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Cloud Computing in Philippines, Asia Presents Major Major Challenge

Political Leaders Can Be the Biggest Obstacle

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a $434 million "partnership" package with the Republic of the Philippines during Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III's recent visit to New York. The grant comes from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), a government agency created during the George W. Bush administration to promote economic freedom in developing countries.

In announcing the grant, she chastised the newly elected Noynoy a bit, noting that "too many (Filipinos) feel that they cannot progress in their own country. Too many of them feel that the elite in business and politics basically call the shots, and there's not much room for someone who's hardworking, but not connected."

The money is supposed to be used to build roads, help local development programs, and empower the tax authority to do its job better. Would it kill anyone if some of it were used to develop a smart, national IT policy that incorporates Cloud Computing?

Cloud in Asia
The big Cloud events in the region are in the "have more" places--Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai--but the potential of Cloud could be the greatest in the truly developing places such as the Philippines and many others in this hot, crowded neighborhood.

I remember a fantastic travelogue by current Forbes Magazine publisher Rich Karlgard, in his earlier days, when he was a fly on the wall with Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy on a jaunt through Europe. In Poland, shortly after the Iron Curtain was drawn back, sitting across from stone-faced apparatchiks who were resistant to his pitch, McNealy said simply, "we're coming here with or without you."

The challenge for Cloud Computing technology vendors to preach their vision and sell their revolutionary wares throughout Asia may be more daunting. Even the cocksure McNealy might get bogged down here. The challenge is ridiculous, and the region's top leaders often remain the biggest obstacles.

Communists still run the show in China and Vietnam. Thailand, previously a model Asian Tiger economy, is ripping itself in two over a long-simmering political dispute. Indonesia routinely medals in the regional corruption competition. Malaysia, a relative success with substantially smaller population pressures than its neighbors, scores very low in its press-freedom ranking and lives with chronic ethnic tension among its Malay and Chinese communities.

Thus, despite ongoing technological progress in all of these countries, they each harbor significant obstacles to an open and free-flowing discussion about how something as revolutionary as Cloud Computing can further their economic progress.

Then there's the Philippines. A recent conference in Metro Manila on the topic of Cloud Computing was dismal, populated by skeptical bureaucrats who could easily see security challenges...and.that.was.that.

Meanwhile, in a speech at the United Nations during his trip to New York, Aquino urged the world to embrace People Power for the betterment of humanity:

"For so many times in our history, my people have shown that united, nothing is impossible. We call this People Power. It is my earnest hope and in the greatest interest of humanity that we harness the energies of dialogue, solidarity and communal responsibility so that a global people power towards equitable progress may be achieved."

It's a nice sentiment, but in fact, Philippine leaders have shown, if nothing else, that very little is possible here. About 13% of the economy comes from the remittances of overseas workers and relatives. Secondary education ends after 10 years, in a country where the citizens take education very seriously.

To the outside world, Noynoy Aquino was the perfect presidential candidate for the Philippines. He People Power pitch is personal, as he is son of original People Power advocate Corazon Aquino and the martyred Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. Noynoy's parents are iconic, his manner mild and seemingly unflappable. He ran on a campaign slogan of "no corruption, no poverty," that is, end the corruption that plagues this country and poverty will surely fall away as well.

But he's already shown himself to be a lax leader, and has not come close to beginning processes to push forward land reform (his mother's family remains a major major agricultural landholder here in perpetual discord with its tenant farmers), investment reform, or a Freedom of Information Act that failed during the final days of his successor but which he was expected to revive quickly. His disappearance during a recent hostage-taking incident that resulted in the deaths of several foreign tourists was puzzling, and his actions since that time have been aloof, bureaucratic, and weak.

Those Pesky Political Potentates
Powerful political families in the US have proven that one's last name does not guarantee greatness (or even mediocrity), whether that family name is Kennedy, Bush, or Gore. The Philippines' political elite is the US times 10, with seemingly every powerful politician the scion of a family (or two or three) originally empowered by Spanish colonialists in the 19th century. Only movie stars and other "artists" (as entertainers are called here) break through this elite logjam, with the very occasional self-made rich guy in the mix.

It's the Hatfields vs. the McCoys on a very grand scale. In the end, the Filipino people for whom all politicians profess such love and fealty receive receive a shockingly thin gruel at their end of the trough.

Constitutional Concerns
Another part of the problem lies in the hastily conceived constitution of 1986, which went into force after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos--a longtime ally of the US and good friend of President Ronald Reagan--was overthrown and Corazon Aquino installed in the first wave of People Power. The current constitution has notorious sections that favor local ownership and restrict foreign ownership to 40% in most cases. As a result, the Philippines receives a fraction of the foreign investment of many of its neighbors, while being dominated domestically by precious few oligarchic companies in most business sectors.

Any number of editorialists and other influencers have been screaming for constitutional change for some time, including moving away from the US-styled Presidential system to the more widely used parliamentary system.

The constitution also calls for a US-style presidential system. But unlike in the US, the Philippines does not have the strong two-party system to make things work properly. It features instead a number of parties battling it out on personal, rather than ideological, grounds and routinely elects its Presidents with a modest plurality. Aquino received 42% of the vote in May, in what is routinely called a landslide win. About 70% of eligible voters turned out on a blazing hot day to elect him.

There is no runoff here. Additionally, senators are elected at large, rather than from individual regions or provinces. Representatives are elected locally, although there is a "party list" representation in the country's lower house that defies honest scrutiny.

A Hard Life 
So, poverty remains endemic to about a third of the population, and the official slogan of the entire country seems to be "mahirap ang buhay" (life is hard). Skilled workers earn about $10 a day, teachers about twice that. Luxuries such as air-conditioning and trips to the mall, let alone owning a car, are unthinkable for most who don't receive money from abroad.

Meanwhile, one of Noynoy's best friends allegedly supplements his modest government salary with an average of about $150,000 per month in payoffs from the underground gambling industry.

Some Tropical Sunshine
To be fair, there are exceptions to such bleakness. The urban enclave Makati City (part of a collection of cities that form Metro Manila) has created a world-class skyline and business environment in recent years under the leadership of former mayor Jejomar "Jojo" Binay.

Binay is now the vice president, having run for the office with a different party than that of Noynoy. The two offices are elected separately here. His support of business in Makati was, shall we say, more practical than philosophical, so one can't be sure how well these skills will translate to the national level of business development.

There are other positive signs. The growth of business process outsourcing (BPO)--mostly call centers, but with increasing tech sown in--has created 400,000 new jobs in the past decade, and brings in several billion dollars annually. I have a client as part of my small consulting business who has supported the creation of about 50 jobs here, and things are working out well. I have never personally experienced day-to-day corruption here, having navigated several tricky bureaucratic procedures with nothing untoward along the way.

Noy's vision of "combating inequality (which) remains one of the greatest challenges of our times," as he told the UN, has many obstacles strewn in its path. "The chasm between the powerful and powerless, the have and have-nots, remain to be bridged," he said.

Agreed. But when? And how? And will someone take a serious look at this Cloud Computing revolution thingie?

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.