Changing image of the Philippines
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - September 14, 2012 - 12:00am

The Philippines must compete with numerous countries and entities for the sustained attention of various key publics and decisions makers in the United States. The Philippines needs a response to this political reality of rival advocacies, clashing priorities and multiple agendas. As part of this response, the Philippines must develop as many platforms as possible from which to project a positive image of itself and of the Philippine-American alliance. 

“For decades the Philippines has been the Cinderella of Southeast Asia. In a figurative sense, her wicked stepsisters in the rest of Southeast Asia get all the attention, often because they are so poorly behaved but also because they have become fat by following export-led growth strategies. ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum feature the pronouncements of Indonesia and Singapore but the Pinoy Cinderella is barely invited to the ball and seldom receives the attention she deserves from either investors or policy makers.” That quote is from my friend Professor Karl Jackson, director of Asian Studies, John Hopkins SAIS. That is quite true in the case of the failure to have an ASEAN communiqué discussing the West Philippine Sea issue.   

Until recently, the Philippines has been taken for granted by the United States. Worse, we were always applied higher standards concerning human rights, and corruption than the rest of Asia. Elite aggrandizement and graft were openly embellished with regard to us but applied by a lower standard when it came to countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, etc. Our elections were highlighted by the violence rather than the fact that it was regularly held since 1946. Unfortunately thanks to the internet and social media, we have been tarred with an old image despite a positive change in perception in the recent past.

Today, the perception locally and abroad is optimistic with the Aquino administration firmly in place. Many believe that the people placed in power a non-traditional politician as their president. The Singapore Straits Times had an article which stated: “Analysts credit this to the improved image under President Aquino’s drive for clean government, steady corporate earnings and low interest rates, and the administration’s careful management of the budget deficit.” Hopefully, the recent “Puno/ DILG scandal” will not detract from the President’s daang matuwid.    

The challenge

The government should try to promote “a new Philippines” in word and deed. Changing long-held, lack-luster perceptions of the Philippines must begin in Washington and requires an unorthodox strategy. Lobbyists can be useful up to a point. The Embassy, with its limited resources does its best but they are obviously perceived as entirely self interested as is their responsibility. The establishment of the US-Philippines Society is a perfect response to the challenge the country has. In fact it provides the opportunity to promote a credible positive image since it will be independent of government and its financial support will be from the private sector of the Philippines and US. The readership will recall that I wrote about the Society last month.

The next step would be to create a Philippine Studies Center hosted by a reputable university in Washington. Such a Center would raise the profile of the Philippines through: (i) organizing a series of public events;(ii) increasing the flow of Filipino students and other graduate programs; (iii) sending second/third generation Filipino Americans to the Philippines on internships; (iv) sponsoring international conferences in Washington and Manila designed to attract government officials and business community as well as academics and journalists; (v) creating an intellectual buzz about Philippine studies across the US; (vi) providing fellowships to American graduate students to encourage them to learn Pilipino and become lifelong specialists on the Philippines.

Clearly, there is an overlap between what I have described above and the US-Philippine Society objectives. Perhaps, the Philippine Studies Center should be under the umbrella of the Society. But what I would like to emphasize is that this Center will provide academic credibility.  

Relations with China

If we are to enhance our relationship with the United States, there is also an urgent need to generate the right image of our country with China and a greater understanding of our culture and politics as well as an appreciation of our historical links. Subject to cultural sensitivities and mores of the Chinese, I would also suggest that we pursue a similar strategy – exchange of academics and scholars, public events and joint publications – under the auspices of a Philippine Studies Center. Ideally, the Center should be established in Shanghai or Beijing, either as an independent institution or linked to a major university. It would seem to me that the Filipino-Chinese community would be very supportive of such an endeavor. A counterpart institution, a China Studies Center, could similarly be established in the Philippines.  

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