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Political will—or won’t

As Ben Diokno pointed out, the level of government spending on infrastructure over the past four years has been appallingly low. Now there are some good reasons for this—none of the previous president’s projects could be trusted to be needed and honestly prepared. But also some bad reasons—an overindulgent bureaucratic system, some inept management, and, importantly, a lack of political will to just get things done.

Government can rationalize all it likes, but it won’t change the fact: Infrastructure didn’t get built. And the people have suffered because the jobs created by construction and the jobs generated by investors didn’t materialize. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has remained the lowest in Asia, and much of what little did come in was spent to rehabilitate or upgrade existing plants. No great job creator there.

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It’s the same in domestic investment: It’s been too small (the Philippines’ gross domestic investment as a percentage of GDP is a measly 17 percent, dwarfed by Malaysia’s 22 percent, Indonesia’s 25 percent, Thailand’s 26 percent, and Vietnam’s 35 percent), and in the wrong things (real estate, where temporary construction jobs are created, and few others), not in manufacturing or agri-business where it’s really needed, and where the less-educated people from the countryside may be employed, in full-time, long-lasting jobs.

So I have some suggestions for the President (if he’ll take it as intended, to help give all Filipinos a decent life) for some things to announce in his State of the Nation Address (Sona) next month, the one Malacañang is preparing now.

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First, throw away the grandiose plans, they’re a dime a dozen in this country. I use the back of the paper they’re printed on to write these columns. Just announce a few, very specific actions. I’m sick of plans, I just want things done. The President has two years to develop some impressive plans that pull everything together in the most impelling way—or get things done.

So let’s get things done, and here’s my TO DO list—a list aimed only at giving Filipinos jobs, a list that can be done if that overused phrase is actually put into effect: “political will.”

For jobs, let’s start with two direct ones. Get rid of security of tenure, which is one of the greatest disincentives to job creation. As any “5-monther” will tell you, there’s no security. Security comes from doing a good job. Lower the minimum wage to be competitive. Why should Vietnam get $24 billion (total from 2010 to 2012) and the Philippines only $6.2 billion in FDI? Wages make up one of the primary reasons. The $3 (P134) per day a Vietnamese worker gets is much too low, but it’s better than the zero a Filipino nonworker gets. We may not have to match Vietnam, but we have to be closer. Four times higher is too far.

As for the premier international airport, as I said last week, act on short-term solutions now and in the longer term decide where a new airport will be by Sept. 30.  And conclude a contract to build it before the next Sona in 2015. Some 20 years of dithering is more than long enough.

Override the objections and build power plants. I don’t like coal and I don’t like a power station in my backyard, but I don’t like the lack of electricity even more.

Cancel the review of mining taxes and just make sure ALL miners pay the proper taxes. The taxes imposed are globally-competitive now. The uncertainty that the President has introduced lost far more for government than any tax change will ever recover.

Interconnect and fix the city railroads, and expand them. And charge reasonable fees (subsidize, if you must, but P14 versus a bus at P30 is an unacceptable burden on other taxpayers). Rebuild the Philippine National Railways line from Nueva Ecija to Bicol, expand it to Isabela in the north and put new trains on it. We need public transport.

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Here’s one that will cost almost nothing—and create jobs. Impose real, proper discipline in driving. Just one simple thing: If drivers were considerate of those around them, intersections wouldn’t be blocked, jeepney drivers wouldn’t stop wherever they liked, tricycle drivers would stick to the roadsides, and so on. Hundreds of traffic aides can enforce it, until it’s second nature. You’d be surprised how much quicker you’d get around.

And a final, albeit difficult, one: Truly speed up and simplify the bureaucracy, fully computerize it (which, as far as I’m concerned, needs a Department of Information and Communications Technology—when will the President recognize that?). No more than five days and three signatures max for normal bureaucratic procedures. Where research needs to be done—e.g., for an environmental clearance—a deadline must be set. If the deadline isn’t met, disapproval is automatic.

I hear far too many complaints by businessmen of the difficulty of dealing with government, particularly local governments, where the requirements can be maddening. Let me remind the President, this is not a federal parliamentary republic but a presidential one. The President can demand local compliance. His reluctance to do this resulted in the loss of a $6-billion investment, as Xstrata put its huge Tampakan mine on hold because he wouldn’t just override the local governor—as the 1987 Constitution allows him to do.

There are many more I can list that I would like to see done, but this will do. This would be miracle enough. If these things can be promised in the President’s next Sona—and actually done—the positive change in the Philippines would be dramatic. Sadly I have little hope any of it will actually happen. But I can dream, can’t I? It is, after all, my birthday as I write this.

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, Ben Diokno, domestic investment, Foreign Direct Investment, Political Will, Sona, State of the Nation Address, tampakan mine, Xstrata
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