FROM the Philippine perspective, whether the views are coming from native businessmen or investment boosters or resident foreigners, the attitude seems to be that “security” as a broad issue is something that is best omitted from most conversations. There are, after all, enough obstacles to overcome in attracting new business without drawing attention to the fact that the country has a rather grim image abroad. The feeling is so strong, in fact, that most prefer to deny that image even exists.
But it does, and the possibility that it may not be entirely accurate or deserved is obviously not enough to change the impressions of those who are not intimately familiar with the country. Like it or not, “security” will be a topic of any conversation with a potential investor or even just a casual observer of the Philippines. Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, it seems to have become even more worrisome.
Contrary to what local analysts and policy makers believe, it is not the large security issues such as the territorial dispute with China, the long-running Communist insurgency, and the savage campaign of violence by Islamist bandits in the south that outsiders considering doing business here find most discouraging, but the day-to-day insecurity most of us have learned to live with. Under Duterte, despite his being rather one-note about stamping out the scourge of illegal drugs and imposing law and order on the land, that insecurity has only grown.
The rash of drug-related killings—nearly 400 since the May 9 election, as of this writing—most at the hands of vigilantes, paints a picture of a country where everyday violence is spinning out of control. That image is not helped at all by other high-profile incidents broadcast across the social and conventional media, such as the shooting of a bicyclist by an angry motorist or the hit-and-run death of an elderly pedestrian, which occurred on consecutive days last week.
Native Filipinos and foreigners who have been here for a long time often do not realize it, but it is NOT normal for shotgun-wielding guards to be stationed in every 7-11, or for shoppers to be frisked and have their bags searched before being allowed to enter the mall—not unless one is visiting from some place with an even more tenuous public environment, like Iraq or Somalia. While those of us who are already here hardly give the “security measures” a second thought—stories of crimes, particularly the way those tend to be sensationalized by the local media—tend to give visitors the impression that there is a very good reason for an armed watchman in every doorway.
Day-to-day security, or the perceived lack thereof, makes a real difference to potential locators the Philippines would like to attract because it’s a personal issue. An investor planning to open a business here is still a person—someone who likely has a family or may start one, and someone who will employ people whose welfare he or she will feel at least partly responsible for. Securing a business is fairly straightforward, but when an investor does not see obviously clear, affirmative answers to the questions, “Will my family and I be safe living here? Will my employees be safe traveling to and from work?” no amount of testimonial reassurance will eliminate the unease.
There is no easy or quick solution, because as many social observers have come to realize, the atmosphere of insecurity is created by a deeply ingrained culture of impunity, on the one hand, and suspicion on the other. It is not easy to see how a president —particularly one who seems to conflate “force” and “justice”—can change Philippine society into one where adhering to basic rules and customs of appropriate public behavior is second nature in one six-year term.
But no one really wants to build a market in a minefield, so unless some real steps are at least started toward the preferable goal of a peaceful and well-behaved society, the country will continue to lose out on tangible economic benefits. To be fair to President Duterte, there are some reasons to hope that might still be possible, if his stated objectives to reduce government corruption and streamline inefficient bureaucratic processes bear fruit. If businesses and individuals find the wide latitude to bend or avoid rules they have traditionally enjoyed narrowed, they may feel more compelled to alter their overall behavior. That will only work, however, if the perspective is applied uniformly; efforts to develop consistent and just processes in some areas will not be successful if other areas, such as an efficient, reliable justice system, are completely ignored.