Office of the Vice President
31 May 2017
Keynote Message at the Integrity Forum – Launch of Seal of Honesty Certification, Shangri-la Hotel, Makati City, 31 May 2017
Commissioner Cesar “Billy” Dulay of the BIR, Mr. Mon Abrea, President of the Center for Strategic Reforms, Mr. Peter Perfecto, Vice President of the Integrity Initiative, Mr. Ed Chua, of the Makati Business Club, friends from the business community, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat. Good morning!
Last Saturday, I visited the farthest and poorest municipality in my district, which I served when I was still a member of the House of Representatives. Punta Tarawal is one hour away from Naga City, and the last stretch of the journey is a 10-minute boat ride from Barangay Balongay.
This barangay is situated at the mouth of San Miguel Bay, near the banks of the Bicol River and still inaccessible by land because there are no roads. When it rains heavily, the entire barangay goes underwater and men survive by hanging on to trees swaying in the wind. On regular rainy days, children studying in the only school in the area, which was already severely dilapidated, are submerged up to their knees. I’ve been to Punta Tarawal many times in the last four years, and I have always dreamt of a school for the many children I have met there. Last Saturday, my wish came true.
AGAPP Foundation, which is short for Aklat, Gabay, Aruga, Tungo sa Pag-Angat At Pag-Asa, along with Golden ABC Penshoppe, Matimco, and Boysen, built a very beautiful, two-story building in Punta Tarawal, that can also serve as an evacuation center during storms. It had PVC windows, wooden accents, and sturdy walls that can survive typhoons. They said it was the most expensive they had built so far. Roberto Bayonito, the District Supervisor of DepEd assigned to Punta Tarawal Elementary School, told the whole barangay in an emotion-laden address, of how it has taken a long time to request for one teacher per grade level. As of now, they only have three teachers handling seven grade levels from kinder until Grade Six.
The residents of Punta Tarawal live a hard life, like many of those who live in remote and poor towns across our archipelagic country. But their stories of poverty, suffering, and missed opportunities are not unique. So many of our people are in dire need of better schools, more farm-to-market roads, sturdy bridges, quality highways, and well-functioning airports, among others. They also need hospitals and doctors, well-trained teachers, and disaster response teams. The needs of any nation with a growing population like ours are huge, and resources are—always—not enough.
Taxes can ease the suffering of our people. Let me qualify that: HONEST payment of taxes can adress the needs of our people, especially those in the fringes of society. Those who, for the longest time, have been voiceless and powerless. Those living among the last, the least, and the lost.
In areas where progress is concentrated, like Metro Manila and Cebu, the private sector often finds it worthwhile to go into businesses that improve the quality of our people’s lives. Say, for instance, building schools and hospitals. But in places like Punta Tarawal, residents are fully dependent on government. The government, in turn, is highly dependent on tax collections. And tax collections are highly dependent on the honesty of individuals and corporations.
“But what of honesty in government?” our people ask. I often hear both individuals and business owners say that it is difficult to pay the right amount of taxes, when they see government officials use their hard-earned money to line their own pockets. Corruption and dishonesty cause a downward spiral from loss of trust to poor revenue collection to poor government services. Ultimately, it leads to more suffering on the ground.
This is why we can’t do business as usual. We have to unlock our people’s ability to trust in our processes, if not in our people. We have to find a way to give everyone a voice in decision-making and policy-making, so that they can trust the projects they help create. And we have to make them understand that even as we fight for good governance, accountability, and transparency, we also have to look within ourselves and make sure our behavior is not an impediment to our nation’s growth. After all, governance is not just about government. It is also about our engagement with the government. Good governance is always a two-way street and it requires a lot of patience, trust, and good will on both sides.
You see, no government anywhere in the world gets perfect marks for demonstrating full accountability to its people. And we cannot deny that our government, at various points in our nation’s history, has been considered one of the most corrupt in Asia, and at times, even the world. But we cannot wait for our corruption ranking to get better, before we pay the right amount of taxes. Because our people are suffering. They cannot afford the delay of firetrucks or ambulances or doctors or schools, among other things.
And yet, it goes against common sense for both individuals and businessmen to keep on funding corruption and government officials’ personal excesses. The capital, energy, and expertise needed in building a business, keeping it alive, and ensuring its sustainable success takes a lot of long hours, dedication, and hard work. Why must businesses absorb the costs of corruption?
The Seal of Honesty Certification seems to be an innovation that can get us out of this dilemma, and we laud CSR Philippines for this unique and out-of-the-box approach. It allows government to create a bridge of trust and good will that paves the way for honesty in tax payments.
Imagine what will happen if our small to big corporations, our professionals and our businessmen, truly adopt a culture of honesty and integrity in their tax payment behavior? Perhaps that might even allow areas like Punta Tarawal to have its own hospital, its own high school—even perhaps wifi, which is now seemingly the sixth item in Maslow’s heirarchy of needs.
The problem is that our total tax revenues as a percent of gross domestic product has remained very low compared with other countries around the world. At 16.2% in 2013, it is only half of the 34.1% average reported by OECD countries.
As you launch this program, I am sure that there will be many areas for improvement. I am definite that there will be times when your resolve will be challenged. We encourage you to collaborate and to ensure that all voices are heard. Remember that our goal is not just to increase revenue collection, but to help those in the fringes of society. Improving their lives will ensure inclusive growth, something that will benefit not just the poor, but also those of you whose businesses expand as the economy expands. Taxes CAN be a tool for inclusivity.
As you work on this reform, we will also continue our work. That of bringing urgent help to those who have been left behind by progress. There are many private organizations in our country that are filling in the gaps in government’s expenditure program, and some of these organizations are funded by your company’s corporate social responsibility programs. So, thank you. Your CSR work highlights the value of citizenship and the beauty of collaboration.
At the Office of the Vice President, our contribution is called the Angat Buhay: Partnerships Against Poverty program, and although our budget is very small, our partners who are working with us have been very generous with their expertise, resources, and help. From 50 municipalities around the country when we launched in October, we have expanded to 127 of the farthest and poorest muncipalities around the country.
To be honest and candid with you, it is when we visit our Angat Buhay sites every week that we feel so fired up with purpose and hopeful for our nation’s future. I am able to tune out the political noise and focus on the work of helping the poor and the marginalized. This is not, strictly speaking, a part of the official mandate as Vice President. But even from the very beginning of our term, we have decided not to limit ourselves to the ceremonial nature of our job. We wanted to make a real difference, to leave a legacy of positivity and hope, and a culture of honesty and integrity among our people.
We truly believe that when we all do our part, the stories of poverty, suffering, and missed opportunities of people who live in places like Punta Tarawal will no longer haunt our people for so long. But this beautiful vision will require action not just from the government side, but from you, and from every individual out there on the street this morning. It will take consolidated efforts of all of us, for our country to reach its full potential.
So, thank you very much for having me today. May your program be successful and may all our partners embrace a culture of honesty and integrity.
Maraming salamat po. Magandang umaga muli sa inyong lahat.