According to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, Manila will be “dead” in 25 years. Luckily, this time, he does not mean it literally. Metro Manila’s rapid population growth and chronic infrastructure underinvestment have rendered it one of the most densely populated urban regions with some of the worst traffic in the world. With many Manileños commuting 6 hours per day and air pollution indicators exceeding safe levels, the city’s traffic jams have been estimated to cause productivity losses of 3.5 billion pesos per day. Duterte believes that tackling these problems demands a new approach. The plan is to “break apart” Manila, and transplant parts of the city to a new capital about 100 kilometers north of the old one: New Clark City (NCC). By depopulating Manila and moving its core urban functions to NCC, pressure would be taken off Manila’s overcrowded infrastructure, the argument goes. Eventually, NCC would replace Manila as the country’s capital and become its new economic engine. In 2017, the president put his money where his mouth is by announcing the move of many key government buildings from Manila to NCC.

Manila, the Philippines. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

The land on which NCC is being built has serious geographic advantages over Manila. Its lowest point lies safely at 54 meters above sea level, while Manila suffers regularly from lethal floodings. NCC is also less vulnerable to earthquakes than Manila, the latter being on top of the Marikina Valley Fault System. As the image above shows, the city is envisioned to blend in nicely with the lush green hills of Tarlac. NCC’s main selling point from the government’s point of view, however, is that the lands on which the city will be built are still empty. Upgrading Manila’s infrastructure means dealing with evictions, land owners, and the outcomes of previous unplanned sprawl. NCC, on the other hand, is a clean slate.

Except that NCC is not a clean slate. An indigenous tribe called the Aeta Hungey has inhabited the area for generations. The Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), the government-mandated development corporation that owns NCC’s land and coordinates its development, was criticized for giving Aeta Hungey families a mere 7-day eviction notice after they refused the initial buyout offer. And the treatment of the Aeta Hungey is not the only NCC-related scandal. As the location of the Southeast Asian games in 2019, NCC made headlines because of the suspiciously expensive 50-million-peso Olympic fire cauldron, while the controversy surrounding the multi-billion-peso deal for the sports facilities with Malaysian conglomerate MTD Capital Berhad continues to this day.

Leaving aside these scandals, the core ideas behind NCC— that it can decongest Manila, and become the nation’s new growth engine— have gone largely unquestioned in the Philippine media. But are these core ideas realistic? Will NCC benefit the Filipino people? Before answering these questions, we will take a short detour to look at the historical context.

From 1521 to 1898 the Philippines was a Spanish colony, before coming under American control until 1946. When the country gained independence, things looked promising: after Japan, it was the richest country in Asia, and ready for industrialization. In spite of corruption, crime and stark inequality, the economy grew rapidly, even exceeding other rising Asian economies like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. But while the growth of its Asian peers accelerated during the 60s, the Philippines stagnated, leading into a period of increased civil unrest and student demonstrations.

Looking at their more successful neighbors, many of which were states with varying levels of authoritarianism, Filipinos began to doubt the effectiveness of their American-style democracy— a legacy from its period as American colony. This doubt provided then-president Ferdinand Marcos with an opportunity. Promising order, economic growth, and protection against a made-up communist conspiracy, Marcos changed the constitutional term limit to allow indefinite rule and declared martial law. In the first few years, Marcos seemed successful, and the economy grew moderately. But by 1975 it became clear that the authoritarian reforms failed to replicate the South Korean and Taiwanese success stories. The Marcos regime turned violent, and thousands were killed and tortured. Rampant corruption further destroyed all prospects of development. In 1986, the Filipino people kicked out Marcos and his kleptocratic family.

Unfortunately, subsequent presidents did not manage to bring about economic development either. Marcos’ successors were stuck paying his sky-high debts, while the IMF forced the country to adopt structural adjustment programs detrimental to development. Infrastructure crumbled, while urbanization showed no sign of slowing down. Worse still, the power vacuum left by Marcos allowed a few rich and powerful families to effectively hijack the state and exploit it for their own gain. Corruption, once again, ran high.

Duterte became president in 2016 and, like Marcos, promised to restore order, weed out corruption, and (finally) catch up economically with its neighbors. Although Duterte’s war on drugs has killed over ten thousand of the nation’s poorest, his approval rate remains high. Many Filipinos remain convinced that he will be able to finally make the Philippines a ‘tiger’— a term economists use to describe Asian countries undergoing rapid economic development, like South Korea and Taiwan (and more recently, China and Malaysia). One of the ways Duterte is trying to accomplish this is with his ‘Build, Build, Build’ (BBB) program. This brings us back to New Clark City, which is part of the BBB program.

There seem to be two main arguments for why New Clark City is great for the development of Manila and the country more broadly. The first argument, as already mentioned, is that it will help decongest Manila. The second is that it will create economic growth, with the unspoken assumption that a rising tide will lift all boats. But do these arguments hold up to scrutiny?

The decongestion argument has several problems. According to official news sources, the idea to solve congestion in Manila by building a new city was inspired by the Malaysian city of Putrajaya, which was supposedly created to alleviate Kuala Lumpur’s congestion. The construction of Putrajaya started in 1995, and nowadays it has 100,000 inhabitants. In the meanwhile, Kuala Lumpur’s population grew by 5 million. It seems unlikely that Putrajaya, on its own, has played a significant role in improving congestion in the Malaysian capital. New Clark City, on the other hand, is planned to house 1.2 million people by 2050. This is significantly more than Putrajaya, but still not remotely enough to decongest Manila, the population of which is expected to grow by 1.3 million in the next five years alone.

Moreover, the number of 1.2 million seems unrealistically ambitious. The problem with planned cities like NCC is that they never quite turn out as expected. Putrajaya, for example, was supposed to have 350,000 inhabitants in 2011, and yet today it has less than 30% of that— in spite of the Malaysian government’s nearly unlimited oil funds. The Philippine government, by contrast, has to fund NCC through public-private partnerships with foreign and domestic investors— many of which it still has to find— whose different interests the BCDA will have to somehow reconcile into a coherent urbanization process.

Then there is the economic growth argument, which often includes the claim that NCC will contribute 1.57 trillion pesos to GDP annually. It is unclear how this number was calculated. NCC’s marketing and press releases suggest that the city will become a high-tech manufacturing hub. But the government has tried to develop domestic high-tech industries for years with its export processing zones— largely without success. Why NCC would suddenly produce high value-added industries, given the country’s persisting brain drain and short-sighted neoliberal policies that favor foreign capital over local firms, remains opaque. More likely, the 1.57 trillion (if the number even has any basis in reality) will consist mainly of speculative real-estate profits. In any case, it seems unlikely that NCC’s GDP contribution will benefit the majority of Filipinos who aren’t high-tech workers, construction companies or speculators.

It is unlikely that the Duterte administration does not know this. So what is behind their aggressive endorsement of NCC? Perhaps the most simple explanation would be corruption. In spite of his anti-elite and anti-corruption platform, Duterte has openly confessed to helping his friends “get rich” through his presidency. However, while it is highly probable that NCC is making some people filthy rich, I think that for the Duterte administration, NCC is important for a different reason. Duterte, like Marcos before him, represents the idea that a strong, authoritarian state is necessary to remove the obstacles to development. His legitimacy, therefore, hinges on his success in bringing about economic development— or rather, the image of economic development. New Clark City, with its clean, shiny buildings, will make it look like he’s succeeding. In fact, as a result of NCC’s promotion, many Filipinos already believe this— see, for example, the comments on this PR video. In the words of Duterte’s political ally Imelda Marcos: “perception is real, the truth is not”.

About the author

Luuc van der Zee has just finished his MSc in Human Geography and Urban Studies at the LSE and holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Geography and Urban Planning from the University of Amsterdam. At the moment he is working as a research assistant at KU Leuven, where he hopes to start a PhD in 2021. He is interested in economic geography, financial globalization, cartography, and data visualization.