Column: What he didn’t say

Published on August 3, 2010.

Last week, a series of editorials in the Inquirer discussed various aspects of President Benigno Aquino III’s first State of the Nation Address, starting with a piece entitled “What he said.”

I would like to respond to that first editorial by writing about what President Aquino did not say—in the obvious hope that what he left out proves to be as revealing, of his frame of mind if not of his priorities, as what he left in.

He did not say anything in English. To be sure, there were the occasional terms—deficit, billion, trillion, Calamity Fund, payroll, bonuses and allowances, a collation of which should prove to be an interesting index—but contrary to what his spokesmen said we should expect, the address was almost entirely in Filipino. Except for the introductory salutation, there were no passages written in English, aimed directly at the international community or designed as a sound bite for foreign TV consumption. It was a refreshing change from the language tokenism of previous SONAs, where Filipino was deployed primarily for theatrical purposes. In fact, I got the sense (from reading the inept official English version, among other hints) that the thinking for the SONA was done in Filipino.

He did not say anything about the Freedom of Information Act. Of the many policies Aquino was expected to advance but left unsaid, this was the most inexplicable. Declining to talk about the fate of Hacienda Luisita was unfortunate, but at least it could be justified as an act of deference to the judiciary, where cases are pending. But freedom of information is not only a constitutional provision that has remained unlegislated for an entire generation; it is a cornerstone of the culture of transparency and accountability that President Aquino campaigned on. For the campaign against corruption to be self-sustaining, the public’s access to all but the most confidential government documents must be guaranteed; unseen hands, to amend a common saying, is corruption’s workshop.

He did not say anything about key officials like Budget Secretary Florencio Abad or Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo. Several Cabinet members were mentioned by name (with Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson being singled out twice). There may be nothing to this selective roll call, but unfortunately President Aquino has not yet slain the true hydra-headed monster in his government, that of the factions carried over from his campaign, and his choice of names proved to be an instant guessing game.

Most surprisingly, he did not say anything about his assassinated father and iconic mother. During his campaign for the presidency, references to Ninoy Aquino’s martyrdom and Cory Aquino’s role in the restoration of democracy were a constant in his speeches. Contrary to what Chiz Escudero’s operators broadcast in the early going (please see my previous column on the dirty tricks operations of Jojo Binay and of Escudero), I thought those references were sincere and necessary: They were at one and the same time a pledge of upstanding conduct and proof of the candidate’s basic humility. In this sense, then, Mr. Aquino’s Inaugural Address may be said to be the logical culmination of this humble habit of thought.

(Someone might object that State of the Nation Addresses are not the right venue for this tradition of tribute, but we need only remember Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s own referencing of her father in her SONAs, as one who gave her wise counsel—unfortunately, unheeded—and who popularized a telling metaphor for nation-building, in the image of edifice-making.)

I am of two minds about this deliberate omission.

I was one of those (not too many, if I were to judge from online feedback) who found the historical perspective implied in Aquino’s Inaugural Address rather limited (and limiting). In a regularly renewed democratic polity, an Inaugural Address is an opportune time to situate an incoming administration in the context of the national narrative. But the references to Ninoy and Cory in his address turned out to be the only discussion of nation-making heroism—there was no mention of Rizal or Bonifacio or Mabini (or of that genuine hero, Aguinaldo, much diminished by the “radical nationalist” discourse that began in the 1950s).

At the same time, I subscribe to the view of the eminent scholar Reynaldo Ileto, who believes that the same radical nationalist discourse, began by Teodoro Agoncillo and popularized by Renato Constantino (and appropriated in parts by Amado Guerrero, that is to say, by Jose Ma. Sison) lost its post-1970s dominance in Philippine society with the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.

I can certainly remember that, upon Aquino’s assassination, many Filipinos started referring to him, not as mere hero, but as national hero. It’s the question of martyrdom.

Like Rizal, Ninoy Aquino chose the more difficult path: returning to the country at the risk of his own life. Indeed, I think Ninoy’s powerful but undelivered arrival statement has only one parallel in our history as a nation: Rizal’s own letters to his family and “A los Filipinos,” written before he returned from Hong Kong in 1892, with instructions that they be opened after his death.

My point: I can understand why President Aquino left out references to his parents in his first SONA. It wasn’t strictly necessary. But at the same time I am haunted by a second lost opportunity, to connect the turmoil of the last dozen years (in my reckoning, the Age of Impeachment) and the extraordinary turnover rites of 2010 (which began on Aug. 1 last year, the day Cory died) to the larger national story.

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