Reflections on our leadership
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2019 - 12:00am

1. Being mentioned in the foreign press, particularly in major newspapers like the New York Times, is usually a feather in the cap of the president’s media group. Unfortunately, in the case of President Duterte, it has only served to reinforce an unflattering image of the country. Mr. Duterte has made headlines around the world for remarks that run the gamut from innocuously bawdy to dangerously sexist, including jokes about rape. However, he seems to have taken it to another level when the New York Times reported that the President admitted, in a recent speech to local officials, to sexually assaulting a housemaid when he was a teenager. This appears to be the first time in which he publicly admitted to personally assaulting a woman. This, of course, drew condemnation from women’s groups. The President’s office made light of this and dismissed his confession as a joke.

As a Filipino, I must express disgust and embarrassment about the President’s remarks. I am appalled that the Filipino audience laughed. As my classmate said, “We have adapted far too easily to crude and coarse dialogue emanating from our leaders that we would have never have tolerated from outsiders. We have become numb to language that is unbecoming of public servants at any level of government.” Ironically, no female legislator has voiced outrage.  They have forgotten they were women first before they became politicians. If a survey was conducted among OFWs, how would the President fare considering hundreds of thousands are female workers?

As if our image had not been battered enough, this was followed by a feature story in the same newspaper about the appalling conditions in Philippine prisons whose occupancy has swelled five times their carrying capacity, with those still awaiting trial because of the glacial speed of our justice system. Even those seeking comfort in a healthy economy despite all the bad news abroad were in for a rude awakening with the headline in a major regional publication “Philippines –‘Sick Man of Asia’ Risks Relapse.” All of these have painted the country as sexist, violent, inept and now even economically mismanaged. I have pointed out before that in the information age, no news is local and our government should be aware that how we are perceived overseas is literally no joke. In competing for investments and tourism – image is everything.  The President may wish to consider tasking his economic managers and the DFA to assist in refurbishing our tarnished image. He can make their job easier by being more circumspect with his utterances.

2. In the world of diplomacy “there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Although China has promised billions in investments and infrastructure financing, it remains to be seen whether they will live up to expectations. We squandered our only leverage when, even without asking, we set aside the The Hague ruling in the interest of comity which is debatable. By doing so we inextricably tied economic gains with territorial rights.

There is nothing wrong with having friendly relations with China – in fact it is imperative that we do so. But this should not come at the expense of our historically beneficial relations with the United States, Western Europe, and other allies. Unfortunately, the President has spurned opportunities to strengthen those relationships or mold them to his liking by turning down invitations from Australia, the United States, and European countries.

Aside from traditional aid (ODA) and military/logistical support, we are missing opportunities to enhance the transfer of technology from as many sources as possible. The United States, Japan, Korea and Europe have always been at the forefront of technology development. China has developed a niche in many important areas including AI, green energy and agriculture. Based on discussions with the Department of Science and Technology, I learned that smaller economies like Chinese Taipei have been particularly more forthcoming. I do not understand why we cannot pursue meaningful partnerships with others equally advanced.

My 2019 aspirations

1. License plates. It may seem trivial, but I hope I will finally secure my license plates for the car I bought in 2016.  This kind of public service is inexcusable. 

2. Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR). The bill creating it should be passed into law as soon as possible.  The President asked for this in his last State of the Nation Address. True, we have become more adept in addressing natural disasters. But taking note of the recent tragedy in Indonesia, a department as envisioned would ensure better coordinated government/private sector response. In the recent report entitled, “Economic Losses, Poverty and Disasters 1998-2017,” UNISDR and CRED state that despite the greater frequency of climate and weather-related hazards, more people have died due to earthquakes and tsunamis. Now there has been a greater focus worldwide to prepare for adverse impacts of earthquakes.

During the first quarter, the Romulo Foundation will host a workshop on earthquake and tsunami inviting appropriate government agencies and academe to dialogue with experts from Japan, the US, Chinese Taipei and Indonesia, who like the Philippines, are situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire.

3. Digital technology. I hope that the government will agree to the proposal to create a joint Public/Private Sector Digital Readiness Council as has been done in our neighboring ASEAN countries. We are being left behind and this will have dramatic negative effects on our economy’s competitiveness. This point has not been lost on 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir who has expressed the urgency of making Malaysia digital ready if it is to thrive in the future. 

4. Health care. I understand that the Universal Health Care Act (UHCA) has been approved by the bicameral conference committee and is ready for presidential sign-off. In the current budget there is P80 billion allocated for UHCA.  However, the total requirement is P250 billion, P40 billion of which will be sourced from sin tax proceeds and the remaining will be sourced from Philhealth, PCSO, Pagcor and the like. Providing sustained funding is the challenge if UHCA is to have the impact, particularly for the poor.

These are four realistic and achievable items which would greatly benefit the Filipino and the Nation. It just requires the political will of our leadership.

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