Remember the ubiquitous 2020 eye glasses worn almost everywhere by many people taking part of the celebrations welcoming the New Year 2020? It was not only a fashion statement, it was a take on the 2020 vision, which means normal vision, that is, the average clarity of vision that many people share. Somehow with everything that happened, that take on the 2020 has been quite prophetic. It is a year that had us reflecting on how things are as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a country, and as a global community. What with the sudden break from the everyday life and habitude we have always known? The first reaction is rejection and dejection as we remained in denial, feeling much anguish from the loss of life, jobs, and for many, even sanity. In time, we just had to retreat, leading to much-needed reflection. We didn’t give up the fight; we can’t give up in the first place, but we can fight only if we take time to make sense of what’s going on so that we can determine how best to move forward in response to the challenge.
The world, our world as we know it, suddenly changed. What we do and how we do things everyday abruptly changed. Every now and then, I am asked of my opinion on current events. I have to rush to make it on time in the studio, even for just a 15-minute interview. Same goes with attending to regular classes; the traffic is always a terrible challenge, especially on weekends, especially in Kalayaan Avenue (Quezon City), so I have to be leaving an hour and a half before my scheduled 8 a.m. class. This terrible of a challenge to work for many that is traffic is now a thing of the past. Not that traffic has suddenly disappeared, it did disappear in the early days of the quarantine but it has been back for some time now.
The threat of the contagion has simply held many to just stay home and for offices to adjust and allow work from home. As a result, many now need not grapple with the everyday vexation of traffic; instead, the daily struggle is now caused by another infrastructure weakness in the country, information and communications technology (ICT), the ignominious service provided by our telecommunications companies. The problem of not getting into commitments on time is no longer much of a problem; in fact, you can even have simultaneous meetings, except that every now and then, your participation in meetings will be cut, or that the meeting itself will suddenly stop. Worst, there are instances that you can’t connect even initially. Whatever the reason is, our telecom companies have a lot of shaping up to do. The President warned the telcos sternly at some point, giving them up to December 2020 to improve on their service. December has ended, we are now in the new year 2021 and yet telco services remain wanting.
Some of us have still much to be thankful for. Apart from remaining healthy and free from the virus, we still have work and we’re still able to afford some good things in life. Sadly, this is not the same for many, especially for daily wage earners. For them, the pandemic has been somewhat a death knell. The limitations of public transport have prevented many from going back to work. There are those who may be considered to be fortunate to enjoy the generosity of their employers for having them provided transportation to and from their homes but we have to note the saying that “there is no such thing as free lunch”. Some of those provided transportation by their employers I heard are charged for the service against their already meager salaries. Note most especially that work has yet to get back to normal for many. Daily wage earners don’t get the same salary as before as many are still asked to work only a few days in a week instead of every day as it was before. Imagine how much could be left for their daily necessities with deductions for their transportation?
Still and all, it’s not only the daily wage earners that have lost significantly because of the pandemic. The employers themselves, the businessmen, the very backbone of our economy has been hit hard. When the malls opened sometime in July, all shops were on sale. The sale prices were remarkably lower than the usual sale that we have been accustomed to before. Lower even compared to special sales or holiday sales in local malls and shops before. Most branded shirts, pants and shoes were on sale for more than half the price or the usual 20% off have become at least 40% off. These are sale prices comparable to popular sale destinations abroad, many make an effort to go to, like in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This exceptional sale is therefore good news to shoppers. Considering that this is unusual for our standards though, in the end, it proved to be really unusual that it was in fact a sign of distress for business owners and by consequence, even to the sales staff. After some time, a good number of enterprises closed shop even before the holiday season started. That remarkable sale turned out to be closing out sale. Business and therefore employment suffered.
The pandemic really hit us that hard. We are now on our first recession in nearly 30 years. Instead of growth, the economy contracted by at least 7.5% but economists, in a Reuters poll, have placed the contraction at a considerable 9.8%. Overall, according to the ADB and WB, the Southeast Asian region contracted by an average of 4.2%, so the Philippine rate of contraction is double the regional average. Compared to our neighboring countries, the country’s contraction is similar to that of Thailand, but the others have fared significantly better. Like Thailand, we are vulnerable as we are among the most connected to the world market. If we are to consider the overall economy however, it will confirm what many reports have recently disclosed. The Philippine economy will find it most difficult to recover from the pandemic compared to other countries in the region and even in the whole world.
We are very much connected to the world market as we don’t produce much of our requirements. We import almost everything we need, including basic necessities like food and other consumer goods. We may have a thriving local clothing and even electronics industry but the raw materials needed are sourced abroad. Our electronics industry doesn’t even produce finished products, only component parts. Given all these and considering that our economy is consumer driven, couple that with many of our unskilled workers abroad including OFWs doing non-essential work were sent home because of the pandemic, it gives us a rather complete grim picture of what’s in store for the country in the coming years.
This is then a wake-up call to us, a way to recover our 2020 vision of development, hopefully especially to our policy makers and the business sector. The latter, on the other hand, will respond only if given the right framework and incentives in place, which depend significantly on policies set by the government. We have remained the laggard in the region. With the pandemic, if we don’t act with urgency, we will end up at the cellar. The IMF recently has pointed to Vietnam’s increase in per capita income surpassing that of the Philippines. Decades ago, the Philippines was among the leading countries in the region. In fact, after the Second World War, we were the one leading. It comes as no surprise that public servants from our neighboring countries have come to learn from us on various fields, especially on agriculture, business, trade and industry and public administration. Today, the tables seem to have turned. If we remain as we are now, and still fail to institute much needed institutional long term strategic change, we will likely see ourselves the very last in the region.
Partisan politics continue to dominate the country’s narrative. That shouldn’t necessarily be bad; if at all, it could be a sign of a mature, as it suggests, a vibrant participatory democracy. Sadly, this is an untenable conclusion as the kind of partisanship we have is plain and simple about personalities. The vibrant exchange most often does not translate to good policies, if at all only palliatives and not long-term policies and programs that could really bring about development in the country. Compared to other countries, especially to our neighbors that just like us are still in the development stage, we don’t have long-term plans. Every administration comes up with plans, but this plan cannot go beyond the 6 years term limitation provided by the constitution. There is no continuation of development policies and programs; if ever, it is dependent on the sitting chief executive.
Unfortunately, the discourse barely goes beyond personalities, and the initiatives are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions, more often. The economy remains held back by particular interests as needed reforms have not been seriously pursued. Regardless of fierce political discourses, every election between candidates for election, in the end it doesn’t amount to anything of significance. Almost always, especially towards the end of an administration’s term, we come to a realization that we simply had more of the same. We may be able to elect a good president, but even if he proves to be a good chief executive, he will be able to do only so much, unless considerable reforms are pursued at the outset. This we have seen in practically all presidents we’ve had after the dictatorship.
This explains the development miracles that countries, like Vietnam, are able to carry out. 20-year, even 50-year plans are but common in most countries, again especially for countries that played catch-up on development in the past century and succeeded. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, even Thailand and Malaysia were not at all as they are now, but they managed to come up with ambitious plans and carried out the same. In our case, every administration is able to come up only with 6-year plans and even often fails to implement it in full. Whenever politics is discussed, especially during elections, it never includes a discussion of policies and programs. There is always an effort to discuss issues, but it barely elicits concrete policy proposals from aspiring leaders.
It will require short of a miracle to still pursue and succeed in completing systemic reforms at this juncture under this administration. We should give them credit, more than their predecessors, for their efforts to really change the system. While I will be charged with bias and I will admit bias for the political system we painstakingly came up with in 2018 in the Consultative Committee, I would still submit that we, at least now, have a concrete proposal of change. It is not just a model or a concept we managed to formulate; it is a concrete draft Bayanihan Philippine Constitution drafted by nonpartisan members of the Consultative Committee. If it failed to muster enough support to get through Congress and even blocked by key agencies of government, it can only be ourselves, the ordinary folks, that can push it. And it will require so much effort.
The easiest route remains the existing political machinery, the government, through both houses of Congress. Our draft contains key reforms on: 1. National Territory, 2. Public Accountability, 3. Anti-Political Dynasty, and 4. National Economy. All these are anchored on 5. Political Party reforms, 6. Electoral reforms, and 7. National (Executive and Legislative) and Local Government reforms. How much of these key reforms will remain in the event that charter change or system reforms actually ensue in Congress? I am sure many would say no to term extension. I could not agree more. On the other hand, if these reforms, even say only 5 of the 7 key reforms are pursued but with term extension, would you consider? I would consider. All these 7 reforms are systemic and a term extension will be a small price to pay. But that’s just me.
Still, we have to make sure these reforms are pursued if charter change is pushed at this very late juncture of the administration. Meanwhile, we have to engage the next batch of leaders to really reflect on how things have been in the past year and how we could possibly recover swiftly and in the process really get into a serious, that is, concrete development path. We cannot remain simply a consumer-driven economy. We have to revitalize and support our inherent asset, one that has been our advantage from the very start--agriculture. We have to catch up on technology, have the infrastructure necessary in place in no time and have our people ready for the future. We have the necessary structural reforms in education already in place, but we still require substantive, that is, programmatic reforms. If we will not or accept that we cannot insist on these fundamental issues, then we have not have learned enough from the rather wasted year that is 2020. We have failed to gain a clearer vision of what is important for us to really move forward and finally break out from this straitjacket of underdevelopment.
How do we get all these issues as key considerations in the coming election? It is only we the people who can do so, by ourselves, with whatever resources we have. Precisely, we need systemic reforms because there are no mechanisms in place to pursue well-meaning and far-reaching policies and programs in the prevailing governmental setup or system. So, we have to make do with what we have, keep on hammering the important issues to our candidates. It all depends on how we are able to force these issues to our aspiring candidates to seriously consider and not just keep on baiting the public with empty promises. This, despite the avalanche of propaganda, of fake news, especially in social media. It will be difficult, but we should keep on trying.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.