Our Crisis: Summing Up
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 29 August 2001

Time there was in this breezy tropical country when great and earth-shaking events were few and far between. In 1996-97 when I was handling the strategic dimension of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo�s presidential campaign, I told her how lucky she was. The communist rebellion mounted by the CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines, New People�s Army) had dwindled to a zephyr, a harmless vagabond breeze. The regime of President Fidel Ramos had succeeded in locking up Nur Misuari into the chairmanship of the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). He had abandoned his Kalashnikov to become a bureaucrat, and soon he would love the smell of money and bureaucratic power. That is exactly what happened.

The United States continued its roller-coaster ride to more economic progress and social prosperity � the highest and longest in its history. Philippine exports were looking up, the economy looked sturdy, the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Council) had spread its eagle wings. The surveys showed GMA (then vice president) topping government performance ratings by a mile. National surveys for the presidential elections in 1998 had her even-stephen with Joseph Estrada. Sometimes she was ahead. We who handled her campaign had no doubt she would be the next president of the Philippines.

After all, Gloria had the economic brains, what the doctor precisely ordered at that time when there was political stability. And besides, the only rival for the presidency was Joseph Estrada. A lightweight. A c0ckedoodledoo. We were scheduling three to five national debates between Gloria and Erap and we were sure Gloria would dump Erap into the mud like Muhammad Ali sending Sonny Liston to the canvas in the first round.

But all the great, promising programs of mice and men never came to pass in the case of GMA. At the time. Now that she is president, the ocean calm is no more. The waves are huge and ugly and can overcome her.

She joined the political camp of President Ramos, abandoned her presidential bid to become simply vice presidential candidate of Lakas-NUCD. That was her first big blunder, wrenching free of our group bearing the flag of KAMPI. It was also a blunder of FVR who with Joe Almonte chose Speaker Joe de Venecia over GMA as Lakas presidential candidate. Two major blunders opened the way for Erap Estrada to sprint across the political landscape and win the presidency in 1998 with a big, big bang. Had FVR chosen Gloria over Joe de V, she would have won because even at that time GMA had a slight edge over Estrada in surveys. And with the FVR electoral machine in control of the elections, she was a shoo-in.

So now we are in the lotus land of might-have-been, wondering, forever wondering if Gloria had won and Erap had lost in 1998 what the Philippines would be today. A stable, progressive Philippines?

As many of us in the intelligentsia had anticipated, the Estrada presidency was not only a disaster. The nation�s locomotive that was going forward went into reverse under an administration � the mounting evidence shows that now � that disgraced the seal of the Republic, wining, dining, gambling and womanizing, looting and again looting the public till until the economy faltered, staggered and began to fall, a besotted drunk with a bottle in each hand, about to crumple and vomit into the hay.

It is probable that under a GMA presidency then, the nation would have certainly avoided the mistakes, the abuses, the scams, the scandals, the gargantuan theft that marked the past regime. And in so avoiding, the critical mass of People Power II would not have built up, the peso would have remained steady, and the nation would have bought precious time to build a much better bridge to the future. Estrada would probably have gone back to the movies, and God knows what wicked enterprises he would have set up with Atong Ang, Jaime Dichavez, Dante Tan et al.

In one of my columns two to three weeks back, I wrote the hole we were in today was the biggest we had sunk into since half a century ago. I was not kidding. Our total population today is estimated at about 80 million. Forty percent are dirt poor, meaning about 35 million Filipinos. Sometime ago, I saw these poor families eating their meals on TV, and I looked away in utter shame. Meals � probably just once a day, lucky if they have two � were a bowl of boiled rice, with water, sprinkled with salt.

* * *

In one instance, only the elder boy, the only one going to school, would have first crack at the bowl of rice. What he did not finish, three to four other siblings would like animals. In another instance, a grandmother said she had nothing to feed her five charges for the night. They were virtually in rags inside a lean-to which could caved in if hit by the head winds of the first approaching typhoon. Poverty. The kind I had never witnessed before.

Mother of mercy, is this what we have come to?

Listen well and be even more shocked. In 30 years, or the year 2030, we shall have a population of 160 million Filipinos! In 2060, this will soar into 320 million! If we cannot feed a population of 80 million today, where do we get the wherewithal to feed the many millions more that will teem in our cities and provinces in the years ahead? How do we produce the rice, the foodstuffs, how do we build up our provisions? So Thomas Malthus was right after all where the Philippines is concerned. Remember the Malthusian theory? There comes a time when the press of population overtakes the food supply. And the result would be widespread famine. Or war that will decimate the population. Civil war?

This is the powderkeg I have been writing about again and again. But nobody listens. Or cares.

The time is long past when our poor with infinite patience will suffer crushing poverty. Our dominant religion can no longer convince them this is their lot since after all their reward will be the Kingdom of Heaven. And here lies the danger. Sometime next year, perhaps the second quarter, the current economic crisis will hit them like an ironball. At lunch with Peter Wallace last Friday, he expressed the hope the current international economic crisis would taper off early next year, early enough to benefit the Philippines, early enough for our economy to resurge. Then we could avoid the disaster of the poor taking to the streets and possibly resorting to violence.

I said, well and good. But if America�s economy, as well as that of Japan and Europe, gets out of its slump mid-year next year or the second half of 2002, then the tempest in the Philippines will rage. Besides it takes three to six months before a US economic recovery can be felt in the Philippines. Wallace, spokesman of the multinational firms here, is about the only soul brother who understands me when I say our culture is the albatross around the Philippines� neck.

It is a twisted, deformed and damaged culture. It is behind our five fundamental problems, namely

  • Poverty
  • A Non-Performing Economy
  • A Debased Education
  • Law and Order (lack of absence) and
  • Graft and Corruption

Also coming in with a cloven hoof is our democracy, which hasn�t worked, which refuses to work, and which can only work if the citizenry sets about to repair it with a zeal, a dedication, and a passion for work and quality performance Filipinos have never shown before. And we can only have rule of law if our leaders move or a crop of new leaders should emerge soon with thunderbolts in hand, each thunderbolt flinging a notorious criminal into jail. That way, we buy time.

Where along the way did we fail?

There are many causes and reasons. But foremost is the fact we Filipinos never developed the "human capital" or "knowledge capital" to enable us to catch up with such nations as Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Thailand. During the 30 years that their economy sprinted, we were stuck. The leadership wasn�t there. China with a population of 1.3 billion is now able to properly feed its population, producing rice per hectare thrice or even four times more than we do. India with a population of close to a billion has been just as successful.

Human capital and knowledge capital are what the economists call the "immaterial assets" that enable a nation to compete in the world market.

We have fallen far behind in technology and productivity. Many of us still articulate the idle boast that the Philippines is so rich, its soil so loamy and alluvial. We just drop one seed and tomorrow we have a food-bearing plant. Really? The technology-productivity gap explains the social turbulence shaking the Philippines today � mass poverty and mass hunger. That explains why the social cauldron is simmering, why the issue of drugs has so frightened a hungry population they are now moving to the barricades to save their children. At the barricades, anything can happen.

And so it has been in the history of all nations. The twins have always been hunger and blood.

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