"As predicted, Duterte covered all the hot-button issues."


[Because the President’s SONA last Monday ran overtime, we’re printing only today Mr. Olivar’s regular Tuesday column, on that speech.]

I’m rushing to beat my editor’s deadline as I write this piece from the Ortigas center studios of DZME (1530 AM), where I was invited to comment on the President’s fourth SONA. I have fond memories of this station from my college days, when it was still located on Roosevelt Avenue in QC and its previous owner, Joey Luizon, allowed us firebrands to regularly vent our spleen over his radio waves.

Of course a whole lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and the station is now owned by veteran Congressman Butch Pichay of Surigao del Sur, a staunch ally of former Speaker/President Arroyo. The station isn’t much larger than before. Luckily, the online world has helped to stabilize the imbalance between DZME and its larger competitors, with Internet access bringing video as well as audio both to overseas and local viewer/listeners.

* * *

Although late, the President’s SONA got off to a rousing start with his boast about lifting 6 million people out of poverty, his record-low 3 percent disapproval rating for the 2nd quarter, coupled with a stern rebuke to those whispering of a lame-duck presidency that “I will not coast along. I will end my term fighting.”

No one acquainted with his natural pugnacity would doubt that. And yet his speech was sprinkled with impromptu references to how tired he’s become, how he’s disheartened by his people’s shortcomings, how he longs to return to Davao. The internal conflict created by his sense of duty is palpable; one can almost hear him whispering to himself, “Mukhang napasubo ako sa trabahong ito, pero paninindigan ko pa rin ito hanggang sa huli.”

After three years of tilting at formidable windmills—drugs, corruption, domestic insurgencies, economic problems—the President has been forced to admit a piece of wisdom that those who’re more cynical might have imparted to him earlier:

“Selfishness is the root of our problems (quoting F. Sionil Jose). After all my years in politics, I have finally met the enemy, and he is us. We are our own demons, our own tormentors. We are rapacious, we find corruption everywhere. It is injury laced with insult, a national embarrassment and our national shame.”

It is an existential malady whose remedy Duterte does not flinch from: “Catharsis is needed today. Self-purgation is needed. We must rid ourselves of the dirt and the muck, the leeches who cling onto us.”

There’s a lot of pathos in this heartfelt confession of a 72-year-old man. But if he truly means to launch a national movement towards moral renewal—where the fight against drugs and corruption will simply be its visible forms—it’s a crusade that ought to be fully supported by the nonpolitical institutions of this country—the Church, the schools, mass media, civic and business groups—regardless of how uneasy their previous relationships may have been with the President.

* * *

As predicted, Duterte covered all the hot-button issues: praising his Cabinet members by name for their respective achievements, trotting out PhilHealth and Customs as poster boys for misbehavior, advising citizens being victimized by corruption: “Mag-iskandalo kayo sa mga tiwaling opisina ng gobyerno, at ako ang bahala sa inyo.”

He scolded local government executives about their red tape and petty rent-seeking—and in fact it is in local governments where the most complaints about service are found, especially from small businessmen. I understand that all LGU officials have also been summoned to a separate meeting with him after SONA, where it’s likely that they’ll come in for a second round of Presidential reaming.

Among Duterte’s noteworthy new and old proposals going forward:

Restore the death penalty for heinous crimes like drugs and plunder. All those human rights do-gooders abroad may wish to start looking for new scapegoats.

Assign one Cabinet member to every region to oversee security as well as development issues. This can provide a framework for the localized peace talks that should replace failed peace talks with the communist leadership in exile.

Create new Cabinet departments: Disaster Resilience, Overseas Workers, Water Resources—all areas now demanding a lot more attention.

Make LandBank start lending a lot more to agriculture, perhaps initially by leveraging the coconut levy trust funds. I trust that this initiative will be accompanied by other reforms that make our farmers better credit risks, e.g. revamping agrarian reform, opening agriculture to more foreign investment.

Approve all remaining tranches of comprehensive tax reform legislation.

* * *

It’s noteworthy how long it took Duterte to discuss the controversy surrounding Chinese activity in the West Philippine Sea. Amid some hemming and hawing, he was really trying to make the following points:

First, the Chinese enjoy actual possession of disputed maritime areas, which is a big deal for lawyers. And the reason they do is because the previous PNoy administration was tricked into withdrawing our naval presence from portions of the Spratlys, allowing China to start planting its flag.

Second, in light of the above, we now have no choice but to play out this delicate balancing act with the Chinese, who are simultaneously wooing us with their investments and trade. As Duterte sagely put it, there is, indeed, a proper time for everything. For now, “asaran lang iyan, supladuhan lang iyan.”

And third, Duterte isn’t inclined to go to war, simply because it’s not a fight we could win, in our present condition. Someday, maybe, but only if we start preparing for it now—such as by restoring mandatory ROTC to senior high school. Yes, the West Philippine Sea is ours, but we have to temper this statement for present realities.

This is sound advice from a national leader who’s actually used his gun more than once. As such, he’s well aware of the shooter’s adage: “Don’t threaten someone with your gun unless you’re prepared to pull the trigger.” This is common sense that totally escapes all those armchair firebrands who set too much stock by the workings of international law and ignore the issue of physical enforceability.

* * *

The first reading and responsorial psalm for today, Tuesday, are both taken from Chs. 14-15 of Exodus. These recount the great story of how the Lord parted the waters of the Red Sea to allow the fleeing Israelites to escape their pursuing Egyptian captors, who were then drowned when the waters were brought back together. “Not a single one of them escaped” Divine retribution.

In Ch. 12 of Matthew, Jesus performs an equivalent display of Divine power by casting out demons from a blind and mute man. But the Pharisees, instead of rejoicing as their ancestors did at the Red Sea, accuse Jesus of Satanic deeds! In high dudgeon, He repeatedly rebukes them for their malice and faithlessness, in stark contrast to his disciples whom he pronounces (Mt 12: 46-50) as no less than “my mother and my brothers.”

Jesus describes “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father” as members of the new family He was called to establish on this earth. For them, no waters will be too deep to be parted.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: House of Representatives , National Land Use , SONA , Rodrigo Duterte , Joey Luizon
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