Editorial: Symbolism and the presidency

Between a Hague win and a supposed jetski attack to the West Philippine Sea is that solemn contrast of who takes leadership roles with dependable sobriety. Executive gestures are by their very nature always symbolic of a policy. When a leader says he’d be happy to slaughter drug addicts, that becomes policy down the line while an entire culture mimes it out.

The death of former President Benigno Aquino III throws us back to that memorable gesture in 2010 where the president-elect’s convoy, which was on the way to the inauguration, stopped for the red light. Caught on live television, it surprised a nation who for the longest time had to step aside each time entitled officials careened down our highways with blaring sirens. It was a novel act, and it later found word in the ensuing inaugural speech, Aquino pointing out his prime anti-wang-wang policy, pushing a paradigm shift in the public mindset—that we, the people, are the boss.

The deluge of posthumous recollections highlighted the modesty, simplicity and sincerity of Aquino—uneasy with power, meticulous with details, cold and unfeeling because brain, not heart, solves the country’s problems. The heart anyway was always there, constant as the mathematical pi, two parents’ lives couldn’t make it any clearer.

So what were the cold facts that Aquino left behind? Fiscal robustness, and we need to emphasize this—a robustness despite the staggering world economy after the United States recession. Barely three years into the term in 2013, at an average gross domestic product of 6.2, the highest since the ‘70s, the Philippines outpaced Indonesia and China.

In three years, too, the Philippines earned an investment-grade rating by world debt observers, such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s—that pulled interest rates for the country from 12 percent during the Arroyo administration to an easy four percent in Aquino’s term. For the first time in decades, foreign lenders were comfortable with the Philippines, supposedly the perennial “sick man of Asia.”

More numbers, sirs. In the 2010 Economic Freedom Index, the Philippines ranked 115th. Aquino finished his term with the Philippines ranking 70th. Government also lifted the country’s rank in the Global Competitiveness Index from 85th to 47th. In the Global Enabling Trade Index, from 92nd in 2010 to 64th at the end of 2016.

There has been no other administration that invested on education at the scale that the Aquino administration had. His government surpassed the deficit of 66,800 classrooms, delivering 89,720 until the end of Aquino’s term. Philippine education achieved the 1:1 ratio of textbook to students, with 170,000 more teachers hired. By pushing the K+12 system, our graduates were at par with the rest of the world in terms of year qualification.

In 2012, the Aquino government highlighted the symbolic transparency seal on government websites—a badge that would mean that the particular agency had complied with specific openness requirements, such as making public progress of projects, procurement plans, among others.

Now that these governance nitty-gritties have come out in the limelight, these should give the public a basis for contrast. It was definitely better time, not only because one didn’t necessarily have to face the risk of being cancelled or bullied for calling out errors or incompetence. There was palpable effort in government to consult constituents—as exemplified by the concept of “bottoms-up budgetting” or “participatory governance.” Today, who barrels off with the bright idea of dumping dolomite on a beach, apparently a mark of misplaced priority in the time of a health crisis?

It was one President who valued the presidency as an opportune symbol to convey all the best messages for the Filipinos—we are the bosses.

Lastly, from his inaugural address: “Have you ever been ignored by the very government you helped put in power? I have. Have you had to endure being rudely shoved aside by the siren-blaring escorts of those who love to display their position and power over you? I have, too. Have you experienced exasperation and anger at a government that instead of serving you, needs to be endured by you? So have I.”