Same old song

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

LAST Monday, several of us at The Manila Times had an opportunity to meet Ambassador Ivo Sieber of Switzerland, the latest guest of what I like to call our “diplomatic outreach program.”

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Once or twice a month, The Manila Times invites a representative of the embassies in the Philippines for an open-ended, friendly discussion. It provides the envoys a forum which they might otherwise not have to promote their activities here, and we, in turn, learn more about the countries they represent and their relationships with the Philippines.

It’s what you might call a “win-win” situation, and it’s always worthwhile to attend, even to the point of fighting Pope-related traffic on what is ordinarily my day off to get there, as was the case for me on Monday.

I was bothered by something in the conversation with Ambassador Sieber, however. The discussion, as it always does at some point, moved into the topic of investing in the Philippines, and the Swiss envoy’s remarks were not substantially different from those of his counterparts previously gracing our offices: The Philippines is a promising market that presents opportunities for foreign investors, but needs some fundamental improvements. Corruption, bureaucratic red tape, restrictions on ownership, a slow and unreliable legal system, and the backward state of the country’s infrastructure are all impediments to investors, who would come here in greater numbers with bigger, more long-term business ideas if only these problems—which all fit under the umbrella of “structural reforms” —were substantially addressed.

The same five issues are aired again and again by foreign envoys, whether in our cordial roundtable discussions or elsewhere. On Monday night, for instance, Korean Ambassador to the Philippines Hyuk Lee offered similar sentiments about the Philippines’ need to “improve its investment environment” and “build more infrastructure” in comments following a meeting of the Philippines-Korea Economic Council.

While it is reassuring to hear that the topics I and other like-minded observers wrestle with constantly are indeed key concerns of the audience we’re trying to reach, it’s frustrating to keep hearing the same complaints, particularly because they are so obviously valid.

Ambassador Sieber, of course, did not offer a solution to that dilemma. He is, after all, a diplomat, the steward of the interests of his nation’s government and citizens in this country, a job he must do according to a narrow set of instructions from his home government and the conventions of diplomatic practice.

Therein lies one source of the Philippine’s inability to progress: The dynamics of day-to-day international relations impede rather than encourage frank interaction.

Asian cultures are particularly sensitive to rules and boundaries, and the Philippines under its current regime is certainly more so than most. Under those circumstances, any foreign envoy who hopes to be able to do his job must refrain from saying anything more critical than “God bless the Philippines.”

That is unfortunate, because besides agreeing on what the critical issues of the
Philippines are, foreign representatives always express this sentiment in one way or another: “We would be happy to help, if only they would ask us.”

President B.S. Aquino 3rd, as should be obvious by now, prefers to tell rather than ask; hoping for more open engagement with him or his administration is a lost cause.

Those who hope to replace him, however, should not overlook that opportunity. By the same token, the diplomatic community needs to reach out as well – loosen up and tell us what’s on your mind, this country almost certainly needs to hear it. I would like to think that The Manila Times provides a good forum for that; doubtless there are others as well.

* * *

To answer a surprisingly large number of queries about it, no, I do not in fact plan to write about the Pope’s visit, except for this brief comment. Certain aspects of the week’s events will, indeed, be subject to further scrutiny—I have a few questions about that business with the cellular networks, for instance – but I find myself in an otherwise surprisingly uncritical frame of mind about it. For a few days, the country was enthusiastic and well-mannered, and the general atmosphere, at least in Manila, was pleasant. A great many people were evidently personally moved by it, and for the rest of us, it was in one way or another a memorable occasion.

But this country is no stranger to visits from the Pontiff—he shows up every 20 years or so— and history sadly suggests that the warm afterglow won’t last long. We might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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