In his two terms as a senator, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV has already passed 19 laws. Most of these focus on entrepreneurship and empowerment. His platform is based on his passion to uplift the Filipino’s way of living through inclusive growth. Through his programs, which are based on his background with working in the grassroots sector, he aims to provide a government and private sector framework to replace poverty with prosperity in a country that will rise to become globally competitive through education.
This Q&A reveals more about the man who carries with him the promise of a name and his action plan for making those promises come true.
1 Did you always know that you would go into politics?
No, I didn’t think I would go into politics, but I wanted to be in public service, so I thought of going into media. Of course, I was in social enterprise for a long time, and I also served in the National Youth Commission before. There was a long time that I felt I was in public service, but not necessarily in politics.
I made the jump into politics in 2013, and I entered kind of late at 35. Getting into public service was something I always thought about, especially with my being exposed to my relatives doing that kind of work. But you can say that I resisted getting into politics as much as I could.
2 What was the deciding factor that led you to run for a Senate seat?
We had social enterprise projects like Hapinoy, which empowered sari-sari store (neighborhood store) owners; Rags2Riches, which gave livelihood to women through weaving upcycled materials into bags and other accessories; and Gawad Kalinga (GK), which gave livelihood opportunities to those living in GK communities. They would end up doing well, but in very limited communities. We realized that if we wanted to expand and scale up, we needed some more government support or policies behind what we were doing.
At the time, in 2007, we were cutting-edge. It was so new to be using business models to develop communities and we were helping about two or three communities, and with Hapinoy, about 11 provinces. But with no policy or program in place, you would never get past that scale. One of the challenges was finding people in government who understood what we were trying to do. GK’s Tony Meloto and I were at a conference together and during our four-hour breakfast, he said, “You should think about running.” And I said, “Okay.” Then, things just fell into place.
My name was floated around in the surveys a year before the election and it showed me at around number 20. So, two weeks after I got married, they asked me if I still wanted to run because they have a slot. Thankfully, I won and a lot of the things we wanted to do we were able to fulfill. In the past four or five years, we were able to build a framework or ecosystem where your micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), community enterprises, and startups get more support from the government through negosyo (business) centers or better financing opportunities.
3 What was your idea of politics before you entered it and what was your goal?
I was not new to politics because my family has been there for quite some time. I went into it because I wanted to make a change for something. With my years in social enterprise, I saw that with a good solution, so many lives can be improved. A number of us Filipinos have a defeatist mentality where they think nothing will change. Those of us who go into politics should have a reformist mindset. If you are in the legislative branch, you bring change through laws, policies, and budgets. You try to create those avenues where your countrymen will be able to do better.
The problem with us is that there are politicians who win, but do not have plans or have no idea what they want to do. They end up just wasting time. In our office, we knew what we needed to accomplish, so we hit the ground running. I think we have 20 laws already and these were created to open more opportunities for our countrymen through education, entrepreneurship, and financing. All those things that are lacking for the people to improve their lives, we try to unlock them.
4 How did you get ideas for what to prioritize?
It goes back to my years with social enterprise. I worked in the National Youth Commission with my friend, Mark Ruiz, who was with Unilever at the time, and we looked at microbusinesses such as the sari-sari stores, while at the same time we were exposed to the other side of the fence, which are the large supermarkets and big manufacturers. We saw that the store owners often got the worse end of the deals, but they somehow helped to move the economy along. We worked to band together the sari-sari store owners so they could get better deals because their larger groups held inherent power. It became sort of a People Power in that sense, and with the right interventions, they were able to move up and grow their business. That was why the first bill we had was the GoNegosyo Act.
Those of us who go into politics should have a reformist mindset. If you are in the legislative branch, you bring change through laws, policies, and budgets. You try to create those avenues where your countrymen will be able to do better.
We look into areas where people should be getting but don’t get, such as Free Education, which is why one of our latest bills is the free tuition in state universities and colleges (SUCs). By giving more Filipinos the opportunity to study, they can have better jobs and hopefully lift themselves out of poverty.
5 You are one of the most prolific senators when it comes to passing laws. What is needed to ensure that a bill gets passed?
Persistence and perspiration. We all have that equal opportunity in the Senate, to pass laws that we think are important. That said, dapat masipag ka, persistent ka (You should be hardworking and persistent). Your team members should also know what they are doing.
We are confident to push for those reforms because we convince not only our congressmen and senators to support us, but also the stakeholders as well. The sectors we are supporting are also supporting the bill, so when we put it forth, people agree on it already. For the GoNegosyo Act, we consulted with MSME groups, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce, GoNegosyo, and a lot of other groups who thought it was a good idea. For the Education Bill, the students and their parents, the school heads, the SUCs, and even private sector were all in support.
We all have that equal opportunity in the Senate, to pass laws that we think are important. That said, dapat masipag ka, persistent ka. Your team members should also know what they are doing.
6 It seems that you and the other senators in your political party are beleaguered by negative comments. How do you handle those?
Trabaho lang (Just keep working). Honestly, if you dwell on negative comments you will do exactly what they want you to do, and that is nothing. Because, when you get barraged with negativity, the tendency is that if you do nothing, someone will get angry; if you do something, someone will get angry, too. It is a “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. I think the best way to rile them up is to work hard to get your stuff passed. I think that is what riles them up the most—if you pass your law and it works so well that so many people benefit from it.
I have accepted that politics, especially in the modern day, is like that. If you let the trolls get to you, you won’t do anything or say anything. If you want to make them angry, speak your mind even if you don’t know how people will react. Do your work and execute your plans to help as many people as you can. I think that is the best way to move forward.
7 How would you describe your management style?
Leading by example. I think I was stricter before, but after five years, I trust my team a lot to be able to do the work with me. I tell them that it is my name outside, but the office is more than just Bam Aquino. It is every single person that works here. The staff knows how important our work is and we are all invested in the things we espouse and advocate, and our office is inclusive and empowering. We pride ourselves in doing excellent work. I do not accept mediocrity; we strive for excellence and to be as inclusive as possible. If we can have fun along the way, we also do it.
8 What do you think the government should focus on right now?
It should focus on what it should have focused on ever since, which is on what every Filipino family needs. You look at the common Filipino family and you find the blueprint of what we need to do. They find the prices of commodities too high; then don’t raise prices. Their children want to finish school; help them by offering free tuition. They want job security; remove contractualization and give them regular jobs. The reverse is to not pass laws that will make things more expensive, which is why I opposed the TRAIN Law.
If you think about it, our job is not rocket science. If you look at our bills, it goes down to the needs of every Filipino family, regardless of whether they live in the city or anywhere in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. What is difficult is to have the wherewithal to pass those reforms, because none of them are simple reforms. We live in a complicated world where we need to determine what policies and reforms should be done to help the most number of people. In order to do that, we study a lot, we consult a lot.
9 What comes to mind when you hear the term “public trust?”
I don’t know how much the public still trusts politicians. For me, I always go back to the Jessie Robredo line of “Matino and Mahusay.” For you to get the trust of people, you need to be both. You need to be not only free from corruption—which is what people were looking for 20 years ago; you also need to be effective—which is what people are also looking for now. You need to come up with proposals that are cutting edge, not ones that have been around since 1965 or 1975. If we really want people to trust politicians again, we need to show them that we can get things done. It is not enough to say you will pass a law. You need to make sure it is funded, implemented, and refined across the years. I think our countrymen are looking beyond good intentions, but really try to see how their lives will be affected and improved.
10 What is your dream for the Philippines?
My dream for Filipinos is simple, where if you are ready to work and ready to apply yourself, you should be able to achieve success. Unfortunately, there are so many who are willing to work and are intelligent, but still have a difficult life because they don’t have enough opportunities. When we live in a country where the family can be comfortable, can have their children finish school, have some leisure, live in a decent place and have certainty in their jobs because they are willing to work hard and give of themselves, that is the dream. We are not there yet, but hopefully with measures like supporting MSMEs, better education, and being able to find better jobs by also attracting investments, then we can unlock the potentials of the Filipinos.
As such, we are willing to work with all segments, all political parties, all persuasions, public and private sector, to be able to provide these opportunities to our countrymen for them to lift themselves up. No matter where they come from and no matter what circumstances they had when they were born, they will have opportunities if they are willing to work well. It may take one or two generations; Singapore was able to achieve a development ladder based on meritocracy in a span of 30 to 40 years. Hopefully in our lifetime, makita natin iyan (we will be able to see that).—Maan D’Asis Pamaran
The need to present our country’s at-risk youth with the opportunity to become productive citizens by providing them with the training to not just acquire the technical skills, but more importantly the life skills they need to build better lives for themselves, this is a paramount responsibility of the state.