DESPITE the huge majority vote that approved the Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF) bill in both chambers of Congress, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri still expects some parties to question the law before the Supreme Court, but is confident it can “stand the test of judicial scrutiny.”
In an interview with reporters after the Senate, voting 19-1-1, approved the MIF on second and on third and final reading at dawn of Wednesday, Zubiri gave an overview of the changes made in the final version that addressed serious questions on the bill, especially the source of funding and avenues for abuse.
Asked if, given all the effort to address those concerns, he still sees a “reason” for anyone to question it in court, Zubiri replied, “Well, alam mo lahat naman ng batas namin may nag que-question paminsan minsan sa [you know that in most laws, someone will occasionally raise it in the] Supreme Court. I’m sure people will raise it, but I’m sure we can stand the test of judicial scrutiny by the Supreme Court.
As for the safeguards introduced in the period of amendments, Zubiri stressed that the final version addresses the concern of Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III about penalties against responsible officers misusing the Maharlika fund. “It’s there, It’s part of the law. It’s part of the last two pages of the law. As a matter of fact, Sen. Risa (Hontiveros) wanted to add an amendment yesterday on embezzlement, but that is already under the penal code. We reiterated the penal code sections– these, that… so [it’s highlighted there: estafa, syndicated estafa. That’s syndicated estafa; the point there is, if you’re working for the Maharlika investment fund and you stole money, you’ll be under several laws. You’ll be under the plunder law, graft and corrupt practices act and of course, the law governing syndicated estafa which by the way is also nonbailable.”
The safeguards are strict, he explained, “because we want to protect the money of investors, particularly the government funds,” referring to, among others, the seed contributions from state-run Land Bank of the Philippines and Development Bank of the Philippines, and the central bank dividends.
On the concern of Sen. Chiz Escudero about the absence of a test of economic viability for the envisioned Maharlika Investment Corp. (MIC) to be created to manage the MIF, Zubiri brushed aside this issue by noting thatof “about . . . maybe 90 plus countries that have sovereign wealth funds,” only one has faltered, which is Malaysia’s 1MDB, “because the one that was behind it was a racketeer” whom the Malaysian government is still tracking down.
“That is why we are learning from that mistake, but almost 99 percent of other sovereign wealth funds have been very successful.” He noted that Singapore’s Temasek foundation “and many others who have invested heavily invested in their countries and in other funds” saw their money grow.
“So let’s give it a chance. I think some people are saying, ‘we can’t manage that kind of fund; the Filipino can’t. You know, why do we put the Filipino down? Aren’t there many Filipinos working in the United Nations, World Bank, WHO, IMF, Asian Development Bank who are competent and they are well-respected and reputable people?”
This, he added, is the same caliber of people being eyed to run the MIC, the counrty’s first sovereign wealth fund. “Let’s give the Filipino a chance to show that we are better than just being laborers . . . We are going make this Maharlika Investment Fund work for the country.”
He then cited several discussions on plans to invest in toll bridges like the Bataan-Cavite span seen to decongest Metro Manila and “would be the second longest bridge in the world . . . compared to the Macau-Hongkong bridge.”
It is seen, he said, to boost the economy for Central Luzon and the National Capital Region. Those coming from Bataan, from the ports of Bataan, Subic, Clark Zambales do not have to pass through Metro Manila, Quezon City and Edsa, going south. They can use that bridge.
Also eyed for infrastructure investments, he added, are the Iloilo-Panay-Guimaras-Negros Bridge, and more tollways – or projects that cannot be funded under the General Appropriations Act. “We don’t have enough funds to fund those projects.”
Apparently addressing concerns that the MIF’s existence is like insulting Congress because it assumed the role of lawmakers who craft the GAA, Zubiri replied, “No, we did not transfer any power to the MIF. For example, they are increasing capitalization? They have to go back to Congress for approval.”
For very big projects, the law provides for a joint oversight committee that will review periodically, every quarter, every three months the proposed projects. And, he added, “they are also under the scrutiny of government agencies, like COA [Commission on Audit]. They have to pay taxes so there is no undue disadvantage to the private companies” that would ask how they can bid for these toll projects if the MIC is tax-free.
Zubiri added, “They will be subjected to taxes like any regular agency. That way, there is still competition. It’s not a monopoly, there is still competition for the various projects they are interested in.”
He said the concerns raised by senators and other parties were mostly quelled after the amendments given by Senate President Pro Tempore Legarda, Sen. Chiz Escudero, Minority Leader Pimentel, Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros, Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, and Senators Juan Edgardo Angara, Francisv Tolentino, and Pia Cayetano, whom he credited for “her many good amendments.”