Taking the long view

"We hope the President proves them wrong."


In a new administrative order, the President has instructed PEZA to suspend the declaration of new ecozones within Metro Manila. These zones enjoy a wide range of fiscal incentives designed to lure businesses, especially those backed by foreign investment and oriented toward export production, to locate in the Philippines.

Instead, Duterte ordered PEZA to hasten the development of such ecozones in rural parts of the country. He cited “the need to promote rural development, ensure inclusive growth in the countryside, and create robust economic activity and wealth generation in areas outside Metro Manila.”

We’d like to think—and we’re certainly hoping—that this means he hasn’t had a change of heart about his campaign promise in 2016 to introduce a federal system of government into the country. His latest half-hearted comments on the matter had prompted the critics of federal constitutional change—including some members of his own Cabinet—to crow that, with so much else on the President’s plate, this fundamental reform was already dead in the water.

We hope the President proves them wrong. The objectives underlying charter change—like empowering local executives, downloading resources to local governments, strengthening political parties, breaking the grip of dynasties, getting rid of case backlogs in our courts, opening up the economy to foreign investors—are all worth setting a second plate before the President, if that’s what’s needed.

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As anti-Duterte zealots stumble over themselves trying to stir up public indignation over the latest maritime incident with Chinese fishermen, let’s take a look at some of the latest developments regarding the issues that should frame a strategic point of view, i.e. peaceful resolution of the incident, multilateral engagement with the rest of ASEAN, preserving our economic ties with China while using some of the gains to beef up our own defensive capabilities:

• Reversing an earlier pronouncement by his spokesman, Duterte decided to support a joint investigation together with China and a neutral third party—perhaps Brunei—into the fishing boat incident. His critics should note that we’re talking here only about investigation, not about any subsequent legal action that may be warranted.

• At the ASEAN summit in Bangkok over the weekend, ASEAN leaders were expected to unanimously back China’s drafting of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to replace the US-aborted Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and help insulate their economies from the US-China trade war. This economic cooperation constrains the extent of anti-China unity on maritime issues that we might otherwise expect from our ASEAN neighbors.

• At the same summit, Duterte was scheduled to speak up for migrant rights as well as a wide range of issues on regional security and stability. Sideline meetings with the leaders of Thailand and Indonesia—two neighbors with similar maritime concerns—were also on his agenda. Bilateral as well as multilateral discussions is the only way to conduct effective diplomacy especially in a crisis.

Unfortunately for his critics, Duterte is a lot more complicated than the caricatures they love to paint of him, based solely on his unscripted, off-the-cuff, often profane one-liners. To a people whose highest compliment is that someone is “wa-is”—as well as “hindi plastic”—these qualities resonate to a degree that escaped the woeful supporters of Otso Diretso last May.

Duterte’s actions are the measured moves of someone who has a mayor’s canny appreciation for the populist and the tactical, combined with the immovable grounding in the long view of someone who’s been an outsider for so long—from Manila, from national politics, from the economic elite.

This long view—whether it’s about federalist reform at home, or pivoting away from the US abroad—is where the only way up and out for our country lies.

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Today’s Gospel (Mt 7: 6, 12-14) advises us to “enter through the narrow gate…How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” As Scripture always reminds us, there is man’s way, and then there is God’s way.

In Gn 13: 2, 5-18, when scarcity of land forces Abraham and his nephew Lot to separate their clans, Lot sees the abundance of the Jordan Plain and chooses to move there. But this turns out to be a bad decision, because he had pitched his tents near Sodom, where “the inhabitants were wicked, great sinners against the Lord”. In the end he had to flee the destruction of Sodom under Abraham’s protection, losing all his possessions as well as his wife in the process.

By contrast, Abraham accepted what seemed to be the poorer choice—settling in the land of Canaan—because he relied on God’s promise: “Look about you…all the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever. I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth.” Only One knows what is best for each of us, because it is an infinitesimal part of what only He knows is best for all.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Rodrigo Duterte , ASEAN Summit , China , PEZA , Trans Pacific Partnership
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