Imperial Manila and the Revolution We Need

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Andrew J. Masigan

Numbers Don’t Lie

President Duterte got it right when he said that Imperial Manila is the cause of many of the nation’s problems.

This begs the question. Who exactly is Imperial Manila? Contrary to what many think, Imperial Manila is not the social elite nor the businessmen who operate in the capital. Rather, it is those who run the affairs of government and those who dictate policy. They are our congressmen, senators, cabinet secretaries and political appointees, along with their entitled next of kin.

Imperial Manila works like a cabal whose loyalty to the nation ends when its allegiance to political allies and family interest begins. Loyalty to political patrons and the protection of family interests is the reason why necessary reforms have not been implemented in the pace and manner that it should be.

Case in point, Imperial Manila stood in the way of the enactment of an Anti-Dynasty Law even if it was mandated to do so by the 1987 Constitution. As a result, our best and brightest are edged out of political participation while relatives of incumbents are given easy access. Political dynasties are also a breeding ground for graft.

Imperial Manila is an unholy brotherhood that protects its own. For instance, it is not uncommon for policy makers to protect the businesses of certain families from foreign competition even if it works against national interest. The metal blooming mills sector, local interisland shipping, broadcast industries and public utilities are good examples of protected businesses of dynasties. They are all inefficient. It also awards lucrative contracts to friends and allies causing trillions of pesos of public funds to go the way of kickbacks or badly executed projects.

Members of Imperial Manila have an unspoken rule to abet, if not remain mum, when graft and corruption is committed. Worse, members of the cabal find ways to exempt each other from rules when it is inconvenient. A recent example is how bus companies owned by politicians have been exempt from using the PITX bus depot in Parañaque and instead given permission to continue operating their own stations on EDSA. The exemptions have defeated the very purpose of the PITX.

The abusive ways of Imperial Manila have made the chasm between the rich and poor ever wider. They are the reason why our institutions are weak and why the country can’t seem to get its act together, policy-wise.

President Duterte presents federalism as the solution to Imperial Manila’s iron-grip on power. But will it work?

Look, I don’t discount the advantages of federalism. It will devolve powers out of Metro Manila by reducing the tax contributions to the national government. It allows the federal states to tailor-fit their laws to what is meaningful to them. It weans them from their dependence on Metro Manila. It encourages them to be fiscally responsible while promoting specialization of industries based on their demographic and geographic advantages.

Certainly, federalism offers many advantages. However, it will still not rid the political system of dynasties. Under a federal system, the ruling elite that comprise Imperial Manila will simply reinvent themselves into members of parliament, ministers, governors and mayors. It will be the same cast of politicians ruling the country, albeit not physically based in Metro Manila.

What we need is a revolution of personalities, a revolution of leadership and a revolution of laws.

A revolution of personalities calls for the enactment of the Anti-Dynasty Law. The commonly accepted version of the law stipulates that elected officials cannot be succeeded by members of his/her household up to the first degree of consanguinity or affinity. Neither can several members of a family occupy various positions in government, simultaneously.

The enactment of the law will break the political elite’s stronghold on power while opening opportunities for others to serve. It democratizes the political system.

The enactment of the law will be a supreme expression of patriotism on the President’s part as it will disqualify his children from running in 2019 and 2022.

President Duterte has so much political equity that he is in a position to change the very fabric of our political system and institute the reforms we need. This political equity should not be squandered for something as banal as ensuring that his heir, Sarah Duterte, becomes the next President. If the President’s political equity will be used simply to ensure political succession, this will make the President no different from the members of Imperial Manila he loathes. I would like to think that the President is bigger than this.

Like a child to a parent, the nation picks up the values, preoccupations and insecurities of its leader. This is why leadership is key if we are to move forward as a nation.

If a leader is preoccupied with revenge, politics and ensuring its succession, this will be the fixation of the bureaucracy and of civil society. In contrast, if the President spends his time crafting reforms and finding ways to achieve the national vision, then the nation will follow suit. Clarity in national agenda starts from the top.

Good leadership begins with a vision. A national vision is a statement of intent on what the nation is to become over a period of time. We need not look far for powerful examples of this. Back in 1991, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad launched Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020). Mahathir’s vision was for Malaysia to be a self-sufficient, industrialized nation by the year 2020. Mahathir declared that national prosperity would encompass all aspects of life including economic prosperity, social well-being, education, infrastructure, political stability, as well as the psychological well-being of the Malaysian people. To achieve this, Mahathir rallied his nation to achieve an annual growth rate of 7% over the thirty-year period. The entire Malaysian bureaucracy was aligned.

A national vision like that of Malaysia, duly broken down in measurable matrixes, is what we need. It provides the general direction for the formulation of national policy, provides concrete targets for government agencies to aspire for and a rallying point for the private sector. Without vision, we are adrift.

“Build, Build, Build” is not a national vision, it is too narrow in scope to serve as one. Apart from “Build, Build, Build,” we also have our medium term development plan written by NEDA. While such a plan serves as a basic framework for national development, it means nothing unless the President uses it to inspire, to motivate, and to make government agencies accountable.

A true leader sets the mood of the nation, he sets it on the right path, leads with discernment with an eye towards economic development, social development, and national reconciliation. The less politics, the better. The less vile and hate, the better. The more meaningful the work, the better.

Everything changes over time. Our laws and policies must evolve in step.

The Philippines has a lot of catching up to do and we can make quantum leaps forward if the right policies are put in place. While there are too many policy reforms that need to be revisited, allow me to enumerate the seven most urgent.

The EPIRA Law of 2001. We should ask the question — has EPIRA worked to our advantage or against it? Has our power-cost structure helped build industries or render them uncompetitive? If EPIRA has indeed been a stumbling block to our industrialization, then it should be revisited.

We should ask the same questions about the Land Reform Law. Has land reform achieved its goal of allowing farmers to own their own land whist spurring agricultural development? Or has it been a disincentive for large scale industrial farming? To state the obvious, land reform has failed and this is why food security eludes us.

Amend the protectionist economic laws of the Constitution relating to foreign investors. To open medium to large scale retail operations, private practice, build-operate & transfer contracts, utilities operations and broadcasting industries to foreign investors will open the floodgate of foreign capital and a massive infusion of technologies. The 60-40 equity ownership of companies is also outdated.

Realign the thrusts of the Manufacturing Resurgence Program. We need to identify the industries in which the Philippines can have global ownership on (or leadership in ) and channel resources for its rapid development. Among the industries with enormous potential are fisheries, entertainment content, coconut related industries and shipbuilding.

Strengthen further (and not curtail) the incentives programs relating to foreign direct investments, especially those that bring technologies, capabilities and capacities in the fields we seek global leadership in.

The law on right of eminent domain should be amended to prevent private landowners from using the courts to delay infrastructure projects. The right to file temporary restraining orders should be withdrawn when national interest is at stake. There is no more time to waste in our “Build, Build, Build” program.

Shift the emphasis of the Foreign Service Act to one whose primary mandate is not solely to protect Filipino citizens overseas but also to focus on “Economic Diplomacy.”

Economic diplomacy involves using the whole spectrum of diplomatic tools to secure more investments, more favorable trade agreements, and more official development assistance deals for the motherland.

The President was elected by the biggest margin in history because he was seen as a reformist. Now that we are approaching the mid-point of his presidency, the time has come to deliver on reforms.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.