The making of a leader

Maria A. Ressa
Whether by luck or design, President Aquino is moving into uncharted waters - where the Philippines' potential is slowly, finally, turning into reality

Maria RessaThe doors opened, and in the long hallway, President Aquino, walking with two aides beside him and a third behind, made his way to us. I smiled because I thought I would never interview him during his time in power. After all, his mother, Cory Aquino, angry with an article published by the New York Times  showing her naiveté during the campaign against Marcos, never gave that reporter an interview in her 6 years in office.

Leaders are people, and while we expect more from them, they’re human. Numerous sources close to Mr. Aquino told me how angry he was by the article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2010, “Noynoy Flunks his First Test” – about his handling of the Manila bus hostage crisis. Elected on a wave of emotions and with an 85% approval rating, I thought it best to call a spade a spade during a crisis that showed how Mr. Aquino’s decisions favoring friends and his conflict-averse leadership style allowing factions to grow could have deadly effects.

Fast forward two years later, and the leader of the Philippines sits down. The cameras roll, and our interview begins. A president’s leadership style resonates through his entire government and sets the tone for his people. I wanted to see how unrelenting crisis, conflicts and challenges in the crucible of power affected the easygoing, once underperforming son of two democracy icons.

Much has changed. The Philippines is now the third fastest growing economy in the world, and President Aquino had just negotiated a Framework Agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a conflict that involved a search for identity that began 400 years ago.

Mr. Aquino believes in personal diplomacy, and that is probably why his government successfully reframed the dialogue with Muslim rebels. He chose the right man to lead the talks, Marvic Leonen, who had new ideas which protected both sides. There was no game of one-upmanship. Leonen’s relationship with the MILF’s head negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, removed more than 15 years of distrust so they could find common ground. Mr. Aquino’s openness to MILF chief Murad Ebrahim provided the leadership to close the deal – one that both men agree will take much more work to make a reality.

Mr. Aquino is charming and open, but the strength of his personality isn’t enough for all the world’s problems. Even though he wanted to meet one-on-one with China’s leader, Cabinet members dissuaded him and told him of the differences of culture and power hierarchy that would make that a bad idea. 

Difficult China

Dealing with China, he says, is one of his most difficult problems today. “What is the direction we should have with our relations with China?” says President Aquino. “Adopt the kowtowing attitude or stand up for what you think is right? And when you stand up for what is right, how hard should that be or how diplomatic should it be?”

Other issues that keep him awake at night? He enumerates: disaster risk reduction, the unfinished Arab spring, taking care of the 10 million overseas Filipinos and ultimately bringing them home, and global terrorism. 

His outlook about the global economy reflects his personal values. During the first APEC meeting, he said he was alarmed when the International Monetary Fund told world leaders they “should prepare for domestic liquidity.”  

“Are we in the same frame of mind that led to the Depression? Where there will be people who thought they could insulate themselves away from everyone else’s problem?  When in fact, the isolationism exacerbated and accelerated the realization of the Depression.”  

He says he listened quietly to leaders’ comments, which he characterizes as “a lot of motherhood statements.” Prodded by President Obama, Mr. Aquino gives his views: “This is a period of time when we should be learning from lessons of history when you really can’t isolate yourself. And we’re more connected now than we were then, and when we leave no room for the others to try and get themselves out from this rut, then we’re guaranteeing that they fail, and then there’s a domino effect of everybody else failing.”  Mr. Aquino says meetings with world leaders teach him humility, emphasizing how much he is learning.

The idea of taking everyone with him, “inclusive growth,” permeates his thinking: he says his primary focus as the nation’s leader is to “change the status quo so that it affects everybody.” Unlikely words coming from a member of an oligarchic family, but perhaps he is the transitional figure the Philippines needs today.  

Mr. Aquino doesn’t seem to wheel and deal. That was part of the reason fellow lawmakers said he didn’t pass any bill he authored in Congress: he refused to compromise. To this man, the world is black and white. Which is probably why he did what no politician would early this year. He staked his entire presidency on the impeachment trial of then Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.

“That was really one of the focal battles for changing the status quo,” he tells me. “And the status quo benefitted several vested interests who would be worried and would have the fear of the unknown. They were comfortable with the status quo. Then you’re going to change it.”

It was a huge gamble a more experienced political player would have avoided. If he lost, he would’ve been a lame duck, but he took the risk. “I really believe that the vast majority of our populace was fed up with the system that kept everybody, and when I say everybody – including the vested interests – down. For instance when I would explain it to some people who are very comfortable with crony capitalism: how does that benefit you? You can’t compete. You don’t know how to compete.”

His battlecry now – as it was during his campaign – is fighting corruption. Critics and supporters alike agree Mr. Aquino is clean, and taking on Corona as well as his predecessor, former President Gloria Arroyo, is part of his plan.

“At the end of the day, if you see the big fish being welcomed to the New Bilibid Prison then that sets the tone that things have changed,” he says emphatically. “It’s no longer true that if you steal enough you’ll become a partner.” He smiles. “There has to be transformational change – without transformational change … we just took our turn in the musical chairs. That would really be such a ridiculous endeavor.”

He deep dives into statistics and metrics which show “transformational change” – among them the number of classrooms built per year; a 1:1 student to textbook ratio; a housing scheme for policemen to help them avoid corruption and its “temptations.”

He has a near photographic memory and shows me a Rappler story complete with highlights in yellow. He says when it’s printed for him, he can remember the details better.

Dealing with friends

The main criticism against Mr. Aquino now is whether he can hold his friends to the same high standards. When he took office, he handed leadership of the police to a personal friend and “shooting” partner, Undersecretary Rico Puno. When the Manila bus hostage crisis ended in the deaths of 9 people, including the hostage taker, Mr. Aquino kept his friend in place although he returned the police leadership back to the head of the Interior & Local Government soon after.  

Another friend surfaced in February when Las Vegas based Wynn Resorts pushed out its largest shareholder, Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada, over an investigation that showed Okada gave cash and gifts valued at about US$110,000 to Filipino officials for a casino project in Manila Bay. That trail led to Pagcor chair and CEO Cristino Naguiat, Jr., an Aquino classmate. Naguiat admitted he received complimentary rooms in Macau, where he, his wife and nanny stayed for several days. An assistant said his wife was given an expensive bag as well as shopping money, which Naguiat denied. The Palace dismissed the charges as “industry practice.” Naguiat continues to head Pagcor.

Since then, something changed in Mr. Aquino when Puno was caught in controversy again in September. For the first time, Mr. Aquino says he encouraged Puno to resign:  “I said your family might undergo again a lot of the stress because they can’t get at me. They’ll get to me through you – which means a lot of issues again with your mother, who’s not young, with your wife, your children, etc. And perhaps you’ve already done enough.” Mr. Aquino seems to have taken some of the attacks personally, saying family members “did not volunteer for any of this BS.”

Has the loyal friend morphed into a leader now able to make tough personal calls? In this instance, he did. Aquino’s values are apparent in his answers, and he still retains a certain honesty some world leaders have learned to mask with distancing words.

When I asked how he chooses between two equally qualified candidates, he answers track record, an interview, background, then adds “vibes – for want of a better word. Someone comes into a room: You should be able to tell whether you can trust this person or not.  Only in my love life is that deficient.” He laughs.

This leader likes to simplify the world so action points are clear. He is clear about his direction: to change the status quo and empower ordinary Filipinos. Since he spent most of his adult life in the political opposition, he knows what it feels like to be “Don Quixote tilting at the windmill.”  

Advice on humility

Now increasingly comfortable with power, he says he likes to lead by consensus but can also step in and make a decision (although he couldn’t name a specific instance when he did). He retains a certain wonder about the complex world he is learning to control. Through it all, he is guided by crystal-clear values.

When I ask about advice for first-time leaders, he mentions humility for the third time: “It has to start out with humility. You will have to know a lot of things to be able to do anything. And if you start out with knowing everything, and your direction is the only direction, then you’re guaranteed to fail. I guess that’s it. First is humility. Your ability to learn enhances your ability to govern.”

It’s a good attitude for a world turned upside down by technology and geo-political power shifts. With mature economies growing weakly, a sharp slowdown in China and the euro-zone crisis, the Philippines is in a relatively good place – some say by luck, others by design.  

This year, the Philippines moves from borrowing money from the IMF to becoming a creditor nation, adding $1 billion to the IMF’s crisis-fighting fund. The Philippine stock market is among the best performing in the world, breaking its own record 46 times in about 27 months. Analysts say they expect more credit upgrades after the sin tax bill becomes law.

Whether by luck or design, President Aquino is moving into uncharted waters – where the Philippines’ potential is slowly, finally, turning into reality. Can he lead the transformation?  Some say he’s already doing that. –

Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.