Noynoy, A Thoughtful, Pragmatic Leader

This article was written by Karim Raslan for The Jakarta Globe last March 04, 2010.    Reading this made me even more resolute in my decision to vote for Noynoy Aquino as President.  Read on…

Having lived through the interminable Bank Century crisis, Indonesians will know that three weeks is a very long time in politics.

The Philippines is little different. Over the past 21 days I’ve watched as Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the front-running presidential contender, has patiently taken charge of what was initially a ramshackle campaign.

With his running mate Senator Mar Roxas (yet another scion of a political dynasty), he has imposed some order on what had been a disparate if well-meaning collection of NGO activists, academics, Liberal party apparatchiks and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo “haters.”

In so doing, Noynoy has revealed three important character traits: a quiet determination and self-confidence, an inherently rational and deliberate mindset and a determination not to become indebted to entrenched business and political interests.

Meeting Noynoy on the campaign trail in Tacloban, Leyte — the hometown of Imelda Marcos , whose husband Ferdinand was the nemesis of the Aquinos — I was pleasantly surprised by how considered and thoughtful he was. Contrary to what many think, Cory’s son is a pragmatic and process-driven leader.

However, there’s no denying that the nature of his sudden ascent into the political stratosphere initially obscured these qualities — he was propelled into the limelight by his mother Cory Aquino’s death from cancer last year.

Moreover, the Aquino legacy fell onto his shoulders at an opportune moment, just as the republic was gearing up for its next presidential election. His dignity while the nation was mourning attracted a great deal of positive comment.

The dramatic wave of grief also meant many underestimated him. Having experienced the family’s tragedies — he was 23 when his father, Benigno Jr., was gunned down on the Manila airport tarmac in 1983 — Noynoy was a reluctant candidate. Moreover , he narrowly survived an assassination attempt during his mother’s administration in which three of his bodyguards were killed. A bullet from the attack remains lodged in his throat.

In person, Noynoy is approachable and straight-forward. There is nothing remotely “princely” about him. When asked to expand on earlier comments about his “open skies” policy for the Philippines, he explained the rationale step by step.

“My central concern is the welfare of my people. They need jobs. Our manufacturing industry has withered away. The toothpaste and shampoo we use is even imported from Thailand!” he said.

“So what are our options?” he asked. Business process outsourcing, he noted, and “tourism are critical growth areas. Take a look at Leyte and Samar. The hotels aren’t as good as they should be and the infrastructure is poor.

“I’m struck by Bali’s example. Here’s an island destination that’s gone from a few hundred thousand visitors to three million in part because of an open-skies policy. We need to adopt the same approach in the Philippines. We need to make it easier for tourists to visit, improve our roads and airports.”

He was equally blunt when asked about his country’s many millions of overseas foreign workers.
“Yes, they send back billions of pesos (currently $1.5 billion per month),” he said. “However, there is a social cost of having so many families split up, what with children growing up without their parents.
“We need to create these jobs at home. We need to work to lower electricity tariffs, improve infrastructure and impose the rule of law.”

As a close neighbor of China and a long-term ally of the United States, Noynoy adopted a conciliatory position:
“We have to find a way of maintaining our old friend [the United States] while working together with emerging powers in a win-win manner. I think Chinese corporations have realized the complexity of the Filipino market after the problems over ZTE,” he said, noting a messy scandal involving Arroyo’s husband and ZTE, a Chinese company that was to provide a national broadband network for the country before the dirty dealing came to light.

Noynoy has certainly benefited from the family legacy. However, it would be unwise to think that he lacks substance and ideas. Despite his undoubted pedigree, life has been tough and traumatic for the 50-year-old candidate.

It has hardened and prepared him for what is a very bitter electoral contest with the billionaire property tycoon, Manuel Villar. If he does emerge as the victor at the polls on May 10, his integrity and intelligence may well propel the Philippines forward and surprise its neighbors.

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