High hopes and a positive eye for the maritime industry – that’s what the new Philippine Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) administrator has geared himself with as he takes on the job of steering the agency on a sea of inherited concerns.
“We (the Philippines) are a maritime power. We are a very important maritime administration. We are a world-class maritime administration,” Maximo Q. Mejia Jr, the new MARINA administrator, emphasized in an interview with PortCalls. Unfortunately, he said, “we are not acting like one…We are reacting. And that’s the problem.”
The administrator noted the country has the “right ingredients” to realize its potentials and to make MARINA a globally competitive administration. But to get there, it would take no less than cultural reform and public education.
“You have to be realistic. We have to find out how we can get people to listen.” For example, “We have very responsible shipowners. But, unfortunately, we (also) have irresponsible shipowners” who have figured in recent vessel mishaps.
“Why are they operating? Maybe we have enforcers that give the wrong signal to shipowners.”
He said this all falls back to enforcement.
Mejia was just weeks into his job at MARINA when he drew flak from various sectors for not grounding the entire fleet of Cebu-based Medallion Shipping Lines after one of its vessels, the roll-on/roll-off M/V Lady of Mt. Carmel, sank in rough seas off Masbate early on June 14, leaving two passengers dead; 58 others were rescued.
Mejia’s take on the issue is practical, albeit unconventional: “How do you justify suspending the whole fleet on the basis of one?… Shipowners are also entitled to due process… How can we expect people to come in as responsible investors in shipping if they cannot be assured of a fair treatment? So, then you get irresponsible ones. That is one.
“Number two. You have a public that highly depends on maritime transport for people and for goods. You can’t say, lumipad na lang kayo (take the plane) or send your cargo by air’. Many of these routes have no aviation links. That’s what big ships are for. They’re floating links. They’re moving links. And they (critics) might say, ‘Bakit yung eroplano, gina-ground yung fleet? (Why are airline fleets grounded? ’ They’re different things. How do we move cargo? 90% by sea. Is that proportionate? Eroplano at saka barko? (Airplane and ship?) 90% of trade is relying on this mode of transport. There are a lot of implications.”
One thing is sure, Mejia said MARINA “will not allow unsafe ships to tread waters.”
Asked how culture can change, the administrator said the public needs to be educated and media has a big role in getting change done.
“What are our international obligations? What are our obligations under the IMO (International Maritime Organization), the ILO (International Labor Organization)? And, map out a plan, a long-range and sustainable plan to serve those obligations. And that means, it’s not MARINA complying with the regulation. It’s the whole Philippine maritime industry, both public and private. We need to make sure that our enforcement mechanisms are in place.”
Sworn into office on May 27, the administrator said his dream “is to lay down the foundation. I’m not fooling myself into thinking, ‘Wow, I made it to 2016’. If I can plant very important seeds… who knows, hopefully those seeds will grow into a forest in 20 years.”
2016 is the last year of President Aquino’s term.
One of these seeds is in the area of seafaring, the Philippines being a very important source of seafarers.
“Our maritime education training is world-class. It’s topnotch. What we need to do is go to Kamaya Point (site of the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific), Canlubang, Cabuyao, NYK-TDG (the NYK-TDG Maritime Academy) and two dozen other institutions. They will compete head to head with the best,” he pointed out.
Eye on EMSA
But then he said “the world has to wait ‘til October.” His focus now is on what the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) will say about the future of Filipino seafarers in Europe after conducting a series of surveys on Philippine maritime training institutions regarding the quality of training they offer.
Whether substandard or above par, the results will be known in October, so Mejia said other issues should wait until after then.
These include the issue of cabotage. Mejia said, “We need first to upgrade domestic shipping to a certain level where we could seriously engage in a debate on cabotage.”
He noted “discussion is pointless at present because we need to elevate the domestic shipping industry,” especially with the upcoming economic integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015. He said that integration itself is some form of cabotage within ASEAN.
“If we’re really seriously looking at taking away cabotage, first we need to make sure we can compete with the Thais and the Vietnamese and others,” Mejia said.
Transfer of seafreight forwarders
He also said he is not thinking of taking over the Philippine Shipper’s Bureau (PSB) regulatory role over seafreight forwarders.
“To be honest, I’m not thinking (of) that.” He said the issue is not “urgent in the sense” because his eyes are still focused on the country’s maritime schools making the EMSA grade.
If it has to, MARINA is willing to take over the PSB but only if the latter’s mother agency, Department of Trade and Industry, requests it.
“MARINA’s here as the face of government in the maritime industry. I want us to be an enabler and regulator, not an observer,” Mejia said.
“There’s a misconception with the word regulation. We need to be an enabler. Why? We want businesses to turn a profit. Profit is good. It’s one of the best motivations there is. Who are we fooling? (Money) makes the world go round. Money is not the root of all evil.
“I want businesses to make money so that businesses are able to employ people. People earn income, families earn income and hopefully raises the standard of living in the Philippines.
“At the same time, (we want to be a) regulator. Not regulate for the sake of regulation. We need to regulate the profit motive against the interests of the public. Efficient service, safe service.
“That’s my view of regulation. Regulate means finding balance… (not) squeezing people or making business difficult. And that’s what I tell my colleagues in MARINA…”
On the issue of the Philippine Merchant Shipping Bill that has been in Congress for five years, Mejia said what “we need to do in the bill is to chop it down… Let’s break it into different pieces” so our legislators could understand the bill and know what to prioritize.
Chance to make a change
“It’s been a rewarding few weeks so far,” the administrator said, adding he has seen a difference in the maritime industry since 2010, and that’s one of the reasons he left his comfortable life in Sweden to return to the Philippines.
“If I were to accept an invitation to join the government, it would have to be a situation where I know hindi lang bibigyan ka nang (it’s not just, ah, they give you) position, (instead) here’s a chance to make a change. And nakita ko dito (I saw it here),” Mejia said.
One of the major reasons for accepting the MARINA job was the knowledge that he has the full support of Transport and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, with whom he shares the “same wavelength”.
“I came here at a tremendous personal sacrifice,” Mejia admitted. His major apprehension is his family, having three teenagers and a Swedish wife who are all still in Sweden. They will move to the Philippines next year until the remainder of Mejia’s tenure at MARINA.
Before MARINA, Mejia taught at the World Maritime University (WMU) in Malmo, Sweden, from 1998 to 2013.
He began his maritime career as a commissioned officer in the Philippine Navy after graduating with merit from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1988. He later moved to the Philippine Coast Guard, which he left in 1998. He earned his Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degree from Tufts University in Massachusetts, US, in 1990, then obtained his Master of Science in Maritime Safety Administration degree from WMU in 1994 and, in 2005, was awarded the qualification of Licentiate of Engineering from Lund University in Sweden. The same university conferred upon him a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) degree in Law and Ergonomics in Maritime Security in 2008.
“I think more and more the Philippines is very slowly getting ready to become a respectable economy. We have to have that optimism also,” Mejia said.
“I’m really happy where I am, in spite of the chaos. Wow, there’s something to fix! I like problem solving,” he added. –– Text and photo by Roumina M. Pablo