Thu, 02 Feb 2023

THE WEEK closed with the proposed "sovereign wealth fund" making headlines, with stories based mainly on what Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno had to say about it - that it was proposed during the Duterte administration and has now received the go-signal of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The bill was filed by two members of the Marcos family: the President's cousin and Speaker of the House Martin Romualdez and the President's son, Sandro, Representative of the 1st District of Ilocos Norte and Senior Deputy Majority Leader of House. "Maharlika," the name given the fund recalls the popular use of the Filipino term during Marcos Sr.'s regime to project the supposed noble origins of Philippine society, a perception which pre-occupied First Lady Imelda Marcos. The bill was passed at the committee level on December 1.

News was not clear about the real point of the proposal. But journalists should be alert to the possibilities for the misuse of those funds. Where there is rampant corruption, such sovereign funds are likely to create opportunities for their misuse by those in power, as shown recently in Malaysia.

Interestingly, Sen. Imee Marcos, the president's sister, told the media in an ambush interview on December 2 that she has reservations about the proposal, referring to the Malaysia experience. Citing Norway as an example, she added that a sovereign fund is usually established when a country has excess profits, which the Philippines does not currently have. Sen. Marcos also questioned the timing, citing the country's huge debt, and forecasts of a global recession.

Felipe Medalla, governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), also cautioned against establishing a sovereign wealth fund. Also citing Malaysia's experience, Medalla raised concerns about governance issues and the possible effect of the fund on the independence of the country's central bank.

All through the week however, concerns about the high cost of food products and disruptions in the supply chain bound the news to concerns about hunger during the holidays.

President Marcos has spoken often enough about it in venues which included the UN General Assembly in September and more recently at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. Speaking as concurrent Agriculture Secretary, his speeches seem scripted, with his claims about lowering the price of rice sounding like no more than wishful thinking. His words suggest that the President does not really understand the policy issues that hold back agricultural productivity, not to mention the urgent actions that need to be taken to alleviate the massive disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Visualized by photo ops, however, it has fallen on media to amplify the PR effort to project a narrative of success in the making.

His November 29 visit to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Laguna was a front page story for some Manila broadsheets; The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, and Manila Standard all featured a photo from his father's album, standing with then President Lyndon Johnson and IRRI officials when Johnson visited the institution in 1966. Marcos posed with IRRI officials, sans a US President.

Speaking to the media in a press briefing at IRRI, Marcos said he appreciated the available technology and initiatives that farmers can utilize to increase rice productivity. Journalists picked up two soundbites. First, Marcos expressed his aspiration that, "with luck," Filipinos will see lower prices of goods and fuel this Christmas. Second, he has "goals" to finish in the Department of Agriculture (DA), and that he won't leave his post until these are done.

The media did not ask the President what his government was doing to bring down prices, apart from his wishing for hope and luck. Some online reports, among them GMA News and Rappler, correctly pointed out that he did not elaborate on the goals he wanted to achieve before replacing himself as head of the DA.

Marcos did add that he has been considering candidates for the position, indicating he was thinking about the issue. But he said the list of candidates changes constantly, as some names get dropped while others are added. Media quoted the banal remark without question.

For further visualization, Marcos' visit to a "Kadiwa sa Pasko" store launched by the Quezon City Government gained the lead in newscasts last December 1. This time his statement recalled the original purpose of Kadiwa stores, which he said was to connect producers to markets in far-flung areas. No one asked why he needed Kadiwa. The stores were showcased during his father's time but whether these fulfilled its purpose was not looked into by the compliant press at the time. The son's attempt to burnish his father's performance record or to conceal his present inadequacies are little more than publicity efforts. Sadly, the media today seem just as willing to play the PR game for the son as the crony press did for his father.

Philstar.com pointed out that during the launch in Quezon City, Marcos repeated words that he had already said about getting closer to the promise of rice at the price of PHP20. The report added that the claim had already been panned by critics as implausible, citing current market prices at PHP 38 to 50 per kilo as of November 30. This is a long way off from the targeted PHP 20. CMFR had cheered a TV5 explainer that provided the same critical analysis.

Rey Gamboa, columnist for The Philippine Star, noted challenges to sustaining rice stocks, especially if Kadiwa stores draw from buffer stocks of grain meant for calamities and emergencies. Gamboa said that "At face value, the Kadiwa sa Pasko is a shortsighted public relations idea, and the money spent on it could have been better used to fund programs that will further improve rice production. Only then can we believe that a P20 per kilo rice can soon be a reality."

Rising costs of other products

Other products that have been steadily rising in cost were also reported this week, but not with the same prominence as Marcos' public appearances, particularly in newspapers. Notably, Marcos has not said anything about any of these products, seemingly oblivious of these other agricultural matters. For all his hype about rice, Marcos has not produced any real benefits in terms of making rice affordable to the public in any sustainable way. What can be expected about the surge in the prices of eggs or onions?

Journalists reported the increase of red onion prices to PHP 300 per kilo and the looming increase in egg prices , which is now at PHP 210 from its previous price of PHP 180 for small-sized eggs. TV Patrol cited a study by GlobalProductPrices.com that identified the Philippines as the country with the most expensive onions. The Department of Agriculture (DA) said it is still checking what is causing the price surge.

The Bureau of Animal Industry was also cited in several reports as saying that the pork supply slightly declined for the remaining days of the year. With the DA claiming more than enough pork supplies, 24 Oras featured consumers complaining of high prices and pork vendors lamenting the decline in pork sales.

Meanwhile, frozen imported salmon and pompano were initially banned for sale in wet markets, based on a 1999 administrative order. Reports said the Office of the Ombudsman ordered a probe as to why the implementation has been delayed for more than 20 years. But Nazario Briguera, Chief Information Officer of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), told TV Patrol that the campaign to ban has only been intensified because markets have been saturated with salmon and pompano that are intended only for institutional buyers. Vendors speaking to the media appealed that they be allowed to sell salmon and pompano until the end of the year, much later than the BFAR's December 4 deadline for selling all remaining stocks. BFAR later withdrew its ban order.

Media have not done well to connect the dots about the current deficiencies in the food market. Reporters seem perfectly willing to tag along in Marcos' forays into the field of photo ops and official soundbites - all of which do little to put more food on the table of the great number of Filipinos waiting for the fulfilment of the promise of affordable rice.

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