Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Synergy between and among the Subic Bay Freeport and contiguous communities: a genuine catalyst for progress

The Subic Bay Freeport (“Freeport”), through the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) has been granted much autonomy by the Philippine government via Republic Act (RA) No. 7227, as amended. Among others, Subic Bay Freeport enjoys its status as a self-sustaining, industrial, commercial, financial and investment center; as a separate customs territory; and a tax-free zone except for the payment of three percent (3%) of the gross income earned by all businesses and enterprises within the Freeport.

The Freeport used to be the US Subic Naval Base. By virtue of the 1947 US-RP Military Bases Agreement, large tracts of land historically belonging to Olongapo City, Subic, Hermosa and Morong, were segregated and fenced. After the treaty expired and was not renewed in 1991, RA 7227 was enacted, and the Freeport was born. In order to do so, the law required the concurrence of the said affected local government units (LGUs) through their legislatures. The LGUs agreed primarily in exchange for employment opportunities for their constituents and the trickle-in effects of development from the Freeport.

But despite the declaration of those LGUs as integral parts of the Freeport, a perceptible gap, both physical and psychological, remains between them and the Freeport. Courtesy perhaps of the old fences and man-made channels still dividing them.

Thus, the love-hate relationships started between the Freeport and these LGUs. Issues ranging from appointments of LGU representatives to the SBMA board of directors, preference in the hiring of workers, delayed remittance of the 1% share, business competition between Freeport-based and outside traders, territorial disputes, would crop up from time to time. These are concerns, however, that can be avoided and settled as long as the parties involved would have an open mind and focus on critical collaboration.

In this regard, it is important to note that although the Freeport has a certain level of autonomy, it lacks a distinct feature of a political subdivision to fully function independently and seamlessly, i.e., it does not have its own local police (the Law Enforcement Department [LED] is an internal security force), it does not have its own prosecutorial service, neither does it have its own courts. The SBMA, its residents and investors usually run “outside the base” to the courts of Olongapo City, Dinalupihan, or Balanga City in case of civil disputes. Preliminary investigation of crimes committed in the Freeport is held either in Olongapo City or Balanga City, and criminal cases are subsequently filed in courts exercising territorial jurisdiction where such crimes are committed.

In other words, the Freeport relies on various instrumentalities outside its gates in order to efficiently manage and maintain harmony and stability inside, and ensure the consistent pace of progress and development.

While it is laudable and proper then to insulate the Freeport from politics, the reality must be accepted, however, that the Freeport is surrounded by local political units whose services and cooperation it vastly needs in order to succeed. It is surrounded by communities whose development is likewise vital to the Freeport’s relevance and competitiveness in the global stage.

It is in this light that the Freeport must break from its perceived isolationism (whether rightly or wrongly), actively engage the concerned LGUs and communities, and find a common ground by which they can work together.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a tool that can be harnessed to establish rapport and camaraderie such that the people and their communities would truly feel and understand that they are prime stakeholders in this fenced-in area called the Freeport. The SBMA together with like-minded and willing locators, may focus on a broad array of programs such as educational assistance and grants, including technical and vocational programs; environmental conservation and protection; and basic services subsidies and food-for-work programs. Indeed, by practicing CSR, the Freeport may bring about a holistic, top-to-bottom development that would be beneficial to most, if not all, stakeholders.

Here’s looking forward to the roaring success of the Freeport on its twentieth (20th) anniversary next year.

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