Law trumps sentiment in ‘national photobomber’ case


Ben D. Kritz

AFTER an unjustifiably long delay, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that construction of DMCI Homes’ controversial Torre de Manila condominium project can continue, lifting the restraining order it imposed in June 2015 after a suit was brought by the Order of the Knights of Rizal. The decision was the correct one, and represents a rare victory of law over sentiment and innuendo in this process-challenged country

In its 9-6 ruling, the Supreme Court said that it had no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case; that the Rizal group had no standing to bring a lawsuit and would not suffer any injury if construction of the 46-story building was completed; and that there was no law prohibiting construction of the building.

The petitioners, who had enlisted the Solicitor General’s help to represent them, based their complaint on the impression that the building “would forever ruin the sightline of the Rizal Monument in Luneta Park.” The Solicitor General, trying to wring some legal logic out of that emotional appeal, argued that the “sightline” of the monument was constitutionally protected, as specified by the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act and the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009. Furthermore, the SG said, the zoning and building permits issued to DMCI Homes violated at least seven Manila city ordinances.

Even the dissenting justices, led by Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, did not agree with the plaintiff’s arguments, and instead suggested that the case be sent back to the City of Manila for review of the applicable laws and regulations. That is not an unreasonable suggestion, but in a sense is already moot, as the city government already reviewed its initial 2012 approval of the project at the beginning of 2014, and allowed it to proceed.

The Supreme Court decision on Tuesday obviously was welcomed by DMCI Homes, who has spent something like P2.7 billion on the Torre de Manila so far, and may have lost as much as P1 billion if the project was permanently stopped. The decision should be welcomed by any other business interest facing similar public dissent and potential legal entanglements as well, because it is a sign that perhaps the Philippines’ uncomplimentary reputation as a place where formal processes function poorly or not at all is gradually improving.

For too long, special interests in this country have been allowed to form the impression that rumor, hearsay, appeals to emotion and ad hominems are empirical bases for procedural and regulatory action. This is particularly accepted as truth if the aggrieved party can spread the complaint loudly enough through social media, according to the dubious democratic principle that “X number of people can’t be wrong” if they all agree with a particular point of view.

There are a number of reasons this misguided belief has festered: A form and style of governance that tends to encourage autocracy; an excess of laws but a dearth of ones that are actually well thought out; the persistent sloth and inefficiency of the country’s legal system; the traditional media, which treats any point of view from a recognizable personality as a potential fact; and growth of the social media, whose unfiltered nature tends to make everyone believe they have a valid point just because they posted it online.

These attributes are not readily apparent to investors coming into one of the country’s business sectors until a problem arises, and of course, by then it’s too late. The only thing left to do for many who fall into the Philippines’ bog—thwarted companies like ZTE, BDZ, and Inekon are good examples—is to go home, lick their wounds, and warn everyone else about the risks of doing business here.

Hopefully, the decision on the Torre de Manila case is a sign that things are changing, that extra diligence in complying with the laws and regulations that already exist will pay off in the long run. For those who are disappointed in the outcome, it should be a lesson that real work—the tedious, unglamorous process of changing laws to achieve the ends everyone seeks—is unavoidable.


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