SONAgony: A State of the Nation by the Numbers and What May Be Done Next

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Last week, the President of the Republic of the Philippines delivered his penultimate State of the Nation Address, reporting to Congress and to the Filipino people the achievements, milestones, plans, and challenges faced by the republic under his administration.

In his speech, he talked about poor telecommunications services, his hopeful overtures to another country for an anti-coronavirus vaccine, the nation’s relatively weak military strength in the West Philippine Sea, and pouring his scorn upon the Philippine oligarchy among other issues.

Crucially, as per cabinet consensus, there was no mention of constitutional reform which was his centerpiece campaign promise.

Neither did the Chief Executive give a roadmap to clearer plans in fighting the COVID crisis, but he did mention his desire to bring back capital punishment for violators of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

When this whole address is considered from an institutional-analysis, reformist framing, there is plenty to frown at and constructively criticize.

A closer look into a set of numbers and variables reveals that the state of the nation could be farther from what was promised to the Filipino people in 2016, the attainment of a “more comfortable life”.

The first among these numbers is 113 – the Philippines’ latest rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which indicates the integrity of a particular country’s institutions. It pays to observe the continued domination of the top tier of this index by pluralistic structures, and also the Philippines’ decline from a higher place in its previous iteration. The Chief Executive took no note of this in his address.

Another important set of numbers are 1, 20, and 23. Ranking first in the OECD’s economic restrictiveness rankings is the Pearl of the Orient, whose contemporary institutional framework does not permit it to gain access to the best healthcare services and technologies, as is evidenced by the trend of many of its citizens moving abroad to work in the health industry of more developed countries.

In fact, it is also worth noting that the healthcare system of the Philippines now runs close to being overwhelmed due to the large influx of coronavirus cases in late July.

Speaking of countries, as of 1 August 2020, 20 out of the top 30 countries with active coronavirus cases have full presidential systems as their forms of government, which denotes a certain general macropolitical disadvantage in how governments are structured to contain pandemics.

Here, the unwieldy nature of “separation of powers” can be felt and seen, as opposed to the dualist or “fusion of powers” taking place in non-presidential democratic regimes.

The number 23 shows the advantage of pluralism, as 23 out of the top 30 countries in the 2019 Global Health Security Countries have parliamentary systems and are open to trade and international investment, giving them a particular advantage in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as to how efficiently their laws and policies are placed into operation.

This has permitted most of these 23 countries to keep their active cases per capita down as compared to the other seven.

Another important number to take note of is 3.

Out of the three major telecommunications companies, two have consistently saturated the market, with their relatively poor service and connectivity or penetration rates.

The President, in his speech, warned these two large companies to shape up and improve their admittedly poor service by the end of, or face the threat of being closed.

Taking these remarks at face value, it would appear that there is a threat of governmental takeover or crony capitalist intent in partitioning the assets of these two companies for a third one, one whose owner is perceived as close to the powers-that-be.

By that, and accompanied by a rant against the Philippine oligarchy, it is quite apparent that a more suitable and diagnostic approach is wanting as to how these problems can be solved.

The Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, once asked “Who pays for this?”, referring to his nation’s sourcing of funding for their government expenditures.

He found the right set-up in permitting international investors to establish their companies in his Little Red Dot, thereby allowing per capita income to grow exponentially over his tenure.

Today, Singapore is one of the countries that have dealt with COVID-19 best, thanks to his reformist, meritocratic, and open leanings.

It can be argued that from a reformist standpoint, the State of the Nation Address of the President fell far short of expectations as briefly characterized by these numbers. With plans to emulate successful countries who have effectively turned the tide against COVID-19 seemingly nowhere in sight, and with the government’s strategy perceived heavily as just to wait for a vaccine, the agony felt by the Filipino people may have been prolonged.

Talking about the true State of the Nation entails two aspects of governance: comparative analyses and clear communications.

These two tools have served successful efforts to defeat the pandemic well, and have landed governments plaudits from their constituents for their use.

Should the government apply the former method, then it would have seen earlier on that the current state of our institutions are just too unacceptable and unready to face the crisis caused by the pandemic along with its other effects.

Evidently, there is an acknowledged shortage of cash, capital, and resources by which to stamp out the most debilitating effects of the disease in terms of treatment, tracing, and economic recovery. There should and could have been an effective reordering of the framework, ensuring that an open system, wherein healthcare is modernized, technology is transferred rapidly, and human capital is nurtured at home, would be realized to prepare for any shock or calamity.
It would have also substantially complied with a major campaign promise and therefore shield the President’s position from attacks.

Alas, other more “important” measures were passed into law as opposed to more proven and helpful policies.

As to clear communication, it has been seen frequently that the President loves to involve himself in more than hour-long sessions broadcast on the internet and on television to announce new measures designed to combat the pandemic.

This has to evolve into a more succinct and laser-like format, which would allow perceptions of him to be improved greatly, especially when the nation requires an effective crisis leader. This also bears the effect of relaying to the people a decisive and strong approach to crisis management.

In summary, it pays to recall that the Presidency, particularly in the Philippines, is capable of achieving whatever it wants, much more in a crisis.

The true State of the Nation, reflected in these numbers along with many more statistics pointing to our rather backward state, ought to be improved.

There is room for much improvement if the Executive and Legislative organs of state acknowledge what is wrong, take steps toward what is right, and end this pandemic on a high note, with a state more than capable of providing for its citizens’ needs.

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