P10B for senators’ new offices? Use the money to fortify our Spratly islands instead!

HAS our Senate, and maybe even our nation, gone mad?

Last week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson announced that the Senate is on the way to building its new opulent headquarters, with the Los Angeles-based AECOM, one of the world’s top (read: expensive) engineering and construction companies, being awarded the contract to undertake its architectural design.

With construction to start next year, to be completed by 2021, this monument to our political elite’s profligacy, will cost us P10 billion. The new building with 8.5 hectares of floor area will be built on a two-hectare lot to be sold by the Bases Conversion Development Authority, and will consist of a cluster of four state-of-the art glass-walled buildings, each 18 stories high, with a park at the center.

Lacson reported that the land—adjacent to Bonifacio Global City, the newest center of the Philippine economic elite—would cost P1.8 billion. My architect sources estimate that construction would cost at the very least another P8 billion, including the buildings’ top-of-the-line finishing, fixtures and other items the senators and their staffs would say they need. Do you think they’ll bring their old chairs, tables, and even computers to their brand-new offices? The Senate has allocated an initial P2 billion for the project, but hasn’t disclosed how much it will cost in total.

Filipino taxpayers will be spending P10 billion to house the meeting place and offices of 24 wannabe presidents—in a location that is of course close to BGC’s posh hotels, restaurants, bars, luxury-goods shops, and luxury-car dealers.

Gatchalian admiring a model of his new place of work, which will be as swanky as his residences.

I am astonished that there has hardly been any protests against this plan hatched during the past regime and under the leadership of former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd. The project was accelerated by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian who authored a resolution last November calling for a feasibility study for the construction of the Senate’s new offices and its relocation.

Gatchalian cited in his resolution as justification  for a new building was that the Senate has “claustrophobic halls and gloomy atmosphere” compared to that of the “Lower House of Congress” which has “sprawling and verdant view (sic).” The son of an ethnic Chinese tycoon, Gatchalian apparently wants his place of work to be as luxurious as his residences at Forbes Park and his penthouse overlooking the Manila Golf course.

Iconic Senate
The Senate quietly voted November last year – the discussions involved only the location – to greenlight the project to be built at the Navy Village in Fort Bonifacio. Only two senators voted against it—Risa Hontiveros and Bam Aquino—but only because they wanted it to be in Antipolo City, that is, closer to their Quezon City residences.

Lacson said the building would be “iconic,” and would be comparable to the United States Capitol, Germany’s Reichstag, and Great Britain’s Palace of Westminster.

That idea is so absurd it borders on the hilarious. In the first place, the US Capitol houses 535 representatives and senators; the Reichstag 709 Bundestag members; and Westminster Palace 1,355 members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Didn’t anybody tell Lacson that the US Capitol has a Senate wing? Why don’t they just build a Senate wing in the Batasan Pambansa complex, which will even foster closer cooperation between the two chambers, who can then pass the needed laws more quickly?

And how many legislators will the new P10-billion Senate building house? Twenty-four senators. Maybe just 23 if its one jailed member, charged for her alleged links to drug lords, is convicted.

Do the senators intend to have a floor for each one of them, each with their own terraces, and maybe even restaurants?

Lacson wants the Senate building to be on par with are the legislative buildings of three of the world’s superpowers, which have the finances—and the gall—to build such expensive icons, as symbols of being on top of the world.

Let’s be realistic. We’re at the very least a generation from being a US, a Germany, or a Great Britain. We’re still struggling to crawl out of our Third World status, we have tens of millions who are still poor, and our infrastructure remains one of the most undeveloped in Asia. The senators, with their new building, apparently want to feel as if they were legislators of the US, Germany and Great Britain.

And what happens then if the Constitution is amended, and the Senate is abolished? A P10 billion white elephant?

The Senate’s plan to build a P10 billion office for itself is like a factory worker planning to build a mansion in a posh village. In a sense, if the Senate ever gets to build its iconic headquarters, it would be such a glaring instance of unexplained wealth.

Artist’s rendition of ‘Bagong Senado’

Check out AECOM’s animated design of the “Bagong Senado’ at www.newsenatebulding.com, and you will be shocked at its size and profligacy; it makes Shangri-la Hotel or Raffles Makati look like Sogo motels. I suspect it will even have tennis courts or even a putting green – naturally so our hardworking senators can relax without leaving the building.

Off the top of my head, I can name more worthy projects for government to fund with a whopping P10 billion—the activation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant; a bigger scholarship program for poor science and engineering students with allowances; P200,000-houses for 50,000 government workers; PGH-like hospitals for the poor in 10 of our major cities; the complete clean-up of the cesspool that is the Pasig River; the takeover of Meralco by government to ensure lower electricity costs. That P10 billion could miraculously make the MRT-3 one of the most efficient urban mass transit systems in the world, which would end the daily traffic hell suffered by metropolitan Manila residents.

But given the fact that in recent years, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and especially China, have spent billions of dollars to transform their islands and atolls in the South China Sea into fortresses—while we have spent practically nothing so that our main Kalayaan Island’s facilities have badly deteriorated—that P10 billion should instead be used to fortify our properties there.

Only by fortifying these islands and atolls canwe strengthen our hold on these, and proudly tell the world that we will do everything we can to defend our sovereignty of these territories. Why would the world take our claims to this area seriously, when our outpost in one, Ayungin Reef, is a rusting, World-War 2 vessel grounded there and manned by a platoon of Marines?

But no. We have to give the senators a place of work that is not, as Gatchalian whined, claustrophobic and gloomy.

 

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