ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Marcos and the Philippines at Davos

Since taking office in July, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has undertaken eight trips abroad, with a ninth to come next month.

Marcos and the Philippines at Davos

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. meets with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair in Davos, Switzerland, January 19, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Bongbong Marcos

The Philippine participation at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland has become the most controversial foreign trip that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has taken. It was the eighth trip abroad that Marcos has made since becoming president seven months ago. Marcos himself was at first undecided about the necessity of attending the event when he was invited in November, but he obviously changed his mind and even brought a sizeable delegation with him.

Marcos went to Davos two weeks after his state visit to China. In both cases, he proceeded with his travel plans while the country was in an emergency situation. On January 1, almost all domestic airports were forced to shut down because of a power malfunction that disrupted air travel for several days.

Meanwhile, the inflation rate continued to rise, as reflected in the abnormally high price of onions, while minimum wage workers scrambled to survive amid the continuing pandemic. Critics reminded Marcos that these issues required his full attention and that as agriculture secretary, he should be leading the campaign against smuggling and hoarding while mobilizing the bureaucracy to ensure the country’s food security.

But Marcos defended his frequent travels by describing them as a means of generating jobs and investments. Before leaving for Davos, Marcos said in a speech that he intended to promote the Philippines “as leader and driver of growth and a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region and one that is open for business.”

And when he arrived back, he summed up what the country gained from the trip. “The trip has yielded beneficial outcomes relative to new trade and investment opportunities, and key partnerships forged to support our development program, a better appreciation for Filipino workers and professionals, and the promise of increased level of cooperation with various countries around the world,” he said.

His response to media queries and the statements of his entourage also addressed some of the controversies that hounded the trip.

Asked about the importance of the Davos event, Marcos replied by raising this question. “When is the next chance we will get to speak to CEOs of top Fortune 100 companies in the period of two days?”

The government insisted that there were only 11 official delegates who joined the WEF, but it also released a list of 17 officials who went to Davos to support the president. Whether it was 11 or 17 – or 70, as claimed in some unverified news reports – the Philippine contingent was one of the biggest at the WEF.

House Speaker Martin Romualdez, the first cousin of the president, defended the “substantial delegation” sent by the Philippines.

“I think the delegation that came to Davos actually impressed the Davos attendees,” he said. “Substantial delegation actually demonstrated how the Philippines… the President, his official family, economic managers, alongside the top businessmen and women in the Philippines, showed a united front to the entire world. It really impressed them.”

What Romualdez didn’t mention was that other countries sent smaller delegations. In fact, Marcos was the only head of state from Southeast Asia who went to Davos.

A prominent economist also questioned the inclusion of the country’s leading tycoons in the delegation since it could later lead to a conflict of interest if some of them would get favorable contracts or favors from the government.

Department of Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno, who joined Marcos in Davos, described the country’s participation at the WEF as “path-breaking.” He particularly mentioned how Marcos promoted the sovereign wealth fund as one of his administration’s means of diversifying the country’s financial portfolio.

But this sovereign wealth fund bill has yet to be passed by the Senate and there’s no certainty yet about its final content since some of its proponents wanted to “re-engineer” it. In other words, Marcos pitched a fund program that does not yet exist.

Former central bank deputy governor Diwa C. Guinigundo expressed doubt about the value of attending the WEF. He gave this suggestion to Marcos: “His cabinet secretaries should do the investment roadshows instead. A modest delegation would also make his message more authentic.”

Marcos is scheduled to visit Japan in February. His subordinates and supporters believe his foreign trips are essential for strengthening the economy. But the opposition is suspicious about the frequency of the president’s travels. Perhaps Marcos is keen to reintroduce his family name on the global stage after their unceremonial ouster from power in 1986. Whatever the reason or motive, Marcos and his government should do more to convince the public that his global engagements are not a waste of taxpayer money.