June 23, 2019
In all his speeches, interviews, photos and videos, Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez 3rd comes off as a no-nonsense authority. And yet when The Sunday Times Magazine visited the country’s Finance Secretary for this one-on-one, he was revealingly easygoing, often breaking into laughter as he looked back at certain moments in his storied life.
Admirably too, he turns out to be a very generous and unitive leader who never takes credit for his department’s wins, and neither his own company’s success.
For one, he would never begin a sentence pertaining to his work with “I” nor use the word “me.” He always says “we,” “us” and “our,” indirectly demonstrating how he takes pride not in individual success but collective effort.
To understand why Dominguez’s humility is refreshing, a look back at his career as a seasoned businessman who heeded the call to serve his country is in order.
A highly respected business leader with more than 40 years of experience in managing various organizations under his belt, Secretary Dominguez arguably has one of the most envied credentials in the country.
To begin with, he obtained a Bachelor of Science in Economics degree from Ateneo de Manila University in 1965, followed by a Master of Business Administration from the same university in 1969.
Dominguez also completed the Executive Management Program at the Stanford University in California, USA.
Putting his education to good use, his rise in the business sector eventually saw him as shareholder, board chairman or member of over a dozen corporations across various industries, among them agriculture, mining, banking, hospitality, real estate and investment.
Some of the notable corporations he tended to include Philippine Airlines, the Philippine Associate Smelting and Refining Corporation, the former Bank of the Philippine Islands Agricultural Bank and Republic Planters Bank.
Reluctant government official
While seeing to such major corporations, Dominguez was given the opportunity to serve his country in two previously appointed posts in government before his current position as Finance Secretary.
“Actually, the way [my public service career] started was when [the late lawmaker] Ramon Mitra, Jr. was in the Batasan, and at that time, an opposition to President Marcos. Ramon was a good friend of our family and over the years we would be discussing agricultural policy, and at that time, I was very much involved in agriculture so I would advise him.”
As such, when then President Cory Aquino began her administration and appointed Mitra as Agriculture secretary, the latter immediately asked his friend and adviser to become undersecretary.
“I said of course I’ll do it but I also said I can only stay [in positions] maybe for a few months because I had a job and didn’t really think of making a career in government.”
Little did Dominguez know, however, that the few months he signed on for would go on for much longer, and in fact, cross over to several posts between the Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture.
Turbulent as Aquino’s presidency was — with the first few months challenged by several coup attempts — the late President implemented a reshuffle in her cabinet so that from serving as undersecretary, Dominguez was asked to replace the late Ernie Maceda as Secretary of Natural Resources, leaving Mitra behind at DA.
“The following year, Ramon decided to run for office with the new constitution finally in place, and he had to quit DA, which President Cory asked me to take on.”
Pressed for a decision, Dominguez believed he was more suited for the job at his first department because he knew the Natural Resources post, “40 percent of the time,” would require legal work.
“I said I’m not a lawyer so I’m at a disadvantage,” he humbly recalled.
And so, Dominguez returned to DA as Secretary and served the office from 1987 to 1989.
Given his initial plan of helping out in government for just a few months, The Sunday Times Magazine asked if he had any regrets giving in to Mitra’s request the first time around.
“No, I don’t have any,” he reflected with a smile, and followed on with a hearty laugh as he added, “Although I have to tell you after I finished my stint in the government, I was really broke!”
Back to business
After serving under the Aquino administration, Dominguez returned to the private sector and tended to other companies in various industries all over again.
In 1992, the government beckoned again when he actively participated in the election campaign of President Fidel Ramos. When the latter won, he was offered anew to serve in the Ramos Administration.
But the businessman declined.
“President Ramos said, ‘Okay, I’ll just make you the chairman of Philippine Airlines.’ I joked I only wanted to be a director because of the free trips,” he laughed again, “but he insisted on chairmanship!”
Accepting the job believing it would be easy as his past positions in business, Dominguez was surprised over the tremendous challenge awaiting him in running the country’s flag carrier so much so that it tops the list of the most difficult responsibilities he took on.
“Pinaka-challenging na trabaho ko yan sa private sector, talagang hirap because it’s front line service — you deal with, at that time, six million passengers a year. And you know, that is six million occasions where we can make mistakes so it was really difficult.”
His colleagues meanwhile will say Dominguez breezed through his endless list of corporate responsibilities as Chairman and Director of RCBC Capital Corp. (House of Investments) and President of Shangri-La Plaza Corp., Northern Mindanao Power Corp., Easycall Communications Philippines, Lafayette Philippines, Transnational Diversified Group, Central Azucarera Don Pedro and as Independent Director of Roxas Holdings. He is also the Founding Chairman of one of the leading hotels in the South, the Marco Polo Davao.
Long-time friend Rody
In 2016, at 70 years old, Dominguez was already semi-retired and deserved to be, and needless to say, returning to government service was farthest from his mind.
But when you have someone destined for greater purpose like then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as a childhood friend, you have no choice but to do your part and help — especially when he became President.
“We were schoolmates, neighbors, playmates — we were naughty together. We were childhood friends,” said Mr. Duterte’s fellow Davaoeño.
In fact, he dismissed Duterte’s repeated statements that Dominguez was the smarter one between them.
“Don’t believe him, he is very smart except that he is naughty. But don’t ever believe that he is not smart. [That grade of] 75, self-inflicted yan kasi he did not apply himself in school.”
And reiterating this “self-inflicted” grade, he added with a smile, “Ask him stories of how his mother used to scold him for not studying. I also witnessed that because as I said, we were neighbors.”
Given his high regard and trust in his friends, Dominguez was one of the key individuals who suggested — “not pushed” — Duterte to run for the highest post in the land.
“Rody is the type of guy you don’t push. You just reason with him and many of us — I was not the only one — were telling him, ‘You know, you should run because some people were saying Mindanao has had no real leader since the 1960s when Emmanuel Pelaez was Vice President [of late President Diosdado Macapagal; Pelaez a native of Misamis Oriental].
“We said, after him, we don’t see any person who can be a true leader of and from Mindanao and of the Cebuano-speaking people. So it was time for him to step up and he did.”
As one of the President’s most trusted friends with a proven track record in business, Duterte asked Dominguez to be treasurer of his presidential campaign in 2016, to which the latter obliged.
Of course, Dominguez thought that was as far as he would go, but once again — and rightly so — he was offered a chance to serve the public.
“I was shocked that he asked me [to be part of his cabinet,” he said nonetheless. “My initial reaction was, ‘Rody, there are other guys who are younger and smarter than me’ and he challenged me to find them.”
Dominguez said he had at least two candidates in mind but unfortunately none of them agreed to join government.
“So he said, ‘Well, I guess it’s you’.”
And thus, Dominguez was officially appointed Secretary of the Department of Finance. He has been in office for the last three years and determined to help the President see the country and its economy reach its potential.
“Basically, my job is to fund the government so it can perform its functions,” Dominguez said of his post, following on with the department’s list of must-dos.
First off, they have to see that the economy is growing.
“We must increase the potential of growth of the economy by removing the structures that block the growth. The growth also must be inclusive.”
Secondly, taxation system that is fair needs to be put in place and implemented, “otherwise, the citizens just won’t pay it.”
Elaborating, Dominguez said, “We have to have an efficient and honest revenue-raisers, not just the BIR [Bureau of Internal Revenue], the Bureau of Customs but treasures all over the country as well. All the treasures are appointed by me, even the municipal treasurers, and they have to be efficient and honest.”
Department of Finance also has to make sure that the money is not wasted and the investments yield good returns for society.
Moreover, they have to make sure that the country’s credit rating is the best that can be achieved, which requires responsible fiscal and monetary policies.
“We have to have an efficient Treasury Department because not only do they handle the cash, they also handle our borrowings and manage our debt. And we have to maintain a productive relationship with all our foreign funders.”
These funders include multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development. Then there’s the official development assistance from Japan, China and South Korea.
“So that’s essentially what my job is — to make sure that the government has enough funds so that it can perform its functions.”
Ask what would be the hardest to achieve, Dominguez once again chuckled and answered, “All!”
“But really, it’s not difficult to achieve in the long run because you know, we in the cabinet, we work as a team. The President wants a very efficient and has managed an efficient cabinet. If you noticed, there’s very little fighting among the cabinet members — our arguments are in the Cabinet Room. That’s the President’s style,” he added matter-of-factly.
‘Fairly robust economy’
To put his efficiency as Finance Secretary into perspective in a way the general public can easily grasp, The Sunday Magazine asked Dominguez how the country’s economy is in layman’s terms.
“It’s very good. The financial status of the Philippines is now is excellent. But you know, that’s not only due to us.”
Always fair and honest, Dominguez admitted the Department was not as “broke” as others described it to be upon his assumption as secretary. In fact, he even credited the previous administration and said they are building on their predecessor’s success today.
“During their time, they spent very little so their finances became big. I told people, ‘no we’re not broke, we have money.’ However, we said, one of the big problems in the Philippines is there was very little investment in infrastructure, and we are suffering, the city is choking. So we said we are going to spend on what is required, basically infrastructure.”
Thus, one of the main objectives of the department right now is to spend money on the government’s “Build, Build, Build” program.
Moreover, Dominguez noted that one indicator of how healthy the country is the amount of debt against the country’s earning capacity.
“The earning capacity of the Philippines is measured in its GDP. And you measure your total debt against the GDP. So in the 2000s, public debt was 74 percent of the GDP. Now, it’s less than 42 percent.”
What this simply means, according to Dominguez, is that they are now managing to make sure that Philippines won’t incur more debt than it can afford.
“And then we’re also fortunate that interest rates are low because of the good management of our finances. We got the credit rating upgrade.”
Getting a credit rating upgrade means the Philippines will be charged less interest because it is less risky to invest in the country given its healthy economy. In fact, right now, the country’s credit rating (at BBB+) fares better than that of Italy and Portugal (at BBB).
Practically speaking, such a status means everybody benefits because less of the taxpayers’ money goes to pay for interest and more for actual projects.
“Fortunately, we work very closely with the Central Bank, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and with the rest of the cabinet to make sure that whatever we invest in, the return is good. It’s not wasted on stupid, uneconomic projects.”
While the aforementioned developments are veritable achievements for Dominguez and the Department of Finance, the Secretary takes even greater pride in the collective effort everyone in the government put for the tax reform.
“I think one of the biggest achievements of our team, and with the help of the President, was the tax reform.”
There were two parts of the tax reform according to the Secretary and in the first important part was that the government was able to lower the taxes.
“So people earning less than P200,000 a year don’t have to pay taxes anymore. And then, people earning above that, they pay less tax now. Last year, during the first full year of the tax reform, we did not collect P111 billion pesos and that stayed in the pockets of ordinary Filipinos.”
On the other hand, the government also had to adjust fuel taxes, which had not been adjusted for 20 years.
“So that’s a trade-off; there’s always a trade-off. We made sure that the trade-off benefited the ordinary Filipinos and the ones who paid more taxes were the richer Filipinos.”
All things considered, it would be easy and understandable if Dominguez acknowledges that the victories of the Department of Finance had resulted from his strategies.
But the Secretary believes otherwise.
“It’s not my achievement, it’s a team achievement, I just participated in it. I have a team here and I won’t say I do everything myself but we all work together. And then the cabinet is a team also, the government is a team. So I just make sure that people have enough funds to do what the government needs to do.”
On the micro-level, Dominguez admitted he can’t say he does everything in the Department.
“My colleagues here are very smart, they are very good. All of them are excellent. We try to foster an atmosphere of teamwork.
“We don’t work at cross purposes, number one. We try to pull the cart in the same direction — to make sure that nobody’s pulling the other way or bothering the other people while they’re doing the job.”
With team effort, Dominguez wishes to achieve two more goals before leaving his post.
“Two things that we are working on very closely: one is we want to achieve a better credit rating — from BBB+ to A. Two, this year or early next year, we want to achieve upper middle class of the country.
“Basically, that’s lowering poverty rate. When we came in, it was at 22 percent and by the end of the term, we want to bring it down to 14 percent.”
Satisfied with the Secretary’s patient and thorough explanations of the country’s financial state, and given his success in business and government, The Sunday Times Magazine finally asked Dominguez where he finds most fulfillment between the two.
“For personal, financial fulfillment, obviously, it’s in the private sector because you can be paid according to your accomplishment,” he replied honestly.
Dominguez admitted the same thing cannot be said in the government but cited something that is “quite satisfactory” in his work as a public official: “You can move just an inch, but affect so many people.”
“The other side means it’s also a risk position because if you make a mistake, it also affects a lot of people. But if you do something right, kahit na very small, it benefits so many.”
With that, one question remained: Is he willing to stay in government should the opportunity open up again?
“No. I’m 74 years old. I think I have to spend some time with my grandkids, my wife, my family, my friends.
“I am not looking for another job after this. Please! I want to improve my shooting,” Dominguez ended with a final round of laughter.
Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net