POSTSCRIPT / November 19, 1998 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Estrada wins points for a US pilgrimage

THE start of the traditional simbang gabi, that novena of nine dawn Masses ushering in Christmas, is still a month away, but we’re already getting advance notice that we may not need warm clothing when we venture into the December air.

The weather bureau says that global warming has pushed the average temperature higher than in Decembers past. The coolest it would be is expected to be late January when the temperature dips to something like 27 degrees Celsius.

Maybe that’s not cool enough for you Pinoys in the States, but back home that is cold enough to prompt parents to tell the kids to wear sweaters and jackets when they go to the misa de gallo.

Christmas lights now adorn most streets and houses, with carols filling the air in a valiant attempt to coax out the Yule spirit. The famous Pampanga kaleidoscopic parol has been improved upon by capiz versions and more intricate lighting effects.

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OUR President Estrada has just earned for himself more points toward an official invitation for a state visit to the White House, a sought-after validation of his election last May.

This routine of a new Philippine president making a pilgrimage to Washington, DC, for confirmation is what Erap in earlier times would call “mental colony,” but that’s the way it goes.

Mr. Estrada stood out in the sixth Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Kuala Lumpur as the lead player echoing the American line that Malaysia must open up and stop treating ousted deputy minister Anwar Ibrahim shabbily.

When US Vice President Al Gore, substituting for Bill Clinton who had to stay home to attend to another hatchet job, disregarded the Asian sensibilities of his host by lambasting Malaysia on the Anwar issue and batting for “reformasi,” Erap dutifully said “I’m agree.”

Now, if Erap sticks to his pro-US script and is able to steer the controversial RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement through the Senate minefield, the state visit to America could be in the bag. But not before the VFA’s ratification.

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WAS it wise or proper for Erap to have received Anwar’s wife after having just talked cordially with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad? This kibitzer believes he did the right thing.

Two factions were pulling Erap in two opposite directions. One group led by Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon wanted him to refrain from further commenting on Anwar and to avoid contact with the dissident’s family while in KL.

Another faction wanted him to pursue his high-profile pro-Anwar stance and meet with Anwar’s wife. The dilemma required a delicate diplomatic balancing act.

National interest was served by his having a cordial meeting with Mahathir. At the same time, his personal sympathy for a persecuted friend was given reasonable expression by his receiving, kunwari by surprise, Anwar’s wife Azizah and his daughter Nurul.

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SIAZON should not be faulted for appearing to run a “basketball block” (again, not a “blockade”) around Erap to prevent any contact with the Anwars. The foreign secretary must have felt it his duty to steer the President along the path of diplomacy.

A relevant footnote is that Kuala Lumpur’s second extension of the amnesty for illegal foreign workers (many of whom are among the 500,000 or so Filipinos in Malaysia) lapsed last Nov. 15. A crackdown may just follow.

Similarly, the group which counts on Sen. Tessie Aquino-Oreta and presidential spokesman Jerry Barican had a job to do, out of principle, in arranging a “surprise” meeting in the hotel suite where Erap was to fix himself between functions.

We can’t please everybody, but our President tried. The supposed rift in the presidential party on the Anwar issue should not be blown up to crisis proportion.

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BUT on another front, China President Jiang Zemin pulled a fast one, as expected, on President Estrada in their lopsided poker game over Mischief Reef (Panganiban to us and Meiji to the Chinese).

Our President failed to get a promise from Jiang to dismantle offensive Chinese structures on Mischief. We ended up merely reiterating the old agreement for the two countries to settle any dispute by diplomatic means and to explore joint development of the area.

A Chinese statement even had the temerity to say that the situation in the general area of the Spratlys has been stable. Of course, with them in place and with us looking on helplessly, there is nothing but calm in that big Chinese lake called South China Sea.

With China holding Mischief as its own, will Palawan which is only 120 nautical miles from Mischief become by extension a part of China for being within its 200-mile territorial limit now?

One urgent lesson we have to relearn: Let’s grow strong and grow fast.

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IMAGINE a road that costs P535 million per kilometer, or roughly a straight line from the Rizal monument to Quiapo church. At that price, the steel bars must be gold-plated!

That’s the cost of a spur road that they had started to build as an exit from the North Luzon Expressway in Mabalacat to Clark Field in Pampanga. Total cost for the two-kilometer road is P1.071 billion. Wow!

The ambitious road was supposed to make it easy for visitors to enter Clark and visit the Filipino Expo timed to open for the Centennial extravaganza last June 12. Well, June 12 is long gone — and the Expo and the spur road are still not finished.

Work on the spur road, which is only 12-percent complete, has been stopped and losses are mounting.

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ILLUSTRATING the alleged overprice, Sen. Rodolfo Biazon said that the emulsified asphalt used was bought at P18,000 per metric ton when a canvass showed that Petron sells the same material for only P6,940/MT.

And if the project’s correct cost was indeed P1.071 billion, how come it could be subcontracted by the Philippine National Construction Corp. for only P620 million with the subcontractor still sure of making money?

The road appears not only overpriced. It also looks substandard. Biazon said that core samples were taken from the completed pavement and tests had shown that the concrete was not thick and strong enough for a road of that type.

Biazon noted that costs of some project components as estimated by the Bases Conversion Development Authority were exactly the same to the last centavo as the figures submitted by the PNCC—when the two are supposed to figure out costs independently.

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