Five ways to elevate political discourse in the Philippines

Election season 2013 has begun. The opening salvos have been fired. Both camps, Team PNoy and UNA are now locked in battle. Team PNoy a coalition comprised of the ruling LP, Akbayan, the NP, LDP, nominal members of the NPC and PDP-Laban and two independents claim to represent the reformist, “righteous path”. The United Nationalist Alliance comprised of PDP-Laban, PMP, NPC, former members of Lakas-CMD with some adopted independents also running under Team PNoy position themselves as the more populist, pragmatist camp.

As you can tell, the incestuous nature of these broad coalitions with common candidates (update: the latest twist is that this has been recently scrapped) and members of the same party running on different tickets can be rather confusing. Such is the rambunctious nature of Philippine politics where anything goes. Try as they might to distinguish themselves from each other, the field seems littered with mostly more of the same. And so in a world where you have fifty shades of grey as opposed to black and white, the pejorative name-calling has begun with one camp branding the other “impostors”, and the latter retaliating by naming the former a band of “hypocrites”. The polemicists have tried to distinguish good dynasts from bad ones, but it all seems to be a bit like determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In fact, I would use the treadmill utilised in the filming of Team PNoy’s advertisement as a metaphor for the Philippines—there seems to be a lot of movement, a lot of activity, but the country merely finds itself running in place, with no progress to show for it. In its nearly twenty-seven years of history since the EDSA people power revolution which will be celebrated in a few days, the nation has experienced boom and bust cycles. It has grown, but the number of jobs created each year is barely enough to cope with new entrants into the job market. The poverty rate may have gone down, but the absolute number of people living below the $1.50 per day poverty line has not dramatically declined.

The same problems seem to hound us, yet the same families and cliques continue to get elected into higher office. Other poorer countries have caught up and overtaken us in the meantime. I am talking about China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Pretty soon Vietnam will do the same. Like the mythical Sisyphus, we seem destined to roll our rock up the hill, only to see it roll down again.

So what can we do to break the cycle? Must we perpetually have this circus every three years without any significant improvement in tone or in substance? I thought PNoy and his Liberal Party were meant to usher in a new way of governing. That includes the way they run their party, right? So how can the political discourse in the country be improved? What should we as voters and as citizens demand from our politicians?

I would offer five simple but meaningful ways that in my humble opinion would raise the standard in our political system a notch or two. Here they are:

  1. Have clear party (or coalition) platforms. In Team PNoy’s first official campaign ad, they introduce their candidates and offer them up as the team that will implement the president’s program of reform. But what that program is was not actually explained. UNA’s ad allowed each candidate to state the basic themes of their individual priorities as legislators to be, but again no unifying theme or platform. The first step towards clarifying what each team stands for is to demand from them a detailed party (or coalition) platform outlining the policies that they intend to legislate. (Note: the party as distinct from each individual candidate.) Voters should know why they should support the full team, as opposed to individuals. This is such a basic thing, but it is rarely adhered to. Yet it is a sign of political maturity, if they are able to do this one thing.
  2. Prepare fully costed policies. It is very easy to say you are for health, very easy to say you are for education, for employment, for good government and for protection. The question is how your party plans to go about delivering them. The next step after submitting a set of policies is to cost those policies. This answers two fundamental questions: (a) how much will it cost to implement them, and (b) where will the money come from? I would suggest that if a party (or coalition) cannot answer these two basic questions, then their platforms are not worth the paper they are printed on. Only by answering these questions will we know how serious these politicos are. Are they merely offering token programs that won’t have an impact on the problems they wish to address or are they talking about systemic reforms? Are they offering expensive programs which will be funded by “savings”? If so, they have to nominate which programs they will cut—where will the savings come from? If they intend to raise revenue measures to fund these programs, then they have to specify these as well. The Congressional Budget Office should be made available to assist them and to verify if the revenue and cost estimates are credible.
  3. A coherent strategy for industrial transformation and job creation has to be put forward. In my humble opinion, it is no longer credible to offer livelihood programs or temporary government projects as an employment strategy. There has to be a coherent strategy aimed at restructuring our industrial mix. The World Bank, the UN and the ADB have in the last five years shifted their position on the matter. The former chief economist of the World Bank Justin Yifu Lin, the first non-Westerner to head up the Bank has re-written its views on industrial policy. It is now germane to talk about industrial transformation through government intervention again. Dubbing this new approach the New Structural Economics (or NSE), the Bank now offers a systematic way to facilitate industry transformation through what it calls its growth identification facilitation framework (or GIFF). The key question for the parties (or coalitions) to address is whether they would pursue this and how they would give it new impetus. Should the country for example set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund with the excess foreign reserves created by OFW remittances? What areas or themes should this fund invest in? There has to be a coherent strategy for lifting the investment rate and for generating productive capacity within the country.
  4. A time frame for execution has to be laid down. If parties plan to introduce new policies or programs, and they have costed them, they need to specify their timetable for achieving them. Will they gradually phase them in? Will there be sunset clauses, if these policies are only meant to deal with temporary crises or situations? If they for instance commit to a Freedom of Information bill, they need to specify a time frame for passing it. In so doing, they will be specifying their legislative agenda for the next three to six years. If they don’t spell out their time frame,  why should we as voters believe that they are serious about implementing such proposals?
  5. A credible commitment or letter of undertaking must be signed. Finally, if these parties (or coalitions) are indeed serious about their plans, their programs and their agendas, they need to put all this in writing and have their entire slate sign a formal document undertaking to abide by them. They need to affix their names to it and present it to the public. I could go further and say that they should offer to waive their pork barrel allotments if they fail to live up to their commitment, but I won’t. We the people will at least know they have reneged and can choose to punish them at the next election. It is a matter of trust. If we can’t rely on their word, then they ought not to count on our votes next time.

Well, there you go. It’s a simple recipe for assuring greater responsiveness and accountability on the part of our elected officials and their parties. I haven’t called for the abolition of political dynasties. I haven’t called for punishing political turncoats, butterflies or balimbings or changing our form of government or any other fundamental re-jigging of our constitution.

All I have proposed is to have some kind of institutional evolution, some meaningful incremental reform in the way we distinguish one set of politicians from another. One candidate the other day asked the question, who is a trapo (traditional politician)? I would like to answer that by saying, a trapo is someone who does not adhere to these five basic principles as outlined above. It is about time the Philippines with its sophisticated 24/7 digital and social media technology for conducting campaigns followed a more modern method of conducting its public policy discourse. In this manner, at least, we can gain some degree of progress down the road towards political and democratic maturity that has eluded us so far.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • Jag


    It looks like we have the Spanish Disease plus the Washington inspired Separation of Economics and State.

    I wonder how many Senators or Senator wannabees would even appreciate the

    depth of the problems the country faces.

  • manuelbuencamino

    I agree except for number 1. My view on political parties was shaped by George Washington’s farewell address (actually letter) and by Manuel L Quezon’s “my loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins”. Those two leaders saw that parties eventually become vested interests. They both placed their country above their political party.

    • GabbyD

      i dont understand the relevance of the quezon quote.

      quezon’s point is that if you dont agree with the party, you are free to leave. i dont think anyone is arguing against that.

      cusp’s point is that you have to have something (the platform) to disagree with first — then you can leave if u disagree.

  • YPinoyPH

    Sana naman sa dadating na eleksyon maging matalino na ang mga Pinoy. Wag na tayong magpadala sa mga advertisements nila. Ang gamitin sa pagboto ay ang konsensya nyo, pakiramdaman ninyo kung sino ang mga nararapat na mamuno satin.
    Hindi kailangang sikat, o kilala na e yun ang iboboto natin. Dahil nga sa Patuloy na pagpili natin sa mga kilala ng kandidato ay walang pagbabago sa kalagayan ng Pilipinas.
    Start the changes today and vote wisely.

  • GabbyD

    social media… i was following B0’s tweets, remembering back then when ressa said radikalchick’s blog had “libelous statements”.

    what is interesting is what B0 said about how “social media” works, vs say traditional journalism.

    trad journalism says you should ask questions first before making accusations. if the source declines to comment, go ahead and write up what you have.

    the internet makes these inquiries easier.

    interestingly enough, B0 has the opposite opinion — the burden of verification doesnt lie with writer, but the internet allows essentially a “right of reply” in the comment sections: “If Ressa’s argument is that she was “only a tweet away”, implying that Stuart-Santiago (@radikalchick on Twitter) should have come to her for comment first before publishing her piece, one could also respond with the argument that it is only a mouse-click away from the comments facility of Stuart-Santiago’s blog — a facility that, as most 21st Century “Netizens” are aware, most blogs are equipped with.”

    setting aside the issue that comment sections are owned by the blog owner and any reply can be deleted by said owner (this is also B0’s policies), there are clearly TWO DIFFERENT philosophies when it comes to behavior online.

    who has the responsibility? clearly, the answer is open ended; no one can enforce anything so the actual practice will be determined collectively.

    but what is sure, the standards of online journalism should be similar, if not the same as print. verifying sources is key.

    what about bloggers? they can do whatever they want. However, it is incredibly obvious to me that if they dont use top caliber journalistic standards, then its not clear what they bring to the table other than their own opinions. quite frankly, whenever i see “facts” in blogs, i immediately google them, and get to the source. i have a natural distrust of things i read online, and consider everything as opinion until proven otherwise.

    so can this raise political discourse? offhand, its not clear how having no standards on verifying data can raise any discourse, political ones included.

    • Interesting points you raise, GabbyD. Journalism professionals recognize the importance of opinion in the distillation of competing or unclear facts, which is why they have an Opinion section. Such opinions and bias are, by professional journalistic standards, NOT supposed to be incorporated in news reporting.

      The Philippines has no enforcement of such journalistic standards. The press is self-regulated and knows that opinion, even blazed away in headlines, gets readers. So they prostitute themselves.

      Blogging has no broadly accepted journalistic standards, other than what people themselves wish to impose. I know of few blogs that are fact-based and objective. So all blogging to me is in the Opinion section. I broadcast over and over again that my own articles should not be read as fact or truth, as I seek “the idea” that is formed between facts and solutions to problems. I’d put the importance of this undertaking side by side with that of fact-gathering. And it is, indeed, a weakness of Philippine problem-solving. Too much fact, lots of opinions, very little synthesis and creative, forthright problem solving.

      Now personal slanders and slurs are quite another thing, and are generally not necessary or constructive.

  • Agree. All sizzle, no meat. It does not feed the people.

    • Today at #eDemokrasya they were saying that social media would save the day. Would/does it improve the level of discourse, do you think?

      • I think we would not have RH without it, and would not have Cybercrime Law before the Supreme Court without it. And I have argued for a people’s “strategic commitment” to blogging (and social media) as a powerful Fifth Estate better representing the people than dynastic legends who get elected to do so . . . but seem not to. (ref: thesocietyofhonor(dot)blogspot(dot)com/2013/02/a-huge-philippine-weakness-acting(dot)html)

        I see there is an impressive Social Media conference taking place in Manila. That’s good. (ref: blogwatch(dot)tv/2013/02/online-participation-of-the-conference-on-social-media-and-technology-for-democracy-promotion/)

        That said, it can be messy. It has no rules, really, and will be a smattering of deceits, half-baked opinions, facts, and intelligent discourse. I hope a few powerful and rational voices will rise to the top (yours included) and profoundly change the dialogue to one of accomplishment rather than paper pride.

        • It might change the nature of the campaign, but will it change the substance of it?

          • We are not seeing it now, I admit. However, I’m thinking the 2016 presidential campaign will be a better benchmark. Will any campaign outline a platform that is hard and specific? It would not surprise me if it went in that direction. It would also not surprise me if it did not.

            That’s as wishy washy as I can get. It is good that you make the point. I’ll make the point as well. Presumably others will, too. Until it becomes the people’s DEMAND.

          • I asked that question because we Filipinos are quite savvy technological adopters, and yet we neglect the most basic of things. The campaigners will start using social media, yet they won’t publish their platforms. Without such crucial content, what will all the online chatter be about? Personalities? Panderings? E-paling? There needs to be a qualitative difference in our discussions.

          • Yes, I agree. But here’s the deal. Policy makers DO read substantive blogs. Even if there is a lot of clutter and chatter, the opportunity to push quality ideas forward does exist. Because they are silent, as they must be, does not mean they are inert. If they read my blogs (which they do) they MUST read yours. Or Cocoy needs to do more to get this blog upstreamed to the top of the blogging heap.

          • UPnnGrd

            social media can always be used as a platform to gather a followinng…. a stepping-stone into Political Office (elected or appointed)… or to obtain extra visibility as one pushes one’s internet-company or printing-press business.

  • GabbyD

    thanks doy, i agree with this. in fact, 1, 2 and 4 lang, malaking bagay na ito. in fact, for number 2, it will put us ahead of many, many countries.

    • thanks, GabbyD. I know you have an issue with 3. But why not 5?

      • GabbyD

        5 is fine too. i;d just like to stress that number 2 is a big big deal all in itself.

        heck, kahit di election — just having the congress cost its bills/programs is itself a necessary thing to do. i’m shocked that this isnt a priority among the economists working in congress.