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Editor's Note: Richard Heydarian, is an assistant professor at the Political

Science Department of De La Salle University. He has written several pieces,


along with some books, on East Asian geopolitics. The views expressed here
are his own.
(CNN Philippines) Genuine political reform is no easy feat, especially in a
country like the Philippines, which has been dominated by a fairly coherent
oligarchy for much recent history. Since many powerful forces have a stake in
preserving the status quo, real change demands extraordinary leadership, an
element of luck, popular support, and immeasurable time and energy.
In a nation where forgiveness and forgetfulness are often interchangeable, the
political elite despite its numerous mishaps and predatory behavior under
various colonial masters in the past and, later, sovereign governments has
managed to constantly rehabilitate its reputation, avoid full accountability, and
prevent the kind of political purges, which jolted revolutionary France and
reshuffled the political order in many other European, Asian, and Latin
American nations in the following centuries.
Despite the formal democratic outer layers of our political institutions, the
Philippines is fundamentally a country ruled by a select few, who have
reduced one of the most promising nations blessed with an auspicious
geography, among the most cosmopolitan cultures, and countless natural
riches into an emaciated nation, which has struggled to graduate out of the
lower-middle-income trap for decades.
Yet, the Philippines is also a nation of hope, anchored by a boisterous
intelligentsia, a feisty and vigilant media, and a resilient population, which has
withstood both man-made and natural disasters since time immemorial. It is a
country that stood up against dictatorship, cherishes and instinctively strives
for freedom, and constantly seeks peace and dialogue over conflict and
exclusion.

It is a nation that has welcomed the persecuted from across the world with
utmost generosity of spirit. It is because of the virtues of our nation that Ninoy
Aquino never had any second thoughts with proclaiming "The Filipino is worth
dying for. For Filipino and the Philippines stand for an idea a
welcoming, cosmopolitan nation of freedom in a world filled with so much
hatred, pride, and conflict.
Soon, we will be hearing the final State of the Nation Address (SONA) of
Ninoys son, who will be looking at defending his record as the commander-inchief of more than 100 million souls, who have looked up to him for leadership,
direction, and conscientious governance in the last half-decade.

The balance sheet


Over the past five years, throughout hundreds of articles and opinion pieces
(many of them can be found on my Huffington Post column, and you may
check a brief overview of Aquinos struggles I penned for the prestigious
Foreign Affairs magazine), I have dissected the various dimensions of NoyNoy
Aquinos domestic and foreign policies. So I am not going to delve deeply into
the many contentious aspects of Aquinos policies.
I would dare to argue, however, that Aquino should be, above all, credited for
introducing a moral dimension to Philippine politics.
Like no other Filipino leader in recent memory, he staked his political capital in
a moral crusade against institutionalized corruption in the country. One can
hardly find any comparable leader in recent memory, who has dedicated so
much political capital to take on allegedly corrupt officials from all three
branches of the government, the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative.
He mainstreamed the concept of good governance, constantly reiterating the
importance of clean, accountable leadership. Almost singlehandedly, Aquino
injected morality into the heart of our long-cynical politics.

In fact, he has done the same thing in the realm of foreign policy, describing
the Philippines struggle against an expansionist China through the prism of
"right vs. might."
No wonder, the Aquino administration has invested so much in the ongoing
legal arbitration at The Hague against China, when other claimant countries
have mainly focused on proactive diplomatic engagement, robust military
buildup, and consolidation of claims on the ground.
Obviously, we can have a healthy debate on how successful and impartial
Aquinos anti-corruption initiatives have been in practice, but no one can deny
how vigorously Aquino pursued powerful politicians, who were once seen as
almost invincible not long ago.
In short, Aquino moralized our broken politics and reintroduced an ethical
discourse on the state of our rotten institutions.
Another thing Aquino should be credited for is his correct decision to continue
macro-prudential economic policies from the past, which have stabilized the
foundations of our economy, introduced an element of predictability into our
capital markets, and enhanced the countrys attractiveness to international
investors.
Today, the Philippines is no longer seen as the "sick man of Asia."

Institutionalizing reform

But of course, the main problem with Aquinos economic policy was one of
omission rather than commission. In absence of more creative, heterodox
policies, the government fell short of ensuring that the growing economic pie
will become inclusive.
As a result, much of the newly-created wealth in the country has been
swallowed by the elite, while poverty and hunger rates as well as un/under
employment rates have virtually remained inelastic.

Without a major boost in our agricultural (land reform is crucial here) and
manufacturing sectors (greenfield investments is key), I am doubtful we will be
creating inclusive growth anytime soon. Not to mention, we are yet to see a
major upgrade in our dilapidated infrastructure, which has discouraged foreign
investors and burdened daily commuters.
From afar, it is easy to criticize the government. Some journalists and
commentators have regrettably even resorted to ad hominem attacks against
a leader, who was voted into power by millions of people and responsible
voters. Aquinos opponents many belonging to the corrupt factions, which
oppose good governance as an existential threat have used all sorts of
strategies to demean him and undermine his popularity.
But there is a reason why Aquino remains to be a popular leader, especially
when compared to his predecessors in their twilight years in office. Many
Filipinos, as credible surveys consistently suggest, do credit Aquino for his
good intentions, despite his many shortcomings in practice.
You dont have to be an expert to realize that with our weak state institutions,
hobbled by entrenched networks of political patronage, and only a single sixyear term in office, there is just so much a well-meaning leader can do to
overhaul a broken political system.
This is why what I look forward to, perhaps more than anything else, in
Aquinos last SONA is how he intends to ensure his reforms will endure
beyond his term in office. And what characteristics, if not specific candidate/s,
is he going to endorse, if ever.
For sure, Aquino will try to defend his record by presenting a long list of his
achievements and all of these could be subjected to criticism but
everyone knows we are far away from achieving a mature democracy and an
inclusive economy.

Genuine reform and lasting change comes on the back of institutions and
effective governance, not personalities. Good governance will not be
achieved unless Aquinos reforms and best practices are carried forward by
his successors.
This is Aquinos last SONA, so he better use it for not only promoting his own
record, but promoting a lasting vision for our country.

SONA 2015

President Benigno Aquino III

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