‘We’re ready for takeoff’

09/08/2010 - MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III Thursday announced that he had given the government back to the people and that backed by a stronger economy, he would provide even more jobs and a better future.

“As the peso continues to get stronger and the economy flourishes, prices of goods remain steady. We are ready for takeoff,” Mr. Aquino said in a speech he delivered in Filipino on the eve of his 100-day mark as President. The 20-minute speech was based on his report titled “100 Days on the Straight Road: Report to the Boss” (“Isang Daang Araw sa Isang Daang Matuwid: Report kay Boss”).

In a packed auditorium at La Consolacion College in Manila, a smiling and relaxed President reported his achievements in a town-hall gathering attended by some of his kin, Cabinet members and other government officials, supporters dressed in his signature yellow, as well as students and other sectoral representatives.

Of his four sisters, only Pinky Abellada attended the event. But his uncles Agapito Aquino, Paul Aquino and Jose Cojuangco were present.

Mr. Aquino reported that his administration was able to save billions of pesos in government funds from questionable projects and programs of his predecessor, and that these and gains from the stronger economy would be “returned to the people so that they could rise from poverty.”

There was no word on the controversies hounding his young administration, such as the Aug. 23 hostage-taking crisis and the contentious debate on reproductive health, or human rights violations.

But he mentioned his detractors, as well as government officials wanting to return to the old way of governance, warning them that “their days are numbered.”

No peso put to waste

The President said his administration had inherited “deep and wide” problems from that of his predecessor, now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which he likened to “three monkeys who were deaf, blind and creating their own reality.”

“This is wrong. Now, you have a government ready to talk and tell the truth, ready to listen, ready to raise the level of public discourse on issues affecting the people and future generations as well,” he said.

Now, he said, “we have a government that neither neglects you nor oppresses you.”

Mr. Aquino said that for the last three months, investor confidence had returned, the peso had strengthened, and the country had a stronger stock market hitting an “all-time-high record” just the other day of 4,196.73 points.

Still, he said, his administration was kept busy curbing spending because under his watch, “no peso should be put to waste.”

He cited Executive Order No. 7 suspending the bonuses and allowances enjoyed by officials of government-owned and -controlled corporations which he said were excessive.

Mr. Aquino said his administration was finally able to resolve the disputed contract of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, which would generate savings for the government.

He lamented that the case had gone unresolved for so long and that many people had been killed because of it. He credited Justices Florentino Feliciano and Lourdes Sereno for resolving the case despite death threats.

“Had the government lost in this case, $990 million would have been taken out of our funds. They (Feliciano and Sereno) were able to save P43.5 billion for us,” he said.

More savings

The government was also able to prevent the misspending of P934.1 million by canceling and then putting up for rebidding negotiated public works contracts, the President said.

“Because if we followed the right process [in bidding projects], we would only be spending P600 million for them,” he said.

Another P30 million was saved from an agriculture project involving the purchase of a spectrometer that he said was being sold for twice its price.

Mr. Aquino said he had deferred the defense department’s purchase of helicopters being sold at P3.6 billion because it seemed that this was “overspecified to favor one company.”

“All of these [savings] we returned to our treasury,” he said.

He also said he had ordered the thorough study of an P18.5-billion project approved by the Arroyo administration and aimed at dredging and cleaning up Laguna de Bay.

He said he had found out that the soil to be dug from Laguna de Bay would still be dumped within the area, and that the approval of the contract did not undergo the right process.

“I want to add that we have been reviewing this project since last week but until now there are still people arguing for it,” he added.

Other achievements

Mr. Aquino also said he had:

• Improved weather forecasting by Pagasa, with weathermen now giving substantial bulletins and hourly updates.

• Done away with the old system of continuing projects without monitoring whether it was actually reasonable to do so.

• Set in place a zero-based budgeting system where ineffective agencies would no longer be funded.

He said this was why he had transferred the funds for his predecessor’s Kilos Asenso and Kalayaang Barangay programs to programs proven helpful to the people.

• Provided a bigger budget next year for the health, education and social welfare departments in order to give the poor more health insurance and build more classrooms.

• Strengthened the conditional cash transfer program so that it would help from 1 million families this year to 2.3 million families in 2011.

The President said more jobs awaited the people as a result of the $2.4 billion in investments he reaped from his recent trip to the United States. He said the investments would provide 43,600 new jobs.

Public-private partnerships

He said more jobs would come from the public-private partnerships set up to encourage investors to help expand the LRT lines and build more airports and more schools. He said bidding for these projects would start next month.

Mr. Aquino said the people’s confidence in the government helped bring about the same confidence from the international community, as shown by the recent grant of $430 million by Millennium Challenge Corp.

He said the Arroyo administration had applied twice for this grant but was rejected twice.

“But in our three months in office, this was approved,” he said.

‘Like crocodiles’

Without naming names, the President said his detractors were the same people who had caused problems for the nation.

He said that since he campaigned for president until today, many criticisms had been hurled at him, including the state of his hair.

“I think my being a bachelor is why I was not given a honeymoon,” he added.

Mr. Aquino said his detractors apparently wanted to return the old system of governance, where they were “like crocodiles plundering the coffers of the state.”

“But we will continue the fight. We will not stop,” he said.

Mr. Aquino said he believed the people were seeing the results of his efforts. He expressed elation over the recent Social Weather Station survey showing that 71 percent of the respondents were satisfied with his performance.

“This is my continuing vow: We will not stop. As more people join us on the straight road, our task of righting wrongs becomes easier,” he said.

Human rights

The President received loud applause from his audience. But not everyone was equally enthused.

Human rights groups lamented his administration’s lack of concrete action to end abuses in its first 100 days.

In a statement posted on its website, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Mr. Aquino’s actions on human rights “fell short,” thus “jeopardiz[ing] his stated commitment to justice.”

It urged him to fulfill his campaign promises to abolish private armies, give justice to abuses and end impunity by police and military forces.

Human Rights Watch also said three journalists and 16 activists had been killed since June 30, the day Mr. Aquino took office. “In the last 100 days, there have been no convictions for the hundreds of politically motivated killings over the past decade in which the security forces were implicated,” it said.

Amnesty International Philippines said Mr. Aquino had made “thoughtful comments” on human rights but needed to address directly the issues he inherited from the past administration.

Dr. Aurora Parong, director of Amnesty International Philippines, said in a statement that her group sent Mr. Aquino before his inauguration five recommendations to address human rights in his first 100 days.

Parong said the administration “took some steps forward” in only two of the recommendations—instilling human rights protection in governance by appointing Leila de Lima as justice secretary, and protecting and supporting people displaced by armed conflict by renewing the peace process in Mindanao and announcing aid to the displaced.

Among the Cabinet officials spotted in the auditorium were Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Secretaries Jose de Jesus (transportation), Dinky Soliman (social welfare), Rosalinda Baldoz (labor), Armin Luistro (education), and Gregory Domingo (trade), and Peace Adviser Teresita Deles (Inquirer)

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