Par for the course was the 80 courtesy SONA cheers for President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.
There was, of course, louder applause for some statements than others. And “sound of silence” on other vital issues.
Best applauded, to our minds, was “not giving one square inch” of our territory to intruders, playing to a Filipino TV-radio audience that is historically against Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Seas. There was no devil in the details though. A popular columnist and author suggested there are already 238 billion square inches of land “illegally” claimed by the Chinese in Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) ripe for retaking as they are closest to the Philippine territory. Start there or one is just playing to the gallery?
The second was “no more lockdowns” as two years (2020-2021) of over-reacting had devastated the economy severely without really succeeding best medically in Southeast Asia. “No more lockdowns” means the government has found both the science and political will to handle Covid-19.
The third was building more “specialized hospitals” in the regions as the ratio of beds and medical personnel versus the population is in the pits. People in the provinces, for instance, have to travel to Cebu and Manila just to confidently be assured of the health of their anatomy.
The president’s flavor of the season is to hack the agriculture malady by tackling the job himself, his favorite topic centering on bringing down the price of rice (staple) – a key inflation figure – to P20/kilo. Irrigation water is already free and Marcos hinted at the government buying fertilizer in bulk (prices skyrocketing due to the war).
New MAP (Management Association of the Philippines) president Rogelio Singson says it takes more than that. A holistic approach to include deploying super seeds (Masagana 99), increasing farmer hectarage ownership from two to 15 hectares to make sense of mechanization and shared post-harvest facilities like milling and storage are the sine qua nons.
Marcos’ main assertions that feeding school children even at grade school level and strengthening the use of the “universal language” English as a medium of instruction were all that was said against the World Bank’s findings that the country has the highest rate of “learning poverty” in the region and the education budget ($569M) 84 percent lower than the rest of East Asia and the Pacific countries. Enough about caring about human capital.
On the other hand, it was NBA legend Michael Jordan who quoted wonderfully that “we miss 100 percent of the shots that we do not take”. In that sense, some of the SONA omissions could be lethal.
For instance, we are in the same league as Indonesia as the most corrupt in the region – losing billions daily to graft. There was no strong statement against graft and zero tolerance for corruption. Corruption is a debilitating scourge and will punish the nation with fiscal leakages regardless of what “rightsizing” one does to government machinery.
No one argues against continuing the “Build Build Build” for many chosen industries. Note, however, that the main sources of funds will be ODA (official development assistance), PPP (public-private partnership) and taxes to be raised. Not being able to plug the graft leakages will discourage both grant and loan givers and the private sector partners in the PPP – leading to inevitable higher taxes to bridge the fiscal gap.
It is understandable, but not comfortable, that not too many figures were attached to the Fiscal Plan of the government for 12-24 months. This is because the NEDA (National Economic Development Authority) yet has to submit the 6-year Medium-Term Economic Plan by December 2022. So, whether PH goes into a single-digit poverty level (9%) and be an upper middle economy classification by the end of Marcos’s term will be gauged from the medium-term plan – whether realistic or just “aspirational.”
Not devoting even one phrase to the “drug war” and “Federalism” has its own reasons – let’s start with realistic pragmatism (a Duterte as a vice president?) and the 2022 implementation of the Mandanas Ruling, respectively.
A good or bad SONA? – you be the judge.
(Bingo Dejaresco, a former banker, is a financial consultant and media practitioner. He is a Life and Media member of Finex. His views here, however, are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex. [email protected]).