A word of advice to all presidential aspirants: observe and learn from the Philippines.
Unlike many of his regional counterparts President Benigno Aquino (or Noynoy as he’s known) is a dynastic ruler who delivers.
I first interviewed Aquino when he was on the presidential trail back in 2010 and I was impressed immediately. However, many observers were dismissive, regarding him as little more than a callow political princeling — the son of the near-sainted Cory Aquino and assassinated Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. But something about him struck me. Perhaps it was, as I wrote back then, his “…quiet determination and self-confidence, an inherently rational and deliberate mindset and a determination not to become indebted to entrenched business and political interests … his integrity and intelligence may well propel the Philippines forward and surprise its neighbors.”
Listening to him speak in Kuala Lumpur recently, I got a sense that Aquino hasn’t disappointed. Speaking of his election, he noted: “The people told us … it’s time to once and for all realize the vast potential of the Philippines.”
I think Aquino has delivered on this score and more. First, the country’s economy has been transformed. The Philippines soared in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report rankings: from 85th in 2010 to 59th in 2013. Its GDP grew by 7.2 percent in 2013 despite the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Moreover, its business process outsourcing (BPO) industry generated $13.3 billion in export revenues and by 2016 is expected to employ 1.3 million people. The Philippines is also emerging as a tourism hub, having attracted some 4.6 million international visitors in 2013 and revenues of $4.8 billion.
This is no accident: back in 2010 Aquino identified BPO and tourism to me as “critical growth areas.”
Separately, Philippine Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW) across the globe sent back $22.5 billion in remittances in 2013. Of course the ten million of OFW represent a substantial cost to the nation as its brightest depart, often leaving behind broken families. Nonetheless, the Philippines will enter a demographic “sweet spot” in 2015, when the majority of the population will reach working age.
However, corruption remains a major problem.
Still, Aquino has had the courage to tackle vested interests. Even his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, has not been spared — proving that no one is above the law.
Aquino also defied the powerful religious interest, namely the Catholic Church over a reproductive health bill to provide universal access to contraception. This measure is desperately needed given that the Philippines has the highest population growth in Asia, at 1.9 percent, compared to China’s 0.6 percent, exacerbating its poverty.
But his impact has been more than domestic. Aquino’s tenure could see an end to the four-decade-old southern Philippine insurgency.
Plans are afoot to expand the existing Muslim autonomous region there to a “Bangsamoro” entity which will have more decentralized power. This would be a big boost to security not only in the southern Philippines but also for its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
I’m not saying everything is rosy there. The Philippine stance over the South China Sea issue may be unwise, especially given rising regional tensions. Still, it would be foolish to continue to dismiss the Philippines. Aquino has shown great foresight, courage and consistency in sticking to his transformation plans.
As he rightly said in his concluding remarks in Kuala Lumpur, “The Philippines, once the laggard of Asia, is now entering to a sustainable cycle of empowerment and opportunity, and a trajectory of growth where no one is left behind.”
I hope in five years’ time the president of Indonesia — whoever it is — can say the same thing.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.