State of unpreparedness

This is my column today, March 9, 2014.

A major development that is about to happen in a few months that very few people seem to know, or at least care about, is the impending Asean integration in 2015.  Yes, we are following the European model, which gave birth to the European Union and we’re supposed to begin the integration in a few months.  I know what you are thinking:  Why haven’t we heard a squeak from our leaders about it?
While the integration is not expected to immediately make major direct impact on our lives, the implications of eventually being part of one economic, security, and social community are quite staggering.  Obviously, the ten countries that comprise the Asean (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) are not on equal footing on various indices.  Given the fact that some of our neighbors are already galloping way ahead of us on various measures of competitiveness, how do we ensure that the Asean integration does not unnecessarily bring us serious disadvantages?  Put another way, how do we ensure that there is inclusive growth for all?
The sad thing is that regardless of our level of preparedness (or the dismal lack of it), there really is no turning back now.   The Asean integration has been on the table for quite some time now and countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have already prepared long and hard for it. They are ready.  And true to form, we have not even gotten our act together yet.  We’re not talking yet about how exactly do we position ourselves in the Asean community; we’re still stuck in the discussion about whether we should join or not, as if not joining is an option.  Last I looked, most of our leaders seemed to still be in denial about our lack of options. 
Let’s take for instance this wrinkle about adjusting our academic calendar to that of our neighbors.  The more strategic thinkers have immediately seen the wisdom and necessity of conforming to the Asean norm.  Changing our calendar to align with our neighbors is really the practical and wise thing to do.  We’re the only one that has a different academic schedule – one that is already problematic as it is because it happens to start right when the rainy season starts and when typhoons begin their annual visitation to our islands.  But as usual, Philippine democracy must be practiced, which means that every stakeholder must be consulted and everyone who happens to be holding a microphone and has access to media is considered an expert.  And as can be expected, most cannot help but debate and go into analysis paralysis.  Someone made a big argument of the alleged futility of adjusting our academic calendar to that of say, Thailand and Singapore, since he said the number of exchange students or faculty members between the Philippines and these countries is minimal anyway.  In his excitement, he seemed to have momentarily forgotten that the misalignment of academic calendars is precisely one of the reasons why exchange programs won’t work.  
There are days when I do wish that we have a way of making our leaders pay for wrong decisions that unfortunately set us back - sometimes too far back.  Unfortunately, many among our leaders do need to have a serious reality check.  Many have a misplaced sense of our collective importance to the world; they think that the world should adjust to us, that we continue to hold sway over our neighbors, or that we are somehow insulated from external factors.  I cringe every single time someone insists that we’re better off than our neighbors in many areas.  Hard, irrefutable data just do not support that assertion.  We’re not up there anymore among the top three or four countries in Asean in terms of overall competitiveness.  In most competitiveness indicators, we rank lower than Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.  Horrifyingly, we even rank lower than Vietnam in a few indicators.
I am not saying we should simply roll over, surrender, and not put up a decent fight.  But there’s a whole lot of difference between accepting the cards we are dealt with and focusing on how to play the game and simply staying out of the game because we think we are made of better stuff.  Amor propio just does not win points in today’s competitive world.   
And really, seriously... we need to start getting our act together for the Asean integration.  It’s really about time government unveils whatever plans it has to ensure that we are fully prepared to compete and win when Asean becomes one community, which starts happening next year.


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