NoyNoy Aquino and the great Philippines turnaround

There is no royalty in the Philippines. Instead there are countless, often feuding clans.

But above them all – the Osmeñas, the Cojuangcos and the Roxas – there is one family, the Aquinos, whose extraordinarily selfless narrative – one assassination and two presidents – has placed them in an even more exalted position than Myanmar's democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Philippines was left indebted and politically scarred by Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the republic with an iron fist for over twenty years.

As a result, the archipelagic nation became a running joke, desperately poor and corrupt amid the predominant "Asia Rising" narrative of the 80s and 90s.

Now, some 29 years after Marcos fled to Hawaii in 1986, the son of his assassinated nemesis Benigno Aquino Jr ("Ninoy") has achieved the near-impossible.

The soft-spoken and bookish Benigno Aquino III (called "NoyNoy" – the names are confusing) has shepherded the country to the top of the Asean GDP growth tables.

According to the World Bank, from 2011 to 2014 (the first four full years of NoyNoy’s six-year term as president), the Philippines' economy grew by an average of 5.95%, surpassing Malaysia’s 5.38%, Vietnam and Indonesia’s 5.7% as well as Singapore’s 4.2%.

Elsewhere, the Philippines is also playing a fierce game of catch-up.

From 2010 to 2014, the Philippines soared from 134th to 85th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (an increase of 49 places), compared to Malaysia’s 56th to 50th (an increase of just 6), Indonesia’s 110th to 107th (just 3) and Vietnam’s 3-spot decline from 116th to 119th.

Its iconic IT-business process outsourcing (or BPO) sector in 2014 brought in US$18 billion (RM78.83 billion) in revenue, providing some 1.3 million Filipinos with middle-class jobs and importantly, salaries.

However, when NoyNoy first stood as a presidential candidate back in 2010, most commentators were scathing in their assessment. They saw him as little more than a shallow, inexperienced political princeling.

Well, the critics were clearly wrong.

I recently had the honour of interviewing the president in the historic, Narra wood-panelled and jewel-like Malacanang Palace, a marked contrast from the cacophony outside on the streets of Manila.

Just over two weeks before this month’s Apec summit in the Philippine capital and six months before Filipinos go to the polls to elect his successor, the president was upbeat, especially when asked about the economic turnaround.

"Give the Filipino the right environment and he or she will shine," he said, adding, "[Our success stems] from the fundamental belief that the greatest resource of this country is our people."

Instead of churning out countless unemployable graduates, NoyNoy worked hard to coordinate education and training with industry requirements.

Moreover, his government also expanded a conditional cash transfer programme, which helped poor families keep their children in school.

Under him, the Health Department also enjoyed a 300% budget increase.

But his success has not only been economic. NoyNoy has won plaudits for his firm crackdown on corruption. He allowed prosecutors to move against both his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a number of senior senators as well as countenancing the impeachment of the controversial chief justice of the Supreme Court Renato Corona, saying: "Now the highest positions are also being made to account for their actions."

He adds: "We started out with the phrase, 'If you eliminate corruption you can eliminate poverty'. We will not tolerate the situation where cronies become monopolies... because it just keeps us where we are. We don't grow. We actually stagnate."

What inspired him to embrace the Daang Matuwid (or the straight path)?

I found his answer, when I asked how he remained consistent in office, quite telling:

"I think I benefited from being the son of my parents… My father… had this idea that he would not have enough time to do everything that he wanted to do… he tended to be a consensus builder but it was clear that he was the leader.

"In my mother’s case, she would tend to be more focused on the consensus-building aspect. It might take a lot more time, but then you get a more solid foundation with the decisions you have to make."

To the president, "Daang Matuwid" is not only about stopping corruption but also improving national confidence.

"[In the past] small leakages were tolerated. Then the small leakages became more and more until eventually… the leakages became 100%... public funds are supposed to be for the public good.

"When they are deprived of that which is due them, then you say '…persevere a little more, things will get better'.

"But when you say 'persevere a little more for the longest time', up to what point will they [still] say 'Ok, we’ll wait a little longer'?"

Indeed, he sees changing the self-image of the Filipinos as his signature accomplishment:

"I think the rekindling of the pride of Filipino [is my greatest accomplishment]… their attitude, their perceptions of the present and future impacts on where we will be."

Of course, problems remain. Infrastructure spending is lacklustre at only 4% of GDP.

Manila's electricity rates are among the priciest in the Asia-Pacific. Traffic is still awful and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remains far from ideal.

Also, NoyNoy’s cherished goal of reducing the number of "Balikbayan" (overseas Filipino workers) appears to have stalled, although the overall number has fallen to 9.1 million from 10 million previously.

There is also the nagging question of whether "Daang Matuwid" can continue after NoyNoy leaves office. As he said: "I would say my nightmare would be everything that has been achieved will get unravelled in the next 6 years."

On the South China Sea, he noted that the ongoing dispute with China had not hurt trade and tourism ties.

Despite The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruling that it could hear the Philippine’s request for adjudication against China on the issue, NoyNoy said, "Our actions are not meant to exacerbate tensions. We do not envision ourselves as having offensive capability against anybody."

He also expressed gratitude for Malaysia’s role in the ongoing Mindanao peace process, saying: "It is something that is very appreciated by our country and countrymen… We thank them for the help in getting both parties together."

The president conceded that it was unclear if the Bangsamoro Basic Law (which is seen as key to the peace deal and which will establish a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region) will be ratified before the end of his term.

Still, he said: "I keep challenging the critics… If you think this is wrong, it is your obligation to provide that of which you think is better… We do owe them [the people of Mindanao] this opportunity."

NoyNoy welcomed the Asean Economic Community (AEC), saying:

"I’m a firm believer that you cannot have a sheltered economy and expect it to grow. We cannot have those inefficiencies and expect to be able to compete on a worldwide basis.

"We see ourselves as having a bigger voice on the world stage because of our presence in Asean, especially since we have one of the biggest populations proportional to the rest."

The last line stuck with me after I left him.

While it remains far from certain whether "Daang Matuwid" will continue, NoyNoy and the Philippines are essentially putting Asean – including Malaysia – on notice.

Unlike some dynastic leaders, NoyNoy has chosen to use his time in office to clamp down on corruption and uplift his people, rather than enrich himself.

While many will poke fun at his "charisma deficit", there is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the most consequential Southeast Asian leaders of our time and yet another Aquino family member who has served his people well above the call of duty. – November 16, 2015.

* Karim Raslan is a Southeast Asian commentator.