We just left behind a year much–perhaps more accurately, most–of the world would prefer to forget. It was characterized by financial turmoil; war and the threat of nuclear holocaust; repression of basic human rights in what is supposed to be an enlightened, modern age; and a series of natural disasters that left tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands more homeless and stripped of their livelihoods, and local economies crippled.
And don’t forget corruption, and its pursuit. Former French president Jacques Chirac was found guilty in France. Galleon hedge fund founder Raj Rajaranthnarn was convicted for insider training and republican US presidential candidate Newt Gingrich stands accused of lobbying on behalf of mismanaged government financial institutions that contributed to the meltdown of not just the US economy, but the world’s.
The Philippines is no exception. As we sat down to Noche Buena in Manila, northern Mindanao was masked in darkness literally, spiritually, and economically in the aftermath of Typhoon “Sendong” (international call sign “Washi”). With the consumption-driven economy dependent on remittances from more than 10 million overseas workers and professionals because it can’t create enough jobs at home, the Philippines pleaded with other countries to welcome even more of its people and put them to work.
Those economies enjoy the benefit of productive Filipino labor, much of it highly educated in the Philippines in a highly subsidized if increasingly rickety educational system. While the Philippines greedily gulps down a varying portion of their monthly salaries, the great bulk of the value these individuals create goes to the economies that have wisely taken them in. No country can attain its potential when it willingly—even enthusiastically—cripples its brain trust.
As we sat down to Noche Buena in Manila, a former president sat under arrest in a government hospital while the Supreme Court chief justice she appointed prepared for trial by the Senate, having being impeached by the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, these developments haven’t stopped corruption in either the private sector or government. Winning bidders still wait for authorization to proceed from the bureaucracy, Land Transportation Office clerks sell commemorative plates to willing buyers, and Bureau of Internal Revenue officers offer to “negotiate” settlements.
As we sat down to Noche Buena in Manila, regime change was in progress in North Korea, one of the top two criminal states in the world along with Iran. All of Asia and much of the world watched nervously as dictator Kim Il Jong’s estimated 27-year-old son Kim Jong Un appeared to assume the reins of government. But inconceivably poor North Korea would have collapsed long ago if not for its giant northern neighbor, China, which has consistently and regularly rescued it from an economic abyss.
The reason for that generosity has been North Korea’s role as a destabilizing force within the region which could either be controlled, or released, by China. As the younger Kim appeared to consolidate his hold on power, Japan prime minister Yoshihiko Noda urged Chinese president Hu Jintao to keep its rebel ally in check, demonstrating that outrageous reality. A little over a year ago, North Korea shelled a South Korea island with deadly result, and threatens regularly to unleash its nuclear arsenal on the world.
China itself emerged as a clear threat to the Philippines in 2011, reiterating claims to large swaths of the South China Sea for military and economic reasons. Militarily, China wants to control access to vital sea lanes and limit the ability of regional and world powers to threaten it. Economically, Asia depends on these sea lanes for trade. By controlling the capability to conduct commerce, China can exert pressure on regional economies to cooperate in an array of policy areas. And China has made no secret of its intent to control oil and gas deposits that its neighbors claim.
As we sat down to Noche Buena, Filipinos wondered if their popular president really could make life better by eliminating corruption in government, improving governance, and making the bureaucracy transparent and responsive. They wondered this despite the fact that the police can’t protect tourists or IT-BPO workers on the way to and from work. They wondered hopefully despite the lack of farm roads that will make their lives easier. They wondered hopefully although government can’t adequately educate their children.
“If we want this tragedy to be the last of its kind,” Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III said in the aftermath of Sendong, “we need to learn from our mistakes.” Yes, we do, if we want 2012 to be different.
(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)