Philippines’ Duterte apologizes to tycoons he threatened to jail

Linda J. Dodson

MANILA — A “humbled” President Rodrigo Duterte apologized to business tycoons he once threatened to jail after saying he welcomed their response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Philippine leader, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the country’s commercial elite, said during a televised address late on Monday that he was prepared to talk with owners of conglomerates Ayala Corp. and Metro Pacific Investments. Their high-stakes dispute with the president had led to state contracts being reviewed and shares being sold off.

“To the Ayalas and to Pangilinan, I apologize for the hurting words,” Duterte said, referring to Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Fernando Zobel de Ayala, the chairman and president of Ayala, and to Manuel Pangilinan, the Metro Pacific chairman.

“The COVID humbled me. With the kind of response that you gave, showed to the public, it’s a humbling experience also for me,” he said, thanking big businesses for helping the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis through donations.

The two groups have donated medical equipment such as masks and test kits and helped set up quarantine facilities.

Shares of the companies rose sharply on Tuesday after Duterte’s olive branch, with Metro Pacific surging nearly 13.5%. Ayala went up 14.7% while its water unit Manila Water climbed nearly 12%, outperforming Manila’s benchmark index, which rose 1.8% during the morning.

On Twitter, Pangilinan thanked Duterte “for his sincerity and kindness.” “I wish to assure him that our group is fully committed to being a partner of the government in addressing the heartbreaking moments of COVID-19 on our people,” he said.

The Ayala brothers said in a joint statement: “We are grateful for President Duterte’s statement at the briefing last night. We have always believed in building a strong partnership between the private and public sectors in addressing our country’s problems and in investing in the country to create jobs and improve the lives of Filipinos.”

Analysts are not calling the warm tidings from Duterte a truce just yet. “I take those remarks at face value. We don’t really know what’s in the president’s mind,” said Luis Limlingan, managing director at Regina Capital Development.

Jun Calaycay, research head at Philstocks Financial, said it boils down to politics “to an extent” as the government scrambles to raise funds for a coronavirus response.

“These groups still hold significant segments on the economy,” Calaycay said. “I think the president has realized that it’s very important to have the private sector in times like this. The government cannot do it all.”

The high-profile dispute began late last year when Manila Water won an arbitration case in Singapore, which ruled that the government must pay the company billions of pesos for the years it failed to impose a rate hike. Metro Pacific’s Maynilad Water Services also won a separate case the prior year.

A furious Duterte threatened to jail and “ruin” the tycoons’ faces. He also ordered a review that could end two Metro Manila water concessionaires’ contracts by 2022 instead of 2037.

In January Duterte’s administration upped the ante and hinted at the possibility of probing the businessmen’s other interests such as railways, telecoms and real estate. In February, Ayala relinquished voting control in Manila Water to billionaire Enrique Razon, who has better relations with the Duterte administration.

“So maybe there will be a lot of legal issues but we can talk,” Duterte said during his address on Monday, without elaborating. “I am ready to talk and I’d be reasonable.”

Duterte has publicly taunted tycoons, including the owner of the PhilWeb online casino who was forced to sell and a cigarette marker who was also compelled to divest and pay 30 billion pesos (around $600 million) in taxes to the government.

In 2017, Duterte also threatened to shut down Philippine Airlines’ terminal at Manila airport if the carrier did not settle a tax bill.

After the company agreed to pay 6 billion pesos to the government, Duterte and airline owner Lucio Tan became friends, with the president attending the tycoon’s 85th birthday bash in 2018.

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