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Aquino, the new Filipino superhero

THERE has been a tide in the affairs of the Philippines over the past half century that has tended to go out more often than it has come in.

Yet as I discovered during a recent visit, things can suddenly and unexpectedly change – and change most assuredly for the better.

It began with the election in June of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of the assassinated opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino and former President Corazon Aquino.

Perhaps because of his revered lineage and the disgust generated by his venal predecessors Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, Aquino took office with extraordinarily high levels of support and trust.

He has used that political capital astutely, although it has not been easy.

No sooner had he been sworn in than Aquino had to deal with a Manila hostage incident in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed when a rogue policeman hijacked their bus.

He has not only recovered from that debacle, but he has gone on to record substantive achievements in the past six months.

For a start, the economy has surged onward and upward causing the International Monetary Fund to recently upgrade its 2010 growth forecast for the Philippines to 7.0 percent.

The central bank’s reserves are substantive and secure, the stock market is at record highs and the peso is rock solid.

Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, in the Philippines you pay with local currency – if you have United States dollars, you change them first.

A recent poll confirmed the upbeat mood when American companies rated the Philippines as the second best place in Southeast Asia for increased productivity and profits, second only to Singapore.

That optimism extends to key sectors like mining which has grown by 36 percent this year, an even bigger hike than last year’s healthy 22 percent.

Already, Aquino’s team have lined up US$1 billion for new mining projects and the target is $13.5 billion over the next two years.

Astonishingly, the Philippines overtook India earlier this month as the call centre of the world in terms of number of employees and revenue generated in the industry.

At the recent opening of another IBM centre, Aquino predicted that his country would reap $13 billion next year from outsourcing operations, rising to $100 billion by 2020.

2010 has been a year of trials, triumph and transition, but amidst all of these challenges we managed to prove our mettle

With all this activity, the unemployment rate, which has already dropped to 6.9 percent, is expected to fall even further.
Aquino also pleased the business community last week by cutting the number of paid public holidays from 21 to 16.

All this has enabled him to be bolder in confronting the entrenched might and dogmatism of the Catholic Church. Most recently, Aquino expressed public support for condom use.

Because the church vetoes contraception, the Philippines has a fertility rate of 2.8 children per woman – by far the highest in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia next at 2.1.

Tactfully, Aquino met Catholic bishops to explain that he simply wants Filipino couples to be free to choose their own family planning options, including artificial birth control.

On another front, he has shaken up the police force after the hostage debacle and as a result reported crimes have fallen almost 40 percent compared to last year.

“2010 has been a year of trials, triumph and transition, but amidst all of these challenges we managed to prove our mettle,” said national police chief Raul Bacalzo.

Indeed. And safer streets, social stability and the intrinsic sunny disposition of Filipinos, along with some of the region’s best beaches and pristine countryside, plus cheap prices, have caused tourism to surge by almost 16 percent this year.

It’s no wonder Air Asia’s boss Tony Fernandes was gushing this month when he launched a new joint venture airline to serve the Philippines.

“We do expect to be profitable straight away,” he said.

He is probably right and he’ll do it in the most fun and funky place in the region.

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