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.

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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?

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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!

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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…

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