Jose Antonio Cangco

China has overtaken Japan and is now the second largest economy in the world after the United States. What is the secret of the Chinese and can it be duplicated in the Philippines? There are a lot of factors for their success, plus the fact that the Chinese are very business-minded and industrious people. Have you ever seen a Chinese ‘istambay” in the Philippines?

Naturally, we would like to emulate the success stories of Singapore, China, South Korea, Israel, and many other countries without the magic word “oil.” However, the problem of having role models in developing our own country is the conditions here are different, and without studying our own priorities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses, we may end up with a cure for a different disease. For example, reducing graft and corruption is not the main answer to providing for our burgeoning population and their future offspring as some sectors claim; on the other hand, it will surely improve our ranking in the Corruption Perception Index and increase trust and confidence in our system, resulting to foreign investments coming in. (An uncontrolled population growth can easily eat into any economic gains we will have in the future.)

The conditions in the Philippines are different and unique like everywhere else, and what works for some countries may not turn out successfully in ours. Actually, there is advance talk western style economics is not always applicable to Asia, and that economic truth is formed by the temperament of the people concerned.

Without going deep into our history, starting only recently from the Commonwealth era to the present, there is a common factor that is missing throughout. This spans a 75-year period of change: the American occupation, the Japanese occupation, the Philippine Republic, Martial Law, and today. What was and is missing through out which might have slowed down, or even sidetracked, our journey towards a first world country?

Glimpses into our history will show we lack continuity in our programs. Except maybe for agrarian reform and the insurgency problem, the agenda of each administration would change every time a new set of officials is elected. Far from finger pointing at any administration for coming out with new agendas and priorities every four or six years, our elected national leaders in the legislative branch should formulate a common and long-term “set of priorities and goals” for the Philippines as a country to follow for the next fifty years. Strategies for each goal will be left for every new president to form and execute.

China did not become no. 2 in a matter of four, five or ten years. The path of the new China started as early as 1978 when it introduced reforms from a planned socialist economy toward a market based economy, and despite fine tuning in different stages from then to the present, it has basically adhered to the goals Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and his allies formulated in the late 70’s. Remember, China had easily overtaken Russia. Now, there are a few economists who say China will overtake the U.S. before the end of the decade, a total of 42 years since 1978, easily within any man’s lifetime.

Going back to our own problem, the continuity we need in planning and implementing our program is not the same as the meaning of business or government continuity wherein the primary concern is non-stoppage of operations and delivery of services during earthquakes, large scale flooding, wars and other catastrophes caused by man or nature. The continuity our country needs pertains to long-term planning and implementation: to develop a fifty-year roadmap for the next eight administrations to vow to follow.

In 2005, Malaysia commissioned a feasibility study for a development zone in south Johor bordering Singapore; and in 2007, the Malaysian Parliament established the Iskander Regional Development Authority, tasked to make the vision and objectives of the approved comprehensive developmental plan of five zones come true, spanning some 20 years. If such long range vision will prove successful, and it probably will, with Malaysia’s GDP per capita of US $ 14,700 (2010 est.) more than four times the Philippines’ $ 3,500, we will soon be left behind, eating the dust of our neighboring countries.

Israel, also has made great strides since becoming a state in 1948. With almost nothing to start with, it was able to rise to become a first world country in less than 60 years. The Reut Institute attributes the country’s phenomenal performance to leapfrogging defined as a “sustained and continuous improvement in a country’s average income in comparison to other countries.” In contrast to ordinary growth trends where increases in a country’s average income do not really translate as improvement side by side with other countries, where a 3%-5% growth rate is considered high, and where growth cycles are measured in a few years, leapfrogging considers growth cycles lasting 6-20 years at a 4%-6% minimum annual growth. The Institute goes on to say that “there is no recipe (for leapfrogging), each country leaps uniquely.” Further, some other “countries may grow without a shared vision and ambitious long term objectives (but) most leapfrog (countries such as Israel and Singapore) require a broader long term vision that informs structural reforms, massive investments in infrastructure and change of priorities, patterns of conduct or habits.” The perspective in ordinary growth is to assess development in terms of past performance while in leapfrogging development is evaluated against other countries, generating a “catch up with the rich countries” attitude.

Do we need this attitude? Absolutely, and if we as a people do not have the drive and persistence to see a 50-year program to the end, then let it be enshrined in our institutions so that in the future, our sons and daughters will know where we have failed.

Is this national ambition to succeed in the long-term hard to achieve? Given we are a fractured society with no pervading national agenda, the answer depends on the leadership. How serious are they in taking the challenge to plan that many years ahead in the future? Then, it has something to do with how each administration will develop strategies, how avowed they are to executing these, and how responsive government will be to external developments, changes, failures, and successes that will surely occur during this period.

So, if the legislative body (Congress and Senate) shall make the national list of priorities for the different administrations (the Executive branch) to carry out continually in the next fifty years, we may have a better chance of spelling out success. The advantage of this arrangement is these two branches of government will be cooperating and working together as planner/overseer and implementer. The business way of running things is a good analogy, although government is a more complex beast to tame. In business, the board of directors through the chairman makes the plans and gives directions while it is the president or general manager who strategizes and implements the policies formulated by the board. Obviously, cooperation and determination is important for the entity to succeed; in the government, it is the element of continuity and a “stick-to-it” attitude that will be the glue to seeing the programs end with concrete results.

Surely, programs carried out in a national scale will take time to effect the changes desired. National goals cannot be achieved in a matter of all two, six, or ten years, and cutting corners and band-aid remedies can turn out to be costly actions later. When the Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Japan was discussing economic policies, it gave allowance that “more time should be taken in examining the possible spillover effects on economic activity and prices,” the key word here being “time” as one aspect of planning.

Further, think tank New Zealand Institute states that “short-term economic, fiscal and election pressures prevent sufficient attention being given to the requirements for long term success.” Dr. Rick Bovens, director of the Institute, says, “If the country can be mobilised to resolve the ‘Top 10’ issues then the future for New Zealand as a whole will be more assured. Efforts on many other important issues facing New Zealand will not stop and nor should they. But to build the foundation for long term success we should focus on the vital few.” Although the institute is concerned more on the few important issues, for our country we need to factor-in a longer period of time, having not really springboarded from any significant economic growth.

Again, here we see how long-term planning is important. New Zealand is a well-developed country, and as one of its goals last year has set 2025—fifteen years into the future—as the year when it shall equal the Australian GDP per capita.

Should we come up with our own top 10 or top 12 list? Definitely yes, covering a much longer period of fifty years, monitored regularly and revised only under the most impending circumstances. Our own list of dozen may include self-sufficiency in food production, peace and cooperation through education, a clean and green Philippines, a curbed population growth, youth programs toward responsible growth, universal health care, sustained ideal unemployment rate levels, reduced slum incidence equaling that in developed countries, a master infrastructure program suitable for an island nation, decentralization of government, creation of mega cities in Northern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao away from Metro Manila, etc.

Do we need a think tank to do the thinking for our leaders? A think tank should have a proven record if its recommendations are followed or inputted into policies by the government or a large sector of society. As it is, I believe we also have intelligent and selfless people in the administration, congress and senate who can turn the tide for the good of the country.

Where shall we be in 2061? Right ahead of most countries if we start planning now.

Copyright by the Author
(Published in the Philippine Panorama, July 10, 2011)

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