The Manila Times

Marcos’ ‘VIP Club’ boo-boo; Palace corrects its Yinglong bungling


PRESIDENT Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in his arrival remarks from Davos boasted that participants there — without naming even one — saw the Philippines as a member of the “VIP Club which is Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.”

“’Yun daw ang pinakamagandang ekonomiya sa Asya (They say those have the best economies in Asia),” the President said.

That’s so embarrassingly false. He should fire the adviser who whispered that line to him — I don’t think any Davos attendee is as stupid as to have told him that. If there were, that joker was pulling his leg, and laughing as he left Marcos.

Marcos in his jet-lagged mind probably thought that the “VI” in that term stands for “very important.” Not in any sense. VIP is simply an acronym that some analysts in the last decade used to shorten their text when referring to the three countries that are in the second-to-the lowest tier in economic rankings in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. The lowest-tier level are basket cases not fit to be considered as investment sites, except for the bold, such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Using VIP was also a bit of sarcasm since these three countries were the last to be recommended for investments, direct or portfolio, in those years.

Not in any sense did that term for the three countries imply an admiration for them, nor to mean “very important” countries for investors to watch. The term is more like the “ABC” acronym used in the early 1980s, to mean Argentina, Brazil and Chile — which were the first to collapse economically because of their huge debt burden.

Excluding Singapore — Asian only by the accident of geology — it is still Malaysia and Thailand that are the best economies in our region, based on their GDP per capita. If the “VIP” countries registered good GDP growth rates in 2021 and 2022, it is because their fall had been steepest at the height of the pandemic: a contraction of 9.5 percent in 2020 for us, and 2.1 percent decrease for Indonesia.

Marcos is either ignorant of what’s happening in our part of the world or tactless by boasting that we are in that “VIP Club.” A more intelligent or knowledgeable president would have compared us to Vietnam (and even Indonesia) only to emphasize how much we are being left behind, how much we have to do to grow our economy. Or that we need a new paradigm to develop the economy other than that “stable-macroeconomy-willattract-foreign-investment” wishful thinking that most of our economists have been yapping about, but yielding only modest growth.

For chrissakes, our GDP per capita of $1,703 in 1974 was three times that of Vietnam’s $588 per capita, 10 years after its civil war ended. But the Vietnamese’ GDP per capita overtook us only in 2020, with their $3,352 bigger than our $3,196. Indonesia way back in 1993 overtook us in terms of GDP per capita.

Comparing us to Indonesia and Vietnam, we may be fucked, until we get a better, more intelligent president who thinks out of the box, and acts with intense urgency. Indonesia exports crude oil as much as Libya does, and it controls 55 percent of the world’s palm oil supply (thanks to their massive replanting program, a version of which was condemned here in the 1980s as a “crony project”).

Vietnam is a command economy although with free markets, and the Chinese have proven how to run such an economy spectacularly. While we’re still debating our sovereign wealth fund, Vietnam set up its version, the State Capital Investment Corp. in 2005 — 17 years ago.

In 2020, Indonesian President Widodo passed a so-called Omnibus Job Creation Law that amends 76 laws across a wide range of sectors and industries, including the laws on energy and mining, plantations, telecommunications, health care, tourism, land and buildings and employment. Just one of these 76 provisions provided for the creation of Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, which was set up in 2021 as the Indonesian Investment Authority. Widodo’s Omnibus Law was passed, with a few provisions even challenged in its Supreme Court, despite the strong opposition against it put up by Islamic-oriented parties.

In our case, Marcos is meeting opposition even to his pet project, the Maharlika Wealth Fund, even with his cousin Martin Romualdez in control — supposedly — of the House of Representatives. How can we expect Marcos to get Congress to pass the really tough laws the country needs, such as the National Rightsizing Program which will require a lot of firing or the next phases to reform our tax system?

I’m getting more and more worried that with this kind of presidency, we will be kicked out of the VIP Club at the end of his term, and join the CLM Club.

Palace distances itself from Yinglong

I reported last week (January 16) that the Palace had issued two days before Christmas a very anomalous order that countermanded a directive of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Environmental Management Bureau for a Chinese firm Yinglong Steel Corp. to stop its nickel-mining and export operations in the hometown of Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane.

The same Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs Anna Liza Logan who issued the order recalled it. The order was dated January 17 but released to the contending parties only yesterday.

The DENR should act swiftly to get its Environmental Law Enforcement and Protection Services and PNP to stop being afraid of Governor Ebdane, who seems to be protective of Yinglong, and close down the Chinese firm, which reportedly has found ways and means to still ship out the nickel ore it illegally mined from Zambales, among them by claiming that these were bought from small-scale mines.

This involves big money. The nickel ore that Yongling was about to ship out but was confiscated by the Bureau of Customs last January 23 was estimated to be worth P200 million because of the skyrocketing of nickel prices last year.

In her new order, Logan explained: “To emphasize, the temporary lifting of the CDO (cease and desist order to Yinglong to stop operations) was made to address the concern of the overflow of run-off water of the nickel settling ponds spilling into Uacon Lake which would likely cause environmental concerns as reported by the DENR office of Zambales in its letters dated 31 October and 7 November 2022 to the provincial governor. Considering that the EMB raised only procedural matters in its motion for reconsideration, it is thus presumed that the environmental issues have ceased to be a concern.”

That really was a very lame excuse. The Uacon Lake and its tributaries are at least 1 kilometer away from the nickel-ore mining site. “It will pollute the Uacon Lake only if the run-off water from the nickel settling grounds are collected in containers and then hauled into the lake,” a source who lives near the area in Candelaria said.

What a bungling order. The environmental issues were resolved in just one day after I wrote about the order in this column that made it publicly known?

I suspect though that either the President or Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin were not aware of Logan’s December 23 order, so she was ordered to retract it immediately so as not to embarrass the President and the first lady. This was more urgent as Logan is known to be first lady Lisa Araneta-Marcos’ most trusted confidante for 14 years, when she joined her law firm Marcos, Ochoa, Serapio and Tan.

Fellow columnist Charlie Manalo, usually defensive of the President and his wife, even further alerted inadvertently readers to Logan’s connection to the first lady (and therefore may have known about her order that favored the Chinese company) by pointing out that a certain blogger called Maharlika was trying hard to link the first lady to this emerging issue. That certainly sent the number of viewers of Maharlika’s blog skyrocketing. Thanks to Charlie, never knew there was a Mahalika Boldyakera before who seems to be the “Thinking Pinoy” of this era.

In her order, Logan emphasized that as Desla she has the power to sign such orders quoting Administrative Order 22:

“Unless otherwise ordered in writing by the president, the executive secretary is authorized to decide and sign decisions/resolutions/orders in appealed cases. Where exigencies arise, the executive secretary may in writing temporarily designate the deputy executive secretary for legal affairs or any deputy executive secretary to decide and sign decisions/resolutions/ orders in appealed cases.” (Itals mine.)

Why didn’t Logan quote the executive secretary designating her in writing to decide an appeal from an obscure Chineseowned mining company? I don’t think the esteemed former Supreme Court chief justice will stand up to this.

I was told it was some official in her office, whose husband was assisting Yinglong, that asked her to sign the order favoring the Chinese firm. With her bungling and obvious bias for Yinglong, would she still be in Logan’s office?

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