Business World interviews the Finance Chief

Finance chief speaks in retrospect. Midway into the interview, the 71-year-old Mr. Carlos Dominguez, who grew up in the same neighbourhood in Davao City as president Rodrigo R. Duterte but has long been based in Manila, hesitated as candid shots were taken of him. Quickly looking at his casual shirt, he said maybe it would be better if he just gave a file photo of himself.

Business World: You initially said ‘No’ to the Finance position, what or who made you change your mind?

Carlos Dominguez: I did not really say ‘no’. Initially, when we discussed it with the president, I told him that he should have the benefit of thinking about others who may be, who are probably more qualified than myself. He deserves the best and the brightest, he deserves time to think about other potential candidates for this job. I precisely did not accept it right away because I wanted him to have the opportunity to interview others, which he did. And that is why there is this misconception that I refused. I just said, ‘take your time, don’t rush’.

BW: Why do you think there’s all this “rush” to identify Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet, define policies, even before he is actually proclaimed?

CD: There’s social media pressure, that’s one. But there’s this book that is being written by Butch Ramirez, about the campaign, he was the deputy campaign manager and we were just discussing the book. I said there are two concepts that you have to look at with Rody (Mr. Duterte’s nickname). One: he is an outlier. He doesn’t belong to the mainstream of Philippine presidential politics. Most Philippine Presidents come from the Senate, from old political families. He’s a total outlier, I mean that book about outliers. People don’t know him. So it is very important for him to establish his mark and his identity right away. The other concept is the black swan event. Everybody thought all swans are white until somebody found a black swan in the wild and everything changed! When you are faced with something that is totally different from your experience, it’s been like this campaign, it has really, really been different. This will be studied for many years. And Butch and I were discussing, it will probably never happen again, where you have a come-from-behind guy, reluctant. He was even more reluctant than me (about taking the Department of Finance post), talk of reluctance, look at him. But when he got into it, he was in all the way. The way the campaign was running, it was not exactly to our liking in the beginning because we had no money — remember during the (May 8) miting de avance, there was (religious leader Apollo C.) Quiboloy saying I will give P1 billion, P2 billion, I was thinking, where were you in January when we had no money? Why did you make me work so hard? (laughter). That’s the type of guy that he (Mr. Duterte) is. We had a ‘negative list’, we really would not accept from some people. And there were times when I wanted to tell him, ‘Rody, we’re running on fumes, we cannot pay for your transportation’. We were really scraping the bottom of the barrel. It was a strange campaign, that’s why he has to immediately establish his identity in the minds of the people. He was not a known quantity. He’s a promdi (a colloquial Filipino term literally meaning from the province and implies unsophistication).

BW: And perhaps also because Mr. Duterte hardly talked about his economic, fiscal agenda during the campaign? (Mr. Dominguez presented the eight-point agenda in a press conference in Davao City on May 12.)

CD: No, I think that is not true. That eight-point program, if you listen to all his speeches, if you remove all the, how do you say it, the “XXX”, that’s what he said and we really sat down and parsed his speeches and got those items. That is really his economic program. He doesn’t say it in a way that would pass a thesis, but if you parse his speeches, that is exactly what he said. We are not inventing this, it has come from him (Duterte), in his own way. And we mean to implement that eight-point program. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to require a lot of work with the legislature. As to preparations for the issues, the immediate actions, I have met with Secretary [Cesar V.] Purisima and we are in touch with the transition team. It’s going to be steady as it goes. We’re going to try to have a firm hand on the economic tiller; we will build on the successes of the past; we will not change policies abruptly. We will have consultations. There will certainly be no sudden moves.

Duterte is such a human guy. I hate to put it this way because it sounds so “Jesuitical” (referring to the Jesuits who run the Ateneo schools where he studied), but his (Mr. Duterte’s) policy is one of preferential option for the poor. I think that is a Jesuit term.

BW: So you are committed for the next six years, the whole nine yards?

CD: You know, let me put it this way — if you’re a Secretary, your prime responsibility is to take the bullet for the President. You are his alter ego in that particular area, when there’s an attack on the President in that area, you stand in front of the bullet. This is my third Cabinet position and from experience, you don’t know when the bullet will come and so you’re committed, and you just accept it. I will be resigned to a sentence of hard labor (laughs)… I will be giving up for the meantime my positions in the business.

BW: As a businessman, what will you be taking with you in your DoF (Department of Finance) post?

CD: Business is really different from government. While you can do the best business practices in how you administer the department and everything, your outlook is really different. In government, you are speaking for people who really have no voice. And this is particularly important with the mandate of this particular president, which is to bring down the development, improve the quality of life in accordance with the growth of the country. But I will do the best practices, try to bring in and retain the best people in the jobs and make sure that when we run things, there’s a proper process. We think about what we’re doing. We review the past; we’re introspective. I think it’s just what normal people do, we’ll just do it more intensely.