FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2019 - 12:00am

This is, after all, what government is all about: to keep order in the public space to the benefit of all.

For decades, we saw the urban sprawl that is Mega Manila to simply grow without much planning, and certainly without much zoning. The result was a mess of metropolitan proportion.

We even produced a culture for this mess. It is a culture that strongly asserts rights but is muted about regulation. It is a culture that enables private/personal interest to overwhelm the commons. It is the culture of the weak state.

Within the framework of this culture, it was correct to colonize the waterways because the poor had no shelter. It was correct to allow illegal vendors to colonize the sidewalks to make an “honest” living. The entire city ends up flooded when it rains and traffic flow is choked all hours of the day.

By some miracle of corruption, the vast land reserved for our international airport was somehow privately titled and then parceled out as subdivisions. Because of that, there is now no space to build a direly needed new runway.

In this metropolis, there are few spaces left for public parks. Informal settlers have overrun every plot of land that has not been walled in. Small landowners wait for decades to clear their land of squatters so that they may invest in them.

The Bonifacio Monument right beside the Manila City Hall has to be an icon of sorts. A brightly designed space to commemorate the heroism of those who rebelled against an oppressive colonial power was desecrated and used as a public toilet.

In his first week as mayor, Isko Moreno visited the place and stepped on crap. He ordered the place washed and restored. That was the first cry of rebellion against the wanton expropriation of public spaces by those who justify their illegal behavior by their poverty.

A few days after that, Isko went on to clear “Divisoria market.” Few people recall this area is actually a road.

The populist politicians who ruled Manila for too long did nothing to clear the road of illegal vendors and the waterways of informal settlers. They did not want to antagonize voters. In so doing, they allowed the perverse culture of this gnarled metropolis to thrive even more.

A few months ago, my elderly father went to our barangay chairman in Malabon to complain about concrete structures being built by squatters on land we owned but could not access.  The official dismissed him rudely. The squatters were his voters. Respecting property rights will not win him elections.

The laws, the policies and the practical considerations of petty politicians have made it impossible for small urban landowners to reclaim their land from informal settlers. When eviction becomes possible, leftist groups step in, trying to win a constituency among those who have illegally occupied land.

That sort of attitude has been distilled by the leftist group Kadamay. They have forcibly occupied public housing projects claiming a “right” to them simply because they were homeless.

That sort of populism mires the whole nation.


When Bayani Fernando was MMDA chair, he began a campaign to clear the sidewalks choked by illegal vendors. The sidewalks, he said, demarcated the public space from the private. This is where the battle for a new “urbanidad” begins.

He was a revolutionary ahead of his time.

Fernando was soon met with an extremely hostile media campaign. He wondered how the small vendors he was clearing could afford such a massive media campaign. I told him money-lending syndicates who made their pile lending out P500 in the morning and collecting P600 in the evening were funding the attacks.  These syndicates roll over hundreds of millions each day from the usury.

Criminality and populism are allies in the bankrupt culture that has engulfed our city.

When I travel to other capital cities in our region, I marvel at the lush gardens that line clean boulevards. They all have an abundance of public space for their citizens and clear passages for pedestrians. One realizes immediately something grossly wrong afflicted Metro Manila.

Isko’s efforts in the City of Manila raises the possibility that the perverse urban culture that brought his city decay could actually be reversed. Other freshly installed mayors seemed eager to join to bring change.

In his last SONA, President Duterte ordered the DILG to convene the mayors for a program to clean up the metropolis. A tight deadline of 60 days was set to clear all the roads. Local executives who could not deliver will face sanctions.

What followed was a frenzy of cleanup activities. Barangay halls impeding traffic and pedestrian flow were demolished. The PNP itself, with dozens of precincts blocking passageways, committed to demolish them.

Like the cleanup of Boracay and the ongoing rehab of Manila Bay, there are enough skeptics who think this could not be done. Wanton transgression of the public space has been a deep-seated culture.

But the President and his DILG Secretary appear hell bent on doing this. The police forces have been deployed to support the MMDA in clearing up public spaces. If this is sustained, we could see a veritable cultural revolution in the Mega Manila area.

If the local executives support this effort with the enthusiasm they have so far shown, we could see real change in this urban mess. Order can yet triumph over chaos in this metropolis.

This could yet be Duterte’s resounding legacy.

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