RODRIGO DUTERTE, who proudly wears his misanthropy like a special needs grade-schooler wears his medal for perfect attendance, probably does not give a flaming damn that most of the business leaders he addressed earlier this week at the Makati Business Club found him utterly repulsive.
His speech, which was supposed to be his chance to pitch his economic platform, instead was largely dedicated to discussing his libido and plans to impose a reign of terror (at this point, one has to assume those topics are not mutually exclusive), which the businessmen understandably found more than a little alarming.
In the past few days, business- and economic-minded observers of the campaign have divided the four leading candidates into two categories, the “continuity” candidates, Mar Roxas and Grace Poe, either of whom will presumably pursue a policy path that is not significantly different than that of outgoing President BS Aquino 3rd, and the “other” candidates, Jejomar Binay and Rod Duterte, either of whom will presumably make some significant changes. The balance of opinion seems to be that, given the reasonably healthy state of the economy and the environment for business now, a new administration whose policies do not substantially diverge from the current one’s is the best option.
What the attendees at the Makati Business Club event wanted to hear from Duterte—as they would want to hear from any of the candidates—is how he intends to approach some of the lingering issues that need to be addressed in order to push the economy from its current level of “reasonably robust” to “aggressively expanding.” Those issues include, but are not necessarily limited to, infrastructure investment, not just in terms of amounts, but also in terms of priorities; reconfiguring and streamlining the country’s tax regime, particularly in terms of regulation and collection; streamlining processes to speed up developments under the PPP program; easing investment restrictions; speeding up the building of new electric generation capacity; and supporting the country’s integration with the region under the Asean Economic Community framework, as well as working toward inclusion in other broad trade and economic initiatives such as the FTAAP and TPP.
What Duterte gave the crowd at the MBC, however, was a general statement that he would pursue infrastructure investment, expand the dole-out for the poor, and not just stop but undo the country’s long-running land reform program. The rest of his soliloquy, as has been widely reported even in the international press, was about his thirst for blood and far too many details about the use of his 71-year-old genitalia.
This all left many of the businessmen in the audience uneasy, of course, and if the event had happened earlier in the campaign, probably would spell serious trouble for Duterte’s chances of being elected. We might hope that it still would, because it was the clearest sign yet that a Duterte presidency will be an economic disaster—not because of his policies, or lack thereof, but because of the evident lack of seriousness and maybe even competence with which he is approaching the job.
The reason why is, unlike the typical ‘campaign sortie,’ in which a candidate makes what is essentially a pep rally speech to a supportive audience, and unlike a televised debate, where the format favors sound bites, the MBC is providing a forum for more in-depth discussion; a media-friendly event, to be sure, but one in which much more substance than is normally found on the campaign trail is expected. Yet, Duterte treated it with the same aggressive glibness that characterizes his behavior everywhere else, which only leads to the conclusion that behind the public front, he really is that shallow.
That may work for a minor city in Asia’s backwaters, but not for an entire country, which is why several international institutions have already warned that the economy will be at serious risk if Duterte is actually elected president. In this case, the warning itself is more significant than the actual potential performance; if he begins his term under that sort of cloud of uncertainty, even good moves on his part will have muted impact.
Of course, if we take what he has to say at face value, most of us will be too busy hiding from roving bands of state-sanctioned assassins to worry about something as silly as the state of the economy.
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And finally, a disturbing development that will bear close observation over the next few days and weeks: In the wake of the brouhaha over Duterte’s bank accounts at the Bank of the Philippine Islands, there is apparently spreading alarm among some ordinary BPI customers about the confidentiality of their accounts, to the extent that some are even closing them and taking their business elsewhere, according to my sources.
How widespread this anxiety really is remains to be seen; for its part, BPI has stressed that all its customer accounts are protected in accordance with the relevant laws and general good banking practice, and that customers need not fear that their account details will suddenly be splashed all over the front pages of every newspaper in town as Duterte’s were. Nevertheless, with the recent RCBC money-laundering scandal, the disclosure that several attempts (none successful, fortunately) to hack the BSP website have occurred, the leak of the Comelec database, and an apparent leak of a large part of the customer database of a major bank in Qatar, system security in banks is a particularly sensitive issue right now. Philippine banks would be well advised to focus on it, and take extra steps to reassure their customers—and if they do have any holes that might actually make that reassurance uncertain, plug them quickly.