An Encounter With The Czechs

MANILA, Philippines - Last month, one of the companies in whose board I sit as director, needed to attend to some business in the Czech Republic.

It was going to be a long, tiring trip-14 days of traveling cross-country, from Prague, the capital, to Brno, the country's secondary city, to Kutna Hora, Ceski Krumlov, Kromeriz and Omolouc.

I suspect that our company chairman, the woman spearheading the multi-city meetings, dreaded spending two weeks with only her assistant and a bunch of strangers in a foreign land, so she invited my wife, who happens to be her best friend, to join her. By default, I was asked to join as well to assist in ''business matters.'' Indeed, nepotism is sweet!

I had never been to the Czech Republic before so my preconceived notions of it were somewhat vague. On one hand, I'd heard that it was blessed with spectacular landscapes and architectural wonders spanning 12 centuries. On the other, I also heard it was a land torn apart by seven years of Nazi occupation and then left to decay further by the Russians who ruled the country with an iron fist. It was only in 1993 that the former Czechoslovakia became a functioning capitalist-parliamentary democracy known as the Czech Republic today.

While I always embrace new experiences, I braced myself to contend with outdated ports, narrow roads, mom and pop hotels and restaurants that were purely utilitarian and bereft of luxuries, at least in the cities outside Prague. It was, after all, a nation built just like any other Marxist state of the eastern bloc. I expected to see scars of physical struggle, poverty and grime, as these were typical images of Eastern Europe just a decade and a half ago.

I was unprepared for what I saw. The Czechs had done well for themselves and I found myself envying them for what they had accomplished in just 20 years, post-liberation. Remember, our liberation from the Marcos dictatorship came just four years ahead; just like us, the Czechs had to restructure their entire system of governance practically from scratch. So in these terms, the Philippines and Czech Republic have much in common.

Their success proved to me that an economy, no matter what shape it's in, can be overhauled with good governance in as short a time as two decades. It gave me hope that I could still see this country of ours rise to its full potential in my lifetime. Yes, it's possible and the Czechs proved it to be so.

The Country I Saw

From bread lines, poverty and squalor, the Czech Republic has risen to become the ninth most competitive economy among the 27 EU nations and the 38th in the world. In just 20 years, they managed to become an export powerhouse of automobiles, electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, glasswares, mechanically engineered products and medical equipment. All these generated export revenues of $152 billion last year.

Wisely, the Czech government built upon their heritage of engineering (historically, the Czech Republic was the industrial base of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and continues to put great emphasis on it in their educational system. They breed generation upon generation of engineers, making them the perfect lower-cost industrial base of German and Austrian companies, both of whom are connected to the Czech Republic via Autobahn and superhighways.

It has invested heavily in its physical infrastructure to include new railway systems for people and cargo to compliment the communist-era lines. World-class telecommunications, electric and alternative power capacities, new roads and highways have also been put in place. All these are designed to make doing business easier within the country's borders, a move that has paid dividends in spades. Records show that foreign direct investments have been on an upward trajectory for almost a decade, generating nearly $60 billion since 1993. That's more than double of that of the Philippines.

As a matter of policy, the Czech parliament invests a sizeable amount of its national budget on technological research, a move that has made the young republic the 25th most innovative economy in the world. With this, it attracts investors with a higher technological sophistication. This bodes well for their value-added revenues.

All things told, the Czech economy churned out $285 billion worth of goods and services last year, roughly $72 billion more than we did. This has translated to a more affluent Czech population, which now numbers 10.4 million people. Their average household income today is roughly $27,000 a year, putting it at the level of New Zealand. Hands down, they are the most successful economy among the former Central and Eastern European block that includes Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland.

Clearly, we have much to learn from the Czech economic model. At the core of it all is their emphasis on technological education and their commitment to invest in infrastructure. It's a hardware-software formula that, when working in sync, is unstoppable.

Understanding Them

But beyond the glitz of its newfound wealth, I still wanted to understand what made the Czech people tick. How could they display such resolve, such technical savvy and discipline despite the turbulent history they've been through.

Like us, the Czechs were a battered race who grappled with one colonial master after another. For more than eight centuries, they've been made to bow down to colonial masters from Dresden (the Saxons), Prussia (now Poland), Sweden, Bavaria, Austria, Germany and Russia.

A lesser race would have lost their national identity altogether. But somehow, the Czechs gained grit, strength and a determination to survive under severe circumstances. I needed to understand their thinking process...their psyche. Perhaps the secret to unleashing the Filipino potential lies in lessons that could be learned from the Czech experience.

Scars Of Struggle

Throughout our visit, we were accompanied by a junior assistant of our counterpart company, a lady about 65 years old; a widow with a cat as her home companion. She struck me as a proper lady, well mannered, soft spoken and efficient to a fault. She would follow our itinerary to the last detail, visibly getting upset if we were off our schedule by even 10 minutes. She was trained by the old school, fearful of dire consequences should she veer off track.

This woman spent her whole life in the motherland, witnessing the atrocities of the Nazi regime, the severe style of governance of the Russian Army and new wealth under the EU. While she is a learned individual proficient in five languages, time has passed her by and now finds herself unable to compete with the younger ones. She is a middle-income earner, which in Czech terms of today means living in a decent apartment in a so-so neighborhood and money for all basic necessities except an automobile. All things considered, she lives a comfortable life...lonely, but comfortable.

The journalist in me couldn't help but probe into her life. On one occasion, we spoke about how life was under Russian rule. As she recounted her experiences, vile invectives began to punctuate her sentences. It seemed she could not contain herself. We were taken aback, given the formal ''business-like climate'' we were operating in. I could feel her anger, her hate. She recounted how a Russian colonel rammed her father's little Skoda off the road and into a ditch, severely hurting him only because the Russian could. Her voice trembled as she recounted the story. It was a tense situation for all of us. Then, just like that, she shrugged her shoulders, apologized for the invectives and moved on to the next topic of business as if nothing happened.

On another occasion, we were taken to lunch at one of Prague's better restaurants. The waiter attending to us was slow, sloppy and showing attitude. He was of German decent. As if by discipline, our elderly Czech friend could not say a word. Although angered and incensed, she could not find the courage to assert herself. I could see the rage and frustration in her eyes. I pitied her. I pitied her even more because she knew that I knew. But a lifetime of discipline to stay mum even when in pain was too much to overcome.

Then again, just like that, she took a quick look at her watch and egged us to hurry up so we can move on to our next appointment. She acted as if nothing happened.

Turning Things Around

And then it hit me. Despite the atrocities the Czech people had gone through, they have managed to turn their horrible experiences into positive traits that strengthened the very fabric of their society. From the oppressive rule of the Germans, they learned obedience to authority. They learned not to sulk over spilled milk, but to constantly look forward to the next task and do it with accuracy and efficiency. From the bullying Russians of old, they learned the value of discipline and to not let emotions get in the way of work. From the Austrians, they have learned the value of education and the benefits that mastery of engineering can bring.

The Czech people are a resilient, wise breed for turning their adverse situation into positive character traits. By choice, they used their experiences, bad as they were, to their benefit. For this, they deserve all the success they enjoy today.

Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.