December 11, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

The Philippines leads 50-year-old ASEAN

Many events happened or are happening simultaneously.

The humanitarian missile strike in Syria, the US-China summit, North Korea’s missile testing, ISIS, China’s militarization of the South Pacific, to the revived Abu Sayyaf and the heightened drug-related murder rate in the Philippines. All of which, quite interestingly, seem to be intersecting within one international grouping’s ambit: ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

The Philippines, of course, took chairmanship of ASEAN last January 2017. Which is quite fitting as this year marks the 50th of its founding and the Philippines after all is an original member. The 30th ASEAN Summit will also be held in Bohol next week.

ASEAN is not without its upsides: in 2000, around 14% of the ASEAN population lived below the poverty line. A mere little over a decade later, this number was slashed down to 3%.

So economic growth is certainly there. And with the rest of the world’s economic powers, i.e., US, EU, China, and Japan coming into simultaneous slumps, an ASEAN of 630 million people (and gateway to South Asia’s 1.7 billion), many from the youth demographic, should be the most attractive place right now for business.

That is, until one gets a closer look: unequal development and capacity in terms of infrastructure, financial regulation institutions, uneven adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights make it hard for investments to come to ASEAN as the integrated unified group it markets itself to be. Consequently, business continues to look at ASEAN more by its individual components.

It is also not helpful for ASEAN members to practically produce and offer almost similar products and services, thus making them -- in a way -- natural competitors rather than complimentary partners.

One sees this in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam eagerly embraced in that trade agreement, while others -- Cambodia and Myanmar -- loudly wondered if a divide and rule policy had just been carried out.

Not that Cambodia and Myanmar are unfamiliar with the concept. Along with Laos, these three countries have been quite unabashedly representative of China’s interests in ASEAN. Cambodia, most notoriously, blocking an initiative by the Philippines to have a common ASEAN stance with regard to the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Then there are the distractions that 2017 is expected to bring: national elections are expected in Singapore and, perhaps, political discord could suddenly force one in Malaysia as well. Thailand would naturally hope to focus on stabilizing its democratic system, while local elections are expected for Cambodia and Indonesia. Myanmar and Vietnam has its own problems in terms of questionable governance.

The Philippines would know, of course, being no stranger to distractions. And for the current administration, it is proving that is not lagging behind its predecessors in this account: the continuing controversial “war on drugs,” the inability to solve traffic, an unwieldy Cabinet (and sub-Cabinet) team, an unnecessary push for federalism and to amend the Constitution, and an uncertain economy that clearly looks like its being affected by all the foregoing.

President Duterte seems to have touched on a positive note when he led the Philippine chairmanship launch last January. He harped on his usual theme of “inclusiveness,” which is right as ASEAN is indeed plagued by substantial inequality. He also did right in pointing out the need to develop gender equality across the region. Studies have repeatedly shown that better care and education for women results in an across the board improvement for a country’s health, education, and economy.

As for the former, his strategy hinges around developing micro-small-medium enterprises (MSMEs), which he refers to as “the backbone of the ASEAN’s collective economy.” His stated “objective is to build the capacities of MSMEs to make them active and competitive players in the national, regional, and global economies,” which again seems right as MSMEs account for around 95% of ASEAN business establishments.

The problem is that what’s necessarily good for ASEAN may not be so for the Philippines. One sees this in the disunited timidity with which ASEAN confronts China. The same goes for economic and development matters.

For gender equality, the Philippines always had high marks and is respectfully considered one of the top places in the world for a woman to live and work in.

As for MSMEs, all well and good. OFW infused capital could certainly benefit from lower taxes and better credit. But what’s necessary for the Philippines is the strengthening of its corporate giants, giving them enough financial and competitive power and leverage to play against other multinationals in the region. This requires improving our infrastructure, youth training, better taxation, rule of law, and cutting of red tape. As for the latter, how a pro-active competition commission fits in really remains to be seen. In any event, again all this is independent of ASEAN considerations.

Really, perhaps the best outcome of Philippine chairmanship of ASEAN is simply the quiet handing of the reins to Singapore in 2018.

Jemy Gatdula is the international law lecturer at the UA&P School of Law and Governance and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula