Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic ReformsThis piece was published in the May 10, 2010 (Election Day)  edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

It was a statement from a faceless cab driver—as told to me by my dear friend Fides—that perhaps captures the sentiments of poor Filipinos who like Noynoy Aquino. Said the driver:  Ninakaw na sa atin ang lahat, at ang tanging natira sa akin ay ang pag-asa.  Di ako papayag na ang pag-asa ay maagaw pa sa amin. Si Noynoy ang simbolo ng aming pag-asa.

We now see the revival of pag-asa.  And this feeling is alive among all Pinoys, not distinguishing between rich and poor.  Fides straddles the class divide, and she and the cab driver share the same pag-asa.  Born to the purple, Fides has always enjoyed a comfortable life.  Yet her heart is for the poor and oppressed, which explains why she has remained a Left activist since her high school days at Maryknoll. In the course of her unusual life, she has made many sacrifices and endured much pain—for example, being imprisoned twice, dropping out of the University of the Philippines law school (though she topped the entrance exam) to continue her activism, and being physically separated from her husband who is wanted by the military for trumped-up charges.

And it was not easy for her to leave her comrades during the election period, for she wanted to campaign, out of her free will, for Noynoy.  Worse, her friends from the Left attacked her candidate.  In her text message to me, Fides wrote: “The Left misread the popular sentiment for reform, encapsulated in Noynoy.”

Reform is in the air, and we must exert greater effort to foster the hope for reforms as the public fever generated by the elections begins to subside.

The hope that the nameless cab driver and Fides aspire for is about repairing institutions, and even building new ones.  For the driver, perhaps institutions may seem abstract. But in the concrete, institutional change is about having good rules—rules that are fair, not arbitrary; rules that are enforced and applied to everyone; rules that enable markets; rules that promote open and transparent politics; rules that make rulers accountable.

Institutional change consists of rules that provide economic and political access to everyone; rules that give the cab driver the same rights and opportunities that Fides has. In the language of economists, institutions are the rules of the game, which hopefully will change the behavior of members of society, especially the elite, for the better.

Individuals—leaders who inspire; leaders with integrity, vision and a coherent program—can catalyze the building of new institutions. The best Philippine examples are Rizal, Bonifacio, and Corazon Aquino.  But history has also taught us that heroic acts of individuals are not sufficient to build durable institutions.  Organizations and people involved in collective action are critical.

We are again at the threshold of institutional change.   Noynoy needs a cadre of reformers who will help him in the task of cleaning or building institutions.

The transition from old rules to new rules will be particularly difficult.  The forces of Gloria Arroyo will attempt a revanche. The Supreme Court is described as Arroyo’s court, the Ombudsman is an Arroyo loyalist, and Congress will remain infested with Arroyo mercenaries, with Gloria herself in command.

Making the Arroyo administration accountable is absolutely necessary towards strengthening institutions for the long term. But to isolate the Arroyo diehards who want a bloody fight, the Noynoy administration will have to forge a broader tactical alliance, which brings to the fore the tension between principle and compromise. Like it or not, a tactical alliance will have to accommodate the disliked traditional politicians (trapos), who no longer want to be identified with Mrs. Arroyo.

The idealists might find bedding with trapos disgusting. It is actually a matter of responding to expediency without losing sight of the bigger goal, of having compromise without overturning core values.  Yet moral ascendancy and support from the constituency of pag-asa and pagbabago will not be compromised if the most critical positions in government—in the Cabinet and in the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives— are occupied by reformers or modern, progressive politicians.

Those who deserve to be in these sensitive positions are men and women who will protect Noynoy and the public good and therefore do not have the baggage of vested interest or conflict of interest.  The Secretary of Trade and Industry need not by default come from the influential chambers of commerce.  The Secretary of Finance need not be automatically assigned to someone from the banking community.

More challenging is how the dominant party will elect the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives.  If the operative word is change, then it is high time we had younger leaders not identified with trapo politics, politicians who are unifiers and committed to the Noynoy platform.  These are politicians from Noynoy’s generation who have experienced his trials, who share his values, and who have consistently supported his causes—adherence to rule of law and human rights, promotion of transparency and information disclosure, preservation of checks and balances, improvement of the workingman’s welfare, etc.

New institutions require leaders with fresh, modernizing perspectives.  We have found this in Noynoy, and we hope to find this in the Cabinet and the leadership of both Houses of Congress.

Of course, we can expect a few stumbles, but the occasion of an overwhelming victory premised on pag-asa and pagbabago compels everyone to do good.

I wish I could meet the taxi driver, and cheer him—buhay na buhay ang ating pag-asa.