The Vietnamese will be richer than the Filipinos this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, which projected that the per capita income of the Vietnamese will be $3,500, overtaking Filipinos with their $3,380. Vietnam, with a population of 96 million versus our 110 million, exported around $300 billion in 2019 (versus the Philippines’ $70 billion). Its 8.4-percent jump from the previous year confirms that it was the major beneficiary of the United States and China trade war. Vietnam had a foreign direct investment or FDI of over $20 billion versus the Philippines’ $7.6 billion.
Another visible achievement of Vietnam was its ability to immediately contain the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) while largely having its economy operate normally. What is often not presented are key characteristics of the nation that allow this effectivity, which include a responsive centralized governance system, and a generally cooperative population, especially on prioritizing what needs to get done. These traits were evident when in the early signs of outbreak in Vietnam, as in the Danang incident, the government immediately implemented policies that the West would consider ‘draconian’ like relocating over 80,000 Vietnamese after 11 people tested positive.
In the Philippines, even amid rising Covid-19 cases, the public was engulfed in partisan politics — corruption charges in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth, Vice President Leni Robredo doing her own State of the Nation Address or SONA, government budget and power struggles. Even #OustDuterte moves were trending in social media for several weeks as a preoccupation. But, at the same time, President Rodrigo Duterte garnered 91-percent approval rating six months into the lockdown, which not even the opposition disputes — signs of a population deeply into and deeply divided by politics.
The vital institutions that were supposed to be at the forefront of and entrusted with the resources for the country to succeed in the pandemic battle became a source of problems.
The bottlenecks that were not addressed by the Department of Health — simple but crucial supplies, logistics and information needs in the early months, caused many unnecessary casualties, though some of the issues have been resolved; and the monstrosity of the P15-billion corruption scandal in the PhilHealth. These are representatives of the outlook that the biggest problems we have may really be ourselves. The Philippine Red Cross, which recently achieved 1 million cases tested, now has to scale back after it was reported that more than P900 million has not been paid. Many private sectors in business and the non-government organizations joined with the government to help mitigate and direct the issues at this time.
Although corruption continues and President Duterte has been frank about the problems, he has also recently decried the massive corruption at the Department of Public Works and Highways, even when visible achievements of thousands of kilometers of new roads and unfinished roads finally completed have been delivered. Fortunately, the Cayetano-Velasco drama for the speakership was short-lived. But not before national attention and energy were spent. It might arguably have been more productive to watch “House of Cards” on Netflix over the weekend.
Vietnam is also a model of how a country can compete and cooperate even with former colonizers and enemies, and even capitalize on the battles of the giants to generate benefits for her country and people.
For instance, the Aquino 3rd government convinced Filipinos that other countries, especially Vietnam, would follow suit after the Philippines filed the case against China in The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration or PCA. Ambassador Alberto Encomienda, our country’s foremost expert in maritime and ocean governance, pointed out that this never happened. While the Philippines was busy building up a legal case, Vietnam sent several high-level business delegations to China even while it was managing its disputes. In contrast, the Philippines, under former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, had suspended high-level bilateral discussions.
Vietnam was invaded and destroyed by the US. The inhuman costs are still eerily alive when one visits the Vietnam War museum, reminding the people about the horrors of war but, more importantly, the cost of peace. (Given the extreme poverty experienced by Vietnam only a few decades ago, its current achievements are even more worthy of study). Yet Vietnam is now expanding business and military cooperation with the US while also boosting cooperation with Russia in the military engineering, technology, energy and trade sectors.
While Vietnam and our regional neighbors are fast-tracking their development with managed support of foreign assistance, our supposed “nationalist-experts” continue to criticize and derail foreign-backed major infrastructure projects, proposed by ourselves, just because they are supported by a country that they are demonizing, without offering closely economic alternatives. The latest attack is against the third telco, Dito Telecommunity Corp., a project supported by China Telecom, while our internet remains one of the most expensive and unreliable that millions of our Filipino students continue to have difficulty accessing through for education online. (Vietnam’s heavy investments in its human capital is also worth studying as IDSI had done in a previous article. See “After infrastructure for manufacturing, Vietnam invests in human infrastructure,” The Manila Times, July 17, 2019)
Even our senators had to experience themselves the internet conking out in a Senate hearing — on the Philippine internet at that!
Many of these economic indicators are confirmed by ground developments as presented by Colin Blackwell, a British consultant who has lived in Vietnam for years, in an Anvil Business Club webinar where he illustrated in detail how the Vietnamese from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City are becoming sophisticated consumers and producers, moving very fast with renewed confidence. Major part of their success? The relatively successful fusion of their local characteristics with the foreign cultures from China, Europe, to the US.
Given the world’s new normal, reliable and affordable internet and productive use of different types of infrastructure will be the key to not only overcoming current challenges, but to propelling the country forward, which includes simultaneously competing against and cooperating with our neighbors. Many of our government technocrats, notably in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Finance, are working hard to position our country amid the transformations — more interagencies and public and private cooperations would help navigate the turbulences. More importantly, refocusing on the key factors of progress begins when the individual and the group work toward a common goal.
Austin Ong is a program manager of IDSI and an organizer of Asean networking events. He has assisted the Department of Trade and Industry in helping promote Filipino entrepreneurs abroad and taught globalization and development at De La Salle University. He co-authored PH–CH Relations: Interplay Between Domestic Politics and Globalization. He graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City and Tsinghua University in China.
New Worlds by IDSI (Integrated Development Studies Institute) aims to present frameworks based on a balance of economic theory, historical realities, ground success in real business and communities and attempt for common good, culture and spirituality. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks.