Today marks the 49th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the nation with an iron fist from September 21, 1972 until he was overthrown on February 25, 1986. In social media, his followers have been claiming that the Philippines was the “richest country in Asia” during the Marcos era which they considered as the “golden age” of our economy.

But the World Bank’s economic data for Marcos’ 20-year-reign from 1965 to 1985 have shown otherwise. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP) during that period, Japan had the highest average GDP while the United Arab Emirates recorded the highest average GDP per capita. Based on these two indicators, our ranking was nowhere near the top 10 among the 48 countries that comprise the Asian continent.

In fact, the Philippines was not even the richest country in Southeast Asia during those two decades. Before Marcos won the presidency in November 1965, our GDP per capita was the third highest in the ASEAN region next to Singapore and Malaysia. By the time he was ousted by the Filipino people through the EDSA Revolution in February 1986, our GDP per capita had dropped to fifth place behind Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Results of an economic analysis done by University of the Philippines (UP) professor Emmanuel de Dios showed that our GDP per capita only grew by 3.4% for the decade of 1970-1980. In contrast, our ASEAN neighbors posted much higher growth rates during the same decade: 7.7% for Singapore, 5.7% for Indonesia, 5.3% for Malaysia, and 5.1% for Thailand.

A more recent study conducted by UP economists JC Punongbayan and Kevin Mandrilla had the following findings on the Marcos era: two decades of development were lost; the regime borrowed too much too quickly; the manufacturing sector was neglected; work conditions deteriorated rapidly; and the Philippines became the “sick man of Asia.”

Using data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, Punongbayan and Mandrilla came to the conclusion that “it took the country an entire generation to recover from the bad outcomes of the Marcos regime’s economic policies and management.” From 1977 to 1982, the country’s total external debt ballooned from $8.2 billion to $24.4 billion, resulting in an eightfold increase in interest payments as a share of national income. “This imprudent debt management burst into a full-blown crisis by 1983,” they said.

Moreover, the crony capitalism espoused by Marcos was a disincentive for the growth of private enterprise in favor of cronies’ interests – which led to the stagnation of manufacturing and prevented the Philippines from partaking of the so-called “East Asian miracle” in succeeding decades. As a result, our economy lost so much ground compared to neighboring countries and catching up with them has remained a big challenge up to today.

Filipinos’ per capita income severely retrogressed during those “lost decades of development” which, according to the two economists, testifies to a “truly dark era in our economic history.” They found that “even with this data alone, it is difficult to understand why many people cling to the idea that the Marcos regime, taken as a whole, brought about the Philippine economy’s golden age.”

And now, we’re back to being the sick man of Asia with the cycle of over-borrowing and debt-driven growth once again rearing its ugly head. This time, it has been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the alleged plunder of pandemic funds – a double whammy for an economy struggling to recover after five consecutive quarters of negative growth.

J. Albert Gamboa is a Life Member of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly FINEX Digest magazine and the monthly FINEX Focus newsletter. The opinion expressed herein does not necessarily reflect the views of these institutions and the Manila Bulletin.

Source: Manila Bulletin (