JUNE 14, 1999  

Gabriel C. Singson

Governor, Central Bank, Philippines

FOR THE FIFTH TIME THIS year, Philippine President Joseph Estrada sidled up to his trusted Central Bank Governor Gabriel C. Singson at a recent gathering in Manila and popped the question: Would he please stay on after his term expires in July? But Singson, who has spent 42 of his 70 years serving the Bangko Sentral, plans finally to retire. ''I said: 'I think I have done enough.'''

If signs of economic recovery in the Philippines are an indication, that's certainly true. Singson, a jolly ex-lawyer who often carries the Central Bank Charter to meetings in order to enforce it with letter-of-the-law precision, will leave a legacy of stability. His sound policies are credited with putting the country on the road to 2% growth this year after last year's near standstill. By negotiating with the International Monetary Fund, which has had the Philippines on a program for decades, Singson was able to avoid the high interest rate trap that punished the economies of neighboring countries. ''When you have a program with the IMF, you don't have to follow all their prescriptions,'' he says with a wink.

Singson may stay on as an adviser to his successor--most likely Rafael Buenaventura, a respected banker with whom Singson currently shares insights twice weekly on the golf course. But any work will be limited to the afternoons: ''After July, maybe I can play golf five times a week. Play in the morning, and work in the afternoon--to make money to pay the golfing fees, of course.''

'I'm Guided by the Market and Four Decades of Experience'

Gabriel C. Singson is the Philippines Central Bank governor. After 42 years at the bank, Singson is starting to plan his retirement. The country may miss him: His dealings with the International Monetary Fund successfully avoided the devastating interest rate increases that hurt so many of Singson's Asian neighbors. Business Week Asia Editor Sheri Prasso recently interviewed Singson. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What has your long experience with the Central Bank taught you in dealing with the Asia crisis?
A: I've always been with the Central Bank. I was comparing notes with Eddie George of the Bank of England. He said he started in 1962. [Singson started in 1957.] In the course of four decades of central banking, we have passed through many crises. Probably that's one factor we have learned from this experience. We have a better experience in the Philippines.

To make a decision on what course to take, on interest rates, to defend the exchange rate. We adopted a middle ground. We had a program with the IMF, so I insisted on a middle ground. Comparing the situation now with a year ago, or with January, 1998, we can see a much better situation. To me it's just simple. We had seen this before, in 1984-85, because the crisis in 1983 made us declare a debt moratorium, and inflation went up. We issued certificates of indebtedness. It's a middle ground. At the same time, Harvard Professor [Jeffrey] Sachs came and talked about lowering interest rates. I had a meeting with him, and told him I cannot agree. I thought his recommendation to lower interest rates would lead to inflation.

I didn't follow that prescription. I didn't follow the IMF prescription. The IMF made recommendations I didn't follow. I brought down borrowing rates. It helped, there's no question about it. When you have a program with the IMF, you don't have to follow ALL their prescriptions. You just argue and tell them. I have one guideline: If we cannot do it, we cannot promise to do it, and that's it.

Q: What guides your decision making?
A: I'm guided by the market and four decades of experience. I'm not an economist, I'm a lawyer. Reasoning, cause and effect, logic, but more importantly, experience. You cannot go wrong if you follow the market. The exchange rate policy should be determined by the market.

Q: Why are you retiring?
A: My six-year term expires July 5. The President has been asking me to continue. Again yesterday, he asked me for the fifth time, at some social reception. I said "I think I have done enough. I have done my share." I am willing to stay on part time as an adviser to help my successor.

Q: Who is your successor?
A: The decision is not up to me. But I recommended Rafel Buenaventura [President of the Philippine Commercial International Bank]. We play golf at least twice a week, and I was briefing him. I play nine holes on weekdays, 18 on weekends. A total of 36 holes a week. I'll continue in another capacity to advise my successor. After July, maybe I'll play golf five times a week. Play golf in the morning and work in the afternoon, to make money to pay for golfing fees. I may write a book before I become senile.