Not to be confused with her embattled niece Leila, the former and pioneering director-general of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority, Lilia de Lima, deservedly got this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award along with five other distinguished Asian awardees. It was my honor to be asked by the RM Award Foundation to serve as discussant at her public lecture soon after receiving the award, known to be the most prestigious in all of Asia, with similar stature as the Nobel Prize. Having served four administrations since President Fidel V. Ramos appointed her to head the then new agency in 1995, she has earned her place in our economic history. She has been esteemed and loved by the business community through the years, and it’s no exaggeration to say that millions of Filipino lives have been uplifted because of her.
Peza under De Lima saw a 21-fold increase in number of economic zones from the 16 she inherited from the former Export Processing Zone Authority (Epza), to hundreds by the time she retired in 2016. The number of Peza firms multiplied from 331 to 3,756 under her leadership, bringing in P3 trillion in investments, and directly and indirectly creating over 6 million jobs. I pointed out that in the face of a macroeconomic policy environment that made her work more difficult, she had steered Peza into contributing the bulk of the country’s export earnings (totaling $629 billion in her time). Through over 21 years with her at the helm, Peza investments zoomed at an average annual growth rate of 37 percent. Notably, even as the sum of the country’s domestic and foreign investment inflows stagnated in most of the millennium’s first decade, Peza investments were growing at an annual rate averaging an impressive 34 percent. Without Peza’s contribution, then, the economy clearly would have done far worse. She achieved all these even after cutting the old Epza’s bloated staffing to less than half, turning around the ratio of three Epza employees per firm serviced to one Peza employee serving eight firms. And through it all, she managed to fend off tremendous and consistent political pressure, including from the very top.
I recently wrote of how we are finally seeing better quality and more inclusive economic growth—and it bears noting how Peza under De Lima had much to do with it. As I’ve pointed out earlier, better quality growth shows on both the demand (spending) and supply side (production). On the former, investment spending now more prominently contributes to growth than in 1990, when its contribution was tiny and remittance-fueled consumer spending dominated. On the latter, manufacturing also now prominently contributes to overall growth, growing faster than aggregate GDP, and reducing the former dominance of services as driver of growth. With Peza’s surging investments being dominantly in manufacturing, it has helped much on both counts.
Lilia de Lima, in deserving her Ramon Magsaysay award, has lived the former president’s credo, which is inscribed on the marble walls at the Ramon Magsaysay Center on Roxas Boulevard in Manila, aptly illustrating what makes the man and the award named in his honor truly great. Allow me to quote parts of it:
“I believe that government exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation… that he who has less in life should have more in law. I believe that this nation is endowed with a vibrant and stout heart, and possesses untapped capabilities and incredible resiliency. I believe that a high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity… that the pulse of government should be strong and steady, and the men (and women) at the helm imbued with missionary zeal. I believe in the majesty of constitutional and legal processes, and in the inviolability of human rights… [and] that there is neither need nor reason to compromise the dignity of man. I believe that the President should set the example of a big heart, an honest mind, sound instincts, the virtue of healthy impatience and an abiding love for the common man.”
Big words from a big man—and ideals too few of us Filipinos and our leaders seem prepared to uphold. Lilia de Lima certainly did.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.