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An example for the next president

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 04/05/2022 The Manila Times

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte's order to suspend the so-called e-sabong, or online cockfighting gambling operations, came as a surprise to some, as until very recently the President was steadfast in allowing the lucrative business to continue in spite of the controversies hounding it. His change of heart, and how he arrived at a different conclusion, is an excellent example for the next president on how to effectively manage problematic national issues.

To recall, e-sabong quickly grew in popularity as a result of the suspension of in-person cockfighting events due to Covid-19 health protocols, and just as quickly seemed to spiral into chaos. Many reports of criminal activity began to surface, some alarmingly involving law enforcement personnel. The growing controversies finally got the attention of Congress when more than 30 "sabungeros" were reported to have been kidnapped, in cases that are still unsolved.

The troubles surrounding e-sabong prompted many calls for the business to be banned, or at least suspended until proper regulations to ensure its safety could be implemented. That has been our point of view here at The Manila Times, that of many of our other colleagues in the media, and on an official level, the sentiment expressed in a formal resolution of the Senate.

President Duterte, however, demurred on following those recommendations for some time, for the simple reason that the revenue generated by e-sabong — estimated to be about P640 million per month — is badly needed to replenish government coffers depleted by the massive expenditures for Covid-19 response measures. Even though many disagreed with it, that was a practical point of view, and a strong argument on the President's part in light of the country's current circumstances. In other words, an argument that should be taken seriously because it could be right.

For the President's part, while maintaining his initial decision, he took the responsible perspective that he could likewise be wrong, and directed the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to investigate the e-sabong phenomenon more closely. The DILG did that, in the form of a survey of e-sabong participants, with Interior Secretary Eduardo Año presenting the results to the President a few days ago.

Those findings, according to the DILG chief, "confirmed earlier reports that some enthusiasts have had sleepless nights, neglected their families or sold belongings just to have money to place their bets."

This led to President Duterte's change of mind, which he explained as clearly as he had his original resistance to calls to suspend e-sabong. "Ang amin sana, buwis lang ang habol namin dito. But may naririnig na ako, loud enough, loud and very clear to me that it was working against our values and ang impact sa pamilya at tao (We are only after the tax collection. But after the stories I've heard, it was very loud and clear to me that it was working against our values. It is impacting people and their families)," he said.

The lesson for the next president in all this is that while principles might be immutable, decisions should not be. Changing one's mind on the basis of new information is not a sign of weakness or indecision, but instills confidence that leadership decisions are being taken rationally and with the greater interests of the country in mind, provided that the reasons for the decisions are clearly explained.

Of course, while Duterte's decision to stop e-sabong reasonably prioritizes the greater good, it does leave the matter of the loss of potential revenue unresolved. The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) has estimated the absence of e-sabong will result in P4 billion to P5 billion in foregone revenue for this year, which is not an insignificant amount.

But neither is it a crippling amount, and furthermore, it is only potential revenue; the country suffers no actual loss of financial resources by the decision to eliminate e-sabong. Nevertheless, it is a consequence that must be addressed. That is a necessary second part of any leadership decision, and is also something the country's next leader should keep in mind.

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