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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 1999 /13 Tishrei, 5760

Don Feder

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Filipino Ronald Reagan rides to rescue -- Manila -- The Philippine economy is like traffic in metro Manila -- going nowhere, very slowly, on incredibly bad roads. President Joseph Estrada wants to get rid of constitutional impediments to foreign investment. He's meeting firece opposition from those who equate progress with exploitation.

In the 1950s, the islands had one of Asia's fastest growing economies. It was the region's only Christian country and most-English speaking. The Philippine Republic also benefited from a half-century association with the United States, which gave it good schools and a competent civil service.

Today, only Indonesia has a lower per-capita income. The regional tigers (Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand) have left it far behind. Its iron and steel industry is antiquated. The government estimates it will take 400 billion pesos to update its telecommunications system.

People are so desperately poor that some have taken to selling a kidney to foreigners in need of transplants (at a going rate of $2,500). Crime is so bad that Estrada had proposed applying the death penalty to minors.

There are two million Filipinos working abroad. Secretary of Economic Planning Felipe Medalla laughingly told me: "We know that Filipinos are employable. The only place they're not employed is in the Philippines."

In the meantime, foreign investors shun the nation. The Taiwanese have $13.6 billion invested in Indonesia, $9.8 billion in Thailand and $8.6 billion in Malaysia. Even Vietnam get more of their capital ($4.9 billion) than the Philippines ($1.6 billion).

This is due in part to the Philippines' 1987 consitution, which enshrines a self-defeating economic nationalism. Foreigners are asked to build factories on land they can't own.

By law, only Filipinos can own media outlets. In many other businesses, including mining and fishing, foreigners are limited to a 40 percent share. Foreign managers are barred from executive positions.

The charter was written in 1987 by a crew handpicked by then President Corazon Aquino, whose administration was notable for its incompetence and envy-driven populism. Senator Francisco Tatad calls the constituttion's anti-investment provisions "a nationalism of losers." Estrada -- an actor turned politician, like his hero, Ronald Reagan -- is determined to dismantle these barriers to development.

Medalla says the president's message is simple, "We need jobs, jobs, jobs. So why shouldn't foreigners be allowed to own the land if they'll create jobs?" Or, as Estrada says to critics who claim he's selling the nation's patrimony, "What are foreigners going to do, pack up the land and take it home with them?"

Opponents of constitutional reform include most of the media, Aquino, Manilia Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, the country's Catholic bishops conference and leftist politicians. Opinion polls show oposition to foreign land ownership running at eight or nine to one.

Anti-amendment forces held a mass protest rally in Manila on August 20, led by Aquino and Sin, and are planning another for September 21st. In a truely bizarre process of reasoning, Sin -- who studied economics in the same classroom as Corrie -- equates a desire for constitutional reform with "tyrannical" urges on Estrada's part.

The Cardinal speaks wildly of an "anti-family culture of death." He accuses Estrada of cultivating "a culture of corruption and pro-foreigner economic and politics without vision." For Sin, "vision" apparently means redistribution of the nation's ever-shrinking wealth.

Better Filipinos should work abroad (far from their families), better slum dwellers should sell internal organs to survive, better the nation should suffer with a Third-World infrastructure, better criminals should make Manila resemble Prohibition-era Chicago (because the country can't afford an honest police force) than that these greed-driven foreigners should be allowed to come in an inflict jobs, improvements to the land and better phones, roads and utilities on the Philippine people.

Like the Gipper fighting for tax reform and regulatory relief in the 1980s, Estrada has thrown down the gauntlet. Given his popularity, if anyone can move the nation down the road to economic sanity, it's the man affectionally nicknamed "Erap."

In the `60s and `70s, Estrada played Charles Bronson-like action heros -- the farmer harassed by the evil landlord turned avenger. He'll need every ounce of machismo developed in these roles to defeat those who think stagnation is a blessing.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate