Older generations familiar with the history of both countries may describe the 2 countries as brothers who were separated at birth and brought up by different foster parents
By ZAINAL ALAM KADIR / By BERNAMA
The people look almost alike, and there are so many similar words and phrases, as well as culture and lifestyle that exist in Malaysia and the Philippines, yet the two countries seem to be worlds apart.
The older generations, more familiar with the history of both countries, might describe the two countries as brothers who were separated at birth and brought up by different foster parents.
“We have great similarities…yet, for a long time we knew very little about each other. That was because we were colonised by different people.
“You were colonised by the Spanish and then the Americans, and we had the honour of being colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British…and our orientation was towards these colonial masters, and this still influences us to this day because we feel very comfortable with the people who colonised us.
“That is why we know more about Britain than what we know about the Philippines,” Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said in his keynote address at the Malaysia-Philippines Business Forum that was held in Makati City last week, in conjunction with his three-day working visit to the Philippines on the invitation of President Rodrigo Duterte.
He said while the Philippines is close by to Malaysia within the same region, and Britain is about 8,000 miles (12,874.75km) away, Malaysians understand their “master’s” language more than understanding the nuances of its closest neighbour.
“But that was the past, the future is about getting closer together because we are within the same region,” he said.
On top of the agenda, following the visit that Dr Mahathir described as “very successful”, is the redevelopment of Mindanao, that is expected to be the main element that could improve Malaysia’s relationship with the Philippines even further.
In a bilateral meeting between the two leaders, Dr Mahathir assured Duterte of Malaysia’s active role in the development of Mindanao, following the successful creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Dr Mahathir described the Bangsamoro region as significant to Malaysia, since the country played a role in the peace talks which led to the region’s creation from the development of Mindanao.
While peace is being restored with the recent successful formation of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), opportunities for Malaysian companies to explore new ground is huge.
The Embassy of Malaysia in the Philippines deputy chief of mission Rizany Irwan Muhamad Mazlan said Malaysian companies should explore the property market, particularly in the southern region of the Philippines that is expected to see a massive revival, in line with BTA’s effort to rebuild the autonomous region.
The Organic Law for the BARMM has allowed the transition body to govern the BARMM until June 30, 2022, and it would be an opportune time for more Malaysian companies to make all the right connections.
Mindanao is the second-largest island in the Philippines and along with the smaller islands around, it has a total population of 20.28 million.
On the last day of his visit, Dr Mahathir also had a brief meeting with Mindanao Development Authority chairman Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, who is expected to lead the way for the development of more economic and social endeavours within the BARMM, with the assistance of Malaysia.
Apart from Alonto, who has a strong relationship with Dr Mahathir, the PM also met with BARMM Interim Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, following the dissolution of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
“They are excited to get things going to redevelop their newfound autonomy. They are trying to learn from us on how to move forward and are learning about the importance of foreign investment, so that they could create new economic activities that could create new jobs.
“They have many former combatants who only knew how to fight, and now they need to move on to develop Mindanao,” Dr Mahathir said.
He said Mindanao is currently still not as conducive for immediate development, as a result of the prolonged unrest in the region, and that it would take time for the area to be rebuilt.
“They’ve been at war for 40 years and of course their perception on their country’s administration and law and the need for them to have more self control is not the same as other peaceful states. These are among the issues that need to be tackled by the autonomy’s new government.
“Yet, the newly-formed administration is not experienced enough to govern the state. They now have accepted that the autonomy is still under the governance of the central government, which also includes all the budget needed to rebuild and move forward,” Dr Mahathir said.
He added that the “resurrection” of the region needs to be in tandem with revival of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) — a sub-regional economic cooperation designed to spur economic development in the lagging sub-economies. Established in 1994, BIMP-EAGA covers the underdeveloped and geographically remote areas in the four-member countries.
“We have to revive the BIMP-EAGA. The previous government was not very concerned about it, but now since we have agreed on the importance of the area, we have to study new ways to find the right ingredients to make the concept work,” Dr Mahathir said.
It might take a while for Mindanao to rise from the ashes, but Dr Mahathir’s visit could just be the needed boost for the people in the autonomy to move forward and break new grounds.
The three-day official visit also saw Dr Mahathir and Duterte agreeing on the exploration of other economic sectors that could benefit both countries, as well as other issues that are of mutual interest for the nations and the region.
“The president and I had a productive discussion this afternoon. We discussed a wide range of issues on bilateral relations between Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as regional and international issues of mutual concern. We have very strong and close ties between both countries at every level,” Dr Mahathir had said.
While trade between the two countries is encouraging, Dr Mahathir said it is more in favour of Malaysia.
As such, Dr Mahathir called on the private sector from both countries to forge cooperation and explore new areas of investment and trade.
He said the areas that would be of interest for co-development are health, tourism and education.
The other areas of interest that were discussed by both leaders were security issues, which include the borders of the two countries and Indonesia.
In his joint statement that was read at the Malacañang Palace, Duterte echoed Dr Mahathir’s concerns about resolving the security issues between the two countries, particularly terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes, and the fight against illegal drug trade.
He added that the Philippines will also improve economic cooperation between the countries, which according to him needs further expansion for mutual interest, as well as for the members of Asean.
Duterte said both countries need to intensify two-way trade and investments for the sake of prosperity and progress.
Maphilindo & Asean
“The Philippines’ destiny is in Asean and Asia. Malaysia, the Philippines’ partner for progress and brother for peace, will continue to play an important role as we generate and continue to progress our shared aspirations for greater peace, progress, prosperity and stability in the Asean region,” Duterte said.
Dr Mahathir’s discussions with Duterte were also peppered with various issues that are relevant to Asean.
“When we became independent, especially when Malaysia was formed, there was some antagonism between us. We were at odds with each other and the leaders of that time realised that going to war with each other was not going to help us in any way,” Dr Mahathir said.
That was the beginning of Maphilindo, an association that comprised three founding members — Malaysia, Philippines and indonesia.
“It did not really work. There was confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, and there were also claims on Malaysia from the Philippines, but eventually, when Indonesia had a change of government and leadership, we were able to come to our senses and we created Asean with five countries — Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
“Today, we are 10 countries and we have a population of 600 million people,” he said.
As such, Dr Mahathir said Asean countries should revisit and study past great ideas and concepts, as well as find a good model that could lead to the creation of a greater economic caucus.
He said the region, which now has a population of over 600 million, should also exploit the numbers for mutual economic interest.
“A big population is good, if the population is productive. Despite having 600 million people, we are still looking at ourselves as different countries with different markets and different domestic markets. That has limited our capacity to grow,” he said.
Dr Mahathir added that Asean should emulate China’s success story, a nation that has successfully transformed itself in less than 40 years to become the second-biggest economy in the world, boosted by its population.
“This should provide us with some lessons — that a big population can help us grow. We have to be productive of course. But a big population divided is not going to be helpful,” Dr Mahathir said.
He said during the earlier days of Asean, the members initiated an idea to assign each country with different industries, while the output could be shared within the members’ respective markets. However, Dr Mahathir said it did not really work as only Indonesia and Malaysia remained true to the idea.
“But that is a good idea, and good ideas can be revisited and studied again to find out why we did not exploit this huge population within the South-East Asian countries. But such ideas can be revisited if there are people who are willing to bring it back and re-study the whole concept.
“To do this, we need major members of Asean to think together about rebuilding the concept of making use of this 600 million people in the region. That is why Malaysia chooses to discuss it further with its closest neighbours with the biggest populations, like Thailand and the Philippines,” he said.
Still, while everything looks pretty simple on paper, the implementation and formalisation of ideas and concept within the region is not as easy to achieve, and Dr Mahathir knows this full well.
“It is very strange that when you come too close to anything, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
“This is the problem that we have and I think we should know that we have this great potential to become a big trading and economic unit that will exert much difference over our own domestic development,” Dr Mahathir said.