Cautious pessimism?

March 25, 2015 at 11:18


Cautious pessimism?

Roberto F. de Ocampo

Philippine Daily Inquirer

2:17 AM | Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Current and recent events are making some people anxious that the Philippines remains unable to shake off a jinx albatross around its neck, leading it to time and again move one step forward and two steps backward.

Arguably, Ferdinand Marcos was on a march to possible greatness for both himself and the country. But instead he took the road more traveled of greed and abuse of power, thus leaving a legacy of otherwise impressive public infrastructure overshadowed by deep wounds in the national psyche that have yet to be healed. The Ramos administration was recognized internationally for bringing the Philippine economy back to its rightful place as a serious global contender. But instead of using this platform as a launching pad to progress, we voted in successive administrations that wasted an entire decade by their preference for pandering to the masses than improving their lot, for propaganda and self-promotion over substance, and for good old graft and corruption.

Now we are approaching the close of an administration that has again brought the economy back to global recognition, doggedly pursued a campaign against corruption, and brought renewed hope that the Philippines may at last be truly on track toward progress and prosperity. But then came Mamasapano.

So much has been written and said about this incident that I prefer to only reiterate here the hope of many: that we will collectively find our way toward justice and peace. It will neither be easy nor quick, particularly under a prevailing mood of mistrust. When trust is broken, it would take a herculean effort to restore. The government can rebuild this trust by proceeding on a more forthright and transparent conduct vis-à-vis the incident and its investigation. Any temptation toward obfuscation and squid tactics must be avoided. On the other hand, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has to do its part to continue to foster an image of trustworthiness by, at the very least, appearing to be answerable to the Philippines as much as, if not more than, Malaysia, and more strongly signaling its common bond with the rest of the populace as Filipinos rather than their separate identity as Bangsamoros.

This is a complex and delicate situation that has dented the credibility of the Aquino administration at a time when things were looking upbeat and the economy was riding high. It has, among other things, raised the question of whether the administration can still achieve enough milestones in the remaining year of its incumbency (or, more realistically, six months, in view of the imminent political campaign period for the 2016 elections). Perhaps it can, but it has to make decisions quickly and exercise firm political will; simultaneously, it has to place the Mamasapano incident in the proper context of transparency and objectivity that perhaps only the appointment of an investigative commission composed of truly independent-minded and unassailable persons can provide.

If the administration does these, then it can have the political room to turn enough of its attention to three groupings that, I suggest, are “must do” items on its legacy list: infrastructure, key sectors and legislative priorities.

On infrastructure, these would be:

  • Avoiding a serious breakdown in power supply in the summer months that would be annoying in itself but would also raise uneasy questions about competence and may be the most untimely signal to send to a global investment community that now looks favorably on the Philippines.
  • Coming up with even a partial solution to the urban traffic mess. Nearly-standstill traffic day after day is not the best face to present to the world to reflect our coming of age and attractiveness as a headquarters hub for an Asean region on the cusp of closer economic cooperation.
  • Reaching a sensible decision on what I have described as a “no-brainer”—relocating our international gateway airport. I still maintain that a move to Clark offers the quickest and least-cost solution.

Regarding key sectors, these would be agriculture and mining. The starting point for an agro-industry boom for our country is an overhaul of our ineffective and detrimental land reform system that has neither helped our farmers nor made our agricultural sector more productive. As for mining, it only takes common sense and political will to make the important decision to once and for all specifically and geographically identify those areas open for mining and those to be mainly preserved for environmental protection and ecotourism.

In terms of legislative priorities, the passage of the proposed competition law, freedom of information act, and incentives reform act would be milestones in promoting the level playing field and bona fide democratic context within which private-sector initiative can flourish. Hopefully, amendments to constitutional provisions that curtail foreign investments would move beyond first base.

Clearly, these may not be easy to pull off in a year, much less in six months. Should one then be pessimistic? Perhaps, cautiously so, but I think there’s more than enough going for the Philippines at this juncture for optimistic hope to spring, even if all the foregoing would not be fully realized.

Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary and was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.


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