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09:45 PM September 20th, 2013

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By: Roberto F. de Ocampo, September 20th, 2013 09:45 PM

Without a doubt, the most effective national tagline we have crafted to date is “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” which, as Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez puts it, captures the essence of the Filipino character.

“Malaysia truly Asia,” “Incredible India” and “Remarkable Indonesia” are taglines mostly designed to attract foreign investments and conjure images consisting of the comparative drudgery of tall office buildings and factories where citizens can aspire to live the rest of their lives in office cubicles or assembly lines. Our tagline conjures images of beach frolic, music, dance, sport and the bounties of nature. Fun, in short. We are into the pursuit of happiness, not the happiness of pursuit—of the material things in life. Our competitive edge lies not in the products we manufacture but in the people we happily reproduce and export to the world.

Only Filipinos have the unique ability to turn a revolution or a protest march into a massive extended family bonding picnic extravaganza—with the exception of ultranationalistic leftists who ironically promote their brand of nationalism by aping the antics of all non-Filipino leftists worldwide. (Lighten up, dudes!)

So why do we insist on measuring our aspirations with such mundane benchmarks as GDP growth (presently still noninclusive) or the stock market index (which is just about as exclusive as it gets)? To be sure, there is much to be proud about the recent trends on both these fronts. Other measures such as the World Competitiveness Report similarly bring tidings of some joy as the Philippines appears to be inching back to respectability after an extended hiatus. But do these measures capture the so-called essence of the Filipino character?

Maybe not. Fortunately, as it turns out, there is such a thing as the World Happiness Report which, given our penchant toward the emotional rather than the cerebral, may be more apropos. This Happiness Index began with a historic resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in July 2011 during which UN member-countries were invited to measure the happiness of their people and use this to help guide their public policies. This was followed in April 2012 by the first UN high-level meeting on happiness and well-being chaired by the prime minister of Bhutan. Simultaneously, the first World Happiness Report was published, soon followed by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) guidelines setting an international standard for the measurement of well-being. The report indicated that the key to living a happy life includes: living in a country with a high real GDP per capita, good life expectancy, having someone to depend on, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.

The UN’s 2013 World Happiness Report ranks the Philippines at 92nd out of 156 countries surveyed. That puts us in the lower 40 percent of the group. However that’s a happier rank by 10 notches than the previous year. Still, it didn’t seem quite as happy as I had thought since I remembered seeing local news articles (circa 2009) trumpeting our position at the top ranks of the world’s happiest people. And that was at a time when corruption was rife and political unrest was in the air. Could it be that we’re happier in miserable times than in better ones? Are we a happy people or just masochists? Recently seeing our people instantly waving to CNN cameras and flashing their broadest smiles while wading waist-deep in flood waters made me begin to fear the latter possibility.

It turns out, however, that there is another happiness index: the Happy Planet Index (HPI) published by the New Economics Foundation, an independent think tank. In 2009, HPI ranked the Philippines the 14th happiest place in the world out of 143 countries surveyed. We even scored better than our neighboring countries like Indonesia (16th) and Malaysia (33rd), and were the only Asian country that ranked in the survey’s top 15 happiest countries. Not so in the UN World Happiness Report where we are ranked below Singapore (30th), Thailand (36th), Malaysia (50th), Vietnam (63rd), and Indonesia (76th). I grudgingly tolerated this survey’s results while thinking: What? Singapore happier? You can’t even chew gum there!

Even with the happier HPI results, though, the Philippines scored poorly on life satisfaction mainly because of lack of inclusive growth. No inclusive growth, no inclusive happiness! The main unhappiness factors are: inadequate infrastructure, corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, tax regulations, and restrictive labor regulation. Corruption, down a notch from being the top concern, will hopefully descend further should the Priority Development Assistance Fund be abolished since it is a social cancer that perpetuates the vicious cycle of feudal dependency or  padrino  relationships in our society. It is sad to see infrastructure move up to No. 1 and even sadder to contemplate the looming reality that the promising public-private partnership program may be just promise. Tax regulations moved up for the first time ever as a top concern as there are indeed rumblings about the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s perceived overzealousness that sometimes reveals itself in the reinterpretation of revenue regulations toward virtual legislation more restrictive than the law’s intent.

It is hoped that these concerns would be addressed so that the Philippines can move toward inclusive happiness. In this quest, perhaps the government can borrow, however reluctantly, the effective campaign slogan of a now embattled politician, “Gusto ko, happy ka!”

Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary and was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

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