Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines

PHILIPPINES: Subic Summit Highlights Manila’s Rise From the Ashes

Kunda Dixit

MANILA, Nov 24 1996 (IPS) - The leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) gather in the former U.S. naval base of Subic Bay Monday for a summit aimed at doing more than simply reaffirm the vision of free trade in the Pacific Rim.

The Summit will finally put the international stamp of approval on the Philippines’ dramatic economic recovery and the stability of its democratic political system.

In the past five years, Subic Bay and the Philippines literally have risen from the ashes – the devastation caused by the eruption of Mt Pinatubo and the withdrawal of two big U.S. military bases.

In 1992, when the Stars-and-Stripes were lowered for the last time at Subic Bay, north of Manila, and the huge U.S. Air Force base at nearby Clark , many here and abroad predicted that the loss of jobs and rental would wreck the stagnant economy.

There was good reason for pessimism: the country was emerging from nearly two decades of plunder under the Marcos dictatorship. And democracy under President Corazon Aquino was constantly threatened by a series of coup attempts by ambitious young military officers, which in turn scared away foreign investors.

But not only did the Philippines recover, it prospered beyond the wildest dreams of most financial analysts. The U.S. pullback also gave a new sense of independence and identity to Filipinos who were used to being treated as a trans-Pacific kid brother.

Subic Bay’s recovery from volcanic and economic devastation is symbolic of the emergence of the Philippines itself to “tiger- hood” — a term reserved for East and South-east Asian nations that have recorded strong economic growth.

With a Gross National Product (GNP) growth rate that has topped seven per cent this year, a falling inflation rate, booming foreign investment, and soaring export revenues, it all seems too good to be true.

And yet it is. Which is what has made some of the critics of Philippine democracy, notably Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who told Filipinos three years ago that they needed less democracy and more discipline, eat their words.

Lee’s detractors in the Philippines and abroad cannot hide their glee. They are using the APEC summit to thumb their noses at autocrats gathered here.

East Asia’s economic miracle had given more clout to the argument of countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and China that curtailment of political and individual freedoms was a pre-requisite to rapid economic progress.

It was not a coincidence that all vocal exponents of these ‘Asian values’ were authoritarian states which used the arguments to suppress dissent and curb the Press at home.

Even when militarised autocracies like Taiwan and South Korea emerged into full-blown democracies three years ago, the doctrine of discipline-for-growth was still respectable.

Now, the Philippines has become the latest showcase in the clash between Asian and Western values, and it is getting glowing media reviews, especially from the Western Press:

The ‘Economist’ says: “Yesterday’s sick man of Asia looks pretty perky today — and without the help of an autocratic ruler.”

“Filipinos used to despair of their poor, corrupt country. Now they think it can be the next Asian Tiger,” – ‘Newsweek’.

The ‘New York Times’: “This year, the Philippines, more democratic than ever, is growing faster than Singapore…the new growth statistics challenge a familiar argument made by several Asian rulers that political freedom hinders economic growth and is alien to Asian values.”

The ‘Financial Times’: “Manila Chalks Up Several Tiger Stripes.”

Manila newspapers have re-printed congratulatory editorials verbatim as world leaders gathered here over the weekend, and haven’t been able to suppress their pride at being taken seriously at last.

APEC is thus turning out to be a coming-out party for Filipinos.

There is the smell of both broken promises and sweet success in the air. Till 1965, polls among businessmen used to show the Philippines as the country most likely after Japan to attain industrialised status.

Columnist Amando Donornila says: “The windfall of good news from the foreign press comes at the right time, and more than makes up for the more sceptical assessment of some of the Philippine media.”

Manila newspapers have been giving wide play to anti-APEC meetings and demonstrations and have negatively highlighted the ‘Friendship Lanes’ that allow APEC delegates to whiz past gridlocked traffic in the capital’s snarled streets.

For others who had been itching to get back at Singapore for Lee Kuan Yew’s lecturing and its execution of a Filipino maid last year, favourable foreign media coverage was the right ammunition.

Manila’s ‘Today’ newspaper in an editorial entitled ‘Take a Bow’ said Philippine president Fidel Ramos has “taken the case for a democratic road to development into the tiger’s lair, Singapore itself”.

The presence here of 18 heads of state and their delegations, more than 500 top business executives from the Pacific Rim countries gives Ramos an ideal public relations opportunity to not only showcase what he has achieved, but also to drum up more investments and goodwill.

To be sure, not everything is bright and rosy.

Many Filipinos douibt whether hitching their country’s wagon to the Pacific Century and an era of barrier-free trade will benefit the weaker members of trade blocs. Farmers, especially, are concerned that this will benefit the cash crop plantations that have driven them of the best lands.

Despite six years of democracy, the Philippine polity is still patronage-dominated. Legislators tend to be provincial landlords and traditional oligarchs who have become even more entrenched. Land reform is stalled because they will not vote it into law.

Foreign investors have flocked in, but not into labour- intensive manufacturing that would create enough jobs so that the estimated four million Filipinos do not have to migrate overseas to seek work.

The four years of political stability under President Ramos may also come to an end with the next presidential elections scheduled for 1998. Ramos is barred, by the constitution, from a second-term and prospective candidates (some of them traditional politicians of the old mould) are jockeying for leverage.

Ramos approached his government’s inherited woes with the meticulousness of a military campaign: Resolve insurgencies in the countryside, solve the power crisis, restore foreign investor confidence and bolster the economy while making sure that economic growth benefits poor Filipinos.

With two years to go, Ramos must move quickly to keep his last promise to the 40 per cent of Filipinos still living below the poverty line. In addition, there is no guarantee that the post- Ramos political free-for-all will not bring out the worst traits of Philippine politics – corruption, divisiveness and patronage – and wreck the gains of the past four years.

Philippine expert Paul Hutchcroft writes in a recent paper for ‘Asia Society’: “Although democratic institutions do indeed appear to be consolidating themselves more firmly, many sectors of Philippine society remain marginal to the overall democratic process — and decidedly undemocratic forces hold sway in many localities.”

Hutchcroft says economic liberalisation by itself will not solve the country’s woes without stronger political and institutional foundations to democracy.

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