This interview was conducted by Asia Times correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian in English and Filipino on December 10, 2022, at the office of Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso at Manila City Hall. This is the second of two parts. Read part one here.
Richard Heydarian: You made headlines recently by openly seeking Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s endorsement and stating your doubts about the need for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of his bloody drug war in recent years. Can you explain your stance on the drug war and the ICC issue?
Isko: The drug war will continue. [Illegal] drugs are the enemy of the state – and the society. It destroys the society. In our time it’s not really acceptable, there is no elbow room here. Yet, there are so many ways to address it based on my own experience in the streets (when I lived in the slums).
As you can see in Manila, we apprehend them [drug suspects], we continue to believe in the [judicial] system, and send them [drug suspects] to the courts. In the meantime, I will confiscate the drugs on the streets, and apprehend those involved, regardless of whether they are rich kids, connected people and background.
If you notice, I don’t like [the] death penalty. This is because I believe in the protection [and sanctity] of life. Certainly, we have to make sure that our justice system is fair, so that innocent people are not victimized. True, it [justice system] may not be a perfect system, but I continue to believe in due process. Rule of law will be observed, and rights will be protected [under my presidency].
Heydarian: Clearly, the Philippines has an imperfect justice system. Judges are overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases, prisons are at overcapacity and there is systemic underinvestment and corruption. What’s your stance on judicial reforms?
Isko: It’s high time for us to meet halfway with the judicial leadership in order to reform our system. We need to ensure swift delivery of justice based on due process, so that innocent [accused] individuals don’t linger in courts for years. As a professor of mine [based on a popular jurisprudential viewpoint] said, “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that 1 innocent person is convicted.”
I think the judicial system needs the support of the chief executive [president]. They know better than me the specifics of the problem, and I will continue to believe in them, and support them in our little ways. Swift, fair, humane and proper justice. This is what we need.
Any judge would want the same. The problem is that our judges and our small courts are overwhelmed. So we need to do something about it.
Heydarian: Are you open to assistance from overseas? Say, the European Union and other international partners, providing capacity-building assistance and aiding overall judicial reform in the Philippines?
Isko: I’m willing to sit down, listen and help figure out the best solutions. We need to create the impression that there is rule of law in the Philippines, that the country is certain, predictable. This is important for attracting investments and raising business confidence. More business, more jobs.
Heydarian: The Philippines has been in the midst of a devastating pandemic, triggering five quarters of recession. Many Filipinos are worried about the economy. What is your plan to get the Philippines back on its feet?
Isko: We need to focus on the micro-economic situation of every family. Here in Manila we have programs focused on mitigation of the negative impacts of the pandemic on ordinary residents.
For instance, we have introduced tax cuts in order to cushion residents, even if this deprives the government of much-needed fiscal resources. This is important to regenerate consumption and economic activity, too. It’s important for people to feel that the government listens to them and is cognizant of their predicament.
For us to be competitive again in the region, we need to address our [very high] utility costs. Our foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow is very small compared to our neighbors. So clearly we need to create conditions that attract foreign investors.
After all, we have a very talented labor force, our people are hospitable, we speak English as our second language, we can adjust easily [to international corporate culture], so clearly we have a competitive advantage that needs to be fully optimized.
If low labor cost is the way to get in the investors, then so be it. This is about the principle of delayed gratification: We need to bring in investments first to create jobs, to empower people and get the economy going. Jobs are extremely important.
This is what I learned from my years in the streets [when I lived in the slums]: When folks have jobs, they won’t cause problems for the community. Whether educated or uneducated – like me back in the days – what’s important for us is to have something to survive. I think it’s high-time also to revisit our investment rules [in the constitution].
Heydarian: So you are open to amending the 1987 Constitution in order to make it less restrictive for foreign investment? Are you going to push for it under your presidency?
Isko: That’s why we have the legislature. That’s why we elect congressmen and senators so that our law can adapt to the demands of time. Thanks to legal reforms, for instance, we were able to improve and upgrade our telecommunications sector in the past.
So clearly we need to revisit our regulations in order to adapt to the times. We can’t live in the past, 50 years ago, 30 years ago. We need to wake up. We need to move forward from the past. There are things we need to revisit.
In my first two years of administration, what I will focus on is life and livelihood. We will continue good policies, including the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure plan of the Duterte administration. After all, taxpayers shouldered the cost. We need certainty. We need predictability.
This is the way to attract foreign investors. We need to be more liberal, dynamic and forward-looking in interpretation of our rules so that we can become more competitive. This doesn’t mean selling our souls to foreign investors but instead making sure we make the most out of available opportunities.
I’m for anything that creates growth for Filipinos. Anything that will help continue and sustain the sovereignty of our country in the eyes of the world – I’m for it. Whatever we can build together with the international community – I’m for it.
It’s always about growth, always about results [to me]. For me, the question always is: “What is our country to benefit from dealing with the world?” It’s high time to leverage our geographic location. I don’t have to have a PhD in geopolitics in order to know this. Sometimes, common sense alone is enough.
Heydarian: Last question, can you tell us why voters should choose you above all other candidates?
Isko: To be fair, they [other candidates] all have their own experience. It’s just that when you look at our country’s demographics, the majority are from a class [working class and poor] that I hailed from. From time immemorial, the era of Julius Caesar and our forefathers, governance has always been about serving the people.
But for you to be able to serve people effectively, you need to understand the realities on the ground. Imagine if you’re surrounded by technocrats and scientists, how can you [as the president] make sure that proposed policies are what will truly be practicable and benefit the ordinary people.
I have nothing against smart and successful people who rose based on their own merit, let me be clear. But those sons and daughters who are presumed to be competent just because their fathers were political leaders, even if they were nowhere to be found during crises – that’s scary to me.
At the same time, we also don’t need candidates who are only committed to being in the opposition. Being part of the government is about working together beyond ideological divides and partisanship.
In my case, I always try to listen carefully so that when it comes to decision-making we can make the right decisions. This is what we did in Manila, which used to be a very chaotic city but is now very competitive in the country and regionally. We always make sure that we’re prepared for all contingencies. We invest in our people.
After all those years of service [as city councilor, vice-mayor and now mayor], I believe I have accomplished something. This is why I have been saying I want to accomplish in the country what I have been able to accomplish in Manila.
I don’t believe in just PR. I don’t believe in empty posturing and just showing up at public events for the sake of picture-taking or claiming that something is being done [for the community].
Nevertheless, leadership is also about recognizing your mistakes and shortcomings, while standing your ground when necessary. For instance, there are policies of current President Rodrigo Duterte that I agree with, but I also disagreed with many of his policies.
Ultimately, I’m an open book. People can check my track record and performance. This is not about choreography and becoming the ‘perfect candidate.’ This is about actual performance and what we can accomplish together.
Heydarian: What about your administration? Will it be based on meritocracy and competence?
Isko: Very important good question. Look at our City Hall here in Manila. Most people working here are holdovers from [previous administrations and] rivals. I kept them, even if most of them didn’t vote for me. I chose them based on merit, skills, but you also have to exercise leadership and provide them guidance.
I do believe it’s high time for the younger generation to participate in governance, not only in elected office but also in the bureaucracy. In Manila City Hall, up to 40% of our staff are from the younger generation. This way, we better reflect the demographic diversity of our constituency. With due respect to our elders, we will also engage them to draw on their wisdom.
My great blessing in life is that I have always been surrounded by wiser elders, who provided guidance and support. We can craft our policies by combining our experience and knowledge from different generations.
Follow Richard Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian