POSTSCRIPT / July 27, 1999 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Stuck with Erap, even critics may have to help

THE nation has heard President Estrada redefine clearly his stand and his intentions regarding the Marcoses, Danding Cojuangco, the bailout of distressed private firms, press freedom and the general state of the nation after one year of his presidency

We have to accept the fact that the daunting problems that Mr. Estrada had inherited were of such nature and magnitude that they could not be solved in one year.

For better or for worse, we’re stuck with Mr. Estrada for the next five years. With his reaffirmation of his oath, the renewal of his vows and his drawing a road map for the rest of his term, it may not be unreasonable for the nation to give him a chance to make up for his shortcomings and complete his work within the time left.

This does not mean, however, that the people – especially the press – should abandon their watch or ease their scrutiny of presidential action.

Actually the President needs feedback if he is to stay on course. In this area, the press will be of immense help. But as the press goes about providing the two-way channel between government and the citizens, it would help if the President showed a little more maturity in handling critical reports and comments.

* * *

HERE’S one. We’ve just received a complaint that three months after President Estrada inaugurated his first Pabahay Para sa Mahirap in barangay Lorenzo Ruiz in Taytay, Rizal, private contractors who were mustered to help beat the deadline remain unpaid.

Early in April, it became clear that the first prototype building in the housing project being put up by Bingo boss Dante Tan and Hanson So may not be finished in time for the birthday last April 19 of the President.

Project architect Bobby Mañosa and Eduardo “Moonie” Lim Jr. representing Tan tapped a reliable project manager and experienced contractors to help So’s team. The project, which sits on seven hectares, consists of a cluster of 50 buildings made from container vans. Each building has 38 dwellings.

Analysis by new project manager Jose Aliling showed that at the rate the original contractor was going, the prototype building could not be finished on time. To make matters worse, So suddenly left for the United States.

With the problem dumped on their lap, Manosa and Lim authorized Aliling to take over the project management. Aliling then tapped architect Castor Surla, former special projects director of then Public Works Secretary Aber Canlas in housing and related concerns.

Seeing the obvious inadequacies of the team left by So, Mañosa and Lim gave the go signal to get other contractors who were qualified and adequately equipped. The contractors stayed on site and worked non-stop for 10 days to enable Tan to present his gift project to the President.

Until now, however, those contractors have not been paid. Many of them were even distressed to see So return for the presentation of the prototype and allegedly sought to give the President the impression that he was behind the on-time completion of the project.

* * *

HAVEN’T you noticed, all the hot issues swirling in the air some weeks back have been forgotten with the brouhaha over the alleged assault on press freedom by President Estrada.

The noisy press freedom debate has succeeded in diverting public attention from:

  1. The impending release of $150 million from the $590-million PNB screw account to clear the way for the total clearance of the Marcoses and the freeing of their other hidden accounts worldwide.
  2. A parallel move to reshuffle multibillion-peso coconut levy funds and grant a clearance to presidential crony Danding Cojuangco.
  3. The arbitrary overpricing of oil products under a deregulation law whose accelerated phasing out of price controls for oil products has been denounced before the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
  4. The tracking down of P11 billion allegedly spent for the last centennial celebration and pinpointing responsibility for irregularities that attended the preparation for the celebration.
  5. The use of trust funds of the Social Security System and the Government Service Insurance System to finance the sale of a giant bank to private investors.

We Filipinos are notorious for our short span of attention and our inability to focus on several burning issues at the same time.

Whoever are fueling the noisy debate over press freedom have succeeded, wittingly or unwittingly, in pushing away from public consciousness the bigger and more relevant issues. What’s their ulterior agenda?

* * *

LET’S not be sidetracked by the artificially created hysteria being whipped up on the issue of press freedom. Let’s go back to those gut issues that pose more real threats than, say, the pullout of movie ads from a newspaper.

Note that we and the rest of the Philippine press – including those still flashing frantic warnings on perceived threats to press freedom – are still free to write as we please. Where is the repression? We don’t see nor feel any prior restraint.

Incidentally, an interesting subject for media forums is the idea of press freedom. Does the term refer to independence from government or the independence of the editorial staff from the owners of the newspaper?

If the term refers to independence from the government, the Philippine press is still independent, except for a few newspapers that are still state-controlled or sequestered.

But independence has been interpreted by some editors to mean they are, or should be, independent of the owners. many policy and profitability problems arise from the editors’ being under the illusion that they are independent of the owners. These are usually the type who have no qualms about dragging the paper and their fellow workers down with them.

* * *

ON another important item, rice, impacting on the lives and livelihood of the poor, POSTSCRIPT reader Grace Infantado of Oriental Mindoro who claims to be a farmer volunteers some thoughts on agriculture, a key element in the recovery program of the Estrada administration.

Addressing Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara, she points out the imperatives of increasing the profitability of farmers to trigger growth in the manufacturing sector. The reason why factories are closing is because millions of farmers have no money to buy goods being manufactured, she says.

Zeroing in on rice, Ms. Infantado says: “The government fails to recognize that the National Food Authority is directly competing with the farmers, because NFA is selling rice at only P650 per bag and they continuously flood the markets with cheap rice. They always say that there is shortage of rice when in reality there is an oversupply.

“We don’t see them come to our bodegas and count, so where are they getting all their statistics? What makes the matter worse is that wholesalers, retailers and millers mix NFA rice with commercial rice and sell their rice at commercial prices. The same traders buy the farmers’ palay at bargain prices and farmers have no choice but to sell because they have nowhere to go.

“We in Oriental Mindoro used to supply the rice needs of Southern Tagalog and partly of Metro Manila. Lately, we have noticed that there are very few buyers coming over to buy our produce. Usually, at this time of the year (July) since the 17 years that I have been a rice farmer, most of our warehouses in Oriental Mindoro are almost empty. But if you come and visit us now, you will find that most warehouses are full.

“The price of one bag of rice here since April has reached the lowest level, if you compare prices for the past five years. We were not happy with the price of rice last year because we earned very little. But this year is even worse—prices are even lower and there are no takers. If there are some buyers, they buy cheap because they say imported rice is cheaper.

“People and traders don’t realize that imported rice is cheap because it is being dumped here by other countries. We even forget that the cereal has been treated with chemicals so it won’t easily rot. That is why Filipinos are getting sicker. Just imagine that many people adulterate our delicious rice with rotten imported rice.

“Another mistake of NFA is their selling in rice-producing areas. They should sell only in areas where there is really a shortage.”

* * *

Ms. Infantado reports that in Oriental Mindoro:

“Farming is generally no longer profitable, because inputs as well as farm labor are getting higher while prices of farm goods are getting lower. If this continues, nobody will produce. This was what happened to pork. Prices were lowest in 1998, and many closed their piggery, that is why there is shortage of pork now.”

Citing her own case, she says: “I have been a rice farmer since 1982. During those years, we earn a lot in our 20-hectare farm especially during the term of NFA Administrator Jesus Tanchanco. When commercial prices are low, we can always go to NFA for better prices. They didn’t import then, they bought the stocks of farmers to build their reserve. Also, during that time, NFA sold rice only during lean months and they sold only in areas where rice is really needed.”

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 27, 1999)

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