By Tonette Martel
BETWEEN EAST & WEST
The Philippine Star
What is your impression of President Noynoy Aquino?
I think he has lost his way a little bit.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?
Karma, there is such a thing as karma.
Twenty-five years after EDSA 1 spelled the end of the Marcos years, one saga after another has played out on the political stage leaving the electorate weary and badly disillusioned with our leaders and the nation’s prospects. Yet we must turn the page.
Here, we look at the public and private persona of an exceptionally bright leader who bears his father’s name yet must be seen as his own person. Who is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.? Can he bring renewed vigor and promise to our politics? In 17 years of public service, with a nine-year stint as governor of Ilocos Norte, Marcos has done remarkably well for his home province — increasing its agricultural productivity, boosting local tourism and harnessing wind power as an energy source for the province and the nearby towns. Now prominent on the national stage after placing seventh overall in the 2010 senatorial elections and sitting as a senator-judge in an increasingly heated impeachment trial, he bears watching.
I caught up with Senator Marcos in his satellite office on Roxas Boulevard. In this orderly and seemingly calm space, political queries and requests for assistance for various projects from around the country are entertained. Here, a handful of political officers track the state of affairs in all local government units and see to the needs of the indigent who seek medical care or assistance in kind.
In his private office were signs of a life devoted to politics — numerous plaques of appreciation, family photos, a bookshelf that holds volumes on politics, political philosophy, books on Ilocos Norte, and editions of the speeches of President Ferdinand Marcos. Clustered together on an adjacent wall were suggestions of the place he would always call home — finely woven abel Iloko textiles set in wood frames, evocative photographs of Pagupud and northern folks in traditional dress, a vista of a bridge linking Vigan to Laoag.
As he talked about family ties, lessons learned and memories that have invariably shaped his life, he seemed relaxed, candid and at ease. When over a month ago we spoke of political matters, he struck me as an idealist and a straight-talking pragmatist with a solid grip on the issues of the day. Either way, he is a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Though we had covered a lot of ground, our time was up in less than an hour and he was off to the impeachment court.
Excerpts from our interview:
PHILIPPINE STAR: Many believe that you will likely run for president. If elected, how might your leadership be different?
SENATOR BONGBONG MARCOS: First of all, the assumption is made by other people and not by me. Four and a half years is a very long time in Philippine politics. It would be premature and actually foolish to make such decisions so far away from the event. There is so much that can happen and that will happen before then, we should just keep our options open and see what the political terrain will look like after the 2013 elections, that’s an important time for everyone in politics to decide what to do. So before talking about the presidency let’s see what happens in 2013 and where those elections will take us.
In one sentence, tell me your impression of the following personalities: President Noynoy Aquino...
I think he has lost his way a little bit.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Karma, there is such a thing as karma.
President Joseph Estrada.
Sincere. That’s one thing I can say about Erap — he means what he says. When he says he wants to do good, he wants to do good.
President Barack Obama.
He’s brilliant. The phrase that I read was “blinding intelligence,” but he has a hell of a job, I don’t know if I would want to be president in his time.
Conscience of the world — what he achieved through peaceful means, he’s at par with Gandhi.
Vice President Jejomar Binay.
He’s someone I get along with because we are both from local government. He has a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of governance.
My hero, my idol and I hope my friend.
As a son growing up in politics, what was the most difficult thing you had to endure?
The physical threat. I remember on TV when it would say “Breaking News” I would freeze because I was always worried that something bad had happened to my father or my mother. We always knew that there was an element around who would have liked nothing more than to kill them or hurt them or us. For me that was the ultimate nightmare. Unfortunately, it happened with my mother when she was attacked. But that telephone call came when I was in school. So the security risk and the physical threat to them was something that never went away and was always at the back of my mind.
Much has been said about your mother, Imelda Marcos. Tell us something we don’t know about her. What is your fondest memory of her?
Cooking. When the five of us were together she would immediately go to the kitchen and cook for us. That was her way of making us into a normal family. And those were the most relaxed, nicest and most intimate moments we ever had. I remember that’s what she would do — she would immediately go to the kitchen and start cooking something. The standard fare was fabada because the Romualdez side of my family likes the Spanish-type food. One time, there was very little in the fridge and we were in another house and she still managed to make a terrific meal out of all the bits and pieces and all the leftovers. That was her forte — she would just whip something up. When we asked her to do it again and she would say, “I don’t remember what I did.” So we never had it again!
How do you relate to your sisters Imee and Irene?
We are very close, because when we grew up in the palace, we were the only children there. Then eventually we were all sent to England and we would always be together. We are very close in strange ways really. My relationship with Imee and Irene, I cannot think of how siblings could be closer. Although Imee and I used to have these enormous and terrible fights when we were younger. As soon as we were going to school and then living in the Palace, we were a little gang running around, we even made up a language of our own so people wouldn’t understand what we were talking about. Now we don’t see each other as much as we would like to. But every time we see each other after a long period, we immediately go back to where we were the last time we were together. It’s a very strong bond that we have. It is something we take refuge in a lot when things are tough.
What is the most valuable lesson your father taught you about politics or life?
In politics you must have supreme patience and must not try to force things and try to understand events. I suppose that applies to life too — that you must have patience. Don’t hurry, do everything properly, do everything that you need to do and don’t take shortcuts.
What will surprise us most about you that we don’t know?
That I am at heart, a mathematician. In my earlier studies, I was very much in the sciences rather than in the classics. I started in my university studying physics and mathematics but I was counseled by my father to move to something that might be more practical.
What can we learn from the mistakes of the past?
I think the problem is that there’s just too much politics. People act solely motivated by political concerns and expediency. One phrase that I used to hear all the time from the President (Marcos) was nation building. I haven’t heard that phrase once since we came back from the United States. No one is thinking about building the nation. They’re talking about gaining advantage in the next elections, getting more people here, putting more people in position, that kind of thing and we have to transcend that.
While certain sectors of society have become more prosperous and progressive, there remains widespread poverty. What can be done to address the mounting poverty in our country?
That’s a distribution of wealth problem. Because we see from the previous administration that the growth rates and all the economic figures look rather impressive, but if you look at it the only people who are making money are the big corporations and a very small group of people who have gained advantage during that time, so it’s a distribution of wealth problem. And it is actually an unhealthy growth because if it’s top heavy, we know it cannot last. And when the bust happens everyone will suffer including those who are in the better positions now. What can be done? First of all the economy has to be relatively healthy — we need jobs. People know how to spend their money, we just have to allow them the opportunity to earn a good living, to be able to support their families and with hard work and a little bit of luck they will eventually succeed. But we don’t even have that framework right now.
Instead of thinking of what is good for the entire country, sometimes these important decisions are made on the basis of what is good for my political allies, my supporters, those who donated large sums to my campaign. What we really need to do is take care of the economy — what did Clinton say? “It’s the economy, stupid” and it really is. What people want is to have money in their pockets, food in their stomachs, a roof over their heads, a good, safe school for their children to go to, a community where they can support themselves. We have to provide that and the way to do that is to have a strong economy that is focused not only on the corporate clients of the government but more importantly on the middle class because that’s where stability will come from.
How do you balance the need for public accountability with national reconciliation? Is it possible to do so in the light of our contentious politics?
Maybe the political system is flawed in that way, that it encourages that sort of thing. Because our politics is winner-take-all, you’re finished if you lose. At the same time if you win, to the victor belongs the spoils. The problem with this is lack of continuity. You see all other governments — they have five-year, 10-year, 20-, 50-year plans. In China they talk about 100- and 200-year plans. That’s why we don’t have such long-term plans because we don’t know what will happen in three years, from the beginning of each election or each term. Because the political picture will change again for all we know — all those things we are planning for five years, nothing will ever be done because the government will change, the mayor will change, the congressman will change so you can’t plan that far ahead. How much can you achieve on a large-scale basis in three years? You need to be thinking about five, 10, 15, 20 years. Just these big engineering projects that we need for our infrastructure need a long lead-time. For us to be efficient at it, we must go at it steadily and properly. It’s a marathon, not a sprint with all of these big projects that we need. Doon tayo nahihirapan.
Is there a way out of the contentiousness of the politics? Maybe if we strengthen the political parties and their roles. The other thing is to educate our people better — to make a more intelligent electorate. An unintelligent electorate will make bad choices. And maybe if the electorate is better educated, more exposed and understands what politics and government should be, then all of these spectacles that they put on as political theater will not really cut that much ice anymore. If we get to that kind of political maturity, people will say, “Sino ba talaga ang marunong? Sino ang may magandang record? Yun ang pagpipilian natin.” We need more thinking in our voting patterns and less reaction, or less emotionalism.
How do we engage the youth in the process of social transformation?
That’s a tough one. How do you get young people interested in national issues? There are kids who are naturally bent towards civics studies and are interested in government but they are a very small minority. Whenever the kids from schools come to the Congress or Senate, I am always so happy to see them because they are taking an interest in what is going on in government. But if government is not perceived to be more effective, then they’re not a factor. Once I was asking, Sino ba ang mananalo dito for mayor? Sabi ko, bakit ninyo gusto? Kasi nakakatawa siya at mabait sa amin. Sabi ko, pero walang training yan, baka hindi marunong. Sabi nila, hindi na bale kahit sino naman ilagay mo dyan, pare-pareho lang naman iyan — at least ito nakakatwa, mabait. Hindi namamaril yung security! My God! That’s how we think, that’s how we choose!
But that is really the way people think.
We in government have given them every reason to think that way. I remember when I was in Congress they took a survey and the congressmen were at the bottom in terms of credibility — basta talagang we had a bad rep. So I went to Batasan and everybody was bewailing this terrible result, and I said guys, isipin ninyo ng mabuti, how many reasons have we given people to distrust us? Kung talagang ang gagaling natin, nagtratabaho talaga and we make a difference, they will say, ito ang mga ilalagay natin. So it’s a very complicated question. That’s why kids are turned off. That’s their view and I can’t blame them. But I think it will be when the government becomes effective, consultative and more interactive, then that’s when people will be more interested.
What are the most important values you will teach your children?
Duty, dignity and honor. Just the universal values we all hope to inculcate into our children and that we hope we ourselves live by. I think that if you are honorable, dignified and do your duty you can’t go wrong.
What are you proudest of as a father?
All fathers with sons will understand this. Because when I look at them, I just glow and I feel proud that these are my sons and they turned out to be good people, good men and they will eventually be honorable and upstanding gentlemen. I am happy they are well on their way to getting there. Of course, all of them have their singular qualities. But I can’t say that there’s one thing — I’m just proud of the fact that they are so well-rounded and so open.
What does being a Filipino mean to you?
Being the best of what Pinoys are: kind, resourceful, energetic, industrious — all of those things we know reside in each Filipino and living up to our very proud history of courage, duty and honor, our creativity and our grace. Pinoys are the best. For me, it is to try to be that prototypical best possible Pinoy. In my work I encourage those great qualities. When I think of Pinoys, I think of a group of people laughing, smiling and singing after a long day of work.
If you could choose another vocation or profession, what would it be?
Oh, easy! I would have been a rock star! Play music and do sciences and math.
What three words would best describe your wife Liza?
Liza… affectionate, tough, smart.
Having been in local government for several years and now chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, what in your view is the best way to deal with the culture of violence and conflict in Mindanao?
We have tried all kinds of methods to bring a lasting peace and I think it goes back to why the secessionist movement began in the ’70s. The people down south especially the Muslims felt they had no connection with Manila. And they were right, because we were not developing the place. They felt closer to Indonesia in terms of trade and their families. To go to Indonesia for dinner and come back for breakfast is fairly ordinary — they do it all the time. Manila was so distant because government’s presence wasn’t really well felt. Also, there is a difference in culture, in religion and in law that must be recognized. So do the basic things, like recognize those differences and work around them or work with them, and find a system that will work for everyone. Secondly, bring development to the place. In concrete terms, it’s really infrastructure in Mindanao. But I think now things have changed sufficiently. Because when I talk to the governors and especially the island provinces, they say they are ready to be just a regular local government unit. Maybe now is the time to listen to that. It bears more study. We have been trying so hard to make a special case for them. And it hit me just now, just talking to you, that maybe it’s time not to make them a special case because they say so, “gawin mo nalang kaming LGU” they say that and say it out loud. So maybe the time has come.
What are the five most urgent challenges we face as a nation?
Number one is the economy. Second — and it’s all interconnected — is education, because to me it is the most important service we give as a government. Third is infrastructure development. Fourth is the political system, the Constitution needs revisiting. Things change and our laws should change with them and we have to adjust accordingly. Even the framers of this constitution have said from the very start, it is a work in progress, so we have to continue that work. The fifth is Mindanao, because the problem of Mindanao is the problem of the whole country. This fighting is costing the whole country and is quite a heavy burden.