President Benigno S. Aquino III Speech at the Annual Friedrich Naumann Foundation event
Plaza Morionez, Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila
21 January 2016
Over the years of my Presidency, I have enjoyed access to more sources of unfiltered and uneditorialized information. Through this, among other things, I have grown accustomed to the varying interpretations of what it means to be a Liberal. As I understand it, European Liberals favor smaller governments, preferring that individuals be allowed to live their lives with minimal intervention from those in power. We, as an emerging nation, need a more robust government to ensure that our people are able to avail of services that allow them to live with dignity, and with the possibility of advancement. In other countries, being liberal has been equated with progressiveness—which, in more extreme cases, has taken on a rather disruptive character. The quest to shake up the status quo, and to see immediate results, can sometimes take for granted that real, meaningful, sustainable change cannot happen overnight; it often requires tediously chipping away at massive structural injustices that have calcified over generations.

Whatever the differences, it is clear that Liberals all over the world have always stood for freedom: The freedom of the individual to take hold of his own destiny, and to live with dignity as all should. For me, to speak about freedom means to always be reminded of a lesson I learned from my own father. This was at the time of Martial Law in the country—an era defined by oppression and the lack of freedom. We were in exile then in Boston, and in my attempt to understand our predicament, I asked him: “If we are on the side that is right, why are we the ones suffering in exile? Why have so few stood with us against the dictatorship?” My father replied: “The first freedom is freedom from hunger. Without this, all other freedoms are meaningless.”

Another lesson, this time inside a classroom in the Jesuit university that I went to, drove home my father’s point. It took the form of a philosophical question: Stealing is supposed to be wrong—but is the person who stole to feed his starving family, equally guilty as those who still steal out of greed, despite already having all that they need? A distinction emerges: Perhaps there was less freedom of choice for the starving individual, as compared to those who have already satisfied their basic needs.

My years in public service have affirmed and further refined my understanding of these lessons. When a man cannot even be assured of the most basic needs, his entire existence becomes solely focused on survival. Everything else—including reflecting on ideals such as democracy and dignity—is deemed an unattainable luxury, and therefore meaningless as he pursues his next meal.

Freeing our people from hunger thus became one of the most vital imperatives of our administration. The task we set upon was two-fold: To address the immediate needs of the poorest of the population, while working to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that has prevented our people from harnessing their full potential.

This strategy found its embodiment in our Conditional Cash Transfer Program, also known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps. We provided the poorest households cash grants to ensure their most basic needs are met, on the condition that they send their kids to school, and vaccinate them against a menu of preventable diseases, among others. We inherited the program with a mere 786,523 household-beneficiaries, many of whom, according to reports from the field, were just on the list because of political connections. It was a middling program being used as a tool for patronage, with little hope of making a real impact on the lives of the poor.

By the end of this year, 4.6 million households and homeless families will be enjoying the benefits of the CCT program, identified through a non-partisan, scientific process by the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction. We have already finished a second NHTS, our Listahanan 2, to validate the effects of the first. On top of that, we expanded the age of coverage so that students get to finish high school while still under the program, and thus become more employable in the future. Just last April, I attended the first batch of CCT high school graduates: 333,673 students, with 13,469 of them graduating with honors and awards. During the event, they were represented by two valedictorians that got admitted to quota courses at the University of the Philippines’ College of Engineering. Their stories stand as testament to the long-term impact of this program; there is indeed reason to hope that poor Filipinos who might otherwise have no means to fulfill their potential may be able to do so. As early as now, the Listahanan 2 study shows very promising initial results: almost 1.55 million families from our list of beneficiaries, or over 7.7 million individuals, have crossed the poverty threshold.

The power of the CCT is that it frees our people not only from hunger and poverty today. Along with our reforms to empower the education sector, the CCT is freeing our children from ignorance; it is freeing parents to dream of better futures for their kids; and it will free succeeding generations to take hold of the economic opportunities that are opening up at present. Alongside this program, we continue to pursue other initiatives that will allow even more freedoms to our people. We are, for example, freeing the Filipino from vulnerability—from disease, through the PhilHealth program, which now covers 91 percent of the population, I am told, and from disasters, as we strengthen our disaster management protocols, improve our technologies for better forecasting, and build back better areas that have been devastated by calamities or are yet to be visited by calamities.

Freedom from hunger, coupled with increasing opportunities to advance in life, is the foundation upon which we are building a society that allows its citizens to enjoy all other freedoms: the freedom to participate in the market—as part of the labor force, as an owner of a small business, and as a consumer who avails of goods and services in a dynamic economy; the freedom to participate in our democracy, through engaging in the meaningful issues of the day, and through choosing true leaders who embody our national spirit and whose eyes are set firmly on the long-term interests of the nation—not smiling personalities or false prophets, not despots, and not patrons who equate service with favors.

Throughout the years, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has been a vital partner in keeping the flames of freedom burning all over the globe. You entered the Philippines in 1986, when the country had just toppled the dictatorship; the FNF was among those first to demonstrate their commitment to assisting the Filipino as we tried to make the most of our newfound freedom from tyranny. You helped strengthen and refine the institutional knowledge of Liberalism in the country—hand in hand with the party, you ensured that, even as others strived to fight for our freedoms as public servants and advocates, the values, principles, and stories of Liberalism are passed on to the next generation.

Truly, we have come a long way from the days when the Liberals in government were of such a magnitude that, as one legislator joked, we could fit inside a Volkswagen beetle with room to spare. The Liberal Party has flourished, and with your steady partnership, it will continue to flourish in the years to come. I know, for example, that you have been granting fellowships to many of our bright young minds in public service, exposing them to a wider horizon of ideas as they interact with other Liberals in the International Academy for Freedom in Germany. These Filipinos have in turn applied their knowledge back home, rebuilding our institutions, leading our government units, and spreading throughout the bureaucracy the lessons that they have learned.

Such efforts are even more important in the face of threats that have emerged in our age. We see the rise of extremism, fuelled by groups that exploit the dispossessed with vague promises of improving the world. They distort belief systems to justify destruction and terror on the way to installing their notions of paradise—never mind the dignity of the individual, or the freedoms that should, by right, be enjoyed by all.

We see in the work of Germany in general, and the FNF in particular, precisely the methods that can combat such threats. After the two World Wars, Germany rose from the ashes to become an economic powerhouse. In turn, it has empowered others to address the lack of progress and personal advancement, the disillusionment, and the hunger borne of unmet needs, which drag nations down the spiral of demagoguery and conflict. We see today in Chancellor Merkel’s conviction, despite the political cost, to provide a haven for the displaced, a fine example of Germany’s leadership in this regard. Work such as this guarantees that humanity gains the capacity to avoid the mistakes of the past. Because of this, and the many other efforts of Germany and the FNF to uplift humanity, the Filipino people join the rest of the world in expressing our gratitude. On a more personal note, allow me to also reiterate my thanks for the Freedom Medal that the FNF awarded to me in Berlin in 2014 [applause]; I share that award with all those who worked to reestablish good governance in the country, and with our people who are now benefiting from its yields, and are hoping that such transformation is sustained far into the future.

Today, we gather at a place that bears the weight of what it takes to fight for freedom. Fort Santiago’s walls stood witness to the many Filipinos who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by those intent on keeping the human spirit bound. In light of this history, perhaps it is the most fitting venue to celebrate freedom; to reaffirm our commitment to fight for it; to declare what it means to be a Liberal, as reflected in our uniquely Filipino experience. To be a Filipino Liberal is to believe in the value of each individual, and to trust in his ability to contribute to the advancement of his fellowman. It means ending hunger and meeting his needs for survival, so that the individual’s life may be uplifted and turned outward. The empowerment of the individual thus becomes a self-perpetuating cause of empowering all others, so that every citizen may achieve his fullest potential.

Only 161 days remain before I am granted my own freedom to enjoy life as a private citizen. [Laughter] I understand that the FNF’s country director, Jules Maaten, will be moving on to share his wisdom elsewhere at around the same time. When the clock strikes noon on June 30, I will be content in the knowledge that—through the help of the FNF—there will remain Liberals who will fight to safeguard the freedoms that we have worked so hard to achieve. I will be confident that the values we adhered to as a party will be imparted to a new crop that will continue to champion our ideals—that the dreams we weave today will one day be translated into reality, and that the Philippines may fulfill to the utmost its great potential as a nation.

And before I end, I think I have to explain that when Butch Abad says he wants more freedom, what he actually means is more freedom to follow Dina where ever she wants to go.

Thank you, and good evening.