defence

Imagining True Independence

What would a truly independent Philippines look like?

In the week that the nation was celebrating the 113th anniversarry of its original declaration of independence from Spain, it was fending off rumors of impending incursions into its territory in the Spratlys by China. Having an up and coming naval power in the region press the boundaries of our sovereignty made us call upon our former Commonwealth partner in the US to come to our rescue with assurances of support.

To some, the fact that we had to seek foreign assistance to protect our domestic resources means that we are not truly free. This leads me to imagine what a truly independent Philippines would look like. I use the word ‘imagine’ in the Andersonian sense. Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities would say that all post-colonial societies are mere fiction, inventions of their former colonial masters.

According to one definition of it, “independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory.” The concept of a sovereign state usually incorporates two things: an effective and independent government on the one hand and a defined territory on the other. Nations or states which are unable to fulfill these two requirements are generally recognized as failed states.

Based on these definitions, can the Philippines be seen as truly independent?

Aside from acquiring formal independence in the political sense, what other indicators would signal our independence in a de facto sense. It sounds like a sophomore’s essay writing assignment, but the president himself during his Independence Day addresses was ruminating out loud as to what this would mean for us today. He seemed to be offering up a few suggestions, to wit:

  • One was freedom from corruption. It was present and running rampant in 1898. In Cacique Democracy, Anderson described how the abuses of local bosses prevented the revolutionary taxes from reaching the central government of Aguinaldo. In 2010 a hundred and thirteen years later, one of the decendants of the original revolutionary leaders in the person of PNoy declared that the Philippines had become graft free. Strange imaginings, perhaps, but corruption does prevent the state from governing in the interests of its people.
  • Another ingredient for true independence dreamt up by PNoy was freedom from hunger and unemployment. In his speeches during the week, he spoke of the freedom from privation when he said that the problem facing his countrymen was what type of food to put on the table, rather than having something to eat or not. He also mentioned that overseas workers now had an option to come home to the Philippines because the booming call center industry permitted them to earn decent wages. Again, strange imaginings, it would seem, but deprivation of economic freedom does weaken a nation’s sovereignty.
  • Related to the second ingredient is energy independence or freedom from the high cost of foreign oil. During the week, PNoy announced the fifty percent renewable energy by 2030 target. Indeed the high cost of transportation and electricity along with food are the main causes of misery among much of the populace, which is probably the reason for his declining popularity. However, in the same week that he made this announcement, the palace also released a statement regarding the postponement if not outright cancellation of some port and rail projects just as the previous administration cancelled an airport contract for much the same reason.

Indeed each administration would like to draw a line in the sand to mark the end of the old era and the start of a new one. But what each administration finds out, whether it be the Aquino administration and the mothballing of Marcos’s nuclear plant, or Erap and Ramos’s indepenent power producers, or GMA and Ramos’s NAIA-3, or PNoy and GMA’s pet projects, cancellation of old contracts come at a price. This price is eventually borne by the taxpayers.

A fiscal strategy missing

The deeper question has to do with why the nation has to depend on overseas development assistance or ODA’s in the first place. These projects which often require us to purchase equipment from the donor country are little more than industrial policy disguised as foreign assistance. Indeed with the WTO restricting member countries from exercising independent industrial, trade or monetary policies, public sector procurement provides one of the remaining avenues for a nation to foster domestic import replacing industries.

The model I would put up is that of Marikina City under Bayani Fernando. The city’s engineering department under Mayor BF did not contract out its public works projects but produced everything in house, including its quaint looking portalets, traffic signs and street lights. While the city was not one of the richest, it raised revenues through property taxes which were justified by the city’s improvement of roadworks and schools. Fiscal independence was integral to its development.

Unfortunately, calls for a fiscal adjustment plan that would lead to greater fiscal independence seem to be falling on deaf ears as the administration continues to believe in its ability to attract private investors to supply public infrastructure. The idea is that a user pays principle trumps the socializing of public investment. The problem with that is that along with user pays, PPP’s also introduce the notion of a fair market return for the private investor.

It would be possible, under an alternative situation, for the government to fund the construction of public infrastructure projects and recover its investment by charging users without resorting to a private operator model. Under such a set-up, users would not have to pay as much, as the government would not require a fair market rate of return.

The social contract

The modern imagining of the concept of sovereignty comes from reflections on the relationship between individuals and their government. This led to an “intellectual device” known as the social contract. According to one definition, the “(s)ocial contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept corresponding duties to protect themselves and one another from violence and other kinds of harm.”

For the nation to maintain its territorial integrity, and protect its off-shore assets in the South China Sea from invasion, it will have to increase its military budget. Australia has already announced that it will increase its deployment of defence assets off its northern and western shores to secure its oil and gas reserves. The move comes while it also contemplates increased US military presence on its own bases. This is in anticipation of the rising influence of resource hungry China in the region.

For the government to provide security and basic social services to the people in a way that enables them to be productive citizens, it will have to become more efficient and competent in acquiting its resources. One of the things hindering the present government from doing what it intends appears to be its fear, some would say paranoia, that a lot of its spending goes to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

This distrust has created bottlenecks in the expenditure program which has hampered development spending of late. If as PNoy stated the Philippines has become graft free, it would be partly because his government in its first year has withheld spending from most of its line agencies with only the military and police agencies being spared.

Finally, and perhaps as a parting shot, let me say that if the nation is to be more mature, one would imagine there to be no need for petty partisan politics during national celebrations such as June the 12th. The use of folksy street parlance to settle personal political gripes denigrates the solemnity of the occasion. For me, the day when we as a people can mark such important dates in our history without our leaders resorting to snide remarks and bickering of this sort will be the day that our nation truly becomes free.

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