Philippine Spotlight

Nation’s government, business leaders share story with Memphis

By Bill Dries

Tourism is big business, but there are concerns about infrastructure.

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. of the Philippines visits with Memphis in May board chair Calvin Anderson and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. during a reception at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

New education reforms are going from the drawing board to the classroom.

Government corruption is recognized as a deterrent to economic development efforts.

And workforce development is being pursued in an economic downturn that has made more critical long standing problems with poverty.

There is a lot going on in the Philippines that might sound familiar to Memphians.

The off week for Memphis in May International Festival events in Tom Lee Park Downtown meant a chance for government and business leaders from the Southeast Asian nation – including the republic’s ambassador to the U.S. – to visit the city and tout business ties between the islands and Memphis.

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. was appointed ambassador to the U.S. in 2010 by President Benigno Aquino III. Aquino took office that same year and immediately vowed to root out government corruption.

Those efforts were mentioned prominently by Cuisia as he spoke to several Memphis groups last week about investing and trading with the Philippines.

“I think it has encouraged investments, foreign investments,” Cuisia said after the Greater Memphis Chamber’s International Business Council Luncheon. “In the past, one of our biggest problems was precisely the corruption in government that was cited by foreign investors as a disincentive.”

The U.S. is the second largest investor in the Philippines after Japan, and Tennessee is ninth among the U.S. states in exports to the Philippines. More than half of the state’s exports to the Philippines are computer electronics – an indicator that the service sector is a large part of the Philippine economy.

Outsourcing services, primarily call centers but also medical and legal transcription, are “growing by leaps and bounds and it will continue to grow,” Cuisia said. “Right now when it comes to voice, we’re No. 1, surpassing India. When it comes to non-voice, we’re second.”

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. of the Philippines, seen here speaking during a recent reception, was a successful business and government executive prior to his posting as Ambassador to the U.S. in April 2011. Cuisia and other Philippine leaders have touted their nation’s business and cultural assets as this year’s Memphis in May honored country. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The new tourism push by the Philippines is making a debut in Memphis. Cuisia talked up the Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan.

But he and Bill Luz, co chairman of the Philippine National Competitiveness Council, fielded numerous inquiries during their Memphis stay about World War II sites on the islands.

After speaking at the Memphis Rotary Club, Luz was pulling up pictures on his iPhone of the monument to General Douglas McArthur to show to a Memphian with a relative buried in one of the World War II cemeteries. He also fielded inquiries about the former U.S. military bases at Subic Bay and on Luzon.

The council Luz serves on has one chairman from the government sector and another from the private sector. Luz is the private sector co-chairman. And the general issues he talked about are familiar ones to Memphis audiences and policymakers.

The Philippines is using a “conditional cash transfer” program that rewards families in poverty for achievements like staying in school and getting pre natal care and taking “values classes.” It is similar to the rewards program the Wharton administration has been pursuing through the Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“It’s an investment we needed to make,” Luz said of that effort as he also talked about education reform.

The education reform discussion sounds similar from a distance but has some different demographics.

“We’re a young population. … We’re pushing 100 million people. The median age is about 20,” Luz said. “At any given time, we have about 27 million or 28 million people in the educational system across the country. … We need to make massive investments in public education.”

Until this year, Philippine public schools went through the 10th grade. The 11th and 12th grades are being added. And the curriculum is adding more science and math as Luz talks of a move to grow the economy beyond the service sector jobs that were the face of America’s most prominent economic development plums of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“Years from now we hope to see a workforce that has got better options. … It should be more technically proficient,” he said. “Jobs are more demanding these days. We need to equip them with these skills – a lot more critical thinking, logic, a lot more analytical skills. At the same time, you still need all of the communication skills.”