Press Release
July 28, 2020

Transcript of Interview of Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III
on ANC's Headstart with Karen Davila

On the State of the Nation Address

Q: What struck you most about the President's SONA?

SP Sotto: The fifteen or more bills that he wants us to legislate. Quite a task for the second regular session of the 18th Congress which will probably last for about 7 to 8 months, maximum 9 so that will be tough. There are other points that perhaps stand out but as I said, as a legislator and head of the Senate, I was quite amazed at the number of bills that he wanted passed right away.

Q: Before the SONA you came out with a statement and you said "I hope to hear the exact state of the nation months after the Coronavirus pandemic entered the Philippines and I hope that the report will include verified figures on the Covid-19 situation in the country as well as how the administration spent the funds that Congress allocated for the programs," and none of those were actually in the report. Were you disappointed?

SP Sotto: Not exactly. You see, I did say that, but then again when we were there already and the President was speaking, of course you must remember the formal speech is not one of the strengths of the President. He us more effective when he is speaking extemporaneously, but t dawned on me that what I was expecting will be given by the IATF and the DOH in a separate venue or probably a hearing or a report which they usually do on a daily basis. But as I said we were expecting the figures, but he did not mention it. Perhaps the length of the SONA or he thought that the IATF would be giving it out anyway so he concentrated on the other highlights of the state of the nation address which he listed 20 points or so. So, he is the President.

Q: You were not disappointed with the speech?

SP Sotto: Not exactly, no. I was not. I understood where he was coming from. I tried to remain in a neutral perspective.

Q: Sen. Recto came out with a statement and he described the SONA as low on inspiration.

SP Sotto: That is his opinion. He might be right on some points but then again if you listen and listed the points closely, the highlights that he mentioned, there were some expectations that were satisfied.

Q: How would you describe the speech then? What was the strongest message to you?

SP Sotto: It was not the typical SONA that many expected. Some expected more but what I was thinking was that what could he say when about 5 months of the year, of that particular year, bale the first regular session of the 18th Congress, what could he say more? The country was crippled, is crippled from February to the present. As I said I tried to remain neutral in my perspective. I know that some others, some countrymen of ours expected more but I was trying to understand the situation of the government.

Q: But what about the alleged clarity when it cones to the economic recovery. You have not just senators but also businessmen waiting on specific plans, a comprehensive picture on how the President plans to revive the economy. Do you believe that the President was able to give that in his speech?

SP Sotto: Yes, he did mention it. He mentioned it. First of all, when he said Bayanihan 2 he did not have to ho into the details but I could give you the details of Bayanihan 2 which is more or less already towards that goal of an economic recovery program. And then to follow after Bayanihan 2 which we will approve on third reading later, would be the ARISE which is the Acceleration Recovery and Investment Stimulus of the Economy. He also mentioned CREATE, that included the other stimulus packages of government. The thing is he did not go into the details of these and that is probably what disappoints others.

Q: With Bayanihan 2 for example, in the Senate version which is exactly the budget that the Executive wanted, you are drafting a P140 billion budget for Bayanihan 2 is that correct?

SP Sotto: Yes, that is correct but that is only a small part of Bayanihan 2. The important thing is that in the law or the bill, we (unclear) the necessary flexibility to the Executive Department to realign the budgets, and it would probably not be confined to just the P140 billion if necessary towards the recovery or continued response. Then there are emergency subsidies for low income households, an additional subsidy. We will continue the wage subsidy programs and make sure that the freelancers, self-employed, those from the informal sector, also the OFWs or the repatriated Filipinos and the workers in the various industries is all incorporated in Bayanihan 2 for tourism, construction, public transportation, trades, films, audio-visual workers, and others from the creative industry are all included, also the assistance to the teachers and the public schools. Landbank, DBP and SSS, GSIS will provide loans, subsidies, it is a whole package already for Bayanihan 2 itself. But then again there is the economic stimulus package that follows. Perhaps the problem with the SONA, the President did not go into the details but it is there and those of us who know that it is there and it is ready, as I said, (unclear) rather neutral in our perspective instead of saying that there was a lack in the presentation of the address of the President.

Q: Yes, because no less than the President said "I hope that we can get some or the same treatment of clarity, purpose and the fastness to support the passage of the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act which will supplement funds for recovery". So it seemed to those listening that the President himself wanted clarity on it instead of providing it to those listening.

SP Sotto: Correct. I am glad you pointed that out Karen because he himself know that the version of the Senate and the version of the House are still to be ironed out and that is why he probably sought the clarity point because we have passed it on second reading already. What we will be doing is passing it on third reading. The House version has a different approach and a different tack. As a matter of fact their version includes already the economic stimulus package that is forthcoming. So what will happen this afternoon is that we approve on third reading, we will create a bicameral conference committee, and I have already talked to the Speaker last night, we will go into a bicameral conference to strengthen and clarify it so that perhaps even the President and the Executive Department will probably clarify thereafter.

Q: But then the whole mood of the speech... clearly you are giving me details. You are essentially telling me that yes, Karen, both Houses are acting on the stimulus package but the whole mood of the SONA when it comes to the country. Number one, you have criticisms that there was no clear plan that was essentially expressed in the SONA. Number two, there were threats made to telcos and threats to a possible government takeover or even reverting to a monopoly if services don't improve by December. What do you make of this in terms of the business climate?

SP Sotto: To each his own. We will just have to accept the fact that that is the style of the President. As I said, formal speeches are not his strengths. He goes extemporaneous. As a matter of fact those things that you mentioned earlier I think were not included in the speech itself, in the written speech. It came out extemporaneously, and he probably kept it at the back of his mind. But I will support the call for the telcos to shapeup by December or government can take over.

Q: Can government really take over?

SP Sotto: Yes, that is possible. No, I the franchise (unclear). Government can remove those franchises anytime with another bill or with another law. The President can do that. There are ways of skinning the cat so to speak.

Q: But what message are we sending frankly in a post-Covid world to foreign investors? You have ABS-CBN that is already shut down, talks earlier of a take over on the ABS-CBN property which you said, not so fast, and then now after the ABS-CBN shutdown, is even just the thought of taking over Globe Telecom. This is the 21st century in a democracy, in a post-Covid world, where business is even hard to come by. What are we telling foreign investors?

SP Sotto: I don't think it was intended directly towards the foreign investors. It's really a point directly headed towards these telcos that, let me ask you, are you satisfied with the way the telcos are giving us their signals, the way they are putting up their network? I don't think we should relate that with the ABS-CBN problem because as far as the ABS-CBN take over is concerned, that is just the fruit of the mind of a few legislators and it is not possible. I already said that is not possible, it is just a statement. So you know, I will brush it aside. The ABS-CBN issue is completely different from what the President mentioned as far as telcos is concerned. Ito talaga, I feel, he is so disappointed, and he has had people telling him that a lot of people are disappointed with the way it is happening so that you should shapeup. Why? Because of the situation that we are in. It is not only the Philippines; the world is on fire as I said in my speech earlier. Therefor, what we do about it? There is this distance learning, we have to improve our internet, our networks, and therefor you must shapeup. That is the only way, otherwise we will have difficulty coping with the situation of the Covid-19. We do not know when this will end.

Q: You said that it is possible for the government to take over telco. It is possible, that is what you said.

SP Sotto: Yes, it is possible. There are ways of doing it, like the franchise, there are ways of going about it. I don't know if you will recall in the 60s, there is the government telephone service. It can be run by government.

Q: Is that something you would advise the President to do for the country? Would that be good for the Philippines?

SP Sotto: I will advice the telcos to shapeup, that is what I will say. They should seriously take up what the President said.

Q: Does government also have a role in this? I just opened Twitter and Globe came out with a statement on just how much capex they are putting out for investment in the coming year, but they have challenges in terms of permits, red tape. We know that the Philippines up isn't the easiest country to put up infrastructure or businesses in. We are not a Singapore where it takes one permit or two permits. What is government's role in this?

SP Sotto: We have passed a law entitled Ease of Doing Business. We have practically removed the red tape already. There are very few signatures that are necessary now so if they are saying that they still have difficulty, let government know. Let us know, let the President know. As a matter of fact, let the Senate know and we will go after these people who are giving you a hard time because we already passed a law removing all these red tape. So I don't think they should say that. Instead of saying that, tell us where is the red tape. Sino ang nanghihingi ng lagay? I think that should be the way they should do it because like for example, let's just go to the towers. In Indonesia, the population of Indonesia is what, 200 million? The cell sites in Indonesia area bout a 100,000 I think. Here the cell sites are bout 17,000 and they are shared by both Smart and Globe. Bakit hindi magdagdag? Bakit hindi damihan, and the type of equipment that you use, is it the high-grade quality ones? Why is it in Singapore, the signals are so good? In Indonesia, as a matter of fact, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Yun ang nakakarating sa Pangulo at yun ang sinusumbong sa kanya, kaya yan ang sinasabi niya. I think that is what is happening because in the Senate, we have been discussing this for some time already and in fact we were glad that there was going to be a third company, the third telco which right now I think is in limbo, I do not know what happened. It would have been a good competitor for them and they would really shapeup but because of the situation that we are in now we need not only because of distance learning but because of the digital landscape that has to be improved in the entire country, the telcos have to shapeup and I do understand where the President is coming from when he says that.

Q: There were several points that stood out in the speech of the President. Other than threatening telcos was the return of the death penalty by lethal injection. You at one point were an advocate of the death penalty then after you were not sure about it anymore and you thought that there was another way. What will you do now, you are the author of Senate Bill No. 9165?

SP Sotto: Just to set the record straight, I am not proud to say that I was the principal author of the death penalty in the 9th and 10th Congress for drug trafficking only. Except that when we passed the law, may mga amendments, napasok na yung kung ano-anong mga crimes. Now it was repealed in the 13th Congress if I am not mistaken and therefor is no longer in our statutes. Now I was kind of changing my mind to a certain point already as far as the death penalty is concerned. As a matter of fact I have proposed an alternative. You are right, we did talk about that. The alternative is to remove these drug lords or high-level drug traffickers from the main NBP or the main penitentiary. The connection is this: I will agree and I have file din the last Congress, I filed a bill re-imposing the death penalty but only for high-level drug trafficking. The reason is that all the other crimes that could be meted with the death penalty I do believe that those who are against the death penalty are correct and that is what I told you before. Medyo maraming tama. For example, anti-poor. Anti-poor yung death penalty. Makakakuha ng magagaling na abogado yung mayayaman, at yung mahirap ay hindi. Those who will be meted with the death penalty would be the poor ones, so those are the other crimes, but when it comes to high-level drug trafficking, it does not work. The anti-poor cliques does not work because there are no poor drug lords. There are no high-level drug traffickers that are poor. So that is the reason that I agree and I said if the President pushes for a death penalty or lethal injection for death penalty, it stands a better chance if it is confined to high-level drug trafficking. And when he said crimes in the, or is that (unclear) the word he used, confined to the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act which I was the principal author of, and in that law, it's the death penalty for high-level drug trafficking, non-bailable offense. The comment that I said last night was that yes, it stands a better chance if it is only confined to that. But offhand I could say that I will have difficulty counting who will be in favor as far as the Senate is concerned. Right now, siguro 50-50 ang chance but then again may I repeat, I have already filed an alternative and hopefully if I will get the chance to be able to explain to my colleagues and perhaps the Executive Department, this might work. This might be a better option. Remove them, the high-level drug traffickers, or even crimes on drugs, remove them from the national penitentiaries and proceed with the regional penitentiaries and then confine these guys in a separate establishment or penitentiary. That is the proposal. Para na ring death penalty yun dahl nakahiwalay na sila, and it will have the same effect. They will not be contaminating the other PDLs.

Q: You actually compared it to an Alcatraz-like penitentiary. Do you feel that this would actually help with what is happening I BuCor right now?

SP Sotto: Problems like that would definitely be diminished if we indeed approve the bill that I filed wherein you separate the high-level drug traffickers and then create a regional penitentiary. W can start with Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao instead of just regional or one for each region which would take some time, but Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao is possible. And one of the main reasons for this is because of the research that we have had before which says that if a person or a convict or a PDL is no longer being visited by his relatives, he starts to become loco. That's when he starts to join the gangs, diyan na nasisira, nagiging salbahe. So, how can a family from Sultan Kudarat or Negros or Mindanao visit somebody in Muntinlupa if they do not have the means? Perhaps they could not even visit once a year, but if it is regional, if you are from Luzon, you are confined in Luzon, if you are in Visayas and Mindanao, you are confined there, it is easier and it will be better for government. And it is possible already because Nueva Ecija for Luzon is possible. The camp in Capis is possible and the Davao penal colony can be upgraded and updated.

Q: Does this mean that you will be reintroducing this on the floor?

SP Sotto: it is already in the committee. As a matter of fact, when the BuCor controversy that you mentioned will come in the Senate and the committee on accountability of public offices, the Blue Ribbon committee will conducting that or the committee on justice will be hearing, I will insist that the committee come up with that committee report. Which includes already the regional penitentiaries. Sen Gordon agrees, I assure you he has agreed already. In principle he has already told me that he agrees with the suggestion.

Q: But in principle would you support the President's call to revive the death penalty for illegal drugs? Let's say it's drug traffickers, would you outright support that?

SP Sotto: Only for high-level drug traffickers, perhaps I will support. Not just the regular drug trafficker. Maraming mahihirap na kung sino-sino lang, nagbenta ng limang stick ng marijuana lang, drug trafficking yun even if it is just five sticks, or let's say 20 grams of shabu which is not part of the 200 gram limit pero he is selling it, he is a drug trafficker. Hindi naman dapat kasama yun. Ang kasama, I will support high-level drug trafficking only. But then again if my bill is approved and supported by government, we do not need the death penalty.

Q: Bringing up the death penalty in the SONA, some critics have said this is a deflection to focus on the government's performance on Covid and in a post-Covid scenario. Would you agree with that?

SP Sotto: Hindi naman siguro. (unclear) 2016. There are 15 other issues that he wanted. He wanted the Department of OFW, he wanted the death penalty, the national housing development bill, the national (unclear) subsidy, the professional development act, the nursing education act, the national disease prevention and management authority, unified system on separation (unclear) retirement and pension, the modernization of the Bureau of Fire, the creation of the department of disaster, the national land use act, a very controversial one, the coco levy, the Boracay Island Authority, (unclear) but the death penalty stands out. We discuss it, and people discuss it kasi yun ang controversial but it is just part of the rest of what he wants like the internet transaction act, which is again very important because of the landscape that we are in right now.

Q: 2022. What will make you run for higher office?

SP Sotto: We say in Tagalog mahirap magsalita ng tapos, but my priority, my first option is to retire. I have been in government for almost 30 years, I started as a vice mayor in 1988 and then 1992 as senator. I will be 24 years in the Senate when I when 2022 comes. It's not really that easy to think about coming up with or running for a higher office. And then I have my political party to reckon with. We are somehow a bit crippled because of the demise of Ambassador Danding Cojuangco. We have to meet, we plan to meet after 40 days and see the plans of the party. I do not have any personal intentions of running for higher office at the moment. We would probably help with just being a supporter. Depende, tingnan natin, I cannot say yes, I cannot say no at this point. Probably I could borrow the line of a good friend of mine, when they said you should run for president. Ang magandang sagot doon "ha, eh kung manalo ako?"

Q: But you have track record, that was a colleague of yours who actually had no experience, so the analogy...?

SP Sotto: He said it in jest.

Q: I mean the possibility with you is not far off, right?

SP Sotto: Well, as I said there are many things to consider and that is the reason that I could not and I want to say no, but I could not directly say no it's because of the other things that I have to consider, like my political party that I have been with for quite a long time. It is not that easy to just turn your back on them but again I could probably work with them in another capacity. We'll see.

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