Harry Roque

Fulfilling Mindanao’s promise

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s latest visit to Malaysia started with a bang with Senator Manny Pacquiao’s decisive win over Lucas Matthysse. We congratulate Senator Pacquiao for his superb form and top performance. If memory serves me right, last Sunday was probably the first time a sitting Philippine President was at ringside to watch Manny fight. I would like to believe President Duterte served as Manny’s lucky charm. After Senator Pacquiao’s fight, an informal meeting was also held between President Duterte and Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad -- whom the Palace earlier congratulated on his successful return as Prime Minister of Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir is an old friend of the Philippines and his fresh mandate bodes well for the deep relations between the Philippines and Malaysia. The President was to have a formal meeting with PM Mahathir yesterday. High on the two leaders’ agenda are discussions on Mindanao and the presence of ISIS in the Philippines. We expect that our improving relations with Malaysia will benefit both countries. Malaysia, as we all know, is a brother nation and dependable partner of the Philippines for having played a constructive role towards the attainment of peace and stability in Mindanao. We are confident that the strong partnership between our countries would continue to enhance in the years to come. I am glad that Mindanao is now being given the attention it deserves. For the first time in decades, under President Duterte’s administration, Mindanao will be the biggest beneficiary of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” Program. In fact, the national government has allotted more than P100 billion for five infrastructure flagship projects that will make Mindanao the centerpiece of President Duterte care. Quoting my Cabinet colleague Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, he said: “Beginning this year, a new Mindanao story is set to unfold. The island is the focal point of major infrastructure projects that will enhance economic production, open new irrigated lands for our agriculture and make the movement of goods and people easier.” Among the big-ticket infrastructure projects in the island approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) are the P5.4-billion Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project expected for completion by 2019; the expansion and improvement of the Davao International as well as Laguindingan airports, which cost P40.6 billion and P14.6 billion, respectively; building and improvement of a total of 280 kilometers in roads and bridges in the Zamboanga Peninsula and Tawi-Tawi province under the Improving Growth Corridors in Mindanao Road Sector, including the 3.5-kilometer Panguil Bay Bridge that will connect Tubod, Lanao de Norte and Tangub City, Misamis Occidental; and the construction of first segment of Mindanao’s first railway system that will run across Tagum, Davao and Digos. The irrigation facility, which will provide water to almost 10,000 hectares of land in 56 conflict-affected areas, would be located in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces as these areas are potential rice baskets for the entire Philippines. The two airport projects, meanwhile, will expand the capacity of the passenger terminal and cargo to accommodate the fast-growing number of visitors to southern and northern Mindanao. The upgrade of both airports is targeted for completion in 2025. Moreover, the first railway in Mindanao will relieve road congestion, reduce the cost of moving goods and people across long distances and spur economic activity in the region. For decades, Mindanao has been largely neglected by “Imperial Manila.” This is no longer the case in the Duterte administration. The government’s “Build, Build, Build” program will be the backbone of development in Mindanao. These big-ticket infrastructure projects being rolled out by the government will “bring the entire island to the mainstream of national progress.” But the promise of Mindanao will mean nothing if peace is not achieved in the South. One of the Islamic State (IS)–inspired extremists which posed a threat to Mindanao included the Maute group led by Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon. But with the strong and decisive leadership of the President, these terrorist leaders were neutralized creating a major breakthrough in our efforts to end the rebellion and finally liberate Marawi City from the Maute Group. However, the IS threat is far from over. New leaders may soon emerge. This is why President Duterte’s talk with Prime Minister Mahathir was important. We need allies like Malaysia to keep terrorism at bay, particularly from the IS threat.

Towards a better Philippine healthcare system

During last Monday’s Cabinet meeting, President Rodrigo Duterte certified the Universal Health Care Bill as urgent. This bill is close to my heart as I was the principal author of House Bill No. 5784 which I filed when I was still a member of the House of Representatives. I was also the one who defended the bill during the bill’s period of interpellation in the Second Reading. With the bill’s certification as urgent, the counterpart version in the Senate is now on a fast-track towards approval. We are again a step closer towards institutionalizing universal health care in the country. Under this bill, we seek to provide for the constitutionally-mandated right to health by providing primary care to absolutely all Filipinos. For the longest time – quite inexcusably a long time for that matter – Filipinos have lived under a constant threat of poverty the moment an illness strikes. Health care services and medicine in the Philippines are often prohibitive to ordinary Filipinos as shown by the latest data that a vast majority of patients shoulder these expenses out of their own pockets. The prioritization of the Universal Health Care Bill is a reflection of the Duterte Administration’s unrelenting commitment to provide the Filipino people, especially those who belong to the marginalized and disadvantaged sectors, with sufficient and better health care services. Indeed, this is tapang at malasakit (guts and sacrifice) exemplified. This bill is groundbreaking because beneficiaries will be entitled to health coverage simply by virtue of their citizenship as Filipinos – the proposed law provides health security to Filipinos not because they can pay premiums but simply because they are Filipinos. Indeed, one of the key features of this bill is it enables all individuals and communities to receive the full spectrum of health services they need, from health promotion to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care. As I mentioned in this space a few weeks back, I filed my version of the bill during my very first day at the House of Representatives because I sincerely believe Filipinos who cannot afford treatment should not bear the heavy weight of paying off these medical services. As a former Constitutional law professor, I take to heart Article 13, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution which provides “[t]he State shall adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach to health development which shall endeavor to make essential goods, health and other social services available to all the people at affordable cost.” The President’s certification of the bill as urgent could not come at a better time. Given the rising number of leptospirosis and dengue cases nowadays, having universal health coverage would mean peace of mind for the families of dengue and leptospirosis patients, most especially the underprivileged ones. They can now rest assured that the government will take care of them without them drowning in debt. Indeed, an effective health system focuses both on improving the health of beneficiaries as well as limiting the financial consequences of medical care. There are two classifications of members: contributing and non-contributing or those who pay premiums and those who don’t. The government will shoulder the premiums of the non-contributing members so this bill is inclusive in every sense of the word. Gone will be the days of having to comply with a minimum number of contributions in order to avail of coverage. We recognize that health is not just merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being. I for one look forward to the day when this historic piece of legislation becomes a law.

Towards a Federal Philippines

“Federalism is a system of government where a country has two kinds, or layers, of government with co-equal power.” The shift to a federal type of government is one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promises back when he ran for the presidency. He said the time has come for the Philippines to abandon the unitary type of government and allow regions to govern themselves with policies and laws appropriate to the needs of their constituents. This is why on December 7, 2016, the President signed Executive Order 10 which created the Consultative Committee (ConCom) tasked to study, conduct consultations and review the provisions of the 1987 Constitution. The ConCom is also required to submit reports, recommendations and proposals to the President. Coming from diverse backgrounds, the committee is comprised of eminent figures ranging from a former justice of the Supreme Court and other legal luminaries to members of the academe and the Muslim community. The committee is headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno. Its members also include former SC Associate Justice Bienvenido Reyes; former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. – one of the early proponents of federalism in the Philippines; former SC Associate Justice and former Solicitor General Antonio Nachura; Julio Cabral Teehankee, former dean of De La Salle University’s College of Liberal Arts; Father Ranhilio Aquino, dean of San Beda’s Graduate School of Law and Radio Mindanao Network founder lawyer Reuben Canoy to name some. Members coming from the Muslim community include Randolph Climaco Parcasio, lawyer and spokesman of Moro National Liberation Front founder Nur Misuari; former Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi chancellor Eddie Mapag Alih, and former Lanao del Sur Representative Ali Pangalian Balindong. As of this writing, it is expected that the President received from the ConCom the draft Constitution the body had approved. The draft Constitution is the culmination of more than four months’ worth of work for the panel. The President may revise some of the proposed provisions if needed and submit it to Congress through a Constituent Assembly (con-ass). He will encourage Congress to study it very closely and if possible to pattern the proposed revisions after what the commission has recommended, as I mentioned previously. But of course, it is the members of con-ass who will approve whether or not they will adopt the proposed revision to our present Charter. To reiterate, we recognize that the decision to approve or disapprove will lie in the individual members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A lot has already been said about the proposed Constitution from pundits to self-proclaimed Constitutional experts. But just what is federalism? Federalism is a system of government where a country has two kinds, or layers, of government with co-equal power. One is the federal state or the national government and the local state, or in the proposed system for the Philippines, a federated region. These two levels of government have separate jurisdictions and they also have concurrent ones. There are many kinds of federalism. There is the federal government of the United States of America, the federal government of Germany and the federal government of Belgium. But the important thing to remember is that the federalism of these countries is rooted in their history. For the Philippines, the ConCom will be 17 federated regions plus the National Capital Region (NCR), the proposed federal capital. Each region will be headed by a regional governor and a deputy governor, to be chosen by and among members of the regional legislative assembly. “The President is immovable with regard to his stance on not going beyond his six-year term.” Edmund Tayao, Chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Formation of Powers of Federated Regions of the ConCom, said that this structure is politically feasible because no one will feel threatened that their powers and functions are suddenly clipped and would provide better perspective on how to merge regions later on or how to strengthen existing regions. As former SC Chief Justice Reynato Puno has said, “It is time for our regions to be liberated, time to be freed from the shackles of the national government and this can only be done if we adopt federalism.” For some, the move to overhaul the type of government that we currently have seems too drastic or overwhelming. Naysayers have cast their doubts saying that the country is not yet ready for federalism and have put out theories alleging that this is the Duterte administration’s method of extending the presidency despite President Duterte himself always saying that he is willing to cut short his term once a federal system has been put in place. The President asked the ConCom to provide a transitory President and said he would resign to pave way for the election of a younger leader. Let me reiterate that the President is immovable with regard to his stance on not going beyond his six-year term. He has said what he said: not a second longer. With this, I ask that we put this issue to rest. Another issue to address is the awareness of the Filipino people of federalism. The recent survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) reported that despite the government’s strong push for federalism, only 25 percent of the 1,200 respondents polled nationwide were aware of federalism, while 75 percent became acquainted with it only during the survey period of March 23-27. In short, only 1 of 4 Filipinos is aware of federalism. The Duterte administration clearly has its work cut out for it. We must also remember that the draft submitted by the ConCom will still undergo a long process which includes its ratification by the Filipino people. The approval of the proposed changes in our current Charter ultimately lies in the hands of the Filipino people. Thus, we in government have to pursue a more active and effective approach in informing more Filipinos of federalism to sincerely win their approval. This is another challenge we are most willing to solve -- for it is only a government of, by and for the Filipino people which can effect genuine and meaningful change.

Addressing nutrition and learning capacities

This week, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed into law Republic Act (RA) No. 11037, otherwise known as the “Masustansyang Pagkain para sa Batang Pilipino Act.” This groundbreaking law is clear proof of the President’s dedication to afford every Filipino child the right to proper healthcare and nutrition benefits. It is a testament the Duterte administration recognizes the importance of good nutrition to our children’s ability to develop into physically and mentally healthy individuals. Breakfast is usually treated as the most important meal of the day; however, lunch is equally as important. Like adults, our children have a long day ahead of them, and starting their day from early morning to midday can drain them of the energy they need to keep up with studying. Without a properly balanced and nutritious lunch, children may become sluggish and lose their focus in class in the afternoon. Aside from these energy slumps, which cause children to lose concentration, they might lose motivation as well in participating in after-school activities like sports and other physical pursuits. As parents, we only want what’s best for our children and that includes being able to provide them with well-balanced and nutritious meals that can give them a good dose of the essential vitamins and minerals they need to fully face their day in school. The new law, of which I was one of the principal authors when I was still a member of Congress, institutionalizes a National Feeding Program in cooperation with national government agencies, for undernourished children in public day care, kindergarten and elementary schools. Children under this program shall receive one fortified meal for a period of not less than 120 days in a year. A fortified meal, as defined by the law, is a “meal with deliberately increased content of essential micronutrients so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food and provide the level of calories and protein as prescribed by the National Nutrition Council.” RA 11037 likewise provides for a milk feeding program. Fresh milk and fresh milk-based food products shall be incorporated in the fortified meals and standardized menus prepared by national government agencies. As kids, we were often told by our parents not to forget to drink our milk so that we can grow strong and tall. Although some of us might not have been able to enjoy this or have taken this for granted, it is already proven that drinking milk is beneficial in more ways than one. Growing children need milk since it is rich in calcium but it also contains other essential nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fat. We aim to combat hunger and undernutrition among the youngest members of our society, for we consider it a sin for the government to be unable to spend billions of pesos worth of budget while around six million Filipino youth suffer from malnutrition. I am aware that there are several local government units already implementing a feeding program of their own, some even going years back. Institutionalizing this program ensures that students all over the country will get the opportunity to have sound minds and bodies, same as those from the richer LGU. It is but right for the national government to give attention to the welfare of our schoolchildren, especially those from low-income families. Studies have proven that eating a healthy lunch can be a tremendous boost to the academic performance of students. A proper meal helps improve concentration, as well-fed children can focus on their academic tasks rather than be distracted by a rumbling stomach. Students who eat before classes also tend to score higher on tests. After all, if you can concentrate better on your lessons, then you get to retain more information. A proper meal gives children increased energy needed to get through a school day. Lastly, improved nutrition for schoolchildren reduces tardiness and absenteeism. More days in school means more time to learn. We, therefore, welcome the passage of this law to safeguard our youth from the ill effects of undernourishment and subsequently enhance their learning capacities.

Church and State dialogue

“While the Church and State may, indeed, be separate, it does not mean they cannot work together for the betterment of the Filipino people.” The Philippines remains the bastion of Catholic faith in Asia. We, Filipinos, celebrate a lot of religious holidays. Most, if not all, of our town fiestas are actually held during the feast days of patron saints. One of those Catholic celebrations is Pope’s Day, where I had the honor to represent President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in an event at the Papal Nuncio Archbishop residence last Friday night. Papal Nuncio Gabriele Giordano Caccia and I had a very productive meeting. We discussed that the best way moving forward, which is also in the best interest of the Filipino people, is for both State and Church to work together for the benefit of the people. During our meeting, we also agreed that President Duterte will have a one-on-one dialogue with the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to iron out issues and clear any misunderstanding. We must take the dialogue between the President and the CBCP as a positive step towards having better ties with an institution, which plays a big influence in the Filipino way of life. The government has always had a healthy respect for the different religions in the country. In fact, an individual’s right to freedom of religion and worship, as well as its free exercise, is guaranteed by our Constitution. Over a decade ago, in June 2007, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order 626 strengthening the government’s interfaith program. It created a National Committee on Interfaith Cooperation, tasked with formulating, consolidating, rationalizing and recommending Philippine policies and positions on various interfaith initiatives both in and out of the country. This has been the basis for President Duterte’s creation of a four-man committee to hold dialogues with the leaders of the Church and improve relations with the government. The President designated me, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella and EDSA People Power Commission member Pastor Saycon to lead the dialogue with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and other religious groups. Sec. Evasco was a former priest in Bohol. Usec. Abella was a board member of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. On top of the agenda during the dialogue is to start improving the relations between the President and the Church. There is a strong sense of optimism in resolving the concerns of both sides. CBCP president Archbishop Romulo Valles is the father of the flock of the Archdiocese of Davao and is one of the few religious leaders with close ties with the Chief Executive dating back when he was still mayor of Davao City. In fact, Malacanang welcomed and congratulated the election of Archbishop Valles as CBCP president. The Palace released a statement saying this “signals a new day of peace for a multi-cultural Philippines.” It also commended Archbishop Valles, who served Mindanao as a prelate for 40 years, for “his familiarity with Davao and Mindanao... as we promote interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding as part of our efforts to rebuild Marawi and to transform Mindanao into a land of fulfilment.” While the Church and State may, indeed, be separate, it does not mean they cannot work together for the betterment of the Filipino people. A Pulse Asia September 2017 survey showed most Filipinos (58 percent) wanted the leaders of the Catholic Church to help with the rehabilitation of drug addicts as part of the administration’s war on drugs. Only about one in 10 Filipinos would like for the Church to take a hands-off policy in the anti-illegal drug campaign. The Philippine National Police (PNP) drug rehabilitation partnership agreement with the Diocese of Novaliches, Quezon City government for a community-based drug rehabilitation program in the Batasan area is, therefore, a welcome development. This is the kind of partnership that we hope we can replicate in many areas. This is the kind of collaboration between the government and the Church that our people expect. Let us, therefore, see the President’s willingness to have a fruitful dialogue as a good start to open an avenue for a meaningful complementary work between the State and the Church.

Health and mental fitness

“Depression has many possible causes including stress, and having trouble coping with stress can increase one’s risk to developing depression.” Two high-profile suicide incidents in the past few weeks – those of famous designer Kate Spade and renowned chef Anthony Bourdain – brought to the forefront of the public opinion the issue of mental health. People were still reeling from the shock of the loss of these two public figures when President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed into the law Republic Act No. 11036, otherwise known as the “Mental Health Act.” As I have said previously, we consider the signing of the Mental Health Act as a testament to President Duterte’s commitment to provide accessible and affordable mental health care and services for all Filipinos. I am proud to have been one of the principal authors of the House version of Republic Act 11036. With this law, the State affirms the basic right of all Filipinos to mental health, as well as the fundamental rights of the people who require mental health services. It forms part of the government’s mandate to design and implement a national mental health program and integrate this as part of the health information system, among others. With this law, the government ensures that mental health is valued, promoted and protected; mental health conditions are treated and prevented; timely, affordable, high-quality, and culturally-appropriate mental health care is made available to the public; mental health services are free from coercion and accountable to the service users, and persons affected by mental health conditions are able to exercise the full range of human rights, and participate fully in society and at work, free from stigmatization and discrimination. The Mental Health Act strengthens whatever support the government already had in place for those with mental disorders. I personally know someone who was diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who was able to get a Persons With Disability (PWD) ID card that allowed her to purchase her medicines at a discounted price. The law now provides for even greater support beyond discounts. It provides patients, among others, with access to evidence-based treatment of the same standard and quality, regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation; access to affordable essential health and social services for the purpose of achieving the highest attainable standard of mental health, and access to comprehensive and coordinated treatment integrating holistic prevention, promotion, rehabilitation, care and support, aimed at addressing mental health care needs through a multi-disciplinary, user-driven treatment and recovery plan. More importantly, the Mental Health Act recognizes mental disorders as illness which can be diagnosed and treated. Prior to the signing of the law, most people who suffered from mental disorders were silent. We hope this policy will help neutralize the stigma attached to mental illness. In this day and age, mental illness should no longer be put on the backburner as we move forward to addressing mental illness out in the open. With the increasing demands of society on the young and elderly alike, mental illnesses such as depression can strike at any time. Depression can affect anyone – even people who seem to live their lives in ideal conditions. Depression has many possible causes, including stress, and having trouble coping with stress can increase one’s risk to developing depression. This is why our policies and institutions should teach people how to deal with stress. This is where stress management comes in as a form of self-care or self-help to help people cope with stress. Some of the self-help stress relievers address both the mind and the body such as maintaining a positive attitude, putting stress in perspective or acceptance for things we cannot control, doing our best and being proud of it, eating well-balanced meals, and getting enough sleep and exercise. Getting support from others such as family, friends or any loved ones and someone you trust can help in managing stress. If self-help is not enough, seeking the treatment of a doctor, psychiatrist or mental health professional is also suggested. At the same time, implementing a universal mental healthcare system in the country would also provide more awareness regarding mental health among Filipinos, especially given the rising number of suicide cases among the youth. According to the Global School-Based Student Health Survey in 2015, 17 percent of high school students in the Philippines aged 12 to 15 said they had attempted suicide at least once. The law now provides mechanisms for suicide intervention, prevention and response strategies, with particular attention to the concerns of the youth. Twenty-four seven (24/7) hotlines, to provide assistance to individuals with mental health conditions, especially individuals at risk of committing suicide, shall be set up, and existing hotlines shall be strengthened. We still have a long way to go, but the first and most important step has been done. And if anyone of you knows of anyone who is suffering from depression or any mental illness, reach out to him. You may have helped save a life just by talking to him.

Fake news and censorship

“We must not underestimate the ability of the ordinary Filipino to know what is right and true from what is not.” Last Sunday was the 107th general commencement exercises, or the university graduation rites, of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. As what we have seen in similar occasions in the past, there were some students who staged a “lightning protest” during the ceremonies, complete with placards, signboards and the like. As is also the practice in UP, where academic freedom is sacred, the protesters were able to carry out their activities in peace, free from any disruption or impediment. This is the beauty of a democracy where freedom of expression is sacrosanct. I mention this because last Wednesday, I was a resource person in a Senate hearing that tackled the bill imposing heavier penalties for government officials creating or spreading “fake news.” It bears reminding that our Constitution expressly forbids the creation of any law abridging the freedom of expression. Hence, the position of the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson is that even fake news is protected by the Bill of Rights. In fact, one of the landmark cases on free speech, which has been referenced by our Philippine Supreme Court multiple times, is the American case of New York Times vs. Sullivan. In that case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the publication of statements, including false ones. The Court quoted philosopher John Start Mill saying that: “Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate since it brings about the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth produced by its collision with error.” We, therefore, believe that it is best to leave it up to the public to use their intellect to discern truth from falsehood. We must not underestimate the ability of the ordinary Filipino to know what is right and true from what is not. The true test of truth is “the ability of a thought to be accepted as fact by the general public.” I mentioned in last Wednesday’s hearing that this bill, should it ever become law, is dangerous in the sense that it is inherently vague – it could be used, possibly, as a weapon to persecute those in the political opposition who are also in government. It is vague because who gets to say what is fake from what is not? Again, while I understand the problem the Senate wishes to address, it must be stressed that the curtailment of expression admits only a few exceptions. Any restrictions imposed on this very important freedom – indeed, the very freedom that is the hallmark of a healthy and vibrant democracy – must be of utmost necessity and justly proportionate. In other words, they must be narrowly tailored and not overbroad. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte himself recognizes the importance of our right to freely express ourselves. Last year, he signed Proclamation 319 declaring September 21 as a National Day of Protest. The proclamation acknowledged the people’s freedom of speech and right to peacefully assemble so much so that it urged local government units (LGUs) to forgo rally permits during the National Day of Protest. Thousands, from politicians to indigenous people, businessmen to activists, exercised their right to freedom of expression and took to the streets to protest certain policies of the administration with which they did not agree. All these happened without any restriction from the government. Faced with criticisms, many times we heard President Duterte quoting US President Abraham Lincoln, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” Taking a cue from the President and so as not to infringe on our fundamental right to self-expression, perhaps we can and should defer to the wisdom of our Supreme Court, and the various landmark rulings on curtailment of expression in lieu of this proposed bill on fake news. Jurisprudence has developed a conviction that the solution is never governmental censorship, but better journalism. Recognizing fake news as a danger to democracy and free expression should not justify a supposed cure that may end up being worse than the disease. Because of the creativity and ingenuity of those who would abuse their freedom of expression, we may be faced with a situation where censorship becomes the norm. And our democracy will be worse for it.

Towards an educated and healthy nation

“Helping schoolchildren achieve normal nutrition means empowering them to achieve their potential as students, maximizing their capacity to learn..” I was recently invited as guest of honor to commemorate the centenary of the monument of our national hero, Jose Rizal, in the city of Biñan in Laguna. Biñan, of course, is where Rizal’s mother, Teodora Alonso, lived. In fact, her house is right behind where her son’s monument stands. Biñan also served a special role in the life of Rizal as it was where he first received formal education. As we know from our history books, education played a large role in our national hero’s life. Education is the topic I chose to discuss in this space for today as this is also close to my heart and seeing that we just celebrated the 167th birth anniversary of Rizal a few days ago. As I mentioned in this same space a week ago, before I became a civil servant, I taught for 15 years as a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law. My mother was also a teacher. From a young age, she taught me the value of education. She always reminded me that it was the best legacy she could give me and my siblings. I was fortunate to have studied at the best schools, namely, the University of the Philippines and the London School of Economics. It was Rizal who said the youth is the hope of the Fatherland. And in order for that hope to shine, they have to be healthy, educated, well-rounded individuals. As a former member of the academe, I know firsthand what it means to have quality education. And so when I became a member of Congress, I was one of the principal authors of the House version of Republic Act 10931 or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act. Thousands of college students are now able to study for free in state colleges and universities around the country. This was made possible because of the strong political will of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. This is in accordance with the constitutional requirement of the State to protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education. Gone are the days of academically gifted students agonizing over how to pay for their studies. This new law has eased the burden of our less privileged kababayans and now everyone has a chance to experience quality education. Having made higher education accessible, we, of course, have not forgotten about our early childhood education. I was also one of the principal authors of the National School Feeding Act that was submitted to President Duterte for his signature. This bill serves as an alternative approach of providing free supplementary meals to kindergarten and elementary school children in public schools. The rationale behind this is to improve survival attendance rates of kindergarten and elementary pupils by mitigating malnourishment. The Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) 2015 survey reported that around one-third of children 5.1 to 10 years old are underweight. It was further noted that underweight prevalence among children 0-10 years old increases with age. Under the National School Feeding Act, the Department of Education is to conduct one feeding per day, five times a week, for at least 120 school days in one school year, providing the caloric requirements based on the dietary guidelines prescribed by the National Nutrition Council (NNC). With the passage of this legislation, school-based feeding programs will be institutionalized. Helping schoolchildren achieve normal nutrition means empowering them to achieve their potential as students, maximizing their capacity to learn. It is a fact that well-fed children become better pupils. Studies have shown that children who skip breakfast perform poorly in tasks, have lower concentration, shortened attention span and lower IQ test scores compared to their well-fed classmates. After all, would you be able to concentrate on your lessons if your stomach is grumbling because it is empty? Just as a car would not run without gasoline, our brain would also function poorly without the nourishment it needs. Indeed, research and common experience clearly reveal the direct relationship between good nutrition and learning: healthy students attend school more regularly, are physically able to cope with the needs of school, are more attentive in class and get along better with their peers. This is the kind of development we want for our youth. Building a better country begins with building a better citizenry. This is the positive change for which we are aiming.

Mitigating the effects of TRAIN

“To protect the poor and vulnerable, the Duterte administration has started implementing social mitigating measures to targeted beneficiaries.” On December 19, 2017, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed into law the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) bill to enable a simpler and fairer tax system for all Filipinos. Since the law took effect at the start of the year, we have felt its positive effects. For most of us, the TRAIN Law was a welcome development as it increased the take home pay of 99 percent of income taxpayers, who have carried most of the tax burdens in the past. They now receive the equivalent of a 14th-month pay. Moreover, both the estate and the donors’ taxes are down to 6 percent, from the previous 15 to 20 percent, and additional sin taxes on sweetened beverages and cigarettes support our public health goals. On the other side, there have also been objections to the implementation of the new tax system. Those who oppose the TRAIN Law mistakenly claim that it is principally responsible for the elevated inflation rate in the country. And that because of the higher excise tax on petroleum products, TRAIN has caused the increase in prices of basic commodities. This is barking up the wrong tree. Price increases at the pump are primarily due to major spikes in international crude prices and the depreciation of the peso against the US dollar. I have received messages from my former law students in UP, especially those from the evening classes who are mainly working students, bemoaning the possible increase of fares. Some have said the prices of food have also increased. Again, TRAIN’s contribution to these increases is minimal, and far outweighed by its benefits to society. On a lighter note, I have also received complaints from some of my former students, not about the increasing prices, but the added academic workload, especially to those taking taxation. Levity aside, there have been calls to suspend the law, pending review of its effects. But if the TRAIN Law were to be suspended, it would most certainly cause more harm than good. TRAIN contributed little to inflation. Rising prices were caused by external factors in the last five months, such as a cut in supply by oil-producing countries and US sanctions on Iran that led to higher oil prices. The increase in US interest rates that led to the peso depreciation, which made our oil imports more expensive. Of the P13 increase in diesel between May last year and May this year, only P2.8 pesos, including VAT, is due to TRAIN. The short supply of NFA rice, likewise, caused inflation to rise, which has now been addressed. Without TRAIN, our inflation rate last month would have been 4.2 percent instead of the 4.6 percent, per the Department of Finance (DoF) projection. It is lower, yes, but not by much. This is not to say that President Duterte does not understand the plight of those adversely affected by high prices, whether due to TRAIN or not. In fact, during the last cabinet meeting, the Department of Finance presented to the President multi-agency efforts to mitigate the effects of TRAIN on our less fortunate kababayans. The President is committed to helping the poor cope with higher prices regardless of the cause. To protect the poor and vulnerable, the Duterte administration has started implementing social mitigating measures to targeted beneficiaries. First, through the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the government is in the middle of implementing the Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) program. Under this scheme, 10 million families and indigent senior citizens will receive benefits from the DSWD. The 10 million are comprised of 4.4 million households from the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), 3 million indigent senior citizens, and another 2.6 million families from the Listahan database (in addition to 4Ps beneficiaries). To date, the government has released P10 billion from UCT funds and this has been distributed to 3.7 million household beneficiaries of 4Ps as of last week. The assistance being given to 4Ps beneficiaries started in March and will run until this month. On the other hand, the payout for indigent senior citizens has begun in Region 3, and will continue to spread throughout the other regions next month. We aim to finish distributing assistance to all social pensioners by September. To ensure that only the correct beneficiaries are given assistance, the DSWD has been validating the list of 2.6 million non-4Ps beneficiaries. The validation process is estimated to be accomplished by the end of this month, while the payout will run from August to September this year. Second, the government, through the Department of Transportation (DoTr), will finalize and soon launch the Pantawid Pasada Program under the train law to alleviate the impact of the rising prices of petroleum products on public utility jeeps (PUJs). All PUJs with valid and legitimate franchises from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) will automatically be included in the Pantawid Pasada Program. These PUJ franchise holders will receive around P5,000 as subsidy for the first tranche of the Pantawid Pasada Program, from July to December this year. The subsidy will be given via the Fuel Subsidy Card, which will be distributed starting next month. Long-term solutions are also being put in place. Foremost is the push for rice tariffication that will immediately reduce the price of rice by as much as P7 per kilo, on DoF estimate. This will significantly reduce inflation and help Filipino families, especially the poor, as rice accounts for 20 percent of their consumption. The economic team has urged Congress for speedy passage of this measure. In addition, Build, Build, Build will lower logistics cost, especially the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), making it cheaper to transport food and goods. These are just but some examples of measures the Duterte administration has put in place to mitigate the effects of the TRAIN Law. We will continue to see the positive effects of our new tax system over the long run and these birthing pains will soon be a thing of the past.
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