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No Free Lunch

Sharpening our economic vision

/ 05:24 AM December 14, 2018

Do we have a clear idea of what we as an economy want to be known for in, say, 10 to 15 years? Years ago, Thailand announced it would be the “Kitchen of the World,” and focused on strengthening and promoting Thai cuisine at home (for foreign tourists) and overseas (via quality Thai restaurants). Thailand is now also known as the “Detroit of Southeast Asia,” hosting most of the car assembly in the region for export to the world. Singapore had long been known as a tourism and shopping mecca, and has moved on to pursue other areas of excellence such as information technology. The city of Dubai in turn wanted to be the “Singapore of the Middle East,” and that’s what it is now, and more. When Vietnam, at the turn of the millennium, resolved to be a top producer of coffee in the world, the Vietnamese worked hard on it, and today they are second only to much larger Brazil in world coffee production and exports.

As for us, what do we want to be? Or as we ask our little children, “Ano ang gusto mong maging?” I don’t recall that we’ve had as clear an economic vision as we had during the watch of President Fidel V. Ramos more than two decades ago, when what we wanted to be was clearly articulated in the government’s “pole-vaulting strategies” then. While his administration pushed the policies and programs in pursuit of these dreams, these were soon forgotten by his successors, who all seemed intent to make their own distinctive mark, using their own distinctive branding. Such is the sad reality of Philippine politics, whether at the national or local levels, leading to our lack of continuity and consistent pursuit of a defined vision, be it national or local, economic or otherwise.

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What were the visionary goals of the Ramos “pole-vaulting strategies”? The idea, as the term suggested, was to catapult the Philippine economy forward by pursuing distinct areas of excellence that we are uniquely equipped for, then and now. The term “pole-vaulting” was a reference to how we appeared to have bypassed an industrialization phase, proceeding directly from an agriculture-dominated economy to one dominated by services. The dream was to turn the country into Asia’s Shopping Center, Medical Center, Entertainment Capital and Knowledge Center, among others. While these defined growth poles are entirely in the services sector, we need not preclude leadership in specific manufacturing industries as well, especially now that Philippine manufacturing has been growing faster than the overall economy since 2010.

Two decades hence, those pole-vaulting goals are all but forgotten. Even so, our unique strengths on which these dreams were strategically premised remain with us. Becoming Asia’s Shopping Center hinged then on trade liberalization, which reduced the cost of imported goods for domestic and foreign shoppers alike, and retail trade liberalization, which ushered in more modern retail systems and establishments. Becoming a Medical Center for Asia has always been quite logical for us, given our excellent medical practitioners who enjoy recognition and respect worldwide. We just need more investments in world-class hospitals for our world-class doctors and nurses to work in.

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Our inherent advantage in becoming Asia’s Entertainment Capital needs little elaboration, being well-positioned to be the Broadway of Asia, and much more. Again, we just need the right investments in the required facilities to complement our uniquely rich artistic talent pool to achieve this goal. Similarly, the Philippines as Knowledge Center—in terms of higher education, information and communication technology, creative industries, and business process management—is well within reach. After all, we had been the region’s acknowledged education center before, until complacency and destructive politics made it slip away.

It’s really all there; we only need to pick one or two, or all of the above, to guide all our economic initiatives with much better focus and direction than what we seem to be seeing now.

As the Philippines’ chief economic planner in the 1990s, I liked to say that all great achievements begin with a dream. But let’s define that dream much more clearly.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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