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Perpetually a potential?

Oct 03, 2011

By Rafael M. Alunan III for BusinessWorld Online.

 

I was still a kid when I first heard the claim that our country was a land of limitless potentials. Agriculture was booming; the cost of living was cheap; the foundations for industrialization were being laid; we spoke English fluently; our educational institutions were exceptional; the Armed Forces were professional; with the only American-style democracy and Catholic nation in these parts, we were the darling of the Free World.

More than half a century later, that claim is still being made, but it rings hollow in the face of the country’s steady decline from its lofty “second only to Japan” economic position in the 1950s, to our present level of decline that Cambodia may soon surpass on its way up. In the past half century, we chose to squander many golden opportunities to build a sustainable future in favor of the quick fix and the fast buck. While nations struggled to lift themselves we consistently went the other way.

Our potentials remain unleashed because we inflicted on ourselves the problems of social injustice, poverty, and joblessness; and the bastardization of democracy and dictatorship that spawned the intertwining of syndicated crime and corruption with governance. We irresponsibly wasted the ecology and damaged our institutions such as education, health, public safety, and defense. We took the easy paths all these years that shred our competitiveness apart.

Let me now link that backdrop to what transpired at the just-concluded ASEAN 100 Leaders Forum last week at the Makati Shangri-la. It was hosted by Dato Timothy Ong, a respected Bruneian who is on the Board of Governors of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM). One of its role players ws Chandran Nair, author of the book Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet.

This commentary seeks to raise the red flag in the context of what we in this country need to address now in the critical areas of food, water, energy, consumer behavior, and governance to avert an unsustainable future. Consumption, Nair says, has been for many years the fuel that drove the engine of global capitalism. The recurring global financial and economic crises originating from the West in recent years has seen its leading economists and policy makers urging Asia to make a conscious effort to consume more to help save the global economy. It is a disastrous prescription that mindlessly ignores both the undesirable effects of consumption and the limits to growth.

Consumptionomics tackles head on what will prove to be the most controversial political challenge to Asia’s threatened future. It argues that if Asians were to attain consumption levels taken for granted in the West, the results would be ecologically catastrophic across the globe. It would also have significant geopolitical impacts as nations scramble for diminishing resources. Asian states and leaders in search of solutions will find themselves facing sensitive political choices to adopt certain forms of governance necessary to take the bull by the horns and change course. If Asia takes on this challenge it will help to save the planet whilst reshaping capitalism.

There is no question that the rising global populace will continue to push the planet’s carrying capacity closer to unbearable limits, exacerbated by the disastrous impacts of climate change and extreme weather, on critical areas such as food production, potable water supply, energy demand, and other basic needs. In our backyard, 20.7% of Filipino families (around 21 million people) live along and below the poverty line. Around 10% or 10 million people have left the country to work or search for a better life, which is wreaking havoc on the stability and unity of the Filipino family.

The impact of poverty on human and ecological security won’t let up unless we find a way out of it. At the forum, ex-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand was asked by Dato Timothy: Can politics still make a difference? He replied, “I can assure you that governments are still quite capable of inflicting more damage.” It may have been comic relief, but the message wasn’t lost on the audience. It is in that light that Nair is pushing for strong governments in Asia with virtuous leaders, to prevent “black swans” (a.k.a. unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence, and their impact on history such as the Internet, personal computer, World War I, 9-11) from ruining our future.

I have no quarrel with that, given our Asian culture, except that we’ve trudged that path once with disastrous results, unlike our regional neighbors who’ve had better outcomes. A dictator and a wannabe rose on the shoulders of a complacent, fractious, and naive society because we failed to stop them at the point of first exposure before they could do more damage. If we are to have a strong state with virtuous leaders, we need to first transform ourselves accordingly. How to is the subject of great debate still, but it does not negate the urgency and relevance of Nair’s proposition.

The time for the “virtuous Filipino” to emerge is long overdue. I think we all agree that we’ve squandered too many opportunities already, and must now heed what former President Fidel V. Ramos -- the “nation’s trustee” that his biographer, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, calls him -- has exhorted time and again. No mere slogans, each has a pointed message: unity, solidarity, teamwork, share, care, and dare. And he rolled up his sleeves to project the urgency of working doubly hard to win the future.

Crafting a system of virtuous governance and citizenship that suits our culture just has to happen with those game-changing attributes that FVR suggests. We must accelerate the transformation of our vast potentials from cocoon to butterfly, to give our descendants a better than sporting chance to survive the fearsome and still unknown challenges of this century.

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