An ordinary way to be extraordinary

Last Tuesday, the 18th of August, we remembered what the pain was like 3 years ago when the plane crash that took my husband’s life away happened. Three years ago yesterday, the 21st of August, his lifeless body was found after 3 days of underwater search in the seas off Masbate. Today, allow me to make reference to Jesse as I address you on your Graduation Day.

The last 3 years seems like 3 days, despite the fact that it has been the busiest years of my life. My life has taken a surreal turn. I’ve done things I never thought I’d do, been to places I’ve never thought I would see. The number of people I have met will not fit in 3 lifetimes had I not been thrust into this role. At rare moments of quiet and solitude, I often ask my husband, Jesse: Can you hear me? Can you see me? Is this where you want me to be? Am I doing the right thing? Are you proud of me? On bad days, like when stress takes the better of me, the question shifts to Why did you have to leave me so soon?

I was just 22 when I got married to Jesse and losing someone who has almost raised me and who has treated me like I was his whole world creates a void that will never go away. But I have come to accept that already. Jesse was not just a husband. He was my trusted handyman. He was my protector and provider. Most of all, he was my role model in living simply, keeping my feet on the ground, and losing a part of myself so that those who have less can live more.

While my personal memories with Jesse are important to me, what gives me strength now is knowing that he is appreciated for what he stood for and for the kind of public servant that he was. What keeps me going is knowing that he is now an inspirational guide for good local governance, an advocacy he was very passionate about when he was still with us.

We are now at a crossroad. The administration that tried to do things differently, the same one that my husband strove to protect and serve, is at an end. That the gains of good governance and ethical leadership will continue beyond this administration is the paramount agenda.

The global community has finally recognized the Philippines as an economy on the cusp of becoming an Asian tiger. Late, yes, compared to our Southeast Asian neighbors, but finally almost there. The one thing that can trip us all up, a few seconds into a free throw, is a reversal of good governance policies.

I hope that Jesse’s brand of leadership will help ingrain in our national consciousness the awareness that corruption has massive costs and that good governance is the only way to national progress. We have to reject the idea that corruption is forgivable as long as we see results. Do people realize how ridiculous it is to receive and praise someone who gives you a gift that was stolen from you in the first place? We have to understand that transparency, accountability, and good governance deepens democracy. It will free us from the tyranny of poverty... and it is the only way to growth.

When Jess was first elected Mayor right after the EDSA revolution, he had no money, no experience, and no connections. He inherited a City Hall which was just like any other: many of those who worked in it were uninspired. There was no money in the coffers and the bureaucracy was inefficient. Social services and economic programs that were responsive to actual needs were non-existent.

The first thing he did was to inject City Hall with a drive for productivity and a servant-leader attitude. If you worked in City Hall, you had to put in the hours and the effort. He created systems that would ensure City Hall employees saw their positions as an opportunity to serve instead of as a way to enjoy perks and privileges or power.

He also opened the doors to people participation when it was not yet a buzzword. He created the Naga City Citizen’s Charter to empower ordinary citizens with information about what they must expect from City Hall. For instance, the Charter listed down exactly how much time is needed to approve a business license and who is responsible if it takes too long. City Hall provided a copy of the charter to every household in Naga City and encouraged feedback to make government employees more accountable. He created the Naga City People’s Council and encouraged practically anyone who can organize themselves into proper groups, to participate in governing the city. The Council was no motherhood organization that existed only in paper. There were times it overthrew a decision made by Jess himself.

Through all these, I stayed in the shadows and chose to be out of the limelight. In all his 21 years as a public official, I kept home for him and our children while pursuing my own advocacies. It was the life I chose. It was my decision and he supported it.

Many say to be an empowered woman of our society, you have to stand out and be heard. That all must listen to your voice at every opportunity. Many say gender equality is all about being as strong as a man, as important, and as celebrated. In my life at least, it meant knowing when to let go of the limelight and when to step up. It meant knowing when to keep quiet and when to speak. Being empowered meant understanding that not all kinds of strength are visible and auditory. When you know your true value as a woman, you can sit back with secure knowledge that the man of your dreams values your judgment because you value yours, and that together, you are working on the same goals. You are not in a contest to be heard; you are working on the same team.

Ours was truly a team effort. Jesse gave me the chance to do what I loved doing and shared in my experiences in alternative lawyering. He put value in my advocacy of empowering the marginalized with the belief that when people are empowered and given a chance to sit at the table, they gain ownership of programs, become real stakeholders and these programs have better chances of success. He adopted in City Hall many of the concepts I was advocating and thus created spaces for participatory governance.

I wrongly presumed then that all LGUs were ran the way my husband ran Naga. How wrong I was. I discovered when I was elected to Congress that, at least in my province, Naga City was more of an exception rather than the rule. Most, if not all, of the towns surrounding Naga had dismal indicators, validating this observation. There were not enough schools, not enough roads. Many areas still had no potable water and no electricity. During disasters, communities always had to rebuild because there was no protection from the vagaries of nature. Most LGUs were content that they can merely give out relief goods, instead of carefully crafting disaster mitigation and development plans. They had no proper land use plans. Anyone can build anywhere.

When I finally accepted that my path was to fill in his shoes by running for office and preventing a well-entrenched political family to continue its rule, I simply used the lessons from Naga for the whole district. It is not easy especially if an LGU chooses to look the other way. Changing mindsets is the most difficult. But after two years in office, I can say this with all certainty, that if people are given a choice, they will always go for performance over patronage, physical presence over tarpaulins which have our faces and names all over. They become a more collaborative constituency when they know their government is transparent and they are given spaces to engage in all stages of governance. That when we start building from the ground up and involve people in governance, when we promote fairness in all our dealings, people trust us more. We get more results for every peso of taxpayers money. Jesse was able to convert Naga into a Maogmang Lugar, or our people’s happy place. Good governance, transparency, accountability and people empowerment can also turn the whole country into a happy place.

Jess began in politics with nothing except a sincere desire to make his city better than when he first found it. He committed himself to good governance at whatever cost, even when it meant going against political dynasties and a corrupt system. Even if it meant charting his own course away from the already paved road that reeks of patronage politics. He was able to prove that one can still succeed in politics by just doing the right thing. That politics is inherently dirty is a fact but it doesn’t have to remain that way if we don’t allow it so.

Naga’s experience showed that we need to trust our people and they will repay that trust. Jess served as Mayor for 6 terms, winning by landslide elections after elections even when some of his policies went against public opinion. We need to believe that the same can be true in national governance. We need to commit to doing the right thing at whatever cost, believing that in the end, what is right will always win over what is wrong. That the good will always prevail in the end.

A large part of Jesse’s success was also a result of his ordinariness. He made sure that he remained grounded. He shunned perks and privileges because he was afraid he would get used to them. He did not spend his salary giving in to solicitations from people because he was afraid that if he starts spending what should have been for his family’s needs, he would be more vulnerable to temptations. Even when he was already DILG Secretary, he still often commuted by bus going home and never excused himself from house chores just because he was busier than the rest of us. We lived and, to this day, still live, in the same apartment unit where we started. He made sure that in the way we lived, he would be able to resist temptation by keeping our lifestyle simple.

After he died, many were sorry that he was no longer with us to continue his fight. But we are all still here. His fight can live in all of us. We must trust the Filipino people. We must believe that having a government that is truly transparent, inclusive, participatory, responsive and accountable is possible. We must not leave governance to government officials – let us truly engage government and demand no less than an honest, efficient and ethical government. I didn’t say perfect because it never can be. But if we support the institutions and mechanisms that encourage honesty and participation, then we would have lived Jesse’s dream. We would make one man’s dream our dream too. And we can all make it come true.

The time you have spent in here should be put to good use. Let’s not be contented with just planning. Let us start doing. Collaborate. Discuss. Find ways to work together. There is no time to lose. The country needs every bright mind. Imagine how much our nation will change if all of your bright ideas can be honed and turned into real solutions for our people’s suffering. You are in this place at this time for a purpose. Find it and make it happen.

Congratulations to our dear graduates. The country needs you and expects nothing less from you. Thank you all for having me today. – Rappler.com