Maria Imelda “Imee” Romualdez Marcos recently appeared on the cover of Philippine Tatler magazine in the full glory of her ravishing beauty. The feature stirred up controversy, eliciting a mix of envy and angry howls. How could a virtual senior citizen (she turns 60 this November) brandish such notoriously youthful looks and curves, defying gravity and redefining beauty at maturity? Is it technology or natural beauty?
The eldest daughter of the late President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos and the former First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, is an evergreen personified.
Imee has a problem that is a luxury for most Ilocanos. She doesn’t seem to age. Her comprovicianos in Ilocos Norte do. “Ilocos Norte is the Scandinavia of the Philippines,” she winces. “Everything is happening in Ilocos a little earlier, 20 to 40 years earlier than the rest of the ’Pinas—like the extreme dependence on overseas remittances, the declining population, and the loss of the youth advantage.”
Not only are Ilocanos aging faster. They also are not reproducing. Birth rate at 1.6 percent is far below the national average, of 1.9 percent or 1.9 million babies per 100 million. As a result, the population of Ilocos Norte is actually declining.
It’s demographic dividend in reverse. Ilocano couples have only three children, fewer than the average Filipino family’s four to five. The kids go to school, at government’s expense, acquire higher education, again at government’s expense, and then pack up for overseas work. Then, they come back in their senior years only to be nurtured for their health needs, at government expense.
“I am like the prime minister of Israel,” Imee jokes, “two-thirds of my population live abroad.” Two-thirds of Jews live in New York. Imee relates: “Since time immemorial, Bongbong (her brother, who is a senator and running for vice president) and I, every time we campaigned, we had to stop at 6 p.m., because everybody was calling a relative abroad, long distance, or calling by Skype.” 6 p.m. is the optimum time to call Hawaii, where most of overseas Ilocanos are. The overseas Ilocanos send P15 billion to Ilocos Norte every year. Thus, the province is middle class. They don’t bother to borrow money from local banks. In fact, they lend their money in Manila.
“Demographic dividend is gone for us,” laments Imee. “What they’re not talking about which we are feeling in Ilocos, is that, in addition to the loss of our productive age group, [there] is the added burden of the education cost in the early years and then the health burden [in later years]. And the latter is not free.”
“It’s killing the government. Because you will educate those kids, then as soon as they’re useful they leave, and then they come back [when] they’re really old and then you have to support them,” explains the governor.
Governor of Ilocos Norte since 2010, Imee has lived true to the Marcos brand of governance—excellent, pro-poor, and world class. Hers is the first province in the Philippines to be ISO-certified, “the international standard for organized and effective leadership,” she reminds listeners. Revenues have doubled since 2010, when she took over.
It is not easy to get an ISO audit and certification. The Germans came, looking at every process and the bureaucracy, “from top to toe,” Imee notes. Even the department managers had to be certified. Two department heads had to resign because they couldn’t meet the severe standards; in their 70s, they had to take examinations, three times. “We had to have quality managers,” says Imee.
Of Ilocos Norte’s 23 towns, 16 have also been ISO-certified.
ISO-certification rings a bell to investors. Some of the investors in the province’s wind farms are Germans. So the German ISO auditors looked like their advance party. ISO is also a good talking point when Ilocos Norte investors secure loans.
As governor in the last five years, Imee solved the province’s poverty. The ratio of poor to the total population (568,017), went down from 28 percent in 2010 to 8.4 percent by 2015. Nearly 25,000 families were rescued from poverty.
Under the Millennium Development Goals, the Philippines was supposed to cut its poverty by half, from 34 percent in 1990 to 17 percent by 2015. The country failed. National poverty today remains at more than 25 percent-27 percent—equivalent to more than 25 million Filipinos.
Ilocos Norte’s economic growth has been robust, registering 16.7 percent last year, 2.7 times the Philippine GDP growth of 6.1 percent, which last year was considered the second fastest in Asia. Ilocos Norte is probably the fastest-growing province in Asia.
Most of Ilocos Norte’s growth comes from industrialization. It has Asia’s first wind farms. The province has now more than 413 megawatts of wind capacity. That could be expanded to more than 2,000 megawatts with total investments of $2 billion, Imee says. The big boys of business, Ayala, Lopez, even the Koreans are into renewable energy in the north where the wind is 50 percent stronger and the sun shines 20 percent brighter.
Imee calls her approach to the economy as ATM—agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing, an improvement from Marcos’ old formula of RRS—rice, roads, schools.
The province exports rice to nearby provinces and Imee wants higher prices for her farmers. She is telling them to also produce high value crops like garlic, corn (cornix, remember?), mangoes, bananas, vegetables. There is of course the old reliable, bagnet (crispy pork, done to perfection).
Tourism is booming. Some 1.6 million visited Ilocos Norte in the first half alone, creating a shortage of hotel rooms (of which the province has 2,800). There are only two first class hotels, Fort Ilocandia, built during the Marcos presidency, and Plaza del Norte (built by the young Marcoses). To address the problem, Imee is asking rich Ilocanos to open their homes to guests, just like what they do in Japan or Europe.
Imee wants the province vegetables and fruit growers—of corn, garlic, mangoes, dragon fruit, bananas—to add value to their harvest, by processing them. Dragon fruit is supposed to cure everything, including cancer.
Call centers are also trooping to the province. In just a year, the number of call center seats doubled to 3,000. Ilocanos are well-educated, and speak English well.
Imee walks under a huge shadow. She carries what remains to many is the most venerable name in Philippine politics—Marcos.
“Marcos is a very strong brand,” Imee asserts. “There is a real bedrock of support for the Marcoses in Ilocandia,” she reckons.
Imee is seeking reelection as Ilocos Norte governor, for her third term. She first ran in 2010, garnering 70 percent of the votes, defeating the incumbent, her first cousin, Michael Marcos Keon. The legendary Imelda is running for reelection, as congressman of the second district.