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What M'sia can learn from the Philippines

Publication Date : 04-03-2014

 

Benigno Aquino III (or Noynoy as he’s known) is a dynast who means what he says.

I first interviewed Aquino when he was on the presidential trail back in 2010 and I was impressed immediately.

However, many observers were scathing, if not dismissive of him – regarding him as little more than a callow political princeling – the son of the near-sainted Cory Aquino and assassinated Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.

But something about him struck me. Perhaps it was, as I wrote back then, his “…quiet determination and self-confidence, an inherently rational and deliberate mindset and a determination not to become indebted to entrenched business and political interests … his integrity and intelligence may well propel the Philippines forward and surprise its neighbours”.

Last Friday, listening to him speak in Kuala Lumpur, Aquino clearly hasn’t disappointed.

Speaking of his election, he noted: “The people told us … it’s time to once and for all realise the vast potential of the Philippines.”

I think Aquino has delivered on this score and more. Indeed, Malaysia could learn a lot from the Philippines.

First, the republic’s economy has been transformed.

The Philippines has soared in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report rankings, from 85th in 2010 to 59th in 2013.

Its GDP grew by 7.2% in 2013 despite the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Moreover, its business process outsourcing (BPO) industry generated US$13.3 billion in export revenues and by 2016 is expected to employ 1.3 million people.

The Philippines is also emerging as a tourism hub, having attracted some 4.6 million international visitors in 2013 and revenues of $4.8 billion.

This is no accident: back in 2010 Aquino identified BPO and tourism to me as “critical growth areas” for the economy.

But he also mentioned the need for better infrastructure and Aquino has increased spending for this from $7.16 billion in 2013 to $9 billion this year.

Separately, Philippine overseas foreign workers (OFW) across the globe sent back $22.5 billion in remittances in 2013.

Of course, the large numbers of OFW (estimated at nearly 10 million) represent a substantial cost to the nation as the republic’s best and brightest depart to work elsewhere, often leaving behind children and broken families.

Nonetheless, the Philippines will be entering a demographic “sweet spot” in 2015, when the majority of the population will reach working age.

However, corruption remains a major problem.

Still, Aquino has never shied away from taking on vested interests or gratuitous abuse.

Even his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was not spared. Whatever the merits of the charges against her, her prosecution has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one is above the law.

Indeed, the Philippines’ Corruption Perception Index ranking improved from 134th in 2010 to 94th in 2013.

Aquino also defied the powerful religious interests, namely the Catholic Church, over a reproductive health bill to provide universal access to contraception.

This measure is desperately needed given that the Philippines has the highest population growth in Asia, at 1.9%, compared to China’s 0.6%, exacerbating its poverty.

But his impact has been more than domestic. Aquino’s tenure could see an end to the four decade-old southern Philippine insurgency.

Thanks to a Malaysian-brokered peace deal, plans are afoot to expand the existing Muslim autonomous region there to a “Bangsamoro” entity which will have more decentralised power.

This will be in exchange for the disarmament of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Of course, the deal still needs Philippine congressional approval and the other rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, remains recalcitrant.

But it will be a big boost to security, not only in the southern Philip­pines but also Sabah.

In agreeing to such a compromise, the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines has shown generosity and innovation in dealing with its minorities.

I’m not saying everything is rosy there. Their defiance over the South China Sea issue may be unwise, especially given rising regional tensions.

Still, it would be foolish to continue to dismiss the Philippines.

Aquino has shown great foresight, but more importantly, courage in sticking to his bold plans for transformation.

It hasn’t been easy and opposition has come even from his own Philippine elite milieu, but he hasn’t let that stop him or force him to backtrack.

Last week, Aquino’s concluding remarks included this gem:

“The Philippines, once the laggard of Asia, is now entering to a sustainable cycle of empowerment and opportunity, and a trajectory of growth where no one is left behind.”

I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot more of them going forward.

 

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