Dream a little

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on July 28, 2010

With an approval rating of 85%, President Benigno C. Aquino III enjoyed a historic level of goodwill as he approached the rostrum Monday afternoon to deliver his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) as the 15th president of the Philippines. His speechwriters and handlers must have agonized over the approach the much-anticipated address should take. Yet the choice had to have been clear: Manage the high expectations of an adoring nation; or, inspire the nation.

In the end, the decision was to manage expectations, despite the president’s assertion that, “We can dream again.” Mr. Aquino bared a litany of anomalies to illustrate why government coffers are empty, suggesting that scarce financial resources limit his administration’s options for improving long-neglected education, infrastructure, and social services. Then Mr. Aquino deftly transferred the burden of filling the financial gap to the private sector, along with a large measure of accountability for the nation’s future.

The president did make some promises to deliver welcome reforms, including increased fiscal responsibility, rationalized investment incentives, anti-trust legislation, amendments to government procurement legislation and rules and regulations, a new national defense act, land use legislation, and a strong whistle-blowers protection law. However, these promises were significantly unaccompanied by measures to provide a gauge of the administration’s ultimate success.

Reactions to the SONA varied widely, but largely reflected the enormous goodwill Mr. Aquino presently enjoys. Business groups vowed support, opposition politicians shrugged their shoulders, militants and activists complained about the lack of specifics-especially with respect to agrarian reform and freedom of information-middle-class professionals fretted about the dearth of specifics but welcomed the prospect of good governance, and the masses that speak Tagalog smiled because they understood what their president was saying.

While Filipinos may be able to dream again, Mr. Aquino revealed little about his own dreams for the future prosperity of his nation. His high trust ratings in a Pulse Asia survey released Monday provide some insight that might have been useful to his speechwriters as they helped their boss prepare to face his self-proclaimed boss-the Philippine nation. According to the results of that Pulse Asia survey, Filipinos are pretty certain about what they expect from their president.

Mr. Aquino decried mismanagement of the economy and government resources, but as horrified as his audience was as the president enumerated the excesses of the past administration, only 13% of Pulse Asia survey respondents said fighting corruption is a top issue to address in the next six months. Twenty-two percent were concerned with the price of basic commodities. The top priority was jobs, with 36% indicating that job generation is the top issue for the administration.

That part the president seemed to get, reminding his audience that job creation “is foremost on our agenda,” if not in his speech. Mr. Aquino acknowledged that the capacity to create jobs is dependent on strong, expanding businesses, and many of the ills Mr. Aquino addressed will in fact contribute to job creation. Investor surveys typically point to government corruption and cumbersome bureaucracy, poor country brand image, and competition for investment as significant hurdles to job-generating foreign investment.

In the fast-growing business process outsourcing industry, another impediment is emerging: the lack of qualified workers with strong English and analytical skills. That concern makes paying attention to education blazingly important, although survey respondents don’t make the connection-only six percent of respondents considered education a priority. That’s likely because improving education is a strategic initiative, and it will take decades to rehabilitate the Philippines’ creaking educational infrastructure.

In the meantime, the administration has little choice but to address other short-term issues to increase the attractiveness of the Philippines to investors. Those programs can include incentivizing domestic and foreign educational institutions to provide remedial programs for undereducated Filipinos of productive age. The bottom line is that Filipinos want to work, and they are looking to Mr. Aquino to create or at least nurture conditions that will increase the rate and efficiency of job creation. That involves making more Filipinos qualified to work in industries that are creating jobs.

“We can dream again, ” but how well the administration does making Filipinos’ dreams of jobs come true will determine whether Mr. Aquino’s second SONA is as warmly received as his remarks were Monday. For the president and his advisors, one thing seems clear. Managing expectations is fine, inspiring a nation to attain the skills necessary to make their dreams come true is quite another.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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