Many of my friends are pointing out the major defect of President Benigno S Aquino III’s first address to the Congress of the Philippines: His failure to present a long-term or even medium-term development roadmap that will guide his six-year tenure.
Indeed, the President made no mention of his new administration’s stance on important issues like agrarian reform, population control and foreign policy. It is understandable that he seems to accord foreign policy a low priority (this I think is the reason he has accommodated his sister’s alleged request to retain an embarrassingly incompetent and possibly corrupt Secretary of Foreign Affairs) because he seems to judge, quite rightly, that the Philippines must bring its own chaotic house in order first before venturing outside its borders. But it is sad that the President does not seem to see a sense of urgency in the worsening rural poverty that can only be solved through land reform and the ballooning population that can only be solved by proper family planning.
The fact that the President did not make these issues a priority, indeed the fact that he did not present a roadmap that will at the very least prepare the Philippines for a long journey to the First World, underscores the obvious: the Philippines has elected a mediocre leader. And this leader is still in an on-the-job training.
This is a result of a sad political reality. Arroyo destroyed the already fragile democratic institutions and whatever was left of political propriety, and among the candidates with a fighting chance in last elections, only the inexperienced Aquino was seen to be clean enough to fix Arroyo’s mess. Let’s face it, Noynoy Aquino was elected not because he is the most capable but because he is the opposite of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The good thing, however, is that the President seems to be learning well. He is prescribing sound short-term policies. There are at least three of them in his speech: Fiscal conservatism, cooperation between the public and private sectors, and reduction of red tape.
Now, some will say that in these economic times, adopting a conservative fiscal policy might not be wise. This is because public investment has proven to be an effective way to stimulate the economy in many places around the world. But we have to understand that President Aquino’s brand of fiscal conservatism is different to, say, newly-appointed Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s. While Kan wants to put a halt to government spending on infrastructure and populist dole-outs, Aquino is aware that, unlike Japan, the Philippines cannot afford not to continue spending on public works project and on at least one populist dole-out (universal health care). What he is advocating is frugality in unnecessary government spending (like fat bonuses or foreign trips) and identification of the right public works projects and the scrapping of wasteful infrastructure projects. In short, he wants to tighten the government’s belt without putting a stop to crucial public investments.
This makes sense in the Philippines, where the Arroyo administration allegedly had a bigger budget for Malacanang’s household expenses and foreign junkets than for the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). In a perfect world, President Aquino would also scrap the pork barrel funds members of Congress receive and instead allocate those funds to increase spending on education or, if congressmen argue that their constituencies in the countryside need public investments, outline a comprehensive plan that would identify which localities need what kind of public works. This would ensure that the projects are done to respond to the real needs of the countryside instead of to just make sure that a congressman’s name will appear on the roof of a waiting shed. But alas, this is not a perfect world and the President could not afford to waste his political capital battling an insurgent Congress.
What makes sense the most is his call for public-private partnership. That is, tapping the private sector to do things that would mutually be beneficial to their business and to the State. One might point out that there could be conflict of interest in the President’s desire to push through with a Manila-Cagayan expressway since it was proposed to be built by the conglomerate owned by his controversial and influential uncle Danding Coujangco, but it cannot be denied such an expressway is badly needed. And that, due to the fact that the Arroyo regime had left a depleted budget (94 percent of this year’s budget is gone, mostly to fund Arroyo’s electioneering), the government can’t afford such an expressway. At any rate, President Aquino is trusted by 9 out of 10 Filipinos and so, while they might raise eyebrows over this seeming conflict of interest under a different president, they wouldn’t do so under this president.
At the heart of this private-public partnership is the Built Operate Transfer (BOT) scheme where the private sector would construct important infrastructure, manage and profit for it for a certain period of time, then turn over ownership to the government. President Aquino seems to be aware that he must restore business confidence to the Philippines, which has a not-so-good reputation in the BOT business due in part to what Arroyo did to the contractors of NAIA Terminal III, and make the Philippines a good place for BOT contractors to invest. Which is why President Aquino’s third policy is to reduce red tape in government. He says he will reduce the amount of time needed to process BOT transactions from one year (sometimes one decade) to six months. Similarly, he shall reduce the amount of time needed to process business applications from the usual 72 hours to around 15 minutes.
But to encourage investments both from within and outside the country, a credible anti-corruption campaign must be pursued. Graft and corruption, aside from red tape, turns off investors. The President made a good job fashioning himself as a sincere graft buster, but he must do more. There must be prosecutions, and he must do something about the perceived lack of independence of the Arroyo-identified Ombudsman.
I say that of all things, prosecuting the crooks in the Arroyo regime is the most important task President Aquino must do. This would not only attract investments but lead to other benefits as well. For starters, it would keep the steam in his popularity rating, which will give him enough political capital to pursue reforms. More importantly, it would help repair the damaged institutions that were destroyed in Edsa II and in the nine years of the Arroyo regime.
I trust that the President is doing all he can to accomplish these. His mandate, afterall, is to fight corruption