Why Fidel Ramos was the best
Many Filipinos often lament how we have lacked exceptional leaders, unlike some of our neighbors. Others, sadly, fall for revisionist, if not delusional, accounts of the past, imagining a golden era out of what was more accurately a dark age for Philippine economy and democracy.
After all, it was precisely during the 1970s and 1980s when Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand managed to leapfrog ahead of the Philippines, which was the regional economic stalwart in the early 1960s. Go figure which administration was mostly in charge of the Philippines during those “lost decades.”
According to popular opinion, it was thanks to the strong-willed leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad that Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, became among the most prosperous nations outside the industrialized West. Some would even go so far as praising authoritarian populists such as Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who was responsible for a deadly yet ineffectual drug war; oversaw widespread corruption and nepotism; and ended up plunging his country into a decadelong political civil war.
Few people, however, appreciate the importance of impersonal institutions, particularly a competent and autonomous bureaucracy that implements optimal trade and industrial policies, to the success of these countries.
And many Filipinos tend to fall for simplistic explanations such as “political will” and the idea that all we need in this country is an “iron-fist” leadership.
There is one Filipino leader in contemporary history, however, who not only understood the importance of institutions, but also adopted a visionary style of governance based on technocratic merit (rather than nepotism), empirical evidence (rather than outlandish claims), and a good measure of personal discipline and competence (rather than populist know-nothingness).
Throughout his years in politics, Fidel Ramos was far from perfect. Critics will easily point out, inter alia, his instrumental role in enabling the emergence of the martial law regime; his decision to allow the return of the Marcoses to the Philippines after temporary exile; and the surge in kidnappings and crime during the latter years of his presidency.
Yet, four things made his administration relatively better than all others in contemporary memory. Again, this is in relative terms, since his leadership was far from perfect.
First of all, people tend to forget that he is arguably among the best-educated Filipino leaders ever, with advanced civilian and military degrees from the top institutions in the Philippines and the United States.
He is also among the most globally renowned regional leaders, with a stellar record of hyperactive diplomacy (minus junkets) and prolific writing. In fact, during his time, the Philippines was a key driver within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Second, Ramos oversaw a period of steady economic growth, democratic consolidation, successful peace negotiations, and an end to the political instability and coup attempts that had wracked the country throughout the 1980s. And he accomplished this fateful task of steadying the ship in pursuit of his “Philippines 2000” vision of an emerging tiger economy.
Third, as Ramos’ former economic secretary Cielito Habito always points out, his administration was largely built on merit, not on political calculations or nepotism. His Cabinet featured many of the “best and brightest” of the country, including those that didn’t necessarily support his presidential campaign or even know him personally at all.
Ramos correctly saw leadership as teamwork, not a cult of personality. And, similar to Nelson Mandela, he didn’t create his own political dynasty.
Fourth, and most importantly, Ramos believed in a “strong state,” rather than strongmen. He invested in state institutions, rather than his personal office.
This is why, during his term, we achieved, among many other things, our highest rate of tax collection, a key measure of a strong bureaucracy, which was only matched in recent years.
His term also saw the most vigorous assault yet on monopolistic practices in the Philippine telecommunications sector, a feat that hasn’t been matched by any of his successors so far.
The ultimate tragedy was not only the Asian financial crisis that punctuated his final year in office, but also the institutionally destructive and utterly corrupt populism that followed his term. If only his successors built on his legacy.
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