12:18 am | Friday, June 7th, 2013
NAYPYITAW, Burma—Two Southeast Asian countries are thrust into the limelight at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) East Asia—the host country Burma (Myanmar) for coming out of decades of economic and political isolation and the Philippines, once a laggard but now an investment-grade country and Asia’s fastest-growing economy.
President Aquino will speak Friday in a plenary session at Myanmar International Convention Centre, sharing the spotlight with Burmese President U Thein Sein during the closing ceremonies of the three-day WEF East Asia Summit, which gathered 900 delegates from 55 countries.
The two heads of state will be interviewed by WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab about their perspectives on regional transformation. This year’s summit has put a lot of focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ahead of its targeted integration into a single market by 2015.
Prior to the plenary session, Aquino will speak in an informal interactive luncheon hosted by Ayala Corp. before a more intimate gathering of 200-300 people.
“The East Asia Summit serves as an excellent regional follow-up to Davos,” Ayala chairman and CEO Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala said, referring to Aquino’s WEF debut in Switzerland last January.
Despite the gains in Davos, Zobel de Ayala said more work was needed to encourage foreign investment in the country.
“President Aquino’s participation in Myanmar keeps the momentum going with the global investor community. His participation along with his economic team drives home the message that the Philippines is open for business,” Zobel de Ayala told the Inquirer.
“More importantly, given we are the succeeding host nation in 2014, our attendance and active participation in Myanmar gives us the double opportunity to project our message of progress in the Philippines and at the same time invite participants to next year’s summit. It will be valuable to the global community to see and hear President Aquino communicate the Philippine economic growth story, in preparation for next year’s event,” he said.
Zobel de Ayala said the Philippines had a lot of positive messages to bring to the forum.
“With global attention shifting to Southeast Asia, the Philippines needs to make its move to capture that ‘share of mind’ by differentiating itself and providing a unique business proposition for investors. It needs to stand out and project a unique message to global companies and international investors,” he said.
Zobel de Ayala said the country made great strides under President Aquino in the area of good governance and anticorruption.
“That is part of the core platform of government designed to rebuild trust in the Philippine economy and society and to generate inclusive growth and reduce poverty,” he said.
He said the emphasis on good governance, solid macroeconomic management and renewed focus on infrastructure, construction and other reforms had resulted in continuous credit upgrades and significant rise in global competitiveness rankings.
The country posted an economic growth rate of 6.8 percent in 2012 and a stunning 7.8 percent in the first quarter this year, the fastest in Asia.
“However, challenges remain, especially in attracting foreign direct investments, bringing down unemployment and reducing poverty. For these reasons, it remains important to reach out to the international investor community through the World Economic Forum and other foreign networks to attract attention and investments to the Philippines,” Zobel de Ayala said.
Before the arrival of the Philippine delegation, the country created some buzz in an Asean-focused session on integration.
When asked about his assessment on governance reforms within the Asean by a participant, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani said: “Most of the governments here are aware that they have to do more and deliver. If you take for example a country like the Philippines, 10 years ago, and somebody said ‘Hey, you know, it would get investment grade,’ nobody would have believed it.”
But here now was the Philippines which was “supposed to be the laggard suddenly performing very well,” Mahbubani said. The Singapore-based professor said that in general, peer pressure would prompt Asean governments to perform better.
After the session, the Inquirer asked Mahbubani whether the presidential election in the Philippines in 2016 could be a cause for concern, he said: “Of course, you do sometimes have a problem when a good leader leaves, but when a country develops momentum, the expectations of the people rise and it’s very difficult for them to go back to the bad old ways,” he said.
Mahbubani likewise cited Burma’s transformation from a military to a civilian government. “If five years ago, someone in this room had said, ‘Trust me, Myanmar is going to make a very peaceful transition,’ who will believe? Nobody,” he said.
Zobel de Ayala said some Cabinet secretaries were also participating in the event and taking part in different panels and engagements to share their perspectives, maximizing the Philippines’ exposure and promoting next year’s event.
Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, for instance, was among the panelists in a session “Vision for East Asia’s Networked Future.” This session on Thursday also included Purisima’s Thai counterpart, Kittiratt Na-Ranong, as well as Mitsubishi Corp. chairman Yorihiko Kojima, Unilever Singapore COO Harish Manwani and Agility of Kuwait chairman Tarek Sultan Al Essa.
“I believe that the future of Asean is significant,” Purisima said.
However, he said the 10 member-countries of this regional bloc must work harder on three areas: harmonization of regulation, building infrastructure toward complementary connectiveness that will make sure that all countries are “winners” and investing more in people. He noted that the Philippines, under President Aquino, was taking such route.
“With better governance, we can unleash the potential of the economy,” he said.
Both the Philippines and Burma have a lot to gain from this summit, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said. “We have similar stories to tell, both coming from an extended period of stagnation and now undertaking reforms. Both countries are being encouraged,” he said.
“Our point of coming here is ultimately, we want investors to come to the Philippines and we want to assure them that there’s money to be made in the Philippines as investors, and that we look forward to them coming in and building our infrastructure, investing in our tourism, investing in our agriculture, creating jobs,” Carandang said.
“We’re not generating those positive reviews so we can feel good. We’re generating those positive reviews so we can create jobs, investments and all of that,” he stressed.
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