By Raïssa Robles
Mar Roxas was far from his usual debonair and dapper self when he was presented at the presidential palace as the new Interior and Local Governments Secretary yesterday. In fact he looked unkempt and tired, in need of sleep and a hair comb.
I was intrigued to see him this way.
You see, I started tracking Mar‘s career in 1999 when Asiaweek Magazine asked me to pick out two of the Philippines’ rising political stars. One of those I picked was Mar Roxas. The other was Michael Defensor. Both had zoomed into the limelight as the Spice Boys who later played high-profile roles in the impeachment of then President Joseph Estrada. The third Spice Boy was Migz Zubiri but I did not interview him because I was told to only pick out two highly-promising young politicians.
I chose Mar Roxas who came from the upper class and Michael Defensor who rose from the upper-middle class.
As their careers flourished, I was amused to see that Mar Roxas used the Asiaweek feature I wrote on him as some sort of endorsement. In his biographies online, you will note the sentence that – “In 1999, Roxas was named by the Asiaweek Magazine as “Political Leader of the New Millennium”. This was my profile on him.
Later, Mar Roxas and Michael Defensor chose divergent paths: Mike decided to keep his political wagon hitched to that of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo amid calls for her to resign after the “Hello Garci” scandal broke out in 2005; while Mar broke away from Arroyo.
Mar dazzled but….
When I interviewed Mar for Asiaweek 13 years ago, he dazzled me with his sharp wit, his mile-a-minute answers and his wide knowledge on all sorts of subjects.
I was pleased to learn he even cooked.
Then Asiaweek instructed me to ask Mar to pose for a “quirky” photo to be snapped by noted photographer Edwin Tuyay (now clicking away for Bloomberg and weddings). I told Mar about it and he volunteered to pose for the camera while cooking a meal in his family mansion in Cubao with his chef’s hat. “I’ll cook for you,” he said and named a date.
Relieved, I told Edwin about it. Then Mar phoned and said he wanted a different kind of photo because posing like a chef did not seem “dignified”. OK, I said and asked what he had in mind. We set another day for the photo shoot. Then he phoned again and canceled.
And then I told Edwin just to go ahead and shoot without me anytime because I still had other assignments to do.
This incident made me think that Mar Roxas could not make up his mind.
This perception of Mar Roxas was bolstered years later when a Filipino diplomat told me of that time when Mar Roxas was President Arroyo’s trade secretary. Mar was supposed to meet with his counterpart in a European country. Everything was set for the meeting, then he canceled at the last minute to the consternation of those who had made all the arrangements.
The same kind of vacillation is noticeable in his running for president. He doesn’t seem to want it as much as Jejomar Binay does. He doesn’t seem to have that raw hunger for power.
This attitude of Mar shows in my interview with him for Asiaweek. Sorry. I cannot for the moment find the printed version on the Time-CNN-Asiaweek website. I found my draft and I’m reprinting it below.
Outside his comfort zone
When Mar Roxas assumed the post of DILG yesterday, you could see in his body language that this was a challenge to him and that he was out of his comfort zone. Watch the way he moves to the podium in this GMA News TV video. Watch the way he looks.
What I found fascinating in this tragedy is the way the real Mar Roxas – without the silver spoon and the well-pressed suits – has emerged.
Perhaps it is not public knowledge that Mar Roxas and Jesse Robredo were very close and very good friends.
It is for this reason that they could horse around and come out with a picture like the one below. Very undignified compared to wearing a chef’s hat.
It is also for this reason that Mar Roxas’ voice broke when he announced that his friend’s body had been found.
Mar Roxas was not kidding when he said he was no Jesse Robredo and that Robredo’s slippers were too big to fill. The two shared corporate backgrounds but had different styles. Robredo found a way to engage wary Muslim politicians and even members of the opposition.
It will now be Mar Roxas’ task to similarly engage them. Especially the Muslim political leaders who gave him a political trouncing in 2010 for his stance against the formation of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity under the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
UPDATE 9:08AM. September 2, 2012:
Many commenters have said it is a good thing that Mar Roxas seems reluctant to become president. And that he said Robredo’s tsinelas are too big to fill. There is one other Filipino politician who had uttered a similar line and he literally meant it. That was Agapito “Butz” Aquino who blurted it out after his brother Ninoy was assassinated and people started clamoring for him to step in – Ninoy’s “shoes are too big to fill.”
Butz Aquino tried. He ran for the Senate and won in 1987 and again in 1992. But from 1998 to 2007 he settled on being a congressman.
So at this point, I really don’t know what Mar Roxas meant when he said Robredo’s tsinelas are “too big to fill.”
If you look at Mar Roxas’ political career, aside from his congressional stint he has avoided political postings in the Executive branch of government and opted for technocrat-type of assignments. This is his first political portfolio.
The Binay camp is of course wary that Mar Roxas will use the DILG post to drum up his presidential ambition. If Mar Roxas is wise, he will continue Jesse Robredo’s straight, impartial and fair way of dealing with local government executives of all political stripes. And strangely, that course of action might even propel Mar Roxas to the presidency.
But does he really want to be president?
He was asked that last Friday and as usual, he gave a noncommittal answer. I don’t know if that is a political strategy on his part to do the opposite of what Vice President Binay did.
My own attitude to presidential elections has always been to keep an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.
Meanwhile, let me share with you the draft of the profile on Mar Roxas I wrote for Asiaweek in 1999, naming him one of Asia’s rising political stars for this millennium:
Congressman Manuel Roxas is bent on cooking up a new recipe for a political dynasty in case he decides to continue what his grandfather built. He’s not quite decided yet because to him, becoming president of the Philippines like his grandfather Manuel or a senator like his father Gerardo is “not the be-all and end-all of life”.
But meanwhile, he’s busy working his butt off, “trying to leave the place a little bit better” in his third and last term as congressman. At 42, he is the youngest and best educated House majority floor leader in legislative history, having attended Wharton School of Economics-Pennsylvania University and the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government. The neophyte politician was picked for the post because of his bulldog tenacity to make things happen – he was able to get three of his own measures passed.
Often speaking at a rapid clip as ideas tumble out of his super-fast mind, he disclosed that he has adopted to his job the investment banker’s work principle: “For every 10 things I work on, one happens. For every 10 things that happen, three are definite failures, five are mediocre successes and one or two are good successes.”
Most congressmen are strangers beyond their home district but the World Economic Forum took notice of him three years back as among the world’s 100 individuals under 50 who will shape the future. The rich bachelor scion proudly told Asiaweek that while on his own in New York as an investment banker with Allen and Company, he arranged deals that created cable TV’s highly popular Discovery Channel and TriStar Pictures which put together CBS, Columbia Pictures and Time Warner-HBO. The Forum recognized him for making that great big leap from business to politics. But then, Roxas was born and bred a political animal.
It was always understood he too would someday serve his time, even though political life has been traumatic for the Roxas clan – his grandfather died barely two years into the presidency; his father was up for presidential nomination when the strongman Ferdinand Marcos declared military rule, barred all elections and made all politicians redundant; and his younger brother died while in office as congressman, which prodded Roxas to take his place.
Investment banking and 14 years of living on his own, including cooking his own meals, tweaked his mind into viewing old problems in a new way. “Investment banking is let’s make a deal while politics is the art of what’s possible,” he said, noting the similarity. To resolve the problem of allocating scarce education funds, he got a law passed, providing an apolitical formula which tied funding size to the area’s student population. Capiz province, his political bailiwick in central Philippines, has successfully adopted his “Consolidated Planning Process”. Simply put, he cajoled and threatened fellow Capiz congressmen, mayors, village leaders and the governor into pooling all their government money (including his own “pork barrel fund”), and spending these on a collectively agreed set of priorities. “This is now institutionalized and participants themselves have taken ownership of the process.”
In place of the old political habit of patronage, he desires people empowerment.
He sees the latter strengthening with the rise of non-government organizations: “People are acquiring skills on how to organize themselves.”
But the other trend of mass labor migration worries and excites him. It has given rise to single parent households, making one-third of Filipino families dysfunctional. “The next generation of kids would not have enjoyed that simmer, that slow cook for the flavors to seep in,” causing their psychological development and values to be “half-baked”, he said. At the same time, “you have five million people who have seen other countries doing things. It rises the bar of expectation.”
He expressed optimism that politicians, being market animals, would respond to such changing market demands. Which is why he believes he has a political future should he wish to pursue it. “I’m a believer in the market. The market will recognize a good product when it sees one.”