In their final debate a few days before Election Day, the two presidential candidates gave voters a cordial, non-confrontational debate, Oct. 19, until the closing statement when the conflict of brothers-in-law running against each became more noticeable than at any time during this campaign season.
Sen. Surangel Whipps, Jr., who is married to the president sister, said in his closing statement that running for president is not about family but about the future of Palau.
“I respect the president. He is my brother in law, but we are talking about the future of Palau and the future of our children,” Whipps said.
Whipps said he is not angry with the president, they just approach issues differently.
“This is not about our family but for Palau. We can’t wait for 2020 as compact funding is ending in 2024. Let’s get together so that when 2024 rolls around we’ll be in a better position to handle it,” Whipps added.
In his closing remark, President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., said he disagree with statement that it’s not about family.
“I beg to differ,” Remengesau said. He said as in-laws they can’t be out fighting over public issues and at sit together at the same dinner table as if nothing happened.
Remengesau said that he’s not running only against issues but running against his brother in law,
In describing the close cultural family ties, Remengesau showed where the divide is between the two. ‘It’s difficult, because as a Palauan, you marry outside but will not put your husband or wife ahead of your own family,” Remengesau further said.
The 90-minute debate sponsored by the Palau Bar Association and Palau Chamber of Commerce was held at the Ngarachamyong Cultural Center with more than 300 people in attendance.
Seven questions were posed for the candidates with three-minutes to respond and a minute for rebuttals.
The first question was what actions to take in the first 100-days in office to protect the businesses reserved for Palauan by fully implementing the foreign investment board laws.
Remengesau said he has proposed a “front business” legislation, which is currently with the OEK for action. The legislation provides clear definition and stiffer penalties. Whipps however, said FIB laws implementation is like a shark cruising around without a teeth to bite. Whipps said that one way is to have the applicant apply online so that an investor would face more scrutiny and a more transparent process.
On the goal of the Compact Road to advance economic development in Babeldaob areas. Whipps said moving other government services such as the national hospital and public high school to Babeldaob which are necessary ad certain to bring people back to their home villages.
Remengesau cited various activities taking place such as opening of many land-based and diving tourist attractions. He also noted the creation of the tax free zones around the capitol in Melekeok as well as state efforts in progressing with their development plans.
On the 2015 census, how do the candidates address the growing foreign labor force which is bigger than the number of Palauans employed.
President Remengesau pointed to the skillful workforce investment act that created certificate program and tax incentives to develop local workforce. The president listed three things to help address the outmigration and attracting Palauans to return home. He said that there needs to be an employment opportunity, minimum wage has to increase, and housing for young Palauans to start their own family.
Sen. Whipps said that good opportunity is what Palauans are crying for. He said that Palauans are leaving the island to U.S for jobs. He said that private sector needs to be attractive such as pension for employees.
Whipps said to provide better employment opportunities to the local population, labor office needs to be elevated to ministry level. He also said that pension for private sector employees should be addressed.
For the question of Pristine Paradise Palau to create low volume but high valued tourism, Whipps reiterated his support for visa fee. He said that Palau need to realize its high value potential and should not be scared with getting its true worth. Whipps also proposed that airline routes could be bid out for the highest bidder.
Remengesau meanwhile, named marine sanctuary law as the lead policy with the brand pristine paradise. He said its quality tourism not quantity.
Remengesau said that the policy to limit charter flights is paying back. He said that major carrier All Nippon Airlines is now flying to Palau. The president also disclosed that there has been a 5% increase in tourists’ spending in the last three months.
On rising cost of medical referrals, Whipps said that we need experts to assess the medical needs, to have the doctors and the necessary equipment in place to handle some of the procedures locally without sending all cases off-island. He said that some of the 500 referral cases could have been done locally to save cost.
Remengesau mentioned the government ran medical insurance as the best in the Pacific as well as a much improved hospital that attracts patients from nearby Yap Island.
On marine sanctuary, the two candidates differed on revenues derived from fishing licenses and fees.
“The $6 million annual income from fishing rights are starting to decrease, which are funds that could have been diverted to strengthen health and educational programs,” Whipps said.
Remengesau, however, said that the $6 million annual fishing rights fees are not decreasing but actually increasing.
Reactions from the audience were quiet with few burst of applause. Many who watched the debate said it was a good debate but not a game changer for any of the candidate. However, the closing statements left an indelible mark on the crowd as they headed home.
“It was a good debate, but whichever candidate you were going to vote for probably got reaffirmed tonight,” said Souang Tellei, who attended the debate.
“That closing statement though totally got me in the feels. But not telling which way it swung me though,” Souang added.