Miriam Defensor Santiago

The Smartest of Them All

Nicole Curato, Patricia Evangelista

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The Smartest of Them All
Any idiot can run for political office. Any idiot can ramble through a useless privilege speech. Choose the leader who is number one. Choose the woman who will stand, who will fight, and who will not die at the hands of intellectual pygmies.

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The Imagined President: The Idealized

Rappler”s series of presidential profiles begins with the idealized candidate. Here, in the first of a three-part series, we present the narrative we believe best embodies a candidate’s ideal self. Our portrayal of the imagined candidate is based on how the candidates – and their supporters – project themselves. No candidate is perfect, but by parsing out the idealized narrative, we hope to prompt reflection on which virtues of leadership, at least in principle, appeals to us the most.


In 1988, the woman the media called “the fighting judge of Quezon City” took charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago – Master of Laws, Doctor of Juridical Science, class valedictorian at all levels, the first female editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, and a two-time holder of a campus beauty title – accepted the post to reform the sprawling bureaucracy of a largely corrupt government department. She promised results, and delivered. She raised deportations of illegal aliens by more than 400%, padlocked visa offices, suspended erring staff, raised salaries, and implemented a management style she liked to describe as headbashing – all while receiving as many as 3 death threats a day.

“Sir,” she once told a foreign suspect interrupting her at a televised press conference, “I remind you that as the Commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, I represent the majesty of the Republic of the Philippines. You have the obligation to show respect and courtesy to me. Now shut up, or I’ll knock your teeth off!”

On the day she topped surveys during one of her presidential campaigns, she told reporters her “ambition is more modest.”

“I desire only to be known as the Demi Moore of Philippine politics.”

The bravest

Certainly it wasn’t her only ambition, but it made for good television. Santiago walks with the swaggering confidence of an intellectual juggernaut, ripping into pomposity and idiocy with the comforting knowledge she is the smartest in the room. She is the woman who broke the glass ceiling and has proven willing to do the dirty job of cleaning up the country. The biography she provides the public on her official website calls her “one of the most intellectually brilliant leaders that our country has ever seen.”

“I challenged him to a debate in UP or Ateneo campus,” she said of a public official. “His reply was that he cannot debate with women. I asked around, and I learned that he cannot debate with men, either. In short, he simply cannot debate.”

Her wit swings with ease between pop culture references to legal jargon. “I feel like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom,” she said entering Congress for her first confirmation hearing. “There’s no intelligent life down here,” she said another day in an elevator at the House of Representatives. “Beam me up, Scotty.”

She has no sacred cows. Erring immigration employees are discombobulated moral retardates. The opposition has the intelligence of political cockroaches. A congressman criticizing her is a fungus-face, or suffers from mental AIDS, or needs a frontal lobotomy, or is henpecked by his wife. Then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile is the Prince of Darkness. Critics of the RH law are sinful and stupid.

Accused of failing in both courtesy and cooperation, she gives answers that are often flippant –“I am one of those people who was born to raise hell.”

Her statements, even the most exaggerated, are almost always self-aware – enough so that they were published into national bestsellers. She admits to the use of hyperbole, “when you exaggerate what you say to be more effective, to catch the attention of the listeners, even if it’s not literally true.”

“My management style? Spiritual fortitude, intellectual scholarship, and, if all else fails, physical violence might prove salutary.”

The Queen

She has been called the incorruptible lady, the platinum lady, the tiger lady, the dragon lady, the iron lady of Asia, the queen of popularity polls, the campus hero. She holds “an amazing record of excellence in all 3 branches of government.” She is the first Asian to be elected as judge at the International Criminal Court. She is a laureate of the Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

“Even cancer cells are afraid of her,” says her official biography.

“I tell you today,” she said in a 2015 speech, “that I have passed through the hardest of physical trepidations and hardships. Cancer is not an easy disease to have, and still thereafter I decided after consultation with my panel of doctors from St Luke’s Hospital it is up to me whether I should campaign for the presidency again.”

Santiago ran in the 1992 presidential elections against retired general Fidel Ramos. Ramos was declared the winner. Santiago continues to claim he cheated her of the presidency. 

“It’s time for Ramos to meet his maker. He now has to justify how he ever became president and he’s now continuing to act as a poser, posing as president of the Philippines,” she said.

Santiago ran for president again in 1998, and finished in 7th place.

Asked if she is capable of stumping across the country for 2016, she said she has been in enough campaigns to know the rigors of the election trail. “Third time’s the charm,” she told reporters.

Besides, she said, her husband and foster children are pleased to have her out of the house. 

War on corruption

Any idiot can run for political office, said Santiago. Any idiot can ramble through a useless privilege speech and run up electric bills. Look at the other candidates. There is one running for the presidency who has no clue where she was born. There is one who was slapped with multiple corruption scandals who still claims he is being persecuted. There is another praising himself without proving there is anything to praise, and one more who can kill you with a single look.

All of them have violated the very face of the Constitution, spending millions, even billions, long before the official start of the campaign season.

The next president must be of unquestionable courage and integrity to face the scourge of corruption. All problems begin and end with corruption. Traffic, because of corruption. Unemployment, because of corruption. Tax collection, health, agrarian reform, all threatened by corruption.

“To end corruption, you need someone brave,” she said. “You need someone willing to make enemies. There will be people who will be so angry they will be willing to killing you. There are some who will criticize you. There will be black propaganda. If you are willing to go through this entire gauntlet of self-sacrifice, then you can stop it. If not, you should stop talking.” 

Dr Miriam Defensor-Santiago is still talking. It may be that “at least one person on the Internet has voiced the urgent wish” that she should die before the end of the next presidential term, but this is the intellectual behemoth who eats death threats for breakfast and refuses “to die at the hands of intellectual pygmies.”

Top of the polls

Ask yourself, she said in a speech at the University of the Philippines. Do you want a clean government? Do you want a courageous government? Do you want a government of, by, for academic excellence?

The presidency is not a TV show, she says. Choose the leader who is number one, with academic excellence, who even without graduating with honors has at least attended the best universities “for the exposure.” Choose the leader with professional excellence, praised by colleagues impressed by her hard work and conscience.

The most recent polls put Santiago at a far fifth for the presidency. Her campaign, however, points to Santiago’s consistent first among campus surveys.

“When a candidate leads a survey,” said Santiago, “it means that she is doing something right in her campaign. But when a candidate is almost unrivaled in a survey, that means voters see something wrong in the other choices.”

The senator, we are told, “will prioritize invitations for her to deliver speeches in campuses all over the country.” On stage, she is the wisecracking grandmother who talks sex and politics with an eye to the quotable line. She is feisty, fearless, and understands the value of both performance and context. She has the fire of a wild-haired Bernie Sanders ripping across the American democratic primaries, with the viral popularity of Taylor Swift – and, she may just argue, also the legs.

In the buildup towards the elections, Santiago has collected a following among the youth, one she cultivates by praising their intellectual superiority and associating theirs with her own.

She delivered her first speech after the proclamation rally at the Mariano Marcos State University in Batac, Ilocos Norte.

She explained her choice of venue by saying she was most comfortable with an audience of students. And not just any audience “of ordinary students,” she said she preferred “a campus with a high IQ.” The hooting, cheering audience agreed.

The world as imagined by Miriam Defensor-Santiago is where she continues to reign as the smartest, the bravest, the funniest and the best. She speaks of a shared destiny and a gauntlet of sacrifice. Smart– Rappler.com

(Editor’s note: All quotes have been translated from their original form to English).


 Patricia Evangelista is Rappler’s multimedia manager. She is an international fellow of the Dart Center Ochberg Fellowship for Trauma Reporting and was awarded the Kate Webb Prize for exceptional journalism in dangerous conditions. In 2016, she received The Outstanding Young Men award for the field of journalism. Tweet her @patevangelista.

 Nicole Curato is a sociologist from the University of the Philippines. She is currently a Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow at the Center for Deliberative Democracy & Global Governance based in Canberra. In 2013, she received The Outstanding Young Men award for the field of sociology. Tweet her @NicoleCurato.




Rappler”s presidential profile series maps the narratives presented by both candidates and critics in the campaign for 2016


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