Miriam: an original
She was famous for never suffering fools gladly, so it was perhaps but appropriate that, even in death, Miriam Defensor Santiago could shine a light on the state of the nation, as it remembers her life and times and her running commentary on the kind of incompetence and intellectual vacuity in government that she spent a lifetime battling, or at least holding up to ridicule.
While doubtless earnest, the official statement put out by the Malacañang Communications Office on the occasion of her death would have made Santiago impishly roll her eyes. “She was a shining light in Philippine political annals, for her sharp legal mind, uncompromising stand and acid humor,” it began. And then, after another line, what seemed intended to be the highlight of the tribute: “Her passing signals the passing of an era of politicians with wide-ranging intelligence and the courage to express their true conviction.”
In that, the writers were obviously unaware of the unintended indictment it had just made of the dispensation they serve. Politicians with a modicum of intelligence and courage are indeed rare these days, and the nation has just been made poorer—orphaned—by Santiago’s passing. But even the appraisal of her death as “the passing of an era” comes across as a shallow misreading.
What, exactly, was Santiago’s era, and who was in it? There had been intellectual giants before her, of course—Claro M. Recto, Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada and Jovito Salonga in Congress; the technocrat and diplomat Rafael Salas; JBL Reyes in the judiciary. And there had been politicians as witty and colorful who effortlessly loomed large in the public imagination—Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, for instance.
But the combination of fierce intelligence and even fiercer demeanor that Santiago displayed from the time she exploded in the public consciousness as the newly appointed immigration commissioner under Cory Aquino’s administration was all hers. She was unlike any other—a sui generis, a woman in government who was loud and fearless, who could outtalk the men and women around her, who was not shy to trot out her formidable academic credentials to humiliate an opponent or breathe fire at official stupidity, whose vocabulary insulted as much as it enlightened.
What era in Philippine politics had as many Miriam Santiagos enough to make her its avatar? There is none, so her passing could in no way be the passing of an era. She remained, up to her death, a solitary, singular sensation.
Which makes the loss for the nation even keener, no matter her frankly mixed record in politics. There are very few persons in the national discourse whose voice and opinions, whatever they are, you yearn for in times of confusion and turmoil (especially stage-managed ones requiring foolproof eyes). You instinctively look for their take on things, their expansive, prophetic, long-term view of the grubby, gag-inducing goings-on that pass for day-to-day democracy in the country. Santiago was such a one, whose prognostications people looked forward to with glee, assured that every pronouncement of hers would be, well, a show—not only issued from a position of great height but, perhaps as important, also as entertaining as hell.
Indeed she had feet of clay—in her choice of friends, especially, as she allied with a rogues’ gallery that included former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, the compromised former chief justice Renato Corona, and worst of all, the dictator’s son Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the last presidential election. But, weakened by disease but still soldiering on, she basked in her countrymen’s goodwill during the presidential debates. Asked at one point what position she would give her husband if she became No. 1, she quipped with characteristic wit: “When I go home, I’d like him to be there.” And in an exchange with fellow candidate Mar Roxas, she left the nation with a valuable life formula: that the mark of the next president should be academic, professional and moral excellence.
Miriam Defensor Santiago aspired to those three qualities, and in so doing became who she was. Philippine politics has just lost someone irreplaceable: a true original.
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