Can we still become a rich nation?

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

Greetings of prosperity abound with the dawn of the new year. Hopes are understandably raised high, even just for the possible natural prowess of positive thinking. After all, we need the momentum to achieve our goals and dreams that have yet to be realized. Never say die of course. While the sun still rises, the chance to succeed is always there.

The same has to be true with our country; can we still be amongst the world’s developed nations where wealth and opportunities are fairly shared with all the citizens? Can the Philippines finally overcome the decades of mass poverty and see our people free from the daily struggle for basic survival? As of today, at least 20 million Filipinos are still deeply embroiled in finding the means to have access to proper nutrition, decent dwelling houses, basic education and health care.

Meanwhile, our neighbors are already competing on the most advanced technologies and industries. We are trapped with “Third World” issues of agricultural inefficiencies, bureaucratic weaknesses, perennial political bickering that are moved by power struggles and not essentially molded by formal nor binding platforms on development.

For my first column this new year, I was about to write on the important event that happened on Jan. 2, 1941. The Japanese invaders entered Manila and started their brutal occupation of our country that left at least 527,000 Filipino casualties. These included 27,000 who died serving the military or our patriotic guerilla fronts and at least 141,000 who were massacred and countless women thrown in the brothels.

I decided not to write about this. Instead, I’ll tackle that next time. Better be forward looking and upbeat in starting the year. For today, I wish to briefly throw the discourse on whether or not the country will be able to become truly prosperous and progressive like Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the other countries in our region such as Thailand.

I would be glad to write an extensive thesis on this. The space available now couldn’t be enough, of course. So, I’ll just gloss over the essential points to address this.

My quick answer to the question is YES, we can still prosper as a nation. But as our economists will instantly quip, it depends.

First, we have to restructure our economy. Our present consumer-driven economy that’s heavily dependent on importations is hardly sustainable in supporting the growing needs of an increasing population of around 114 million people. Sad truth about this, economic restructuring is not something that can be legislated and achieved overnight.

The correct economic, fiscal and monetary policies must be in harmony in orchestrating the long-term growth that will inspire and encourage the private sector, both local and foreign business groups, to invest in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. To complicate this further, the logistical infrastructure such as roads, highways, ports and bridges must be provided. The cost of electricity must also be competitive and supply stabilized. Perhaps, a revisit on the EPIRA Law is in order here.

Our best economic and entrepreneurial minds must vet and define this grand road so that in the future, we can become an export-oriented manufacturing base that can churn out dollars for the country. Let’s not listen to the defeatists who have already given up on these. If we do, then we will perpetually be trapped in our weak, agricultural and service-based economy which baselessly aspires that our poverty issues will be gone on their own.

Second, let’s build on our current natural resources on agriculture, rich minerals and tourism. No brainer. We must get our acts together on modernizing our agriculture and even create surplus production for export. We have to believe this possibility.

The new Agriculture Secretary Kiko Laurel, whom I know personally, can provide the needed “out of the box” solutions because he brings with him solid experience from a successful business enterprise. He’s humble and open-minded and I’m sure, he can work closely with Engr. Ed Gillen of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) in irrigating at least another million hectares of agricultural land. For our minerals, let’s leapfrog from mere exporter of raw materials to an exporter of processed or finished products that wisely provide added value to the international chain of mineral utilization. Indonesia succeeded on this.

Tourism is our gem. We offer the best destinations that can attract the ideal travelers from all over the world. But we have to further improve our airports, seaports that transfer our international guests. And perhaps, give more incentives to the industry participants who will invest in more and better accommodations and services.

Lastly, let’s carefully study adjusting the provisions of our Constitution. Personally, I’m an advocate of amending the restrictive economic provisions of our basic law. And I’m a believer in re-engineering our political system. The debates on this are fiery and long. But for me, the results speak for itself. We are not progressing as fast as needed to save a nation that has the potential to become a real economic tiger. As I always rant, doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result is futile. Hence, we must do an inward assessment of our fundamental laws that define relationships amongst political, economic and business interests.

Again, can our country still become rich, progressive and proud? Of course, yes. But it will be a long-haul that requires a strategic road map, and solid political will by everyone.

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