PRESIDENT Aquino clearly needs the light interviews with the likes of Vice Ganda, the media settings where his handle of the country’s affairs will be unchallenged. Media interviews that lob softball questions, pandering questions that would not make him squirm on his seat. Friendly questions that only require one-liners to meet the criteria of plausible answers. Such interviews, at the very least, provide him with the much-needed break from the torrents of criticisms that he and his administration have been getting from all fronts of late.
Even on the development front, even in the area of preparing the country for global competitiveness, even in what are essentially 21st century concerns such as modernizing the frayed infrastructure of the country (which are supposed to be his areas of expertise), Mr. Aquino is not getting any good marks. In fact, a correspondent of this space recently fired off a long e-mail that essentially tags the president as the “Procrastinator-in-Chief.”
The issues raised in that longish e-mail were valid. And it was written, this was clear from the tenor of the e-mail, by political supporters of Mr. Aquino who want him to build a legacy as a 21st century modernizer. Supporters who have a stake in the modernization process. But after surveying the infrastructure scene, there is absolutely nothing, not even a sliver of light and hope, the e-mail said, that the promised infrastructure build-up would have a reality before the end of the presidential term in 2016.
And were we to put into the picture the almost non-existent transport modernization — the embarrassing and unforgivable failure to make the urban train system run on time and make the trains safe at the very least — the president gets a double black-eye. The Procrastinator-in-Chief. And the Waverer-in-Chief.
The delays and snags on the infra and transport modernization fronts are terribly hurting the image of the president because these are the two specific areas that encompass the most vital components of the presidential mandate – from making the trains run on time (a primary function of the state for public relief), to making goods and people reach their destinations on time, to decongesting the ports to speed up the movement of valuable cargo.
It is these areas that see the seamless intersection of the efforts of the state to fast-track growth and nudge GDP higher (the economic function) and serve the welfare of the general public (the social function). It is therefore baffling to see a president, who has styled himself as a determined and relentless leader, fail in his favored mandate through endless procrastination.
Let us start with the failure of upgrading urban rail transport.
A conspiracy at the DOTC-LRTA compromised the technical integrity of the EDSA-serving MRT 3 via fraudulent decisions, topped by the naming of crony firms do to the sensitive service and maintenance work. MRT 3, the public face of the country’s metro mass transport should have been maintained, serviced and modernized by global firms of solid reputation. Instead, that sensitive work was done – and is still being done – by newly-incorporated, under-capitalized crony companies with fancy names.
Even the choice of supplier for the new coaches and trains of the MRT is a question mark, as the chosen supplier, a China-based firm, has no track record in supplying electricity-powered trains. The current plan, in an act of unbelievable gall, is the state takeover of the MRT 3.
The transport issue that can be answered by the most basic math equation – the best place to situate the terminal that would link the MRT 3, the LRT 1 and the upcoming MRT 7 – would have been a perfect sit-com piece on the indecisions of government were it not a big public welfare issue that affects more than half a billion commuters a day. We are talking about human lives, man, not the whims of giant mall operators competing for the right to host that terminal.
What is so complex about transport interconnections, which a pool of juniors in engineering and IT could compute and design in a single sitting? What is so tough and messy about the choice of a terminal location? I am asking this question as the word “interconnection” seems to be missing in the lexicon of state planning.
The seamless interconnection of the NLEX and SCETEX (plus the TPLEX now), which could have been done eons ago (as a solid engineering and IT plan for the interconnection had been long crafted), has been derailed by delays and indecisions. Another interconnection case gone awry. It took the intervention of the Senate President, who got stuck at the gridlocked interconnections on his way to Baguio City during the holidays, to expose the failure to do a very basic thing for public relief and comfort. But which the government has been postponing just to prove that it can stick some ridiculous points at the toll operator.
What about the pliable bidding rules, in which the government can rebid a project already won in a fair public bidding?
What about the messy and tangled right-of-way issues for which the government seems to have no solution ?
There will be a big gathering in the US late this month on modernizing infrastructure and preparing countries (emerging economies are the focus) for the globalized – and necessarily ultra-competitive – economy. We can only wonder what the Philippine infra delegation has to report. If the delegation were to be candid and brutally truthful, it can summarize its report with these words: slippages, snags, snafus.