Duterte apologizes, willing to 'talk' with tycoons

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MANILA (The Philippine Star) — Two months after calling for a “ceasefire” with the tycoons he butted heads with, President Duterte did not only apologize to Manuel V. Pangilinan and the Zobels in charge of Ayala Corp., he also opened the doors to negotiations with the businessmen holding Metro Manila’s water contracts.

“I apologize for the hurtful words. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me,” Duterte said in a pre-recorded televised address aired few minutes before Tuesday midnight.

“I can promise you I’ll be nice. If you want to see me, we can talk,” he added.

In a series of tweets after the Duterte’s address, Pangilinan thanked the president “for his sincerity and kindness” and assured him of “being a partner” of the government on responding to the coronavirus disease-2019  outbreak.

The latest de-escalation of tensions between the businessmen and Duterte comes as the government heavily relies on the private sector to augment what it repeatedly said are “finite” state resources to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March, shortly after placing the main island of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine to control the virus’ spread, Duterte first extended the olive branch to Pangilinan and brothers Jaime Augusto and Fernando Zobel de Ayala, businessmen he accused of bagging “onerous” water distribution deals from the government.

The ceasefire offer, and the distraction of the pandemic, paved the way for a halt in Duterte’s attacks against Pangilinan-led Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Ayala-owned Manila Water Company Inc. since December last year. The firms manage the water distribution systems in Metro Manila.

The tycoons responded to Duterte’s truce by unveiling billions of pesos in assistance packages for their employees including leave credits, full salaries and even a supply of vitamins. Beyond their companies, Pangilinan-led PLDT Inc. also offered bill payments reprieve to customers, while Ayala Corp. helped retrofit World Trade Center into a quarantine site.

As it is, the government has expected big conglomerates, with massive resources, to help their workers tide over the impact of the health pandemic. In turn, public funds were concentrated in assisting workers in small firms who likely took the heavy toll from work suspensions brought by the lockdowns.

The scale of the Covid-19 damage has “humbled” him, Duterte said.

Before the outbreak hit, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the government was all set to offer Maynilad and Manila Water new contracts crated with the help of the Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based multilateral lender. There has been no update on the status of the new agreements since the government was preoccupied with addressing the Covid-19 health crisis.