I hope I can give you good answers,” he says, by way of an opening gambit. “I haven’t had breakfast or lunch.”
The last six years have been like this for President Benigno S. Aquino III. It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and while his stomach is empty, his office sure isn’t. Filled to the brim with people — his press secretary, his communications team, a video crew for RTVM (the Presidential Broadcast Staff Radio-Television Malacanang), and a small crew from the Philippine STAR — the “intimate interview” we were angling to have with the man, went the way we assume a lot of “intimate” moments in his last six years have gone — surrounded by advisors, recorded by cameras, with the next appointment looming at the end of the hour.
It’s a tightrope he’s learned to walk nimbly but a tightrope just the same. Early on in his term, a lot of media attention was devoted to his love life — something that, he told us, was source for frustration. Of course, when your father is a national hero and your mother a Time magazine “Woman of the Year,” has there ever really been a clear line between the private and the public?
We catch PNoy at a time when he’s just about to transition back to life as a private citizen — or as private a citizen as a former president can be. His term has been marked by both impressive achievements (a high profile anti-corruption campaign, a bullish economy) and unfortunate events (Typhoon Yolanda, the Mamasapano clash). Still, it’s six years that most presidents would be proud of, the former sick man of Asia now suddenly a tiger economy.
“I’m predisposed to saying we never did enough,” he says. “Whatever the accomplishment is, kasi my upbringing from my parents is, if I wound up in the top 10 or I wound up in the top 3 in school, my father would say, ‘Good. When will you become top 1?’ So when we talk about service for our people, and it’s human condition that problems will always exist, at the end of each day, I have to be able to say, we’ve done everything we could today, but tomorrow let’s find out how we can do some more.”
In this exclusive interview, President Aquino talks about the last six years, why he’s “insensitive,” the trials of being a dating president, and why Game of Thrones can feel a lot like real life.
THE PHILIPPINE STAR: Thank you so much for granting us this interview, sir. It’s your last few weeks in the Palace. How have the weeks post-elections been?
PRESIDENT NOYNOY AQUINO: There’s still a lot of things that have to be done. For instance, there are so many enrolled bills that need my attention. They have to be acted upon before those deadlines and they’re still under my watch. Some of them of local importance and some of them of more significant importance…
I guess we’re still in that state of trying to solve all problems that we either inherited or incurred during our time so that we don’t pass it on to the next administration — that has been a promise that I’ve made I think from day one. And we want to make sure that we will maximize all the remaining time left to us to be able to achieve that promise. And hopefully deliver good governance — which is another mantra — up to the very last second of this administration.
We’re a long way from 2010. A lot has changed, definitely. If you could go back to 2010 and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
I had this belief. There is this concept of the thing that speaks for itself: “If you do that which is right, then there’s no need to propagandize it.” The truth just empowers everybody.
Unfortunately, in this day and age of instant information, perhaps the looseness of social media in particular, anybody posts something, it’s not vetted by anybody, and it leads to a lot of misinformation — if not outright disinformation. If there’s one thing we should have weighted a lot more time to, it’s to continuously address any and every criticism.
I’ll give you a very specific example. I watched it during election day and I had occasion to watch it again during this weekend. It talks about a school complex used as a polling place. They compared 2013 to now. They said now there are two buildings, there’s less congestion etc. — so it starts out rather good.
Then it talks about, the way I understood the report, there were 92 classrooms being used and 92 machines, one for each of these classrooms. And after that, it proceeded to talk about four of the 92 that failed. Four over 92 is actually almost like 4.37 percent. They never talked about the 95.63 percent that worked well and they highlighted that. If you’re a casual observer, you caught this 30-second or one-minute portion of the news, you think, “Wow, the election process here was so bad.” And unfortunately, that particular news program has been consistent.
When I was younger, there was this concept of balanced news. Here, by any measure, it was totally unbalanced. And I go back noh, perhaps we should’ve devoted more time to continuously answering each and every one. But in the course of governance, what you spend time in answering these unfounded criticisms, you lose in terms of attending to problems that are your responsibility. I guess there’s an envy that they can concentrate on one small thing whereas I don’t have that luxury. I had to attend to everything, preferably yesterday. Perhaps we could’ve done a better job of stating our case.
There was in fact one dialogue I had with members of the media and this was very early on. I asked, “There are so many members of the media in so many different countries who never forget they’re nationals of that country. And it’s not difficult for them to, from time to time, say something positive about their country. Why is it that we have to constantly concentrate on the negative?” We have anniversaries to repeat the angst created in particular incidences. There seems to be that drive to, if there’s anger about a particular issue, a year later, we generate the same amount of anger. I ask, how does that actually help? I think I can make a case of so many instances where they never talked about any advances that have been made to address that particular issue or even prevent the recurrence of the same.
Going back to restate it, there should’ve been more time and more effort devoted towards addressing the negativism, other than just doing our work, announcing it when necessary, and trying to dialogue. Another way of saying it is, maybe we should’ve devoted a lot more time to get them to join us in the agenda of improving this country.
These past elections have been particularly eventful for our country. Was there anything that surprised you in the last election season? What surprised you the most?
Well, siguro, first and foremost would be Senator Marcos being the top of so many surveys. We don’t keep tabs on political opponents. That’s not our function. So long as they’re not doing anything against the law, our attention is not called upon. And I guess proof of that is in a sense, we reacted a little late. The premise is that martial law is a reality understood by everybody. Over the years, but more so in this campaign period, the idea that that was a golden time for our country — a golden age — to us who underwent it, thinking that somebody would propound such an idea is such an absurdity. But it seems to have caught on with such people who looked at it with, I guess, just the headlines, other than the content of the message.
That’s one thing… The other thing I’ll reserve for myself because it talks about presumptive President-elect Duterte and I made a commitment to give him at least a year of not hearing from me, as my assistance for him to succeed. I never got the honeymoon period. I’d rather not do the same injustice to my successor.
I have to ask though. In the past week, there’s been a lot of discussion about Ferdinand Marcos being buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani. What does the idea of him being in Libingan ng mga Bayani mean to you? In your mind, in general, what is the idea behind Libingan ng mga Bayani?
It’s a place where you acknowledge service to our people and to our country. It’s an honor reserved for people worthy of praise and emulation and to my mind, anyone who is in interred there, it’s not just for the deeds of the person but his continuation of good traits and his good acts to serve as a role model. And I think people will understand why I don’t think President Marcos is a role model to be emulated.
In an interview with GQ magazine, President Obama discussed the line he has to toe between acting as Obama the Person and Obama the President when handling sensitive matters like Ferguson and Charleston. In your time, you’ve also been hounded by accusations of “insensitivity,” based on how you were perceived to have handled certain matters. So with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have handled differently? Do you think that’s something you have to work on, personally? In the past, before serving, has that ever been something brought up about you? Or is that just something that you think is more about media portrayal or perception?
Siguro I won’t blame it entirely on them. And I go back noh, I guess the reason why I’m smiling [now] is it’s kind of an absurd situation. You have to explain why you actually do something. For instance, I was being asked, if there’s a fire, why don’t I go to the fire and empathize with everybody who lost their houses. Now, a fire is usually a local concern. If there are issues of arson, there is an agency of government to find out what exactly happened, put the fire out, and find out what happened and how to prevent it in the future. DSWD is geared towards assisting both the national and local offices. But in the absence of something to put in the news, they highlight that I didn’t go to this fire or that fire. And if I go to that particular fire, and remind everybody of what they’re supposed to do, that means I don’t trust them to do their jobs and why will I criticize people who are actually doing their jobs?
Siguro I’m not the ma-drama person. President Obama is right. I’ll use him as an example. He was here and we had a dinner for him and I guess we find ourselves, as leaders of countries, in similar situations — it’s a lonely job. I’ll share this with you: in the course of the dinner, he says, ‘Look at my hair, it’s all white. “He’s about four years younger than me. So I responded, rather quickly — first, I looked at him, he really had gotten older from the first time I met him — I said, you know, better white than none. So he looks at me. He smiles.
Maybe that’s a lack of sensitivity on my part but here he is, he’s our guest, he’s unburdening himself to me and I think I unburdened him even at that instant.
I ask that question because I’ve always felt that the position you’re in calls for kind of superhuman qualities. For example, if you cough while someone’s talking, does that mean you’re uninterested, maybe you just need to cough. If you scratch your head while someone’s talking, does that mean you’re annoyed? In the same way, the media have fairly or unfairly discussed your personal life, especially your love life. Early on, you got a lot of media mileage, for better or worse, on the narrative of the bachelor president.
That was a source of frustration. I don’t speak off the cuff. When I say something, I know that it might set policy. It carries weight, therefore I study on any and every topic that I have to discuss. I deliver a speech on a particular agenda we want to propose, and the major frustration was, in a press conference after all this public engagement, I think I can count on one hand the number of times they asked me a relevant question to the topic at hand. And it’s on the record, I did ask the media, you know we’re talking about energy or security, isn’t there any question about this topic? And then they’ll tell you, “Sir, your speech is clear enough. Can we talk about other things?” That’s a major frustration. If there’s an agenda, the agenda is something else always.
How difficult was it to separate your public life from your personal life? Or is there even a possibility to separate the two?
Minsan napapakiusapan naman. Kungyari I went to a bookstore last night ata. Somebody says, they want a picture taken. They talk to the PSG. The PSG will ask, “Pwede bang patapusin lang natin mag-browse muna?” The minute you say yes to one, you have to say yes to practically everyone in the place. Okay lang naman sakin to do that eh.
What kind of operation does it entail when let’s say, it’s a free day, and you want to buy a book today or go to the bookstore or buy shoes?
It’s always in the lowest priority. When I was a congressman, we’d have sessions Monday to Wednesday. And then the rest, Thursday and Friday and Saturday probably, I’d be at the district going to different baranggays. The irony is, when NLEX and SCTEX are complete and travel time to Tarlac has really been shortened… Now, I want to go there, but now it takes me four months in order to get to Tarlac — and it’s not that far. You have to be prepared to let that go.
There’s a concert of a band you’re really interested in, something crops up, sorry na lang. You waited three or four months but there… I tell the PSG, I want to go there. They’ll set it up but once they set it up, you have to bear in mind that if something crops up, you have to be ready to cancel it.
It’s a little better now. When I was starting out, I would have to ask my sisters, can you buy me this shirt? There’s a particular staff member who’s been with me since ‘87 who takes care of my nieces and nephews and the godchildren lalo na pag Christmas—yun hindi ko na kaya yun.
When you watch a movie, mga ganon. Game of Thrones? I think I got up to season two. I was told yesterday nasa season six na ata.
So that’s first on the agenda after.
That’s part of the agenda and reading the books that interest me. I’ve been buying books knowing that I’ll be able to read them only when I step down. So last time, I managed to get four books.
May I ask what you got?
Actually, the last time, before that, I got George Orwell’s books — 1984 and Animal Farm. And then one of them was about blunders in various military campaigns. Last night was a techno-thriller author by the name of Dale Brown, two of his books. As soon as I bought it, I gave it to the person who takes care of my assets. “Paki-pack na ito. Dalhin na sa Times.” And then of course, magazines. My job entails a lot of reading but my relaxation also entails a lot of reading.
What magazines do you read?
Various magazines. When you want to take your mind off things, books on stereo equipment, cars, automotives, books on guns, history.
Actually, I couldn’t help but notice your table of CDs there.
Those are the ones that I still have to listen to.
From Anita Baker to Nina. What role has music played in your life?
An important role, I think. It accompanies me regardless of whatever. If I’m kind of lethargic and I want to energize, I put on some dance music. I’m full of energy and I need to wind down because I need to sleep already, it accompanies me. I’m sad, it accompanies me. I’m happy, it accompanies me. It depends on the mood.
What are your three deserted island albums?
That’s a good question. (Laughs). Siyempre gusto ko compilation, it depends on the mood eh.
I don’t have the title but it’s by Bukas Palad Music Ministry. The first song is Tanging Yaman, the second song is Pagiging Bukas Palad—parang ganoon ata yung title. That’s for when you really want to calm down. You listen to religious songs.
Of course, you want some dance music there. Problema lang it’s still a lot of the one-hit wonders that’s why you want to say, pwede bang compilation na lang?
I like female jazz vocalists. I’ll choose two. One is Diane Schuur and the other is Renee Olstead, one or the other.
Your family is famously close. In a way, if there’s a national tree or a national dish, the Aquinos are almost like the national family. With that said, how big a priority is it for you to have kids? What kind of father do you think you’ll be?
Napa-ubo ka, sir.
(Laughs) It’s a perpetual sinus condition.Kausap ko yung mga doctors ko eh. Paano ba natin mababawasan ito? “Sleep appropriately, eat at the right time, rest.” Parang malabo ata yun. (Laughs)
Anyway, I have friends who had difficulty getting children. They were getting a bit depressed. In my generation, if you’re not wed, then that’s an issue. The process is find the right person then have the children. You already half the equation. I’m still tackling the first half of the equation. So if I’m not depressed, perhaps you should also be not depressed.
But having said that, how would I be as a father? Perhaps you should ask Jonty [Cruz, Young STAReditor]. I’m his godfather. There have been instances where I was severe but there are instances also where they’d say I was easiest to access among my siblings. Sakin binubuhos yung mga problema nila, yung mga hindi masabi sa mga magulang nila.
A few weeks ago, Bimby, stopped me in my tracks, he said, “Can I ask you a question?” Some eight-year-old kid, ano ba yung question na ito na he has to ask permission to ask the question? Gaano kayaka-severe? It turns out he just wanted to know if the Batman cape he had on was made of leather or not. [Laughs]
I still go back to the same formula. Find the right person — siguro yun yung first priority. The second is, kapag may children, talagang blessing. And I always say that if I get married, that’s God’s way of telling me, peace time na yung buhay mo. Pero habang wala pa, mukhang madami pa.
On that note, let’s talk about legacy. As someone who’s both benefitted from the idea of legacy and been burdened by it, how important is legacy to you? Do you think a person is defined by the legacy he leaves behind?
I think a person is defined by the actions he took when he had to undertake them. The legacy portion is really living a worthwhile life or not. When God calls me and says “Finished or not finished, pass your papers,” I want to be able to say, sulit naman yung ginawa ko sa mundong ito. May nakinabang. Being in this position has given me that opportunity to affect millions of people.
How important is legacy? I’d like to be able to say the decisions that were made were the right decisions given the information we had at the point we were deciding. And legacy takes care of itself.
If I keep focusing on how I will look, does that help in maximizing the positive benefits I’ve accrued from these decisions? And I think that would detract if I keep saying, how will I look 10 years from now, 15 years from now? As opposed to just tackling what is right and what is wrong.
What do you worry about regarding the next six years? Do you have any anxiety about the transition back to private life? Because I’m sure there’s going to be a big adjustment–
I’m looking forward to becoming a private citizen.
Sir, do you remember the time when your mother stepped down from the presidency? Is there any specific lesson from that time that you think you can learn from or apply?
There’s a picture I have in Tarlac, of her and President Ramos. The smile on my mother’s face was, I think, a lot wider than President Ramos’. I think if you compare our picture as a family and President Ramos’ family, you will see that we have bigger smiles than they do. We did our roles, hopefully there is no need to perform that role again sometime in the future… You reminded me, you know, after she became private citizen Cory Aquino, she tried to go to the grocery and I don’t know how many times [she went where] all she managed to do was buy a toothbrush or a bar of soap because there were so many people who wanted to talk to her and get photos taken or whatever. Now that I recall it, sana naman hindi ako ganon. Probably at least two years before people in the community got used to seeing her again and let her have some space.
So what are you looking forward to doing on your first weekend as a private citizen?
June 30 is a Thursday? (Looks to his aides) June 30 itself, somewhere thereabouts, I want to have a “thank you” dinner for my Cabinet. There are so many offers for various lunches and dinners to say thank you and I keep saying, “Ayoko na mang-abala.”
That first weekend? Probably out of town, probably Tarlac. I’ll go to Tarlac, leisurely pace papunta doon, leisurely pabalik. Now, if I get to drive to Tarlac, just getting on NLEX already produces a sense of relief eh, immediate recharge right away. And when you get back home naman, the closer I get to Nagtahan Bridge, the slower I drive. It will be a really nice change of pace. I can go somewhere and there’s no pressure to go back as soon as you arrive there, maybe Baguio or Tagaytay.
Right after elections, I felt like a lot of weight was lifted from my shoulders, talagang may definite na. May pupuntahan na talaga ito. Concrete that there’s somebody who will now take over.
Parang ang dami kong gustong gawin pero part of it is getting used to living in Times St. again and touching base with the neighbors. Finding out where the good comfort food is, what still exists, what doesn’t anymore — simple things like that. Perhaps ano, watch whatever the current movie is while it’s current. (Laughs)
Watch the current Games of Thrones episode on the week it comes out?
Baka not right away. [Laughs] You know, I think it was Ricky Carandang who suggested I watch it. Sabi ko, ‘Ricky, para namang trabaho rin natin yung nangyayari diyan. Imbis na relax, pinapa alala lang niyan mga problema.’
And siyempre everybody has the ambition to write his own book. So I’m talking to Manolo Quezon and we’ve been jotting down notes. The first book I’m really interested in writing is a compilation of all the jokes we made that made us laugh during times na medyo talagang sobrang serious… [Laughs]
And those are books we’re all going to look forward to.
“How important is legacy? I’d like to be able to say the decisions that were made were the right decisions given the information we had at the point we were deciding. And legacy takes care of itself.”
“At the end of the day, I think we’ve proven, as a people, that we can rise up to any challenges put before us…
We’ve replaced the idea of making all the excuses to not fulfill the mission because we don’t have this or we don’t have that. Hopefully, that will continue.”
Produced by Jonty Cruz