I have this feeling that the public relations team of the Office of the President must have started pulling out their hair when the former mayor, now President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, started going off-script. It seems to be in his nature to speak his mind, regardless if cameras, microphones and iPhones are recording, and the State of the Nation Address was no different.
And I liked it.
There were a lot of things that were very different about how President Duterte delivered the first of his six annual speeches to the joint session comprised of the Senate and the House of Representatives. For starters, majority of the SONA was not spoken in traditional Tagalog; instead the President opted for English, which -unusually- would be easier to understand for Filipinos outside of Luzon. Secondly, he started with a neat observation; the three people occupying the top seats are all from Mindanao, a huge difference from from the perception of Imperial Manila. But perhaps the most important difference is not what was being said, but how it was all said.
Monday's SONA wasn't so much a formal speech as much as it was a cabinet meeting held out in the open; live on TV, radio, and streaming on the web and social media. President Duterte wasn't just talking to the joint session of congress, to government officials, and to the people, he was giving cabinet members directives and orders to pursue practical, pragmatic solutions to persistent everyday problems and issues. And it was all there for us to see.
That was unusual, and perhaps the biggest break from the tradition of the State of the Nation Address. SONAs are typically meant to elicit support from the members of the upper and lower houses of the joint session of congress, but here was President RRD, talking to his cabinet of crusaders to carry out orders in line with his vision.
He ordered the Philippine National Police to double, or even triple, their efforts to suppress criminal activities, even within their own ranks. He ordered a unilateral ceasefire of the armed forces with regards to conflict against the CPP/NPA/NDF to bring them to the negotiating table. He announced that the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health law be implemented to help families be more informed. He ordered government agencies to streamline business permit processing and emulate the system in Davao where permits are released in three days. If that can't be done, then people can complain to a new hotline by dialling 8888.
The man showed how in touch he was with farmers, and announced plans for a vastly improved agricultural system by addressing concerns like soil fertility, irrigation, and post-harvest processing. Duterte even said that there should be more satellite offices for those who need to get passports, citing what he saw outside a mall in Davao of people sleeping in line at a parking lot until the office opens the next day. Women's rights, indutrialization, decongesting Manila's airport, and an aggressive stance on drugs and criminals are just some of the other concerns on Dutertes list as he seeks to define his administration by taking a “human approach to development and governance”, and it looks very promising. Heck, I'm sure most of us cheered when he said free Wi-Fi in select public spaces and accelerating the speed of the national broadband network.
On the motoring front, Duterte proposed plans to extend the validity of our licenses from three years to five, saving us precious time at the LTO. He announced that his administration will look at the viability of having license plates at the point-of-sale, meaning when you drive away from the showroom, your new car will have a new plate already. And, of course, he seeks to address the worsening problem of traffic in Metro Manila through the expansion of infrastructure, adding more train projects, mitigating flooding, and even through departmental emergency powers if need be.
I can't help but compare the first SONA delivered by our 16th President to the first SONA of our 15th President. Duterte did away with much of the rhetoric that characterized many (if not all) of the SONAs of the before, instead focusing his time at the podium on problems, issues, and concerns we all feel and know too well. He broke down the fancy language for us so we can better see and understand what he intends to implement directly. Most importantly, we saw the difference between an administrative leader as opposed to someone who spent much of his career as a legislator. Or to be even more concise, we can just compare the sheer number of applauses; President Aquino got 26 in his first SONA in 2010, but Duterte got 79 last Monday. And a lot of laughter.
What most of us missed when President Duterte was holding his SONA was the fact that he didn't mention (to the best of my recollection) things like call centers, BPOs, helping OFWs get more jobs abroad, sending out more nurses and skilled workers, much like his predecessors did.
Instead he talked a lot about industrializing the Philippines to reduce external dependency, about speeding up business applications so we can start being our own bosses, improving infrastructure (planes, trains and automobiles) on a grander scale, and improving agriculture and the lives of farmers.
He's looking at improving life at home -within our borders and islands- and not sending out people to find it elsewhere. That is perhaps the single most inspiring part of his speech.
When I was a student of Political Science at DLSU, one of the books I read was 20 Speeches That Moved A Nation by Manuel L. Quezon III. The first SONA of PRRD probably won't go down in history as number 21; there were no exposés about the sad state of the country with fiscal data to rub it in even more, nor were there tearjerking stories about a bangkang papel (Tagalog: paper origami boat) floating down the Pasig River.
No, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's speech probably didn't move us as a nation, but those 100 minutes of his SONA may have been just the thing that got our nation moving.