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The president who freed the skies

By: Milwida Guevarra - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | August 03,2022 - 08:00 AM

My young students only faintly remember who President Fidel V. Ramos was. However, their puzzled looks turn into a smile when I describe him as the president who freed the skies.

Years before he became president, traveling by air was a luxury. The entire barangay came to see people off and welcomed them back at the airport. But now, air travel is no longer eventful and has become so ordinary. One company explains it well, “Every Juan can travel.” President Ramos ended the government’s monopoly over the skies and opened aviation to new players. He encouraged the entry of international airlines by issuing Executive Order No. 219. Competition among many players drove prices down.

Access to cell phones is closer to people’s hearts. For 70 years, PLDT had sole control over telecommunications. Having no competitors, the company had no reason to be receptive to people’s complaints and demands for better services. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew described how absurd our situation was. “Ninety-eight percent of the Filipinos waited for a telephone, while the other two percent waited for a dial tone.”

President Ramos ended PLDT’s monopoly and opened licensing to many players. He made the world smaller, where families and friends are just a phone call or a text message away.

President Ramos’ legacy extended to providing basic services, such as electricity and water. The Philippines was literally in the “Dark Ages” when he came into office. We could only grit our teeth when brownouts caught us at the elevator, and we needed the speed of Superman to press “save” in the computer before the brownout.

President Ramos saved the day and put an end to the energy crisis. He invoked emergency powers and opened the field to independent power producers so that power plants could be constructed within 24 months.

The president solved the water crisis too. The National Waterworks and Sewerage Authority, the government corporation that handled water distribution, was inefficient and corrupt. Only two-thirds of Manila’s population had access to piped water supply, and only 11 percent were connected to the sewerage network. Worse, 55 percent of the water produced was lost through leakages or theft. President Ramos took the problem into his hands, declared a water crisis, and led the privatization of the water supply.

It was also President Ramos whom we should thank for liberalizing the banking industry. Thanks to him, Republic Act No. 7721 was legislated, which allowed the entry of additional foreign banks in the Philippines and allowed a foreign bank to acquire up to 60 percent interest in an existing domestic bank. The competition was intended to promote greater efficiency and reduce the spread between borrowing and lending rates.

As to my favorite subject, public finance, it was only during the administration of President Ramos that the country experienced four years of budgetary surpluses. Tax collection increased to 17 percent of gross domestic product, a record that has yet to be surpassed. While laymen may not understand the effects of taming the deficit, it meant lesser reliance on borrowings and lower costs of funds for businesses, resulting in lower prices.

It is the humanity of President Ramos that stands out among his accomplishments. He loved the ordinary, especially the vulnerable. He was not the kissing or “ayuda” type. But he gave people the dignity they deserve by involving them in decision-making. Cabinet meetings were held in rural areas where we listened to the concerns and suggestions of community members. He demonstrated how important it is to empower citizens and give them many opportunities to attain their potential. He was in his element, cheering crowds and making them believe that change was within their reach. He was the forever Rah-Rah President whose mantra was “Kaya natin ’to!”

I was one of his Green Berets and was pushed to the background as legislators crowded around him when he signed the comprehensive tax reform law of 1996. He paused as he looked around for me and asked that I go up the stage. I hesitated since there was no vacant space left. To the surprise of everybody, he said, “Come and sit on my lap.”

It will not be difficult to remember President Ramos. He freed the skies, brought the banks closer to their clients, ended brownouts, and made a steady water supply possible. He hastened the era of cell phones. But more importantly, he made us believe it is within our power to bring about change.

Rest well, dear President. Thank you for giving us a piece of the sky.

Dr. Milwida Guevarra served as finance undersecretary during the Ramos administration. She is currently president of Synergeia Foundation, which aims to enable every Filipino child to complete a good elementary education.

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