There’s the Rub

Walk far, wear ‘tsinelas’

Has it been two years already? My, but time really flies.

I saw the tributes to Jesse Robredo in Naga City, which are keeping his memory, and spirit, alive. Robredo died two years ago last Monday, but the place of which he was mayor for more than a decade before he embarked on a career as secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) continues to feel his presence, as though he were just around the corner and you could see him sweeping the streets in his rolled-up jeans and famous slippers.


“Tsinelas politics” was what he birthed, and “tsinelas politics” is what Nagueños strive to practice to this day.

The concept is really more intuited than grasped in all its solidity. It’s inspired by the image of Robredo scouring the streets of Naga City without bodyguards, talking to people and listening to their concerns. Or in one dramatic instance, being up and about one gray dawn after a violent storm, shoveling mud from the doorstep of a church all by his lonesome. Of course, his trousers were rolled up and he was wearing slippers.


But what exactly is “tsinelas politics” if we have to define it in a way that operationalizes it? I figure it consists of these things:

One, it has a leader that is one with his followers.

There are some gestures that become defining moments or events in a leader’s life. P-Noy’s going to his inaugural without benefit of wang-wang is one of them. When he spoke later on about sharing the plight of every Filipino who had been victimized, oppressed, swept aside, by the wang-wang, you got the impression of a leader who was one of you, who felt your pain, who hoped your hopes. Wang-wang-less politics had a tremendous impact on public discourse after that.

The same is true of “tsinelas politics,” which will probably have a longer shelf life, or, to pursue the metaphor, will take longer to wear out. The tsinelas is the perfect image to carry the suggestion of a leader who is as just “one of us,” an elder statesman, a primus inter pares. It speaks of epic levels of submersion or identification in the life of the constituents—like fish in water, as the activists used to say of their immersion with the masa.

Of course, not all who wear tsinelas will be able to beam that message to the public, in the same way that not all who padyak to death will be able to beam the message of knowing what it means to live by the sweat of one’s brow. The trick is to mean it, the trick is to live it. The public knows fake when it sees it. Robredo’s use of tsinelas was not a gimmick, it was his normal office wear. It was how he governed.

Two, “tsinelas politics” has a leader who listens.

That’s not the easiest thing to do, least of all in this country. But that’s what Robredo did when he was mayor of Naga City. He actively encouraged public participation in government, a thing the Ramon Magsaysay Awards singled out by saying he proved that “effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.”


“People empowerment” wasn’t just an abstract concept to him, he believed in it, he pursued it, he practiced it. It was Naga City that first drafted the Citizen’s Charter in 2000, which was a list of government services and the time required to process them. The public had a right to demand that it be met. The charter was on every table of City Hall. The national government subsequently adopted that system in 2007, and called it the “Anti-Red-Tape Act.”

Just as well, he passed the “Empowerment Ordinance” which allowed sectoral representatives to participate in City Hall’s planning process, making the Naga City People’s Council an active partner of government. It’s one thing to report to the bosses, it’s quite another to listen to them. Robredo didn’t just report to them, he listened to them.

Three, “tsinelas politics” sees the universe in a grain of sand. Or to be less Biblical and quite literal about it, it says that local is just as good as the national, if not better.

I haven’t praised the Ramon Magsaysay Awards enough for giving its 2000 Award for Good Governance, not to a national leader, but to a local one. It was, of course, richly deserved, Robredo having laid out the template for governance that was adopted in part not just by other local governments but the national one as well. But it suggested, moreover, particularly to a people locked in the belief that the only way they could affect the politics of their country was at the national level, that another paradigm was possible. You could always affect national politics at the local level, through the local level.

You wonder what Robredo could have done as DILG head to turn that potential into a full-blown reality, for he died too early. But it is one of the sublime ironies in life that he did in death what he was at pains to do in life. Naga City might not have gained the attention it does now if the loss of him had not drawn attention to it. The tsinelas might not have revealed how precious an article it is if his departure had not shone a light on it.

Four, “tsinelas politics” is a way of doing politics with spontaneity, informality, and naturalness. Which is just another way of saying it is a way of doing politics with joy. You know what they say, the best work is the one that you like doing, which doesn’t make it feel like work at all. Serving the Nagueñons was the one thing Robredo liked best of all, the one thing he did with jeans rolled up and wearing tsinelas.

Or maybe it’s just as Bruce Lee said in “Enter the Dragon” when asked what his fighting style was. “I call it the art of fighting without fighting.” Maybe that’s what “tsinelas politics” is, too:

It is the art of governing without governing.

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TAGS: ‘tsinelas politics’, “Anti-Red-Tape Act”, 2000 Award for Good Governance, jesse robredo, leni robredo, Naga City, politics, Ramon Magsaysay Awards, Slippers
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