News that makes people nervous

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Ben Kritz
While the country continues to focus—and rightly so—on an election that has degenerated into a complete farce, several other issues deserve more than the passing notice they have been given so far.

The most critical, of course, is the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Taiwan over the death of the captain of a Taiwanese fishing boat attacked last week by the Philippine Coast Guard. The Taiwanese government has rejected a couple of attempts by the Philippines to apologize for the incident, accusing the Aquino government of being “insincere” and “inconsistent” in its statements on the matter. Dissatisfied with the way the issue has been handled, Taiwan has made good on threats to impose sanctions on the Philippines, including suspending visa-free travel, freezing the hiring of Filipino workers, suspending several ongoing trade and exchange discussions, recalling its representative to Manila and asking his Filipino counterpart in Taipei to return.

While the Philippines cannot be faulted for trying to enforce its maritime territorial claims—the effort is important for the credibility of the country’s ongoing attempts to resolve the long-standing feud with China—opening fire on an unarmed fishing boat in an area where jurisdiction is questionable at best was a gross overreaction, particularly since it involved the Taiwanese. What has been completely ignored in local reports of the incident is the uncomfortable fact that this is the second time in less than two years that the Aquino administration has managed to infuriate Taiwan: In December 2011, the deportation of 14 Taiwanese nationals from the Philippines to China almost upended the generally close relationship between the two countries. That issue eventually faded without a real resolution, and it has remained a bit of a sore spot for the Taiwanese people ever since.

Some local observers have pointed out that Taiwan’s extreme reaction to this latest incident may be a case milking a tragedy by politically troubled Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity rating has sunk to about 14 percent, and there may be something to that; reports from Taiwan are that the furor has now extended to persecution of Filipinos residing there. For example, the Taiwanese online news service Apple Daily posted an article this past Tuesday (http://www.appledaily.com.tw/realtimenews/article/new/20130514/179732/) featuring market vendors in Taiwan who have posted angry notices all containing variations of “We won’t to sell to Filipinos.”

And whether or not Taiwan is making more of the incident than is reasonable, the inescapable fact is that they are not the ones that shot a fishing boat full of holes. Almost from its very first days in office (anyone remember Mai Mislang?), the Aquino administration has made one diplomatic misstep after another. In diplomacy, how one handles issues is as important, if not more so, as whether or not one is right, and as the region becomes even more integrated as 2015 approaches, the ham-fisted management of foreign affairs is going to have an even greater negative impact.


In a bit of more positive news, however, President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Monday finally signed, after about a three-month delay, the K to 12 education bill, which adds mandatory kindergarten as well as two additional years of high school to the curriculum, and specifies the use of the “mother tongue” in early elementary education with English being the primary medium of instruction thereafter. The new educational format has come under fire from a surprisingly large number of critics, for reasons that one might suspect have more to do with it being an initiative of an unpopular government rather than substantial concerns. The program helps to raise Philippine education to something much closer to a competitive international standard, and will improve the output of the country’s tertiary education system by providing it a better-prepared and more mature stock of incoming freshman. Human capital development is an area which has been chronically overlooked in the Philippines, and the K to 12 program is a strong move in the right direction.

At least it should be; the two main criticisms leveled against the K to 12 program are that first of all, the extra years of schooling will pose a financial burden on families, and second, the government may not have the resources to adequately fund, staff and manage the new curriculum. Those are both valid concerns, but we must be cautious in condemning an initiative on the basis of the efficacy of implementing it. Nothing about the K to 12 program is unmanageable, if the government approaches the challenge wisely; assuming that it will not act wisely is perhaps understandable given the administration’s track record so far, but it is a bit cynical. Watch the K to 12 implementation closely, and if the government fails in its delivery, it will of course deserve every bit of harsh criticism raised; but give it a fair chance first.

And finally, a proposal to include a P30-billion contingent liability fund for the administration’s hapless Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program in next year’s national budget should raise a few eyebrows. Not because a hedge against contingent liabilities is a bad idea—it’s actually sound fiscal housekeeping—but because it has taken the administration three years to consider this very basic element of a shared-risk investment program. And why, pray tell, does an escrow fund need to come from the mainline national budget, when the country is sitting on $84 billion in foreign reserves?

At an average, so far, of one PPP project contracted per year and with the three projects lined up so far having a combined contract total of barely more than the proposed contingency fund, the risk is evidently very low—certainly not something that needs to take money badly needed for other programs (such as the aforementioned expanded education system) from the national budget. Establishing a contingency fund is necessary, but the administration needs to seriously rethink the way it intends to do that.

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