MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo came out swinging yesterday at her critics in her last State of the Nation Address (SONA), defending her style of governance and vowing to continue to “fight” for the welfare of ordinary Filipinos and the economy up to the last day of her term in June 2010.
“At the end of this speech I shall step down from this stage, but not from the presidency. My term does not end until next year. Until then, I will fight for the ordinary Filipino. The nation comes first. There is much to do as head of state – to the very last day,” Mrs. Arroyo said.
Wearing a magenta terno and sporting a hairstyle similar to what she had when she was sworn into office in 2001, Mrs. Arroyo started her SONA with a prayer for the cancer-stricken former President Corazon Aquino, whom she later cited in her speech.
She said under her administration, the economy grew stronger despite the global recession while the country’s democracy remained protected despite several destabilization attempts accompanied by allegations of massive corruption and efforts to amend the Constitution to purportedly prolong her stay in office. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank expect the economy to contract this year.
She said she never declared martial law and never expressed a desire to extend her term.
“A year is a long time. Patuloy ang pamumuhunan sa tinatawag na three E’s ng ekonomiya, environment at edukasyon. (We will continue to invest in the three E’s of economy, environment and education). There are many perils that we must still guard against,” she said.
“Some say that after this SONA, it will be all politics. Sorry, but there’s more work.” She thanked Filipinos for allowing her to serve as President.
She asked political candidates in the coming elections “to talk more about how they will build up the nation rather than tear down their opponents.”
“Our candidates must understand the complexities of our government and what it takes to move the country forward. Give the electorate real choices and not just sweet talk,” Mrs. Arroyo said.
“Meanwhile, I will keep a steady hand on the tiller, keeping the ship of state away from the shallows some prefer, and steering it straight on the course I set in 2001,” she said.
While not naming names, the President delivered heavy punches to some of her strongest critics, who were apparently former President Joseph Estrada, Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., Sen. Mar Roxas, and critical business groups.
“I never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term. Many of those who accuse me of it tried to cling like nails to their posts,” Mrs. Arroyo said.
“I am accused of misgovernance. Many of those who accuse me of it left me the problem of their misgovernance to solve. And we did it,” she said.
She said she was “falsely accused, without proof, of using my office for personal profit. Many of those who accuse me of it have lifestyles and spending habits that make them walking proofs of that crime.”
“We can read their frustrations. They had the chance to serve this good country and they blew it by serving themselves,” she said.
“Those who live in glass houses should cast no stones. Those who should be in jail should not threaten it, especially if they have been there,” she said, apparently referring to Estrada’s detention and conviction for plunder. Mrs. Arroyo pardoned Estrada shortly after his conviction by the Sandiganbayan in October 2007.
Apparently referring to her erstwhile ally De Venecia, she said the “noisiest critics of constitutional reform tirelessly and shamelessly attempted Cha-cha (Charter change) when they thought they could take advantage of a shift in the form of government.”
“Now that they feel they cannot benefit from it, they oppose it,” the President said.
She, however, remained silent on her latest position on moves in the House of Representatives to amend the Constitution.
She said “as the seeds of fundamental political reform are planted, let us address the highest exercise of democracy, voting.”
She also hit Roxas, who has presidential ambitions, for using the Cheaper Medicine Law issue to lambast her. She said she exercised her powers under the law to increase the number of medicine whose prices are to be reduced.
Just do it
“To those who want to be President, this advice: If you really want something done, just to do it. Do it hard. Do it well. Don’t pussyfoot. Don’t pander. And don’t say bad words in public,” she said, apparently referring to Roxas’ swear words during an anti-Charter change rally in Makati City in December.
Mrs. Arroyo said being the President in the last eight years was not easy and was full of risks, but countered it by working “24/7 and being ready for any contingency, any crisis, anywhere, anytime.”
“There isn’t a day I do not work at my job or a waking moment when I do not think through a work-related problem,” she said.
“Even my critics cannot begrudge the long hours I put in. Our people deserve a government that works just as hard as they do,” she pointed out.
“Everything right can be undone by even a single wrong. Every step forward must be taken in the teeth of political pressures and economic constraints that could push you two steps back if you flinch and falter,” she said.
“I have not flinched, I have not faltered. Hindi ako umaatras sa hamon (I don’t run away from challenges),” she said.
Mrs. Arroyo said she has never done any of the things that “have scared my worst critics so much.”
“They are frightened by their own shadows,” she said.
She justified her frequent foreign trips, which critics have lambasted as a profligate misuse of public funds.
She also defended her strong moves to quell various destabilization and coup attempts since 2001, saying she was able to resolve the crises “with the ordinary powers of my office.”
“My critics call it dictatorship. I call it determination. We know it as strong government,” the President said.
“But I never declared martial law, though they are running scared as if I did. In truth, what they are really afraid of is their weakness in the face of this self-imagined threat,” she pointed out.
“I say to them: do not tell us what we all know, that democracy can be threatened. Tell us what you will do when it is attacked. I know what to do,” she said.
As she has shown in the past, she said, she will continue to firmly defend democracy and “try to sustain it by wise policies of economic progress, so that a democracy means not just an empty liberty but a full life for all.”
Mrs. Arroyo pointed out that in 2008 up to the first quarter of 2009, the Philippines stood among only a few economies in Asia-Pacific that did not shrink.
“Compare this to 2001, when some of my current critics were driven out by people power. Asia was surging but our country was on the brink of bankruptcy,” she said. “The state of our nation is a strong economy. Good news for our people, bad news for our critics.”
“I did not become President to be popular. To work, to lead, to protect and preserve our country, our people, that is why I became President. When my father left the presidency, we were second to Japan. I want our Republic to be ready for the first world in 20 years,” she said.
Since 2001, the economy posted uninterrupted growth for 33 quarters; more than doubled its size from $76 billion to $186 billion, she said. The average Gross Domestic Product growth from 2001 to the first quarter of 2009 is the highest in 43 years.
The number of Filipinos who considered themselves poor went down from 59 percent to 47 percent even with the population growing, Mrs. Arroyo said.
The country’s per capita GDP rose from $967 to $2,000 while it created eight million jobs in the last eight years “much, much more than at any other time,” she pointed out.
“In sum: First, we have a strong economy and a strong fiscal position to withstand global shocks. Second, we built new modern infrastructure and completed unfinished ones. Third, the economy is more fair to the poor than ever before. Fourth, we are building a sound base for the next generation. Fifth, international authorities have taken notice that we are safer from environmental degradation and man-made disasters,” she said.
She said the global economic crisis hit both developed and developing countries worldwide but the Philippines was least affected and was cited for this by international rating agencies.
“Had we listened to the critics of those policies, had we not braced ourselves for the crisis that came, had we taken the easy road much preferred by politicians eyeing elections, this country would be flat on its back. It would take twice the effort just to get it back again on its feet to where we are now because we took the responsibility and paid the political price of doing the right thing,” Mrs. Arroyo said.
Under her watch, she said major highways and roads as well as ports and airports mushroomed all over the country, including the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway.
The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry remained resilient despite the global recession with earnings of $6 billion and employment of 600,000, she said.
In the last four years, tourism almost doubled and is now a $5-billion industry, she said.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the personalities brought in by Mrs. Arroyo and asked to be acknwledged during her SONA were “living proofs” of the gains of the nation during her administration.
There was Gigi Gabiola, a former domestic worker in Dubai now working at the Department of Labor and Employment under the government’s emergency employment program.
Also presented during her SONA was Tarnati Dannawi, a Badjao trained in modern mariculture under the government’s food program that helped him earn P180,000 since last year.
“We will help more fisherfolk shift to fish farming with a budget of P1 billion,” she said.
Mrs. Arroyo presented two beneficiaries of her administration’s education initiatives.
One of them, Mylene Amerol-Macumbal, finished Accounting at the Mindanao State University before pursuing law. She placed second in the last bar exams, making her the first Muslim woman bar topnotcher.
In technical education and skills training, the government has invested three times that of three previous administrations combined, Mrs. Arroyo said as she presented Jennifer Silbor, who was taught medical transcriptions.
In reiterating her commitment to push the peace process in Mindanao and resuming talks with communist rebels, Mrs. Arroyo presented Leah de la Cruz, one of the 12,00 rebel returnees since last year.
Captured in 2006, De la Cruz is now involved in handicraft livelihood training of former rebels supported by the local government.
Legislative Agenda:‘More work to be done’
President Arroyo bared in her State of the Nation Address (SONA) yesterday several bills that she wants to see passed before her term ends next year. These include the following:
• The Philippine Transport Security Act, which seeks to create a Philippine Transport Security Authority as a law enforcement body, specifically for the areas of civil aviation, maritime, land and rail transportation.
• Amendment of the Public Service Law, which governs the telecommunications industry.
• Creation of a Department of Information and Communication Technology.
• Extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program for five years.
• Amendment of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas charter.
• New “sin taxes” to boost the capacity to reduce poverty and pursue growth.
• Passage of the proposed simplified net income tax system for the self-employed and professionals.
• Approval of a P1-billion budget to help fisherfolk engage in modern mariculture or fish farming.• Approval of funding for more policemen on the streets