PRESIDENT Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s Executive Order (EO) 49 designating as his economic czar or “super secretary,” Frederick Go of the Gokongwei conglomerate, tasked to supervise all economic departments was unprecedented, a first for any president.
I suspect that a year and half in office, Marcos has realized how enormous the tasks of the Philippine presidency are, that he’s decided to turn over all work on the economic front to a special assistant, with a secretary rank.
Go will also have to deal with the “intrigues” (as we term it in Filipino) that will be thrown at him by officials who do not like the new setup.
I know from where I speak. I was President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Presidential Chief of Staff for two years. Even if the job had little authority — and no “signing authority” — I was perceived as cutting off certain officials’ line to the then-president that there was a torrent of rumors thrown at me and my office.
Marcos in his EO 49 ordered his super secretary to “supervise and monitor on behalf of the President, the NEDA, DoF, Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and Department of Trade and Industry, and their respective attached agencies, such as the Board of Investments, Philippine Economic Zone Authority, and Securities and Exchange Commission, to ensure effective and efficient implementation of their respective priority initiatives.” That is a big job, especially when working with departments and officials who are used to “business as usual.”
Even before taking the job, Go has made it clear that he at least has no intrigues of his own, and is not going to be the target of accusations of conflict of interest due to his work in the Gokongwei conglomerate. Go has formally resigned from all of his positions within that conglomerate, which is the proper thing to do; being mindful of and avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest — or conflict of interest in fact — is something that should be required of all government officials, if they don’t have Go’s sense to recognize the potential problem on their own.
Go appears to be realistic about his tasks, which emerged in my talk with him to be aren’t really those listed, especially the bureaucratic ones, in EO 49.
“How can we create another level, when I’ll be having only a staff of four, while those offices put under the SAPIEA (Special Assistant to the President for Investment and Economic Affairs) have thousands of staff?” Go said.
“I’ll be focusing on clearing obstacles to doing business in our country, making it easier for businessmen to undertake business. I’ll also shepherd the top projects — maybe the top 20 — registered with the Board of Investments, to make sure these take off,” he explained.
Those tasks themselves require a lot of interventions in other departments: High power prices, inefficient and corrupt customs, unreliable and costly internet services, bad factory-to-port roads, corruption practically at all levels of government, and traffic. And, unlike his job when he was at the Gokongwei conglomerate, he won’t have really cooperative people nor a huge credit line.
However, I’m hoping that Go will manage to do well — even excellently — in his new role in government. Go is affable, a characteristic very useful in what many have called the snake pit of Malacañang. While by blood a member of the Go clan, he had to work from the bottom rungs: he was the son of John Gokongwei’s brother who didn’t join the business, and had preferred to stay and run his retail business in Cebu, where the family immigrated to from China.
I was surprised in fact when, as correspondent of the Hong Kong based Far Eastern Economic Review, I met “Deck” covering the stock market and Securities and Exchange Commission for The Manila Times, which the Gokongwei group bought from the heirs of the paper’s founder Chino Roces. His colleagues kept ribbing him to treat them to lunch at the nearby Barrio Fiesta. He didn’t budge, though, saying, “I’m a salaried employee just like you guys.”
Apparently supervising The Times was the first job the Gokongwei conglomerate gave him and he wanted to check out what covering news was really about. The group decided to sell the paper as President Estrada himself had sued it for libel, for an article that claimed that he was the godfather for a multibillion deal between the National Power Corp. and the Argentine firm Impsa.
From The Manila Times he was asked to join the executive committees of several Gokongwei firms. Go says his biggest contribution to the group was its move into property. From having just five unremarkable properties, Robinsons Land grew to a P223-billion property conglomerate. It is now second only to the SM group as owner and operator of 53 malls and has 28 office buildings and 24 hotels. Go was also in charge of the group’s move to the casino business, to infrastructure (Luzon International Premier Airport Development Corp.), and to banking.
While he was reported in several fawning columns as a “billionaire businessman,” it is not clear how many shares he has in the Gokongwei conglomerate. Forbes magazine’s listing of the Philippines’ richest puts at seventh place “Lance Gokongwei and siblings,” but includes only Robina, Lisa, Faith, Hope and Marcia.
I do hope Go is a genius of sorts. Building a huge property business is certainly a feat but not so colossally remarkable, as he was backed up by the conglomerate assets and finances. Go will also find out that working with highly paid executives is so different from working with bureaucrats so jealous of their turfs.
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Book orders: www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop