Economic Reforms in the New Frontier: Meet the Presidentiables

Presidential Elections
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October 30, 2021 - I wish to thank the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX), together with the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII), Cignal, and The Manila Times, for the opportunity to be the first in line to present my economic platform in your Presidential Forum.


Before I begin our economic prospects in the years to come, I think it is but fair to mention the promising insights of progress that we as a nation worked very hard for in the recent past. Not too long ago, our nation had a message of hope -- our fair share of “good news stories”. In fact, never before in our history had we reached an average annual growth rate of above 6 percent in over a 10-year period as we did from 2010 to 2019. Economists then predicted that the Philippines will be the 19th largest economy in the world by 2050 and Asia’s new economic powerhouse.


Yet somewhere along the way, we missed our opportunities. We lost ground. We failed to insulate our nation from the most severe impact of the worst global health crisis of our time.


As we stand, our country is the worst place to be during the pandemic. We ranked at the lowest rung in terms of effectiveness of handling this health crisis. Compared to our ASEAN neighbors, Filipinos are sadly the most disapproving of a government’s pandemic response.


Suffice to say that the pandemic, worsened by greed and incompetence has reversed our gains in recent years that I mentioned, and magnified the already intrinsic problems that we face as a country: bad economy, massive corruption of incorrigible proportions, instability of peace and order, joblessness, poverty and hunger, not to mention our humongous national debt and our maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea.


If there is one thing that I have learned from my years of training as a soldier, it is - to never go unprepared in any battle.


Thus, my Economic Roadmap, a byproduct of countless consultations with a number of policy and sectoral groups and experts, local officials, and economists, presents concrete, practical, realistic and sensible reforms that will be our key in transforming our vision into reality that is built on people’s trust in their government: Tiwala sa pamunuan na mag-aayos at magdidisiplina sa gobyerno upang ayusin ang pamumuhay ng mga Pilipino.


The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us a painful lesson: there is no trade-off between our people’s health and the health of our economy. Our economic policy hence lies on the foundational ground of our health system, a vital component for national development and security. As I have always been emphasizing, one cannot talk of economic recovery without laying out a comprehensive health agenda to protect the welfare of our country’s most important asset -- our people.


That being said, I commit to offer a “Future-proof Strategy” in the New Normal – one that can stand firm against the many challenges in the coming years and grab the emerging opportunities we have at hand. We need to move forward and fast – otherwise, we will drown in this state of misery. Our approach to this health crisis must be proactive, not reactive, based only on science and driven by accurate data and not by “pandemic politics” and never motivated by malevolent and unconscionable opportunism to make money out of the people’s difficulty and misery.


The national government cannot resolve the pandemic all by itself. While it needs to supervise, it should release a certain degree of control. We have to localize the problem because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the pandemic. As we speak, the regional average of fully vaccinated individuals outside NCR is only 26.6%. This demands the need to bring to the frontline the local government units and the private sector who can aggressively turn vaccines into free and robust vaccination campaigns especially in hard-to-reach and high-risk populations. It is high time that containment strategies such as contact tracing, testing, and treatment be institutionalized and normalized -- at no cost to the public.


We will make this possible by ensuring that the Universal Healthcare Act will not only look good on paper but one that actually serves its purpose – healthcare coverage to all Filipinos without any financial burden from out-of-pocket medical expenses. Hence, we will fund the “high-cost” requirement of the Universal Healthcare Act to cover all barangays, provide subsidies for all indirect contributory populations, ensure optimal benefits for healthcare workers, and achieve the target of 1 hospital bed per 800 population.


Sadly, three years after its passage and after three General Appropriations laws, we are stuck in the “low cost” stage with 173.5 billion-peso funding for UHC under the 2021 National Budget as “medium cost” by the way, starts at P241B. This means insufficient funding for its implementation, severely affecting the human resources for health, capital expenditures and PhilHealth premiums. This direly explains why health system gaps and level of inequity in health persist -- as magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is this so? Our past and ongoing legislative inquiries show us three very similar reasons: corruption, corruption and more corruption.


Our health system is an agenda not solely within the domain of the Department of Health. We have to fix the very tall and centralized health delivery system by fully devolving not only the functions but the resources to the local government units as mandated under the Local Government Code of 1991.


It’s a harsh reality, but we cannot afford another day of “on-off, off-on” lockdowns. NEDA made this clear: the present and future costs of COVID-19 and the quarantines are estimated at 41.4 trillion pesos. Imagine: in 2020, alone, we lost 4.3 trillion pesos. Meanwhile, 144 billion pesos per week (or 20.5 billion pesos per day) was shed from the economy when the National Capital Region (NCR) Plus was placed under ECQ. (NEDA)


In the midst of a recession-induced economic state, the unemployment rate increases, prices of commodities inflate, social services remain lacking.


For an ordinary Filipino, this is a feeling too close to his gut. When everyone is tightening their belts, the government has to be the spender of last resort, as economist John Keynes taught us. The government has to infuse money on the economic engine to keep the wheels rolling – until such time when the people are ready and confident enough to step in the economic wagon. Spend as government must – but the key here is judicious spending to benefit those who need it, not a well-connected few who rake in large profits through overpricing and ghost or under delivery.


As we already know by now, next year, the national debt is projected to reach 13.42 trillion pesos.


We need to fund the right priorities and reboot our economy.


How? We need to stop the bleeding where we hurt the most.


Our micro, small and medium enterprises or MSMEs comprising 99.5% of all enterprises and 63.2% of the labor force took the first blow because of the lockdowns, hence plunging our economy to an immediate crisis shortly after.


To cure this bleeding, we must push for recovery start-ups through comprehensive and targeted fiscal stimulus packages to aid our businesses in reopening and staying afloat. We need to implement eviction and foreclosure moratoriums and employee-retention tax credits to motivate businesses to reopen. Kailangan nating tangkilikin ang sariling atin. We have to resolve poor incentives to local enterprises as in the poor fate of a local entrepreneur who invested 200 million pesos to retool his equipment to help produce face masks only to be shortchanged by no less than his own government, courtesy of the DBM Procurement Service which procured more expensive face masks through wheeling and dealing and favored Chinese traders, made possible by the highly questionable transfer of P42B under the regular budget of the DOH. To add insult to injury, these traders cheated by evading payment of taxes in favor of buying pricey luxury cars, if not stashing their profits somewhere outside the Philippines.


Where Noah Webster failed in inventing the word to describe an evil act of quenching one’s thirst for money out of a pandemic, it took us Filipinos to discover that word. It is called – "pharmally."


We will provide a social safety net especially for those who are pushed to the brink. In large part, we must bolster and reinvent our Conditional Cash Transfer aka 4P’s programs with the overarching principle that every Filipino should bridge the poverty line with a sustainable livelihood or employment opportunities.


Our goal is to get people back to work through Cash-for-Work mechanisms. For one, we can tap the corporate social responsibility arms of corporations in pursuing initiatives to provide cash payments under ‘decent work’ conditions to enable them to get back on their feet.


We should also capitalize on our able and talented youth sector which has the potential to drive our economy. We must promote a paid internship program where college graduates and undergraduates can undergo internships in government offices, as well as in private corporations and businesses, in order to maximize skills development and productivity.


My economic roadmap will prioritize the expansion of opportunities for our local farmers and fisherfolk to make sure that no one is left behind.


Aside from government support both at the national and local levels through technical assistance as well as in the marketing of the local farmers’ produce - thus liberating them from the grip and control of middlemen and traders, who provide them loans, thus effectively dictating market prices to our food security front liners, this approach can provide alternatives to lower our reliance on importation of agriculture products. It is high time that we veer away from the import-dependent mentality. The Davao del Norte experience, mostly upon the initiative of the provincial government provides a good role model in this regard. I cannot imagine for the life of me that in spite of being an archipelagic country, I will live the day to see Filipinos eating imported galunggong.


I cannot also understand why only 63% or 2.1 million hectares of our total irrigable 3.128 million hectares of land are irrigated. Thailand has 17 million hectares of irrigated farmland, Vietnam has 8.3 million hectares, Indonesia, 6.7 million hectares. Any agriculturist will tell you that patubig, pataba at binhi - or, irrigation, fertilizer and seed are three of the most basic components of an aspiring self-reliant agricultural country like the Philippines. Thus, a major part of my agenda for the agriculture sector is the completion of our long-time lags in providing effective and sustainable irrigation systems to 100% of our irrigable lands in the country.


My economic agenda also puts forward a bold vision of improving our country’s tax administration to pump up our revenue collection. I have long been proposing the cross-referencing of data between our major revenue collecting agencies and the other relevant government agencies like the Land Transportation Office, Land Registration Authority, Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Trade and Industry to plug our tax collection leakages.


Our economic ills are largely hinged on the tradition of political corruption. What we endure is the bankruptcy of our bureaucracy, where government spending is wasteful and unnecessary and departs from our priorities, resists change, and sticks to its old ways.


More than ever, we must reinvent our government. It is time we should depart from the “more of the same” mentality. It is time for the government to really treat the business sector as partners in progress instead of competitors. Overregulation, when it goes beyond our competition policy, has no place in modern and civilized society especially at a time when we need to encourage foreign investments and attract more capital inflow in the Philippines.


If we truly intend to plug the loopholes in our governance platforms, we need to boost the digitalization of Government Processes. Through the outpouring of resources for automation and interoperability of government agencies, I am confident that we can minimize, if not totally eliminate corruption in government, which can ultimately lead to improved and higher revenue collection and faster, more efficient business transactions. To this end, I will guarantee a historic increase of budget infusion for our research and development efforts which now stands at a ridiculously pitiful share of just 0.4% of the national budget.


As I have consistently stood for in all the years that I have been diligently scrutinizing the expenditure program of the national government, I saw the need to re-allocate the national budget to provide adequate resources commensurate with the mandated functions of our LGUs. A meaningful devolution not only on paper, but the actual downloading of functions and fair share of budgetary resources to the Local Government Units, including capacity building interventions to make them competitive, especially those municipalities in the 5th and 6th class categories. This is the essence of my advocacy program called BRAVE, or the Budget Reform Advocacy for Village Empowerment.


Moreover, it is time to shift from the age-old practice of imposing a budget ceiling for the different national agencies to work on - to a zero-based budget planning. We can take off from the best practices of big private corporations in implementing a bottom-up approach in budgeting to address the actual needs of our local government units. This is our budget reform to improve the delivery of basic services, creating employment opportunities, and improving the lives of our people, especially in the disadvantaged, far-flung communities. A bonus outcome of this approach is decongestion of a few highly urbanized metropolitan areas best exemplified by Metro Manila and Metro Cebu.


If only the government commits to providing greater equity in resource allocation, trusting the LGUs as the National Government partners for development, and exercise prudence and discipline in fiscal management, in due time, the culture of mendicancy and patronage politics will be a thing of the past.


We need leadership by example – one that can break away from the politics of entertainment, double-speak, and lip service and stand for the rule of law, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability – the very tenets of good governance.


In the end, we have to come to terms with the truth that “reforms” could not happen on their own accord. More than good economic policies and a sound political platform, our country would require change in the moral acuity among those in higher office. It would demand the values of KKK -- Kakayahan, Katapangan at Katapatan in actually turning campaign promises into reality.


Again, I thank you all for this opportunity.


Mabuhay ang bawat mamamayang Pilipino!


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