FINANCE Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s admission that neither he nor other economic managers were consulted by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on the rice price cap decision bolsters accounts that I have been receiving over the President’s decision-making process. Unfortunately, they claim his decisions have been made haphazardly, and without consultation with his officials or other private advisers knowledgeable about the issue.
Unlike most effective presidents of corporations, and even a few presidents of the Republic, Marcos reportedly hardly consults with advisers on a decision to be made, nor does he have a group that he asks to debate the pros and cons of a controversy. In the case of the rice price cap, I was told that the Agriculture department’s senior undersecretary Domingo Panganiban called him up to recommend it, and he immediately agreed to the proposal.
I couldn’t find anybody to tell me who or what group Marcos consults with. I had thought chief presidential legal counsel Juan Ponce Enrile and Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, a former Supreme Court chief justice, would be the heavyweights he would ask for advice. “Have you ever seen a photo of him talking to them?” a Malacañang insider said with a wide grin. Marcos Cabinet meetings are a formality in which reports are presented to a bored audience with no discussion of important issues facing the country. The Cabinet meetings, two members told me, are practically a ritual, dominated by boring PowerPoint events.
Marcos set up a Private Sector Advisory Council a week after he assumed office, headed by his reportedly biggest financial supporter, Sabin Aboitiz, the head of that rapidly expanding conglomerate of the same name. While having an unwieldy 33 members, it is divided into four sectors, with Aboitiz heading the infrastructure and tourism sector; La Filipina Uy Gongco Corp. President Aileen Uygongco-Ongkauko for agriculture; RFM conglomerate head Joey Concepcion; and Henry Agudo, CEO of another Aboitiz firm, Union Bank, for digital infrastructure.
However, the council has met only four times since July 2022. “It’s more of a thank you, in recognition of those who financed his bid for the presidency, and for a member of the council, a message to everyone that he’s close to Marcos,” said one insider.
Read Marcos Sr.’s diaries, and it becomes obvious he had a penchant for consulting many officials, such as Alejandro Melchor, Rafael Salas, Juan Ponce Enrile, Roberto Ongpin and Cesar Virata. Even the final decision to declare martial law was discussed by a group that would be dubbed, to denigrate it as a cabal of plotters, the “Rolex 12.” What really happened is that entry-level Rado watches were given by Marcos in a celebratory event there years later, when martial law appeared to have been a success. The “cabal” consisted of the defense secretary, the police chief (Ramos), the armed forces chief of staff, the service commanders, the heads of the intelligence agencies, and his main adviser on politics, Eduardo Cojuangco — in short, the military establishment with a civilian contingent.
Ironically, or problematically, for an organization that has the most impact on Filipinos’ lives, there’s been no accepted playbook, no management theories for running the Philippine presidency. Corazon Aquino is said to have relied on the tandem of her executive secretary throughout her presidency, Joker Arroyo, and her spokesman and current ambassador to the United Kingdom, Teodoro Locsin Jr., and what was dubbed the “Council of Trent,” the Jesuit-trained market-oriented businessmen and technocrats led by her first finance secretary, Jaime Ongpin, until his suicide in December 1987.
President Fidel Ramos, of course, was known to consult his national security adviser, Jose Almonte, and Speaker Jose de Venecia on almost any issue. Ramos also had a shadow group of advisers, consisting of PR and media practitioners, who gave him feedback on public opinion on the results of his actions.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, during her first years in office, had regular breakfast meetings with a group of her top officials. Arroyo, in fact, had a penchant for conducting long meetings with a cluster of her Cabinet members to discuss in detail a specific issue. At least President Estrada discussed things with his “midnight Cabinet,” even consuming several bottles of his fabled Petrus wine to analyze fine points. “The problem was he followed whatever the last tro whispered to him,” a former Cabinet member claimed.
I hadn’t heard of President Benigno Aquino 3rd having such a “collective” that he consulted for his decisions, except for the decision to file the arbitration case against China, which was dominated, however, by his foreign secretary, with the rest of those attending clueless about the issue.
That non-consultative penchant proved to be his undoing, politically. He didn’t even discuss with Mar Roxas, who had control of the Philippine National Police, and with the military brass the Special Action Forces’ ill-fated operation against a terrorist group in Mamasapano. That resulted in the massacre of 44 of the SAF troops, with the police and military leadership unable to respond because they had not been informed at all of the operation.
The practice of having committees or councils — which I term a “collective” — has been a must in a nation’s governance, given the complexity of issues that have to be understood, the factors affecting a decision, and the nearly infinite permutations of outcomes. After all, intelligence, educational level, and certainly wisdom are not qualifications for one to be president in any democratic system.
In the US, however, this practice of consultations has been institutionalized, with presidential advisers for this or that having offices near the Oval Office. The US president is nearly mandated to consult with such institutions as his Council of Economic Advisers, National Security Council, President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Homeland Security Council.
Even a form of government totally different from that of the US, the People’s Republic of China, has structures and processes requiring consultation by its leaders. This is in fact intrinsic to the Communist Party’s structures since Mao’s time, who made it a communist dogma (although he seemed to have not followed it all) the management style or practice of “democratic centralism,” in which actual leadership over a certain function is bestowed on a committee, which is required to vet a decision first (democratic), agree on it, and after that, it is implemented to its end by everyone without question.
Even Chinese President Xi Jinping answers to the “executive committee” of the Political Bureau, the highest leadership organ of the party.
Not only that, the Chinese government has utilized that Western invention, the think tank, to guide its decisions and actions. In fact, China has the second-biggest number of think tanks, 429, in the world after the US’ 1,830. Unlike many of the American think tanks that are nearly academic or venues for propaganda, Chinese think tanks are tasked with studying thoroughly a particular issue, which the ministry involved then evaluates, submits its recommendation to a party cell in charge of that aspect of government, to be discussed again, approved and implemented. China didn’t become the world’s leader in the production of electric cars by accident. Way back in 2010, alerted by the rise of Elon Musk’s Tesla, several Chinese think tanks were mobilized to research and propose plans on how China could massively go into e-car production. Obviously, these think tanks’ recommendations succeeded.
That’s why I’m worried about our disputes with China in the South China Sea. We don’t have an independent think tank evaluating our responses to this issue, only a “National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea,” consisting mostly of military men really ignorant of the South China Sea disputes, and a foreign affairs department brainwashed by US thinking, whose sole approach is to provoke China to get the US to defend us. In contrast, China in 2004 set up a think tank, the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, which has over 100 resident academics and visiting researchers studying the gamut of disputes in that sea, from historical studies to diplomatic solutions.
We can be sure that China has several other think tanks working on the South China Sea issue, and whatever they do would be well-thought-out and well-planned, just as they built structures on Mischief Reef in 1994 right under our noses. And while our officials and the US were congratulating themselves for the clever “lawfare” that the 2012 arbitration suit was, just a small cabal that proposed, undertook and “proved” that China’s claims in the Spratlys were without legal basis, the Chinese turned the seven reefs they occupied into artificial islands with all the facilities that a military base required, changing the geopolitical landscape of the South China Sea to their advantage.
Each president creates the kind of presidency he wants. That’s really an amateurish approach.
I’m afraid Marcos is leading the country solely by gut feel, or by something else, or maybe somebody else’s advice. Just a year or so into the presidency, however, he can change his decision-making process. Tapping other minds for this is the proven way to arrive at decisions, so long as — as Arroyo often reminded her officials — “analysis doesn’t become paralysis.”
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Book orders: www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop