Richard Heydarian, Research Fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, in his column Horizons in Philippine Daily Inquirer (September 22, 2020)
Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Bro Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ)
“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, be considered for a national burial,” lamented the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. “[Marcos] might have started off as a hero but ended up as a crook.”
What made Lee a legendary leader was his uncompromising work ethic, deep grasp of global geopolitics, ability to maintain optimal ties with both the West and the East, and zero tolerance for corruption and incompetence. Under his watch, Singapore developed one of the world’s centers of bureaucratic excellence. But even more impressive were his counterparts in neighboring Taiwan, South Korea and, later, post-Mao China. Unlike Marcos, or even Lee, the leaders of these countries oversaw the establishment of global brands and industries, from Hyundai (South Korea) to HTC (Taiwan) to Huawei (China).
So, what was the secret of their success? The first thing one notices is that it’s not about form of government or even type of regime. China remains a single-party communist regime, while Taiwan and South Korea, with their own unique presidential systems, have become even more dynamic since their transition to democracy in the 1980s.
Whether authoritarian or democratic, they have had remarkable economic performance. Clearly, it is not also about “race” or “culture” per se, since all of these countries were extremely poor just a few generations ago.
What is common in the success stories of these NICs (newly industrialized countries) is their well-organized, autonomous and competent bureaucracies, which have maintained national dynamism through proactive trade and industrial policies. The Philippines’ main problem is that it never had a “strong” state with a combination of “policy autonomy” and “functional capacity” to discipline the oligarchs and promote national interest.