Saturday, 18 September 2004

How Turkey averted a crisis

JUST LIKE RP. Apart from a completely different language, living in Turkey reminded me so much about life in the Philippines.

The pleasant Mediterranean climate had a great deal to do with it—nice balmy evenings, sunshine-filled summers and pleasant weather most of the time.

There were also the beaches reminiscent of Mactan’s crystal clear waters and white sand. And of course who can forget the people—inquisitive, friendly and very hospitable. In my seven years in that country, it was like I never left the Philippines.

EVADING TAXES. It was not just the pleasant things that reminded me of home, however. Its bad sides likewise mirrored those of the Philippines.

Istanbul’s rush-hour traffic could compete on even terms with Manila’s worst.

Turks behind the wheel, with their total disregard for road safety and courtesy, were more than a match for our own jeepney drivers. Oh, and the police took bribes as well. And to round off the list, almost everyone did not pay his proper share of taxes, unless he had to.

My ruminations on Turkey came while reading about the Philippines’ “forthcoming” fiscal crisis, which now seems to be the hot topic of conversation among armchair economic pundits. That of course means over 90 percent of the Philippine population.

CURRENCY CRASH. In 1994, Turkey was in the midst of one messy economic crisis. Its currency, the Turkish lira, had devalued 20 percent overnight, effectively wiping out millions of dollars in locally denominated financial assets. Our company alone lost $200k on the value of our cash deposits, all in the space of a single day.

People now talk of Argentina’s collapse as a warning for the Philippines, but with Turkey being so close and so inextricably linked to Europe, this crisis was potentially more troublesome for the global economy than Argentina’s.

COURAGE AMID STORM. Turkey weathered the storm, and emerged less than a couple of years later a stronger and more competitive economy. The things it did along the way were fundamental, and yet it took a lot of courage on the government, and cooperation from the people, to make them happen.

First off, Turkey did not renege on its foreign debt obligations, something that many now advocate for the Philippines to do.

Former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, who like our own Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is a trained economist, reasoned that the erosion in Turkey’s standing with international creditors was something she did not wish to jeopardize, as it was vital to get their full support for the economy’s future growth. Clearly, this option is something our own government will have to consider very carefully indeed.

REVENUE BOOST. To boost short-term revenues and avert a looming fiscal crisis, Ciller undertook a serious of measures that no one thought would be acceptable, much less workable. But they were, and with astonishing results.

Turkey, much like us, had a very porous tax collection system. Those that were taxed at source like salary earners could not escape payment, but many others got by with paying bribes to tax examiners instead.

As a one-time revenue earner, an “economic stabilization tax” was introduced, which was a five percent surcharge on the previous year’s income. The tax was collected at source so there was no avoiding it.

Simultaneously, the criminal and financial penalties on tax evasion were tightened, in order to ensure fairness.

After a grace period to allow for the repentant to come forward and arrange payment, a few prominent businessmen who did not heed the warning were thrown in jail, to serve as an example.

More next week…

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, September 18, 2004 (

Saturday, 21 August 2004

Conniving, Cheating Executives

REALITY SHOW. There seems to be no satisfying the appetite for so-called “Reality TV.”

With its humble beginnings in the live “cops and robbers” shows which catered to those with the kicks for thrills and speed, the genre has branched out into all varieties of programs, with one to suit every taste and preference.

Voyeuristic lawyer types have “Court TV.” “Wife Swap” is there for those who wish to see the goings-on in an everyday household. And couch potato adventurers revel in the challenges of “Survivor.”

TV producers have been quick to capitalize on this new-found taste for real-time television, with new and more novel shows being produced all the time.

One fairly recent addition to the offering is “The Apprentice,” a show that purports to portray the goings-on in the search for a successful businessman and entrepreneur.

Hosted by real-life tycoon Donald Trump, the participants—composed of career people, recent MBA graduates etc.—go through various decision-making exercises, board meetings, and deliberations with Donald Trump judging their performances. Each episode, one contestant is expelled until an eventual winner emerges at the end of the show.

No doubt it makes for good television.

Machieavellian machinations are clearly not alien to business and corporate life, and this show only highlights the fact that all is not fair in love, war and business.

The fact that some real-life executives connive, cheat and steal their way to the top is not big news, and in fact is taken for granted. However, putting it on show has the effect of reinforcing the belief that it is the only route to the top.

But just as it is admitted that some Hollywood aspirants are reported to be sleeping their way to success, it does not mean that all actors and actresses are compelled to have intimate relations with their producers and directors in order to succeed.

Business does need a fair amount of bravado, especially in its early stages. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is perhaps one of the better examples of this.

Starting with the music business, Virgin now offers everything from trains, airline services and mobile phones, taking advantage of risky but profitable niche opportunities and outmaneuvering their larger competitors for a lucrative share of the market.

The problem is that the line between calculated risk-taking and outright foul play is becoming blurred all the time. Major American corporations have pushed the envelope too far out, with resulting disastrous consequences for investors, employees and the larger economy.

This is where I take issue with “The Apprentice” and all its spin-offs, in their portrayal of business success.

There is no denying the fact that the road to the top is littered with the bodies of those who are less astute and perhaps even those too rule-bound. Every successful CEO— and Donald Trump himself is the perfect example of this—has at some point laid all their cards on the table for that “one-throw, one-chance” shot at total success or abject failure.

What is not shown, however, is the immense responsibility that comes with being a caretaker for the interests of investors and stakeholders—an obligation sadly all too often forgotten as they chart their own personal course to the top.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, August 21, 2004 (

Saturday, 20 March 2004

Emigres defend adopted homeland

HORNET’S NEST. When I wrote last week about the apparent inconsistency of collective Western policy toward eradicating all forms of discrimination from their societies, I did not realize the hornet’s nest I was about to stir.

Upon returning from office in the evening to check my personal mailbox, there waiting for me were a number of reactions from our readers.

All of them focused on the issue of immigration, which I had used as a specific example of what I call systematic discrimination.

Opinions were divided between those who were “victimized” by many Western embassies’ denial of visitor visa applications —some merely on the suspicion that the applicant has no intention of ever coming back home—and those who succeeded in immigrating, and have integrated themselves into Western society.

The former lot agreed with me, recounting their horror stories with strict consular officers dispensing their own brand of “deny first, ask questions later” justice.

Most emigres were of the contrary opinion, taking the side of their adopted homelands in saying that because immigration has become a heavy burden to the West, it is right to impose strict policies to stem the human tide.

THE POINT. The fact is I was drawing no conclusions, but merely stating well-known facts. And immigration was not even the central theme of the piece, merely a convenient and well-known illustration to support my point.

And my point was?

A country works hard at eradicating all forms of discrimination inside its borders, creating catchy slogans like “one country, many cultures,” “melting pot,” “cultural mosaic,” and every other synonym of the word integration that one could think of.

To back up their efforts, they sprout billboards and posters all over the place, bearing pictures of happy faces with all the colors of the rainbow you could imagine. And they expect the majority of their citizens to embrace their minority countrymen.

But hold on one second. The majority citizens they are trying to educate also read the papers and listen to the news. And there they see the debates about immigration policy, interspersed with pictures of would-be immigrants being turned away at their borders and ports of entry.

The faces of those being turned away, do they not resemble many of those with the happy smiles up on the anti-discrimination billboards? Oh silly me, of course they do!

This creates just a little bit of complication for our audience, does it not?

Okay, the happy face is a legal alien, the unhappy one being led away is an illegal immigrant. The distinction should be clear enough, shouldn’t it? Everyone ought to know that, right? Yeah right.

DISTINCTION. Racist white trash roaming the streets at night in poor and run-down housing estates are very conscious of this distinction.

Before they beat up their next colored victim, they ask him first for his British passport, and if he has one, they let him go away. But if the unfortunate bloke happens to whip out one from the Caribbean, then he may not be so lucky! Really, this is how they operate.

Okay, that’s an extreme example.

How about the olive-skinned MBA who comes in for an interview at an investment bank in the city? Why he looks like the guy stepping off the refugee boat from the Mediterranean as well, does he not? Could he really do this job? Is he good enough? Hmmm… Let me think.

Even to the most discerning and intelligent among us, the situation poses not a few complications. And let’s face it, the majority of us are not really that intelligent and discerning.

And that includes the countless consular officers in many of our Western embassies all over the world.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, March 20, 2004 (

Saturday, 13 March 2004


DISCRIMINATION. Last week I attended a seminar held by a leading UK law firm on the subject of new European Union legislation governing the issue of discrimination in the workplace.

The stricter laws, coming into effect from 2004-2006, tighten the already stringent anti-discrimination measures in place today, and would place Europe closer to the United States, which is currently ahead in protecting the rights of its minority and disadvantaged groups.

Along with disallowing employment selection based on nationality, race, religion or gender—the new laws also seek to do away with what is today still a common criterion for screening out applications—age.

From 2006 when these laws finally take effect, it may not be uncommon for us to see 50-year-old flight attendants, along with lady bus drivers and openly homosexual combat soldiers. The conduct of colleagues at work will be curtailed to exclude even the common green jokes that are today the main feature of water-cooler breaks in most offices.

Europe and the rest of the West, at least on paper, are preparing for what it sees as a “color, race, nationality, gender, age and disability” neutral society.

The intentions are admirable, but the realities are far from the stated intentions. The gaps are apparent in their policies toward immigration.

VISA DENIED. Take the recent case of my wife’s sister-in-law, who applied for a visa to visit her sister in Canada.

A mother of four, she is a qualified nurse who has not practiced her profession for some time, to devote herself to taking care of her young family.

Their circumstances are by no means meager—my brother-in-law is a fairly successful agri-businessman, and she has no intention of leaving for Canada as an economic migrant. But did the immigration authorities share the same view? No chance.

Without so much as giving her a minute to explain the purpose of her visit, her own economic and family circumstances, and her intention to return, the consular officer immediately denied her application.

The reason? She has “no compelling reason” to come back to the Philippines, and from all indications, would stay on and practice her profession in Canada.

Had she been of European origin, the outcome would surely have been different.

Canada is not alone in this clearly discriminatory method of granting visitation rights to their countries. The United States and the European Union are equally guilty of denying visitor applications on the mere suspicion that someone may have a reason—however improbable—of staying on beyond the allowed period.

All this while they are enacting laws to end all forms of discrimination in their borders, similar to the proposals discussed in the seminar I attended.

The reasons behind their draconian immigration policies are clear—no country wants to be burdened by masses of immigrants taking work away from their own nationals. And because permission to visit a country is a privilege that is up to a state to grant or deny, no laws are broken by their strict policies.

But these same policies appear to create a two-faced image of the West to the world.

For how can a country that promises to look beyond race, color, ethnic origin, religion and gender, in the same breath turn away well-intentioned visitors to their countries, just because based on the same characteristics they promise not to discriminate against, there is some probability that they may stay on?

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, March 13, 2004 (

Saturday, 31 January 2004

Expatriate tired of defending RP

TENSE. Election time always brings butterflies to my stomach. These days I always feel tense and nervous, anxiously waiting where the next question could come from, and what form it would take.

As a Filipino expatriate, I have grown weary of defending the Philippines—or at least making excuses for the country—to people some of whom I hardly even know, who ask me about anything and everything that is happening in the country.

“Allan, how did Joseph Estrada manage to become your president? Wasn’t he just a B-movie actor before he became a politician?”

“Why is everybody leaving your country? Is everything really so desperate over there?”

“You know I have a really lovely Filipina maid. The poor soul left behind her whole family back home, just so she could work outside and send some money back to them.”

Sometimes, in my near exasperation, I am tempted to scream: “If you want to know what’s going on in the Philippines, why don’t you go there and ask the people yourself!”

Of course, I never do. And I find myself explaining patiently why these things are happening in our country.

I shouldn’t really bother to explain. So what if we have an insatiable fascination for movie stars? Doesn’t America have one too? After all, even California has an actor for a governor. And not too long ago, even their President was a Hollywood star.

But I take these questions personally. And it pains me, as much as it must cause untold grief to those of us who feel that we are always taken less-than-seriously by our peers, just by the simple fact that we are Filipinos.

FALLING PESO. Last year, the peso was P53 to the dollar. Today it is P56. All this despite the fact that relative to the major currencies, the dollar is at its lowest levels in many years.

According to my former AIM professor and now Economic Planning Secretary Romy Neri, the reason for the peso’s fall is nothing fundamental, and all political. Nobody looks at our economic performance anymore—we are being judged by the outside world purely on hearsay and rumor.

It hardly helps that our next chief political officer (read President) is likely going to
be another product of Fantasyland, skilled in fighting neighborhood toughies and bad guys, but hardly in leading the country to economic progress and restoring its international credibility.

Running a country is not like directing a movie, or even starring in one. The presidential aspirant’s handlers are very quick to come to the defense, pointing out the actor’s track record in running a profitable movie outfit, and comparing this to successfully running the country.

But they conveniently forget one thing—his movie company is successful because it has a priceless asset—the actor himself. No matter what movie he makes, people turn out in droves to watch. There is no way he cannot succeed, no matter how hard he tries to fail.

There is no such star-struck audience in the presidency—there are only critics and detractors. There are no illusions and fantasies, only cold and harsh reality. And when mistakes are made, one cannot simply yell “Cut!” and do another take. The show must go on, unedited and uncut.

The people are understandably exasperated with our political leaders. That’s why they are willing to try new faces, in the hope that one may yet prove to be our saving grace.

Our would-be actor president is probably an honest and decent man, and cares about the country, as many of us do. But not all decent and honest men can become president.

Perhaps just this time, our actor ought to consider giving up the starring role.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, January 31, 2004 (

Saturday, 24 January 2004

New aristocracy

CIRCLE. There was a time when political leadership was confined to a close-knit circle of anointed individuals—“presidential timber”—carefully harvested from an exclusive forest of well-heeled families and well-schooled individuals.

Names like Osmeña, Quezon, Lopez, Lacson, et al. represented the cream of Philippine society. For a long time, only those that came from families of similar pedigree were considered worthy of aspiring for a career in the public service.

A common man—by the standards of the day—named Ramon Magsaysay first broke the aristocratic hold on Philippine politics, shocking the prim-and-proper world of mestizos and mestizas, who until then had never thought that a rank outsider, much less a less-than-well-educated one, could mix within their exclusive circles.

We have come a long way from the days when only those with noses of a certain length were deemed worthy of being in public office.

Ramon Magsaysay’s ascent to the top post of the land made sure that if your heart was in the right place, and you had your wits in the place where they should be, you could aspire to be anyone you wanted to become.

TOO FAR. In fact, one may say we have gone way too far since the days of the old political aristocracy.

Today, even if one’s heart is not in the right place, and his wits are not where they should be, that would still be no obstacle at all to one’s political ambitions. Not as long as the aspirant is a regular fixture in the public eye, and a familiar face to the millions who would vote him to power.

Welcome to the new political aristocracy. Exit the Quezons, Lopezes, Osmeñas and Lacsons. And enter the Estradas, Santoses, Cunetas and Poes.

CINEMATIC. Aristocratic blue blood has given way to cinematic credentials as the ticket to political leadership. Where before, UP, Ateneo and De La Salle were the training ground of choice for would-be public servants, today it is the movie studios and television stations that are the breeding places for our future leaders.

The shift in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, none among the old political guard were ever that successful in raising the Philippines to the status of a world, or even just a regional, economic power.

While Lee Kuan-Yew and the other visionary leaders of Asia relentlessly steered their own economies to First World prosperity, our brilliant leaders like Marcos only succeeded in driving us deeper and deeper into global ridicule as the sick man of Asia.

Given the failure of the old political guard to improve our lives, we can scarcely fault the masses for trying new talent for the political leadership.

After all, the former had many generations to do something about our poverty—generations that were wasted instead in petty political bickering, endless legislative squabbles and confusing economic policies—all of which have made us relatively worse off compared to our Asian neighbors, just a few years ago.

We are so far behind every other country we could think of, with the exception perhaps of those in conflict-ridden parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Our situation has become so bleak and desperate that the only hope for many of us, it seems, is to head for shores far beyond our own.

So, could we really be faulted for trying something else?

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, January 24, 2004 (