By Cesar A. Buenaventura
Speech delivered on 29 January 1997 during MBC’s 15th anniversary dinner in honor of MBC founder Enrique Zobel
The year was 1981. Many of you may recall that “Martial Law” had just been lifted but Marcos retained sweeping decree-making powers. He had just conducted a presidential election, by nationwide referendum, which extended his term of office, now officially his third. Large sectors of the economy were in the hands of Marcos cronies. Media was likewise under effective government or crony control with the attendant ability to shape public opinion. The financial sector was heading for disaster with government-owned financial institutions granting behest loans beyond prudent practice to a chosen few. Poverty incidence was rising. The Communist movement and the NPA were growing. The Muslim problem was getting worse. The country had become, in the words of the Catholic Church, a “social volcano”.
It was against this backdrop that Enrique Zobel, known to many as “EZ”, gathered together a few business friends and associates to a discussion which would have far-reaching implications on the Philippine business community. He felt that the business community should speak out as a single solid voice, not to lobby for its own corporate or sectoral interest, but to support or oppose policies which affected national life.
But unlike the habit of the day, it simply was not enough to sit back and complain. It was felt that to be relevant, we should be constructive in our criticism.
Thus was born the Makati Business Club as a Forum for Constructive Ideas. In creating this forum, it was decided that we had to address public policy issues that went beyond business. While we focused on issues such as agribusiness, trade and investment, banking and finance, energy and power, and regional development, we also had to touch on such delicate topics as governance, politics, and media control.
An Executive Board was constituted with Enrique Zobel as chairman, Rogelio Pantaleon, Bernardo Villegas, and Joe Romero as members. Then we formed a Board of Advisers, consisting of James Collins (Citibank), Jaime Ongpin (Benguet Consolidated), Antonio Ozaeta (PCIB), Washington Sycip (SGV), and Jaime Zobel de Ayala (Ayala Corp.), with myself as chairman. We then invited the top 1000 corporations to join the Club, and to our surprise, many of them, including multinationals, responded favorably.
We launched the MBC at a press conference on October 29, 1981, at Nielsen Tower. We knew back then that we were on to something when then-Mayor [Nemesio] Yabut spoke against the formation of MBC, saying it is an “elitist group” and that there was already a Makati Chamber of Commerce. Later on, we got a call from General Fabian Ver to furnish the PSG with a directory of MBC’s members which we refused to give.
We had our first General Membership Meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel on November 9, 1981, with then-prime minister and now chairman of RCBC and trustee of the MBC, Cesar Virata. From the outset, we recognized the need to have professional staff. With the kind help of Filipinas Foundation, which provided us with two desks at the Makati Stock Exchange Building, we hired our first employee, Marc Opulencia (now our deputy director), and our first editor, Ricardo Saludo (now assistant managing editor of AsiaWeek magazine). Filipinas Foundation’s Rogelio Pantaleon was seconded to be our managing director. With our staff of two, we set out to be a Forum for Constructive Ideas. We started out with a simple program to hold monthly meetings of the business community and to publish a newsletter. These activities have been a resounding success. We have now held over 175 such meetings, and a review of our guest speakers reads like a veritable who’s who of Philippine government and business. The list also provides a historical perspective of the issues which were important in their day—from economic policy to political issues. From one newsletter, we have now grown into a publisher of magazines and numerous other publications, and will soon be expanding into electronic publishing.
We also let our voices be heard on numerous issues, such as the bailout of crony corporations which later were classified “non-performing assets” and made up the bulk of the companies to be privatized by the Aquino administration. We also spoke out against the monopolies and against the government’s major industrial projects, some of which turned out to be white elephants. We attacked the infamous Amendment Six, which gave the president decree-making powers and encouraged people to get involved in elections in spite of the authoritarian environment.
Among our more memorable events was the MBC-Media Dialogue in September 1983 where the local media were castigated for their silence on the coverage of the Aquino assassination and funeral. Jaime Ongpin was particularly scathing in saying that he learned more about what was happening in the Philippines while he was abroad from the foreign media then.
During the snap elections in 1986, the first campaign speeches by both candidate Cory Aquino and incumbent president Ferdinand Marcos were delivered before the MBC on January 6th and 21st, respectively. These were landmark events in their time. Later on, Cory Aquino would return to address the MBC as President of the Republic. In 1991, we were to repeat this scenario with all seven presidential candidates addressing the MBC in successive meetings. Later on, Fidel V. Ramos would return in 1992 to address the MBC as President of the Republic.
On the occasion of this, our 15th anniversary, as its past chairman and member of the board since its inception, I would like to pay tribute to the vision of the man who conceived and founded the Makati Business Club, Enrique Zobel.
Mr. Buenaventura was the first chairman of the MBC Board of Advisers and a member of the MBC Board of Trustees from 1981 to 2008