Koror— He used to be referred to as the presidential brother-in-law. Now, Surangel Whipps Jr., 52, distinguishes himself as Tommy Remengesau’s successor, having been catapulted to the top political post during last year’s election.
Whipps became Palau’s president on Jan. 21, tasked to govern a nation of 18,000 population, along with his vice president Uduch Sengebau Senior.
“The task ahead, for our business, education, public health and economic recovery, is not to change the course but to take the next step,” Whipps said in his inaugural speech.
Palau’s accomplishment on the world stage, Whipps said, should be felt at home. “We should see them on our dinner tables; we should feel them in our pockets. That is the next step: it is one that we must make together.”
Whipps vows to strengthen Palau’s partnerships with the U.S. and Taiwan as the nation seeks to become the first country in the world to recover. “Now is time to open the border; now is the time to get our lives back on track,” he said.
He is ready to hit the ground running as the nation emerges from the Covid-related isolation and struggles to navigate an unfamiliar economic landscape.
“I am hopeful,” said the former senator said in an interview with the Pacific Island Times. “I know that we are at the bottom and we can turn the corner by 2021 and hopefully get out of the woods in 2024. It's not going to be easy and we will need everybody to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
Whipps, who headed the family business Surangel & Sons, represents a new generation of leaders — assertive and straightforward.
Whipps said his administration will be “people-centered,” just as he promised during his campaign that ran the slogan “A Kot a Rechad er Belau,” (Palauans come first).
“It’s really making our government focused on providing the best service to uplift the lives of the Palauan people,” he said.
Whipps served as senator from 2008 to 2016. In a small island nation, where almost everyone is connected, running for a public office against a close relative is not uncommon. In 2016, Whipps ran against— but lost to — Remengesau, who was then running for re-election.
For Whipps, it was nothing personal. Just politics. He said he will always seek the former president’s advice if needed, acknowledging that Remengesau was a highly respected leader.
Though Covid-free, Palau has not escaped the pandemic’s impact on its tourism-dependent economy, resulting in job losses. About 36 percent of the nation’s workforce have been displaced and Whipps pins hope on mass vaccination as a step forward to economic recovery.
For now, Palau relies on foreign loans and aid to stay afloat. Last year, the Asian Development Bank approved a $20 million loan to help Palau deal with the impact of coronavirus crisis. Palau’s economy is expected to contract by 9.5 percent in 2020 and 12.8 percent in 2021, according to ADB.
Taking the helm of the administration with shrunken resources, Whipps plans to restart tourism and revitalize the nation’s economy by ensuring that people can go back to work.
Palau’s ally, the United States, gives the country the needed confidence to restart the economy through the delivery of Mods vaccines, Whipps said. With the help of another “friend,” Taiwan, he also hopes to begin a travel bubble between the two countries.
“We also want to open up this sealed cool sterile corridor with Taiwan that allows us to tap into the market that is not allowed to travel right now. (Taiwan) has no community spread,” Whipps said. “Making Palau and Taiwan into one domestic zone, and further strengthening our relationship but at the same time exchange of people is really important, which will be a very big boost to the economy.”
Palau’s new president plans to go beyond tourism. “Agriculture, fisheries, those are the things we need to look into and continue to improve,” Whipps said. “They are a small part of our economy but we need to improve on them.”
He said there is so much potential in the development of Palau’s aquaculture and agriculture, which will not only reduce reliance on imports but also can create much-needed jobs for the people.
Whipps also wants to maximize clam production especially with the new clam facility in Palau. His administration will look into public-private partnerships to further develop the aquaculture industry.
Whipps said having a vibrant aquaculture is not new in Palau. The nation is filled with experts who can help revive the rich aquaculture sector, which had its peak in the 1980s. There are various sources of revenues and high-value products in aquaculture from coral production to reef fish production.
Whipps also envisions developing the financial sector to make Palau the “Switzerland of the Pacific” or the “Delaware of the Pacific.”
He said Palau’s proximity to Asian countries will make it a potential financial hub.
Whipps will also prioritize pushing for passage of important pieces of financial legislation including tax reform, bank establishment and corporate registry measures. He sees establishing Palau as a financial center like Hong Kong and Singapore as a new sector that will bring development to the nation.
Whipps is also known to cut excesses amid Palau’s limited revenue and rising debts. He wanted to make sure the government spends wisely and finds new revenue sources.
While coming into office during a trying time, Whipps is also taking over the renegotiations for the expiring provisions of Palau’s Compact of Free Association with the United States. “What’s on the table is the financial assistance going forward,” he said.
Whipps also wants to include inflation adjustment to the amount it should receive from the U.S. or the cost of the Trust Fund would have reflected inflation. The Asian Development Bank pegged Palau’s inflation rate at 0.4 percent in 2020 and 0.8 percent in 2021.
Whipps said despite the trying times he is coming to the helm with so much hope and surrounded by a new generation of energetic and driven people.