Building a nation by example

Building a nation by example

6 July 2010

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

President Benigno Aquino III is barely a week into the job and he’s already causing waves.

But let me backtrack a bit. Last January, I wrote here on the country’s need for a president who can build our country’s institutions. I argued that he cannot be a hero and do it all by himself. He will need to engage the people as a whole, resort to moral suasion and teach the nation, through words and personal example, about the moral implications of issues facing the country.

Fast forward to the inauguration and I was pleasantly surprised. The President lost no time in beginning the work of institution building by emphasizing important constitutional principles in his inaugural speech. And while it may feel strange to be getting a Makabayan (civics) lesson from the President, this is all part of his functions as the Chief Nation Builder. Besides, we need it after years of dictatorship and bad governance have weakened our sense of civic duty considerably.

The Constitution states that: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Of course, the problem with such principles is that they’re abstract. The President effectively translated them into terms any Filipino can understand: “Kayo ang boss ko, kaya’t hindi maaaring hindi ako makinig sa mga utos ninyo.”

The President further pushed the message that public office is a public trust. “We are here to serve and not to lord over you. The mandate given to me was one of change. I accept your marching orders to transform our government from one that is self-serving to one that works for the welfare of the nation.” A powerful message, as far as speeches go, but the President had something more up his sleeve.

“Kayo ba ay nagtiis na sa trapiko para lamang masingitan ng isang naghahari-hariang de-wangwang sa kalsada? Ako rin.” The bitter irony of public servants displaying raw, naked power to hapless motorists is something any Filipino can relate with, and the President was not going to have any of it under his administration. “Walang wang-wang!” was his dramatic order.

Teaching civic values through moral suasion is only the beginning of building a nation’s institutions. Governors must follow through with sacrifice and personal example. In this regard, the President has raised the bar in a most powerful way. During the days following the inauguration, the nation was stunned to hear reports that the President’s convoy was stopping at red lights and not using legally allowed sirens on the way to official functions.

This gesture of role modelling is reasonable from an institutional point of view. A President who walks his talk through personal sacrifice achieves tremendous moral ascendancy. If he and his cabinet can keep this up, they can surely ask for much sacrifice from the whole nation.

But controversy soon arose after the President arrived late at a function after encountering traffic delays. Expectedly, headshaking pundits and TV commentators are dismayed that the President insists on stopping at red lights and not using sirens to avoid being late. After all, said one commentator, it would be better for the President to go through all the red lights so that he can get down to working for the people. But such comments miss the whole point. When the President stops at red lights, he is working! He is communicating to all that when one faces the normal delays of daily life, the proper approach is to wait for one’s turn and to learn to do things earlier next time; it is not to inconvenience others by using special privilege or ignoring rules that apply to everyone else.

Instead of criticizing the President’s principled stand, we might consider asking ourselves: “How can we match the President’s example?”