Starweek Magazine

On the road with the MMDA’s Special OPS Team

Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo - The Philippine Star
On the road with the MMDAâs Special OPS Team

MANILA, Philippines — A day in the life of Edison “Bong” Nebrija, commander of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA)’s Task Force Special Operations, starts at 4 a.m. By 6 a.m., operations start with the commander briefing his team. They then go out for the operation of the day – which may be towing illegally parked cars or clearing the sidewalk of vendors, among other tasks – until about 10 a.m., then Nebrija goes back to the office to deal with administrative matters until around 2 p.m.

That’s not where duty ends, however. “Press conferences would take my afternoon. If not, there will be traffic management meetings,” he tells STARweek.  Because traffic in the metropolis is such a hot topic affecting thousands of motorists each day, Nebrija is called on to answer media queries on the topic.

For this former Navy colonel – he’s a member of Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 1991 who spent most of his time in naval aviation – it’s all about leading by example. The discipline instilled in him over 20 years in the military comes into play in his current role.

He tells his men, “Kung makita niyo akong kumuha ng singkong duling (If you catch me personally gaining) from what we do, you get double or triple of what I’m taking. But as long as you do not see me take anything out of these operations, you have no right to get anything. If you do and I catch you, that will be a different story.”

MMDA Special Operations Task Force head Bong Nebrija inspects structures encroaching on the sidewalk. Behind him is the person known as Gadget Addict, whose videos on YouTube of the team’s clearing operations have gone viral. On the cover: Nebrija (left) and his team get ready for the day’s operation. KRISJOHN ROSALES/STAR

Despite the name special operations, Nebrija says there’s really nothing extraordinary about what they do.

“What we do is very ordinary... this is not something new for MMDA. Sidewalk clearing... Anti-illegal parking, it’s been there for the longest time. But this time, we will do this relentlessly.”

Nebrija tells his team, “If we need to do this every day, we will do this every day. And we will accomplish all this with integrity.”

He adds, “The only way that people will believe in what we do is when we do it right. And we will do it with utmost integrity.”

For Nebrija, the operations should be beneficial for all – even for those apprehended. “Maayos ka, maayos ang motorista, maayos yung pedestrians, peaceful coexistence tayong lahat. Bakit pa natin kailangan mag-vend sa kalsada na nakaharang sa mga motorista,‘di ba (You’re disciplined, the motorists are disciplined, the pedestrians are orderly, we all have peaceful coexistence. Why would you need to vend illegally on the street and block motorists)?”

Nebrija explains the reasons behind the clearing of streets to those affected by the operations. KRISJOHN ROSALES/STAR

That’s what he strives to explain to those affected by the street clearing operations. “Those are the things you need to explain to them because for the longest period of time, three decades or more, nobody was explaining to them... Actually, it’s not just a matter changing of the mindset of the people, it’s also basically a culture change.”

Many are resistant to change and Nebrija’s well-meaning explanations get lost in the moment. He has had to stand his ground each day in the face of challenges to a gunfight, deaths threats death if their cars are towed, “stuff like that,” he shares.

Nebrija adds he hasn’t just had to face challenges on the road. but in forming his team as well. The important culture change had to start from within, after all.

Nebrija believes that leaders build leaders. So, he strives to empower his team members, telling them at the start,“I will not look at your past. We will start with a clean slate. I will look at you on the level na pare-pareho tayo malinis (we are all clean). From here on, you need to prove to me your worth. You’re worth being here and you’re worth my time leading you. I do not need so many men. I’ll only need a few who are committed.”

Nebrija also encourages his subordinates to grow in their career. “When the time comes I need to move up or I need to leave, you will be ready to lead your own team. You will not stagnate in a position na hanggang dito ka na lang (and that’s as far as you go), which most of their supervisors before had branded them.”

A shopkeeper is asked to remove his merchandise display on the sidewalk (above); when he failed to do so the next day, the MMDA team did it for him.

When the commander found out that he was going to be awarded as a World Class Filipino Leader by World Class Philippines, he declined:“Wow, I am greatly honored but I am sorry I cannot take that... Maybe I am the one you see on the TV but the story behind the team is not me. It’s about each and every one.” The whole team ended up receiving the award as a world class Filipino task force.


Recently, Nebrija and the special task force has been gaining popularity online, with videos of some operations even going viral. “I was pretty active on Facebook before. But I didn’t have so much following, I don’t have so many friends... I never thought I would be such a thing on Facebook,” he laughs.

One factor for Nebrija’s surge in popularity was the coverage of foreign vlogger Gadget Addict who started following the task force around, recording their operations and posting them online.

“He joined us one time, then another one, the next day, the next day and he found it more interesting. He thinks he found a purpose in doing that every day dahil nakikita niya (because he saw) that people are becoming aware.”

Nebrija adds, “Gadget Addict was a big part of the operation because he really explains it well... He explains why I did this to the vendor. He explains why we towed that vehicle. He explains why this car was not towed and why it was just ticketed.”

“Ano ang gagawin sa karitelang walang kabayo (What do you do with a horseless kalesa obstructing the road)?” Nebrija writes in his Facebook page. The same thing you do with an illegally parked car – you tow it.

So far, Nebrija has managed to steer clear of trolls. Instead, netizens seem to have taken a liking to the commander. “Parang they’re trying to build an image for me. They even put me in parang SWAT uniform. They even crafted a photo na merong agila (with an eagle).”

During the NBA finals, a follower photoshopped Nebrija’s face onto Lebron James’ body and labeled it “LeBong Nebrija.”

Despite the internet’s fascination with the commander, he tries to shift focus away from himself and toward the MMDA. He uses his social media presence “not personally to know Bong Nebrija but to shift the presumption towards the agency that’s been battered by bashing, by misperception, branded so many times, so many names. I think that’s also one of the purposes of social media awareness.”

He shares with a laugh, “My daughter hates it. My daughter hates it because sabi niya, ‘Dad, can you imagine my middle school classmates, my high school classmates who were not even talking to me before are now calling me because they saw you on TV and are asking me, ‘Hey, is this your dad?’”

Nebrija’s family lives in the US, but they are able to keep tabs on him through social media and YouTube.

The way Nebrija leads his team and his commitment to working with integrity is motivated largely by his children. “The things I was teaching my kids when they were growing up are the things that I am doing now. Because I would tell them, ‘Be the catalyst of change. Be brave. Make a difference.’ You’re trying to nurture your kids growing up and then they are seeing it in you. So that’s why she’s proud of me. I know she’s proud of me.”

As for results, Nebrija says that there are quantifiable results –how many cars towed, how many streets cleared, etc. “But there also the things, the intangible things, that not everybody will see. Like changing mindset.”

Nebrija notes a marked change in motorists today. Many have made it a habit to ask and make sure that they are allowed to park in certain areas before leaving their car curbside, lest they be tire-clamped or towed. Even just becoming more mindful about this is a step toward improvement.

Looking forward, Nebrija says he hopes he can branch out beyond Metro Manila. “We’re moving towards Mega Manila, so we will get involved in all these provinces. That will be a different ballgame when that happens. Long term, I see a bright future for betterment.”

As infrastructure improves, Nebrija expects the traffic situation to be alleviated. “If we have this MRT (Metro Rail Transit), we have this LRT (Light Rail Transit), we have the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), we have new public transport system, palagay ko pati ako ‘di na ako magdadala ng sasakyan (even I wouldn’t need to bring my own car).”

The MMDA Special Operations Task Force get their instructions from Nebrija before fanning out to clear the streets and sidewalks of the metropolis of illegal structures, illegally parked vehicles and other obstructions.

He adds, “I think the problem that we have in Metro Manila talaga cannot be solved by the MMDA alone. This should have a holistic solution. That the LGU (local government unit) will be involved, other agencies will be involved, even the citizens will be involved. Mag-bayanihan na tayo (Let’s work together).”

Nebrija says, “It’s time to have courtesy towards others. Discipline is not a collective thing; it’s an individual thing. If we have a common standard of discipline, that’s the brighter Manila and that’s the brighter Philippines. That’s the future of the Philippines – a disciplined Filipino.”


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