Fri, 03 Jan 2003

President Arroyo: From politics to morality

Michael L. Tan, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asia News Network, Manila

The nation now waits, wondering if the new year will mean the emergence of a presidency of substance, one where governance takes over from politics. If indeed the President does not intend to run in 2004, then we should expect this governance to be based on ethics and morality, rather than on political expediency and opportunism.

Let's face it though: She will have only about a year and a half to prove her mettle at governance. That's much too short a period for any dramatic reforms, but there would be at least three areas where she can prove that she can set a model for governance.

The first issue is Iraq, and the need for the Philippines to remain neutral. In the two years she has been president, Ms Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has acquired a reputation, locally and internationally, of being too subservient to the Bush administration, what with her offers of our air space, military bases and even soldiers for Bush's wars. This subservience has been interpreted as a move to ensure political survival, a need to project herself as America's anointed one to stave off local coup threats.

But the fact is that in many parts of the world, and even within the United States, support for Bush's wars has faltered. Fears of a war in Iraq have adversely affected the global economy, with investors unwilling to put in new money into businesses.

The stark statistics are in as well on dismal consumer spending during the last holidays: People are hanging on to their money in these uncertain times, and that is bad for business. When the developed countries sneeze, we get pneumonia. Our already anemic economy threatens to turn comatose with the war jitters.

Business people are wary, seeing how, among Asian countries, we are even one of the most vulnerable to attacks from radical Islamicists because of the way we are identified as America's lap dog in a war that is seen as a jihad -- Bush's jihad -- against Muslims.

The problems don't end with domestic instability. Given that a full-scale assault on Iraq will affect the entire Middle East region, thousands of Filipino overseas workers in that area now risk losing not just their jobs but their lives.

Beyond these strategic considerations, the President would do well to distance herself from a war with Iraq purely on moral grounds. There is little to justify the aggression against Iraq, which has suffered for more than a decade now in an undeclared war, with the United States and Britain conducting periodic air raids against that country.

Saddam Hussein is a ruthless despot but one important reason he remains in power is that he can point out how the country is under siege from the outside. Political analysts predict that if war is finally formally declared, Saddam will bring the fighting into the densely populated cities, in effect using Iraqi civilians as hostages. The Philippines cannot be a party to that carnage.

A second area where the President can prove her ability to govern is to revive the now moribund family planning program. The deterioration of local family planning programs is not based on a Catholic doctrinal battle between "natural" and "artificial" family planning.

No, the battle is political, with the President trying to keep in the good graces of the Catholic hierarchy and ending up on the side of a fringe group of ultra-conservative Catholics who reject family planning, arguing that a large population is good for the economy because it means more consumers, more business, even more workers to export.

As an economist, Arroyo should know better. There is just no way government or the private sector can cope with the demands for jobs, housing, health, education and other social services, not with the present rate of population growth. As for exporting Filipinos as caregivers to the world, I find it terribly immoral that we can think of producing children mainly because we see them as possible exports to bring in dollars later, even as we export their parents today.

A third area where Arroyo needs to bite the bullet is that of abolishing the death penalty. Here she has been indecisive, proclaiming her opposition to capital punishment and yet qualifying that maybe the lethal injections should be kept for kidnappers. Again, she has tried to please the Catholic bishops- who are officially opposed to the death penalty-even while playing to the false hopes of a desperate public, who are convinced, in part because of her own statements that executions will deter crime.

The death penalty issue relates again to morality in many ways. Who are we to take the moral high ground, demanding that foreign governments stop executing Filipinos abroad, when we continue to do this at home? And what does the death penalty do in terms of shaping the Filipino's sense of right and wrong, as we reinforce a primitive sense of morality where people behave only because of their fear of punishment?

Finally, given our terribly flawed "justice" system, the death penalty can mean many erroneous convictions and executions. Late last year we saw how five innocent men accused in the Rolando Abadilla assassination were sent to death row, based on confessions extracted through torture, and through the mistaken testimony of Abadilla's own son. Fortunately, a terrible miscarriage of justice was averted, but that case reminds us that the death penalty is all too easily meted out to innocent men and women, usually the poor.

While the President's remaining term is too short to deal with the root causes of criminality -- from poverty to corruption -- she should at least firmly declare that the death penalty will not bring peace and order. Not only that, she must declare, unequivocally, that capital punishment is itself criminal and unjust.

The three issues constitute a simple agenda to challenge the President on her vow to lead and to govern. She must be clear, now, about her own personal views on ethics and morality, and how these positions shape her governance.

Perhaps the President truly believes it is in the Philippines' best interests to remain tied to the Bush government's apron strings or that a large population is the engine to economic growth, or that the death penalty does deter crime. If those indeed are her convictions, then she must come out and say so. That done, she can let history be the judge.