(Homily delivered by Archbishop Emeritus Antonio Ledesma during the 9th day memorial mass for former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III at the St. Augustine Metropolitan Cathedral in Cagayan de Oro City on 3 July 2021)
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 04 July) — When Typhoon Sendong struck Cagayan de Oro in December 2011, among the first to come and offer aid was the sister of President Aquino, Viel, with a companion from Assisi Development Foundation. Then, Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, Dinky Soliman, also visited the city to help oversee relief operations. These visits represented the extension of President Aquino’s concern for calamity victims.
But then a series of other calamities struck the Philippines: Typhoon Pablo in (December) 2012 that swept across southern Mindanao; the man-made crisis of the Zamboanga siege in September 2013; the Bohol earthquake that demolished six heritage churches in October 2013; Super Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 that devastated Tacloban and much of the Visayas; and another man-made disaster of the Mamasapano deaths of 44 special police officers in January 2015 (just a week after the papal visit).
All these natural and man-made calamities happened during the presidential term of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in 2010-2016. Looking back, one would think that these “acts of God” and of men were enough to rock and destabilize the ship of state under the helm of Aquino. But over the past few days since his passing away, many voices have been raised by careful observers praising the steady course of daang matuwid charted by Pinoy throughout his presidency.
What were some of these accomplishments? At the funeral Mass at the Gesu Church of the Ateneo de Manila University, his alma mater, Bro. Armin Luistro dubbed Noynoy as the “Education President.” As his Secretary of Education, Bro. Luistro himself knew the facts. During Noynoy’s six-year term, 185,000 classrooms were built, or an average of 84 classrooms every day; this wiped away the backlog of 66,800 classrooms. Furthermore, 174,000 new teachers were hired; of the 805,000 public school teachers today, one out of five was hired during Aquino’s time. The budget for public education rose from P175 billion in 2010 to P364 billion in 2014.
What was more challenging was the implementation of the K-to-12 curriculum, adding two more years of senior high school for every student to make the Philippines competitive with the rest of the world. Where many previous administrations feared to tread, President PNoy showed the political will to accomplish this. This same courage and determination he showed in the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Bill, despite vocal opposition from many church groups.
Another social measure that President Aquino espoused was the expansion of the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) that was started by his predecessor (and former Economics teacher at the Ateneo, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo). Under the guidance of DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, the CCT or 4 P’s (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) was able to reach out to 7.7 million of the poorest families, The World Bank cited the 4 P’s as one of the best run programs in the world. The passage of the Sin Tax Reform Act also provided universal health coverage for senior citizens.
On the political front, President Noynoy’s stand for good governance was tested by the Napoles scandal involving millions of pork barrel funds being skimmed off ghost projects. In the process, three sitting senators were put in jail: Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla.
Perhaps, one of the longest-lasting legacies of Aquino was the pursuit of the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ratified in the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in March 2014 in Malacanang. Unfortunately, with the Mamasapano incident, the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law had to await five more years, and with this the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) during the time of President Duterte in February 2019. Aquino’s administration also failed to follow up on peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
On the international front, the Aquino Administration can be credited for the landmark decision of the International Arbitration Court in The Hague recognizing the Philippines’ sovereignty over its offshore islands, contradicting the claims of China. This is the crucial bargaining chip of the Philippines in its diplomatic battle with a giant neighbor.
Perhaps, President Aquino’s most solid accomplishments were in the steady growth of the macro-economy that turned around the Philippines from being the “sick man of Asia.” Economists like Gerardo Sicat point out that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by an average of 6.5 percent from 2010 to 2015, rivaling and sometimes even surpassing China’s growth rate. The main drivers of growth were OFW remittances and earnings from the expanding BPO industries.
Boo Chanco points out: In the Economic Freedom Index of 2010, the Philippines moved up to 70th place from 115th; in the Global Competitiveness Index, we moved up to 47th from 85th; and in the Global Enabling Trade Index of the World Economic Forum, we moved to 64th from 92nd. Aquino’s economic managers were able to promote fiscal sustainability.
Economist Cielito Habito in his column points out the legacy of “inclusive growth” in “Aquinomics” through game-changing legislative reforms like the Philippine Competition Act and the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act. He initiated the Manufacturing Resurgence Program in 2013 to revive the manufacturing sector. He tripled the budget for education, health care and social welfare.
Carlos Dominguez, President Duterte’s Secretary of Finance, credits Aquino for the reforms put in place such as the “Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act” (TINTA) and the “Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises” (CREATE). Much of the infrastructure that the present administration is taking credit for was actually started by Aquino, like the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) jumpstarted many of these projects.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer summarized Aquino’s achievements in its editorial: “At the end of his presidency in 2016, Aquino left the country a stable, thriving economy, the fastest among 11 Asian economies during the year’s first three months.” In his three decades of giving economic briefings, Habito observed that “no other Philippine president in recent memory matched the positive economic advances achieved under P-Noy’s six-year leadership.”
A Legacy of Public Service
As we bid farewell to President Aquino, how do we assess the legacy he has left behind? “Mission accomplished” was the message of his four sisters; despite their bereavement, they could be proud of their brother carrying on the legacy of his parents, Ninoy and Cory Aquino. But for us, does it mean, as Archbishop Soc Villegas remarked, that the half-mast also signifies the half-mast of a dying democracy in our country?
I would venture to summarize P-Noy’s character in three words: Honesty (“daang matuwid”); Humility (“walang wang-wang”); and Hard Work (“kayo ang boss ko”). His Finance Secretary, Cesar Purisima, points out that “his principled leadership consistently put people over politics, prudence over populism.” In this same vein, columnist Randy David mentions the hope that the nation’s soul-searching over the sudden death of another Aquino may fuel the drive for the “return of decency, dignity and diligence in government.” In his homily alluding to the bare urn containing the mortal remains of President Noynoy, Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, simply utters the hope that it is “the wake of a new political era.”
Ave Atque Vale, President P-Noy!