FORMER Marcos-era Trade Minister and business tycoon Roberto “Bobby” Ongpin found himself in President Rodrigo Duterte’s crosshairs last week when he was singled out as one of the oligarchs “who count their money on private planes while the poor suffer,” and whom Duterte has vowed to “destroy.”
Ongpin earned the President’s ire because of his stake in online gambling firm Philweb; Duterte earlier vowed to stop online gambling in the Philippines, and apparently intends to apply the same aggression to the issue that he has to stamping out the country’s illegal drug scourge.
Although he has described himself in recent interviews as a “businessman,” and, in the context of his time as a government official during the Marcos Administration, a “technocrat,” Bobby Ongpin is the epitome of an oligarch, at least in the way we understand the description in this country. He has enjoyed a close relationship with a succession of governments, has a significant personal stake in a wide range of businesses, and is part of the privileged fraction of a percent of the population who controls the greater part of the country’s wealth; according to Forbes, Ongpin last year was the Philippines’ 20th-richest person, with a net worth of about $900 million.
And he has been no stranger to high-level financial controversy. Several years ago, he was accused of unfairly benefiting from loans through Development Bank of the Philippines, a case in which he was later completely cleared of wrongdoing. More recently, he was sanctioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for insider trading involving Philex, the mining company, and hit with a stiff penalty: P174 million in fines, and permanent disqualification from holding a directorship in any Philippine company. That penalty, however, has been held in abeyance by a temporary restraining order issued by the Court of Appeals, pending a more detailed explanation from the SEC.
Although he has not been accused of any specific wrongdoing involving Philweb, the connection between Ongpin and the biggest company in the online gaming business Duterte wishes to banish from the Philippines was obviously too much for the President to ignore.
Just as with his “war on drugs,” there is something very praiseworthy about Duterte’s intentions to fight the chronic economic inequality that has for decades kept more than a quarter of the population below the poverty line while supporting a privileged few dollar billionaires.
Wrongdoings must be proven by the appropriate legal processes, and while we know that our system needs to be corrected, we certainly would not begrudge anyone who enriches himself through fair means, within the bounds of the law, and in a manner that uplifts their employees and communities. The reality, though, is that has not been the way in which many “oligarchs” have earned and continue to earn their riches, and the persistent inequality in the country is stark proof of that.
We support the President in his effort to begin the process to correct this great social imbalance. And thus, we feel compelled to offer a reminder: Just as with the campaign against drugs, corrupt government officials, red tape, environmental destruction, or any other initiative, fairness must be the guiding principle.
Unfortunately, the campaign against illegal drugs is already raising questions over whether fairness is given its proper place; while petty drug dealers and so-called ‘drug lords’ are threatened with death (a threat that has been carried out hundreds of times already), the President’s latest warning to local government officials and judges suspected of connections to the drug trade has been a distinctly milder promise that they would “face charges” if they did not surrender.
The shift in tone is not lost on keen observers and if the same shift is allowed to persist in the new campaign to “destroy” the oligarchs, much of the confidence and goodwill President Duterte has earned from the people will be lost.
Bobby Ongpin is not the only oligarch; more names should follow. And every one of them should be given a fair chance to respond to the accusations against them.
If Duterte is right – and we believe that he is – then there will be nothing but good to come from being fair, except for those who are proven to have bent or broken the law and taken unfair advantage of the country and its people for their own gain for too long.