The trouble with the Philippines’ political discourse today is that it is hopelessly partisan. As a result, there is no energy channeled into mapping a way forward for the Philippines. Instead, much of the talk is around discrediting one other. Whilst there is a small niche within the social media chatter that appreciates and rewards the soundness of arguments (and even the wit with which these are presented), much of the rest mainly revolves around nitpicking on little faux pas made on a day-to-day basis by a who’s-who of influentials.
The problem with this sort of chatter is that nothing gets resolved (because both sides are adamant in the arbitrary righteousness of their positions) and no way forward is proposed. No surprise there as much of the quality of the chatter today simply mirrors that of the past several decades.
At some point one just needs to step out of the fray and regard all the noise from an outsider’s perspective. When one does that, one is able to boil the Philippines’ problems down to just a handful of things that its society and decision makers need to focus on. It really just all comes down to three fundamental challenges that Filipinos have consistently failed to step up towards creating capability to achieve…
(1) Create and raise capital indigenously.
(2) Abide by the law.
(3) Think critically.
When we consider our elegantly simple and original definition of poverty, it suddenly all makes sense:
Poverty is a habitual entering into commitments one is inherently incapable of honouring.
In short, the Philippines remains wretchedly impoverished because it is held to commitments (e.g. growing population, mounting consumerism, debt-funded investments in infrastructure, etc.) that require a capability to raise capital indigenously, abide by the law, and think critically to honour in the long-term. Having failed to develop these capabilities since “independence” in 1946, the results are not surprising. The commitments are maturing and coming due, but the capability is not up to scratch to pay up.
The idea, for example, of funding infrastructure with debt is based on the assumption that said infrastructure will pave the way for economic development that then generates the funds to service said debt. When a debt-funded asset is not productively utilised, the result is a no-brainer: poverty. Simple, right?
As such, debt is not necessarily bad. It is only bad when the thing that we acquire with it is not turned into an asset. Indeed, “vice president” Leni Robredo famously expressed her fear of debt with regard to a proposal to build a rail service linking her home province in Bicol to Metro Manila that would require loans to finance its more than Php170 billion price tag…
“First of all, it’s debt. Very huge, P171 billion. That’s very huge,” said Robredo, who is a native of Naga. “Our fear is we might get stuck in a debt trap like the one experienced by Sri Lanka,” she said.
In essence, Robredo is expressing a lack of confidence that Filipinos will successfully harvest at least 170 billion pesos in economic value from such a rail link over the term of the loan — which means, as she rightly pointed out, it is practically certain that we’d be stuck with that debt with nothing to show for. That’s a fair enough assessment of Filipinos’ capability to make good on a commitment not just to pay that debt but to make that debt a whorthwhile commitment. Examples of how debt-funded projects have impoverished Filipinos abound, after all.
So, yes, for a society to develop into a modern and prosperous one requires that these fundamental capabilities be in place in order to mitigate the risk inherent in putting capital to work. Indeed, if we examine the histories of the economic development of the world’s great nations, the above three would be the common denominators at work. Closer to home, the late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew focused on just these three things for the most part of his half-century effort to leading his country to greatness.
From what we have seen so far, the Philippine National “Debate” has also failed to come up with a roadmap along these lines simply because the quality of the discourse has never elevated to a level that tackles these fundamental challenges. Perhaps it is because, in a society of small minds, the topic of choice is always people rather than ideas. Small wonder that the Philippines remains doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.
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