Aquino: Text jokes from friends lighten the load

President Benigno Aquino III.

KUALA LUMPUR - In the face of overlapping crises that his administration deals with every day, President Benigno Aquino III could smile and say without hesitation, "I'm OK."

In an ode to his countrymen's much admired resilience amid tragedy, Mr. Aquino faced the Filipinos in Malaysia on Thursday evening and assured them that he would stand with the nation in clearing hurdles, no matter how hard.

Speaking off the cuff, Mr. Aquino spoke about how some "textmates" would send him jokes to lighten up his mood as he faced the grueling task of running the Philippines-one of the world's most disaster-prone countries that at times also grapple with conflict.

Sometimes, the messages would reflect concern for the President who, almost four months ago, faced the worst disaster to hit the country under his administration: Supertyphoon "Yolanda" (international name: Haiyan), which affected more than 14 million people in 44 of the country's 81 provinces.

"It's inevitable that sometimes people ask me through text, 'How are you doing?' Honestly, my response to them is, 'I'm OK,'" Mr. Aquino said.

"What does that mean? I am OK because many countries like Malaysia are helping us … I am OK because I have a Cabinet that does not have to be pushed and told what to do," the President said.

String of emergencies

"But I think, above all, I am OK because while Filipinos may fall down, it is not acceptable for us to stay down. Right?" he said, drawing applause from his audience.

The last quarter of 2013 saw a string of humanitarian emergencies in the Philippines, from the Moro National Liberation Front attack on Zamboanga City and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated Bohol, Cebu and Siquijor provinces to Typhoon "Santi" and Supertyphoon Yolanda.

The government is still delivering emergency services to the ravaged areas, including programs to revive local livelihood, with assistance from the international community and the United Nations.

Can't give up

"Some would tell me, 'You know, your problems do not come one after another. Yours are overlapping.' But do I have the right to give up?" Mr. Aquino said.

The President cited the example of a mayor in Eastern Visayas who, during one of his visits to the disaster zone, could not vent about the burden of being the top official of a ravaged town. Citing the anecdote as relayed by his Cabinet, Mr. Aquino said the local official knew that giving up was not an option.

"He said, 'You know honestly, I want to give up … Everyone is looking to me, as their mayor, to answer all their needs, from food, electricity, transportation, medicine … I should show how strong I am in front of them,'" Mr. Aquino quoted the mayor, whose name he did not disclose.

Strength from the people

As for himself, the President said he drew his strength from the people who, within a week after Yolanda, were more concerned about rebuilding their lives than with complaining about their lot.

"What the people were asking for were seeds so they could go back to farming, boats so they could go back to fishing. It was all about how to start over, and not about, 'We're miserable, what did we do? Why did this happen to us?'" the President said.

"There was none like that. It was straight to 'OK, this happened, we have a problem. Let's do something [about it].' And that is why I'm OK," he said.

The President again acknowledged Malaysia's assistance at the height of disaster relief operations following Yolanda, including US$1 million (S$1.27 million) and logistics support through deployment of 10 C-130 cargo planes and troops.

Mr. Aquino also discussed with the Filipinos here their concerns, including bringing to justice the people involved in the P10-billion pork barrel scam, the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and pursuing trickle-down economic growth.

'Demographic sweet spot'

Mr. Aquino mentioned that the Philippines is expected to hit next year a "demographic sweet spot," where majority of the population will be of working age, potentially improving the country's per capita income.

"I may not be able to solve all the country's problems, but as long as the people believe in me, as long as my bosses are with me and helping me tread the straight path, it's just a matter of time before we achieve what we hope to reach," the President said.