Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Tuesday tens of thousands of police officers would finally get service pistols after having gone without guns for years because the government lacked the money to buy them.

Aquino handed out semi-automatic pistols to 21 officers at a ceremony at the national police headquarters, pledging to release nearly 75,000 more to their now-unarmed colleagues.

"Thanks to this positive programme, we are close to having a police-to-pistol ratio of one to one," he said.

Aquino said as many as half of the country's 150,000 policemen had lacked standard firearms, forcing some new recruits to buy "rights" to the service pistols of officers who are about to retire.

Others had to borrow to buy guns and other equipment out of their own pocket, so that they end up spending the first three years on the job paying these debts back, he said.

"The time for abuse of our police is over," he added, in announcing the near-1.2 billion-peso ($27.7 million) programme to arm the police.

Aquino also pledged to transform the police force over the next three years to allow more officers to patrol the streets and deter crime, instead of doing clerical work in offices.

With a nine-billion-peso budget, 15,000 "non-uniformed personnel" would be hired to handle the force's administrative duties, he said.

Police in the Philippines have long been burdened with a reputation for corruption, abuse and mismanagement even as law-enforcers complain about a lack of equipment and funds to do their job properly.

In one of the worst cases of police bungling, eight Hong Kong tourists were shot dead by a disgruntled Filipino policeman in an error-filled police operation in Manila in 2010