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Talk Asia

Interview with President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III

Aired May 04, 2012 - 05:30   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): The son of political icons, borne into office in a landslide victory. For Filipino President, Benigno Aquino, expectations could not have been higher. Nearly two years later, the man known as Noynoy is enjoying high approval ratings, but it's still clear he faces serious challenges across the country.

More than a third of the population, roughly 30 million people, live below the poverty line. The country has been plagued by allegations of corruption for decades. Infrastructure, in many places, is in shambles. And one of the Philippines' biggest exports is its people as they head overseas to try to earn a living.

But politics is in Aquino's blood. His father, assassinated upon his return to the Philippines in 1983, was a senator and staunch critic of then president, Ferdinand Marcos.

His late mother, President Corazon Aquino came to power in 1986 and is credited with bringing back democracy and seen as a guiding voice for the people.


COREN (voiceover): Coming up on "Talk Asia", we're at Malacanang Palace in Manila where the fifteenth president takes on corruption, the economy, and even the church.


COREN: Well, President, welcome to "Talk Asia".


COREN: You came to power two years ago promising to end corruption, eradicate poverty, and provide good governance. To date, how would you judge your performance?

AQUINO: Well, I think you can see by the attitudes of our people. And, perhaps, I can put it in a context. When I was a congressman, I had occasion to talk to this group of students who were taking their seat. There were about 80 of them and I asked them, "How many of you will be serving in the country once you graduate?" And, out of the 80, there were two that raised their hands. The rest were thinking of leaving.

So, I think our people were voting with their feet. And again, put it in the proper context. What did I inherit? For instance, we were told that we would perpetually have to import our staple, which is rice. Now, contrast that to my (UNCLEAR) of Agriculture stating that, by 2013, there is a very distinct possibility we'll be a net exporter of rice.

COREN: I guess one of the problems, though, with this country is corruption.


COREN: It is endemic. It has been for decades. And you believe that something like six billion dollars is lost to corruption each year. Are you winning that battle?

AQUINO: We're winning? We're not stopping there. We have already cases pending, even against my predecessor. My predecessor is in jail. And they're going to try him for electoral sabotage. And there are other cases that are in the works. And we're preparing all the rest our evidence and going through all the procedures. We'll try to expedite the cases so that there is certainty that there is conviction and jail time for people (UNCLEAR).

The problem was, nobody was charged, let alone convicted previously. And that sustained all of the corruption that we have had to deal with.

COREN: President, you mention your predecessor, Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo, and she has been charged with election fraud. If found guilty, she is facing life behind bars. Are you singling her out?

AQUINO: No, we're not singling her out, but she was at the head of misgovernance and, as chief executive and chief executor of our laws, all of the transgressions should have been under her purview. She should have done something about it.

COREN: I'm sure there are plenty of people here in the Philippines who don't want you to dig too deep, because this is rampant.

AQUINO: Oh very clearly.

COREN: I mean, you are potentially opening up a Pandora's Box.

AQUINO: Well, the vast majority of our people were the victims and I am sure they would want me to pursue all of these cases. Those that would resist it were those who benefited from the status quo and who would want the status quo to remain while they are lording it over everybody else.

And that, in turn - this corruption has lessened opportunities available for our people.

COREN: Your critics would say that you are overstepping constitutional boundaries and that you are targeting the opposition.


COREN: What's your response to that?

AQUINO: They are part and parcel with the government. The power is divided into three branches, and each branch will have the power to check on the other. And the power of the first belongs to congress. For instance, so, if their policy want to implement, they agree with, we want to implement, they don't agree with, they can revoke funding.

Now, there is a check on the Judiciary, also. And other constitutional officers, which is a different process.

COREN: Well, your approval ratings - they stand at 70 percent and mainly because of your anti-corruption drive.

AQUINO: I would like to think it's not just anti-corruption -

COREN: But people - people see you as being serious about this issue - an issue that has plagued your country for decades. So finally, you know, someone is standing up against it. But can you assure us that you will stamp out corruption?

AQUINO: Well, again, my predecessor, the chief executive this land is presently facing charges. When was the last time that something like that happened. Now, we believe that the cases we filed are proper, are well evidenced - are well supported by evidence. And that there will be conviction at the end of the process. That sends a message. The most powerful person can wind up in jail. Those are lower than the most powerful should really wonder whether or not (UNCLEAR).

COREN: For Gloria Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada - he was also charged with corruption, and yet she pardoned him. Will this same happen for Gloria Arroyo if she is found guilty?

AQUINO: I think my constituents would not agree with my point of view. And I act only on their wishes.


COREN: A short time ago, there was an exchange of gunfire as a bus driver escaped out the window. He ran past the media until the media surrounded him. And he said that everybody was dead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A dramatic hostage drama is unfolding in front of us. Tell us the latest of what's happening here. And we're just waiting for an end to all this.


COREN: Your tourism industry took a big hit in 2010 after the bus hostage crisis. How damaging was that for your country?

AQUINO: There were consolations, especially for moko (ph). But for mainland China and the south (ph), there was hardly a ripple. But still, we pride ourselves on our hospitality, and things like that shouldn't happen to our guests. So we have instituted quite a number of measures, both in terms of the police and security forces, though. But also with regards to the (UNCLEAR) on the Judicial System.

On the issue of the dismissed police officer - he was caught in a catch-22 situation. There was a decision adverse to him. He said that he made the motion for a consideration and there is an internal rule that says something like, "has to be acted upon by days". And it was nine months into the process. He was close to permanent retirement and the penalty was forfeiture of all pay and benefits. He had to get a decision on his motion for a consideration before he could elevate the case. And they never got it. And there were so many factors that contribute to the tragedy and the turning of the last moment.

COREN: Of course, of course.

AQUINO: So we've been situated again. Changes, both in security services - a presence of police in the -

COREN: Would you say that that was handled badly?

AQUINO: Of course, in hindsight, it could have been handled better. But, given the situation - you know, just not to relive the moment, but to have a guy who wasn't dead-set on - he was not a terrorist. He wasn't there to inflict terror on anybody. IN fact, before we even started negotiating with him, there were two hostages that got released.


AQUINO: And up to the early evening, he'd seemed to be just a question of meeting minimum demands and it could have been settled peacefully.


COREN (voiceover): Hoping to rebuild his country's image by drawing inspiration from his past.

COREN: Who do you take after?

AQUINO: I think both of them. I'd like to think that I took the good points from each one.

COREN (voiceover): The son of a former president reflects on his parents' teachings and talks about his own entry into politics.




COREN: President, you are part of this amazing family legacy. And I guess there is just so much pressure that goes with it. Both your parents were just loved by the public. How does that feel to know - I guess that's (UNCLEAR).

AQUINO: I remove a lot of the pressure from myself by saying I'm not competing with my parents. They are the persons who taught me my ideology. They actively practiced what they preached. They're the exemplars and the role models. So how does one compete with a mentor?

COREN: Who do you take after?

AQUINO: I think both of them. I'd like to think that I took the good points from each one. And came up with my own version of how to advance the ideology that they were espousing.

COREN: Your mother, who was the face of people power, really, wasn't she?


COREN: Why do you think your mother was so loved?

AQUINO: I think she did exactly what she promised to do. She embodied trust - they saw a champion of their wants and needs. It could be at pain - would guide us into the right direction in my mother.

COREN: And is that something that you plan to do as well?

AQUINO: I think I have managed to stock just enough of credibility - the people, you know, they only talk about me running for office after I lead them (UNCLEAR). And I think it's a guided way that principals, perhaps not on a physical basis, but a lot of the experiences that we shared from - was especially the martial law (ph) since 1972 onwards. Took the man who was in power out of power. Has given me the will, without to be able to deal with the problems that we have for the first time.

COREN: The Philippines went from being one of the richest countries in Asia - second behind Japan back in the 1950s - to now more recently being called "The Sick Man of Asia". You said that you have to be Superman and Einstein combined to fix your country's problems. Two years in to a six-year term, do you feel that you're making progress?

AQUINO: Yes. Definitely, we're making progress. When we started out, I can honestly say that, for the first three months, we were really looking forward to Friday evening, because there would be a break before the rigors (ph) cooperate (ph) all the problems that were bequeathed to us.

I started out in public service in 1998 after the Asian financial crisis of '97. And the constant refrain was, "We don't have money, we don't have money, we don't have money". Now, last year, we were being criticized that we had the money, we weren't spending it quickly enough. And I think, in that successful to turn around in roughly about a year, year and a half.

COREN: Are you now investing that money into the community?

AQUINO: We have been from day one. And an accelerated program, also, for this year. Look at the credit ratings agencies that we've got in multiple credit rating agency -

COREN: Well, I want to talk about that, President, because you are making headway with the economy. The government is forecasting four percent growth. As you say, the rating agencies that upgraded the status of the Philippines and foreign investment is coming in. Let me ask you, can you sustain this moving forward?

AQUINO: I think a lot of this is pent up desire to invest in the country. But we were prevented from doing so before, because it was - how should I put it? Wrong governance and misgovernance made the playing field not level. Made it opaque in terms of working back to our roots.

COREN: One of your biggest exports is your workers - more than 10 percent of your population is shipped overseas. Many of those to be domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Singapore, elsewhere in Asia - obviously, the middle east. The remittance generate 20 billion dollars. Which is something like nine fifteenths of your GDP. Obviously, this is very financially beneficial for your country.

AQUINO: In the short term, yes.

COREN: But are you happy with this arrangement?

AQUINO: Well, the focus of my administration is, if somebody decides to work abroad, then it has to be from choice, as opposed to necessity.

COREN: But this is not a choice, though.

AQUINO: That's why we are working on - that's why investments are there on education. And that's why we're investing in infrastructure. That's why we're going on all of this campaigns, so attracting investors come back in.

COREN: As it stands now, the status quo is at 10 percent of your population is shipped off overseas. Many of these people are qualified professionals. They're nurses, they're teachers - they have university degrees, but they can earn more money as domestic helpers, cleaning other people's homes and raising other people's children, than they can in their profession back in the Philippines.


COREN: Is that not a sad indictment on your country?

AQUINO: Precisely, that's why we are starting to get them the opportunities here. But, again, if we could have my dream - my personal dream is, if they're here, then we don't have issues about what happens to the nuclear family down the line. Especially if both parents are gone. If they are here, they can possibly be happy with our economy. So, I'll go back. The thrust is, if you leave, you wanted to rather than you had to.

COREN: President, you mention the nuclear family. And the way that it stands at the moment is that this dysfunctional society has been created because of this workforce that is being shipped overseas. Children are being raised by their grandparents because their mothers are working as helpers. How does this make you feel when you see what is happening to the fabric of your society?

AQUINO: Again, that's a situation that I would rather not have. When I go through areas where most of the embassies are and I see the piece (ph) of people try for leases (ph) it pushes me to work even harder to be able to provide the best salary for them. Even if we don't match the salaries elsewhere, staying with your family adds - becomes part of the equation that you can accept a lower salary and still have a better quality of life on a personal basis.

COREN: The economic news in your country is very positive and is looking even more positive moving forward. But at the end of the day, the Philippines is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. The gap between the rich and poor is enormous. You have more than a third your population living on a dollar a day. When will it change for those 30 million people living in extreme poverty?

AQUINO: So it's all a question of empowering. We need jobs for these people - we need jobs that are not totally unskilled and they're put at the bottom of the feeding (ph) floor (ph). It has to be - so permission of the skills - get them opportunities as well. That will pay them better wages. It's being done.

COREN: One of the big reasons that there is poverty in this country is the lack of contraception. Or the fact that contraception is not allowed. I mean - and the church, at the end of the day, is responsible -

AQUINO: That's a critical perception is not - I think I have to say - there is no longer bans on the use of contraception except certain that are being questionable - they pose health risks.

COREN: Well, the church frowns on contraception.

AQUINO: The church doesn't make the laws in this country. They have significant influence, but they don't make the laws.

COREN: Oh, some people would say that the church has way too much power in this country.

AQUINO: The point that there is already ready for debate on the floor of the house - the particular law which we call "Responsible Parenthood". And I take on that primarily is the State is required to remind all of our countrymen - those contemplating marriage - that they have responsibilities for the children they're bringing in. As for what methods they would chose, that is left to their decision.

COREN: On the issue of congress - a family planning bill has tried to get through several times. And it has been knocked back by congress. Why is that?

AQUINO: Well, as you said, the Catholic Church is a very significant influence. There are those that - a microcosm of our society. They're very conservative elements are members of congress. But they understand - we are actually undergoing the critical debate already on the proposed question. And I expect a vote will happen on that particular measure. And, as the chief executive, who would I say to what law they will pass?

COREN: But if contraception was readily available and it was acceptable in society, do you not think, then, that that growth rate that you're experiencing - two percent - would be reduced?

AQUINO: You don't have to convince me on that. And also, the growth of the economy be a natural factor in limiting population growth, also. And we have to do what is necessary for those who cannot afford this particular methods - let's make it available to them.

COREN: So, do you think it is time for the Catholic Church to change its views here in the Philippines?

AQUINO: That is the consensus. I'm waiting from the Pope and the officials, so on and so forth. I'm sure that there is ongoing debate within the church. And, at the end of the day, I do remember a principal part of their teaching is the idea if we have choice - that one of the greatest gifts of God is to leave us free will.


COREN(voiceover): Turning people power into political action.

COREN: President, where do you see your country in 10 year's time?

AQUINO: May we invite you to come back and you will not recognize what it could be.

COREN: Really?


COREN (voiceover): Coming up, a long list of goals for a president settling in to his term.




COREN: President, we're here at the portrait of Ferdinand Marcos. What do you think when you look at him?

AQUINO: (UNCLEAR). He had such an opportunity - not just in his regular job. But more about the things that are in the martial (ph) years (ph). To have really done something for this country.

COREN: Do you think that he ruined the Philippines?

AQUINO: Yes. Significantly. He came in, in '65. And you, yourself was quoting his picture in "Time Magazine" that says our heyday was in the '60s.

COREN: Well, the 1950s, you were the second richest country in Asia.

AQUINO: The dollar conversion was at least four to one when he started out. By the time of the finish of his first term, it was eight to one. By the time he left, it was 25 to one.

COREN: Now, his family wanted him to be buried in the heroes' cemetery.

AQUINO: And that's not under my watch.

COREN: But it's taking a real stand, isn't it?

AQUINO: They can sue me, they can impeach me if they think they have the numbers for it. But, again, I will have to be true to the people. When I say "the people", the vast majority (UNCLEAR) or suffered then and continue to suffer now.


COREN: The United States has said that it's taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the Asian Pacific region, and they are far more committed to becoming more involved. Are you reassured by this? Is this a good thing for the region?

AQUINO: I think it is a good thing for the region in the sense that we're one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Very significant amounts of the world's trade and growth comes from this area. And the preservation of freedom from obligation (ph) which is espoused by America should be observed. They have also indicated at the same time that they do not want to go back and to pay the piper that they were the dominant power of this particular region. (UNCLEAR) often stated that fact.

Now, again, in the sense that there are two superpowers present, but there is the possibility of a balance. And the balance precludes any of the situations under contention from any state lording it over anybody else.

COREN: Here in the Philippines, you do have a problem with warlords. There are something like 100 private armies operating throughout the country. Obviously, the Mindanao Massacre, back in 2009, claimed the lives of 57 people, including 31 journalists. It really demonstrated, I guess, a sense of lawlessness in your country. Are you getting on top of this?

AQUINO: Those people were responsible for the Mindanao Massacre - most of them are incarcerated or undergoing trial. That is administration's policy - to nurture, sustain, but never allow any of them to continue their activities. You know what they had - it was 14 percent conviction rate. So, when I was a senator, I asked to rebudget the deliberation. How does one get promoted when he fails 86 percent of the time? And their explanation is basically, we are paid to shuffle paper from one desk to another.

So, under our administration, that is no longer the case. Your ability to stay in the job and get promoted is dependent on your victories that you will secure - advancing the cause of justice.

COREN: President, where do you see your country in 10 years' time?

AQUINO: May we invite you to come back, and you will not recognize what it will be.

COREN: Really?

AQUINO: In fact, the target is not 10 years time, the target is four years' time. You will have our country, hopefully, that is self sufficient in the staples and is a net exporter of food. Because we have met our particular issue. You will have a judicial system that is not - does not have a lot of decisions that are absurd. But are really based on our laws.

COREN: If your parents were here right now, what do you think they would say about your performance?

AQUINO: They're my parents. They would always want me to strive harder. So they'd probably say, (UNCLEAR). And when they're talking with each other, they'll be praising each other for their role in raising me up. But when they talk to me, they'll say, "What you've done is still not enough". If I give them 100, it should have been 200 yesterday. And that's just their way.

COREN: But do you think they'd be proud of the direction that you are heading in at the moment?

AQUINO: Yes, but they won't show it to me. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)