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HORIZONS

Philippines: ‘Sick man of Asia’ again?

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another ruler with trumpetings again,” wrote Kahlil Gibran, Lebanon’s soulful poet.

Perhaps no place better captures the tragedy of betrayed hopes and thwarted dreams than Lebanon, where a self-serving and sectarian oligarchy has destroyed one of the most beautiful and promising nations on earth.

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In the pulsating prose of Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, “here is one of the most educated nations in the region with the most talented and courageous — and generous and kindliest — of peoples… yet it cannot run its currency, supply its electric power, cure its sick or protect its people.”

Lebanon’s wrenching tragedy is eerily familiar. We also have one of the most educated and talented peoples anywhere in the world, with our diaspora as dynamic and successful as Lebanon’s. And yet, a brazenly incompetent oligarchy has allowed the Philippines to suffer both the worst outbreak of COVID-19 and the worst economic contraction in the region, beating even the giants Indonesia and China.

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Not unlike Lebanon, which used to be described as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” ours was once a regional economic dynamo. In the early 1960s, not long before dictatorship and decadence ruined our nation, Manila managed to beat the likes of Seoul and Tehran to host the Asian Development Bank.

Aside from our superbly talented and hardworking people, the Philippines benefited from a relatively less vicious form of colonialism than most of our neighbors. In the half-accurate description of Singapore’s forefather Lee Kuan Yew, “In the 1950s and 1960s, the [Philippines] was the most developed [in the region], because America had been generous in rehabilitating the country after the war.”

What Mr. Lee forgot to mention, however, was the complete devastation of Manila, “The Pearl of the Orient,” by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces, followed by their hasty abandonment of the Philippines under the guise of granting us formal “independence.”

It didn’t take long before the country got what Manuel Quezon aptly described as a “government run like hell by Filipinos,” as a distinctly rapacious oligarchy dominated our state institutions. Instead of mass-based modern political parties, we ended up with pre-modern political dynasties shamelessly turning elected office into family conglomerates.

And yet, despite everything, the Philippines did begin to gradually get its house in order. While we never had truly “great” leaders, two contemporary presidents managed to shake off the country’s unfortunate moniker as the “Sick man of Asia.”

Building on the democratic struggles of the Cory Aquino administration, which was hounded by countless coups and the Imeldific debts of the Marcos regime, President Fidel Ramos initiated a series of political and economic reforms that ended more than a decade of crises. His hopes to transform the Philippines into the latest member of the “Asian tigers,” however, was thwarted by a toxic mélange of internal and external shocks, namely an incompetent populist successor combined with the Asian financial crisis.

More than a decade later, we managed to claw our way back to a measure of stability and prosperity. Building on the macroeconomic reforms of its predecessor, the Benigno Aquino III administration oversaw a series of indispensable (though far from perfect) reforms, which brought about one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.

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By 2013, the World Bank was describing the Philippines as “Asia’s rising tiger.” No longer the “Sick man of Asia,” the Philippines had joined the ranks of what emerging markets guru Ruchir Sharma termed as “breakout nations,” with the most promising economies on earth.

However, as Sharma, the chief global strategist of Morgan Stanley, warned, a country can sustain long-term growth if and only if it builds strong institutions and regularly produces competent leaders who can provide new sets of policy innovations at each stage of national development. “What [emerging markets’] experiences underscore is that political cycles are as important to a nation’s prospects as economic ones,” he said.

Not unlike Ramos’ tragedy, the Aquino III-era gains seem to have also suffered from the twin shocks of a populist successor and a global crisis.

What we need is a world-class leader who can appreciate the scale and complexity of 21st-century governance, especially in times of unprecedented crisis. Instead, what we got was a “mayor-president.”

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, economy, Horizons, recession, Richard Heydarian
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