Roberto V. ‘Bobby’ Ongpin


At the age of 86 years, Roberto V. Ongpin, who was generally considered to be in relatively good health, suddenly and quietly passed away in his sleep last week. The notices about his contributions in life were immediately flashed by news reports and commentaries.

Bright businessman and technocrat. His brilliance as a young businessman was immediate at a young age. Upon graduation at the Ateneo, he went to study at the Harvard Business School to earn an MBA, which he received in 1961.

His first job was at Proctor and Gamble. But soon after, he was enticed by Washington SyCip to join SGV’s management services team, where, at the time, Cesar Virata, was already working as partner. When Virata joined the government in 1966, Bobby, as he was called publicly by many friends, took over.

SGV at the time was actively involved working at the crossroads of management and business problems of rising companies in the country. Its reach was increasing in East and Southeast Asia in those years. As an SGV partner, he could meet with the business talents of the broader region where business ventures were growing in numbers.

In government, at industry. At the age of 42 in 1979, his call to join government came at the invitation of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. to become minister of Industry. He succeeded Vicente Paterno in the task.

Roberto Ongpin was different from Paterno in a number of ways. Paterno was a visionary who worked in careful steps. Ongpin was a doer, an action man.

Paterno took the resources that he had as the constraints of his operations. Ongpin saw them as impediments to his success. So, he sought the means to correct these in his favor.

Ongpin did not dwell on issues that often led to delay. He often went ahead with solutions to the operational obstacles that he encountered to promote his industrial projects. He complained that Paterno painstakingly prepared a thick set of files containing policy issues on major projects at the Board of Investments.

As a man of action, Ongpin plunged more quickly into the decision issues concerning projects that he tried to promote. If he found something missing, he sought support from elsewhere in the government (the president or his colleagues in other ministries) to correct the problem.

Ongpin found the split of the ministry of Industry and Trade into two departments artificial. When he assumed office as Industry minister he sought their re-consolidation and got the president to approve.

More significant was the recommendation that the Board of Investment, an autonomous agency to promote investments under the Office of the President, be consolidated under the supervision of the ministry. In one single stroke, Ongpin put three major agencies under his immediate control.

As Industry minister, he found soon enough that he could not get foreign direct investments to fund the projects that were highly prioritized in his plans. Some of these were projects that dealt with the expansion of resource-based industrial projects, including those in mining and agriculture. On these, there were definite constitutional limits that could not be disregarded.

He thus discovered soon enough that foreign investors were not as readily attracted to investment proposals in which they had less control over their investments. He also discovered that domestic industrialists were quite comfortable with their small industrial projects and that they had neither the resources nor the technology nor the capacity to enter into larger undertakings.

One solution that he struck on was to revive the National Development Company (NDC). This was a state investment promotion and funding corporation put up by former president Manuel Quezon during the Commonwealth period. Under NDC support and corporate powers, it could undertake contracts committing resources in the name of the government, including extending financing support to those industrial ventures.

At that time, the main vehicle for development finance, the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) was already heavily loaned out to highly protected domestic industries that were in import-substitution. Many of the import-dependent industries began during earlier presidencies and they had been hampered in servicing their development loans, thus limiting DBP’s lending ability.

The revival and recapitalization of NDC was a big boon to Ongpin’s rush to get his projects moving forward. Thus, he was able to push forward the copper smelter project, the phosphate fertilizer plant, which was a project with the Nauru Republic, and various palm oil plantation projects with Malaysian and Singaporean interests.

At the ministry and at BOI, Ongpin was in charge of a large group of critical projects designed to raise the country’s industrial capacity, which he grouped as the 10 major industrial projects. These were for the most part domestic resource-based projects. They included the Nonoc nickel refinery project, the geothermal energy plants, the copper smelter, the nuclear power plant in Bataan, petrochemical project and steel plants, and agricultural plantation projects.

Some of the projects would see completion, but would suffer from political controversies that would hamper their future implementation. A major example was the nuclear power plant.

The other major projects demonstrated the problems inherent in the restrictive provisions of the Philippine constitution in trying bring in foreign direct investments that were critical to the country’s industrial future. Owned by domestic proponents, they were financed from foreign loans.

To this day, the problem affects the nation’s body politic.

The body politic would suffer from a major economic and political crisis in 1983 to 1986. During that period, Roberto Ongpin’s contribution to the management of the country’s economic ills would become even more important because he was a central participant to the peso currency stabilization of the period. Most of the observations on his role in government emphasized this part of his activities of that period.

(I was part of the economic team during the period from 1970 to 1981. The observations above are freely derived from my book on Cesar Virata (U.P. Press, 2014, pp. 210-214.) I was the head of the National Economic Council and its successor agency, the NEDA from 1970 until 1981.)



For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: https://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/


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