Monday, December 31, 2007

Hope amid despair

This is my column today.

A New Year begins tomorrow.

There is something about New Year’s Eve that tug at the proverbial heartstrings of our lives. It’s a bittersweet occasion as we take stock of everything that happened in the year that’s about to end, perhaps draw lessons from them, or at least celebrate—perhaps even mourn—all the big and little things that came to pass and brought us to the present.

And there were many things that happened in 2007 that we can or should draw lessons from. After all, the changing of the year is not just a bookmark of passing time. It’s an occasion for reflection and an opportunity to make resolutions. Theoretically, at least, since we know that keeping resolutions has become harder and harder each year for many among us, most especially our leaders who seem to be getting more and more inept and corrupt each year.

Allow me to wallow a little bit in sentimental drivel and express the same wistful observation that was verbalized by a number of my friends in the pre-New Year parties that I went to: Time flew fast, but boy, aren’t we glad 2007 is going to be over soon.

It seemed it was only last week when 2006 was drawing to a close and we were all looking forward to a better 2007, politically, economically, and perhaps, even in our own professional and personal lives. After all, 2006, lest we forget, was an even more heartbreaking year characterized by an impeachment drive that went really ugly and a coup d’etat that mercifully didn’t get through the gates of Fort Bonifacio.

We had high hopes for 2007. I personally expressed optimism that things would be better and different.

But we know that 2007 was not the banner year that we hoped—and wished— it was going to be. We were plagued by the same catastrophes of our own making. The year-that-was was another year of embarrassment; another annus horibilis, as we watched with mouths agape the many scandals that rocked our fragile democracy and the very messy ways in which we dealt with them.

We do know that the economy performed better in 2007, posting the highest growth rate since 1986. Of course, most of us did not feel the growth because it wasn’t spectacular regardless of what official drumbeaters say.

The Philippine stock market did perform better, although it could have done so much better if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot many times in 2007. The Philippine peso did quite well even if its rebound also hurt local exporters and overseas Filipino workers.

But even these pieces of good news have not been enough to salve the general pessimism that continues to hang in the air even in this season of goodwill and cheer.

First, because the gains are sadly not enough to keep pace with our neighboring countries who are rebounding faster. Let’s save ourselves the heartache by not making the obvious comparisons.

Second, because the gains are still not fueled by direct investments that are more sustainable. Even the robust growth in the business process outsourcing industry (such as call centers), while admittedly is something to crow about, remains tentative in the light of one very real stumbling block: We’re running out of the necessary talent required to prop the industry up. Obviously, the benefits being offered by the outsourcing industry is beyond the reach of ordinary people who simply don’t have the competencies required by the industry.

Third, and more importantly, economic growth is also a function of perception. It’s really difficult to be enthused by rosy economic figures when those figures are obliterated by other news stories that make one’s heart sink and send one’s blood pressure into the stratosphere.

To be fair, this administration did try to put in place a number of initiatives designed to sustain whatever little momentum was being induced by external forces. The efforts proved puny amidst the onslaught of scandals and the usual destructive politicking that have seemingly become normal occurrences in our country.

In the end, I believe that this administration’s best contribution to the task of buttressing the economy was simply its relative success in keeping itself in power, perpetuating the status quo, and providing a semblance of stability in the country. It has not been easy, but I am not sure the efforts deserve plaudits.

The ones who really deserve the commendation, in addition to migrant workers, are the men and women of the business community. I am not simply referring to the taipans and the owners of big business who provide the face to the community. I mean the whole business community and that includes the many entrepreneurs of small and medium enterprises, the laborers at the factories, and everyone else who make the wheels of the economy turn.

I racked my brains trying to recall positive stories that deserve special mention as we try to give closure to 2007. Aside from Manny Pacquiao’s triumphs in the boxing ring—and as I have written in the past I am ambivalent about the strategic value of these triumphs—and the dominance of the peso, there seemed very little else.

For this column, I tried to make a list of the top stories of 2007 based purely on top of mind recall, without doing any research. Unless we include the sordid but entertaining events in the lives of Ruffa and Kris, the other stories I came up with were all depressing.

My list: The Manila Peninsula caper of renegade Senator Antonio Trillanes, the ZTE scandal and the subsequent Senate hearings, the conviction and eventual pardon of former President Joseph Estrada, the midterm elections, the hazing-related death of UP student Cris Mendez, the suicide of 12-year-old Marianette Amper, the explosion at the Glorietta Mall, the bombing at the Batasang Pambansa which claimed the life of Rep. Wahab Akbar, and the road accident which claimed the life of former Social Welfare Secretary Dulce Saguisag.

I know. These are not exactly the kind of stories that warm the heart. What we had to contend with in 2007 gave new dimension to the expression “scraping the bottom.” But then again, we’re still here. We’re still able to insult our leaders and make jokes about them. We’ve survived 2007. Some people will scoff at these and consider them paltry dividends. Most Filipinos, however, will count their blessings and be grateful for them.

Tomorrow is another New Year. This is a cliché, but I will say it just the same. A New Year always brings with it the promise of new opportunities for redemption. Someone once said that everything that’s great in this world were accomplished by people who simply kept on trying even when there seemed to be no hope at all. Happy New Year, everyone!

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