In Abby Binay's Makati, there are free cakes but no sugarcoating

MANILA, Philippines – Six minutes past 9 one night in October, a bunch of teenagers decided to pick a fight with Abby Binay. Their weapon of choice? A group chat on Facebook, where they added the Makati mayor’s personal account and accused her of sexually gratifying a neophyte chief executive from a nearby city. They also claimed a much older, former mayor from the capital was her sugar daddy. The language was graphic and vulgar, but Abby was not shocked. 

This was just another day in the office.

Abby took a screenshot of the conversation and posted it online, covering the profile pictures of those in the chat group but making sure her attacker’s first name was free for all to see. 

“You add me. Insult me. Then block me. Tsk tsk tsk. This is a scary insight on how kids use social media and how it is possible that your kids have a different personality from what he/she lets you see,” said Abby. 

Unknown to many, the Makati mayor does not give a free pass to nasty commenters. Michael Camiña, Makati City Hall’s spokesperson and city legal officer, told Rappler that they would often trace where the student is studying then order the school administration to talk to the parents about proper social media etiquette. 

"In some cases, some of them get suspended, while others are merely reprimanded. I think it's a learning experience for them,” said Camiña. 

Abby, who is on her second term as Makati mayor, is no stranger to attacks online. She has earned the ire of students who message her directly about her refusal to suspend classes when other Metro Manila mayors are already announcing suspensions due to bad weather.  

Abby is not the type to simply follow the pack.

In 2017, during her first term, the city council laid down Makati’s own protocols on class suspensions in the absence of a typhoon warning signal. The process is long and tedious, which means Abby would often be one of the last mayors to announce the suspension – or, in some cases, she was the only mayor not to suspend classes at all. 

When sarcastic tweets about Makati students being “waterproof” trended, Abby responded by giving new raincoats and rain boots to every pre-school, elementary, and special education students in Makati. 

“People always have an issue with her, especially now during the rainy season, because she doesn’t always suspend classes. They would taunt her and say she’s the last mayor standing,” said Camiña. “But her decision turns out to be the right one in the end.”

Abby is not afraid to be unpopular. She wasn’t afraid to order the clearing of sidewalk obstructions in Makati long before President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Metro Manila mayors to do so.

She didn’t buckle when renegade councilors decided to ignore her veto message on the city’s proposed 2019 budget. The Department of Budget and Management later tagged this budget proposal as “inoperative,” raising red flags on the same parts Abby found problematic in the first place.

And when her own younger brother Junjun decided to challenge her reelection bid last May, Abby came out fighting. And she won, with a convincing victory – a lead of more than 80,000 votes over her sibling who had accused her of abandoning the legacy of their father, Jejomar Jojo Binay.

Abby, the scion of the Binays of Makati, is proving she is not out to just please anybody. 

No sugarcoating

Want to get Abby’s attention? Shoot her a message via any of the Makati City government’s social media accounts. Her team relays every complaint to the Viber group the mayor formed with her department heads. There’s always a barrage of notifications in the chat group even in the wee hours.

“I don’t know how she even falls asleep,” Camiña said with a laugh. “Early in the morning, she’s already sending messages or asking about things.”

Making Makati a smart city has been one of Abby’s main thrusts since she was first elected 4 years ago. She pushed to create the Makatizen app – named after the moniker she gave the city residents – to make it easier to report emergencies, like accidents and crimes, directly to city hall. Even tourists can access the app to get news about Makati.

Internet access is not a problem because the mayor pushed for the Makati Public Wi-Fi Project, a public-private partnership program that has so far connected 16 out of the 25 target barangays to the fiber optic network installed around the city.

Abby, the 42-year-old mayor who spent 9 years in Congress before leading the country’s richest city, wants the people in city hall to be as tech-savvy as she is. She often gives her marching orders through Viber or she gives a call to the department heads, who don’t have to go up the 21st floor of the city hall all the time just to get instructions from the mayor.

Camiña came on board Abby’s team in 2016, when the latter defeated then-acting mayor Romulo “Kid” Peña in the polls. Camiña and Abby’s friendship dates back to their high school days, and he describes her as a hands-on leader who scrutinizes every detail.

“If you can see her desk in the morning, it's really full of so many documents. At the end of the day, she would have gone through all of these, read it, and assigned it properly to the official in charge,” said Camiña. “The next day, she would follow it up with you. And she knows what it is she's talking about.” 

A Rappler source who has worked with the Binay clan in the past years also says Abby is more blunt compared to her 3 relatives who were mayors before her: Abby's father Jejomar, her mother Elenita, and her sibling Junjun. People in city hall had to get used to this “no sugarcoating” mayor.

“She’s very direct. There’s no sugarcoating. If she needs something, you give it to her. If she has a question, you answer it,” said the source. “They’re not used to the style where the mayor is direct to the point. But that’s how she is!”

Not just her father’s daughter 

Abby’s attention to detail is a trait she shares with her father. Both are lawyers: Abby, a product of the Ateneo Law School; Jejomar, an Iskolar ng Bayan from the University of the Philippines College of Law. 

When Jejomar first became mayor in 1986, the patriarch’s focus was to restore investor confidence in the city after the end of the 21-year rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, while at the same time strengthening the social services in Makati. 

Decades later, Abby – as the 4th Binay to sit in city hall – has been building on the signature programs of her father since 2016. If Jojo Binay was all about social services and pressing flesh with the masses, Abby Binay was for “transparency, good governance, and strikta pero may puso (strict but one who has a heart).”

“The thing is, you have to evolve also because the needs of the people also evolve,” the Makati mayor told ANC's Headstart last April.

“I’ve focused more on kids. I focused more on the schools. I focused more on disaster and our health services. And, of course, my mass transport system. You have to address those things, how to provide more jobs. Because that’s what people ask anyway! They don’t ask, ‘Do I want you to become my godmother?’” she said matter-of-factly.  

The free raincoats and rain boots that Abby is giving out to students are an expansion of Project FREE or Free Relevant Excellent Education that her father launched in the city in 1995. From just free uniforms and school supplies, Abby expanded the program to also include free socks, anti-dengue kits, hygiene kits, and even sneakers – the viral Air Binay kicks. She has also promised to give free nutritious meals to public school students.

Senior citizens still get free cakes on their birthdays too – a practice started by her father when he was mayor. Abby continued the BLU card program, under which senior citizens get cash gifts, grocery items, maintenance medicine, movies, and birthday cakes from city hall. But she has also launched the Palliative and Hospice Care Program at the Ospital ng Makati (OsMak) for the elderly with serious and chronic illnesses. 

Plans are underway to put up 24/7 urgent care services in every barangay health center to provide immediate relief to patients who no longer need to go to the hospital emergency room. The city government will also build a public columbarium that would offer free cremation and inurnment services to the Makatizens.  

Abby is now pushing to improve the city’s disaster risk reduction and management (DRMM) efforts. Under her watch, the country’s first DRMM Academy was created at the University of Makati, where residents get formal training on basic first aid and life support skills. 

Public school students and families living within the 5-meter buffer zone of the West Valley Fault were given emergency go-bags and hard hats. The city has also installed 136 automatic external defibrillators as well as 307 CCTV cameras in public schools and in city hall, all of which are being monitored by the Makati Command Control and Communications Center.

But perhaps Abby’s most ambitious flagship project so far is the Makati Subway, a $3.5-billion joint venture deal between Infradev and the Makati City government.

The subway, which will have at least 10 stations linking different destinations across Makati, is eyed to not only improve mobility in the city but to also generate some 10,000 jobs for Makatizens, including seniors citizens who can still work.  

Abby, her own woman

But Abby’s quest to stay at city hall wasn’t easy. The 2019 campaign left her emotionally bruised, drained, aching for some respite from the political battle she had to wage against her own family. She only had her father on her side. 

Former vice president Jejomar Binay was the only one in the family who said Abby “deserved to be reelected.” He was the only Binay in Abby’s sorties during the campaign. And he was the only person to sit beside Abby at the San Ildefonso Parish, when all other mayoral bets left their seats as Abby and Junjun’s rivalry spilled over the altar steps. With a defeated look in his face, the family patriarch had to see his warring children scream and point fingers at each other inside the halls of the cathedral.

Senator Nancy Binay, Jejomar’s eldest daughter, blamed the family feud for the surprising loss of her father in the congressional race in Makati’s first district. But the patriarch stuck it out with Abby even after his failed political comeback. When Abby was hailed among PeopleAsia Magazine’s “Women of Style and Substance” in September, Jejomar was there to applaud his daughter. 

“It was very crucial for her to still have her father by her side all throughout,” said Camiña.

"It served as her foundation too, because at least she knew that her father, who had established all of these things in Makati, believed in her, and that he was in fact there, fully supporting her ideas, her plans for the future of the city,” he added.

Jejomar would visit city hall every now and then. Rappler's source said the family patriarch has so far been impressed with Abby, who have been formulating changes Jejomar himself were not able to think of.

"He's very happy with what Abby is doing because he can see she is not neglecting the city. He can see the services are improving," said the source.

"He no longer offers advice on how to run the city these days because he feels he doesn't have much to offer to her anymore! He trusts that Abby can do it on her own. After just one year, he knew that Abby was on the right track."

That Abby is not the “KBL” politician like her father was an issue that she has long been criticized for. Unlike the family patriarch, who attended almost every kasal (wedding), binyag (baptism), and libing (funeral) when he was city mayor, Abby lessened her appearances at these gatherings.

It just wasn’t her.

“You have to also have a level of sincerity. We cannot copy our dad because our dad is different. My dad grew up different. So you can't just copy what he is because he wouldn’t have been mayor if circumstances were different,” Abby said in the ANC interview.

Jejomar Binay was the young boy who dreamt of becoming Philippine president as he fed his uncle’s pigs in Makati. Abby Binay grew up as the daughter of the longtime king of Makati who would later become the second most powerful man in the country.

So what did Abby do? She organized the Ugnayan at Lingkod Bayan Caravan, which goes around the barangays on Saturdays.

“Mayora sits in the front with all the other councilors and all the department heads, and whatever questions you want, you can ask right then and there,” said Alcine Yabut, one of the new faces in Abby’s city council.

“And she would give you an answer. Her memory is amazing! She’ll remember the letters you send her. She's really the one who reads them," the councilor shared to Rappler.

In one of these Q-and-A sessions, senior citizens asked Abby if the P100,000 cash gift they were supposed to receive when they turn 100 years old could be given in tranches instead. The city’s finances could handle it, so the mayor gave the go-signal for the city council to approve the ordinance in July. 

“So she’s not the traditional politician who wants to be seen so people would know this is her work. She would rather ensure that the system is working,” said Camiña.

“So the message is, 'Even if I'm not there, you know my presence is there because the system is working. I put the right people there. I put the right budget, the right funding, so everything is running well.'” 

Abby’s reputation as being mataray precedes her, but Yabut said she was surprised to discover the mayor was easy to talk to. Yabut said she and Abby would talk about the latest Netflix series they are both into during their free time. 

Alden Almario, another neophyte councilor, believes Abby finds the perfect balance between being a no-nonsense boss and a caring mentor. 

“Honestly, we idolize her,” said Almario. “She doesn’t side with anyone. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And she doesn’t give false hopes to people. If something cannot be done, she would tell you on the spot, ‘We can’t do what you’re asking.’” 

Abby’s unspoken burden

Though people in her inner circle will not admit it in public, it is crucial for Abby to lead Makati the way she is doing it now because she has to clean up the mess left behind not just by ally-turned-foe Peña, but also by the 3 Binays who were mayors before her: Jejomar Sr, Elenita, and Jejomar Jr or Junjun Binay have all been accused of corruption in the city. 

Both the Binay patriarch and his only son are facing cases due to the alleged irregularities in the construction of the Makati City Hall Parking Building and the Makati Science High School building during their terms. The Supreme Court recently affirmed the Ombudsman's indictment of Elenita for graft and malversation over the alleged anomalous purchase of hospital beds for OsMak in 2001. 

Even the free birthday cakes for Makati seniors were supposedly overpriced during the terms of Jejomar, Junjun, and even Peña

From the get-go, Abby told city hall officials she wanted transactions to be within the bounds of the law. No shortcuts, no favors. Another Binay cannot afford to be hauled off to court.

“She wants to follow the rule of law. Being a lawyer as well, she knows the limits and the boundaries of everything that she does or that the city does,” said Camiña. 

He said it was timely that in 2016, when Abby first became mayor, the new implementing rules and regulations (IRR) for the Government Procurement Reform Act was crafted. The mayor made sure city hall officials involved in the procurement process attended the seminar required under the IRR.

“Admittedly, we were very conscious of the procurement side of things because some of the issues that were raised before were rooted here. We didn’t want the same thing to happen again,” said Camiña. “So because of that, we became more conscious of the processes. Okay, this is step 1, 2, 3, 4. We cannot skip from 1 to 4 to 5 to 8.” 

Construction work on the 10-storey OsMak 2 – which first began under Junjun's term – remains on hold, as the Commission on Audit (COA) is still conducting its fraud audit on the allegedly anomalous bidding and payment processes done for the hospital.

“It was alleged during the Senate hearing that there were anomalies. If we would complete the reforms, what would happen to the fraud audit? How can they proceed?” said Camiña. 

And so when the Makati City government received in June another “unqualified or unmodified opinion” from COA for the second straight year, it was a source of pride for Abby. 

“I am deeply heartened by this good news from the Commission on Audit,” said Abby. “This second unmodified opinion shows that we have remained on course in espousing the principles of good governance, including transparency and accountability.”

Does Abby ever feel the burden of being a Binay? Camiña does not give a straight answer.

“We don't point at anyone. We just do what we have to do. If there's something wrong, we find the best solution, then implement it. We don’t look for the person responsible and say, ‘It’s his fault.’ I don’t think she really ever did that throughout our 4 years already in office,” said Camiña. 

Abby has long been saying that she is more than just another Binay. She banks on her performance, she said, not her surname. But when Abby speaks, there’s always some homage to her father, and a hint of her desire to make Makati better.

“My most cherished dream,” Abby said in her speech during Makati's 349th Foundation Day in May, "is for every Makatizen to be proud of our city, to be able to say with pride and confidence that, yes, ‘Ganito kami sa Makati (This is how we are in Makati).”

“Ganito kami sa Makati” was, of course, the campaign slogan that propelled her father from being long-time mayor to vice president of the Philippines. 

How are they in Makati? At the helm is a stickler for rules, a straight shooter, a no-nonsense executive. She's still a Binay – but a new breed at that. – Rappler.com

Header photo from Mayor Abby Binay's Facebook page

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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