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Aquino promises a lot

By Leandro DD coronel

MANILA

President Benigno Aquino III spoke in Pilipino, his country's national language, and told his "bosses" that the speech he just delivered wasn't his, but the people's. "This is  your SONA," he declared, referring to his State of the Nation address on Monday, July 23.

Aquino calls the people his "bosses." "Kayo ang boss ko," he likes to tell them. By that he means that he's the people's servant and takes orders from them.

After two years in office, Mr. Aquino gave a report to the people, using the Congress as his venue, as mandated by the Constitution. 

He said he had done a lot. After intentionally delaying existing projects in order to review them when he took office, his government is now ready to go ahead with infrastructure and social projects. His agenda is full with proposed action on education, health, police and military concerns.

His government is addressing the need for about 67,000 classrooms in public schools, in which every child would get textbooks on a one-to-one basis.  State colleges will get a funding boost of nearly 44 percent. Women's health is a priority, an emergency cash-transfer for the truly poor is in place, and universal health insurance will soon be a reality. The military will receive a boost through a P103 billion modernization effort. Low-cost housing for soldiers and policemen have been built, with more to come.

Infrastructure projects will include new airports, an expanded rail system and new roads. All these without raising taxes.

Business processing operations (BPO), or call centers, turned over US$11 billion  in 2011 and are projected to grow to $25 billion by 2016, generating indirect jobs for 1.3 million employees.

Tourism has grown. In the first six months of 2012, 2.1 million tourists arrived and the government expects 4.6 million to come in all of the current year. The target is 10 million tourists in 2016.

Self-sufficiency in rice, the Filipinos' staple, has been an elusive target of past governments. Aquino said that prospect is now in sight next year and the country won't need to import and may even be able to export if the rains and typhoons won't be as destructive as in the past.

Agrarian reform, particularly farmers' ownership of the land they till, is a controversial issue in the Philippines. Rich landowners have been able to hold on to their holdings even though there's a law that mandates the distribution of land to farmers. One side of Mr. Aquino's family owns a large "hacienda" in his home province of Tarlac which had been resisting distribution. The President promised that his administration "will follow the law" ordering the transfer of their hacienda to farmers, and that by 2016, the end of his term of office, all lands covered by the agrarian reform law will have been given away to farmers. That's a promise farmers and social activists will be watching with keen eyes.

The President said the Philippines' dispute with China over a reef in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea) required cooperation between the contending nations. He assured that he "will not give away what's ours," to loud applause from the audience. He asked for the Filipinos' support and solidarity in signalling to China the country's intention to be firm on the issue.

He denounced his critics (he called them "miron,<D>" Filipino colloquial for idle people who have a lot of time to criticize) who are always negative and who urge him for forgive and forget the wrongdoings of past government officials. He said "we can forgive but not forget." Bringing these past officials (mainly referring to his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo) to court "is justice," he stated. Giving them a chance to defend themselves is justice, and equal access to the law is justice. 

To those who tell him to "move on" instead of spending a lot of time going after past officials, he declared, "Isn't the agenda of change moving along?"

"Nothing is impossible," he thundered toward the end of his one-and-half-hour speech (the longest SONA, some have observed). If the people, his "bosses," will help, guide and help him and government, nothing is impossible.

"This is your SONA," he ended.

Mr. Aquino's frequent use of Pilipino is a departure from past presidents who often spoke in English, which isn't the native tongue or the preferred language of the masses. I'm surprised that, for someone who came from a family belonging to the elite class, he's very comfortable with the vernacular, spoken liberally with colloquialisms and familiar expressions.

The President has promised a lot, something a commentator (a dean of a college in Manila) called "ambitious" but in a positive way. Mr. Aquino has set a grueling agenda for the next four years for himself and his Cabinet. He himself has cut out his work for himself. No wonder he asks the Filipino people, his "bosses," for help and guidance.

Let's hope he hasn't overestimated his own capacity to produce results. Let's hope he's not being over-ambitious.

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