Smart talk in a globalized world

Manny Pangilinan, Philippine Long Distance Telephone’s and Smart’s top gun, began his keynote address at the 16th Philippine Advertising Congress in Cebu with these thoughts:  “I retain a strong affection for Cebu, and I’m always inspired when I visit this beautiful city.  This is where Lapu-Lapu, a Filipino, slew Magellan, a Tisoy.  Any contemporary similarity between Smart and Globe is of course purely coincidental.”

Strictly speaking, Lapu-Lapu was not yet a Filipino, because the concept “Filipino” came about only during the Spanish period, when it was first used to designate Spaniards born in the Philippines.  And of course, it is not purely coincidental that the contemporary “enemy,” Globe’s owners, the Zobels, whom Pangilinan virtually tagged as lawbreakers, have the physical attributes of “tisoys”.  Smart talk like this may be cute, but it is loaded with dangerous implications.

There is nothing wrong with being Tisoy, just as there is nothing wrong with being Chinoy.  Tisoys and Chinoys are as Filipino as Manny Pangilinan, who himself looks more mestizo-Chinese than “pure” Pinoy, whatever that may mean today.  As far as I know, no one has taken this against him, nor, more importantly, has anyone questioned Mr. Pangilinan’s acquisition of Filipino companies for the Salim Group, an Indonesian Chinese conglomerate based in Hong Kong.

Many years ago, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir introduced the idea of a “definitive people” in order to justify policies that would favor native Malays, known as the “bumiputra”, in the allocation of government appointments, university admissions, and business licenses.  The “bumiputra” policy alienated a large segment of Malaysians because in effect it graded the citizens of Malaysia according to whether they came from original or immigrant stock. The notion that one can be more Malaysian than other Malaysians based on racial endowment has since stood in the way of Malaysia’s development into a democratic multi-racial nation.

Mr. Pangilinan’s disturbing remarks seem to me to come perilously close to Mahathir’s Malay chauvinism.  They could backfire on him, and provoke an inquiry not so much into the racial origins of the principals he represents, but into the links between the Salim Group and Suharto money.  Filipinos who fought against a corrupt Marcos regime would be interested to know if their country is now being used as a sanctuary for dubious money.

No, Smart has enough smart people working for it to give Globe fair competition without having to play the race card.  In a globalized world in which home-grown Filipino companies must compete with strong foreign brands, it may often be tempting to ring the bell of patriotism to call attention to one’s product.  But ultimately, the public will always be drawn not by the national or racial affiliation of a service or product but by its comparative price and quality.

Jollibee would have remained the inferior shadow of McDonald’s if it had been content with building a reputation solely on being the maker of the Filipino hamburger.  But it has moved on to become a more successful company than McDonald’s in the Philippines not because it bills itself as being more Filipino than its competitors, but because it is able to adapt modern management techniques to local traits and tastes.

I think Smart is better poised than Jollibee to make this kind of difference.  Manny Pangilinan appears to possess a lot of that killer instinct in business that Filipino companies may need to make it in a globally competitive world.  Interestingly, the rest of his Adboard Congress speech revolved around the lessons he learned nurturing First Pacific into a world-class firm in an international environment like Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong,” he said, “was a wonderful laboratory for globalization because its community of entrepreneurs, bankers, solicitors, and accountants works to world-class standards of excellence and professionalism.  Our Hong Kong experience taught us to believe that depth of commitment can overcome a dearth of material resources. That a spirit of purpose can give impetus to human energy.  That the power of ambition can set heroic goals, and achieve results beyond resources available.”

I salute this type of bravura.  Manny Pangilinan is entitled to bask in his personal successes with the conceit of a native son who made good and wants the whole world to know, but he has no need to mar this achievement by continuing to be burdened by a chip on the shoulder.  Resentment is a low sentiment.  A true warrior is honored by the strength of his foes.

I like Manny Pangilinan when he is not whining about the enemy but focuses on the future. His vision is a contrast to the monopolist smugness of the PLDT dinosaur that for too long held dominion over Philippine communications.  “Data are rapidly overtaking voice as the principal telecoms traffic.  This transformation will compel all carriers to expand their data network and data network offerings.  PLDT will need to rebuild its existing circuit or voice infrastructure to data capable systems, and to redefine itself with a new marketing approach, a new skill base, and most importantly, a new attitude.”

“The focal point therefore of our plans is convergence, the coming together of computers, communications and media.  This is no longer a utopian dream; it is upon us.  Quite simply, we’ve reached the day when we can talk to our television and watch our telephones.”

This, to me, is smart talk, and I hope Manny Pangilinan can keep it that way.


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