Sunday, 16 May 2010

DEAR Your Excellency,

I realize that I am calling you this, most possibly against your wishes. In your desire to truly respect the will of this nation, you refuse to be called President until the day of your official proclamation. However, the laws of statistical probability – if not quite the laws of this country -- are all now stacked in my favour, and I am fairly certain that I will probably not be eating crow anytime soon.

You have enjoyed a truly convincing victory, in what has to be the most remarkable election exercise this country has ever seen. Possibly the cleanest polls ever, it was an election worthy of a democratic process in the information age – informed, lively and free. You, Mr. President, are the first leader of a cyber-age Philippines.

Click here for Election 2010 updates

And yet, as much as you belong to this internet generation, you also represent the hopes and aspirations of those who belong to earlier ones.

Many will recall your father as a youthful senator and eager president-in-waiting, whose own dreams were ruthlessly crushed by the dictator Marcos -- as he lay dying on the tarmac upon his arrival -- to free his homeland from the shackles of tyranny and oppression.

Millions like me also remember your mother’s sacrifice. We stood shoulder to shoulder with her as she marched the streets to press for the dictator’s departure, and supported her unconditionally, when her presidency was threatened several times by those jealous of her overwhelming popular mandate.

Mr. President, in a secular sense, you are this country’s long-awaited messiah.

You have ascended to power to fulfill your father’s lofty promise, and your mother’s supreme sacrifice. In you, those who watched helplessly as Ninoy was gunned down, and prayed fervently as Cory was besieged by hungry power grabbers, shall have their fulfillment and salvation. It is a weighty responsibility, Mr. President, but you have little choice in the matter. Carrying the Aquino name has given you that duty, and whether you like it or not, this is now your manifest destiny.

Our nation is in immediate need of healing.

Our civil service is corrupt and inefficient, our public officials inept and greedy, and our people jaded and disillusioned. It will take a leader who can deftly combine the popular touch with a sharp economic acumen, genuine humane compassion with a strict sense of discipline, and skilled secular governance with a strong moral compass, to pull this country together. Yes Mr. President, the demands are difficult, but we know you expected no less when you made the decision to walk in your illustrious parents’ footsteps.

But worry not, Mr. President, for we will be with you every step of the way. Steadfast and unwavering, proud and unbowed, we will march forward to claim what we have long coveted – the material comforts that many of our neighbour countries have long enjoyed, and the respect of the world that this nation has been denied for so long.

Mr. President, we can make this nation great again. More beckoning than Mr. Reagan’s shining city upon a hill, and more luminous than Mr. Bush’s thousand points of light, we can bring forth -- during your presidency -- a Camelot more storied than the reign of the legendary Kennedys.

I can only recall few instances in my life when I truly believed, as your father did, that the Filipino is worth dying for. When your father died on that tarmac, when your mother took her oath as president of this country, and now, this historic time of your election.

Mr. President, do this nation proud. Lead us to greater glory, as we strive to claim what are rightfully ours – the freedom from want, the respect of our freedoms, and the world’s total respect for our great nation.

Good luck, Mr. President. This nation’s prayers are with you.

( &

Published in the Sun.Star Daily, 15 May 2010.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Market positioning 2

SUBIC is Gordon, and Gordon is Subic.

The man has intimately woven the Subic brand into his persona, the two are almost now indistinguishable. From an American backwater with hardly any source of income apart from the entertainment spending of naval officers and men, Dick has made a destination haven of sorts for the place. Today it boasts of entertainment centers, gambling casinos and first class hotels.

And of course, it has business and industry too. Gordon wants to duplicate the microeconomy that is Subic, into the macroeconomy that is the Philippines, and he is building his platform on that promise.
And of course, what would an election be without Erap? The man for the masses he claims to be, with the common man’s aspirations tagged into his platform. And probably he is right to stake his wagon to such a horse. After all, these are the people who flock in droves to see his movies, and therefore it is only logical that they will be the ones to support him in his drive to regain the presidency.

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Brother Eddie? Oh, of course the man of God. Righteous, morally upright and incorruptible, with the fear of God on his side.

Brother Eddie wants to transform the country into a bastion of conservative Christianity, much like Pat Robertson of the 700 Club in the United States wants to do. And there too is a significant chunk of the electorate waiting to be tapped.

These men are the products, and we are the buyers. How they position themselves before us, dictates how we will assess them and make our choices. Do we want an honest and upright person?
Is technocratic competence more important for us? Do we need a man for the masses? Or is religious zeal uppermost in our echelon of values? Whichever trait appeals to the most voters should win, no?
In theory, yes. But just like the dilemma of market positioning, it isn’t always quite so simple.

Credibility in positioning is important. First of all, how believable are their declared attributes? Noynoy claims to be an honest lad. Does he have the credibility to do so?

Gordon passes himself off as a transformational technocrat. Does he have the track record to do it? And Erap comes with the guise of being a man of the poor. Do his deeds bear him out on this claim?
It is easy enough to claim any number of attributes, but proving it is another thing. And a false or weak claim to an attribute can very well derail a person’s candidacy, and expose him or her to being a charlatan.

The other important consideration is the uniqueness of a position. How crowded is their place in marketing space? Are others already occupying it? For instance, Gordon and Gibo have fairly similar stakes to the “technocrat” attribute. Just as Dick claims to be the management guru of the lot, Gibo also says the same thing about himself.

Who will people believe between them? Or will they end up splitting the vote into two?
The same goes for the “man of the masses” title. Manny Villar thought he had appropriated the tag for himself, but at the last minute Erap surprised everyone by having his candidacy accepted by the Comelec. Which leaves Manny in a very tight pickle indeed because his “Tondo boy” credentials are also the same ones which Erap is using to entice voters to his side.

It is going to be an interesting marketing game all the way to May!

( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 20, 2010.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Market positioning

A SOAP is a soap is a soap. Well, in the old days at least, that was the thinking. As long as it bubbled, cleaned, and made one smell reasonably fresh, it had done its job. One soap was as good as any other.

Today, the choice for consumers is not quite as limited as that anymore.

Click here for stories and updates on the Sinulog 2010 Festival.

If one wanted to be doubly sure about cleanliness, there are any number of germicidal soaps out there in the market specifically for their needs. From sulfur and zinc soaps, to those with other germicidal ingredients, the choice is varied. For those whose main concern is moisturizing, for them too there is a wide variety of available products, which all claim to be able to add moisture to one’s dry skin. And then, of course, there is the craze of the moment—whitening soaps, which cater to the Filipinos’ obsession to be of the color they are not.

For them too there are a lot of products which promise to fulfill this vanity, and to make them look like they were born in Los Angeles, California instead of Angeles City, Pampanga.

There are even soaps which do not look like soaps at all.

Those among us of the more sophisticated bent go for liquid shower gels to cleanse ourselves, preferring the convenience and exclusivity of the product over the mass market appeal of the soap bar. From products sold by mass market FMCGs, to the more niche appeal of those from the Body Shop, to the really snobbish Molton Brown, there is likewise a large selection to choose from. So long as there is money to spend, there are products to buy.

All a matter of market positioning among the competing products.

Some products stand for cleanliness, others for moisturizing, a number for low cost, and a few for exclusivity. Each group appeals to a particular segment of consumer, whose needs and wants it is able to address.

The coming May 2010 elections is an interesting study in political market positioning among the candidates. From Noynoy to Gibo, Manny to Erap, Dick to Eddie, and Nick to Jamby, all project themselves somewhat differently to the electorate.

And whether or not their images will resonate with voters in terms of the satisfaction of the latter’s needs and wants, determines whether they will succeed in governing this country, or end up returning to their day jobs.

First off, we have Noynoy, the honest boy. Born to Cory and Ninoy, he promises to carry the torch of integrity, and rid the country of the scourge of graft and corruption.

His campaign slogan says that he will not steal, and will give back to the people every cent they paid in tax in the form of better services. To those of us who are fed up with financial scandals, tax cheats and other political shenanigans, his campaign is the beacon of hope for clean government.
Then we have Noynoy’s cousin, Gibo Teodoro. He positions himself as an intelligent voter’s choice. Brainy, articulate and extremely competent, his message to the voters is that he will elevate this country to greater heights. Ready to fly, is his slogan.

Manny Villar, the self-made billionaire from the slums of Tondo, comes to the voter with his “man for the masses” appeal. I’ve been there, done that, paid all my dues, is his rallying cry.
He is saying to the voters that if they vote for him, he will do all he can to elevate the plight of the poor, in the same way as he elevated his own station in life many years ago.

More next week…
( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 13, 2010.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

No exchange

IN the 1980’s, the first shots of the shareholder revolution were fired, in the United States and in Europe.

Prior to this, management boards were all-powerful, and were virtually running their organizations like total owners.

Shareholders, who often owned majority of the companies they invested in, were relegated to the role of spectators, watching, sometimes helplessly, as management ran their companies to the ground, or undertook some really bad decisions that jeopardized their investments.

Click here for stories and updates on the Sinulog 2010 Festival.

The rise in the vigilance of shareholders about the well-being of the companies they were invested in came at just the right time, as the companies they owned began to fail, one after the other, through a series of errors and ill-timed decisions.

The 1980s was the time when the Maxwell pension scandal broke out in the United Kingdom. Robert Maxwell, the larger-than-life media mogul who ruled over Britain’s tabloid press at the time, was caught fiddling with his company’s pension plan. Money that was supposed to go to widows, orphans and senior citizens was funneled to fund the man’s frivolous ways, and many of his retired workers ended up broke and penniless.

In the United States at the same time, corporate wrongdoing were a dime a dozen. This era was dominated by “greed” and “excess,” epitomized by Michael Douglas’ character in the movie “Wall Street.” The ‘80s was marked by takeovers, mergers and acquisitions that seemed to make no business sense, culminating in the famous RJR Nabisco saga, which led to the ultimate collapse of the mergers and acquisitions bubble in the United States.

Shareholder and investor activism, to a large degree, helped to tame corporations into doing the right things.

In Britain, their actions led to widespread pension reform, which ushered in the era of safe and reliable pension fund management in that country. In America, shareholders ousted a larger number of chairmen, chief executives and other senior managers, helping to instill prudence and common sense once more in corporate affairs. Without those drastic actions, life in corporate Europe and America would have turned out very differently indeed.

But what about in politics? What redress do voters have against incompetent and unfit officials, who happen to have been voted into power on the strength of false expectations? Is there such a thing as a shareholder revolt in political terms?

Yes there is, and in the Philippines we have tried it at least a couple of times already. In fact, we have names for them —Edsa 1 and Edsa 2, with numerous other mini-uprisings in between.
Problem is, we cannot have too many of them.

Coup d’etats are, in actual fact, illegal and against democratic principles. OK, Edsa 1 was wholly justified, even as Edsa 2 was much less so. But unlike shareholder revolts, which mostly strengthen the organizations where they take place, forced expulsion of democratically elected leaders is bad news for business. While investors may like to undertake their own revolts, they are mostly not too pleased when these revolts take place in the countries where they are in.

Which leaves us, the electorate, with only one choice this coming May. Since we cannot change our board of directors in mid-term, we need to make sure that those we elect are already the right ones to begin with.

Unlike in business, in politics, it is “no-return, no-exchange.”

( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February
06, 2010.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Can we trust the Filipino?

IN the early years of my immersion in Western cultures, a couple of differences between “them” and “us” struck me the most.

The first one clearly is the prevalence of religious iconoclasm, especially among the Europeans. In the United Kingdom, which has been my home for many years, churches and places of worship often lie empty and neglected, many turned into historically themed residential dwellings and apartment blocks. Religion just has no place in their lives anymore.

Valentine's 2009 blog

This was a real shock to me in the beginning, as having been raised in the Philippines as a young man, I had been accustomed to seeing people religiously flocking in droves to churches on Sundays, and other days of obligation. Not to mention being witness to the spectacle of people nailing themselves to crosses and engaging in other acts of great religious fervor, especially during the season of Lent.

Not in the West.

I remember once visiting one of the Western Isles of Scotland on a Sunday, and hearing mass while we were there. Looking all around me, all I could see were white-haired folk, with nary a young soul in sight. Religious devotion is dying with the older generation, and their young are not being motivated to follow in their path.

The other thing which surprised me with the West was the degree of trust they had in other people. The unwritten rule over there seems to be that “all men are honest, unless proven otherwise.”
Insurance companies over there, for instance, spend very little time investigating claims for damages, preferring instead to pay up almost as soon as they are reported. As a consequence many of my Filipino friends there routinely took advantage of the situation, reporting goods they had purchased like computers, for example, as damaged so they could get new ones as replacement.

The traffic accident reporting process, too, is something unheard of back in the Philippines. When two vehicles have a minor accident, each person simply reports to his or her auto insurance company what happened, and they would get paid. No need for a policeman to hold up traffic for hours like in Manila, while they take a sketch and make a report of the incident for the insurance companies.
The funny thing is, of course, that the two things that really caught my attention would, at first glance, seem to be irreconcilable differences.

For how could societies that hardly believed in God anymore, still rely so much on the good faith and honesty of their members? In my experience up to that point, ungodly men and women were supposed to be immoral and dishonest individuals. How else could they be, when they hardly believed in a just and righteous God anymore? Where would they have learned their values, and shaped their morality?

It was just too difficult for me to reconcile.

My thoughts, of course, immediately turned to home for comparison. In the Philippines, everyone – bar a very small minority – believe in a god, whoever that God is supposed to be.

Everyone goes to church on Sundays, or otherwise attends mosques on Fridays. Anyone coming over to the Philippines for the first time would see this, and automatically assume that our godliness meant that we were, without exception, an honest and morally upstanding nation.

More next week.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 30, 2010.


IN the corporate world, we take it for granted that everyone knows the importance of good teamwork. For example, if you think of Bill Gates, you immediately think of Paul Allen as well. Without one or the other of this pair, the world will not know of a company as influential as Microsoft, and perhaps the world of computing would not have been the same.

It is critical that top executives of corporations think alike, and support each other’s decisions. Otherwise, it would be a very fractious and chaotic organisation indeed, where the ones in-charge at the top would be fighting each other every step of the way, and having different agenda for the future.

Click here for stories and updates on the Sinulog 2010 Festival.

Political systems in most places follow this principle.

In the United States, for example, a vote for the president is also a vote for the vice president. One will never see a case in America where the president is a Republican,and the vice president a Democrat, or vice versa. It has to be that the pair belong to one party only.

It is, of course, only logical that this should be the case.

Vice presidents are, as they say, only a “heartbeat” away from the presidency. When the commander-in-chief dies or is in any way incapacitated and unable to govern, the vice president steps in and fills his shoes. It is therefore important that there is a continuity of programs of government, as one transitions to the other. It promotes a seamless change and ensures that the governance of the nation is not compromised.

In our country, however, we seem to be of a different mindset entirely.

Unlike most republican governments anywhere, in the Philippines, the president and the vice president have separate mandates. That is to say, the president could come from one party, and the vice president from another. Take for example the current administration, where President Arroyo and Vice President de Castro are from separate camps. Or even the previous government of President Estrada and Vice President Arroyo, who also belonged to different political persuasions.

In the case of the administration before this one, we had the vice president always positioning herself to take over the reins of power, and never really fully cooperating with the president to make effective governance happen. And when Edsa II took place, she was only too quick to pounce on the chance to crown herself number one.

Under the current regime, we have an impotent vice president, who despite his years of broadcast journalism experience, we have yet to hear hiim speak over national media on issues of substance. In both cases, the relationship at the top is a dysfunctional one, to say the least.

If other countries cannot do it, I do not know what makes the Philippines so special, that we think we can function effectively with having presidents and vice presidents coming from different political persuasions. When countries with mature political systems like the United States are practical enough to admit that this would not work, the logic of why we do ours the way we do it still continues to mystify me.

It is time we realised the folly of this situation. For two consecutive administrations now we have been witness to the charade that is the presidential and vice presidential tandem.

On both occasions, the second-in-command has been little more than a waste of space. Little wonder then that all the vice president has left to do is to plot for the overthrow of the boss, in order to take over the reins of power as quickly as possible.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 30, 2010.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Filipino diaspora

ONE of the tragic things about Filipinos is that wherever tragedy strikes in the world, one of us is bound to be involved.

When ocean liners sink at sea, we usually hear news of a number of Filipinos suffering in the tragedy. When a bomb blows up in Iraq, there is bound to be a Filipino onsite. And when a convoy of workers is attacked in Afghanistan, one of our countrymen may just be among the victims.

Click here for stories and updates on the Sinulog 2010 Festival.

Sure, you may say, but so are Americans and Europeans.

They are usually the passengers in those cruise liners that sink at sea. They will be the soldiers targeted by those roadside bombs in Iraq. And they are usually the contractors who may be attacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But with one big difference.

Americans and Europeans are in those places because they choose to be there. Our countrymen are there because they have to be.

Despite Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo’s claims to the country, the sad fact is that we are a destitute nation. So bad is the state of our economy that our greater Filipino family has to send its sons and daughters abroad so that we will have food on our table.

In a way, this is something to be proud about.

The world entrusts us with its infirm and its elderly.

We provide comfort and relaxation to weary Westerners, as they escape from the rat race and get away to their destinations of choice.

And we provide order in the homes of so many families around the world, as without us chaos will reign over their households.

But it cannot be denied that most of our countrymen have to resort to lives away from their beloved country, because there is nothing for them to do back here that would enable them to have some semblance of a decent livelihood.

If they chose to remain here, they would probably be unemployed, or, at the very least, working in jobs that would not be able to support their family’s needs.

And that’s why they leave.

Not in the hundreds.

Not even in the thousands.

They leave in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Every day, to every conceivable destination on earth.

Just this week, the impoverished island nation of Haiti was rocked by a powerful earthquake.
And guess what?

Some of our countrymen too perished underneath the rubble.
All right, some of them were there working as United Nations diplomats, while others were on duty as UN peacekeepers.

But among their number were ordinary workers who left to work in a very poor country like Haiti, because at least there, they earned more than they could possibly hope for in their own land.
Yet again, something for our next President to think about.

Not that he has to prevent our countrymen from leaving the country. Mobility and freedom to travel is after all a right that everyone ought to enjoy.

But there is one important thing he must note.

The situation cannot be as it is today, when almost everyone who queues up for a passport needs to do so in order to get a better paying job abroad.

When almost everyone who leaves does so unwillingly and with much sadness, if only to provide his or her family a better life.

Our countrymen must be no different than the Americans and the Europeans.

They should be able to leave their country anytime, to be sure.

But they must only do so because they choose to, and not because they have to.

( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 23, 2010.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

BPO Phenomenon (conclusion)

FIGHTING cocks in exchange for allowing your business to set up in their municipality may seem like a fair trade to some city council members in certain cities, but is certainly a source of great annoyance to potential investors in the country who are here to start a genuine business, provide employment and improve the national economy in the process.

Many of our so-called leaders and government officials fail to see that the short-sightedness of their actions harms the long-term term viability of the Philippines as a business destination. This is no different from the attitude of our public vehicle drivers and some in the tourist trade, which we have written about before. Instead of trying to cultivate good relationships with visitors so they keep coming back for more, they fleece them and practically rob them of their money the first time around, so they never ever have to think about coming back. No way to treat a customer, right?

Click here for stories and updates on the Sinulog 2010 Festival.

Apart from the obvious advantages of the Philippines as a BPO destination, the other important draw that brings investors here are the incentives we offer to potential locators.

The Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza) is a very critical lynchpin in this effort, as it is through this agency that a significant number of the investment incentives are administered. And as we have said many times before, Peza as an agency cannot be commended enough for the sterling job that it has done, and continues to do for the investment community.

The problem is that Peza, on its own, cannot do the job without the aid of the other agencies in government that investors also have to deal with. And herein lies the problem.

Our government agencies don’t talk. Nobody is interested in what the others are doing. It’s as if they all exist in a world of their own.

Take for example the VAT zero-rating of companies that are registered with Peza. Some of these companies, although zero-rated, will have incurred some form of input VAT payment, if for instance they were doing some set-up work before their Peza registration was approved. Since many of these companies are “exporters,” in that their customers will be from overseas, they will not be able to pass on the input VAT that they will have paid.

In theory, these companies are entitled to claim their input VAT paid from the BIR. But theory is far simpler than practice.

Just try asking any company, or any tax expert for that matter, on just how “easy” it is to try to claim back input VAT from the BIR. Ever heard of impossible? Try something more difficult than that!
The next president surely has his work cut out for him, to try to make us the BPO destination of choice over India, Eastern Europe or indeed China, which seems to be emerging as the next BPO boom location.

First on the list of things to improve will be the agencies that have touchpoints with BPO locators. The BIR is first on that list. As long as they take a very narrow view on tax issues, and make it difficult for investors to realise the full extent of their investment incentives, they will feel cheated, and come away thinking they were duped. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say.

And of course, although they may be under the radar most of the time, municipal governments will have to get their act together as well. The fighting cock story of one of my BPO contacts is something that cannot be allowed to continue.

Local governments should not be allowed to railroad the good efforts that the national government is trying very hard to implement.

So Mr. incoming President, are you ready for the challenge?

Wishing all our readers and friends a happy Fiesta Senor celebration. Pit Senyor!

( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 16, 2010.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

BPO phenomenon (Part 2)

FIRST of all, may I wish all our readers a very Happy New Year! May this year be much better than the last.

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On the other side of the new year, we were talking about the nascent Philippine business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, and how this has helped the Philippines sort out its economic difficulties in a significant way, the ineptness of our current economic and political leaders, notwithstanding.
If there ever was an industry that the Philippines can and should lay claim to, it has to be that of business process outsourcing. Much more than Japan and South Korea can monopolize manufacturing technology as their own, there are a lot of advantages that can make the Philippines the king of BPO, if it chooses to be.

First, we are by far, still much cheaper than the developed countries, in terms of our labor rates.
Where our newly hired employee in a BPO company—fresh out of college—would pick up a starting salary of about P15,000, this person’s equivalent in the United States and Europe would easily be making over P100,000, for doing exactly the same kind of work.

Second, our relative command of the English language is almost second to none in the developing world. As it happens, most BPO work today comes from the English-speaking economies in North America and Europe, so the trend suits us nicely from this perspective.

None of our neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and certainly not the Chinese, have our expertise in terms of speaking and working in the English language, so from that standpoint, we have a virtual monopoly of the market.

Of course, India—our most significant competitor for BPO business—is also very strong in English language skills.

But between them and us, there is enough of a market to go around.

The attractive promise of the BPO industry notwithstanding, there is still much that we have not done in order to maximize the country’s opportunity to attract more locators to come in.

Plenty, in fact, to make the next president aspirant already start having sleepless nights thinking what he could do to change the situation.For starters, we need to be more investor-friendly.

It is easy enough to claim that we make it easy for companies to come in and do business in the Philippines, but another thing to actually make it happen. Talk is cheap, as they say, but actions speak louder than words.

Take the issue of investment incentives, for example.

The Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza), among all the government agencies, has to be the friendliest and the easiest to deal with, among all the other regulators that BPO companies come across. This is the good news. The bad news is that everybody else is the opposite, and riddled with all sorts of graft and other corrupt activities.

Take the case of an unnamed BPO company that wanted to locate in one of the areas where these types of companies are normally clustered. To complete its Peza registration, it had to have some clearances from the municipality of the place where it was wanting to locate. One would have thought that the city council would pull out all the stops to make sure that the clearances were issued on time, so the company could commence with its business posthaste.

But did it do this?

No, sir. Upon learning that this company’s headquarters is in Houston, Texas, it had the nerve to ask the company for some fighting cocks, in exchange for the releaseof its clearances. More next week…

( &
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 09, 2010.