Dr. Emiliano Hudtohan

Educator, Business Writer, Industry Expert and Entrepreneur

Professional Overseas Filipinos Oiling the Philippine Economic Machinery

Dr. Emiliano T. Hudtohan

Published in BusinessMirror

July 2 &9, 2008  Last year, the Philippine Chamber of Industrial Estate and Economic Zone and its President Audi Adiviso invited former NEDA Director Cayetano Paderanga to give an economic briefing at the Mandarin Oriental.  In that briefing, Director Paderanga noted that Malaysia made a profit of US$14 billion from fossil oil production.  He said that in 2007, the Philippines also struck oil — from the remittances of Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) amounting to US$14 billion.

This year, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas expects US$ 16.45 billion in remittances, a 10 percent growth in money sent by Filipinos working overseas despite economic slowdown in the US and in Europe. This forecast is on tract.  In April 2008,remittances from Filipinos working overseas already rose by percent: US$1.4 billion, an acceleration of 9 percent annual growth. BSP also announced that financial investments of overseas Filipino households doubled in the first quarter of the year from 21.9 percent in 2007 to 48 percent

It is a fact that Overseas Filipino remittances have been fueling the country’s economic growth and heavily financing the government’s domestic borrowing, making the Philippines the world’s third largest recipient of workers’ remittances. Their contribution is equivalent to over 11 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In more ways than one, the talent and hard work of OFWs literally oil our economic machine.

Pinoy Professionals in Singapore
I just came back from a holiday in Singapore. Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road has always been knows as Little Manila there; domestic helpers go there to remit money home or buy the week’s supply of phone cards. You can hear a lot of people speaking in Filipino, Cebuano or Ilocano.  You can eat lutong bahay at the food court, and get served by a kababayan. Filipino money changers approach you and talk to you in Filipino. On a Sunday, Lucky Plaza is a point of convergence for Filipinos and has a fiesta feel to it.

But not all Filipinos are comfortable with going to Lucky Plaza. Whether they admit it or not, the growing community of Filipino professionals would rather be seen elsewhere. They prefer to chill out at the Paragon cafes, discuss books at Borders in Wheelock or go shopping at Takashimaya.  This new breed of Filipino expatriates in Singapore work with global corporations. Aside from being paid in Singaporean currency, many are housed in serviced apartments or sizable homes in Bukit Timah. They themselves contract the services of their fellow Filipinos for childcare and support with house work.

In Singapore as it is in other major cities across the world, the traditional image of the OFW has been changing over the past years. There are now several faces to the OFW – the corporate executive more and more being an alternative poster girl/boy to the nanny and seafarer.

Divergent Dreams
Filipino expats you meet in Singapore dream with a long term view – with their families with them, the ambition is often to become a permanent resident in a year or two, and maybe even a Singaporean citizen further down the line. On the other hand, a skilled Filipino worker dreams with immediate needs in mind as they sleep alone far from family — having enough money to rush back to the Philippines and pick up family life from where they left off.

For example I met a Filipina, formerly a Marketing Officer for a Manila shopping mall, now working as storekeeper of Cold Storage supermarket in Newton. She told me and my wife she felt awfully lonely living alone.  The 30 to 40 minute train ride home to the government housing flat she rents is often quiet time to think about how much she has already saved and how much more she needs to stick around for. Upon learning that our daughter is an HR Manager for a multi-national company, she sought references for work in the Philippines to rejoin her family. But with Philippine-based companies struggling to be competitive because of the high cost of doing business, job consolidation and retrenchment are in effect. Coming back home doesn’t look like a rosy alternative for our OFWs.

It’s a different story with Mickey [not his real name] who completed his collegiate studies at the National University of Singapore in early 2000. We met him at the Novena Church of the Redemptorist [like our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran] where majority of the parishioners are Filipinos.  Mickey is now an officer of a Singaporean bank. Admittedly, he is Filipino by heart. But he timidly broke the news that he could not resist the offer of the Singaporean government for a permanent residency, then citizenship.  His parents can visit him longer, and he can now avail of the governments Central Provident Fund. He is also no longer tied to a single employer like those with work permits or employment passes. He can jump into the robust job market if he wants to.

Bangkok Expatriate
This summer I was also back in Bangkok after 35 years.   We had a chance to meet with the Filipino-American niece of my wife.  She is married to a Filipino who is a marketing director for a multi-national beverage company. The husband, an expat, enjoys the privileges of a very rewarding salary, housing and education for his children.  Her husband remarked that he has become much closer to his mom and dad because they visit for a number of weeks and they live together in the same condo. In Manila, they get to see them once a week and only for lunch or dinner. We found out that her niece prefers Bangkok to Manila despite the horrendous traffic and language gap.  She feels at home having learned Thai and her kids are already acculturated in a Thai school and their neighborhood. Thailand is also much safer than Manila, without bomb scares or constant political coups to worry about.

Along Sukhumvit my wife and I explored this busy commercial area for a food adventure. It was a pleasant surprise and relief to order food from Filipino waiters.  They smile, speak good English and get your orders right. No need to worry about being understood that “not spicy” means “no spice at all please.”  At a taco resto, an hombre sporting a Mexican hat greeted us, “Buenos dias and kamusta” in one breath.  The perfect character for the job was a marine engineer from Cebu waiting for a sailing opportunity. He was in Bangkok to hone his human relations skills.  He was comfortable because his Filipino wife was exercising her nursing profession in Bangkok too.

Once upon a time, we perceived Bangkok to be in the same quality of live index as Manila. I even remember the days when the Baht and Peso were 1 is to 1. But it seems those days are long gone – even going to Bangkok is a step up for Filipinos today. Is anywhere now better than home?

Sydney Auto Mechanic
Harry [not his real name] was an auto mechanic teaching at the Negros Occidental School of Arts and Trade in the Visayas.  In the late 70s he left for Sydney with his wife and two kids to work for the Australian government.  Today, he and his wife are retired Australian citizens and his kids are grown men in good jobs.

When we met them four years ago at their luxurious residence in Bankstown, Sydney, he told us that it was important to retire with money set aside because he continues to finance their folks in the Philippines.  Their two kids born in the Philippines hardly speak Hiligaynon, and they talk and behave like typical Australians.  They work 4 to 5 days a week and spend plenty of time at Bondi beach, and they travel regularly to the USA and Europe.

This generation of overseas Filipinos has hardly any cultural ties with their relatives in the Philippines.

And the third and succeeding generations will most likely be more Australian than Filipino. Nonetheless, Harry tried to pass on his favorite Hiligaynon dictum to his kids and to us: Imo ulo, imo kulo; imo kalag, imo bakero. [Your head is your concern and you shepherd your own soul.] – a typical Bisayan value of self-reliance, makinaugalingon.

The Future Overseas Filipino
My wife and I met Audrea [not real her name] at Jollibee, Harrison Plaza one breakfast morning.  Her dad works in Dubai as a flower arranger.  Already, her mom told us that Audrea has to study very hard at Aurora Quezon Elementary School and make sure she learns good English.  Audrea is a smart Grade III pupil who attends Aurora’s School of the Future. But this early, she is being recruited by her uncle residing at Perth, Australia.  Her mom proudly announced that as soon as she finishes grade school, she will be sent as a family scholar to Australia.  There goes yet another Filipino talent earmarked early on to be an OFW.

Talk about moms nursing students who all want to migrate?

In my generation adults used to think of migrating for the first time when they get married or start a family. Maybe we should move out to provide a better life for the kids, is the usual reflection question. But today, even our children have dreams of foreign lands as early as primary school. No doubt media has helped accelerate the wanderlust in their hearts far earlier than I ever imagined, and maybe seeing their parents toil without life changing significantly also contributes to this mindset.

Global Filipino
The overseas Filipinos whether in Thailand, Singapore or Australia remain Filipinos at heart with very close family ties. But with their experience of another culture, they have become global citizens whose familial concerns continue to fuel the economy of the Motherland through their remittances.

Their bank accounts are in US dollar, Singapore dollars, pounds or dinar but their hearts are Pinoy pusong mammon.

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