Benigno Aquino III had boldly vowed that the incident would not define his administration. It did however, for the most part—if Senators Joker Arroyo and Miriam Santiago’s scathing assessment of the Aquino administration were to be believed: “run like a student government” by intellectual “lightweights” and “lesser legal minds”—haunt Mr. Aquino for the remainder of 2010.
The contention is not that the hostage-taking incident had defined Mr. Aquino’s first six months in office, though even that is arguable, but that the manner—lackadaisical, sophomoric, wanting in due diligence—with which the incident was handled, had so.
In July, there was the Presidents first official order, Memorandum Circular No. 1, which had to be “fine tuned” lest it rid government of all “non-career official,” when all the memorandum had intended to do was to declare vacant all posts then occupied by political appointees of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
On the same month, Mr. Aquino sacked veteran weatherman and Dr. Prisco Nilo from his post as PAG-ASA chief because of an inaccurate forecast on typhoon Basyang (Conson). The move would have otherwise been viewed as a display of political will from a no-nonsense Chief Executive with zero-tolerance for failure, except that succeeding events proved that the new President was actually more “forgiving”—if it were political allies and personal friends who had been at fault.
August: A disturbing realization
In August, the Quirino Grandstand hostage tragedy happened. Not only did it have the country blushing beet red in embarrassment before a worldwide audience of observers and their governments, it also allowed the nation a disturbing peek on the kind of political infighting that was being waged from within the Palace walls and the quality of men that had preoccupied themselves with it.
The perpetually-warring factions in the Aquino administration were later identified as the “Samar” and “Balay” groups, named after where their offices had been situated during the campaign. The Manila Standard Today (MST) November 2 banner story entitled “The Great Divide,” quoting various sources, however, clarified that if was not so much physical location that had demarcated the rift between the two as it was each camp’s choice of vice presidential candidate. Balay had campaigned fiercely for Mar Roxas while Samar junked him in favor of winning candidate, Vice President Jejomar Binay . The conclusion was that wherever one had held office during the campaign, supporting Roxas made one “Balay” and campaigning for another, “Samar.”
A few months into the Aquino regime, the divide had extended to the division of spoils in newly-conquered territory—who gets the choicest positions in government; possibly, who gets to head it come 2016. Such was how Mr. Aquino’s promised straight and righteous path “degenerated into an aberration of political engineering —with two criss-crossing lanes, both too ambitious for either to be righteous.”
A storm in September
In September, Mr. Aquino formed the 5-man Incident Investigation Report Committee chaired by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to probe the hostage-taking incident and ultimately recommend specific charges that may be filed against individuals responsible for its bungled handling.
The committee was given a little more than two weeks to complete its investigation. The committee met its deadline though the Palace had consequently dilly-dallied on its self-imposed timetable. It had first barred the release of the IIRC report to the public and then later announced further review of its recommendations by the Palace’s own two-man legal team composed of Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Ed de Mesa. Thereafter, it postponed on two occasions the scheduled broadcast of the legal team’s findings.
An MST October 7 special report on the President’s first 100 days in office wrote that it was allegedly because “a ‘remedy’ is being sought to absolve (Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico) Puno—the President’s shooting buddy— of any administrative or criminal liability involving the case.” An October 12 PCIJ report entitled “From Day 1, P-Noy wanted to save Lim, Puno, Verzosa,” corroborated the theory.
The President, instead, took responsibility for the incident, interpreted by some as “laying the predicate” for the eventual exoneration of his closest friends and staunchest political allies—Puno, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, and former Police Chief Jesus Verzosa—from possible criminal prosecution.
But before the end of September, retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz implicated Puno and Verzosa in a controversy that had alleged more than just passive criminal negligence. They were accused of having actively protected the illegal numbers game jueteng in exchange for millions in monthly payoffs.
October: Taming a President
In October, Puno and Verzosa managed to pull through from both the IIRC’s recommendations and the Senate inquiry on Cruz’s exposé with nary a reprimand from their political benefactor. Verzosa went back to retirement; Puno went forth announcing to all and sundry that he was one of only a few who could “tame” the President.
How and why an adult of 50, the country’s most powerful man no less, needed “taming,” left everyone but Puno in a quandary.
Nevertheless, on the same month, the Catholic Church had also tried its hand in “taming” Mr. Aquino—this time on the issue of reproductive health.
Amid threats of excommunication —implied, explicit, and later denied— the President stood his ground: “The government is obligated to inform everybody of the responsibilities of their choices. At the end of the day, government might provide assistance to those who are without means if they want to employ a particular method.”
Heralded by RH advocates and a majority of Filipinos supporting the advocacy, for his admirable exercise of political will, the spoiler came in the form of an admission from the Palace: the President had not read any version of the RH bill then filed in Congress.
On the same month, the House of Representatives filed a resolution calling for the resignation of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles for allegedly insulting Lanao del Norte Rep. Aliah Dimaporo—a call that would not be heeded by Mr. Aquino. After two months, Deles was instead concurrently named oversight officer for the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
November: Of pride and plagiarism
By November, Mr. Aquino had seemingly embraced the role of official apologist for erring members of his administration – specifically for one who was possibly wanting in intellectual integrity, and for another who had certainly lacked political correctness.
Tourism Undersecretary Vicente Romano of the “Black and White” fame had sought a revamp of the country’s tourism marketing campaign; conjured a slogan that was neither intelligible to foreign audiences nor intelligent for the rest of us – Pilipinas Kay Ganda; and created a logo that had a striking if not suspicious resemblance to that of Poland. A few rounds of the harshest criticisms in cyberspace and the Tourism Department pulled out its campaign, with nothing gained from its efforts except for the newfound knowledge that tarsiers were primates and not marsupials, as it had claim in its website.
Assistant Secretary Mai Mislang managed to extricate herself from the anonymity that was typical of speechwriters only to gain notoriety that was characteristic of those who knew so little but spoke too much.
Mr. Aquino turned a blind eye on their “mistakes.” Romano did the right thing and resigned; Mislang stayed on.
On the same month, Mr. Aquino’s oft-repeated mantra here and abroad, “the Philippines is open for business,” was belied by the World Bank and International Finance Corp.’s Doing Business Report, where the country slipped from 148th to 144th in a field of 183 economies in “ease of doing business.”
Dyslexic in December
In December, no less than the Supreme Court declared Mr. Aquino’s Executive Order No. 1 creating the Truth Commission as unconstitutional – an embarrassment attributed by many to the perceived incompetence of his legal advisers.
Two other Aquino executive orders are still in question before the High Court for alleged legal infirmities – EO 2 nullifying so-called midnight appointments made by former President Arroyo and EO 3 reversing an Arroyo issuance which automatically grants career executive service officer rank to lawyers in the Executive branch.
Earlier, an Aquino Proclamation granting amnesty to rebel soldiers was deemed defective by Congress, no less than two times. First, because the original version (Proclamation No. 50) had delegated unto the Executive the power of approval reserved only for the Legislature; second, because the revised version had cited among others Sen. Gringo Honasan and Communist Party of the Philippines founder Joma Sison as eligible applicants for amnesty.
Despite the slew of criticism, Executive Secretary Ochoa, the “little president” and Mr. Aquino’s top legal adviser refuses to resign. After all, his boss believes that he and the rest of the bureaucracy are “doing a good job.”
A bailiwick lost
Ironically, the Internet, which was Mr. Aquino’s virtual bailiwick during the campaign, now seems to register otherwise. A “Google search” of the word “botched” on Philippine Web pages, as of December 31, yields 6 out of 10 “results” on page one with the President’s name in the article; a search of the word “bungled” displays just as many resulting items.
Still, according to surveys, Mr. Aquino continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of the Filipino people. Many claim that this is because of the country’s economic performance in 2010 though significantly fewer will give the President credit for this accomplishment.
The economic saving grace
Leading economists have described the country’s 2010 economic performance as “very good” surpassing even the government’s own growth targets as well as forecast set by most financial and development institutions.
The country’s gross domestic product expanded by a little less than 8 percent during the first half of the year, with a solid 6.5 percent third quarter growth “propelled by higher consumer spending, low inflation (under four percent as of November), and robust investments,” according to the Asian Development Bank. With consumer spending at its peak during the holidays, the country is likely to post at least 7 percent GDP growth for the entire year.
Local experts agree that apart from the phenomenal growth of the manufacturing sector in 2010, the two main drivers of the growth remain the massive national and local elections spending, as well as the implementation of infrastructure projects that were frontloaded during the first semester. Arroyo critics, however, insist that this war her regime’s “last public spending spree to complete GMA’s SONA projects.”
Massive stimulus spending in the form of these two main activities boosted employment figures for the period, possibly contributing significantly to the recorded one million net new jobs created within a year from October 2009.
There were other notable factors, such as the more than 100 percent increase of the country’s third quarter net foreign direct investments from its second quarter level.
In September, the influx of foreign portfolio investments nearly hit the $1 billion mark, pushing the stock index to a record high.
The Aquino administration was quick to claim that the immense volume of hot money and the resulting stronger peso were the outcome of favorable expectations on the new administration and renewed investor confidence; direct products of their “good governance initiatives” and what they represent to the public. Partly perhaps, though not entirely.
Many analysts contend that with the “rest of the world” in recession, these foreign investors were merely constrained to temporarily park their funds here – not for any other profound reason, but simply for a lack for better options elsewhere.
As for the dynamics of an appreciating peso, it should be noted that the currency strengthened due to a weakening U.S. dollar; as well as a result of economies deliberately undervaluing their currencies in support of their exports.
Claims, clarifications, and challenges
Amid such tumult in the international scene, the President claimed, as written in this paper, “that the rise of the local currency was good for the Philippine economy,” implying that it had something to do with his administration’s governance policies.
Consequent pronouncements by his men later painted a more accurate picture of the peso in that not everything is rosy with its appreciation: an appreciating peso poses as much a threat as it provides some relief and opportunity. It greatly affects migrants' remittances and the competitiveness of our exports (including business process outsourcing operations) – two of our seeming economic pillars.
There persists the challenge of balancing conflicting interests and identifying priority sectors that would be beneficiaries to government’s policies and resources.
There, too, is the issue of widespread poverty. And in the absence of official poverty data, the hope is that the impressive economic performance of 2010 has positively affected the majority of the country’s poor. Otherwise, the numbers will mean nothing “in real terms” except to reinforce the findings of a World Bank study, later validated by another Social Weather Stations survey, that the country’s poor do not necessarily benefit from the country’s economic growth.
Hopes for a happy, botch-free 2011
With Mr. Aquino and allies steamrolling over the opposition to have government’s P1.645 trillion “reform budget” approved without so much as a slash of a single centavo, expectations are necessarily high.
The nation is eager for reforms; the poor, expectant of the ambitious P21-billion in dole ultimately designed to accelerate if not short circuit trickle-down economics.
Reservations aside, we hope Mr. Aquino does not botch that too.
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