The mad rush to beautify Cebu

A lawyer-friend of mine who lives and works in Cebu, and who has specifically asked not to be named, sent me an e-mail to share his views regarding the ongoing controversy surrounding Metro Cebu’s seemingly mad rush to “beautify” the queen city of the south in time for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference slated in December.

Those of us who won’t be in Cebu anytime soon will not be able to see for ourselves what the whole fuss is all about. However, snippets of the controversy have been featured in some newspapers and in some television news shows. And in situations like these, references to the grand old days when the country’s main patroness of the Filipino value bongga (over the top) the former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos reigned supreme could not be helped.

The buzz is that local officials in Cebu and its twin sister Mandaue have pulled all the stops to make sure that all the eyesores (e.g., squatter colonies, old dilapidated houses, unsightly landmarks, etc.) are removed, covered, whitewashed, made over, etc. Based on my friend’s account, local media in Cebu have been having a field day tallying up the costs involved (hundreds of millions and still counting).

Apparently, all the roads leading to the convention center and to all the venues that will be used for the 12th summit of leaders of the Asean have been miraculously transformed overnight into sparkling first-world landmarks. Houses along the way have been given a makeover. Squatter colonies have been uprooted and relocated somewhere. Pockmarked roads have been covered with asphalt, etc.

My friend wonders why some critics are fanning the controversy “as if the people of Cebu do not deserve to be at the receiving end of such attention.” He thinks that the paving of the roads is something that “is long overdue and the question should be why are these things only being done now?” He wonders why relocating squatter colonies should be such a major issue when “squatting, by definition, should be discouraged to begin with.” Furthermore, he asks why the people of Cebu, particularly those who are beneficiaries of the grand, if belated munificence, are not being asked if they themselves resent the grand makeover.

I do not doubt the veracity of the facts presented thus far (including those relayed by my friend), but in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that all these are second-hand information. I do not know exactly the extent of the whitewashing efforts or if these are truly approaching “Imeldific” scale. But I do find the debate interesting.

On one side is the view that in situations like these when the eyes of the world are trained at us, we should always endeavor to put our best foot forward. Hence, pulling all the stops.
On the other side are the proponents of the belief that “honesty” is the better option—that there is no shame and in fact, on the contrary, there is nobility in showing the world our real state of affairs.

I do not think that these two points of views are necessarily at extreme ends of the same continuum, that this is an either or proposition. I think that there is a middle ground somewhere.

I definitely am against “over the top” grand scale makeovers that serve no purpose other than to impress others and to project the impression that we are a rich people. I agree that such efforts smack of hypocrisy, particularly if the money is taken from more urgent and critical programs of government.

Unfortunately, it is also hypocritical to point fingers at others and crucify them for something that seems inherent in our culture. Sadly, our “bongga” mentality, more often evidenced in our penchant for mounting expensive fiestas and other affairs is a cultural norm that we still have to purge from our collective psyche.

I know for a fact that in many places, people still mortgage properties, spend hard-earned money, even take out loans from usurers in order to mount festivities that serve no purpose other than to make them look good; even it means having no money to pay for their children’s tuition.

However, I think that there is wisdom too in improving infrastructure and in investing in good public relations. Cebu happens to be where the action is in terms of economic development. Cebu is one of the prime tourism destinations in the country today. In fact, I think Cebu even beats Manila in terms of being an ideal convention destination—the convention facilities in Cebu are just so much more superior compared to other key cities in the Philippines.

For example, some of the major local conferences such as the Advertising Congress and even the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines’ annual conference have been held in Cebu primarily because the nightmares that come with mounting such huge conferences are significantly less in Cebu. A sad reality check: Outside of the decaying halls of the Philippine International Convention Center, there is nowhere else in Manila where one can one house 1,500 participants to a conference. On the other hand, there are easily at least three venues in Cebu that can easily accommodate that number.

So yes, I agree with my friend that beautification efforts are not necessarily bad particularly if some cost-benefit analysis is presented.

Having said that, I would like, however, to point out what is truly sad and heartbreaking about beautification efforts such as the ones allegedly being done in Cebu today. When the party is over and the guests have left, what usually happens is that the improvements are left to decay and no one bothers with the maintenance and upkeep. That is the truly sad thing because it highlights something that is awfully and horribly wrong: We seem to do these things only for the sake of our guests and not for ourselves.


adobo29 said…
I recall when Cebu was host to the ASEAN Tourism Forum and then DOT Secretary Mina Gabor was rushing the completion of Waterfront Hotel Lahug. Protesters were at the site every day as entire colonies of squatters were evicted from that area.

It's like a bad dream happening all over again.
benign0 said…
At the risk of oversimplyfying, consider the following as a microcosm of the way we as a society regard the trappings of modernity:

Check out the humble zebra stripe pedestrian lane markers on some of our roads. Have we ever bothered to ask why we take the trouble and shoulder the cost of painting these on our roads when these are never EVER really observed by both pedestrians and motorists?

It begs the question. Do we apply these simply to look modern (i.e. for show) or to actually be modern (i.e. for the spirit).

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