POSTSCRIPT / July 27, 2004 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Angelo used as takeoff for GMA plea for unity

CALL TO UNITY: “Angelo” was the very first word of the State of the Nation Address of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo yesterday.

Angelo (dela Cruz), the truck driver from Pampanga, was suddenly thrust into the limelight when President Arroyo ordered the immediate pullout of Philippine troops in Iraq to secure his release from Iraqi militants.

If we could be united in praying for Angelo’s safety and exulting in his release, the President said, there is no reason why we cannot be united in building a stronger Philippines and improving the quality of our lives.

From there, she waded into the intricacies of economic concerns, including the budget deficit, the debt trap, job-generation — and taxes.

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‘JUST DO IT!’: After the dreary recitation of goals, programs and statistics, the President earned her first standing ovation when she told the Congress that work on constitutional amendments can start next year.

Among the loudest and longest applause was toward the finale of her 35-minute speech when she hit hard on those who she said have been egging on the deprived elements of the community to join protest rallies that do not contribute anything positive to society.

She said that previous presidents have also warned that the country was down to its “last chance” to right things and pull itself out of the hole.

She repeated the same warning, adding, “Let’s just do it!” The audience, already fired up by her slamming obstructionists, broke into another round of applause.

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HARD TO DIGEST: Delving into the core of her SONA, President Arroyo threw onto the table one big chunk of meat that the man in the street may not be able to chew and digest that easily.

Our metaphor of a slab of meat is intentional because, sadly, many people tend to dismiss official talk and government statistics with a cynical “Makakain ba ‘yan? ” (Can we eat that?)

Also, there is that reflex reaction of cynics who dismiss the SONA as just a bunch of more empty promises. They want to entangle us into the looping question: Do we believe first so as to gain heaven, or do we get to heaven first to believe in it?

In other words: Do we continue to obstruct government efforts to uplift us because we are not satisfied with our condition, or do we give the administration a chance to work out something uplifting and thereby gain satisfaction?

She raised the same idea toward the end of her speech when she deplored the unprincipled obstructionism that has gotten the country nowhere.

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PEOPLE FIRST: The President mentioned several “reform” packages meant to stimulate growth and improve the quality of life of Filipinos, especially the lowest third of the population languishing in poverty.

With the theme “A New Direction: Putting People First in an Era of Change and National Renewal,” her SONA covered (1) job creation and economic growth, (2) anti-corruption and good governance, (3) social justice and basic needs, (4) education improvement and youth opportunity, and (5) energy independence and savings.

That is heavy stuff not easily digested by Juan Pasang Krus. Besides, as we bite into the SONA we have to keep one eye on the 10-point agenda that Ms Arroyo had dangled before the people during the last presidential campaign.

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REVIEWING AGENDA: For the reader’s ready reference, and also as a reminder to GMA, her 10-point agenda are:

  1. Creation of six to 10 million jobs by tripling loans for small business owners and development of one to two million hectares of land for agricultural business.
  2. Education for all, including the building of new schoolhouses, providing of books and computers to students, and scholarships to poor families.
  3. Balancing the national budget in th4e face of the fiscal deficit and debt problem.
  4. Decentralizing progress by developing transportation networks like the roll-on, roll-off ferries and digital infrastructure.
  1. Providing adequate power and water to barangays nationwide.
  2. Decongesting Metro Manila by opening new government centers and housing areas in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.
  3. Upgrading of the Clark and Subic ecozones into the logistics center of Asia.
  4. Automating or computerizing the electoral process.
  5. Forging peace agreements with rebel groups.
  6. Closure of wounds inflicted by the clash of interests in Edsa 1, 2, and 3.

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PRE-SONA TALK: The issues cannot be explained that easily to the average Filipino, who has more urgent concerns than listening to a speech compressing a six-year program of government into 35 minutes.

The serious student will have to hark back to the pre-SONA policy speeches of the President and, afterwards, monitor her discussions with lawmakers on a legislative program to flesh out her 10-point agenda and her SONA.

Last Thursday, for instance, the President discussed details of her economic reforms in a luncheon with businessmen.

She gave them a preview of her economic package that included eight tax bills seeking “equal sharing of the burden and sacrifices” between the government and taxpayers that will cut “across the board.”

The idea is to “raise revenue” and “cut down on expenses” — for a net usable fund of P100 billion — to achieve a balanced budget by 2010.

The proposals include the repeal of the value added tax (VAT), a shift to gross income taxation from the present net income taxation, and the indexation of the “sin” taxes on liquor and cigarettes.

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MORE TAXES COMING: The economic package includes a gross income tax system, the repeal of the value-added tax. That VAT will be replaced by a revenue system that is simple to administer and increases compliance, and a tax on windfall telecommunications income.

It includes a plan to increase revenues from “sin” and petroleum-based products, rationalization of fiscal incentives, the use of targeted tax amnesty, and the creation of a performance-driven system for revenue agencies.

In her education and youth package, the President gives priority to a sustained campaign against illegal drugs and gambling. She would allow non-government organizations to conduct values formation in public elementary schools and high schools.

She vowed to computerize elections to free public school teachers from poll duties and enable them to concentrate on education. She promised to build 3,000 classrooms yearly and grant vocation-technological scholarships to every poor family.

She reiterated her target of six to 10 million jobs being opened in six years, reducing poverty incidence from 34 percent to 17 percent, and increasing investments from 19 percent of gross domestic product to 28 percent of GDP in the next two years.

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GLOBAL BANKERS: We find it intriguing that even before the SONA, banking giant Citigroup described her 10-point agenda as mostly “ambitious rhetoric.” It expressed doubt on her ability to deliver on basic services and more jobs because, it said, her administration was high on debt and low on cash.

Citigroup that undertaking a pro-poor program while the government was saddled with high interest payments could worsen the country’s financial problems. It also warned that the President’s support for charter change could be a distraction that might delay needed legislation.

On the other hand, the World Bank appears more supportive, pledging full support for the President’s agenda.

“We offer you 100 percent support for your programs and agenda,” World Bank country director for the Philippines Joachim von Amsberg told the President when he called on her the other day. “We can do much more for the Philippines in terms of support, but you really have to go on first with important measures.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 27, 2004)

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