August 19, 2011

DOT chief eyed for Monetary Board vacancy

(A day before his resignation, DOT chief Bertie Lim attends the Philippine MICE Conference in Cebu City. Escorting him to the exhibit area is Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia. Photo from Philippine MICECON FB page)

RESIGNED Tourism Secretary Alberto “Bertie” A. Lim is being eyed to occupy the third remaining vacant slot on the Monetary Board (MB), the policy-making body of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

Several sources on Saturday confirmed that a recommendation to President Aquino was in the works. On Sunday a source in Mr. Aquino’s official family told the BusinessMirror: “I understand that’s what P-Noy has in mind for him,” indicating that the President had already approved the recommendation.

Lim reportedly has the backing of a number of Mr. Aquino’s own people, especially those from the “Balay” faction of Transportation Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II.

Contacted for comment on Saturday morning, Lim declined to say if he had been offered the job. “I believe it is more proper for P-Noy to respond to your query,” he said.

Asked, however, if he would accept the job if offered to him, Lim said: “It is a job that is less stressful and for which I am qualified to work in. So I would be inclined [to accept it] if it is offered.” Lim is an economics graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University.

The appointment to the MB is being played as a “graceful exit” for Lim from the Department of Tourism (DOT) on August 31, and a reward for his fervent dedication to Mr. Aquino whom he campaigned for in 2010. The tourism chief was part of the regular economic briefing group of Mr. Aquino, “working closely” with the latter even at the Times Street residence.

The appointment, however, could ruffle the feathers of some in the so-called Samar group of supporters of Mr. Aquino.

Lim’s rival for the MB post is former BSP Deputy Governor Armando Suratos, who retired from the monetary institution in December 2010. (UPDATE: Mr. Suratos is currently a consultant to the BSP.)

A career central banker and well-respected in his own circles, Suratos is rumored to have the backing of Sen. Ping Lacson, a distant relative; “brods” Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Jesuit lawyer Fr. Joaquin Bernas, BSP sources said.

(The other contender to the BSP Monetary Board post is retired Bangko Sentral Deputy Gov. Andy Suratos. He is currently a consultant to the BSP. Photo from BSP)

Suratos studied law at the Ateneo and is member of the Fraternal Order of Utopia in the College of Law, of which Ochoa and Bernas are also members. Ochoa represents the so-called Samar faction of supporters in the Aquino administration.

But in a text message, Senator Lacson said of Suratos: “The name doesn’t ring a bell, and I have no knowledge whatsoever if, indeed, he is being eyed for the position.”

Understandably, BSP insiders are more welcoming of an ex-colleague on the MB, rather than an outsider like Lim. BSP Governor Amando Tetangco Jr. failed to respond to several text messages seeking his reaction to Lim’s rumored appointment. But one ranking BSP official offered his thoughts: “Lim is a good man. But we are talking of the Monetary Board. More serious and specialized stuff.”

This would be the third government post for Lim. His first government job was as director of the Civil Aeronautics Board under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Before his appointment to the DOT, Lim was executive director of the influential Makati Business Club, a keen Mr. Aquino supporter.

Meanwhile, Lim clarified that the President didn’t “ask me to resign.” He had been rumored to be one of three on Mr. Aquino’s list of “headaches,” who only brought him “bad news.”

Retired advertising executive Ramon Jimenez is rumored to be taking over from Lim at the DOT, and was only waiting to be asked by Mr. Aquino, as of Friday afternoon.

‘He was smiling the whole day’

LIM’S resignation, announced on August 12, caught the public—including DOT employees and several tourism stakeholders—by surprise. He said he was doing so for “personal” reasons. “I would like to spend more time with my family. My responsibilities require a great deal of travel and time away from my loved ones,” he said.

A brother of broadcaster Cheche Lazaro, Lim has been married 39 years to the former Carla Campos Abreau. The couple’s children are already in their 20s and 30s, living abroad and pursuing their own careers; one of them is married and now has his own family.

The day before his resignation, Lim was in Cebu opening the MICE Philippines Conference, which was attended by a lot of tourism stakeholders, including a number of DOT officials.

In an interview, a tourism expert who was there said: “[Lim] didn’t look bothered to me. He even posed for pictures with delegates, though I noticed some sadness in his face. But he didn’t act like he was ready to quit.”

A tourism official who requested anonymity, said he and others had no inkling their boss would be resigning the next day. “He was smiling the whole day naman. And was chika-chika to many. He posed for photos until late Thursday night.”

(Participants to the Philippine MICE Conference in Cebu say they didn't notice anything unusual in the behavior of DOT Sec. Bertie Lim, seen smiling in this photo with some delegates from Davao. Only one 'noticed some sadness in his face. But he didn’t act like he was ready to quit.' Photo from Philippine MICECON)

Those who wanted Lim ousted virtually declared him “slow and incompetent” for the job, and had protested his advocacy of an “open skies” policy, later adopted by the President on a provincial “pocket-type scale. “

Also, the tourism chief earlier received flak for having given the go-signal for a failed tourism slogan, “Pilipinas Kay Ganda,” for which Undersecretary Vicente Romano took the fall.

Making enemies

THE Black and White Movement, of which Lim was a member, released a press statement after he announced his resignation, decrying the sinister forces that pushed him to resign.

“In the process of working in the government, Bertie made enemies from powerful vested interests that benefited from a regime of protectionism. And their constant attacks against Bertie made it increasingly more difficult for him to do his job,” it said.

Industry sources said the few vocal protestors claiming to represent the tourism industry had never once owned or worked in a tourism establishment. One who wanted Lim ousted even went to town with the media, but failed to mention that his group lost the bid for the national tourism development plan, the same sources added.

Jose Mari del Rosario, president of Microtel Development Corp., confirmed the staunch anti-open skies lobby to have Lim removed from the DOT. But he said, “that [open skies] policy is starting to benefit the hotel industry, at least in my case.” Del Rosario’s company manages several provincial hotels under the Microtel chain.

He believes Lim to be a “very straightforward and idealistic person. Medyo mahina lang ang personal PR, ‘di politiko like his predecessors”—echoing the assessment of other tourism stakeholders who liked him well enough, but was put off by the tourism chief’s lack of charisma.

“Sometimes he would attend our events,” said a well-known female hotelier, who requested anonymity, “and he would just keep to himself. He doesn’t really mingle with us. Of course, when you’re in tourism you have to be ma-PR!”

Aileen Clemente, president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, sees Lim’s resignation as another impediment in the progress of the tourism industry.

“The primary enterprises of the industry put emphasis in having continuity. The average tenure of the past secretaries in the department is two years, which is quite detrimental to the industry. Plans have been made in the past but little of which were geared to have long-term impact. The rest of the public always clamor for good marketing strategies, but to industry stakeholders, this is merely the tail-end of an honest-to-goodness strategic plan that tackles institutional reforms,” she said in a press statement.

“[More] than branding and marketing, there are so many issues that plague the industry. First, there needs to be more effort to remove the downgrading of the [Federal Aviation Authority] and the European ban…. Second, measures must be taken to remove or lessen the numerous hurdles and challenges in the procurement of visas by foreign nationals coming to the Philippines. Third, the government must understand the impact of the double taxation of airlines as well as the charging of the CIQ [Customs, Immigrations and Quarantine]. Fourth, it is essential to plan the various infrastructure that needs to be developed especially in terms of airports, roads, transport systems,” she added.

“Laying the groundwork does not only take time. Being saddled with this responsibility takes patience, organizational skills and leadership to ensure that it creates an effective plan in ensuring the success of tourism in the country. Part of this, Secretary Lim has already done. We just hope that it will be continued by his successor to the post.”

For his part, del Rosario stressed, “People like to put forward their opinions on how the tourism industry should be handled—thinking it’s just slogans or tag lines. But it starts with the proper infrastructure. And that’s what Bertie Lim was doing. Consider his background in running El Nido Resorts as a microcosm of Philippine tourism. It was a ‘can-do’ approach on purely private initiative but to make it work, look at the logistics they had to put in place to make it a success.”

In what now appears to be a flash of prescience, Lim, who was also forced out the Arroyo administration due to his “open skies” stance, told the BusinessMirror in November 2010: “The enemies of reform are still strong. So we expect it to be a continuing struggle.”

(My piece was published on the front page of the BusinessMirror, Aug. 15, 2011.)

(UPDATE): On Aug. 17, in an interview with Karen Davila on ANC's Headstart, Lim said President Aquino delayed taking action against TIEZA chief operating officer Mark Lapid, despite a COA report detailing the latter's alleged fund misuse, due to "bigger political considerations".

The day after, Malacañang denied Lim's statement, saying there was "no selective prosecution of officials".

I dunno if this recent revelation by Lim will affect his chances of being appointed to the Monetary Board. All I know is, the President doesn't take too kindly to criticism.)

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