Books on The Philippines
Update No: 049 - (30/01/08)
THE MEDIA EXERCISES ITS FREDOMS
January 20th marked the 7th anniversary of EDSA II—the second “people’s
power” uprising that led to the ouster of President Estrada and the
installation of (then) Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the highest
office in the land. For the Philippines it was the defining moment of the first
decade of the new millennium. On that day, the Philippines said farewell to a
president that had won the largest mandate in Philippines history and ushered in
a presidency that has had as its own defining hallmark, an ongoing controversy,
surrounding whether the lady in Malacañang has any mandate at all. It is a pity
because it detracts from the much good that she has done the country.
“An abusive and corrupt regime was replaced by one that was even worse. Did
the country make a mistake?” That was the rhetorical question asked in one
Philippine newspaper editorial in its own comment on EDSA. The answer is not so
easy to give. President Arroyo quickly proved to the country that she was no
reformer—at least not insofar as the political system is concerned. Sadly,
lacking a popular mandate, she has chosen as her constituency, the military, the
Catholic Church and the dynastic political families who have always made sure
they stay on top whatever happens. As a result, on the political front, her
presidency has been “conservative” to put it in the kindest possible terms.
She probably doesn’t care. She and her team outshine the Blues Brothers in
their “mission from God.” Her particular mission is to put the country’s
economic house in order but to do so in a manner that does not upset either the
elite or her church. Sadly for much of the decade we have been witness to a zero
sum game. Progress on the economic front has been countered by backsliding on
basic democratic norms.
She has succeeded where many thought she would fail because there has been
simply no alternative path for the country to take. Her success has shown the
limits of the people power phenomenon. Again quoting another local newspaper
columnist “the romanticism of EDSA 1 has been destroyed in the wash-up of EDSA
2.” And more: “EDSA 2 was a revolution devoured at the table of history by
the greed of its own beneficiaries.”
These are strong words and we do not necessarily embrace them, but they do
illustrate the passions stirred up in the minds of many by the failure of the
Administration to match economic progress with political progress. Perspectives
differ widely. There is little by way of middle ground. That this type of
comment is allowed at all shows that at least, press freedom in the Philippines
is alive and well.
But we have to ask: “hasn’t it been always thus?” Leaving Hong Kong aside
as a special case, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea have all grown to economic
prosperity on the back of strong government that brooked no opposition. In the
case of Taiwan and Korea, the foundations of that prosperity were laid under the
kind of martial law regime that makes the Philippines look benign. And those of
us old enough to remember, might recall what happened to the Shah of Persia when
he tried to introduce democratic reforms ahead of economic progress in his
Such an attitude is not to condone the continued poverty of the countryside but
rather to put it in context. It does appear that President Arroyo and her team
are aware of the need to break the cycle of poverty. In a country beset by needs
on all fronts it is a matter of setting priorities and sticking to them and in
this regard, she seems to be doing just that.
No wonder then the President chose not to celebrate the anniversary of her
original rise to power; the more so in light of the pardon granted to Estrada.
Neither of them wanted to remember the event, but for markedly different
And it may well be the right approach. People’s power the first time around
was a seminal event that addressed a singular problem. As a means of
implementing reform, its limits are now well known. Stability is a precursor to
What will that legacy be?
President Arroyo has come in for much criticism for the transactional nature of
her political style. A lot of it is well-deserved. Many close-in advisors
surrounding the president are nothing if not clumsy. Public relations skills are
close to zero. But clumsy as they are, they reflect the President’s
Thatcherite determination to pursue the primary goal at all costs. On that score
it is hard to fault her. She is determined to leave the Philippines in a much
better economic state than it has been in a generation and she is succeeding.
While the real effects of the economic growth have yet to be realised in many
areas of the countryside, the cities are now more prosperous and we are seeing
the emergence of a new urban middle class.
Her legacy agenda has already been announced and so we have a bench-mark by
which her ultimate record can be judged. Chief among these are the return of the
country to fiscal health (read: reduction and elimination of the budget deficit
and consequent reduction of the debt-servicing burden that has brought the
country close to that of a mendicant state). Secondly is an improvement of the
investment climate through both domestic and foreign capital injections. Sadly
while there has been good progress made on the first—with debt servicing
reduced from 95 percent of government outlays to around 65 percent at the
present time—there has been less progress on the second. It appears that with
China awash with funds (US$1.5 trillion by all accounts) instead of building a
true investment-friendly business climate, the propensity to become indebted to
China is an all-to-easy option to follow.
Privatisation of the energy sector is at last in full swing and will in the
longer term result in lower energy delivery costs. Even now with the
introduction of the spot electricity market and with “open access” about to
come into being (whereby commercial and industrial users will be able to
contract for power directly with generating companies), the end result will be a
more competitive power environment.
With the reduction of debt servicing, the government now has the opportunity to
put more funds into education, health and infrastructure, so hopefully, changes
at the rural level may be starting to have some affect. There is now talk of
some of the money being used to subsidise those electricity consumers using less
than 50 KwH per month thereby providing a direct benefit to poorer households.
By all accounts the government looks set to maintain a “hands off” policy
(all things are relative) with regard to the peso and many of the SME exporting
community are suffering because of it. The garment industry has all but been
wiped out as have many other small export-based manufacturers, furniture,
handicrafts and gift items among them. The list could go on. That is the price
to be paid for an economic realignment as the factories of England, the USA and
Australia have found already. But with creativity and an ability to think
outside of the box, all need not be lost. “Niche markets” is the name of the
Even here the Philippines has been able to strike up some recent and significant
success stories. Chief among these is the Hanjin investment into shipbuilding
(first in Subic and now about to expand to Mindanao) and Texas Instruments in
Baguio (and now in Clark). Both of these represent billion dollar commitments.
THE ACHILLES HEEL
The Achilles heel for the Philippines is the labour sector and specifically wage
rates and the minimum wage. If manufacturing is to make a successful transition
and survive into the future then employers need freedom to manoeuvre. Sadly at
the present time Congress again appears to be taking the wrong road by
strengthening the powers of organised unions, even in situations where the
workplace is non-unionised. In fact in the Philippines, the influence of the
unions is quite out of proportion to the membership that they have. But we
should note that there is actually more maneuverability on the labour front than
there looks at first sight. The trouble is that unless you are familiar with the
workings of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) you could be forgiven
for overlooking the signs. In a nutshell, the DOLE is seeking to reorient the
whole workplace environment from a legalistic and adversarial labour-management
approach to one that emphasises team-building and human resource development.
As the sun sets on some industries so it rises on others. Chief among these (at
least in major urban centres) is the Call and Business Process Outsourcing
industries. With an estimate of around 300,000 employed in this sector at the
present time, the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPA/P) is
upbeat about increasing this to one million by 2010.
In the service sector IBM has announced that it has signed contracts for third
party development work amounting to US$50 billion, much of which will flow to
the Philippines. For outsourcing work, IBM believes that the talent pool in the
Philippines is second to none. Convergys and others think likewise.
The BPA/P estimate could well be right. It represents a phenomenal growth rate
and one that will have foreseen consequences on just about every other sector:
greater difficulty in recruiting employees into other industries; escalating
wage costs across the spectrum and escalating office rentals as well. This may
well be manageable for large corporations but for the small business sector it
could be devastating. While competition is the name of the game a “beggar my
neighbour” policy ultimately does nobody any good. Again it reflects lack of
foresight and planning.
MINING AND TOURISM
Among the regional growth drivers we see both mining and tourism now well above
the horizon. The government remains committed to the development of both and,
indeed, sees the mining and the tourism sectors as spearheading rural
development and sustainable growth. The level of commitment is high but really
the government has no choice. Other options to redress the rural-urban imbalance
are hard to find in many areas. Critically, mining and tourism provide jobs for
unskilled and semi-skilled workers as well as qualified professionals.
For mining, the government has given its commitment and is living by it. The
challenge now is for the corporate sector to work together—with government and
with each other—and engage mainstream community leaders as well as indigenous
communities in order to explain the benefits that responsible mining can bring
to them, and to ensure those benefits are delivered. Once commitment has been
obtained there is the added need to have those leaders integrate these benefits
into specific deliverables that can be incorporated into local and regional
development plans. So far the foreign-funded anti-mining lobby has had it all
its own way. That may not be the case this year once the money starts to flow as
it now appears set to do.
Tourism development may be more problematical. With the downgrading of the
Philippines this month (January 2008) by the US Federal Aviation Agency from a
Category 1 listing to Category 2, the challenge to build an effective tourism
industry faces another major challenge. This move by the US—over safety
concerns within the local aviation industry— again underscores the problems
faced through an inefficient bureaucracy and the tendency (not unknown in other
aspects of Philippine life) to be reactive in the face of a problem, rather than
to anticipate and plan in a manner that will avoid such problems from ever
A further factor that may work against the tourism industry in the longer-term
is the lack of centralised planning and coordination. With each region doing its
own thing and building airports, not to mention hotels and leisure facilities at
a breakneck speed, is it any wonder that standards are not maintained? “We
will just rely on the natural friendliness of the Filipino” is the stock
answer given by tourism officials when asked about the “software” needs of
the tourism sector. The fallacy of that argument is now clearly evident.
For business the challenge in the immediate term is to manage the twin
adjustments that are taking place within the business environment—domestically
and globally. We may expect growth in 2008 but for many sectors it will not be
as easy to achieve as it was before. Conditions are tougher now. Exchange rate
volatility will mean money management becomes more important than ever and cash,
as it always has been, will be king. Unless of course you own a gold mine.
Miners should do very well.
Escalating rentals as well as wages—both in part driven by the insatiable
demand of the BPO industry—will be a major factor for those companies based in
major business centres. Good talent, when it can be found, is likely to come at
a higher price.
Looking beyond 2008, the Philippines is again going into election mode and with
the first change of presidency in nine years, the 2010 election will determine
whether we will see more of the same or whether a candidate will emerge who can
offer—and deliver—more rapid change. The business community cannot sit idly
by. There is a need now to engage politicians constructively on the real issues
facing this country, not least human rights and the all too frequent murder of
labour organisers and journalists. These are the scandalous issues which hamper
more rapid development of a dynamic and prosperous Philippines, able to hold its
head up – and compete globally. Foreign investors can play a critical part in
this process since they have leverage that many others do not have. Continuity
is the key.