MANILA: Outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino is winding down his final days in office as Rodrigo Duterte prepares to take the reins.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia’s Aya Lowe at Malacanang Palace, the outgoing head of state revealed his hopes for the future of the country.
AYA LOWE: During your administration, the Philippines transformed from being one of Asia’s basket cases to Asia’s rising star, economically. What do you see as the future opportunities and threats in this upward growth?
BENIGNO AQUINO: Well, if we continue on this path – and my successor did say the economic policies are sound and there’s no reason to fix what isn’t broke – the greatest resource in our country is our people.
And we are in the midst of a demographic sweet spot. The average age is either 23 or 27, very young, and we will persist in this category, with most of our population in the working age, for the next 30 or 40 years. The short answer is, we have been investing massively in our people.
So, we are escaping the trap of trans-generational poverty wherein, somebody who is confined to being a labourer, cannot afford the necessary – be it education, be it nutrition, be it health – for their children who proceed to have an even worse condition in the next generation. So here, we are trying to capacitate all of our countrymen to be able to take part in the growth that our country is experiencing.
It addresses something my father taught me when I was very young. We had a period of martial law. It lasted from 1970 to 1986. And at the beginning I asked my dad, “If what we’re fighting for is the right, why are there so few who are joining us?” And he said, “The very first freedom that has to be won is the freedom from hunger”. Wherein, if you’re not sure where the next meal comes from, all other concerns fail.
AYA: You mentioned the conditional cash transfer that has gone in alleviating poverty in some way, but it’s still a quite big issue in the Philippines. What do you think needs to be done to fully bridge that gap?
AQUINO: Well, first of all, the poverty figures are not exactly reflective of the changes that have been brought about. Haiyan was very significant. There are families living above the poverty line who lost their houses and was suddenly living below the poverty line because of the loss on their assets. That’s one.
Second, there seems to be a cartel, a rice cartel in the country. They manipulated the prices in 2014 therefore, there was a spike of price in rice. There was a spike in price as it composes of 70 per cent in that consumer basket. When that happened, the poverty line got boosted and so many people went down. There could’ve been a lot more moved out from poverty without those two shocks.
Everything that we’ve been trying to do has really been towards that: Improving, developing, maximising the opportunities presented to our people – capacitating them to be able to participate and having the social safety nets to be able to have that ability to keep on moving forward.