MANILA // Within hours of being sworn in as the 15th president of the Philippines, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino held his first cabinet meeting to draw up a list of priorities his new government will address in a country blighted by poverty, massive corruption and debt.
Earlier, in a short inaugural address, Mr Aquino said: "Clean and honest governance will start with me and the cabinet." More than 500,000 people packed into the park around the Quirino Grandstand that backs onto Manila Bay to witness the inauguration of the 50-year-old bachelor. He promised the Filipino people to "clean up corruption" and tackle the country's deep-rooted poverty. The World Bank estimates that 28 million of the country's 92 million people live on less than one US dollar (Dh3.67) a day.
Mr Aquino said he would restore respectability to the country while making the Philippines a better place for investors. "My government will craft policies and incentives aimed at building up investor confidence. We will be a predictable and consistent place for investment, a nation where everyone will say, 'it all works'," Mr Aquino said. A recent survey of expatriate business executives by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy said the Philippines, India and Indonesia were cited as the parts of Asia with the most inefficient bureaucracies, with red tape a constant blight to citizens and a deterrent to foreign investment.
"The government goes through the motion of addressing problems of bureaucratic red tape but nothing has really made a dent in the problem," the consultancy said. Mr Aquino has said he will implement stable economic policies to level the playing field for investors and make government an enabler and not a hindrance to business. He has also been quoted as saying: "Under my watch there will be no more influence-peddling, no more patronage politics, no more stealing, no more short cuts, no more bribes."
Peter Wallace, a consultant to dozens of international corporations who has been in the Philippines for more than 30 years, said: "President Aquino has to move swiftly and decisively in his first 100 days in office to show the public that he means business. "If you set a tone, people believe you can get other things done, and this builds confidence." Astro del Castillo, a director of the Association of Stock Market Analysts of the Philippines, told ABS-CBN television that there may be "a bit of euphoria" when the stock market resumes trading today.
"The market will still be influenced by overseas markets, but at least in early trading, investors will be positively reacting to the new sheriff in town." Most commentators, however, say corruption will be Mr Aquino's biggest challenge. During the nine years of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidency, the Philippines has consistently scored poorly in the Corruption Perception Index, a global survey conducted annually by the Berlin-based civil society group Transparency International. The organisation's co-founder Michael Hershman said in Manila recently that Mr Aquino will "need to run after and jail corrupt officials in order to prove to the world that the Philippines is indeed headed for change".
Ben Diokno, a former budget secretary and economic professor at the University of the Philippines, said corruption has meant a decline in direct foreign investments, with investors preferring other countries in the region such as Vietnam. The country's largest business group, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, wasted little time yesterday and issued a statement saying it was seeking a meeting with the new president to pitch its "wish list" for his first 100 days in office.
The chamber president, Francis Chua, told local television: "Business views positively Mr Aquino's pronouncements that his government will create policies that will restore confidence among investors, and put the country back on the radar of both local and foreign companies wanting to establish their businesses here. "Improving the investment climate and infrastructure and levelling the playing field on business were particularly impressive as statements that investors need to hear from the new leader."
A member of the best known and revered political dynasties, Mr Aquino said: "People walk behind us [the Aquinos] dreaming today that dream starts. "And with the people's support we can make that happen." Mr Aquino's father, also Benigno, was the country's opposition leader when he was assassinated at Manila international airport in 1983 leaving his widow, Corazon, to carry the opposition flag. Corazon Aquino, who died of cancer late last year, led a non-violent people-power revolution that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and restored democracy to the country.