MANILA, September 2, 2003 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - Damaged.

Weíre in one of those topsy-turvy political episodes once more. Such episodes have happened at vital moments in our past, causing our whole nation to miss opportunities and sink deeper into its economic predicament.

We know we are in such an episode when political entertainment hogs the front pages and the truly bad news is buried deep in the business sections of our papers.

Today, our front pages drip with mud slung by ambitious politicians Ė many of them nursing an anti-democratic agenda. The collateral damage, the real blood drawn in this insane political sport, is registered in the business and economic news.

In episodes like this one, the nation loses its sense of proportion. Our ability to nurture visions and make the proper strategic choices is hampered. The fog of political intrigue is thick and a sense of deep danger grips the populace.

The bad news is bad enough.

Despite the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic, our economy posted a respectable performance in the first half of this year. But because of the mutiny, and then the lingering talk of a conspiracy to topple the present political arrangement, our economic growth dropped, investors sought sanctuary elsewhere, the stock market is in the doldrums and the peso has come under speculative attack.

The scandal-driven political hysteria we are now forced to endure might bring us entertainment in the short-term. But the damage will take much longer to repair.

When Gringo Honasan and his horde mounted a series of coup attempts in the late eighties, the country became a forbidden zone for investments. The military adventures were compounded by parallel actions by leftist guerrillas, most significantly the kidnapping of a prominent Japanese businessman.

During this same period, Japanese investments began flowing out to the rest of the region. They flowed into China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, cautiously skirting the Philippines because of the political uncertainty. After that period, Japanís bubble economy burst and no more investments were forthcoming.

By our own folly, and Honasanís seeping ambitiousness, we missed the opportunity permanently.

China absorbed an unjust portion of the investment flows, building up the incredible economic momentum that continues to this day. Taiwan nudged up to become a fully industrialized economy. Thailand and Malaysia nursed the investments and combined it with their great tourism potential to produce the dynamic economies we now see, economies that in a matter of a few years drastically brought down poverty levels and raised their competitiveness.

The injuries our economy sustained during that time of turbulence continue to hurt us today. Our infrastructures continue to be inferior to those of our neighbors. Our labor force continues to be victimized by a substandard educational system. Our unemployment level is one of the highest in the region despite massive labor migration.

Since that period, our GDP per capita did not change. In the same period, Chinaís GDP per capita grew sevenfold. That says it all.

The missed opportunities hurt all of us in terms of the social costs of unemployment and poverty, our dependence on labor exportation and all the miseries associated with economic stagnation.

Opportunities missed will not present themselves again.

By the time the nation recovered its bearings, during the Ramos period, the heady days of massive investment flows to "emerging markets" were nearly over. The Asian financial crisis was looming near. We had a short window of opportunity to put our house in order and prepare for a late take-off.

Today, the global economy is on the threshold of recovery. As the scare of global terrorism begins to subside, as the peril of new wars recede, we are likely to see a more robust global economy.

And yet at precisely this point, we are gripped by a new round of military adventurism, an orgy of political mudslinging and a great sense of drift in our nationís life.

There are more opportunities to miss in the near term. Given our penchant for self-destruction, we will probably miss them.

Which brings to mind certain disturbing questions.

Are all the strategic costs worth the political entertainment we are treated to?

Is the damage to our economy worth Gringo Honasanís demagoguery and Panfilo Laconís burning ambition to be president?

Is the political turbulence now engulfing us worth a settlement that would allow Joseph Estrada to escape conviction and be allowed exile?

We do not need a grand political summit to settle these questions. The trade-offs they involve are far too unjust for the majority of our people.

We should simply reject the unwarranted grandstanding. We should simply denounce the underserved ambitiousness of a few politicians. We should simply crush every insane conspiracy being hatched in the rotten woodwork of our political life.

To be distracted by the worst in our political ranks will be a sad commentary on the strength of our republican institutions.

Lee Kuan Yew once came over and told us in our face that the problem with Filipinos is that we have too much democracy. That is wrong, not because he was an impolite guest but because the matter was wrongly framed.

Our people do not have too much democracy. It is our politicians who have too little sense of responsibility for the consequences of what they do to the lives of the powerless.

In the end, our present predicament will not be resolved by convincing Honasan to rein in his martial impulses or by convincing Lacson to pursue his ambitions is a less destructive way. It is a predicament that cannot be resolved by asking Joseph Estrada to exercise more responsibility for the actions of his more insane loyalists.

In the end, this predicament can only be resolved by ordinary Filipinos taking a firm and principled stand. Ordinary Filipinos must decide soon enough that our democracy is worth defending and our future well-being worth safeguarding against the gross irresponsibility that permeates the ranks of power-seekers nestled in our most revered institutions.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved