World

Philippines president says opening economy to new players, tells oligarchs 'I owe you nothing'

Published: 1:50 AM, November 24, 2016
Updated: 6:20 AM, November 24, 2016

MANILA - Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte vowed on Wednesday to open up the economy to new corporations to halt graft and protectionism, telling the country's oligarchs he owed them no favors and to be content with their billions.

The outspoken, populist leader said it was high time to change regulations and liberalize sectors like energy, power and telecoms to make the country more competitive, and give Filipinos better services and a share of the wealth.

Duterte, who was swept to office in May by a huge margin on a platform tilted toward the poor, said he had consciously shut powerful tycoons out of his election campaign and where his reform plan was concerned they would have to like it or lump it.

"The only way for deliverance of this country is to remove it from the clutches of the few people who hold the power and money," he told a news conference.

"I do not owe you anything, that's precisely why I was avoiding you during the last election. I am not trying to destroy you. You have the advantage, you're here already, be content with that. But let us open everything."

The mercurial former mayor has shown no qualms about confronting conglomerates who dominate the Philippines economy, which is growing at one of the world's fastest rates.

Despite jitters among investors that Duterte's volatility could impact policy, the economy expanded 7.1 percent in the July-September period - the first quarterly data of his presidency.

Duterte spoke moments after arriving home from a leaders' summit in Peru of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), whose closing statement committed to fight "all forms of protectionism".

Investors have long been frustrated at being shut out of some sectors in a market of more than 100 million Filipinos, either squeezed by local monopolies or regulations that limit foreign investments, like in telecoms and utilities.

The Philippines currently has 21 billionaires, according to Forbes Magazine, with a record number in 2016. The richest had a net worth of $12 billion.

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"You can count on your fingers the power players of this country. I would not say that they are the elite," Duterte said.

"I would like just to send this strong message: it's about time that we share the money of the entire country and to move faster, make competition open to all," he said.

"You stymie competition and we will always be at the mercy of the corrupt people."

His remarks suggest he is determined to deliver on pledges to thwart protectionism, having already warned the telecoms duopoly of Philippine Long Distance Telephone <TEL.PS> and Globe Telecom <GLO.PS> to shape up, or face new competition.

Philippines' data and voice services are ranked among Asia's slowest and most intermittent, a source of angst for businesses.

Duterte said that in the power and energy sectors, the government was looking into regulatory requirements and institutional arrangements "to hasten the entry of new players".

He also said he would be diversifying sources of hardware for his military, bemoaning its use of American "hand-me-downs" and efforts by a U.S. senator to block the sale of 26,000 new M-4 assault rifles to the Philippines police.

He said his new friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, had told him to turn to Russia instead, and had made him a buy-one, get-one-free guns offer.

"It's for free, so I get double," Duterte said. REUTERS