AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Just two hours after arriving for his first state visit to New Zealand, President Aquino immediately took a swipe at his predecessor for the alleged massive corruption and mismanagement on her watch.
Without naming former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Mr. Aquino reminded members of the Filipino community of the evils that pervaded the corridors of power for close to a decade, including the "milking" of the national coffers by high officials.
"'Di ba marami hong tupa rito pero siguro ho baka mas madali dairy: Ginagatasan mo na, gusto mo pang gawing bulalo (There are many sheep [here in New Zealand] but let's use dairy [as an analogy]: You are milking [the cow], but you still want to turn it into bone marrow soup)," the President said to the delight of over a thousand Filipinos gathered at SkyCity Convention Centre.
With the crowd roaring its approval, the President continued: "'Yung mga kababayan raw ho nating corrupt sa Pilipinas kagagara ng kotse, kamamahal, katutulin. Pero pagka ginustong tumakas, ang ginagamit wheelchair (Our fellow citizens, who are engaged in corruption in the Philippines, have opulent, expensive and fast cars. But if they want to escape [prosecution], they use a wheelchair)."
Lest he be accused of being "too personal," the President said he came across this joke in a text message.
Red carpet welcome
Mr. Aquino flew into Auckland at noon Sunday to a red carpet welcome in the course of a two-day visit. The meeting with the Filipino community was the only scheduled event for the day.
He proceeds Tuesday to Wellington for bilateral meetings with Prime Minister John Phillip Key, Governor General Jerry Mateparae and the opposition leader, David Shearer.
Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, visited New Zealand when she was the President in May 2007 and likewise addressed the Filipino community then.
She tried but failed to leave in November 2011 for medical treatment abroad of a rare neck ailment. The wheelchair-bound Arroyo was then blocked by airport authorities despite a favourable order from the Supreme Court. Top officials of the Aquino administration then said she was trying to escape prosecution although no criminal charge had yet been brought against her.
Politics of 'telenovela'
In his remarks, Mr. Aquino referred to next year's elections. "Let us not vote for those who are good singers, dancers and have appeared as extra in various telenovelas (soap operas), but they must have a platform [of government]… and a track record of keeping their promises," he said.
He said voters should go for those who are relatively unknown but could be trusted to do the right thing.
"It's our obligation [to elect the deserving ones]," Mr. Aquino said, warning the voters against those who are "good at presenting themselves" and those who engage in "flattery." He said these people were "thick-faced."
Mr. Aquino ditched his prepared speech and spoke extemporaneously, mostly in Filipino, for 24 minutes.
With the endless chuckling of the audience triggered by the President's wisecracks, some Filipino migrants, who mostly came in their Sunday best, quipped that the President was doing a stand-up comedy show.
The President started his speech by citing the dysfunction that plagued the Arroyo administration such as rice importation, classroom backlog, health services, the justice system and even the problematic bridge project.
He then contrasted these with the gains he had achieved. He said that just two years into his administration, the economy already posted in the first quarter of 2012 a 6.3-per cent growth, and 5.9 per cent in the second quarter.
"In the old days, if you steal only a few [sum of money], you'll end up in jail. So make sure that you steal more, so that you would become a partner," he said, pointing to the plethora of "palusot" (alibi) that corrupt politicians had to come up with to avoid ending up in jail.
The President had a bout of coughing at one point, which prompted him to complain to his audience that his job did not permit any vacation leave, except on Good Friday.
"During Good Friday, nobody travels, isn't it? So everyone is safe. So at the time, I [call] a time out," he said.
"When Christmas season comes, I have a New Year's Eve and Jan. 1 [holidays] until lunch time. At 1 p.m., we're back at work, ensuring that returning vacationers could go home safe," he said.
Mr. Aquino thanked the overseas Filipino workers for giving him a landslide victory in the 2010 presidential race.
"The problem is perhaps only 1 per cent of overseas voters cast their votes [via absentee voting]," he swiftly added.
Mr. Aquino said he, too, was also looking forward to his retirement.
"I still have three years and roughly about eight months [in office]. After that, could it be possible for me to retire?" he asked, saying in a nutshell that his sisters had been carrying the burden of the affairs of the state since martial law because of the role his parents played in defeating the dictatorship and restoring democracy in the country.
Facing the 'challenge'
Mr. Aquino explained that although hesitant at first, he was "pushed" to take on the challenge of running for President in 2010 because of the opportunity to correct the dysfunctional system in the country.
"If we shied away from the challenge to change [the system] we have become accustomed to, and the situation got worse, the question that I would ask myself is: Could I still face the mirror and say that I am a good person? Or could I say that I am my parents' child, or would it require me to change my surname and leave the country if we shied away from the challenge?"
The President said the Arroyo administration left him with so many problems. He said that since he could not undo the past, he expressed a determination to exact accountability from "those who sin against our fellowmen … to ensure that they would not serve as [bad] examples" to all.
Mr. Aquino vowed "not to stop until I could tell myself that I did what I could do" to change things for the better.