• Foreign media needs a new Philippine narrative

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    Over the weekend I read a commentary by William Pesek, a Tokyo-based business commentator for Bloomberg, who made this utterly infuriating observation about President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s stubbornly irrational pitch for an extended term:

    “Clearly, Aquino’s mind is on continuity. During his term, he’s strengthened the national balance sheet, won investment-grade credit ratings and attacked graft like no Filipino leader has in decades. He also knows that the Philippines is just one bad leader away from reclaiming the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ mantle. There’s no guarantee Aquino’s successor won’t be more like Arroyo or Joseph Estrada (also arrested for graft) than, say, the respected Fidel Ramos.

    That would put a swift end to the reform drive that’s made the Philippines an investment darling.”

    Pesek, who is best known for continually predicting an economic collapse in China that never seems to happen, is fairly typical of foreign writers when it comes to views of the Philippines. What actual process he or others follow to develop a thesis about this country and its leadership is a mystery, but the end result invariably comes across as what happens when the writer with a three o’clock deadline sits down at 2:30 and whips out an opinion based on something he skimmed off the Philippine News Agency website over lunch while having a conversation with someone about a completely unrelated topic – shallow, simplistic, hopelessly outdated irrelevance that not only demonstrates the writer has no real idea what is actually happening here, but more to the point, has no real interest in finding out.

    There’s actually a good reason for that. As immersed as we are here in this country with the detailed intricacy of our various issues, we tend to overestimate the attention the Philippines receives beyond its borders. Like it or not, the Philippines does not have a major impact on the rest of the world, and frankly, doesn’t even have a major impact on the rest of Asia (Pesek inadvertently points this out by noting that the Philippines is only Asia’s 13th largest economy).

    To the casual foreign observer, the Philippines might be known for having a major call-center industry, it might be known as a supplier of foreign labor, but otherwise, the country only attracts attention when something unusual happens, like when a busload of foreign tourists is massacred, or a commuter train runs off its tracks. Or when the son of the former president who, accurately or not, is associated with the restoration of democracy in the country announces his desire to discard his mother’s constitution and extend his rule.

    That’s unfortunate, because not only is the Philippine story really interesting, without the context of its complexity, what the rest of the world hears or reads is grossly inaccurate. This country never was “the Sick Man of Asia” (the sobriquet originated with one of Aquino’s anonymous speechwriters), Aquino has only “attacked graft” in the sense that he’s encouraged its exponential growth, and except for the local stock market – which, despite what anyone says, is still driven primarily by domestic and not hot money – the Philippines is by no stretch of the imagination “an investment darling.”

    Obviously, the country does have its positive attributes. The currency is stable, there is a healthy amount of foreign reserves in government coffers, and the country’s debt position, while not ideal, is certainly manageable. Thanks to a consumption-driven economy, the stock market is doing well; very few listed companies are reporting losses this earnings season, and while the PSE is not immune to external influences, its rather parochial nature means it is still largely driven by corporate fundamentals.

    None of which has anything to do with Aquino whatsoever, and in fact, has persisted in spite of his ham-fisted rule. At least until now, but there are signs that this solid economic foundation – not an economy on which to rest the national laurels, but something to build on for the future – is under serious threat, thanks to Aquino’s twisted view of “good governance” that he, and few others, believe ought to be continued.

    This is not just about lack of infrastructure, or a mass transit system on the point of collapse, or port congestion, or skyrocketing food prices, or looming electricity shortages, although all of those things are visible outcomes. This is about one-fourth of the population continuing to be impoverished or unemployed, and about how the human capital underlying the so-called “demographic sweet spot” is being degraded because of deteriorating public education and health systems, and how the “anti-corruption” posturing has resulted in nothing but cases that are thrown out – or about to be – because they are so poorly put together, while common criminality has exploded to the point where banning tandem motorcycle riders, because the one in the back might be a gunman, is actually considered a legitimate public safety initiative.

    This is about a president who was handed a golden opportunity and given the benefit of every doubt, who had the chance to build on a stable basic framework, one stable enough that “don’t do stupid things” really could have been an operative principle, and who has willfully and for no purposes other than those that personally benefit him or his close political circle squandered it all. That’s the narrative the rest of the world needs to hear.



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