The Philippines has a new president—Benigno Aquino III—but the same old problems. Aquino’s pedigree is impeccable. The president comes from one of the country’s wealthiest families. His father was a martyred opposition leader whose assassination at the airport that now bears his name triggered the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. His mother, Corazon Aquino, was Marcos’s successor as president.
There is a general consensus that young “PNoy,” who is just approaching the end of his first year in office, is capable and honest. But there is also general concern that neither he nor any other president may be able to reverse his country’s long, slow slide which has made it into the laughingstock of Asia. A country that was once proud of its role as the first democracy in Asia, and that seemed ready for economic takeoff decades ago, now has a per capita GDP, in purchasing power terms, of just $3,500 per person making it, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, No. 162 in the world when ranked by relative wealth.
Just about the only industry that seems to be flourishing in the Philippines is the sex trade.
When I visited recently along with a group from the Council on Foreign Relations, we stayed at a fancy hotel that was surrounded by miles of girly bars and massage parlors. When I mentioned this fact to a Filipino, he said, with only slight exaggeration, that whole country is a red light district. Indeed, trafficking in women is a growth industry—placing the Philippines behind only Thailand in the region.
I got a vivid glimpse of the country’s problem when we went to meetings with cabinet ministers and other senior officials. Visiting the “comfort room” before our talks (the Filipino term for bathroom) I discovered stalls without toilet paper and sinks without soap or towels. Call it the bathroom test: a country whose leaders can’t even stock their own bathrooms is a dysfunctional place.
That impression was confirmed by our travel in and out of Manila’s international airport which makes New York’s dilapidated Kennedy airport seem like the height of modernity by comparison. When we flew from Manila to Seoul it was like leaving the third world and arriving in the first world. Yet only a few decades ago South Korea was as poor as the Philippines.
What happened? Residents I talked to offered a variety of explanations, from overpopulation to corruption to an inbred ruling class to a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. In the end I think it boils down to leadership, or lack thereof.
Ferdinand Marcos hijacked the county in the 1960s and for the next twenty years presided over an increasingly corrupt and ramshackle government. The return of democracy was no panacea: Marcos was followed by the ineffectual Corazon Aquino and the more effective Fidel Ramos, who in turn was succeeded by the clownish former actor Joseph Estrada (no Ronald Reagan, he) and the ineffective Maria Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, both of whom presided over free-flowing corruption.
All those bad leaders have done a lot of damage to an English-speaking country that has a lot of unrealized potential. Now it is up to young Aquino to unlock some of that potential. The Philippines could be another India or Malaysia, but major reforms will be required to point it in the right direction.