Bernardo M. Villegas
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My Addenda to the SONA (Part 3)

             After agricultural development, the President is right in identifying the tourism sector as not only an important development tool but a major contributor to the eradication of poverty, which is predominantly a rural phenomenon.  Tourism accounts for 12% of the labor force.  This is where we can learn a great deal from the Thai model of countryside development and the reduction of poverty.  By building farm-to-market roads and other infrastructures that directly cater to the farmers, the most attractive tourism destinations, which are in the rural areas, are simultaneously made accessible to tourists, both domestic and foreign.  That is why Thailand long surpassed us in agricultural development and in the number of foreign tourists.   We should, therefore, continue the laudable practice of the last Administration, when Senator Mark Villar was the Secretary of Public Works and Highways, to utilize the budget for public works mostly for roads and bridges in the countryside, rather than for urban infrastructures, which can be built by the private sector.  Infrastructures in the countryside kill two birds with one stone:  they help improve the incomes of farmers and they create jobs in the tourism sector. Hopefully, many enlightened LGU heads will follow the directive of President Marcos Jr. to maximize opportunities to improve infrastructures in their localities through Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects, using some of the proceeds from the Mandanas-Garcia ruling for this purpose.  Some of these PPPs can be with foreign investors who can now invest more than 40 % of equity in such vital projects as airports, railways, seaports, tollways and other public services under the amended Public Service Act.

            To prepare for the rebound of foreign tourism in 2024 and after, we should not delay in implementing the plan of the President to upgrade our airports and create more international airports to help decongest the bottleneck in the Manila airport.  Since Palawan has been rated by an international magazine in travel and tourism as the Best Island Resort the world, priority should be given to upgrading the international airports in Coron, Puerto Princesa and San Vicente.  The National Government, through the Department of Tourism, should work hand in hand with the LGUs in these municipalities of Palawan to actively attract foreign builders of airports from such countries as Spain, Japan, India, the U.S. and other countries to own and operate world-class international airports like the Mactan International Airport. Other cities which are gateways to very attractive tourism destinations and should also have their existing airports upgraded to world class standards are Dumaguete, Iloilo, Laoag, Davao, and Cagayan de Oro.

            Both domestic and foreign tourism can also be given a big boost if we have efficient railway systems in regions rich in tourism attractions.  In this regard, the present Administration should try its best to renegotiate at least two of the loan contracts with China involving the Calamba-Bicol and Mindanao railway projects.  These were the two of three loan contracts that were cancelled because China failed to respond to the Philippine government’s loan application since 2019.   By showing our interest in having China transfer its advanced technology and expertise in building modern railways systems, we demonstrate our desire to have close economic relations with this biggest economy in the Indo-Pacific region.  Whatever our political differences with China may be as regards the Western Philippine seas, we should continue to have friendly relations with the country that can be a major trading partner, especially in agribusiness and mining.

            There should be a special focus on getting the Mindanao railway project to be implemented.   An efficient railway system in this second largest and richest in agricultural resources in the Archipelago can help Mindanao achieve the vision of its being a food basket not only for the Philippines but also for the whole Indo-Pacific region.  The first phase of the P82-billion Mindanao railway project, as reported by Alyssa Nicolle Tan in the Business World (July 20, 2022), stretches from the Tagum Station and depot in Davao del Norte to Digos City in Davao del Sur.  There will be stations in Carmen, Panabo, Santa Cruz, and three in Davao City, including a sub-depot.  Who knows, this proof of concept that an efficient railway system can lead to rapid development in the areas covered may even convince foreign private investors to actually own and operate railroads covering other parts of the island.  My own vision is to see the hours it takes to travel from Davao City to Cagayan de Oro City cut down significantly by a railway system.

 As we succeed in improving the productivity of our agricultural sector, we can contribute to food security in China by exporting high-value vegetable and fruit products, going beyond bananas and pineapples which we are already exporting to China.  Also, China will be the biggest market for our nickel and copper products as it intensifies the digitalization of its economy and the adoption of renewable energy such as solar and wind. Recently, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman identified four key areas of cooperation his country wants to pursue with the Philippines:  large-scale agriculture, infrastructure, energy and people-to-people exchange.  We should also consider the fact that as the world fully recovers from the pandemic, Chinese tourists will be among the most numerous in the Indo-Pacific region.  We should see  a revival of the large influx of Chinese tourists in Ilocos Norte.  I remember seeing Fort Ilocandia Hotel in Laoag City during the early years of this millennium so crowded with Chinese tourists that Mandarin became the most frequently used language in the hotel premises.  A challenge to Governor Matthew Manotoc is to  bring down the price of electricity in the province.  Who knows, the Ilocanos may be the first ones to allow a modular nuclear plant to exist in their region!  They were among the first to install the renewable sources of energy of solar and wind in the country.

Let me now make a few comments about the salient points raised by the President about Philippine education.  As an educator myself (among the several hats I wear, education is my first and foremost concern), I fully support the President’s (and Vice-President’s) call for a return to face-to-face classes.  Even if we solve the problem of lack of internet resources for the vast majority of basic education pupils, especially in the public schools, face to face learning is indispensable for young people not only to learn the subject contents but most especially to develop the social and communications skills that are an integral part of the intellectual and moral formation of the youth.  In fact, at the university level, blended learning should minimize the time devoted to online sessions.  The most important skills to be cultivated in institutions of higher learning have to do with critical thinking, effective communication, and the ability to relate the various disciplines to one another.  These skills are best developed through actual personal contacts with the professor and fellow students. The return to the classrooms of millions of students will also give a big boost to the economy.  In fact, despite the higher rate of inflation in the second half of 2022, I am forecasting a GDP growth rate of more than 7 percent for the whole year, based on a strong rebound of private consumption expenditures.

            The second educational issue on which I want to comment has to do with the President’s reference to “lengthy discussion on the continuation and viability of the K to 12 school system.” If we are aspiring to graduate from an upper-middle income economy (which we shall attain in 2024) to become a high-income economy in the next twenty years, we have to do something about the past anomaly of our having had the shortest period of basic education compared with all of our peers in the Indo-Pacific region, if not in the whole world.  The past generations (including my own) may be proud of the fact that despite our only ten years of basic education (compared to 12 to 14 years of other countries) we still managed to prepare adequately for our respective professions or occupations.  We have to consider, however, how scientific knowledge in all the human disciplines has grown exponentially over the last twenty to thirty years.  We would be doing an injustice to our youth if we do not prepare them for the more intellectually demanding future they will face.  As the President said, “Our children must be equipped with the best that we can provide.”

            Another reason why we should continue with the K to 12 curriculum has to do with the stage of economic development in which we are.  Compared to our more progressive neighbors in the East Asian region, it has taken us too long (some 40 years compared to the average of 20) to graduate from low-income to upper-middle income status.   That is why, we have the uncomfortable situation of combining the so-called four industrial revolutions during the present stage of our economic development.  We still have a disproportionately large demand for farm workers, agribusiness technicians, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, masons and other construction workers and not to mention factory workers who do not need college degrees to be productive in their work.  This means that we have to encourage a large majority of those who finish their senior high school to choose tech-voc courses (the so-called TESDA track) rather than follow an academic curriculum.  At the same time, to have equality of opportunity, we must still provide those who choose a tech-voc course the opportunity to acquire higher skills and knowledge through a ladderized system that can enable, for example, an electrician to become an electric engineer or a bookkeeper to become a C.P.A through further studies.  Such a ladderized system would require giving all of our youth the skills of critical thinking, effective communication, and multidisciplinary dialogue that can only be acquired in the last two years of  the K to 12 curriculum.  It must be recalled that before the K to 12 school system was introduced, the first two years of all college diploma programs were devoted precisely to the liberal arts and humanities that are necessary for the skills necessary for lifelong learning.   If we remove Years 11 and 12 from basic education, we would be condemning those who opt for the tech-voc occupations to a state of intellectual stagnation and incapacity to progress from blue collar work to more intellectually demanding professions.  The K to 12 curriculum is a means of democratizing educational opportunities.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia