POSTSCRIPT / July 24, 2001 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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GMA pulls no punches, adds drama to her SONA

THAT was a rip-roaring State of the Nation Address with a dramatic twist at the end by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the opening yesterday of the 12thCongress.

The President came out swinging at influential persons who continue to flout the law and the courts, at vested groups sapping our economic vitality, and other quarters blocking reforms.

Toward the end of her 66-minute address, she pulled a heart-tugging surprise by trotting out three boys from the Payatas dump who had written her to plead for trabaho, tahanan, edukasyon, at pagkain sa bawat mesa (jobs, housing, education and food).

In those three boys — Jayson, Jomar and Erwin — she gave a face to the complex problem of mass poverty that she has vowed to address relentlessly.

* * *

MOVED by her straightforward presentation of a reformist agenda, we say Yes! to her plea for all of us to give her the honeymoon she never had since constitutional succession thrust her into a presidency in crisis.

While we suggested in a recent POSTSCRIPT a 100-day honeymoon for the beleaguered President, she asked for “at least a year” in her speech.

We think any reasonable person studying her report and her proposed action plan will not begrudge her the time she said she needed to fix things. A one-year honeymoon should be acceptable.

* * *

JUST six months on the job, President Arroyo inherited extremely difficult working conditions. Listen to her describe one key aspect, economic, of the state of the nation:

“From 2.5 million jobless four years ago, unemployment now stands at 4 million. From a budget surplus in 1997 of more than a P1 billion under President Ramos, this government inherited a deficit exceeding P140 billion. In the same period, poverty incidence rose from 36.8 percent of the population in 1997 to 40 percent in 2000.

“And, unlike the situation in 1997 when a battered Asia could still lean on the strength of the advanced economies, today our main trading partners like Japan and America are slowing down as well.”

* * *

WITH the gathering dark clouds, do we just wait in a neutral corner for the roof to cave in? Or, worse, do we extend aid and comfort to those destabilizing and shaking the house till it crumbles — on us?

The President has a big job to do, she is ready and able, but obstructionists won’t allow her.

Let’s face it. The effects of destabilization cannot be confined to the Arroyo presidency. Inevitably, there will be extensive collateral damage to the entire nation.

* * *

THE mandate given by the people in the last May elections for the administration to carry on the business of governance and reform, GMA said, is a challenge “for all of us — administration and opposition — to roll up our sleeves, stop looking back, and move forward, most especially in the fight against mass poverty.”

In this spirit, she then said, “I appeal to everyone here today to undertake something unconventional but much to be desired in these especially hard times. From today, let us set aside bickering and politicking for at least one year. (Applause)

“Sa halip na walang kuwentang alitan, isang taon tayong magtulungan sa ikabubuti ng taong bayan.” She invited taipans and other businessmen to help pump prime the economy by investing in the Philippines and thereby help create jobs, accelerate progress and help address the roots of crime and unrest.

* * *

FOCUSING on mass poverty as the administration’s top concern, she highlighted its many facets as jobs, education, housing, and food.

“And this, in common sense and plain talk, is the core of my vision,” she said, eliciting the first of 88 bursts of applause from the Batasan audience.

The President has decided to discard the frills and strike at the very heart of livelihood problems for the masses while outlining a reformist legislative program for the long term.

* * *

THE President listed the four components of her national mobilization against poverty:

  1. An economic philosophy of free enterprise with a social conscience, not a destructive free-for-all. The idea is to generate jobs by stimulating business and investments.
  2. A modernized agriculture based on social equity. The goal is to boost the produce and income of the rural poor, particularly in agriculture and fisheries for which P20 billion was promised this year.
  3. A social bias for the disadvantaged. This is reminiscent of Magsaysay’s beatitude that those who have less in life should have more in law.
  4. The raising of moral standards in government and society as the foundation for true progress. The details of these guideposts, including proposed laws and fund releases for plans, will be amply reported in the news.

* * *

WE were mildly jolted to hear GMA stress these policies and targets:

  • She supports the fair and speedy trial of former President Erap Estrada and his co-accused before the Sandiganbayan.
  • She has nullified an order of former President Estrada in effect giving his friend Danding Cojuangco access to coconut levy funds. She wants the billions from the levy used to help coconut farmers and upgrade the industry.
  • She will hold office at the Department of Agriculture to dramatize her impatience for improving the lot of farmers and fishermen, generating a million jobs and monitoring short-term goals. She earmarked P20 billion for this sector this year.
  • The price of critical medicines will be cut in half within one year. There will be massive enrolment in health insurance of poor Filipinos with local governments paying the premium.
  • Every year, 200,000 hectares will be distributed under land reform. (Without publicity, large tracts belonging to the families of the President and her husband have been given to tenants.)
  • Every day for the next 12 months, four barangays in various parts will get electrical connection, resulting in 85 percent of all barangays getting power in one year. By 2004, she wants every barangay to have its own school building.
  • She urged Congress to restructure the tax system toward a gross income tax. At the same time, she expressed support for Internal Revenue Commission Rene Bañez who has been harassed by threats and court suits for going after delinquent taxpayers.
  • She batted for granting qualified overseas Filipinos the right to vote in national elections. This will make the estimated five million (minimum) qualified voters abroad another swing vote to contend with.
  • She wants to build five more light rail lines in Metro Manila to ferry four million additional passengers: three lines completed in 2004, one in 2005, and another in 2006. Note that her present term ends in 2004.

* * *

THIS was how she explained her seeming conciliatory stance toward the Estradas that has sent confusing signals:

“No one is above the law… If there were times that I showed concern for the personal circumstances of President Estrada, it is not a sign of diminished determination to see justice done.

“Rather, it is out of sensitivity for the feelings of the segments of our masa who have continued to identify with his personal circumstances.

“But as I sometimes extend a hand covered by a velvet glove, inside it is an iron hand while justice and the rule of law are concerned.

“As a sign of this, I will support legislation to amend the charter of the Ombudsman so he can accept the services of private prosecutors.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 24, 2001)

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