Lilia de Lima's 21-year work of fighting corruption

MANILA, Philippines – The retired director general of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) was gardening on a weekend when she received a phone call, informing her that she is a recipient of the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

"I said: 'I beg your pardon?' She replied, 'This is Carn Abella.' I could not believe it. I took the news with disbelief... The next question that came to my mind was why me?" Lilia de Lima, 2017 Ramon Magsaysay awardee and the first director general of PEZA, told Rappler in an interview on Friday, September 1. Carmencita "Carn" Abella is the president of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF).

"I thought immediately [it was] because we created jobs and eradicated corruption in my own little jurisdiction," De Lima said.

De Lima retired from PEZA after 21 years of service. Under her leadership, economic zone direct employment grew to 1.26 million in 2015, from 121,823 in 1995.

International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank group, even cited PEZA as a model for economic zones worldwide. "PEZA is a shining example of successful regulatory reform improving overall investment climate in the country," IFC had said.

Of death threats and corruption

Her two golden rules in PEZA were to be incorruptible and to be efficient. Simple as it seems, De Lima said it was not an easy feat. For over two decades, the former PEZA chief was receiving death threats for being upright and firing "corrupt" employees.

"It was a bloated bureaucracy. Corruption was rampant. So I said I have to trim down the fat. There were so many. There were over 1,000 staff handling 331 companies. So it means 3 people were attending to one company. So I removed more than half," she said. 

On one occasion, De Lima shared that her driver found a bullet in her car with a note saying, "Isang bala ka lang (Only one bullet will kill you)." This happened while newspapers at that time attacked her often, she said. "I said this was the most terrible, challenging thing in my public career."

What kept her going was her ultimate goal to help businesses have a good climate where they can grow.

"The joy at the end of the day was when businesses heave a sigh of relief. That is when I realize this company would have closed if I didn't help them timely," De Lima said.

Throughout the process of cleaning PEZA, De Lima said she continued facing challenges left and right.

"As we [went] on, there were still violators. I had to chop them off. In the early stage, it was easy because they were just numbers to me. But after working several years in PEZA, I get to know them like friends, like family. Then I get to know their families. When I had to fire them, I thought of their families. I kept tossing at night," she said.

"But in the ultimate analysis, I realized if I make them an exception and then I will lose my credibility."

De Lima said she became a target of corruption "many times" in her career. "You know in corruption, once you cross that straight line you are lost forever. This is what I tell my people."


The only time she accepted a gift from her colleagues was when she retired from government service. It was a Louis Vuitton bag given by the electronics industry body as a token of appreciation.

"The electronics sector told me – they had this nice Louis Vuitton bag – they said: 'Ma'am, during those 21 years we could not give you anything. I hope you won't reject this bag. I think you deserve this.' So I replied: 'This time, I know you don't need anything from me so I'll accept this. Thank you very much,'" De Lima recalled.

Her leadership in building a credible and efficient PEZA proved that "honest, competent, and dedicated" public servants can redound to economic benefits to millions of Filipinos, the RMAF said.

From only 16 economic zones in 1995, this figure grew to 343 in 2016, under De Lima's leadership.

Thrust to trust

"The very key success of PEZA was our decision not to develop economic zones by ourselves," De Lima said. "The thrust of Export Processing Zone Authority (EPZA) before was to develop economic zones, but when I saw how the private sector developed economic zones, and how the government developed economic zones, I saw the big difference."

De Lima said that given the expertise and capital spending budget the private sector can provide, she knew she could entrust the development of economic zones to them.

"Private sector knows where to put it, they use their own money, they preserve it, and maintain it well because it is their money. When it comes to the government, 6 months after the inauguration, toilets are not working, airconditioner is bogged down, the maintenance is very poor because these are not theirs," she explained.

Under her watch, PEZA-registered investments surged to over P3.100 trillion from 1995 to 2015. During the same period, the agency recorded $606.97 billion worth of PEZA exports.

"The government's role is to support them (private sector) and give them [a] good climate where they can grow. I told them as long as I am in PEZA, we will not develop economic zones. I said let the private sector do it because they do it better at even less cost," De Lima told Rappler.

Asked what she wants to see cultivated in the Philippines, De Lima replied: "The government should be service-oriented. It's so easy. Oh, I hate it when these little tyrants in their little desk will go to the toilet just to put makeup and make people wait. That is sadism."

With all the threats and attacks, De Lima said she learned to take her job more seriously and toughen up.

"Frankly, I thought after one year in PEZA I would be so bored. But I've lasted 21 years. Every day was a challenge. New permutations – you can never say this case is similar to that. You have to be continously on top of your job," De Lima said. "Wherever you are, excel in it and try to make a difference." –