Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The Philippines and the United States have signed a new defense agreement that would boost the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines. But President Barack Obama, who arrived in Manila yesterday on a state visit, claims that the new accord is not meant to contain China.

After eight rounds of negotiations that took almost two years to complete, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was finally signed. It will would cover “capacity building towards (Philippine military) modernization, strengthening (the Philippine military) for external defense, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

The text of the agreement has not yet been released to the public but the Philippines government has published a primer on it.

The holding of joint military exercises is already permitted under previous agreements signed by the two countries, but the EDCA would allow the “construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades” and “storage and prepositioning of defense equipment.”

Critics contend that this is tantamount to permanent basing, which is prohibited by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Government negotiators retort that the EDCA is guided by the framework of “full Philippine control over facilities to be used, non-exclusivity of use of the designated areas for U.S. armed forces, and prohibition of nuclear weapons.” In other words, there would be no building of a permanent U.S. military base or a reclaiming of the former U.S. military bases in Clark and Subic.

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg reiterated this point when he said, “I will tell you what it will not do. It will not reopen U.S. bases.”

The Philippine government added that the Philippines will have full ownership of the facilities to be constructed by the U.S. military. Further, there will be “preference for Philippine suppliers of goods, products and service in U.S. military procurement.” According to the government primer, the U.S. will not be obliged to pay rent for the use and access of Philippine bases.

Aside from allowing the U.S. to construct military facilities in the Philippines, the EDCA would also increase the number of visiting U.S. personnel in the country. The primer stated that the number “will depend on the scale and the frequency of the activities to be approved by both Parties.”

Supporters of the agreement believe it will strengthen the military capabilities of the Philippines, which is currently embroiled in various maritime disputes with China. They see the EDCA as a concrete commitment of the U.S. to protect and defend the Philippines if tensions escalate in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The Philippines and the U.S. are defense treaty partners since 1951.

But Obama doused the high expectations of many Filipinos when he failed to give a clear commitment to help the Philippines in its maritime conflict with China.

“Our goal is not to counter China; our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of maritime disputes,” he said in a press conference at the Malacanang presidential palace.

“And we don’t even take a specific position on the disputes between nations,” he added. Nevertheless, he said he is supportive of the decision of the Philippines to seek international arbitration to resolve the problem peacefully.

Filipino journalists contrasted this position with the unequivocal statement of Obama a few days ago affirming the readiness of the U.S. to defend Japan’s ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which are also being claimed by China.

Another problem is the legal and political hurdles that could prevent the government from implementing the EDCA.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations and a member of the majority coalition, said the signing of the EDCA was an “unfair surprise” to the Senate, which was not given a copy of the agreement. She also expected activists to question the constitutionality of the pact before the Supreme Court.

Earlier, a former vice president and two other senators led a group of petitioners who questioned the haste in signing the EDCA.

“Just as we decry the lack of transparency in the crafting of the (EDCA), so do we oppose the rush to have the deal signed in time for the Obama visit. We insist that such an agreement should undergo thorough and extensive deliberations by the Senate as well as wide-ranging public discussion,” they said in a statement.

The EDCA will expire after 10 years but it can be renewed by both parties.

Xenophobia and Public Discontent in Singapore

Written for The Diplomat

The online ruckus over the planned Philippine Independence Day celebration on Orchard Road in Singapore is the latest ominous sign of rising xenophobia in the prosperous city state. But racism aside, it also revealed that Singaporeans are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their government.

A group of Filipinos in Singapore has organized a Philippine Independence Day assembly on June 8, but this was loudly opposed by some Singaporeans who described the event as inappropriate and disrespectful. Filipinos were surprised by this reaction given that they have been celebrating the occasion in Singapore for several years already. There are 180,000 Filipino workers in Singapore.

Angry Singaporeans flooded the social media with comments denouncing the event. They warned that holding the event in the iconic Orchard Road would “seriously provoke” the national pride of Singaporeans. They questioned the “insensitive intention” to fly the Philippine flag in Singapore, which they interpreted as an “invasion” of their country.

Gilbert Goh of, which assists unemployed workers, is worried that this event would set a bad precedent. “If we allow Filipinos to celebrate their national day at Orchard Road, who will be next? The Indians, PRC Chinese or Malaysians? Will Orchard Road be turned into a playground for foreigners only to wave their own national flags?”

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin was quick to disown the Internet “trolls” who used foul language against the Filipino organizers of the event.

“These actions by those who peddle hate are not acceptable, repulsive even. We should make a stand to say no to such bigotry. They do not reflect who we are as a people and as a nation,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who celebrated Singapore Day in London last March, called the protesters a “disgrace to Singapore.”

“We must show that we are generous of spirit and welcome visitors into our midst, even as we manage the foreign population here,” he posted on Facebook.

Perhaps Lee is already aware that much of the anger that exploded in the Internet has something to do with the government’s program to hire more foreign workers, something that is resented by many locals. Foreign residents account for about 40 percent of Singapore’s total population.

Right or wrong, many Singaporeans attribute deteriorating conditions, including such as stagnating wages, inflation, and even overcrowding on buses and trains, to the influx of foreign workers. Since last year, several huge rallies were held by locals criticizing the government’s policy of further increasing the number of foreign workers in the country.

Blogger Ravi Philemon asks whether the protest is more an indictment of the government: “To a certain extent, this anger by these protesters is understandable. I am not sure if their anger, even if it seems directed at the people of Philippines, is directed instead at the Government of Singapore.”

Activist Kirsten Han believes there are numerous factors in this complex issue but she does not support the outburst against Filipinos: “This is not about pushing for more democracy in Singapore. It’s not about empowering Singaporeans. It’s not even about problematic immigration policies.”

It’s about time for Singapore to review its social policies that have contributed to the rise of anti-foreigner sentiment among the local population. If this trend continues, Singapore might have to deal with more serious racial conflict in the future.

And as for the Philippines, it must seriously review its labor export policy, which was initially conceived in the 1970s as a temporary measure to fill the gaps in the employment sector. After four decades, the country continues to drive away the best of its skilled workers, creating a terrible shortage of manpower in several critical domestic industries. The greater challenge for the Philippines is not to help its citizens celebrate the country’s Independence Day in a foreign land but to entice them to return home.

In other words, Singapore and the Philippines, both proud independent states, must act aggressively to improve the living conditions of their respective citizens.

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