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‘The state of the nation is sound.’ But we could — and must — do better

PEXELS KRISIA

LIKE MOST of the nation, we listened intently to the State of the Nation address of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. delivered earlier this month. He ended his less than two-hour speech by declaring that “the state of the nation is sound and is improving.”

The President is right. And indeed, it is improving.

He addressed various sectors where we are improving: agriculture, education, tourism, digitalization of the bureaucracy, and more. He provided figures showing that these are indeed improving.

For instance, the President mentioned, “In 2022, the digital economy contributed P2 trillion, equivalent to 9.4% of our GDP.” Regarding tourism, he said, “From January to June this year [2023], we have received 3 million international visitors. This number is already 62% of our 4.8-million target for the entire year.” Of education, he stated that “more and more of our higher education institutions (HEIs) have reached world-class status. This year [2023], 52 Philippine HEIs have been included in the World Universities Rankings, compared to just 15 last year. Last year [2022], out of the 4.1 million enrolled college students, almost 50% were beneficiaries of the country’s free higher education under the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education program.” On digitalization and scientific development, Marcos Jr. said that “the Philippines has launched two additional satellites into space. Together with the first satellite, they will track weather, predict storms, evaluate soil and water supply, analyze population shifts, and be used for traffic management, geo-hazard mapping, and risk assessment, including security and defense.”1

We suggest in this article that while we are indeed fine in these aspects, we could do much better if one looks at where the state of the nation is within a broader global context, especially within the context of our being part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This is an opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves from a global comparative perspective. Unfortunately, while we are okay, we could do much better.

And therein lies the challenge for our lawmakers and policymakers.

For instance, he talked about tourism. Five million tourists came to the Philippines in 2023. But how many tourists visited our neighbors during the same period?

In 2022, Statista cited the Bank of Thailand in saying that country had 11.15 million tourists. Even during the pandemic in 2020, they had 6.7 million tourist arrivals and as many as 39.8 million tourists in 2019.2 In June, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism said the first six months of 2023 had seen over 5.5 million foreign visitors.3 In 2022, Statista pointed out, Singapore had 6.31 million tourists.4 Also, regarding international airports, Vietnam has nine, while Indonesia has 34. The Philippines only has 8.5

Then he talked about connectivity and digitalization. He said we improved and that “because of system upgrades, our internet speed has improved. As of June this year [2023], our fixed broadband speed ranks 47th among 180 countries. This ranking is 11 places higher than it was in 2022. Our mobile internet speed is now [2023] rated at 83 out of 142 countries, which is eight places higher than it was last year [2022].”

How do we compare to our neighbors? According to the Speedtest Global Index 2023, the Philippines has a fixed broadband speed of 92.84 Mbps and ranks 47th among 180 countries. But Singapore is in 1st place among the 180 countries in fixed broadband internet with 247.29 Mbps, Vietnam is in 44th place with its 93.44 Mbps, Malaysia has the 39th spot at 95.69 Mbps, and Thailand is in the top six at 206.60 Mbps.

Additional data from the same index on mobile internet speed in 2023 indicate that while the Philippines has its 83rd place at 26.98 Mbps, Malaysia’s 48.10 Mbps earned 46th place. Singapore is in 25th place at 77.95 Mbps. Thailand has 40.15 Mbps, putting it in 60th place. Vietnam has 47.31 Mbps and secured its 50th place. Brunei is in 5th place at 129.04 Mbps. We definitely need to catch up with our neighbors.

For social welfare, the President said, “Last week, we introduced the pilot Food Stamp Program (FSP), which seeks to supply the nutrition needs of the million most food-poor Filipinos.” However, how do we fare compared with our neighbors? Our peers have a Human Development Index that far exceeds ours. In 2021, the latest from HDI, Singapore was at 0.939 (Very High). Vietnam at 0.703 HDI (High), Malaysia was at 0.803 (Very High), Thailand at 0.8 (Very High), and Indonesia was 0.705 (High). On the other hand, the Philippines was at 0.699 (Medium). We have made progress but have a long way to go.6

In agriculture, “Our aim is to boost local agricultural production — through consolidation, modernization, mechanization, and improvement of value chains — augmented by timely and calibrated importation, as needed. Nakita nating tumaas nang 2.2% ang sektor ng agrikultura sa unang tatlong buwan pa lang ng taong ito. (We have seen that the agriculture output increased by 2.2% in the first three months of this year).”

However, in 2021, Thailand’s agriculture earned 1.38 trillion baht ($39,976,833,600).7 Indonesia’s 2022 agricultural output saw it earning 2.43 quadrillion rupiah ($165.7 billion).8 The Philippines’ agricultural trade in the second quarter of 2022 amounted to just $6.95 billion.9

Then the President referred to education. Where are we as far as education metrics are vis-a-vis our neighbors? The Philippines ranks second to the worst in Grade 5 students’ reading and math skills among Southeast Asian countries, according to the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics 2019 (SEA-PLM). The study reveals that only 10% of Filipino students meet the minimum reading standard, and only 17% meet the minimum math standard expected at the end of primary education. Grade 5 students in the Philippines scored 288, compared to students in Vietnam’s 316, Malaysia’s 319, Myanmar’s 292, and Cambodia’s 290 in reading assessment. Only Laos falls behind with a lower average score of 275.10

Regarding higher education, according to the Times Higher Education, the best universities in Asia are mostly in China — Tsinghua and Peking University, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in Asia and Nos. 16 and 17 in the world in 2022-2023. The National University of Singapore is in 3rd place in Asia and 19th in the world. In 2023, the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) is 201-250th in Asia and 801-1,000th in the world; Ateneo De Manila University is the 84th in Asia and 351-400th worldwide, De La Salle University is 501-600th in Asia and 1,201-1,500th globally. The University of Santo Tomas (UST) is 601-800th regarding Impact rankings. UST is only a Reporter for the World and Asian Universities rankings.11 UP was 65th among all Asian universities in 2020. Unfortunately, it slid down to 84th in 2021, then 129th in 2022.12

In the 2023 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings published on June 9, 2022, a British education specialist, the National University of Singapore ranked 11th, the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore ranked 19th, while the Tsinghua University of China ranked 14th. In Malaysia, Universiti Malaya ranked 70th, Universiti Kebangsaaan Malaysia ranked 129th. Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University got 224th place and Mahidol University 256th. Universitas Indonesia ranked 248th. Unfortunately, the University of the Philippines ranked 412th, Ateneo De Manila ranked 651-700th. Both De La Salle University and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) ranked 801-1,000th.13

In the 2024 QS World University Rankings, UPD ranks 404th. Ateneo is ranked 563rd. De La Salle is at 681-690th. UST is ranked 801-850th. Looking at our Southeast Asian neighbors, Universiti Malaya rose to 65th place. Universiti Kebangsaaan Malaysia went down to 159th. Chulalongkorn University went up to 211th place. Mahidol University went down to 382nd. Universitas Indonesia climbed to 237th.14 There is so much to be done.

Our point is certainly not meant to be a sweeping, negative wet blanket. But, given the enormous possibilities, the SONA could also be an opportunity to disturb our lawmakers, policymakers, and the general public by saying that while we are okay, still, we could do much, much better.

The picture has not always been that bleak. Dr. Michael Alba, an economist and the 11th President of the Far Eastern University, pointed out that the Philippines had Asia’s second-largest per capita GDP in the 1950s. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, once regarded as the Philippines’ Southeast Asian peers, are now classified as high-performing economies aiming for first-world status. However, the Philippines is on a low-growth track.15 This situation has to change, or the Philippines will risk getting left far behind. The country might need help to compete well in the world economy, diminishing its survival capacity in an inherently anarchic world order.

Without downplaying our achievements or criticizing anyone, our neighbors like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have left us behind. In 2020, the IMF forecast that Vietnam’s GDP per capita of $3,498 would overtake the Philippines’ GDP per capita of $3,373. This development is not because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vietnamese gradually made progress. It took 40 years because Vietnam’s income per capita was 83% of the Philippines’ in 1980.16

Also, the share of our fellow ASEAN states’ GDP vis-a-vis industry illustrates how much their governments have prioritized manufacturing and other high-productivity sectors. As of 2021, Vietnam’s GDP for manufacturing was at 36.6%, Thailand’s was at 34.3%, Indonesia’s 39.4%, and Malaysia’s at 36.8%. The Philippines’ is at 29.2%, while its services comprise 60.7% of its GDP.17

And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room — Corruption.

In the 2022 Corruption Perception Index, the Philippines scored 33 and ranked 113rd worldwide. Indonesia scored 34 and ranked 110th, Vietnam scored 42 and ranked 77th, Malaysia was rated 47 and got 61st place. Thailand ranked 101st and scored 36. Singapore scored 83 and ranked 5th.18 While the administration’s commitment to national development is impressive, a clean and competent political leadership across generations is imperative.

Robert Rotberg pointed out that corruption inevitably harms the effective implementation of public services, which adversely affects human lives on a global scale along with its great potential to trigger conflicts and erode national interests. A strong anti-corruption strategy is important to ensure that good governance will be sustained.19 Similarly, the Chandler Institute of Governance stated that good national governance can determine a nation’s development success or ruin. This ideal can only be attained by having good structures in place.20 In the words of Acemoglu and Robinson, politico-administrative institutions must become inclusive and pluralistic, not exploitative and extractive, to ensure that good governance and a prosperous society would materialize, regardless of whether a state has plenty of natural resources.21

Yes, we are getting our act together, and it is good to be optimistic, but it looks like neighbors are zooming past ahead of us. We could do more by supporting manufacturing, especially industrial development. The President mentioned the Balik Scientist Program and the renewed support for Research and Development. We must continue to push for agro-industrialization. One step that could be considered would be to bring back the Bureau of Industrial Development. This thrust can help focus policies and initiatives bolstering agricultural productivity, a known priority of the Marcos Jr. Administration.

Let us be more ambitious in our developmental goals and not be satisfied by our seeming mediocrity. We need to take a hard look at ourselves. We need to have a sense of urgency. We need to build upon the hard-earned gains of our predecessors, a long-term project where generations of Filipinos must work towards the Ambisyon Natin 2040 goals of the matatag, maginhawa, at panatag na buhay para sa lahat (a secure, comfortable, and decent life for all).

We must aim not just to survive but to thrive and excel. And we must act with a sense of urgency.

The State of the nation is sound. But we could — and must — do better.

1 Source of the verbatim quotes: The full text of the 2023 SONA of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. Philippine Star. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2023/07/24/2283450/full-text-marcos-2023-state-nation-address

2 Source: Bank of Thailand. (Feb. 13, 2023). Number of international tourist arrivals in Thailand from 2015 to 2022 (in millions) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/994693/thailand-number-international-tourist-arrivals/

3 Source: DW. https://www.dw.com/en/vietnam-emerging-as-southeast-asias-new-tourist-hot-spot/a-66126221#:~:text=The%20Vietnam%20National%20Administration%20of,of%20international%20arrivals%20in%202022.

4 Source: STB. (May 23, 2023). Number of international visitor arrivals in Singapore from 2013 to 2022 (in millions) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/977993/total-international-visitor-arrivals-singapore/

5 Source: Statista. ASEAN. (May 30, 2022). Number of international airports in Southeast Asia in 2020 by country [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1009338/asean-number-international-airports-by-country/

6 Source for Human Development Index 2021 Data. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/hdi-by-country

7 Source: National Statistical Office (Thailand). (April 1, 2022). Gross domestic product (GDP) from the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector in Thailand from 2012 to 2021 (in trillion Thai baht) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1023181/thailand-gdp-from-agriculture-forestry-and-fishing/

8 Source: Statistics Indonesia. (June 12, 2023). Gross domestic product (GDP) from agriculture, forestry, and fishing in Indonesia from 2014 to 2022 (in quadrillion Indonesian rupiah) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1018464/indonesia-gdp-agriculture-forestry-fishing/

9 Source: PSA. Highlights of the Foreign Trade Statistics for Agricultural Commodities in the Philippines Second Quarter 2022, Preliminary. https://psa.gov.ph/content/highlights-foreign-trade-statistics-agricultural-commodities-philippines-second-quarter-2022

10 Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1721616/southeast-asia-rank-ph-2nd-to-worst-in-grade-5-students-reading-math-skills

11 Source: Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/best-universities/best-universities-asia

12 Source: https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2023/06/23/2276023/3rd-year-row-slips-ranking-top-asian-universitie

13 Source: QS Top Universities 2023: Top Global Universities. Published on June 8, 2022. https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2023?&search=nanyang

14 Source: QS Top Universities 2024: Top Global Universities. Published on June 27, 2023. https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2024

15 Source: Alba, M. (2007). Why has the Philippines Remained a Poor Country? Some Perspectives from Growth Economics, Discussion Paper No. 2007-01. University of the Philippines School of Economics. https://www.econstor.eu/obitstream/10419/46668/1/538098074.pdf

16 Source: IBON cited the IMF 2020 report. https://www.ibon.org/imf-sees-vietnam-overtaking-ph-its-not-because-of-covid/

17 Source: Statista. ASEAN. (December 28, 2021). Main economic sectors as a share of the GDP in Southeast Asia in 2020 by country [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved July 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1307202/asean-main-economic-sectors-gdp-share-by-country/

18 Source: Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2022?gclid=Cj0KCQjwldKmBhCCARIsAP-0rfzTL4IhNaOx6mRrV6AlerBKCAnx9LLSoal5W_LFI97KgcukBLyTOXYaArIKEALw_wcB

19 Source: Rotberg, R.I. (2017). The Corruption Cure. How Citizens and Leaders Can Combat Graft. Princeton University Press.

20 Source: Chandler Institute.https://www.chandlerinstitute.org/cggi

21 Source: Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J.A. (2013). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Crown Publishers.

(The online version of this column contains the full list of sources used in this piece. — Ed.)

Dr. Alex B. Brillantes, Jr. (abbrillantes@up.edu.ph) is a professor emeritus and former dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines (UP NCPAG) and secretary-general of the Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration. Karl Emmanuel V. Ruiz is a librarian at the UP NCPAG.

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