The Facts, the Truth, and a Story

Speech before the United Nations Youth Association of the Philippines Summit, Siliman University, Dumaguete City

At the end of this summit of young leaders, let us all resolve, you and I, to bring back those days, when life was kinder, when public service meant exactly what it spells, when the basics were available to all. It is a tall order, but never has this country been short in supply of the talent needed to reverse what seem today to be irreversible.

And begin we must by the power of good example, whether we are leaders, or we will be in some not-too-distant future, the beneficiaries of such leadership. And I hope that each of the participants in this United Nations Youth Association of the Philippines summit would Believe, Innovate, Lead, Inspire and Build.

There is an Indian Proverb, which goes like this: 

“Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live forever in my heart.”

Let me tell you some facts.

High in the priority of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals are the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, promotion of universal primary education, reduction of child mortality, and improvement of maternal health.

I shall no longer mention, for brevity’s sake, the proposals to increase and re-allocate funds for necessary and timely interventions in support of environmental sustainability and gender equality and the empowerment of women. Your discussions and workshops in this summit, I am certain, will give you the big picture.

In our country, despite vast resources, hunger has been rising to record highs. One highly reputable pollster, Social Weather Stations, has been monitoring the levels of involuntary hunger based on how our people rate themselves since 1998.

From a range of 5.1 to 9.4 percent of the population in 2003, it became 7.4 to 15.1 percent in 2004, then 12 to 16.7 percent in 2005, 13.9 to 19 percent in 2006, and 14.7 to 21.5 percent in October of 2007. In a space of five years, the percentage of our population who have been experiencing hunger has grown three to four times. While we report statistics that show the GNP rising principally on account of dollar remittances from OFW’s and the concomitant consumption it generates in the domestic market, the fact that hunger and poverty multiply exceedingly, makes such growth meaningless for the teeming millions of our people.

If these facts are not alarming enough, there is the perennial lack of classrooms and qualified teachers, a growing number of out-of-school youths and dropouts, and deteriorating school health nutrition programs in the education front.

This year alone, there is a shortage of more than 17,000 classrooms.

The number of out-of-school youths is pegged at 11.6 million, and growing.

There is a need to hire more than 12,000 qualified schoolteachers. In School Year 2006-2007, there was only one public school teacher for every 35 students in the elementary and one teacher for every 39 students in high school.

We used to be among the top performers in public education in Asia, along with Thailand, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

In the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study commissioned by the United States Department of Education, our fourth graders ranked 23rd among 25 countries in both math and science. With tests for second year high school students, the Philippines ranked 40th for math and 41st in science among 45 countries. Among other Asian territories that participated – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore – we had the lowest scores for fourth and eighth grade science and math. Since then, we stopped sending representatives to the event.

But there is no denying that today, we are among the lowest performers in Asia and the world, especially in mathematics and science.

According to the Asian Development Bank, long war-torn Vietnam has already edged out the Philippines in basic education achievement results, and the out-of-school ratio for primary levels is worse than more populous Indonesia.

In terms of the quality of education, the Philippines ranks 101st among 125 countries, faring no better than Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in Africa; and Myanmar in Asia.

Dropout rates are steadily climbing. In School Year 2005-2006, the dropout rates were 7.36% in elementary and 12.51% in high school. The increasing fall out of children from the school system explains the low survival and completion rates and indicates the weak holding capacity of the public school system.

For high school, the completion rate was 61.03% in 2006-2007, down from 72.38% in School Year 2005-2006.

Numerous studies would tell us the strong link between income and poverty to education performance. The poor has less access to education, has lower school life expectancy, and is more likely to drop out of school. Ironically, the lack of education tends to perpetuate and regenerate this poverty.

Amid the problems hounding our health service system, this government proposed an even bigger budget for the Department of National Defense than the Department of Health.

We are confronted with an increasing infant mortality rate pegged at 48 deaths per 1,000 live births, coupled by minimal allocations to promote maternal or reproductive health.

Tuberculosis, a disease supposed to have been eradicated years ago, is now gaining back its status as one of the top 10 killer diseases in the Philippines, no thanks to government holding back support for an efficient TB control program, lumping it together with other items in the budget.

Also, the government does not seem to care about coming up with a self-sufficient vaccine development plan.

And of course, we have to cope with the ever-rising cost of medicines, compounded by the mass exodus of our medical practitioners – doctors, nurses, occupational and physical therapists – the highest proportion of unfilled health plantilla positions in the country today precisely because these categories are in great demand abroad.

The migration of doctors as nurses threatens to force drastic changes to the Philippine health system for the next decade. As of 2005, there was a 53% decline in the interest of young Filipinos to study medicine, compared to 2000. Around 80% of government physicians have taken up or are enrolled in nursing.

Around 200 hospitals closed down in recent years, while 800 hospitals had partially closed one to two wards. The nurse to patient ratio in provincial and district hospitals as of 2005 has fallen to as low as one nurse for every 60 patients, where the ideal ratio is one nurse for every four patients.

The government’s policy on the abovementioned situations can be gleaned upon in that document of economic policy known as the General Appropriations Act – the national budget.

It is in this document, prepared by the executive and reviewed by the legislative, and ultimately implemented, rightly or wrongly by the same executive, where we find distortion between the Millennium Development Goals and the resulting social and economic polity.

Here we see the truth.

Pending before Congress is the budget for this new year, amounting to 1.227 trillion pesos as submitted by the Chief Executive of the land. How does this budget square off with the Millennium Development Goals?

The truth is in the details of the national budget, in contrast to the views of Social Watch Philippines, whose most ardent advocate is a lady from Negros Oriental, one for whom my personal admiration could hardly do justice to the intensity of her patriotic commitment — Professor Leonor Magtolis Briones of the University of the Philippines.

Acting on this advocacy, we in the Senate minority proposed that 12 billion pesos more be allocated for these purposes.

We need an increase of 330 million pesos for the creation of new teaching positions to cover the current gap of teachers.

We need an increase of 760 million pesos for the construction of some 12,418 elementary and high school buildings.

We need an increase of 509.58 million pesos in the Alternative Learning Program for our out-of-school youths through an expanded alternative learning system.

We need an increase of 200 million pesos for the school health and nutrition program, on top of an increase of 2 billion pesos for the actual feeding program for malnourished school children.

We need 6 billion pesos to cover teachers’ benefits, and 2 million for the National Book Development Board to review books used in schools.

For family and reproductive health, we need more than a 100-percent increase in the current allocation, or 1.28 billion pesos more.

We need 966 million pesos on top of the 180-million-peso allocation for purchasing reproductive health commodities, to strengthen reproductive health advocacy, support family planning initiatives, and address population overgrowth.

We need an additional 100 million pesos for tuberculosis control.

We need an additional 50 million pesos for epidemiology and disease surveillance.

We need an additional 250 million pesos for the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine to support local production and vaccine self-sufficiency towards reduction of cost.

We need an additional 100 million pesos for the purchase of autoclaves to ensure proper waste treatment and sterilization prior to actual disposal of infectious wastes.

During our budget deliberation on the Senate floor, I personally identified where the money for this could be sourced. Because the present budget was crafted with a 46-to-48-peso to one-dollar ballpark exchange rate, and we have been doing 42-to-45 to a dollar on account of the woes of the US economy, the savings in interest payments on our foreign debt is quite substantial. Although we have breached the 42-to-the-dollar mark, the Development Budget Coordination Committee finally adopted as midpoint a projected range of 43 pesos to the dollar in drafting the country’s fiscal program.

I also questioned the multitude of discretionary appropriations, treated as slush funds, for the Office of the President, such as the 3 billion pesos Kilos Asenso Fund, 305 billion in unprogrammed funding support for infrastructure and social programs, the 1 billion Kalayaan Barangay Fund, presidential intelligence and anti-poverty funds, and supposedly off-budget items such as the President’s Social Fund, sourced from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office – all of which can amount to P30 billion, not counting the pork barrel funds withheld from ‘opposition’ senators), which could be tapped to augment instead the funds for agencies whose mandates are central to the achievement of the MDG’s.

The budget is currently stalled at the bicameral conference committee, which should convene in two weeks.

For my part, I have given up my pork barrel consistently, amounting to 200 million pesos each year, or 1.3 billion pesos during my past seven years as senator. I consider this as my humble contribution to reducing the budget deficit. Mind you, this is not my main reason for giving it up. It is the abominable corruption that attends the pork barrel use every step of the way.

In any case, the pork barrel practice has become synonymous with corruption, small when compared to the offices under the Executive Department, but corruption nonetheless.

Ah, corruption.

I shirk in shame as a Filipino when Transparency International labels our country the most corrupt in Asia. When because of this and other factors, our competitiveness in the world keeps going down every year in the estimation of investors. A study made by foreign lenders estimated that at least 20 percent of our expenditures – or at least 245 billion pesos of this year’s budget – would go to waste in the dark pits of corruption. That is on top of the projected 40-percent loss caused by inefficiency in revenue generation. But corruption is truth facing our people in the face, every single day of their lives.

From 329 million dollars that we were about to waste in a national broadband deal where the kickbacks amount to almost 200 million dollars for value worth 129 million, to 730 million pesos wasted in bottled liquid fertilizer with hardly any useful input to our agricultural production, especially as some of it was appropriated in the 2004 elections for cities in Metro Manila where no farms exist.

From a Cyber-Education extravagance that would sink in 450 million dollars in an ambitious but half-baked project unmindful of more pressing realities, to sleight-of-hand disposition of precious public assets for a song. The scandals are as many as the kickbacks are as humongous as any—ever in the history of government in this benighted land.

Corruption in the highest levels has had a demonstration effect all the way down the bureaucracy. During my stint as Chief of the Philippine National Police, a brief 14 months from the end of 1999 to the start of 2001, one of my most ardent crusades was against low-level mulcting—or more commonly known as “kotong,” perpetrated by policemen against drivers—of buses, jeepneys, taxi drivers, even truckers hauling perishable produce from farms to markets. We eliminated kotong by firm purpose, tenacity, and the power of leadership by example. My policemen then followed my wishes probably out of fear, but more so because I, as their Chief, was not stealing from the funds of the PNP, I was not accepting bribes from illegal activities. And if I may add, by devolving resources from the top, which was my office and the office of other generals, to the field where they matter most. Policemen were once more proud of the uniforms they wore, and they gradually rose in the public esteem.

The truth remains that graft and corruption denies the poor the basic services which are government’s responsibility, and the middle class the security and comforts they deserve. Corruption sucks from the ordinary Filipino what it pays up to the greed of the powerful.

Now, let me tell you a story. It is about the value of education.

Once upon a time, there was a poor couple, deeply obsessed with sending a large brood of eight children to school, all the way to getting college degrees.

Their dreams were modest. Since they did not possess material things to bequeath, good education was all they could provide their children. They themselves did not have decent education, which explains why they were poor.

But they were very honest human beings; they would work extra hours everyday of the week but were never tempted to earn extra money from less honest means. They did not mind passing off the normal three-meals-a-day-reward for back breaking hard work. just to save a little for their children’s education. The father of the family was a driver, and his wife augmented their income by buying dry goods and textiles in Divisoria, to sell in the town’s public market.

They were likewise very religious. Never a Sunday would pass when they would skip religious service in the town’s parish church.

They never quarreled, or at least would not show their children even their most minor misunderstandings.

With the help of God, or, as they used to say, “May awa ang Diyos, makakaraos din tayo,” the children finished their schooling. They have become professionals in their own field of interest.

The fourth child has since become a public servant, starting his career as a soldier, a law enforcer and eventually an elected public official.

He vowed never to allow his own children to experience the same poverty that he saw in their midst many, many years ago, but he likewise vowed never to lose sight of the honesty and the other simple virtues that he saw in his parents as he grew up. Ladies and gentlemen, the poor couple in my short story are my parents. I am their fourth child.

Daghang salamat kaninyo tanan, ug malipayong bagong tu-ig.