Friends ask what the business community’s mood is these days. The Makati Business Club’s just released executive outlook survey for the first half of 2017 shows continued optimism and confidence—better financial results, increased investments, and more hiring. Business leaders have been rooting for this administration’s success from day one, and so far confidence remains strong that it will deliver on its economic promises.
The underlying premise of this administration’s economic agenda is that closer relations with China will lead to increased investments, wide open markets for Philippine products, more generous grants, and huge inflows of Chinese tourists. China and the Chinese business community have so far played their part with impressive pledges of investments and purchases of Philippine goods. And the Philippine business community is responding with enthusiasm, with major groups lining up for their share of the lucrative deals.
The other element of optimism is this administration’s leadership style. President Duterte and his team convey a no-nonsense approach to their pursuit of their objectives. They have strong control of all branches of government, and they do not hesitate to use their power. The result is a team that looks like it can and will get things done.
So is everything fine? It’s still early days, though after eight months some concerns are emerging that I think are best addressed aggressively lest they lead to confidence erosion. Ambitious promises have been made, and now comes crunch time to deliver.
Let me do my friends in the business community a favor by airing some emerging concerns that I believe they share but are reluctant to express.
Foremost is the reality that the war on illegal drugs has a cost that goes beyond the tremendous loss of human lives and disrespect for human rights. The fact is that it has not eliminated drug lords and has not been helpful to our economic aspirations. As Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno recently reminded us, the Philippines has lost some $430 million in second-round grants from the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation, and we are in danger of losing the zero duty status of a wide array of our export goods entering the European market—because of the manner in which the war on drugs is being conducted.
This is just the beginning. The image of a country that tolerates, or even encourages, extrajudicial killing in the guise of a war on drugs is clearly not conducive to a program to draw the increased investments that create more jobs. And indeed there are increasing episodes of companies putting their new investment or expansion plans on hold.
If I may suggest the unthinkable: Is it not time to rethink this whole campaign against illegal drugs and instead redirect our energies toward the single-minded pursuit of economic priorities?
A second major area of concern is the long-term cost of our subservience to China. By all means, it makes great sense to be friendlier and to develop strong economic partnerships, but treating our sovereignty lightly as if it were a tradable commodity is ill-advised and will greatly cost our country in the long run.
On this issue, I think the administration would benefit from former president Fidel V. Ramos’ idea of convening the highest level of leaders to formulate the appropriate policies and strategies to govern Philippine relations with China. President Duterte may mean well, but he will surely benefit from the perspectives and experience of other leaders.
A final critical concern is the administration’s lack of tolerance for debate and dissenting voices. Leaders who were prepared to support and cooperate with the administration but who have not consistently toed its line are declared as enemies and viciously attacked. Yet with its strong electoral mandate and continued popular support, the administration, one would think, should be able to display more self-confidence and tolerance for healthy dissent. Instead of throwing concocted cases and impeachment threats, how about extending a humble hand of friendship and cooperation? A unified leadership would serve our country well. Withdrawing the impeachment threat against the Vice President is a good start.
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