(delivered by Rep. Edcel C. Lagman on 25 July 2023)
The Counter-SONA, as the name suggests, is principally a critique of what the President said and failed to say in his State of the Nation Address.
It also embodies the authentic opposition’s suggested alternative programs and reforms.
It likewise highlights the instances of concurrence with the President’s report to the nation.
Let me start with the third aspect of the Counter-SONA on concurrence.
1. The President is correct when he said that “The biggest problem that we encountered was inflation” and he is also right that the inflation rate is down to 5.4% in June from a high of 8.7% in January this year. He added that the surge in inflation is caused by the ill-effects of the pandemic, the war between Russia and Ukraine, aggravated by the slowdown of production of oil-producing countries and the concomitant increase of the prices of petroleum products. The President added that his administration adopted policies which resulted in taming the inflation rate.
However, the President failed to specify what enabling policies his administration implemented to achieve the lowering of inflation.
What did government do considering that the war between Russia and Ukraine is still ongoing and beyond our control? Moreover, the pricing of petroleum by the oil-producing countries is also beyond our control. Furthermore, the emerging economic recovery is driven by the diminishing adverse effects of the fizzling out of the pandemic and the revenge spending on consumption and travel of Filipinos liberated from the fangs of the contagion.
Pray, Mr. President, what magic wand did you wield to ease the inflation? Or the inflation waned as a result of normal economic dynamics without much government intervention.
It has to be underscored that despite the recent deceleration in the inflation rate, the inflation levels continue to be oppressive. A family’s income can buy fewer goods and services than before; alternatively, it has to labor more to earn more to be able to get the same volume of goods and services.
Filipinos can only long for the more bearable 2.4% inflation rate in pre-pandemic 2019.
2. We also agree with the President’s statement that “[t]he campaign against illegal drugs continues—but it has taken on a new face. It is now geared towards community-based treatment, rehabilitation, education, and reintegration”. But what is worrisome is that hundreds were killed in the drug-campaign during the President’s first year. The Dahas Project of the UP Third World Studies Center monitored at least 342 drug-related killings from July 1, 2022 to June 20, 2023, including 115 killed during anti-illegal drugs operations by State agents. This number increases to 146 to include those killed by government forces found to have links to illegal drugs.
3. We commend the President for his strong words against smugglers of agricultural products. He failed, however, to mention the magnitude of the smuggling problem. Brave words are not enough. Swift and resolute actions are imperative
4. We also laud the enactment of the Agrarian Emancipation Act which condones P57-B worth of loans of agrarian reform beneficiaries. However, what the President most probably does not know is the more progressive House version was watered down in the bicameral conference.
5. Let us give credit where credit is due. The administration has indeed admirably succeeded in keeping the unemployment rate below 5% in each of the first five months of 2023, compared to higher than 5% in each of the first five months in 2022. Moreover, the 2023 monthly unemployment rate has steadily slid from 4.8% in January to 4.3% in May.
It should also be noted that the pre-pandemic unemployment rate was higher at 5.1% in 2019. However, the adequacy of the income of those employed may have to be examined and the underemployed reduced. The administration should also look into the noticeable drops in employment in wholesale and retail trade, construction, and manufacturing.
While the unemployment rate has gone done, the President has failed to disclose his agenda for the protection of labor in terms of abolishing contractualization, enhancing security of tenure, strengthening unionism, and approximating the living wage mandated by the Constitution.
6. We are likewise extremely pleased that the President strongly urged Filipino parents to have their children fully vaccinated against childhood diseases.
7. The Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs must be congratulated for exceeding their respective tax collection targets. Indeed, tax consciousness and responsibility must inhere in every tax payer, from the echelon of leadership and the mandarins of big business to minor functionaries and small entrepreneurs.
WEST PHILIPPINE SEA
The President said that “[w]e will protect our sovereign rights and preserve our territorial integrity, in defense of rules-based international order”, perhaps in reference to China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). This was a reiteration of what he said on February 19, 2023 that he would not surrender an inch of Philippine territory in the WPS. Since he made that battle cry, the Philippines has not recovered an inch of territory in the WPS illegally amassed and arrogantly occupied by China.
Victory is not in the arbitral decision. It is in the full enforcement of the award.
I hope very soon the Philippines can proclaim that President Marcos Jr. has finally enforced the arbitral award, after President Benigno Aquino III seven years ago obtained the favorable arbitral decision while President Rodrigo Duterte forfeited to China the said decision.
We must seize the fresh momentum brought by the strong support for the Philippines of G-7 countries; European Union member countries; major world economic power Australia; and India, a member of the G-20 and the world’s largest democracy. All these countries have vowed to help the Philippines enforce the award by stopping China’s contumacious defiance of the arbitral decision and its continuing incursions and militarization in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines can immediately host a conference of these kindred nations to make a bold resolve for China to comply with the arbitral award. Varied economic sanctions against China can be enforced for it to cease and desist being a renegade in the community of nations.
Moreover, the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted on June 19 to 23, 2023 or a month ago documents that 80% of Filipinos agree that the Philippines needs alliances with other countries to defend the WPS and to protect the
Mr. Speaker, two important events happened on July 18, 2023. First, President Marcos, Jr. signed into law the Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF), and second, the Appellate Chamber of the International Criminal Court rejected the appeal of the Philippines on the alleged lack of jurisdiction of the ICC and its prosecutors over former President Rodrigo Duterte and his cohorts for alleged crimes against humanity in relation to the deadly war on drugs wherein thousands of mostly marginalized and disadvantaged Filipinos were extrajudicially killed.
MAHARLIKA INVESTMENT FUND
President Marcos Jr. approved the MIF despite the credible and learned opposition of experts and economists who repeatedly pointed out that the measure is ill-timed and lacks fiscal wisdom considering that major negative economic indicators presently pummel the economy.
It has also been posited that the funds which will be sourced for the MIF would be better used for budgetary support to the annual General Appropriations Act for socio-economic services and essential infrastructure development. Why invest on contingent projects when funds are urgently needed to finance the national budget?
Since the MIF is now a fait acompli with the solid support of the presidential economic advisers, we hope it would succeed. However, once the Maharlika Investment Fund fails, the heads of these economic advisers must roll.
INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT
The President failed to reiterate his stance for the Philippines to completely disengage from the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction consequent to the denial of the country’s appeal challenging the jurisdiction of the ICC and its prosecutors. It must also be underscored that the issue of complementarity, where the ICC recognizes the functioning of a country’s criminal justice system, does not obtain in the Philippines because the principal suspect – former President Duterte and his major co-respondents –have not been prosecuted and brought before the appropriate Philippine courts and remain scot-free.
Recognizing the jurisdiction of the ICC and its prosecutors is the only honorable option of adhering to the Rome Statute whose applicability to the Philippines subsisted over crimes against humanity purportedly committed by the respondents before the official effectivity of the Philippine withdrawal on March 17, 2019.
No less than the Supreme Court in the case of Pangilinan, et al. v. Cayetano, et al. confirmed the jurisdiction of the ICC and its prosecutors over crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Duterte and cohorts between November 1, 2011, when the Rome Statute entered into force in the Philippines, and March 17, 2019, the effectivity of the Philippines’ withdrawal.
The Supreme Court held that:
“Withdrawing from the Rome Statute does not discharge a state party from the obligations it has incurred as a member” under Article 127 of the Rome Statute.
xxx xxx xxx
“Until the withdrawal took effect on March 17, 2019, the Philippines was committed to meet its obligations under the Rome Statute. Any and all governmental acts up to March 17, 2019 may be taken cognizance of by the International Criminal Court.
xxx xxx xxx
“Consequently, liability for the alleged summary killings and other atrocities committed in the course of the war on drugs is not nullified or negated here. The Philippines remained covered and bound by the Rome Statute until March 17, 2019.”
Once a party, like a country, files an appeal it verily submits to the jurisdiction of the appellate forum. It is bound to accept the decision on appeal whether favorable or adverse. It is estopped from rejecting a denial of its appeal. Otherwise, it makes a mockery of the appellate process and becomes a rebel against the international order.
The SONA is supposed to be truth telling with a pardonable degree of embellishment to paint a future of hope and a recital of accomplishments, either actual or perceived. But devoid of embellishments the Philippine economy is still skewed against the impoverished multitude.
The face of economic progress must be the human image of the uplifted poor, not the logo of the peso or dollar for the dominant elite.
For policymakers like the Members of the Congress, knowing and understanding the real score is indispensable in legislating responsible and responsive policies. What then is the real score?
Central to economic recovery and development is the attainment of sustainable human development. Economic growth must be people-centered, particularly for the marginalized and disadvantaged. We are distant from this goal when juxtaposed with relevant indicators:
Human Development Index
The actual state of the nation’s economy is not measured solely or primarily by traditional economic indicators like GNP, GDP, etc., but by the Human Development Index (HDI) which, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), quantifies the “average achievement in three key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living”.
The Philippines’ HDI of 0.699 (with 1.0 as the highest) ranks the country 116th out of 191 countries. The current score is below the East Asia and the Pacific average of 0.749 and the world’s average of 0.732.
The Philippines’ ranking places it ahead only of both Laos and Timor Leste at (140), Cambodia (146) and Myanmar (149) in Southeast Asian countries. It is lower than Singapore (12), Brunei Darussalam (51), Malaysia (62) and Thailand (66).
The Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality. The higher Gini coefficient, the worse the inequality. At 40.7 in 2021 the Philippines has the third worst inequality in East Asia and the Pacific, following Malaysia with 41.2 and Papua New Guinea at 41.9, and worse than Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand which have better Gini coefficients at 37.9, 36.8, and 35.1, respectively.
In March this year, a survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) revealed that 51% or about 14 million households considered themselves poor. After only three months, or from June 28 to July 1, another SWS survey documented that 45% of Filipino families rated themselves as poor or a 6% reduction. This drastic decline is unprecedented. Considering that Filipino households were still reeling from high inflation, albeit abated, during the survey period, the SWS will have to explain if they have employed a new methodology of measure.
Nonetheless, 45% of Filipino families or 12.5 million households, which translates to 62.5M Filipinos computed at a family of five, is nothing to be proud of. It is still at the higher level with an additional 30% of families considering themselves borderline poor, while only 22% said that they were not poor.
Even the President did not claim this “extraordinary” reduction as a success of his administration.
The country’s debt stock stood at P12.79 trillion in June 2022 just before the start of the current administration. At the end of May 2023, or after 11 months, the debt stock increased by P1.31 trillion to P14.1 trillion.
Administration economists always advise us against getting alarmed by the size of the national debt. They invariably point to the current 61% debt-to-GDP ratio, which is negligibly higher than the 60% international standard.
Filipinos will nevertheless feel more comfortable with the debt-to-GDP ratio brought down to the pre-pandemic 39.6% level in 2019.
There is also a need for a Congressional inquiry to investigate and validate the utilization of the international and domestic debts the Philippines incurred during the Duterte and the present administrations.
More burdensome than the size of the debt stock is debt servicing which is composed of principal amortizations which are automatically appropriated and larger, and interest payments which are budgeted in the GAA. This year’s total debt service is P1,601,954,000.00, higher than last year’s P1,297,791,000.00. Debt service is expected to balloon further in 2024 eating funds for socio-economic services and infrastructure development.
Filipinos cannot help asking how many hospitals and classrooms can otherwise be built or repaired and/or how many doctors, nurses, and public school teachers can be hired at decent salaries, by the inordinate amount outlaid as well as automatically appropriated for debt service.
In terms of real GDP, the economy grew by 6.4% in the first quarter of 2023. This is respectable. But, as the administration itself notes, this is the lowest growth rate in the last eight quarters.
In the previous seven quarters, the growth rates were at least 7%. In the first quarter of 2022, the economy grew by 8%, much more impressive than the 6.4% growth in the first quarter of this year.
Net inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI) dropped by 14.1% in April as investors remained concerned over an economic slowdown and elevated inflation, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) said.
Data released by the BSP showed FDI net inflows declined to $876 million in April from $1.02 billion in the same month in 2022.
The much-ballyhooed foreign investment commitments amounting to P3.9 trillion ($71 billion) purportedly secured during the President’s travels have yet to materialize.
The President utterly failed to mention the state of human rights in the country despite the government’s protestations that it adheres to the protection and promotion of human rights.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Bryony Lau said that, “President Marcos needs to do more than issue statements about democracy and the rule of law to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights,” and that, “Without concrete action to break old patterns of abuses and secure accountability for past crimes, his words have little credibility.” Lau could not have said it better. One need not dig deep to find evidence of the gaping chasm between the President’s words and his actions.
Even worse than the President’s apathy to the current victims of human rights violations is his outright refusal to acknowledge that such violations were rampantly committed during his father’s regime. As the President himself previously said, there must be a “high level of accountability” for human rights violations. But how can there be accountability when the President obstinately refuses to even recognize the existence of these violations?
Emblematic of this unwillingness is his unequivocal declaration that the Philippines will be “disengaging” from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
No wonder global citizen action and civil society watchdog CIVICUS has described the Philippines as having “repressed” or “significantly constrained” civic space with a rating of 34 out of 100. In their report focusing on the Philippines one year into the Marcos Jr presidency, the rights monitor underscored the “virtually non-existent” accountability for various human rights violations, notably the arrest and detention of activists, criminalization of and attacks on journalists, and red-tagging of human rights defenders.
How do we address the dismal human rights situation in the country? First, we need to adopt a human rights-based approach to governance. Public authorities as duty-bearers must be capacitated on how to respect, protect and fulfill human rights and facilitate rights-holders’ claiming and enjoying their rights.
Second, there must be massive and sustained multi-stakeholder awareness-raising and information dissemination on human rights concepts, principles, and best practices. The narrative perpetuated by the previous administration vilifying the very essence of human rights and human rights defenders must be negated by the truth through proper education.
Third, the enactment of human rights legislation must be prioritized, and active human rights policy advocacy encouraged. The Human Rights Defenders Protection bill, already approved on third and final reading during both the 17th and 18th Congresses by the House of Representatives, must be enacted into law without further delay.
Fourth, it is crucial that we closely monitor how human rights laws are implemented. I have always said that a law is only as good as its implementation. I have championed landmark human rights laws such as the Anti-Torture Act and the Anti-Disappearance Act, which took 22 years and 16 years respectively, to be enacted. These laws are hardly implemented. Thus, I reiterate my call for Congress to exercise its oversight function to monitor the implementation of human rights laws. Parallel to this, adequate funding must be provided to ensure that these laws are fully and strictly implemented, including an increase in the annual budget of the CHR.
Lastly and most urgently, we must give our full support to the ICC probe into crimes “allegedly committed on the territory of the Philippines between 1 November 2011 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign.”
We were once a country considered to be a beacon of human rights in the region. It is beyond unfortunate how quickly this light has been eclipsed in the span of a few years. We have a lot of work to do, but we have already proven that with collective will and action, we Filipinos are more than capable of ending eras of darkness.
President Marcos Jr., even before his SONA, rationalized that the worsening shortage of health workers is due to their outstanding success during the pandemic, resulting in the increasing demand, particularly for nurses, in overseas employment.
Unfortunately, this “success” is eroded by the country’s failure, both in the public and private sector, to adequately compensate and extend benefits to our healthcare workers to prevent their exodus to foreign employment.
Yes, they “did really well during the pandemic” working non-stop for 48 hours despite substandard PPEs and measly salaries and allowances, some of which remain unpaid to this very day. It is well that the President promised that they would be paid soonest.
As far as health workers are concerned, government failed, not succeeded, in giving them adequate protection and compensation.
We have indeed a shortage of doctors. According to WHO, for every 1,000 people, the Philippines has only 0.8 doctors (or 1 doctor per 1,200 Filipinos) while the world average is 1.6 doctors per 1,000 people.
The Philippines does not have enough hospital beds. For every 1,000 people, we have only one hospital bed, compared to Malaysia with 1.9, Thailand with 2.1, and Vietnam with 2.6. The world average is 2.9.
Many nurses opt not to practice their profession primarily because of the low pay and absence of benefits. While waiting for better opportunities abroad, they take on jobs that are not at all related to their education and training.
While it may be beneficial to empower nurses and allied medical professionals with expanded education and training as the President mentioned, if we are unable to pay them adequate wages and benefits, we are just investing on human resource for foreign employers to ultimately benefit.
A special health issue is malnutrition. Statistics on malnutrition in the Philippines are depressing. Every day, 95 children die of malnutrition, 27 out of 1,000 children die before their fifth birthday, and one third of Filipino children are stunted.
According to UNICEF, the Philippines is fifth among countries with the highest stunting prevalence in East Asia and the Pacific and is one of the 10 countries with the highest number of stunted children in the world.
As expected, the culprit is poverty. Among the poorest 20% of Filipino households, the stunting ratio is much higher at 42.4%. Not that the Filipino family is unwilling to give its children good nutrition. It is simply financially unable to do so. Government must rescue our children with proper intervention.
The contribution of the agriculture sector to the Philippine economy is falling over time.
From 25.7% in the 1950s, the average annual share of agriculture in the GDP consistently decreased every decade to 9.6% from 2010 to 2019. In 2022, the share was down to 8.9%.
Over the decades, the average annual growth rate of agriculture fell from 5.6% in the 1950s to less than 2.0% from 2010 to 2019. In 2022, while the economy improved by 7.6%, agriculture limped with a negligible 0.5% growth.
Agriculture, the sector that feeds the nation, must be revitalized. Its strengthening will stimulate the industrial and services sectors. Higher incomes of farmers and fisherfolk will enable them to purchase more products from the industry and services sectors. And if increased agricultural production can bring down the prices of farm products, less of the income of households will be needed to purchase food, thus enabling them to purchase more non-agricultural products.
To boost agricultural growth, more farm-to-market roads must be constructed; more post-harvest facilities must be provided to avoid wastage; farmers and fisherfolk must be empowered to access cheap credit; agricultural insurance must be made available to them; research and extension services should be maximized; finally, construction and repair of irrigation systems must be intensified. Some of these were also proposed by the President. Unfortunately, these veritable programs have been reduced to motherhood statements because they have largely stagnated on the drawing board.
Likewise, rice and sugar importation should be short term emergency measures and must be minimized.
In the interest of time and to devote more discussion on education, I will deliver a separate privilege speech on this issue.
The proclamation of President Marcos Jr. that “Bagong Pilipinas has arrived”, is a copycat of Marcos Sr.’s “Bagong Lipunan”. We do not need a recycled discredited slogan. If we play with words, we play with fire.
* Submitted for the record this afternoon, 25 July 2023, because Rep. Lagman was not allowed to deliver his Counter SONA due to some “administrative matters”.