The Gospel according to Jesse M. Robredo

Oliver M. Mendoza

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Robredo once said, 'For this country to succeed, we need to make heroes out of the ordinary people. We need to make heroes of ourselves.'

After his stint with Sen Roco and Secretary Roxas, the author worked as a consultant for various political personalities and development agencies, the latest of which was as Business Process Specialist for the USAID-funded INVEST Project. He is currently unemployed and is focusing on completing his thesis for his Masters in Public Management (MPM) degree at the Ateneo School of Government, which incidentally is about the imposition of the idle land tax – one of Secretary Robredo’s pet programs at DILG.


I first met Mayor Jesse Robredo in the mid-1990s back when I was still working for Senator Roco. Mayor Robredo made it a point to drop by our Senate office whenever he had official business in Manila, and he sort of enjoyed “special status” in our office simply because he was the mayor of the town where Senator Roco hailed from.

Jess stood out from all the other city mayors because he looked very young — he was only 29 when he was first elected mayor and I suspect that he decided to grow a moustache precisely to look older than his age. In March 1999 I started working for then-Congressman Mar Roxas. Jess was out of office then, having decided to sit it out rather than run for congressman or governor of Camarines Sur in 1998.

One day I received a call from him saying that he wanted to meet Mar and I hastily arranged for the two to get together.  

Jess volunteered to organize Bicol for Mar’s senatorial run and he arranged several sorties for us. One particular sortie stands out. Our itinerary that day consisted of a symposium in Naga, lunch in Baao and then to Legazpi City where Mar was to judge the Miss Ibalon beauty pageant. Aside from coordinating with local Bicol officials, Jess also borrowed vehicles and recruited local Kabalikat Civicom volunteers to escort our convoy.

I recall that our lead car, driven by one of Jess’s childhood friends, was rather dated (I think it was an old model Celeste or maybe a Gemini, I can no longer recall exactly). Our convoy was cruising on the National Highway near Baao when all of a sudden the lead car veered to the shoulder of the road and halted abruptly.

We initially thought the lead car hit a dog but then we saw why: natanggal ang left front tire ng Gemini at tumalsik ang gulong nito sa gitna ng daan (the Gemini’s left front tire got disengaged and flipped to the middle of the road). Our van stopped to see if he needed help, but the lead driver just waved us away as if to say, “Just go ahead.”

As we proceeded on our trip, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief, thankful that nothing untoward happened. Mar remarked to Jess, “Nakakabilib naman yang kababata mo Jess. Tumalsik ang gulong ng sasakyan niya, pero kalmado lang siya, cool and composed. He even had the presence of mind not to over-steer the wheel to prevent the car from spinning out of control.” (I am amazed by your childhood friend. He remained calm, cool and composed even if the tire of his car flipped.) Or words to that effect.

To which Jess replied, “Wag kayo masyadong bumilib dun! Kaya naman kalmado yun kasi pang-apat na beses na nangyari yun sa kanya. Talagang tumatalsik ang gulong ng kotse niyan once in a while!” (Don’t be too amazed by him. He’s calm because it’s the fourth time it’s happened to him. The tire of his car really flips every so often.)

Mar and I grinned like idiots for the entire duration of the trip, and even today I could not help but smile thinking of the events that transpired that day. That is Jess for you: he pokes fun at danger and is not easily daunted even by the toughest adversity.   

In the last few weeks, the public has been deluged with accolades and anecdotes about Robredo. I would like to share with you some “pearls of wisdom” that I learned from the man whose death shook an entire nation.    

1. ‘Ang lider ay dapat matino at mahusay’ (A leader must be both good and competent)

Robredo often preached it is not enough for a leader to be “good” (i.e. does not steal or abuse authority, is compassionate, etc) but must also be “competent” (e.g., intelligent, highly-educated, innovative/creative, etc). To him, honesty, compassion, good intentions, fear of God, are all well and good, but if the leader is educationally unprepared, lacks the ability to understand multi-faceted issues, and unable to devise novel solutions to complex problems, then that person is rendering a disservice to the people and would not be an effective leader. 

People today often think that Robredo was referring to himself when he said that a leader must be “matino at mahusay” or good and competent. This is because, to many, Jesse epitomizes the two qualities. But to my mind, I believe he was referring not to himself but to his fellow Bicolano kababanwa — Senator Raul Roco — as the epitome of the matino at mahusay na lider and perhaps some of his colleagues in the Cabinet.

The very first time I heard Jess utter his now famous “matino at mahusay” line was in 2004 during a rally in Naga City. Jess was then campaigning for Roco for president, and he used the matino at mahusay tagline to convince people to vote for Roco. A man of utter humility and simplicity like Jess would not deign to even imply that he is the matino at mahusay na lider referred to in his speeches. 

Through the years, Jess used this “matino at mahusay” slogan to promote his good governance agenda. When he finally became DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government) secretary in 2010, he instituted the “Seal of Good Housekeeping” program to motivate local government units (LGUs) and inspire local chief executives to be “matino at mahusay.

The award is given to LGUs which have instituted all the accountability, transparency and governance reform measures designed by DILG. Robredo’s “Seal of Good Housekeeping Challenge” has since been widely accepted by the LGUs.

2. ‘Walang malaki o maliit’ (No big or small, everybody equal)

One of Jesse’s favorite catchphrases is “walang malaki o maliit sa akin, lahat pare-pareho.” (Everyone is equal to me, no one is big or small.) I believe that this deceptively innocuous statement is the very essence of Robredo’s management style and political philosophy.

a. As a management philosophy. Jess truly believed that each task, no matter how big or small, is worthy of his best efforts. And he expected the same from his subordinates. Of course, this management concept is not really original — as a management engineering graduate, Robredo probably picked it up from the Japanese “kaizen” management philosophy.

Kaizen, which means “the way of continuous improvement,” was adopted by the Japanese to propel their war-ravaged economy into becoming the world’s second largest, next only to the United States. The Japanese were able to achieve this because their “quest for never-ending improvement” enabled them to equal, and eventually surpass, the Americans.

In time, Japan succeeded in manufacturing cheaper but superior-quality cars, electronic products and consumer goods. The Japanese were able to achieve this because the lowliest factory worker in Japan rendered the same “best effort” as the top-ranked executives in their corporations, in line with the kaizen management philosophy.

Another aspect of kaizen is the belief that each part of the process and/or each individual member of the team is as important as everyone else. It is said that top level executives of Japan’s Toyota car company are tasked to clean the corporate bathrooms once a year to keep them grounded and to remind them of the importance of each person’s role in the corporation. 

This is probably the reason why Jess did not think it was beneath him to shovel dirt and clear debris after a typhoon, to sweep the street in front of his home, or to come to a PTA meeting in slippers. As such, Robredo never got tired of exhorting his own people in Naga City and the DILG to take pride in their work and give it all they’ve got, regardless of how menial the task or how low their rank. 

b. As a political philosophy. People are often pleasantly surprised with the “VIP treatment” they get from Jess. A few days back, I watched on TV an emotional urban poor leader who paid tribute during Robredo’s state funeral in Malacañang, saying that “Secretary Jess did not see us as trash or regard us as an eyesore; he treated us with all sincerity and he was always accessible to us.”

Likewise, one can read numerous anecdotes online or in print media about how Robredo would return their calls or entertain their requests, no matter how small. All the stories seem to say one thing: Jesse Robredo was a person who is “madaling lapitan at madaling hanapin (approachable and accessible).”

I have heard Jess often say, “Walang malaki o maliit sa akin, lahat pare-pareho,” which to him, meant that he not only treated all his job assignments worthy of his best efforts but also that he saw people, no matter their station in life, equally. Thus, he treated a text message or a phone call of an ordinary citizen — although perhaps not with the same urgency — with the same importance as a phone call from the President of the country. 

In many ways, Robredo’s “walang maliit o malaki” philosophy goes against the grain of our country’s split-level democracy (a term derived from “split-level Christianity,” originally coined by the Jesuit Fr Jaime Bulatao).

We see its manifestations everywhere: in airports there are VIP rooms reserved for dignitaries; during festivals there are separate entrances and seats reserved for “important” guests. And we Filipinos really do not see anything wrong with this. In fact, we tend to believe that it is the natural order of things for our “political betters” to be exempted from lining up like the rest of us, and that they are entitled to certain special privileges because of their status in society.

Last Friday I paid my last respects to Jess in Malacañang and I saw this “split-level” mentality at work: hundreds of ordinary Filipinos lining up at Gate 7 while “VIPs” entered the Palace through a separate gate reserved exclusively for them. I also saw that, after paying their last respects, the teeming masa was given refreshments (in paper packages) while the high-ranking Filipinos and their staff were invited to partake of a buffet dinner in one of Malacañang’s rooms.     

In many ways, Robredo’s notion that the masa (the maliit) and elite (the malaki) are entitled to the same kind of treatment or service from government officials is subversive and even dangerous. For what would happen if the people lining up in Malacañang suddenly felt entitled to pass through the “special gate” reserved for VIPs? Or what if they felt entitled to partake of the sumptuous buffet reserved for Cabinet members and their staff? Which brings me to the third and final gospel of Jesse Robredo.

3. ‘Good government cannot be achieved without people empowerment’

I saw Robredo “in action” when he was still mayor of Naga City. I can attest to truth of the stories about him walking around in his city wearing just shorts and slippers. And he is the only mayor I know who rode a mountain bike to his meetings. I had on several occasions walked with him around Naga City and it was quite obvious that the Nagueños adored him — sidewalk vendors would greet him, women would approach and hug him, and neighborhood tambays would swap jokes with him.

Of course, this sort of adulation is not really unique. I know of many other local politicians who merit the same kind of crowd reaction each time they visit the public market, shop at the mall or simply walk the streets of their territory. But what makes Jesse unique is that (he said this to me): in all his years as mayor he never handed out any cash to a “supplicator.”

He told me that when he was elected mayor one of the first contracts he had with the people is that they could not expect to get “KBL or kasal, binyag, libing (wedding, baptism, burial)” money from him. But in exchange, he promised not to steal and vowed to render them true public service. As such, during his initial years as mayor local media practitioners derisively called him a “boksingero (boxer).

But in time the people of Naga grew to accept and eventually admire their mayor’s idiosyncrasies.

In his 19 years as mayor of Naga, Robredo did not engage in “tokenism” but tackled problems head on. He solved Naga City’s traffic problem, relocated all squatters, especially those living in dangerous zones, and published annually the city budget in the spirit of transparency. Much has already been written about his programs to promote transparency, accountability, good governance and people empowerment. But let me share just one more anecdote to illustrate how empowered the people of Naga City have become as a result of his efforts.   

Jess often preached that “it is not enough that a leader is good; more importantly, it is the people and the system that must force the leader to be good.” In 1998 Jess reached his mandatory 3-term limit as mayor. As expected, people anticipated he would field his wife Atty Leni Gerona Robredo, a successful career woman in her own right who also possesses the “matino at mahusay” qualities needed to become a good local chief executive.

But the citizenry of Naga City felt that having his wife succeed him would be contrary to all that he stood for. The empowered Nagueños were not afraid to articulate their stand, and in the end Jess heeded the people’s voice. But this did not mean that the Nagueños no longer loved him. In fact, Jesse’s handpicked candidates swept the polls that year, winning all positions from mayor to vice-mayor down to the 10 council seats.  

In a speech before the graduating students of Ateneo de Manila University, Jesse Robredo said: “Our political history has shown that we have put the burden of running this country to our ‘best’ people for too long. And yet the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider. For this country to succeed, we need to make heroes out of the ordinary people. We need to make heroes of ourselves.”

It is said that God moves in mysterious ways and perhaps we will never fathom why he suddenly took Jess from us just when the country most needed him. All I can say is that Jesse Robredo lived a life that was truly well-spent, and Filipinos will forever remember him with great esteem and fondness as a good and decent man who did his share for his city and his country. 

Dios Mabalos Jess!

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