Philippine arts

The last session: Serge Osmeña leaves the building

Patricia Evangelista

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The last session: Serge Osmeña leaves the building
Senator Serge Osmeña III, three-time senator, self-proclaimed liberal, martial law detainee, 14th in the senatorial race, speaks to Rappler reporter Patricia Evangelista on what it means to say goodbye

I am Serge Osmeña. I’m 72 years old, and I’m about to be a former senator.

I grew up with politics. My grandfather, Sergio Osmeña Sr. was in public service for 42 years. He was the first speaker the Philippine national assembly at the age of 29 and rose to the ranks, became a senator, and later on secretary, the first secretary of education, vice president, and then president. My father became governor, congressman, mayor of Cebu and eventually a senator.

There were several options for me other than becoming a politician. As a matter of fact my first economic exercise was farming. And that was pretty interesting to me. Also had some trading, construction, small small businesses here and there. So we had options, unfortunately, those options were cut off when I was arrested and thrown into detention when I was 28.

They never told me why I was arrested. There was no arrest order and after two years of having been in detention, my roommate (then) Geny Lopez and I went on a hunger strike. Because we insisted that the charges be filed and given to us.

Remember, we had no access to lawyers. So, after the hunger strike they finally came up with a set of charges and said we were accused of attempting to murder the president. So I said “Why don’t you take me to court? You’ve had me here for two years, you won’t allow me to see a lawyer”. And they said no we won’t take you to court we will re-investigate. You’re going to re-investigate something that you’ve investigated to death? And they said “Yes, we will do that”. So they did, another two years then they came up with a different decision, decided to charge us with rebellion, which is a political crime.

My father had run against Ferdinand Marcos for the presidency in 1969, so they were were political enemies. Unfortunately he was abroad. I suspect that in order to keep him quiet, they had to take someone hostage, and the same thing with my roommate, Geny Lopez.

That was a very smart political move on the part of the dictator because what he was saying is, to the people is, “You guys better behave. Look I’ve got Ninoy Aquino, your political idol, I’ve got the scion of the Lopez group here, in prison. If I can do that to them, I can do that to any of you. So it was a smart move.

My roommate and I decided that I’m not gonna say sorry for something we didn’t do. We were just gonna get out of here and escape. So we planned an escape from maximum security in Fort Bonifacio and by the grace of God we got lucky and we went to Hong Kong, Japan, and L.A. so it was the fastest escape. I think we landed in L.A. in 33 hours after we broke out of our window. And I had to live in exile for about 14 years.

95% of the Filipinos who’ve been interviewed with regards to martial law say martial law never touched their lives. Which is true, there are only a few maybe 70,000, hundred thousand people who were arrested, beaten up, tortured, killed, salvaged. The rest were not touched so they were right. It’s the morality of the whole thing that is in question.

I think the whole world acknowledges that Marcos is one of the worse plunderers in world history. He’s in the Guiness Book of World records, his name is always mentioned. I just read his name again the day before yesterday, when I was one of the international opinion columns. This is something we don’t want our kids to ever forget.

I would not be pleased with another Marcos as president. Well, I am just trying to be honest because he (Ferdinand “Bong-Bong” Marcos) was a very personable fellow and we were together in the Senate. We served together and he was very nice to me. But because of the position he has taken that he would not apologize for the sins of his father, and he would not admit that they were wrong, and then it goes to speak about his value system. If that was okay, then he’ll do it again. That disturbs me.

The philosopher George Santayana said, “those who do not remember the lessons in the past are condemned to repeat them.” And we should not repeat them. It would be awfully dumb if we were to repeat the same mistake.

Does make us awfully dumb? A few of us, yes.


I was at home when they started coming out with the results of the elections and I was coming in number 14. It was about 7 o’clock at night or 8 o’clock at night (that) I said, “Uh oh, they done me in.”

The next day when I woke up I felt good. I said, now I don’t have to work so hard anymore. See, there are plus and minuses. I looked at the plus – what’s the plus – I don’t have to work so hard anymore. Legislative work for me was very difficult.

I didn’t lose and I’d like to tell those who voted for me that we didn’t lose.

I don’t think my campaign failed in any phase whatsoever except in the anti-cheating phase. Alright? I was steady number 6 to number 9 all throughout all surveys. All surveys! And I was pretty comfortable with where I was.

It is easier to win a national campaign than a local campaign. Why? Because we can discuss issues, we can discuss policy, and the local campaign is a totally different value system. See, the Filipino voter votes on two levels, and people don’t realize this, so this is another myth. (At) the local level, they vote culture and debts of gratitude. So whether you’re a naughty man or a good man, all the father has to say is, “You know, we need to support the mayor, because when your mother was sick last year, he was the one who paid for the hospital. We have a debt of gratitude to him.”

At the national level, we don’t have the opportunity to do those types of favors. That’s 54 million voters for goodness’ sake. So, they tend to see the way you are as you project yourself in the media. And they’ll say, “Okay, he’s saying the right thing, I like what he’s saying,” or, “He seems to be a decent guy,” and that’s why they’ll vote for you.

What stands for political parties in this country are nothing but political cliques, and I don’t know why people are surprised when they see a say Congressman jumping now from the Liberal Party to the PDP-Laban. That’s the way it’s always been. Since the start.

The speakership has always been an appointive position in our system because the Congressmen are under the control of the president, because of the president’s control over the pork barrel.

We pretend it’s an elective position, but you can see it right now that it’s not.

I remember there was one newly-elected president who broached to me an idea of making somebody from the opposite party to be Speaker. So I told him, “Mr. President if you want your personal driver to be speaker he will be speaker.” And he thought I was kidding and he said “Are you serious or are you kidding?” “No, I’m serious. That’s an appointive position. The president appoints the speaker. So go ahead and select the one you want to be speaker and watch everybody fall in line.” And that’s what happened.

There’s so many myths about political campaigning about name recognition. That’s not the way voters make their selection. You have to take the voter through a series of phases before he will actually be convinced to vote for you.

The first phase is called the awareness phase. “Do you know Serge?” If you don’t know Serge, if they don’t know Serge, how can they vote for Serge? That’s what you call your introductory phase, awareness phase.

The second phase, after they get to know you, is the endearment phase. Do I like Serge? Baka sabihin nila, “Oo kilala ko nga si Serge pero medyo mayabang.” Ah wala ka na, tapos ka na. “Oh, okay si Serge mukhang mabait, mukhang simpatico naman, mukhang may alam.” That’s the endearment side. Do I like Serge?

The last part is “Why should I vote for Serge?” That’s the acceptance. What does he stand for? What’s his program? What’s his history, on various issues? So when they say “Eh nanalo ka kasi meron kang pangalan, kilala na.” I said no. There have been, including me now, 36 senators who have not been re-elected to the Senate. There goes name recognition argument. So that’s another myth. As a matter of fact in this country, endearment is more important even than acceptance.

I’m also the sort of person that if I have time, if I have energy, I’ll devote some of my time and energy to other candidates. I like to develop young people. So I like to help them, I like to teach them. This is the way you should campaign. This how you formulate your message. This is the way you should handle certain things and certain issues as they crop up. So, I helped Leni Robredo. I helped Grace Poe.

If I did nothing but concentrate on my own candidacy I would have gotten 5% higher but I didn’t because I felt that it’s worth the sacrifice.

I also made maybe a tactical error in devoting so much time to the hearings on the anti-money laundering issue, the one that involved the $81 million, but I felt as chair of the banking committee it was an opportunity to explain to the Filipino people the danger of having an anti-money laundering law so full of loopholes. We have been warning about that for the past 15 years.

That took up half of my campaign time. But I was still winning that’s the whole point. Being a student of political campaigning management, [I think that] if you’re in the winning column, you’re not just going to drop.

Of course I could have increased my margin. But still, you’re not supposed to be cheated. That’s what happened.

I’m not going to file a protest. It’s gonna take too long. What I like to see is for Congress to make the corrections, amendments to the automation law to make it more transparent.

Transparency means credibility of the election process.

Political endorsements will only work if the personality endorsing is related to the issue involved in the campaign. Otherwise, they’re just merely celebrities. It does’t work.

Political campaign managers in other countries are not candidates themselves and never have been candidates. They just know the process. An advertising fellow has never been a candidate, but he knows advertising. So that’s the way that works.

I think that I know maybe more about political campaign management than the average politician.


I would consider myself a liberal.

If the government recognizes annulment, why don’t they just call it divorce instead of pretending, “I was not psychologically qualified to get married to you.” That’s a bit of – in the words of (President-elect Rodrigo) Duterte – is bullshit.

I am not for the death penalty. I was glad when we finally voted against it. I did some homework on it, and it shows that there is no relationship between death penalty and bringing crime down. For example, how many states in the United States still have death penalty? They still have drugs and murder and fraud, etc, so there’s no connection.

We have to make sure that we are aware that mistakes that can be made and one innocent life is not worth the whole sacrifice.

I am for LGBT rights. Why is it wrong? It’s the church who’s saying it’s wrong, but you know, they’re not always correct.

They just have different preferences—why would I blame them for that? Why would I penalize them for that? They have the same right to fall in love as any human being does.

I don’t even consider myself part of a dynasty because we don’t coordinate with each other, we don’t protect each other, we fight with each other most of the time, except for my brother. I don’t fight with my brother.

I am not against the anti-dynasty provision of the Constitution but what I’m saying is that, define it. 

Where I am able to affect the outcome of the elections, that I would consider a dynasty. 

I’m not trying to project a certain image of Serge Osmeña, I never have. I’ve got so many things to do I don’t really the time to bother with that.

I’ll take positions that sometimes are not too popular. But, okay, that’s what I believe in. Like for example, I suppose many groups don’t agree that I support the RH law, and many groups were not agreeing that I’m in favor of legalizing divorce. Many groups will not agree that I’m in favor of abolishing the death penalty. I mean those can be really very controversial issues. I remember, the one who filed the RH law; about 10, 15 years ago, a fellow senator, his cellphone was clogged with the worst most poisonous text messages like, “you are the son of satan,” (or) “you’re a devil from hell.” And I knew what we had to go through to get that bill passed. Eventually it took us ten years but we did get to pass that into law.


I stand for a lot of things. I stand for democracy, I stand for liberty, I stand for freedom, I stand for honesty, and lots of things that we don’t have now.

I do feel very strongly that more Filipinos should get more actively involved in politics.

A statesman is somebody who puts the welfare of the nation ahead of his own or that of his political party. That to me is the definition of a statesman, he puts the State ahead of everything else.

There are lots of statesmen in government. Maybe not as many as we would want, and that’s because of the system that we have allowed to develop in our country. We have no real political parties here, except the Communist Party.

I’ll let historians judge if I’m a statesman. I’d be flattering myself if I thought so, but be that as it may I will say that I always tried to handle myself in the same manner that my grandfather would have handled himself. And I hope that, I think that has guided me in the right direction and I hope that future historians will be able to recognise that.

Anything I’ll miss? I don’t know. I felt that there were still laws that I had to sponsor, pending in my committee, which were the committees on energy and the committees on banks. For example, the anti-money laundering amendment, the nth time I would sponsor it again if I were there. So, yeah, there was some unfinished business that I wanted to take care of.

My only son has always shown interest in politics for the past ten years. He asked if he could help with my office campaign, I said no. Pay attention to your career. And later on, when I’m gone, and you’re 40 years old, and you’re financially independent, and will not be tempted – there’s a big temptation in the government – and you will not allow yourself to be tempted in any shenanigans, then go for it if you can serve your people.

I named him Jose Lorenzo.  Jose Diokno Lorenzo Tañada Osmena. I named him after ka-Pepe and ka-Tani. People thought I named him after Jose Rizal and and St. Lorenzo, but I said no, these are two other saints. Diokno and Tañada.

He’s only in his 20’s. He’s not going to be earning enough to support himself and the lifestyle that he’s gotten used to. So I said, “Focus on one thing at a time. First, focus on your career, on your business career. And when you’re comfortable, and when you feel you have enough assets to sustain you, because politics is net out – for an honest person, in politics you spend more than you earn. So, I said I don’t want you tempted, and I want to be sure that when you join, you’re really there to help the country.

Be involved – that’s what I’m telling him. Be involved, you don’t have to join electoral politics, you don’t have to run for a position, but be active, be involved, because it’s your country, and you’ve got to let your voice be heard.

I did say that that the Aquino administration and President Aquino himself was incompetent. I did say that but I gave examples of problems that could never be resolved. First was Terminal 1, being the worst airport in the world. Six years and they could not even solve that. They worse was the traffic situation in Metro Manila. Exacerbated in the middle of his administration, by the port congestion. Then the MRT not being able to maintain its trains properly and ran them on time, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, every morning, every night, up to this day. Then you have other situations like the Mamasapano and the Yolanda. So it was one disaster, management disaster after another.

When Digong Duterte came in and said, “I can fix all that. I’ll solve criminality, I’ll solve corruption,” people believed him because he had done in Davao.

I can’t predict what will happen in the next six years. I only know that the whole country is hopeful that Mayor Duterte or President-elect Duterte will able to resolve many of the problems that have been so intractable all these years. First is peace and order, particularly the drug problem. Second is general criminality. Third is corruption in the bureaucracy. You know when he gave the order that, “Hoy I want to see any applications approved in three days,” that’s what happens in Davao. First, he knows because he’s done it already. And if he’s able to do it, then everybody should be able to do it.

No, he can’t eliminate crime in 3 to 6 months. That would be an exaggeration but if he just brings it down by 30 to 50 % within the next 3-6 months that will be a fantastic result. Then if he brings it down by 70% in the next 6 years, I think people are going to nominate him to be saint. In an election candidates do tend to exaggerate. And there’s a reason for that. It is to create deeper contrast between what is and what should be. I’m not saying that he’s lying but I’m saying he’s trying to emphasize he is in a position and he has the political will to exercise what has to be done.

I will not be afraid to speak up. I think that we have to be careful that if we bring back the death penalty, we may be executing the innocent. So we don’t want to show that we are barbaric, in order to be able to supress crime. What is important in our country is the certainty of punishment. Halimbawa, dito sa mga racketeering sino bang nabibilanggo dyan na mga mayayaman? Wala po.

But I will say this. You know that it was a very good bargaining tool for Mayor Duterte vis-à-vis the drug lords he’s trying to supress or drive out from our society. So I won’t begrudge him using that threat, but at the same time we’re going to ask those who are for espousing the death penalty again, to prove that it is effective.


I’ve been in the Senate for 18 years, three terms. And so my normal day would be I’d go to sleep at around 2 in the morning and wake up at 8, six hours sleep. Then right away, well, first wash up and then read the newspapers. Have breakfast. Go to the internet. Look for the latest news here and abroad, especially abroad because I use the internet to read the newspapers, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, find out what’s going on. If we have a hearing I’ll be there at 9 o’clock. If we don’t have hearings I’d continue to read and study at home where it is quieter. And then I’d go to the Senate about lunch time. And then in the Senate, there are appointments. People who want to see you. People who want to argue for and against a certain bill. We entertain them. And sessions begin at around 3 to 3:30. And after that I’ll go back to my office and I wind up for the day. I leave my office at about 8 o’clock at night. I’ll be home by 9 depending upon traffic. Have dinner, take a shower. Then I’d go back to reading and studying because I bring home about 3 or 4 bags of files to prepare for bills that will be taken up say in the next week. So that’s a typical day. Very boring.

I remember something the late senator Soc Rodrigo once told me. He said “You know, we are human beings so we feel we have to accomplish everything in our lifetimes.”

We shouldn’t think that way. We should try to contribute what we can during our lifetimes knowing that this work will never be finished and we must be able to train the younger generation to be able to take our places and go on and continue building and making a stronger country, during their lifetimes. And to remember that they too will have to live, will have to die and the next generation will take over.

People tend to listen more if you are a senator. But it also depends on what you’re trying to say.

You have to believe that the generation that is to come will be better than your generation. You know when I first ran for the Senate, I was telling our friends that you know there must be around a hundred thousand Filipinos who would be better qualified to be senator than I, but if I’m chosen then I’ll have do the job. But believe me there are still a hundred thousand Filipinos out there who are make better senators than Serge Osmena.

Are the 24 senators who will be sitting in the next senate better qualified than Serge Osmena? I think they all are. No exceptions.

I think every Filipino should involve themselves in politics. The moment that they stay away, that’s the moment they allow the abuses to continue.

What I’m worried about is that President Digong might not reach out enough beyond his immediate circle of Davao and Mindanao to pick the best and the brightest for the positions that have to be run by professional managers. That’s what I’m afraid of. He might limit himself to kung sinong kilala nya, sino magiging roommate nya, sino magiging kaklase nya, etc so we would have the same Noynoy Aquino syndrome again, and that will not be good for our country. There are many gifted Filipinos and he should really go out and have a real search for the best and the brightest, not because they were his classmates, but because they simply are recognized by sectors as being outstanding managers or outstanding thinkers, or outstanding policy-makers, and we’d like to see that.

The Senate is an institution wherein the members can work or don’t have to work. We don’t have a party system. In other countries, the parties are the ones that watch you, and they have what they call the senate whip, and the house whip. Ito yung nag-aassign sa inyo ng bills, house bills, ikaw ang bahala rito. Sa ating wala eh. Zero. So, you can work if you want to work, or you can goof off if you want to goof off. And that’s not good for our country because if you are elected, you’re supposed to give it your all. And maybe I can say I tried to give it my all.

The Senate is an institution that will continue to do its job, and that I’m confident about.

I know that nation-building can continue even if I’m no longer a member of the senate, and I will continue to try to build this nation. 

I don’t get emotionally attached to a job or to a building or to an office, no. I knew that it would end.

You have to understand what I’ve been through. I’ve been uprooted. I had a nice, comfortable job as gentlemen farmer, then I was put in jail for five years, then I had to undertake an escape, then I had to live in exile for 14 years. So all of these things, these are nothing to me.

The sacrifices are always worth it. Especially if you can walk away and say, I did my best. I couldn’t have accomplished a hundred percent, that was unrealistic, and I hope that whatever we left behind other people will build on, and continue the building until it reaches to the sky. We have to realize that we’ll never be able to finish building that edifice. We can only contribute a few rocks to putting up that building, but others also have to come forward and contribute their share in building that edifice.

We are a society that is quite imperfect and I think we know that. But the thing is we don’t know why. I’m trying to study now the why.

Are my children proud of me? Well, you have to ask them. But I think that I can be assured myself that I’m leaving them a good name. I always tell my children it takes a lifetime to build an honorable name and a good reputation, and it can be torn down in a few seconds. So, you always have to be very watchful. And I may not be able to give you much money, but I want to leave you a good name.

I think you’re asking somebody what he wants his epitaph to be. I want to be remembered as a decent man. A man who made sacrifices for his country a man who tried to do his best every step of the way, a man who never surrendered or buckled down in his principles and a man who loved this country. 

I never have thought of retiring. I will retire when I die–












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