Apec summit 2015

President Benigno Aquino takes the Philippines forward

Recent economic figures point to a resurgent economy in the island nation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 11:13am

Hongkongers have long regarded the Philippines with barely-concealed contempt.

Decades of misrule stemming from the gross abuses of the Marcos Era have left the republic trailing badly at a time when “Asia Rising” was the dominant narrative.

However, times have changed. The Philippines is no longer a basket case.

The nice Filipino lady you meet on the plane is more likely to be a software designer on a weekend break rather than a domestic worker.

The numbers reinforce the archipelagic nation’s surprise emergence, underlining a possible shift in Asean as both Vietnam and the Philippines, former laggards, display their mettle.

According to the World Bank, from 2011 to last year, the Philippine economy grew by an average of 5.95 per cent, surpassing Vietnam and Indonesia’s 5.7 per cent as well as trouncing Singapore’s 4.2 per cent.

Elsewhere, the Philippines is also playing a fierce game of catch-up.

From 2010 to last year, the Philippines soared from 134th to 85th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (an increase of 49 places), compared to Indonesia’s 110th to 107th (just three) and Vietnam’s three-spot decline from 116th to 119th.

The republic's iconic IT-Business Process Outsourcing sector last year brought in US$18 billion in revenues – providing some 1.3 million Filipinos with middle-class jobs, and importantly, salaries underpinning a consumer-led boom in housing and transportation.

One man, Benigno Aquino III, or ‘NoyNoy’, has been central to this transformation and two weeks ago, I was honoured to be able to sit down with him for over 90 minutes in the jewel-like confines of historic Malacanang Palace.

Of course, the Aquino name, known for one assassination and two presidents, is as hallowed in Southeast Asia as the Burmese democracy icon’s, Aung Suu Kyi.

Moreover, the Aquinos are committed and proven proponents of pluralism and minority rights at a time when “The Lady’s” nativist and anti-Muslim tendencies are beginning to reveal themselves.

Nonetheless, when NoyNoy ran for president in 2010, many detractors accused him of being little less than a shallow, inexperienced political princeling, seeking to leverage off the aura of his martyred father Benigno Jr, ‘Ninoy’, and recently deceased mother, the former president Corazon Aquino.

Well, the critics were wrong.

On the cusp of this month’s Apec Summit in the Philippine capital and six months before Filipinos go to the polls to elect his successor, the President was upbeat, especially when asked about the economic turnaround:

“Give the Filipino the right environment and he or she will shine,” he said, adding: “[Our success stems] from the fundamental belief that the greatest resource of this country is our people.”

Instead of churning out countless unemployable graduates, NoyNoy worked hard to coordinate education and training with industry requirements.

Moreover, his government also expanded a conditional cash transfer program, which helped poor families keep their children in school. Under him, the Department of Health also enjoyed a 300 per cent budget increase.

But his success has not only been economic. NoyNoy has won plaudits for his firm crackdown on corruption. He allowed prosecutors to move against both his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a number of senior Senators as well as countenancing the impeachment of the controversial Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Renato Corona, saying: “Now the highest positions are also being made to account for their actions.”

He adds: “We started out with the phrase, ‘If you eliminate corruption you can eliminate poverty.’ We will not tolerate the situation where cronies become monopolies ... because it just keeps us where we are. We don’t grow. We actually stagnate.”

Indeed, he sees changing the self-image of the Filipinos as his signature accomplishment:

“I think the rekindling of the pride of Filipino [is my greatest accomplishment] … their attitude, their perceptions of the present and future impacts on where we will be.”

Of course, problems remain. Infrastructure spending is lacklustre at only 4 per cent of GDP.

Manila’s electricity rates are amongst the priciest in the Asia-Pacific. Traffic is still awful and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remains far from ideal.

Also, NoyNoy’s cherished goal of reducing the number of “Balikbayan” (overseas Filipino workers) appears to have stalled, although the overall number has fallen to 9.1 million from 10 million previously.

There is also the nagging question of whether the turnaround can continue after NoyNoy leaves office. As he explained: “I would say my nightmare would be everything that has been achieved will get unravelled in the next 6 years.”

He was much more forthcoming on the South China Sea issue, insisting that the on-going dispute with China had not hurt trade and tourism ties.

As he told me, Chinese companies have invested US$600 million in the Philippines while more than 800,000 Filipinos visited the Mainland.

Clearly, he wishes not to let the dispute over the South China Sea define his country's bilateral relations with China.

Despite The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruling that it could hear the Philippine’s request for adjudication against China on the issue, NoyNoy stressed: “Our actions are not meant to exacerbate tensions. We do not envision ourselves as having offensive capability against anybody.”

NoyNoy also welcomed the Asean Economic Community: “I’m a firm believer that you cannot have a sheltered economy and expect it to grow. We cannot have those inefficiencies and expect to be able to compete on a worldwide basis. We see ourselves as having a bigger voice on the world stage because of our presence in Asean, especially since we have one of the biggest populations proportional to the rest.”

The last line stuck with me after I left him.

While it’s unclear whether NoyNoy’s successors will continue his agenda, there’s no denying that the Philippines has been placed on the world map under his tenure.

There is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the most consequential leaders of our time to emanate from Southeast Asia, if not Asia as a whole.

Karim Raslan is a Southeast Asian commentator.