Lighting a candle in Duterte’s darkness

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Street Talk

By GREG B. MACABENTA

Several years ago, then House Speaker Jose de Venecia spoke before the Filipino community at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco. Expectedly, he gave a glowing and exceedingly upbeat report on conditions in the Philippines. During the open forum, I said that, with due respect, I could have sworn that he had been talking about another country.

I then showed him the headlines in the local Filipino-American newspapers. They painted a completely different and very depressing picture of the Philippines.

Shortly before that incident, Malacañang had dismantled the press information office, leaving only a small staff to handle international communications. If they had been dishing out good news about the Philippines similar to that of De Venecia, most of us in the US had not stumbled on them. The headlines in the FilAm papers had mostly been lifted from the Manila dailies.

However, as unflattering and negative as those headlines were, they were benign compared to the news these days about the Philippines that can be picked up from mainstream American and FilAm media, as well as from social media.

The other day, a friend in Manila posted this on Facebook: “Why do I have this strange, hard to identify feeling of dread, call it anxiety about what things are about to happen? From all reports business outlook is positive, good. But a country does not thrive on business alone. If it means anything, business thrives on a secure country. One that knows where it is going, what it believes in. What do we believe in? Where do we want to go?”

If you are an overseas Filipino, as I am, that kind of assessment of the way things are in the Philippines would probably discourage you from visiting the homeland.

The reports in the FilAm media in the US are about a government moving dangerously close to a dictatorship, a transactional legislature working to impeach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an elected vice-president whose seat is being challenged by the son of an unlamented dictator, a voracious Chinese neighbor gobbling up chunks of Philippine territory with the Philippine military looking on helplessly, tbe European Union demanding a stop to alleged virtual genocide disguised as a war on drugs and threatening to withhold trade benefits, a rogue President Rodrigo Duterte vowing to arrest any representative of the International Criminal Court who might attempt to look into the allegations of extra-judicial killings, and the usual horrible traffic and congestion of Metro Manila and the environmental degradation of such jewels as Boracay.

On mainstream US TV, the daily criticism of President Donald Trump occasionally includes his alleged fascination with authoritarian leaders like “Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines,” evoking visions of a secret CIA plot to depose the latter.

In sum, a confirmation of the social media foreboding of my friend in Manila. Darkness.

But here I am in Manila on a quick visit and I see life going on as normally as in the years that I spent in my beloved rambunctious city, aptly expressed in the classic tribute composed by the brothers Dennis and Rene Garcia of the Hotdogs:

“Hinahanap-hanap kita Manila, ang ingay mong kay sarap sa tenga…mga jeepney mong nagliliparan…mga babae mong nag-gagandahan…”

And, on this visit, I have learned about developments that my fellow Pinoys in the US would likely swear could only be possible in another country. Not the Philippines.

The other night, my wife and I had dinner at the residence of Greg and Myrna Garcia. Greg, a former board chairman and creative director of Hemisphere-Leo Burnett, a leading Manila ad agency, is the current chairman of the Bases Conversion & Development Authority (BCDA) which oversees the transformation of former Philippine and US military bases into business and industrial centers and modern metropolitan hubs.

I had earlier caught a story posted online about New Clark City being built by the BCDA in the vast piece of real estate that used to be Clark Air Force Base.

I asked Greg about it. At this, Greg handed me a publication entitled, “CLARK – The vision of a modern Philippines.”

After scanning the upbeat articles in the publication. I did a quick Google search of past news items about the same subject – and there they were buried amid the horror stories about the Duterte government.

Let me quote one such news item:
“The construction of New Clark City, a modern metropolis envisioned to be next growth driver in Luzon, is on track, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) said Monday.

“This was assured by BCDA President and Chief Executive Officer Vivencio Dizon after meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte about New Clark City, one of the big-ticket projects of BCDA under the Build Build Build infrastructure program. The New Clark City will be the country’s first smart, green, and resilient metropolis in the country.

“’The planned developments in Clark will not only happen very soon; they are already happening as we speak,’ Dizon said.

“In a meeting at Malacaňang last April 4, Dizon reported to President Rodrigo Duterte the construction progress at the 9,450-hectare New Clark City….

“One of the components of New Clark City is the National Government Administrative Center (NGAC) involving the construction of back-up offices of various agencies to ensure continuous business operations and services in case of disasters or natural calamities. The NGAC project broke ground last January 23.

“Phase 1A of NGAC also features the construction of world-class sports facilities to be used for the Southeast Asian Games in November 2019. It covers 40 hectares. Infrastructure developer AlloyMTD, the Philippine unit of MTD Capital Berhad which won the bid to build the government hub, committed to finishing Phase 1A in time for the SEA Games…

“BCDA has tapped Budji+Royal Architecture+Design to design the New Clark City; the sports and residential facilities, as well as the government buildings at NGAC; and the new passenger terminal at the Clark International Airport…

“Located in Central Luzon, New Clark City (NCC) is at a confluence of industry and agriculture with existing infrastructure and connectivity to Manila and rest of the Philippines. With favorable location in the region and appropriate distance from Metro Manila, NCC is poised to become the next big metropolis.

“Merging with nature, the heart of New Clark City is proposed to be a central park with business district wrapped around it that has magnificent views of the hills. Served by public transport, housing and industries form the other layers. A network of open spaces forms the bond between diverse mixed use districts. A destination where nature, lifestyle and business, education, and industry converge into a global city based on principles of sustainability.”

With due respect to my friend Greg, whose word I will take without reservation, is New Clark City a pipe dream or a reality? Won’t this be another press release project and a monument to incompetence similar to the light trail transit system in Metro Manila? Will voracious parties not gorge themselves on the financial opportunities available, based on the “Weather-weather” principle? Will the projects continue beyond the term of Duterte and his appointed technocrats or will they be co-terminus with his presidential tenure? Will the contracts with foreign investors be scuttled by the next administration, continuing a tradition of on again, off again, start-stop, start-stop infrastructure milking cows that has left the Philippine behind the rest of Asia?

Greg had a ready and convincing response to all of my concerns. But I will not repeat them because I subscribe to the axiom, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

But New Clark City is truly a lighted candle in what overseas Filipinos and skeptical Europeans and Americans perceive as a Duterte Darkness.

The Good Book decrees that such a candle should not be hidden under a bushel basket.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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