Man of—and from—the streets
On first meeting Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, the surface impression is that of a rough-hewn, straight-talking character who has barely brushed off the dust and din of the street from himself.
He has no pretensions to refinement, which may be why he reminds onlookers uncannily of his boss and former law school classmate, President Rodrigo Duterte.
Indeed, his conversation, just minutes after meeting with his guests for the first time, is peppered with crisp cusses. But we don’t take offense, maybe because we know the foul words are just exclamations, and the secretary is good-naturedly apologetic when the words slip out.
Tugade’s life story is certainly inspiring. Born to an impoverished family, his ticket out of poverty was education. He was a San Beda College scholar from the elementary grades to law school, graduating magna cum laude from his liberal arts course, and cum laude from law studies.
He then joined the private sector, starting as an executive assistant of the Delgado family’s Transitional Diversified Group Inc., and working his way up to president and COO.
In 2003, Tugade set up his own firm, Perry’s Group of Companies, named after a son who died early in life. Perry’s was successfully engaged in trucking, logistics, shipping, fuel distribution, travel and fashion. But when public service beckoned in 2012, the secretary divested his interests in the firm in favor of his adult children. To charges that this constitutes inadequate compliance with both the law and ethical standards, the tough-talking Tugade exclaims: “What is so wrong with that? I have nothing to do with the firm anymore. And my children are old enough to run the company.”
Well, what drew him to leave a prosperous company in favor of the dubious rewards of government service?
“Believe me or not, I wanted to give back,” he says. At first, when approached by officials of the P-Noy administration, he expressed his desire to be named ambassador. Unusually, the assignment he desired was “not to a developed country, I’m not suited for it.” He preferred a poor, developing country like East Timor. “I could make a difference there,” he explains his unusual preference, “I could help both the country of my assignment and the Philippines by encouraging trade and cooperation.” Besides, he says smiling, “once you’re named ambassador, you carry the title for life.”
Instead, he got a call asking if he wanted to head the Clark Development Corp., a state-owned entity which manages the Clark Freeport and Clark Special Economic Zone. “I swore at them,” he tells his audience with glee. But after some convincing, he saw that he could indeed lend his talents to turning around Clark.
Almost his first decision as president and CEO of Clark was to put an end to “land banking,” the practice of buying up property and letting the land lie fallow, waiting for the other developers to drive up the value of land. He met with many such landowners, he recalls, and in his characteristic blunt manner gave them a firm deadline for developing their properties.
From 2013 to 2015, Clark Development Corp. reported a “record-breaking” P1.49 billion in total revenues, which in turn won for CDC the title of “Company of the Year” from the Asia CEO Forum.
Then came this year’s elections, and the victory of his old law school classmate Duterte. Again, Tugade’s dream of being named ambassador was thwarted, although this time he was named to the Cabinet but in a post that seems to promise nothing but brickbats and headaches.
As transportation secretary, Tugade has taken direct, personal responsibility for straightening out the kinks in the country’s transport systems, more specifically Metro Manila’s horrendous traffic woes. Asking for emergency powers from Congress to fast-track the many, interrelated solutions to the complex problem, Tugade has faced fierce opposition from legislators, including, puzzlingly, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.
But beleaguered so early in his term, Tugade seems poised to defeat his detractors. As a citizen and commuter of this benighted metropolis, one only hopes the poor boy who made good will do even better this time.
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