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Confirmed in the hearts and minds of his people

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Except FOR a brief encounter at the Naia 3 terminal while waiting to board a flight for Bohol, I would have never met Secretary Jesse Robredo. He was a complete stranger although I knew him as a Ramon Magsaysay awardee for government service for his work as mayor of Naga City.

Going through my previous columns on such diverse topics as the rights and privileges of senior citizens and the Luneta hostage crisis, I realize that I had made some comments and observations about Robredo that defined my impressions—not always positive—of the man.

Just a few years ago, senior citizens were experiencing difficulties in the implementation of the Senior Citizens Law. There were lots of complaints concerning business establishments, particularly drug stores and restaurants, many of whom were deciding for themselves how the law should be interpreted. Very often, senior citizens  had no choice but to accept whatever was their version of the law. A case in point was the use of credit cards by senior citizens. Some establishments refused to grant senior citizens discount unless payment was made in cash.

Five years ago, I received a letter from a senior citizen of Naga City. He related how a KFC outlet in downtown Naga refused to grant him any senior citizen discount for a take-out order he made consisting of “a single chicken meal with coleslaw salad.” According to the waiter, the senior citizen discount was not being honored for take-out orders, citing the practice as a nationwide KFC policy.

The senior citizen then filed a formal complaint with the mayor’s office. The city legal officer in his recommendation to Mayor Jesse Robredo, called for a liberal interpretation of the law, particularly when social legislation enactments were concerned. In this particular case, he believed the law should be interpreted on the side of the beneficiary who happened to be a senior citizen.

Mayor Robredo ordered the filing of a criminal case against the KFC outlet for violation of the Expanded Senior Citizens Law. This singular act of Mayor Robredo led me to revisit the citation of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation when it bestowed on him in 2000 the Award for Government Service.

Let me refresh our memories. It will help us understand the generous outpouring of affection and sadness that have overcome the nation since he left us a few days ago.

Parts of the citation read: “It is sad but true. Democratic government is not necessarily good government. Too often elections yield power to the few, not the many. Injustices linger beneath the rhetoric of equality. Corruption and incompetence go on and on. Voters, alas, do not always choose wisely. And yet, in Asia and the world at large, much is at risk when democracy founders because democracy is the hope of so many. Jesse Manalastas Robredo entered Philippine politics when hope was high. As Mayor of Naga City from 1988 to 1998, he demonstrated that democratic government can also be good government. . .

“Once the queen city of the Bicol Region, Naga in 1989 was a dispirited provincial town of 120,000 souls.  Traffic clogged its tawdry business district and vice syndicates operated at will. City services were fitful at best. Meanwhile, thousands of squatters filled Naga’s vacant lands, despite the dearth of jobs in the city’s stagnant economy. Indeed, Naga’s revenues were so low that it had been downgraded officially from a first-class to a third-class city.

“Robredo began with a strike against patronage. He introduced a merit-based system of hiring and promotion, and reorganized city employees on the basis of aptitude and competence. He then moved against local vice lords, ridding Naga of gambling and smut. Next, he relocated the bus and jeepney terminals outside the city center, ending gridlock and spurring new enterprises at the city’s edge. Public revenues rose and by 1990, Naga was a first-class city again.

“Robredo raised performance, productivity and morale among city employees as a culture of excellence overtook the culture of mediocrity at City Hall, Naga’s businesses doubled and local revenues rose by 573 percent. . .

“When obliged by law to step down after his third term, the popular Robredo made no effort to entrench his family. His advice to would-be leaders? ‘You have to have credibility’.”

On such a small matter as “a single chicken meal” purchased by a senior citizen, Robredo went out of his way to put everyone on notice that his job was to uphold the rule of law. There are very few heads of local government units who would dare offend powerful and moneyed interests, knowing that come election time they risked losing this source of much-needed support. It was actions such as that taken by Jesse Robredo that pushed forward the cause of senior citizens nationwide.

* * *

A few months after President Aquino’s election, the Luneta hostage crisis took place. It was a bungled affair, resulting in a black eye for the nation. The pitiful sight of a SWAT member wearing a baseball cap turned backwards, with a pistol in hand, was a damning testimony to the incompetence of police elements involved in the crisis situation.

Secretary Robredo was head of the Department of Interior and Local Government, with supervision over the Philippine National Police. In the wake of the disastrous results, I called for his resignation, saying, “In olden times, human beings were sacrificed to appease the gods for any event that may have displeased them or brought shame to the community. This is the same principle applied by our neighbors in Japan and South Korea where ranking officials are routinely sacked for command responsibility in any national tragedy or disaster.” I added that Robredo should immediately send in a letter of resignation since there were indications of a lack of trust and confidence on the part of the appointing power. (In 1995, as a result of the Flor Contemplacion hanging in Singapore, Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo and Labor Secretary Nieves Confesor had to leave their positions.)

In the end, the President himself announced that Robredo was being kept in an acting capacity, citing “differences in style and philosophy.” The submission of his appointment for confirmation was withheld for some time.

* * *

During the last few days I have learned a lot about Jesse Robredo. Two nights of eulogies by Kaya Natin members and Liberal Party mates have provided us with a complete picture of the man.

When I met him at the Naia 3 terminal, I started to explain why I thought he should have left office after the Luneta incident. He let out with a wide smile, saying, “OK  lang. I understand.”

Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash. Jesse Robredo left us in the same manner. Both were young, energetic and inspirational leaders. Why do we lose so early in life the kind of men needed by our nation?


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