Give Tom Mirasol a little credit for telling it like it is.
In an article in the May 6 edition of Singapore’s Business Times, Mirasol, who is the president of Ayala Land International Sales Inc., offered some unnervingly frank commentary about the state of government land use planning and regulation, insights that ruffled a few feathers back here in the Philippines.
“The fact that there is nobody in the Philippines who regulates urban planning has been great for Ayala Land,” Mirasol is quoted as saying. “We [Ayala Land] are probably the only company there that has the scale financially to take on large plots of land . . . By developing big tracts of land, we become the government; we control and manage everything. We are the mayors and the governors of the communities that we develop and we do not relinquish this responsibility to the government,” Mirasol explained, pointing out that the development and maintenance of infrastructure in Ayala’s enclaves is reflected in steadily climbing property prices.
As time goes on, Ayala’s role as a sort of state-within-a-state becomes more entrenched, something Mirasol seems to have no problem with. “The political impact on business each time there is a presidential election has been significantly less and less to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore who the president is, because . . . nobody on the political side would want to do anything that would upset what’s happening in business. So they [the government]tend to be quite supportive of us.”
Given that they would eventually get back to an audience already agitated by the growing realization of the breathtaking scale and scope of the government-organized plunder of public funds, Mirasol’s comments might not have been wise from a public relations perspective, but the perceived arrogance does not mean they are inaccurate or exaggerated in any respect. As hard as it may be for some people to accept, Ayala not only understands their environment with perfect clarity, they take advantage of it with appalling effectiveness. And Ayala is not at all unique; across the entire economic spectrum, the virtual absence of government has been a bonanza for entrenched business investors—the ones who had the foresight, the resources, and the connections to establish themselves in the Cory Aquino-led post-Marcos chaos. It was not for nothing that Mirasol, in the same Business Times article, observed, “There was a time, maybe 25 years ago, when it really mattered who the president in the Philippines was . . . [now]we don’t have to rely on the government very much at all.”
This is something the delegates to the 23rd World Economic Forum on East Asia, which begins tomorrow in Makati, should keep in mind when they are subjected to endless navel-gazing statements about the country’s growth and economic potential from the country’s current “leaders”: The Aquino Administration can only be credited with absenting itself from any responsibility for governance, and providing the anarchic vacuum which has allowed those with the resources to do so to flourish.
People react angrily to Ayala’s ostentation, but is Ayala really at fault? Realistically, no. The company’s responsibility is to its stakeholders, not the country or humanity in general. That’s how free enterprise works, and if the country wants Ayala to meet a responsibility to a larger population, then that population should be made stakeholders as well.
That’s the job of government, and that’s where successive governments of the Philippines—in a sense, every government of the Philippines—have consistently failed. Some time ago (the video record online, which is available at http://www.admu.edu.ph/lopezcmc/video/metro-manilas-urban-chaos-what-now, is undated) noted architect and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren gave an interesting lecture at Ateneo de Manila University, in which he traced a history dating back to the late Spanish era of no fewer than 10 attempts to develop and implement a master plan for Metro Manila, plans that in several cases were complemented by designs for many other population centers across the country.
We can see remnants of those plans today in the arrangement of major boulevards in Quezon City, the layout of the district surrounding Luneta Park, and the gridded arrangement of Cebu above the port area, but for one reason or another—war, changes in government, financial difficulties—none of these visions were ever more than partly realized. A recurring reason why not, Alcazaren explained, was that the public presentation of these master plans almost always resulted in wild land speculation; landowners, realizing their property was tagged for development, demanded astronomical prices for their real estate, pricing the government out of the market.
And the result is what we see today in a starkly concentrated fashion in the metropolis and a smaller scale elsewhere in the Philippines: little islands of civilization developed and managed by those enterprises who could afford it, floating in a sea of filthy, impoverished, and completely random human habitation. The prediction made by the father of urban planning, Daniel Burnham, in a letter shortly before his death has come true: “. . . any plan once adopted should be rigidly adhered to . . . for unless this is done, no plan will be carried out, and disorder will be the rule.”
For all his talk of his aspirations for “inclusive growth”—a point of view President B.S. Aquino 3rd will tomorrow, for the nth disingenuous time, tell an audience is responsible for the Philippines’ remarkable economic performance—the President and the group of administrators with whom he has chosen to surround himself clearly have no idea at all what the concept even means. No, it is not right that Ayala—or SM, or Filinvest, or Vista Land, or Robinson, or any of the other relative handful of successful developers—should build widely scattered, bright little oases of civilization in a desert of the damned, but it is not right because this government, just as and in most cases more so than governments before it, fails to include them (besides collecting the obligatory campaign contributions in exchange for leaving them alone, that is) in any sort of practical vision for the country. The strength of companies like Ayala Land is a national resource; not regarding it as such, and giving those companies a role that includes responsibility as well as reward, is truly letting disorder rule.