This article was originally published in Mr. Sonny Coloma's column, VECTOR, in the Business World Online on May 22, 2009 (Manila time). He has given Barangay OFW his kind permission to re-publish this article. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
"The people deserve the kind of government they want" is a timeless maxim on democracy. If we choose wisely and well, we may yet deserve to have a national leader like Isabela Gov. Ma. Grace Cielo Magno Padaca who was honored by the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation as its 2008 awardee for outstanding public service.
"When I was elected governor in 2004," she told members of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) the other day, "I thanked God, saying, ‘Lord I was only joking. I did not expect you to take me seriously!’ "
But after 40 years of the Dy family’s hegemony, voters in Isabela chose wisely and well. Against the three Gs — guns, goons, and gold — they elected a polio-stricken broadcaster as their new leader.
Thus did Ms. Grace complete the transition from 1) CPA -- Certified Public Accountant (she graduated magna cum laude in BS Accountancy from Lyceum University) to 2) CPA -- Courageous Public Announcer (14 years as a broadcaster with Radio Bombo), and finally, to 3) CPA -- Competent Public Administrator (second-term governor of Isabela and Magsaysay laureate).
She was reelected in 2007, with a slimmer winning margin, but she felt vindicated. "This was sweeter than when I first won," she said, "because the people reelected me on the basis of my performance, and not anymore on my promises."
With prudent fiscal management, Isabela was able to pay off more than 80% of its more than half-billion-peso debts to the Land Bank, Philippine National Bank, and DBP.
She increased farm productivity by providing subsidies to rice and corn farmers. Isabela is the largest corn-producing province and the second largest rice producer. Her administration was also able to enroll more than 100,000 Isabelinos in PhilHealth so that they now enjoy medical insurance benefits.
She has introduced transparency and accountability. Awards of contracts and release of checks to contractors are publicized in the provincial capitol. Businesspersons and investors have found it profitable to do business and invest in the province because they need not pay bribes or incur unnecessary costs due to corrupt practices of government officials. She urged people to report to her directly any anomalies in government transactions.
But the road to the governorship was rough, bumpy, and fraught with danger. She was immobilized by polio at the age of three.
Her parents, both educators, gave her many books to read. She recalls reading stories about honesty, industry, truth, and fairness — and these filled her mind with positive thoughts and inspired her to dream of an auspicious future.
One of her dreams was to be a radio announcer, a job where she could be heard even if not seen. She went on to join Bombo Radyo where she had a daily three-hour program from Monday to Saturday. Her focus was "the abusive way by which resources of government were being squandered" by political "gremlins" that "seemed to forget that power is not theirs as a birthright."
Instead of being frustrated about not being able to do anything about irregularities that were being committed openly, she decided to seek public office.
"At least," she mused, "even if I lose, I will have peace of mind." She lost in 2001 and ran again in 2004, aware that she could lose then and probably lose two or three more elections before making significant headway in her crusade for good government.
She had an epiphany: "If fear is contagious, courage is also contagious." She urged her province mates to overcome their fear:
"Huwag kayong maawa sa akin dahil ako’y isang pilay at mahina. Maawa kayo sa inyong mga sarili at sa inyong mga anak kung wala kayong magawa kahit mas malakas at masigla ang inyong katawan kaysa sa akin."
("Don’t pity me because I am paralyzed and weak. Have mercy on yourselves and on your children if you can’t do anything despite the fact that you are healthier than I am.")
"What they saw in me was not my weakness, but my strength," she recalls.
Another important realization on her part is that, "People in government wield tremendous power. With just one signature, I could mobilize millions in pesos in resources. If used judiciously, political power may be harnessed to empower people and lift them from poverty."
Thus, she urged the executives in the audience to go into public service themselves, or encourage those who they know can become competent public servants.
Her speech followed a pitch for voter education especially among the youth. "But if the educated voters do not have credible choices among the candidates, even your best efforts may come to naught," she said.
"Those who think themselves to be too smart to run for public office are doomed to be governed by those who are too dumb. Elect the right people," was her spirited pitch. "Look at me," she said, "I am the embodiment of the power of the people expressed through the ballot."
When asked about her biggest asset and her worst liability, her replies elicited warm applause. She said that her staffers call her "Excel Governor" because she always required spreadsheets depicting relevant information and figures, especially when she deals with requests for assistance from barangay officials. Her attention to details (a discipline she acquired as an accountant) enables her to allocate scarce resources judiciously according to the real needs of her constituents.
But she longs for the gentler and kinder days when, as a private citizen, she received abundant care and attention from friends.
She plods on with great courage and determination. When she first won, only three out of 36 mayors supported her; now, the ratio is reversed. Only three have not reached out to her and two of these are members of the political dynasty that she ousted from power.
She is mindful of the need to build common ground even among erstwhile adversaries. "Maybe my being a dispassionate accountant is also one of my strengths; I never take differences personally against anyone." Instead of wooing political rivals, she said she would rather focus on serving the needs of her province mates.
When will we ever deserve the grace of having a national leader (president, vice president or senator) in the mold of Governor Grace Padaca?
Only when we have the courage to elect competent and dedicated public servants like her — and reject the empty enticements of well-entrenched politicians who have all brought our country and us on the road to perdition.
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