These are heady days for the "Tiger cub" Philippines as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits

MANILA — What Prime Minister Stephen Harper brings to the Philippines on Friday is his presence.

That counts for a lot in the Philippines. It has been a sleepy hollow since long before Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were pushed from power in 1986 by Corazon Aquino's "People Power" revolution. As a consequence, few foreign leaders have bothered to stop by.

The Philippines only got added to Harper's Asian itinerary — the first by a G8 leader in several years — because Indonesia got fed up waiting to find out the details of the prime minister's plan to visit Jakarta. Nevertheless, Harper's visit to the Philippines, which provides

While most of the rest of Asia took off — led by South Korea, Taiwan and China, followed by the equally export-driven "tiger economies" of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — the Philippines languished far behind. Its soap opera-like politics, too often populated by movie stars and crooks, has forever been rife with coup rumors, and scandal and corruption of every kind.

But the Philippines is finally waking up and the world is taking notice. Not quite yet a "tiger," the Philippines may now accurately be described as a "tiger cub." Its economy grew by 6.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Even with a global economic slump, Philippine GDP will probably grow by more than five per cent in the fourth quarter, according to the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and others such as Merrill Lynch. Even that perennial weakling, the Philippine peso, has shot up six per cent in value against the Canadian dollar over the past 10 months.

Goldman Sachs and HSBC reckon the country will jump from 43rd place to at least 16th place in the global GDP table by 2050 and to 20th spot in GDP per capita. Incidentally, the same survey predicted that based on GDP, Canada would move up to fifth, eclipsing Britain and France.

While not exactly middle class yet, many Filipinos have already benefitted from the stronger economic numbers. Crowds swarm swank new shopping malls or take their families on brief holidays. Presaging the coming boom and relaxed visa regulations for tourists from countries such as Russia, for the first time in decades half a dozen luxury hotels are being built in a country that has never until now really been on Asia's well beaten tourist track.

The Philippine economy is poised to take off partly based on explosive growth in its service sector, led by offshore call centers and international bookkeeping and auditing operations that take advantage of Asia's only English-speaking population and their American-style education. Its future success will be underpinned by mining exports.

The sudden change in the global outlook for the Philippines partly stems from the fact that for the first time in years the Philippines has a president  — Benigno Aquino III (Noynoy) — who is regarded as untouched by corruption. He follows years of misrule by Joseph Estrada (Erap), who was hounded from office and convicted of "plunder," and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is now awaiting trial on charges of fraud for allegedly fixing elections and of misusing $8 million in lottery funds.

Getting clearer mining rules for foreign investors is an issue that Harper must raise with Aquino. The current investment situation in the mining sector is unstable and uncertain. Canada and Australia are unhappy because of dithering over new regulations that affect major projects in the south of the country. Many Filipinos are unhappy because of environmental concerns and because royalties from mining either don't make it back to where the mines are located, or wind up in the pockets of local governors who still rule what are essentially fiefdoms.

Harper and Aquino will also undoubtedly celebrate the little-known fact that Canada's biggest immigration office overseas is in Manila, not in Beijing or New Delhi. In fact, Canadians might be shocked to learn their embassy here has about 180 Canadian and local employees, and that Philippine Airlines is from the end of this month adding non-stop flights to Toronto to the daily flights it already has to Vancouver.

Canada has a lot to offer the Philippines. It can help upgrade its woeful infrastructure so that it can realize some of the potential that the banks have been talking about. The roads, airports and the power grid are in a terrible mess. Nor has the country been able to fund any mechanisms to prevent or mitigate the widespread flooding that comes with every typhoon.

For the nonce, however, the Philippines will remain overly dependent on remittances from the nearly 11 million Filipinos working abroad. They contribute more than $21 billion a year or nearly 10 per cent to the national economy. In fact, it is the perpetual smiles and strong work ethic of these noble expatriates, the Philippine Economy Army – The Overseas Filipino Workers who are everywhere but especially in the Middle east, that have until now fed the 92 million Filipinos at home.

The Vancouver Sun

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