A worse-than-usual string of mental stumbles by various parts of the Philippine government seems to have occurred in the past couple of days.
Toward the end of last week, a Congressman (the idea was so bad, I’ll spare him further embarrassment by not naming him) proposed a law, intended to be a crime-fighting measure, banning the use of motorcycle helmets.
Over the weekend, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II blithely proclaimed the government had achieved “zero casualties” in the onslaught of Typhoon Luis, even though everyone already knew at least six people (the toll has since risen to eight) died as a result of the sinking of a ferry by the storm. And on Monday, the National Food Authority (NFA) announced they had struck a government-to-government deal with Thailand and Vietnam to purchase 500,000 MT of rice at $475/MT, or $15/MT higher than the lowest of the bids the NFA rejected last month for being “higher than the approved budget for the contract,” meaning the government’s effort to get a better deal actually cost an additional $7.5 million (P330 million).
The really outstanding move, though, was made by President B.S. Aquino 3rd when he took his well-practiced traveling salesman act to Belgium, where he “led other government officials in promoting infrastructure projects to investors in Belgium through the public-private partnership (PPP) program,” according to a statement from Trade Secretary Greg Domingo.
An astute reader pointed out that this is the same “Belgium” I wrote about in a column more than a year ago, following a roundtable meeting with then-Ambassador Christian Meerschman (“The elephant in the room in PH-Belgian relations,” July 8, 2013). The “elephant in the room” at that meeting, which was not standing in the corner like most such metaphorical elephants do, but rather sitting right in the middle of the conference table, was the fallout from the President’s abrupt and arbitrary cancellation of the P18.7-billion Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project (LLRP) back in November 2010, which was to have been carried out by the respected Belgian marine engineering firm Baggerwerken Decloedt and Zn (BDC).
Aquino’s response to the Belgian government’s requests for a discussion about the issue was precisely nothing. After an official letter from then-Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme was pointedly ignored—Aquino had apparently decided that, despite the project’s being reviewed and cleared at least twice by his own people, “I am allergic to dredging projects,” and “Even a Grade 5 student will easily see that this project is illogical” was all the explanation he owed anyone—Ambassador Meerschman, in his concurrent role at the time as the informal head of the group of European Union ambassadors in the Philippines, called a meeting of all 27 of them “to discuss the sincerity of President Benigno Aquino 3rd in upholding contracts, in light of the shelving of the project.”
Recalling the issue later, Meerschman described Aquino’s rationale and the manner in which BDC and the Belgian government were informed of the decision—which was to let them find out from news reports—as “a bit insulting.” The cancellation of the project had actual consequences as well; BDC lost approximately 50 million euros, spent on preparing equipment for the work, and, according to Meerschman, about 500 BDC employees or contractors lost their jobs.
In April 2011, after a couple of months of futile discussion with the Aquino administration over the canceled project, BDC filed an arbitration case for P6 billion against the Philippine government with the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington, D.C. That case has yet to be resolved, although the Philippine government has already settled (at a cost of several million dollars) a related issue over loan commitment fees for the unused loan and grant package for the project.
Until the case of the scuttled LLRP is settled, the assessment former Ambassador Meerschman offered last year likely still stands, as nothing else has changed: Belgian firms, he said, were happy to look at opportunities involving the private sector in the Philippines but want nothing to do with any government projects, at least as long as the current government is in office.
That being the case, Aquino’s carrying to Belgium the same tired sales pitch he has delivered everywhere he’s gone in the past four years is a complete waste of time.
Of course, this may yet just be another one of those things his spokespeople—Abigail Valte is reportedly traveling with the President, perhaps for this very purpose—would explain is not to be taken seriously. The Belgians, after all, would almost certainly think so even without prompting.
Speaking of things not to be taken seriously, we can apparently include the protests started by Manila performance artist and resident gadfly Carlos Celdran, and given official credibility by Sen. Pia Cayetano, about the visual imposition the DMCI Torre de Manila project will make on the Rizal Monument. After a petition for an injunction against the contentious project was filed by a group called The Knights of Rizal at the Supreme Court, DMCI responded by claiming photos showing the tower rising in plain view behind the monument had been manipulated, and that otherwise all the proper permits and clearances had been obtained.
It appears the developer may be correct about the first part; a quick check of the overhead view of the park and surrounding area, something anyone can do in just a few minutes using Google Earth, shows that the building indeed does not lie anywhere near the sightline through the monument along the axis of the central promenade of Rizal Park. In fact, the building lies just outside an imaginary line marking the southern side of that promenade, meaning the vista beyond the Rizal Monument looking east, in the general direction of the Torre de Manila’s location off Taft Avenue, is the same open sky it was before construction of the condominium tower began.
The Torre de Manila project might be criticized on other grounds—although one would assume DMCI’s attorneys are smart enough to realize that any claims about proper government approval and permits can be easily verified—but the argument that it “photobombs” the monument is not one of them, and should be given the further attention it deserves, which is none at all.