I'm sharing with you Secretary Robredo's speech during our commencement exercises. It is only now that I have fully "heard" what he said. Hopefully, it also touches your heart as it did mine.
Ateneo de Manila
March 29, 2003
FOLLOW YOUR HEART; PURSUE YOUR DREAM
BY JESSE M. ROBREDO
CITY MAYOR, NAGA CITY
Reverend Fr. Ben Nebres,
Distinguished Members of the Board of Trustees,
Reverend Fathers of the Society of Jesus,
My Dear Graduates, My Dear Parents,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am deeply honored to be your Commencement Speaker today.
I must confess though, that I do not consider myself prominent enough to merit the
invitation. More so, because I come from that other equally distinguished school along
Taft Avenue. Nevertheless, like I always do when called upon, I will give it my best
Humbly I stand before you today. Humbly I relish the thought that perhaps one of the
reasons why you have chosen me as your Commencement Speaker is that you want me to
share with you our experiences in Naga City and the lessons we have learned.
You, my dear graduates, might wonder why after six years in the comfort of the private
sector, I decided to involve myself in the murky world of local politics.
It is not common that we find young men and women, at their early stage, stake their
future in politics. The old fashioned way is for older or more seasoned men, especially
those who have been successful in their profession, to indulge in politics as a rewarding
refuge. In my case, I simply wanted to go home and see what I can share to the city of my
A STRONG HEART
Fifteen years ago, a politician relative of mine asked me to run for mayor in Naga City. I
was barely 29 years old then, a virtual unknown in the political arena. It was a difficult
time to survive for anybody with Marcos connection. It was an easy time to thrive for
anyone with the spirit of EDSA. Thus, even if I was able to garner only 24% of the votes,
I nonetheless made it to City Hall.
What I got into was a city in shambles. The city government had a huge budgetary
deficit; City Hall employees were underpaid, their morale was low; the local economy
was sluggish; and the central business district was a classic example of disorder and
I had a weak mandate, made even weaker by a system of political patronage. But I did
not have an equally weak heart. I knew in my mind the kind of governance we would
pursue. The options were clear. We either provide a leadership that was exclusive and
authoritarian or a leadership that was inclusive and consultative ----- a leadership that
imposes its will on its constituency or a leadership that encourages people participation
We understood that we did not have the monopoly of wisdom. We felt that we should
know when to lead and when to be led.
We chose to take the side of our constituency. We fully wagered our political future on
their response. To secure their confidence, we tackled long-standing problems that beset
the city --- vice, urban blight, red tape, graft and corruption, and poor tax collection. We
organized and reached out to all the sectors of the city --- the sidewalk vendors, drivers,
urban poor, farmers, labor groups, professional circles, business federations, nongovernment organizations and even religious associations.
We viewed the poor, of which Naga had plenty, as our partners and assets. We launched
Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Deveopment) Program, a program that has so far
provided security of tenure to 5,000 squatter families. Today, they are proud owners of
homelots in neighborhoods that speak of their dignity as empowered citizens of the city.
Working with the poor, we resolved long-standing land tenure problems dating back to
the 1950s. Such was our success that no less than the United Nations Center for Human
Settlements made our program a model in the 1996 Habitat II Conference in Turkey.
We viewed our constituency, regardless of their political affiliations, as our partners and
assets. We enacted a People Empowerment Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country,
which instituted the Naga City People’s Council. This Council, a federation of over a
hundred non-government and people’s organizations, has representatives who are
empowered to propose legislations and vote at the committee level of the city council.
Today we engage ourselves in a program that looks at every Nagueno as the focal point
of what government enterprise is all about. We call it the i-Governance Program. It not
only recognizes the citizen’s right to know but also encourages them to engage their
government by freely providing them with information on what their elected leaders are
accountable for. It has two basic tools: the Naga City Citizen’s Charter, the first of its
kind in the country and the
empower the citizen by promoting transparency and accountability. It makes accessible to 3
every citizen the services of the city by detailing step-by-step procedure to avail each of
the services, the standard response time for the delivery of the service and the city official
responsible for its delivery. It also features the city’s budget and procurements, bidding
notices and other finances so that the people would know where their taxes are being
spent. Because of transparent governance and accessibility of information, construction
of roads and purchases of supplies and medicines cost much less in Naga City than
The People Empowerment Ordinance has resulted in a dramatic rebound for the City of
Naga. By the end of my third term as city mayor in 1998, we have regained our stature
as the premier city of the Bicol Region. Quantitatively this meant that Naga City posted
one of the highest growth rates in the country at 6.5% per year from 1995 to 1998 ---- one
of the lowest rate of poverty incidence at 29%, compared to the region’s 50%. Also,
Naga City’s average household income is 42% higher than the national average and
126% higher than the regional average.
The rebound was described by Asiaweek Magazine as “more institutional than physical”
even as it acclaimed Naga City as one of the 4 Most Improved Cities in Asia in 1999. For
similar reasons, Naga City was presented the Dubai-UNCHS International Award for the
10 World’s Best Practices in Urban Governance and for its Participatory Planning
Initiatives in 1998.
Why am I relating to you all these, my dear graduates?
It is because in some Asian countries and even in our beloved country, people say that
democratic principles cannot work, and that the Oriental model of “ruling with a hard
hand” is the call of the hour.
We disagree. At least at the local level – in Naga City – people’s participation in
governance works. Out experience in Naga is our best argument against the traditional
and authoritarian ways in managing people and government.
The quality of life in Naga City may not be at par with those of the developed countries
but what Naga City lacked in material wealth is compensated by its sense of community
– how its citizens interact with their fellowmen – with how its scarce resources are shared
– with how misfortunes and natural calamities are met with resilience.
I do believe that the goal of government is not simply to put as much food on the table for
as many people as possible. Government must engage the hearts and minds of people to
make these efforts sustainable. Government must make people experience that people in
government are not masters but servants.
Our experience has shown that our people are our best resource and our best hope. Our
experience, and that of many others, has shown that if we cannot do it at the national
level, we can begin at the local level. Collectively, successful local governments, driven
by constituencies who are well informed, constructively engaged, and willing to share the
burden of community building, can build our country.
Despite all our problems, I know we shall overcome. It just might be a matter of
changing course. It just might be a matter of leading from the bottom rather than being
herded by the top.
Again, why am I relating to you all these, my dear graduates?
It is because I am certain that many of you will be leaders of our country someday. When
I met with some of you a few weeks ago, someone said that at least four of you wanted to
become President of the country. But is it not ironic that while many of our leaders have
succeeded in achieving their personal goals, the country has lagged behind? Maybe, it is
because they have failed to make heroes out of the ordinary Filipino. Maybe it is because
they have relied solely on their own capacities, rather than on the contributions of the
ordinary people they are responsible for.
MAKING HEROES OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Not all of you will graduate with honors or with distinctions. Only a few will be
privileged to receive medals and honors. But all of you tonight will come up this stage
and be honored with an Ateneo diploma.
Not that I am giving less importance to the honor graduates. We know that they have
significant roles to play. But I would like to focus more on the majority of the graduates
this year. I was just like one of you when I graduated from college in 1980. To you, I
address my experience in Naga City --- for it is our kind, the ordinary, regular kid on the
bloc, who made the City of Naga rise over its difficulties.
Our political history has shown that we have put the burden of running this country on
our “best” people for too long. And yet the gap between the rich and the poor has grown
wider. For this country to succeed, we need to make heroes of the ordinary Filipino. We
need to make heroes of ourselves.
I must say that the ordinary employees --- the revenue collector, the maintenance worker
and the street sweeper --- have made the success of Naga possible. In Naga City, we have
a woman street sweeper, who held on to her broom for twenty years. Literally, she had
swept every square inch of the city’s business district. But through sheer determination,
she was able to finish her secondary studies in a night school and graduated, at 54, with a
bachelor’s degree. This was some 8 years after her daughters had theirs. To her the City
of Naga conferred the Mayoral Award for becoming an inspiration to ordinary citizens,
one who despite overwhelming odds, has risen above them. Today her broom has 5
become a diploma. The woman was not an honor graduate --- but an ordinary citizen,
struggling to make life better for her family.
Why am I relating this to you, my dear graduates, and my dear ladies and gentlemen?
It is because the world today lacks the values that used to mould the disposition and the
character of the ordinary citizen.
The world today has so developed that layers upon layers of behavioral patterns and
lifestyles have virtually hidden what is basic and essential in life. As one tired and retired
government employee remarked, “One learns many things when one gets to be my age.
But one has to unlearn many more things that one has gathered with age.”
The world today, despite the advances in science and technology, has yet to learn about
how to live, what to do, and how to be.
In pre-school, as bestseller writer Robert Fulghum observed, we used to be taught these:
“Share everything. Play fair. Do not cheat. Put things back where you find them. Clean
up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. When you go out into the world,
hold hands and stick together.”
How sad ---after ten years in basic education and four years in higher education -- we
seem to have forgotten the basic tenets learned in pre-school.
When graduates go out into the world of business or politics or entertainment or
government service, will they still “share everything”, “play fair”, “put things back where
they find them” and “clean their own mess”?
When graduates go out into the world, will they not cheat, will they not take things that
aren’t theirs, will they hold hands and stick together?
Our experience in Naga City is nothing but our personal encounter with the necessity of
returning to the basics of governance --- a return to the essential meaning of service --- a
return to what is simple and practical --- a return to that state when ordinary people
actively participate in the affairs of the government --- a return to the values that our
forefathers taught us: the value of honesty, hard work, of fairness and most all the holy
fear of a just God.
SMALL FISH IN A BIG POND
This Address will not be complete without venturing to answer the question as to where
will you go from here.
Should you choose to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?
Whatever your doubts are, follow your heart. When I left San Miguel Corporation, in
1986, to serve the government, many well-meaning friends advised me not to. But I 6
knew that serving home was where my heart was. I must say that desire and commitment
far outweigh knowledge and skill. The latter can be learned. Without the former, your
life’s work will be a profession and not a vocation. Find your own niche. Chance careers
if you must. But make sure you succeed. You must always remember that you cannot
give what you do not have. Measure success in terms of how pleased you are with what
you have done and not as to how other people define it, with its attendant perks.
Choose the path where you can make the most out of yourselves, while at the same time
helping others make the most out of themselves. Later on in life, you will realize that it is
neither your successes nor your conquests that will give you satisfaction. It is your
contribution that really matters – paying back what you owe the community that nurtured
THE CHILD IN US
Let me end by narrating to you the conversations I had with Grade 6 pupils of a public
school in Panicuason, a mountain barangay in Naga City, and some four years ago.
Some of these children had to walk 3 to 4 kilometers daily just to attend school. Among
the things I asked them was what their ambitions in life were? A boy said he wanted to be
a doctor someday. I asked him why. He said he wanted to be a doctor because there was
no doctor in the barangay. When somebody gets sick, the patient has to be transported to
downtown Naga, 16 kilometers away, to get medical attention. A girl said he wanted to
be a teacher so that she would make sure that all the children in her barangay would go to
school. She was saddened because some children were asked to tend the farm even on
schooldays. Another boy said he wanted to be an engineer so he would improve the roads
and provide irrigation systems for the farmers.
Like all of us, all of them wanted to be somebody someday. But despite their
deprivations and difficulties, they were all for a noble purpose – to be of service to others.
Not one of them said that it was for fame, money or power. They were so young, yet
they know what was good for their community and for others.
As you leave your beloved Alma Mater and pursue your own dreams, do not forget the
child in you. Keep in your hearts always the Ateneo idealism of being men and women
for others. Hold on to it because I am sure you will do no wrong if you keep that idealism
as your guiding light.
Congratulations. Good evening.