In death, a good man brings his friends and foes together. The binding element is the afterglow of a life almost impeccably lived, one that deeply saddens the mournful many while clothing with remorse the unkind few.
I didn’t rub elbows with Secretary Jesse Robredo. He didn’t know me personally. That privilege belonged to those who had selflessly invested more precious time than I ever could in advancing reforms. Without doubt, my humble tribute will be drowned by hundreds of eulogies delivered by very important people who surround him. But there is no stopping a heart from screaming its bereavement and its shrill lamentation.
That the Filipino people lost Jesse Robredo is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. For a nation that hungers for role models, a man who wields nothing more than pristine intentions and exceptional management talent to squeeze outstanding performance out of an obstacle-ridden bureaucracy is a rare gem. This gem of a man was polished to perfection by his uncanny ability to essay the work-life balance that many inspirational speakers can only eloquently preach but not practice. Beyond reasonable doubt, this tragedy bites deeply into the Filipino psyche.
But the death of Jesse Robredo is dwarfed by a bigger tragedy. The bigger tragedy is the inability of this nation, while being cleansed by many catharses and upheavals, to let its rare gems fully shine and illuminate the darkness brought upon it by its own intellectual laziness and cowardice.
I had heard and read a lot about Jesse Robredo before he spoke to us at the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) in 2008. He was with fellow square pegs in the round hole called Philippine politics: Governor Grace Padaca, Governor Ed Panlilio and Mayor Sonia Lorenzo. There was nothing he and his colleagues said that was out of this world. Their message was simple: Walk the talk but walk courageously. Jesse Robredo’s remarks during that meeting struck me for their simplicity and candor. I became even more interested in his outstanding achievements as a local government executive. After all, it must take dedication to one’s craft and passion for one’s calling, fired by an extraordinary blend of mind, heart and soul to win the prestigious and untainted Ramon Magsaysay Award for Good Governance. The Award does not operate like the naming rights game that panders to the big donor or the laughable exercise that naively dispenses recognition to people whose images are photo-shopped into cleaner than life by public relations firms.
In 2009, together with a few colleagues from the MAP and friends from the Kaya Natin Movement, we had a candid conversation with then Mayor Jesse Robredo. The 2010 electoral contest was less than a year away and a frustrated public was clamoring for a fresh face that would elevate the political exercise to something more than just a search for the lesser evil. Traditional politicians from deeply entrenched political families were bombarding television with early campaign propaganda disguised as public service ads. “None of the above” was the emerging response from cynical members of civil society, peasant organizations, workers’ movements, and business organizations.
The conversation with Mayor Jesse was refreshing and inspiring. In attendance were stalwarts of two major business organizations. I thought then that the search for a reform candidate would lead nowhere if we weren’t willing to take a risk on qualified people who had yet to amass the logistics to galvanize the committed vote. After all, this was how it was with Cory Aquino and may other reform candidates of recent vintage. Mayor Jesse was asked what his political plans were. He said that he might consider a run for the Senate. I asked him rather irreverently why he would want to be part of a peanut gallery when his experience and achievements as a public sector executive were clearly superior to those who were unashamedly “applying” for the job. He replied that he didn’t think he stood a chance.
Little did I know that many of my colleagues had made up their minds to support another aspirant who sported a squeaky clean image and had the resources to mount a viable campaign but was of the same traditional mold. They indicated so in many ways, not the least of which was the suggestion that Mayor Jesse support this candidate and join the cabinet if the latter wins. That wrote an early finis to my incipient “Robredo for President” adventure.
Jesse Robredo would later become interior and local government secretary under the most tenuous of conditions. Realpolitik was holding down his real potentials. Yet he put sanity into a veritable madhouse. He made local government executives and police officers realize that leaders could achieve much by working quietly but wielding a big moral stick. Example is a powerful teacher and Jesse Robredo used this weapon to great advantage. “Daang matuwid” (the straight and narrow path) is a slogan that has been both lauded and pilloried. But Jesse Robredo defined it in a manner that leaves us no choice now but to honor it.
Courage makes us overcome the toughest hurdles and aim for quantum improvements in any aspect of life. It makes us creative and enterprising. It enables us to deal with risks and profit from them. On the other hand, intellectual laziness makes us concede to the slightest hurdles that confront us. We settle for small, incremental wins. The problem is that these wins come few and far between. After a while, we realize that our frequent losses have wiped out our infrequent wins. This is the tragedy that Jesse Robredo courageously sought to reverse. If those who speak well of him in his death will feel compelled to take up the same task with equal courage, Jesse Robredo’s death, albeit painful, will make sense.
(The author is chairman of the Maybridge (Asia), Inc. and the MAP president in 2009. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous articles, visit map.org.ph.)