Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Controversy in SSS pension hike where my kumpadre, SSS Chair Amado D. Valdez, is man of the hour. Sen. Drilon would sound like a spoiler if he continues to object to hike. America and Philippines have at their helm men of enormous unpredictability---our two nations are truly in for interesting times.

SSS Chair Amado D. Valdez

In the seven months of the Duterte administration, there has never been a Cabinet meeting such as last Monday's, Jan. 09, that lasted for over seven hours, from 3pm.-10:20 pm.  Former UE Law Dean and now SSS Chair Amado Valdez had earlier called up Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, Jr., asking for time to defend before the Cabinet his positive stand on the pension hike for some 2.2 million SSS pensioners.  Valdez brought an actuarian and SSS President Emmnuael Dooc, and they sailed right into the heated arguments within the Palace meeting. Ang daming angal, recalled one insider.

At some point, Valdez, feeling enormous pressure, was ready to reduce the hike in pension to only P500 a month, matuloy lang, but President Duterte, who was clearly on his side, ordered the P1,000 hike for immediate execution, with the next P1.000 to be studied. Mr. Duterte indicated that he would sign the EO the following day. 


From the start the Cabinet was divided on this issue and arguments were quite heated on both sides. The anti-pension hike group---composed of the finance/economic cluster of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno and Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia---feared that a hike even of P1,000 within this month could cause a substantial drop in the SSS Reserve Fund. On the other side, the so-called “Pro-people” group, composed of the "Leftists"---DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and NAPC Secretary Liza Masa---wanted Mr. Duterte to take the plunge now, with the next P1,000 hike perhaps by 2019.

The thorny part actually came when Valdez and his allies argued that in order to effect the pension hike for THE 2.2 MILLION RETIREES without serious repercussions on the SSS capital, IT SHOULD BE COMPLEMENTED BY A 1.5% HIKE ALSO IN THE PREMIUM PAYMENTS OF SOME 33 MILLION ACTIVE SSS MEMBERS. The problem was that such adjustment will increase monthly contributions of active SSS members to 12.5% of their monthly salary credit---ranging from P15 to P740 a month, to be shared equally by the pension-fund member and the employer, according to the SSS.


This idea of a corresponding increase in premium payments from 33 million active members to help fund the pension hike for 2.2 million retirees met with stiff resistance from various quarters, and PRESIDENT DIGONG WAS CLEARLY CAUGHT IN THE SQUEEZE. But he had made that pension increase a cornerstone of his electoral campaign and at the wake for Presidential Legal Adviser Sal Panelo’s special child, Salvador Karlo Panelo III,  Mr. Duterte reiterated this promise in his usual colorful language (ang tunog ng p......., recalled someone).   

Just when everything seemed okay, however, Deputy Senate President Franklin Drilon had to weigh in on the Senate floor that the SSS Charter  (R.A. 8282 of 1997 in President Ramos' time, expanded from RA 1161, the SSS Act), does not allow it to raise premium rates from SSS members in order to increase benefits for its pensioners.  

At this point, Mr. Duterte has thrown all his cards with the pension hike move and given its wide scope of coverage, it would be a big political risk for anyone, including Sen. Drilon, to oppose it openly.  Let’s see which move comes next---a fascinating chess game indeed.


First, it’s most ungentlemanly for a man to invite a lady to an event and then “un-invite” her---and by text no less. Most of all, it was against state protocol to do so. 

I’m referring to the earlier invitation by Malacanang to Vice President Leni Robredo to attend the traditional Palace New Year vin d’honneur that President Duterte tendered for the diplomatic corps. The VP was extended the invite only to subsequently receive a text that she was being “uninvited.” It was, to say the least, very rude of the Palace protocol office to do so, for as has been pointed out, the two top officials of the land have always graced this annual diplomatic event every new year in Malacanang. 


Even though VP Robredo is no longer a member of the Duterte Cabinet, she remains the second highest official of the land, and protocol dictates that she be invited to the official function for New Year’s Day.

In fact, media commentators have noted that even former VP Jejomar Binay, who was at one point already at odds with President Noynoy Aquino was always invited and had always attended the vin d’honneur. What is happening to the Palace officials? Why can’t they see this and advise Mr. Duterte properly?

To rub salt on wounds, the “Daily Tribune” quoted Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar as saying that Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea has now suggested that an “exclusive 'vin d’honneur' be held next year for the VP alone.” That’s totally uncalled for even as a joke--- worse that it was made public by the Palace’s chief communications official.   


Incoming US President Donald Trump
If local media are having a bumpy relationship with our President, world media are spinning like tops over the way US President-Elect Donald Trump quarreled with major media outlets in a caustic and rude manner during his hour-long prime-time press conference, just a week before he takes his oath as the 45th US President.  Trump openly disputed allegations of the combined US intelligence agencies that Russia had hacked the US presidential elections to favor his win---even as he pooh-poohed as “phony” a supposed Russian dossier about his alleged salacious behavior in the past. Trump has also refused to answer queries about his divestment of his vast properties, as well as his refusal to divulge his income tax statements, which were roundly attacked by the “Office of Government Ethics.” 


Trump’s tantrums by now have scandalized the world, but I imagine that a majority of the US public must be feeling more horrified at what they are hearing from their incoming President. To citizens from all over the world, however, including media, far more worrisome perhaps is the background of Trump’s nominee for US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO. With Trump deprived of any political experience, having been a super-successful world property developer, one would expect him to pick as his chief diplomat someone deeply steeped in world politics and state-craft----perhaps a retired member of the US Congress or the career executive branch. 

But no, he chose someone much like himself---a business executive.


Tillerson, now facing the US Senate Foreign relations committee on his nomination, appears to have insufficient background to be able to competently run the State Department, the US’ most important agency in the light of its role as leader of the democratic world. But not only that, Secretary of State nominee Tillerson’s background also points out his having spent many years developing oil fields, particularly in the Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East and the Arctic fields.

Press accounts also note that Tillerson was a “familiar and popular figure in Moscow, awarded an Order of Friendship medal by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin in 2013.” They also stressed that he was “a staunch opponent of US and international sanctions against Russia for its aggressive behavior in Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimea region.”


Normally, such credentials shouldn’t worry anyone that seriously. It must be remembered, however, that allegations from the US intelligence community flew thick and fast in the weeks following the US presidential elections---and it stands by this claim until now---that Russian intel agencies had hacked into these elections---resulting in Trump beating front-runner Hillary Clinton in an incredibly astounding upset.     

But on the reverse side, the Duterte administration would probably cheer Tillerson’s breezing through the US committee, as the Secretary of State nominee calls for stopping China’s construction of artificial islands in waters disputed by PH in the South China Sea (known to us as the West Philippine Sea). Tillerson wants “a clear signal” that island-building in those waters by China should be stopped.

Indeed Tillerson’s a man after President Digong’s heart just as his principal, incoming President Trump, is pretty much like our own prexy in his unpredictability and volatility of character. Interesting times Americans and Filipinos live in. 

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