Business World, 17 April 2012
Last Monday, April 16th, some friends of former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada met at the Enderun Colleges to celebrate the launching of a book, Ito ang Pilipino: A Tribute to Joseph Ejercito Estrada. This is part of a week-long celebration of Erap’s diamond year as he turns 75 on April 19th.The book was written, compiled and edited by Margaux Salcedo, Estrada’s official spokesperson.
The contributors to the compendium are a diverse group — former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, President Aquino III, Vice-President Binay, Congressman Manny Pacquiao, businessmen, media people, former showbiz colleagues, former Cabinet members, classmates and others.
Below are excerpts from one of two chapters that I contributed to the book, describing my own view on Estrada’s leadership and management style.
Estrada embraced utilitarianism, in the tradition of philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The core of his governance style is “maximizing the general happiness by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number.”
For a college drop-out, he has demonstrated excellent organizational and management skills far superior to many foreign-trained MBAs. No one in recent Philippine history has successfully mounted a presidential campaign without the support of an existing political party. He put together the Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) and the Jeep ni Erap as his vehicles for the presidency. His overwhelming victory in the 1998 presidential contest against established and traditional politicians required organizational and managerial skills.
After his election to office, he demonstrated once more his organizational and managerial skills by assembling what is arguably the best presidential Cabinet in recent history. Like a skillful maestro, he put together men and women who are among the best in their respective fields, regardless of their political affiliation or personal loyalty. He chose people who voted for him or against him. It didn’t matter. He was totally committed to meritocracy in government.
What emerged came close to a unity government. Former president Ramos’s men were recycled — Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon, Jr., Public Works Secretary Virgilio Vigilar, Labor Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma, and National Security Adviser Alexander Aguirre, to mention a few. Former president Cory Aquino’s men were chosen — DILG Secretary Alfredo Lim, Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara, Jr., DoTC Undersecretary Sonny Coloma, and myself. Academicians like UP School of Economics Dean Felipe Medalla and the late Brother Andrew were appointed as Director-General of the National Economic and Development Authority and Education secretary, respectively. Former Marcos men were recruited too — Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, the late Agrarian Reform Secretary Boy Morales, and Health Secretary Cuasi Romualdez.
After putting in a lot of time and effort in organizing his official family, President Estrada delegated authority, another one of his strong managerial attributes. He empowered his men and women by letting them set goals and implement programs for their respective departments.
For his part, he focused on peace and order and internal security, an area where he excelled under his predecessor. Estrada’s primary goal was to achieve peace and order nationwide, especially in Mindanao, because he believed that peace and order is a prerequisite to economic development.
His willingness to delegate authority to and to consult with his men were signs of maturity and strength. He is more interested in getting things done rather than claiming personal credit for good performance. Moreover, his management style demonstrated the absence of insecurity.
Great men consult with the best minds. For example, during his watch the late president Jack Kennedy consulted with academics from major universities in the Boston Area.
ACHIEVEMENTS IN ECONOMY, BUDGET, GOVERNANCE
Estrada assumed the presidency at the height of the Asian financial crises. But he quickly restored growth. He did his own version of a fiscal stimulus without fanfare. He increased spending in public infrastructure, education and health. In order to perk up spending in the countryside, he ordered the release of the internal revenue allotment (IRA) that were withheld by Mr. Ramos during the first half of 1998, at the height of the Asian financial crises.
As a result, economic growth was restored in 1999 and 2000.
Government expenditure is the primary policy instrument used by government to direct the economy to a path of growth and development.
Estrada knew the importance of starting the fiscal year with an approved budget. And he understood the importance of getting budget priorities right. The Department of Budget and Management worked tirelessly and with the cooperation of Congress, Estrada’s first budget was signed into law on December 30th, a few days before the start of fiscal year 1999.
Mr. Estrada put his money where his priorities were — in social expenditure. Per pupil spending for education, in real terms, was the highest during Mr. Estrada’s term, compared to other post-EDSA 1 presidents, showing his strong commitment to basic education. Real per capita comprehensive (national and local) spending for health was also the highest during the same period.
The combination of a strong fiscal stimulus, higher allocation for public infrastructure, and effective implementation of projects by the veteran and able Public Works Secretary Vigilar, resulted in the highest number of kilometers of roads cemented, corrected for the number of years in office, in recent Philippine history (1983 to 2010).
Agriculture production picked up impressively during Estrada’s watch. Agriculture grew by a record high 12 percent (from -6% to +6.6%) in 20 years, in spite of the effects of the El Niño phenomenon. This was done through higher budget allocation for irrigation and modern seeds and through national-local partnership.
Estrada understood the need to modernize the bureaucracy. He understood that in order to strengthen the fiscal position of the government, it has to raise taxes, prioritize spending, and improve the way public services are delivered.
In order to recover what was lost as a result of tax changes done in 1996 through 1998, the plan was to change the tax system after the 2001 mid-term elections. Sadly, Mr. Estrada’s term was cut short.
Budget priorities were on the right track. The focus was on social services (education, health, social welfare and low-cost housing) and public infrastructure.
Reforms in government were in full blast when the impeachment trial started. Executive orders which became the frontrunners of the Procurement Reform Law were in place. The procurement reform bill was already approved in the House but was stranded in the Senate as a result of the impeachment trial. The procurement reform law was hailed as one of the best pieces of legislation on the subject in the world. Estrada deserves the credit for this landmark legislation.
In his desire to modernize the Philippine bureaucracy, Estrada pushed for the passage of the E-commerce law. The Philippines became only the third country in Southeast Asia with legislation to promote and protect electronic transactions.
With the E-Commerce law, the Philippines become one of very few countries that: first, gives validity and legal recognition to electronic documents, electronic signatures and electronic transactions; second, facilitates the admission of electronic documents and electronic signature as evidence in cases of disputes; third, outlaws and penalizes unauthorized access to information and interference in communications systems; and fourth, calls upon government to formulate and institute programs that are not only supportive of e-commerce but would actually get the government online.
During his truncated term, President Estrada has shown some indications of where this country could have been had he been allowed to finish his term. Potentially, he could have done a much better job than those who preceded, and those who followed, him. But then again, we’ll never know.