By Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines should “drastically” cut the number of sectors and activities closed or limited to foreign investors to get more of the investment flows into Asia, the economic planning secretary said on Thursday.
Ernesto Pernia said that when he was given an initial draft of an updated “foreign negative list”, he sent it back for amendment because it was “puny”.
“I want a more aggressive liberalization,” Pernia told reporters on the sidelines of a business forum organized by foreign business chambers.
The Philippines is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies but it lags regional peers in terms of attracting foreign direct investment because of foreign ownership restrictions, high power costs and poor infrastructure.
Pernia said that among the sectors and activities targeted for opening or further opening were the practice of all professions, retail trade enterprises, ownership and management of public utilities and contracts for construction.
Since coming to power in June 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to open up the economy and liberalize sectors such as energy, power and telecoms to make the country more competitive and give Filipinos better services and lives.
In terms of openness to foreign investment, “we have to be at par with other countries, no choice, otherwise we will continue to be left behind,” Pernia said.
Foreign direct investment hit a record $7.9 billion in 2016, central bank data showed, but the figure pales in comparison with those it has for Vietnam ($12.6 billion) Malaysia ($13.5 billion) and Singapore ($61 billion).
Investors have long been frustrated at being shut out of some sectors in a market of more than 100 million Filipinos, either squeezed by local monopolies or regulations that bar or limit foreign ownership in certain activities.
“The key point is how quickly the new administration is going to proceed with its stated intention to remove restrictions on foreign direct investment,” Julian Payne, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines told reporters.
“You want to at least have the ASEAN average (of FDI flows) and we still got a long way to go,” Payne said.