What makes the Philippines tick with expatriates?

What makes the Philippines tick with expatriates? Philippine Business interviewed three foreign business executives who, for one reason or another, have resided for more than two decades in the Philippines, and now enjoy living here. Not coincidentally, all three are currently engaged in work that helps foreign nationals understand the complexities involved in living, working, and doing business in the Philippines.

When Henry Schumacher was transferred to the Philippines by German company Hoechst, he never thought that the average 5 to 6-year stay of an expat would extend to 25 years. Today, as Executive Vice President of ECCP, he actively promotes European interests in the country and assists Filipino exporters in entering the European market.

When Hoechst asked you to go back to head office, why did you opt to stay?
Hoechst sent me here from South Africa and I should have stayed here for 5-6 years, which would have been the normal term. When I started here, I had reminded head office many times I want to go back; you cannot keep me in the Philippines for so long. But they were always saying, “We are successful with you. You seem to be the only one who understands these Filipinos who have one coup d’etat after another, one year of revolution, and so on.” Then the chairman of Hoechst said now is the time that we think you should go back. I told him, “I cannot go back to headquarters.” I knew that if I go back to headquarters, I cannot live within this limited-flexibility environment. And so I resigned from Hoechst and then took over the management of the European Chamber, the chamber which I had co-founded.

Given the many upheavals and changes, you didn’t think of leaving for good?
No, basically not. Although, I felt discouraged most during the last year of the previous administration. I had the feeling that we were having the last few minutes of the Titanic, before the Titanic hit the iceberg. I think the changes that happened in December 2000 and January 2001 may have prevented that we rammed that iceberg.

Did you ever have fears for your personal security?
No, never. Throughout the 25 years, I moved around freely. Living in large cities like this forces you to be careful. I mean, there are things you should do and there are things you shouldn’t do. But that’s not different whether I’m living in Frankfurt or in Berlin or living in London or New York.

For vacation, where do you usually go?
Boracay is still my super-duper favorite place, because it has an atmosphere that hardly any other place I know has – where you can drift on the beach and you can make a decision if you want to be five-star or if you want a backpacker area. It’s pretty relaxed, and it’s a beautiful island, no question.

What, for you, your memorable times in Philippine history?
Through administrations from Marcos to Aquino to Ramos to Estrada to Arroyo, there were always periods when we hoped that the country was on the way up – now we are going to make it, now we have the formula to be successful, now we have the ingredients in order to pick up the pieces and move ahead and find the future that we want to have. There have always been disappointments. We were swinging up and then it’s as if we didn’t want to be successful. So, of course, there have been things happening during those 25 years that I will treasure – treasure from the point of view that they were unbelievable moments.

What do you particularly like and also dislike about the Philippines?
I guess it’s the friendliness, the smiles, the ability to communicate. I think the Filipinos are so easy to deal with and adjust so easily to environments. I’ve liked working with Filipinos. It’s the lack of discipline, I think, that is the biggest drawback – there are always exceptions – but, I think, to a large extent, the reason why certain things don’t work is a lack of discipline.

What reforms would you then recommend?
Less on politics and, please, more on economic reforms. You have elections in May 2004 and, now the election campaign has started already. You have two years of election campaign and then it takes half a year until the new administration gets its act together so, between now and the beginning of 2005, no major things are going to happen. Everything is going to be politics.

What do you want for the future of the Philippines?
I would like to see the economy grow. I would like to have more confidence of business – both local and foreign, in what this market of 80 million is and what they can export and what they can do. I would love to see more focus on services rather than saying it always has to be manufacturing because I believe that Filipinos are better equipped for the service sector – be that IT, doctor, nurses, healthcare, engineering, and architects. I’m not talking about export of warm bodies. I’m talking about providing services to the rest of the world from here.

For foreigners coming here, what would you tell them about the things they have to adjust to?
I think it is an Asian – not a Philippine – problem that you have difficulties in saying “no.” What you do is develop many forms of “yes” so I guess they will have to learn how to read it because a yes is not a yes. I think I also developed a management style, which I believe was important to me. That was “management by walking around” – to be seen, to know what others are doing, not to be locked in your office and hope that whatever you wanted to be done will be done. I think it’s important to maintain a reasonable level of control rather than saying, “yes, it will be done.” A yes can be a “yes, but” or a “yes, however” or a “yes, not now.” I guess, at the end of the day, one must have the ability to understand whether “yes is yes” or whether “yes means no.”

Do you understand some basic Tagalog?
I think some, maybe, but very little, but I don’t know if they talk behind my back. I’m always saying that I don’t care. If I travel and I need my beer, I can still order in Tagalog if really need be. It’s a lousy alibi for not having learned, but I still believe that a lot of Filipinos will still prefer to speak in English with me.

Would you say that you already have some Filipino traits in you?
Yes, I think so. I’ve learned more flexibility here. I am more positive as far as life is concerned, enjoying today, and don’t worry continuously about tomorrow. I think these are lessons I have learned here that I appreciate. You live only once, you might as well enjoy it. Here you see that very clearly. You see Filipinos from all walks of life having a good time. I think that positive approach to life makes life in the Philippines so nice.