NEARLY 20 years ago, 18 heads of economies traveled to Subic for the eighth APEC Leaders’ Summit. Then President Fidel V. Ramos played host to the likes of US President Bill Clinton, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.
It was an opportunity like no other for the country to show the world it was no longer the “sick man of Asia."
“As soon as we heard that the Philippines was definitely going to host in November 1996, we agreed--Congress, the private sector, even the judiciary, plus the common people, the NGOs--I got them all together and said this is our chance to showcase the Philippines,” Ramos told ABS-CBN.
Government and the private sector pulled out all the stops, pouring millions of dollars for roadwork, airport expansion projects, construction and renovation of buildings, and even sprucing up the golf course in Subic.
“Let’s set the record straight. The public funds invested in Subic and Clark, in between Central Luzon and connections to Manila, were all part of our development funds to provide better services and utilities for our growing population,” he said. “We had the problem of connectivities, not only highways but also telecommunications and access to the rest of the world through the internet and even cyberspace. We made all those arrangements not just for Subic, but as part of our development programs.”
But not everyone welcomed the all-out preparations for the APEC Summit.
Militant groups had protested globalization and criticized security measures described by reports back then as reminiscent of martial law.
Weeks before the Leaders’ Summit, government had also come up with a blacklist of 100 people barred from entering the country, which included Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the former French President Francois Mitterrand; Japanese Bishop Aloisius Nobuo Soma; South African Bishop Desmond Tutu; and Portugese educators Marcelo and Luisa Perreira.
Nobel peace prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta was also denied a visa when he sought to attend the Manila People’s Forum on APEC which was held at the same time as the Leaders’ Summit. He had been advised to come to the Philippines another time. The Philippines reportedly did not want to displease Indonesia’s President Suharto who was among those attending the meeting in Subic. Ramos-Horta had fought for the independence of East Timor from Indonesia.
21 LUXURY VILLAS
While shanties were being demolished to “clean up” Metro Manila, 21 luxury villas were being built in Subic. The multi-million peso mansions would be used as change rooms by the heads of economies, a place to rest or freshen up for a few hours ahead of the main event. None of the leaders would stay in Subic overnight.
The villas were the brainchild of then Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Chairman Richard Gordon and was marred by allegations of excessive spending by critics. But Ramos was quick to defend the project. “We did not waste or lose money because these villas were later sold to private owners who wanted them for themselves,” Ramos said.
Ramos said the biggest achievement borne out of APEC could not be measured in dollars.
“One very big gain we had after APEC 1996 was our continuing rapport with the leaders of the 18 members,” Ramos said.
Ramos also used the Leaders’ Summit as an opportunity to improve relations with China. Relations between the two countries had begun to sour the year before, after China built huts in Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands which is well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
After the APEC Summit, the Chinese leader stayed behind for a three-day state visit.
“Aside from major political issues like the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea issues, we agreed that we would maintain close communication so there would be no surprises, no sudden reclamation here in our side of the economic zones,” Ramos said.
The visit was capped by an evening of dancing on board a cruise in Manila Bay and a duet where the two leaders sang Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender."
DISADVANTAGES OUTWEIGH ADVANTAGES
The Philippines will again host the APEC Leaders’ Meeting, this time in Manila.
But economist Ben Diokno is disappointed that after 19 years, little has changed to prepare the Philippines for globalization, one of APEC’s key goals. “We have our advantages. We have a big pool of workers who are skilled and English proficient. In the hospitality business we have an edge, we’re probably better than other countries. But the disadvantages outweigh our advantages,” Diokno said.
Diokno said the disadvantages include poor roads, airports, sea ports, and internet connectivity; unreliable power supply; and a cost of doing business that is very high--factors that could reel in more trade and investment if properly addressed.
The challenge, he said, is for the next administrations to resolve these problems so the country can take full advantage of being a member of APEC.