Mar, the president we could have had

Political winds now ravaging the cyber super highway are like typhoon signals that warn us of an impending electoral tsunami. Most of the presidential wannabees from various regions of this archipelago are already hymning praises to themselves.  Social media is inundated with prevarications and fake news brewed by anonymous armies hiding in troll farms.   Apps-enhanced portraits of candidates with dubious credentials decorate the sides of high-rise buildings. Tarpaulins, mammoth billboards, a myriad of commercial ads, the usual eyesores, are already battling for our attention along strategic thoroughfares.

With a sting of nostalgia, I remember those not-too-distant days when candidates had decorum, a modicum of experience and common sense.  The meeting of Mar Roxas with the FOCAP (Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines) comes to mind.  Erstwhile Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), he was the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. Elections were conducted under normal circumstances; COVID and its deadly variants were yet unknown.  We were not quarantined;  IATF,  ECQ, MCQs were not in our vocabulary.  No face masks nor shields were required.  However, the political and economic issues then were no different from those of today.

There were always attempts to either amend the Constitution or debunk it all together. Under the guise of stimulating economic progress, Presidents Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo wanted a brand-new Charter, but it was obvious that term extension was their objective.     At the FOCAP, Mar Roxas warned against hastily changing the Constitution during a time of crisis. Moreover, our problem is not the Constitution.

He said none of the issues brought to the attention of DTI were related to constitutional issues. Hijacking of shipments, harassment by local government officials, a subjective application of rules could be addressed without tinkering with the Constitution. Allowing foreign investors to own land was equated with economic progress. Mar disagreed.   When the Shangri-La Group invested in a 5-star hotel in Boracay, it did not demand land ownership, but access to clean water, an efficient sewage system and a world-class airport.  Mar Roxas told FOCAP that the Constitution is not impeding the country’s economic breakthrough.

Even then, federalism was polemical; to provincial leaders, it was the ultimate panacea.  Mar Roxas opposed federalism, but he did advocate local autonomy and maintained that the central government should pour more resources into local government units. To him, federalism is a perilous centrifugal force that might tear the country apart. We Filipinos will first have to strengthen our sense of nationhood before making forays into federalism. He said there are myriad types which we must diligently study in order to select what is appropriate

FOCAP members brought up corruption, to which Mar replied that a leader must have the character, the   will and ability to say NO. No to abusive close friends and allies, to dishonest bureaucrats, opportunistic relatives. A big NO, even to himself because he must lead by example.   A new Constitution will not obliterate corruption, nor will federalism.

Mar told them a story about the Russian Minister of Trade and Industry whom he met at an international forum.   He asked the man to describe his people: “Russians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” declared Mar’s counterpart.  Filipinos might not be far behind because history shows that we have missed a lot of opportunities.  We were the first colonial subjects in Asia to win independence after a revolution. We established the first constitutional republic in Asia.  We had a head start in the race for political and economic development. There was a time our individual incomes were among the highest in Southeast Asia, Mar reminisced. We led our neighbors in GDP growth in the post-war period. Then, we missed opportunities and started to lag behind. Mar told the Russian minister that we Filipinos also keep missing opportunities. We have a long list of “sayang!” he told the FOCAP.

However, there was one splendid opportunity that Mar Roxas did not miss when he was at the helm of DTI. He promoted the business processing sector (BPO). Starting as customer support services, the BPO moved up the value chain. Many offshore services set up shop here, ranging from stock brokerage, to animation and design, to content development. The BPOs generated employment specially for young graduates, thereby stimulating the economy.

Mar concluded: “These opportunities should not be wasted.  The government should insure we have an educated and motivated workforce.  It must impose timely, competent and above-board regulations. The government must   make sure there is a level playing field.”

How conditions have deteriorated since then. The playing field is no longer levelled, our “sayang“ list is getting longer. I will remember your words and deeds, Mar Roxas, when next I cast my vote.