Getting a Hold of the Politics of Reform

Speech Delivered at the National Conference on the State of Reform Agenda, 5 November, Hyatt Hotel

This conference was conceptualized late last year. The idea was to have a sober and rational accounting of the reforms. I am not sure if I should be happy that it got moved several times until we finally got to convene it today under a condition that is highly politicized. I was asked: "what should be the mood of the conference then?" to which I reply: "I am not so sure. I guess, honest, which means I am not sure."

Yet, we convene this conference now with a renewed sense of purpose. Never under this administration that the reaffimation of our anchor becomes most imperative. By and large accidental, but also perhaps providential, this conference seeks that anchor, which we believe still lies in the reform agenda—the change that we want to see in politics and governance of our country.

The video we just showed is based on the processes facilitated by PODER for the 2010 elections involving around 100 civil society organizations from diverse background. CODE-NGO also had an agenda-setting process and has also produced its own set of reform agenda. Other groups also initiated similar processes.

And arguably, these inputs from civil society found its way to the Social Contract of President Noynoy Aquino to the Filipino people.

The Social Contract that we are accounting states this:

"A country with…

1. A re-awakened sense of right and wrong, through the living examples of our highest leaders;

2. An organized and widely-shared rapid expansion of our economy through a government dedicated to honing and mobilizing our people’s skills and energies as well as the responsible harnessing of our natural resources;

3. A collective belief that doing the right thing does not only make sense morally, but translates into economic value as well;

4. Public institutions rebuilt on the strong solidarity of our society and its communities."

The said Social Contract states this mission:

"We will start to make these changes first in ourselves—by doing the right things, by giving value to excellence and integrity and rejecting mediocrity and dishonesty, and by giving priority to others over ourselves.

We will make these changes across many aspects of our national life."

The same Social Contract presents a platform on: transformational leadership, economy, government services, gender equality, environment and peace and order, which emphasizes reform or change from the old ways to what the Social Contract claims as “a commitment to change the Filipinos can depend on.”

Having such a solid commitment for change from a government who is composed of those who have discoursed and have engaged the politics of reform for a relatively long time is by itself a success.

But more importantly, such commitment and leadership has delivered results. It is important to remember this. And we will only appreciate this if we take stock of the difference of today and the past administration. What are the reforms that have been achieved so far? We will talk about it in this Conference.

Yet, we know reform won’t come easy in the land that political scientist David Timberman describes as a “changeless land.” Even changes at an individual and group levels are hard, how much more a nation whose development has been captured by strong particularistic interests from the moment of its birth.

We may have set up mechanisms. We may have started providing services more effectively. We may have made public decisions more responsive. We may have even improved development outcomes and economic performance. But is there really a significant change?

When do we say reforms are significant? What parameters do we use to gauge reforms? What frameworks do we mobilize to know what are lacking and what do we need to continue pursuing these reforms? We will also talk about this.

And such is critical not only because it provides direction. More importantly, talking about this will enhance our common understanding of what are the changes we want to see and where are we vis-à-vis those changes. Deepening our common understanding will provide hold and focus.

Hold and focus is critical in politics because politics is messy. It is easy to get lost in the compromises, in the race to the limelight, in the bickering, in the unending and confusing discourses. Hold and focus will allow us to go deeper and persistently accomplish more amidst the mess. Where do we exactly stand? What do we stand for?

This becomes particularly crucial now that the body politic is being stirred to confusion, when once again we are hearing laments like “all politicians are the same,” “politics is dirty” and “nothing has changed,” which we all know perpetuates status quo. All the more that we should be clear: in the issue at hand, where do we stand? Do we want to see a change? What change do we want to see and how?

Yet, despite the hold and focus, change will still not come easy. It won’t because it will be challenged. It doesn’t require a genius to expect this will be challenged by those whose power lies in keeping the status quo of patronage, corruption and disempowerment.

It is critical to be most discerning about this. For the ugliest aspect of our politics is that these forces are faceless. We feel the forces that keep and defend the status quo, yet everybody mouths change. These forces are hidden like puppeteers making their captured machineries both in the public and private spheres do the dirty work and tricks for them. They are everywhere even in our own circles, even within us and could be anything even the means we thought are for change.

How do we deal with the attacks to the reforms that we want to see? How do we instead sustain the momentum of reforms? How do we ensure that we as individuals and as a group remain faithful to the reforms that we want to see? What lasting measures and mechanisms can we set up to sustain the reform gains? We will also be talking about this in this conference. The reform agenda do not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a highly politicized, even violent environment. We will have to deal with this reality to pursue our ideals.

Time to bring back the focus, passion and faith in the changes that we want to see, which are the reasons we are in the business of power in the first place. For what truly spells the difference between and among the players in politics of this country is that on one hand, you have those who want the system to stay the same for it has benefitted them; while on the other hand, there are those who have painstakingly fought to effect change towards a more just, democratic and peaceful Philippines. And yes, for the latter to succeed—given that seemingly impossible task compounded by the strong resistance of the former—these forces with similar focus, passion and faith for change have to get their acts together.

But how do we know who is who? Fortunately now we can. The politics of reform in the Philippines had produced many stories that we can learn from—both positive and negative. And those stories are told and written. The politics of reform has paved the way for the development of many frameworks and strategies: bibingka strategy of Saturnino Borras, contested democracy of Nathan Quimpo, Politics-Development-Governance Framework of InciteGov.

The politics of reforms has a rich history that traces its roots from those who fought for this country’s independence, speaks of great sacrifices for the love of country and involves engagements and bonds of individuals, groups and networks that have been here continuously posing a challenge to the status quo—the alternative stride of this country’s nation-building. The politics of reforms is now by itself a tradition that rests on the values of solidarity, participation, inclusivity, empowerment, discourse and dialogue. Arguably, the politics of reform has given birth to the government we have now.

We know who we are in this cause if we only remember and acknowledge that as we more deeply engage and use power, our only way to stay the course and remain faithful to the cause that brought us where we are in the first place, are the people and the spaces that have been familiar, that share with us common values, common history and common aspirations. We cannot forget this.

In LOTR, the ring-bearer was only able to withstand the power of the ring with a Samwise Gamgee, along with the fellowship of the ring who have shared the tradition of fighting the menace of the One Ring and its creator.

Let’s continue to build bonds of fellowship and nurture the discourse that will give us the focus, passion and faith to continue the struggle for change and usher a new tomorrow for Filipinos. We in PODER of ASoG humbly offer this space to be one of the venues for such a worthy and necessary endeavor.

And since it is the fifth of November today, the ideas we will talk about here will be the strongest force that we can use to advance the change we want to see. For as V beautifully puts it: "ideas are bulletproof."