The impossible dream: The surprisingly successful president of the Philippines

The impossible dream: The surprisingly successful president of the Philippines


May 31st 2014 | From the print edition

IN 1987, when he was 27, Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino was in Manila when plotters attempted a coup against the president, his mother Corazon Aquino. Recalling a promise to his late father to look after his mother and sisters, he rushed towards Malacanang, the presidential palace, to join them. He and his four guards were ambushed. Three were killed and one lost his eyesight. Mr Aquino himself still carries a bullet, along with his guilt.

Mr Aquino, president himself since 2010, recently recounted this incident to The Economist, to explain the lesson he took from it: not to act impulsively. He said this in the context of rows with China over the South China Sea. “Responsible for the future of 98m people”, Mr Aquino owes it to them to remain “level-headed, as calm as possible”, even when provoked. Mr Aquino’s critics say he has learned the lesson too well, accusing him of too much deliberation and not enough decisiveness.

The story of the ambush, however, also draws attention to the transformation of Philippine politics. His mother became president in 1986 after a people-power revolution. In her first term coup attempts occurred more predictably than scheduled elections. As late as 2001, a president was ousted unconstitutionally when people took to the streets to topple Joseph Estrada. Now the army is in its barracks, and although Philippine politics remain rambunctious, few doubt that Mr Aquino will complete the final two years of his term. The Philippines is not Thailand.

The anecdote also sheds light on Mr Aquino himself. Known affectionately as “PNoy”, blending his title, his own nickname and the national one, he is often portrayed as an amiable, rather happy-go-lucky loafer who drifted into Malacanang on a wave of nostalgia and popular sympathy following his mother’s death. Since then, critics have chuckled about his ruling style and the “student council” of young enthusiasts that surrounds him. An obvious comparison is to India’s Rahul Gandhi, another politician who appears to owe his position more to dynastic clout than to personal inclination. Yet, just as for Mr Gandhi, being born into national politics has brought personal anguish for Mr Aquino. Both men lost their fathers to assassins. Perhaps partly as a result, both are thoughtful types. Both can adopt a rather wonkish approach to policy. But unlike Mr Gandhi, a so far ineffective and rather desultory aspirant to national leadership, in office Mr Aquino seems to have acquired an appetite for it.

He is still uncomfortable with the trappings of the job. He does not like travelling abroad; his aides say that he finds Malacanang “oppressive”; and his office wall sports a calendar counting down the days until he leaves office. But he cannot remember how many it now shows. He seems in a hurry as much to get things done as to retire to an easier life. He knows the three big achievements of his presidency are all provisional.

The first is the acceleration in the country’s economic growth—to 7.2% in 2013 and not much less in 2014. South-East Asia’s tortoise has become its hare. In the coming decades the economy might grow faster even than China’s. The government finances and banking system are sound. A vast army of 10m overseas workers—a quarter of the workforce—provides a wealth of foreign-exchange inflows. Above all, the economy is entering a demographic sweet spot of falling fertility rates and a large working-age population. Here, however, high rates of growth are not just possible but essential if the Philippines is not to be forced to send even more young people abroad to earn a living.

Mr Aquino can point to fast-growing job opportunities in outsourcing and other businesses, drawing some overseas workers home. But the numbers overseas are still expected to keep growing. Colleagues have expressed disappointment over how poverty is not falling as fast as they hoped with such high growth. Yet the president professes himself “kind of proud” of what his government has done for the poor, with big increases in spending on education and health care, and 2.9m Filipinos lifted out of poverty. He also defends its record on diverting more of the budget into building infrastructure. But he himself notes that some unfinished road projects have been promised since the 1970s. Logistics remain one of foreign investors’ big concerns and critics joke that “PPP”, as in the government’s high-profile public-private partnerships, in fact stands for “Post-PNoy Project”.

The second achievement is both to maintain a fairly clean image and to punish corruption elsewhere. But Mr Aquino’s anti-corruption credentials suffered when he was slow last year to endorse reform of the system of scandalously plundered discretionary funds available to legislators (the “pork barrel”). Many suspected him of wanting to keep his party sweet.

Mr Aquino also put a lot into bringing closer this year the end of a long and bloody Islamist insurgency on the southern island of Mindanao. He can claim that the “only people not championing the peace agreement are those profiting from the turmoil”. He concedes, however, that there are many such. The hope is that the prospect of peace will make support for them wither.

Legacy issues

The president has done better than many expected but must know he cannot safeguard any of his reforms from a future government that chooses to be profligate or corrupt. He hopes voters will treat politics as they would a restaurant: have a good meal once and you might come back again. But one of his ambitions, to transform Philippine politics from a personality-based system into one based on parties—and, presumably, platforms, policies and even ideologies—still appears a long way off. His party’s man is not even the favourite to succeed him in 2016. He hopes to count as his legacy a change in Filipinos’ mindset from “don’t dream; it will never happen”, to one in which they believe their dreams can come true. But maybe Filipinos need to aim higher, and demand more of their country’s leaders.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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