At the rate Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is rubbing elbows with Manila’s wealthiest, you’d think he’d know his way around Forbes Park by now, but the good mayor lost his way inside the posh village and arrived late for dinner hosted by shipping magnate Doris Ho in her South Forbes home. It was of no moment to the awaiting powerhouse guests who were all eager to meet the guest of honor.
These were next gen taipans and some of Manila’s top tax payers: Kenneth Yang, President and CEO of Golden Arches Development (his Twitter account says he is also known as the boss of Ronald McDonald), and wife Cindy; Emilio Yap III, President of Manila Bulletin and Chairman of Manila Hotel; Chris Po and wife Nanette Medved-Po. Po is Chairman and CEO of Century Pacific Food and Mrs Medved-Po is head of the social enterprise, HOPE. There were also the Gokongwei sisters, Robina and Lisa, President and COO of Robinsons Retail Holdings and President of Summit Media respectively. Lisa was accompanied by husband Berck, who is in the steel business.
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Adding more style to the evening were retail couple Ricco and Tina Ocamp, as well as Ho’s sons Patrick and Jessie Maxwell, Vice President of Magsaysay People Resources and President and CEO of Magsaysay Shipping and Logistics, respectively. Moreno, was accompanied by his chief of staff, Cesar Chavez, former Transport Undersecretary.
Think of Moreno as Manila’s top salesman who’s on a roadshow to attract investors. He’s meeting with as many CEOs and taipans as he can to lure them back to Manila, or to convince them to expand the businesses that they already operate in the country’s capital city.
But he doesn’t have to make a sales pitch to the evening’s hostess. The Mayor and the President and CEO of the Magsaysay Group are kindred spirits in their desire to uplift Manila. The Magsaysay conglomerate is headquartered in Manila and Magsaysay-Ho has a 20 year old blueprint to develop the waterfront—which she has been proposing to every administration before Isko, to no avail.
The dinner’s guests fit cozily in a round table setting and all were captivated by Moreno whose wagyu bistek Tagalog (the all Filipino menu was catered by Kai) got cold as he was peppered with questions all throughout the dinner, as if he was on a hot seat in a political talk show. The mayor gamely answered all the questions, and asked me to turn off my recorder when he wanted to speak candidly and off the record.
“I would rather try and fail by coming up with a solution than not try at all. Anything above zero is positive,kaya sabi ko kumilos tayo,” the mayor told the guests as he explained his battlecry, paraphrasing Einstein: “Don’t expect different results will come to you tomorrow, if what you did today is the same as yesterday.”
He says some have dismissed his use of Facebook live as political gimmickry but he explains he is using it to keep fellow Manila public servants on their toes, as he goes around the city, “‘Sh**, yari tayo nakita ni boss’ would be a typical reaction,” he says, when he uncovers garbage for instance or like when he famously stepped on human feces in one livestream.
The Mayor turned the tables on the guests on one occasion and challenged them, “Don’t say that walang pera sa Divisoria! Be honest and answer me directly, kumita ba ang pulitiko doon o hindi? Eight lanes wala ka nang makita na semento kundi ulo ng tao.” He was famously quoted as saying he was offered PHP 5 million a day or PHP 150M a month to keep the vendors in Divisoria spilling into the roads. When everybody nodded their assent, he said, “Thank you for being honest.”
There was ribbing around about the former actor’s entertainment career, to which he said, “Baka ikahiya niyo ako pag napanood niyo ang mga pelikula ko. Seiko films ako.” (Seiko Films was known as a producer of ST, or sex trip, films in the 80s) Nanette Po, a former actress, and now head of non-profit HOPE which runs a plastic garbage collection, gently admonished Moreno: “Think of that part of your life as contributing to your growth as a person. Don’t be ashamed of it.”
At one point in the evening, Carlo, son of Charlie Rufino, President of Net Group which jumpstarted the development of the BGC business district, recalled his trepidation when tasked by his father to manage their building, the Times Plaza along U.N. Avenue in Ermita. “I told my dad, ‘Are you serious?’ Natakot ako talaga. I would take alternate routes kasi you don’t feel safe,” he told the Mayor.
But this time he assured Moreno of their support “We’re waiting for this—we, Jessie and Patrick are the next generation of businessmen. This is our chance. This is the final chance to do this right.”
To which the Mayor replied, “I just want you to pay your obligation. Do good in your business, while we will do better to govern. I cannot promise you what is going to happen tomorrow. Nobody can. There is no guarantee. But I am going to excel today. Pag dilat ng mata ko, I will excel in my field.”
Carlo pressed on, “Sir pasensiya na kayo, walang BPO na gustong pumasok sa Manila, takot na takot sila. “He suggested commissioning the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization on land use, to do a plan on the city’s development for free. Moreno was receptive and quick to respond: “Donate it to the city and we will adopt it,” the mayor said.
Ho asked the Mayor what his favorite city in the world was and his answer caught everyone by surprise. “Monte Carlo is my happy place,” the mayor said.
Ho retorted, “Something happened there?”
The mayor, unknown to many, represented the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) in peace talks with the government, after he lost the senatorial elections in 2016. He then would make side trips to European cities and fell in love with the capital of Monaco. “I can sit in the coffee shop by the yacht club the whole day. Pangarap ko maging kapitan ng barko e.”
But right now he is the Captain of Manila, which is a humongous responsibility. He sounds like he is in control of the situation—or at least he knows how to manage expectations. “The character of Manila is its best asset. What we are doing is putting things in order, papunta pa lang ako sa zero. How I wish I can have all the answers for you. We have to go back to basics.”
Businessman Ricco Ocampo asked point blank, “What is your stand on reclamation?” The answer was swift: “Not my priority. I want to focus on inland development.” His predecessor approved five reclamation projects, one of which is was a midnight approval on June 28, on the eve of Moreno’s assumption into office.
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Mayor Isko Moreno gamely poses with the household staff.
Toasting to the guest of honor at the end of the meal in Ho’s dining room surrounded by Anita Magsaysay Ho’s paintings.
The mayor flanked by the Gokongwei sisters, Robina and Lisa
Mayor Isko Moreno stressing a point to Ces Drilon.
The Mayor expertly takes his photo with the Ocampo couple and with Cindy Yang and her husband Kenneth, the boss of Ronald McDonald
Then came the sales pitch: “Come back, buy deteriorated buildings. Build and we will give you incentives. What if magparaya ako? Fifteen years, real taxes will not be charged? We are developing Escolta. Buy property there. Bilhin niyo lahat ng building na bulok sa Avenida, Rizal mula Recto hanggang Raon.”
Moreno said his word was good as gold. “Natatakot sila sa City Hall. Kapag nasabi ko, pumunta ka na kay Cebuana Lhuillier, isanla mo na ang sinabi ko.” And this was the closing spiel: “I want to create an orchestra, composed of different musical instruments, being guided by one conductor. That is my goal, dream and aspiration: Lahat in harmony. It gives us joy, vibrance and positive aura. I am no superman but for the meantime humanda sila.” The table erupts in laughter. The speech continues. “We really have to be better, you deserve better things from us. It is high time. The city government owes it to the people.
This is the time. Marami na naman akong tinanggihan. May pruweba na rin ang laway ko. Yun lang ang pakiusap ko: Do your share. I will not ask for anything more. Tell everybody to come back to Manila. Let’s try this guy. Tingnan natin ang batang ito, kung totoo ba ito. Just try. I know you got frustrated. You lost hope. Parang wala na. There is no harm in trying.”
It was then when the dinner’s host responded: “We will all play our musical instruments. Since you love Manila, you cannot help but succeed .”
The dinner ended in a toast to Manila, with the Mayor, relenting to have a small sip of wine. He was on antibiotics, having just had a tooth extraction.
As the party broke up, a few of us continued the conversation outside, ending up sitting on Magsaysay-Ho’s driveway, with the shipping magnate slash hostess herself sitting Indian style on her tiled floor, listening to the mayor from Manila still fired up about the future of his city, talking and dreaming and gesturing with his hands, like the conductor of the orchestra he was just talking about.
Photographs by Ces Oreña Drilon and Cesar Chavez, COS of Mayor Moreno