Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 20 November 2019

I borrow a title from Oscar Wilde to discuss a different but significant issue, economic nation-building.

The immediate inspiration for this title is the recent, unexpected passing of Ernest Leung, a retired, long time career man in the finance department. A deadly virus or a fatal accident could strike a man in full good health. He succumbed at 80 years to malaria, which he caught while on an adventure in Papua New Guinea.

I am personally in awe of Ernest. As an outdoorsman, he was into a lot of challenging nature adventures. He sought them, and they were part of his search for personal well-being. He was a natural adventurer. He had trekked and gone to places I could only dream of. His countless capers and sprees on land, on rivers, and on seas gave him immense happiness. He took great care to be healthy, and his lean physique showed discipline through the years.

But more than that, his career was an example of a civil servant who did his job well. He was part of a small group of young men and women whose careers grew and were fostered while working in the Department of Finance under the leadership of Cesar Virata, who served as minister/ secretary over a long period.

Among others in that group, Ernest Leung, Victor Macalincag, and Romeo Bernardo would become important senior officials in the department’s institutional history.

When their turn would come, the small core group in the finance department would provide stability and continuity in managing the public finances and the country’s international payments situation during the unstable period of political turmoil in the country, especially during the mid-1980s to the ’90s.

Ernest Leung. Ernest Leung was a young economic technician in the government at the Presidential Economic Staff, and much later, when he had moved to the Department of Finance, to work on fiscal management issues.

His work often dealt with the monetary and fiscal aspects of economic management. He provided advice on matters that touched on interactions of financial issues with central banking concerns.

Later, his assignments became more and more focused on international economic matters affecting the Philippine government’s relations with multilateral lending institutions.

That led him to be assigned to Washington DC. The Philippines as a member of these Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) had continuing work to enhance its memberships in these institutions.

So, Ernest had to assist the government’s relations with the International Monetary Fund. In this job, there had to be constant vigilance, for there were always international development policy issues that affected Philippine interests or standing within the group to which the country was aligned.

This was an area that kept the country’s attention, in addition to uniquely important issues that pertained mainly to the Philippine relations with both the IMF and the World Bank. In this work, there were shifting Philippine officers affected, but Ernest Leung was the critical support staff.

When he returned to the home ministry of finance, he contributed his expertise on fiscal, banking and debt issues. He was one of the country’s economic negotiators on tough debt issues.

He would become secretary of finance under president Fidel Ramos, and later, as president of the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp.

Victor Macalincag, chief assistant. Another young technocrat who grew under Virata’s wing was the late Victor Macalincag.

In his short and early private sector career, Vic helped to design the government securities market and the floating of the first Treasury bills. That made him a useful recruit to government in the Department of Finance by its secretary, who was then Eduardo Romualdez.

When Cesar Virata succeeded to the finance portfolio in 1970, it took only a brief period for him to discover Vic Macalincag’s many talents.

Within a short time, Vic would become Virata’s chief assistant, and he remained as such during Virata’s career, while rising in responsibilities at finance. (Among others, he would be made Treasurer of the Philippines).

Among his co-workers, Vic had a reputation as a dedicated civil servant. He was a hardworker, with a focused analytical mind who paid great attention to detail and who was also a solid negotiator.

That these men, notably Macalincag and Leung, kept to their jobs at finance and grew professionally in that department was partly the result of the excellent mentorship and leadership that Cesar Virata provided to them.

Essentially, Cesar prepared them to become excellent replacements on the job. He kept them challenged. He made them grow on the job, to take care of important problems that the Finance department faced.

When the post-EDSA revolution happened in 1986, and Jimmy Ongpin became the secretary of Finance, he was immediately impressed by the quality of the staff that he had inherited from the previous government. He practically depended on the support of the same core group as he managed to stabilize the country’s finances.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Ongpin was not given the full government support that he needed to restore finances quickly. Instead, indecisions and wrong decisions (e.g., decommissioning the nuclear power plant) led to more crises and new problems.

But that is another story.

Like Ernest Leung, Vic’s service in government continued through many presidencies in succession from Marcos to that of Gloria Macapagal. They had long career lives, extending beyond retirement and contributing to the common weal as they grew older still.