"This is what nationhood is all about."
One cannot but admire the President’s admission that he has been “humbled” by the toll of the Covid-19 outbreak into apologizing for the “hurtful words” that he had levelled against some big businessmen in the past, especially the Ayalas and Manny Pangilinan.
“There may be legal issues but I’m ready to talk and I’ll be reasonable,” the President said in his late night telecast, referring to his government’s vow last year to rectify the onerous provisions in the Manila Water and Maynilad concessions to distribute water to Metro Manila residents.
“Yung mga masakit kong talk to Ayalas and Pangilinan, I apologize for the hurting words,” adding in a rare show of humility — “if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me,” said Duterte.
When the issue of the one-sided contract that was supposedly disadvantageous to the government and the consumers broke out last year, this writer said that in the end, there must be a compromise between government and the water concessionaires, for we could not imagine ourselves going back to the bad old days when water hardly trickled from faucets and the government was in charge of providing the service.
President Fidel V. Ramos wisely privatized the water service distribution system, which succeeding governments continued. But surely there were onerous provisions in the contracts, and President Duterte balked at these, including the premature extension of the life of the agreements without correcting such provisions for the benefit of the consuming public.
In fairness, President Estrada refused to agree to the service fee increase the Ayalas and Lopezes (then the majority owners of Maynilad) wanted to charge on account of the currency devaluation brought about by the 1997-98 Asian recession. But his tenancy of Malacanang was cut short by Edsa Dos.
Still and all, as the Tagalogs would say, “andyan na iyan,” and despite the higher bills, service has improved a hundred times more than when government, through the NAWASA monopoly, was providing the service. Which makes it unacceptable to revert the service provision to government, not even the “military” that President Duterte adverted to taking over.
Secretary Meynard Guevarra started putting the finishing touches on what would be fairer and much-improved agreements, even as the private service providers declared that they would waive the penalties imposed by the Singapore arbitration court which ruled in their favor. Then the country got entrapped into the worldwide pandemic, and all hands had to be on deck to protect the population from the viral contagion.
And despite the bumbling of functionaries, the private sector, from Ramon Ang of San Miguel to Enrique Razon of Bloomberry, the Sys of SM, the Tans and Gokongweis, Villar and Aboitiz, and the “hated” Ayalas and Pangilinan, and many more, helped in procuring the needed supplies and instant infrastructure to assist government in containing the spread of the disease, as well as helping the poorest of the poor in their daily food and basic requirements during the lockdown.
Seeing how crisis of great proportions momentarily unified the country and put legal and political tussles in the backburner, President Duterte took it upon himself to express the gratitude of the State to the private sector, and in a manner of speaking, “ate humble pie” even.
Indeed, there is never anything humiliating about being humble, and what the President expressed Monday night proved that he understands the power of humility.
It gives every Filipino inspiration that as we finally recover from this crisis of gargantuan proportions, the seeds of national unity will be watered, essential as it is to rehabilitating a hugely damaged economy.
But beyond the coronavirus tragedy and the crisis it has spawned, this public-private partnership in helping the nation should likewise focus on the rich helping the poor and marginalized, the most vulnerable sectors whether in crisis or normalcy in a land yet benighted by a history of failed policies and wrong leadership.
The most important lesson that we should collectively realize, seeing how the poor and marginalized have been the most affected by months of lockdown, is the social and economic inequality present in a population of more than a hundred million souls.
The recovery will be painful more to these marginalized sectors because while business profit will take a shelling, the rich have savings to see them through while the poor, burdened in the past by surviving in an unequal society, will have no fallback, except to rely on a government itself heavily burdened by loss of tax revenues and huge crisis expenditures.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s public expression of humility will hopefully inspire the private sector, from the titans listed by Forbes to the lesser known but still wealthy individuals and companies to be more mindful of their corporate social responsibilities and dedicate more of their efforts to doing more, much more, to creating a better social equilibrium as we learn from the lessons of the worst crisis that “invaded” us since the Pacific War which anyone below eighty years hardly experienced.
The power of humility shown by arguably the most powerful president since Marcos, is the wellspring from which all of us must learn what unity means, and what nationhood is all about.