Benigno Aquino III

[OPINION] PNoy: The Filipino son, the Filipino president

Leila de Lima

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[OPINION] PNoy: The Filipino son, the Filipino president

Graphic by Janina Malinis

'PNoy deserved – deserves – more credit than he ever received during his lifetime'

As with most of his life in the public eye and especially in public service, the passing of former President Benigno S. Aquino III has prompted talks of “fate” and of “destiny.”

It has been said that his then-unplanned ascent to the presidency was a direct result of the timing of the death of his mother, former president Corazon C. Aquino, less than a year before the 2010 presidential election. And even before that, it was well-known that much was expected of the only son of two icons of Philippine democracy: his mother, the former president, and his father, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., whose very death forged the blade that would break us out of the chains of Martial Law. 

It is in that context of apparent privilege that PNoy’s burden was a unique one: the burden of high standards and expectations; the burden of being from a lineage and bloodline that spelled, “Destined for Greatness.” Knowing him – his pragmatic wisdom, his deep understanding of how difficult it would be to lead and serve a country of 100 million Filipinos of varying cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, his dignified awareness of his own capabilities and limitations, and, most of all, the highest respect he had for his parents and their legacy – he would never have dreamt of surpassing their legacy; merely of not tarnishing it. 

To him, his choice was simple: to prove equal, or to give it his very best shot every single day. If he proved equal to those high expectations, he would get virtually no credit, for it was the minimum of what was expected of him. If he failed, he would bear the burden of tarnishing his family name. 

There was no “winning” for him.  To him, there was only “doing.”

And it is because of how hard he worked at “doing,” which I had witnessed for myself, that I had, and will continue to have, utter respect for him. PNoy deserved – deserves – more credit than he ever received during his lifetime.

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The respectful son and leader

PNoy should get credit for giving Filipinos the respect and public service that they deserve. He never made promises he did not intend to keep; he never made jokes about matters of life and death for Filipinos; he never used his emotions and personal struggles to emotionally manipulate the people; he never compromised Filipino interests, even if it only made his work a million times harder. Instead of talking tough, he made tough choices: even going so far as taking on the Red Giant in the North, and defeating it in a forum where right is right, and might does not make right. 

He talked to us plainly and respectfully, believing in his heart that the Filipinos would see through insincere deceptions, false pretenses, fake bravado, toxic speech and, ultimately, would be able to tell the good from the bad and the ugly.

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The one who demanded honesty, not blind loyalty

He also deserved more credit for his pragmatic wisdom and self-awareness. He knew that the job was tough, and he was humble enough to realize that he could not do any of it all on his own. So he made a point of surrounding himself with people of competence, merit, and fitness…and, yes, mutual trust and confidence.

That is what baffled me, 11 years ago, when I was summoned to Times Street soon after he was declared the winner of the 2010 presidential elections. I have told this story a hundred times before. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. I thought, at best, I was there for a screening interview. So imagine my surprise when he started to give me marching orders to help him launch his anti-corruption drive pursuant to his vision of governance through Tuwid na Daan. 

Me? As his DOJ Secretary? A post so powerful and sensitive, it was my understanding that it was a most-sought-after-post usually reserved for the President’s most trusted allies with a law pedigree. 

It baffled me so much, I had to tell him honestly: “Sir, to tell you candidly, I did not vote for you.” 

And yet, to him, it didn’t matter. All that mattered, apparently, is what he had heard about my work as CHR chairperson, going after human rights violations – the job that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had appointed me to do: clean up the human rights image of her administration, then known to have fostered a culture of violence and impunity.  

It would not have escaped his notice that many of the investigations the CHR had conducted under my watch had involved many of Mrs. Arroyo’s own allies – including one of her favorite generals, General Jovito “The Butcher” Palparan, for the cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances that ran rampant wherever he was stationed; the alleged involvement of then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the so-called “Davao Death Squad,” whom she had once honored with an appointment as a key adviser on public order; and members of the Ampatuan clan for the Maguindanao Massacre case, a clan which rose to prominence and propelled to “undreamed-of heights of power” during her presidency.

Clearly, he was on full notice that, when it comes to holding government officials accountable, I was one to do my job without fear or favor. And yet, he went on to appoint me. 

That is when I saw the true measure of the man known as PNoy. He did not demand nor expect blind loyalty. Instead, as a member of his Cabinet, I saw that all he demanded was good and hard work, and honest opinions. 

And perhaps that is what defined our relationship up until his passing. He stood by me because he knew me, and he needed no convincing of the falsity of the charges against me.

Instead, he gave me empathy. He knew that my plight was a direct result of my convictions.

Because PNoy understood – perhaps better than any Filipino son and a public servant in his own right – that public service is a tough and thankless taskmaster. If you do your job well, there are no accolades to expect because you are merely doing your job, and knowing you have protected Filipino interests from enemies within and without is reward enough. On the other hand, if you do your job well enough, you might find yourself “rewarded” by being the subject of political reprisals for daring to hold the powerful, the rich, and the influential to the same standards of justice as ordinary Filipinos.

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The president who chose Filipinos first

And this is where PNoy deserves the most credit. Because, despite all the talk of “fate” and “destiny,” going into public service is a choice.

It is a painful choice for people who understood what the job would demand from you, and what little it would give back. He took the opportunity with the gravity it deserved. If he took any personal comfort in anything he accomplished, it was nothing more than knowing he did his best to honor his parents.

That is the caliber of the human being that PNoy was. First and foremost, he was a son. Not just the son of two Filipinos who fought for our democracy and human rights; he was a true son of the Republic. A son that wanted nothing except to make his ancestors and parents proud, and to protect the future generations of his people. He wasn’t perfect, but you knew where his loyalty lay: with his people.

He was the President that we deserved. And after the dust settles behind Duterte, when our nation comes to terms with the consequences of the erosion of our independence, the crumbling of our system of checks and balances, the trampling of our human rights, and the unimaginable debt burden that Duterte had left, we will need a President of the same ilk and caliber as PNoy.

So I am asked if I regret ever clashing with the titans of Philippine politics. 

Did I ever regret accepting the appointment as CHR chairperson, the post that had me crossing paths with the future President Rodrigo Duterte? 

Did I ever regret accepting the appointment as DOJ secretary that had me investigating cases of electoral fraud and corruption of the worst kind? 

Did I ever regret those steps that got me here, under unjust detention in the custodial center of Camp Crame? 

My answer is simple. 

How could I regret taking a path that gave me the chance to help a President like PNoy make this nation of ours better than we found it? –

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for several years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.

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