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[OPINION] Vietnam and the Philippines: A study in contrasts

 / 04:05 AM October 27, 2020

All nations tend to mythologize their success and, accordingly, mystify their failures. Over the long run, what’s important above all is how each nation learns from its mistakes, recovers from failures through grit and innovation, and confidently marches toward the end of history. In 1881, Gregorio Sancianco published his landmark “El progreso de Filipinas” (The progress of the Philippines) in Madrid. When most of our neighbors lacked even a single modern university, here was a Filipino book that carefully analyzed the administrative and economic structures of the Pearl of the Orient Seas (Perla del mar de oriente).

Blessed with fertile lands and relatively modern industries, the 19th-century Philippines was a manufacturing hub and a food exporting nation, including, yes, rice. It was precisely this prosperity that gave birth to a robust and increasingly nationalistic middle class, the Filipino “Ilustrado,” who built on the legacy of their creole predecessors such as Fr. José Burgos and Luis Rodriguez Varela in pursuit of collective self-determination.

Though singular in his genius, Rizal was only one among countless brilliant Filipinos, who, as in Sancianco or Antonio Luna, were operating at the cutting-edge of arts, science, and technology.

Half a century of disasters, from American imperial duplicity to the Japanese occupation and World War II, undercut our nationalist revolution. And yet, by 1960 the Philippines still had the largest economy in Southeast Asia, with world-class professionals and leaders.

That year, however, was also the beginning of the country’s decline in the rank of nations, largely thanks to forthcoming kleptocratic Marcos dictatorship that reduced the Philippines to the “Sick man of Asia” by the 1980s.

It was not until recently that our country began to claw its way back to a measure of stability, such that by 2013, then under President Benigno Aquino III, the World Bank felt confident enough to describe the Philippines as “Asia’s rising tiger.”

But it took only a few years for the Philippines to once again relapse into authoritarian temptation, placing its fate in the hands of another strongman. The upshot is slowing growth, reaching an eight-year low in 2019, and the second worst preforming country in the region this year.

In neighboring Vietnam, however, the year 1960 marked the beginning of national unification, as Ho Chi Minh took on the world’s reigning superpower. The Vietnam War wrought unfathomable devastation and human tragedy, reducing tens of millions of ordinary folk to poverty and destitution.

By the late 1970s, a now unified Vietnam, having defeated the United States, found itself at war with its former patron, China, and its Cambodian proxies. It was also desperately isolated within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which was then dominated by mostly US-aligned nations.

But the struggle for independence also congealed Vietnam into a unified, coherent, and dynamic nation under the helm of competent and patriotic leaders. While the Philippines struggled with Marcos-era debt burdens and sustained an industrial hollowing-out under neoliberal policies, Vietnam’s leadership built a modern developmental state under the Doi Moi reforms, which aimed to create a “socialist-oriented market economy.”

Instead of blindly opening their economy to foreign products, Vietnam’s leadership adopted optimal trade and industrial policies that attracted quality foreign direct investments and boosted domestic production capacity. It adopted best practices, including from our International Rice Research Institute, to enhance its food self-sufficiency and rural development. Built on principles of egalitarianism, Vietnam also established a world-class basic education and health care system.

Thus, within a generation, the country had transformed itself from a war-torn nation into the world’s latest economic miracle. Today, Vietnam is an agricultural superpower, exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of rice to places such as the Philippines, while its colossal manufacturing sector is churning out electric cars, high-definition LEDs, and designer products.

In terms of math and sciences, Vietnamese children ranked among the top 10 nations in the world. Thanks to its competent state institutions, Vietnam swiftly contained the COVID-19 crisis and, this year, will overtake the Philippines in per capita income.

And while Rodrigo Duterte publicly fears resistance to China in the West Philippine Sea, Vietnam has bravely stood up to Beijing’s maritime aggression. Sadly, Rizal’s trepidations and Heneral Luna’s frustrations about their beloved motherland painfully echo until this day, while Uncle Ho must be mightily proud of his valiant and competent heirs.