MANILA, September 2, 2004 (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores - "When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity."– John F. Kennedy

"The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity."– Winston Churchill

How can our fiscal crisis actually be the prelude to possible long-term economic good news?

When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo unsettled the international business community by confirming that the Philippines is in "fiscal crisis," the foreign media published a lot of negative news. However, almost unnoticed was the fact that Chinese-language newspapers – from Manila’s World News and Chinese Commercial News in Binondo to Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Kaohsiung, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Beijing, Xiamen, Nanjing, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York and other cities – used the Chinese phrase wei-ji for its headline news. Unique to the Chinese language and cannot be fully translated in other languages, the phrase wei-ji meaning literally "crisis" is actually made up of two characters – "wei" meaning "danger" and "ji" meaning "opportunity." The phrase "we-xien" in Mandarin or "hwi-hyam" in Hokkien is "danger," while the phrase "ji-hwey" in Mandarin or "ki-hwe" in Hokkien is "opportunity." In the Chinese psyche and cultural ethos, the concept of "crisis" has two intrinsic features – in every crisis there is danger as well as opportunity!

The Chinese way of viewing crisis as part-opportunity is not naïve optimism, but almost similar to what that American Jewish psychologist Martin Seligman described as "learned optimism." Florence Foods Corporation CEO Henson Tiu Laurel recently told this writer that learned optimism is totally different from naïve optimism of fools or liars.

For example, naïve optimists in Nazi prison camps would keep believing that they will gain freedom by the coming December on the Jewish Hannukah but would every year be disappointed and die heart-broken, while people who have learned optimism fully recognized the brutal realities of life, but had an invincible hope that they will eventually triumph.

Laurel said, "Learned optimism is learning to explain crisis and problems that come our way in a positive manner, how we explain our setbacks to ourselves can make a big difference between overcoming defeat and surrendering to it. Seligman had documented the power of optimism in promoting achievement and improving health. I think the Philippines as a whole needs this kind of positive thinking, not only for economic progress but also to boost national morale." Crisis To Trigger Creative Destruction America’s life insurance management guru Bill Goodwin said, "The highest form of insanity is doing the same things over and over, expecting different results. The point is, if you want different results – you have got to make some changes." In this fiscal crisis confronting the Philippines due to years of irresponsible government spending, excessive corruption, low national savings, high foreign borrowings and meager foreign investment inflows, can we and our political leaders seize the opportunities for decisive national renewal and economic regeneration?

Would this crisis be able to puncture the arrogance of our bureaucrats and politicians, and compel them to heed the call of President Gloria M. Arroyo to tighten our belts, pursue draconian austerity measures? Would GMA have the guts to punish those who do not toe the line, those who cannot slash unnecessary government expenditures like too many foreign trips/junkets, fancy government cars/vehicles being used for private purposes, lavish state offices, officials acting like datus?

Instead of raising taxes that might fan socio-political instability and weaken struggling businesses, why not proclaim an across-the-board 20 percent cut-down on government budget problems sourced from lesser corruption, then publicly cut off a few political heads so that GMA can set a chilling example that she and the government mean business?

This writer recommends using lethal injection as punishment for government officials, military/police officers/generals and high-ranking politicians who derail Philippine economic recovery with plunder, corruption, wastage, crimes or other nefarious activities.

This crisis might be the lightning bolt that will force radical socio-economic reforms in our society. Couldn’t this crisis – like corporate bankruptcies cleansing and ridding the economy of inefficient firms or the vultures eating away the carcass of diseased dead animals as a way to cleanse the jungle of a possible widespread plague – begin the necessary yet painful process of creative destruction to purge Philippine society?

Can this crisis purge our society of so many bad habits and anti-entrepreneur cultural values inherited from our Spanish colonizers, as well as shatter the age-old stranglehold of sloth and corruption?

Taipan John L. Gokongwei Jr. of JG Summit Holdings offered several short-term suggestions to reverse the tide of pessimism in the Philippines. He proposed:

"We need reforms in lowering electric power costs, improving the labor situation, peace and order and other factors affecting inflow of investments, but I suggest an immediate short-term project to boost our economy, which is for government to construct a good airport near Boracay.

"If an entrepreneur like me plans a factory, it will take five years to have an impact on the economy, but an ordinary airport near Boracay as big as those in Bacolod or Iloilo will take only the government one year and not too much costs. If this airport is built, our Cebu Pacific airline can fly many thousands of tourists from Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and other places direct to Boracay – no need to pass by Manila – and other airlines can also do so. This will bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Boracay and boost our foreign exchange earnings.

"We should develop our other infrastructures in tourism in Pagudpod in Ilocos Norte, the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, places in Cebu, Mindanao, Visayas. We need willpower to do all of these things immediately, not just talk, talk and talk."

Taipan Lucio C. Tan said that apart from depending on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the Philippine economy should pin its high hopes and encourage the robust expansion of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) nationwide. He offered his Allied Bank and the Philippine National Bank as lenders to SME entrepreneurs, urging people to invest more in globally competitive ventures that will create new jobs and be export-oriented. No Regrets Of Yesterday, No Fears Of Tomorrow There is a wonderful little book authored years ago by Spencer Johnson entitled The Precious Present. He wrote there: "Regret over yesterday and fear of tomorrow are the twin thieves that rob me of today."

Indeed, the leaders of the Philippines cannot afford to daydream or keep romanticizing about the American colonial era – when we had Southeast Asia’s most modern economy with its strength enduring up to the postwar years, when the Americans built perhaps Asia’s best public schools here, the nicest roads, when our sugar, copra, gold and other exports had almost unlimited access to the US market. We also cannot afford to waste all our time blaming all our ills on 333 years of backward Spanish colonial policies, cultural subjugation and their economic exploitation.

The Christian survivor of Nazi death camps, Corrie Ten Boom, wrote: "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength." The Philippines should not fear tomorrow – the irreversible crashing down of trade barriers, the startling onslaught of globalization, the instability in world oil prices, or the rise of other Asian economic powers.

We have no time to waste on regrets, on fears, on worries. We should immerse ourselves on non-stop and unrelenting hard work, unwavering pursuit of national discipline and indomitable hope. We should reexamine the woeful and decaying state of the national economy, purge it of inefficiencies and exorcise all anti-business ghouls. Use heavy doses of bitter medicine immediately on the Philippine economy, not false palliatives like aspirins which will only bring about good politics but lousy economics. We should put a stop to all cosmetic measures for political pogi points. We should not flinch with undertaking major surgery, cutting away the diseases and gangrenes like corruption, sloth, bureaucratic red tape and political ennui, no matter how much bloodletting or pain are necessary!

The Philippines should not succumb to pessimism and implode like Argentina did in 2001, but must fearlessly confront this monster fiscal crisis head-on, resolutely grab the bull by the horns, and extract all possible opportunities out of this crisis situation. There are still so much positive good news in this archipelago – rich natural resources, vast arable lands, great tourism potentials, large pool of young talent, the best tropical climate, eight million overseas Filipino workers sending foreign exchange back home and many other exciting possibilities waiting to be tapped.

The Chinese phrase "wei-ji" for "crisis" is indeed wise in reminding us about both danger and opportunity. A crisis can destroy us, or it can actually strengthen and cleanse the Philippines – depending on our response, our outlook and attitude. How many great persons in history became strong-willed, tough-minded, resolute, disciplined and immovable in their invincible dreams after going through the crucible of crisis? The same fire that melts butter is also the same fire that hardens steel and purifies gold.

We must demand that all our political leaders boldly push the most far-reaching social, economic, cultural and even political reforms and – if necessary, vigorously shake up and turn the whole Philippine society upside down – today!

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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