MANILA, Philippines — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Wednesday he would reorganize the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) following the fiasco caused by the unauthorized approval of an order to import 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar.
Speaking to reporters at an event for the government’s vaccination program in Manila, the president said the reorganization would happen this week.
“We’ll reorganize the SRA and then we will come to an arrangement with the industrial consumers, with the planters, the millers, suppliers of the sugar to coordinate what’s available and what can be released to the market,” he said.
If there is really a shortage of sugar supply, Marcos said: “Let’s import. We will be really forced.”
In a meeting with members of the Philippine Chamber of Food Manufacturers Inc. on Monday night in Malacañang, the president already raised the possibility of allowing local food manufacturers to directly import sugar, but subject to the approval of the SRA, as part of emergency measures to address the prevailing supply shortage.
“The concern is the supply right now. I’ll make sure that there is sufficient supply in the country so that you can operate at full capacity,” he said.
Soft drink makers, in particular, had earlier complained of an insufficient supply of refined sugar.
The president said he would also let the House of Representatives and the Senate do their own investigations into the sugar import mess.
Press Secretary Trixie Cruz Angeles earlier said Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs Richard Palpal-Latoc was conducting the Palace investigation on the illegal approval of the sugar importation order.
In a message to reporters on Wednesday, Angeles said the probe would continue despite the investigations in Congress.
Angeles earlier said Sugar Order (SO) No. 4, which would have allowed the importation of 300,000 MT of sugar, was illegal and assured the public that “heads will roll” if there would be sufficient evidence against the officials involved.
Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, who signed the sugar import order without the approval of Marcos, already tendered his resignation last week.
Marcos had also accepted the resignations of SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica and board member Roland Beltran, both signatories of the importation order.
However, the remaining member of the SRA board who signed the sugar order defended their action and decided to stay in office until otherwise removed by the President.
Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr., planters’ representative on the SRA board, said he was willing to take part in the investigation of the aborted importation, adding he had documents to prove that before SO 4 was issued, almost all sugar federations agreed that the country needed 300,000 MT to address the sugar crisis.
These planters and millers’ groups, he claimed, also issued statements that they concur with the need to import sugar.
“SO 4 is based on facts and proper consultations. The proposed sugar importation was based on SRA’s official data and supply/demand analysis, as well as prevailing high market prices, which established a clear basis for additional imports. This is supported by resolutions from industry stakeholders themselves, including those who now demand our resignation,” Valderrama said.
“The earlier (the investigation starts), the better,” he added.
In a news conference in Bacolod City on Tuesday, Valderrama said he was leaving his fate to the President as he maintained that the sugar crisis faced by the country was real.
“I will wait for the instructions of the President. I believe that I did not do anything wrong,” he said.
Valderrama said proof of the current shortage of sugar could be seen in retail prices—a kilo of refined sugar now costs more than P100 when it was only P50 before.
“That (price) in itself will tell you that there is a crisis, there is a shortage,” he said.
Valderrama also noted that the Sugar Board would not have moved on SO 4 if there were no specific instructions, but said he could not reveal the details at this time as an investigation was underway.
Rafael Ocampo Jr., a lawyer for Valderrama, denied that Sebastian was not authorized to issue SO 4.
“The records will speak for themselves. There is a delegation of authority,” he said, adding the undersecretary can act as the alter ego of the President.
“The President of course has control and supervision…so he can approve or disapprove, but it does not mean that (SO 4) is illegal,” Ocampo argued, noting that “to say that the signing of SO 4 is illegal is not fair, and all of these will be submitted in their position paper to Congress.”
Meanwhile, the country’s chief economist on Wednesday said the Philippines should import sugar if domestic producers, who are being protected by high tariffs slapped on foreign shipments, could not meet demand.
On the sidelines of the 2022 economic forum of the Economic Journalists’ Association of the Philippines and San Miguel Corp., Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said the government was in discussions with the sugar industry to determine if local production could keep up with rising demand amid the economic reopening and recovery.
“If they (sugar producers) cannot, then you’d have to get that importation coming in. Otherwise, prices will continue to skyrocket,” Balisacan, who heads the state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority, said in an interview.
In Congress, House minority leader Marcelino Libanan is pushing for an inquiry on the alleged illegal issuance of SO 4.
Libanan filed on Tuesday House Resolution No. 259, urging the committees on good government and accountability and on agriculture and food to launch a joint inquiry into SO 4.
“There is a need to conduct an in-depth investigation on this botched attempt to import sugar to identify all persons who connived with Sebastian for this unauthorized sugar importation order and for them to answer possible criminal charges,” Libanan said.
Bulacan Rep. Florida Robes, chair of the House committee on good government, earlier said the hearing initially scheduled to continue on Thursday had been moved to Aug. 22.
She said congressmen also wanted to hear the side of the SRA officials who had resigned in the wake of the controversy.
House deputy minority leader France Castro and Negros Occidental Rep. Juliet Marie Ferrer have also pushed for the resignation of other signatories to SO 4.
House ways and means committee chair Rep. Joey Salceda called the SRA a “failed agency” which had “not been very effective in its role of local industry development.”
—WITH REPORTS FROM BEN O. DE VERA AND JULIE M. AURELIO