‘Filipino First’ — but which Filipinos?

By Raul Pangalangan
Published on the Passion for Reason column of the April 13, 2007 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Nationalism, how many crimes have been committed in thy name? The opponents of Open Skies equate nationalism with protectionism. Today in the 21st century, we must ask: Protection for whom? If in the 1950s the banner cry was “Filipino First,” today we ask: But which Filipinos? In the case of aviation, the airlines or the flying public? If indeed we are a democracy, would the Palace care to do a headcount of aviation-generated jobs vis-à-vis the riding public who will benefit from Open Skies, coupled with the local jobs created by an invigorated tourism industry?

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order 500, adopting an “open skies” policy at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Pampanga, aiming to advance the Clark Special Economic Zone as a tourist and investment hub.

Foreign low-cost airlines soon began to operate from Clark: Tiger Airways of Singapore, Air Asia of Malaysia, Hong Kong Airlines of China, Asiana Airlines of South Korea, as well as the cargo handler United Parcel Service (UPS). There has since been a 110 percent increase in passenger traffic through Clark, boosting the local tourist industry and real estate business.

But now the full text of EO 500 is no longer available on Malacañang’s website. Ms Arroyo has since reversed herself and issued EO 500-A, restricting the Open Skies privilege and effectively barring the budget airlines from Clark — they who, in the first place, helped pioneer Clark’s success.

The papers report that a Pampanga-based group, Pinoy Gumising Ka Movement (PGKM), has urged President Arroyo to revoke EO 500-A as “the battering ram of the unrelenting campaign of Manila-centric ‘imperial dragons’ to sabotage DMIA’s viability as a global gateway.” GMA seems indeed to have awakened, and she is now poised to issue EO 500-B, which will allow a “pocket Open Skies” just for Clark.

The leading Filipino airlines have banded together in protest. In an eerie adaptation of Chairman Mao’s “united front” tactics, Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air, Air Philippines, Asian Spirit and Pacific East Asia Cargo Airlines have branded the impending EO 500-B a “threat to the national interest.” It is a sell-out of the national patrimony, they say, because it grants privileges to foreign airlines without requiring them to grant reciprocal obligations to their Filipino counterparts. Even worse, they say, EO 500-A gives foreign airlines what amounts to “Most Favored Nation” treatment, as if it were a local airline. It is this unilateral surrender of “valuable bargaining chips” that they bewail.

The Fair Trade Alliance (FTA) has chimed in, calling on the Civil Aviation Board to defend the country’s sovereignty. “Since the country’s skies [are] part of our sovereign territory and national patrimony, flight entitlements by foreign carriers must be evaluated on the basis of reciprocity, the welfare of the local aviation industry and national interest.”

The reciprocity argument is seductive to Filipinos, both the politically correct as well as the politically naïve. Indeed, why shouldn’t the government champion Filipino industry? After all, the competition have their own home governments to lawyer for them.

At the outset, the FTA really loses me when it speaks, in one breath, of “the welfare of the local aviation industry and national interest.” Haven’t we heard that one before, at the height of the Cold War? A spokesman of the military-industrial complex famously said, “What is good for General Motors, is good for the United States.” Now that General Motors has been overtaken by Lexus, BMW and Mitsubishi, don’t you think it has been good news to all motorists, American and non-American alike, Filipinos included?

But at its core, the reciprocity argument ignores the potential of our tourism industry. Why speak of just reciprocal flights? Why not reciprocal benefits?

Tourism relies on the arrival of warm bodies in our even warmer weather. Increasing the in-bound flights — by whatever airline, from whatever country of origin — should be in our interest. The upper limit, if at all, of in-bound flights should match the maximum number of tourists that we can absorb.

But reciprocity says the opposite. The upper limit is how many flights Philippine Airlines (or whatever local airline) can send to that country. If, say, there are 100 planeloads of Korean tourists each month who wish to experience “WOW Philippines,” why limit the number of flights to 50 if that is all that PAL and its Korean counterpart can absorb?

Why not open the skies, so to speak, to other airlines who wish to send more business our way? Why protect the business of the aviation moguls under the banner of nationalism, and sacrifice the thousands of mom-and-pop operations that have thrived in the downstream bonanza from the Korean influx? Why, aren’t moms and pops Filipinos, too? Why cabin the meaning of reciprocity to counting flights to and from each country? Why not weigh reciprocity in terms of the benefits that we all can reap?

The airline industry says that this debate is about aviation, not tourism, because more flights do not automatically mean more tourists. That argument sounds good in the abstract. But EO 500-A has created a simple fact: The tourists have come. To constrict the flights now and keep the tourists home simply doesn’t make sense.

It is amazing how the rhetoric of protectionism continues to have currency today. The Filipino First policy has proved itself a failed experiment, and the Filipino bourgeoisie itself, unequal to the task of building a national economy. It is time to bury these statist orthodoxies, and find a nationalism that makes common cause with the common folk.

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  1. this may come as a surprise but i actually think we need to step back and look on how we can help develop our airline industry. the industry, despite the relatively short time it has come to be, has so far been seemingly achieving a certain level of success. if there’s a way to help nurture this industry then we should do so, at least temporarily, on a fixed period, with a stable and consistent policy. protection may indeed may be justifiable in this case.

    it is a far different situation from helping an industry or company that has been around for so long, been receiving government protection for so long, and STILL is uncompetitive. companies or industries like that should not be allowed to stand in the way of giving benefits to the greater Filipino consumer.

  2. krisha cabidog

    I would like to make a research about the open skies policy. I want to know the analysis of the problem, its advantages and disadvantages in our economy, national identity and travel and tourism. I really need to get this informations. Kindly send me a reply. thanks!

  1. 1 The ‘open skies’ issue in Clark: A question of fairness* « FairTradeWeb

    […] few weeks ago, a columnist chided the Fair Trade Alliance for siding with the local aviation industry on the propos… By opposing an open skies policy in Clark, we have been taken to task for taking a stand that is […]




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