The time has come for the country to implement high-profile projects, invite more tourists, and spend more for education and healthcare to parlay the robust investors’ confidence in the economy into gains for his “bosses,” President Benigno Aquino said Monday.
“What was once the sick man of Asia now brims with vitality. Once, we were the debtors; now, we are the creditors, clearly no laughing matter. Until recently, we had to beg for investments; now, investors flock to us,” the President said in his third State of the Nation Address (Sona).
He cited testimonies from foreign investors and an analyst saying that “the Philippines is no longer a joke.”
“I only wish that the optimism of foreign media would be shared by their local counterparts more often,” the President said.
“When we secured our first positive credit-rating action, some said it was pure luck. Now that we have had eight, can it still just be luck? When the Philippine Stock Exchange Index first broke 4,000, many wondered if that was sustainable. But now, with so many record highs, we are having trouble keeping score: For the record, we have had 44, and the index hovers near or above 5,000,” Mr. Aquino said.
Like blindfolded boxers
He said his first three months in office were daunting as the previous administration had used up two-thirds of the budget in its last six months. “We were like boxers, sent into the ring blindfolded, with our hands and feet bound, and the referee and the judges paid off.
In our first three months in office, I would look forward to Sundays when I could ask God for His help,” the President said.
“We expected that it would take no less than two years before our reforms took hold. Would our countrymen be willing to wait that long? The government that once abused its power is finally using that power for their benefit.”
The President said his reforms had taken root, especially in the health sector.
He is targeting full PhilHealth coverage by his last year in 2016 and he is planning to use additional revenues from pending tax reforms on alcohol and cigarettes for this and other health-care reforms.
“We can easily fulfill all these goals, if the sin tax bill—which rationalizes taxes on alcohol and tobacco products—can be passed. This bill makes vice more expensive while at the same time raising more money for health,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said his job generation strategy was anchored on building and interconnecting the country’s infrastructure with the completion of airports, railways and expressways within his term.
“We will not build our road network based on kickbacks or favoritism. We will build them according to a clear system. Now that resources for these projects are no longer allocated haphazardly, our plans will no longer end up unfulfilled. They will become tangible roads that benefit the Filipino people,” he said.
The President said the infrastructure development program would be the catalyst for more tourist arrivals in the country.
“In two years, we would have had a bigger growth in tourist arrivals, compared with the increase charted by the previous administration in its nine years. But [Tourism] Secretary [Ramon] Jimenez is still not satisfied. He says if 24.7 million tourists came to Malaysia in 2011 and around 17 million visited Thailand, would it be too far-fetched to have 10 million tourists visiting the Philippines annually by 2016?” Mr. Aquino said.
Anticorruption reforms have also led to increases in rice production.
“[Agriculture] Secretary Alcala has said that key to our success is a feasible irrigation program and the assiduous implementation of the certified seeds program. What is galling is that this knowledge is not new—it simply wasn’t applied. If they’ had only done their jobs right, where could we have been by now?” asked the President.
He assured farmers that the government was doing everything to ensure that they can claim their land more swiftly.
“There are those, however, who wish to obstruct us. I say to them: ‘We will obey the law.’ The law says, the nation says, and I say: `Before I step down, all the land covered by CARP [Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program] will have been distributed,’” he said.
“My mother initiated the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. It is only just that this program sees its conclusion during my term,” he said in reply to doubts about his sincerity in completing the farmers’ takeover of their lands.
He said that his reforms had proven that combating corruption would inspire confidence in the economy and therefore put food on the table.
“Doing business in the Philippines was once considered too risky—the rules were too opaque and they were constantly changing. A person shaking your hand one day may pick your pocket the next. Now, we have a level playing field, and clear and consistent rules,” he said.
Mr. Aquino said his reforms have come through “prudent spending, with every peso collected properly spent on roads, on vaccines, on classrooms and chairs—spent on our future.”
He said the fruits of his reforms were evident in the reformed system for building roads, bridges and buildings; increase in food production and more stable prices.
“A resilient and dynamic economy resting on the foundations of good governance is the best defense against global uncertainty. We achieved all these things even as countries around the world were surmounting their own challenges,” he said.