Bernardo M. Villegas
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Governance Reforms Sustainable Beyond 2016

          President Benigno S.Aquino III has more than once remarked with humility that “he is only standing on the shoulders of the other leaders who came before him.”  Whatever progress the unbiased commentators have observed during the last three to four years (and there are many outside agencies and individuals who have heaped praises on recent accomplishments of the Philippine economy and society in general) cannot be attributed solely to the present Administration but is a result of incremental improvements over a period of more than twenty five years.  To his mother, the President owes the restoration of democratic institutions, including the crafting and subsequent approval of the basic law of the land.  The Philippine Constitution, though imperfect, is the highest symbol of the rule of law that is the basis of any democratic society.  Subsequent presidents, also with their respective weaknesses and limitations, contributed to the strengthening of market institutions; a stable financial system (considered one of the best in Southeast Asia); prudent fiscal policies; a gradual increase in investments in infrastructures, especially in the countryside (the most prominent of which is the Philippine nautical highway); and reduced dependence on imported fossil fuels of our energy sector.

          Whatever his critics may say, I am of the opinion that the greatest legacy that President Aquino will leave to future generations is the institutional foundation of good governance.  He is personally incorrupt and has surrounded himself with a critical mass of people in his Cabinet whose integrity is unquestionable.  He is not exaggerating when he recently told his successor, whoever he may be:  “I can promise him that there is a huge difference between what I inherited and what he will inherit.”  To cite concrete examples, studies of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in the past pinpointed the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Education as the most corrupt agencies of the Government.  Under the leadership of President Aquino, they are now bastions of integrity and effectiveness.  Over the last four years of his Administration, he has fostered an environment that encouraged the emergence of institutions that are safeguards against corruption: a very proactive Bureau of Internal Revenue that is better equipped to reduce tax evasion; a real balance of power among the three branches of government (which he should be the last to undo by constitutional change); the flourishing of civil society organisations and social media that are more effective watchdogs against corruption; more effective regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Insurance Commission and the Professional Regulatory Commission.  Add to these the outstanding agencies he inherited from the past:  one of the best central banks in the Asian region; a totally incorrupt and highly efficient Philippine Export Zone Authority; and a caring and vigilant Department of Labor and Employment. Also deserving of special mention is the leadership in the Department of Tourism.  It is no coincidence that these agencies I have enumerated continue to obtain favourable ratings in surveys and polls regularly conducted.

          Given this critical mass of institutions that are required for inclusive economic and political development, the President should not really worry about who will replace him.  Although he is entitled to “endorse a friend,” the next occupant of Malacanang will have very little freedom of movement to be corrupt.  His successor will know that with any false move he makes he can be impeached (we have already impeached a president and a chief justice of the Supreme Court).  There are more than one thousand of the biggest business organisations that have signed an integrity pledge by which they promised not to be instigators of corrupt practices (it takes two to tango).  The growing use of social media will make it much easier to expose nefarious practices of public officials.  Every one will be watching the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN), not only of the justices of the Supreme Court but also of all elected officials.  Instead of losing sleep over who will be elected the next President, he should be spending the remaining months he has to continue strengthening these institutions for good governance that will guarantee the sustainability of his admirable campaign against corruption.

          Among the doables between now and the middle of next year (after which the political climate will already be overheating in preparation for the 2016 elections) are the passing of the Freedom of Information Law, the Competition Law and the amendment of the restrictive prohibitions against foreign investments in the Philippine Constitution.  The FOI law will put more teeth to social media and other channels used by private citizens to monitor the behaviour of public officials.  The Competition Law will address the continuing stranglehold that a few conglomerates controlled by the Filipino elite have over the economy, making inclusive economic growth more difficult.  The removal of the restrictive provisions in the Constitution against foreign direct investments will also reduce monopolistic and oligopolistic forces in the domestic market and generate more employment for the burgeoning labor force.  The President should reconsider his continuing opposition to the charter change proposal of Speaker Belmonte and other legislators who are very vocal that they will only touch the few economic provisions related to foreign direct investments and avoid any controversy related to the political system.  That is why, the recent very confusing remarks emanating from the President and people close to him about the need to change the Constitution in order to address “judicial overreach” or to enable the President to extend his term were totally ill advised.  Any talk of touching the political provisions in the Constitution is a kiss of death to any attempt to amend the Constitution.  I am sure the President still remembers how his mother was at the forefront of the protests when there were talks of removing term limits during the presidency of Fidel Ramos.

            To recapitulate, President Pinoy will be remembered by future generations as the one who put the finishing touches on more than twenty five years of gradual and painful institutional reforms begun by his mother and to which all the other subsequent heads of state contributed.  The most important contribution of the present Administration is good governance.  Although there is a long way to go before we can really eradicate corruption at all levels of the Government (not to mention the private sector), the improved global competitiveness (by six to seven positions in the ranking of the World Economic Forum) is testimony to the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign started by the President at the beginning of his term.  And one last unsolicited advice:  President Aquino should convince his successor (whether or not his “friend”) to retain the three members of his Cabinet mentioned above:  those of the Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Education, and Department of Tourism.  That should guarantee further the continuity of the good programs already started under his term. For comments, my email address is