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Strong democracies

Two strong democracies celebrated their National Day yesterday, although their embassy receptions in Manila are always held on different dates. Last night was the reception of South Korea; today is the reception for German Unification.

The two countries are good examples of functioning democracies that sprung from wars including fratricidal armed conflict. Germany has overcome the challenges of unification to become Europe’s strongest economy.

All countries have problems, but both nations have worked to ensure that the elements needed for democracy to work are in place, starting with the rule of law, which is one of the foundations of free rather than anarchic societies.

Germany is now promoting not merely justice for its people but “global justice” and “strength of the law” as foundations for “global governance.” We’ll be happy with justice for ordinary Pinoys, and not just for those who can afford expensive lawyers and accountants.

Several expats from advanced economies have told me that perhaps the only thing that can end our intractable problems – patronage politics, the stranglehold of a miniscule fraction of the population on power and wealth, the shameless rent-seeking, corruption and tribalism – is a war as blood-drenched as their civil wars and revolutions. There should be so much blood in the streets, the expats said, that people would be sickened by the violence and vow to work together to prevent further bloodshed.

Our bloodless people power revolt, they acknowledged, restored democracy – a feat so impressive it truly seemed like a miracle. But structural weaknesses and social injustice remained in place. And those behind the world-class looting and gross human rights violations during the dictatorship have never been punished.

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Modern South Korean society emerged after a civil war that divided the Korean Peninsula. The war was brutal and drenched the country in blood, but Koreans told me that it had an unintended upside: it became a social equalizer. A Korean who was a young boy at the time of the war remembered everyone becoming impoverished, scrounging for food, and then uniting to rise from the ashes of death and destruction.

Today South Korea is one of the few countries that can boast of economic growth that is generally inclusive. Graft and crony capitalism became problems after the war, but the country saw to it that anti-corruption laws were applied to all, sending to prison two presidents and crooked heads of the chaebols or business conglomerates that are mostly family-owned.

The country remains technically at war with its increasingly belligerent northern neighbor, which could account for the South’s competitive spirit.

How does one succeed in competition? By capacity-building. Like other top Asian economies, South Korea has invested heavily in every nation’s most precious resource, its people – through quality education and constant skills upgrading, through programs encouraging innovation and creativity. It has also invested in decent public health care.

Like other prosperous, inclusive economies, the Koreans also strengthened institutions particularly the justice system so that the rule of law would prevail and leveling the playing field would not be mere political rhetoric.

From the results of Oplan Tokhang and Double Barrel, we can see the limitations of killing. By learning from others’ experiences, we can skip the bloodshed proposed by the desperate and get serious about implementing long-needed reforms.

* * *

Many proposals that don’t call for bloodshed have been offered by the business community. I’m going over the “Arangkada Philippines and the Ten-Point Socio-Economic Agenda of the Duterte Administration” – a publication of The Arangkada Philippines Project, with American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Inc. senior advisor John Forbes as the principal author. TAPP was launched by the Joint Foreign Chambers six years ago to encourage faster economic acceleration of the country.

I’m still in Chapter 2, but several suggestions on increasing competitiveness and ease of doing business are worth presenting here. One notable observation, from the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), is that the 1987 Constitution has an inherent flaw: “the integration of economic policies into its provisions.”

“While a Constitution embodies the fundamental law of the land and lays down principles and general guidelines, economic policy must be more specific, changeable, and consist of programs that cater to the changing needs and challenges of market fluctuations,” MAP declared in a position paper.

Amending the Constitution remains iffy at this point, but there are other proposals in the Arangkada report that are doable.

One is for the President to just issue executive orders for key reforms, instead of waiting for the necessary legislation. Congress can later pass the laws to formalize the measures in the EOs.

There’s a snag here, which we saw when Duterte issued an EO on the reproductive health law: the Supreme Court effectively stopped the EO implementation. Du30 might yet get his revenge on the SC and its chief.

Other sound proposals in the Arangkada, but which the notoriously self-absorbed congressional super majority will surely reject, are the strengthening of the Anti-Money Laundering Act, and the amendment of the law on the secrecy of bank deposits, so that all government officials, whether elected or appointed, can’t invoke the secrecy privilege.

Apart from several much-amplified proposals for improving the justice system, Arangkada suggests limiting the cases handled by the SC to national issues to reduce its workload and speed up the final resolution of cases.

Another is to strengthen “economic justice” by setting up special courts to handle specific matters such as contract enforcement and land dispute settlement. There can be courts dedicated to infrastructure cases, commercial issues, cybercrime and the environment.

Also suggested is the greater use of alternative dispute resolution and arbitration for out-of-court settlement of civil disputes.

The Arangkada calls for increasing the pay of members of the judiciary, boosting scientific investigation capabilities, hiring more judges and strengthening the Office of the Ombudsman.

We should also push for an improvement in the appointment and promotion system in the justice sector so that it becomes much less politicized. The flawed system is one of the biggest reasons for corruption, incompetence and inefficiency in the justice system.

The Arangkada report includes tables showing the Philippines lagging behind ASEAN’s top six economies in several areas including police efficiency.

We’re still a long way from achieving the levels of development of Germany and South Korea. But we’re aware of our problems and there are suggestions from various sectors on what can be done. Many of the suggestions, however, will put an end to rent-seeking and the monopolistic perks enjoyed by political clans and the nation’s wealthiest.

If the political leadership sits on the suggestions, it renders proposals born of desperation attractive.

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