Breaking The Habit

Super Duterte: War on Oligarchs

We might as well call him “Super Duterte” – as Rodrigo Duterte is the first Philippine president to challenge the country’s billionaires who have long been untouchable. This is the first time in recent history that a president seems to not care about maintaining the status quo. Since his election in 2016, Duterte has continually challenged the country’s established oligarchs, all for the good of the Filipino people.

What are oligarchs? Oligarchs are defined as a small group of powerful (and very rich) people who control a country. Their power comes precisely from their money, which they use to control industries. Unchecked, this control translates into political influence. In short, they bend the will of governments to get what they want.

You can see why this is bad. Yes, a benevolent oligarch is technically possible. But oligarchy has no place in a fledgling democracy such as the Philippines. In our country, systems are in place that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. What has Duterte done about this system? Let’s discuss.

The bone collector

From the beginning of his administration, Super Duterte has gone toe-to-toe with these oligarchs. He might have employed unconventional ways, but it’s undeniably effective.


He drew first blood back in 2016. PAGCOR decided not to renew PhilWeb Corp.’s license as their online gaming service provider. Duterte singled out then-PhilWeb chairman Roberto Ongpin as one of those oligarchs that he wanted to “destroy.” He accused Ongpin of currying favor with previous presidents to boost his business. A day after the public accusation, Ongpin resigned from PhilWeb.

This became a trend in recent years, as Duterte doesn’t seem to be fazed one bit.

In 2017, he threatened to arrest Mighty Corp. owner Alexander Wongchuking for allegedly using counterfeit tax stamps to avoid paying taxes amounting to ₱37.88 billion. Wongchuking and his tobacco company entered into an out-of-court settlement with the BIR to avoid criminal indictment.

In 2018, Duterte told Philippine Airlines (PAL) chairman and CEO Lucio Tan that he would “forever shut up” on the subject of his past tax liabilities. This was only after PAL offered an additional plane to fly home repatriated OFWs from Kuwait. PAL previously owed the government ₱6 billion in tax liabilities, which they had already paid at that time.

There are other stories similar to this, like the Rufinos’ and Prietos’ Mile Long Property debacle, and the Lopez’s ABS-CBN franchise renewal. All point to the fact that the highest official in the land seems to want to shake the status quo, change ingrained practices, and demand better deals for the Filipino people. This is most obvious in his latest target – Metro Manila’s water oligarchs.

The water issue

The latest oligarchs in Super Duterte’s sights are Manila Water and Maynilad. These companies are led by two of the country’s top businessmen: Fernando Zobel de Ayala and Manny Pangilinan.

The first earned the ire of the president back in 2019 during the unexpected water shortage that affected parts of Metro Manila. This led him to look deeper into the company’s deals with the government, and discovering onerous provisions in their contracts regarding water rates.

It’s a complicated issue, but basically, the current contracts are allowing these concessionaires to raise profits in order for them to recover costs. It’s an unfortunate byproduct when such public services become privatized. These “onerous provisions” might have been important then to entice these capitalists to enter into a contract with the government to fix the water system in Manila. However, it would seem that right now, it’s benefiting these companies at the expense of the Filipino people.

Ideally, higher rates mean better service – but this is not the case for many.

Turning the tide

A lot of people remain unsatisfied with the service of the water concessionaires. In a recent Facebook post, customers vented out their frustrations with the status quo:

These stories are common across the Greater Manila Area in districts serviced by the two companies. Interrupted water supply has become a reality that a lot of people face.

This is how many big businesses treat people. It’s profit to the point of exploitation. Access to water is a basic need. They have failed miserably at the one thing they were supposed to be doing.

So it would seem that Super Duterte is again out for blood, justifiably so. He has recently tapped former Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque to handle the government’s case of syndicated estafa and graft charges against the two companies.

Roque claims that the government has a “very high” chance of winning the case, as he explains that there are several factors working against them, including the failure to establish sewage treatment plants despite collection of “environment fees.”

Super Duterte

It looks like there’s no backing down for Super Duterte and his quest to improve the lives of the Filipino people. These water concessionaires will be in serious trouble if they do not address these issues.

It’s refreshing to realize that we are no longer alone in our problems – now that we have a Rodrigo Duterte on our side.

What can we do to help? We need to stay vigilant. Let’s keep demanding better quality from utility providers and big business.

Don’t stop complaining – someone’s listening.

READ: [The Duterte Effect – What Does It Really Mean?]

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