Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has been in power since the 1950s, has been accused of populism by its critics following the presentation of the 2012 state budget. According to the opposition, the budget contains several expenditure items that reflect the desperation of the PAP to regain the trust of voters and party supporters who have expressed dissatisfaction with its traditional brand of leadership.

But PAP could defend the populist measures as concrete proof that the government is willing to try new ideas when necessary to ease the hardships suffered by ordinary Singaporeans. Indeed, PAP could argue that it’s not at all wrong for any government to draft a budget program that seeks to build a fair and inclusive society. It can cite, for example, the cash incentives to seniors, the support programs for persons with disabilities, and the subsidies for low-income families as targeted measures to extend emergency assistance to vulnerable groups in society. For a party accused of being indifferent to the situation of its citizens, these “shock and awe” populist measures represent a welcome and refreshing change in the mindset of the party’s ageing leadership.

Meanwhile, the commitment to lessening the country’s dependence on foreign labor, and the allocation of $1.1 billion to boost the capacity of public buses, directly address two of the principal issues in last year’s elections: the influx of foreign labor, which locals blame for their dwindling job prospects, and the worsening traffic congestion in the city state.

The government has recognized that simply importing labor isn’t sustainable. According to the budget brief, hiring more foreign workers “will test the limits of our space and infrastructure. Plus, if foreign labor is too easily available, companies will have less incentive to upgrade, design better jobs and raise productivity.” Aside from giving tax breaks to firms that hire locals, especially seniors and disabled workers, the government has reduced the Dependency Ratio Ceilings for various key sectors of the economy. This means companies must employ more locals in the next two years.

But perhaps the most controversial item in the budget is the proposed infusion of $1.1 billion to buy 550 public transport buses to reduce crowding and waiting times. Many people are now questioning the rationale of using public funds to help a privately listed transport company. They are also worried about the higher operating cost that could lead to higher bus fares. As an alternative, they want the money to be issued as a loan to the company. Or maybe it’s time to reconsider the opposition proposal to re-nationalize the transport industry.

The budget has also been criticized for its lack of stimulus programs to help revive weak spots in the domestic economy, and there are also suggestions that more should be given to fund sectors that are currently mired with low productivity.

The big challenge for the Singapore government is how to convince the public about its sincerity in instituting major policy reforms in government and the economy. What politicians have to do is to simply back up their rhetoric with swift action. Otherwise, the 2012 budget will be caricatured as a grand document with empty populist promises. If this happens, it could spell the end for the 50-year reign of the PAP.

In the meantime, the public is right to anticipate the initial benefits of the healthy doses of populism that the PAP has injected into the budget.

Written for The Diplomat

Philippine Justice or Grudge?

Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached in the House of Representatives in December after 188 legislators signed an impeachment petition. Under the law, only 96 signatures are required to immediately send the case to the Senate.

According to the impeachment petition, drafted by allies of President Benigno Aquino III, Corona betrayed the public’s trust, violated the Constitution, and is guilty of graft and corruption. The eight articles of impeachment contained allegations that Corona illegally amassed his personal wealth during his incumbency in the Supreme Court, and that he used his position to undermine and block the criminal cases filed by the government and concerned private citizens against his patron, former President Gloria Arroyo.

In other words, Corona’s impeachment was presented to the public as a key component of the government’s anti-corruption drive on the one hand, and a necessary reform for effectively prosecuting abusive public officials in the previous administration on the other.

In the past three months, the Senate has been transformed into an impeachment court. The prosecution panel has already finished its presentation of evidence and witnesses on the three articles of impeachment that highlighted Corona’s questionable wealth and bias toward former Arroyo.

Meanwhile, the defense has already begun presenting its witnesses. (It was cut short when Congress adjourned last week for the summer and Lenten break). The trial will resume next month, although it’s still uncertain whether the impeachment case could be finalized before the end of the second regular session of Congress in June.

Many are disappointed with the performance of the prosecution team, and some legal experts criticized the weak evidence and arguments presented during the trial. But in fairness to the prosecution, they were able to prove the disparity between Corona’s income as a public official and his numerous bank accounts and high-priced properties in different parts of metro Manila. They also succeeded in pointing out Corona’s failure to publicly disclose all his assets, something that’s required for every employee and officer of the government.

But it isn’t just the less than solid performance of the prosecution that could jeopardize the case. Actually, the president’s unusual combative stance against the chief justice in the past six months gave credence to accusations that Aquino is less concerned about ending Corona’s corrupt lifestyle and canine loyalty to the former president than pursuing a personal vendetta against the chief justice, who led other members of the Supreme Court in issuing a landmark decision to distribute the president’s family-owned sugar and rice plantation to thousands of small farmers.

Then there are valid concerns that the president is hyping the impeachment to distract a public worried about price hikes, low wages and abysmal social welfare programs. The opposition has in fact advised the president that his extraordinary enthusiasm and determination to impeach Corona should be applied to solving the country’s other problems, like poverty, unemployment, and environment disasters.

The Corona impeachment was initially an accountability and anti-corruption measure that received overwhelming public support. But the president’s questionable motives in spearheading the impeachment, and his apparent vindictive attitude towards a single individual, have transformed the issue into something else. Unfortunately, the sins of the previous administration that the impeachment was supposed to reveal haven’t been given much attention.

The trial is no longer about the chief justice and the crimes he allegedly committed against the Filipino people. It’s Philippine democracy that is now on trial today.

Written for The Diplomat

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