By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
A total of P1.5 billion in taxpayers’ money earmarked for the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) has reportedly been released so far by government to a private foundation. Based on reports, this foundation has no track record of managing sporting activities – not even at the level of school intramurals.
With the Games slated to open on November 30, the staging of this event is neck-deep in controversy, and at the core of this controversy is Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano of the House of Representatives. He chairs the private foundation which is the recipient of billions in taxpayers’ money. Some observers find it ironic that the Speaker now finds the foundation embroiled in a billion-peso scandal.
According to some reports, the private foundation – the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (PHSGOC) – was incorporated only late last year. Yet it has been placed in charge of game preparations and management, rather than the two government sports agencies. Cayetano was still Foreign Affairs Secretary when he convinced Congress to put the budget for the Games amounting to P7.5 billion in the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
The Speaker is not known to be a sports patron or an active sportsman. The PHISGOC is not even entirely private sector in nature as it includes officials of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) and the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC). Interestingly, it has been reported that it has in its board certain individuals known to be friends and associates of the Speaker, including, allegedly, an employee of the Taguig City Hall.
In explaining the role of PHISGOC, the Speaker told the Senate that PSC and POC were “overwhelmed and lacked procurement lawyers to bid out contracts.” Even the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) could not handle the procurement needs of the sports agencies, he said. That is where the PHISGOC came in, since as a private foundation, it can supposedly receive “financial assistance” from government without being covered by procurement rules.
Why the POC and PSC would find themselves in a bind over procurement rules is perplexing. We have hosted regional games in the past, all of them using government money. Why is there even a need for a newly-incorporated foundation, especially when the Speaker and sports officials admitted – when asked at the Senate – that there are other options. Besides, we offered to host the 30th ASEAN Games several years back.
Little is know about the foundation. Last July, PHISGOC made the headlines when Malacanang ordered its investigation for alleged corruption. Its bid to manage the SEA Games was also rejected, and the staging of the Games was supposedly to be handled solely by government.
Organizing major sporting events on the scale and magnitude of the SEA Games is not a walk in the park. It requires skilled hands. It is no place for amateurs, and this early the amateurism is showing.
Of course there are real issues that need to be addressed. A supposedly overpriced cauldron and allegedly overpriced athletic gears are among them. But so are more urgent concerns like unfinished venues, chaotic preparations that forced a participating team to sleep on hotel floors, the “uniform” food and lack of provisions, and threats of volunteers not showing up after the promised allowances were not released. These are issues that impact on the performance of athletes. They impact on how our neighbors see us as hosts.
A sports writer has called the SEA Games as allegedly the most expensive sports extravaganza the country has ever hosted. “Every day,” he said, “small bits of overpricing come to the fore, including socks costing P1,600 a pair.”
Thus far, the Speaker and his defenders have responded to questions and criticisms by dismissing them as politically-motivated noise from yellow groups. Comparison has been drawn with the hosting of the ASEAN Summit, which is not apples to apples comparison. Comparison was also made with the cost of Singapore’s cauldron when it hosted the SEA Games. Ours is much cheaper, they say. But the defenders seem to forget that Singapore has a higher per capita and a lower poverty index.
We truly hope that the organizers will be able to overcome the many logistical problems they are facing. Let me emphasize that we wish the SEA Games to succeed, but there must be, at the end, transparency and accountability.