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Tsinelas Leadership as Vehicle for Empathy and Hope

Speech delivered by Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo during the 2017 Metrobank Foundation Professional Chair for Public Service and Governance Lecture Ateneo Professional Schools, Rockwell Center, Makati City, 14 March 2017

I’m glad I wore the right color this afternoon. But the disclaimer and the revelation, it’s unintended. Naalala ko lang after I was out of the house already.

But it is both an honor and a privilege to be given this year’s Metrobank Foundation Professorial Chair for Public Service and Governance. Let me extend, once again, my sincerest gratitude and appreciation to the Ateneo de Manila University community for this opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas on leadership and nation-building, and of course, the Metrobank Foundation.

In recent years, the world witnessed the steady growth of the Philippine economy, which allowed us to finally obtain investment-grade status. We were once dubbed the “sick man of Asia,” we became the darling of emerging markets.

The diagnosis from global institutions was clear: good governance reforms and effective economic management were successful in boosting investor confidence. The Philippines was—at last—ready to join its Tiger neighbors.

Building that image was itself a big feat itself. But, deeper transformation had to follow the favorable numbers quickly—especially in areas that measured quality of life. Like poverty, job creation, and human development indicators.

Unfortunately, while economic growth rates were strong and poverty levels went down from 26.6% in 2006 to 21.6% in 2015, inequality and injustice for millions of Filipinos was still there.

In many far-flung areas, Filipinos’ quality of life are so different. Homes have no piped-in, potable water, no electricity, lack access to public transportation, and no opportunities for decent livelihood.

This situation has triggered frustration and discontent within a wide swath of our population. Many feel that their voices have not been heard. But this is not unique to us. Alam natin iyon. Hindi tayo nag-iisa.

From the Philippines to the US to Great Britain, people are questioning traditional institutions and demand change.

Stephen Hawking called this the “cry of anger by people who felt they have been abandoned by their leaders.”

All of these have contributed to the rise of a new world order. In 2016, the world was stunned when Britons voted for Brexit and when Donald Trump won as U.S. President.

What made matters worse is that populism and the rise of authoritarian leaders seem to cultivate this culture of hate, fear, and polarity around the world. Ramdam na ramdam na natin iyon, diba?

Thus, several sinister–lalo na siguro ako–hus, several sinister trends have started to develop: nations are pulling back from globalization, long-held freedoms appear to be under attack, and democracy is now in crisis.

Has democracy failed the world’s poor? Maybe, but I believe the solution is not to give up on it, but to continue with the unfinished task of democracy – that of deepening the empowerment of every human being.

This is the unfinished work of the EDSA Revolution of 1986. Change and the promise of progress cannot be achieved by self-proclaimed saviors or easy, short-term solutions.

So, what kind of leaders do we need in a time such as this? And perhaps, the better question is: how do we nurture such kind of leaders?

Politics has always been regarded as an arena where leaders compromise values and principles to maintain power and position. Where no one can win elections without spending a lot of money.

Where those who win expect that money to be returned ten-fold or more while they hold the position. Where the game is all about perks and entitlement, and real service takes a backseat. This kind of political set-up allows the people’s voices to be heard only once in six years, after which they are ignored until the next election season comes along.

And of course, we all know that. In an ideal world, politics should allow anyone with a heart for service and the skill of leadership to aspire for office—and win. Politics should create the environment that would nurture the right leaders to take the helm.

But we can’t live in a cloud. The closest to the cloud perhaps, at least for me, is our home city of Naga. Naga City’s record speaks for itself. Asiaweek, Asiaweek listed Naga as one of the world’s best cities in 1999, one of 150 local, international, one of only 150 local, and regional awards the city has received so far.

Naga, in 2016, has been awarded for the second consecutive year, has been awarded Most Competitive Component City in the country. And for his work in good governance, my husband Jesse Robredo won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2000, also known as Asia’s Nobel Prize.

From the outside, hindi ko alam from who of you has visited Naga already, but from the outside, Naga City looks, looks just like any other city. It has, in fact, all the disadvantages – small in size, landlocked, not centrally located.

There is no breathtaking landscape or amazing technological feats in Naga. What it is known for is its innovations in good governance, an achievement not just by its local chief executive, but by its very watchful and civic-minded constituency.

Jesse decided to join politics after the EDSA Revolution, inspired by Pres. Cory Aquino’s call for service. He had no money and certainly no experience. The two of us had just married and were struggling with the usual things that new couples had to face: raising a young family, taking care of aging parents, establishing careers and making both ends meet. But I feel he was at the right place at the right time: voters were imbued with the great, patriotic élan of the times.

Jesse formulated the so-called “Naga City Good Governance Model” which had three key elements: progressive perspective, partnerships, and people participation. Through the People Empowerment Program, he enlarged the space for greater people participation. For Jesse, it was critical that power was shared back with the people.

After much consultation with different sectors, the Naga City Citizen’s Charter was published, containing all the services that are available at City Hall in granular detail. It included, for instance, how much time is needed to apply for licenses and business permits, how much the required fees are, and who is accountable if the deadline is not met.

He formed the Naga City People’s Council so that NGOs, women’s groups, the urban poor, and other sectors can decide on programs for the city. People had a say on how they were to be governed, which projects should be prioritized, and how the budget was spent. The Council was so powerful, there were times it overthrew some of Jesse’s decisions.

But looking back, I believe Jesse did not win the people by reciting these Powerpoint-worthy concepts. He won the people because of the way he lived and how he immersed himself with the ordinary people.

Jesse would go around the city, in his bicycle, with no bodyguards, wearing shorts, shirt, and slippers. He cleaned the streets and canals and regularly joined our garbage trucks. He was always accessible.

All his constituents knew his cell phone number and no one hesitated to call him up for anything, even in the middle of the night. He was Mayor for almost 20 years and never enriched himself.

Until the day he died and up until now, we live in an apartment in Naga and eventually in a small condominium unit owned by my husband’s family here in Manila.

Until the day he died, we owned just one car – a trusty, old Toyota Innova. All these were not part of any branding or PR exercise. Everything he did was done spontaneously and happened naturally.

It was only after Jesse’s death, when Secretary Rene Almendras coined the term Tsinelas Leadership during his eulogy, to describe Jesse’s brand of servant leadership.

Jesse’s tsinelas was a powerful symbol of his desire to keep everything simple and to serve as close to the ground as possible.

I was only 22 when we got married. Jesse was 7 years my senior. He became Mayor less than a year after we were wed. I went to law school when we were raising a family already. I was a full time Economics professor during the day and a law student at night. I also had to perform my role as a Mayor’s wife.

It was a difficult balancing act to perform. But I actively helped Jesse but only from the background. But I had a good view of what kind of leader and public servant he was.

So after I passed the Bar, I knew in my heart that I cannot be anything else other than a lawyer for the poor. I worked for the Public Attorney’s Office for a while, defending poor clients who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

After a while, I joined SALIGAN, which is, by the way, Ateneo based, and became a human rights lawyer, defending farmers and fisherfolk, laborers and the urban poor, women and indigenous people. I did this until the day Jesse died.

So for a very long time, Jesse and I were working with the last, the least and the lost. He, from the government. I, outside of it. Ours was a partnership not just for the family we doted on, but also for the people we served. Tsinelas leadership or whatever name we’d like to call it was a way of life for us, enriched by each other’s experiences.

If we all allow the concepts of tsinelas leadership to guide the way we make policies, we would include rather than exclude—and the manner by which this is to be done successfully will depend on the prevailing circumstances in each locality.

As I study the LGUs across the country and discuss varying issues with local government leaders, it is evident that government is ripe with nuances. That is why local leaders must have ears close to the ground, feet planted on reality, really big hearts—and a lot of patience.

But while we always have to remember that cookie-cutter approaches to good governance do not work, there are a few basics that must be put in place. Some of these are encapsulated in the bills that I filed when I served in Congress. These include the People Empowerment Act, which pushed for the creation of a Local People’s Council in every city and municipality in the country to do parallel work in governance; the People Participation in Budget Deliberations Bill which requires that people be included in the budgetary process, and many others.

I brought with me in my brief stint in Congress all the lessons on servant leadership I got from Jesse and the wealth of experience I gathered from all the years that I was a human rights lawyer.

After assuming the Vice Presidency, we conceptualized an Anti-Poverty Program called Angat Buhay, which is also a continuation of my life’s work for the poor. We have chosen to adopt 50 of our poorest, farthest, and smallest towns and are trying to get help from our development partners and private companies for them.

Metrobank Foundation is a partner. We are involving them in crafting the solutions they know will work for their communities. As a result, they feel empowered, and they own their projects. They are no longer mere beneficiaries, but now become partners and stakeholders. The success rate is higher when the people themselves are involved.

So every week, two or three days a week, we visit some of the farthest and most forgotten communities in search of ways to serve our people where the need is greatest.

I don’t know if you have heard of Agutaya. Agutaya is such a place. It is an island town you can only reach after a 10-hour boat ride from Coron. This place is so far away that people cried when we arrived, because they said it was the first time that they had been visited by a national government official.

As they showed me around, we noticed that the Grade 5 students who were so small they looked like they were in Grade 1 students, and learned that they were stunted, which is an irreversible condition. Their Yolanda-damaged school was still unusable, four years after the storm surge hit their shores.

It was hard for the locals to recover, because their only source of livelihood which was harvesting seaweeds had been overrun by commercial boats. They had no way to protect themselves because their only patrol boat was no longer working.

Nakakatawa iyong kuwento nito, kung bakit nasira iyong patrol boat, sabi nila, si GMA po iyong nakasira. Sabi namin, bakit si GMA iyong nakasira? Sabi nila, kasi po pumunta siya sa nearby islands, pabalik-balik pong ginamit ng mga PSG.

But you know, since I’ve heard of their problem, I’ve already discussed it with the governor and he promised to take care of it. We need to follow up a few months after if he did, if he did take care of it.

We left our hearts in Agutaya, and vowed to return with help. This is proof that if we want to serve our countrymen, we have to go where they are. It is not enough that we just send help.

We have to experience first-hand their difficulties. Our presence will give them hope and the comfort that they have not been forgotten. We can’t dictate solutions. We need to listen with empathy, not sympathy.

Empathy requires us to ask powerful questions so we can act swiftly and effectively. In my decades of experience as an alternative lawyer, when the poor speaks and lets us into their lives, the window of service can close swiftly.

Helping is not something that must be put off. In the words of Father James Keenan, SJ, and I quote, “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”

Entering into another’s chaos, or in this case people’s poverty, sounds easy, but in reality, it’s difficult. It means we can’t meet anger with anger; we can’t solve injustice with another injustice. Our people are angry at government; but we must approach them only with empathy.

As we enter into somebody else’s chaos, that’s when we discover our own chaos. That’s when we realize our own poverty and limitations, and the poverty of other people from the different areas of the country. It is during this point when we begin to open ourselves to collaborating with other individuals. If you think about it, this is the whole essence of democracy and engagement.

Earlier, I asked the question: what kind of leaders do we need today and how do we nurture and support them? It has become clear to me that tsinelas leadership is truly the vehicle for empathy and the hope that we so desperately need today.

It is the anti-thesis to the hatred and polarity so prevalent in our national discourse. It leads to sustainable progress, as proven by our own city of Naga’s transformation from a poor municipality to a first-class city.

Given time, it can heal our nation from frustration—because it gives people their voice and brings government close to the people. Shared with the world, it paves the way for effective collaboration, instead of withdrawal from globalization.

How do we nurture leaders who will lead with empathy and integrity and who will embrace tsinelas ledership?

Apart from character, what a leader needs, is to be surrounded by people who will engage to understand, not just to criticize.

A citizenry that embraces its role in keeping its leaders honest and sincere. A nation that appreciates the value of good governance and the freedoms that democracy brings.

Maraming maraming salamat po, at magandang gabi muli sa inyong lahat!

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