International perception vs domestic reality
I’ve long been bothered by how the outside world perceives the Philippines, applying Western standards and norms to a culture that seems the same, but isn’t.
The matter came to the fore recently in a report by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), which considers the Philippines the worst performer in Asia.
I think PERC misunderstands the Philippines. Let me take its criterion of “vulnerability to disruptive or extra-constitutional government changes,” where it claims that the Philippines is the most vulnerable — this from analysts who live in a state they claim stable, Hong Kong, with a rating of 6.99 (out of 10, with 10 the best) but one which I believe is the most unstable. Hong Kong’s enviable economic status was created by the British, and continuity was promised by China after Hong Kong’s turnover to it. Well, as the umbrella movement and incarceration of its leaders show, and the capture of the parliament in recent elections highlight, here is a state destined to collapse into dictatorial dominance in mere decades, or even less.
The Philippines has no chance of falling into such a restrictive environment. PERC says “it is very unclear which direction the Philippines is heading politically,” and adds: “Another disruptive extra-constitutional change of government is certainly possible, including one in which the incumbent tries to consolidate power into (I think it meant unto—PW) himself.” That’s a total misreading of the man. He was, and remains, a reluctant leader elected to do the job so he’s doing it. He’ll willingly step down on June 30, 2022. His declaration of martial law in Mindanao was to emphasize the seriousness of the problem. He may have said, and he did, that he could extend it nationwide. But that’s the hyperbole under which he operates. There’s no real intention to do so.
As to the two insurgencies, the communists (National Democratic Front/New People’s Army) are a spent, policy-discredited force where time and economic growth will finish the issue. The Moro problem is far more serious and much deeper entrenched—and has been an issue for some 50 years now.
It won’t go away soon, but has a better chance with President Duterte, where historical relationships exist. The Moros have no capability at all to stage a national coup. The military is safely in its barracks and there’s no intimation of unrest.
I’d be far more worried by the militaries in Thailand and Myanmar.
In looking specifically at the Philippines, PERC evaluates the effectivity of leadership on the performance of the leader, and this indeed is what conventionally you’ll do. But Mr. Duterte is not conventional. In politics, perception trumps (excuse me, Donald) reality. The Filipino public — 82 percent of it — adores him. No other Asian leader comes close.
There’s no question but that his style is highly unconventional, and his treatment of the drug problem highly contentious. But on governance, he is fine. He is, because unlike other leaders, he recognizes his limitations, so brings in others to fill his weak areas.
His economic team, led by Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez, is doing a professional job of moving the country forward and in the right direction. Admittedly, progress to date has been disappointingly slow, due in part to the very democracy on which PERC bases its judgments. The 10-point socioeconomic agenda that the team put together is sound, well-balanced, and in the right direction.
Progress is hindered by a century-old bureaucracy crying out for fundamental reforms, and a Congress little changed from its past. These are two areas where the President could, perhaps, take a more active role.
The shift from the United States that, as PERC states, hasn’t yet “produced any dividends” wasn’t expected to. It was done to give back to Filipinos the independent pride that colonization took away from them. It worked; 12 months later, relations are back on track, at a more equal level.
There’s no question in my mind but that the Duterte administration is determined to put the building of infrastructure at the top of its list. But here I agree with PERC: It won’t happen if Mr. Duterte doesn’t step in and
better force radical shift in the way the bureaucracy and Congress operate. Mind you, there’s been some improvement noted, but it’s still too little.
The freest country in Asia with a dynamic, young workforce and a stable political and macroeconomic environment has only one way to go: up.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A fuller version of this column is available at www.wallacebusinessforum.com.
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