ESQ: This will be your second term, if ever. What are your biggest accomplishments in the Senate?
SA: In the last two or three years, there are reforms that really stood out that will really help the country move forward. The first is the Free College Law and the second is the Universal Health Bill.
I think with the Philippines having the youngest population in Asia, it’s really an opportunity for us to propel ourselves about where we are now, what kind of a midland economy. But, for that to work, we’ll need more investment. Make them smart, make the young people healthy. There’s a massive opportunity to leverage on something good.
As a complement to that, you need a better environment. So, I appreciate the Build, Build, Build initiative of the administration to put in the infrastructure. When I talk of Build, Build, Build, it’s not just hard infrastructure, it’s not just road and bridges. It’s also things like school, you know. And financial systems, things which are softer infrastructure. Human infrastructure, I think that’s a better term. You’re preparing them for a better future.
In my second term, I want to work on something like “Made in the Philippines,” “Tatak Pinoy.” Sounds a bit corny but parang there’s no more pride in something that’s made in the Philippines. There’s a number of purposes behind it. You want to have the pride in being Filipino again, and I think that will bring out a kind of pride and unity in a sense because it's highly divided. We have these colored groups. You’re in this color, you’re in this part of the political spectrum.
That’s something that can unite us. Because, even at the national level, it's made in the Philippines, but also at the local level. You go to the province. You go to Laguna, Davao, or Zamboanga. You ask what is the skill set up there or what’s the unique selling proposition. Is it tourism, services, something like that? It’s going to be a huge effort on our part.
ESQ: What kind of legislation will you need to achieve that? What kind of laws will you need to pass?
SA: For that, it’s how to encourage certain types of investment or how to encourage innovation, for instance. The economy is growing, but incomes are not growing that dramatically. And if you look at countries that have done it or maybe the so-called miracle economies in the region [like] Korea or Singapore, they’ve done it through innovation, so somewhere along the line put innovation and tech.
So, legislations and policies. But someone has to be the kind of—because we’re so scattered like islands and our industries don’t talk to each other even within industries. Like within cement industry or skill industry, I notice from my travels that they don’t talk to each other that much and talk to the government and say this is what we need to grow. Wala talaga tayo ganun. So, maybe someone has to reach out and talk to each other.
ESQ: Which priority areas are you looking at?
SA: Definitely low-hanging fruit there like tourism. Maybe enough of the tingi-tingi that we’ll do small airports here and there. There will be some; there has to be a larger-scale type. We’re falling behind in tourism in the region, and it’s the world’s fastest growing industry and we’re not taking advantage of it. Clearly, domestic tourism is massive. It's growing but yung influx of foreign [tourists], we’re missing out on that.
"The tax reform had to be done because we had a lot of young working people paying a huge percentage of their income to the government in the form of income taxes, PhilHealth, Pag-Ibig."
ESQ: What about TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) Law?
SA: I think that’s a good one also. Tax reform is something that’s needed to be done.
ESQ: Do you consider it one of your biggest accomplishment in your first term as senator?
SA: I think, I might have if the prices didn’t spike so much. But nagkataon na the excise tax came along with the global spike in fuel prices. So, that one kind of dampened [it].
Right now, the jury is still out. In a few years we’ll see how TRAIN was because, in 2021 and 2022, there’s another round of income tax cuts. No one’s talking about that and no one’s talking. And if you look at the figures NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) released yesterday or two days ago, 2015 to 2018 there’s like a seven percent decrease in the poverty incidence level.
I think we’re on the right track in the sense that, if you do educational reforms and health reforms, those are things that will really impact the poor people. The lack of education [and] getting sick can totally destroy a lower middle class family—wipe out your savings. So, those things in the long run will put us on the right track, although it’s a severe fiscal challenge for the government kasi patong-patong yan.
This year pa lang we have another million students coming in. We have to fund first year, second year, third year, fourth year. That’s the challenge going forward. Hindi masyado napag-uusapan where we’ll get the money. It’s difficult. My role is to find money for these things. That’s the difficult part of my tenure as senator.
But in the end, we made a good decision. The tax reform had to be done because we had a lot of young working people paying a huge percentage of their income to the government in the form of income taxes, PhilHealth, Pag-Ibig. Halos four percent ng kita dun napupunta. And if you’re a teacher earning P16,000 or P18,000 per month, that’s a huge chunk. There’s nothing really left at the end.
For me, that was one thing I wanted to do from the get go as a senator. Maybe two years to put more money in the pockets of the people. And I think, it’s the first time the government gave back money of this magnitude to the people. We had 120 billion pesos in one year, and it’s going to keep increasing. And yet the government is providing more social services like education and health care. So, ang hirap talaga gawin nun. I think in a sense, it’s underappreciated.
But I think—going back to the issue of infrastructure, soft infrastructure, helping people—we might miss the essence of these reforms like free education. It’s not enough that everyone’s in a school. We should make sure that they learn and that they make something of that education. I think in the next six years, we should look at the quality of the education.
There’s a finding released by Philippine Business for Education that reading comprehension is way down, and the challenge for businesses is finding people with the right skills. So, that’s all connected, because we’re saying, “Oh high school is free, kindergarten is free, college is free, we’ve solved the education problem.”
Actually no, you’ve given rise to a whole new set of challenges, which is to make sure that your people are good for work for higher paying jobs. There’s a love for learning there. Yun yung mga challenges and maybe it could require education or could require good implementation.