HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 1983 she had become the youngest presiding judge in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. Known as the “Fighting Judge,” she handled a record fifty cases a month by refusing to tolerate delays and postponements. She gained a reputation for strict impartiality in applying the law. “No bribes or extortion” was the first rule of her courtroom.
  • As commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO set out to show that a “traditionally corrupt government agency can be reformed.” 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.
  • Confronting the staggering consequences of her country’s graft-driven “open-door” immigration system, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO sought simple yet effective solutions: self-deportation with amnesty for certain illegal aliens, and, for close to 500,000 other overstaying foreigners, an opportunity to legalize their Philippine residency. The hefty fee the latter pay goes to the state, not to bribe-takers.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes her bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a graft-ridden government agency.

 CITATION

Moral authority is the bedrock of democracy. Where corruption undermines public trust, even a popularly elected government can lose its legitimacy. All public servants are therefore called upon to keep the faith and discharge their duties honestly.

The Philippines today struggles against a debilitating legacy. Continuing scarcity for the majority, combined with years of uninhibited greed in high places, has corroded public morality. To some in government, selective application of the rules has become a lucrative way of life. Despite the call for a new national moral order after February 1986, the culture of corruption went on unabated.

Few agencies were so notoriously corrupt as the Commission on Immigration and Deportation. Here, bribe-taking officials enriched themselves on the anxieties of overstaying foreigners and on rackets in fake documents and marriages. So-called fixers prowled the immigration building. At the airport, “hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” inspectors ushered paperless arrives into the country for a fee. All this until January 1988 when MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO took charge as commissioner.

Forty-three-year-old DEFENSOR SANTIAGO had won laurels as a student and excelled as a legal scholar. In 1983 she had become the youngest presiding judge in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. Known as the “Fighting Judge,” she handled a record fifty cases a month by refusing to tolerate delays and postponements. Resisting pressure from high officials and the military, she gained a reputation for strict impartiality in applying the law. Setting the example personally, she insisted that the employees be efficient, competent, and honest. “No bribes or extortion” was the first rule of her courtroom.

As commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO set out to show that a “traditionally corrupt government agency can be reformed.”

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.

At the same time, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO inaugurated streamlined, “user-friendly” immigration procedures to eliminate the need for fee-charging intermediaries. She set up an Express Lane Service, the surcharge for which now provides bonuses and overtime pay for her staff. And she lobbied for higher employee salaries.

Confronting the staggering consequences of her country’s graft-driven “open-door” immigration system, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO sought simple yet effective solutions: self-deportation with amnesty for certain illegal aliens, and, for close to 500,000 other overstaying foreigners, an opportunity to legalize their Philippine residency. The hefty fee the latter pay goes to the state, not to bribe-takers.

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.

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.”

In electing MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO to receive the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a graft-ridden government agency.

 RESPONSE

I accept this award on behalf of the officials and employees of the Commission on Immigration and Deportation of the Philippines.

When I assumed my position as commissioner in January 1988 the office did not enjoy an unsullied reputation. In fact, it was regarded as one of the most notoriously corrupt agencies in the Philippine government. For a former judge and law professor like myself to accept the post was tantamount to a death wish. But I decided that it was my moral duty to brave the perils of bureaucratic darkness. It was a way of paying my dues to society—for it has been kind to those who, like me, rose from the ranks of genteel poverty.

The twin dragons that guarded the door to bureaucratic integrity were corruption and criminality. These two cultures interfaced with and supported each other. Corrupt employees protected alien criminals, who in turn cultivated in the employees a fatal attraction to illicit incomes and flamboyant lifestyles. We set out to slay the double-headed monster.

We arrested and deported members of alien criminal syndicates, with particular attention to those who were busy earning for Manila the reputation of the fake passport capital of Asia. Also high in the order of battle were syndicates specializing in moral damage to Philippine culture, i.e., those engaged in the rape of our people through illegally procuring infants for adoption in Europe, maintaining child prostitution communities for alien pederasts, and procuring “mail-order brides” and “entertainers” for prostitution abroad. We did not win the friendship of our enemies, but, I hope, we earned their fear and respect.

At the same time, we tried to clean up our own backyard, which was infested with “fixers.” The fixer invents or exaggerates a bureaucratic problem so that he can fix it for a fee. He can be either a government employee or a private person who operates as the adjunct of a corrupt employee. The fixer, like a poisonous mushroom, proliferates in an environment of neglect; therefore, we designed an environment to make the fixer obsolete.

To eliminate the role of the fixer as a bureaucratic panacea, we are making basic information available to our constituents through published booklets of instruction, which now include the Immigration Manual, Legalization Rules and Regulations, Deportation Rules of Procedure, and, before the end of this year, Immigration Law. To eliminate the fixer’s role as an agent of speed in a milieu of delay, we opened the Express Lane Service, which enables the alien to obtain his documentation on the same working day that he flies his application, if he pays a small overtime fee. The overtime fees are accumulated in a trust fund and distributed monthly to employees on top of their salaries. By such means we may not have converted immigration employees to virtue overnight, but I hope we have helped them to see the light.

Have we slain the twin monsters of corruption and criminality? Not yet. Then what have we achieved? Three things:

First, we have sent a signal to the alien criminal community that the Philippine government means to operate under an impersonal system of laws, not a personalistic system of bribery and unethical influence. The Philippines is a developing state struggling with the problem of poverty, but the necessity for “financial aid” ends where foreign exploitation begins.

Second, we have upheld the retention factor in the Philippine bureaucracy. Rather than resorting to the arbitrary mass removal of allegedly corrupt employees, we chose the more difficult path of reorientation, concurrently implementing values education and financial amelioration. We seek to energize the bureaucracy by its own moral and political will. We aim to develop a power base, consisting of the best, rather than the worst, in the Filipino character.

Third, and finally, we proved to our constituency that we can effect a turnaround in the culture of corruption. The race is worth running, the conflict is worth fighting; this is the good fight. President Corazon C. Aquino, with her shining virtues of impregnable honesty and faithful resolve, deserves the support of all men and women of goodwill. The Filipino people deserve good government.

Once, in my third week in office, I went home at midnight. I tiptoed to the bedroom of my two sons, one of whom is six years old. I had not talked to them for three straight days because I was focused on the almost insurmountable problems in the office. I attempted to wake up my boys so that I could at least perform the maternal function of wishing them good night and sweet dreams. But they were snug in their beds, and I failed to wake them. It was then, in the midnight darkness, deeply anxious about the physical safety of my children because of the death threats against me, that I broke down and wept. I felt exhausted beyond human endurance. I felt abandoned in a savage jungle of iniquity and malice. I confronted the naked face of evil, and although I did not yield, I am not unscarred.

And yet, ladies and gentlemen, I retain my basic faith that I am not alone. This award proves it. The campaign against corruption and criminality is not mine alone; it is carried forward by the Commission on Immigration and Deportation employees, by President Aquino, and by the Filipino people. By the grace of God, and with the help of old friends in the international community, we shall, at the end of the long and tortuous road, claim our just victory, for surely the Infinite Administrator, even now, arranges the universe, in order that immutable good shall triumph over the vincible forces of evil.

 BIOGRAPHY

MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO learned to take charge early in life. As a precocious child and the eldest of seven, she was running the household well before she was out of grade school. Her mother was a career woman who eschewed housework, so responsibility for the daily marketing, for supervising the family’s untrained village maids, and for organizing her younger brothers and sisters to do their chores devolved upon her. She also saw to it that the Defensor brood arrived promptly and well-scrubbed for weekly catechism classes and Catholic mass. Discipline was her mother’s watchword, and young MIRIAM came to accept her authoritarian, achievement-oriented environment as “the natural working of the universe.”

In the central Visayan port city of Iloilo, where MIRIAM was born on 15 June 1945, the Defensor family enjoyed high status but little wealth. Her father, Benjamin Defensor, was a lawyer and trial judge; her mother, Dimpna Palma, was a locally prominent educator. They circulated socially among Iloilo’s elite, but the family budget had to be managed carefully to make ends meet, and, until MIRIAM was nine years old, the family occupied a modest house with a nipa (palm frond) roof. MIRIAM’S playmates were equally poor; together they fashioned homemade toys from sardine cans and bottle caps and played happily in the sand. “We enjoyed the luxury of filth,” MIRIAM says looking back.

MIRIAM DEFENSOR was enrolled in the kindergarten of Lincoln School, later called Lincoln College, the private school where her mother was dean. She quickly demonstrated her insistence on fair play. When her kindergarten teacher’s niece teased her one day by repeatedly erasing her work from the blackboard, MIRIAM lost patience, grabbed the girl’s hair, and wrestled her to the floor. “My teacher never forgave me,” she says, explaining why she graduated only sixth in her kindergarten class—one of the few times in her school career when she was not first.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)