An analysis of the second State of the Nation Address delivered by President Aquino on July 25, 2011

I echo my initial thoughts on the second State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered by Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III before joint sessions of Congress today, the 25th July 2011: The speech seems thick in narrative, thin on conceptual substance, and lacking in vision. This verdict I make on the basis of the English translation of Aquino’s SONA as the Tagalog version is simply too hard a slog to read.

In the pre-SONA analysis that I wrote a month ago, I posed the question: Will the President step up and come up with a speech befitting a true statesman this time around? To serve as a context to answering that question, perhaps take the time to revisit the key challenges that our country faces, challenges that haven’t fundamentally changed since James Fallows published his seminal 1987 article “A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?” which, along with other insights gleaned from other sources, my colleague Ilda lays out in her own pre-SONA analysis also written a month ago.

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The essence of the Filipino Condition remains best captured in a single paragraph written by Fallows:

Still, for all the damage Marcos did, it’s not clear that he caused the country’s economic problems, as opposed to intensifying them. Most of the things that now seem wrong with the economy–grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, land-ownership disputes, monopolistic industries in cozy, corrupt cahoots with the government–have been wrong for decades. When reading Philippine novels or history books, I would come across a passage that resembled what I’d seen in the Manila slums or on a farm. Then I would read on and discover that the description was by an American soldier in the 1890s, or a Filipino nationalist in the 1930s, or a foreign economist in the 1950s, or a young politician like Ferdinand Marcos or Benigno Aquino in the 1960s. “Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.”

Even back in 1987 after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos, a man whose negative impact on the Philippines’ fortunes few back then would argue against, the notion of a single leader accounting for the persistent impoverishment and failure to take off of an entire society was already being questioned by Fallows.

Thus the guiding hypothesis is quite simple if we are to run with Fallows’s insight; insight which had proven its ability to stand the test of time: An effort to institute deep reforms that would translate to setting a sustainable course towards prosperity for the Philippines requires a tempering or even dismantling of the monopolistic industrial complex that a long tradition of feudal rule by a handful of powerful clans had embedded, and that this is something that requires forward-looking political will with history providing hardly any lessons on how to do it.

President Aquino, being himself a key part of this complex, is in the best position to do just that. So let us see if this year’s SONA is in line with that simple premise. But rather than go point-by-point on the content of his speech (something that an army of pundits will most likely subsequently do in the next few days), I will focus more on the communication devices President Aquino uses in delivering what is supposed to be a report of his achievements and plans.

Noynoy encapsulates a complex and profound issue — “abuse of authority” — in the wang wang.

In doing so Noynoy does two things:

(1) He oversimplifies the issue by using a pet peeve of his (and of many Filipinos) in the way prominent Filipinos equip their vehicles with sirens (wang wangs) which they use to muscle their way through Manila’s renowned traffic jams; and,

(2) He links the issue to a “solution” that is the publicity stunt he mounted when he first assumed office as President — doing away with the use of motorcades (and their wang wangs) in his commutes around Manila — which had come to symbolise his supposed humility and focus on change.

Noynoy proceeds to put up the wang wang as the face of the bogeyman his administration battles. The excerpt below is a fine example of the way this oratory device is pushed to the edge of the credible…

We have fought against the wang-wang, and our efforts have yielded results. Just this year, the number of Filipinos who experienced hunger has come down. Self-rated hunger has gone down from 20.5% in March to 15.1% this June—equivalent to a million Filipino families who used to go hungry, but who now say they eat properly every day.

How does one go from fighting the wang wang to highlighting “results” to do with reducing hunger?

The above illustrates how the encapsulation in the wang wang bogeyman, provides a glossy veneer over the detail of the issues Aquino “heroically” battles and effectively makes the above logical disconnect less obvious.

Thus, having put the evil face of the wang wang over the whole swath of national issues President Aquino is expected to tackle, the speech then turns to spinning the narrative; that is,

The rest of the speech is no more than a litany of anecdotes framed by this notional wang wang

…how because of this wang wang “attitude”, a who’s who of government owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) employees helped themselves to this and that bonus, how some “ill-advised” initiatives were started (under the previous administration, it is implied but not explicitly stated), and how, in the private sector, professionals routinely under-report their earnings to evade taxes. All this was followed by a litany of this and that initiative (started under his watch, of course) to put a stop to each of the enumerated instances of wang wang practices.

Over much of the speech, this pattern of citing examples of abuse and then the piecemeal initiatives mounted by the government to stop them was repeated several times — on matters of the “situations” of policemen, public housing, national security, employment, health, Muslim Mindanao, planting trees, a domestic monorail development program, etcetera, etcetera. It reads out like a report turned in to management by a junior consultant — findings on one column, “quick win” solutions on the other, and no deep systemic answers backdropped or framed by a coherent strategy much less a vision.

And contrary to prior assurances from Malacañang that this SONA will no longer contain any “motherhood statements” and fuzzy slogans, the transcript speaks otherwise. According to Noynoy in his SONA: The plan has always been to “level the playing field” and that he is; “steering our government in a clear direction.” He had also “put an end to the culture of entitlement”, and ensures that “the people’s money is put in its rightful place.”

Fair enough. Trouble is, the speech ends shortly after the above assurances, leaving an important question unanswered yet again:

How do we envision the Philippines of 2016?

For a people who see every politician and, by extension, every government as fundamentally all the same, not answering this question at all much more in a convincing manner, brings to question the whole point of being a leader. Where are you leading your people, President Aquino?

Perhaps we will have to wait another twelve months and hope this is answered in the next SONA.

47 Replies to “An analysis of the second State of the Nation Address delivered by President Aquino on July 25, 2011”

    1. and what makes you think you’re smarter than your lunch, vincenzo? it probably answers to an actual name. eh ikaw ba?

      mana ka sa presidente mo. wawa man
      har har har

      sige nga hirit ka ng sa palagay mo’y ikaiinis ko dali.

  1. He’s following the KISS principle, ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’. Sensible to remove corruption before tackling the huge societal problems like the plutocrats.

    1. looks like pnoy is actually following the KEEP IT STUPID, STUPID! principle. the principle is addressed to him after all.

    2. bilatsakay,

      Actually, I was reflecting on the absence of vision that Benigno cites, and I agree that the longer-term, forward looking path is not clearly stated by President Aquino. I think I also understand why. Corruption is the rot in the foundation that prevents anything solid being built above. Until the foundation is firmed up, any cited vision would be so much smoke blown into the wind. Sincere efforts would be undermined by the rot. So in this circumstance, keeping the horizon short and the vision narrow makes sense.

      1. cut the b.s., joe. pnoy is not being asked to build a building. what his bosses are demanding from him are the tangibles, targets that are either met or not met by the end of his term (i.e., the measureable aspects of all his campaign promises, where X marks the spot). he promised heaven and earth before he was elected into the presidency, things he couldn’t possibly reach or accomplish without a rational assessment of where we are and the intention of mapping how to get there using different options/paths. of course you could always toy with semantics and tell me he’s got one and only one “tuwid na daan”. in that case, kawawa naman and mga pinoy – the blind led by the blind stuck on one and only one path where fearless leader can’t see in front of him for sheer lack of imagination and vision.

        you know what they call a person who promises all sorts of stuff without bothering to figure out how to deliver on those promises, joe?

        a phoney.

        1. Joe is right. It’s not B.S. at all. It’s a good start. Educate the people, distribute the land, protect our natural resources, make the system more transparent.. There were all discussed in the SONA. These are all correct things to do. Given the backlog of problems to deal with I’m pleased with the decisions made so far.

          You’re the one demanding a vision of heaven and earth. I prefer these small steps in the right direction over hollow litanies of greatness.

          People are so quick to criticize and demand more. There’s always room for improvement but what were the good points? What deserves recognition and support?

    1. @anglina

      And that is exactly the reason why Noynoy should not have presented himself for the job. There were more than enough candidates who were more qualified than him to do it.

      1. “And that is exactly the reason why Noynoy should not have presented himself for the job” —> I think this is a more intelligent insight.

  2. The speech of Noynoy Aquino, is the same old format, as any of his other speeches: blaming people for the ills of the nation. He just cannot accept responsibility. All his mistakes, are caused by other people, living or dead. We’re not his mother, his family and himself a part of these corruption of our political process? In the Aquino Era: (1) The Oligarchs have controlled the economy of the nation. His partners cornered the government contracts. (2) Feudalism is encouraged. Just see, how he and his mother protected their Hacienda Luisita ownership. Killing even, farmer-demonstrators. Up to now, the killings are not investigated and resolved. (3) Business Monopoly of friends, relatives and family members. They have grown extremely fat, at the expense of the Filipino people. (4) They used the Lopez Media Network, to dessiminate misinformations to the public…Encouraging a culture of Wowoowee Mentality on people…People become gullible on these programs…He simply has no vision…

  3. My own analysis. The speech was written by speechwriters, not President Aquino. It was not so much a “State of the Union” speech as it was “Aren’t We Grand”. Nevertheless, it was true to the central plank of his election promise, to end corruption. It was positive in acknowledging corruption as a deep cultural phenomenon wrapped up in the single word “entitlement”, and not a matter of solving a few cases. It was, in that vein, strategically brilliant, pounding the shit out of examples of corruption (professionals avoiding taxes) and successes at weeding illogic (the feed trough of corruption) out of government processes. It was, in tenor, uplifting with nice touches of humor.

    I like what I see happening in the Philippines: rising social awareness and an economy that investors like, broad-based and stable, built on the honorable strength of millions of earnest people sweating their way to a meal. President Aquino is good for the nation, all in all.

    1. Oh my, here you go again with your patronizing comments about what’s happening to the Philippines. Aquino is the biggest product of a culture of corruption that is deeply entrenched in the land. Why, without the stolen Luisita estate, he would not have been where he is today out of sheer hard work and talent. From his stint in the legislatures as a lawmaker for 12 years, he proved just how lazy and self-serving his class, himself included is. He makes me cringe under my skin every time he talks of corruption, when he doesn’t even have the political will to subject his own cronies to investigations for their questionable dealings. The guy is just wasting everyone’s time. How could self-rated hunger go down when prices of basic commodities have gone up when he became president with him not doing anything about it. These mumbo-jumbo surveys by SWS and the other survey agencies are at it again, fooling the Filipino people, and you are saying the Filipino people have social awareness now. . .

      1. n.g., usually it is when I am critical of things going on in the Philippines that I am called patronizing. So your view is refreshing, indeed. And I suppose we all look at things through glasses of a tint that we liked when we bought them.

    2. I disagree that his “strategy” is brilliant. Maybe you are over thinking because I don’t see a strategy at all.Strategies are plans for long term solutions. His actions will only benefit the current administration by cleaning his slate and by making himself a “hero”. What he does is just random bullying. Do you really think that after a government official commits plunder,public embarrassment is enough consequence? how about the money that was corrupted, will it just disappear to thin air? if he is really serious in removing corruption in the Philippines, he should strengthen the law that punishes the plunderers and which WILL protect the system from corruption even after his term ends.

      1. Strategies can be long or short term. The problem is that there is no long term future in any constructive act unless corruption is driven out, for corruption sucks the life out of many economic initiatives, it is so widespread in the Philippines. Like, investors will not invest if corruption is likely to rob them of their value. The “brilliance” I referred to was the heavy, loud, insistent focus on corruption. It is easier to move a mountain than move a nation that is so thoroughly corrupt. You have to be a tad garish and heavy-handed to get let people know it is a new era. I agree with his almost obsessive focus on corruption.

        If I were to be critical, it is that he missed the opportunity to show that he is for women’s rights and a modern Philippines by citing the attention being paid by the Congress (if not him) the RH and divorce bills. I was disappointed he kissed (up to) the Bishops but not the women in his audience.

      2. His strategy is to execute on one huge tactic, anti-corruption, and to tweak the economy in ways that help. It has its shortcomings, for sure, with no social agenda (women’s rights) or clear intent on things like making Manila work. And one power plant is not an energy strategy. But trustworthiness and stability mean a lot to investors, so the direction is right.

  4. I never watched his SONA because I knew he will say nonsense and he did. Pnoy is not only a liar (for saying the biased positives happening in this country) but also a coward (for not mentioning the Manila Hostage Crisis and made an apology).

      1. ici, If you didn’t watch but know it was nonsense, you must be letting others decide for you what to think. Cool.

        CC, you can always follow ici’s technique and have others feed you what you like to hear rather than reflect on an opposing view.

      2. isn’t it ironic that the smart aleck who said you guys are “letting others decide for you what to think” is actually telling you what to think? who is this guy fooling, eh?

        @CC: i remember last year in the week of the botched rescue of the bus hostages at the quirino grandstand, the blogs on yahoo were literally flooded with people’s comments of disappointment with pnoy hiding at all costs from hk executive donald tsang.

        the comments didn’t last a week – they were all deleted. a lot of those comments, some of them mine, were perfectly polite but clear in expressing how disappointed we were of those who should have paid attention to what they were doing, because they weren’t, so many tourists lost their lives. anyway, all our comments GONE in just a few days. no wonder, yahoo philippines is, surprise, surprise, ube and keso!

  5. amusing to watch the criminals and corrupt dress up with no taste or style and turn manila into the fashion disaster of the world whilst the monkey in chief bored everyone silly for an hour with his rehash of the same speech he always makes.
    a 3rd world rice republic without vision, leadership or the intellect to ever be anything more than the toilet of the world.

  6. noytards, sona debunked. Bwahahahaha.

  7. Not be negative but I stopped listening to every president’s SONA because I know that it will only be a bunch of bull crap. The only thing I will do is to become a law abiding citizen and pay my frickin’ taxes. Hindi ko sisiraan ang mga politicians pero I stopped believing in them. I believe in the Filipino people that they can do something to improve their lives.

  8. its an “angpao” speech, all hot air and no actual content. I cant believe he actually thinks his anti-wangwang drive was even effective. I still encounter VIP cars with their motorcycle escorts even now, the only difference is that they dont use sirens anymore so motorists are caught unawares that these assholes are on a counterflow driving straight into them. If anything, it just made them more hazardous since you cant hear them coming anymore.

    Just last month, there was a VIP convoy with 2 motorcycle escorts (no special plate, just heavily tinted SUVs). I didnt make way so one of the motorcycle riders rapped on my car window to order me to move to the side for whatever Manila royalty was passing by.

  9. Benigno,

    I wondered if you had read the technical report:

    It is more substantive than the popular speech. Although it is padded with back-patting and accidental achievements, and way detailed, it is rich with clear direction and specific, progressive actions. I was impressed. This is a western-style approach that, if tweaked in a positive way (through criticisms that intend to build rather than undermine), it can produce good things for the Philippines.

  10. hey i will just use this as a reference for my assignment in making a analysis. i thought i could use some of your works. please, thank you so much.

  11. Enjoyed looking at this, very good stuff, thankyou . “A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age he dies of being a man.” by Percival Arland Ussher.

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