Tuesday, January 04, 2005

'Seeds of time'

'Seeds of time'

Updated 00:38am (Mla time) Jan 04, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the January 4, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"IF you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow and which will not."

That was how Banquo expressed to a Macbeth titillated by ambition the deeply human desire to glimpse into the future. And that desire drives much of 2005 crystal-balling.

But there's nothing murky about what we must do, if we're to beat the social and economic tsunamis roiling ahead. In their paper "The Deepening Crisis," University of the Philippines professors cautioned last August about such dangers.

Holiday hangover notwithstanding, the reforms proposed have become even more urgent. We need about 30 years to catch up with Thailand, business consultant Peter Wallace noted in "Does the Philippine Have A Chance?" In 1970, Manila was Bangkok's "twin." Now, Vietnam is poised to overtake us, unless key sectors are overhauled.

Take the linchpin of governance. Government here, to use Balzac's imagery, seems a "giant mechanism operated by pygmies," Nine years back, Ilocos Gov. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was convicted of tax evasion, Senate President Jovito Salonga and Ambassador Sedfrey OrdoƱez recall. That decision became final seven years ago. Yet, Bongbong merrily thumbs his nose at the jail as today's pygmies lack the grit to enforce the law.

Contrast Marcos Jr.'s impunity with how Seoul jailed, without fuss, Presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, along with 14 former generals. That's political will. No wonder, Korea pulled ahead of us economically in the 1960s, said UP's Arsenio Balisacan and Dennis Mapa. Korean GDP per capita income is $16,950, while Filipinos lag at $4,170.

Similar gridlocks occur in electoral reform, infrastructure, population, insurgency, agriculture, armed forces, ecological policy, urban growth, etc. These are daunting problems. But they can be resolved, if political gut is brought to bear.

But MalacaƱang, Congress, the opposition, the military, down the line show precious little of backbone. Unlike the Magi, pygmies don't break out of comfort zones and go on tough journeys. Thus, Congress further embedded tax breaks for favored tobacco companies while clinging to its pork. When will Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. heed the courts' repeated ruling that the coconut levy are public funds and return that to the treasury?

"[Government] goes on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful for impotence," as Winston Churchill said in a 1936 House of Commons address.

Change, however, swirls beyond our borders--and control. Between the 1980s and 1990s, exactly 91 countries--from the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile to East Germany--sent dictators packing. At century's turn, 140 out of nearly 200 countries held multi-party elections.

But that democratic tsunami has dissipated, notes the United Nations Human Development Report: "Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World." Inept governance sapped basic services and stoked popular frustrations. Al-Qaida feeds on festering resentments, seeking to clamp on an Islamic caliphate.

Old-fashioned juntas have barged back. Others like the Philippines are stalled in a transition to nowhere, bogged down between democracy and its "dysfunctional politics" and indulging in fantasies about "benign dictators on white chargers."

Delayed reform left us little elbow room. That little is whittled away further by a barely literate electorate that a failed educational system mass produces. Out of every 100 kids who enroll in public school, 33 drop out before Grade six because of poverty. "Two boys to every girl repeat grades from the first to third grades," notes the UN report, "A Common View, A Common Journey." "The ratio deteriorates to nearly three boys for every girl repeating in the first year alone" in high school.

Can a nation of dropouts, fed on a diet of soap operas, survive in cyberspace 21st century?

Contrast the vision of our "leaders" with that of their foreign counterparts. Joseph Estrada offers "alternative leadership." His vocabulary is limited to his knee-caps and wangling yet another pass from house arrest.

Before the tsunami hit Banda Aceh, Indonesian President Susilo Yudhono said his concerns could be "boiled down to two words: China and India." Beijing's economic clout and India's advances are altering the region's strategic balance.

How the world responds to "the rise of India and China in the coming decades will define this century," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong writes in the Economist. "Better for Asia to have two prospering and stable giants, rather than two backward and troubled ones."

But change demands painful adjustments. "There'll be winners and losers," Lee warns. "Countries which prepare their peoples for the changes, and move early to anticipate the strategic shifts, will have the advantage..."

Governments must "look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not." They need to persuade peoples what needs to be done, set clear directions and shift policies where called for, Lee says. "The starkness of our situation leaves no room for complacent delusions," he adds.

Tell that to our pygmies--and a people content to be wheeled to the poor house, high on pork barrel and an "Eat Bulaga" level of national discourse.


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