Fidel Ramos Downplays ‘Asian Flu’

The Seattle Times
November 23, 1997
By Alex Tizon

The leader of the 13th-most-populous nation on Earth sat back in his chair, cigar in hand, and told stories like a favorite uncle holding court at the dinner table. He talked about everything from push-ups to the East Asian economic crisis. About push-ups, Philippine President Fidel Ramos said he still does them regularly at age 69. “Want to do some right now?” he said, challenging a guest sitting across from him in his suite at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle. About the economic crisis in Asia, his basic message was this:

Dear American investors, don’t panic, don’t lose faith, don’t run away. Everything’s going to be all right — at least in the Philippines.

Ramos stopped in San Francisco and Seattle on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vancouver, B.C. He arrived in Seattle Friday afternoon to meet with business leaders, reassuring them the crisis in East Asia has not been a mortal blow. This may be particularly true of the Philippines, a nation of 74 million people where economic setbacks have come at regular intervals during the past four decades.

No question the country’s economy was affected by the so-called “Asian flu” — its peso currency has dropped 14 percent and its stock market has dropped 26 percent since July – but Ramos said the Philippines will recover faster than other Asian economies, partly because of its slower growth. Whereas the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai economies have grown at breakneck speed — increasing 8 to 10 percent a year — for a decade, the Philippine economy has grown at a moderate rate of 6 percent to 7 percent, and only in the past two years.

In other words, the Philippine economy has had less time to overheat and has created a much smaller “asset bubble” than the other East Asian economies. In addition, Filipino business leaders accompanying Ramos to APEC say their country’s oldest and biggest companies have withstood more bad times than good over the past 40 years and have learned to survive.

“The basics of economic growth are still there,” Ramos said. “The productivity is there, the work ethic is there, the markets are there.”

Ramos, dressed casually, engaged reporters who were escorted one by one to a heavily guarded receiving room. There, when he wasn’t talking about the economic crisis, he appeared relaxed and in good spirits. Indeed, he appeared like a president with only a few months until retirement. Ramos’ six-year term ends in June, and he has vowed not to run for re-election. He made the announcement in September after months of speculation that he might amend the constitution to allow a second term.

The constitution, written after the 1986 ouster of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, limits presidents to a single term to discourage dictatorships. Ramos’ supporters, however, began a movement to amend the constitution so that he could continue his economic reforms.

A career military man who rose to the rank of four-star general, Ramos was named chief of staff of the Armed Forces in 1986 by newly elected President Corazon Aquino. Before stepping down from office, Aquino endorsed Ramos in the 1992 election, which he won by a narrow margin. He has been almost universally lauded for creating political stability in the Philippines and lifting the country out of a deep economic morass. His supporters, and they are many and powerful, want him to continue his leadership.

But opponents on the second-term issue, including Aquino and the powerful Cardinal Jaime Sin, say such an amendment would threaten the Philippines’ young democracy by setting a bad precedent and opening the constitution to other changes. While Ramos has said he will not run for re-election, he has not halted the campaign by supporters to amend the constitution.

Regardless of what his title will be after the May election, he said, he will continue to have a say in what happens in the Philippines. As for the new president, he said, “I will be looking over his shoulder, or her shoulder, providing advice whether solicited or not. I see that as my main job in the future.”