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Daniel Wagner

Daniel Wagner

Posted: August 25, 2010 04:00 PM

The Philippine Bus and Miss Universe

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This week two noteworthy events involving the Philippines made headlines: the botched rescue of Chinese tourists taken hostage by a disgruntled former policeman, and a botched response to a question by Miss Philippines in the finals for the Miss Universe contest. You might ask, what do these two things have in common? Separately, not much, but taken together, they represent both the peril and promise of the Philippines today.

For many years pundits have commented that the Philippines appears to be heading backwards economically and politically, while many parts of Asia barrel toward middle income status and have maturing democracies. Yes, other countries have disputed elections, other countries' leaders do questionable things, and other developing countries struggle to achieve sustainable economic growth. And, yes, there are recent examples of fresh political turmoil and economic hardship not only in Asia, but throughout the world.

The difference here is, many of the countries experiencing political instability and economic dislocation don't have the things the Philippines has: agricultural self-sufficiency, a high literacy rate, and a largely homogeneous population. One Asian country that possesses these qualities - Indonesia - has managed to transcend monumental political turmoil, turn its situation around, get on the path to democracy, stay there, and become a darling of the international investment community. The Philippines had this in the 1960s. Why can't it have it now?

When I lived in the Philippines from 2003 to 2007, I was asked, what is the difference between the Philippines and Indonesia? My answer was, "In Indonesia, they have hope." I came to the conclusion that in spite of all the things the Philippines has going for it, its people didn't demand enough of themselves, or of their government. Political apathy and a willingness to accept a low common denominator of performance have taken their toll on the psyche of the Philippine people.

Filipinos should not therefore be surprised that the Philippine police tried to negotiate with the hijacker of the Chinese tourist bus well after a reasonable period of time had passed, negotiations had failed, and the lives of the tourists were clearly in jeopardy. Police from a variety of other nations would have simply killed him at the first opportunity, regardless of the fact that he was a former colleague. This SWAT team knew how to get the results that were required, but they failed to do so. Why? Their priorities were misaligned. The safety of the hostages should have been paramount - not the fanciful notion that a man who is desperate enough to take hostages would somehow come to his senses at the height of the crisis.

The result of actions like this are unfortunately consistent with the expectations many people have of performance in other areas. Politically, the Philippines has descended into an ongoing competition between political dynasties: Marcos, Arroyo, and yes, Aquino. What I don't understand is, why do Filipinos continue to vote them in, election after election? Is it because of a lack of viable alternatives? No. Is it because of political apathy? Possibly. Or is it because they have no expectations that anything will change, regardless of who is in power? Definitely. What does this say about the country's future? Nothing good.

Which brings me to the Miss Universe contest. Miss Philippines, Maria Venus Raj, is by anyone's definition fantastically beautiful, poised, and graceful. Many believe she should have won the competition, and she deserves a lot of credit for being the first Filipina since 1999 to make it to the finals. But her flubbed response to the question of what mistake she had made in her life and what would she have done differently apparently cost her the crown. How could this 22-year-old woman, who so diligently prepared herself for that moment -- at great personal sacrifice her whole life - not have come up with a better response?

She was nervous, she said. Well, who among the finalists wasn't? Other Filipinos have said English wasn't her first language so she had difficulty coming up with the right words. Really? How come no other Philippine contestant in the Miss Universe pageant ever had an interpreter? In preparation for this event it never occurred to her or anyone around her that such a question might be asked? Had she come up with a better response, it is likely the crown would have been hers, and the Philippines would be basking in her glow. Instead, it's just another instance of a missed opportunity, and Filipinos are making excuses.

If the Philippines wants to get its act together and live up to its potential, it needs to demand more of itself. It can achieve this by stopping making excuses for its failures and ending its acceptance of the lowest common denominator. President Aquino promised to put an end to nepotism and corruption in government. The people should make sure he does this. When the police screw up a hostage rescue, the people responsible should be fired. And when a beauty queen blows an attempt to become the glory of the Philippine people, it should be recognized as such.

Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consultancy based in Connecticut.