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[OPINION] SONA 2023: Bagong Pilipinas?

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Jul 24, 2023 10:06 pm

President Ferdinand R. Jr. kicked off his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) from the very gut—inflation. 

This is understandable. So far, the inflation rate is where the new administration has gained some ground despite tremendous challenges at the start. How these statistical figures translate to actual spending power, of course, remains to be seen. 

In his first SONA in 2022, Marcos mapped out the measurable medium-term macroeconomic and fiscal objectives in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth of “6.5% to 8% real GDP growth annually between 2023 to 2028.”  

The Philippine Statistics Authority’s report in May 2023 tells us that during the first quarter alone, the country has already pegged a growth rate of 6.4%. This may have been the “lowest growth registered after seven quarters.” However, it remains quite impressive coming from the context of a post-pandemic economic ambition. And proudly mentioned this.

The president, of course, pointed out a slew of other “achievements” all throughout the SONA, but more within the tone of the usual political motherhood statements backed up by statistics whose sources weren’t even cited.

Having also hinted at the “exacting global standards” the Philippines has to meet in its journey towards a “Bagong Pilipinas,” I wondered: Why did the president miss mentioning the country’s gross national income per capita?

President Marcos Jr. giving his speech

Anyone with a modicum of economic knowledge would know that no amount of infrastructural achievement in real time would mean anything if spending power is sorely lacking.

In his first SONA, the president did mention his goal of reaching at least US$4,256 gross national income (GNI) per capita for the upper middle-income bracket by 2024. 

But with foreign direct investments sluing down the slippery slope of inflation and other factors—dipping to “US$876 million net inflows in April 2023, lower by 14.1% from the US$1.0 billion net inflows in the same month last year,” according to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP)— Marcos' GNI per capita goal may not see the light of day in the appointed time.

Overall, inflation may have dipped to 6.1% in May 2023 from 6.6% in April 2023. However, rice inflation continues to posit the highest year-on-year growth rates of 3.4% from 2.9%, “and vegetables, tubers, plantains, cooking bananas and pulses at 12.6 percent from 10.0 percent,” says the Philippine Statistics Authority.

This puts considerable strain on income. The Philippines’ GNI per capita remains at $3,950 in 2022 from $3,550 in 2021. Pretty much a long way off from the World Bank’s acceptable middle-income bracket of $4,255. This corner of the Medium-Term Fiscal Strategy (MTFF) is not good. 

By comparison in Southeast Asia, the Philippines had been eating dust from the racing slicks of Singapore ($67,200 GNI per capita) and Brunei ($31,410), and upper-middle-income nations like Malaysia ($11,780), Thailand ($7,230), and Indonesia ($4,580). 

Marcos with Senate President Miguel Zubiri and House Speaker Martin Romualdez

How does this relate to a recent Social Weather Stations survey where 45% of Filipino families rate themselves as poor, with 33% borderline? This may seem like a recovery from the previous 51%, but the figures do not bode well when you look at them in actual numbers. Because in a country that rakes in P5.3 trillion as national budget—where a trillion pesos are lost annually to corruption—one hungry Filipino is one too many.

Expectedly, too, the president calls to fore the achievements of the agricultural sector, which he heads.

Let’s be fair. In his first SONA, Marcos raised the agrarian debt burden with the goal of amending Sec. 26 of Republic Act 6657. “On this law, the loans of agrarian reform beneficiaries with unpaid amortization and interest shall be condoned,” he said amid applause. Did this promise see the light of day? 

Marcos proudly recalled the signing of RA 11953 in his second SONA, basically easing the debt burdens of agrarian beneficiaries by condoning all their loans, including interests, penalties, and surcharges. This covered nearly P58 billion of what land beneficiaries owed the Landbank of the Philippines. Checking on whether that was a blind claim, I found out that the Landbank had assured the success of the Agrarian Emancipation Act.

How this legal development will advance food security would be interesting to watch, nonetheless. Many say that the absence of a new Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) might hinder its success.

What was quite surprising, given its steamrolling victory in both Houses, the Maharlika Wealth Fund seemed to have received a rather lackluster applause—one, and reluctant at best—after mentioning it.

Lastly, given his family’s history, I did not expect him to make any mention of anti-corruption efforts in his administration; but to his credit, he did. Perhaps, he is aware that ease of doing business is not only buoyed by “green lanes,” or better “back-end” functions, and quieter structures of taxation. The anti-corruption campaign, with all seriousness, is primary. 

Bagong Pilipinas, a bit cliché, captures what we all want to happen to our benighted country. But as long as Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war stains all efforts at reform (it continues to this day), and the memory of martial law remains unresolved, “Bagong Pilipinas” may be too tall an order. 

Government should not be in the business of erecting pipe dreams. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of PhilSTAR L!fe’s editors and staff.