An appeal to the President (Philippines Daily Inquirer)

Please bear with me because I’m afraid I’m going to bore you all with repetitions. But do bear with me and support me. Somehow we have to convince President Aquino to do just three key things that will drive the country’s future and therefore leave a lasting legacy.

We need to find a way to overcome the President’s reluctance to: firstly, support Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s bill to amend the restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution; secondly, to form a Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT); and finally, to actually do something about the debilitating impact of being stuck in traffic everywhere we go (or try to go).

The first two are vitally important to the economic future of the Philippines, possibly more than any other change that can be effected. I cannot overstress that. And, of course, getting traffic moving will do immediate wonders to the growth of the economy and the people’s quality of life.

On the amendment of certain economic provisions in the Constitution, there should be no fear that it can be hijacked to include the political section. The time has long passed when that can be done. Speaker Belmonte’s bill has passed all the necessary review. It now needs only a final vote. And that, sadly, requires the President’s support, which has been strangely difficult to get.

It’s not even as though this will change the Constitution; it won’t. It will just allow Congress at a later date to review the economic provisions and decide to change them-or not to change them. And to make that decision after wide discussion with everyone and all interested parties. It provides the opportunity to take into account how much the world has changed since 1987, and to allow us to make changes from which all will benefit.

We may end up with no change, but at least we will have the chance to review the provisions. What I like most about the matter is that it will capture the attention of the international business community’s leaders. They’ll say, with such a dramatic possibility of opening up, that this is a country really worth considering.

And worth considering is what we need. The $6.2 billion in foreign direct investments last year may sound like a great achievement-and in gross terms it’s a definite gain on the past-but a closer look at the numbers will show that it wasn’t such a big deal at all. A huge chunk-54 percent, or $3.35 billion, was made up of intercompany loans or borrowings of local subsidiaries from their parent firms. Nice, but it’s just the confidence of the guys that are here. Another 13 percent comprised reinvested earnings-again the guys that are here. Only 33 percent was made up of new equity investment, and the bulk of that (65 percent, or $1.32 billion) was in finance and insurance services-not great job generators. Only 8 percent of that 33 percent (or a miserable $209 million) was in new manufacturing. Which is what we really need.

Furthermore, that $6.2 billion was the lowest among our neighbors. And Vietnam, our once far behind but now almost equal competitor, received an estimated $9 billion. Thailand, whom we used to compare with, had $13 billion. I wouldn’t be happy with those numbers; I’d be putting all my efforts into changing that map. And opening up the economy to equal participation by foreigners and locals can be-no, will be-a major plank in achieving that.

Mr. President, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing it. Everyone will support you-that has been made abundantly clear.

As to the DICT, it’s a no-brainer. The world is moving frighteningly fast into the IT world; everything is becoming part of it. The Philippines can be a leader-or an also-ran once again. We are the world’s leader in call centers, but that’s one of the smallest bits of the sector, and voice technology will eventually replace much of it.

Vietnam has formed a division to create a Vietnam Silicon Valley that is aggressively working to be an Asian center for IT research and development, and production. We’ve been doing nothing. Call centers, a bit of BPO, and some very limited forays into the manufacture of some bits, and that’s it. I have earlier suggested (see An IT vision, 5/21/15) turning Clark into the Silicon Valley of the Philippines. Clark has the infrastructure, location, land, airport and seaport. Make Clark the center of the IT world. Several IT-BPO companies have set up offices in Clark, including Beepo, Tata Consultancy, Sutherland, iQor and Expert Global Solutions. More will be enticed to open offices in the free port zone if the government provides more comprehensive support for the most dynamic sector of the Philippine economy today.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines is one of only four countries-the others are Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos-that do not have a full department focused on ICT development.

The IT sector’s revenues will soon equal those of overseas Filipino workers-from over one million workers staying home with their families. It must, it really must, have the high level and funding that a department can provide. That’s the new world, Mr. President. Let’s be a leader in it, not a follower once again. Create a Department of ICT to promote and guide the sector. Let business be the driver, but give it the high-level public support it needs in order to thrive.

Finally, there’s the traffic. This is not on the same scale as the other two, but it can have an equally dramatic impact. It must be attended to immediately; the other two are longer-term. My column Get angry (7/9/15) said all that needs to be said. Now it just needs to be done. It is something the President can actually do in his remaining months. With strictly enforced discipline and courtesy, traffic can flow.

Mr. President, these three things can leave a lasting legacy. Please do them.