The Different States of the State of the Nation Address

A quick primer on what you need to know about the President’s biggest speech of the year.
ILLUSTRATOR Roland Mae Tanglao

Let’s face it. The President’s SONA speech is boring.

Think back to all the other SONA speeches you’ve heard before, and try to recall at least one line. Unless you’re that kind of person, you’d be hard-pressed to recall much.

But make no mistake: the State of the Nation Address isn’t something to sleep on. It’s both a summing up of the administration’s past accomplishments and an announcement of its priorities for the year to come. It’s one of the most important speeches of the year and, in its long history, it’s been through a lot.

The First SONA

There are some technicalities as to when the first SONA actually was, but in any case, the tradition has always been an integral part of the government’s history.

On September 15, 1899, Emilio Aguinaldo gave a short address during the Inaugural Session of the Assembly of Representatives, also known as the Malolos Congress. It wasn’t a proper SONA, but more of a short congratulatory address. Nevertheless, it was the first time the Head of State addressed the rest of the government, and set a precedent to come.

In 1916, when Governor-General Francis B. Harrison talked about the state of affairs in the country, the tradition of a yearly summing up in front of the legislature began. By the introduction of the Commonwealth, the President was required to deliver a speech every year, and this became the State of the Nation Address that we know today. 


Institutionalizing the Tradition

At first, the SONA didn’t have a rigid date as to when it should be done. The first SONA under the Commonwealth was done on November 25, 1935. It was then moved to the beginning of the National Assembly’s session on June 16.

In 1937, however, Commonwealth Act 244 amended the date to the fourth Monday of the year, which became the practice until Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. From 1972 to 1977, the State of the Nation Address was given on September 21, the anniversary of Martial Law. It was finally changed to today’s current date of the third Monday of July beginning in 1978.

The venue also changed a few times over the years. Originally held in the Legislative Building (now the National Museum of Fine Arts), the venue was changed to its current location in the Batasang Pambansa in 1978. 

There was one time when the SONA was given outside the country: In 1950, President Elpidio Quririno was recuperating in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. when he delivered the State of the Nation Address in his hospital bed. The address was given over the radio and, to date, is the only instance of the SONA being given outside the country.

Protests and the State of the Nation

Perhaps the most interesting part of the SONA is not the speech itself, but the reactions to it. Without fail, mass organizations and people from every sector of society troop to Manila to stage their own United People’s SONA.

There was one time these protests turned violent, however. In 1970, Ferdinand Marcos gave his State of the Nation Address amid growing instability—rising prices, low wages, U.S. involvement in Philippine affairs, and threats of a Marcos term extension had everybody riled up. Thousands of people led by student groups like Kabataang Makabayan and the National Union of Students of the Philippines staged a protest on the day of the SONA itself.

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At around 5 p.m., Marcos left the Legislative Building and came into direct contact with the protesters, who swarmed him to call for change. A cardboard coffin was even hurled at the man in one of the bravest acts of protest in history. 

This was the turning point. Police began to violently disperse the protesters in an effort to scatter them. The result was utter chaos. Makeshift pillboxes were made in the streets as protesters and policemen exchanged rocks. People were dragged and beaten. At one point, Senator Emmanual Pelaez stepped in to try to and calm the situation down, but was pelted by the police with rocks.

The riots died down around 10 p.m., but the damage was done. At least two were confirmed to have died while several were injured. The political situation changed. This was the tipping point. SONA 1970 was the beginning of the First Quarter Storm.

Our current President has also made recent SONA history. Apart from getting directors like Brillante Mendoza and Joyce Bernal to handle the live telecast, the often controversial Rodrigo Duterte crashed the People’s SONA in 2017.

It was a total surprise for everybody involved. Presidents don’t just go to rallies. It just didn’t happen. Nevertheless, there he was, flanked by guards, police, and most important, Bong Go. He addressed the people who called on him to end Martial Law in Mindanao and resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front, before leaving. 

This SONA will mark Duterte’s fourth, and the 81st overall. Who knows what could happen? But, regardless of the content, we must always remember that the true state of the nation isn’t defined by numbers or words said on a stage. The state of the nation can be gleaned from the people who live in it. And it’s them, and their problems, that need to be addressed.



Official Gazette. The State of the Nation Address: Traditions and History

Talabong, R. (July 24, 2017). Duterte faces protesters after SONA 2017. Rappler.com

Lacaba, J. (2003). Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage: The First Quarter Storm and Related Events. Anvil Publishing.

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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