Friday, July 2, 2010

How overseas Filipinos can help with good governance in the Philippines

Speech delivered at the 1st Worldwide Conference of Overseas Filipinos for Good Governance
July 1 and 2, 2010

Magandang gabi po and welcome home! I’m deeply honored to be speaking here with no less than Justice Carpio-Morales this evening. In fact, the group of speakers in this conference has been quite illustrious all round, so I’m delighted to be a part of such a vital moment in our national discourse. My heartfelt thanks to Rodel Rodis, Loida Lewis and the Overseas Filipinos for Good Governance – mabuhay kayong lahat!

I was asked to speak tonight about some of my experiences during Noynoy’s campaign and to describe how I think overseas Filipinos might help with good governance in the Philippines. But, first, I thought I would touch briefly on my experiences as a New Yorker who had lived in the Big Apple for well over a decade before coming home to help out in the campaign. As a Pinay with many friends in NaFFAA, NAFCON and Bayan USA, I was somewhat disheartened by the lack of cohesion and dialogue between these different groups. Obviously, their respective priorities and constituencies were clearly different, but I had nurtured the hope -- at least after Ondoy and the Ampatuan massacre, and certainly in the run-up to the presidential election -- that Fil-Ams in New York might be somewhat more united so that some of the issues that remain critical to the nation could be discussed by the various groups (whether or not they happened to share the same presidential candidate) in an amicable and public context. Regrettably, this didn’t transpire while I was there, although I was encouraged to hear that there were some efforts to work together once cheating in the national elections became an increasing source of collective concern.

When I first became a volunteer, the infighting in the campaign further gave me pause. Here there were fairly obvious demarcations as well: the supporters of Noynoy, Mar and Chiz/Binay, respectively, as well as the “non-conventional” campaign, on the one hand, and the volunteer groups, on the other. The cleavages were somewhat bewildering to me at first, perhaps because I had worked both at the UN and in the New York corporate world for many years, and was used to a kind of professional relationship towards one’s affiliations – whether they happened to be a team, an ideology or a party.

I had entered the fray, as the niece of FVR and the daughter of former Senator Shahani, with the notion of party discipline firmly entrenched in my mind. LRS and FVR were some of the founders of the original Lakas, and the latter certainly had a great deal of discipline, skill and institutional memory. Regrettably, Lakas-CMD-Kampi has since degenerated with the advent of GMA’s Kampi, and is now an entirely different creature. But I certainly believed in party discipline and had little interest in personal vendettas between the different groups. As far as I could see, much of the squabbling had to do, at least in a number of cases, with an unfortunate sense of class entitlement and the occasional clash of what were apparently rather gargantuan egos; there was also a refusal to defer to authority, on the one hand, and, occasionally, a resistance to enacting that very authority, on the other. But I am not naming names here precisely because they are ultimately irrelevant – in the final analysis, it is the trends that matter.

What mattered, in fact, was helping Noynoy/Mar and the SLAMAT LORRD Liberal Party senate slate, all of whom, in my humble opinion, could have been marketed as a unified entity, as opposed to what appeared to be several discrete campaigns operating almost entirely independently of one another. But it was difficult. While there certainly were a great many volunteers and party members alike whose unwavering sense of commitment to this country was indeed humbling to behold, suspicion was pervasive all around and sabotage a running thread throughout. There was clearly a tendency for people to take sides (that unfortunate business of “making kampi” Filipinos are so fond of, whether or not they have even heard the opposite point of view) and a resistance to thinking in terms of a team.

I regret to observe that warring nations at the UN, where I have been a policy adviser for some time, often have a better record of being able to sit down with their opponents than do any two Pinoys who happen to be working on the same side. As far as I was concerned, the leaders of the different factions were all individuals of merit who each deserved to be given credence, just as they were all equally responsible for not cooperating as much as they could have done with one another.

So why am I going into this unsavory topic now? Because, tragically enough, this is not a function of Noynoy’s campaign alone but about how many Filipinos in general seem to behave when it comes to having to work together: everyone wants to be a star who reinvents the wheel, etc, etc, ad infinitum. We’ve all seen the clich├ęs before. While I certainly resist cultural stereotyping as a rule, I will say simply that I have not often experienced this kind of parochialism – indeed, tribalism, for want of a better word -- when working with people of other nationalities.

So: what many overseas Filipinos can contribute, in my view, is the experience we’ve had abroad of working in teams that are not exclusively linked to personality, personal friendship, clan or province: in America, team work is team work, period -- no ifs, no buts. Hillary and Barack may have had the most visceral rows imaginable during the primaries but, in the end, Hillary was right behind Barack precisely because of that sense of party discipline. And that discipline goes well beyond the party and extends to the nation as a whole. As someone who also campaigned for Mar, I would add that my personal disappointment does not prevent me from respecting the will of the people, who have apparently chosen Mr. Binay to be our next vice-president.

The point is: we need to get out of personality politics and start thinking in terms of party policy and institution building -- as well as creating a professional corps of civil servants -- if we ever hope to get out of the noxious vortex in which we now find ourselves. We need to unite and start forming coalitions if we ever hope to re-build this fractured nation.

More pertinently, those of us who’ve lived in the West for some time are familiar with the primacy of the rule of law in those parts of the world. As Fareed Zakaria (a Harvard don and editor of Newsweek International) has pointed out in “The Future of Freedom,” the ability to vote is merely a cosmetic and historically recent aspect of democracy itself. What is in fact more foundational to the European democracy that spawned the vibrant and muscular phenomenon we see in America today is what he calls “constitutional liberalism”: simply put, it refers to the rule of law. In other words, elections are just the icing on the cake. What is really critical in making a democracy work is that, first and foremost, legal institutions are respected. If you pair that with economic growth, then increased per capita income will in turn lead to a stronger civil society and less human rights violations, which then bodes well for the capacity of elections to represent, at least to a much greater degree, the actual will of the people.

Seen from this perspective, the power to vote can become meaningless in a context where we score alarmingly high in the global impunity index. It is therefore deeply encouraging that Noynoy and Leila de Lima have already made fairly strong pronouncements about refusing to tolerate impunity: I just hope that this, of all the promises Noynoy made in his inspiring speech yesterday, is the one promise that will be considered sacred.

Obviously, remittances are also another area where overseas Filipinos can significantly help the country as well, but this needs to be harnessed so it leads to overall development and not just to conspicuous consumption. In fact, this needs to be carefully re-examined in general, particularly in light of how other countries treat their overseas foreign workers. For instance, Indian remittances amount to almost $50b a year, while the Philippines only boasts around $18b. But Indian remittances only equal about 4.3% of its GDP, while ours comes up to a whopping 11.1%. Relative to population size, therefore, the Philippines has almost 4 times as many people abroad as India does, and OFWs provide almost 3 times as much a percentage of our GDP. So why do Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) appear to have a much more privileged status in India than OFWs do in the Philippines? True, unlike NRIs, OFWs can vote, but why don’t they, at least in numbers that are statistically meaningful?

Clearly, there are obvious differences between the two groups – India has a much more stable and well-regulated investment climate; they have a relatively conservative fiscal policy and there are apparent class differences between OFWs and NRIs, so the latter have access to many more opportunities. Of course, many Fil-Ams will tell you that there are also distinctions between OFWs and overseas Filipinos, with the former primarily doing vocational work, while the latter tends to be employed in the professional work force of its host country. But that is precisely part of my larger point: institutions like UNDP (where I worked for some time) focus on OFWs and not overseas Filipinos not only because of the sheer numbers of the former, but also because the latter cease to send remittances home to a significant enough degree, which is why they don’t merit systematic documentation. In other words, once Pinoys reach a certain economic bracket abroad, they apparently send for their families, cease to send money home or invest in specific projects, and tend to look back far less. In comparison, while most NRIs have no desire to return to India for good, they retain many cultural and financial links with India, and generally remain very “connected,” particularly in terms of real estate and the stock market.

We might attribute these differences to several things: for one thing, India now has a minister, of Cabinet rank, who deals specifically with NRIs. He pays attention not only to overseas workers but also to Indians who can invest in India and whose expertise in science and technology can be used to benefit the country. In short, given their contribution, why don’t OFWs have a Cabinet-level department in the executive branch that goes beyond the mandate of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas or the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), which merely falls under the Department of Labor and Employment and which essentially tends to prioritize the domestic labor market more than anything else? Likewise, even if OFWs have the vote, what are they supposed to do with it without political representation? Why don’t they at least have a party list representative? Wouldn’t that have improved their participation in the recent elections, which was typically dismal once again?

It might be possible for us, with the help and support of OFWs and other Pinoy expats, to improve financial and investment security in this country. India does have a whole body of law that regulates and protects both government revenues and NRI investments (as well they should, considering the billions involved), for example. In addition to investment ideas encouraged by the government (India also has NRI bonds), as some OFW groups have suggested, there is also the possibility of forming philanthropic and investment programs. In fact, before the remittances spigot starts to dry up (and it invariably will, ladies and gentlemen, given deflationary pressures in the developed world as I write), the Philippines can hopefully lay the ground work for investment vehicles (here the public/private structures favored by the Benelux countries come to mind) so that overseas Pinoys won’t retrench and will instead participate in a more robust and intimate fashion as they find greater financial security in this country.

At the moment, remittances go straight to personal consumption, which has little chance of working cohesively to help the country, nor does it offer the remitter a vehicle with which to "grow" that very investment, since it is invariably spent almost immediately. Several years ago, I was part of a UNDP project to mobilize remittances for development in the Philippines: with the help of ADB, we hoped to convince remitters to contribute even .07 % of their remittances for developmental projects of their choice and in their respective provinces. Regrettably, the DFA did not deem this to be a priority at the time (this was in 2005) because remitters were viewed to be TNTs who were legally problematic, at least as far as the host countries were concerned. I am not suggesting that OFWs should be taxed any more than they already have been, but rather that they should have the option to contribute to any region in the country should they desire to do so.

Following the Indian model, why not think in terms of a Cabinet Minister, OFW bonds, tax incentives and party list representation? In fact, India also offers an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card to avoid dual citizenship problems in countries that don’t allow it. It serves as an automatic visa for registered people “of Indian origin,” no matter what their citizenship status happens to be, which is precisely the sort of thing a ministry could do. This obviously has significant implications for owning real estate, so clearing barriers to land ownership would be an added incentive for OFWs, who now can only buy a limited amount of land.

Clearly, we need to invest in the Philippines and spend our dollars here, so we also need to provide OFWs with retirement incentives, entrepreneurial development and options for volunteerism, particularly with respect to disaster mitigation. If overseas Filipinos had greater representation in the executive and legislative branches, their contributions to the country (whether in the form of remittances or FDI) could significantly increase, so this issue is worthy of careful scrutiny by the government.

The Ministry itself would not only focus on the economic potential of OFWs, however, but also on their human rights, which are regrettably not a government priority, at least for now. In countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, where we send a good number of Pinoys every year, domestics are not even mentioned in the country’s labor code, which is why protecting their rights becomes legally difficult. A ministry would ensure that bilateral labor treaties with other countries where we tend to send Pinoys specifically stipulate that their human rights be respected.

Needless to say, sending human beings abroad is hardly a meaningful developmental model and, ideally, we would work on preventing population growth and improving the job market to begin with so we could provide jobs for everyone at home instead. But, until we are in a position to do so, we are honor bound to protect their rights because they are not chattel to be sent overseas to artificially keep our economy afloat, like our colossal foreign debt. We cannot allow these workers – the lifeblood of this nation itself -- to be abused any further, nor does it make long-term sense to have our president or vice-president repeatedly go abroad to plead for clemency in the case of prisoners on death row. Clearly, institutional changes need to be made so our kababayans overseas receive adequate protections, period.

And, finally, onto the matter of public discourse itself, which is ultimately what this entire convention is all about. Indeed, one of America’s greatest legacies to the rest of the world has been its first amendment. But, in a country like the Philippines where many journalists are either bribed or assassinated, what exactly does freedom of speech imply? How free, in fact, is it? Respected rags and outlets often don’t bother to vet their data, publishing stuff that occasionally turns out to be downright false. Perhaps because of a perpetual pandering to owners, sponsors and politicians, there appears to be a tendency to wax lyrical, on the one hand, or sling mud, on the other, at least on the part of many (although we do have a few first-rate journalists): there is, in fact, limited space for respectful, empirical and constructive criticism in this country. But I would argue, as I have always argued, that one can be deeply rigorous without becoming disrespectful or getting personal.

Of course, it is equally true that some in power tend not to take criticism well and don’t necessarily listen to it. This is unfortunate, because constructive criticism can be deeply helpful, in my view, and should always be welcome among people who have had even the most basic education. During the campaign, I was somewhat flummoxed by the notion harbored by some that there could only be white operations and black propaganda, and that the party preferred to dissociate itself (officially at least) from the latter. Anything critical of any opponent of Noynoy was deemed to be black, which was endlessly surprising to me, since some of the work being produced about other candidates was carefully substantiated and highly empirical anyway.

This almost Manichean notion of good and evil, light and dark, was alarmingly simplistic, in my view, and smacked, if of anything at all, of moral self-righteousness. Instead, I tend to favor the kind of respectful, graceful and lacerating analysis a few candidates and writers still appear to be capable of doing. I would therefore suggest that we encourage this capacity for analysis while being careful not to jump the bandwagon of supporters who, absurdly enough, have immediately turned into the shrillest naysayers overnight. Noynoy is not perfect but, at this point, we need to give him a chance to begin the process of building the country before we attack his every move. As long as we are constructive -- and not dismissive and judgmental -- I would suggest that we are on the right track.

On the other hand, it is a valid contention that the representatives of the search committee for Cabinet positions should come from all sectors – academe, civil society, the public and private sectors, etc, etc. While I respect the need to have people who can personally be trusted in government, I don’t necessarily see the value of only appointing friends, classmates and relatives to critical positions. If this is in fact what is happening (and I’m not yet entirely clear that it is), then that in itself would be a travesty of justice and is not at all the kind of thinking I campaigned for. My views are precisely all about merit and professionalism, and I say this: let the person’s qualifications and experience alone put them in the search committee or the Cabinet itself. Again, our loyalty should be to the nation and to specific causes rather than to specific political personalities or to our respective families, clans, provinces and friends.

And there is further the matter of coalition-building: when my uncle publicly advised Noynoy to work with his former opponents, he was rebuffed as someone whose advice was not needed since he had not been a part of Noynoy’s “team.” But FVR’s point was precisely about creating a national team and, at the end of the day, I would submit that it is not who expresses an idea but what the idea itself actually is that should determine whether or not it is to be given credence. Moreover, was this really necessary so early in the game, particularly towards a former president who has such widespread support in the military? I would respectfully urge our president to choose his battles wisely and not to make unnecessary enemies. He is after all not just the president of the close to 16 million Filipinos who voted for him but of the 90 million or so whose fate is now in his hands. Six years is a long haul, and we have fought too hard to make this administration a success. We remember all-too-well how many threats there were to Cory’s administration and would not want anything to jeopardize the first reformist administration we’ve had in well over a decade. We want Noynoy to succeed because -- as the people’s president -- his success has now become our own.

As for the rest of us, I would submit that globalization failing to spring from a national context is of limited social value. So I would ask the following of our kababayans overseas and all of you here tonight: please invest in this country, contribute to it intellectually, strive for greater political representation (which means you have to register to vote!), come home for your vacations (we do have better beaches than Cancun, even if they may be a little farther away) and never forget our cultural provenance.

It's high time we all started gearing ourselves for sunrise. Mabuhay si Noynoy Aquino, ang mga migranteng Pilipino at ang ating mahal na Pilipinas!

Marami pong salamat.

This is actually not the spot where I ended up delivering my speech finally, but I quite like that back drop, don't you? :-)