MANILA, Philippines – Promising that "the best is yet to come" for the Philippines, Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II sought to convince Filipino businessmen that he is the presidential bet most qualified to sustain the country's status as a fast-rising economic star in the region.
The administration standard-bearer, a US-based investment banker before entering public office, was given a standing ovation and warm applause by the crowd as he outlined his economic plans at the 2016 presidential dialogue hosted by the Makati Business Club and the Management Association of the Philippines on Wednesday, March 30.
Roxas began his keynote speech by highlighting the economic achievements of President Benigno Aquino III's administration, comparing how the Philippines – once perceived as the "sick man of Asia" – is now considered as "Asia's bright star."
The question now, he said, was to find the right person who could sustain these gains and take the Philippines even farther.
"We've gone from 'diaper' to 'short pants.' And the question for us as a nation, 'How do we get from short pants to long pants and who’s the best person that can take us through the transition?” he said.
"The problems of getting from diaper to short pants are very, very different from the problems that will get us to long pants. We want to get into the big boys' game," Roxas added.
The former interior secretary cited how, during Aquino's term, the government was able to bring down unemployment to 5.8%, improve tax collection, and increase capital expenditure outlay from P580 billion in 2015 to P800 billion in 2016.
"We created fiscal space, we grew the economy, we enabled the growing of the economy simply because there was clean leadership at the top," he said.
Trumpeting the Aquino administration's gains is a common line in Roxas' speeches, as his campaign hinges on the theme of continuity: that he, Aquino's chosen successor, is the right man to continue Daang Matuwid (Straight Path), the Aquino administration's anti-corruption and good governance platform.
But Roxas stressed that he was not loyal to Aquino "as a matter of political backscratching."
"He is a decent guy. He's worked hard. He'd been through a lot. Many times, unfairly criticized, but I mean...everybody here, look at your bank accounts. Look at the value of your land. Look at the economy. Look at the number of people who have moved out of the poverty line. Look at the infrastructure that has been built. We've come a long way. And I just want to say, the best is yet to come," he said, earning applause.
Telling the crowd that he was there as a "job applicant" for the highest post of the land, Roxas outlined how he plans to sustain the economic growth of the Philippines.
"Your decision is not very different from a decision that investors will make regarding the Philippines," he said.
Roxas said he would focus on 3 pillars to continue economic growth: manufacturing, tourism, and agriculture.
The manufacturing sector contributes around 25% to 30% to the Philippines' gross domestic product, and ensuring that the country remains hospitable to business opportunities is crucial, Roxas said.
As for tourism, Roxas said that he aims to have 12 million tourist arrivals in the Philippines in the next 6 years.
Agriculture, which Roxas called "the big elephant" in the room, also needed to be developed.
"We all know and we all benefit from the products of agriculture. And yet, agriculture is really one of the areas with the greatest poverty all across our country," he said.
"Agriculture represents roughly an eighth, about 12%, of our GDP. And yet, roughly a third of our people are dependent on agriculture," Roxas added.
Investing in human capital
Roxas said that investing in the Philippines' biggest resource – human capital – remains one of his priorities.
One of his key proposals is providing scholarships and stipends to the best and the brightest Filipino high school students.
Roxas said he plans to grant scholarships of up to P100,000 to an estimated 5,200 valedictorians, as well as stipends to the top 10% in each graduating class of senior high school students to help them get into top colleges and universities.
To increase information sharing, Roxas said he plans to improve and expand Internet access in the country.
In the area of energy, Roxas aims to move away from coal energy and invest in renewable, green energy that he said will create more job opportunities.
He also plans to require all 5,300 city buses that run on diesel to switch to the more environmentally-friendly compressed natural gas (CNG).
To solve the metro's worsening traffic problem, Roxas wants to terminate bus franchises and have only one bus carrier assigned per route, to avoid too many buses competing for passengers and taking up crowded road space.
He also said that the Philippines needs to invest more in infrastructure to keep up with the demands of a growing population and growing economy. One of his proposals is for the 2,000-hectare Clark International Airport to be the main gateway to the Philippines, instead of the smaller, 440-hectare Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City.
But to make this feasible, Roxas said there should be a high-speed rail connecting Clark airport to Metro Manila, which can ferry passengers within 35 minutes.
In a chance interview with reporters after the forum, Roxas said he was moved by the warm reception of the business community to his proposals.
"Na-touch ako sa magandang reception sa akin dito dahil hindi naman sa lahat ng bagay, nagkaunawaan kami. May mga kilos ako, may mga desisyon ako, may mga isinulong akong batas na kontra sa interes ng mga miyembro ng Makati Business Club," he said.
(I was touched by their warm reception because I have made some decisions, moves, and pushed legislation that were against the interests of some members of the Makati Business Club.)
"Pero pinaliwanag ko naman na ang aking mga ginawa ay para sa national interest at hindi dahil personal, kontra sa kahit sinong kompanya (But I explained that what I did was for the national interest, not against any specific company)," Roxas added.
The administration candidate's forum with the MBC comes two weeks after his rival, survey front runner Senator Grace Poe, faced the business group to talk about her economic vision for the Philippines. – Rappler.com