Today I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned from the man whose untimely death shook the nation. But before I begin, let me just state that it I find it truly unfortunate that Jess had to die to merit universal recognition. When he was still alive Robredo barely received the media attention and public adulation that he really deserved. In fact, when his name was included in a senatorial survey Robredo just got 0.8% of the vote. But that is human nature: we only realize the true value of a person or a thing only when it is gone. When he was still alive some Filipinos did not like Ninoy Aquino simply because he was the son of a Japanese collaborator (his father, Benigno Aquino, Sr. was president of the Japanese-sponsored KALIBAPI Party during the war). Jose Rizal was deeply hurt because he lost the election for president of the Propaganda Movement to Marcelo del Pilar (who apparently was a more astute politician than Rizal) and stopped contributing articles to the La Solidaridad. He decided to go his own way, producing the “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” in the process. Even Jesus Christ when he was alive only had a few disciples and was considered a subversive by the Romans. But upon his crucifixion he became a Son of God.
Here are some pearls of wisdom from Jesse M. Robredo:
1. “Ang Lider ay Dapat Matino at Mahusay”
Jess often preached that it is not enough for a leader to be “good” (i.e. does not steal, abuse authority, compassionate, etc.). A leader must also be “competent” (e.g. intelligent, highly-educated, innovative/creative, etc.). To him, honesty, compassion, good intentions, fear of God, etc. are well and good, but if the leader is educationally unprepared, lacks the ability to understand multi-faceted issues, and unable to devise novel solutions to complex problems, that person would be rendering a disservice to the people and would not be an effective leader.
People often think that Robredo was referring to himself when he said that a leader must be “matino at mahusay.” This is because, to many, Jesse epitomized the two leadership qualities. But to my mind, I believe that he was referring not to himself but to his fellow Bicolano “kababanwa” - Senator Raul Roco - as the epitome of the “matino at mahusay na lider.” This is because the first time I heard Jess utter his now famous line was in 2004 during a rally in Naga City. Jess was then campaigning for Roco for president, and he used the “matino at mahusay” tagline to convince people to vote for Roco. Those who knew would attest to his humility and simplicity, and Jess is not the type to even imply that he is the “matino at mahusay na leader” referred to in his speeches.
Through the years, Jess used this “matino at mahusay” slogan in his speeches to promote his good governance agenda. Furthermore, when he became DILG secretary in 2010, he instituted the “Seal of Good Housekeeping” program to motivate LGUs and inspire local chief executives to be “matino at mahusay.” The award is given to LGUs who have instituted all the accountability, transparency and governance reform measures designed by DILG. Today, Robredo’s “Seal of Good Housekeeping Challenge” has been widely accepted by LGUs.
2. “Walang Malaki o Maliit”
One of Jesse’s most favorite catchphrases is “walang malaki o maliit sa akin, lahat pare-pareho.” I believe that this deceptively innocuous statement is the very essence of Robredo’s management style and political philosophy.
a. As a management philosophy. Jess truly believed that each task, no matter how big or small, is worthy of his best efforts. And he expected his people to apply themselves to each task with equal zeal and dedication. Of course, this management concept is not really original - as a management engineering graduate, Robredo probably picked it up from the Japanese “Kaizen” management philosophy. “Kaizen,” which means “the way of continuous improvement,” was adopted by Japan to propel their war-ravaged economy into becoming the world’s second largest next only to the United States. The Japanese were able to achieve this because their “quest for never-ending improvement” enabled them to equal, and eventually surpass, the Americans. In time, Japan succeeded in manufacturing cheap but superior quality cars, excellent value-for-money electronic products and their industry became more efficient than the U.S. And the Japanese were able to achieve this because the lowliest factory worker in Japan rendered the same “best effort” as the top-ranked executives in their corporation, in line with the “Kaizen” management philosophy.
Another aspect of “Kaizen” is the belief that each part of the process and/or each individual member of the team are equally important. It is said that top level executives of Japan’s Toyota car company are tasked to clean the corporate bathrooms once a year, in order to keep them “grounded” and to remind them of the importance of each person in the corporation. This is probably the reason why Jess did not think it was beneath him to shovel dirt and clear debris after a typhoon, to sweep the street in front of his home, or to come to a PTA meeting in slippers. As such, Robredo never got tired of exhorting his own people in Naga City and the DILG to take pride in their work and give it all they’ve got, irregardless of how menial the task or low their rank.
b. As a political philosophy. People are often pleasantly surprised with the “VIP treatment” they get from Jess. Just the other day I watched on TV an emotional urban poor leader who paid a tribute during Robredo’s state funeral in Malacañang, saying that “Secretary Jess did not see us as trash or considered us as an eyesore; he treated us with all sincerity and he was always accessible to us.” Likewise, one can read numerous anecdotes online or in print media about how Robredo would return their calls or entertain their requests, no matter how small. All the stories seem to say one thing: Jesse Robredo was a person who is “madaling lapitan at madaling hanapin.”
I have heard Jess often say “walang malaki o maliit sa akin, lahat pare-pareho” which to him meant that he not only treated all his job assignments as worthy of his best efforts but also that he saw people, no matter their station in life, equally. Thus, he treated a text message or a phone call of an ordinary citizen, although perhaps not with the same urgency but with the same importance, as a phone call from the President of the country.
In many ways, Robredo’s “walang maliit o malaki” philosophy goes against the grain of our country’s “split-level democracy” (which I derived from “split-level Christianity,” a term originally coined by the Jesuit priest Fr. Jaime Bulatao). We can see its manifestations everywhere: in airports there are VIP rooms reserved for dignitaries; during festivals there are separate entrances and seats reserved for “important” guests; etc. etc. And we Filipinos really do not see anything wrong with this. In fact, we tend to believe that it is the natural order of things for our “political betters” to be exempted from lining up like the rest of us, and that they are entitled to certain special privileges because of their status in society. Last Friday I paid my last respects to Jess in Malacañang and I saw this “split-level” mentality at work: hundreds of ordinary Filipinos lining up at Gate 7 while “VIPs” entered the Palace through a separate gate reserved exclusively for them. I also saw that, after paying their last respects, the teeming masa were given refreshment (contained in paper packages) while the high-ranking Filipinos and their staff were invited to partake in a buffet dinner inside one of the Malacañang rooms.
In many ways, Robredo’s notion that the masa (the “maliit”) and elite (the “malaki”) are entitled to the same kind of treatment or service from government officials is “subversive” and even “dangerous.” For what would happen if the people lining up in Malacañang suddenly felt entitled to pass through the “special gate” reserved for VIPs? Or what if they felt entitled to partake in the sumptuous buffet reserved for Cabinet members and their staff? Which brings me to the third and final gospel of Jesse Robredo.
3. “Good Government Cannot Be Achieved Without People Empowerment”
I have seen Robredo “in action” when he was still mayor of Naga City. I can attest that the stories about him walking around in his city wearing just shorts and slippers are all true, and he is the only mayor I know who rode a mountain bike to his meetings. I had on several occasions had the chance to walk with him around Naga City and it was quite obvious that the Nagueños adored him - sidewalk vendors would greet him, women would approach and hug him, and neighborhood tambays would swap jokes with him.
Of course, this sort of adulation is not really unique and I know of many other local politicians who merit the same kind of “crowd reaction” each time they visit the public market, shop at the mall or simply walk the streets of their territory. But what makes Jesse unique is the fact that (he said this to me) in all his years as mayor he never handed out any cash to a “supplicator.” He told me that when he was elected mayor one of the first “contract” he had with the people is that they could not expect to get “KBL” money out of him. But in exchange he promised not to steal and vowed to render them “true” public service. During his first term local media practitioners derisively called him a “boksingero” but in time the people grew to accept and eventually admire Robredo’s “idiosyncrasies.”
In his 19 years as mayor of Robredo did not engage in “tokenism” but tackled problems head on. He solved Naga City’s traffic problem, relocated all squatters (especially those living in dangerous zones) and provided them with decent housing, and published the city’s annual budget in the spirit of transparency. If an indigent person approaches him (usually with a sob story), Jess would usually refer him to the City DSWD or to the concerned city department head for immediate action. This system was instituted he explained so that people will not think that it was his personal money that was used to help them. He also instituted a People’s Congress comprised of urban poor leaders, women’s groups, NGOs, etc. to participate in City Council discussions and help City Hall towards coming up with viable solutions to the city’s problems. Much has already been written about Jesse’s efforts to promote transparency, accountability, good governance and people empowerment, and I do not wish to belabor them here. But let me add just one more anecdote to illustrate how “empowered” the people of Naga City really are.
Jess often reminded people that “it is not enough for a leader to be good; more importantly, it is the people and the system that must force the leader to be good.” In 1998 Jess reached his mandatory 3-term limit as mayor. As to be expected, people anticipated him to field his wife Atty. Leni Gerona Robredo, a successful career woman in her own right who equally possesses the “matino at mahusay” qualities needed to become a good local chief executive. But the citizenry of Naga City felt that having his wife succeed him would be contrary to all that he stood for. The empowered Nagueños were not afraid to articulate their stand and in the end Jess heeded the people’s voice. But this did not mean that the Nagueños no longer loved him. In fact, Jesse’s handpicked candidates swept the polls that year, winning all positions from mayor to vice mayor down to the ten (10) council seats.
In a speech before the graduating students of Ateneo de Manila University Jesse Robredo said: “Our political history has shown that we have put the burden of running this country to our ‘best’ people for too long. And yet the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider. For this country to succeed, we need to make heroes out of the ordinary people. We need to make heroes of ourselves.”
Dios Mabalos Jess!