Telltale Signs: Straight Talk From The US Ambassador

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US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas Jr.

SAN FRANCISCO – Though straight talk at an open forum in Manila got US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas Jr. in hot water last September when he volunteered an estimate of the number of foreign male tourists who visit the Philippines for sex (“40%”), straight talk at an open forum in South San Francisco on February 4 drew nothing but warm adulation and a standing ovation.

Over 250 Bay Area Filipino Americans attended a dinner for Thomas sponsored by the US Pinoys for Good Governance (usp4gg.org) which was formed by US-based Filipinos who attended the inauguration of Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III in Manila on June 30, 2010 and who were welcomed at a Makati reception by US Ambassador Thomas.

“Foreign aid is a band-aid,” he replied to a question about the need to increase US aid to the Philippines. “The Philippines is already the 5th largest recipient of US aid in the world receiving more than $500 million a year, including more than $200 million annually in Veterans Administration (VA) payments which is even outside of the $200 million for WW II veterans. There are more than 8000 Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines, the largest in the world.”

When asked about past US support for the Marcos dictatorship, Thomas acknowledged that the US had committed “shameful” acts in the past but he counseled, “Don’t be trapped by history.”

“We cannot excuse what the US government did to the Filipino WW II veterans after the war with the Rescission Act. When Sen. Inouye reminded the US Congress about the sacrifices of the Filipino veterans, there was not a dry eye in the room. But this is 2012. We have to live in the present and not always dwell on the past.”

The first African-American to be appointed US ambassador the Philippines, Thomas shared that he grew up in South Carolina at a time when there were separate fountains for whites and blacks. “We’re all victims one way or another but we can’t go around acting like victims, trapped in the past and by the past,” he counseled.

When asked his opinion about a bill in the US Congress that would discourage the outsourcing of call center jobs to India and the Philippines, Thomas replied that as a US ambassador he has no opinion on the subject. “But don’t blame Pres. Obama for that bill. As president of the United States, it’s his job to keep jobs in the US,” he said.

Thomas said he understands the attraction of call center jobs because they pay better than average wages. He expressed puzzlement about why a college degree is required just to pour latte at the Dusit Hotel in Makati or why “umbrella girls” at the Intramuros Golf Club are fired when they turn 30.

“How can the Philippines produce a Jonas Salk when graduates of medical schools in the Philippines can’t get jobs in local hospitals unless their parents have enough money to buy ownership shares in those hospitals?”

 

“How can graduates of law schools from the provinces get jobs in the law firms of Manila when they only pick from the crème of the top six Manila universities?”

Thomas expressed a concern that if all the focus is concentrated on just increasing the number of call center jobs in the Philippines, “what would happen if the call center industry falls like the Philippine textile industry did?”

The Philippines needs to diversify its industrial base and also move away from being “Manila-centric”, he urged. Industries that create jobs should be set up all over the Philippines, not just around Manila and Cebu.

But industries can’t create jobs without capital and local capital is insufficient to meet the national demand.  While Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) remit about $2B a month through official bank channels, these funds are generally used to pay for the consumption needs of their relatives and not used to invest in infrastructure projects that create jobs.

Without specifically mentioning the Foreign Investments Act of 1991 more commonly known as “the 60-40 law” – which limits the amount of ownership of a Philippine business that foreign companies can own – Thomas asked how it is possible that a war-ravaged country like Vietnam could leap ahead of the Philippines economically.

In one study about the competitiveness of South East Asian countries in attracting foreign investments, the Philippines ranked 7th out of the ASEAN-7 – with Singapore and Vietnam at the top and the Philippines at the bottom far below  its nearest competitor, Indonesia.

Foreign investors are not willing to invest in countries which require that majority control be in the hands of locals, a condition which would not allow them to determine the fate of their funds. They are also not willing to invest in countries with legal systems that are corrupt, Thomas said although couched in a more diplomatic way.

Thomas was asked about the progress of his campaign against human trafficking in the Philippines and he replied that it was frustrating. “We bust prostitution establishments that prey on young girls in Angeles City and the next day, they’re operating again because the owners can get court orders allowing them to reopen.”

We know parents who sell their young daughters into prostitution because they have no other means to feed their families, he said. You can’t get rid of human trafficking without getting rid of poverty and you can’t get rid of poverty without providing enough good-paying jobs, he said.

Thomas encouraged Filipino Americans to continue to lobby the US Congress on behalf of the Philippines and to invest in the Philippines.

At the end of the open forum, when Amb. Thomas had patiently completed answering more than a dozen questions, the audience stood up spontaneously to give the ambassador a standing ovation.

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