POSTSCRIPT / October 22, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Rest and prepare for ASEAN summit

WITH DUE respect, we suggest that President Rodrigo Duterte take a brief vacation, rest, and prepare for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit next month and the side meetings with US President Donald Trump and other foreign leaders.

We want our President in peak condition as he chairs the 13th ASEAN summit and discusses weighty issues with his counterparts from Southeast Asia and other leaders at the 12th East Asia summit to be held here Nov. 10-14.

No Filipino would begrudge the hard-working President’s disappearing for a while to rest and attend to his homework. We don’t want him, for instance, tripping if he attempts to ad lib in his speeches.

It is all right, and in fact might even be folksy, when he regales a local crowd with jokes and tales of a Chinese sniper rifle downing terrorist leader “Hapsilon” and disowning EKJs (aka EJKs, extra-judicial killings). But it’s a bit different when foreign dignitaries are in the audience.

Since first meetings usually leave lasting impressions, we want him ready for his first encounter with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam, where they will attend on Nov. 10 the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, before meeting again in Manila days later.

We shudder recalling his speech on Thursday during a high-level ASEAN forum where he told a roomful of diplomats and foreign policy experts of the “war in Malaysia” having been terminated.

Apparently referring to the five-month fighting in Marawi City, he said: “I just finished a war in Malaysia and perhaps I can refocus the entire Armed Forces to deal with this problem,” referring to piracy in the Malacca Strait.

The President also reportedly told the foreign experts and ASEAN leaders present that he was no statesman and would be polite and “condescending” to them. It was not clear what he meant by that; the Department of Clarification has not spoken.

Rappler quoted Duterte: “With you in front of me, I will be the most courteous, ever the most con…condescending president” — reportedly sounding unsure about the second adjective.

Whatever the President wanted to convey in some of his misunderstood statements, we believe he is just overworked and needs some rest – especially with a tough diplomatic assignment facing him next month.

His meetings with Trump in Danang (Vietnam) and later in Manila will be closely watched, if only because of reported concerns in the US President’s camp that criticisms of Duterte’s brutal drug war could rub off on him.

Malacañang had leaked a transcript of their phone conversation in April wherein Trump supposedly voiced approval of the drug war that has had thousands of drug suspects gunned down by the police without due process.

The White House has announced that Trump is scheduled to participate in the Special Gala Celebration Dinner for the 50th ASEAN anniversary and celebrate the 40th anniversary of US-ASEAN relations at the US-ASEAN Summit, and sit down for talks with Duterte.

• How to fund free college for Filipinos

“KUNG gusto, may paraan.” (“If there’s a will, there’s a way”) That’s an old saying whose truth was proven again with the approval of the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act” (RA 10931) and the sourcing of the P40 billion needed for it.

The bill initially ran into rough sailing. The country’s economic managers themselves seemed at a loss as to where to get the money to carry out its laudable objective of providing free tertiary or college education to qualified Filipinos.

Until last August, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno was saying some P100 billion was needed. Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia shared fears that the big recurring expense would be “unsustainable over time.”

At some point, President Duterte himself toyed with the idea that the P678-million budget of the Commission on Human Rights be tapped to provide free college education – after the House of Representatives slashed it to P1,000 in a moment of insanity.

Reason prevailed eventually, and on Aug. 3, the President was presented the enrolled copy of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, passed by both houses of Congress, and he signed it into law.

RA 10931 provides for tuition-free education in 114 State Universities and Colleges, 16 Local Universities and Colleges accredited by Commission on Higher Education and 122 Technical-Vocational Institutions under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.

The idea of free college education for the deserving was pushed by Sen. Bam Aquino, the bill’s principal sponsor in the Senate, as part of his advocacy for the youth and for education.

The senator’s persistence was matched in the House by another youthful legislator, Rep. Karlo Alexei B. Nograles (1st Dist., Davao), who at 42, chairs the powerful Committee on Appropriations.

Anticipating the bill’s passage by the Congress and its signing by the President, Nograles combed the previous year’s budget for likely sources of the needed funds. His hawk eyes fell on the unused money from 2016 of three underperforming agencies.

The three are the departments of information and communications, transportation, and agrarian reform, which have been described as “low in absorptive capacity” and “sluggish in the enforcement of projects and programs.”

Nograles “found” at least P37.5 billion unused by the three departments, which he said could be a “standby fund” once the free college education program is fully implemented.

He also saw in the Departments of Information and Communications outlays unused appropriations of P2.7 billion in 2016 and another P2.695 billion in 2017 – both of which he doubted could be utilized before the end of the year.

The proposed 2018 national budget is P3.767 trillion, which is 12.4 percent bigger than the 2017 budget. It is 21.6 percent of the gross domestic product.

As in previous national budgets, education gets the biggest chunk, with P691.1 billion broken down into: Department of Education, P613.1 billion; Commission on Higher Education, P13.5 billion, and State Universities and Colleges, P64.6 billion.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 22, 2017)

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