As the name-calling between Manila and Beijing becomes more heated, I think it will be good for us if it becomes a contest instead as to which country—China or the Philippines—is the real or original “Sick Man of Asia.”
Whenever President Aquino talks about the recent show of economic dynamism by the Philippines to international audiences (as he planned to do in his Davos speech that did not get delivered last year), his favorite set-up line is to say that before he took the helm, the Philippines was called “the sick man of Asia.” His punch line is that with him in command, the epithet has become a thing of the past.
One problem with citing history is that you never know what a little bit of impolite fact-checking will turn up. As with the President’s citation of Suedentenland in his interview with the New York Times, so the “Sick Man of Asia” lament misses the mark.
China: the original sick man of Asia
In truth, the sick man of Asia nickname was originally pinned on China during the late 19th century and early 20th century when it was riven by internal divisions and humiliated by the great powers into writing unequal treaties with them.
Significantly, the epithet has never been pinned on the Philippines by serious journalists and observers. No one in Malacañang’s massive communications group has found or will find a foreign publication describing our country as such. If it all, the search will probably find a Filipino source for it, perhaps a columnist who was trying to look clever and knowing.
William Safire in his Political Dictionary writes authoritatively that Turkey was the original sick man. He writes: “In 1853, Russian Czar Nicholas I told British ambassador Sir George Seymore, “We have on our hands a sick man, a very sick man,” and Turkey was tagged throughout the remainder of the 19th century as “the sick man of Europe.”
Across the oceans and across history, the patient has periodically changed, but the phrase lingered on. Australian editor Colin Buingham wrote in 1967: “For years after the Second World War, France was frequently described as ‘the sick man of Europe.’ ”
Before World War II, however, as the Powers were merrily dividing the spoils in the Middle Kingdom, China was tagged as “the sick man of Asia.”
If China was the original sick man of Asia, why then would the Philippines wish to wrest that distinction from her—especially now when she is claiming all of the South China Sea as part of her sovereign territory? Perhaps, territorial greed can be cited as one of the signs of her sickness. But wishing to get the epithet for ourselves seems to me a little sick.
Bewailing a putdown that never happened and claiming to have surmounted it is false bravado, returning the epithet to China makes more sense.
Financial Times takes a shot
After President Ramos, the sick man epithet went into hibernation. Not even the misfortunes of President Joseph Estrada could revive it, because the talk then turned to his unconstitutional removal from power. When the economy thereafter began to strengthen under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, it seemed like our neighbors and foreign observers were done taking potshots at us. With Indonesia coming on strong, and all of Asean hailed as the next site of the Asian economic miracle, it seemed like we were at last on the way to joining the parade. And with the highly popular election of President Benigno Aquino 3rd in 2010, there was no point in worrying.
It was in this state of blissful complacency that I was startled in December 2011 by a commentary in the Financial Times, an occasional reading indulgence of mine.
In an op-ed piece entitled “Just two cheers for a sputtering Indonesian dream” (Financial Times, December 15, 2011), David Pilling, Asia editor of that UK paper, casually dropped our country’s name, and in a most annoying and dismissive way.
“Of South-east Asian economies, Indonesia is the only one the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects to grow faster in the next five years—at an annual 6.6 percent—than it did in the last. Its seemingly inexorable expansion is being propelled by favorable demographics, a potent force in a country of 240m people. At this rate, Standard Chartered Bank expects it to be the sixth-biggest economy in the world by 2030, bigger than either Germany or the UK, and bested only by China, the US, India, Brazil and Japan.
“Yet Indonesia is falling far short of its potential. Economically, it is in a deliciously sweet spot. Why, then, in 2010 did it grow more slowly than the Philippines, often considered to be Asia’s economic equivalent of the mad lady in the attic?” (underscoring mine).
Mad lady in the attic? The putdown rankled. It reminded me of characters in English novels, like “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations,” characters whom time and fashions appeared to have literally passed by. The original mad lady was apparently stood up at the altar by her bridegroom, or something like that. And she went bonkers.
Is this how foreign eyes see us in the Philippines? Have recent changes for the better not counted for anything?
I resolved at the time to write in future to Mr. Pilling to find out what he meant, and what exactly he found wrong with our country or our economy.
Last year, I did write Mr. Pilling, and within just a week, he graciously sent me his reply. He said that his remark had been flippant and regrettable. He explained that the Philippines for many decades had disappointed by failing to meet high expectations, such as being a country well-positioned to succeed immediately after the Second World War.
He then proceeded to say that in recent years, the Philippines had been performing well economically, and that its prospects for the future have appreciably improved.
The Pilling article had been written at a time of contraction by the Philippine economy, because of the underspending of the Aquino government and after 38 quarters of growth under President Arroyo. By the following year, the economy was back on track. By 2013 the economy had won investment grade ratings from the ratings agencies, and had recorded 7.6-percent growth in the first quarter, 7.2 percent for the entire year.
It appears that Mr. Pilling visited Manila several more times since his article first came out, and he has written more positively about developments here.
With the current name-calling between Manila and Beijing, I worry that foreign observers and journalists might start wondering about the state of mind of Filipino leadership today. Being called an old lady is not the worst putdown, and is certainly not as gross as being called a Nazi.