Business World, 26 November 2012


“Vicious patience” sounds like an oxymoron. We were taught at home or in grade school catechism that patience is a virtue. Indeed, we Filipinos are known to be not only a forbearing and forgiving people, we also rank pretty high in the international happiness index. So what’s the problem?

A question that has nagged even the ‘man on the street’ is why our country has lagged so far behind its Asian neighbors. The answer may partly lie with our highly elastic patience. What we probably need is “virtuous impatience” or a stronger sense of urgency.

Filipinos visiting neighboring Asian countries are invariably amazed at and envious of the economic progress and higher living standards they see. And many wonder why our legislators and policy implementers who do travel frequently don’t seem moved to effectively apply to our country the lessons learned from their tours.

I had the opportunity to learn more of Thailand which was home to me in 1984-86. Greater Bangkok then seemed more or less what Metro Manila is today. Traffic was a quotidian challenge compounded by the ubiquity of motorcycles and tuktuks (their tricycles). Gray smoke was emitted wantonly by buses and trucks, ambulant street vendors and beggars were commonplace, and poverty was visible in several places. One could infer that the Philippines today may have fallen behind by at least 25 years.

Such an impression can be confirmed by a couple of key indicators. The Philippines’ gross national income per capita was still higher than Thailand’s in the mid-1980s. But by 2010 Thailand’s $4,150 was already more than double the Philippines’ $2,060. And the former’s national poverty incidence has dropped to 7.8% which is less than a third of the latter’s 26.5%.

I was on a study tour with a group of social scientists from UP, Ateneo, and La Salle in China in 1980 when its economy was just beginning to open up. This was followed by four official or personal visits at intervals of 5-10 years – enough for one to be appreciate the quantum leaps of that country and feel sorry at how time seems to have stood still in our country. Which is the kind of self-pity that also hits other Filipinos visiting China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, or even latecomers Vietnam and Cambodia.

A plausible explanation for the dynamic economic progress of our neighbors must be  how they value time. A sense of urgency or “virtuous impatience” that seems lacking among our political leaders which impacts businesses and activities of ordinary people.

Examples of the consequences of “vicious patience” are plenty. For starters, it’s important to mention the age-old agrarian reform program that has appeared for some time now unlikely to make a meaningful dent on poverty and social injustice. Another one is the NAIA 3 airport terminal building that may well be the mother of the more contemporary delayed projects or policy reforms. Following closely is the more-than-a-decade-old reproductive health bill – a policy reform for women’s rights, poverty alleviation, and human development – that has been debated to death in Congress such that the delay may be largely responsible for the disturbing rise in maternal mortality and teenage pregnancies.

Moving to more recent examples that deserve mention: the new mining policy  supposedly designed to foster “responsible mining” but has instead either stalled extant contracts or sent the entire industry into virtual limbo; the privatization of the Angat hydroelectric power plant that’s been mired in judicial litigation; the rationalization of fiscal incentives; the freedom of information bill, and, certainly not the least, the Maguindanao massacre trial of the century.

Further, one would be remiss not to cite the public-private partnership projects (PPPs) that were so hyped up as the flagship of the new government nearly two-and-a-half years back. However, as of the latest status report (15 October 2012), of the 22 or so PPPs on the list, only two – the DaangHariSLEX Link Road followed by the PPP for School Infrastructure Project – have been “awarded” and the others are as yet for bidding or even in earlier stages. But even the first one awarded is expected to be further delayed owing to design changes.

Many of the PPPs represent the types infrastructure that the other Asian economies had put in place years back, enabling them to pivot onto higher growth paths. Assuming that the rest of the PPPs in the set are successfully bid and awarded a year from now, the major ones are likely to be completed past the term of the Aquino administration, while their impact lag on economic growth may take at least another couple of years.

It’s time that our leaders and policymakers in all three branches of government changed their work ethos. For instance, the way our legislators seem to take their responsibilities lightly – poor attendance when in session for just three days a week and frequent adjournments and recesses, to boot – is not encouraging. The foremost example of such lack of seriousness is evinced by that “honorable” legislator whose principal occupation is really in the world’s boxing ring, not to mention others who shamelessly continue to moonlight in showbiz. It’s a great wonder how the national leadership could tolerate such responsibility-shirking. This is terribly dispiriting for the youth who are our hope of the future.

It’s time for our leaders and policymakers to be imbued with a strong sense of urgency and resolve vis-à-vis the catch-up and global competition game. In short, “vicious patience” must give way to “virtuous impatience”, and the citizenry should constantly demand this of them.

Prof. Ernesto M. Pernia is with the UP School of Economics, Fellow of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis,  and former Lead Economist of ADB.

This article was published in BusinessWorld Instrospective, November 26, 2012.