Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Swimming with the current

This is my column today.

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Jefferson’s quotation came to mind for a number of reasons.

First because it seems everyone is spewing words of wisdom lately without making the right attribution. For example, some Cabinet members have been regurgitating that line about how a leader who sacrifices principles at the altar of popularity is ineffective or something sounding like that, as if the insight was something they themselves invented.

The idea was to diffuse the results of the recent Pulse Asia survey, which revealed just how unpopular the President had become, by pointing out that what was popular was not always right. Conversely, what was right was not necessarily popular. We were all conditioned to think that the President was going to stick to principle, popularity be damned. What they conveniently left out was that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive—that a leader can in fact be both right and popular. This President can be popular while sticking to principle.

Second, because I think that was what the President was trying to convey last Monday in her State-of-the-Nation Address as she tried to pander to as many stakeholders as possible while trying to bring home the message that she and her administration were on track.
Whether or not she succeeded is another thing altogether.

But say what you will about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s character and performance—the one thing you can’t ignore about her is her stubbornness and dogged persistence; she can’t be faulted for not working hard, or for trying harder. Swim with the current she did last Monday; and furiously at that. Stand like a rock she did too, on matters perceived by this administration to be beneficial to the people in the long term (and to her and her administration in the short term).

Let me state the very obvious: The Sona was well-crafted in terms of trundling out the statistics that support this administration’s contention that the country is better off today. It is difficult to argue with statistics; but statistics are not the solutions per se, they are simply indicators. The analogy of how a drunk uses a lamppost at night is a good illustration of how statistics should be used: Either he uses the lamppost as physical support to prop him up or he uses it to illumine the night so he can reach home safely.

Obviously, that thing about natural family planning methods was a concession to the Church. One wishes that she were clearer and more forthright about what exactly she meant by “letting more couples, who are mostly Catholics, know about natural family planning.” The problem with trying to swim with the current is that one has to be deliberately ambiguous, keeping things open to a little more interpretation.

The retention of the value added tax, though highly unpopular, can be interpreted as standing pat on a principle although it must be pointed out that the retention of the VAT has also been a major advocacy point for business and industry. And lest we forget, elections are in the offing in barely two year’s time and we all know what this means: Funds have to be stashed somewhere to be used as political largesse. The VAT had to stay.

Why the President crowed about the reduction of charges for text messages in her Sona is something that was quite baffling.

She is right—texting is a way of life in this country; but what is so earthshaking about SMS messaging that merits its upgrade into an issue requiring national policy directive? Besides, it sends the wrong message to the people in this period of great economic difficulty. Here we are trying to manage the runaway prices of oil, rice, and other basic commodities and we’re applauding the fact that texting will now cost us only 50 centavos?

Besides, if we really come to think about it, texting should be free. It used to be free, in fact. But the telecom companies were so successful in creating a huge demand for the service that most among us got hooked into the phenomenon; at which point, the telecom companies got greedy and began collecting fees for the service.

The scuttlebutt says that the telecom companies have been thinking about lowering the charges for SMS messaging for quite some time now, so the President’s request was something that came at the right time. Of course there are several versions to the story, including that malicious yarn about how Malacañang begged the telecom companies to allow the President to use the angle for her Sona.

What was obvious was that the announcement on the reduction of charges for texting at the Sona was really nothing but an undisguised and cheap attempt to get on the good side of the masa.

In addition to the misplaced importance given to texting, I also find disconcerting this new tack which requires the President to directly plead with companies to lower the prices of their goods or services. Not only does it put the President and the business community in a very awkward situation, it also smacks of government interference on matters that are best left to market forces.

At any rate, I think there was very little doubt about what the fashionable thing was during last Monday’s Sona, in addition to the usual nitpicking by the opposition.
It was fashion, or at least making a fashion statement.

Why, they even put up a red carpet reminiscent of the Oscars. I was hoping that people would be a little more circumspect with their fashion statements this year on account of the difficulties the people were going through. Dressing up to the nines, parading in designer ternos and Barong Tagalog that cost tens of thousands of pesos, and showing off the family jewels just don’t make sense at a time when most people subsist on instant noodles. I guess some people just can’t restrain themselves from showing off their wealth and social status.


Mike said...

Filipinos send and receive something like 1.3 billion text messages every day-- that's, what, 15 messages for every single Filipino? It's very significant news when the cost of sending a text message is cut in half. What's baffling to me is that hardly anyone seemed to notice the announcement.

This is good news. Your attempt to put a negative spin on it is just adding to unfair demonizing.

Bong C. Austero said...

Of the hundreds of millions of text messages Filipinos forward to each other everyday, guess what is the percentage of messages that are really worth reading and passing around? Guess who perpetuates those jokes, supposed inspirational messages, graphics, etc?

Just because millions of Filipinos use the service does not mean it is absolutely necessary, or important for that matter. But I guess Malacanang thinks it's really that important, even more important than the other social issues that the president cut out from her SONA.

And we all know what happened after the SONA. The Telecom companies insisted the half price offer is limited after all - part of a marketing promo/campaign.