What Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda Been: A Tribute to the Late Miriam Defensor Santiago
The legacy of the Iron Lady of Asia, one of the best presidents we never had
Whenever I catch a less than desirable news headline about the state of our government, I often find myself thinking about the late Miriam Defensor Santiago.
“What would she have to say about this?”
“What would have been her stance on the matter?”
“How would she have dealt with it?”
See, the Iron Lady of Asia, the Philippine’s own “Incorruptible Lady,” the fascinating power dressing woman in red had my vote in the 2016 elections. Miriam Defensor Santiago was my president. Color me nostalgic, stubborn or a little delusional, but in many ways, she still is.
Miriam Defensor Santiago was an outlier: too intelligent to be brought down and sometimes too brilliant to be understood. She was too passionate to be ignored, too fierce to be bypassed, but at the same time, too good for a government that thrived—and still thrives—on dirty politics. On the latter, she never needed a reality check. It was something she was always well aware of, a reality she made a life mission to change, if not, challenge.
“The cancer that demands our urgent attention is corruption and poverty.”
“Sabi nila: ang lakas naman ng loob ni Miriam tumakbo. Wala namang pera. Wala namang makinaryang pandaraya,” expressed a then-46-year-old Santiago during her proclamation of candidacy in 1991. Today, this might be called a “dig” or maybe “throwing shade.” Some would say it has the makings of a mic drop moment. But Miriam Defensor Santiago was only getting started. This would be the first time the world got a taste of her ferocity, her fearlessness and her unique brand of gigil. Well, of course, may gigil…Ilongga eh.
Miriam Palma Defensor, born and raised in Iloilo, had a judge (Benjamin Defensor) for a father and a school teacher (Dimpna Palma) for a mother. The eldest of seven children, she grew up in a household that championed excellence and academia, one that she helped run long before she finished grade school. In her family, discipline was the watchword, simplicity was the way of life and contribution to community was the motivation.
As a child raised to excel (in her own words: “we were taught that we had to be at the top of the class because we were born that way”), she graduated valedictorian in all levels of her education: grade school, high school and even undergraduate school. On to the next, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of the Philippines Visayas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. Here, she also became the first female editor-in-chief of the university paper The Philippine Collegian. “I’m very proud that I was a nerd,” she shared. “Life is the revenge of the nerds, you know?” Indeed, Philippine politicians only dull in comparison to even just to her storied academic career: Expanding her horizons and making her way to Manila, she earned a Bachelor of Laws degree and graduated cum laude from University of the Philippines. Abroad, she earned herself graduate degrees for Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science in the University of Michigan and completed postdoctoral studies in Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford.
The distinct lambing and gigil of the Bisaya, a part of her roots she brought with her everywhere, coupled with the fact she had the brains to back up her endeavors, no matter how bold, made Santiago unstoppable.
With her intellect, she was sure to arm herself with facts first and foremost. With her scholarly undertakings, she was able to gain a worldview and understanding. With a good heart and unwavering moral compass, she had the kind of ambition that would not get the best of her. THis made her the rarest of the rare kind of government official. “If I’m trying to make a point and I’m convinced that I’m morally right, I’ll fight to the death. Kailangan mamatay isa sa amin [laughs],” she told GMA news correspondent Jessica Soho in 2014. Her quick wit and humor were always a fun bonus. “I resort to this mischievous way of thinking maybe just to relax the neurons in my brain,” she added. “Especially when I’m faced with someone who doesn’t have any neurons whatsoever.”
Today, she is missed not because she, like some untouchable drill sergeant, kept other government officials in line or because she gave scalding, sick burns during senate hearings (though those instances were always fun). She is sorely missed because of the kind of public servant she was. She was bright. She was brave. She was by far the most consistent government official when it came purpose, platform and promises.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. ‘Wag na tayo magpa-epal dito.”
Defensor Santiago abhorred corruption…and not in the way some officials today face the press to establish their stance on such issues, proceed to make empty promises, set unrealistic deadlines to raise hope or drop P.I. bombs for effect. She was honest and dignified and made damn sure she walked her talk.
This was evident as early as 1983 when she became the youngest presiding judge in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. There, she earned a reputation as the “Fighting Judge.” When it came to the law, she was strict; there were no postponements in her courtroom, no bribes and certainly no extortion. And in establishing these ground rules, she was able to handle a whopping record 50 cases a month in her time as judge.
When she became commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, she pulled up her sleeves and got to work doing the seemingly impossible: reforming one of the most corrupt government agencies in the country. “With breathtaking decisiveness, she threw out the fixers, transferred suspected bribe-takers from sensitive positions, and filed administrative charges against corrupt employees. She swept away corruption-breeding disorder and red tape. She declared war on crime syndicates and exposed drug pushers, pedophiles, gunrunners, and passport forgers,” the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation cited as they awarded Defensor Santiago in 1988.
“With her sweeping, confident actions and outspoken ways, the commissioner has not endeared herself to everyone, least of all to her targets. Her life has been threatened,” the awarding body expressed. “Undaunted, Defensor Santiago punches the clock early each morning and carries forward her crusade for an efficient, competent and, above all, corruption-free immigration services. Deeply religious and an unapologetic moralist, she is not too sophisticated to say simply: Honesty is the best policy.”
Defensor Santiago knew the Filipino people deserved better. They still do. They deserve better than merely selecting the lesser evil of the lot when election season comes around. They deserve better than to settle for government officials who treat their jobs as side gigs: like the boxer who spends more time training than he does at senate hearings or the slapstick noontime variety show host who has no grasp of grade school-level Philippine history yet gets elected as Senate President.
Defensor Santiago was more than qualified to give the Philippines what it had long been aching for: someone to initiate Operation Clean House, someone to lay down the law yet respect due process and someone to lead the people out of poverty. In the hopes of showing the country she loved so dearly that she fit the job description, she ran for president not once, not twice but thrice in her 30-year career…a career where public service was her full-time job, through and through.
In 1992, she was the bright-eyed, game-changer in the presidential race and the potential second female president of the Philippines. “Our task is to reform the culture of corruption,” said Defensor Santiago after announcing her candidacy, establishing what would be her lifetime advocacy. “In this archipelago, the land of our birth, the cradle of our hopes and dreams, we find it intolerable and immoral that of 62 million Filipinos, two thirds are living at the poverty line. Why is this country so poor? Why is life so hard? The reason is plain and simple. And that reason is, because politics in this country is so corrupt.”
Through a tumultuous campaign season (surviving a near-fatal car crash in Tarlac in 1991) and an even more troublesome vote count, where she was certain of a wholesale electoral fraud, Defensor Santiago remained steadfast. “The only other candidate still in the race … is the acid-tounged former head of immigration in the Philippines, Miriam Defensor Santiago. Mrs. Santiago, who is known throughout the county simply as Miriam, has run on an anticorruption platform and has complained the loudest that the election is being stolen. But her calls for street demonstrations have fallen on deaf ears,” reported David E. Sanger for The New York Times. “Known for a dramatic flair even by Philippine standards—she recently called one congressman ‘fungus face’—Mrs. Santiago today checked herself into a hospital and began a liquid fast, ‘to the death, if necessary,’ to protest fraud.”
In 1998, Defensor Santiago, a wiser woman and in her prime, was through licking her wounds and was ready for another go at the presidency. The obstacle this time was she was up against nine other candidates, one of whom was former action star and charmer of the masses Joseph Estrada. He would later be ousted on corruption charges while serving his second term as president.
“Research shows that when women are empowered as political leaders, countries often experience higher standards of living with positive developments in education, infrastructure, and health care.”
In 2016, Defensor Santiago, a true fighter and survivor, returned yet again. “I will definitely run … I have served the government from the very beginning; I will end my career there,” she told The Philippine Star. And she did. She died a successful public servant, one of the few faces of good governance and slipped away in her sleep, peaceful and dignified on September 29, 2016.
via CNN Philippines
This is why as silly as it is to dwell on an election that happened two years ago, the great Miriam Defensor Santiago and her legacy still matter. Her loss as a leader still matters. She was the last fighter standing on the frontlines in the war against corruption (the only potically-charged war that should be waged, in my humble opinion). On one hand, while we never again will have another Miriam Defensor Santiago in this lifetime, I do remain hopeful. Perhaps someone aligned with her brand of governance will pick up the torch one day, that the spin cycle we are in as we sing our shoulda, woulda, coulda’s following elections finally ends. On the other hand, I am confronted with this reality: in a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve. And maybe we never deserved a leader as great as her.
Art Alexandra Lara