It is sad but true. Democratic government is not necessarily good government. Too often, elections yield power to the few, not the many. Injustices linger beneath the rhetoric of equality. Corruption and incompetence go on and on. Voters, alas, do not always choose wisely. And yet, in Asia and the world at large, much is at risk when democracy founders, because democracy is the hope of so many. JESSE MANALASTAS ROBREDO entered Philippine politics at a time when hope was high. As mayor of Naga City from 1988 to 1998 he demonstrated that democratic government can also be good government.
In the wake of his country's People Power Revolution in 1986, JESSE ROBREDO responded to President Corazon Aquino's call to public service. He abandoned his executive position at San Miguel Corporation to head the Bicol River Basin Development Program in Naga, his hometown. In 1988, he stood for election as mayor and won by a slim margin. He was twenty-nine.
Once the queen city of the Bicol region, Naga in 1989 was a dispirited provincial town of 120,000 souls. Traffic clogged its tawdry business district and vice syndicates operated at will. City services were fitful at best. Meanwhile, thousands of squatters filled Naga's vacant lands, despite the dearth of jobs in the city's stagnant economy. Indeed, Naga's revenues were so low that it had been downgraded officially from a first-class to a third-class city.
ROBREDO began with a strike against patronage. He introduced a merit-based system of hiring and promotion and reorganized city employees on the basis of aptitude and competence. He then moved against local vice lords, ridding Naga of gambling and smut. Next, he relocated the bus and jeepney terminals outside the city center, ending gridlock and spurring new enterprises at the city's edge. In partnership with business, he revitalized Naga's economy. Public revenues rose and by 1990 Naga was a first-class city again. ROBREDO's constituents took heart and reelected him.
Spurning bodyguards, ROBREDO moved freely among the people. By enlisting the support and active assistance of Naga's NGOs and citizens, he improved public services dramatically. He established day-care centers in each of Naga's twenty-seven districts and added five new high schools. He built a public hospital for low-income citizens. He set up a dependable twenty-four-hour emergency service. He constructed a network of farm-to-market roads and provided clean and reliable water systems in Naga's rural communities. He launched programs for youth, farmers, laborers, women, the elderly, and the handicapped -- drawing thousands into civic action in the process. No civic deed was too small, he told the people, including the simple act of reporting a broken street lamp. He sometimes swept the streets himself.
Consistently, ROBREDO prioritized the needs of the poor. Through his Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Development) program, over forty-five hundred once-homeless families moved to home-lots of their own. They became part of Naga's revival. So did a revitalized city government. Applying techniques from business, ROBREDO raised performance, productivity, and morale among city employees. As a culture of excellence overtook the culture of mediocrity at City Hall, Naga's businesses doubled and local revenues rose by 573 percent.
Reelected without opposition in 1995, ROBREDO urged the Naga City Council to enact a unique Empowerment Ordinance. This created a People's Council to institutionalize the participation of NGOs and people's organizations in all future municipal deliberations. When obliged by law to step down after his third term, the popular ROBREDO made no effort to entrench his family. His advice to would-be leaders? "You have to have credibility."
In electing JESSE ROBREDO to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his giving credence to the promise of democracy by demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.
Your Excellency President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, First Lady Luisa Ejercito Estrada, members of the Magsaysay family, distinguished guests, trustees, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
The recognition accorded me tonight is an honor that our people in Naga most deserve. It is a fitting testimonial on our faith and confidence in a democratic society where people and government actively engage with each other in forging a collective decision. Our people have proven, that given the opportunity, we can rise above our parochial interests in the pursuit of common good. Given a choice, we will opt for good government despite the attendant obligations it requires.
Last year, Asiaweek magazine acclaimed Naga City as one of the most improved cities in Asia. With a political environment that has effectively enshrined people empowerment, it has substantially achieved its development and institution-building goals. That recognition affirmed our belief that our people, given the chance, are in fact the most effective partners in our quest to improve their lot.
Our decade-long experience has taught us valuable lessons in governance, accountability and constituency involvement. We had many obstacles and pains when we started to experiment with a governance system that veered away from the traditional. During that period, we were being threatened by decadent ways that inflicted the social, political and moral fabrics of the community: rampant illegal gambling, indecent entertainment, crime, occasional abuse by the powers-that-be, poor tax collection, rising unemployment and sheer indifference. Important political benefactors, whose interests run contrary to our reform agenda, disowned us. Businessmen who were my friends but were affected by the city's honest-to-goodness tax collection campaign questioned our intentions and loyalties.
We, however, stood our ground, strengthened our resolve and entrusted our fate to the people. We brought our office beyond the walls of City Hall and promised to make Naga a better place to live in. Communication lines were opened. The people felt comfortable telling us what they want, what they need and how we could best attain them. The Naguenos soon realized that they have found an ally in us. To our critics? dismay, the people rallied behind us.
They rejected dirty politics and shun manipulations by those who have power and money. Instead they demanded for more efficient services and organized themselves into proactive sectoral groups not only as a means of extending influence but more importantly as a tool for developing themselves into responsive citizens who were sincerely involved in public affairs.
Thus, we have institutionalized the urban poor federation whose members were given access to land, employment, housing, livelihood and basic services. Women's groups were organized and trained to indulge in more productive endeavors such as livelihood development and environmental protection. Even homegrown cause-oriented groups during the tumultuous period of coups and armed confrontations asserted their role as mobilizers of popular democracy by declaring Naga City as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality.
Soon a People?s Council was forthwith established to ensure the continuing participation of NGOs and people's organizations in city deliberations.
Amidst all these are institutions of import in our community, which helped shaped the engagement between the local government and its constituency. We have an activist church that encourages us to seek and pursue the more difficult but righteous path. We have NGO and civil society groups, which now realize that their local government is a partner and not an adversary. We have academic institutions, which now seek to use its capability to address development issues affecting our locality. We have a business community, which after initial grumblings, came to realize that it is in their long-term interest that we take care of the poor and the less fortunate. We have a vigilant and free media, which despite its many excesses, nevertheless contributes to the transparent management of city affairs. In our dealings with these publics, there were a few occasions when we agreed to disagree. The relationship was however marked by tolerance, a willingness to listen and respect for the role that each one has to play.
During my tenure, a number of newsmen have tried to defame me with unfounded accusations. A few groups dismissed some of my official acts as motivated by selfish political objectives. Perhaps they may have been right and that I may have erred in a few of my judgments. But whether they were right or wrong, I had often asked myself, as a result, these questions: Should I seek another alternative course of action? Or should I consult our people further to find out if there are far better ideas than the one I had? The bottom line was a response that involved our people even more in the decision making process.
Indeed yielding power to the people is perhaps my greatest achievement as City Mayor. And the most important lesson that I have learned is that public servants should feel obliged to heed the people?s will always. Public servants are servant leaders. Their mission is "to serve and not to be served."
Thank you very much.