Winds of change: ‘Island of unity in a sea of diversity’By Cathy C. Yamsuan, Michael Lim Ubac
Guests at the State of the Nation Address (Sona) told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that they could feel the winds of change sweeping the country with friends and foes alike willing to listen to the President’s speech.
They may be divided by conflicting ambitions but for one fleeting afternoon, at least, the country’s political leaders came together under one roof and gave the impression of “national unity,” lawmakers on Monday said as they listened to President Benigno Aquino’s Sona.
“I think that our democracy enshrines critical thinking and debate. That makes it healthy. But today is a day for all to be united in the face of bigger and real adversaries, local and foreign,” said Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo.
Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano explained that the Sona “symbolizes an island of unity in a sea of diversity.” He said the Sona was a coming together of leaders divided by geography, creed, ideology and political persuasions.
“We are brought together by love for God, country and people, listening to the highest elected official of the land to try to find common objectives and direction,” Cayetano said.
Senator Francis Escudero said: “At least (the country is united) for one afternoon.”
Representative Juan Edgardo Angara preferred to use the phrase “unity in diversity.”
“Despite divergent views, the presence of all the nation’s leaders under one roof showcases Philippine democracy, which some consider messy but, in the words of Winston Churchill, is better than all other alternatives,” Angara said.
The loudest hoots and applause erupted when Mr. Aquino expressed his support for “responsible parenthood,” which many took to refer to the controversial reproductive health bill.
Senator Pia Cayetano, principal sponsor of the contentious measure, had to turn her swivel chair and check the scene happening behind her at the session hall, while several lawmakers stood to applaud Mr. Aquino’s statement.
People in nearly all the galleries—save for the VIP section reserved for foreign dignitaries—cheered, stomped their feet and went “woo-hoo” to support the President.
Mr. Aquino paused and smiled.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto, a staunch adversary of the RH measure, looked around, smiled and eventually let out a loud guffaw as he clapped his hands at what was taking place.
Despite the din, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile hardly looked up from what he was reading as he sat on a dais above Mr. Aquino.
Other well-applauded policy statements of Mr. Aquino included:
- His insistence that the government continue efforts to reason out with China following its provocative moves in the West Philippine Sea;
- Mr. Aquino’s firm stand of “no forgive and forget” in the case of the “10 years that were taken from us” (referring to the Arroyo administration) and the Maguindanao massacre; and
- His persistent vow to go after grafters and their padrinos (backers).
Many spectators found the speech lengthy.
Lasting about one and a half hours, it seemingly put many lawmakers and guests to sleep. Former President Joseph Estrada tried hard to stifle a yawn toward the end of the speech.
Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., seated in front of the President, was brave enough not to hide his boredom, especially since the Sona began with a reference to the oppression the Aquino family suffered during martial law, which his father—the late dictator Ferdinand Sr.—declared in 1972.
His mother, Ilocos Norte Representative Imelda Marcos, looked politely at the giant screen in front of her throughout the speech.
It was not clear if Senator Lito Lapid, an advocate of the national language, appreciated the President’s efforts to speak in Filipino.
Noticeable though was how Mr. Aquino stammered as he read statistics and other numbers in Filipino—such as the increased number of expectant mothers receiving prenatal care. He soon shifted to English.
Guests on the third floor galleries were irritated by the constant clapping of hidden individuals at the most inopportune moments. It prompted suspicion that the clappers had been planted inside the session hall to make sure the President’s speech was well applauded.
Joel Villanueva, director general of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, mouthed a very discernible “thank you” to the President after he was praised for the good performance of his agency.
Traditionally, the Sona is the most well-attended political event of the year. Also seen in the VIP galleries were Vice President Jejomar Binay and former Senator Ernesto Maceda who flanked Estrada, former Speaker Jose de Venecia and Cabinet secretaries.
Other guests included Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who kept away from the VIP gallery, where Estrada was. Lim is running for reelection against Estrada. Former senators present were Heherson Alvarez, Francisco Tatad, Nikki Coseteng and Ramon Magsaysay Jr.
Congressmen queued up to shake the hand of Commission on Elections Chair Sixto Brillantes, who was seated in the farthest row of the VIP gallery.
Brillantes’ seatmate, presidential adviser Ronald Llamas, walked all the way down to the session floor to give rumored girlfriend and former Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel a buss on the cheek.
The Aquino sisters—Ballsy, Pinky, Viel and Kris—arrived 40 minutes before the Sona was to start. The three elder sisters arrived with their husbands. Kris was later joined by television cohost Boy Abunda.
An obviously star-struck Rosemarie Arenas was seated two rows back but had her photo taken right behind Kris before taking her seat.
Actress Assunta de Rossi, wife of Negros Occidental Representative Jules Ledesma, was seated by her lonesome on the last row of the gallery where the Aquino sisters were.
Actress Dawn Zulueta, wife of Davao del Norte Representative Anton Lagdameo, sashayed in a gown right in front of the Aquinos.
Too busy chatting
At around 3:38 p.m., the giant screens heralded the arrival of the President but guests in the gallery were too busy chatting. This prompted the sergeant-at-arms to approach them and point to the screen.
Many of the lawmakers were unperturbed even as uniformed guards made their way to the session hall to clear the aisle where the President was to pass.
So many guests could not fit into the session hall that House officials decided to put up a viewing area at the north wing lobby. A large screen was mounted on one side of the lobby, and rows of monobloc chairs were set up.
The session hall seats only up to 1,800 people. With a report from Leila Salaverria