Catching up

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 2, 2015 - 10:00am

JAKARTA – Flying into this Indonesian capital last Saturday, my connecting flight was delayed by half an hour at Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

The pilot informed passengers that the delay, uncharacteristic for highly efficient Singapore and its eponymous flag carrier, was because the government had temporarily closed the Changi airspace (OK, that’s the airspace of the entire city state) as part of preparations for their national golden jubilee.

It’s amazing how much a nation can achieve in just 50 years. Minus the delay, Changi was highly efficient as usual, with numerous travelators and its “Skytrain” allowing me to easily catch my connecting flight in another terminal with just 40 minutes to spare.

Singapore celebrates its National Day on Aug. 11, and the city-state truly has much to celebrate, even if some of its citizens may not think so. It may not be Asia’s second fastest growing economy, but it’s already way ahead of the Southeast Asian pack in most of the actual economic indicators.

I’ve spent my entire life seeing our country progressively left behind by our neighbors. We used to be the region’s center of learning. We had Asia’s first airline and the first modern (at the time) airport. We had the best human development indicators.

In this part of the world most of the countries began modern nation-building at around the same time, shortly after the end of World War II. Several of our neighbors waged armed revolts against their colonizers after that war. Singapore was subsequently expelled from the Malaysian Federation, while brutal civil wars ravaged Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. We at least were spared from bloody post-war upheavals, with the United States letting go of its Asian colony in 1946.

Yet those who fought for their independence or nationhood have risen dramatically from the ashes of bloodshed.

For the past half-century, we have seen our neighbors leave us behind, one by one. Of the original five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, tiny Singapore first sprinted ahead, followed closely by Malaysia. Thailand, where the 1997 Asian financial crisis originated, began leaving us behind as it recovered, even if we were among the least affected by the contagion.

Even Indonesia, which in 1998 was rocked by bloody riots that eventually led to the downfall of strongman Suharto and a prolonged period of hyperinflation, is pulling ahead of us. It was rated investment grade before us and its tourism has rebounded from the two deadly Islamist bomb attacks in Bali, its top travel destination. (The deadlier of the attacks, which killed 202 in October 2002, was attributed to Jemaah Islamiyah’s Zulkifli bin Hir, a.k.a. Marwan of Mamasapano notoriety.)

My flight landed at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, named after Indonesia’s first president Sukarno and his vice president Mohammad Hatta. The two signed their country’s United Nations-acknowledged independence from the Netherlands in December 1949. But Indonesia celebrates its National Day later this month, on the date when it declared independence and started its revolution against the Dutch on Aug. 17, 1945.

Soekarno-Hatta is larger than the NAIA, although its facilities and services (minus Pinoy TLC) aren’t that much better than the NAIA Terminal 3. The road from the airport to central Jakarta has been improved, with the city government installing water pumps to ensure that the floods of 2008, which affected about 1,000 flights, would no longer be repeated. Traffic was light on Saturday night, but the clubs in the city center were packed, as the hotel driver pointed out to me.

We’re still in the B levels in investment grade, like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia has earned As and Singapore is rated triple A by the three major credit rating agencies. Will Vietnam soon overtake us? It’s currently soaking up much of the manufacturing that’s leaving China due to rising production costs.

What happened to us?

*      *      *

I hear that question a lot these days.

Among the explanations: every effort to promote equitable wealth distribution, including agrarian reform, has been blocked by beneficiaries of the status quo. The Japanese and South Koreans give much credit to their successful post-war land reform programs for their inclusive growth.

We also overlooked the need to constantly upgrade the quality of education to be globally competitive and promote innovation, which is indispensable for the growth of our industries.

Some Filipinos also had the idea that they had to be, in the words of George Orwell, more equal than others, and began thinking only of their personal benefit at the nation’s expense.

This was one of the differences between our homegrown dictator and those of certain other countries who emerged during their post-war struggles: even if they crushed dissent and most of them enriched themselves, they put their nations on the road to industrialization and prosperity. Although they had their cronies, they also spread the wealth around and built mass support by trying to make economic growth inclusive before it became a buzz phrase.

Some of them were ousted or ended up in prison, but by that time their nations already had a head start in the race to prosperity.

In our case, power was used chiefly for personal ends, reinforcing the hold on power and wealth of .001 percent of the population. When wealth is not shared, the nation goes to hell. Filipinos began leaving in droves to find better opportunities overseas. A number of our teachers preferred to clean foreigners’ toilets than pursue their professions in their own land.

Political power should be an enabler for the nation. Instead, power was abused in our country, chiefly for personal gain. It started a trend of every man for himself that to this day we have not reversed.

Too busy clawing at each other and of trying to jump the line, we have no sense of belonging to one nation that is competing with the rest of the world.

Still, hope springs eternal among Pinoys that lasting structural and attitude changes will occur. What we must do is abandon our leisurely pace and speed up the process. We have to catch up with our neighbors.


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