FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2018 - 12:00am

The nation’s capital used to be a proud and graceful city. Today Manila is a city in serious distress.

Roxas Boulevard was once the road we were proudest of. It was the beautiful ledge from where we watched the world’s most glorious sunset. There was once a pleasant bay walk that provided refreshing sanctuary for the harried citizens of an overpopulated megalopolis.

The other day, Roxas Boulevard was an ugly sight. An angry sea returned tons of waste. The once civilized boulevard resembled a garbage dump. The surging tide pushed tons of trash well into the decrepit districts that were once our tourist zone.

The natives say that when the rains began falling, garbage collection stopped. The city government failed to clear Manila’s waterways ahead of the monsoon rains. As a result, most of Manila’s streets were flooded last week. Schools were shut down. Commerce was choked.

This is not the city that will lead the nation into this new century. Everywhere, everything seems to be in a state of dysfunction. Corruption has produced chaos.

The Quinta market was rebuilt. But the vendors have spilled out into the streets. They say they would rather peddle their wares in the streets than pay the “goodwill” money being asked for a stall in the market.

All over the city, traffic rules do not seem in force. All sorts of illegal conveyances abound. This can only be because the enforcers are paid off.

Escolta, once the nation’s glitzy shopping mecca, is now nothing more than a row of grimy buildings. Avenida Rizal has been reduced to a muddy street. All the side streets are flooded when it rains.

Manila has become the crumbling inner district of a larger metropolitan region. It has fallen into what Harlem was to New York: a ghetto marinating in neglect.

The sad state of the City of Manila can only be the outcome of failed governance.  While the surrounding cities have risen from suburban status into dynamic business districts, Manila simply decayed.

The city government raised real property taxes by 300%. That should have bloated the city coffers. But the funds raised did not reflect in the improvement of services. The city’s hospitals are appalling. The streets are dark. Stinking garbage fills the sidewalks and poison the floodwaters.

Why has the nation’s capital fallen into this sad state?

The root of the problem appears to be a catastrophic failure in leadership. Over the past so many years, Manila has had very old men to lead the city. They were men who did not think much about the future and were content to simply enjoy the perks of the post.

These old men simply did not have the energy to rally the city back to life. They did not have the planning horizon to undertake a comprehensive reinvention of the capital. They were content to do small things here and there to win enough votes to linger longer at the post.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, could well have had Manila as its setting. In that compelling novel, an ancient ruler slips slowly into a dark world while the realm he rules rots.


Manila needs a drastic change in leadership. This is a city that needs visionary leadership to rise from its present despair.

But there is something in the local politics of this city that seems to hinder the rise of new, more capable, leaders.

City politics, it seems, is ruled by the alliances of traditional power brokers who back candidates depending on how shares of the spoils are pledged. It is a political dynamic that repels change and reinforces the status quo.

By the way, it also entrenches the corruption that seems to infect every fold of the city’s life. For as long as the traditional patterns dictating election outcomes persist, the distressed city will continue in its descent.

There is unrest in the city. That is understandable considering what the city’s residents have to live through day in and day out.

Among parish-based groups and civic organizations, there are increasingly more frequent discussions about how to intervene in the choice of the next city mayor. If a rebellion happens against politics-as-usual in the city of Manila, it will begin with these groups.

The question really is: will these discontented groups gather voter support? Will they have the determination and the savvy to break the inertia of the old politics that brought the city to this despicable state?

The loci of discontented citizens remain without a preferred leader who might personify the vision and the energy to alter Manila’s descent.

If Manila were a nation, it would have long been classified a “failed state.” The mechanisms of local governance have long atrophied. Marauders have usurped the functions of the local government and used informal power to draw rent for themselves. What we have is the carcass of a city left for the vultures to feed on.

Reversal of Manila’s tragic decline can only happen on the basis of concerted action by citizens who still live this city – or what is left of it.

Let’s not even talk of urban renewal. Just stopping the decay is a large challenge by itself. Restoring the rudiments of decent governance is a daunting challenge as it is.

Manila’s discontented citizens have until October to choose a champion who may be a rallying point for turning back the tide of decadence. That is a short horizon for concerned citizens to begin intervening.

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