LUNCH WITH GMA: FROM GEORGE BUSH TO BRAD PITT
Manila, July 32002 (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores - Can President Gloria M. Arroyo now reinvent her public image, regain her popularity, accelerate economic growth and bolster the nation’s mood to that of optimism? Even for cynics and critics who in the past accuse her of being a victim of patronage politics, her recent reform initiatives augur well for Philippine economic development. By the first week of July, there will be a welcome leadership change in the Philippine National Police (PNP). GMA has appointed an action-oriented entrepreneur and former mayor to take charge of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Will these and other initiatives restore investor confidence and hope for the country’s future? Without her explicitly saying it, the revamps in these two key posts are meant to address her administration’s "weakest links" – the failure to maintain peace and order, as well as the failure to solve Metro Manila’s problems involving garbage, traffic and basic services.
This writer recently joined a recent informal luncheon hosted by the President, her media adviser Dante Ang, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and Secretary Cito Lorenzo for some Chinese-language newspaper editors and columnists, most of whom just quietly listened throughout lunch. They were accompanied by civic leader Dante Y. Go of the Chinese Filipino Business Club. The President remembered that I was her former economics student at Ateneo. Presidential Social Secretary Bettina Araneta Aboitiz, wife of tycoon Sabin Aboitiz, told the Philippine STAR just before the start of the luncheon: "The President is extremely hardworking, she always maintains a very hectic schedule." However, the late luncheon was a rare occasion to observe the President in a more carefree and relaxed atmosphere.
Third Best Economic Growth Rate In The World?
At the start of the luncheon, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that the economic growth rate of the Philippines is the third best in the world, next only to those of China and South Korea. However, four days later, at a dinner reception at Le Pavilion on June 19, she said in her speech that the Philippines has Asia’s third best economic growth rate next only to China and Vietnam. Despite this minor faux pas, in fairness, the country’s first economist president seemed to be telling the truth. She has orchestrated good performance out of her high-powered economic team from some of the world’s top financial institutions on Wall Street – the peso is stable, interest rates are low and many other indicators are indeed positive.
Despite the good economic indicators cited by the President, she is a politician confronted with the looming challenge of the 2004 election and an extremely fast-growing population still lacking in jobs, income, housing, education and other basic services. Despite the fact that the Philippines amazingly posted economic growth while most of the world, including Japan and Singapore, suffered recession, the fact remains that fast population growth may wipe out any modest gains. Also, her big challenge now is how to immediately translate that economic growth rate into a better quality of life for the vast majority of the people who suffer from poverty. Even the middle-class has yet to enjoy the tangible benefits of economic growth, and is growing quite impatient.
President Gloria Arroyo said the Philippine economy is doing so well it no longer needs her to manage it. She enthused: "The economy can already auto-pilot na." She admitted: "The only problem na lang is peace and order. We will soon have a new chief of the PNP in Jun Ebdane in July, I know that the Chinese business community has great trust in him." By zeroing in on peace and order, the President will have a chance to finally save the country’s economy on two fronts: Finally generate more foreign investments and encourage increased tourist arrivals.This writer of Philippine STAR had recently told Finance Secretary Lito Camacho that despite the President’s hard work and top economic team, peace and order problems scare away two important factors of any nation’s economic success: Influx of foreign investors and tourists.
Camarines Norte, Tourism, Escape Of Kidnap Victim
President Gloria Arroyo said she just arrived from Camarines Norte province, that support should be given for the economic development of this poor and typhoon-infested province. She mentioned that the new governor is the nephew of the late Bicolano philanthropist and real estate entrepreneur Tan Yu. She said she visited the beautiful Bagasbas Beach, that this province and the whole country should tap the big China and South Korean tourism markets. Secretary Gordon mentioned that China tourists can now obtain their visas on arrival. The President said she and her other officials just visited to attend the "Pinyahan Festival." She said the province is so poor, that 11 of the total 12 towns are "infested with the New People’s Army (NPA) and only Daet is free from NPAs." She added: "That’s why we have to win the barangay election versus the NPAs."
She said that Camarines Norte province can be developed into a tourism and agriculture area, that it has a beautiful Pacific coast, coconuts, and possibly the world’s most delicious pineapples. Secretary Cito Lorenzo added that the province has whales in Paracale and also gold-panning. Lorenzo informed the President that some China companies want to invest here, because the country can produce tropical fruits.
The President noted that US businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis has links to the province, that although her roots are in nearby Sorsogon, her father used to have concessions in Camarines Norte. This writer told the President that former BIR Commissioner Liwayway Vinzons Chato’s Chinese mestizo father was from this province, and she replied that her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, and Chato’s uncle Wenceslao Vinzons were together as UP student leaders. This writer added that Amado Dy, the father of Security Bank chairman Fredrick Dy, is also from Daet, Camarines Norte.
The President mentioned that irrigation is very important in improving agriculture, stressing that it is also the best counter-force against the El Niño threat. In irrigation, she said she preferred constructing small water impounding facilities that can be finished in only a few months, over those big projects which take so long to build and would displace local communities. She hopes to see more communal irrigation projects built.
To get rid of inefficiencies, the President said she had chosen to devolve many functions to other government units. She has authorized department secretaries to enter negotiated contracts for projects worth below P300 million. She recalled that former Secretary Vicky Garchitorena discovered that the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) did not have a unit to study and evaluate contracts involving P50 million and above, so President Gloria Arroyo wondered why her predecessor President Estrada required all government contracts above P50 million to be reviewed by his office.
In the middle of her talk about devolving government functions, an aide handed her a ringing cellphone, and she surprised the room with her excited voice. She exclaimed: "Praise the Lord! Congratulations! Praise God! Congratulations, Larry! Get these kidnappers and bring all of them to justice. This is good news." Putting the cellphone down, she said: "Nakuha na daw si Charmaine Ong. She was found in Pampanga. That was Larry Mendoza."
President Gloria Arroyo announced that when she appoints Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Leandro Mendoza as Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) first week of July, she will abolish the National Anti-Crime Commission (NACC) and give new PNP chief General Ebdane all the authority as well as full accountability.
Tourism, Enrique Iglesias, ‘Joy Luck Club,’ Michelle Yeoh
Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon was seated to my right, and my table was directly across that of the President. Gordon reported that tourist arrivals to the Philippines are up this year by 10 percent, vis-a-vis last year which registered a negative growth. President Gloria Arroyo recounted her various trips to promote Philippine tourism, such as her six-hour walk on Mt. Pinatubo, her exciting scuba-diving adventures, among others.
Her scariest trip? It was white water rafting in Cagayan de Oro. She said her first time to go rafting was on her trip to Pagsanjan with her mother, who was not an athletic woman. She revealed that the best white water rafting is in Chico River in Kalinga Apayao. Finance Secretary Lito Camacho had brought GMA’s family there for a four- hour adventure, more thrilling than what you’ll experience in Colorado, US. If promoted well, she said American and other tourists would be willing to pay US$1,000 for the adventure.
President Gloria Arroyo is apparently an avid movie and TV fan. Gordon reported to the President he was trying to contact famous young Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias, whose stepmom Isabel Preysler is Spanish-Filipina, to do a TV ad promoting Philippine tourism. I told the President that Ms. Preysler is also from her hometown Lubao, Pampanga, and she pointed out: "Yes, she comes from my hometown, from the wealthiest landlord family, the Arrastias, who own thousands of hectares of farmlands."
Tourism Secretary Gordon announced that Hollywood actor Brad Pitt will shoot a film here in January next year. Still on films, President Gloria Arroyo smiled and said she liked Joy Luck Club, which is about the lives of ethnic Chinese in America and based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan. The President said the movie became a big hit with the support of all the world’s overseas Chinese. She said Joy Luck Club was a tear-jerker, done Filipino style. Gordon laughingly added: "That film had the popular mahjong in it pa."
President Gloria Arroyo mentioned that another blockbuster she loved was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which she described as "fantastic." Secretary Gordon said it was done with Chinese actors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. GMA added that the actress in that film, Michelle Yeoh, is from Malaysia, that her government had also used her to do TV ads promoting Malaysian tourism. The President also mentioned that other Americans with Filipino blood can help promote Philippine tourism, like Tia Carrere and Lou Diamond Philips. She asked what Tia Carrere’s action TV series was, and this writer replied: Relic Hunter.
In the middle of the luncheon, Senator Loren Legarda called President Gloria Arroyo on the latter’s cellphone to explain that the front-page news of Philippine Daily Inquirer on her stand on the Senate imbroglio was not accurate. The President remarked that she did not bother to call the senator, because she had seen her TV interview the night before.
Winning Bush Support In Shanghai, War Against Crime
President Gloria Arroyo said that it was only under her government that US assistance to the Philippines increased dramatically. She said that at the time the Philippines was hosting the world’s two biggest overseas American military bases, the country received US$200 million per year in aid. When the US bases were closed, yearly US aid dropped to only US$1 million per year, sometimes US$1.9 million. She said that when she assumed power, US aid to the Philippines was only US$19 million, but after she was quick to express support for America’s anti-terrorism war after the September 11 attack, US aid increased to US$100 million per year. She said: "Our biggest lobbyist helping us get more assistance, si President Bush mismo." She explained that it was natural for her to express support, because the country has been waging war against homegrown Islamic terrorists for many years now. She stressed: "The terrorists should be obliterated from the face of the earth."
On how she gained the personal support of US President Bush, President Gloria Arroyo said this rapport was strengthened during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, China, where the leaders’ meeting was not recorded. When the topic of terrorism was discussed, President Gloria Arroyo mentioned that right at that moment, 19 top American officials, led by US Pacific Command chief Admiral Blair, were visiting Basilan province to see how America can help the Philippines fight the Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels. Later, when Bush invited President Arroyo to view the spectacular Shanghai city skyline, he thanked her for acknowledging American officials then in Basilan, and he asked if she wanted the US military to help rescue hostages Martin and Gracia Burnham. President Arroyo welcomed US help, but she stressed that it should be Filipino troops who should fight. Bush replied: "The way you want it is the way it will be." President Arroyo repeated the Bush line word for word, grateful for crucial US support.
Towards the end of the luncheon, President Arroyo said that the night before, on June 14, she hosted a dinner reception for visiting officials of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) from Singapore and Malaysia. She added that Fred Uytengsu is now the international president of the YPO. She said that in her government, there are six officials who are members of the YPO, like Finance Secretary Lito Camacho and new MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando, who were bosses of top private corporations before she invited them to serve her government. She said that the foreign YPO guests told her that international headhunters would lose their jobs because she had been recruiting the best corporate leaders to join her government.
Asked why no media covered her dinner party for the YPO, President Arroyo said that she did not want media coverage deliberately. She did not want to confuse the Filipino people with her public image, because in the past "sabog daw image ko." She said that US President Bill Clinton, in his first two years, did not have a well-defined public image because he was all over the mass media, with all kinds of photos and news items, unlike President Bush now who has one clear public image as the anti-terrorism leader. She said that choosing between a leader without a clear image and one who has only one public image, she’d choose the latter. She announced: "I think this year, since the Philippine economy is OK na, I want a peace and order image for my presidency, so I need your support in the fight against crime."
When I clarified if she wanted to build up her public image as the peace and order leader, the President replied: "It is not just an image, it is my focus. I want my leadership now to focus on peace and order. Our Philippine economy is already doing well, the economy can already auto-pilot."
At a dinner reception four days later, on June 19, she was again surprisingly candid. It was a totally refreshing and again more relaxed GMA, much unlike her past contrived images, marked by public expressions of anger. John Gokongwei, Jr. told Philippine STAR that he was very impressed by the President’s honesty and candor in facing the country’s problems. With humility and natural self-confidence, she was forthright in saying: "I am very sad that my public satisfaction rating is lower today than it was two months ago, because of the high price of electricity." She said that under her administration, she has maintained a low price for rice because it is a socially sensitive political commodity. However, through no fault of hers, electricity has become another political commodity. She acknowledged that the Philippines today has the second most expensive electricity in the region, but she vowed that electric costs will go down this month, and that our power rates will become only the sixth most expensive in the region. She said that the high cost of electricity brought down her popularity in the same way that the 1995 rice crisis brought down the popularity of then President Fidel V. Ramos. Will her new determination to fight crime, improve basic services in Metro Manila, lower power rates and institute other timely reforms help make her a leader who is perceived to be more decisive and more responsive to people’s needs?
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
2002 by PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS
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