Business World, 3 July 2017


I allowed myself a moment of elation at the announcement of the railway link between Clark and Metro Manila. Such moments are rare in the desert of “sombriety.” It meant that the government has finally decided, after what seemed like an endless Caspar Milquetoast moment, that the best way to address the air transport gridlock into and out of Metro Manila was to make Clark International Airport as an alternate global gateway. Indeed, it has for some time dawned on many that Clark should have been upgraded as a global gateway even without the fast train link with Metro Manila. Those of us who live in North Metro Manila now face a shorter daytime motor travel time to Clark International Airport than to NAIA. Furthermore, the waiting time for a landing clearance in traffic-jammed single-runway NAIA could drag to outrageous lengths, sometimes even longer than the actual flying time from origin. Clark International Airport with two runways runs no such risk. After debarking at and hurdling the inundated customs clearance in a creaky throwback called NAIA Terminal 1, one runs the gauntlet of Metro Manila’s infamous traffic crawl amidst unsightly urban blight and squalor. By this time the new arrival is asking the question “What’s more fun in the Philippines?”

This switch has many other potential benefits. Clark International Airport will serve Central and Northern Luzon apart from North Metro Manila passengers. Logistical and time costs for these travelers will drop even without the fast train facility. South Metro Manila, Calabarzon, and Bicol passengers will get a better deal from de-clogged NAIA. Imagine the amount of vehicular traffic now jostling for space in EDSA that will dematerialize. Still, it took a financial inducement from Japan for a fast train link to clinch the no-brainer deal for Clark International Airport. Although the speed train link condition itself seems to me to smack of Manila-centrism, still am I grateful. In this day and age, we should be thinking of decompressing Metro Manila; creating new regional centers of commerce and industry does that. This would reverse the population and capital crush towards Metro-Manila causing its infrastructure to buckle. There is however a great gulf between imagination and birthing. The present resolve could again founder on the rocks of social incoherence.

That others are skeptical is understandable. Recall NAIA Terminal 3, delivered in 2002 but unable to take off because of the potholes of endless lawsuits. Recall the San Roque Dam’s irrigation potential for 70,000 hectares left high and dry by our social inability to iron out solutions to a conflict of interests. And instead we talk endlessly of irrigation-deficit. Boo Chanco’s (The Philippine Star, June 28, 2017) warning that business-as-usual, rather than “change is coming” politics is threatening to derail the “Build Build Build Program” is better heeded. Would-be presidents are lining up funding this early. Scarier still is the chipping away at the transparency and accountability system painstakingly built up by former DPWH Secretary, Babes Singson. Contrast this sad state of serial failures with such robust collective action achievements as the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Seoul-Pusan highway in South Korea. We are, in the parlance of political science, flaccid at collective action, unable to ‘act in concert’ for big projects. Is it any wonder that our arterial infrastructure is a constant source of embarrassment for citizen and nation? Whence is this flaccidness?

Historian Ambeth Ocampo (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 06.28.2017) did the nation favor by digging up a report by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, dated July 1569. Segments of the report are worth repeating (emphasis mine): “The inhabitants of these islands are not subjected to any law, king, or lord… the people do not act in concert or obey any ruling body; but each man does whatever he pleases and takes care only of himself and his slave… These people declare war among themselves at the slightest provocation, or with none whatsoever…”

Echoes of Thomas Hobbes’s rendition of pre-civilized life as a “warre of all against all” (Leviathan, 1668) almost a century later. We of course know that hyperbole in a report to Legazpi’s patron, the King of Spain, is only natural. We are aware of the 16th century European, but especially Iberian, bias against Indios and the need to justify colonial occupation. Joseph Conrad’s description of the African Congo River delta as Heart of Darkness (1902) demonstrates this bias’ historical tenacity even as he raised the question of whether Europe, which covets the bounty from African ivory trade and foments mayhem to defend it, is guiltless of such savagery. Still and all, Ocampo’s reading of Legazpi’s observation as “painfully relevant to the present” cannot be lightly dismissed. It seems that our social incoherence may have preceded the oft-blamed colonial experience.

Ours is a painfully incoherent society. At a drop of a hat we are less likely to vocalize than to TRO. President Duterte’s “war on drugs’ echoes Big Brother’s (George Orwell, 1984) attempt at closing the ranks of the popular sentiment if without the same success. One cannot close ranks around a state of embarrassment. One closes ranks around a state of great elevation and self-affirmation. The Beijing-Llasa railway does this for China; the Seoul-Pusan Highway did it for South Korea. Duterte will start to bind the nation better with a few game-changing infrastructures like the One Philippine Power Grid tying together Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

A world class throw-forward airport terminal and a fast train from Clark International Airport to TriNoma-North SM complex run by an accountable private concessionaire will begin to chip away at the embarrassment for arrivals headed south. For those heading north to Baguio, the SCTEx and TPLEx will greet the arrivals with the hope and promise of harvest rather than with sickness in the gut. A rational and well-run transport system will begin to reconstruct our self-belief, our communal pride and ultimately reprogram our collective neural networks towards “acting in concert” for the future.