Government Investment News Analysis

A capital idea

New Clark City, Tarlac, Philippines

Could a burgeoning freeport in Pampanga or a brand-new city in Tarlac province – both situated on the north island of Luzon – become the new Manila; the new political capital of the Philippines? It might sound fanciful right now, but given the infrastructure going in there; given the significance of the area’s commerce; given the relatively easy access to and from these places, if the capital was to move, either of these would be a likely location.

Last week, the massive Department of Transportation (DOTr) started to relocate to Clark Freeport Zone, close to Angeles City in Pampanga, from its former home in Ortigas Avenue, Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila. According to Vince Dizon, president of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) which owns and maintains Clark Freeport, more government agencies will follow. “Slowly we will be moving key government offices from Metro Manila to Clark,” he said.

All this is being described as a means of “decongesting” the capital which has become a logistical nightmare for locals and visitors alike. But it might also serve another purpose – to send a loud, clear message to ‘Imperial Manila’ that its grip as a central-government power base has been loosened; that its claim to being the country’s exclusive corporate hub is being challenged.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made no secret about his disdain for the entrenched political/corporate interests in the capital. Shortly after his election victory he proposed moving the Department of Tourism to Cebu – in our opinion a sensible move given Cebu’s overwhelming importance as a tourism hub.

Clark Freeport presently sits on 10,868-acres with a further 68,172 acres earmarked for expansive industrial-park development. This is already well underway. The plan for this area has been to create an “airport-driven urban centre” that will attract investors from near and far.

This area is a major drive belt of commerce, with the freeport zones of Clark, Subic Bay and Poro Point – close to the provincial capital of San Fernando – at its heart. Industrial parks have sprung up in this area like heather on a Scottish moor. It’s buzzing, it’s busy and it’s all business.

But 36 kilometres away, in the neighbouring province of Tarlac, is another metropolis in the making – New Clark City (photo: artist’s perspective) which is also owned and managed by the BCDA.

New Clark City (aka, Clark Green City) – the construction of which is ongoing – is to be a purpose-built, green-friendly conurbation with state-of-the-art smart buildings, high-tech engineering, plenty of green spaces and good transport links which stretch across a 23,400-acre site. If Duterte’s looking for a clean canvas on which to paint a new capital, he needs to look no further than here.

Unlike Manila, New Clark City is not flood prone. At its lowest point it’s 56 metres above sea level while areas of the present capital – such as Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, and Valenzuela – are below sea level. There are no clogged waterways, no neglected drainage systems either; no San Juan River or Pasig River to swell and burst their banks as tropical cyclones disgorge their rains and turn Manila into Water World. Furthermore, with mountain ranges to the east and west, it’s protected from typhoons.

Metro Manila which is dissected by the Marikina Valley Fault System – it traverses the cities of Quezon, Makati, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Pasig and Taguig – leaves the threat of a devastating earthquake hanging over the capital like a sword of Damocles. There are no fault lines under or within the environs of this new metropolis, which is being constructed as the country’s first disaster-resilient city.  .

Like Clark Freeport it’s also serviced by Clark International Airport (CIA), which supports the longest runway in the archipelago, and major road links such as the North Luzon Expressway and the Clark-Tarlac Expressway.

For Transport Secretary, Arthur Tugade, moving to Clark Freeport will be like coming home. Prior to being appointed by Duterte to head up the DOTr, he was president and CEO of Clark Development Corporation (CDC) – an attached BCDA agency. CDC had a tarnished past – its main output in the pre-Tugade era seems to have been corruption and idleness.

All that changed at the end of 2012 when Tugade took over. He instilled discipline among his staff – there were no long lunch breaks while he was there; no private use of corporate vehicles. He weeded out corrupt officials, improved efficiency through shorter business processes, and brought in a shed load of investment. In 2015, CDC announced revenues of PHP1.55 billion, the highest in 23 years.

What’s also likely is that Clark International might finally become the alternative air hub to the problem-prone Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila. It might yet become the premier air gateway to the Philippines; a plan that was floated by the previous administration at the height of yet another NAIA scandal – this one, an online poll that had voted Manila’s international airport “The Worst Airport in the World”. Meanwhile, a new terminal is set to be rolled out at CIA before the end of the year.

And it doesn’t end there; major rail systems are also underway – Philippine National Railways’ new North Rail line is set to open by 2021; the following year, the 65-kilometre passenger and freight Subic-Clark Railway Project, is scheduled for completion.

But let’s come to the point – if other government departments follow suit and make the journey to Clark – as we’re led to believe they will – that would necessitate members of the Cabinet spending time there. Other government agencies and the public-sector bureaucracy would need to be there too.

And if they’re all in this new urban centre, how long would it be before the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives move? They can’t be left isolated from the government. And then there’s the Supreme Court. And then there’s the matter of foreign embassies whose staff need access to government ministers and officials.

Fanciful? Not entirely; it’s been done before. A good example is Lagos, Nigeria – the country’s capital since 1914. But in the 1980s plans were drawn-up to relocate the seat of federal government to Abuja, 300 miles to the northeast. The reasons for the switch was that Lagos had become muggy, crowded, traffic-snarled and politically divisive. Sound familiar? Abuja became the new Nigerian capital in 1991.

For similar reasons, particularly overcrowding, in 1960 Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia – a centrally located purpose-planned, purpose-built city. Everything moved there: the president, the three branches of government, the Congress, the Supreme Court and 124 embassies. What also quickly followed was economic growth; Brasilia boomed.

Going a little further back in time, in the United States, New York as home to the nation’s Congress was the country’s de factor capital until 1790. In that year it moved to a 64,000-acre site on the banks of the Potomac River chosen by the first president of the US, George Washington after whom it was named – its full title being Washington, District of Columbia (or, DC).

One of the major considerations for building a new US capital was to avoid the concentration of power. New York had become graft-ridden and politically corrupt under the auspices of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party’s political machine that had a finger in every political and corporate pie across the city and across New York State. Given the way Washington DC works today, however, it might be time to plan another move for the capital – or “The Swamp” as US President Donald Trump refers to it.  Perhaps, somewhere in Alaska this time.

In the course of 200 years (1711 to 1918) Russia moved its capital from Moscow to St Petersburg and back to Moscow; in the 1990s, Kazakhstan moved its from Almaty to Astana; two decades earlier Tanzania switched from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma.

Closer to home and closer to now, in 1989 the Federal States of Micronesia built a new capital in Palikir; in 2006 the Palau archipelago in the Western Pacific moved its capital from Kokor to Ngerulmud. In both cases these moves were to diffuse the massing of power. Meanwhile, in 2015. Myanmar’s relocated its seat of government from Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to Naypyidaw. Precedents for moving capitals are many.

Pertinently, given Manila’s woes, the official reason Myanmar gave for creating a new home for its government was that Yangon had become “too congested and crowded,” debilitating power outages were common and there was little room for the future expansion of government. Situated 400 kilometres north, in the heart of jungle, Naypyidaw fulfilled another dream of the planners: to make the new centre a “garden evergreen city”.

During his election campaign, Duterte said this: “It (the status quo) is an excuse for them (political elites) to hang onto power in Imperial Manila. They have always been there in one single office, running the Philippines”. We don’t believe anything over the past year will have caused Duterte to change his opinion on that – in fact, if anything, he’ll be even more of that persuasion now than he was then.

Add to that, the indescribable chaos of Manila – the world’s most densely populated metropolis accommodating, somehow, 111,002 people in every square mile of it. And then there’s the traffic bill which in 2012, according to a study by he Japan International Cooperation Agency, was running at PHP2.4 billion a day and is forecast to hit PHP6 billion a day by 2030. Let’s be honest, all that starts to make Clark, Pampanga, or New Clark City, Tarlac, look very attractive.

And anyway, it wouldn’t be the first time the Philippines has replaced its capital. The first city to have the distinction was Cebu, which retained that status for six years after the Spanish arrived. After that things were fluid for a while. Then in 1595, Manila – the “Distinguished and Ever Loyal City” according to King Philip II of Spain – was proclaimed the capital.

During the First Philippine Republic – the revolutionary government of the country’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo (1899 to 1901) – the honours went to Mololos in Bulacan. Then it was back to Manila again which remained the first city of the Philippines until 1948. Quezon City – named after Manuel Quezon, the Commonwealth of the Philippines’ first president and the country’s second – took the honours next and retained them until 1976 when then president Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 940 allowing the capital once more to revert to Manila.

So maybe it’s time that Manila was given another break. It’s not working as a city anyway. Apart from anything else it’s become tired. There’s also corruption everywhere; at every level. It’s also choking on its own pollution – from air, land and water; from a traffic-fumes smog that lingers over the city like a toxic cloud, to the sewage-contaminated waterways loaded with enough bacteria to kill most of the population, to the refuse-laded landfills where the poor scavenge to find enough value in the trash to feed themselves.

Last year, the Metro Manila Development Authority – the government agency tasked with handling all that – moved 25.8 million tons of garbage to its landfills. That was 75,000 truck-loads more than in 2015. Put plainly, the city’s services and infrastructure are broken and falling apart

Manila’s bursting at the seams – research by the Economist Intelligence Unit indicates that a further 10 million Filipinos will migrate to the National Capital Region from the countryside within the next nine years. That would bring Metro Manila’s population to somewhere north of 22 million. It’s also crime ridden with the highest-by-far murder and manslaughter rates in the entire country.

When you consider all that, a move to somewhere with Clark in its name doesn’t just look attractive, it looks necessary.

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