A Politics of Hope (Manila Bulletin)

Regaining public trust

The major slump in trust and sincerity ratings experienced by the Senate during the corruption scandals last year makes Senate President Franklin Drilon’s current standing as one of the most trusted government officials a legitimate cause for celebration.

The latest Pulse Asia surveys put Senate President Franklin Drilon in the top three most trusted government officials in the Philippines.

In a recent interview, he attributed this turnaround to the hard work of the Philippine Senate – senators and their staff who have been working assiduously since the PDAF scandal last year.

Once, during the height of the scandal, young leaders visiting the Senate asked me, “How can the Senate regain the trust and faith of the nation?”

My answer was, “The only way to regain the trust of our fellow Filipinos was to work hard and provide policies that will benefit the majority of Filipinos.”

On our second year in the Philippine Senate, we were able to successfully push for three major bills that have now been ratified and are awaiting the President’s signature.

One measure is the Youth Entrepreneurship Act, which incorporates financial literacy training and entrepreneurial courses in the curriculum of elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools across the country and gives promising young Filipinos access to grants and financing, mentoring, and training on enterprise development.

Furthermore, a youth entrepreneurship fund shall be made to cater to youth entrepreneurs in the country.

Training in financial literacy and entrepreneurship can equip students with the mindset and the skills to start businesses, which would have them create more jobs instead of compete for them.

This is a means to reduce the alarming number of unemployed youth, reported to be at 1.32 million as of January this year.

A second major policy awaiting the President’s signature is the Foreign Ships Co-Loading Act.

Finally, foreign vessels will no longer be limited to one port in the country and shall be allowed to pick up cargoes to be exported or drop off foreign cargoes for import in various ports around the Philippine islands.

This rudimentary amendment hopefully drives down shipping and logistics costs ultimately shouldered by consumers like you and me.

That drop in shipping expense can be used by our Filipino entrepreneurs to improve the quality of their products, expand their services, innovate, and bring prices down.

At the end of the day, it is the Filipino consumer who reaps the benefits of the Foreign Ships Co-Loading Act.

The third and biggest win for our team is the Philippine Competition Act, a measure that also benefits both consumers and business owners alike.

Three decades in the making, the Philippine Competition Act has finally been ratified and, hopefully, will be signed into law in the next few months.

The last country from the ASEAN-5 to establish a competition law, our country will finally have a judicious policy that penalizes cartels, abuse of dominant positions and anti-competitive agreements.

Once enacted into law, this measure will create a level playing field for all businesses, start-ups, micro, small, medium, and even large businesses.

With more products and services to choose from, companies will be forced to improve product quality and, at the same time, drive prices lower.

These three policies will improve financial literacy among Filipinos, cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship, and ensure a stable, fair, and healthy business environment for all businesses.

We worked tirelessly to move these measures forward in the hopes of ushering in an era of inclusive economic growth, an era where no Filipino is left behind.

Hopefully, these three new policies will continue the momentum of regaining trust in our institution; trust we should continue to build in the next administration and beyond.


First Published on Manila Bulletin

Youth to the Rescue

In this day and age, natural calamities are a sad reality for any country, more so for the Philippines.

In the past few years, we have been on the receiving end of vicious typhoons, brutal storm surges, earthquakes, and other adverse calamities.

In 2013, typhoon Yolanda, the deadliest typhoon in our history, affected millions of people and took thousands of lives in Eastern Visayas. This super–typhoon earned us the top rank in the 2013 Climate Risk Index (CRI), which ranks countries affected by extreme weather events .

In addition, the Long–Term Climate Risk Index (CRI) ranked the Philippines fifth most affected country in the world, driving us to continue our efforts in disaster risk mitigation, preparedness, and recovery.

And though these indicators are definitely troubling, the good news is that hope and inspiration flow from the many stories of young Filipinos who are working to help mitigate disaster. They volunteer for, even spearhead programs on disaster risk reduction and we need not look further than this year’s Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations (TAYO) Award winners for examples.

In Cauayan City, Isabela, the Red Cross Youth and Junior Rescue Team builds eco-rafts out of recycled plastic bottles for communities prone to flooding, keeping families afloat and ushering them to safety.

In the Visayas, the Hayag Youth Organization based in Ormoc, Leyte organizes “Swim for Safety” or “Langoy Para saKaluwasan” programs teaching the youth in disaster-prone communities how to swim – a life-saving skill many Filipinos still do not possess.

Young Filipinos are also on the frontlines of disaster response. When a ship sank off the coast of Cebu, it was the children from the coastal communities that served as first responders, even performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to save an 8-month old baby.

These heroes learned emergency response, first aid, evacuation, and other disaster-related skills from a 56-hour training program organized by the Rescue Assistance Peacekeeping Intelligence Detail (RAPID), a youth group based in Cebu City.

These are only three of many more initiatives lead by young Filipinos. The Filipino youth, without a doubt, have made tangible contributions in the field of disaster risk reduction and management – and they will continue to do so with their ideas, innovations, and passionate hearts.

Thus, it came as no surprise that many supported the Responsive, Empowered, Service-Centric or RESCYouth Act of 2015, a legislation that requires youth involvement in disaster risk management in the national and local levels.

This act institutionalizes the participation of the youth in the planning, strategizing, organizing, and execution of our national disaster plan and ensures thata youth representative be part of the disaster coordinating councils in every region, province, city, municipality, and barangay.

Time and time again, the youth sector has proven that, given the opportunity and the right tools, they are able to contribute in nation building.

The RESCYouth Act of 2015 embodies this ideology, enlisting our bright, impassioned, determined, resourceful, and brave young Filipinos in the development of a Philippines that is well informed, incredibly prepared, and exceptionally resilient to disaster.


First Published on Manila Bulletin

Scaling up support

In 2007, I co-founded the Hapinoy program with the goal of helping women micro-entrepreneurs in the Philippine countryside by creating a solid business network through their sari-sari stores, providing them rigorous training and mentorship, and giving them access to financing, markets, and more business, opportunities.

My experience working with them has deeply shaped my principles on poverty alleviation, inclusive growth through business and empowerment through enterprise.

Our nanays were asked to invest time and energy developing their entrepreneurial and financial management skills to be well equipped to seize the opportunities available to them.

Being a witness to their dedication to uplift their lives and of their family members’ as well, I have deep respect and hope for the micro-entrepreneurs in our country.

Watching them make the most out of their new-found knowledge and business network to expand their stores and sales, I was sold to the belief that if we are able to provide the right opportunities and give them the right break, they would do everything with that opportunity to succeed.

I have seen how our fellow Filipinos with humble backgrounds transformed themselves to astute entrepreneurs with the right support mechanisms in place.

Take the example of Nanay Lani Rebong from Laguna. She started with a table and 3,000 to 5,000 pesos worth of diaper supplies and the will to grow her business to make a better life for her two children.

Since joining the program in 2009 and undergoing business training, she has had three expansions and renovations.

She was given the opportunity to run a mobile money business and now offers money remittance and airtime loading – services that attract regular customers and provide more capital for her store.

From a store-front sari-sari operation, she was able to convert the entire first floor of her home to cater to her growing enterprise. Her store has grown to supply other smaller ones in her area.

She was able to buy a house and lot, a motorcycle, and a tricycle. Most importantly, she was able to send her two children to school and provide a comfortable life for her family.

Nanay Lani and many others are evidence that, given proper training and exposure to opportunities, Filipinos have the grit to better their own lives. Given the chance, the poor themselves can overcome poverty.

Considering that micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) make up 99.6% of all businesses in the Philippines and 91.6% of MSMEs are micro-enterprises, we can only imagine what sort of impact we can generate by growing these businesses and sustaining their success.

Empowering the micro-enterprises around the country is a key to unlocking inclusive growth and shared prosperity.

With this in mind, I authored the Go Negosyo Act, which was signed into law last July 2014. It mandates that a Negosyo Center be established in every municipality, city, and province in the Philippines with the hope of replicating the success of our nanays.

Each Negosyo Center is aimed to be a comprehensive support system for entrepreneurs. Patterned after our experience in Hapinoy, Negosyo Centers will offer training and mentorship, access to financing, and market linkages to help all our small businesses get to a level of sustainability.

This year alone, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is tasked to open one hundred Negosyo Centers around the country, and by 2019, we hope to have over a thousand of these centers equipped to provide valuable support to our MSMEs.

This year, we have already launched Negosyo Centers inDaet, Camarines Norte, Albay, Aklan, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, Zamboanga del Sur, and Surigao.

There is no better time than now to push for a massive scale-up of MSME support. We have a proven model for success, a policy to back it up, a substantial base of micro-enterprises, and eager Filipinos just waiting, clamoring to develop their skills and grab at any opportunity.

There is no better time than now to push for inclusive growth and to empower our countrymen to climb out poverty through enterprise development.

The Hapinoy nanays have proven that they can become successful, and my hopeful heart is certain that there are more Filipinos out there who yearn to prove to themselves and to the world that they, too, can succeed, given the right push and support.


First Published on Manila Bulletin

At a crossroads

In the next few weeks, we can expect news reports to revolve around the debates on the amendments on the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and how it has been affected by the tragedy in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

With the spotlight on the conflict in Mindanao, we are confronted with countless questions and emotions associated with distrust and, ultimately, fear.

Last month, the Senate released its committee report following the investigation on the Mamasapano clash and I am one of the senators who signed the committee report with reservations.

Though I agree with majority of what was written, I disagree with some of the conclusions made regarding the actions of the peace panel, the peace process, and the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law itself.

There were conclusions about the“excessive” optimism of the peace panel, and the report went as far as calling the Bangsamoro Basic Law a “casualty” of the Mamasapano clash. These statements went beyond the scope of the hearings.

While the peace panel was represented during the Senate investigation, they were not able to present the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law in depth nor were they able to discuss the peace process in detail.

We wrote the committee asking for clarifications and, if necessary, we will propose amendments once the report reaches the plenary.

These next few months are crucial if we are to achieve justice for our fallen heroes. We must maintain our focus on three things: First, we must capture those that were involved in the summary killing of the SAF 44 and have them stand trial for their crimes.

Second, we must ascertain that the families of the Fallen 44 are cared for and that the donations and benefits awarded to them are properly turned over.

And third, we must work to the best of our abilities to have peace in Mindanao so that tragedies like this will no longer happen again.

Through the course of the Mamasapano hearings, a number of concerns have been raised regarding the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. Some of these are with regard to constitutionality and others with regard to resources to be allotted for the proposed Bangsamoro new political entity.

The most pressing concerns, though, are with regard to the MILF itself and their ability to be partners in the peace process.

The crossroads we now face are whether legislators will seek to address these concerns through changes in the Bangsamoro Basic Law or whether these concerns mean the junking of the bill and possibly, the peace process altogether.

Though it may not seem that way now, before Mamasapano, we were closer than we had ever been to ending the decades-long conflict in Mindanao. Can we find our way back amidst the anger, fear, and grief that befell us?

The answer to this pregnant question is not just a “Yes,” but a “We have to.”

To honor those that have fallen in Mamasapano, and the thousands more throughout the decades of armed conflict, we have to.

To protect families from being displaced and torn apart by armed conflict, we have to.

To ensure that Filipinos stop killing each other, we have to.

It is the job of the Senate to debate, deliberate, and refine the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and produce the best possible version that addresses the concerns in our peoples’ hearts and minds.

We must learn from the Mamasapano incident and let spring forth a stronger regime of peace instead of letting the tragic event be a catalyst for more violence, war, and terror.

It is “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln once said, that will help us decide what path to take.


First Published on Manila Bulletin

The miracle of unity

The last-minute reprieve of Filipina prisoner Mary Jane Veloso by the resolute Indonesian government last April 29 was a welcome shock to the Philippine community and was heralded by many, including myself, as a miracle.

The miracle I found was not only in the inexplicable and seemingly supernatural shifting of circumstance but in the fact that so many individuals, government agencies, and civil society organizations, who are usually in constant conflict with each other, actually worked together for a common purpose – and succeeded.

This miracle is the best sort. It was borne out of compassion, hard work, and unity despite differences and animosity toward each other.

The President, Vice President, Department of Justice (DOJ), government agencies, human rights advocates, religious groups, leftist groups, Filipinos here and all over the world came together, even Manny Pacquiao called for, and worked to save the life of one Filipina.

And though short-lived, we were willing and able to join our voices and our efforts to create a collective force so strong and so convincing that it stopped the inevitable from happening.

Mary Jane struck a cord in all of us. She became a symbol of the Filipino, who, in desperation to provide a better life for her family, falls victim to abuse for nefarious purposes.

She is just one out of too many Filipinos suffering injustices to build a better life for their family. Her case of alleged drug trafficking is just one out of too many cases in the country victimized by drug syndicates, capitalizing on the poverty of the Filipino family.

She has brought to our collective consciousness the grave injustices suffered by Filipinos around the world. We have been made starkly aware of the tremendous risk our countrymen are willing to take in the hopes of a brighter future for their children.

But her reprieve also revealed that we, in fact, have the power to change the course of history when we set aside our differences and work for a common objective.

There are at least 7,000 Overseas Filipinos (OFs) incarcerated abroad. In their 2014 Annual Report, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) stated that there were 80 death penalty cases being monitored, 45 of which are drug-related.

How many of these prisoners were unjustly arrested and imprisoned? How many of them were actually involved in the drug trade and deserve to be incarcerated and how many were unwitting pawns and scapegoats?

Clearly, there are thousands of Mary Janes out there with cases coursing through the justice system of other countries.

Recently, we filed a resolution to thoroughly look into the cases of our incarcerated overseas Filipinos and, more importantly, evaluate the ways in which the Philippine government can offer more support. At the minimum, we need to make sure they get sound legal advice and a fair and just trial.

We have to get over our deep-seated biases and political rivalries and find it in ourselves to come together to ensure that the rights of the thousands of our imprisoned countrymen are not violated.

First published on Manila Bulletin

Beyond good intentions

Government policies, rules, and regulations are meant to develop a more productive society and improve the lives of citizens.

And yet, there seems to be a collective groan when these new policies are rolled out to the public.

Just recently, taxpayers from all over the country voiced out their resistance to the electronic filing system of the Bureau or Internal Revenue (BIR).

On its face, this shift in policy is commendable and noteworthy. Finally, we were switching to an online and paperless system, which should make filing and paying taxes a lot more convenient.

Gone are the days where taxpayers had to travel to their Revenue District Office (RDO), wait for hours, and waste paper photocopying various documents… ideally.

Unfortunately, this was not the case in the days leading up to the April 15 deadline.

There were times when the online system would not be operational, some businesses could not successfully register, and there was a lingering sense of confusion plaguing taxpayers and BIR employees alike.

While some RDOs made an extra effort to accommodate taxpayers, extending hours and setting up waiting areas, there were still complaints regarding the lack of helpful information for taxpayers.

We have received reports that BIR employees were unable to explain who was covered in the e-filing system and what penalties are applied to those unable to file in time.

Some RDOs even claimed they did not receive the Revenue Memorandum Circular (RMC) with regards to extending the deadline for electronic filing.

How can a well-intentioned, even innovative policy shift create so much dissatisfaction in our taxpayers?

I am reminded of a quote from the late Sec. Jesse Robredo: “Hindi sapat na tayo ay matino lamang. Hindi rin sapat na tayo ay mahusay lamang. Hindi lahat ng matino ay mahusay, at lalong hindi naman lahat ng mahusay ay matino. Ang dapat ay matino at mahusay upang karapat-dapat tayong pagkatiwalaan ng pera ng bayan.”

Good intentions and upright principles are vital in government, but so is capability, competency or the ability to implement properly. One without the other is good, but not good enough.

Can you imagine if this new policy was done hand-in-hand with proper implementation? Our taxpaying public would laud the BIR, and all government for that matter, for an innovation that they themselves have been clamoring for decades.

Instead, we had a missed opportunity, which left a number of our taxpayers confused and even questioning the systemic change.

This BIR example is just one of many cases where intentions were under appreciated because of implementation issues.

Oftentimes, we even hear talk about our laws being great on paper, but hardly implemented well.

Simply put, we need to go beyond good intentions. Now is the time to develop our capacity for efficient and effective planning and implementation, especially when we introduce systemic changes.

While the Philippines needs pure hearts and smart minds, we are also in need of capable hands to bring paper to practice and deliver palpable service to the millions of our countrymen.



First published on Manila Bulletin





Mission statement

For seven years, before joining the Senate, I was a social entrepreneur, working in microfinance and micro enterprise programs in rural parts of the Philippines. Our institution primarily worked with women sari-sari storeowners, providing them financing support; training and linking them to companies they otherwise would not have access to.

Through the years, we came to a conclusion that many other social enterprises started after ours would also adhere to – if you provided access to opportunities, Filipinos would step up, take these opportunities and do well for themselves and their families.

We witnessed for ourselves how our nanay-partners improved themselves through our program and that of our microfinance partners. Many of them who didn’t finish high school and had humble beginnings were slowly but surely becoming savvier entrepreneurs who were providing more for their families through their micro businesses.

The Filipino that we saw was not lacking in talent or drive, but rather, just lacking in opportunities. There were of course individuals that refused to work hard and learn, but they were always in the minority; the majority recognized and wanted the opportunities and at the end of the day, did well with them.

It was the same case for our work with the youth. The more popular image of the Filipino youth is involved with teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, violence in gangs and too much DOTA-playing.

Yet, in our years serving the sector, we found thousands of outstanding youth organizations serving their communities, a brotherhood assisting the welfare of indigenous peoples, former street children teaching arts education to their peers, transformed tambays training for disaster rescue, and a group of young people teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship to former combatants and children of war.

It’s the same formula for the Filipino youth. Give them the proper guidance and mentoring, show them that they can do something worthwhile for themselves and for other people and see them grab these opportunities and make the most out of it.

I’ve been both a witness and an advocate of this fundamental truth that Filipinos can achieve if given the right tools and support. But unfortunately, still to this day, a number of our countrymen do not believe in our own capacity for goodness and greatness.

For every believer in entrepreneurship, there are those that say that Filipinos are Juan Tamads and not built to be our own bosses. For every advocate of the Filipino youth, there are those that believe that the youth are useless, apathetic and only concerned with their Facebook and video games.

With regard to the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the same opposing perspectives apply. There are those who believe that development in the area cannot be achieved under Moro leadership, while there are those that believe that our Moro people can reverse the vicious cycle of poverty and violence through their self-determination.

There are those that speak with certainty that funds given to the Bangsomoro will be used primarily for guns and to line the pockets of corrupt politicians, while there are those who see classrooms and hospitals being built, water systems, electricity and social services finally being delivered to the communities.

Somewhere between these two perspectives lies the best course of action – a careful optimism that sees all angles but has that positive outlook at its heart and as its driving force.

Make no mistake though, action, reform and change can only happen if you start from a perspective of hope, rather than one of distrust, discrimination and pessimism.

We don’t talk enough about the politics of hope. In our minute-by-minute, 140-character, news cycle-led world, it seems that the politics of hope has become passé or even considered naive by the armchair analysts.

Optimism has seemingly lost its luster amidst the talk of vengeance, distrust and disappointment with our leaders.

But the truth is that in my line of work, I have been blessed to come across stories of change and hope, of true political action and reform, of new translations of people power, of unsung and unmentioned heroes who, like me, still believe in what the Filipino can be.

This column will hopefully be that oasis for fellow optimists and hopeful out there.

First published on Manila Bulletin



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