POSTSCRIPT / November 25, 1999 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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They are in cyberspace, and we’re on a jeepney

OUT there is the big bustling world with endless business possibilities. And here we are cowering in the shade of insular economic policies afraid to come out in the stimulating sun of world competition.

We’re not ready to compete? But when will we be ready? We’ve been pleading that for one generation, begging policy makers to close the doors and windows and not let in a gust of free trade wind.

Result is, as expected, our economy has grown anemic from inadequate exposure to global competition. We count paltry pesos from our small-time businesses while our more aggressive neighbors reap megabucks from their robust trade with the world.

How I wish President Estrada would get off his jeepney and tell us in clear detail how he intends to make us world class, how we could fetch big bucks from export products instead of from the bloody sweat of our export labor.

* * *

DURING the years that we resided in the States, we used to be puzzled seeing fellow Filipinos buying household items imported from other ASEAN countries and not those from the Philippines.

A Filipino goes to an Asian store in a San Francisco suburb to buy patis. He skips the familiar Pinoy brands and takes the Thai variety. Why? The Thais have bothered to improve their quality – and their packaging.

We used to buy big-sized bangus cultured in the murky waters of Laguna de Bay. Now Pinoys in California buy the milkfish raised in Taiwan using an improved culture method filched from the Philippines.

We export bagoong to the US. Much of it looks and smells filthy and is rejected in bulk by quarantine officers. But similar bagoong is bought by Japanese traders from us and repacked – and it passes stringent US quarantine checks.

* * *

WE pity Americans who eat Indian mango that taste like yucky medicine. But that’s the mango they know. They don’t know what they’re missing by not eating luscious golden Philippine mango.

Some years back, our mangoes were able to penetrate the US market. But, as usual, we lack R&D (research and development) that could have toughened the mango skin to make it more damage-resistant during handling and make longer their keeping quality. Worse, some get-rich-quick Filipinos started to use carburo… and we lost that promising toehold on the US market.

The moldy copra that we export is the same coconut product that our grandfathers had known in their time. No R&D has made any significant improvement in its quality. No R&D has made breakthroughs in responding to claims of foreign competitors that our coconut oil poses a health hazard.

This is not fair to the coconut. The tree of life promises more, if only we would bother to do more earnest research.

* * *

THESE are just food items I am citing because they are more familiar to the average reader. We have major exports that bring in their significant share of dollar-earnings, but they are a small fraction compared to the untapped potentials of our country and people.

Visit a Philippine booth when one is put up in a trade fair abroad. You will see wood carvings, shells, baskets and trinkets. There are barong materials that foreigners admire for their intricate embroidery but which they don’t buy and wear. It’s pathetic.

In nearby booths of other countries, you are transported to a throbbing modern world with their high-tech, innovative products of relentless R&D. You wonder how many light years it would take us to reach that high plane.

While the rest of the rushing world is already in cyberspace, here we are still tending to our carabaos in sleepy farms. Billions change hands in trading via the Internet, and here we are chatting and texting, giggling, forwarding Erap jokes.

How do we break from the chains of centuries — and soar? Certainly not by turning further inward and building a thicker protective wall around us.

* * *

THIS is the drift of the comments of economist Norman Madrid that we ran in the last Postscript written specifically to refute protectionist theories of “nationalist” economist Alejandro Lichauco being propagated all over town, practically without challenge.

Madrid, who is based in the US, summarized his view thus:

The world market is big and is the source of dollars, machines and technology. No amount of protection will help us to win there in the world, for protection relates only to our tiny domestic market.

We need free trade to make us world class in production costs and quality, and to force us to access foreigners as joint venture partners and financiers at world competition.

We do not need protective tariffs, which directs us into the local market by shutting out foreign competitors. In that local market as a focus can be found only smallness, provincialism, and pesos—but no dollars. Thus we die, as in the past five decades of protective Philippine tariffs.

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SOME reactions have come in to Madrid’s comments:

Ely Bacolod Jr. with hotmail address: I share the views of Norman Madrid. And I echo the same lament. The same appeal to economic nationalism and protectionism with which Lichauco tries to sway his audience. Such policies have already failed! We need a competitive and dynamic approach in our economic policies, instead of a harkening back to a period in Philippine history where local industries were protected by high tariff walls. I would normally ignore Lichauco, but his piece received a wide audience in our group. My work in West Africa brings me to encounter again the same issues that drove our nation’s economy and our quality of life into the depths of degradation and despair. Guinea is dominated by a president for life whose family and friends run the government and the economy. Protected domestic industries, high tariff walls, etc. They even have the same scapegoats for keeping the economy closed: World Bank, IMF, colonialism, etc.

Alfonso A. Aliga: Lichauco got it right in the nose! I never thought free trade was the culprit here, as the other countries cited are as grafted and corrupted as we are, and cronyism is the name of the game. I guess we were just scratching the surface with all our discussions, but with this, we can revisit our ideas and rethink again.

EAPulmano using an aol (AmericaOnLine) address: Here we go again, the exponents of the same old, failed policies of the past—the isolationist, the economic nationalist, still waving their banner of old fashioned nationalism, but a mere cover for their lack of vision and competitive spirit, blind to the challenges and opportunities of the global economy, which have been faced up to successfully by our neighbors such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, etc. Let us say NO to these people. They’ve had their day and they failed miserably to bring prosperity to our people! Let us engage the world, in the world market. Let not the sari-sari store be a metaphor for Filipino entrepreneurship. Let it be a Sony or a Honda, etc.

Roberto T. Arong with address: My humble opinion on this (not being an economist…): Globalization is like asking the Philippines and other developing economies to take part in a basketball game against 7+footers. Could we play another game, like soccer or volleyball or something where height is not to big a factor?

Manuel C. Diaz with aol address: Our country has been under the tutelage of these economic experts who graduated from Western schools, and all these 50 years our economy is still at the bottom. It’s time that we discarded all these experts and started an economic program based on our agricultural sector. Seventy percent of our population is dependent on agriculture. Erap has mandated that we should be self-sufficient in our basic food needs. This mandate should be augmented by making the agricultural sector the source of our alternative energy resources.

* * *

STILL on exports, owners of small garment factories are still telling stories about Director Felicitas A. Reyes of the Garments and Textiles Export Board reportedly swooping down on them last June 16 on supposed inspections. The quota was suspended that month.

As she used to move around by land, the factory owners marveled at her suddenly making the rounds in a private helicopter that normally rents out for P20,000 to P40,000.

Reyes reportedly took off from the Manila Pen with a Willy Tan for a quick tour of several firms scrambling for quota: Advance Fashions in Meycauayan, Bulacan; Stancar Garments in San Fernando, Pampanga; L&T Garments at Clark Field; (rest and lunch at Mimosa); Jasmin Garments in Tarlac; and to Advance Fashions.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 25, 1999)

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