Telcos, oligarchs and COVID-19
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - August 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Global Source, a New York-based think tank, expressed disappointment that our Great Leader’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) did not include a clear roadmap for COVID recovery.

It did not have “detailed plans to contain the rising infections and high occupancy of health facilities especially in Metro Manila, improve mobility through public transport, and revive the economy.”

Instead, Global Source noted, it “bullied other parties, starting with an opposition senator for his supposed defense of oligarchs in the context of the ABS-CBN franchise, midway the two major telcos which he threatened with expropriation for their ‘lousy service’, and ending again with the opposition senator, speculating on his role in designing Metro Manila’s water concessions.”

The key takeaway of Global Source from the President’s penultimate SONA “is that rather than focus on COVID-19 which he earlier said is ‘perhaps our number one problem today,’ the President’s mind is rather preoccupied with succession planning.

“The speech is political through and through, intended to please his crowd and subtly turn the spotlight on prospective presidentiable Sen. Bong Go.

“What the President seems to have failed to appreciate is that COVID-19 is not just ‘perhaps’ the number one problem, but is an existential threat for 5.2 million families who, survey revealed, suffered hunger during the pandemic.

“And much as his supporters may enjoy listening to his threats against certain powerful business groups, he will continue to need their help to keep ahead of the coronavirus, boost consumer confidence and revive the economy, crucial to winning in 2022.”

The New York think tank may be reading too much, too soon. Our Great Leader simply wanted to divert public attention from his administration’s failure to handle the epidemic the way our neighbors did.

And like Hitler who focused the Germans on the Jews, and Trump who tried to get white Americans up and angry towards immigrants, our Great Leader tried to focus public anger towards telcos and oligarchs. After all, most of us dislike our telcos and have no love lost for our local oligarchs.

But this approach has been tried a bit too often. His threat to expropriate the telco assets unless service is improved by December is now seen by many as a brazen attempt to deliver the telcos to our Great Leader’s own oligarch.

It didn’t help that DITO Telecommunity, the supposed third telco owned by Davao-based businessman Dennis Uy and China Telecom, failed to live up to its signed commitments and has been given more time to comply. Of course, our Great Leader made no mention of this.

Attacking the oligarchs is not new. Marcos did it when he declared martial law. Dismantling the oligarchy was his excuse for the harsh regime.

But Marcos installed his own set of oligarchs who were given state sanctioned monopolies and levies. The money collected through the coconut levy, for example, has not been returned to coconut farmers to this day.

The Lopezes were attacked by Marcos because the patriarch picked a fight with him. The post EDSA Lopez family is, however, a shadow of what it was when Don Eugenio was alive.

For one, the second and third generations are not as feisty as the old man. They are not as interested in politics as Don Eugenio was.

Even their economic power has been greatly diminished. None of them are in the Forbes list of richest Filipinos last year, which was dominated by Chinoys. Indeed, only Villar, Zobel and Razon are not Chinoys in the top 10 list.

As I explained in a previous column, even in the case of ABS-CBN, the third generation now in-charge of the company are very low profile. Indeed, Mark Lopez and Carlo Katigbak are too meek, perhaps for their own good.

So, what oligarch was our Great Leader supposedly destroying for the country’s good? Davao’s Dennis Uy is number 22 in the Forbes List, Oscar Lopez was number 27.

As for the telcos, denouncing them is good politics. But in fairness, they are trying to beef up their infrastructure to vastly improve the services they provide. The problem is government.

As our Great Leader acknowledged a few days after his SONA in an exchange with Globe’s Ernest Cu, red tape specially at the LGU level is really to blame for the slow pace of service improvement. In Metro Manila, gated subdivisions raise a howl when telcos apply to place a tower near them.

In the provinces, the telcos are milking cows for LGUs who dream up permits and fees before telcos can break ground. Then the NPA comes around too, demanding “revolutionary tax” or they will blow up the towers, and they have done that often enough. Unfortunately, neither the PNP nor the AFP can protect the telcos.

Our Great Leader gave orders to his Cabinet members to facilitate the grant of permits to the telcos. Nice to hear, but to see what happens on the ground is to believe.

Actually, in this time of high anxiety among international investors, our Great Leader should stop threatening to expropriate businesses already heavily invested here. He may think he is scaring the Zobels or Metro Pacific, but he is actually causing potential investors to think twice and go elsewhere.

There are still investors to attract. Many are fleeing from China, but are choosing Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia instead of us.

Of course, our outdated laws are a deterrent. But the outbursts of our Great Leader are also making them worry about high political risks. What happened to ABS-CBN just because, as our Great Leader confessed, they treated him badly, negatively impacts investment decisions too.

Perhaps, as we try to recover from the pandemic, everyone from our Great Leader to the humblest mayor or barangay captain should try harder to be friendlier to investors. With the world economy in shambles due to COVID, our lives now depend on attracting as many investors as we can to create much needed jobs in our flattened economy.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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