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Sun 11 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

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Tweeting masses shine in new Hurricane Katrina

The online messaging service derided by comedians as “inane chatter” proved to be a life-saver in the Philippines.

The online messaging service derided by comedians such as Jon Stewart as “inane chatter” proved to be a life-saver in the Philippines this week. So was the networking site Facebook, which Filipinos used to plead for help and inform friends and relatives about how to avoid the worst of Manila’s floods.

It’s a good thing, given how clueless the government was in what’s being called the nation’s Hurricane Katrina. Critics are right to invoke US incompetence as New Orleans took on water in 2005. Philippine officials embarrassed themselves by claiming their response was no less tardy than that of other governments.

The line seems to be: ‘we were a little less pathetic than officials in the US and Taiwan, so go easy on us.’ Yeah guys, you go on believing that.

The Philippines’ woes offer three broader lessons for Asia and investors betting on the region’s growth potential. First, don’t underestimate how Twitter Inc or Facebook can exert people power. Twitter, for example, played an unexpected role in protests after Iran’s recent election. China even blocked Twitter on June 4, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Discussions on Facebook also are unnerving the region’s governments.

All that online chatter puts the onus on elected officials to do their jobs. Filipino politicians have a well-deserved track record of declaring victory the moment growth returns. This year’s 51 percent surge in the Philippine Stock Exchange Index gave many people the sense that the good times were back.

The aftermath of tropical storm Ketsana shows how that’s largely an illusion. Yes, the Philippines economy is growing 1.5 percent while the US’s is in recession. The trouble is, even seven percent growth rarely touches those who need it most. These people live in the Manila shantytowns that literally floated away as antiquated sewage systems backed up. The last few governments pledged to upgrade drainage and sanitation programs, only to do little.

Granted, budgets are tight. It’s times like these when the lip service about reducing corruption and increasing tax receipts rings hollow.

Second, the implications of Asia’s march to urbanisation. If you want to take the pulse of economies, you could do worse than hang around train stations.

Be it Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai or Shanghai, the hordes of people arriving downtown offer investors more insights than statistics or the financial pages.

On the one hand, they suggest global demand for energy and other raw materials will rise in the years ahead. New roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, airports and housing mean higher demand for cement, steel, lumber, glass, rubber, copper and a host of other basic materials. On the other hand, governments must avoid being overwhelmed by the dynamic.

Manila’s crisis is a cautionary tale. It’s not just that officials didn’t do more to prepare. Infrastructure and city services haven’t kept pace with a fast-swelling population. The dangers of makeshift and overcrowded settlements along creeks and rivers are now painfully clear.

Third, the effects of global warming. The prospect of yet another typhoon this week won’t be a surprise to scientists concerned about the future of coastal cities such as Manila. It’s getting harder and harder for skeptics to explain away the increasingly extreme nature of weather patterns. Rising global temperatures are a big threat to Asia’s economies.

The point here isn’t to kick the Philippines when it’s down. The economy has vast potential, and two little-appreciated facts are worth mentioning here. One is demographics. Thirty-four percent of Filipinos are younger than 15, while just four percent are older than 65. The other is natural resources; the nation is rich with mineral and thermal-energy resources.

Such attributes mean little if the government doesn’t make the most of them.

President Gloria Arroyo failed to use several years of rapid growth to increase the efficiency of the economy and attract the long-term investment needed to maintain it.

In May, Filipinos will elect a new leader. Should he or she fail to put the nation on a more prosperous path, the Twitter and Facebook crowds will be watching. That goes for the rest of Asia, too.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

lovely 10 years ago

I agree on every single opinion you did Mr. W. Pesek. No less than infrastructure in Phil. was really been set isolated. as in no further study when they try to build new High rise buildings . Trees been cut off drainage are really unexplainable. Wherein yes Phil. Is really rich in natural resources but less attention placed into it. Keep up you good work!!!