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Emulating our neighbors

I’ve written before of how too many Filipino entrepreneurs are content with playing “gaya-gaya” (imitator) in business—that is, do what other seemingly successful businesses are already doing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s welcome to the extent that it promotes a healthy competition that drives firms to outdo one another through competitive prices, and through better quality and productivity—all to the benefit of consumers.

It becomes a problem when it stifles originality, creativity and innovation, and when, in the bid to outdo competitors, it leads firms to cut corners and take unwarranted shortcuts.

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But why is it that we’re less adept at being “gaya-gaya” when it comes to the good things our neighbors have done to uplift their economies and their people’s welfare? Many of the things that keep Filipinos poor—rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of access to credit for small producers, weak agricultural export performance, among many others—have been largely overcome by some of our more successful neighbors. It ought to be easy to study and copy what they’ve done right. But we don’t.

Reader Ariel Trinidad, who has lived and worked in Vietnam, rues how “we are like the hare that shows bursts of speed, but falls disappointingly behind after partying and feeling overconfident.” He writes on: “The tortoise, which is enshrined in Vietnamese mythology, plods slowly but surely to its goal. Yet ‘slowly’ may not be an apt description for the Vietnamese economy which has been growing above 6 percent for the past two decades. I would attribute that to its government paying attention to the basics.”

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He cites how the government provided small plots of land to the landless, then supported them with an extensive irrigation network. “Around Hanoi and in the countryside are numerous canals, weirs, sluice gates, and pumping stations for irrigation. Most provincial capitals will feature a manmade lake or pond that serves aesthetic, recreational, and irrigation purposes. In the highlands, spring boxes and small dams trap and collect surface runoff, feeding narrow concrete-lined irrigation canals that snake for kilometers, following the contours of mountainsides, delivering water to farm plots in isolated villages.”

To him, this explains how that country has managed to become the top exporter of cashew, coffee and black pepper in the world, apart from being the second largest rice exporter. Meanwhile, exports of lychee, dragonfruit and pickled cucumbers are also rising rapidly. That country now earns $15 billion from farm exports, while we’ve only managed a measly $6 billion.

I’ve heard it said many times that, unlike the Philippine government, when the Vietnamese government wills something, it gets it done. When it declared two decades ago that it will beat Central America at supplying coffee to the world, the country was dead serious. Now our top coffee manufacturers import their raw material from Vietnam big time.

For reader Exequiel Lampa, a resident of Indonesia for five years, it’s easy to see why Transparency International now ranks his host country to be less corrupt than the Philippines. “Last April, the former Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament was sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption. Earlier, it was the Ministers of Energy and Religious Affairs.” The Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission has sent truly “big fish” to prison, he says, proving how serious the country is in fighting corruption.

“Locally, we have yet to see a big fish get convicted,” he notes. “When corrupt big fish in the government are charged, they run to hospitals feigning sickness. Once released from hospital arrest, they miraculously get well and become healthy and energetic politicians again. Others are less creative, and just pay their way to be held in comfortable military stockades. In fairness, the present administration has sacked a few high-profile government officials. But (unlike in Indonesia, Korea and other neighbors) we have yet to see a big fish actually sentenced for corruption.”

Why can’t our government be “gaya-gaya” on these, and many more?

[email protected]

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