Authoritarianism won’t work for us. Only a competent state can lead us to modernity


    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.

    Half-hearted imperialists
    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.

    Compadre colonialism
    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.


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    1. Comprehensive but brief. Thought provoking. Facts, figures with careful analysis based on historical trends, not personalities. Not tsismis-laden and not delusionary.

      Many thanks to the authors. Didn’t expect to find a high-quality article like this at MT.

    2. I do not know why Pilipinos blames P. Aquino for everything. His only weakness is he values his friends so much that he refuses to be a traitor. I do not like to be under a dictator . I still believe in the old saying Give me liberty or give me death. Two things needs to be fix, criminality and corruption. I do not believe nobody can fix these problem even a dictator cannot fix these because these are ingrained with majority of Pilipinos. I thought when I was a teenager that as time passes, we will learn our lesson. I am now 63 years old and nothing much have change.

    3. Actually what caused our being left out from the struggle for economic development compared to the other developing economies of Asia is our technological backwardness. The basic examples are the steel, sugar and rice industries. Our dream for an integrated steel industry started during the Macapagal regime. The Iligan Integrated Steel Manufacturing Industry (IISMI) was set up with the intention to eventually produce steel billets. Now, this plant is just an edifice fit for museums and our existing steel mills are just importing steel billets to manufacture steel bars and sheets but not engine blocks and other machine parts. Pres. Marcos, in his time brought the sugar industry to new heights resulting to the appearance of several sugar barons exporting their sugar products, mostly to the US per the feudalistic sugar quota arrangement. These sugar barons, through greed, never invested on technical innovations to increase quality and reduce production cost. Instead they relied on the imposed low wages on plantation and sugar mill workers. Soon, one by one, these antiquated mills and hacienda type of production fall through hectic competition. During the pre-martial law period, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) made the Philippines the envy of other Asian countries, particularly, Thailand in the scientific rice production and we even exported rice during Pres. Marcos’ regime. Now, Thailand is a major rice exporter. To sum it all, our leaders after Marcos terribly failed on their responsibilities to uplift our country economically. Perhaps, authoritarianism might just be the panacea that we need.

    4. Freddie L. Villanueva on

      Tama po sa ngayon. At patama ito sa Aquino authoritarian regime. We need a strong state pero sinira ni Pnoy ang integridad ng mga institusyong dapat mangalaga sa mga mamamayan. Sinira niya hudikatura, sinuhulan mga nasa kongreso. Pinuri niya kasinungalingan at nananatiling sinungaling sa mamamayan. Pabaya sa kumunikasyon, salanta ng kalamidad, pabaya sa transportasyon, protektor at kanlungan ng smugglers at huweteng lords, human rights violators. This nation should be great again. Laughing stock na mga Pilipino sa ibang bansa.

      • Strong state cannot be achieved without at least a strong man or a strong party. With our multi-party system we cannot have a strong party. It is better to begin with a strong man. Duterte is the right person for the presidency.

    5. this is what I have been stating in my past comments that the government workers including the police should or must have a decent salary and benefits to make them stay away from bribes and other forms of corruption and instead be professional and serve the country otherwise the low salaries of our government workers and managers will only be tempted to commit such crimes to feed their families. we also need to educate our voters to vote based on background and accomplishment and not by popularity. this will be our continued struggle to succeed as a nation.

    6. adonis b. rocha on

      A good article Mr. Juan Gatbonton. Indeed, only one capable, battle tested, visionary and action oriented experienced leader is what the Philippines sorely need as president for 2016…..and that one white knight is none other than Panfilo “Ping” Lacson. None of the other candidates or political leaders we have right now can come close to matching the achievements and dedication as public servant and senator of the land, what Panfilo “Ping” Lacson has done. With Ping Lacson at the helm, the days of pork barrell, PDAF, DAP and corruptions in government is licked and be over.

      The Philippines does not need a traPoe, a Binay, a Roxas or BBM as president. This is the bunch of NATO (No Action Talk Only) members.

    7. I like this article, fact based and logical in analysis

      Any initiative that has no spiritual initiative will have no lasting effect. It may work for a while, people will always find a way to get around the system. Change that starts in the spirit of man, is the change that will last because, it has eternal dimension, being from God.

      The Philippines has many laws to maintain law and order, but these do not change of heart of people, they find ways to get around them. Change in system of government, Change in leadership, without personal Change of heart of people will always get people disappointed. Everyone blames the leadership, yet no personal contribution to make things work.

      Real change starts with change of heart for everyone for a better country.