Monday, May 17, 2010

After the romance of an election

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

It’s not yet known how incoming president Benigno Aquino III will respond to unsolicited advice. It is very likely that like his mother who was catapulted into the presidency by a series of fortuitous events Aquino would be averse to unsolicited advice. This early, the President-elect is showing signs of displeasure at having to put up with niceties and diplomatic tact.

Given the variety and the ready accessibility of communication channels available to Filipinos today, Aquino—and his siblings—would have difficulty restraining people from expressing whatever is in their hearts and minds or even from ignoring them. He—and his sister, the garrulous one—need to know that simply brushing people off as “petty” or “bitter losers” will only aggravate matters and further alienate those who already have reservations about an Aquino presidency to begin with.

I’ve read quite a number of “unsolicited advice” for the new President; the blogosphere and various the social networking sites have been buzzing with variations of the “Dear Noynoy” campaign for days now. Many of the inputs to the Aquino presidency are quite incisive. One of these was a note posted by my friend, Grace Abella Zata, who was 2009 president of the People Management Association of the Philippines. Zata said a lot of things that’s been on my mind lately so I asked her permission to reprint her note which was originally entitled “Real Life Begins After the Romance and Fantasy of Elections.” What follows is Zata’s note reprinted in toto:

A concrete question that President Elect Benigno Aquino III can answer to jumpstart his presidency is this: Bakit mahirap pa rin ang maraming magsasaka sa Hacienda Luisita kung totoong “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap?”

I am using the Luisita case not to put down our new president, but to illustrate the fact that our problems are deep-seated and complex. Sincerity and integrity are vital, but we also need to apply imagination and doggedness to finally solve seemingly intractable issues. It is time for all of us to go beyond our upper class notions of probity and uprightness. Mahar Mangahas, a long-time advocate of land reform wrote in his column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer that contrary to the recommendations of the commission that she herself formed to study the sticky issue of agrarian poverty and unrest, Cory Aquino signed a bill allowing stock transfers, which presumably enabled the Cojuangcos to retain control over Hacienda Luisita and which, more significantly failed to improve the poor farmers’ lives. I allow though that she may have signed it in good faith.

Do candidates sit down and do an in- depth analysis of the problem of poverty before they come up with their platforms and slogans? Did they ask themselves- “Where are the poor? How many are they? Why are they poor?” Did they then match the profiles with opportunities? It appears that none of the candidates presented a comprehensive and well-thought out plan to provide jobs and livelihood for the poor, aside from the standard answers of “BPO’s ( certainly not for the marginalized), tourism (a ball park percentage of unemployed that this sector would provide jobs for would have been good) and some vague ideas on agriculture and entrepreneurship.

It is true that mitigating corruption is the necessary first step and will improve social services, but we will need to do more to put in place the conditions that will decisively solve poverty: An 8% growth rate that lifts all boats. A clean government will not necessarily result in droves of investments to the Philippines—the BPO industry, after all flourished during GMA’s scandal-ridden term, thanks in large part to private industry’s initiatives.

On the other hand, China is getting choice investments inspite of massive corruption. Clearly, we must define our competitive advantage. We are not competitive in low-end manufacturing because of high power costs and relatively high wages compared to the ridiculously low wages in countries like Vietnam. We cannot compete in high value manufacturing and high technology industries because we do not yet have the talent base and the reputation, among other things (our low self-esteem and ambition, included.) So where do we position ourselves to attract foreign investments? On the other hand, it should be noted that there is a lot of local capital sleeping in our banks. How do we encourage local businessmen to invest in ventures and do business in ways that will have maximum results in terms of growth and equity?

There must be a labyrinth of issues in agriculture, but first, we need to decide: Are we going to finally do this or not? Candidates have promised to improve agriculture in every election! And then, we must answer basic questions: Is genuine land reform the way to go or should we turn to big agribusiness to attain food self-sufficiency? If the latter, how do we ensure that such produces decent jobs for agricultural workers? Perhaps cooperative farming can answer both productivity and equity issues—but how do we manage it so that current pocket successes are replicated on a large scale?

These are only a few of the issues that must be addressed immediately so the second Aquino administration can hit the ground running.

While the incoming government grapples with these difficult issues, ordinary citizens experience mixed feelings of hope and apprehension. Is Noynoy and his team up to the task of navigating these issues with intelligence and insight? The president gets advice from different people and perspectives, some of which may be conflicting. That is actually good, but the president must have the confidence , proper appreciation and work ethic to make good judgments. Can he lead in finding and more importantly, successfully implementing workable solutions? Can he inspire us to think in terms of social justice and equity , and not merely high growth rates, a “good investment climate” and the appearance of an upright government?

What Noynoy and our other leaders can and will do is, to a large extent, beyond our control. It is also true that given our systemic problems and the fact that the economic and political elite remain firmly entrenched, a sincere and well-intentioned president can only do so much in six years. If we want our nation to achieve in six years the kind of stunning success that the Filipinos handed Noynoy Aquino this election, we- business owners, wealthy professionals, taxpayers , big landowners and employers must deal with our own question: How can we do right by the millions of Filipinos who braved the L-O-O-N-G lines, the punishing heat and the occasionally dysfunctional machines because they believe in -what may seem to some of us- is merely the romantic notion of a better Philippines? What can we do to achieve the Impossible Dream of Ninoy Aquino?

We must keep the romance alive, after all. Otherwise, it is going to be “business as usual.”

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