Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Francis mantra and the Western education system

Could the following be attributed to Pope Francis if he had been in education? “John Dewey champions the role of education in equipping us with the sort of critical thinking necessary for questioning authority, deconditioning our ‘mental bad habits,’ and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society . . .” [John Dewey on the True Purpose of Education and How to Harness the Power of Our Natural Curiosity, Maria Popovabrainpickings.org, 19th Sept 2014]

Questioning long-held beliefs as well as the authority of the Curia is not incompatible with the acknowledgement in the West that its education system is broken? We Pinoys could accept that our education system is broken but in our heart of hearts would we accept questioning long-held beliefs and the authority of the Curia? That is like tossing our hierarchical system and structure – and even our faith?

“While it is not the business of education … to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions. 'Do not feel absolutely certain of anything,' philosopher Bertrand Russell instructed in the first of his ten timeless commandments of teaching and learning in 1951.”

“John Dewey, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century, distills the purpose and ideals of education with remarkable clarity and conviction. The enactment of these ideals today would produce nothing less than a radical, sorely needed transformation of our broken education system.”

“Dewey champions the role of education in equipping us with the sort of critical thinking necessary for questioning authority, deconditioning our ‘mental bad habits,’ and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society: Causes of bad mental habits are social as well as inborn… Over and above the sources of misbelief that reside in the natural tendencies of the individual (like those toward hasty and too far-reaching conclusions), social conditions tend to instigate and confirm wrong habits of thinking by authority, by conscious instruction, and by the even more insidious half-conscious influences of language, imitation, sympathy, and suggestion.”

“Teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes, as much so as selling and buying. One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned.”

“The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.”

These two lines are worth highlighting: “Teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes” . . . “The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring . . .” And if this blog is not a feel-good reading, it is reflective of the “competitive scars” from my private sector experience where learning from mistakes is a painful reality – and which in the society-at-large we call justice. Thus free societies swear by the rule of law, i.e., there is no free lunch. Failed nations obviously are the exception. 

Precisely because the private sector doesn’t have all the answers, it is cognizant that “teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes,” or must be. It expects education and training efforts to be such that one must not “say he has sold when no one has bought.” And why in the West industry has raised the observation that the education system is broken. It is mindful that “the curious mind is constantly alert and exploring,” that good enough – or “pwede na ‘yan” – is not good enough.

Why is PHL underdeveloped and thus lags in creativity, innovation and competitiveness? Should we be surprised? Consider how we valued our sheltered upbringing, i.e., is the world evil that we must avoid? And so we shut the rest of the world out even when we don’t like to be subjugated by our cacique masters? Consider how we valued political patronage, i.e., we supposedly abhor corruption yet we expect political favors – from our Barangay captain all the way to the Executive if not via the Legislative and Judicial branches of government? How is PHL then to be defined if we’re not a disaster waiting to happen?

Should our education system then gear up and commit to developing a questioning mind in Juan de la Cruz – the “critical thinking necessary for questioning authority, deconditioning our ‘mental bad habits,’ and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society”?

What is happening to Afghanistan could provide us the mirror we ought to be looking at, one not distorted by our assumptions, beliefs and values, being more experienced as a democracy notwithstanding?

“American and NATO officials would have us think that democracy is gaining traction in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency has stalled and Al Qaeda is being defeated. All these arguments, of course, serve as an excuse for U.S. troops to start withdrawing at the end of the year, a plan that seemed wrong when it was made in December 2009 and is proving catastrophically wrong now.” [Afghanistan’s Failed Transformation, Ahmed Rashid, The New York Times, 25th Sept 2014]

“John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, apparently is the only official in Washington who dares speak truth to power. In a Sept. 12 speech at Georgetown University, he said that Afghanistan ‘remains under assault by insurgents and is short of domestic revenue, plagued by corruption, afflicted by criminal elements involved in opium and smuggling, and struggling to execute basic functions of government.’ His comments were largely ignored by the American media, and there was no immediate reaction from the Obama administration.”

“Moving from the lengthy U.S. military presence to full Afghan sovereignty was premised on the completion of four distinct transitions. But none has been successfully carried out, despite more than $640 billion in U.S. direct spending in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. The most critical transition, the one on which everything else rested, was political. Rather than build state institutions or carry out much-needed electoral reforms, President Hamid Karzai spent his long tenure encouraging a form of crony politics that failed to sap the power of the warlords.”

“The second promised transition was military. U.S. forces were to hand over security matters to Afghan forces, proving that the new, U.S.-trained Afghan Army would then be able to hold back the Taliban on its own.”

“The third failed transition has to do with economics . . . Money spent on schools and hospitals has dramatically improved education and health for Afghans, but these services remain dependent on foreign funding. There has been little large-scale investment in agriculture or basic industry . . .”

“The fourth contribution expected of the U.S. presence was insulating Afghanistan from foreign interference, which many Afghans fear as much as the Taliban. Iran, Pakistan and Russia, but also India, Saudi Arabia and other states helped fuel the civil war in the 1990s.”

“History will not look kindly on the legacy of the U.S. government and Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan. But this also means that Afghanistan’s new leaders can do better, and now, simply by acting responsibly — and working together to legitimize the results of this problematic election that has brought them to power . . . 2015 is supposed to mark the start of Afghanistan’s “Transformation Decade.” But if the country is to even get to 2015 in one piece, its new leaders must act fast to correct course after the failed transformation of the last decade.”

Granted PHL is no Afghanistan and is much, much better, but given this is the 21st century, how should we be scoring against the above political and economic yardsticks and, as importantly, leadership?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How the West got it wrong

Paul Krugman: Last week I participated in a conference organized by Rethinking Economics, a student-run group hoping to promote, you guessed it, a rethinking of economics. And Mammon knows that economics needs rethinking in the wake of a disastrous crisis, a crisis that was neither predicted nor prevented.” [How to Get It Wrong, Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 14th Sept 2014]

“[I]t’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels. Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray in the years — actually decades — leading up to the crisis. But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism. Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear. And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.”
That spiel from Paul Krugman reminded me of three global phenomena that baby-boomers witnessed: The impact of Japan Inc.; The rise of China and fall of the Soviet empire and The Great Recession of 2008.

I was too young to appreciate the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, I was around but only in the fringes. And as a US resident lived through the economic cycle of boom and bust. One lesson learned: in an economic downturn or in a housing bubble or stock-market collapse, it is time to buy and invest – “buy low, sell high,” so says Buffett. And which we in PHL also experienced during the period between the assassination of Ninoy and the fall of Marcos when many packed up and left and those that stayed bought and invested.

To us Pinoys the end of Marcos was supposed to be a watershed event, but then we would have two more presidents that mirrored the abuse and tyranny – and thus had to be incarcerated? And it appears we just can't seem to change course? And so is it Marcos or is it Juan de la Cruz? As we say it in the vernacular, “weather-weather,” meaning, if yesterday it was Marcos, today and tomorrow will be like yesterday – except that it will no longer be Marcos and his cronies but someone else and his or her cronies.

And so just like the West, we got it wrong?  Where are we really? If it isn’t obvious yet, this blog often talks about the cognitive or thinking process. Whenever the world is confronted by a major event people would stop and think. For example, Japan Inc. made the West wonder what could be wrong as they saw Japan dominating world trade and rapidly becoming an economic superpower, second only to the US.

And in an economic downturn investors would see opportunity and thus the era of mergers and acquisitions came about – especially as enterprises realized the burden and risk of carrying poor performing businesses. And beyond restructuring, companies learned the imperatives of quality not only in products but also in processes, from product development to manufacturing to customer service. And then pushed the envelope to Information Technology and even beyond . . . Into the era of rapid innovation which continues to play out like Apple selling more than 10 million of its new iPhone 6s on the first weekend it debuted – besting the launch of the iPhone 5s. Global businesses then understood that competition is about people. And the realization underscored the shortcomings of the Western education system: graduates were found wanting in critical thinking, communication and teamwork.

Meanwhile the promise of Communism was fraying . . . with China coming to the West to seek investment and technology while the Soviets stayed with the ism and the autocracy – and in many respects Putin hasn’t yet understood why China and the Soviets ended up in different places. The question today is if China has indeed learned the lesson and would remain a contributing member of the global community. If they would remember Deng Xiaoping then the prognosis is good.

The fall of the Soviet empire brought former satellite countries to seek democracy and free enterprise. And that was when I got further education about the cognitive process. When I arrived in Bulgaria, I kept hearing the word “mentality” – e.g., “we need to have the right mentality” or “we must change our mentality” and words to the effect.

That was 11 years ago and while they have internalized what they were saying, especially in organizations where people could be coming from different perspectives, they still have ways to go.

The good news is they’ve learned from their experience of the Great Recession (of 2008) even when the impact on their local economy was felt 3 years later. Because it was during this period when they saw that Western MNCs weren’t exempt from a downturn; and made available to them talents to hire. And that simple principle from Buffett came to life: in a downturn, it is time to buy and invest. And thus they gained another layer of experience: in buying as in an acquisition, and in investing as in new products, new facilities and new markets. In short, they learned to embrace dynamism. Not the ism and the autocracy that the Soviets (and today Putin too) were caught up in.

How about us in PHL? Are we caught up in our own ism and autocracy? The ism being derived from the church and thus our being “pro-poor,” and the autocracy from our cacique system and structure? But where is the dynamism? How and when do we get ahead of the curve? 

The world never sleeps. But do we no longer want to be an island unto ourselves – a “mentality” that’s a throwback to another era? And is consistent with a cacique system and structure? And we grab nationalists with lines like this from a broadsheet, which also presupposes PHL has the means to fund our investment needs to the level Singapore, for example, generates from FDIs: “The passage of years witnessed the loss of local entrepreneurial initiative in our country due to lack of government support and the growing reliance on foreign capital for a semblance of economic growth.”

As I write this blog, I’m in the Manhattan office of my Eastern Europeans friends and these people are geared to compete against the world’s largest MNCs yet never sought the support of their government [the role of government is good governance, including providing the platform for economic growth and development; not crony capitalism and/or spoon feeding of enterprises] or relied on foreign capital. Of course they do tap the credit market and that would include foreign banks. But these banks come to them because they are a good credit risk. Indeed it was through their local entrepreneurial initiative that they got to where they are in just 11 years. Simply put, true entrepreneurial initiative is self-reliant. But it is our kind of “mentality” that would explain why we lag in creativity, innovation and competitiveness? And why we continue to celebrate crony capitalism and oligopoly – clearly byproducts of political patronage?

Of course, we can argue that globalization is yet to play itself out especially for the developed world that has lost a big chunk of their industry – i.e., manufacturing – to China. But that’s what progress and development is about, i.e., empires aren’t eternal. It then shouldn’t be a surprise if the US is overtaken by China as an economy, like no one is surprised the British Empire is now history. Water seeks its own level and that’s just a fact of life!

We in PHL don’t have the challenge faced by the West re globalization, i.e., they have to do a lot better! And as Krugman wrote: “[I]t’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels.”

Ours is about the rudiments of development, i.e., we haven’t moved beyond square-one – as in we don’t have such basics as a reliable and affordable power supply, etc., etc.! The good news is they also present loads of opportunity – i.e., we have so much room to grow if we’d only put our mind to it. But it won’t happen if we continue to be ruled by “weather-weather”? [See above re Marcos and his cronies]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where we are and what we aspire for . . .

President Aquino perhaps believes sincerely that we aspire for “daang matuwid” to continue. Of course we do, and give him credit for it. But it doesn’t follow we want to mess up with the Constitution. If we didn’t want to do it to eliminate its restrictive economic provisions – because we feared division and chaos – what more to allow a president to stay beyond his term? If there is politics behind it, PHL has had enough politics as evidenced by our underdevelopment – but not enough nation-building! Enough is enough! Whether an administration brags about the amount of roads it has built to the last kilometer or grown the economy by so much on average, the reality is we are laggards in both infrastructure and economic development. Thus our mantra to be “pro-poor” flies in the face of the imperatives of nation-building!

Of course, in a cacique system and structure, we would be expected to humor a president? Yet given where we are in economic development and nation-building, and thus pervasive poverty, Juan de la Cruz doesn’t deserve insult on top of injury? Simply put, “daang matuwid” didn't play out as advertised because the administration hasn't truly demonstrated good governance. It has in fact undermined good governance in spades starting with “kaklase, kaibigan, kabarilan.” And not surprisingly, decision-making has been questionable. Sound decisions are the outcome of openness, transparency and diversity. And what is its converse? Bad decisions yield incoherence and incompetence. And so despite all the advertisements, PHL reality remains: we are unable to attract investment and, as night follows day, rank poorly in creativity, innovation and competitiveness.

And not surprisingly, we are inundated by the consequences of PHL incoherence and incompetence: Senate wants coherent auto industry roadmap [Gian Franco, Manila Times, 18th Sept 2014]; Tsuneishi raises concern over poor local shipbuilding support industries [Bernie Magkilat, Manila Bulletin 17th, Sept 2014]; China bans visits to PH [Virtual Reality,Tony Lopez, Manila Standard Today, 19th Sept 2014]. And they go on . . .

“All the problems besetting the MRT began on October 19, 2012. That was the day Sumitomo’s maintenance contract was terminated and a new contract was awarded to service providers with no record for the job.” [Imperfect, FIRST PERSON, Alex Magno, The Philippine Star, 18th Sept 2014]

“Unfortunately, after almost five years from the enactment of the Reita, the Philippines still has zero share in this huge global industry. The reason is simple. Despite the national policy on the matter laid down by Congress through the enactment of the law, the Executive Branch has prescribed some pills which have succeeded in aborting the birth of the Philippine REIT market.” [Asean integration and REITs, Point of LawFrancis Ed LimPhilippine Daily Inquirer, 18th Sept 2014]

“Until the case of the scuttled LLRP (Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project) is settled, the assessment former [Belgian] Ambassador Christian Meerschman offered last year likely still stands, as nothing else has changed: Belgian firms, he said, were happy to look at opportunities involving the private sector in the Philippines but want nothing to do with any government projects, at least as long as the current government is in office.” [Not to be taken seriously, Ben D. Kritz, Manila Times, 17th Sept 2014]

And what about the private sector? “PLDT is making customers’ lives miserable these days. If you read Ergo this past Monday, you know my problem: PLDT’s DSL service was down for several days (it may still be down for other customers). On Friday, Sept. 12, I dialed ‘172’ to get connected to PLDT’s troubleshooters. When finally I got connected after a long wait, I was given the usual ‘we will coordinate with our technical department’ to find out what the problem was. Because of my newspaper deadline, I was anxious to get reconnected, so I asked to speak to a supervisor. After another long wait, the supervisor proved to be hopeless.” [PLDT’s ‘migration’ blues, Leandro DD Coronel, Manila Bulletin, 17th Sept 2014]

We stood bravely in front of those tanks at EDSA because enough was enough – Marcos had scuttled democracy and legitimized crony capitalism. Yet Marcos won in the end; that is say, decades later Juan de la Cruz seems to have forgotten the basics of freedom and free enterprise, is compliant to political patronage and oligopoly and submissive to oligarchy? Even President Aquino knows how much damage has been inflicted on PHL that he is hard pressed to anoint a successor – because who in public service could still be trusted?

Thanks to the bishops, they have been offering a perspective away from PHL established norms like our culture of impunity? But do the bishops need to be more like Pope Francis, truly the inverse of Vatican established norms? Undermining democracy and fostering cronyism are manifestations of tyranny which in more ways than one is a fallout of a cacique or hierarchical system and structure? And precisely why Francis chose to be the antithesis of Vatican’s culture? In short, if PHL culture is to be reinvented, the church may need to be the first to do the reinventing as Francis demonstrated?

For example, how could we still be celebrating crony capitalism? In ex-socialist Bulgaria, they threw out the Communist Party-led government because the latter demonstrated they were no different from the previous government they claimed was corrupt. They were openly in bed with vested interest, e.g., media and the tobacco industry, among others; and so the people needed little impetus to bring down the bank identified with them and where they allegedly stashed their booty.

“When you get past the details of the Scottish independence referendum . . . there is a broader story underway, one that is also playing out in other . . . nations . . . It is a crisis of the elites. Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction — one not ungrounded in reality — that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. The same discontent applies to varying degrees in the United States and, especially, the Eurozone. It is, in many ways, a defining feature of our time.” [Scotland’s Independence Vote Shows a Global Crisis of the Elites, Neil Irwin, The New York Times, 18th Sept 2014

“The rise of Catalan would-be secessionists in Spain, the rise of parties of the far right in European countries as diverse as Greece and Sweden, and the Tea Party in the United States are all rooted in a sense that, having been granted vast control over the levers of power, the political elite across the advanced world have made a mess of things.”

“The details of the policy mistakes are different, as are the political movements that have arisen in protest. But together they are a reminder that no matter how entrenched our government institutions may seem, they rest on a bedrock assumption: that the leaders entrusted with power will deliver the goods.”

“Power is not a right; it is a responsibility . . . People don’t think the way things are going is good enough, and voters are getting angry enough to want to do something about it.”

Where is PHL and what do we truly aspire for? Do we in our heart of hearts want to turn over a new leaf or is it about what we say in the vernacular, “weather-weather” – that there was a season for Marcos and his cronies and there will be seasons for others in the elite class as well?

Still playing at the Public Theater in Manhattan is David Bryne’s “Here Lies Love” – “Within a pulsating dance club atmosphere, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim deconstruct the astonishing journey of Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos retracing her meteoric rise to power and subsequent descent into infamy and disgrace at the end of the People Power Revolution” [http://www.davidbyrne.com/archive/here_lies_love/]. The audience attending the musical, Filipinos and Americans alike, were transfixed: “Here Lies Love is neither a period piece nor a biography, neither a play nor a traditional musical but an immersive theatrical event combining songs influenced by four decades of dance music, adrenaline-fueled choreography, and a remarkable 360-degree scenic and video environment to go beyond Imelda’s near-mythic obsession with her shoes and explore the tragic consequences of the abuse of power.” “The tragic consequences of the abuse of power” – which today even the media nurtures?

Sooner than later, New Yorkers would be transfixed by “Here Lies Love II” and “Here Lies Love III” given the abundance of materials from the EDSA series – and beyond? And Londoners won’t be short-changed with Bryne already prepping London’s first run.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wake-up call: how many more?

“The ADB rating should be seen as a wake-up call,” Henry J. Schumacher, executive director of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said. [Philippines found wanting in innovation, Business World, 12th Sept 2014]

Granted we need to learn the 21st century world just like many other nations, if we pause for a moment and measure ourselves against the rest of the world, have we considered how we ought to be debating transparency or competitiveness, for instance? Did we not recommit to democracy and free enterprise with People Power because Marcos had upended freedom and installed crony capitalism? 

The FOI comes to mind, and the competition law. What is the backdrop or the reality of the 21st century world that we are in? That we lag in the ability to attract investment as well as in innovation and creativity? 

Is the FOI or the competition law our honest-to-goodness response and more to the point, will they fit the bill? Should we first be asking ourselves why we don't have a transparent or competitive environment – and thus the fallouts that we have to suffer? For example, should we even be surprised why the FOI has stalled; and take the power “crisis,” which has been a crisis for decades, and the general lack of infrastructure, are they a microcosm of our worldview, and our beliefs and our values?

This blog has raised it before: kids are always asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? It is meant to teach them how to look and think ahead and develop a vision or a purpose in life. But how come as a nation we never developed and established a vision for PHL? Yet we're instinctively subservient to hierarchy and against the rest of the world we rank poorly; ergo, how could we even imagine that we can be competitive? If water seeks its own level, as in the law of nature, do we believe that we can confine ourselves within our borders as evidenced by our parochial cacique system and structure? What about our penchant for the bureaucratic and inefficient – and where corruption lurks if not resides – be they legal or otherwise?

And not surprisingly, “Asian Development Bank (ADB) Managing Director General Juan Miranda said the government should remove all legal hurdles that delay the procurements and awards processes of the deals.” [ADB: PHL needs to stop being too legalistic on PPP deals, Lorenz S. Marasigan, Business Mirror, 16th Sept 2014]

“He then urged the government to review its policy on being too legalistic on the contracts, as this would make the deals more palatable to the taste of the investors. The government should do away with the legal hurdles and market the Philippines as the destination for investors—not just foreign but also local ones—to venture into national infrastructure.”

“But the government should bear in mind that the client is the public. It is what really matters. The pipeline of key infrastructure projects number to almost 60 deals, 27 of those are under the transportation agency, while the others are spread among other government offices. Manila is a champion city that needs champion infrastructure and fantastic public-sector transport. It doesn’t matter who manages it. The important thing is we have to shift people from one place to another a lot faster.”

This sentence is worth repeating: It doesn't matter who manages it.

“Let’s get proper infrastructure in place. Manila needs it. From the airport down to the points within the city, so people can go to work and don’t spend hours and hours in traffic . . . [N]o matter how quick the current government is in improving the infrastructure in the country, these projects will have to cross to another administration.”

“Anyone can start, and even if they cannot finish it, someone else can . . . [T]here is plenty of time for the current administration and for others to do it. This is a thing of national interest.”

That last sentence is worth repeating: This is a thing of national interest.

“British Ambassador Asif Ahmad is urging diversifying Filipino businessmen to turn to the United Kingdom for fresh opportunities, including new inventions and startup projects from the laboratories of British universities and research institutions.” [PH conglomerates urged to tap UK institutions, Doris C. DumlaoPhilippine Daily Inquirer, 5th Sept 2014]

“If you want to go into established businesses, you’re buying all the goodwill and brand. If you are at the early stages, you pay next to nothing, and you can be in the next big business,” he explained. Ahmad implied that it would not matter where the invention was made for as long as it would benefit not just the investor but a borderless global community in general.”

“Let’s say they buy into something that enhances crop growth at two times as fast as anything we’ve ever known, and this is the thing that Filipino business acquires over there. There’s nothing that stops it from being a startup here. Another thing is, if you look at a way in which lot of retail (business) is done here, most of them are foreign-invented, foreign brands, foreign discoveries which are brought here and sold to the Philippines. . .”

The ambassador said a mouthful and does it boil down to our worldview [again?] and how we problem-solve? For example, we’ve talked about developing R&D but we want to build R&D capability locally from the ground up? What about thinking laterally and outside the box? And because size to us matters – given our cacique system and structure – we assume that conglomerates are the ones that can pursue opportunities overseas, and the one route we know is buying established brands or businesses? 

And do we perceive the worldview of the ambassador as suspect, even unpatriotic, for wanting foreigners to acquire his nation’s (UK) ideas and businesses? What about the pope, is he un-Catholic or less Catholic than we are?

“Pope Francis married 20 couples on Sunday, some of whom had already lived together and had children, in the latest sign that the Argentine pontiff wants the Catholic church to be more open and inclusive.” [Pope Marries Couples Who Have Cohabited and Had Children, The New York Times, 14th Sept 2014]

“Bishops from all over the world are due to come to the Vatican in October for a major meeting on the family, which the Jesuit pope referred to in the homily to Sunday's Mass as the "bricks" on which society is built. The bishops are expected to discuss issues such as marriage, divorce and contraception at the synod, from Oct. 5-19. The pope has said the Church must end its obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and become more merciful, or risk collapsing ‘like a house of cards’.”

Are we awake yet?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Behind our gated communities . . .

“We can choose to be in touch with only the reality we want and may gradually fall out of touch with the reality we do not wish to engage . . . What we might call the ‘alternative reality syndrome’ gets worse the higher we climb . . . In fact, the choice of living quarters reflects Pope Francis’s more fundamental preoccupation with remaining in touch, and it’s worth looking at this preoccupation through a leadership lens . . . But it would shortchange Francis to lay out these behaviors without also elaborating the worldview that drives them, as if leadership were merely tactics . . . i.e., a distinctly Ignatian worldview: the Ignatius’s program of meditation is ‘Spiritual Exercises, to overcome oneself and to order one’s life.’ Commit to know yourself deeply, including your frailties, and come to some peaceful acceptance of yourself and your calling to lead. Then, commit to ‘get over yourself’ to serve a purpose greater than the self . . .” [Chris Lowney, Pope Francis, Why he leads the way he leads; Loyola Press, 2013, pp. 59, 60, 67]

Sadly, we Pinoys have yet to be truly self-critical and get over ourselves? The evidence: we have yet to demonstrate a community sense and that we value the common good – and instead we find comfort in our “gated communities” that put us above and beyond thus setting us apart, and out of touch?

Disclosure: My family lived in a gated community in Metro Manila before moving to the US; and as empty-nesters, my wife and I live in a gated community in suburban New York. And it was like yesterday while still in the Philippines when we had houseguests, family friends from Spokane, Washington State, and Jerry [May he rest in peace] commented after he saw how Ronnie navigated the 21 km route to/from Makati Business District and not be stuck in traffic. “So Ronnie, your car has the pass to get through military camps and gated communities? But we all enjoyed our own world.” And today friends visiting wouldn’t miss the dig: “John hates coming to your place; you need a PhD to get through those electronic gates.”

What is the Pinoy worldview especially us in the elite class? “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow,” so asked Rizal? Why would we accept that we got it wrong thus PHL is underdeveloped and poverty stricken? When our values of political patronage and paternalism come with the bells and whistles of oligopoly and tyranny – despite robbing us of the ability to be forward-looking and set a vision for PHL?

How far do the dots connect? Economic development is beyond economics and being pro-poor is beyond alms-giving. That is why despite being the fastest growing economy in the region we remain economic laggards; and despite CCT poverty persistently stares us in the face!

Does our worldview suffer from “the alternative reality syndrome”? I’ve been asked, you seem to know our weaknesses as Pinoys when you live 10,000 miles away and keep harping on them? [See above re “Spiritual Exercises”] I was born and raised and put 20 years of professional life in PHL and thus our weaknesses are part of me. I am simply thinking out aloud and talking about myself.

“We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?” [The Psychology of Our Willful Blindness and Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 27th Aug 2014]

And asked another, you’re not an economist but you want to talk about the economy? It is like marketing or selling or even a business enterprise. People engaged in such undertakings go outside their expertise to be ahead of the curve. Because problem-solving demands openness and transparency and diversity.

And precisely why we had my Eastern European friends that are based in Sofia come for the few weeks of immersion in the US market – and which they will do periodically. While our NY operations are the youngest of the different locations the environment will pry open their minds – especially given that 11 years ago they complained: “But we’re poor Bulgarians, we can only afford packaged goods at 50 euro cents.”

“While I will give a brief orientation, the real learnings you will find in the trade, in the stores and in meetings with our different partners and individuals, and hence your agenda.” And not surprisingly, they would come back to me: “Wow, this place is so transparent, I was talking to this consultant that represents a software we were considering and he pointed me to another competing product after I presented our situation and our needs.” [And this was the guy who joined the company while still working on his engineering degree as my assistant, translator and driver; but has since earned two master’s degrees and is today our management information and analytics manager.] And another said, “This agency explained they would charge us the agency commission of 15% but the other revealed that being one of the largest outfits globally, media companies discount the charges and so they won’t bill us any commissions.”

And then we sat through hours and hours of product development sessions [see below re lateral and creative thinking] to kick the butt of US-based competition, with the full knowledge that they're the world’s largest MNCs! And as I was writing this blog, there was a call from our Singapore team, another young person – but she has under her belt Western MNC experience – that wanted to know if I was visiting Asia soon. And when I asked how they were doing, she recited their progress country by country; then the two countries where they had issues and how they were dealing with them. And before she would hang up I said: “You don’t need a visiting fireman, you’re doing better than great.”

Most of these people are younger than my daughter, and my former assistant is not even thirty, with more to learn about the competitive demands of the free market especially in a globalized world. Yet they’re not into focusing on the barriers that we Pinoys like to raise to keep foreign competition and investment out – and protect and defend our cacique system and structure. They are taking competition right to the heart of Corporate America. And many of us Pinoys are baby-boomers like me supposedly practiced and skillful in democracy and free enterprise?

But what about benchmarking? Which is measuring ourselves against the rest of the world and picking and choosing what they do best, not what they do badly! Unfortunately, our psyche is so damaged by our subservience to hierarchy – hopefully not irreparably – that we’re becoming weaklings if we’re not there yet? Translation: If we Pinoys are not committed to the proposition that all men are created equal – and the pursuit of an egalitarian society – we shall remain a nation of tyrants and slaves as Rizal saw it; and against the rest of the world we feel inferior?

News items: “PH ranks low in innovations index” . . . “PH lags ASEAN in creative productivity” . . . And we wonder why? We're still debating about export-led versus consumption-driven economies because competitiveness is alien to us? Export or consumption is “activity” consistent with linear thinking (that can easily lapse into analysis-paralysis) and why we rank low or lag in innovation and creativity – and they come from forward-thinking. And just as well, it explains why we can't set a vision as a nation. Forward-thinkers like Edison, Jobs, Gates and even Zuckerberg are not into linear thinking but lateral and creative thinking. 

We were coming down the subway station on 57th Street and 7th Avenue on our way to the US Open to watch Grigor Dimitrov [the best Bulgarian tennis player today and ranked no. 7 in the US Open but probably as admired if not more so as the boyfriend of Maria Sharapova] when one of them blurted: “You’ve talked about keeping it simple for many years now, and yesterday in Boston where we had this big meeting with the agency and the brokers and their sales agents, it finally dawned on me how profound simple is. Everyone’s eyes lit as we all saw how the dots connected. In Europe we always indulged in the caveats.”

Grigor won the match against the player from Israel and the Louis Armstrong stadium erupted in a thunderous applause including the Jewish couple sitting next to us; there must've been a big delegation that came to support the Israeli. And the announcer was beside himself, “Grigor, New York loves you and it was not that long ago when we didn’t even know you.” And his response: “Because I would always lose my very first match. But I’ve since been putting the effort. And this year I’m truly happy that it’s paying off.” But then he would later lose to another crowd favorite from France, which means he has his work cut out for him, like everyone else. It's only those of us ensconced in our “gated communities” that are above and beyond thus setting us apart, and out of touch?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's about problem-solving and connecting the dots

Not prescribing solutions? We finally realized we need the next Mark Zuckerberg that we launched a contest to find him or her? But are we missing something? It is like the pursuit of quality or efficiency or productivity or profitability and even success, it has to be built into the DNA of the system or undertaking. In other words, in order to reap the fruit that we aspire requires more than an activity like a contest. It needs more than a tactic. It needs an ecosystem which by definition does not spring out of a vacuum. Even more, the design of an ecosystem demands an overarching element like a vision or an end goal. And we won't be able to connect those dots if we focus on prescribing solutions instead of engaging in problem-solving?

If we look back in time, one of the biggest challenges we'd faced was freeing ourselves from the Spaniards and that took more than 300 hundred years. Many revolts were led by different individuals that today we honor as our heroes. And the debate if Bonifacio or Rizal ought to be the national hero seems evergreen? For example, Bonifacio took up arms and was identified for his courage as a warrior and fighting with the “common tao”. And Rizal was the intellectual and took his pen instead and was identified with the learned. Was Rizal already focused on crafting the ecosystem for PHL? “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?”

Similar to the Vatican culture, Rizal saw how a hierarchical system and structure would undermine efforts to free us from tyranny. And over the course of a century we proved him right – consistently, several times over?

Like any major undertaking, we need both tactical and strategic components. For example, Pope Francis wanted to care for the least of our brethren and to get there he needed to build quality, efficiency, productivity, profitability and success into the Vatican ecosystem. And that meant getting rid of the leadership of the Vatican Bank as well as reconstituting the Curia – and in both cases he wanted openness and transparency as well as diversity. He understood how an inward- and backward-looking culture would not generate forward and progressive thinking that will sustain the Vatican's ability to care for the needy.

We have a similar challenge in PHL, how do we sustain a continually growing economy that will generate First-World, not Third-World, economic output? Many of us are scandalized by the harshness of Francis in breaking the tradition of the Vatican because we measure the world against our beliefs and values, i.e., our proud culture especially the respect for tradition? That is no different from the reaction of the old guard and why the rumors of the pope retiring like Benedict and even worse, the speculation that he could be poisoned.

In the meantime we continue to look for solutions to our challenges forgetting that we are prescribing tactical initiatives yet glossing over the strategic component? But we may not in fact have the means to address that imperative simply because we don't have a track record in nation-building? Nation-building demands far more than we've demonstrated over the last century?

In the case of the Vatican, Francis realized that it was not up to the task and so he tapped experts in various fields – not just cardinals and theologians – to get the Vatican ecosystem in proper order. And not surprisingly, the private sector would see Francis as an exceptional manager and CEO. But Pope Francis didn't even prescribe a solution: he defined the problem to a group of experts against an overarching end goal.

In PHL our overarching goal is to be a developed, First-World economy. And we need more than a well-oiled “Vatican Bank,” we need a well-oiled economy. But just like the Vatican that needs a forward- and progressive-thinking Curia, PHL needs forward- and progressive-thinking institutions – the family, church, education, public and private sectors. And a well-oiled economy needs a solid platform, i.e., basic infrastructure and a strategic and competitive industrial base, for example. Of course we need the next Mark Zuckerberg too, but that comes not from a hierarchical system and structure but from one that is egalitarian in character. And that is why in the West industry wants the educational system fixed, because its graduates lack the basics of critical thinking, communication, and teamwork.

If President Aquino is no Pope Francis, is Binay it or Roxas? The bishops want to lead a transformation effort and hopefully like Francis they’re not looking at manna from heaven? What we need is to restructure our institutions – and it starts in the mind [with the innocence of a child, so says the Bible; or in secular lingo, to unfreeze our mind of our biases, if we are serious about reform] that must then come down to the heart and into the gut, and become a habit. Contrast that to a culture of impunity and a nation so corrupt – because of the values of political patronage and paternalism that come hand in glove with oligarchy and tyranny?

Even the next Mark Zuckerberg can’t fix that? What about Binay burnishing his reputation and springing the Pangilinan trial balloon as his running mate? But does the latter represent questions raised by various quarters re our incongruous if not messed up psyche, i.e., political patronage and foreign interest that we said we abhor even if it meant preserving and protecting our cacique masters? Is Binay resorting to Pinoy abilidad, but spelling no end goal or vision for PHL? Is Indonesia, for example, no longer fertile ground for political patronage, but PHL is? What about connecting the dots? And so the trial balloon fizzled as quickly?

Here's a bit of good news. Philippine competitiveness gains further, Daryll Edisonn D. Saclag, Business World, 3rd Sept 2014: “THE PHILIPPINES has continued its advance in competitiveness in the latest annual report of the World Economic Forum, riding on the impact of reforms that have enabled the country to make the biggest gains among economies tracked since 2010. The country ranked 52nd out of 144 economies this year -- up from 59th out of 148 in the previous survey -- in the Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, which assessed markets against 12 ‘pillars of competitiveness’ that drive productivity.”

“In Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranked behind Singapore, Malaysia (20th), Thailand (31st), and Indonesia (34th). Behind the Philippines were Vietnam (68th), Laos (93rd), Cambodia (95th), and Myanmar (134th. . . The Philippines, however, still lagged behind in terms of infrastructure at 91st, albeit an improvement from last year’s 96th. This is especially true in terms of airports and seaports in which the country placed 108th and 101st, respectively. Similarly, the country placed a ‘mediocre’ 91st in terms of labor market efficiency, with the Forum noting that ‘almost no progress has been made since 2010. Lastly, security in the Philippines was still a cause for concern (89th), particularly in terms of costs that the threat of terrorism imposes on businesses (110th).’”

The mirror that the rest of the world put in front of us confirmed that we can’t celebrate yet: “[The] FDI (foreign direct investment) Regulatory Restrictiveness Index show[ed] the Philippines . . . as the most restrictive among 64 developed and developing countries. The index measures restrictiveness of FDI rules across 22 sectors, including agriculture, mining, electricity, manufacturing, as well as ‘main services’ like transport, construction, distribution, communications, real estate, financial and professional services.” [Philippines found among most restrictive, Daryll Edisonn D. Saclag, Business World, 4th Sept 2014]

Question: When will Juan de la Cruz ever open his eyes to the power of investment?

Still, it's not about prescribing solutions but engaging in problem-solving and connecting the dots – and not just among experts but a diverse group, those that have solved complex problems in other and entirely different milieus, are open and transparent, and no qualms about rank and privilege nor beholden to our parochial values and hierarchical cacique system and structure . . . And it’s beyond looking backward and inward and, that is, looking forward and outward?