The curious case of the new license plates



When I was editor-in-chief of Top Gear Philippines, the country’s leading automotive magazine (and website), I often criticized the government for the horrendously executed license-plate standardization program that had dubiously awarded the plate-manufacturing contract to a supplier based in the Netherlands.

The program was so obviously rushed and rigged that it invited a Senate inquiry, in which sharp senators of the republic were quick to note that the agencies involved—in particular the Department of Transportation and Communications and the Land Transportation Office—didn’t even have the budget required to undertake such a program. Of course, the biggest question nobody could answer was this: Why on earth would anyone source the new plates from overseas when one of the purported objectives was to cut costs? Wouldn’t keeping the existing local supplier make more sense from both a logistical and financial standpoint?

So when things unraveled, the arrangement failed to deliver. Apart from the natural delay that stemmed from the long-distance client-supplier setup, mere import duties for the plates couldn’t be settled, resulting in further delay in the release of the plates. The ultimate outcome? Months upon months of new-plate backlog. Even the seemingly harmless registration stickers couldn’t be issued—even as LTO continued charging car owners with the P50 fee. So where did all the money go?

And if you think it was a problem only of the previous Aquino administration, think again. I recently had a chat with a Toyota salesperson, and he told me the new-plate backlog still numbered several months. Which explains why countless cars out there are running around plateless. Which, if you think about it, ironically runs counter to the stated goal of the plate-standardization program—ease of identification, according to former LTO chief Alfonso Tan Jr.

I was convinced something was up because a trusted source inside the LTO was constantly sharing with me weird developments inside the agency, including the burglary at the LTO main headquarters in Quezon City that saw the disappearance of valuable aluminum sheets that had been procured for the manufacture of the old license plates prior to the awarding of the spurious contract to a foreign supplier.

But one incident truly bothered me. The scion of the family that had previously supplied the old license plates posted a cryptic (though very obvious) message on Facebook. He wrote a not-so-blind item basically asserting that all the chaos surrounding the new license plates was the result of some powerful government officials manipulating the bidding and the awarding of the contract to relatives and friends. Through the use of clever wordplay, he alluded to a presidential candidate being directly responsible for the mess—a candidate closely associated with the then-incumbent administration.

Here was the telling part, which prompted me to pick up the story and publish it on our motoring website: Just as the post was starting to gather steam and attract attention, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda (no less) chimed in and engaged one of the commenters. I wondered: Why would a government official this high give importance to a random social-media post if it didn’t carry with it some grain of (damning) truth? I mean, hundreds of messages critical of the administration were being posted online on a daily basis. What was so special about this one that it should merit a personal reply from the President’s chief PR guy?

Alas, I was asked by my boss to take down the story (for fear the presidential candidate might win), and the person who posted the not-so-blind item was also told by a powerful figure (he revealed this to me) to delete the post. Issue killed, just like that.

In all that time, I couldn’t understand why the whole country was allowing a bunch of people to get away with this. The senators saw the anomaly from a mile away. Car owners knew they were being suckered into paying for new plates they didn’t really need. Straight LTO and DOTC employees seemed to be aware of the circus. How come nobody was making a formal complaint to stop what essentially amounted to a legalized racket?

Well, somebody finally did.

According to a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, former Metro Rail Transit 3 general manager Al Vitangcol has led the filing of graft charges against former transportation secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and other government officials, including the above-mentioned Alfonso Tan Jr., transportation assistant secretary Dante Lantin and former DOTC Bids and Awards Committee members Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, Rene Limcaoco, Julianito Bucayan Jr., and Catherine Jennifer Gonzales.

As per the Inquirer report: “Vitangcol said that due to the connivance of Abaya and other government officials to tap an unqualified private supplier, the public suffered from massive delays in the issuance of license plates for cars and motorcycles. Vitangcol said the bidder’s failure to pay for duties and taxes on the license plates (which led to a lengthy stay at the Bureau of Customs) showed that the joint venture of the private suppliers did not have the money to undertake the project. Had Abaya and government officials conducted due diligence on the private bidder, they would have rejected its offer outright for using a fake financial statement to show it was capable of undertaking the contract.”

Honestly, I don’t know if anyone will ever be prosecuted because of this. The case, after all, could lead to far bigger fish—fish who’d rather swim in murkier waters than be caught by a hook. The consolation here is that someone is pursuing this. Nobody should be allowed to screw the public and get off scot-free. The P450 old-car owners are needlessly coughing up for the new plates is unacceptable. That’s robbery in broad daylight. Somebody has to answer for this.

There’s a lesson to be learned here as well: Never get drunk with power, because it’s never permanent. One day your term will end, and one day someone more powerful will go after you and make you answer for all your transgressions. And then you’ll realize no amount of money in the world can buy back your good name and peace of mind.


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  1. Like in UK, getting a driver’s license is a commitment on a safe driving attitude. Here, before you get a license, you have to pass the written test, take some lessons in driving with the help of a licensed driver instructor and then a road test. Then a license card is issued with all the information and the renewal will be based on the policy of the land transportation minister. There is order and transparencyYour licence plate is not changed every year, you have it for many years, only a yearly sticker is attached to your license plate. As a new license driver, you will be given a probation, a novice driver. As a novice driver,you have to have someone with you while you operate the car (considered as one of the most dangerous property to own). You become a professional driver if your record is clean…auto insurance is based on your performance and it is given by the public insurance company (much cheaper) or private insurance companies (much higher)…(some new immigrants (pinoys) who arrived here could not believe that they failed in the written exam and road test…their attitudes and minds are still geared on their driving culture in the Philippines..some told me that they could pass the written exam by paying someone to write or to take a road test….this is how corrupt is the philippine government.)

  2. Some say the new car plates are actualy mere duplicate plates. If so, the project is ill-conceived in the beginning which is nothing new of the many subtle ways on how government people are wantonly milking the very government they are working for. Was it Al Vitangcol too who was acused of demanding kickbacks by then Czech business rep related to the MRT maintenance contract? You are saying Lacierda was also a put down to many random complainants on paid but unavailable car plates. Ironically we often hear about government officials and bids and awards committee officers compromising government interests in favor of the suppliers or contractors. One cannot violate his sworn duties to protect government interests for nothing. And they go scot free!

  3. The LTO is a dysfunctional (dis)organisation.
    If they were efficient, they could contribute much towards relieving traffic congestion and road safety.
    They need to implement a system as used in the UK operated by the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) who are equivalent to the LTO here. Communication with them is only via the internet or post. No hours of queueing and fixers as at the awful LTO locations.
    1) There should be proper driver training and a driving examination to ensure drivers are qualified. The examination prior to acquiring a full licence depends on passing a written test about the rules of the road, then about an hour driving on the roads with a qualified examiner to assess driving skills. The system is corruption free. I know someone in Manila who acquire a professional licence via a fixer for 600pesos. He had never driven any type of motor vehicle and only wanted a licence to drive a motorcycle!
    2) When a vehicle becomes 3 years old in the UK it must then pass a comprehensive roadworthiness test which takes about 1 hour. There are many independent licenced testing station for this. The “smoke test” at the LTO is a joke. It is obvious that many vehicles on Manila roads could not have passed this test, jeepneys, buses and HGVs being some of the main offenders. Without this roadworthiness certificate a vehicle cannot legally go on the roads in the UK
    3) When a new vehicle goes on the road the selling dealer provides all necessary information online to the DVLA who issues a registration number. Registration plates can be made by anyone as long as they conform to approved design. Cameras in police cars which patrol the roads automatically read the plate and can automatically online refer to the DVLA to ensure the vehicle is legally on the road. The police can similarly check the driver’s driving licence is valid.
    4) Vehicle /driver insurance should be supplied by insurance companies, not the LTO. The minimum requirement should be to have 3rd party cover which provides for damage done to other people and their property. Premiums depend on driving record, age, health and type of vehicle being insured.
    5) There are many other issues I could write about but other commitments prevent me doing this now.