I never knew the man until his death last August 18. I may have heard his name, or read it somewhere, but I didn’t really take a ‘second look’ at who he really was. Now, I can’t stop reading about him. I just become more and more amazed that such a man existed in the realm of Philippine government. And then this speech…
On March 29, 2003, then Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo delivered this address during the Commencement Exercises of the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City. Here is the text taken from the website of the Naga City Government (http://www.naga.gov.ph/cityhall/ademu2003.html)
FOLLOW YOUR HEART; PURSUE YOUR DREAM
BY JESSE M. ROBREDO
CITY MAYOR, NAGA CITY
Reverend Fr. Ben Nebres,
Distinguished Members of the Board of Trustees,
Reverend Fathers of the Society of Jesus,My Dear Graduates,
My Dear Parents,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am deeply honored to be your Commencement Speaker today.
I must confess I do not consider myself prominent enough to merit the invitation. I must also confess that I come from that other equally distinguished school along Taft Avenue. Nevertheless, like I always do when called upon, I will give it my best shot.
Humbly I stand before you today. Humbly I relish at the thought that perhaps one of the reasons why you have chosen me as your Commencement Speaker is that you want me to share with you the good things that we have accomplished in Naga City.
You, my dear graduates, might wonder why after six years in the private sector with a lucrative job, I finally decided to involve myself in local governance, which is otherwise known as the complex world of politics.
It is not common that we find young men and women, at their early stage, stake their future in politics. The old fashion way is for older or more seasoned men, especially those who have been successful in their profession and have nothing more to prove, to indulge in politics as a rewarding refuge. In my case, I simply wanted to go home and see what I can share to the city of my birth.
A STRONG HEART
Fifteen years ago, at age 29, when I first became Mayor of Naga, what I got into was a city in shambles.
The city had a huge budgetary deficit; City Hall employees were underpaid, their morale was low; and with a city council of ten members, only three of them belonged to my party.
I had a weak mandate, made even weaker by a system of political patronage. But I did not have an equally weak heart. I knew in my mind the kind of governance we would pursue. The options were clear. We either provide a leadership that was exclusive and authoritative or a leadership that was inclusive and consultative —– a leadership that imposes its will on its constituency or a leadership that encourages people participation and engagement.
We understood that we did not have the monopoly of wisdom. We felt that we should know when to lead and when to be led.
We chose to take the side of our constituency. We fully wagered our political future on their response. To secure their confidence, we tackled long-standing problems that beset the city — vice, urban blight, red tape, graft and corruption, and poor tax collection. We organized and reached out to all the sectors of the city — the sidewalk vendors, drivers, urban poor, farmers, professional and business circles, non-government organizations and religious groups.
We viewed the poor, of which Naga had plenty, as our partners and assets. We launched Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Deveopment) Program which so far provided security of tenure to 5,000 squatter families. Today, they are proud owners of homelots in neighborhoods that speak of their dignity as empowered citizens of the city. Working with the poor, we resolved long-standing land tenure problems dating back to the 1950s. Such was our success that no less than the United Nations Center for Human Settlements made our program a model in the Habitat II Conference in Turkey in 1996.
Viewing our constituency as our partner and asset, we enacted a People Empowerment Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country, which instituted the Naga City People’s Council. This Council represents over a hundred non-government and people’s organizations who are empowerd to propose legislations and vote at the committee level of the city council.
Today we engage ourselves in a program that looks at every Nagueno as the focal point of what government enterprise is all about. We call it the i-Governance Program. It not only recognizes the citizen’s right to know but also encourages them to engage their government. It has two basic tools: the Naga City Citizen’s Charter, the first of its kind in the country and the naga.gov.ph website. These tools are both designed to empower the citizen by promoting transparency and accountability. Because of transparent governance and accessibility of information, construction of roads and purchases of supplies and medicines cost much less in Naga City than government standards.
The People Empowerment Ordinance has resulted to a dramatic rebound for the City of Naga. By the end of my third term as city mayor in 1998, we have regained our stature as the premier city of the Bicol Region.
The rebound was described by Asiaweek Magazine as “more institutional than physical” even as it acclaimed Naga City as one of the 4 Most Improved Cities in Asia in 1999. For similar reasons, Naga City was presented the Dubai-UNCHS International Award for the 10 World’s Best Practices in Urban Governance and for its Participatory Planning Initiatives in 1998.
Why am I relating to you all these, my dear graduates?
It is because in some Asian countries and even in our beloved country, people say that democratic principles cannot work, and that the Oriental model of “ruling with a hard hand” is the call of the hour.
We disagree. Our experience in Naga is our best argument against the traditional and authoritative ways in the management of people and governance.
Our experience, too, proves that our people are our best resource and our best hope. Our experience, and that of many others, have shown that if we can not do it at the national level, we can begin at the local level. Collectively, successful local governments, driven by constituencies who are well-informed, constructively engaged, and willing to share the burden of community building, can build our country.
Despite all our problems, I know we shall overcome. It just might be a matter of changing course. It just might be a matter of leading from the bottom rather than being herded by the top.
Again, why am I relating to you all these, my dear graduates?
It is because many of you will be leaders of our country someday, or may even become President of this Republic. But is it not ironic that while many of our leaders have succeeded in achieving their personal goals, the country has lagged behind? Maybe it is because they have failed to make heroes out of the ordinary Filipino. Maybe it is because they have relied solely on their own capacities, rather than on the contributions of the ordinary people they are responsible for.
MAKING HEROES OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Not all of you will graduate with honors or with distinctions. Only a few — a very few — will be privileged to receive medals and honors. But all of you tonight will come up this stage and be honored with an Ateneo diploma.
Not that I am giving less importance to the honor graduates. We know that they have significant roles to play. But that I would like to focus more on the majority of the graduates this year. I was just like one of you when I graduated from college in 1980. To you, I address my experience in Naga City — for it is our kind, the ordinary, regular kid on the bloc, who made the City of Naga rise over its difficulties.
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 succeeed, we need to make heroes of the ordinary people. We need to make heroes of ourselves.
I must say that the ordinary employees and constituency have made the success of Naga possible. In Naga City, we have a woman streetsweeper, who held on to her broom for twenty years. Literally, she had swept every square inch of the city’s business district. But through sheer determination, she was able to finish her secondary studies in a night school and graduated, at 54, with a bachelor’s degree, some 8 years after her own daughters had theirs. To her the City of Naga conferred the Mayoral Award for becoming an inspiration to ordinary citizens, one who despite overwhelming odds, has risen above them. Today her broom has become a diploma. The woman was not an honor graduate — but an ordinary citizen, struggling to make life better for her family.
Why am I relating this to you, my dear graduates, and my dear ladies and gentlemen?
It is because the world today lacks the values that used to mould the disposition and the character of the ordinary citizen.
The world today, despite the advances in science and technology, has yet to learn about how to live, what to do, and how to be. As one tired and retired government employee remarked, “One learns many things when one gets to be my age. But one has to unlearn many more things that one has gathered with age.”
In pre-school, as bestseller writer Robert Fulghum observed, we used to be taught these: “Share everything. Play fair. Do not cheat. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you find them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours … When you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.”
How sad —after ten years in basic education and four years in higher education — we seem to have forgotten the basic tenets learned in pre-school.
When graduates go out into the world of business or politics or entertainment or government service, will they still “share everything”, “play fair”, “put things back where they find them”, and “clean their own mess”?
Our experience in governance in Naga City is nothing but our personal encounter with the necessity of returning to the basic governance — a return to the essential meaning of service — a return to what is simple and practical — a return to the values that our forefathers taught us: the value of honesty, hard work, of fairness and most all the holy fear of a just God.
SMALL FISH IN A BIG POND
This Address will not be complete without venturing to answer the question as to where will you go from here.
Should you choose to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Whatever your doubts are, follow your heart. When I left San Miguel Corporation, in 1986, I knew that serving home was where my heart was. I must say that desire and commitment far outweigh knowledge and skill. The latter can be learned. Without the former, your life’s work will be a profession and not a vocation. Find your own niche. Change careers if you must. But make sure you succeeed.
You must always remember that you can not give what you do not have. Measure success in terms of how pleased you are with what you have done and not as to how people define it, with its attendant perks.
Later on in life, you will realize that it is neither your successes nor your conquests that will give you satisfaction. It is your contribution that really matters – paying back what you owe the community that nurtured you.
THE CHILD IN US
Let me end by narrating to you the conversations I had with Grade 6 pupils of a public school in Panicuason, a mountain barangay in Naga City, some four years ago.
Some of these children had to walk 3 to 4 kilometers just to attend school. I asked them what their ambitions in life were?
A boy said he wanted to be a doctor because there was no doctor in the barangay. A girl said he wanted to be a teacher so that she would make sure that all the children in her barangay would go to school. Another boy said he wanted to be an engineer so he could improve the roads and provide irrigation systems for the farmers.
Like all of us, they too wanted to be somebody someday. But despite the deprivations and difficulties, they were all for a noble purpose – to be of service to others. Not one of them said that it was for fame, money or power. They were so young, yet they know what was good for their community and for others.
As you leave your beloved Alma Mater and pursue your own dreams, do not forget the child in you. Keep in your hearts always the Ateneo idealism of being men and women for others. Hold on to it. I am certain you will do no wrong if you keep that idealism as your guiding light.