The trending verbal joust between the administration and the oppositionists started from a piece of criticism by Senator Franklin Drilon at the Senate review of the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program of President Rodrigo Duterte. As quoted in the Philippine Star of Nov. 14, Drilon said that “the program was a ‘dismal failure’ because only nine of 75 flagship projects have been completed three years into the six-year term of the Duterte administration.” Salvador Panelo, the president’s spokesperson, immediately sequestered national TV airtime to publicly shame the opposition: “The Aquino administration had built not a single infrastructure project,” he declared with damning finality.
If Drilon was political by using the pejorative “dismal failure,” which he can claim to be his personal evaluation, Panelo cannot just be pardoned and dismissed for the exactness of his judgment, “not a single infrastructure project,” a political hit that cast the previous administration to fiery hell with the cackle of the devil. It cannot be, naman, that they had zero, the thinking audience, including the non-admirers of past president Aquino, might say. It was a faux pas by Panelo, and it ceded center-stage to Drilon and oppositionist-defenders, who cited government statistics to disprove that not a single infrastructure was built by the previous administration.
The Public-Private Partnership Center list as of Oct. 31, 2019 includes three PPP projects — the Aquino administration’s preferred mode for projects — that were completed before the end of Benigno Aquino III’s presidency. Among these are the Daang Hari-SLEX Link Road and the Automatic Fare Collection System for Metro Manila’s train lines. The Philippine Star article also cited the Official Gazette that also lists eight projects that were approved during the Aquino administration that were meant to alleviate traffic congestion and that were expected to be completed by the succeeding Duterte administration. In the provinces, the Aquino administration had some 41 projects already started before Duterte came in, and were to be completed in Duterte’s time, as reported by official records.
In an August press briefing, Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia had said that “for the remainder of the year, the government must speed up the implementation of infrastructure projects under the ‘Build, Build, Build’ program, as only 11 of 38 NEDA Board-approved project proposals out of the 75 infrastructure flagship projects are in the construction phase” (pna.gov.ph, Aug. 8). Pernia is calmly straightforward, as usual, and says it like it is.
But House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano seems to display irascibility more than the veiled anger of Panelo, when accosted or alluded to by critics. In Pilipino, we call this “pikon,” meaning onion-skinned in the superlative degree. Cayetano’s trigger was when Senator Drilon of the “dismal failure” accusation criticized the P6-billion budget for the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) to be hosted by the country, particularly when he called down the “over-priced” P55-million “cauldron” that would burn the official flame for the Games. A bristling Cayetano was immediately on national TV, as Panelo was in similar situations, to counter the generally qualitative comments and criticisms with quantified but, sad to say, inaccurate data.
Cayetano, also chairman of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), called former President Benigno Aquino and Drilon “hypocrites” for criticizing the SEA Games expenses, the Philippine Star of Nov. 24 reported. He said that they asked Congress for P10 billion for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting because they said it would be for the good representation and benefit of the nation and justified it, but now, for this SEA Games, they were saying the budget for the cauldron — which is a work of art that will be forever owned by the government — should have been better spent building 50 classrooms instead. “How many classrooms would have been built if we did not host the APEC?”
“How many classrooms did the Aquino administration build,” Cayetano challenged. The lack of classrooms was exacerbated in their term because they did not provide for the increased student population under the K-12 secondary education extension program. At a press briefing held in New Clark City, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said the construction of the P9.5-billion sports facility was finished on time and within budget. “This project, I think, is well spent, not only for the athletes, but for the pride of our country. We now have, for the first time in 80 years, a world-class sports facility,” Dominguez was quoted as saying in the Philippine Star of Nov. 22.
On Nov. 21, the 2019 Arangkada forum, spearheaded by the American Chamber of Commerce, brought together the foreign chambers of commerce and local industries to discuss proposals to help government improve the delivery of services, businesses, and investments for the Filipino people. Mr. Cayetano, Secretary of Transportation Arthur Tugade, and Secretary of Agriculture William Dar were supposed to deliver keynote speeches for the Arangkada theme “T.A.P.” or “Turning on the Tap for Tourism, Agribusiness and Power.” All three could not come because they instead attended the on-site cabinet meeting with President Duterte at the New Clark City, site of the controversial SEA Games sports facilities.
That the Arangkada forum was “dismal” (to borrow from Drilon’s dictionary) in terms of no “celebrity” attendance and the thin audience, and consequently lack of “zing” of presentations and discussions, only highlights the difficulties of doing business in the Philippines and the lack of interest of investors. It must have been prescience for Rizalina “Rizza” Mantaring, president of the Management Association of the Philippines, to have delivered the opening speech at the Arangkada forum on her personal observations and recommendations to counter the difficulties of doing business in the Philippines. Mantaring quoted her European colleague (married to a Filipina) who closed his four-year-old business here, and moved lock, stock, and barrel to another Asian country. “Why would anyone want to invest in this country,” he asked?
The problem is described by the personal politics displayed by government officials who claim personal authorship and credit for projects and programs that start out as altruistically for the common good. Why should servant-leaders be pikon over being prodded to do their job when they are not up to speed with commitments, or do not have enough capability — personal or external — to perform duties and deliver responsibilities? Is criticism not the opportunity to improve, and change directions, and even attitude towards doing your job?
Perhaps the culture of entitlement and power in those of high positions and influence is the root cause of so much politics in political governance. It is scary to feel an almost Orwellian-state mentality where there seems to be double-speak in terms of facts and information — note Panelo’s belaboring of credits for PPP vs. BBB using disinformation, and Cayetano’s “apples-to-oranges” (meaning inaccurate and illogical) comparison of the APEC hosting by Aquino and the SEA Games hosting by Duterte. Read George Orwell’s novel 1984, and you will shiver to recognize the revision of history in the autocratic state of Oceania, to keep the dictator-leader in lifetime power.
Cayetano said that it was unfair for Drilon to bring up so many issues about the costs of the facilities just when the SEA Games are opening on Nov. 30. True, it will not be good for the image of the country for the world to notice the internal bickering of leaders in government — it has an impact on the regard and trust in the Philippines as an economic and trading partner, a political and defense ally, or even, benignly, as a tourist destination.
As a benchmark for our image abroad, 95th out of 190 economies across the globe in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report 2020 is nothing to crow about.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.