US$4.9bil wealth fund sparks fears

Controversial plan: Critics say the sovereign wealth fund chaired by Marcos Jr lacks safeguards, which means ‘the potential for corruption is almost limitless’. — AFP

Philippine lawmakers have proposed a US$4.9bil (RM21.4bil) sovereign wealth fund to be chaired by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to boost growth, but critics warn it will be prone to graft and risk Filipino pensions.

Congressmen Sandro Marcos and Martin Romualdez – the president’s son and cousin respectively – are among the six authors of the Bill filed to the House of Representatives and will be examined by two committees before being debated in the house.

The “Maharlika Investments Fund” (MIF) would be seeded with 275 billion pesos from government financial institutions, including two pension funds and two banks, according to the latest version of the Bill.

It would help the Marcos administration achieve its goals of getting the Philippine economy to “soar to greater heights in spite of external shocks”, the authors wrote.

The word “maharlika” is widely associated with Marcos Jr’s late dictator father, who presided over widespread human rights abuses and corruption during his two decades in power. He was ousted in 1986.

Marcos Sr claimed to have led an anti-Japanese guerrilla unit called Ang Mga Maharlika during World War II, but he has been accused of lying about his war record.

The MIF has been met with concern from business groups, economists, activists and opposition figures, who argue pension funds were already being invested and that diverting them to a sovereign wealth fund would expose them to additional risk.

Even the president’s own sister, Senator Imee Marcos, said it was “risky to gamble” retirement funds.

“We all know about our neighbour Malaysia where their 1MDB was a real disaster where the money was looted,” she said, referring to the graft scandal that involved billions of dollars of state funds.

The lack of safeguards also meant “the potential for corruption is almost limitless”, Vincent Lazatin, former executive director of the Transparency and Accountability Network, said yesterday.

Under the proposed Bill, MIF funds would be “exempt from any regulatory restrictions”.

Investment options would include financial derivatives, equities and “other investments as may be approved by the Board”.

Congressman Joey Salceda, who leads the technical working group examining the Bill, said the fund’s governing board would be chaired by the president.

Former president Gloria Arroyo, who has backed the Bill, said that was a “powerful statement that the highest official of the land will hold himself as ultimately accountable to the Filipino people for the performance of the Fund”. — AFP

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