By KERRY TINGA
Mayor Isko “Yorme” Moreno has always believed in the character of our nation’s capital, seeing it as a synecdoche for our nation as a whole.
Despite a very busy schedule, he graciously accommodated our interview request, giving us a solid hour before meeting with the new Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian. The time went by quickly as we listened to him discuss the yesterday, today, and tomorrow of Manila, the latter with such resolute confidence and optimism for what it can become again.
Over the years, he had become frustrated with the inefficiency and complacency he witnessed firsthand, seeing the city he was proudly born and raised in losing its ambition. In the 2019 election, Mayor Isko defeated a political stronghold that he was once affiliated with, running against the incumbent Mayor Joseph Estrada. After a landslide victory, his administration inherited a groggy Manila that had been left in the cold shadows the other cities in the metropolitan area now cast.
“Sabi nila sa problem solving, before you can solve the problem, you must accept that there is a problem,” he told us in a refreshingly straightforward manner, not sugar-coating the situation. “That is why sabi ko lagi sa kanila, tingnan niyo ang kasaysayan, tingnan niyo ang nakaraan, at daanan niyo ang pagkukulang natin [at] paano tayo magkahabol with our neighboring cities. (What they say about problem solving, before you can solve the problem, you must accept that there is a problem. That is why I always say to people, look at history, look at the past, and you will see where we have failed [and] how we can catch up with our neighboring cities.)”
Once a major center for international commerce and trade in the Pacific, Manila has lagged behind some of the other cities in the metro, with its idle commercial and business district. Throughout the 19th and majority of the 20th century, people would look to the historic Escolta and surrounding streets in Binondo and Santa Cruz, with corporate headquarters and thriving businesses lined along the street, neo-classical architecture that brings us back to another time.
“Did you know there is an existing law that you cannot even walk on Escolta wearing shorts and a t-shirt?” he asks. Mayor Isko is a natural storyteller with a cache of facts and knowledge, we almost forgot we were in the middle of an interview: “Kailangan naka amerikana ka when you pass Escolta or you will be apprehended. Hindi ko inimplement kasi there is nothing to implement, walang negosyo. (Did you know there is an existing law that you cannot even walk along Escolta wearing shorts and a t-shirt? You should be wearing a suit when you pass Escolta or you will be apprehended. But I do not implement it because there is nothing to implement, there is no business).”
In July, Mayor Isko signed Executive Order No. 8, which seeks to cut the processing time for business permits from a month to just a day. The local city government launched Bagong Maynila Business One-Stop Shop (BOSS) at City Hall, and, for this January, are operating a satellite branch at SM City Manila. He has embraced modern technology, working with specialists and experts to implement smart software solutions with e-payment services for his constituents.
In line with the national government’s Ease of Doing Business (EOBD) Act, this has been an inspiring step in the right direction for the capital, particularly for micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), which make up 99 percent of all registered businesses, and over 60 percent of the national labor force. Beyond statistics, it promotes an entrepreneurial mindset for the average Manileño and Filipino.
Through tax incentives and even “in the absence of law, just [utilizing] persuasive power,” as he puts it, he has encouraged tycoons and large corporations to bring their businesses and create jobs in Manila.
Even marginalized members of society, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities (PWDs), have been employed through arrangements and agreements negotiated by Mayor Isko. Under signed memorandums of agreements (MOA), fast food chains operating in Manila should employ at least two senior citizens and one PWD in each branch within the area.
If we look at the history of Manila and where business thrived, we go back to Escolta. One of the local government’s projects that drew attention and plaudits from netizens around the nation was the rehabilitation of the century-old gateway to Escolta, the historical Jones Bridge. It is all part of Mayor Isko’s vision to reawaken the splendor of our nation’s capital.
Not all cosmetic, the Jones Bridge now features a small-scale vertical garden, a teaser of his plan to literally breathe new life and air into the capital with open and green spaces. He mentions protecting Arroceros Forest Park, the so called “last lung of Manila,” calling out his predecessor who had the “idea of selling it.”
“Very colorful ang Manila. We are very rich in character. We have a story to tell, always. ’Yan ang isang leksyon na gusto namin ipagpunyagi, palaganapin yung kasaysayan ng Maynila, at karakter nito. (Manila is very colorful. We are very rich in character. We have a story to tell, always. That is a lesson we would like to pursue, spread the history of Manila, and its character).”
Throughout the hour he constantly goes back to the character of Manila, the character that he says he sells to businesses and to the public. There are some of our nation’s most important historical sites, it was once the colonial seat of power, it has risen above war and countless sufferings, but what exactly is the character of Manila today that he is selling? The best way to answer that is to look at the character of a batang Manileño: Mayor Isko Moreno. A strong man who does not resort to strong language, he is steadfast and straightforward.
“Ako naman, bilang individual, talagang dito na ako pinanganak, dito na ako lumaki, nag-aral, nagbigyan ng pagkakataon. […] Basurero lang ako, naging mayor ako. (For me, as an individual, here is where I really was born, here is where I grew up, where I studied, and where I was given opportunities. I was just a garbage man, and I have become a mayor).”
The words are still hanging in the air. Manila is a city of opportunities, and today it has one of the greatest opportunities for a glorious comeback in so many ways, led by one of its own children who is thankful to it. He took the opportunities he found in Manila, and now he looks to pay it forward to his fellow Manileños, hopeful that he can lead by example and encourage people to participate in his optimistic vision.
“I am a persistent guy. I would not be in this chair if I gave up easily,” he says, giving us the understatement of the year. “I have experienced the worst thing that any child could experience, so all these things are water under the bridge. Ito? Mapapagod ako dito? Wala ako ditong binabuhat na bente kilos, trenta kilos…(I am a persistent guy. I would not be in this chair if I gave up easily. I have experienced the worst thing that any child could experience, so all these things are water under the bridge. This? Get tired here? I am not carrying twenty kilos, thirty kilos…)”
More than just a persistent guy, he is a demanding man. He demands much from his constituents, to be engaged in government, from the people he works with, to realize what Manila can be, and most of all from himself, to boldly serve the city that has raised him.
Suddenly the hour was up. We took our selfies and said our goodbyes. As we left City Hall to go to our offices just a few minutes away, inside the walls of Intramuros, which centuries ago was all the City of Manila was, we looked at streets that were familiar to us in a new light, with the deep history and rich character he sees in them.
Manila… I’m coming home to stay.