Miriam’s magic lives on
The country’s political scene will never be the same without the Iron Lady of Asia.
This was the sentiment of several youth volunteers for Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, whose family, colleagues and supporters marked her first death anniversary on Friday.
Santiago died in her sleep while being treated for Stage 4 lung cancer at St. Luke’s Medical Center on Sept. 29, 2016. She was 71.
A year after her death, millennials like Vincent Jerome Agustin have yet to recover from their loss.
Agustin, vice chair for operations of Youth Reform Movement Philippines Inc. (YRMI, formerly known as Youth for Miriam Movement), said he missed Santiago’s “hugot” lines — sentiment-filled one-liners that never failed to provoke laughter among her audience.
Santiago’s best-selling books, including her last, “Stupid is Forever,” are idely quoted.
Among reporters, Santiago’s feisty wit, sense of humor, candor and constant call for integrity and honesty in government service made her a colorful, interesting and quotable news personality that enlivened otherwise ponderous discussions.
“During Senate hearings, I just close my eyes and imagine that she is still in the chamber, scolding and lecturing policemen who abuse their authority,” Agustin said.
“Her memorable asides add bite to her statements,” he added.
Agustin admitted being starstruck when he first met the senator during a Senate hearing in 2014.
When Santiago announced her bid for the presidency in October 2015, Agustin became part of her campaign team.
“She could have been the best president this country deserved,” he said wistfully. “[But] we in YRMI will continue her fight. The Miriam magic will not end,” he vowed.
Fellow YRMI member Angel Carlo Salonga resigned from his BPO job to become part of Santiago’s campaign team.
That period became one of the most memorable episodes in his life, Salonga said.
“Her life story shows that we can face any challenge if we truly believe in what we are fighting for,” he added.
But the outcome of the 2016 presidential election where Santiago placed last became a time of reckoning among the volunteers who blamed themselves for their candidate’s loss.
“We disappointed the nation. We disappointed the Iron Lady of Asia,” Salonga said.
Tom Tolibas, Santiago’s former media relations officer in the Senate, recalled how people would still approach him just to say they missed his boss.
Now account director for public relations at A+B Expedio, Tolibas added that this was also the case among internet users.
“Each time I browse through Facebook, I would see users posting quotes attributed to her, or using her image to personify the mix of wit, wisdom and righteous indignation Filipinos have been missing in their political life since September 2016,” he said.
No ‘New Miriam’
People often say the Senate is no longer the same without Santiago.
“There is an eerie silence in media coverages of committee hearings or plenary debates, as if the choir has lost its soprano—one who was outspoken, lyrically high-faluting, and essential,” Tolibas said.
“There is a nagging whisper at the back of people’s heads. ‘What would Miriam say?’ She has no successor, no replacement, no ‘New Miriam’ — even if some people try or pretend to be one,” he added.
Contrary to her high-strung persona, Santiago was calm in the face of death, according to lawyer Fatima Lipp Panontongan, who served the senator for 12 years and is currently the chief of staff of Sen. Sonny Angara.
She recalled how Santiago told her staff about her Stage 4 lung cancer in a casual tone.
“Her legal and media staff gathered in the conference room and she was on speaker phone. After giving us our assignments for the week, she said, ‘Oh by the way, my doctors say I have lung cancer,’” the lawyer recalled.
The room fell silent. The staff was shocked by the news and did not know how to react.
Santiago broke the silence and said, “Hello? Did you hear me?” to which they responded: “Yes, ma’am.”
Santiago told them the cancer was on its fourth stage, but that there was nothing to worry about because there was a miracle pill that could cure the disease.
“She had a grave illness and yet she was the one giving us comfort and assurances,” Panontongan said.
Mentor, mother, friend
She added that to most Filipinos and the international community, Santiago was a dedicated and hardworking public servant for which she won, in 1988, a Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
“But to her staff, she was a mentor, a mother, and a friend. We were so fortunate to have witnessed and shared with her family the human side of Miriam. There lies the true Miriam magic,” Panontongan said.
The lawyer recalled how, in the middle of face-to-face or phone conversations, the senator would shift from serious office-related matters to random and personal questions. “Ano ang ginawa niyo n’ung Valentine’s Day (What did you do on Valentine’s Day)?” Or, “Ano’ng bibilhin mo sa bonus mo (How will you spend your bonus)?”
“One time, she even asked me “Aber, ano ang average mo last sem (So, what was your average last semester)?” Panontongan said, recounting the senator’s interest in the diploma course she had taken at the University of the Philippines School of Labor and Industrial Relations.
Even after that grim diagnosis of advanced lung cancer, Santiago never stopped working, Panontongan said. “Ayaw magpapigil. Hindi nagpatinag. There was no stopping her. To the very end, she was powered by a purpose—to serve her country,” said the lawyer.
Of all the nuggets of wisdom and advice that Santiago had dispensed, Panontongan’s favorite was: “Life will always have problems. Be a winner.”
“The way (Senator Santiago) bravely fought cancer and addressed the endless issues facing our country, she was, and always will be, a winner,” she added. —CONTRIBUTED
(Editor’s Note: The author was a senior reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer for 31 years, and covered the late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago in her various capacities as immigration commissioner, agrarian reform secretary and senator.)
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