There is an emerging theme in the Philippines’ relations with the rest of the world. We heard it from business leaders, economic experts, and the First Secretary of the Chinese Embassy at The Manila Times Business Forum more than a couple of weeks ago, and we heard it again yesterday at a roundtable discussion with the new Ambassador of the Czech Republic.
It is called “people-to-people” relations, and yes, it is a sort of trendy buzzword, but an appropriate one. Within larger relationships that are somewhat problematic on a political level, individual people and enterprises are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about and adept at finding ways to work directly with each other and sidestep the politics.
This goes a long way toward explaining, for example, the burgeoning cross-border business between the Philippines and China in spite of the stubborn maritime dispute between the two countries.
And it explains why the very obvious elephant in the room in meeting H.E. Jaroslav Ol+a, Jr., the Czech ambassador – the $30 million bribery scandal involving Czech railcar manufacturer Inekon, several former personalities of the Metro Rail Transit Corp., and Ambassador Ol+a’s predecessor, a story that The Manila Times broke – was casually dismissed with a sentence or two.
“I don’t think it had a significant impact on Czech businessmen,” the ambassador said. After all, he pointed out, Home Credit, the global consumer credit firm controlled by the mysterious Czech tycoon Petr Kelner, started its operations in the Philippines just about a year ago, when the train scandal was at its peak in the local media.
As an aside, however, the affable ambassador couldn’t resist taking a little dig at the topic. The fact that the Czech-built MRT trains are still functioning at all despite being heavily overused and poorly maintained long past their normal lifespan, “really says something about Czech technology,” he pointed out.
The technology transfer opportunities offered by good relations with the Czech Republic are impressive; in terms of concentration, the country is one of the most heavily industrialized nations in the world, and the home of well-known manufacturers of aircraft (Aero Vochodny, LET Aircraft, and Zlin), automobiles and trucks (Tatra – the world’s third-oldest automaker – Skoda, and Avia), medical equipment (EDL), and armaments (CZUB, Sellier & Bellot), among other things. The Czechs are already interested in the Philippines as a market and perhaps even as a place to set up businesses for these kinds of industries, the aforementioned financial services sector, and things like small hydro power projects, and in places where they have turned that sort of attention in the past – despite having been limited for several decades of the postwar era by being part of the Communist bloc, albeit a rather liberal part – they have usually been successful, to everyone’s mutual benefit.
From the point of view of us observers in the Philippines, however, the idea of subjecting the exciting prospects of greater economic interaction with the Czech Republic to the ham-handed management of the government here makes us cringe. In spite of the controversy regarding the MRT trains last year, the relationship between the Philippines and the Czech Republic is essentially a clean slate. Two-way trade is a minimal $400 million a year (three-fourths of it exports from the Philippines); there are, the ambassador estimates, only about 300 Czech citizens living here, and only about 500 Filipinos in the Czech Republic (as a comparison, the Czech Statistics Office notes that there are approximately 61,000 Vietnamese there).
Whatever happens next, in other words, is likely to set the tone for Czech-Philippines relations for some time to come, which is why the Philippines must be very careful that “whatever happens next” is not another promising development deal ruined by red tape and petty corruption, or limited to a lame, underachieving effort to land Czech jobs for a few dozen Filipino nurses or household helpers.
Fortunately, all this country has to do is follow the Czech Republic’s lead. One of the key points Ambassador Ol+a made – it was practically the first thing he talked about in our discussion on Thursday – was the importance of country branding through cultural exchange. The Czech Republic – Bohemia – historically has been a “bridge” culture between Western Europe and the East; first the Slavic realms of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, and the Balkans, and later other parts of the world as the industrialized-but-landlocked Czechs spread out seeking trade. In the modern world, the Czech Republic is pursuing this historical path through tourism, branding itself as a unique destination by leveraging a particular Czech character trait – wanderlust – to promote itself through its own people.
Thus encouraging Czechs to visit here works in both countries’ favor, and it subtly avoids working through institutional channels to build cross-border relationships; of the various areas of commerce the two countries could involve themselves in, tourism probably requires the least amount of government involvement. The Philippines, according to the ambassador, is becoming the “next interesting thing” from the Czech point of view, and what may be an unexpected advantage for the Philippines is that because of who they are and where they’re from, Czech travelers are not particularly attracted to the sort of typical tourist traps – beaches and dive resorts – the Philippines is otherwise known for. They are more likely to turn up “off the beaten path,” and as a result, have the opportunity to get to know the Philippines better than most visitors.
So if you meet one, be nice. The impression you make may eventually be worth millions.