Mong Palatino

The Diplomat’s Jonathan DeHart spoke with Filipino activist, legislator and writer Raymond “Mong” Palatino about his country’s recent spat with Taiwan, the Sabah turmoil, and the Philippines’ impressive economic growth.

Raymond Palatino
Raymond Palatino

“Aquino should present a new blueprint for progress. Something that doesn’t just involve the exporting of people, the anarchic plunder of natural resources, and the creation of artificial wealth through the entry of speculative capital into the local stock market.”

The Philippines has been through a lot politically and diplomatically these past few months, starting with the turmoil in Sabah and most recently in the spat with Taiwan. Now that the Taiwan-Philippine incident has played out, why do you think it became so heated? Further, how do you think the Philippine government handled it in the end?

The Malaysia and Taiwan crisis overwhelmed many people, including officials of the Aquino government. If the diplomatic row had involved China, I think it would have been less shocking to many Filipinos who are already used to our government exchanging heated words with Chinese officials over maritime disputes.

But people are not as used to such disputes happening with Malaysia – which recently facilitated successful peace negotiations between the Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels in south Mindanao – or with Taiwan, which has maintained good relations with the Philippines despite the latter’s adoption of a One-China policy.

The Aquino government could have done more to quickly ease the tension. For instance, a formal apology should have been given much earlier to Taiwan. Remember how Taiwan rejected the first apology sent by Manila because it felt it was insincere.

I expect a fishing agreement to be finalized soon between the Philippines and Taiwan to prevent a repeat of the tragedy in Balintang Channel.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

You wrote an article in The Diplomat in May titled “Panic in the Philippines Over Taiwan Diplomatic Crisis”, which generated heated discussion. What would you say to critics of your position in the article? Looking back now, do you think there was a sense of “panic” among ordinary Filipinos as the crisis escalated?

News about Taiwan’s decision to stop hiring Filipino workers and the harassment allegedly suffered by Filipino migrants in Taiwan was widely disseminated in the Philippine media. These stories affected how Filipinos came to understand the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis with Taiwan.

The crisis became more real for Filipinos who became really worried about the well-being of their friends and relatives working and living in Taiwan. For Filipinos who desire to work or do business in Taiwan, they were naturally distressed as well about their livelihood. Even the local tourism industry is reeling from the sudden cancellation of holiday bookings by Taiwanese tourists who are among the country’s top visitors.

For government officials, they have reason to panic over their apparent failure to fix the diplomatic mess since it could make things harder for the 80,000 Filipinos residing in Taiwan. They know there are no adequate domestic jobs that could accommodate Filipinos who might be forced to go home if the crisis escalated further.

This was the panic I was referring to in the article published in The Diplomat. I specifically emphasized that the military drills conducted by Taiwan near the Philippines didn’t bother many since most Filipinos are more alarmed over the economic threats issued by the Taiwanese government.

Before the incident with Taiwan, Manila was working through an equally complex diplomatic issue with Malaysia when the so-called “Sultan of Sulu” invaded the Malaysian state of Sabah. Looking back at the incident, do you see any longer term consequences from the event? And what are ordinary Filipinos saying about it now?

The Sabah tension was more complicated. Many Filipinos continue to regard Sabah as part of our territory. The so-called “terrorists” who “invaded” Lahad Datu are Filipino citizens. Jamalul Kiram III is recognized by many Filipinos as the legitimate Sultan of Sulu. Aquino feigned ignorance by simply announcing the formation of a study group to review our historic Sabah claim.

Instead of assuring Kiram and his followers that he is ready to assist them, Aquino nonchalantly advised them to go home. For those who believe that Sabah is part of the Philippines, and especially for the people of Sulu who think of Sabah as part of their ancestral domain, that piece of advice smacks of insensitivity.

At the time, there was a general sense of utter disbelief among Filipinos. We were obviously shocked by the Lahad Datu invasion and the shooting incident involving our coast guard and a Taiwanese fishing boat; yet we also felt powerless and many were clueless about how to resolve the situations, especially the Sabah incident. There was no sustained public discussion of the issues since the attention of the greater number of Filipinos was focused on the midterm senate and local elections.

Looking back, it was quite disappointing that the Sabah issue didn’t matter at all in the three-month election debates which started in February. No candidate or party raised the issue of Sabah to the electorate. Meanwhile, the Taiwan crisis exploded right after voting last month, which partly explained why it took some time for Filipinos to properly react to the issue.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Unfortunately for the Philippines, I think the Sabah incident has further derailed its bid to successfully reclaim Sabah. Accused of committing a terrorist act, Kiram has lost considerable political clout. Aquino has shown no interest in the Sabah claim and I think he will maintain this indifference. He can always argue that his government is still reviewing the documents pertaining to the Sabah issue.

The Philippines has recently experienced rapid GDP growth – the fastest it’s been in three years. What do you attribute this to, and do you think it’s sustainable? Further, what do you think the biggest benefits from this growth will be?

Curiously, former President Gloria Arroyo often bragged about the country’s strong economic fundamentals. It seems to be the one legacy she bequeathed to her successor. But then and now, so-called GDP strength has not benefited the poor. Or at least its benefits have yet to make a huge positive impact in the lives of many. The economic growth has not produced enough jobs and poverty rates have worsened in some urban areas. In short, the purported growth is too “hollow, shallow, and narrow.”

The growth is often attributed to the remittances sent by 10 million overseas Filipinos, which drive domestic consumption spending. However, it also means that the country is losing the best and brightest of its skilled workers. The hidden social costs of emigration should also be taken into consideration.

Business confidence seems to be improving, which the Aquino government claims is due to the reforms it has implemented in the last three years. But the bigger challenge is not just to entice more investors but to make economic growth inclusive. Instead of continuing the economic policies initiated by past governments, Aquino should present a new blueprint for progress. Something that doesn’t just involve the exporting of people, the anarchic plunder of natural resources, and the creation of artificial wealth through the entry of speculative capital into the local stock market.

How are young Filipinos responding to these regional diplomatic challenges? And are they embracing and capitalizing on the economic opportunities that come with the nation’s economic growth?

Again, the story of the strong GDP is not new. In fact, as just mentioned, it is one of the supposed achievements of the unpopular Arroyo government. Young people today can only sense a disconnect between what is being reported in media and the actual everyday situation for ordinary Filipinos.

The number of unemployed youth is soaring, including the college educated. Nothing much has changed the belief commonly held by young Filipinos that the best way to achieve their dreams is to emigrate.

Admittedly, the optimism that swept the nation after Aquino’s victory in 2010 is still there. But Aquino cannot sustain this optimism just by delivering good news to the people. The goods must be delivered soon or else this optimism could turn into frustration, which could affect the electoral chances of Aquino’s party in 2016.