A New Reality

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There are two stereotypical images of the Philippines. First is the image of ultra-poor people fighting typhoons or landslides living in grass huts (called nipa huts); the second is of ultra-rich like Imelda Marcos with closets full of wonderful European designer shoes and more money than God.

Both of these images are in part true.

There are many very poor people (mahirap, which also translates as ‘difficult’) in the Philippines. Most of the mahirap live in the ‘provinces’, or non-metro areas. For some, the quality of life is not too bad insofar as it is similar to that lived by their ancestors since time immemorial. Others, drawn by the bright lights and the chance to join the middle class, live in metro squatter camps called ‘informal settlements’. The most recent Social Weather Survey cites that 47 percent of the total population are self-identified mahirap.

Also, there are many super rich. Several tall buildings in Manila have helipads and they are actually used. Some have enough money to commute, do their shopping, etc. via helicopter. The expressways become racetracks for Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches and Aston Martins on Sunday mornings driven by rich kids who couldn’t care less about the AUD$35 maximum speeding fine. The number of super-rich is very small, probably much less than 1 percent.

Therefore, more than half the population are ‘middle class’...

Manila is the largest metro center by far. Manila itself, the old city, is only about 2 million strong. But the Metro Manila area is well over 10 million and maybe 20 million depending on what you include. Formerly quite distinct cities like Quezon City, Cavite and probably even Subic and Angeles have been (or are in the process of being) swallowed up.

Those still emerging from the mahirap, being sucked up into the vortex of this new middle-class by the booming economy (second fastest growth in Asia behind only China), work hard and still live hard. But massive condo developments are turning them into property owners and accelerating aspirations.

More than half the entire population of around 100 million are under 21. There must be 10 million young people who, born in nipa huts in the provinces, among families that work hard and sacrifice much, and have ridden the wave of massive government and institutional investment in education. They are now savvy and equipped with smartphones, computer skills and sharp wardrobes. They are pushing into the labour market.

This is the true story of the Philippines. The potential up here is simply enormous. And it’s exciting.

There is a very real chance that the current generations will be the last to see large numbers of mahirap. With the Philippine culture, energy, youth, natural abundance of the land and rising confidence and aspirations of the people, the Philippines has the potential to be a real success story. To properly understand and be a part of the potential up here you need to put aside the tired old stereotypes and embrace a new reality.

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