To build or not to build — that is no longer the question!

Published November 27, 2019, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin


Diwa C. Guinigundo
Diwa C. Guinigundo

I was in Siem Reap last week to speak on the Asian experience with capital flows during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. The National Bank of Cambodia hosted the seminar organized by the South-East Asian Central Banks Research and Training Center (SEACEN) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). My very good friend Deputy Governor Chantana encouraged me to do some tourism before my flight.

I was brought to Angkor Wat and quickly to the Bayon Temple. The first is a marvel of ancient art and engineering. It is a masterpiece of strength, symmetry and sheer size comprising around 208 hectares surrounded by a moat and a manmade lake.

Why was it built?

People argue that it was built in the second half of the 12th century for worshipping the Hindu god Vishnu.  Some 200 years later, it was converted into a Buddhist temple. It also served as a funerary temple for one of the kings of the Khmer empire based on the bas reliefs showing the order of the Hindu funereal ritual. One can only imagine the cost of this colossal project that took more than 30 years to build. An estimated 5-10 million sandstone blocks cut from Mount Kulen not far away from the temple were used.

Angkor Wat is undisputedly the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

Bayon Temple is not too far from Angkor Wat. It is a state temple for one of the most famous kings of the Khmer empire. It is mind boggling, etched with more than 200 big smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Like its bigger counterpart, Bayon Temple is distinguished by 1.2 kilometers of amazing bas reliefs of more than 11 thousand figures.

Indeed, the ancient civilizations treasured gods and kings so much that vast resources including labor were sequestered to build such architectural icons. The motivations for these ancient infrastructures are difficult to understand given today’s context.

Built as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian Pharoah Khufu, the Great Pyramid of Giza took all of 20 years to build using slave labor. The Parthenon of Greece was constructed as a temple for the Greek goddess Athena. The ivory white marble Taj Mahal of Agra, India was also meant for a burial place, first for the wife of, and later, for the Mughal emperor himself. In today’s dollars and cents, it is estimated to cost over $800 million!

One can argue that there was more functionality in the case of the Great Wall of China. It was the Ming Dynasty that systematized the building of these defensive walls through collateral towers and troop barracks against various nomadic groups and various territories of the empire. Beyond that, the Great Wall enabled border controls, allowed the regulation of both trade, including the imposition of duties on goods along the Silk Road, and people migration.

Rome’s Colosseum of the Flavian Dynasty of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian was constructed as an amphitheater. It was the largest at the time, able to accommodate an audience of more than 50,000. It hosted gladiatorial fights, mock sea battles, executions of Christians and reenactments of famous battles and dramas based on ancient mythology. The Colosseum later served as a housing facility, a workshop and quarry.

Peru’s Machu Picchu was intended as a royal estate with more than 700 people. Its man-made terraces allowed agriculture to flourish. The terraces ensured good drainage, and secured the soil from erosion and landslides with some success.

The Philippines’ own heritage sites — the Rice Terraces of Ifugao in Banaue, Bangaan, Hungduan, Kiangan and Mayoyao, were for agriculture.

Today’s public servants have a lot to learn from our ancestors. The rice terraces complex of stone and mud walls have terraced pond fields and sophisticated irrigation systems supported by water from the forests of the mountaintops. While there were some religious rituals involved, the rice terraces invariably illustrate the Filipinos’ capacity for understanding lunar cycles, zoning and planning, soil conservation and even pest control.

No doubt, these early forms of social infrastructure were mainly for satisfying a predilection for perpetuating personal glory, expressing deep love for a spouse, and worship of the gods.

For the God of Israel, Solomon’s temple was said to have been constructed at the edge of Jerusalem, between the Temple Mount, and the ancient city of David. It is now reported to be a modern-day Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Building of the temple was mandated to Solomon, instead of to his father David, who first purposed it in his heart to build a monument for God’s glory. Biblical accounts allow us to imagine its grandeur and beauty with gold and the cedars of Lebanon used in its posts, beams and walls.

In our modern times, grandiose architectural projects are driven more by practical necessity and the demands of industry, commerce and governance.

Build, Build, Build, more than just words or a battlecry, is an urgent pursuit given decades of infrastructure torpor and indolence.

In my previous columns, I stressed that the Philippines continues to face a very enormous infrastructure gap. We lag behind other major ASEAN economies by at least 20 years. I dare say that our decades of preoccupation with political issues such as governance, pork barrels, suitable appointments and corruption distracted us from developing suitable infrastructure for our people.

It is good the current leadership decided to go big on infra under the Triple B mantra. If we are to avoid the middle income trap of poor and aging infrastructure as well as an aging population, we should pursue, by all means, the advancement of both hard and soft infrastructures.

The Triple B program would cost us around P8 trillion under five categories of infrastructure: transport and mobility, power, water, information and communications technology and urban development and renewal. There are 100 projects involved, 35 of which are already works in progress. Some 32 projects are expected to be launched in the next 6-8 months while 21 are about to be cleared and approved. The idea is to have the 100 projects started between now and 2022 with 38 expected to be completed and 22 partially operational. Some 40 projects are expected to be carried over to the next government in 2022. So much more without doubt needs to be done.

The Philippines is a veritable country of more than 7,100 islands that need to be linked via bridges and tunnels, seaports and airports. Connectivity has to be established also on the digital platform. The challenge is just too big to establish order in urban planning and city formations. Without this infra support, the government cannot put up a decent form of governance and promote public welfare. The private sector will find it impossible to consider the Philippines worth looking at and investing in.

Everyone should remember that cement needs to dry. Metals and steels have to be welded together. Glass has to be formed and framed. If funereal structures were built in decades, it would be foolhardy for anyone to expect the Duterte administration to turn even Metro Manila, or Metro Cebu and Metro Davao into New York, Tokyo, Beijing or Paris.

Rome itself was not built in a day.

The critical issue is cost and the quality of the infrastructure. All of those 100 projects make sense to lay down on the ground. They are not tombs, they are for the living. It is imperative to pursue them today. Better still, it would have made better sense if they were considered and launched some decades ago.

Bangok in the 1970’s was a burden for me to visit.  Manila was more attractive to me then. Bangkok was dusty, there was so much construction and movement of steel and cement. A few years later, I realized Thailand took the correct strategic route. It started on its own version of Triple B more than 40 years ago. Today, Bangkok is so much ahead of Manila which has barely began on its infra journey.

Our best wishes.