NEW YORK CITY: In a packed house at the Asia Society in New York City, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III appraised the New York Filipino community on his administration’s accomplishments and shared with them the latest developments on both domestic and foreign policy fronts.  In particular, Aquino III updated American and Filipino-American communities abroad on the progress being made by his administration in improving the business climate, promoting effective governance and enhancing the country’s competitiveness to attract more foreign investments.

The speech, which took place on Tuesday September 20, was followed by an open forum moderated by Vishaka N. Desai, president and CEO of Asia Sociey.

President Aquino III’s speaking engagement at Asia Society couldn’t have been more filled with personal significance. He is the third Aquino to address Asia Society, a global organization founded in 1956 by billionaire-philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III to promote greater knowledge of Asia in the U.S. On Aug. 4, 1980, his father, the late Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr., delivered his now-famous phrase, “The Filipino is worth dying for,” in a speech at the Asia Society. The full text of which is as follows:

Portrait of the late Benigno Aquino

“I have asked myself many times: Is the Filipino worth suffering, or even dying, for? Is he not a coward who would readily yield to any colonizer, be he foreign or homegrown? Is a Filipino more comfortable under an authoritarian leader because he does not want to be burdened with the freedom of choice? Is he unprepared, or worse, ill-suited for presidential or parliamentary democracy?

I have carefully weighed the virtues and the faults of the Filipino and I have come to the conclusion that he is worth dying for because he is the nation’s greatest untapped resource.”

In 1986, Aquino III’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, spoke before Asia Society after the Filipinos, in a peaceful show of “People’s Power,” collectively defied the tanks of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Moreover, on the day before his Asia Society speech — on September 19 — Fordham University conferred on President Aquino III an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. An independent university in the Jesuit tradition, founded in 1841 in New York, Fordham had similarly conferred an honorary degree on his mother in September 1986. Following a Fordham tradition, Aquino III ‘s name and that of his mother were carved side by side at the very top of the 19 stone steps called “Terrace of the Presidents.”

Portrait of the late President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino

Aquino III laid yellow roses at the steps before the start of the conferment of his honorary doctorate. In addition to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, past Philippine presidents who have received the honorary degree, their names carved on the steps, include the late Elpidio Quirino, Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal, Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Aquino III delineated how his administration’s mission differs from that of his parents. He said, “My father spoke of the redemption of our democracy. In 1986, my mother spoke of the need to defend democracy.” In his own case, Aquino said, his main thrust, a little over a year into his presidency, is to seek “to nurture democracy.” “The Philippines is open for business under new management,” he added.

Aquino III, the 15th Philippine President, is presently bouncing from speech to speech in an official U.S. visit that lasts from September 18 to 23. During this five-day visit, Aquino III was the only head of state asked to speak at the Google New York launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), upon the invitation of the committee’s co-chairs U.S. President Barack Obama and Brazil President Dilma Rousseff. Aquino III delivered a keynote speech at the IBM Centennial Forum called “THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership,” which marks IBM’s 100th anniversary. While in New York, the President is meeting with high-level business executives of the U.S.-Asean Business Council, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce in a roundtable meeting.

President Aquino III is expected to visit Washington, D.C., where he will give a public lecture before the World Bank, at the invitation of World Bank Group president Robert B. Zoellick. The president will meet with Sen. Daniel Inouye, President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to thank him for his continued support of Philippine causes in the U.S. Congress. Sen. Inouye was responsible for the passage of Filipino Veterans Compensation Fund; he was a primary sponsor of the SAVE Act, which is expected to benefit both the Philippine garment industry and U.S. textile manufacturers.

The president’s last activity in Washington is a meeting with the Filipino community in the tri-State of Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia. This is his first meeting with the Filipino community of about 110,000 Filipinos in the region.

A smart administrator and a bureaucrat, not an inspiring orator

President Benigno S. Aquino III speaking at Asia Society in New York | Photo by RandyGener
President Benigno S. Aquino III speaking at Asia Society in New York | Photo by RandyGener

As expected, Aquino III’s Asia Society speech stressed his government’s economic agenda and accomplishments after a year in office in the areas of open governance, poverty reduction and anti-corruption. “Our administration,” he said, “is committed to transformation: from a country where nice guys finish last, to one where those who deviate from the straight and narrow will face punishment for their crimes. Our goal is to empower the citizenry so that, regardless of who is in power, the citizenry demands the authentic rule of law.” Aquino III said his task “is to demonstrate this [authentic rule of law] by means of sustained reforms that foster merit, transparency, and accountability.”

Aquino III was not a compelling orator. Reading his speech on a teleprompter, it was as if he were in a rush; he did come across as a thoughtful yet confident bureaucrat who preferred to calmly illustrate his points with statistics and anecdotes. By way of talking about the issue of food security — which he called “the foundation for individuals to be given a fighting chance to achieve social mobility” — Aquino III noted, for example, that under his predecessor (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) the government corporation National Food Authority, whose task is to ensure adequate supply of rice, had increased its total debt from 12.9 billion pesos in 2000 to 177 billion pesos in the year she stepped down from office eight-and-a-half years later.

“Instead of the illogical importation policy of the past,” Aquino III added, “we focused our energies on revitalizing rural irrigation, which has resulted in the improvement of the dry season crop yields. This year, the government will import 64 percent less or a total of 860,000 metric tons of rice, which already includes a 200,000 (metric-ton) buffer in case the typhoon gods are not smiling upon us. Farmers today have bigger yields and enjoy good prices; rural infrastructure is being improved; and the NFA’s debt has been trimmed down to 153 billion pesos.”

President Benigno S. Aquino III, his cabinet secretaries, and CEOs of leading U.S. companies during the Business Roundtable held at the Gramercy Room, The Peninsula Hotel, New York | Photo by Jay Morales of Malacañan Photo Bureau
NEW YORK CITY:€“ Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III graces the Business Roundtable hosted by the US-ASEAN Business Council, US Chamber of Commerce and Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce at the Gramercy Room, The Peninsula Hotel in 700 Fifth Avenue, New York in line with his Working Visit to the United States of America Monday night September 19, 2011. Business Roundtable (BRT) is an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies with over $6 trillion in annual revenues and more than 14 million employees. BRT member companies comprise nearly a third of the total value of the U.S. stock market and invest more than $150 billion annually in research and development,€“ nearly half of all private U.S. R&D spending. BRT companies give nearly $9 billion a year in combined charitable contributions. | Photo by Jay Morales of Malacañan Photo Bureau

To highlight his administration’s campaign for transparency, Aquino III stated the government’s finance department has created a website called “Pera ng Bayan” or “The People’s Money.” “It allows the public to anonymously report tax cheats, smugglers, and crooks,” he said. “The government likewise subjects government officials to lifestyle checks and vets their statements of assets and liabilities to find out if what they have acquired is commensurate with their declared income. These campaigns are yielding results. A total of 67 tax evasion cases and 43 smuggling cases — with claims totaling more than 26 billion pesos and 58.16 billion pesos, respectively — have been filed against certain groups and individuals.”

As proof of the successes of his administration in such a short period of time, Aquino III stated that the Philippines has been chosen as one of four pilot partners for President Barack Obama’s Partnership for Growth initiative. And the Philippines was invited to serve (one of only eight countries from around the world, and one of only two from Asia, the other being Indonesia) in the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a new multilateral initiative that encourages governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

“That we have been chosen to be part of this project is yet another affirmation that the Philippines is a good place to do business in, and a good country to do business with,” Aquino III continued.

Easing political tensions with China through “saving face”

Aquino III’s visit to the U.S. came weeks after his state visit to China which Malacañang said resulted in $13 billion in potential investments and an agreement that the two nations would peacefully resolve their conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, which Manila is now calling West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines finds itself in a very tense situation with regard to the South China Sea. Tensions spiked this year when the Philippines and Vietnam accused China of aggressive harassment of fishermen in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims. Tensions also rose between Manila and Beijing when China in March executed three Filipinos on drug charges in defiance of repeated appeals.

President Benigno Aquino III and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai in conversation on September 20, 2023 | Photo by Randy Gener
President Benigno Aquino III and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai in conversation on September 20, 2023 | Photo by Randy Gener

To diffuse the tensions with the rising China, Aquino III’s administration’s policy clearly aims to navigate those difficult negotiations deliberately through a multi-pronged diplomacy. In effect, the Philippines is engaging with China while tightening its alliances with Washington, D.C., Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. It is instructive that there will be no one-on-one or bilaterial meeting between Obama and Aquino III after the launching of the OGP in New York. Aquino III will then head out to Japan on an official working visit from September 25 to 28 upon the invitation of the Japanese government. In the course of his visit, the President will pay a state call on His Majesty Emperor Akihito, who host a court luncheon in honor of the President.

Meanwhile, the United States has offered assistance in arming the Philippine government, which has allocated 11 billion pesos ($252 million) to upgrade the Philippine navy, whose flagship ship dates from World War II.

“We wish to maintain good neighborly relations with China,” Aquino III stated in his speech. “In our competing claims in the West Philippine Sea, we have already drawn the line between what is disputed and non-disputed in terms of where we would never relinquish our sovereign rights. We have likewise called for the peaceful and rules-based settlement of disputes. From our vantage point, and as we have heard affirmed in our recent state visit to China, this maritime dispute does not define the multilayered relations between the Philippines and China.”

In the open forum that followed, Aquino stated that because in Chinese relations “saving face is important,” the Philippines cannot perform only biltateral negotiations for fear of “exaggerating and exacerbating the problem.” “We think they will be reasonable, but they also need to have some means that their face is preserved,” Aquino said.

He further noted the importance of enabling “the free navigation of the oceans and the seas according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.’’

Arguing for responsible parenthood, not sure about gay marriage
As Asia Sociey’s Vishaka N. Desai observed, Aquino’s open forum, in which he responded extemporaneously to select questions from the U.S.–Filipino community, was warm, cordial and salutory. Desai’s remark might have been a way to alleviate the fact that a small group of Filipino-American protestors, mostly from progressive factions, showed up at the entrance of the Asia Society prior to Aquino’s speech. Desai’s comment was also an attempt to ease the president to speak candidly about the issues of birth control, gay rights, the plight of Filipino domestic workers abroad, and the problem of human trafficking, all of which were raised in the question-and-answer section.

Awaiting the arrival of President Benigno Aquino III at the Asia Society on September 20, 2023 | Photo by Randy Gener
Awaiting the arrival of President Benigno Aquino III at the Asia Society on September 20, 2023 | Photo by Randy Gener

Fielding questions after delivering his speech, Aquino III said that while he does not mind earning the ire of “certain conservative members” of the Catholic clergy, he does want to separate his personal beliefs from the policy that his government will implement. His administration does not subscribe to a policy of limiting children. Instead of pursuing population control per se, his administration insists on legislating a bill in favor of “responsible parenthood.”

“We do not agree that we should force anybody to do any act — because that I think is contradictory to the fundamental beliefs we have [that] democracy is a nation of choice,” he said. What he is after is educating the citizens, especially the parents, about their responsibilities to their children.

Aquino III said the government is obliged to remind the parents “that each child that you bring into this world, you have a certain responsibility. Should I attempt to mimic an ostrich that buries the head in the sand when I’ll be asked by God at some point in time, what did you do to the least of my brethren? I will be able to say that we stopped the condition where nobody seemed to care enough to educate them and empower them to effect their own decisions,” he said.

Aquino III begged to defer from fully addressing the issue of gay rights. “I’m not ready to tackle gay marriage,” he said. While he believes that in the civil rights of gay people (“It is their choice,” he said), he did strike an ambiguous and perhaps conflicted tone when talking about the rights of gay people to adopt. “If the next step is we want the right to adopt,” he said, then there is the issue of “looking after the children with impressionable minds.”

No word on the role of arts or cultural diplomacy

President Benigno S. Simeon Aquino III

Nobody in the Asia Society open forum seemed interested in grilling Aquino III about his stance on how arts-and-culture diplomacy can contribute to tackling the country’s present infrastructure difficulties. This was a topic on which he was largely silent on all the official speeches he gave during his U.S. visit.

At the end of the open forum, Aquino repeated that his administration’s true interest lies in economic diplomacy. Specfically this stance means the elimination of corruption and the alleviation of economic hardships among Filipinos who have been forced to leave the country in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

“Our economic diplomacy has three key objectives,” Aquino III stated. “With more or less ten million Filipino workers overseas, their well-being is of paramount importance and concern. Our foreign service is tasked with protecting Filipinos wherever in the world they choose to work. Second, we are securing more markets for our exports and enticing more tourists to visit the country. Third, we are working on attracting investments to create jobs at home and ease poverty so that our countrymen will not be forced to go overseas in the first place.”

He spoke about his administration’s present efforts to undertake “Public-Private Partnerships to modernize our infrastructure.” One example of this initiative is the Commission on Overseas Filipino’s upcoming global summit, entitled “Diaspora to Development.” This conference which will be held in Manila from September 27 to 29 in cooperation with the National Federation of Filipino Associations in America (NaFFAA) and the US Pinoys for Good Governance. The summit will gather all previous Presidential awardees as well as leaders and convenors of the USP4GG and NaFFAA and other global Filipinos’ networks, migration-related Philippine government agencies, local government units, civil society organizations, academe, private sector, and multi-lateral agencies.

Aquino III said, “Our mantra here: the right project, with the right quality, at the right price, run by the right people, and delivered right on time. Given the experience with projects in the past, it is important that the correct and legal processes are followed so that they can stand up to public scrutiny.”

In his Asia Society speech President Aquino III drew the most applause when he talked about the improved credit ratings of the Philippines.

“Four different credit rating agencies, namely, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, Fitch, and the Japan Credit Ratings Agency, gave the Philippines positive rating actions, all within our first year of governance,” he said. “The World Economic Forum has also ranked us 75th in their latest Global Competitiveness Report — a 10-spot jump from last year’s 85th place. This jump is the highest for our country since it entered the survey. Good governance confers international respect and credibility on a country. Our sound fiscal management has been amply recognized.”

In the wake of the United States losing its prized AAA credit rating from Standard & Poors — for this first time in 70 years, a symbolic blow to the world’s economic superpower — the contrast between the American economic upheavals of the past few years versus the Philippine’s rosy developing situation, as Aquino III described, was stark and ringlingly resonant. —RG

President Benigno Aquino III and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai in conversation on September 20, 2023 | Photo by RandyGener
President Benigno Aquino III and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai in conversation on September 20, 2023 | Photo by Randy Gener
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