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SONA and reality

I have never been a fan of SONAs since I can remember. I believe so do many others. I am a proud member of the unconventional, out-of-the-box, and content-is-better-than-form club. For me, to see is to believe. Are the SONAs, merely messengers of myths, baseless hopes, and unsustainable programs of the sitting presidents as promotion for their next year of “service” or to gain political pogi points? At the end of the SONA, punctuated with applauses and sometimes some jokes, I ask, “Really, is this all that the taxpayers gain for listening?”

The real SONA is not within the airconditoned halls of Congress. It is in the ordinary lives of most Filipinos still living in dire poverty and want today.

I squirm in my seat remembering the SONA of 2017 about “promises of a comfortable life for all,” or the SONA of 2010, about “we can dream again,” or the 2001-2002 SONA to “bring jobs, education, housing, and food on every table.” But each year, the promises remain significantly unfulfilled. More than 50% of the population - the low-income workers and poor farmers-- continue to wallow in hunger and want. Here is the clincher, the SONA of 2000 talked about “New Beginnings” for Mindanao, the economy, and integrity in government.” A year after, the President who delivered the SONA was charged with plunder.

A college friend who used to work with a presidential staff as a speech writer jokingly admitted to me, “The SONA is just a speech.” He knew I turned serious about plans and programs because I believe these are the blueprint for the development of any institution. Speeches are part of public documents. He intimated that crafting a presidential speech can also become very challenging to make it sound good, especially for the “user,” the President. It entails lots of research work and demands creative juices to extract from a trained academic mind.

Not the speech; it’s the reality

I can miss the SONA at will. But when national media begins to reel the camera and their broadcast inside Congress, I tune in, watch and listen. Like everyone else, I also like to “marites” a bit. Who’s who, and what’s in or out? With new technology, I join the netizens commenting on the latest fashion of the senator or congressman’s spouse or the new partner accompanying some controversial Congressman.

But when the speech begins, it also pays to watch and listen because we see how the country’s top executive sees the social reality outside of Malacanang and proposes measures to solve the country’s woes using the Filipino taxpayers’ money at his disposal. For 2023, the President approved the 2024 National Expenditure Program at P5.768 trillion. Last year, it was P5.268 trillion to pursue his bid for an “inclusive and sustainable” economic transformation. In his first SONA, he discussed continuing his predecessor’s Build, Build Build project.

Marcos Jr’s economic team laid down economic targets: “6.5 to 7.5% real GDP growth in 2022; 6.5 to 8% to 2028. Sad to say, GDP remains unchanged. However, last May, the IMF cited the “Philippine economy achieved one of the highest growth rates in emerging economies in 2022.” Domestic spending is expected this year from almost no spending during the pandemic. Tourism and business are top government development priorities, not agriculture and industry.

He was known to escape from public debates during the presidential campaign. This time, the stage is all his. He can talk about his dreams, hopes, plans, and promises. Addressing Congress is the Philippine Constitution’s mandate for the President to report on the country’s status and the government’s agenda for next year. That was the practice in the first SONA in 1935, interrupted only by WWII and the martial law dictatorship during the elder Marcos rule.

With a pro-Marcos-dominated Congress, his proposed legislations are most certain. His cousin, Speaker Martin Romualdez, is well on board, and so are the rest of the political dynasties allied with him and his family. As proof of what to expect in the coming year, the controversial Maharlika Investment or Sovereign Fund Bill authored principally by Romualdez, which the President certified as urgent, was an easy breeze. It is now a law, “a sad day in history,” according to Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel. Outside the country, the ICC rejected the Philippine government’s appeal to stop the drug war probe for victims seeking justice.

The nation’s true state is outside Congress - in the statistics of increasing poverty, joblessness, health, environmental, and human rights degradation affecting a significant portion of the country’s population. It is in the people who live under the harshest conditions in the margins of society yet see the power to make their lives better in collective strength. The people are not just dreaming but struggling to realize their dreams. The SONA on Monday should reflect this sad reality and provide more strategic solutions for upliftment.


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