POSTSCRIPT / October 29, 2002 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Thanks to GSIS’s swift action that saved a Luna

GSIS DID RIGHT: The Government Service Insurance System deserves praise, not censure, for bringing back home Juan Luna’s “Parisian Life” after buying the 110-year-old work of art in last Sunday’s auction in Hong Kong.

There was a likelihood that had Winston Garcia, GSIS president and general manager, not outbid other buyers, the Luna would have ended in the collection of a foreign connoisseur.

The bid of GSIS — $867,633 or about P46 million — may be a bit stiff, but Garcia knew the value of that “piece of Philippine history” as well as its possible appreciation with time. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

The GSIS has excess funds for buying works of art for its collection. Its rescue of the Luna will not adversely affect its cash flow and the benefits being given to its members.

The purchase has been consummated. What is important is that the Luna is back with us again. The 44-inch-by-39-inch oil will join other art pieces in the GSIS museum in Pasay City where generations of Filipinos can appreciate it.

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SAUDI TAX ON OFWs?: Here is an unofficial item that should be of interest to our compatriots working in Saudi Arabia and our agencies looking after their welfare.

A recent report on the Saudi economy attributed to the International Monetary Fund had the IMF calling on the Saudi kingdom to accelerate the introduction of taxes on foreigners and to consider taxing nationals.

The report said a bill to impose taxes on expatriate workers was being considered by the Shoura Council, which provisionally approved the move in May.

Under the proposal, aliens earning more than $1,000 a month would be slapped a 10-percent income tax. We understand that the measure will go back to the consultative council for approval before it is endorsed to the Saudi Cabinet.

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OIL EARNINGS NOT ENOUGH: Some IMF directors were also reported as suggesting that the “introduction of sales tax might be useful as an interim measure pending the implementation of the value added tax” in the kingdom.

It would seem from the report, if true, that the Saudi kingdom is looking for ways to augment its present revenues, the bulk of which comes from oil production.

A 10-percent standard tax will eat into the net income of Filipino workers, who at present do not pay income tax either to the Saudi or the Philippine government. Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia are estimated at almost one million (compared to the smaller official estimate of 598,760 in 2001).

Despite their not paying tax in Saudi Arabia, most Filipino workers enjoy some form of social security benefits in their host country.

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ABSENTEE VOTING: Filipinos abroad are burning the wires inquiring about the status of the absentee voting bills already approved (separately) by the two chambers of Congress.

Most queries we get are upbeat. Many of our readers abroad want to know if they would now be able to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

Without meaning to be a wet blanket, our usual reply is for them to wait for the final bicameral version of the approved bills before rejoicing over their reportedly having been granted the right to vote from their places of work abroad.

It has been our experience that the final compromise version hammered out by the bicameral “conference” committee and sent to the President for signature could be different from the last copies seen in the House and the Senate.

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15-YEAR WAIT: Our compatriots abroad had waited through four presidents — Aquino, Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo — for the fulfillment of that promise in the 15-year-old Constitution whose Section 2, Article V, provides for “absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad.”

The charter left it to Congress, however, to pass an enabling law. Aside from the complicated mechanics of absentee voting in various cultural settings abroad, the most delicate issues revolve around citizenship and residence.

Since only citizens who have all the qualifications and none of the disqualifications may vote, a big question is if Filipinos who have been naturalized by their host country can still be considered by law as also Filipino citizens with the right to vote.

It is basic that if they are not Filipino citizens, they cannot vote in Philippine elections. This is one of the reasons why we have been saying that the absentee voting bill cannot be considered apart from a related measure on dual citizenship.

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QUESTION OF RESIDENCE: Questions have been raised also on the qualification (to vote) of Filipinos who have gained permanent resident status in other countries. Our law requires voters to have resided for one year in the Philippines and six months in the community where they will cast their ballot.

Now if, for example, a Filipino has a “green card” (it’s not really green but of salmon-pinkish color) or a permanent resident status in the United States, can he be considered also a Philippine resident for purposes of voting in an election here?

We will have to see how the compromise bicameral copy of the conflicting versions of the Senate and the House will resolve these basic issues. As of yesterday, the meeting of the bicameral committee on the matter has not been scheduled.

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VOTING MECHANICS: Labor sources say that the biggest concentration of Filipino workers abroad is deployed in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia accounting for the bulk.

Questions have been asked how hundreds of thousands of Filipinos could leave their places of work in the desert and travel to the distant polling precincts, most likely in the Philippine embassies or consulates, to vote and then return to their work stations.

But those are procedural details that could be addressed by administrative bodies, such as the Commission on Elections, in consultation with the departments of foreign affairs and labor.

Comparatively, we think absentee voting could be done with less confusion in the United States, whose democratic setting lends itself supportive of people voting in a free election.

There are an estimated three million Pinoys in the US, but a report from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas a year ago gave the stock estimate of Filipino residents in the US at 1.8 million.

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WHERE PINOYS ARE: That estimate of Pinoys in the US, if correct, represents around 70 percent of all Filipinos worldwide. Those in the US are settled mostly in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Texas, Florida, Virginia and Nevada.

Canada was listed last year as having only 277,000 Filipino residents or 11 percent of the total worldwide. Australia is third with 202,000 or 8 percent.

But in terms of registered overseas workers, the US is only the eighth largest employer, with 59,767 listed in October last year. The largest employer is Saudi Arabia (829,300 or 27.73 percent), with Hong Kong a far second (148,844 or 4.98 percent).

We note that the Commission’s estimate (829,300 ) of the number of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia is substantially more than the 598,760 figure being used by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. The POEA’s excuse for its low figure is that they just got it from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 29, 2002)

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