Ending on a high note
Unfortunately for the baritone-voiced like me, a popular adage for describing final success is “ending on a high note.” I suppose a truly high note is tough to accomplish even by the best sopranos and is thus greeted with deserving accolades by an appreciative audience. So, as the Aquino administration enters its swan-song phase, will it indeed end on a high note? Interestingly, its final year will be punctuated by events similar to those that occurred in the final years of an administration widely regarded to have been one of our country’s most successful—the Ramos administration.
Next year, Pope Francis is visiting, the country is hosting Apec again, and the Asean Economic Cooperation structure is due to be launched. At about this same juncture during the Ramos administration, Pope (now Saint) John Paul II visited, the Philippines hosted an Apec meeting for the first time, and a heightened sense of the need for Asean solidarity was sparked by the Asian financial crisis. And the parallels don’t seem to end there.
The Ramos administration decisively ended the economically debilitating period of power shortages and brownouts, restored the country’s international financial standing, spearheaded an effective public-private partnership in infrastructure, and gave birth and credibility to a rising perception that the Philippines was not only back in business but was also the growing “tiger cub” of Asean economies. The battle cry was “Philippines 2000!” and the country’s march to progress appeared inexorable. Sadly, this ending high note was followed by a decade of relative drift that was anything but music to the ears, as it were, since too often, the quest for popularity guided policy and, in too many cases, greed was anything but moderated.
By most accounts, the Aquino administration has succeeded in reviving hope that the Philippines may again get it right this time, live up to its potential, and resist its penchant for thwarting its own dreams and frustrating its own—not to mention the worldís—expectations. The operative mantra has been “Good governance equals good economics,” which has been wielded as mainly an anticorruption moral crusade to attempt a fundamental change in a deeply rooted mindset that permeates so many aspects of Philippine politics and society. So far, so good.
But of late, doubts have been raised in the face of continued high levels of joblessness alongside impressive economic growth statistics, a relatively anemic implementation of the PPP (public-private partnership) program, and instances of glaring ineptitude of ranking officials, as evidenced by a looming power shortage, a bungled MRT system, and a return to an excruciatingly long wait for car plates and drivers’ licenses, among others.
The doubts aren’t about the inherent virtue of good governance per se but whether good governance pursued mainly as an anticorruption moral crusade should be viewed as a starting point rather than an end in itself, and whether such a crusade is a necessary but not sufficient element for bringing about widespread economic progress and inclusive growth. Thus, some venture to say that attention should be given to “effective,” and not just “good,” governance.
Still, it would seem that this administration has made a dent on the business-as-usual, that’s-the-way-things-have-been-and-always-will-be attitude to corruption. However, the reality also is that in pursuing its crusade, it may have—in some instances, inadvertently or otherwise—curtailed the ability of the legitimate majority of the private sector to be a more dynamic engine of economic growth. This it does through an occasional obsession with process rather than outcomes, as witness the disturbing MRT operations and maintenance saga where it would seem all that was needed was to continue something that’s already working. There is also an excessive reliance on more and more regulations and reports as a defining feature of what constitutes good governance. There seems to be a contest among regulators on which can produce more regulations and invent more reports for the private sector to accomplish and submit.
At times the regulations appear inappropriate to the Philippine situation. A case in point is a contemplated regulation to mandate the number of independent directors in corporate boards to at least 50 percent of board membership, and enforce unrealistic limits to the independent directors’ tenure as well as the number of the boards they may serve in simultaneously. This idea is lifted practically verbatim from regulations in the United Kingdom, where business structures and corporate relationships are different from ours and thus cannot be simply force-fit into our system. At times the regulations have to be contested in court, resulting in a long legal process, as witness the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s dismal record in winning cases. The situation raises the question of whether the promulgated regulations would have been more helpful toward both revenue efficiency and better use of everyone’s time if these were better crafted to begin with.
The likelihood, though, is that the administration would end on a high note and be remembered for its dogged anticorruption efforts. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the public sentiment is to seek effective governance that can deliver tangible public goods, so to speak, in a next administration as an attractive expansion of the good-governance crusade started by the incumbent.
Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary and was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
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