Mia M. Gonzalez

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Know more about the Philippines, Asia's hidden gem and rising tiger

Every legend about the creation of the Philippine archipelago begins with a fight either instigated by a party with vested interests or out of hatred.

An exhausted bird turns Sky and Sea on each other so they can form Earth in their battle. Bathala (God) crushes an army of invaders with one mighty stomp, breaking the solid land mass into islands. The gods of sky, sea, and air fight for supremacy and out of their collective fury rises 7,107 islands.

The same can be said about the history of the Philippines, which was divided and ruled by foreign colonizers before regaining its independence.

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, backed by Spain in the name of God, gold, and glory, discovered the Philippines in 1521. This began nearly 4 centuries of Spanish colonization resisted by all freedom-loving Filipinos, starting with Muslim chieftain Lapu-Lapu who turned the shores of Cebu into Magellan’s gravesite.

Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 for $20 million after a mock battle. After a brief Japanese occupation in World War 2, the United States granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946. Perhaps being the final foreign occupant, the US left an indelible imprint on Philippine life.

While the Philippines remains steeped in Catholicism and the values and traditions of its Spanish colonizers, English is widely spoken, the best-selling restaurants are hamburger joints, and basketball, the unofficial national sport, is played in every available space including the middle of the street.

Hidden gem

The Philippines continues to be Asia’s hidden gem, drawing far less tourists than some of its neighbors despite its spectacular natural attractions, rich biodiversity, friendly English-speaking people, and a growing reputation as a value-for-money destination.

Many of those who do go, by choice or accident, are now self-proclaimed Philippine tourism ambassadors, telling the world through their blogs why they should not miss out on the experience. has named the Philippines as among the “10 Places to Go While They Are Still Cheap” – a place for “bargain hunters, outdoorsy types, and the food obsessed.”

More than cheap goods and good eats, the unique culture of pre-Hispanic Philippines is preserved by its 110 ethnic groups. They comprise a tenth of the total Philippine population, which was at 100.7 million as of 2015. Philippine culture is a mix of Spanish, Chinese, and Malay influences.

The Philippines has 6 UNESCO heritage sites including the Tubbataha Reef, the Puerto Princesa Underground River which has been proclaimed as one of the new wonders of the world, the Banaue rice terraces, and several baroque churches. Another 19 sites are on the UNESCO’s tentative list.

Pearl of the Orient

The Philippines was known as the “Pearl of the Orient” through the 1960s, when it led countries in the region in every aspect of development. But a corrupt regime held it in a stranglehold for more than 20 years and dulled out all traces of its luster.

Widespread poverty and corruption, uneven development, and a repressive leadership strengthened the communist insurgency and the Muslim secessionist movement – slowly but surely transforming the land of a million smiles into the land of a million raised fists, though holding up rosaries.

In 1986, Filipinos showed the world how peaceful, collective assembly in a major thoroughfare can end bad leadership, restoring democracy and again, the promise of regaining its lost glory.

The Philippines has been poised to become Asia’s next tiger economy since the presidency of Fidel V Ramos in 1992. At the time, the country was reeling from an economy whiplashed by power outages and military coup attempts on the administration of President Corazon Aquino. Foreign investments went elsewhere. The country came to be known as the “Sick Man of Asia.”

Ramos instituted measures in the power sector that stabilized power supply (but would inevitably make power rates among the highest in the region), and landmark policies including breaking up monopolies in industries such as telecommunications.

Rising from its sickbed, the Philippines joined the ranks of Asia’s emerging tiger economies. The Philippines was just enjoying its new-found health when the Asian crisis threatened it anew.

It didn’t help that its next two leaders were hounded by allegations of corruption. President Joseph Estrada and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were both charged with plunder after they left office. Estrada, who was ousted after serving less than half of his term, was convicted for plunder, but Arroyo pardoned him. He is now mayor of the Philippine capital, Manila.

Arroyo, who is credited with returning the Philippines on the investor radar screen through tough economic reform policies, has been acquitted of plunder after nearly 4 years of hospital arrest. She is now representative of the 2nd district of Pampanga.

‘Rising tiger’

Benigno Aquino III was elected as president in 2010 with the promise of clean governance, a vow that resonated with voters tired of corruption scandals. Two years into his term, the New York Times reported that the Philippines was on its way to becoming an “economic bright spot in Asia” because of its young work force manning the thriving business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.

In 2013, World Bank country director Motoo Konishi gave the Philippines a clean bill of economic health.

“The Philippines is no longer the sick man of East Asia, but the rising tiger. There is macroeconomic stability, and the fiscal situation of the government is sound and improving. The fight against corruption is being waged with determination and it is paying off. Transparency is improving everywhere in the Philippines,” Konishi said at a forum held in the southern Philippines.

The Philippines has sustained this image as its economy continues to grow at a high average of 7%, with a low inflation rate. Credit rating agencies that used to scorn the country have upgraded the country back to investment grade.

The International Monetary Fund ranked the Philippines the 40th largest economy in the world in 2012. International banking institutions have predicted the Philippines to be among the largest economies in the world by 2050.

It is the world’s 5th largest English speaking nation and has been named as the best country in business English proficiency according to a study by GlobalEnglish Corporation.

The backbone of the Philippine economy are the millions of Filipino workers scattered across the globe, whose dollar remittances accounted for a record-high 10.6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006.

The major Philippine exports are semiconductors and electronic products, transport equipment, garments, copper products, petroleum products, coconut oil, and fruits. Japan was its top export market in 2013, followed by the United States, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Thailand, Taiwan, and the Netherlands.

It’s been observed that inadequate infrastructure, bureaucratic red tape and high power rates continue to make the Philippines less competitive than some of its neighbors. Situated along a typhoon path, the Philippines is also vulnerable to disasters and has suffered some of the worst natural disasters in modern history, including Super Typhoon Haiyan, a glaring example of unmitigated disaster.

The Philippines elected a new set of leaders on May 9, 2016, headed by former Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte who won as president on the campaign promise to eliminate crime nationwide within his first 6 months in office, and to bring overall “change” to the nation of over 100 million people. His bloody campaign against illegal drugs, however, has drawn international outrage and condemnation over the rising body count: over 7,000 people have been killed, both from legitimate police operations and vigilante-style or unexplained killings.

ASEAN integration

There were concerns that the Philippines may not be as prepared as its neighbors for ASEAN integration in 2015 – which seeks to improve the competitiveness of the region by breaking down barriers to trade and services – but Philippine trade officials said that the country was “primed and ready” to reap the opportunities of the scheme.

Cielito Habito, former head of the National Economic and Development Authority who is chief of party of Trade-Related Assistance for Development (TRADE) Project under the USAID said in a presentation at a forum in Manila in April 2014 that in the case of the Philippines, he believes that “overall benefits of integration outweigh the costs.”

Philippine legislators have conducted public hearings on the country’s preparedness for AEC 2015 to determine necessary legislation to ensure the survival of certain sectors, particularly agriculture and small and medium enterprises.

Asean relations

The Philippines, an ASEAN founding member, enjoys strong bilateral relations with other Asean members, though these ties were, at times, tested by territorial disputes, and in one instance, a migrant Filipino worker.

The Philippines and Malaysia suspended diplomatic relations between September 1963 and May 1964, and again from 1968 to 1969, because of the Philippines’ claim over Sabah in north Borneo, which was once part of the Sulu Sultanate. Both countries are also among the 6 claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

In 1995, the Philippines downgraded its diplomatic relations with Singapore after the execution of Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, who had killed her 4-year-old ward and another Filipino worker in the city-state. Singapore’s stoic stance on the matter, highlighted by its refusal to heed Manila’s plea to stay the execution of Contemplacion, a mother of 4, sparked widespread public outrage in the Philippines. Ties were normalized a few months later, after Singapore agreed to a third-party investigation which sustained its decision.

Vietnam and the Philippines, both claimants to the Spratlys, are strong advocates for a binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea among ASEAN members and China.

In 2012, the Philippines and Cambodia were engaged in a word war over the South China Sea dispute. Cambodia, a Beijing ally, had opposed the inclusion of Scarborough Shoal –  subject of competing claims by the Philippines and China – in the traditional joint communiqué. This led to the absence of the official statement, the first time this had happened in 45 years.

Some ASEAN members were also instrumental in helping the Philippines end its armed secessionist struggle. Indonesia was the third party facilitator in successful peace negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996, and Malaysia in the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. –

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Mia M. Gonzalez

Mia M. Gonzalez is a senior desk editor of Rappler. She previously covered the Philippine presidency and politics. An award-winning literary writer, she is the author of Welostit and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.