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    Open Forum at the Rotary Club Makati West Lunch Meeting

    Philamlife Building, Makati City

    MODERATOR: We have a mic in the middle part of the room. If you have any questions,you may proceed to the mic. It would be nice if you can introduce yourself before asking your question. PP Ed Balois?

    Q #1: Madam Vice President… [technical difficulty]

    MODERATOR: It was purposely turned off, PP Ed. [laughter]

    Q #1: I was silenced, now I can be heard. [laughter] I think you just had a very graphic way of describing the segment of our population that are, according to you, “laylayan,” “nasa laylayan ng lipunan.” I mean, you were describing it, I thought you were describing yourself as well. So my question to you is, how are you coping being made part, or being marginalized, and being made part of that portion of our society “na nasa laylayan ng pulitika”?

    VP LENI: You know, Sir, wherever I go, that’s the question that’s being asked of me: “How are you coping? We hope that you’re okay.” If you noticed, most of my staff are very, very young people—still very idealistic—so what has been happening to our office the day I assumed is really causing stress to so many of our supporters. But I always tell my staff that, you know, there are things we cannot control and things that we can. And because we are only given six years to make a difference, we should focus all our energies to what matters most. There are a lot of things that are happening politically, that really marginalizes not just me but the Office of the Vice President. Just yesterday, I was being asked by people, “How was the State Dinner?” And I was asking them, I was not invited. So they were telling me, “How come?” And I was telling them, “you know, that’s even better,” because in the previous occasions, I would be invited then they would disinvite me.

    But you know, I think those are not the most important things. The most important thing is, given the limitations our office has—not just on resources but on mandate—we are able to transform lives in the best way that we can. We hope that we can do more. There is a lot of suffering and poverty that we see on the ground. And when you visit a community, you do not just answer needs, but you see so much more, and you want to be able to respond to each of those needs, and you realize that you have very limited capability to do so. But because we spend almost half of the time in these very poor communities, whenever I am there, it’s as if all of these things that are happening in our political midst do not matter anymore. I’m just focused on doing whatever I can, in the limited time that I have. That’s what I keep telling my staff, that “let us not be burdened by how we are being treated.” Because it’s not really important. What is important is we are able to do whatever we can.

    Q #1: I’m sure that this is a usual follow-up question after that… [laughter] after that inauguration: Are you running for president? In a way that would make you help not only the “laylayan,” or the fringes of society, but formulate the policies of domestic and foreign?

    VP LENI: Ako kasi, Sir, if you ask me, I think the Presidency is destiny. If you look back in our history, there have been so many people who, you know, who wanted to be president. Who devoted so much of their time, effort, and resources to, you know, to getting that post. Pero wala, eh. Parang… I think it’s destiny. And I think it’s something you cannot plan. And I think that if I entertain such an ambition now, it will affect the way I serve the people, because everything will be political already. Like in Angat Buhay, we go to these very poor communities, and these very poor communities are so far, and there are actually—the population is small. The population is small because it is not accessible, there are not a lot of opportunities there. You know, if I’m looking at the Presidency already in 2022, I won’t go to these places, because I will be wasting so much time and resources; I would go to the poor part of Metro Manila, where the population density is really high. But it’s not… it will be politically feasible for somebody who is aiming for the Presidency to be going to these faraway places. So I think political ambition will mar how… the way I serve the people.

    And looking back also, you know naman that I became a politician by accident. If it were not for the sudden death of my husband, I would not have run for Congress. And when I ran for Congress, the agreement was I would only be there for a term because I was filling in a gap. And then I was pushed for the Vice Presidency, with no money, almost nobody knew me in the start—but I won. I think that is also destiny. I never… It was never in my ambition, not just to become Vice President, but to enter politics, and yet I’m here. So despite the difficulties, I think every day is still a blessing. [applause]

    [moderator calls for 2nd question]

    Q #2: Vice President, Bobby Cabral. Thank you very much, Madam Vice President. Let’s play a “What if”: What if you were in charge? What would be the first thing you will do?

    VP LENI: Given the situation we are [in] now? There are so many things that need to be done. First is to take care of the economy. The figures are not good. We are a big current account deficit, we have a big fiscal deficit. Inflation is at an all-time high from the past nine years. Foreign direct investments are down. If you look at the pledges— The absolute numbers is still up because these are investments that came out of pledges from many years ago, but if you look at the pledges, it’s going down. It’s not all rosy, as they want to perceive it, so it’s one of the things that you have to take care of.

    But what happened during the past two years, there is a lot of shaping up to do, as far as the culture of governance is concerned—bringing back decency to public service, regaining the trust of the people, and unifying the entire Filipino nation. I think we have become so polarized as a people, and it will be difficult for anyone who will govern to govern a very polarized populace. So the next President—even if it’s somebody else—the next President should be a unifying and inspiring figure, so that the polarity of the entire population will merge as one again. It’s very important for government to gain back the trust of the people, for government to implement the programs that they need to implement.

    Q #2: So Madam, your priority will be to restore confidence in our economy, and since your audience is mostly businesspeople, what exactly are the policies needed to address our current economic situation?

    VP LENI: There are several, in the sense that you will ask what has brought us to this point. One of the things is our lack of importance… the lack of importance being given to agriculture. The lack of importance being given to industries that will promote exports. If you look at the import-export gap, it’s really huge, and it’s contributing to the, you know, to the depreciation of our peso. There are really a lot of things. The attention given to—let’s say, war on drugs. There has been a lot of attention being given to the war on drugs. There is nothing wrong with that, but not at the expense of other concerns of government. It’s difficult to say which is the most important, because there are just so many things that need to be done. But really, I think people should be unified. It’s one of the things that has happened in the past several years, that we are so polarized as a nation now. It’s either you’re black or you’re white. And it’s difficult to govern such a population.

    MODERATOR: Gilbert Evaristo?

    Q #3: Madam Vice President. [clears throat] All of a sudden, I lost my voice. [laughter] I do have a specific question: I am an avid business practitioner in the Philippines and in other countries, and so I took very sharp notice of what you had mentioned. It’s just strange that the efforts of the so-called Department of Agriculture has not filtered down there, ‘no. And also that of the… the one on the human services sector? It’s hardly… It looks like it’s unknown to them, what’s happening out there, or they refuse to go there. Of course, it’s a wonderful thing, your efforts these past two and a half years are beginning to bear fruit to the forgotten minorities. And as the Bible says, despite all of this, your problems and all these things will come to pass. Have you asked the Department of Agriculture, in a very direct way, what they’re doing about the livelihood in the outlying areas?

    VP LENI: I’m having some problems with the Department of Agriculture, to be very honest about it. Whenever I go to our communities, there are a lot of concerns—support services needed by the farmers that the Department of Agriculture can provide. I was telling, I think the president, earlier this afternoon that I have been writing the Department of Agriculture on these concerns, and none of the things that I wrote… I never received a reply from them.

    But you know, to be very… [chuckles] to be very candid about it, I think one of the things that the Department of Agriculture has to decide on is, what is really the national policy on agriculture? For so many years, we have been pursuing a rice self-sufficiency policy, and we have not been successful in that regard. In fact, one of the drivers of our inflation was the lack of rice available in the market. If you recall, there was a big debate between the Department of Agriculture and the NFA (National Food Authority), starting last year. NFA wanted to import already; the Department of Agriculture did not want. And yet eventually they imported— At first, they did not want to import because they were saying that we’re 99% self-sufficient already, but it did not seem that way, so belatedly they decided to import. But when they decided to import, it was too late in the day already—prices of rice jacked up already.

    Given our limited capacity, we have been doing a program for farmers, but we’re doing this on a community-by-community basis. Our pilot area is Metro Naga, where I come from, but we’re following the Jollibee model. I don’t know if any of you here is familiar with the Jollibee model, but the Jollibee model is very successful. It’s really training farmers to be entrepreneurs. And if you look at the stories, the anecdotal narrative of our farmers, they are not really a lazy bunch. Most of them would get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and end their day very late in the day. But they receive so little. They receive so little because it’s the middleman who rakes in the profit. The middlemen rake in the profit because they take advantage of the lack of capital of our farmers, the lack of support services that are being given to them.

    So the Jollibee model is doing away with the middleman. It’s bringing the farmers straight to the markets. Jollibee started a program where they started with onions. Before they were importing all the onions that they need for their Jollibee branches. They decided to try sourcing locally, and they found a group of onion farmers in San Jose City in Nueva Ecija. They trained the local farmers to be able to produce the kind of onions that Jollibee wanted to purchase. And the program has been very successful. They did away with the middlemen, trained the farmers to sell to Jollibee directly, the farmers became entrepreneurs themselves. And I visited the farmers’ cooperative dealing with Jollibee, and the stories are really amazing. The incomes of the farmers have grown by leaps and bounds.

    Jollibee helped us start a similar model in Metro Naga. We’re dealing with a local fastfood chain called Biggs. Biggs is the Jollibee in the Metro Naga area. We did a survey: Biggs has been buying all their agricultural requirements from outside the region. Now we entered into a contract with them, and we asked them to buy at least five of their products from our local farmers. We do the training of the farmers, we give them support. The five products are calamansi, ginger, lettuce, sili, and pipino.

    So we’re starting with five products. Aside from Biggs, we organized the local hotels and restaurants in the Metro Naga area and we entered into an agreement with them, that at least for these five products, they will not buy from outside the region anymore. They will buy from the very poor local farmers. We organized, I think 13 groups of poor farmers, and they’re starting to deal with Jollibee and the hotels and restaurants’ group, and you know, the increase in their income has grown by leaps and bounds.

    But you know, these are very parochial, in the sense that it’s ongoing in Metro Naga. While we plan to replicate the successful model in some of our other areas, we have to think of a more comprehensive plan for the entire country. And I think we can only do this if we are willing to invest, if we are willing to invest in agricultural support services, because most of the successful farmers are not really the poorer farmers. The poorer farmers do not have the access to capital, they don’t have access to crop insurance, they don’t own their lands, they don’t own any of the support services that they would require to be able to up their productions, so they would need a lot of hand-holding from government.

    Government is also pursuing some other programs similar to this, but I think they have to decide what the roadmap should be. The last that we learned, it’s still rice self-sufficiency. And we can’t compete with Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand or Vietnam has the Mekong River. They don’t have as much typhoons as we do. So we have really to decide. It’s good that the Rice Tariffication Bill has already been passed in Congress; it should signal a whole new improved route as far as agriculture is concerned.

    Q #3: Thank you, VP. I think you hit it. There is a lack of policy decision and direction, that’s why everything is moving in all directions—[chuckles]—except where it should count. Anyway, I just want to leave you one thought, ano. I think a lot of right-thinking Filipinos have this one un-Christian thought today, and that is: that somebody becomes incapacitated sooner than later. [applause]

    MODERATOR: With that, I have to end the— Okay, last question… The Vice President has another appointment to attend.

    Q #4: This is the most serious question I have to ask today. Are you dating someone, Madam Vice President? [laughter] Are you dating somebody?

    VP LENI: Oh, no. [laughter, cheers]

    Q #4: Can I invite you for dinner? [laughter, cheers]

    VP LENI: Ako, sir, let me qualify. Baka kasi my saying no is may be taken by others as a sort of an invitation. [laughter] I always say no. I’ve had a very good relationship with my husband. We were together for 25 years. The plane crash happened right after we celebrated our silver wedding anniversary. And I always tell people that I’ve had enough love to last me a lifetime. [applause]

    MODERATOR: Well-noted that you had to insist. [laughter] If you’re a true Makati West Rotarian, you will not stop here. [laughter]

    VP LENI: Ano lang, Past President Roque gave me a poem, which he said was written anonymously especially for me. And I will read it before you, and I will have to ask the anonymous poet who did this. But this is “A testament to leadership for Vice President Leni Robredo”:

    “Our guest is an icon of real and true democracy under a leadership that one has to show through diplomacy. A heartbeat away from leading the nation, when people suffer from a weak peso and high inflation.” [laughter] “If true that all is not”—oh, my God—“if all is not well with Duterte, we should not leave it to luck or suwerte.” [laughter] Thus, service above self is how we see our VP, filling the footsteps of a great Mayor Jesse. Mabuhay ang malayang Pilipino. Mabuhay si VP Robredo.” [applause]

    MODERATOR: I wonder who that might be!

    VP LENI: Whoever wrote this, thank you very much.

    [audience reacts]

    MODERATOR: Why did you feel alluded to, PP Fernando? [audience reacts] Okay, with that, President Fernando would like to give a token of appreciation to Vice President Robredo for coming and sharing her time with us today.

    – 30 –

    Posted in Transcripts on Nov 21, 2018