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Philippines' Economic Development and the 'Pacquiao Paradox': Shining Individually, Whimpering Collectively

05/08/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated May 08, 2016

For years, I have covered the emergence of the Philippines as the darling of global investors. (In fact, a number of my works on HuffPo have focused on this issue.) After countless exchanges with economists, consultancy agencies, and businessmen in the country and beyond, it is quite clear to me that there is a growing sense of optimism (Keynesian "animal spirits") in and over the long-term economic potentials of the Philippines. Business confidence is building up.

Undoubtedly, the Southeast Asian country is once again on the radar. Certain macroeconomic trends are highly encouraging, particularly in terms of inflation and interest rates, projected annual growth rates, fiscal reforms, debt payments, gross foreign reserves and trade and investment inflows. Recent years have also seen growing regulatory predictability in the government and sustained efforts at closing the country's gnawing infrastructure gap.

Yet, sustained economic development doesn't take place in a vacuum. For the Philippines to become a true "tiger economy" in the coming decades, it has to also experience some changes in its cultural foundations.

A Country of Stars

I vividly recall a poster advertising "Filipino singers" in the elevator of an upscale hotel in Beijing when I was there for an academic visit few years back. Of course, there was nothing surprising about Filipino singers performing in major hotel chains. After all, from the Middle East to East Asia and North America, I constantly came across affable, highly competent, and extremely nice Filipinos, who were at the forefront of the hospitality and tourism business.

But what struck me was how, especially when it comes to singing, being a "Filipino" alone represents a brand. If you are Filipino, you are expected to be a great singer. Countless Filipinos, from Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco to Christian Bautista, have made it big on the international stage. When it comes to singing and dancing, the Filipinos can compete with the best in the world, and often emerge as the indisputable victors. Not to mention, the Philippines' superpower status when it comes to beauty pageants. I have lost count of how many Filipinas (pure- or part-Filipino) have managed to make it to the top 5-10 contestants in every major global beauty contest.

No wonder then that many see the Philippines as the extension of Latin America into the heart of Asia, an island nation filled with the Iberian spirit of musicality and overflowing talent. In certain sports, especially the "Four B's" of basketball, billiards, bowling and boxing, the Philippines has also showcased its ability to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. From the Philippines' impressive performance in the latest FIBA World Championship, to globally-renowned billiard wizards such as Efren "Bata" Reyes, Francisco Bustamente, Dennis Ocrollo, as well as world bowling champions such as Rafael "Paeng" Nepomuceno, it is clear that there has been no shortage of world-class talent in the Philippines.

Above all, perhaps, stands Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, who is widely considered as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers of his generation. He is the first and only boxer to have won world championships in eight divisions, and his recent (controversial) loss to Floyd "Money" Mayweather should take nothing away from his impeccable legacy.

Yet, astonishingly the Philippines stands among few counties which have yet to win a single gold medal in the Olympics. Despite having one of the most articulate and talented journalists, lawyers, and artists as well as an army of engineers, doctors, and scientists, the Philippines is yet to break out of its "lower-middle income trap". And despite having among the world's best singing and dancing talents, it is South Korea's "K-pop" phenomenon, which is transforming the entertainment landscape in Asia.

The Philippines is a paradoxical nation, where individual glories often clash with a long history of collective disappointment.

The Anti-Asian Values

Singapore's late-founder, Lee Kuan Yew, was fond of talking about the peculiarities of the so-called "Asian Values" (AV). He always insisted that unlike Western countries, Asians are more predisposed to thinking and behaving in collective-communitarian terms, putting the interest of the family and broader community above their individual impulses.

"I don't think there is an Asian model as such. But Asian societies are unlike Western ones... [an Asian person] is not pristine and separate," Lee Kuan Yew argued in an interview with Foreign Affairs back in 1994. To be fair, the legendary Singaporean leader had a more specific notion of "Asia" in mind, since he was primarily referring to "Confucian countries" of China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam.

His Malaysian counterpart, Mahathir Mohamad, was even more all-encompassing in conceptualizing of and passionate in his advocacy for the notion of "Asian Values", consistently questioning the universality of liberal democracy, which is primarily found upon the principles of individualism, procedural accountability, and freedom of expression. Instead of embracing democratic capitalism as the ideological end point of history, he envisioned an alternative episteme anchored by principles of deference to authority, limits on individual freedom, and emphasis on hard work and economic productivity.

Obviously, the concept of "Asian Values" has been largely discarded by the experience of countries such as India, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, which have embraced liberal democracy, albeit with certain modifications, without necessarily becoming "un-Asian". For its critics, the AV concept has been largely dismissed as a thinly-veiled propaganda for autocratic leadership and, quite ironically, an orientalist perspective, which ignores the almost universal demand for Vox Populi and freedom of expression.

Among Asian countries, the Philippines perhaps stands as the extreme opposite of the so-called "Asian Values". It is a country where individualism and lively public discourse undergirds the body-politic, animating the conduct of day-to-day politics and the broader national political culture. It is a country where the mainstream media constantly prioritizes endless gossip about individual celebrities over deep strategic discussions about national interest and development.

It is a country where actors and entertainers are constantly overwhelmed by public attention, while intellectuals are constantly pushed to the margins of public discourse. It is a country where the interests of an individual and his/her family stand as concrete, tangible priorities, while notions of nation and nationalism are treated as largely abstract points of reference, fondly cited in poems, movies and history books.

Philippine Exceptionalism

To be honest, I am not very convinced with cultural theories on national development, always preferring to focus on the impact of trade and industrial policies, the state-building process, and the structure of opportunity in the global economic system. The concept of "culture" is itself too broad and imprecise, often interchangeable with religion, national psyche, or "institutions", which pertain to regularized practices that have gained value over time, shaping the behavior of societies and individuals.

A century ago, leading sociologist such as Max Weber dismissed the ability of Confucian countries such as China to ever catch up with the West, (mistakenly) arguing that Far Eastern cultures tend to emphasize submission, passivity, and spirituality over the mastery of nature and a hunger for material accumulation, which underpin capitalist modernization. Yet, the past decades have seen the likes of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and China emerging as history's greatest (capitalist) economic miracles. Confucian Vietnam is obviously in the midst of its own industrialization bonanza.

As Fareed Zakaria cogently points out in his Foreign Affairs interview with the Singaporean leader, "Cultures change. Under the impact of economic growth, technological change and social transformation, no culture has remained the same. Most of the attributes that Lee sees in Eastern cultures were once part of the West. Four hundred years of economic growth changed things."

Few recall how in the past even Germany and Japan used to be dismissed as non-Western countries, predisposed to autocratic rule. The European intellectual giant Jurgen Habermas' post-World War II personal project was precisely about transforming Germany into a more Anglo-Saxon like democratic polity. Today, Germany and Japan stand as among the most stable democratic societies in the world, untouched by the bickering and political paralysis that afflicts old democracies such as the United States and France.

Obviously, culture is malleable and subject to change. But in the case of the Philippines, decades of economic stagnation has gone hand in hand with cultural immutability. While a predatory oligarchy has instituted a "shallow capitalism", and exploited hollow electoral institutions in the country, a persistently individualistic/family-centered culture, in turn, has come at the expense of building a collective, national spirit, which has been instrumental to development of most countries in the region.

Perhaps, instead of just creating global stars, the Philippines should also develop a socio-economic ecosystem, found upon a progressive national culture, which nurtures the talents of and provides opportunities for fruition of the vast potentials of the broader Filipino population -- that is to say, every Juan/Juana de la Cruz. And the Filipino political leadership, media, and intellectual class should play a key role in this transformation. This is their sacred duty.