Editorial Notes

Re-examining South Korea's failure to contain Mers, Indonesia's approach to gay rights and hopes of fair competition in the Philippines

Editorial Notes is a selection of editorials from newspapers in the Asia News Network (ANN).

1. Soul-searching in Seoul on spread of MER: Was lack of funding a key factor? 

The Korea Herald/ANN

Medical workers deny outpatients entry to a hospital in the city of Gangneung, Gangwon Province, South Korea, June 24, 2015, after a nurse at the hospital tested positive for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). PHOTO: EPA

The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreak that has gripped the nation since the first case was confirmed on May 20 now seems to be contained, with no new cases reported for two consecutive days as of Monday. MERS has infected 182, claiming 32 lives, and 2,682 remained in quarantine as of Monday. 

In hindsight, the government’s initial response to MERS was a failure. Sticking to the guideline that the virus does not spread across distances of more than 2 meters, the authorities failed to cut the chain of infections in the first few days. In its insistence on the 2-meter guideline, the government overlooked the fact that very little is known about MERS, which first emerged in the Middle East in 2012.

The government’s initial refusal to reveal the names of the hospitals where MERS patients had been treated greatly contributed to the spread of the virus in different hospitals. It also created panic among the general public and prevented people who may have been exposed to the virus from reporting themselves.

The health authorities handling of self-quarantine cases should also be reviewed for the failure to promptly identify who may require quarantine and the lapses in monitoring those in self-imposed isolation. 

The authorities’ failure to provide appropriate guidelines contributed to hospital staff being infected. It was only on June 17 that the authorities said level-D protective gear should be worn when treating MERS patients. It is thought that even at Samsung Medical Center, a major source of the spread, such protective gear was not issued until June 17.

Perhaps the fundamental cause of the public health risk management failure is the lack of money. 

Of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s budget for this year, only 19 percent is earmarked for public health. The lack of medical specialists at the ministry is also glaring. There are only 18 medical specialists at the ministry and 18 medical specialists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country has 34 epidemiologists, but only 2 of them are on staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In hindsight, the system was doomed to fail at the slightest strain. Much has been said about the unique Korean culture that may have contributed to the widespread outbreak. At the very core of the problem, however, is health authorities’ inept handling of the outbreak, which, in turn, can find its roots in lack of funding.

2. US ruling inspires awakening on gay marriage in Indonesia 

The Jakarta Post/ANN

San Francisco's iconic ferry building is seen behind an assortment of signs and rainbow flags during a gay pride parade in San Francisco, California, June 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Although a recent US Supreme Court ruling in favour of same-sex marriage may not have significant impacts on Indonesia, religious leaders say that the landmark decision will inspire recognition of the rights of homosexuals in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.  

Abdul Mu’ti, deputy secretary-general of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Islamic organization, said that the impact of the court ruling was inevitable and may encourage support for same-sex marriage in the country.   

“I would say it would impact Indonesia due to the advancement in human interactions today,” Abdul told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

“[The public] has witnessed similar movements in this country before the US court made the decision,” Abdul said, adding that members of the urban middle-income bracket were likely to be the most impacted given their secular and progressive views on human rights issues.

According to Abdul, the ruling will impact the urban middle class in two ways.

“First, psychologically, urban society will be motivated to bring similar cases to the state. They will raise same-sex marriage as a human right that needs state protection. Second, politically, they will say there are already countries that have legalized same-sex marriage,” Abdul explained.

A similar response was voiced by the secretary-general of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), Gomar Gultom, who said the US court ruling would trigger a similar response from related groups in Indonesia, no matter how small.

“It is likely to have an impact although not really significant,” Gomar told the Post on Monday.

According to Gomar, there are many Indonesians who have accepted same-sex marriage but do not voice their concerns because it is still considered taboo in Indonesia.

Both Abdul and Gomar agreed that Indonesians concerned with human rights issues would be influenced to fight for the recognition of same-sex marriage in the country. However, both said the fight would take a long time due to the overall nature of Indonesian society which is bound by religion and culture.

“In Indonesia, in order for a marriage to be legally recognized, it should be conducted within a religious ritual which the bride and groom submit to,” Gomar said.

The Indonesian Supreme Court recently refused to explicitly recognize interfaith marriage in the country. 
On Friday, the US Supreme Court made a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law meant that states could not ban same-sex marriages. With the landmark ruling, gay marriage becomes legal in all 50 US states.

The US court decision has brought hope to gay rights activists across the globe that the decision will change attitudes in their countries, just like a same-sex marriage ruling in Europe changed attitudes in the US.

 In Indonesia, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people still find it hard to fight for recognition in public let alone have their sexual identity recognized by the law because Indonesian tradition, along with the country’s six recognized religions, still consider LGBT people taboo.

Indonesian law does not specifically prohibit LGBT activities but advocates have reportedly been attacked by certain groups who consider LGBT people deviant.

Advocates are also stigmatized when they voice their concerns in public.

“There will be resistance, violence. I could be killed, my organization might be terrorized,” said Hartoyo, head of Suara Kita, an LGBT rights organization.

“They [the US government] might use the United Nations as a channel to do that, or to make a convention to protect LGBTs,” he added.

3. Filipinos can now hope for fair competition, after 20 years 

Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

Philippine President Benigno Aquino attends a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, June 5, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

After more than two decades, consumers can now look forward to the benefits of fair competition—better products and services at the right prices. The 16th Congress approved early this month a consolidated version of a national competition policy first filed in the 8th Congress more than 20 years ago. President Aquino is expected to sign the bill before he delivers his State of the Nation Address next month.

The proposed Philippine Competition Act is an antitrust policy prohibiting anticompetitive arrangements or behavior as well as other unfair business practices. Lawmakers expect the landmark measure to result in stronger measures to protect consumer rights and welfare against the inefficiencies and abuses of the market.

The business community believes that the proposed competition law, which is expected to check anticompetitive business practices, abuse of market power and anticompetitive mergers, will lead to a more open environment for investments, innovation and pricing. It can likewise level the playing field for new entrants and existing investors planning to expand or diversify their investments in the local market.

An important provision of the bill is the creation of the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), a powerful independent quasijudicial body attached to the Office of the President, to implement the national competition policy. It will be made up of a chair and four commissioners with a seven-year term. The commission has the power to conduct an inquiry, investigate and hear and decide on cases involving any violation of the Competition Act and other existing competition laws and prescribe the appropriate civil or criminal penalties.

The proposed measure also stipulates a fine of up to P100 million for business entities found engaging in unfair business practices for the first offense and up to P250 million for the second offense. For criminal charges, offenders face imprisonment of two to seven years in addition to the fines.

The bill prohibits anticompetitive arrangements between or among competitors (an example is through collusion to fix the price of their product or service) and abuse of dominant position for monopolies or companies that have very negligible competition. Dominant players, under the law, are those with a market share of at least 50 percent. An example of abuse of dominant position is predatory pricing (the selling of goods or services below cost in an effort to force the competition out of the market) or imposition of barriers to prevent the entry of new players in the market.

The passage of a national competition policy has long been pushed by business groups to do away with monopolistic commercial behavior and level the playing field for businesses. Before the bill was ratified by the current Congress, intense lobbying by big business opposed to the entry of competitors in the local market made sure that all competition and antitrust bills languished at the House and Senate committee levels or passed as watered-down versions of the original. An example was the liberalization under the Ramos administration.

The banking industry was opened up to help bring down the cost of borrowed funds, but the law restricted the entry of foreign banks to only 10. The telecom sector was also liberalized to break the monopoly of PLDT, but the entry of new players did not bring down costs as much due to ownership restrictions. Worse, the regulatory agency for the telecom sector often sided with the telecom firms.

The move to level the playing field and ensure fair competition does not stop here. The next step should be the removal of constitutional restrictions to competition.

Patronage politics has ensured the protection of the business interests of favored individuals from competition. This protection goes all the way to the Constitution, which contains provisions restricting the entry of foreign investors in certain industries.

Congress should now strike out provisions in the Constitution that have withheld from consumers the benefit of such services as affordable world-class air or sea travel or telecommunications because of barriers to the entry of competitors with more efficient processes and lower costs. Or of cheaper prices for essential products because production has been limited by law to a privileged few who wouldn’t mind upgrading to become more efficient because there are no competitors, anyway.