Whenever I have the opportunity to be heard by a community of leaders, I always aspire to speak of the truth, frankly and boldly, about the hopes, dreams, and challenges of our nation; to leave a message that will carry great weight to what really matters to us — individually and collectively as a people.
Today, I am impelled to tell you what I believe to be the most consequential crossroads of our time – one that evokes a feeling of ‘fear’, a word I prefer not to use in all my 50 years of public service.
Truth is, I have never seen our country at the grips of fear as we have in recent years. I would be lying to you if I said, I do not fear the unknown as we continue to surge forth in the future’s many uncertainties — not much for myself, but for the future generations.
You and I would agree that today’s uncertainties are mostly rooted in the global pandemic and its unprecedented challenges to humanity. The atmosphere of fear enshrouds the world, changing the way we have lived our lives. And as we transition to the new normal, fear still lingers, prodding us to ask, “is the worst yet to come?”
As we speak, our nation is still struggling to recover from its harsh beating from the pandemic. In a recent global study, our country has ranked second to the last out of 53 economies in terms of resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sentiments of the people on the ground prove to be the most telling signs: 48% of Filipino families consider themselves poor based on a recent SWS study; some 4.2 million Filipinos experienced hunger in the past three months; and, jobless Filipinos hit 4.14 million in April 2021.
Meanwhile, our national debt has already ballooned to P11.07 trillion, almost twice as much as the P5.9 trillion debt we had when the Duterte administration took office last June 30, 2016. With about 110.8 million Filipinos, this means that each of us is in debt by almost P100,000.
With our failure to contain the pandemic, debt watchers are already flagging our status as ‘credit negative.’ This signals a lower investment-grade rating which means higher borrowing costs. As entrepreneurs who have taken massive hits from revenue losses and even business closures, you and I know that this is worse than bad news.
Make no mistake: these are your problems as much as they are mine. The dire reality is that this is the unfortunate future that my generation will leave to you and the generations to come, among them are the youth leaders in the virtual audience tonight.
From where we stand, there are two paths diverging before us: one which will lead us to the brink of falling deeper into misery and another, which leads to our survival.
It is at this very moment that we are bound to make decisions intelligently and decisively. This is when we must redefine our “roles” in building a better society. It is the time to ask ourselves, “at a clear looming crossroads, where do we want to be as a nation?”
I ask myself this question in quiet introspection. In hindsight, I have come to believe that our nation deserves no pity. In fact, almost half a century ago, we were a model of development, second to Japan in the East Asian economies.
In stark contrast, back then, many believed that tiny Singapore had little chance of survival with its general poverty and disorder. Its transformation was however miraculous as it is now a thriving Asian metropolis and among the countries with the highest per capita real income in the world. I can say the same with the growth miracles of other economies such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand, even Vietnam.
We keep asking ourselves why the transformational stories of these countries could not also be a formula for our own success as a nation with more abundant human and natural resources. I believe the answer lies in their legacies that we should aspire for our nation: A no-nonsense, yet sensible leadership, an efficient public bureaucracy, an effective and honest-to-goodness control of corruption.
Quite interestingly, these countries do not veer away from a proven brand of public management, a governance reform which I believe closely resembles an “entrepreneurial government” — one that responds to new realities, empowers citizens rather than simply serving them, and leads a society that does not only work with their hands but with their minds.
In my long years as a public servant, I have always looked up to captains of business and industry, like most of you, in driving the economic stability and growth of our country. I firmly believe that we could really take off from what we learn from successful business corporations in terms of efficient and strategic management to steer our way to recovery.
For one, I have been citing fiscal discipline or the calibrated positioning of public expenditure, as one of the many areas that the national government can learn from the private sector.
Much as chief executives of private enterprises take premium on financial management as the key to its long-term growth and sustainability, I myself, as a public servant, have always regarded the national budget as the lifeblood of our country’s economy.
Thus, in my work as a legislator for 17 years now, I have committed myself to consistently and actively participate from committee hearings to the Senate floor deliberations, all the way to the bicameral conference of our annual national budget with more tenacity and grit than most of my colleagues, whether in past congresses or the present.
Over the years, some may have likened me to a ‘broken record’ as I repeatedly question the government’s policy of borrowing more than what we can actually spend, hence resulting in billions of annual unused and worse, misused and abused appropriations and a deeper fiscal hole due to our accumulated debt.
Prior to the pandemic, from 2017 to 2019, the average yearly gross borrowings of the national government was around P1 trillion, yet strangely, the unused appropriations in the same years amounted to P331 billion on the annual average. As business managers, you know it is basic as it is common sense that borrowing money excessively which would later turn out unused is not a sound financial policy, as it means higher debt interest payments and imbalances on our overall cash flow.
Come 2020, when the pandemic hit the economy on an unprecedented scale, we were left with no choice but to even increase our borrowings to cover the growing deficit due to the steep fall in our collection of revenues.
I could not help but wonder if we would be in the same predicament if we had the same fiscal discipline as that of private corporations in setting the right balance between a manageable debt and a realistic expenditure program. After all, our government is not just any family business, it is our nation’s business.
Let me cite an example: annually, big private corporations set their budget at zero and make their respective departments propose and justify before the board each and every project it plans to spend on. This is logical, allowing for greater accountability and better outcomes for the corporation. Why then do we see a different scenario in our government? In the preparation of the budget plan, for example, the Development Budget Coordinating Council (DBCC) through the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) imposes a budget ceiling for the different agencies to work on.
What we endure is the bankruptcy of our bureaucracy, where government spending is wasteful and unnecessary, resists change, and sticks to its old ways. From the business standpoint, hindi pa tayo nagsisimula, lugi na.
We also fail to harness innovation and invest in human capital. Private corporations have been long ahead of the game in terms of utilizing digital tools in maintaining a competitive edge and efficiency in business management, in contrast to the government’s bloated bureaucracy with “contractuals” hired
mostly not to work as part of human capital but for political exigencies and accommodations. That said, I am confident that following the digitization track is the way to espouse effective and efficient performance in monitoring revenue collection and public expenditure.
Just imagine minimal, if not totally none of the human intervention in tax and customs collection and automated processes for government transactions–that would mean lesser and ultimately zero odds of ‘tara’ and ‘tong-pats’, and all other forms and levels of kickbacks that stimulate the vicious cycle of graft and corruption in our country.
You would agree with me that at this crucial time, we need a catalytic government that is eager to do more by maximizing existing resources, refuses to be trapped by a bankrupt bureaucracy, and departs from the “trapo” and “nakasanayan na” mentality. We need a reform-oriented government, or more accurately, we need better governance.
When I assumed command of the Philippine National Police in November 1999, I still vividly recall a pointed question posed by some media people doing their beat in Camp Crame – “General Lacson, what is the biggest problem of the PNP?” My reply was as instinctive as it was honest – “It is the PNP!” Not too long after, we found out that the solution was right there with us – a disciplined and reformed police force, no more ‘kotong’ cops in the streets, no kickbacks in procurement under a strictly supervised “no-take policy” imposed from top to bottom. To balance, financial and logistical resources trickled down to the frontline units never before experienced by field units using the 15% to 85% distribution ratio.
After I got elected as a senator of the Republic, whenever I am confronted with a similar question about the biggest problem of government, my response has not changed – it is government, bad government. And, the solution lies in the face of the problem itself – it is called good government.
As we are nearing the crossroads of these trying times, and ‘fake news’, double-speak and lip service cloud our vision on which way to choose, we can only be guided by one principle: “What is right must be kept right; what is wrong must be set right” – even if the Malacanang spokespersons insist that wrong is right.
It is high time that we commit to our roles as nation-builders, and restore our trust in our government and to our fellow countrymen. It goes without saying, the government MUST earn that trust and respect – for trust and respect cannot be demanded. Only then will our country rise, as some of our neighboring Asian countries have risen, against the greatest challenges of their times.
Thank you and good evening to everyone.