Saturday, June 28, 2008

Drowned by the ‘Second-hand’ Economy

Herman Tiu Laurel


Late news from Princess of the Stars casualty reports that over 800 may have died in the tragedy. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in the wake of the sea catastrophe, and countless politicians joining the chorus for an investigation of the incident and the government agencies such as the Bureau of Marine Protection, the Marina and particularly the DoTC, which is supposed to be on top of all the related agencies involved in sea transportation in the country. As expected, Gloria Arroyo is pinning all the blame on the few scapegoats in the Coast Guard hierarchy that she can fire and on the shipping company. We’ve heard and seen all this huffing and puffing many times before, but nothing will come out of it for certain.

The Philippines has had eight sea tragedies in the past 22 years, almost one tragedy every two and a half years. While no country is exempt from such tragedies, such as the unforgettable sinking of the Estonia in 1994 that made news worldwide for that small country, that’s only one in 50 or 100 years for all the other countries. Of course, the Philippines is a maritime country and can expect a larger share of such sea tragedies, but the staggering frequency of such sinking in the Philippines, from Doña Paz on December, 1987 to the present Princess of the Stars tragedy, is simply unacceptable. These are clearly not isolated cases but a systemic problem, and that means that not only the shipping company but the whole structure of the sector involving policies and its economics.

The frustration of our maritime sector professionals is reflected in a headline from the Internet’s Maritime Watchkeeper: “‘Sea tragedies bring the clowns to town’… After each sea tragedy, what follows is a predictable and routine series of events purported to symphatize with relatives of victims and the survivors, the start of the finger-pointing season, issuances of headline grabbing one-liners, trial by publicity, imposition of sanctions sans due process, a flurry to hold public hearings and the eventual formation of a presidential maritime task force that would result in a formal statement that henceforth such tragedies would never happen again. Once the media have lost interest on the matter, everything dies down… until the next tragedy.”

The article enumerates the clownish actions: Sen. Biazon seeking a Senate probe, the call for the resignation of the Coast Guard and Marina chiefs, DoTC pinning blame on Sulpicio, the grounding of all Sulpicio vessels, the press release on the subject from Sen. Zubiri’s office and capped off by Gloria Arroyo’s latest headline slamming Sulpicio lines, and then Senate President Villar hurries to add that the tragedy tarnished Filipino seamen’s reputation. The article goes on, “21 years since the sinking of the M/V Doña Paz between Mindoro and Marinduque after colliding with an oil tanker… For the nth time, Congress is set to investigate another maritime disaster in an effort to determine what happened, pinpoint those accountable and propose laws to prevent such accidents from recurring...”

The Maritime Watchkeeper focuses on the Philippine safety classification system for passenger and cargo ships, in an obscured language that I suspect is to cloak the bitterness of its indictment:

“A few years back, Marina ‘opened the market’ for classification societies run by local practitioners. Affordability was the biggest consideration… Our rules allow us to buy second hand vessels from Japan, but would not accept the JG certificate… What is acceptable are certificates from societies local and foreign that are ‘recognized’ by the government. What kind of arrogance is that?”

Deciphering the language I read this: The Philippines allows second-hand ships from Japan that the JG (Japan Government) standard would not approve for safety certification but which Philippine government recognized “classification societies” would approve and local shipping companies operate at the risk of passengers’ life and limb. The bottom line is that our country’s floating assets are second-hand coming off the industrial ass of Japan, 50 years or older, and reclassified as “made” at a later date, such as the Princess of the Stars, which its specifications state was “made” in 1984. The Maritime Watchkeeper is made up of maritime professionals and see this perennial problem of their sector from the maritime professionals eye, but from our political-economic perspective, the real problem is the “second-hand” character of our national economy.

To the Maritime Watchkeeper and all the Filipino people, we say that the problem is beyond the safety classification — it is the problem of our national economy that cannot produce the consumer and industrial goods to serve our people in the safe and first class conditions that we deserve. We are an archipelagic and maritime nation that deserves a respectable ship-building industry to service the seafaring needs of this country. Filipinos are legendary for their ship building skills, from the time of the balangay to the time of the ship-building industry in Sangley, and later the ship repair and building in Navotas.

Decades of deconstruction of the Philippine industrial sector, which once boasted of the first integrated steel mill in Iligan, has relegated the Philippines into a “second-hand economy” in everything — from ships to marine and diesel engines, providing second-hand quality service and safety to its people. The latest word about the Princess of the Stars tragedy is that its steering mechanism malfunctioned forcing it into shallow waters where its hull sprung a massive leak — and hundreds drowned again in the “second hand economy”.

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