As a young boy, he avidly waited for December, when the trade fair in their seaside town commenced. In the late 80s, Mariveles in Bataan province embraced the holiday spirit with an offering of imported goods—Adidas rubber shoes, Puma sneakers, stateside T-shirts, beanie caps, Dunlop tennis balls, and other branded stuff kids like him loved to buy and collect.
Ace Jello “AJ” Concepcion, together with his father, mother, and two younger brothers would make their way to the Bataan Export Processing Zone (BEPZ), the first free trade zone in the Philippines that housed more than a hundred foreign companies.
“Talagang inaabangan namin yun tuwing [We really waited for it every] December. But as to what was happening inside, I hadn’t a clue,” said Concepcion.
Born in 1983, about 11 years since the BEPZ opened in 1972, the boy who, like his father, would one day serve as mayor of Mariveles, learned with the passing of the years the value of the export processing zone to the people of his hometown.
“When I reached high school and later, college, I noticed many of the old factories and companies had gone. People I didn’t get to see often, I now saw with regularity because there was no work to be found in the BEPZ. Wala na yung [No more] Adidas, imported shoes, and shirts,” he said.
Concepcion said he realized the value of the BEPZ in job generation. “It’s really not the fault of its administrators. There were some labor disputes that did not help maintain the foreign firms.”
He made it clear that he was not against labor unionism. In fact, “it is a good bargaining tool, however, it should not result in a heightening of conflict to the point that the company shuts down for good.”
REGARD FOR STUDIES
Educated in public schools—first at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) High School in Bataan and later, at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City—Concepcion grew up with a healthy regard for being an iskolar ng bayan [scholar of the people].
“Having attained my education from public schools, it was always my goal to give back, especially when I entered UP and I joined the Alpha Phi Beta fraternity. I never joined rallies when I was in UP. I believed I was there to study. I taught briefly in PUP-Bataan and I would tell my students to spend their time in studies,” he said.
Concepcion argued that when students got accepted in a state university, the acceptance was akin to signing two contracts. The first was a contract between the school and the student; a contract that bound the student to study well because the money spent for the student’s tuition came from the people’s taxes. “Pera ng taumbayan yung pinagpapaaral sa akin tapos hindi ako papasok [People’s money is being spent to send me to school, so what reason do I have to absent myself from school]?”
The second contract, he said, was between the student and his or her parents. It was expected by the parents that their son or daughter would study well.
Concepcion finished college with a degree in Political Science. He later took up and finished law at the San Beda University.
Upon graduation, he worked for a year as a member of the legal team of Bataan Gov. Albert S. Garcia. “I was about to take on a job with the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), but then I got a phone from Gov. Tet Garcia. He said he was in need of lawyers for his legal team. I accepted and worked for him for a year.”
Concepcion said he found his stint in the Governor’s office fulfilling although others saw him as quite young for the job.
He narrated that while there, he defended an administrative case that had already gone all the way to the Supreme Court.
The officer he was defending had doubted his ability to win the case because he just passed the bar. She refused Concepcion’s services at first.
“But I just did my job. The Justices saw my pleading was proper and sufficient to establish the defense of my client. She was exonerated from the administrative case. She cried, she just could not believe it. She kept saying sorry to me,” he recalled.
In 2013, Concepcion said, he decided to go into active public service. He ran for Councilor and won, serving for three years, the equivalent of one term.
By this time, his father, Jesse Concepcion, was on his last term as mayor of Mariveles, having served the town for nine years or three terms.
Wanting to continue the programs and projects his father had started, the young Concepcion ran for mayor in 2016 and won.
“I saw the need for continuity in the programs and projects begun by my father. It’s seldom that you find the succeeding official take on the project of his predecessor no matter how beneficial to the people it may be. People always want to make a name for themselves. So, I had the chance to continue and pursue what my father had started,” he said.
At 35, Mayor AJ Concepcion presents the face of robust youth in his everyday dealings.
Tall and burly, his roundish face wears an easy smile that exposes the modish gap in his two front teeth. Rectangular, half-rimmed eyeglasses add a touch of seriousness, but not enough to erase the mirth evident in his round eyes framed by bushy eyebrows.
A bonafide millennial, Concepcion said that he wants to apply on a local scale the provincial programs of Gov. Tet Garcia.
Of public life, this boyish mayor of Mariveles has some lessons to share: “You cannot please everyone, that’s the sad reality. At times, you will find that you have helped so much and the one instance when you cannot extend help, because of limited authority, that one instance is the one they will remember.”
He added that he always takes the time to explain and prays to the Lord that people will understand.
“My father is a disciplinarian. And he always tells us to believe in God and to respect our elders. He tells us: ‘respect the authorities and you’ll be okay.’ As for me, I go by the standard of right and wrong,” he said.
He further said that when it comes to the Freeport Area of Bataan (FAB), he and the other local officials of Mariveles are looking forward to the amendments that will streamline the operations of the FAB.
Explained Concepcion: “Our common objective is to strengthen the FAB so that it will bring in more jobs for the people of Mariveles. Investors bring in economic development, especially in the freeport area where manufacturing is the primary activity. It will produce jobs for our constituents.”
He said that to date, the FAB has about 80 foreign investors which include manufacturers like Fashion Focus, manufacturers of luxury bags like Coach and Michael Kors.
“As it stands now, there are almost 40,000 employees working in FAB. The population of Mariveles is roughly 127,000 so, this is a good ratio already,” he said.
Concepcion made it clear that the Local Government of Mariveles has harmonious relations with the Authority of the Freeport of Bataan (AFAB).
“We have the Mariveles-AFAB Partnership Steering Committee (MAPSC) that holds monthly meetings to iron out issues between the LGU and AFAB. It’s a steering council that tackles issues and harmonizes activities,” he said.
Explaining further, Concepcion said that the Mariveles LGU is mostly concerned with health servicing and the maintenance of peace and order inside the FAB. The AFAB is in charge of all day-to-day operations in the Freeport.
“In the days of the PEZA, the share of the LGU in the income of the Freeport Area is 2%. Now, under FAB, it is only 1%. This is because we have a very simple underlying principle: For as long as we have investors, there will be jobs for the citizens of Mariveles,” he said.
Concepcion said the Mariveles LGU passed an ordinance requiring all stakeholders and business locators to first employ Mariveles residents, with a ratio of 70 to 30 (70% Mariveles constituents and 30% from other municipalities and provinces).
“The only exception to this ordinance is when the job requires technical knowhow that cannot be provided by Mariveles residents. But other than that, the ordinance will be enforced,” he said. G