Monday, April 21, 2014

Philippines - A government of apologies and failures

“April,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “is the cruellest month.” And so it is for President BS Aquino 3rd and his administration, and all of us citizens who depend on them to run our national government efficiently and effectively. And the month is not yet over.

The line opens Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” said to be one of the greatest poems of the 29th century. Its full opening reads as follows:


“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….

“I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”


For Europeans and Americans, April is a month of awakenings and climactic extremes. For us, it is the hottest time of the year, when the temperature breaks records and the human body finds it difficult to cope with the heat.

A month of grim developments
As if to show us fear, we have discovered this month some of the grimmest news about the state of public governance in our country, such as the mishandling of vital public services, services which we the people need to survive.

Among these grim developments are:

First, the deterioration of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) into what some international media organization call the worst international airport in the world. The latest wrinkle in this ongoing saga is the collapse of its air-conditioning system.

The situation is so bad that President Aquino felt compelled to publicly apologize to the traveling public during Lent for the situation. Not an easy thing for him to do, considering that he has not apologized up to now for his government’s mishandling of the hostage-taking crisis in August 2010.

In his apology, President Aquino 3rd explained that there was a delay in the delivery of new air conditioning chillers at the NAIA Terminal 1. He said the new chillers were ordered in November 2013 but they will only be delivered this August. He has yet to hear from airport officials as to why the delivery of the new chillers will take longer than four months, which is the usual government procurement period under the law.

Last Wednesday, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) also apologized and explained that the temperature inside the NAIA Terminal 1 was affected by the ongoing rehabilitation works at the airport.

Because international travelers normally use Terminal 1 for their travel, it’s to be expected that the country has suffered another big blow to its international reputation.

Second, and equally severe for the public is the near collapse of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) system , which serves over half a million commuters daily, and the grim prognosis for the continuation of the service, the failure to acquire new trains from a reputable supplier, and the warnings from experts that the MRT is a huge disaster waiting to happen because of its age and poor maintenance.

The problem at first focused on the kilometric lines daily of commuters seeking a ride, but this was compounded by the senseless and unfeeling statements of presidential spokesmen and communicators. Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda declared that Aquino never promised the people a rose garden; he only promised reforms.

Not to be outdone, communications secretary Sonny Coloma made two wretched suggestions to the public: first he suggested that commuters should try other modes of transportation than the MRT. And then he blamed the failures of the system on overpopulation.

Within a day, Coloma had to issue a public apology for his insensitive statements, which only fueled public indignation.

As if all this were not enough, the MRT is dogged by scandal, concerning an alleged attempt by public officials to extort money from a Czech train supplier, the supplier of the original coaches of the system, and there’s nasty gossip that presidential relations were involved in the extort try

Not a handful but a mountain of dust
Third, and perhaps most distressing of all, the Yolanda tragedy continues to fester and hound its victims and survivors. It’s now six months since the Supertyphoon struck East Visayas on November 8 last year, but to date the situation could not be more demoralizing:

Government still has to come up with a coherent program for the recovery and rehabilitation of East Visayas, the region which suffered the most from the catastrophe.

Presidential rehabilitation adviser Panfilo Lacson still does not have anything specific to do, or any accomplishment to report.

In a live broadcast by TV 5 last week, the network reported that typhoon victims have been throwing away the relief goods distributed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, because they are unfit for human consumption. Although, the situation had been exposed earlier complete with testimony and documentation, Secretary Dinky Soliman has done nothing to correct the situation.

It is a glaring case of disaster victims being victimized twice.

The president should be told that it’s not just “a handful of dust” that he should fear in the Yolanda tragedy. It’s a mountain of dust, when you total all the men, women and children who died in the disaster.

Fourth, at a time when the president is putting the finishing touches on a durable solution to the secessionist conflict in Mindanao, the South has been visited by new violence and depredations. Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom Aquino has just concluded an agreement for the creation of a Bangsamoro entity out of the old Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), have been found to have joined the dreaded Abu Sayyaf rebels in battling with government troops.

The Abu Sayyaf has also been tagged as the perpetrators of the recent kidnapping of tourists in neighboring Sabah.

Passing a Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress and through the Supreme Court will be the supreme test for Aquino’s leadership.

A failure of leadership and management
All these developments are best described as nightmares of the nation today. And they reflect at root a critical failure of leadership and management, and the incompetence of government – of leadership and bureaucracy alike.

This discovery joins a long list of shortcomings that include Aquino’s discovery that poverty and the unemployment situation have worsened under his watch. His naive reaction to the discovery was to ask his Cabinet, “What happened?”

It must now be said that Benigno Aquino is not just slow to discover what is really happening under his government. He knows very little about how government works, and what the chief executive is supposed to do to provide leadership and direction.

When he boasts that his Cabinet members underpromise and over-deliver, he is not only issuing an outright falsehood, he is providing cover in advance for the mistakes and perhaps crimes of negligence and fraud by his department secretaries.

When he talks about tuwid na daan, absolutely no one believes him anymore. He keeps up the fiction through the pork barrel-scam charges filed against Enrile, Estrada and Revilla, but the idea of an honest-to-goodness anti-corruption campaign has zero credibility. It flies in the face of the trillions of public funds in his own pork barrel.

The paradox of the Aquino presidency is that while it is perhaps the most moralistic we’ve ever had, it also may have tolerated and instigated the most brazen looting of the public treasury ever perpetrated in the country. The big avenger for public rectitude that we saw during the 2010 presidential campaign is in fact largely a bystander in his presidency. He directs Budget Secretary Butch Abad to come up with the schemes to facilitate the looting and make it look legal. He looks away when his appointed executives at the Social Security System and other government corporations illegally allocate public money for their own pockets.

Aquino’s ready defense against feeble and incompetent governance is the blind support for him of mainstream media, whose owners are at his beck and call, and the manufactured surveys of SWS and Pulse Asia, which dutifully assure him that the public does not know any better about how they are being robbed.

One modern political science textbook defines Governing as “activities directed toward controlling the distribution of political resources by providing executive and legislative leadership, and toward implementing policies for the solution of the nation’s problems.” Governing is about solving problems.

When you talk to key leaders of the Liberal Party in Congress, you instantly discover that these concerns are farthest from the mind of President Aquino.

This is the reason why he has never convened the National Security Council (NSC), and why he is so loathe to calling a meeting of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC).

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