Switching places | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Switching places

Years ago, I opened an article with a saying you’ve probably heard, which says: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” A reader’s response to a recent article once again brought to mind that quote, originally attributed to George Bernard Shaw. I’ve lately been writing of how neighboring countries that had actually gained knowledge and training from us before have since outdone us in what they learned from us, especially in the agricultural sciences, and in running agricultural cooperatives.

But there’s much more. I also wrote before of how we copied Thailand’s Basic Minimum Needs or BMN household poverty monitoring system in the early 1990s (we renamed it Minimum Basic Needs or MBN to avoid looking like exact copycats) — only to be told that they actually got the idea from us, in an old Department of Social Welfare and Development document that never saw the light of day. And yet the Thais used it to good effect. We didn’t even know the original idea was ours, but they privately attributed it to us, nonetheless. I know this for a fact, as I was one of three Philippine officials who interacted with theirs in a study tour to learn about their BMN system back then.

Still another way we had been “teaching” our neighbors, albeit less obviously, was in how we used to “export” professional Filipino managers, who were prominent in the business circles of our neighbors in decades past. Filipino firms were also doing active business in those same neighbors, perhaps filling local gaps. My reader, who had spent the better part of his career working in Indonesia, was one of those early Filipino expat managers from whose skills our neighboring economies benefited. He recalled to me how when he first went there in mid-1972, their first expressway, the 60-km Jakarta-Bogor Highway, was being built by Filipino firm CDCP. “But in 1991, or just 2 decades later, an Indonesian firm came here to build the first segment of the SLEX Skyway, introducing the (then new construction technology) rotating-beam method!” He went on, “The high-voltage power transmission line spanning Java Island was being wired by MIESCOR. The Borobudur Temples were being rehabilitated by CDCP…” And he noted how that country’s Board of Investments, which admitted to having adopted our own BOI’s concept of Investment Priority Plans, had become highly instrumental in the way foreign investments poured into Indonesia.


The Philippines used to be second poorest (based on GDP per capita or average income) among the original five Asean members (Asean-5), eclipsing only Indonesia. In 1990, average income in the Philippines was $727 against Indonesia’s $638. But by 2009, Indonesia had $2,335 while we had $1,746, making us now the poorest among the Asean-5. The switch happened a few years before that, and like Thailand, it felt like a case of the former student trading places with the mentor. After Indonesia, Vietnam seems next, and while our per capita GDP is still higher, it appears a matter of time, noting how that country has already far outshone us in various key economic indicators.


Why must we keep seeing this phenomenon of our neighbors, and former mentees, passing us by in seeming succession? Part of the answer may lie in what another reader points out to be a major problem with our farm cooperatives, contrasting with how neighbors like South Korea and Thailand made them a force for dynamic agricultural development. Exequiel Lampa, who grew up in a farming barangay in Tarlac, wrote me of his boyhood dream of helping farmers organize and manage cooperatives. He told me the story of three farming cooperatives that all met the same fate of bankruptcy after thriving with substantial assets running up to tens of millions of pesos. When he asked why, he says: “One standard answer was given. The officers stole the cooperatives’ money.”

Corruption is everywhere, but apart from us constantly ranking high among the most corrupt, Transparency International’s corruption index now puts us even lower than where we were in 2016. And with perennially bad governance in general, we seem condemned to keep switching places with more neighbors in years ahead.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch

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