Trumpets and drums: selling the Phl at Davos

Before boarding the plane last Sunday to Switzerland to participate in the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said:

“The (WEF) is hosting a Country Strategy Dialogue for us where we are given the opportunity to promote the Philippines as leader and driver of growth and a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region. One that is open for business – ever ready to complement regional and global expansion plans for both foreign and Phil-ippine-based enterprises anchored on the competent and well-educated Filipino workers, the managers and professionals.

“I will draw attention to our efforts at building resilient infrastructure that bolster our effort to reinforce robust and resilient supply chains, ensure food security, including critical interlinkages with health and nutrition, while furthering climate-friendly, clean and green energy to power the Philippine economy.
“Moreover, I will share our experience as a model for managing – with our global partners – the disruptive and transformative impact of COVID.”

A quite ambitious stance, one may note: “leader and driver of growth and gateway to the Asia-Pacific region… robust and resilient supply chains… model for managing… the disruptive and transformative impact of COVID.” Instead of trumpets and drums, isn’t a bit of modesty preferable as starting point?
Based on news reports on the first three days of WEF activities, here are some of Marcos Jr.’s statements at various occasions and feedback from his eco-nomic team’s meetings with foreign investors:

• At a one-on-one dialogue with WEF president Borge Brende, Marcos Jr. was confident that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) this year would hit 7 percent. “The reason is because we have a very, very good workforce… We have the youngest workforce in Asia… the average age of a Filipino worker is 23-1/2 years old,” he told Brende. The country has a pool of “well-trained, sophisticated” and tech-savvy English-speaking workforce, he added.
He also said his administration was concentrating on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) which make up the backbone of the economy.
Brende was said to have been impressed: “It’s incredible… I think now, the Philippines is the fastest-growing of the ASEAN countries.” But were there stum-bling blocks the Philippine economy would encounter moving forward? he asked. Marcos Jr. mentioned the country’s poor infrastructure, low quality of edu-cation, research and development and bureaucratic red tape, among others. However, he claimed, these main obstacles could be overcome.

• At a press briefing Wednesday, his economic team said Marcos Jr. led them in their meetings with various business, political and multilateral leaders over three days.
“Our real purpose is to sell the country – where we are now,” Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno said. “That is why our participation in this Davos confer-ence is very timely,” he added, pointing out two favorable factors: First, it’s the first time in three years that WEF has resumed face-to-face meetings; second, “We have a very nice story to tell after the pandemic.”

• For Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, the challenge for the country’s delegation was how to articulate a “good narrative” about the Philippines’ stand on issues that big decision makers abroad would like to hear. “And I think that interactions prove very useful because… they would want to hear whether the story that’s emerging in the Philippines is sustainable,” he said. “It’s a long-term one because if they come in, it is a long-term decision.”
An important achievement for the team, Balisacan pointed out, is that “we were able to tell them [the story] and they were able to ask questions – direct, pointed, quite frank questions on the economy, on our institutions and on issues and policy concerns, the measures being undertaken to make the economy more attractive for investors and the reforms being advanced by the administration.”

• Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual, in turn, said Marcos Jr.’s attendance in the WEF had catalyzed investors’ interest in areas such as the digital economy, minerals processing, logistics and transport and MSMEs.
At least nine companies had expressed interest in investing in the country or expanding their existing operations, Pascual reported. While in general the purpose was to sell the Philippines, he said, “in the process, we were able to get expressions of specific interest.” The more important thing, he added, “we are now better known by people who make decisions on investments.”

He cited the following specific cases: American multinational investment management and financial services firm Morgan Stanley plans to set up office in Manila; Coursera, which develops programs that will make online learning interactive, is interested in making courses related to the digital economy available to the Philippine government; US-based Astranis, which provides low-level satellites for internet access, is interested to come in and provide connectivity to areas that are not yet connected via the main providers now operating in the country.

• Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said the Dutch multinational brewery Heineken, which has a partnership with Asia Brewery, is willing to boost its Philippine presence. Ditto, the insurance firm AXA (now partner of the Metrobank group), the private-venture capital firm Blackwater and the logistics com-pany DP World.
Besides the economic concerns, Marcos Jr. had to respond to questions raised on other issues.

• The disputes with China in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea are worrying him, he said: these are keeping him up “at night… in the day[time], most of the time.” “It’s very dynamic, it’s constantly in flux. So you have to pay attention to it and to make sure that you are at least aware of the present situation so that you’re able to properly respond.”
• What was behind his decision to go into politics after returning to the Philippines? The answer seemed to be candid enough: “For us to defend ourselves politically, somebody had to… be in the political arena. So that at least, not only the legacy of my father but even our own survival required that somebody go into politics.”

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Published in Philippine Star
January 21, 2023

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