Message to the President
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Dear Mr. President,

I wish you all the best for the remainder of your term and will continue to be supportive of your efforts to do good for the country. I2 strongly support your agricultural program and commend you for the appointment of William Dar as Secretary.  Now we have a technocrat who really understands agriculture and with a proven track record as an administrator following his widely praised leadership of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Your economic team led by Secretary Carlos Dominguez is equally commendable. They have kept the economy stable and continue to hum despite unfavorable conditions in the global economy. You have brought a measure of peace and stability to Mindanao.

But I have to take issue with some of your recent decisions.

I refer first to the hasty termination of the VFA without regard for its consequences to the security and economic benefits from our relations with our long-time ally the United States. It has undermined our credibility to resist China’s expansionist ambitions in the West Philippine Sea which you yourself said we would not give up an inch of territory. The abrupt termination of the VFA have deprived us the opportunity to demand a vigorous review to address any iniquities or deficiencies in its provisions as your Foreign Secretary Locsin and Defense Secretary Lorenzana have urged. This would have given more potency to your message and probably gotten more than the flippant response you got from personalistic leader, President Trump. EDCA and VFA operationalizes the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in times of peace and provides the springboard should the MDT be invoked. They have been highly instrumental in our ability to respond effectively to natural disasters. The battle of Marawi would also not have been won without intelligence and materiel facilitated by these agreements. I am all for an independent foreign policy which I see as being friends to everyone and enemies to none and not eschewing old and trusted friends for new, but unproven friends.

The second is the threat to terminate the contract of the private water utility companies after winning internationally recognized arbitral decisions. That threat to the sanctity of contracts has had a chilling effect on foreign investors and would-be partners in your Build  Build Build program and will take time to restore confidence at a time when we are competing for investments with our ASEAN neighbors. Already we have lost a number of long-time investors – and the jobs they generated – like Honda, Nokia and Wells Fargo due to this uncertainty and the erosion of our competitiveness over time.

The spate of corruption occurring with alarming frequency and involving staggering sums of money have hurt our image. The Philippines has fallen 14 places in a year in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index which at 113th  places us on par with Kazakhstan and Zambia. We have fallen 18 rungs in total under your watch. And no wonder, government officials sacked for corruption are resurrected in other government positions to have another go at topping the scale of corruption they had previously committed. In other countries, they would have been hauled to court to face the consequences. Your friendship and loyalty have undermined your anti-corruption platform which was a key reason for your election. The proliferation of POGOs has opened new avenues for corruption, including bribery and tax evasion and for criminal activity such as kidnapping, prostitution and trafficking.

Finally, the increasing use of “Lawfare” which Wikipedia defines as “the misuse of legal systems and principles against an enemy, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory” to stifle those who have opposed you or spoken against you has reached alarming proportions. They will cause long-lasting damage to the legitimacy of our legal system. Press freedom, a key component of democracy is under threat. Rappler has borne the brunt of the attack while ABS-CBN’s existence is under threat (although they seem to be off the hook). We have, as a result, fallen to 134th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Criticism is part of public life, but people will judge you on your actual accomplishments and not by what the media says.

All of these have put the Philippines in an unfavorable light in the eyes of businessmen, investors, tourists, and foreign government to our detriment.  The backlash is already being felt and it takes several years to change perceptions. By that time, the ongoing wave of capital and tourism inflows (pre-coronavirus) would have bypassed us again. Our current growth is derived from interest rate cuts spurring consumer demand and from massive infrastructure spending. But these cannot be sustained over the long term. You need to address the structural issues that inhibit our country from being competitive and for being more inclusive.

But there is more at stake here than investor and tourist dollars – our democracy and the rule of law which are still fragile even at this point in time. History will judge you on how you have contributed to building this nation by reinforcing its democratic ideals and strengthening the rule of law – or by undermining them and reversing course towards less freedom and subordinating our sovereignty to a foreign power.

Mr. President, it is not too late to cement your legacy as a true reformer and defender of our democracy by letting yourself be guided by reason, compassion and respect for the universality of human rights. By curbing your natural instinct borne out of personal experiences and which has shaped your mindset and created personal biases.  By accepting that your way of doing things as mayor doesn’t always apply since you are now the leader of the entire country with a wider, more diverse constituency and a system of checks and balances. By keeping in mind that in a globalized world, everything that you do has international consequences.

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