One year later

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 27, 2007

Auto demolition & country brand

Another year older and even wiser, my friend Brett M. Decker blew into town last week for his annual visit to the Philippines. In the past year, Decker completed a master’s degree in military strategy at the United States Naval War College, and became an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. His full-time position is senior vice president at the Export-Import Bank of the United States, where he is in charge of communications. Ex-Im Bank does approximately $13 billion in trade-finance transactions a year, mostly in developing economies such as the Philippines.

Decker first became intimately acquainted with this country as editorial page writer for The Asian Wall Street Journal (Requires subscription.). During his time at the Journal in Hong Kong, he frequented the Philippines sometimes as often as twice a month, most often to visit with friends, and frequently to interview senior government officials and legislators. He has assembled an extensive collection of Filipiniana, including one of the best libraries anywhere.

Decker has traveled all over the world purchasing old manuscripts, monographs, books and diaries chronicling the U.S. colonial period in the Philippines from 1898-1946. Acquired mostly at estate sales and antiquarian shops, his gems include an original 19th century biography of Admiral George Dewey autographed by the famed sea captain who won the Battle of Manila Bay, a hand-written account of the Philippine insurgency written by a U.S. Army officer stationed in the archipelago, as well as a rare copy of the Manila-printed edition of TIME magazine heralding the surrender of Japan and the end of the Pacific War. “Philippine history is so rich that I come across fascinating new tidbits all the time in long-forgotten journals,” he explains. “So much was lost during the war that in many cases there may only be one or two copies of certain publications left in existence, so I work to find and preserve what I can so that more of this history doesn’t disappear.”

We spent quite a lot of time catching up, and Decker invariably shared some of his observations on the Philippines one year after his last visit. A native of Detroit -a.k.a. the Motor City -and an avid motoring aficionado, one of his most passionate monologues had to do with the controversial decision to destroy luxury automobiles smuggled into the country. The effort is supposed to deter smuggling. That’s not Decker’s take.

“It is objectively a bad thing to destroy these beautiful, rare works of art,” he says referring to the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has approved for demolition. “If this is a law-and-order matter, then go after the perpetrators – but these cars haven’t done anything wrong to deserve such violence. Would the government destroy Michelangelo’s Pieta or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper if they were illegally brought into the Philippines? Ferraris and Porsches are works of art too.”

This is the same argument made by thenewspaper.com, the premier Internet site for political issues important to motoring enthusiasts. When contacted by this column, the U.S.-based editor was flabbergasted by the idea that destroying extremely valuable (and appreciating) assets can be construed as a positive policy. According to thenewspaper.com, “Ferraris are not just cars; they are art. And as art, they spark the imaginations and aspirations of millions who work hard to achieve a better life. By crushing a Ferrari, the Philippine government is crushing the dreams of countless young Filipinos. Destroying one of these rare vehicles is a crime much worse than the crime of smuggling it into the country. It reminds one of the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. That’s how most of the world outside of Manila sees it.”

According to Decker, a costly consequence of Malacanang’s auto-demolition policy is the negative publicity it garners. “Most people in the world will only take notice of one or maybe two Philippine news stories in a year. This nonsense of crushing exotic sports cars will be one of them – and it makes the government look irrational,” he says. “Even worse, it highlights an unwillingness or inability to get at the roots of the crime, which are the well-connected smugglers and their influential customers.

“If the authorities were photographed frog-marching smugglers to jail, then there would be no need for the media circus highlighting the destruction of these exotic automobiles. If pursued, the former story about crime-fighting would send a positive message about what the government is constructively doing. Unfortunately, the latter story sends a negative, destructive message, which crafts a bad image for the country. It is stupid public relations.”

Let’s see what Decker has to say in another 12 months.

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