Monday, April 12, 2021

Gov. Albert S. Garcia: One goal, one vision, one Bataan

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by Fil V. Elefante

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It’s been two decades since Governor Albert S. Garcia entered the challenging world of politics.

But the term politician is too broad a term to describe him.

During a one-on-one interview with the Philippines Graphic recently, the young governor views his role as more of being a public servant and a believer in uplifting the human condition.

“The public servant is not there just to provide social services,” he explained. “A public servant must also be an economic manager. There should be a balance between providing social services and developing economic opportunities for the public.”

And that balance can be found when these two developments are measurable.

Gov. Abet during the inauguration of a housing project in Orani town

In Bataan, improvements in the lives of his constituents are measured under the Human Development Index developed under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program.

 

The governor is a strong supporter of economic development but never at the expense of the human condition. That’s why he always calls for balance. Economic development within Bataan must conform to the three dimensions of human development, namely a long and healthy life, access to education and trade skills, and a decent standard of living.

Gov. Abet inks a memorandum of understanding with CSECC Strait Construction, a Chinese firm to study the feasibility of constructing a coastal bridge that will connect Bataan, Corregidor and Cavite

Recent developments show that his way of doing things is bearing fruit. More and more people are putting their money in bank deposits. The province has the top ranking in teaching technical skills in the country. Graduates from both the Bataan Peninsula State University and these technical schools can easily find jobs because of the current economic boom within the province.

“That’s why part of my vision is what we call quality growth,” he told the Graphic. “We define this as rapid, sustainable and efficient.”

GRAPHIC: Your full exposure to politics began after 1986. What did you learn from that?

My family became fully involved in politics after 1986.

It was something like culture shock for me because before that, we weren’t exposed to many people from the barangays, including the poor. There were all types of people, different characters, all shapes and sizes. So for a young person, that was an eye opener.

I remember us campaigning for my father. I was reluctant to do it but we really wanted my father to win. We went house-to-house under the heat of the sun. It was my first time to speak in public and I was very shy. But it had to be done. It was tough to speak in public. And my father won in his first attempt to run for public office.

You had stage fright at that time…

Yes, even up to now (laughs). It’s not as severe as before. I’ve learned to control it. But there’s still the fear of facing a lot of people while wondering if they will understand what I’m trying to say, if they will buy into my idea.

Then there’s social media where perceived errors can be magnified.

Yes. Especially now that there’s an even more aggressive social media. When a mistake is made and caught on cam, it can go viral and you’ll be humiliated.

That’s something that every politician has to remember.

Correct. I remember—this was about five or six years ago—I read a book of my favorite author, Thomas Friedman. He was saying that today was the most difficult time, the worst time to be a leader, more than any other time in history. He was referring to social media. And we’ve seen this.

Gov. Abet takes oath for his second term as governor of Bataan

I was telling this to my barangay captains during the last elections. They couldn’t understand the concept back then. But today, they finally get it. They’ve realized that social media allows their constituents to compare what’s happening in their communities with other barangays. So if you’re not performing at par, you’ll be bashed. So it’s the worst time to be a leader but it’s a great time to be a citizen because a lone voice can create big waves.

Now we’re upgrading our drive against corruption. The Commission on Audit is very strict even with someone who intends to do good. So with very limited leeway and very demanding citizens, plus the aggressive media and social media, it’s really a tough time. It’s a worst time to be a leader. And I totally agree.

You have your work cut out for you. The bar for accountability has been set high.

Yes. There’s very little leeway from COA. The procurement law slows things down. Couple that with people demanding services. It’s a very challenging job to do.

To exaggerate things a bit, look at the Arab Spring. These are dictators and billionaires. They’ve been there for decades and yet because of social media and Al Jazeera, all of them were threatened. Even the most stable kingdoms in that region were threatened.

Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya… those were the places where the Arab Spring succeeded. But everyone there was shaken.

Even the Saudi monarchy had to exert more effort to satisfy their people.

That’s why I agree that it’s a worst time to be a leader.

With Richard Graham, UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy

What was it like for you when you entered politics full time?

I remember distinctly the moment I was filing my certificate of candidacy. The lawyers had prepared the forms and I was about to sign them. It was the first time I felt butterflies in my stomach. I’ve read about that. But I’ve never felt that before that moment. I told myself that once I sign this, my life will change. True enough, my life did change.

You said your life changed. In what way?

First of all, public service is very demanding especially if you take it seriously. It will consume your life. I was mayor then a congressman.

Being a mayor was a very challenging job. You’re an executive and you have to reach down to the grass roots. It’s akin to a barangay captain but on a bigger and wider scope. You still have to deal with the micro-level. People tend to see the mayor as the father of the town. So if there’s a problem, whether big or small, it’s brought before the mayor.

I always try to find a win-win solution. It’s not easy to find.

As mayor, what was the biggest challenge you dealt with?

When I became mayor, Balanga was and still is the capital of Bataan. That’s where the entire province converges in terms of education, hospitalization, government, commerce and culture.

Despite being at the center, the then municipality of Balanga didn’t have the capability to manage all these things. The resources and manpower were limited. So during my first term as mayor, we opted to push for the cityhood of Balanga. This we did within just one term. I think we hold the record for the quickest cityhood bill to succeed. It was done within six months, from date of filing the bill to the plebiscite. My father was in Congress at that time so he helped a lot with the process.

A hands-on local chief executive, Gov. Abet personally inspects a factory at the Freeport Area of Bataan

When a town becomes a city, its share of the Internal Revenue Allotment increases by about five times. I learned this when I was my father’s chief of staff in Congress.

So when I became mayor, who wouldn’t want a more capable and better funded local government?

That’s why that was the first thing we pushed for.

Then you went to Congress…

Yes. My stint as my father’s chief of staff helped a lot. It gave me the experience to understand the budget process, how a bill becomes a law and other stuff like that. But it’s still a different ball game once you’re the congressman, not the chief of staff of a congressman. You have to be the guy in front defending your bill. Remember, I have a fear of talking in public. And now that’s the halls of Congress. It was still quite a challenge.

What was your biggest challenge as a congressman?

Unlike a mayor, a congressman is in the macro-level. The actions and decisions of a mayor, most of the time, are felt immediately. In Congress, things move differently. A bill can take a year or two to go through the process. It’s not immediately felt. It takes a vision, a deeper understanding for you to manage that and to know what will be good for your district.

It can take a year before things can be implemented. You have to wait for the passage of the General Appropriations Act. That means anything you come up with will have to wait for next year’s budget. So you have to have a deeper understanding of the system to be an effective representative.

There were a lot of events and Congress was always in the middle of it. But I wasn’t one of the congressmen in the limelight. While they were debating, I was focusing on bills that would help my district. Of course, I would vote. Sometimes I would speak out. But most of the time, I focused on bills for my district focused on education and local economic development.

We created a state college when I was my dad’s chief of staff. When I became congressman, I thought the state college was mature enough to be converted into a university. Thus, the Bataan Peninsula State University was born. This is the biggest university in the province. Coupled with our provincial scholarship program, a lot of students are able to pursue their studies.

With the implementation of the free tuition program this coming June, more young people will be given the opportunity to go to college.

But those things still have to be funded.

Correct. Credit goes to Congress and Malacañang. The appropriations were approved, including the funding for free irrigation, plus funding for more social services.

For the Bataan Peninsula State University, its funding comes from the Commission on Higher Education, which goes through the General Appropriations Act. The scholarship program, which covers some 15,000 to 20,000 students, is funded by the provincial government. The private sector and non-government organizations also help. And the biggest benefactor is the province.

And funding education is an investment in the future.

Yes. People need to understand financial literacy. Some people see things as an expense when in reality it’s an investment.

I’ve seen data showing an increase in Bataan of people with bank deposits…

You’ve mentioned earlier that investment in education will result in employment. Employment will result to income. More income will result to better lives.

Aside from education, we need economic growth. If someone gets an education but there’s no job opportunity, what will happen? That person may opt to go abroad.

That’s why part of my vision is what we call quality growth. We define this as rapid, sustainable and efficient so that we don’t become like Metro Manila.

With economic growth, job opportunities are created for those who graduate from university and technical skills schools. Our TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) program is number one in the entire country. Jobs are available for the program’s graduates.

Another statistic for Bataan is that families generally have two or even three salary earners.

Correct. Especially in places such as Mariveles. The free port is there and there’s a very high demand for workers. Some families have four or even five breadwinners.

If you’ve been there several years ago, Mariveles was like a ghost town. Now, everything is productive. And new buildings are coming up that will create more jobs.

You’ve mentioned that you wanted to avoid the mistakes of Metro Manila…

First, we came up with a vision that all our work must align with. With our vision of quality growth, we focus on things that are efficient, sustainable and inclusive.

Look at Singapore and Hongkong, we won’t see any traffic stress on the streets. The stress is inside the mall. That’s where the pick up, drop off and parking take place. But there’s no traffic buildup in the streets. Commercial establishments should have ample parking and an acceleration and deceleration lanes. That’s what I’ve been introducing to urban planning in Bataan.

Gov. Abet welcomes South African Ambassador Martin Slabber, British Ambassador Daniel Pruce and British Trade Envoy Richard Graham at the Freeport Area of Bataan

That’s what I’m trying to put up in Bataan. There should be pockets of development in the province, accessible by either bus terminals or traditional transport methods from the towns. Tricycles would have their own lanes perpendicular to the highway. Those developments should be pedestrian friendly.

We also have an urban renewal team. This is composed of young architects and engineers. New construction must conform to the plan. But we understand that things were done before, some of them mistakes.

That’s where the urban renewal team comes in. They will look at it one project at a time and they will come up with solutions to existing urban problems.

We also have the Metro Bataan Development Authority. Its job is to coordinate with public works, with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, with electric cooperatives, with other utilities, Land Transportation Office, Highway Patrol, etc.

It’s like the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority but at a stage 40 years before the urban problems of Metro Manila became magnified.

Hopefully, we’ll reverse the trend and Bataan will grow more efficiently. That’s part of our vision.

In terms of Bataan’s disaster preparedness and resiliency, no matter how solid the plan is, no one can anticipate everything.

Correct.

So how did you do it?

We are in partnership right now with the National Resiliency Council together with the Ateneo de Manila University and the Manila Observatory plus an agency of the United Nations. We have a pilot program on resiliency for the Philippines.

Some things may be unpredictable but at a certain level, we can minimize the potential damage. That means planning well. Communities should not be established in danger zones, fault lines or storm surge path.

In short, mitigation, resilience and preparedness.

The old school thinking in dealing with calamities was to send out supplies and deploy emergency personnel when disasters hit.

With our partnership with the National Resiliency Council, we learned that preparedness comes way before the calamity hits. It starts at the planning stage. The tragedy at Cherry Hills comes to mind. That was a lesson.

It starts with a vision, a land use plan that incorporates a hazard map, a physical framework plan then a master plan. That’s how things should be done.

It’s better to have it and not use it than to need it and not have it.

That’s something like insurance. And insurance is part of disaster resiliency. Government facilities are insured by the GSIS. I would assume that since Bataan has more people getting bank deposits, more people would have the extra cash to buy insurance for their own protection.

That’s a good point. We don’t have any statistics on that but we’ll look into that. But I would assume that with more financial inclusion, more would have availed of insurance coverage. That’s part of financial literacy.

That’s a similar viewpoint shared by Insurance Commissioner Dennis Funa with the Graphic. People who have disaster insurance in case of flooding or fire recover faster than those who don’t.

Yes. This is why I always say: “The best program a government can give for our people is economic growth.”

It’s the best antipoverty program, the best anti-insurgency program, the best education program, the best health program, financial inclusion program and disaster resilience program. Why? When there’s economic growth, jobs are created. When people have jobs, they have income. With their income, they can put food on the table and set aside money for tuition, health care, housing and savings.

For that to happen, economic growth should be inclusive, sustainable, rapid and efficient. Economic growth should be inclusive so that it will also benefit those far from the mainstream. It should be sustainable. Economic growth should not come at the expense of the environment.  There should be balance. This should be efficient so that Bataan can avoid the path taken by Metro Manila. 

You’ve mentioned the insurgency, when did it taper off?

I remember when I was young, there were a lot ambuscades occurring. We were kids but we were hearing about police officers and soldiers being shot. Sometimes we could even hear the faint sound of gunshots. It was like that for quite some time.

But by the year 2000 came rapid economic growth. Eventually, Bataan became the first province to be certified by the Philippine Army as insurgency free. Bataan is no longer a hotbed for insurgency.

Things began to improve, especially on the economic side. Investments came in. Then Bataan had a freeport. Jobs became plentiful. Local government officials in Bataan, from the barangay captains to the governor, realized that economic growth can help solve problems.

I am not saying that economic growth can solve all the problems. I am saying that it can help solve a lot of problems.

Before, the thinking of a public servant was focused solely on providing social services such as medical missions or doling out aid packets to flood survivors.

But the mindset has changed. The public servant is not there just to provide social services. A public servant must also be an economic manager. There should be a balance between providing social services and developing economic opportunities for the public. G

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