Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Davao airport, 2013: a déjà vu

43 years ago I sat scared with the other passengers after our PAL plane overshot the runway in Davao. Thankfully I got out of the disabled aircraft in one piece with not even a scratch, like everyone else. I recall that like the recent incident, they also were unable to tow the plane away with dispatch . . . That’s how far we've progressed decades later . . .

"There is no such thing as ‘total happiness’ in this country." After decades of Communist-rule, that is not uncommon to hear from a Bulgarian. Arguably, something as insidious could indeed kill the human spirits . . . [We claim that we Pinoys are the happiest people, but is our denial for decades in fact a manifestation of the human spirits having gone kaput?] . . . And precisely, with my Bulgarian friends we've been purposefully building a different environment – and culture – within this once small enterprise. Such that after we've moved from "the middle of nowhere" (housed in an old communist-era facility 400 kilometers from the capital) to what would be adjudged Sofia's "building of the year" designed by Italians, we've made the Italian-look the standard for our offices, wherever – including the latest one we're setting up in Singapore.

I was at home in Connecticut and we were at that time building the factory for our first premium brand, and I wouldn't even look at the equipment brochure attached to an email: "It is not the costs but the margins that we must be looking at. This project must shriek "premium" in its every facet." Today it is our biggest brand next only to the largest one, but which was well ahead in the market. I would chat animatedly with a young man we recently hired (he had worked at the world’s largest consumer products company) after he said that our third biggest brand was moving up even faster in Western Europe: “And what value do you want to add to the business?” And in typical corporate-speak he intoned: “As a matter of fact I have already planned the development of a couple of important tools that I will discuss on my next visit.” He then proceeded to explain the mechanics of his "tools." [Memo to HR: We need more of his kind.]

And so from making for and selling "cheap" products to the locals we're today now selling to a big chunk of the world . . . I recently sat through two hours of presentation from a research firm that we commissioned to test our latest innovation against the biggest brand from a US MNC and the biggest brand from Europe. And the prim and proper researchers, at the end of the presentation, could not contain their amazement that a young enterprise (from a poor country) could outdo two of the world's best: “Could we please use the remaining product samples ourselves?” And that says it all: people will go out of their way to have your product, even in a formal business setting.

Do we in PHL appreciate what an open and competitive market is when we've enshrined oligopoly – and foreign investors know that? Why would we expect them to come then? In the meantime, our infrastructure development has lagged, and the Davao airport is a microcosm of our reality like NAIA is? And not surprisingly, PLDT, a major player from our private sector wouldn't meet the criteria of a Myanmar to bid in their telecoms infrastructure project? Did we not give PLDT an award recently? And this same Myanmar is now poised to rake in more FDIs, and could then be on a faster clip to raise their competitiveness? And PHL would remain synonymous with underdevelopment and widespread poverty? But who cares, we could always scratch each other's back?

And we’re proud because it reflects our value – of family – and that we treat each other like family? [Of course, in a hierarchical system and structure we hide the “culture of impunity” (Solita Collas-Monsod, Phil Daily Inquirer, 7th Jun 2013)?] My late mother was always proud to talk up family members supposedly doing well. And that’s not different from us talking up the PHL economy. First it was OFW remittances and today it is BPOs, and the building boom, etc. But my mother was talking family, not competitiveness or the Philippine economy and poverty. While international institutions have told us what ails us – from our deficiency in energy to infrastructure to the absence of an industrial base to low export receipts to our underdeveloped agribusiness to our inability to attract FDIs, etc. – we’re like a family at the dinner table over Sunday lunch? Sound economic fundamentals mean more than a set of monetary indicators – largely driven by OFW remittances – when the ecosystem that must generate the nation's products and services is flawed at best. And denial doesn’t qualify for positive thinking – especially after counting decades?

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