Davao’s Duterte was wise to withdraw from the presidential polls, though he was rising on the strength of his reputation as the Mindanao “strongman.” Significantly, he has been keeping pace with the survey leaders among ABC voters.
Duterte’s rise reflects people’s dissatisfaction with the corruption of the bureaucracy and the generally poor quality of government. But it’s not “a leader who rules by the exercise of threat, force or violence” that we need; and not only because leaders who govern without constitutional restraints end up unavoidably oppressing their peoples.
Authoritarianism won’t work in a dual society like ours. We Filipinos may still be feudal enough for our politicians to treat office as just a way of acquiring patronage; yet we’re also modern enough for people to fight tenaciously for their rights.
It’s not a strongman but a strong state—an autonomous and self-motivated state—that we need, to lead us through the complexities of late industrialization to the orbit of modernization.
Neither the Spaniards nor the Americans invested in their Philippine colony the attention that the “professional” imperialists—the British, Dutch and French—devoted to their own domains. Even the harsh Japanese left Taiwan and Korea with competent bureaucracies and deep manufacturing experience.
Our country is the exception among the East Asian states in not having a tradition of rule by a bureaucratic elite distinct from—and co-equal to—its political counterparts.
The Spaniards, being pre-industrial colonizers, sought from their colonies little more than “souls to save and loot to steal.” For the Americans—”half-hearted imperialists” to the historian Barbara Tuchman—our archipelago’s only enduring value was as a forward defense base in the Western Pacific.
Our persistent poverty of infrastructure dates back to Spanish rule, which relegated to municipal governments the provision of public works. The Americans in their turn allowed the colonial politicians free access to pork barrels and civil-service positions, in exchange for moderating middle-class nationalism.
Indeed collaboration between Washington’s administrators and the Filipino political-economic elite was so uniquely close it has been called “compadre colonialism.”
That collaboration—apart from giving our sugar barons privileged entry to the protected US market—nurtured the careers of our colonial politicians.
Osmeña and Quezon were wheeling and dealing with President Taft and Governor Forbes while Indonesia’s Sukarno and Hatta and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh were coming in and out of colonial jails.
But compadre colonialism wrought long-term collateral damage on national society. It concentrated power and opportunity in the hands of only a few that have not been lifted until now.
Powerful individuals, families and clans still are able to tilt the rules in their favor and acquire privileged access to the rents and commissions generated by public investments.
Left out of the miracle
The worst effect of our oligarchic economy and dysfunctional politics so far has been to exclude us from the East Asian “miracle” of 1965-1995.
Our country had been among East Asia’s earliest modernizers. In 1960, Filipinos were second only to the Japanese in individual incomes. Yet our economy has failed to move beyond growth driven by its natural resources and low labor costs. It has yet to rise to more inclusive growth, sustained by constantly rising productivity.
In 1962, our individual incomes were roughly equal to those of Taiwan’s; and one-fourth those of Japan’s. But by 1986—24 years later—they were only one-seventh those of Taiwan’s and barely 3 percent those of Japan’s.
Again and again we’ve known historical episodes of “prosperity without progress,” as regional industries founded on natural resources—abaca in Bicol, sugar in Negros and Pampanga—flourished and faded without positive effects on the overall economy.
Why have we failed to modernize our economy as our neighbors did?
Late-industrializing countries need strong states to focus their economies on their competitive edge. This both South Korea and Taiwan—the “miracle” states with the highest growth rates—were able to do admirably. But our own weak state was never able to organize the level of government-private sector collaboration our neighbor-states managed.
Leaky home markets
For instance, both Seoul and Taipei allowed manufacturers to import their raw materials and intermediate goods duty-free—on condition that they exported all they produced. In South Korea as in Taiwan, stern regimes ensured even the greatest national conglomerates obeyed their edicts.
In our country, similar schemes failed for lack of state capacity. Import controls generated a lively trade in import licenses. Tariff protection gave birth to “infant’ industries that never grew up; and tax incentives, behest loans, monopolist franchises, and cartelized markets sustained uncompetitive businesses.
Neither in low-skill consumer goods such as rice cookers, portable radios and TV sets nor in cutting-edge technology—shipbuilding in South Korea, electronics in Taiwan, and global finance in Singapore—could we compete with our neighbors.
Imposed by a weak state, the financial and economic controls that late industrialization makes necessary merely generates rents for the politically connected; profiteer’s profits for cross-border smugglers; and hardships for everyday citizens.
What are we to do?
To begin to ease this basic problem, we will need to centralize executive power more than we now do. Public policy tends ironically to encourage our hereditary factionalism. We have so distributed political power among the branches of government that each has become too weak to act authoritatively.
Already investors worry about the continuity of the modest improvements in administrative and economic competence the Aquino government has been able to carry out. Like the reformist President Ramos, President Aquino seems likely to be succeeded by yet another populist chief executive.
We can no longer put off building state capacity, We can no longer put off professionalizing the civil service. We must install a meritocracy through service grades set by competitive examinations. And to start off these reforms, the incoming president should give up his appointing power—which unaccountably reaches down to assistant-bureau-director level—to the constitutional officer who possesses it rightfully.
As an interim measure to build bureaucratic competence, we should consider adapting the “pockets of efficiency’ concept used in Latin America. These are ad hoc nuclei of officials organizationally separate from the civil service and serving without tenure, to deal with specific difficulties, such as those currently roiling the bureau of customs.
Needless to say, we should begin by making government jobs worthwhile for work-people by raising civil service salaries close to professional and business standards over a specific period.