‘Good morning, Vietnam’ and other GMA travels

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
Remember that old Robin Williams’ movie, Good Morning, Vietnam? Today, it’s really "good morning" for Vietnam – with leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific economies congregating in Hanoi this weekend, including our own La Presidenta GMA – and US President George W. Bush.

I spoke with the President yesterday on the phone, and she confirmed she’s flying there Friday and hopes to confer one-on-one with Mr. Bush and other ASEAN leaders, not to mention – aside from Vietnam’s Prime Minister – her old friend, China’s President Hu Jintao.

After four days at the APEC’s 12th Economic Leaders’ meetings, La Gloria said she will fly down to Singapore for two days – where she will conduct a sort of economic/investment "road show" with major investors and corporations. Her Singapore schedule is being arranged by no less than the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who heads the powerful Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd., that country’s investment arm. Therefore, it’s clear, La GMA’s discussions there will be significant.

If you’ll recall, it was Temasek Holdings which bought the controlling stake in Shin Corporation of Thailand, which earned the family of now dethroned Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra $1.9 billion last January. The trouble is that the Thaksin government had just passed a law which exempted such a massive sale from paying a single baht in taxes. The ruling of Thailand’s Revenue Department that the PM’s children didn’t have to pay any tax on such a massive transaction because the nation does not have a capital-gains tax on stock trades is what provoked the scandal which brought the Thaksin government down – and gave the military the excuse to stage a coup d’etat to eject poor (I mean "rich") Thaksin while he was away at the United Nations to give a speech.

The newly-installed government headed by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former Army chief, is considering changes in the Foreign Business Act which "controls" the way foreigners invest in Thailand. This has business leaders and foreign diplomats clearly worried. This is the moment, if she were quick to grasp the opportunity, that La Presidenta GMA can tell fidgeting foreign businessmen, financiers and portfolio managers, "Come over to the Philippines, where you are welcome!"

Alas, she may not be able to pull off that cheerful argument, even in Singapore with the blessings of Temasek, unless our Filipino politicians stop trying to unseat her, or her spouse, First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, is seen to be "kinder, gentler" with journalists who he is discomfiting with a battery of libel suits. Or if there continue to be so many mysterious killings. Who wants to invest money in a "war zone," whether political or actual?

Money, in short, is the most panicky commodity in the world. The axiom goes that "money talks." But when confronted by disturbance, discord and multi-decibel debate, it usually says, not "hello," but "goodbye."

In short, the mood of the month is Good Morning, Vietnam – but Good Grief, Philippines!
* * *
Truly, Vietnam is on a roll. US President George W. Bush, accompanied by his First Lady Laura, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Washington yesterday for an eight-day swing through Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. (Not the Philippines, once again, it must be noted).

Bush hopes, reported The Wall Street Journal yesterday, that by the time he arrives in Hanoi on Friday, US Congress will have voted to lift Cold-War-era economic restrictions in Vietnam which was admitted into membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) last November 7th. Not only will Hanoi receive five official "state visits" during the APEC meet, but Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Le Van Bang (Hanoi’s Ambassador to the US from 1995 to 2001) has announced that all Asian countries have "unanimously" agreed to back Vietnam for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the term of 2008 to 2009. (We’ve already had our term which is concluding soon).

Gee whiz. From former "Communist menace" to good buddy of America and, shortly, a member of the UN Security Council – what a quantum leap for the old "Reds" from Hanoi.

Everything in Vietnam today is about very capitalist profit. The economy is expected to grow 8.2 percent and absorb a hoped-for $6.5 billion of foreign investment. Bang rosily estimated that total trade volume will increase more than 24 percent, to nearly $78 billion.

Intel has just disclosed a $1 billion investment in Ho Chi Minh City’s (Saigon’s) high tech park. In tourism, we may have to eat our hearts out – Vietnam expects close to three million visitors this year. The government has dubbed its policy of openness and comprehensive reforms, doi-moi.

We could use a little doi-moi and less rantings from the political kingpins and the hoi poloi here in our country – which has, aside from image, even more to offer than Vietnam. The truth is that the Vietnamese are a country in which everybody has become used to discipline. From long experience, I recall that the women run everything, while the men drink, smoke and are among the best fighters in the world.

When I first arrived in Vietnam as a young newspaperman decades ago, on a US freighter carrying ammunition to the South Vietnamese capital, we sailed a tortuous route up the wide Saigon river, from Vung Tau (Cap St. Jacques). The first Vietnamese I saw were a man and a woman. The man sat calmly in front of the dug-out or canoe, smoking his pipe, while the woman behind him did the rowing. I said to myself: "They have the right attitude in this country."

Behind the scenes, indeed, the women still run everything in Vietnam, including planting rice. And the Vietnamese have done what we have failed to do, put their best foot forward.
* * *
The buzz is all about Vietnam this week. The latest issue of TIME Magazine, (Nov. 20 edition) while the main cover story is about the fall-out from the US Elections (a piece by Joe Klein), also has the cover tag: "VIETNAM GOES GLOBAL."

The article inside by Kay Johnson states, once again, that Vietnam is "Asia’s second-fastest-growing economy" and is "poised to kick its exports into higher gear."

The report underscores that "the workforce is educated and young – 54 percent of Vietnam’s 84 million citizens are under the age of 30. Wages are lower than they are in China’s coastal cities, which compete for manufacturing jobs. The Communist Party just installed a new government led by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has vowed to continue economic reforms and to tackle the country’s pervasive corruption."

The next paragraph is interesting: "While it’s true that Vietnam’s economy is still relatively small – at $53 billion last year, the country’s total GDP is about half that of the Philippines – it is also vibrant, with a growing entrepreneurial class (40,000 private businesses were launched in 2005) and thriving commodity businesses . . . and multinational companies are increasingly selecting the country as a manufacturing base. Canon, Inc. has two giant printer factories in Vietnam and is building a third in Bac Ninh province, 20 miles northeast of Hanoi. The new plant will be the largest inkjet printer factory in the world. Nike recently increased its annual production in Vietnam from 54 million pairs of shoes to 70 million, making the country the world’s second-largest source of Nike sneakers (China is the largest).

Vietnamese are still poor – but they’re hardworking and on their way up. By golly, our San Miguel Brewery, Coca Cola, OISHI, and Filipino-controlled Vietnam Motors have already been there for years – and Philippine investment in Vietnam is increasing. How’s that for an eye-catching discovery?

The Nov. 20 NEWSWEEK which hit the newsstands yesterday carries an even bigger cover blurb on the success story of the season: "VIETNAM: HOW THE SOUTH WON."

In a blockbuster report by Michael Hastings and George Wehrfritz, the newsweekly ran a big spread headlined: "The Song of the South: Hanoi’s Communists won the Vietnam War, but Southern-born Reformers are Leading an Economic Boom as the Country Opens Up to the World."

The writers argue that "Hanoi is now playing by Saigon rules." Economic reforms "pushed by southern entrepreneurs have fueled an economy that’s grown nearly as fast as China’s over the last decade. Manufacturing jobs are plentiful, and the national poverty rate has plummeted from 57 percent in 1993 to about 18 percent today. Hanoi now boasts the trappings of affluence – imported cars, boutique coffee shops and stores brimming with everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to the newest Mercedes-Benzes." Why, they’ve reforested even those patches of forest devastated by napalm and Agent Orange.

the highest-ranking political leaders even come from the south – Prime Minister Dung and President Nguyen Minh Triet. The North won the war, but the South won the peace. Enthused Hastings in a sidebar: "Bill Gates and Bill Clinton rank only behind Uncle Ho and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap as the most popular figures in Vietnam."

Perhaps some of the boom-talk is hype, but I’ve been there several times postwar, and I’ve seen the "morning" coming for the Vietnamese.

We knew Vietnam as a war – now we’re seeing it bloom as a country. I confess, as an old hand who spent part of my youth there, it brings a tear to the eye – for, after all that suffering and cruelty, they deserve the best!

Good morning, Vietnam! From those of us who love you!











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