Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Edifice Building

This is a re-hash of an old post which I never completed. Still merits a little saying.

(Gary Granada)

Sa ngalan ng huwad na kaunlaran
Ang bayan ko'y sa utang nadiin
At ito na ang kabayaran
Ang kanunu-nunuang lupain

Ang mga eksperto'y nagsasaya
At nagpupuri at sumasamba
Sa wangis ng diyus-diyosan nila
Ang dambuhalang dam

Damdam damdam damda dadam
Damdam damdam damda dadam
Damdam damdam damda dadam
Ang dambuhalang dam

Ang mga tribu'y nagtatatangis
Nananaghoy at nababaliw
Habang ang mga turistang mababangis
Nalilibang at naaaliw

Sa mga pulubing nagsasayaw
Mga katutubo ng Apayao
Na napaalis kahit umayaw
Alang-alang sa dam

Damdam damdam...

Titigan ninyo ang gahiganteng bato
Nagsasalarawan ng lipunang ito
Tulad ng mga gumawa rin nito
Walang pakiramdam

Modern man needs his edifices in order to churn out the idea that progress --- the concept of
development --- continues and that change, as a constant that change is good.

The Ramos administration was founded on the paradigm that infrastructure was the key to development - that better edifices define the spirit of modernism in the Filipino --- in a sense, the pundits in his team were right --- bigger government spending spurred growth, and though businesses suffered in the interim, long-term growth was assured.

Of course, in the Philippine context, any public works improvement worth its salt must be budgeted thrice the amount in order to be called a worthy infrastructure project. A joke goes like this:

The city government was building a new garden and among the attractions was a wrought-iron gate. The contractor didn't have the skills to do it himself, so he opens a bidding and the top three participants were left - an American, a Mexican, and a Filipino.

The American submits his bid - $800 - $600 for materials, $200 for labor. The Mexican follows with $700 - $600 for materials, and $100 for labor.

The Filipino's bid was $2,700. The contractor asks: "How come this is so high?" The Filipino answers: "$1,000 for me, $1,000 for you, and $700 for the Mexican to do the job."

Guess who won the contract?

Kidding aside, public works white elephants are so common in the Philippines you can hardly announce a new initiative without getting derision and cynicism in response. Our experience with the National Broadband Network is revealing --- it actually reached insanely comic proportions if it weren't such a tragic misappropriation of taxpayers' money had it gone through. The creativity by which this current administration has milked public works projects dwarfs the scams perpetrated during the time of its predecessors (who remembers PEA Amari? The Alabang stock farm? The Centennial scandal in Clark? The disgrace that is the new airport terminal? The ill-fated and incomplete Skyway? No one.).

The new scandals mount, another rebellion checked, but still we come to the heart of the matter - public works spending cannot be audited correctly against corruption! In a nutshell, all this public spending has redounded less to the public interest than it has to the special interests of the people behind the awarding of these contracts and their coterie attached from the center to the periphery of the projects.

And yet we continue to build - building to compete who has the biggest, most massive, most opulent structures. During the days of the Cold War, both sides tried to re-up one another on had the longest bridge, the longest pipelines, the highest dams. In this new century, countries have been left behind as real estate moguls have taken the race to ridiculous levels.

Buildings have risen everywhere in the Gulf - the construction industry here has grown leaps and bounds. The world's tallest building, located in Dubai, is on its way to completion. It has left similar projects in Shanghai and Taipei in the dust. And yet we expect in a few months, an even bigger edifice - reputed to be built in Jeddah - would surpass it.

The last truly government-sponsored project - the Petronas Towers (tallest in the world since 1998 to 2004), seems modest in comparison. Similar structures are being built in Bahrain and in Riyadh. I don't know about the occupancy rates of these buildings, but is there a Kuala Lumpur syndrome waiting for all these buildings?

At some point it should stop. It makes money for the contractors, it earns some fleeting glory for the builders/developers. Maybe each new building becomes a tourist attraction. But for what? (With all due respect to the engineers and architects, I'm not indicting anyone except the idiots who twist public policy to fund the construction of white elephants.)

There's a joke among my Indian colleagues about how Alexander the Great on his death bed said, "My last wish is that both my hands be kept dangling out of my coffin - I wish people to know that I came empty handed into this world and empty handed I go out of this world."

Juxtapose this with recent news headlines in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar - US dollar keeps falling to new lows vs. Asian currencies, rents increase, prices increase, water and electricity increases, school fees increase, more parking fees, highway toll fees etc. It all proves the old philosophy:
We came to the Gulf empty handed, and would go back empty-handed as well!

Postscript: This really isn't a legitimate rant, though of course we did spend a lot of money on the house and so much of it isn't finished. I don't mind helping foot the bill but seeing as I don't benefit so much from the improvements, shouldn't I have some right to complain?

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