Filipino of the year: ‘3 Furies’ deceptively simple
(Editor’s Note: Since 1991, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has honored Filipinos who have made the biggest positive impact on the life of the nation in the year just passed, as voted on by the Inquirer editors and assistant editors to include those from Inquirer.net, Radyo Inquirer and Bandera.
Out of 57 votes cast, the “Tres Marias” triumvirate of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido-Tan topped the vote. The other nominees that pulled in the most votes were the Supreme Court, Filipino Indie Filmmakers and the Urban Commuter. The rest of the nominees were the Pagasa Forecasters, Winter Olympian Christian Martinez, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Supertyphoon “Yolanda” Survivors, basketball star Jimmy Alapag and Albay Gov. Joey Salceda.)
The Inquirer has never had Filipino of the Year awardees quite so unassuming.
A Filipino of the Year more familiarly looms larger than life like boxer Manny Pacquiao; stands out in a nation-halting event such as volcanologist Raymundo Punongbayan; or is as lovably colorful as the late senator and Health Secretary Juan Flavier of “Let’s DOH it!” fame; or the late Jesse Robredo and his tsinelas (slippers) governance.
By contrast, the trio dubbed the “Tres Marias” by the editors—or the even more feisty “Three Furies”—are admired because they are so deceptively ordinary.
President Aquino memorably refused to be sworn in by Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2010. One is less likely to recall, however, that he stood before 73-year-old Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, at the time a Supreme Court associate justice who vigorously dissented in Corona’s “midnight” appointment, or that he announced her appointment as Ombudsman the following year in his State of the Nation Address.
We more likely remember that lighthearted moment on Day 37 of Corona’s impeachment trial in 2012. Morales was presenting the damning bank records and nonchalantly asked permission to use a magnifying glass. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, then 88, laughed and admitted that he, too, was using a magnifying glass. Yet this appearance foreshadowed the next year’s antigraft campaign. So magnificent a defense counsel as Serafin Cuevas could not dent Morales’ testimony. Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros marveled: “P-Noy’s anticorruption campaign has just gotten a face, and that is Morales.”
Similarly, 59-year-old Commission on Audit Chair Grace Pulido-Tan recently had the spotlight trained on her, ironically because her term ends tomorrow. Though she once described herself as a “b*tch” to the media, Tan has consciously shunned publicity. Even in her increasingly ominous appearances to discuss “red flags” in the Malampaya Fund releases and Makati City Hall Building II construction, she has been dispassionate, even forgettable, never allowing herself to overshadow the figures she is reciting.
Yet just last week, Inquirer columnist Winnie Monsod voiced confidence in the head of a government body solely because its COA audit resulted in a rare “unqualified opinion.” Monsod wrote: “[T]hat was it for me.” Pundits now call for the new COA chair to be both independent and progressive. Tan has dramatically raised the bar yet says she is happy to return to gardening.
One cannot forget how 55-year-old Justice Secretary Leila de Lima defied a Supreme Court order in November 2011 that would have allowed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) to leave the country. The entire legal profession accused her of singlehandedly destroying the rule of law. Her sole defender was now Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan, who famously wrote: “It would be the supreme irony to allow GMA to invoke our most sacred human rights protections to escape justice. That would be her supreme, final perversion of our democratic institutions. While countless voices have correctly quoted human rights law, our democracy must recognize GMA’s pleas as a political, not a human rights, issue.”
Nevertheless, outside the spicy retorts to those facing prosecution in her press conferences, De Lima is hardly flamboyant.
The moniker “Three Furies” stuck in 2013 after the President named Morales, Tan and De Lima as heads of the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council. This came a month after the Inquirer’s exposé of Janet Lim-Napoles’ extensive network of corruption, with tendrils wrapped around countless government units, legislators’ budgets and nongovernment organizations.
By 2013, the trio had earned enough public trust to allay fears that the unprecedented allegations would be forgotten once media attention shifted. Tan considers the COA’s special report on pork barrel misuse from 2007 to 2009 as her legacy. Three senators have prominently been prosecuted and work continues in relation to over 200 lawmakers who possibly abused such funds. And beyond the Napoles exposé, the Furies have taken on other anomalies, from missing Supertyphoon Yolanda donations to garlic cartels, recognizing no sacred cows.
The highest praise, especially with Tan’s term ending, is that the trio infused their positions with their integrity and dedication, instead of using these to aggrandize themselves. They have transformed how we perceive their institutions in less than a single presidential term, and did this with no media frenzy, no high-profile special task forces and no dramatic showdowns. They quietly rebuilt their institutions with old-fashioned perseverance and have hopefully inspired the younger but equally idealistic to enter public service.
Their backgrounds are stellar yet as low-key as their demeanor. They were never crusading politicians or self-styled street parliamentarians. Morales graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law, joined a law firm in 1968, the Department of Justice in 1971, the judiciary in 1983, and the high court in 2002. Tan graduated from the UP College of Law and joined a firm in 1982, worked in New York for an audit firm then returned to Manila in 1988 to found her own firm. She joined government in 2002, becoming a Presidential Commission on Good Government commissioner then a finance undersecretary. De Lima graduated from San Beda College of Law in 1985, worked for the high court in 1986, returned to private practice in 1989, eventually specializing in election law, and was appointed chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 2008.
The crucial lesson is that there are more potential public servants out there, among professionals initially concerned with learning foundational skills and hardly dreaming of saving the world yet. The government needs to harness the best of private-sector skills and the accompanying no-nonsense work ethic.
What a country we would have if our best apolitical technocrats served for even the brief four years of Tan as COA chair.
Corollarily, should we wish for such professionals in government, we had better make government work fulfilling and nonhostile. The Furies were and remain subject to all manner of harassment, from obstacles in the congressional Commission on Appointments confirmation, accusations of bias or outright incompetence, or plain intimidation. We must commit to praise the best of our public servants to the same extent we condemn the worst. We must assure the best that public opinion will indubitably be with them as they speak truth to power. Indeed, the Furies have shown us that it is, in fact, possible to have a government dominated not by factions and personality cults, but strong institutional solutions to endemic problems.
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