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What Malaysia can learn from PH

/ 12:04 AM March 10, 2014

PETALING JAYA—Philippine President Aquino is a dynast who means what he says.

I first interviewed Aquino back in 2010 while he was still on the presidential campaign trail, and he impressed me immediately. However, many observers had only harsh views of him and dismissed him as little more than a callow political princeling—though the son of the near-sainted former president Cory Aquino and assassinated former senator Benigno Aquino Jr.

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But something about him struck me. Perhaps it was, as I wrote back then, his “quiet determination and self-confidence, an inherently rational and deliberate mindset and a determination not to become indebted to entrenched business and political interests… his integrity and intelligence may well propel the Philippines forward and surprise its neighbors.”

Last Feb. 28, listening to him speak in Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Aquino clearly hasn’t disappointed. Speaking of his election, he noted: “The people told us… it’s time to once and for all realize the vast potential of the Philippines.” I think

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Mr. Aquino has delivered on this score and more. Indeed, Malaysia can learn a lot from the

Philippines.

First, the republic’s economy has been transformed. The Philippines has soared in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report rankings, from 85th in 2010 to 59th in 2013. Its GDP grew by 7.2 percent in 2013 despite the devastation wrought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: “Haiyan”).

Moreover, its business process outsourcing (BPO) industry generated $13.3 billion in revenues and by 2016 is expected to employ 1.3 million people. The Philippines is also emerging as a tourism hub, having attracted some 4.6 million international visitors in 2013, and raking in $4.8 billion in revenues. This is no accident: Back in that 2010 interview, Mr. Aquino identified BPO and tourism as “critical growth areas” for the Philippine economy. He also mentioned the need for better infrastructure and he has increased spending for this from $7.16 billion in 2013 to $9 billion this year.

Separately, in 2013 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) sent $22.5 billion in remittances back home. Of course, the large numbers of OFWs (estimated at nearly 10 million) represent a substantial cost to the nation—the republic’s best and brightest working in other countries, most often leaving behind their children, and in not a few instances resulting in broken families. Nonetheless, the Philippines will be entering a demographic “sweet spot” in 2015, when the majority of the population will reach working age.

Admittedly, corruption remains a major problem. But Aquino has never shied away from taking on those who abuse power. He has not spared even his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Whatever the merits of the charges against her, her prosecution proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Aquino holds no one above the law. Under his presidency, the Philippines’ Corruption Perception Index ranking improved from 134th in 2010 to 94th in 2013.

Aquino has also defied powerful religious interests, specifically, the Catholic Church, on the controversial Reproductive Health Law, to provide universal access to contraception. This measure is desperately needed given that the Philippines has the highest population growth in Asia at 1.9 percent, exacerbating its poverty.

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But his impact has been more than economic. Mr. Aquino’s tenure could see an end to the

four-decade-old southern Philippine insurgency. Thanks to a Malaysian-brokered peace deal, plans are afoot to expand the existing Muslim autonomous region there into a “Bangsamoro” entity with more devolved powers, in exchange for the disarmament of the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Of course, the deal still needs the approval of Philippine Congress; and another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, maintains a recalcitrant attitude toward the latest peace agreement. But the establishment of the Bangsamoro will be a big boost to security not only in the southern Philippines but also in Sabah. In agreeing to this development, the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines has shown generosity and innovation in dealing with its minorities.

I’m not saying everything is rosy there. The country’s continuing defiance of China over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) issue may be unwise, especially with the political tension in the region heating up. Still, it would be foolish to dismiss the Philippines’ latest feats.

Mr. Aquino has shown great foresight, but more importantly, courage in sticking to his bold plans for transformation. This hasn’t been easy for him, and opposition is also coming from his own class, but this hasn’t stopped him or forced him to backtrack from pursuing what he envisions for his country.

In his concluding remarks in Kuala Lumpur, Aquino said: “The Philippines, once the laggard of Asia, is now entering into a sustainable cycle of empowerment and opportunity, and a trajectory of growth where no one is left behind.”

I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot more of the country going forward. The Nation/Asia News Network

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