Ang SONA ni BBM
It could have been the SONA of Leni Robredo, or Isko Moreno Domagoso had either of them won the 2022 presidential race. But, as fate would have it, it’s the first State of the Nation Address of the victor, now the 17th President of the Republic, Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the dictator Ferdinand Edralin Marcos. Marcos Jr won by a wide margin over his closest rival. The SONA last July 22 finally sealed it! From thereon, President Marcos Jr will be the headline hogger for the next six years in the life of every Filipino.
But what irony. During the entire campaign period, BBM was a no-show in all presidential debates, save for two appearances on the SMNI television network, a known supporter of the previous President, Rodrigo Duterte. He rarely spoke a word. Yet, he won. Now with the SONA, the whole stage was his. All the cameras and the audience -from across all sectors and seats of power – were focused solely on him. Walang kakontra, so no debates.
I did not vote for BBM. But last Monday, I listened to him attentively, not just once but twice. I have always listened to SONAs and important state policy level broadcasts, even if I did not vote for the sitting President. Not listening does not help. More to the point, I am now finalizing the Strategic Plan for Mariners for the next five years. Without understanding the external environment, including the new policy direction of the state under a new administration, I believe an institutional plan is ampaw, just an empty bubble.
The SONA conveys the policy statements of the head of state that will determine his decisions and actions during his term, year by year. More importantly, it will reflect the President’s standpoint and viewpoint on the country’s status as he unveils his government’s agenda and submits to Congress his priority legislative measures. In what direction of change will he steer his administration? What, to his mind, are the main problems that the Philippines now faces in the socio-economic, political, cultural, and geopolitical spheres? More Filipinos are jobless, go hungry, unsafe, and insecure. As head of state, he will give marching orders to state agencies on how to address them and allocate where the government will use its money and other resources. That, my dear readers, makes listening to the SONA more compelling. Budgeting and spending the people’s money should matter most to Juan and Maria. With a whopping P12.76 trillion national government outstanding debt as of April 2022 and more borrowing will be done in the future, that is already a nightmare. A think tank, Ibon Foundation, breaks down the national debt to P112,678 debt for every Filipino! I like to see the new President pivot to the more challenging task at hand, that of a crisis manager, not just a bureaucrat-technocrat at the Palace. How would he deliver on his promises with less borrowing and fiscal prudence?
What BBM said
The SONA was a far cry from the previous Duterte expletive-filled speeches. It was, to say the least, more polite, straightforward, and quite detailed with figures the average Filipino cannot fathom.. The new President focused on how his administration would fast track and ensure enforcement of laws already in place and legislate new ones to address Covid-19, speed up economic recovery, and pursue what I may call his Marcosian development paradigm II. His SONA lined up a whole package of promises of relief measures meant to cushion the impact of the problems inherited from the Duterte government in the health, education, social services, and bureaucracy, especially during the Pandemic. But, on the whole, it showed a continuity of the same neo-liberal economic policies which past administrations pursued to the core.
To recover the economy and provide relief, President Marcos Jr promised to focus his priorities on agriculture, business, and easy access to government assistance. As concurrent Department of Agriculture secretary, he vowed to propel agriculture as a “main driver” of his economic recovery, from production to post-production, marketing, and distribution. He will revive his late father’s Kadiwa Centers, institutionalize DA’s technical, financial assistance, and access to affordable inputs to farmers, improve farm productivity, enhance the supply-value chain and infuse new blood in the agriculture sector. He promised to condone all loans of the agrarian reform beneficiaries with an Executive Order that will instruct turnover of all government agricultural lands to qualified beneficiaries. He promised land to the landless, especially among the soldiers, public sector, eligible farmers, and agriculture graduates. For health, more hospitals, health centers, medical personnel outside the NCR, and affordable generic medicine.
He promised to pursue more vigorously economic liberalization policies for the business sector, including the MSMEs. The Public Service Act, the Foreign Investments Act, and the CREATE Law (Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises). He promised to align all policies with climate change and global warming challenges. He lined up his promises to develop renewable energy and access to the water supply. He highlighted the role of a digitalized economy and promised internet connectivity across the islands. More gadgets and re-tooling for education to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), social services provision, ICT in disaster response, the operations at the Customs, tax system, women, and workers’ documentation. He promised the Department of Migrant Workers, the OFWs’ “home in government,” to build more roads, railways, and infrastructure to promote tourism and the creative industries. He opts for an independent foreign policy, “be a friend to all.” For the bureaucracy, rightsizing and budget modernization are his priorities for “fiscal sustainability.”
What BBM did not say
Left unspoken were problems and issues that seemed better left that way. These are not part of the package of promises because President Marcos Jr does not consider them to be priorities, or they are so controversial that they would put him in a bind. Thus, his SONA was silent on wages, security of tenure, mining as a primary industry and source of government revenues for economic recovery, human rights, and impunity, the drug war, peace talks, political dynasties, industrialization led by Filipinos, Filipino scientists, and inventors. Mining is Bicol and the country’s primary revenue earner. Unfortunately, it is also a scourge to the environment and climate change. I also wonder why the maritime industry, especially shipbuilding, was not considered a significant mode of transportation to develop. What about the West Philippine Sea?