Address at the Public Wake for President Benigno S. Aquino III
delivered 25 June 2021, Ateneo de Manila University, Manila, Republic of the Philippines
[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Magandang gabi po. Ang inside joke po ay ako po yung Cabinet secretary with the rank of alipin.
[English translation: Good evening. The inside joke is that I am the Cabinet secretary with the rank of a slave.]
But don't worry -- that's the only joke for tonight kasi hindi ko po kayang tapatan si ES. [because I couldn’t match ES.]1
While I'm here as part of the cabinet tribute, I'm also here to try and represent the ranks of all the other alipins [slaves] who served with PNoy: those of us who stood on the sidelines with our weapons of choice, briefing kits, mobile phones, handheld radios, and cameras; those of us who learned the art of complete staff work under his watchful eyes and guided by his pointed comments; and those of us who benefited from -- from his love language of long, hearty meals often accompanied by loud raucous singing, and his generously dispensed life and love advice.
Reading through countless tributes of the past 24 hours and recounting stories with former colleagues who are almost family, I hope you will bear with me in my attempt to summarize the lessons we learned from PNoy.
First, take pride in your work.
Anything even the neighborhood -- even near the neighborhood of sloppy was just simply unacceptable. It didn't matter if it was a greet list, a menu, a request for appointment, or something as major as the State of the Nation Address technical report. We learned how to proofread, check every last decimal point, and vet, vet, vet. "Cross your T's and dot the I's," he would always remind us.
Cabinet members and senior government officials would semi-jokingly refer to their presentations to the President as "oral defense," or even "thesis defense," nervously arriving at the palace armed with bundles of documents and profusely reviewing their numbers until the very last possible minute, trying to anticipate what the President's questions might be. But no matter what we did or how much we prepared, there was always something we would not see -- a curve ball that would be impossible to predict. And when that happened, wow, would he let us have it.
You see PNoy took the presidency -- the -- to PNoy, the presidency was a responsibility that he took very seriously. He made sure that we remembered this every day. Bruised as our egos might be from the final edits of the day's top points, convoy preparations, scenarios, schedules, and speeches, whenever we heard the familiar announcement signaling the President's arrival, we would always stand a bit straighter and with so much pride, no matter how unnoticed we were at the sidelines -- and no matter how unnoticed we were at the sidelines, applaud with all our hearts as we prepared to soak in the fruits of our labor. "Para sa bayan," ["For the country,"] we would tell ourselves and each other, our mantra behind living to fight yet another day.
Second, leadership is about being of service to others and having the courage to forge a path.
For him, leadership was about setting an example, and always about what and how much you could give -- never what and how much you would get in return. President Aquino obeyed traffic regulations, took commercial flights, and told all of us to always fall in line and never jump queues. After all, by virtue of the responsibilities that we had accepted, we should be able to do everything if not more than we expected from the public and always put those that we serve before ourselves. It came almost naturally to him. During meals, he would make sure everyone had started eating before he would even begin to put food on his plate, regardless of how hungry he was or who he was eating with.
"Hard-headed" is an adjective I come across quite a lot in articles I read about Sir. While there is some truth to that, I think it also reflects a brand of courage that is truly his. His belief in doing what he felt in his heart of hearts was right gave him the strength to make the most difficult and sometimes unpopular of decisions. "May we always have the strength to choose the difficult right over the easy wrong" was something I heard him say a lot. And because he displayed so much courage -- hard-headed, stubborn, stick-to-it courage -- he infected us with some of that courage as well.
Third, have faith in the youth.
While Sir was conservative in many aspects, especially when he was giving relationship advice, he was also amazingly ahead of his time. When I was first asked to join him at the Senate, the first thing he said to me was, "I didn't tell your dad I was going to offer you a job because I wanted to ask you first." He wanted "to build a youthful team," he said, so would I like to come and help out? In an environment where there is such a premium on seniority in terms of age and experience, it was [as] refreshing as it was risky to put one's faith in such relatively inexperienced hands. But he did -- and with such confidence in our abilities that it was as humbling as it was empowering.
One of the greatest gifts from the 10 years I spent as PNoy's Chief of Staff was the opportunity to see up close how much value he placed in young people. During my first few days at the Senate, I asked Rochelle Ahorro, his long-time and ever-faithful appointment secretary, how much we -- how we prioritize requests for slots in his schedule? Basta [Especially] students he will accept and he will really take the time to talk to them and listen to what they have to say," was her reply.
As President, he spent a lot of time with the staffers that worked in his office and the different department agencies. He would always drive us to refine and improve our work in ways that we can only describe as "character building." "After all," he would say as we poured through boxes of data preparing for the next speech, calling our contacts and alternately threatening them and apologizing profusely for the deluge of last minute requests, "this is a report about fulfilling the responsibilities we have been given. Why should we give this effort any less than everything that we have got?"
PNoy was excellent with words. We would sit and take notes while he would give pointers for his speeches, stumbling over one quotable quote, after another, always amazed that his ability to say things in a way that made your hair stand or your heart skip a beat -- like he knew what you were thinking or feeling or hoping. After all the work was done and the boxes of data packed away, he would bring us together and say thank you in the way he knew best -- by feeding us and singing with us. As if he knew how much anxiety and anguish his pep talks gave us, the amount of songs you were asked to sing were always commensurate to the amount of scolding that you had received. At the end of the evening, we would go home sufficiently placated and refreshed, ready for another day.
PNoy pushed us to our limits, and sometimes we did feel that what we were being asked to do was more than what was humanly possible. But at every opportunity he reminded us why: It was because our work mattered. It was because we mattered -- and that made all the difference. It was this belief, that we were being given the responsibility to play a part in something bigger than ourselves, that we drew on for strength, for inspiration, and for courage every day.
You have fought the good fight,2 Sir, and it was our honor and our privilege to have played our own little parts. Our years of service with you have inevitably shaped who we are today. Thank you for showing us by your life and your everyday examples that the Filipino is definitely worth fighting for.
Maraming, maraming Salamat, Sir. Hanggang sa muli. [Many, many thanks, Sir. Till next time.]
1 ES refers to Aquino's Executive Secretary, Jojo Ochoa, who also spoke at the event, noting with good-natured humor that the President was a demanding taskmaster.
2 An allusion to the Apostle Paul's self-declared justification for a life dedicated to his Christian faith in 2 Timothy 4:7-8: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."
Page Updated: 7/29/21
Transcript Note: Principal transcription by South Transcription Unlimited, Inc. | www.southtranscription.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | (+63) 920.921.8709. Supplementary transcription work and editorial oversight by Michael E. Eidenmuller.
U.S. Copyright Status: Text = Used with permission from Ms. Julia Abad.
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