Thursday, January 25, 2007


Transcript of Keynote Address of Senator Richard J. Gordon
Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines
19 January 2007

It is a great honor to join the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on its first meeting in the new year, and I welcome the opportunity to take part in this discussion of prime developments and challenges in our country.

We meet at a pivotal time and hopeful time for the Philippines. We Filipinos have come through a year of challenge and difficulty. The economy is experiencing a period of resurgence on what seems to be a good run. Politically the government has weathered challenges to its authority and stability. International credit rating agencies have given the country a vote of confidence, and there is a prevalent sense of optimism in the air, something we have not known since the eve of the 1997 financial crisis.

Considering how long we have hoped for a change in national fortunes. It might be easy for some to join the chorus of optimism, but we would be doing ourselves and our country a disservice if we don't look at the national situation thoughtfully and objectively. Precisely because we seem to be on a roll, this is the time to ask how we can sustain the period of economic resurgence in our country. Including providing specific recommendations on how to do so. Continued success is not a given.

Hopeful times like these have come and gone before in our country. Again and again, at difficult times or turns in our history, we have known surges of vitality in our national life. I should know, we did Subic quite fast, surprised everybody, only to see them followed by decline and even crisis. The last thing we want is to ride the cycle of boom and bust again.

Curiously there are those who believe that our best course now is for politics to just get out of the way, and let private enterprise do its thing. Some even say that holding elections this May could spook the economy and send it into a tailspin. Because of our perpetually quibbling politicians, and sometimes murderous politics, the idea of a political respite may sound appealing.

But it is a mirage. As already seen, the very idea of cancelling the elections this year proposed by Cha Cha advocates, certainly not by this representation, became a lightning rod for citizen protest causing the administration to relent. Its kindred idea of ousting the Senate and growing unicameral, has gained no traction whatsoever in public opinion.

The hard reality is that politics and governance are crucial to sustaining our economic momentum. There is no way forward outside of democratic politics and sound public policy and administration. When administration allies of President Arroyo fended-off impeachment moves against her and then phased-out a coup attempt last year, fears of political instability in the country receded.

When this was followed by purposive legislative and executive action to wrestle down the fiscal deficit, particularly in passing the expanded VAT, and improving government revenues, international confidence was renewed in our capability for sound economic management.

These developments combined with soaring OFW remittances, high tourist arrivals and export receipts, bring us where we are now. The same convergence of Economic and Political concerns will sustain our economic momentum.

I see three key political challenges that are critical at this time. The first challenge is holding free, credible and speedy elections in May, and commencing the process of automating the conduct of elections and other electoral reforms. The second is affirming the rule of law in the country, and all that it connotes of public order, national security, effective judiciary, and transparent laws and regulations. Third and finally, we need effective Executive- Legistlative collaboration, in taking down long-standing roadblocks to economic modernization, like the poor state of infrastructure and social services in our country.

Each of these is a test of Philippine political credibility. As with Don Quijote's windmill, we will soar or sink depending on how successfully we meet them. The May elections have taken on exceptional importance, not only because electoral results will have grave repercussions in policy making, but because they are now seen at home and abroad, as a test of our capability to hold credible elections.

It is a sad thing to say about the oldest democracy in Asia, that we are back to Kindergarten school in Elections management. By a combination of both tradition and opportunism, we have failed to adopt modern technologies to our electoral system and processes. Each political exercise has become more farcical than the last. To foreign correspondents who have covered elections in other countries, it is totally mystifying why voters must painstakingly write down every name they vote for, and why it takes weeks, even months, to proclaim election winners. It is what Winston Churchill called, "A riddle wrapped in a mystery within an enigma."

This dubious tradition is compounded by recent developments that raise some uncertainty about the coming balloting. The rash of suspensions of local officials by sudden orders of the Ombudsman, are unsettling and raise questions about their timing. Why is this happening now when the election season is at hand? The inclusion of one or two pro-administration officials does not dispel worries about an orchestrated effort to curry advantage for administration bets.

We condemn in no uncertain terms, and speaking from experience in Subic Bay, the excessive and unjustifiable use of force by the police in Iloilo, against Governor Noli Tupaz. I'm glad, I was told earlier today, that the closure this week of Newsbreak, a news magazine highly critical of the administration is not really political. I hope that's true and not propaganda. But I was very concerned last night when I saw that and I included this as part of my speech. But this is part of the reason why many have caused to be skeptical in this country today. The memories of the Tribune of last year and many others including what I'm going to say later, I think will add to that.

The great controversy over the 2004 presidential election has served as a national wake-up call to fully reform our electoral system. Reform will not come easy however, after two years of preparing for this political exercise, we still have no comprehensive program for reform and modernization of the system. People will still have to stand vigil over the process. Speedy canvassing is still years away. But this coming May there is hope at least, that we will take the first and vital step since we've started holding elections in this country, towards real electoral reform -- the beginning of automation of our election system.

By overwhelming votes, both houses of Congress have passed election law amendments that authorize the COMELEC to use an automated election system in order to ensure transparency, credibility, fairness, speedy and accuracy recording in our elections. The amended act is now with the President for her signature. We are confident that she will give it her approval because not only did she certify this bill to Congress, but also added automated election as part of her ten-point agenda. I hope she will not change her mind.

The significant provisions of the amended law are: one, for the 2007 elections, full-automation of the election system in two provinces and two highly- urbanized cities each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. An appropriation of 2.6 billion pesos for this is authorized under the law. Two: full-automation nationwide in the 2010 national and local elections. By initiating the system in the 2007 elections, we can make needed adjustments and changes in technology and organization for nationwide automation of the vote. Other features of this bill include speedy electronic transmission of results within the hour, and the voter verifiable paper audit trail.

This should obviate hopefully, wholesale cheating which is called "dagdag-bawas" in this country, literally, "more or less". One act of Congress of course will not transform our electoral system and our Commission on Elections into a haven of suffrage. The important thing however, is that the reform process will start once the President signs this into law. And we will not stop until we truly have in place, an election system that works.

This is my commitment as chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws, and principal author and sponsor of the automated election bill. The COMELEC therefore has no business saying that it can no longer implement the law in time for the May elections.

The COMELEC is the only organization that is totally starved of credibility. This is plain and simple shirking of responsibility. We have brought to Manila one of the election machines necessary for the pilot effort. If the COMELEC doesn't want to move, this representation has made arrangement, gone out of its way, to go to San Francisco and pick up one of the machines, and it's coming this Saturday, to be able to show here to our country, that we can actually do it in time for this coming elections.

Five hundred to a thousand machines can be brought in within weeks if we act with dispatch. The point to remember is that we are starting here a paradigm shift in elections management in our country. Postpone this reform yet again, and we will have yet again, a messy balloting in 2010, national and local elections.

Those who have championed this law at the senate and the house, and at civic forums across the country, submit that what matters in the May elections is not so much who wins in the balloting, the administration or the opposition, what matters is that we are able to hold free, credible and speedy elections. If we meet the test we all win. Fail it, and we all lose; and that includes the country's economic momentum.

Second challenge we must meet is maintaining and ensuring the rule of law in our country.

Specifically, this simply means that the government is subject to law. It should not engage in constitutional or legal stretch as they have done in the past year. 1017, 464, PI, Con Ass, Cha Cha and all these other things that they have tried to do. All this must be put to a stop. The Constitution is the criteria of validity.

The Judiciary must remain independent. Individual rights must be guaranteed, and citizens welfare must be promoted at all times. Rule of law is a hot-button issue now because the country is facing questions about, and I think it should involve all of you here, the recent wave of killings of journalists, judges, activists, and politicians that overall disfigure public order and civility in this country.

The continuing communist insurgency, the longest one in Asia, and Muslim rebellion in the country that result in the government's presence in certain areas of the country being marginalized, the effectiveness of our courts and the justice system in meting out justice and resolving conflict. Some courts have become "Buyable". B-U-Y-A-B-L-E. The framework of laws and regulations that circumscribe business in the country resulting in the lowering of the Philippine standing in international competitiveness surveys conducted by among others, the World Bank.

We do not have the time here to discuss all these problems in detail. I will just raise two points.

First, I believe, our historic inability to bring closure, especially to many outstanding cases does not inspire much confidence in the rule of law in our land. We cannot even bring closure to Aguinaldo and Bonifacio. We cannot bring even closure to the collaborators in World War II.

But two cases: twenty years after the downfall Ferdinand Marcos and his family, our government is still litigating cases pertaining to his alleged ill-gotten wealth, and spending precious money on the PCGG. In fact, the PCGG has spent the most under this administration. You know, if you include all the administrations put together, the PCGG has dramatically increased its resources allegedly to recover the Marcos wealth. But you all know that our Committee, served by this representation, destroyed the myth that the PCGG cannot be touched, cannot be brought to court, cannot be brought to the Legislature.

Happy Anniversary boys and girls! Today is the anniversary of EDSA II. January 19. Five years after that fall from power, and being hauled to court on plunder charges, former President Joseph Estrada is still under trial and the travesty is, he is in Tanay, "Preso Caballero" so to speak. I have no beef against President Estrada, but certainly we send warped values to our young people in this country.

When we start talking about Justice, it must be applied to everyone fairly and squarely. No special treatment even for presidents, for Americans (like Smith), or for anybody in this country. It must be the same. The list goes on. The more important the case it seems, the harder it is for us to end them! This underscores a larger failing. The tendency of debates and contentions go on Ad Nausea.

The problem is of surpassing importance to our future as a nation. We cannot meet the challenges of the future if we are still rerunning the arguments of the past; thus the need for closure.

Secondly, our laws and regulations governing business in our country need review. When we are not over regulated, we are inequitably regulated; and we have a habit of changing policies in the middle of the game. Law and policy governing the economy have to be enduring and sustaining.

I know, I've come from Subic and I've seen issues such as the major port bid there, a major, major port operator had already won, and all of a sudden somebody lobbies with the powers that be, and an order is issued to set aside the debate; and that was a tragic mistake for the past administrations because we lost the opportunity to use the three airports of Subic, Clark and Manila and the two seaports of Subic and Manila, to jumpstart the development which could have been massive already in Central Luzon today. Why? Because there were contributors in the previous elections whom previous presidents cannot say no to.

Regulatory tax shield is what we are talking about here. We cannot stimulate investments and encourage trade with policies that lurch and change frequently. Weak and unstable states lack this type of continuity. Strong and stable states provide the investors time horizons for planning their projects.

The danger of sudden lurches in policy is well-illustrated in Thailand's recent change of the rules on foreign investments that spooked the stock exchanges and FDI decisions there. Perhaps it may even have benefited our country by doing so.

On the other hand, the assurance of policy, continuity, and stability is shown by the experience of China and Vietnam. They have attracted foreign investments because their policies are firm and hospitable to investments. This is the underlying reason why nations like them are doing better in attracting FDI's than capitalist countries like the Philippines.

Third: Executive-Legistlative collaboration. I believe we can sustain our current economic momentum if there is more effective Executive-Legislative collaboration. The danger of grid-lock and incessant executive-legislative bickering is the kryptonite of the presidential system of government.

Yet there is no good reason why the nation should be at the mercy of such infirmity. With greater Executive-Legislative collaboration, I believe, we can address more effectively, the major obstacles to accelerated economic growth and modernization.

These are: the modernization of infrastructure in the country; the improvement of education; the importance of public services; and eradicating graft in government. When Congress and the Executive collaborate, we can see how beneficial it can be to the nation.

The passage of the Sin Tax law, the EVAT law, and the Biofuels Act are just examples of this. When they are bickering, as in the distressing failure to pass a national budget for some years now, the nation is held hostage, the economy starves. In the last two weeks of session, we are hopeful that there will be a breakthrough in the passing the National budget of 2007.

If the rumored agreement proves firm, we will now have the wherewithal to aim for higher growth this year including pouring vital funds into infrastructure development and social services. In infrastructure, we need a serious and comprehensive long-term program for infrastructure development, commensurate to the demands of a major or modern economy.

Without modern airports, seaports, communications, power, and other vital infrastructures of a modern economy, the gains of the day are only fleeting. This is more than just a problem of money, it is a problem of commitment.

The long-delayed opening of the new Manila International Airport vividly illustrates all that has been wrong in infrastructure development in our country. And I say this, without batting an eyelash for as Secretary of Tourism, I said, "Let's open the airport, and let us investigate while the airport is operating. " Do not close it and make it a monument for practically a big time advertising for all people who land here and say --Why are we using this old airport when there is a new airport?" And the answer will be, "Well you know there was corruption in that airport," and we are advertising our corruption all over the place.

Ironically, we have today, many opportunities that could spell huge dividends if our infrastructure were only better. We can double our tourism arrivals, another love of mine, if we had the rooms, and I'm glad Boo Chanco spoke about that yesterday in his column, the airports, flights and the facilities to host them.

Tourism is a great industry that provides jobs to a lot of our people. That is why I have introduced the Tourism bill in the Senate to declare a national policy for Tourism so we can maximize the gains of this industry.

Unfortunately the game of Constitutional stretch by the President put it aside, and in the process, Tourism bill was put in the backboard. We intend to push it again and again until we get it done.

We could also spur greater growth in agriculture, industry and services if our infrastructure were up to speed. The 3-2-1 Luzon global corridor which I spoke about earlier, which I had also introduced in the Senate, seeks to integrate and optimize effectively and aggressively the three airports in Subic, Clark and Manila, two seaports in Subic and Manila, and one connecting highway or railway to encourage trade and investments and create business and job opportunities in the area.

Between Subic, Clark and Manila, you could actually put new industrial parks, promote it, so that we have a product that all these companies looking for new investments can put into right away.

We just don't build a road to say, "This is a project of Congressman Buwaya, Senator Mangungurakot, and you know, President so and so." We could do many more things that could rival our high-growth neighbors if only we had made the necessary investments in infrastructure, like in an adequate, efficient National Railway system in our earlier years.

But it's no use regretting the past. Our huge infrastructure gap, our glaring hole in national competitiveness must be filled by the decisive and energetic action of government today.

In Education we face a similar problem. Our needs are always way ahead of our capabilities. Every year we face a shortage of classrooms and teachers; and we have to worry about the quality of education in our public and private school system. Educational flaws stem from poor curriculum, inadequate teacher training and low investment in education.

When a kid goes to school in a ram-shackled schoolroom, not even sure whether he is going to have a bench to sit on, not even sure whether he is going to have a blackboard, not even sure whether he is ever going to see a computer right there on the ground, and at the same time being hungry.

Compare that guy with a young guy in Singapore or in Hong Kong who goes to school in a train going underneath the ocean, something that is perhaps unbelievable to many of our young people, and see modern airports, and see schools that show they care, that the government cares for the welfare of its people. Not as a patron, but as somebody who wants to draw their people to go out of poverty, not to say, "Akong maka-mahirap" or " I'm pro-poor" but to pull them out and say, " We're going to pick you out of poverty and we're going to create that opportunity for change."

Yet it is in this area where we can be most competitive in the world, as our workforce has become more vital to the global economy so the challenge of educating our young become more imperative and urgent.

Congress and the Executive should agree that Education is the best economic policy of all. Our strategy must should not be to compete as a low-wage sweatshop economy, rather it is to harness our greatest asset -- our people, their great potential, their intrepidity and their industry so they can find their future not only in foreign shores but also in their native Filipinas.

As we develop this asset, we succeed as a nation. In the new global economy, the more you learn, the more you earn. I hope we will stop learning to just yearn and start learning, and in the process make a difference in the lives of our people.

We talk a lot about eradicating poverty in our country but the fact is there. Is that there is only one way of ending it. Government must lead and tell the people we are going to grow out of poverty. It is not enough to identify with the poor. It is important not just to give them hope, but to give them the wherewithal, to let themselves walk out into the promised land without false messiahs in this country proclaiming how much they love the poor, or as the Japanese would say, " how much they rob the poor."

We can do this by harnessing our greatest asset, our people, their great potential, as I pointed out, their intrepidity and industry, and I repeat it again and again, because this has shown us the success that they have done for us.

This country floats today based on those particular qualities of our people abroad. They have found their future in foreign shores and they are helping us rise up. We must do it here in our homeland. All these actions require decisive action in the political sphere.

Economists and political scientists warn that it is not enough for governments to survive. To be perfect they must be politically credible. There is a direct correlation between political credibility and economic development.

"Nation building," says Francis Fukuyama, is no longer the primary challenge to developing countries. It is state-building, creating effective institutions for governance and development. Good institutions enable government to break the cycle of poverty and make economic modernization happen.

What we have often lacked, unfortunately, is the capacity to focus. The capacity to focus on problems and never to relent until they are solved. We are focused on fixing the blame all the time, but we are never focusing on fixing the problems of our country.

We get distracted, when taxed with new trials and tribulations and where there is no news, some Senator or Congressman can easily make an expose and refocus once again our people on our weaknesses. It is time to focus on our strengths.

And we often lack the moral stamina for sustained effort. I use the word "Moral" stamina because it hurts me when I read William Howard Taft's report to Mr. Mckinley at the turn of the century when they first came here and he said, when Mckinley asked him, " What are we gonna do with the Filipinos?" and Mr. Taft said, "The Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious. And the very few that have any education that deserve the name, are but a few politicians, who have nothing but their personal interest to gratify, and no "Moral" stamina whatsoever ".

No courage to continue the course, to use education to uplift others, this is what we've lacked in the last sixty years because we have the new colonials amongst us today, our own countrymen who are in power -- the wealthy and the mighty.

We stand today before unparalleled opportunities to accelerate the modernization of our economy and our country. We will succeed to the extent that we have the political will, the economic know-how, and the moral stamina to meet the challenge.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I certainly believe that it is not too late to seek a newer world for this Philippines.

Thank you very much and God bless you all.

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