LET us not shoot our nation’s foot because of the partisan politics that has been waged over the past 15 months, with the presidency embroiled in all this political maneuvering and with nary a lineman protecting and defending the quarterback. When leadership is exposed, and the exposure is self-inflicted, it is very hard to govern.
Worse, the news arc has been demolition jobs all around: a House majority leader who wants extraordinary privileges for doing work for three days a week; a senator threatening the removal of the Senate leadership if a chairman of one of the strongest standing committees is not removed; the discovery that fake news sites have been maliciously planned and executed in social media by individuals closely associated with the Liberal Party; a known media personality who says the role of the journalist is to report, to hell with readers understanding the “news”; and yet two others who invoke free speech for the author of fake news sites and continue to deride known online personalities on the other side as also proponents of half-truths. All this amidst the breakdown of decency and respect just to spin a position for or against the duly elected leader.
Talking to fund managers investing in the country, the oft-repeated question is about politics. Who is Duterte? How does he govern? Could he make it to mid-term? How about the killings? Would #BuildBuildBuild take off? Would he win in the illegal drugs campaign? As has always been the case, political risks bring us down when Asean countries are moving fast and furiously to outpace each other in economic growth. The Philippines needs to rise above its ways to be in the leadership pack of Asean and not just behind Vietnam. Yes, Vietnam, for those ahead are far superior in the nature of their politics than we are.
There are seven main advantages of Asean and we need to latch on to them in order for us to gain a competitive edge vis-à-vis the nine Asean member economies. Asean is an economic powerhouse, projected to be the fourth largest economy by 2050. It has a bigger population than the EU and North America; it has the third largest labor force in the world behind China and India. Sixty percent of the total growth since 1990 has come from the productivity and gains in manufacturing, retail, telcos and transportation. Asean is not a monolithic market. Indonesia represents almost 40 percent of the region’s economic output and is a member of G20. Myanmar is emerging. The GDP of Singapore is more than 30 times higher than Laos and 50 times more than Cambodia and Myanmar. Indonesia is 90 percent Muslim, the Philippines is 80 percent Roman Catholic and Thailand is more than 95 percent Buddhist. Macroeconomic stability has provided the platform for growth. Coming from 1997 Asian crisis to the 2008 global financial crisis, Asean has evolved into a stronger financial position with government debt under 50 percent of GDP, far lower than the 90 percent of UK and 105 percent of the US.
Asean is a growing hub of consumer demand. It has outpaced the world in GDP per capita since the late 1970s. Sixty-seven million households are part of the consuming class; that can double to 125 million households by 2025. Asean is well-positioned in global trade flows. It is the fourth largest exporting region in the world trailing EU, North America and China/HK. Seven percent of global exports come from Asean.
Intra-regional trade could deepen with the Asean Economic Community. The 10 countries of Asean can be the supply chain in Asia of goods, services, skilled labor and capital. Asean is also home to many globally competitive companies. In 2006, it was home to 49 companies in Forbes Global 200. By 2013, this increased to 74 companies. This includes 227 of world companies with more than $1 billion in revenues, or 3 percent of the world’s total.
Given these factors that put Asean on the map, the Philippines cannot be inward-looking and let all this pass and not develop our comparative advantages in the region. But how can one focus on promoting the country when its leadership has been framed by words like “EJK, killer, murderer, bloodthirsty, human rights violator, etc.” And the PNP keeps insisting on using Tokhang and Double Barrel Reloaded, words that enhance the negative image on the war against illegal drugs (these words appear to support the perception of state-sponsored killing). Why can’t government pivot towards a positive reframing and carry a national conversation on the campaign? Even in the fight against corruption, the leader is left to launch and deflect jabs without coherent messaging support. Consequently, the leader looks petty, inviting asinine positioning that neither inoculates him nor triangulates messaging for effective communication.
A President is elected for a term of six years. That’s a mandate with his voters, and those who did not vote for him should respect the vagaries of democracy not because it is foolproof but because the people have spoken. So, to throw in the towel and walk away is not a mark of maturity in a leader. To even call out, let us all resign at the same time is a message that needed vetting and disciplined approach of communicating. Why create crisis after crisis when there is so much work to do? Rise above the din. Rise above for country. That’s not hard for a leader who loves his country.
“It is the solemn obligation of a leader always to be a leader. Even when—perhaps especially when—you don’t feel like being a leader.” Time to rise above.