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The Manila Times : Bongbong Marcos bats for ports development

News & Interviews
29 December 2021

By The Manila Times

Presidential aspirant Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. looks up to the modern ports system of more developed neighboring countries particularly Singapore and Hong Kong as the way to go for the country's shipping industry specifically ports.

The former senator, the current frontrunner in the race for the 2022 elections, faced leaders of the Philippine Inter-island Shipping Association (PISA), the biggest group in the local shipping industry, during a recent forum with presidential candidates. At the forum, PISA Executive Director lawyer Peter Aguilar directly asked Marcos that, if elected as the next Philippine president, would he push for amending the bill, liberalizing foreign ownership of public utilities in the country.

The Senate approved two weeks ago on third and final reading Senate Bill 2064 that seeks to ease the restriction on foreign investments in public services by amending the 85-year-old Commonwealth Act No. 146, known as the Public Service Act.

The bill is widely expected to be signed into law by President Duterte anytime soon. Instead of directly replying to Atty. Aguilar's query, however, Marcos expressed doubt the Supreme Court would go along with members of Congress on the proposed amendment of the prewar law redefining the terms "public services" and "public utilities" in the existing law.

Under the bill, public utility refers to a "public service that operates, manages or controls for public use" any of the following: distribution or transmission of electricity; petroleum and petroleum products pipeline distribution systems, water pipelines distribution systems, and wastewater pipeline systems; as well as airports, seaports, public utility vehicles, and tollways or expressways.

Those not classified as a public utility shall otherwise be considered as a public service, which will not be bound by the restriction on foreign ownership. Public services include telecommunications, air carriers, domestic shipping, railways, and subways.

"I don't know if the Supreme Court would allow that definition vis a vis the definition in the Constitution that the ownership of corporations operating in the Philippines must be owned by the majority of Filipinos," Marcos commented.

Under the 1987 Constitution, only corporations that are at least 60-percent owned by Filipinos shall be given the franchise, certificate, and authorization to operate as a public utility. "The Senate bill, as it stands now, will have to stand a judicial test and will be challenged before the Supreme Court, " Marcos said as he projected an unfavorable court decision or, at least, a prolonged legal tussle.

PISA is one of the groups that is expected to bring the issue to the Supreme Court once the bill is signed into law. "If we're going to proceed in that manner that would take a very long time and would be a very difficult process as we have seen in the past that any proposed Constitutional amendment has been struck out."

Showing a better grasp of the state of the country's shipping industry, Marcos, son of former President Ferdinand Marcos and a three-time governor of Ilocos Norte, presented a counter-proposal to the controversial bill. "I think that there's a better way to do it; perhaps, we can come up with a better plan than the redefinition of transportation," he said while appreciating the objective of the bill "to free up and bring investment to modernize port system so that the Philippines can become a logistics center" considering our strategic geographical position. "Instead of trying to change the way we define our transport system, I think it is much better to approach the problem head-on and, say, we want to develop the transport system.

By that, I mean all forms of transport, and shipping has particularly become very very important." He mentioned the current bottlenecks in many major ports abroad because of the unexpected surge in the volume of global trade while the shipping industry has yet to rehire the people that they were forced to lay off at the height of the pandemic.

The former senator said: "I think it would be better to create a program for modernizing and upgrading of ports and consider it a critical program when the economy begins to pick up. "It's counter intuitive that the Philippines, an archipelagic country with 7,000 plus islands, does not have a more developed port system as we can see in our Asean neighbors," he noted.

So, instead of trying to redefine transportation to get around this Constitutional provision, I think the government should undertake development and upgrade our ports.

"If we choose to go down that route, for me, it is the most advantageous for us to do so. We have many ports that we can, with just a little more improvement and a little bit more of policy changes, develop immediately and we can become that part of the global market," he proposed.