The cost of Rama’s Singapore dream for Cebu City

A SINGAPORE-LIKE Cebu City is not far from becoming a reality, said Mayor Michael Rama despite the City having no funds for new projects amid the ongoing threat of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

This daring political and economic ambition for a city with over one million inhabitants would summon the question: At what cost?

Cebuanos started to get familiar with the term “Singapore-like Cebu City” when Rama used it as the highlight of his inaugural speech on June 30, 2022.

“Singapore is practically a smart city, globally competitive, disaster-resilient, and Singapore has a per capita that you cannot ignore,” said Rama, explaining to SunStar Cebu why he chose the Lion City as a model for Cebu’s development.

Rama narrated how Singapore was able to become a model for discipline and progress, especially in making sure that socialized housing will be available to its citizens.

He did not give a definite timeline on when this goal can be achieved, but Rama assured the public that he has serious political will and the proper circle of officials for the job.

Internal cleansing

The mayor started his campaign by removing employees in the City Hall who failed to pass the ideals and principles expected in the workplace.

Last June 27, Rama announced that 500 job order and casual employees of City Hall should start looking for other jobs as their contracts would not be renewed starting July 1, 2022.

The mayor made it clear that those who are not supportive of his campaign for a Singapore-like Cebu City should leave the city, including those working in City Hall.

Before that, the mayor had already issued a memorandum to inform them that the employment contract of all coterminous, casual and job order employees would expire on June 30. The employees underwent an evaluation to determine if they would still be included in the city’s payroll.

Under the memo, the employees were evaluated based on the following: “kawatan (thief), tapulan (lazy), hugawan (messy), intregero (intriguer), pala-away (quarrelsome), walay nahibaw-an (ignorant), dili mo bayad og utang (does not pay debts), and mo buko-buko (backstabber).”

The cleansing of City Hall of undesirable employees will not stop there as Rama threatened again to fire 3,000 more employees if they will not perform their duties. Rama warned that City Hall’s workforce may be reduced by half in September 2022.

The mayor assured that the city government would create a program with the Department of Labor and Employment and the private sector to ensure that the affected employees would have new employment opportunities.

The budget that will be saved on the city’s personal services funds through “rightsizing” can be allocated to the basic services to address the needs of the city, said Rama.

Rama’s generals

Big names have been added to City Hall after Rama asked for the services of retired military and police generals who occupied key government posts during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The first to be recruited by Rama was former Philippine National Police chief Debold Sinas, who was named a member of the city’s advisory board. Next to join Rama’s crusade is former environment secretary Roy Cimatu, who is tasked to keep an eye on all environmental matters in the city.

The expertise of Cimatu during his stint as Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary under Duterte, especially the work he did to transform and beautify places like Boracay, Manila Bay and Marikina River, would help the city, according to Rama’s special assistant Jerone Castillo.

Retired General Melquiades Feliciano, who was Inter-Agency Task Force-Visayas deputy chief implementer of Covid-19 and the region’s vaccine czar under Duterte, has also joined the team.

Rama also appointed longtime friend and former senator Franklin Drilon, a native of Iloilo in Western Visayas, who had led clean-up drives for the polluted and dying Iloilo River and allocated funds to build the Iloilo River Esplanade.

The mayor also enlisted former Department of Public Works and Highways secretary Rogelio Singson as the latest member of the city advisory council.

Rama said Drilon and Singson will help Feliciano and Cimatu solve the flooding problem experienced by the city during downpours.

The mayor believes that the addition of competent officials and an efficient City Hall workforce is one of the keys to achieving a Singapore-like status during his term.

Smart city

A former colony of the British Empire during the 1800s, Singapore has become one of the most economically competitive countries in the world.

Among 118 cities in the world in 2021, the Smart City Index (SCI) named Singapore the smartest city. The thriving city-state also claimed the same feat in the years 2019 and 2020, according to the SCI that is published by the Swiss business school Institute of Management Development and the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

“A ‘smart city’ is an urban setting that applies technology to enhance the benefits and diminish the shortcomings of urbanization for its citizens,” Singapore’s Economic Development Board’s report reads.

The mayor’s quest to transform Cebu City into a disaster-resilient, globally competitive and smart city during his term has taken a toll on some City Hall employees.

Last Sept. 4, SunStar Cebu received information that healthcare workers employed by the City Government were not able to receive their allowances and salaries.

Ashley (real name withheld), a nurse at the City Health Department, said more than 200 healthcare workers, not including those who work at the Cebu City Medical Center, had not received their One Covid Allowance from January to August 2022.

The medical front liners are job order employees of the Cebu City Government, and Ashley said they had not been given their appointment papers since the time Rama announced that not all of the employees’ contracts would be renewed last July 1.

Ashley said this is the reason the healthcare employees were not able to receive their salaries.

SunStar Cebu sought Rama’s comment, and the mayor said he would look into the matter to ensure that the allowances and salaries would not be further delayed.

Zero budget

Standing in the way of Rama’s dream to turn Cebu into another Singapore is the lack of a budget to fund new projects. The city’s local finance committee (LFC) disclosed last Aug. 8 that the City had spent more money than its income for the past two years.

Collin Rosell, secretary to the mayor, said the available cash in the city’s purse, as of June 30, 2022, was P4.54 billion, but the City had P5.04 billion in payables.

“Diritso nga pagkaistorya, walay libre nga kwarta nga magamit kung unsa maoy proyekto,” said Rosell. (Straight talking, there’s no money available for projects.)

The pandemic had badly affected businesses in the city, which led to the low collection of taxes.

Several measures have been proposed to address the financial struggles of the city, one of which is to increase business taxes, real property taxes and other fees that the city government can collect.

The lack of funds has held up the completion of the Cebu City Medical Center (CCMC). Work on the building began in 2015 yet.

In its 2021 audit report, the Commission on Audit flagged the delay in the construction of the P299 million Phase 2 project of the hospital. The state auditors said the detailed engineering issues, slow decision making, giving of unreasonable time extensions, and confusing computation of contract time had deprived the constituents of the much-needed facility, especially in this time of health crisis.

Investment begging

Rama assured, however, that the construction of the CCMC will now move at a faster pace with funding from private investors.

With no available funds, Rama had gone to Manila last Aug. 9 to conduct what he called “investment begging” from business tycoons to secure funding for the completion of the 10-story CCMC and other priority projects.

The investment hopping yielded over P1.3 billion worth of funding commitments for the completion of the CCMC and construction of medium-rise buildings (MRBs). Rama said at least five businessmen pledged P800 million to complete one floor each of the hospital in exchange only for naming rights.

“I am a very pragmatic and positive thinker kind of leader, hence I can easily go down and even beg for investment,” said Rama.

Rama also secured P575 million from investors for the construction of MRBs for the City Government’s socialized housing projects.

The mayor said he would also tap Cebu businessmen for funds for the local government’s projects.

After another “investment begging” trip to Manila, Rama announced on Sept. 16 that he had received a pledge of P100 million from a private construction firm for the completion of the CCMC, and a commitment from ports and casino tycoon Enrique Razon Jr. to fund and build a dam to augment the supply of water in the city.

Last Aug. 30, the city government reached a milestone after after it fully paid the loan used for the development of the South Road Properties.

In 1995, the Cebu City Government had received a 12.315-billion-yen loan, equivalent to P4.65 billion at the time, from the Japan International Cooperation Agency through Land Bank of the Philippines to construct the SRP, a 300-hectare reclamation project.

This has technically made Cebu City debt-free, but Rama said taking out a new loan to fund his Singapore-like dream is far-fetched now.

(This story is part of the journalism fellowship of the Philippine Press Institute under the auspices of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.)