Infra sorely lacking
EVERY BUSINESSMAN, foreign or local, seems to take every opportunity to convey to the government the Philippines’ pressing need for infrastructure, in particular airports, roads, schools and railways. The Forbes Global CEO Conference, which was held for the first time in Manila last week, was the latest venue for some of the country’s tycoons to reiterate for the nth time the importance of building infrastructure.
There was praise for the Aquino administration’s performance particularly in the field of fighting corruption and in the resilience of the domestic economy. No less than the international publication’s editor in chief, Steve Forbes, commended President Aquino, who attended the CEO conference, for doing a great job leading the Philippines. That, obviously, is part of the Forbes show in Manila. The more important discussions involved the insights expressed by the leading capitalists at the gathering.
Teresita Sy, now at the helm of the SM Group, delved into vocational training and argued against the government’s push for the K-to-12 program, which adds two years to the Philippines’ 10-year pre-university system. She called for the strengthening of vocational training, saying it could “open doors to an endless array of careers.” Sy pointed out that the Philippines is still a developing country and poverty remains high; as a result, not many people can afford to pay for university education. She said cheaper vocational schools would further improve people’s skills, allowing them to qualify to work in industries here and abroad.
Ramon Ang, head of the San Miguel conglomerate, focused on the inefficient telecommunication services in the country. He said his company was ready to start the Philippines’ third major mobile broadband telecom network early in 2016. “We can switch on the network next year [so we won’t have] to experience problems with telecom anymore,” Ang announced to an applauding crowd. San Miguel is partnering with Australia’s biggest telecom company, Telstra Corp. (Smart Communications Inc. and Globe Telecom dominate the Philippines’ mobile telecom industry, but both are plagued by complaints from subscribers for inefficient and poor service.)
Ports tycoon Enrique Razon focused on infrastructure that could ensure the sustainability of the economic growth that the Philippines has been experiencing since Mr. Aquino took over in 2010. Razon said in an interview with the Inquirer during the Forbes CEO conference that he wanted a leader who would focus on catching up in terms of badly needed infrastructure. Looking beyond just new roads, he said that a new airport is needed and that all our neighbors have built new ones. To solve the traffic gridlock that paralyzes Metro Manila’s road network every day, Razon urged the government to build a subway system in the metropolis “instead of all these ugly MRTs and LRTs all over the place, with the buses there and jeepneys still around.”
Lack of infrastructure is one of the reasons often cited for the lower-than-desired inflow of foreign investments compared with our neighbors, aside from the built-in restrictions in the Constitution on the entry of foreigners in certain industries. President Aquino boasted during the Forbes event that foreign investments surged by 600 percent during his term to $6 billion as of 2014. Indeed, the growth rate was huge by international standards. But the value of inflows still paled beside those of comparable Southeast Asian peers. Based on data from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), the Philippines got more FDIs last year than Cambodia’s $1.73 billion, Myanmar’s $946 million and Laos’ $721 million. But it was below Vietnam’s $9.2 billion, Malaysia’s $10.8 billion, Thailand’s $12.57 billion, Indonesia’s $22.58 billion and Singapore’s $67.52 billion.
Hopes were very high when Mr. Aquino announced his flagship Public Private Partnership infrastructure development program during his first State-of-the-Nation Address in 2010. More than five years into his term, the few big-ticket projects that have been awarded are facing delays, and many others have yet to be bid out. Indeed, it will be a long wait for Filipinos to enjoy the benefits of sufficient infrastructure. The sad part is that the government had the opportunity and all the funds to have seen many of these projects through.
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