The Languishing State of the Nation

Despite my bluntness, I have always wanted the President to succeed from Day One — but again, not on his terms, but on the terms the Philippines truly needs and deserves’

The President’s next State of the Nation address is expected to be his last, barring an unconstitutional extension of his term, and he would naturally want his valedictory, a victory lap of his administration. At best, however, it would be a pyrrhic victory lap, for we, the nation, are not at our best. We are instead languishing: in the tides of history, in a flood of blood and tears.

We languish in COVID, with the Philippines holding the ignoble record of the longest continuous lockdown. $15 million has been borrowed to tide the country over during the pandemic, but we’ve only seen infection numbers seesawing, business shuttering, families going hungry and losing loved ones, and the vaccination rollout still trying to gather steam. All this was derived from decisions made since February 2020, when, despite evidence that the Wuhan outbreak could become a pandemic, the Duterte administration dithered on controlling flights from the region. That other countries are also going through this as well is no excuse, since Vietnam, a country comparable to ours, objectively fared better in disease control and economic security.

We also languish in a sick economy, and no, it is not all attributable to COVID. Andrew Marasigan’s critique of Durerte’s policies exposes the proverbial emperor naked. The government has failed to encourage diverse investments, wooing a Beijing fairy godmother instead so Duterte would be free to give Western economies with their human rights conditionalities the middle finger, to little if any gain for the country. We have a penchant for consumption-based government spending for policies aiming at “investments, production (manufacturing) and exports.” Infrastructure development (Build, Build, Build) – in some cases necessary, and carried on from predecessors’ projects – at times seemed more like big-ticket vanity projects with little mind to sustainable development and long-term job creation.

All the lead time and goodwill from the Aquino administration’s economic and governance stability was spent, as if the new admin were a prodigal son living off a trust fund — “an economy propelled by spending, not by production.” Then the pandemic took away the props sustaining economic policy: OFW remittances, a dwindling export sector, domestic private consumption, the foreign investment that had yet to depart. And here we are now, with Marasigan observing that we “will end the year with a debt load of some $237 billion.”

We languish in Duterte’s “pivot” to Beijing: seeming to be more show than substance, whether on the administration’s side or Beijing’s. What would have been an opportunity to truly internationalize all aspects of Philippine foreign policy turned out to be a Xi Jinping love fest, whose only real benefit seemed to be Duterte’s sense of political security.

“Less than 5% of China’s promised $24 billion in loans and investments have come to fruition,” reports a December 2020 Channel News Asia article. It then quotes Richard Heydarian: “They’re taking Duterte for a ride.”

Unrelenting controversies

Then there are the controversies. Private Chinese investment into POGO operations, and stories of Chinese companies and laborers benefitting the most (over Philippine candidates and competition), were the least controversial. The worst was Kaliwa Dam: development aggression. Not that the West is innocent of this sin, but there are mechanisms to call them to account; we can count on sympathizers in their political bodies to acknowledge our interests. Few, if any, of these avenues exists with Beijing, an authoritarian state favored by the administration less on shared interests and more on shared antipathies to the liberal values underpinning our history and democracy.

And the cost of all this is the loss of genuine sovereign initiative. Appeasing Beijing on the West Philippine Sea is the most glaring example, symbolized by Chinese ships chasing away Filipino fishermen, or crushing coral with land reclamation and staining seas with bilge waste, and by learned helplessness from Malacañang because “we are friends.” It is also symbolized by weakened ASEAN unity (seen as favoring China); diplomacy distracted by defending the administration over advancing Philippine interests; and growing foreign intervention in a geopolitical flashpoint because we would neither stand up for ourselves, nor cooperate, nor innovate with our allies and neighbors. It is symbolized by other countries taking up our 2016 UNCLOS victory, or our human rights situation, when the Philippine State would not.

And in human rights? So much ink spilled on behalf of spilled blood: the drug war; the red-tagging; the harassment of the opposition, activists, and the marginalized; the murder of opponents and character assassinations. And this perfectly encapsulates the reason for our languishing, the root of all the above: government and governance does not favor life and rights, and even attacks both.

We have gone from “Kayo ang boss ko” to “Dapat mayor ang mauna,” literally. A leadership brooking no dissent, offensive politics that treats opponents as targets, and disposable allies (witness Pacquiao and Pimentel, for a recent example). Performance politics, with the “iron fist,” the foul tirades and meandering ranting in press conferences, spokespersons and allies scrambling to spin words if not join the show. Bilib kasi kay Mayor, eh— regardless of outcome, or losses.

Ultimately, this is self-serving politics. The election of the President five years ago was premised on the promise of transformation. Five years on, we are still waiting for that promised transformation; instead, we have returned to dynastic politics, transactional politics, a politics that ignores the people.

A lesson from the Lumad students

But it could be different. There is still hope. And the answer ironically lies in a target of this administration’s ire: the Lumad. In recent years I have worked with the bakwit schools through the Save Our Schools Network to secure their right to their own education, preserving their culture and identity while preparing them positively for the rest of the world so different, and even hostile, to them.

And I have proudly witnessed the newest batch of graduates from these schools, all heroes who matriculated while under attack from trolls who scream that they are being used, or thugs who barge into their schools, detain students and teachers, and hold them without just cause. Their story is one of true resilience in the face of outright persecution, insisting all the same that a promising life is possible.

That ought to be the Philippine story as well, in the face of COVID, climate change, poverty, and Great Power competition. Where others have languished, or have left others to languish, the Lumad chose to rise to the occasion no matter what. So can we, with a love of life and a life of love, so different from five years of dithering, of enemy-making, of drug war illusions and casualties.

The SONA will be this Monday. Despite my bluntness, I have always wanted the President to succeed from Day One — but again, not on his terms, but on the terms the Philippines truly needs and deserves. Not by the mere measure of infrastructure, or GDP, or his obsession over the drug trade. But by the number of people lifted out of poverty and oppression, who survive and overcome climate disasters, who are empowered to contribute to the building of the nation and even the world.

One year may be too short to turn things around, but the President can yet deliver the promise he made five years ago, to rouse the country from the stupor it has fallen into, to get back to where we were. Take your cue, sir, from the Lumad under attack: let this administration and State once more become one of human rights and human life. You may yet secure the legacy you crave.

If not, no matter what your supporters may say, history will see all the blood and tears and judge your administration languishing. –

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