For the third time in less than a decade, I find myself back in my adopted hometown of Cebu City, Philippines. While the specific purpose of my visit is business related, the timing of this venture was well-received as I found myself in need of a break from the divisive nature of the current political climate back in the States. My respite has been a busy one, one of professional demands mixed in with a bit of sightseeing and pleasure-seeking, but what has struck me most about being back in the Philippines is a visual and emotional rediscovery of the American spirit. This spirit is seen not just Cebu’s current commercial explosion, but in the modern Filipino culture itself.
For those who have never ventured to the Republic of the Philippine Islands, it holds more to capture the imagination than simply breathtaking beaches, incredible diving and a shoppers paradise for those savvy enough to take advantage of the currency difference. While particularly true in Cebu, across the country a mass expansion of commercial construction provides evidence of a vibrant and growing economy, in large part driven by foreign investment but whose seeds were planted by that very (formerly) American tradition of low taxes, business-friendly policies and deregulation to fuel economic expansion and job growth, along with a citizenry with an undying optimism for the future, willing to challenge themselves to grasp the “Filipino Dream.”
While the Philippines certainly still has its own internal struggles with corruption, infrastructure development and the consequence of geographic location, over the past two decades the small island nation has become of the fastest growing markets for tourism and foreign investment and along with India the most popular destination for voice and non-voice Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).
Prior to the turn of the century, the government embarked on a few key directions to climb out of the post-Marcos morose and establish itself today as a dominant player not only in the BPO marketplace but a 52nd ranking in the World Bank’s Global Competitiveness Rankings, ahead of larger economies such as Russia, Mexico, India, Brazil and South Africa. In 1995, the government privatized the nationally held Philippines Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) which not only opened the door to a more even playing field for smaller telecommunications companies, but helped somewhat dilute the national dominance of the Capitol City of Manila, and opened up Cebu City, Davao and other areas within the country to further growth. This strategy was aided by decisions around the same time period to reduce corporate tax levels as well as spurring foreign investment by offering a six-year tax holiday (with options to extend) for companies willing to establish operations in the country.
The most immediate impact of these decision were seen in the BPO & Call Center industries. When I made my first pilgrimage to Cebu in late 2007, the city’s primary BPO hub, Asiatown IT Park (constructed on a former airfield) consisted of three high-rise towers, a few local restaurants and a number of Sari-Sari’s (small shops) and carendarias (local eateries). Today the area bustles with activity with more than a dozen high-rise towers operational or under construction, world-class condominiums, nightclubs, high-end restaurants and a clientele list which includes McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Kentucky Fried Chicken and 7-11 liquor stores. JP Morgan has its own high-rise tower which employs more than a thousand local workers and scores of expatriated employees. While I found myself a bit of an anomaly when I first arrived, as one walks through any one of the many high-end shopping malls in the city, there are scores of non-tourist foreigners from America, Australia, Europe and Asia filling the ranks of resident Cebuano’s. The growth of IT Park is matched by that of the nearby Ayala Business Park area, which has undergone a growth in commercial buildings, a large expansion of the Ayala Mall and currently boats numerous high-rise towers in construction as of press-time. From the window of my hotel room at the Quest Hotel and Conference Center in Cebu alone one can witness six current projects in various levels of construction.
And while the visual change in today’s Cebu is immediately apparent, it is the vibrancy of its people that is most breathtaking. While the Philippines has long endured a traditional class system in which one’s consequence of birth largely shaped their destinies, the change brought on in the past two decades has created a growing middle class and entrepreneurial spirit in today’s generation that was not enjoyed by their parents or grandparents. Established family dynasties may still hold sway in banking, finance, construction and government, but a new rising tide of upward mobility is evidenced up and down the country. Former colleagues of mine who cut their teeth answering your phone call about the balance of your bank account today are establishing their own BPO operations, buying property, opening up night clubs, taking vacations that any American would envy and displaying the new-found wealth of a city and country on the rise.
Contrast the phenomenon of Cebu and the Philippines with what we see in America today. As evidenced by the growing movement on the left to provide a “living” minimum wage for menial employment (ironically enough it is this legislative course taken by the left which actually increases the outsourcing of US jobs), public education bureaucrats working to reduce standards for graduation and a welfare state that does not stress the importance of work and improvement of one’s skills, we in America are moving in the opposite direction of the Philippines, as well as Mexico, India and others following a similar course. Not to mention a citizenry in which every conceivable sub-culture rushes to solidify its claim to victim-hood and the subsequent handouts that follow. Few in the Philippines are looking for a handout for they know they wont find one. There are millions, however, in Cebu and other cities that are challenging themselves to better their skills and value within the marketplace to capitalize on the tremendous opportunities they are very much aware of.
The America of 2015 seems bent on lowering the expectations of our people, rewarding our citizenry for lesser achievement and acquiescing to the notion that hard work and seizing opportunity are values of a bygone era. In the name of compassion we have begun to stop challenging our children to embrace the magnificent opportunities that exist in the greatest country on earth and dwell on the negative. While politicians, particularly in the Democratic Party, send a message of “NEVER,” we need more voices in and out of the Republican Party to replace this with “NEVERTHELESS!” My fellow countrymen, I love my country but I’m not afraid to admit taking a break from our suicidal course of lowered expectations coupled with self-righteous and divisive political correctness has been somewhat of a relief. I am here to attest that the American spirit of embracing the opportunities of capitalism is not dead but it does seem to have outsourced itself to places like Cebu City and the rest of the Philippines, and its a pleasure to witness. Let us hope it becomes contagious.
Commentary by Paul M Winters
Managing Editor, Dignitas News Service