Over the past decade, the Philippines has undergone a transformation. A nation that was once a joke has become a very serious economic player. The sheer dynamism and energy of Metro Manila, with its burgeoning design, software and lifestyle hubs, suggests what we may be looking forward to in Jakarta in the years ahead if Indonesia were to follow the same trajectory.
The man at the center of all this success is a soft-spoken and bookish political dynast, Benigno Aquino III (called “NoyNoy”). His father was the martyred Benigno Aquino Jr. while his mother Corazon was President from 1986 to 1992. Contrary to all expectations, NoyNoy has shepherded the republic to the top of the ASEAN gross domestic product (GDP) growth tables. According to the World Bank, from 2011 to 2014 (the first four full years of NoyNoy’s six-year term as President), the Philippines’ economy grew by an average of 5.95 percent, surpassing Malaysia’s 5.38 percent, Vietnam and Indonesia’s 5.7 percent, as well as Singapore’s 4.2 percent.
Elsewhere, the Philippines is also playing a fierce game of catch-up. From 2010 to 2014, the Philippines soared from 134th to 85th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (an increase of 49 places), compared to Indonesia’s 110th to 107th (just three) and Vietnam’s three-spot decline from 116th to 119th. Its iconic IT-Business Process Outsourcing (or BPO) sector in 2014 brought in US$18 billion in revenues — providing some 1.3 million Filipinos with middle-class jobs and, importantly, salaries and stemming the inevitability of having to leave the country to find work.
However, when NoyNoy first stood as a presidential candidate back in 2010, most commentators were scathing in their assessment. They saw him as little more than a shallow, inexperienced political princeling. Well, the critics were clearly wrong. I recently had the honor of interviewing the president in the historic, Narra wood-paneled and jewel-like Malacanang Palace, a marked contrast from the cacophony outside on the streets of Manila. Just over two weeks before this month’s APEC Summit in the Philippine capital and six months before Filipinos go to the polls to elect his successor, the president was upbeat, especially when asked about the economic turnaround: “Give the Filipino the right environment and he or she will shine,” he said, adding, “[Our success stems] from the fundamental belief that the greatest resource of this country is our people.”
Much like his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, he has focused on health and education, working hard to coordinate education and training with industry requirements. His government has also increased healthcare spending by well over 300 percent, targeting the poor in particular.NoyNoy has been resolute in the face of corruption and abuse of power — allowing prosecutors to move against both his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a number of senior senators as well as countenancing the impeachment of the controversial Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Renato Corona. As he said: “Now the highest positions are also being made to account for their actions.”He adds: “We started out with the phrase, ‘If you eliminate corruption you can eliminate poverty.’ We will not tolerate the situation where cronies become monopolies [...] because it just keeps us where we are. We don’t grow. We actually stagnate.”
What inspired him to embrace the Daang Matuwid (or the Straight Path)? I found his answer, when I asked how he remained consistent in office, quite telling: “I think I benefited from being the son of my parents […] My father […] had this idea that he would not have enough time to do everything that he wanted to do […] he tended to be a consensus builder but it was clear that he was the leader […] In my mother’s case, she would tend to be more focused on the consensus-building aspect. It might take a lot more time, but then you get a more solid foundation with the decisions you have to make.”
To the president, “Daang Matuwid” is an integral part of governance and leadership. Moreover he sees the anti-corruption commitment as a critical step in improving national confidence. “[In the past] small leakages were tolerated. Then the small leakages became more and more until eventually […] the leakages became 100 percent [...] public funds are supposed to be for the public good. When they are deprived of that which is due them, then you say ‘[…] persevere a little more, things will get better’ But when you say persevere a little more for the longest time, up to what point will they [still] say ‘Ok, we’ll wait a little longer’?”Indeed, he sees changing the self-image of the Filipinos as his signature accomplishment: “I think the rekindling of the pride of Filipino [is my greatest accomplishment]…their attitude, their perceptions of the present and future impacts on where we will be.”
Of course, problems remain. Infrastructure spending is lackluster at only 4 percent of GDP. Manila’s electricity rates are amongst the priciest in the Asia-Pacific. Traffic is still awful and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remains far from ideal. Manufacturing is anemic when compared to what the Vietnamese have achieved.Also, NoyNoy’s cherished goal of reducing the number of “Balikbayan” (overseas Filipino workers) appears to have stalled, although the overall number has dipped to 9.1 million from 10 million previously.
There is also the nagging question of whether “Daang Matuwid” can continue after NoyNoy leaves office. As he explained: “I would say my nightmare would be everything that has been achieved will get unraveled in the next six years.”On the South China Sea, he noted that the ongoing dispute with China had not hurt bilateral trade and tourism ties with the region’s giant. Despite The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruling that it could hear the Philippine’s request for adjudication against China on the issue, NoyNoy stressed: “Our actions are not meant to exacerbate tensions. We do not envision ourselves as having offensive capability against anybody.”
NoyNoy welcomed the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC): “I’m a firm believer that you cannot have a sheltered economy and expect it to grow. We cannot have those inefficiencies and expect to be able to compete on a worldwide basis. We see ourselves as having a bigger voice on the world stage because of our presence in ASEAN, especially since we have one of the biggest populations proportional to the rest.”The last line stuck with me after I left him. While it remains far from certain whether “Daang Matuwid” will continue, NoyNoy and the Philippines are essentially putting ASEAN — including Indonesia — on notice.
NoyNoy is a dynast who has more than matched the achievements of his parents. Moreover, he recognizes that economic growth rates alone are not enough to turn around the republic. He understands the importance of moral leadership (and of exercising it in the teeth of elite opposition) as well as holding out a vision that his people can share.Not as flashy as some leaders, he is nevertheless one of the most consequential Southeast Asian leaders of our time.
The writer Karim Raslan, is a Southeast Asian commentator