Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Monster on the loose!

ON December 12, the National Statistics Office (NSO) released the latest numbers on merchandise exports, saying the Philippines sold more than US$39 billion of tangible products to the rest of the world from January to October, up 16 percent from the numbers in the same period last year.

That’s certainly good news because, when we look at the NSO report more closely, our export growth was broad-based. Electronics grew by more than double digits (11 percent), but so did other sectors like manufactures, copper cathodes, petroleum, woodcrafts and furniture, bananas, processed tropical fruits, tuna, iron agglomerates, gold and copper concentrates.
But who really has heard about that good news? Not many. And that’s because most people’s minds these days are focused on the commotions and scandalous behaviors at the House of Representatives as the gang of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. tried, but failed, to ram through Charter change through the constituent assembly. Not even the cries of Typhoon Reming victims in Bicol could drive them to pause and ponder how they are ruining the country’s growth prospects this year and the next. Now they are trying to revive the corpse once more through the Con-con.

Such antics at the House somehow mirror the current bifurcation of the Philippine society at its worst, a social chasm that has been hampering the country from economically moving faster. We seem to have a Janus-faced society that is so conflicted we can’t figure out which face to show, the nice or happy face or the monster riding roughshod on our hopes and dreams.

On one hand, we have in our midst the people—private business, entrepreneurs, office workers, farmers, civil society groups—who are just so sick and tired of dirty and brazen politics, and are hoping that somehow, their leaders would come to their senses and stop doing anything that would threaten the economy’s prospects. They represent the nice and happy faces of our society. These are the people who are aware of their surroundings and of the fact that the rest of the world is moving on headstrong toward progress. The people, therefore, are hoping that somehow, these “political leaders,” who act like spoiled brats and rotten teenagers, would mature and start working for the common good.

On the other hand, we have “political leaders” who are so disconnected from the pulse of the nation, so remote and isolated from the wishes and aspirations of the people that they actually don’t give a heck whether or not we are headed to perdition. For them, what seems to matter most is political survival and it matters not that the economy, meaning the living standards of the people, might be derailed. They are the monsters whose obsession for power is matched only by their brazenness.

In the last several quarters, the happy face of this country has actually tried to manifest in decent gross domestic product growth rates, rising exports, stable factory capacity and utilization, a “strong peso,” rising remittances and domestic demand, improving finances, exuberant stock markets, and enthusiastic call centers. Somehow, the monsters in our midst lied low to give us an improving reputation as hosts to outsourcing. Lately, there have even been encouraging talks about the Philippines becoming a “knowledge-processing” center in Asia-Pacific.

Now we know at this time that efforts of the people, the happy struggling faces of our society, are not enough to lift us all from poverty and pervasive joblessness unless the rulers do their share of the work. What has been doing well all along was largely the external sector, whose dynamism is beyond the country’s control and influence. We have come to realize that our current exports growth, rise of call centers and the billion-dollar remittances are not enough to lift us to the levels of development achieved by our neighbors.

Thus, the people, especially the private business sector, have been saying that it’s time now for the country’s ruling elite to rise up and do their mandated work and clear all the logjams that have been hampering economic growth: lack of absorptive capacity, red tape, inefficiency, incompetence and plain lack of vision.

But so isolated are these people from the wishes of the larger society that they heard the message wrong. Instead of seeing the improving numbers as a chance to ratchet up growth, they instead started embarking on another political misadventure through the Con-ass, a sinister project that would further infuriate and polarize the entire society.

Why are they so insensitive to the wishes of the people? Why are they so blind to the desires of the private sector for stability and continuity? Why are they so brazen to challenge the patience of the people?

After the House retreated from the Con-ass, the administration became isolated. But we fear that they have already done great damage to the economy and its near-term prospects.
The administration is so embarrassed about its humiliation in the Con-ass that it had to cancel the Asean summit to avoid Asean delegates seeing all the rambunctious and scandalous antics of politicians in the House of Representatives. That MalacaƱang had to blame a typhoon for the cancellation has made it all the more ridiculous.

But there is a huge price to pay for that: our image as an investment destination, and the competence of the country’s leadership. It would be bad enough that we lose our face, but it would be worse that the jobs are not going to be created for lack of investor confidence.
And the worst scenario is that, with an angered citizenry that has lost respect for the current political leadership, we might see yet again mammoth demonstrations, street confrontations, and utter chaos that, in the past, had given us an image of a nice, resilient people governed by insensitive politicians behaving like monstrous, rotten teenagers.

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