Numbers Don’t Lie

The city of Manila has lost its competitiveness and is drowning in its own poverty. This is why the next mayoral elections is critical to its very survival.
Running for Mayor are 90-year-old Alfredo Lim who served as Mayor from 1992 to 1995 and again from 2007 to 2010; 87-year-old Joseph Estrada who has been the incumbent since 2013; and 47-year-old Isko Moreno who served as city councilor for three terms and Vice Mayor also for three terms until 2016.
We all have a stake in this mayoral race as Manila is the capital of the nation and its face to the world.
The nation’s capital had everything going for it. It is home to the most number of universities in the land and therefore should, in theory, be a bastion of knowledge and innovation. It is the site of the country’s first central business district, Binondo, the country’s principal seaport, the Banco Sentral and the Department of Finance. All these should make it the country’s center for finance and trade. It hosts the most number of historical and cultural sites including Intramuros, the CCP complex and the national museum. Again, in theory, it should be ground zero for culture, tourism and entertainment. Lamentably, Manila is none of these.
Due to wanton mismanagement, Manila has spiraled down to new depths of poverty, urban decay, blight and squalor. It is a shadow of its former self, the Pearl of the Orient. It is widely regarded as a massive failure in urban planning and governance.
In the last two decades, neighboring cities like Makati, Taguig, Parañaque and Quezon City have all risen to become modern business hubs. They did this by developing swaths of their territories into modern CBDs like BGC, Vertis North and the ASEANA City. These CBDs have attracted multibillion-dollar enterprises which in turn, boosted each city’s tax base. Manila, on the other hand, was left to rot. Due to the lack of investment in infrastructure and the inefficient delivery of basic services, Manila’s caché of business establishments has plummeted from 60,000 in the year 2000 to some 40,000 today.
Progressive cities like Makati and Taguig are already thinking of ways to facilitate hyper-connectivity, disaster resilience and pedestrianism. The city of Manila still grapples with trash collection, a manual tax collection system and a low tax collection rate of only +/- 79%. Development-wise, Manila is 30 years behind.
Mayor Lim had his chance to reform the city but unfortunately, squandered it. Evidently, the former policeman possesses very little talent outside the realm of peace and order. It will be recalled that he was responsible for padlocking the red light district of Manila (which he thought was a good idea), only for it to mushroom in random places where it is more difficult to manage. It was a mistake.
He repressed the development of the bohemian district of Malate and was the approving Mayor of Torre de Manila, the eyesore that mars the background of Jose Rizal’s monument. By the time Lim’s term in office ended in 2013, insiders revealed that he left P800 million worth of past obligations and nearly empty coffers.
The city’s poor financial health was what prompted Mayor ERAP to raise taxes by 300% in 2013. With the windfall of cash, ERAP was able to pay for the P800 million in overdue obligations. However, he failed to invest in meaningful infrastructure and modernize the city’s management systems.
The problem with ERAP is the absence of management. ERAP is too old that his busted knee, broken hip and jaw problems prevent him from reporting for work as often as he needs to. He is an absentee Mayor who has relegated the daily management of the city to men who have neither the vision nor capability to do even a mediocre job of it.
Mayors Estrada and Alfredo Lim have had their chance to do good by Manila but made a royal mess of it. Proof positive is the sorry state of the city today. As Filipinos, we should hold them accountable and never forget the damage they have wrought on our capital city.
For them to seek another term as Mayor reeks of shamelessness and entitlement. Suffice to say that to vote for them again is akin to eating one’s own puke.
Let me be direct about this. I support Isko Moreno not only for having the advantage of youth but also for coming to the table with a vision and a working plan. This is a basic requirement for any aspiring chief executive.
Isko is not pedigreed. As a former garbage collector, pedicab man and later on, actor, he is often dismissed by intellectuals as an opportunist who took advantage of his popularity to get into politics. I thought the same — at least until I engaged him in hours of conversation and peered into his thinking process.
Outside having finished public administration courses at Harvard and Oxford University, the man is clearly well read. Throughout our conversation, he quoted Lee Kwan Yew, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Albert Einstein and even Adolf Hitler on numerous occasions. It was no put on. It came out naturally amid speaking with disarming honesty.
As an economist, I did not want to be impressed by an actor — but I was. Lessons derived from studying the ways of political luminaries and 21 years of public service has turned Isko into a thinker.
He maintains a pragmatic view of Manila’s situation, something that I think is very important. He offers no quick fix solutions as he admits that it would take 15 years to bring the city at par with likes of Pasig or Pasay today. He is committed, however, to lay the foundation of urban renewal from day one.
At the heart of his urban renewal plan are three pillars: Infrastructure development, attracting businesses and urban housing.
In infrastructure, Manila is unfortunate in that it is bereft of open spaces wherein a new CBD can be built. What it has, however, are sites that can be repurposed. Among them is the 12 hectare Pandacan oil depot, strategically facing the Pasig river. The property is presently dormant and owned by Petron and Shell.
Through a joint venture or PPP arrangement with the petroleum companies, Isko proposes to build a new CBD called the Pandacan Greenfield City. It is foreseen to be a vertical township that will house knowledge-based businesses and those involved in research and technology. Special incentives will be given for those who employ graduates of Manila-based universities. A 15-year tax holiday on land and business taxes will be given to the developers and its locators.
On the northwestern side of the city, a skydeck and pedestrian skywalk will connect the planetarium in Luneta to Liwasan Bonifacio and onwards to Escolta. This will mark the urban renewal of the old town.
The idea is to convert Escolta into a retail and entertainment hub similar to Clark Quay in Singapore. Owners of buildings in Binondo will be given a 10-year property tax holiday should they renovate or rebuild. The idea is to increase gross leasable areas so as to add tenancy capacity in Binondo.
Vertical parking buildings will be built in properties owned by the city along with pedestrian lanes to connect Binondo and Escolta. Encouraging pedestrianism should minimize PUV congestion.
As for the bohemian quarter of Malate, Isko hopes to attract artists, writers and the theater community back to the district. Malate is the artistic soul of the nation and it deserves to thrive, he asserts.
A modern city hall will be built on an adjacent site of the existing one through funds derived from a long-term lease of the old building. The historic city hall will be repurposed into a museum, cultural and retail center. It’s all about creating new landmarks for the city — landmarks that add value in terms of the city’s image and income, says Isko.
In housing, the city owns numerous properties in Baseco, Vito Cruz, Valderama del Pan and even in the city of Marikina. These will be the sites for which vertical mass housing complexes will be built. The financing scheme is not ironed out yet, but suffice to say it will be patterned after the socialized scheme adopted by the Home Development Board of Singapore.
These initiatives, taken collectively, are seen to attract capital, generate jobs and increase the tax base of the city while a new CBD on reclaimed land is being constructed.
Isko is well aware that none of this will come to fruition unless the city gets its operational act together.
Operational efficiency will be realized by automation and becoming ISO certified. The move will also eliminate human contact in tax collection thereby minimizing, if not eliminating, corruption.
The infrastructure plan is grand and it will require massive funding. To this, Isko plans a general amnesty program where taxpayers with obligations in arrears can pay the principal without the weight of interests and penalties. The amnesty will allow the city to collect taxes it could not otherwise collect. It is a scheme designed to raise capital through bad debts.
The city of Manila needs a new Mayor to arrest its free-fall and set it on the right path. Isko Moreno is the better option among the three contenders.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.