Benigno S. Aquino: The Philippines Joins the Asian Race

MANILA - In 1980, my father arrived in the United States to undergo a heart bypass, due to the rigors of his imprisonment by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The dictatorship offered him a reprieve, but, true to its nature, one dependent on its whims. Having already been condemned by a kangaroo court to death by musketry, my father refused to hoist a white flag. 'The Filipino,' he insisted, 'is worth dying for.'

Three years later, my father went home, not to die, but to infuse new life into the demoralised ranks of the opposition to the dictatorship. His assassination upon his arrival at Manila airport became the ultimate proof of the sincerity of what he had proclaimed throughout his life.

In 1986, my countrymen peacefully defied Marcos's tanks and demonstrated their faith in themselves. Marcos fled, and democracy was restored without bloodshed.

My mother, who then became President, also had an enduring message: the democracy that we had regained at such a high price could be ensured only by a vigorous commitment to making its institutions work.

In 2009, my countrymen again took to the streets to accompany my mother to her final resting place. This massive expression of solidarity evolved into an effort to draft me to run for the presidency in 2010. At the polls, my countrymen conferred a solemn mandate on me to make democracy the means for eliminating corruption and alleviating poverty.

Our administration is committed to transforming a country where nice guys finish last into one where those who deviate from the straight and narrow face punishment for their crimes. Our goal is to empower citizens to demand the rule of law, regardless of who is in power. My colleagues in government are expected to demonstrate this by means of sustained reforms that foster meritocracy, transparency, and accountability.

We started with the National Food Authority (NFA), a government corporation tasked with ensuring an adequate supply of rice. From 1972 to 2000, the NFA accumulated 12.9 billion pesos (S$372 million) in debt. Within a year of taking office, my predecessor increased the NFA's debt to 18 billion pesos. In the course of the next eight and a half years, her administration imported much more rice than was needed, resulting in 177 billion pesos in debt by the time she stepped down.

In a shift from the illogical import policy of the past, we focused our energies on revitalising rural irrigation, which boosted the first dry-season crop yields. This year, our government will import 64 per cent less rice than in 2010.

My father taught me that the most important freedom is freedom from hunger. Without food security, individuals can have no chance of achieving social mobility. That is why we are investing in our fellow citizens by means of a conditional cash-transfer program, called Pantawid Pamilya in Tagalog, which is patterned after Brazil's Bolsa Familia.

We are also providing cash assistance to eligible poor families on the condition that pregnant mothers and children avail themselves of preventive health care, and that children regularly attend school. This program already covers roughly 2.3 million poor families, providing them with yet another key to social mobility.

Mobilising resources for these programs depends on cutting wasteful programs and rooting out corruption in our bureaucracy. One agency where large-scale graft and corruption was traditionally rampant was the Department of Public Works and Highways. By instituting open, competitive, and transparent bidding, the department has saved 2.5 billion pesos from 3,692 projects nationwide in the past year. We expect 6-7 billion pesos in savings by the end of this year, which can be used for other high-priority development projects.

To promote fiscal transparency, our Finance Department has created a Web site called 'Pera ng Bayan,' or 'The People's Money.' It allows the public to report tax cheats, smugglers, and crooks anonymously. The government likewise subjects officials to lifestyle checks and vets their statements of assets and liabilities to find out if what they have acquired is commensurate with their declared income.

These campaigns are yielding results. Sixty-seven tax-evasion cases and 43 smuggling cases, with claims totaling more than 26 billion pesos and 58 billion pesos, respectively, have been filed against groups and individuals.

But it is not enough to be efficient and honest in public spending. We must also attract foreign investment, despite the difficulties facing Europe, the US, and Japan. Our economic diplomacy has three key objectives, one of which is to secure more markets for our exports and enticing more tourists to visit the country.

Our diplomacy is also focused on protecting the well-being of the roughly ten million Filipinos working overseas. But attracting investment to create jobs at home and ease poverty is the best way to ensure that our countrymen are not forced to go overseas in the first place.

Investment has been coming in, but more is needed. Our Business Process Outsourcing industry is now the second largest in the world, behind India, with revenues of US$8.9 billion (S$11.4billion) in 2010 rising to a projected US$11 billion in 2011. The Philippines also ranks fourth in the world in terms of shipbuilding.

Our sound fiscal management has been widely recognised, with all of the major credit ratings agencies upgrading the Philippines within our government's first year. And the World Economic Forum ranked us 75th in its latest Global Competitiveness Report - a ten-spot jump from last year, and the Philippines' highest ranking since it entered the survey.

The Philippines reopened for business under new management only a little more than a year ago. It is faring very well - and is set to become increasingly profitable.

Benigno S. Aquino is President of the Philippines.