Mar Roxas: The Business of Politics

by Danton Remoto
Published in ROGUE MAGAZINE
February 2008


It is 5:30 a.m. at the central market of Iloilo City. The haze of sleep is still on my eyelids, and I rub them to wake me up. Two “Mr. Palengke” tarpaulins of Senator Manuel Roxas II had been hung in front of the entrances to the market. As the door of the van bearing the senator opens, the “Mr. Suave” song transformed into the Mr. Palengke jingle booms in the air. Market vendors and buyers stop what they are doing, look to the left and then to the right, espy a man in blue coming towards them, and rush to him. “Tuod na Ilonggo!” they say to each other, a pointed rebuke at recent senatorial candidates who claimed they were Ilonggo but could speak not a word of the language, not even palangga, hala!. Then, the market vendors and buyers talk to the senator in the gentle diphthongs of the south. The young men dance, the older women crowd around him and kiss him on the cheek. The photographers’ bulbs flash, the VCR runs, and the crowd around me exclaims: “Magidalagan na sa 2010!”

Mar Roxas has not announced any plans, yet, of running as President in 2010. He just said to Ricky Carandang at ANC that he would make a better job of the presidency than its current occupant does. Mar flew to the south, to his bailiwick of Panay Island, to feel the people’s pulse. He talked to market vendors and mayors, street sweepers and students. He inaugurated the Gerry Roxas Market Annex in Santa Barbara, checked the prices of market produce in Pototan, went to two radio stations and attended Governor Tupas’s birthday in Iloilo City. He had a cold, yes, and coughs tore through his voice as he spoke, but the meetings had been planned weeks before, and the people were waiting to see him. He plunged into the meetings and speeches like he was born to do so.

But it has not always been the case. He may be the grandson of President Manuel Roxas, the son of Senator Gerardo Roxas, and the son of Judy Araneta Roxas, but reluctant politician he seemed to be. He went to the Ateneo de Manila University for his grade school and high school and took some units in college before he flew to the States to study at the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I remember Ateneo with fondness because of the values that I imbibed along the way and the friends I made there. I still see them up to the present. The funny thing is, even when I was no longer in the Ateneo, when I would be home for a vacation, I would hang out in the school. That was the easiest way to connect with friends. On the other hand, I still remember the values taught at the Ateneo. These values continue to guide and influence my decision-making. These values include the all-encompassing ones of making a difference, being a man for others, and an agent for social change. I try to apply them until now, on a day-to-day basis, on whatever decisions I make, and whatever issues that arise.”

At Wharton, some of the courses he took in Ateneo were credited, but they were not enough to constitute a full semester. So he basically started from scratch. “Wharton was
an entirely different experience. Most of my classmates and peers then were very driven, very focused, and very clear as to what their goals were and how they were going to go about attaining them. And it was not just passing school. Their goal-setting included the job, the lifestyle, the city and the house they were going to live in. My experience in Wharton transformed me into somebody who is much more serious about things and less happy-go-lucky. Most of my present advocacies as they relate to the youth are rooted in that experience – where you can have somebody in their teens actually map out where they want to end up, and know if they did certain things, if they adopted certain behavior patterns – doing your school work, being honest and hardworking – they would eventually get there. I admire very much the very close connection between input and output in their society. If I did this pala, I’ll end up in my house, move on in my life, and have a safety net at the end.”

Which, as the young man knew, was in stark contrast to the typical Filipino experience. Here, you cannot even plan your day because you do not know how long it would take you to go from point A to point B because of the mega-mad Manila traffic. “Here,” Mar adds, “if you did what you were supposed to do, chances are you wouldn’t get to where you want to end up. Because many times, the prevailing mechanisms for getting ahead are lamangan and connection and elements other than simply what you would put out. Here, you can work like a dog and still not end up any farther than where you started from. That, in a lot of ways, defines my central advocacy, why I want to be in the public service. I’m attracted to the dynamic that you reap what you sow.”

He graduated with a degree in Economics from Wharton in 1979 and worked for seven years as an investment banker in New York, rising to become assistant vice president of the reputable New York-based Herb Allen and Co., Inc. But home was not far from his mind.

“I always wanted to come back. It was just a matter of when or under what circumstances. I recall when Marcos declared snap elections, I was watching TV like, I assumed, all of the Filipino expatriates were doing at that time. Whenever Marcos would come out, we would always be glued to the TV sets. When he announced the snap elections, the very next day, I went to my managing director and told him that I wanted to take a leave of absence because I wanted to work in Cory Aquino’s campaign. I came home and worked for her campaign in my home province. So there I was at the JFK airport on a cold and snowy December 26, wearing overcoat, scarf, and gloves. And by December 31, I was already at the Iloilo airport, hot, dusty, and in summer wear. I stayed for the duration of the campaign. I was here during EDSA. Shortly thereafter, I went back to resume my life in the States.”

It was Mar Roxas’s baptism of fire in national politics. Sure, being the son of the Opposition leader Gerry Roxas, he had some indirect involvement in the protest movement. He was here during the election for members of the Interim National Assembly at the Batasang Pambansa, the noise rallies, the protest actions against Marcos. But because of age and circumstances, he was not involved first-hand.

“By 1986, my father had already passed away. When my father was alive, he was in the frontline of the opposition movement against Marcos. We his children and his family supported him. After Cory Aquino became President in 1986, I felt it was 1946 all over again. [The time, by the way, when his grandfather Manuel became the President of the republic] It was time to rebuild the country. The treasury was bankrupt, so investment was necessary. I was in investment banking so I thought I could play a contributing role. In September 1986, President Cory went to the United States. I was one of those who organized a series of investment round-table discussions with the American business community. At that time, President Cory’s name spelled magic. That was the trip when she went to the US Congress and spoke.”

He did not have any inkling that seven years later, he would become a congressman of Capiz. From 1986 onwards, he visited the Philippines more frequently.

“It got to a point where it was just crazy. I would come here and when I got back there, I would read a lot of stuff, newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that I hadn’t read while I was home jus to get up-to-date on what had been happening. Wala pang Internet noon. I remember a fax machine then was as big as a refrigerator. At that time, we were still using telex. I was lucky because my bosses were all kind to me, and invited me to their homes during Thanksgiving. They took an interest in making sue that I progressed and developed as a professional. Maybe they thought I was a refugee or something, and they kind of felt sorry for this political refugee brown kid.”

But work he did, sometimes for as long as 18 hours a day – the coffee gone stale, the hunger pangs stilled by pizza or croissants that had gone cold because work had to be done, now, in that corporation on Wall Street. He worked his way up and became its assistant vice-president.

“Because of my comings and goings to the Philippines, finally I proposed to the company that we set up shop in Asia, since there was really an opportunity there. My only request was that it be in the Philippines. They agreed. So around 1991, I was permanently station here, in North Star Capitals, Inc. We took Jollibee public. We did the financing for them to get them a hundred stores. Now they have more than 500 branches, and I am happy about that. In the US, we participated in the first financing of Discovery Channel and Tri-Star Pictures. So those are my early successes, if you are looking for things that you can really call your own successes. I am grateful for my parents for giving me that chance to find myself, to define me for myself in the States. I think it gave me an additional dimension. It gave me the ‘walk-away’ concept, which is an important part of my character. If you don’t like the situation, then walk away. That’s your ultimate safety net, especially when it comes to ethical issues. When you don’t like something, walk away.”

Another defining moment for him was martial law. One day, his father Gerry was one of the brightest minds in the Senate; the next day, he was jobless. “Within 24 hours, I saw my father go from being a political celebrity – senator, head of the opposition, possible President after Marcos – to in effect becoming jobless. Before, he would go to golf clubs and everybody would want to play with him. Then during martial law, we would go and nobody wanted to talk to him. He made phone calls but they were not returned. People shunned him. I was then in second year high school. I saw that. But I also saw how he never gave in. He never bought in to what Marcos was selling, whatever the cost was. He never did. Right then and there, you saw what he really was. I admire and respect him for that, and I aspire to be as strong as him.”

How was the father-son relationship? “My father was articulate, but wasn’t very expressive. He was old-school father. He didn’t say anything. He just raised an eyebrow. That would already speak volumes about what he thought. I was at home where there were several entreaties from my father’s friends, acquaintances, brods, and emissaries from the Palace. There was even a time when there were telephone linemen who came to our house and installed a direct line. They were from Malacanang. And the entreaty was: This is a direct line that gets you to the Malacanang operator. Parang gusto lang ipaalam ni Pangulong Marcos to my father that there was a direct line to the President, that any time he wanted to call Malacanang, he could. But my father never used it. He never gave in. That’s a defining moment, a defining event.”

But still, until now, even if he is of good political stock, some people are of the impression that he is not so politically oriented. He is not just reluctant but also shy, and seems to dislike political pow-wows.

Mar concedes some truth to that impression. “My training, my experiences, my first successes, my first taste of victories as a professional was in the business world. The experience of standing up on the stage and waving, the satisfaction from that, is of recent vintage. So it’s not something that I thirst for. I told myself I would work in the private sector until I am 50 or 55, then near my retirement, I would do something for our country. That was my plan. When I was very young, I was, in Visayan, upod-upod, sama-sama, of my maternal grandfather who was in business. So I saw Farmers Market and Ali Mall being built. I was the one who was carrying his attaché case, who was driving him around, his all-around messenger.”

But the palm of one’s life is crossed with destinies unseen. When Mar was 35 years old and already used to 18-hour work days in Wall Street, there was a vacancy for the congressional seat in the 1st district of Capiz. His brother, Gerardo Jr. or “Dinggoy”, was the congressman, and he passed away because of cancer. A special election was held, and Mar was prevailed upon to run.

“All the leaders told me why not give it a try? If you really don’t like politics, then after finishing the remaining 1 ½ year terms of Dinggoy, don’t run again.” My thinking is, if I go into politics, then it’s not feasible to be there for only 1 ½ years. Sayang naman kasi. How could you give it your best efforts if you would be there for only 1 ½ years? I did not harbor any ambition to stay long, I just told myself to be sincerely open-minded about the whole thing. It’s not good to work with one foot in, one foot out. The work will just turn out to be shoddy. So I ran for the special elections and I won. I was also lucky that in my first term, I was able to pass a law, Republic Act 7880. The Department of Education calls that the Roxas Law – the Fair and Equitable Access to Education Act. This law stipulates that the Education Department’s budget for classrooms should be pro-rated according to student population. Thus, the more shortage, the more classrooms should be built. And finally, ten percent of the Education Department’s budget should be in the discretion of the Secretary so he or she could fund emergencies when they arise.

The passage of this bill into law seems to be a turning point in the life of the reluctant politician. “I saw that I can be of service pala. That politics is not all about politicking. You can actually make a contribution and have a positive impact. When I was going around the country, campaigning for the 2004 senatorial elections, a member of a Parents-Teachers’ Association in the Visayas told me that their school finally had a classroom because of the Roxas Law. The man told me, ‘For whatever it might be worth sa iyo, nagpapasalamat kami na may classroom na ngayon ang mga anak namin.’ I felt so good. ‘Yung sarap at satisfaction, the fulfillment of hearing things like that – these prodded me to run again as a Congressman in 1995 and in 1998. Then I became a Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry in 2000. There, I focused on the palengke, started my cheaper medicines advocacy, and brought in 30,000 new computers distributed in 2,000 schools that we got for free from the Japanese government. I also closed down 10 DTI offices abroad that were not performing according to standards.”

Even Mar concedes Dinggoy was the better politician. People in Capiz and Iloilo remember Dinggoy with fondness. Dinggoy never left the country and studied here (Ateneo; UP), while Mar went to an Ivy League school and worked in Wall Street. Thus, when Mar returned he carried with him the virtues of punctuality and efficiency which, until now, he expects of everybody he deals with. No half-measures for him. No one foot in, one foot out. Everything must be, in his favorite phrase, “soup to nuts.” In short, everything is planned so well as if there is a matrix inscribed on stone. That is why, one man tells me in Iloilo, during the early days of Congressman Mar, when they arrived for a 7 a.m. meeting at 8 a.m., Mar would be irritated. “Sana, nag-shave man lang muna ako ng maayos kung alam kong one hour kayo male-late!”

The same sense of purpose and efficiency he carried into his DTI work, where he focused on the palengke as the index of economic prosperity for the country, and for his senatorial run. From number 22 in surveys to number one in the final count is a long leap, but he did it. He was voted by 19,237,888 people in the May 2004 senatorial elections, the biggest votes anybody has received in the country. In their book Spin & Sell: How Political Ads Shaped the 2004 Elections, Glenda M. Gloria, Ana Maria L. Tabunda and Carmela S. Fonbuena conceded that a year before the May 2004 elections, the Mar Roxas team had already put in place a very comprehensive and detailed campaign strategy, including placement of campaign ads in radio and on TV. So when the campaign period began in February 2004 and his opponents were still finalizing their jingle, ads and placements, Mar was already everywhere – in the morning shows, in person; at night, via the TV ads; and in the farthest nook and cranny of the archipelago, through radio jingles. He was difficult to miss, summed up the authors, and wondered not why he zoomed to number one, even past popular movie star Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., the son of Nardong Putik, himself a former senator.

How did Mar Roxas find Senate work as compared to the get-up-and-go work as a DTI Secretary visiting public markets every week?

“The nature of the job in the Senate is very different from my four-year stint as a DTI Secretary. The output here is in the nature of policy prescriptions, advocacies, and support for or against the position taken by others. In Senate, we are trying to shape the public agenda. At DTI, the nature of the job is problem-solving, making a decision, and then implementing that decision. So it’s two different jobs altogether. Each has its own pluses and minuses. Each has its own attractions. But here, the negative or frustration is that you can only advocate a policy; you cannot implement it. If somebody decides not to implement it, or to implement it differently or at a different pace, then you are just on the sidelines trying to effect a change. You are not a decision-maker. On the other hand, in the executive, you are the decision-maker. You implement it. But you are not in control of the agenda.”

Quietly he worked, focusing on quality education, health and livelihood through small and medium enterprises. The Singapore government chose him as the 16th Lee Kuan Yew Fellow. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, picked him as “one of the Global Leaders of Tomorrow who is expected to shape the future. The international community chimed in: “He is one of the young leaders in politics and business who will bring Asia and the Pacific into the forefront of world affairs.”

It is less than 25 months before the presidential candidates would file their certificates of candidacy in February of 2010, and the jostling for the presidency has begun. Nobody is in control of the agenda – not even the Palace, who does not have a strong candidate for President in 2010, unless you are thinking of Noli de Castro. Ho-hum.

Since I am running as a senator of the republic in the 2010 elections, I am also attending political meetings with different people and parties for alliances. During one such meeting, one person I do not know rode the high horse and began badmouthing everyone possibly running for president, except who I surmised must be his boss. I just sat there patiently and looked through him while he perorated. But when he said, “I do not like Mar Roxas because he was born with a golden spoon up his ass,” I had to correct him.

I could listen to nonsense as long as it is grammatical and idiomatic. After all, I have been teaching English for the last 21 years and sat through classes of rich brats. But if it is ungrammatical or unidiomatic, it is my bounden duty to correct them. I told the political operator: “Excuse me, the correct idiom is born with a silver spoon. Period.” You should see the ashen faces of the men – tough, rich, old men – around me.

So the next time I met with Mar Roxas I told him to be wary. The decibels for the noise and the lunacy would rise as the days fly towards 2010. They would hit him and his relationship with ABS-CBN broadcaster Korina Sanchez (Why are they still not yet married?) They would hit him and the mother of his son (Why does the public not know who the mother is?) They would say his mother, Judy, is really the power behind him (Why is she invisible when she is the one pulling the strings?) They would attack him for his silence from 2004 to 2007 (Why is he in the public eye only now?) They would even talk about his hair, his clothes, his shoes – everything under the torrid, political sun of a presidential pre-election campaign.

Mar makes no bones about his relationship with Korina. “It’s not a secret, of course, and we are doing well. We love each other. You know this thing, we let time and the relationship hold. Both of us are extremely busy. Sometimes, when we are going on a function, let us say at ABS-CBN, I would be coming from the Senate on Roxas Boulevard and she would be coming from Makati, where she lives. Believe it or not, we would meet at EDSA, at the gasoline station near McKinley Road. That is our rendezvous point, as they say. We do that so we could be together in the same car because that is still 30 minutes of traveling and we would be together. That quiet togetherness is very important. I’m not a teenager anymore. So right now, the highest form of relationship with another is having the security and the integrity and the wholeness of it. I am aware that people are asking when we would get married. I know marriage is important. I think both of us have waited this long and if marriage comes, when it comes, then it will come. Meanwhile, we’re very happy with our relationship.”

Before the senatorial campaign began in February of 2004, he admitted he had a son, but did not want photos of him taken to protect the son’s privacy. The word on the son’s mom is mum. But of his mother, the redoubtable Judy Araneta Roxas, Mar says: “I love my mother. I remember that one of the things my father told me before he died were the same things his father told him earlier: ‘Do not cause your mother to shed a tear.’ Which is not to say that you don’t discuss, you don’t argue, you don’t have your own point of view. I mean, I think my mother’s ambitions and dreams for me are the same as any mother’s ambitions and dreams for her children. She and my father sent me to good schools. My family and these schools taught me my values. In our family, we use the analogy of the compass. And Korina is now considered part of the family. When she is in the house, she and my mom talk. They talk together. In fact, when they start their women talk, I leave them.”

As to the silence from 2004 to 2007, Mar says that people should remember he did not vote for the Human Security Act. “I thought it was a misnomer, because it’s not really a human security act, it’s really a tool that can be used to terrorize our own people. You can be picked up and in effect be hidden forever, because the limitation of five days can actually be extended by a simple action. So all these extra-judicial killings and salvaging might become more frequent. I also went against Executive Order 464, the Calibrated Pre-emptive Response (CPR), and Proclamation 1017 of Mrs. Arroyo. I voted against all of these, I’ve stood my ground, I stood where I thought the country ought to be. I am now the head of the Senate Committee on Trade and Commerce that grilled government people regarding ZTE and JPEPA.”

To all these artillery, Mar Roxas just shrugs his shoulders. “It’s important to know who you are, where you are. Being congressman, DTI secretary, senator – these are all just titles, these are just jobs. When I was a congressman, I never used the number 8 license plate. When I was the DTI secretary, I never used number 6, and now as a senator, I never use number 7. Maybe that has also something to do with my bachelor status, so it’s not easy to find me, hahaha! But you can’t take these titles seriously. Otherwise, you’ll just get all screwy. I am Mar Roxas – I am the same person, the same clothes, the same shoes, everything. But all of a sudden, you enter a building now and you’re called ‘Honorable.’ HON. ka na ngayon, wow! I mean, you know, you have to take this tongue-in-cheek. When the function is a buffet, you don’t line up any more. They now bring you a plate full of food which – well, since I eat everything – I completely finish everything on that plate!”

It is one of the perks of being an honorable, surely, among other things. But Mar says that being HON. is not always fun.

“Now that you are an HON., typically, the conversation in your table is stilted and formal. Your friends and the halakhakan is actually happening in another table, which is where you want to be – but sadly, you cannot.”

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