Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Philippine reform agenda - stay focused on the mission

The mission is quite straightforward -- alleviate poverty, invigorate the economy, and make both outcomes sustainable. There is not much in the way of alternatives to consider as far as the mission goes. But as far as actions go, there are many alternatives and many ways of combining these alternatives. Perhaps the one gathering momentum is the way to go. But to remain focused on the mission necessitates continued openness to evaluating alternatives even as we proceed with the popular option. That way the public remains better engaged.

As such, some assumptions underpinning the Constitutional Reform agenda still stand out as debatable. Perhaps the increasing debatability of these assumptions is symptomatic of a more disturbing fixation on pre-conceived solutions. So here I offer some thoughts around the key assumptions I have found so far.

Comparing the prosperity of West Germany and South Korea to the impoverishment of East Germany and North Korea respectively as a case for changing forms of governance and restrictions on access to foreign capital

What is being evaluated in the Philippines today as we move into a critical evaluation of the proposed changes to the Constitution is a choice between two flavours of democracy and not two diametrically opposed systems of governance. Indeed, the former East Germany and North Korea happened and happen to be two of the most repressive states -- repressive even amongst fellow communist states. To use a comparison of these two states to their counterpart free market democratic sister states to illustrate how a shift from one flavour of democracy to another can make a massive difference simply does not make sense.

Assuming that the way high quality leadership successfully impacted the success of its constituents in one society will necessarily be the case in another.

Singapore is held up as an example of how high quality -- and often autocratic leadership -- largely accounted for the successful rise of this country from Third to First World status. Therefore, we'd like to think that it follows that if we have better leaders, Filipinos will also have a better shot at becoming a prosperous people. This was, in fact, the very fundamental basis of the "hope" that fueled the first Edsa "People Power" "revolution". The thinking at that time was that the "evil" of then President Ferdinand Marcos was the cause of Filipinos' wretchedness and that the "goodness" of a democratically-elected President will pave the way to a prosperous future for all. Thus, "freedom" came to be considered the substantiation of that "hope" for a better future that defined 1980's thinking; i.e.,
Once the Filipino has freedom, prosperity will follow.

This was an assertion that was strongly believed at the time and, to be fair, came across as perfectly logical to 1980's Filipino minds. Indeed, replace "free" in the above assertion with any number of terms that define today's initiatives...

"unfettered access to foreign capital"
"a Parliamentary form of government"
"freedom from corruption"

etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum de cacao

... and we get the same "perfect logic" that supposedly underpins the big and only "sensible" projects of the second decade of the 21st Century.

But then look back for a moment: 1986 came and went. The Philippines changed from a dictatorship into a rambunctious democracy. Filipinos have been "free" for the last 25 years. And the question remains:

Where are the results?

Expecting big outcomes from a relatively small change

Fact is, changing from a dictatorship to a modern democracy is an immense leap -- close to the fact of how different North Korea is to South Korea -- or East Germany to West Germany back in the Cold War. The action in 1986 effected a change in governance as big as the difference between the pairs of sister states cited previously. Trouble is, the subsequent results are almost negligible in the Philippines.

The job of fixing the country and the business of getting rich, if we are to believe those spruiking some of today's reform proposals, can only truly begin under a parliamentary system and a regime of unrestricted access to foreign capital. But is the change -- from one form of democracy to another and from a more-than-semi-free market to a totally free one -- as paradigm-shifting as that of what happened in 1986? If not, will the changes proposed today live up to as astounding an expectation as a Philippines that is convincingly going down the road to prosperity?

Assuming that the outcome of governance change in one society will be the same as the outcomes of a similar governance change in the Philippines.

Perhaps there is good reason to believe that the Philippines will prosper this time after these initiatives push through. But to look to other cultures and fail to consider that Chinese, Koreans, and Germans represent a cultural makeup vastly different from ours -- from Filipinos' -- places significant doubt on the whole idea of mounting a concerted go-for-broke overhaul in governance, when there are alternative more conservatively-phased approaches to effect the same proposed changes with considerably less disruption...
The Philippines has already amended the Constitution singly in the past: when Congress was changed from a unicameral to a bicameral assembly; and when Parity was passed to allow foreigners to own property in the Philippines. We’ve done it before, we can do it again. Best of all, it would be cheaper. Congress can discuss and pass the proposed amendment during its regular session and submit it to the people for ratification at the same time as the regular elections. The same thing can be done for other amendments.

The guiding principle here is quite simple:

DO make the actions a function of the mission; and,
DON'T make the mission a function of the actions.

Time and again we've seen missions de-scoped as the momentum of initiatives originally conceived to accomplish these remained even as any evidence of effectiveness became farther in between. An example of this is the "Truth Commission" initiative of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III. The Truth Commission initiative was conceived to accomplish the mission of taking people to account for certain "crimes". But then the initiative faltered. Noynoy and his team -- for so long fixated on a single initiative -- was left with no alternatives; no Plan B. As a result they then turned what was once a noble exercise into a pathetic finger-pointing circus, blaming an "uncooperative" Judiciary, and into an effort to downgrade public expectations of the mission being accomplished any time soon.

Moral of the story: There is no my way or the highway in any modern approach to change. Make the mission the absolute and the initiatives the variables. Initiatives are necessarily negotiable and therefore alternatives should never be ruled out, much less debate surrounding these summarily dismissed.

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