From Business World 12 December 2011 By Mario Antonio Lopez
Don’t join government…’
“…If you do not truly love your country.” This was the first of three messages Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario left the almost 200 graduates of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) where he was commencement speaker on Sunday. The other two messages were: If you decide to do so, be prepared to be poor; and, Have a great sense of humor.
In between these three major messages the Secretary wove a story of his own experiences in serving government, first as an ambassador, and then as foreign affairs secretary, after years as a successful business executive.
The message had an impact on quite a number of Filipinos in the audience as I would find out later during the cocktails. In what Secretary del Rosario said they found the affirmation that many in government service already know — to serve is to find personal significance and fulfilment through social contribution.
“Don’t join government if you do not truly love your country.”
That message hit me deeply. I and many of the boys I grew up with in the early 1950s had dreamt of being soldiers, policemen, mailmen, firemen, school teachers as well as doctors, dentists and scientists. Our teachers often spoke of the nobility of public service and the need to help in the difficult task of nation building. They were, of course, the prime examples of the lives they spoke of. There was deep pleasure in living a life of significant contribution to society through helping provide more to those who had less.
Government service was a real alternative for us then, though many of our parents were preparing us to follow their footsteps and whatever openness they had for their sons pursuing government careers, low as it were, waned even more as government salaries were not growing apace of those in the private sector (there were very few NGOs then). Many were apprehensive about us being assigned to places far from them at a time when travel was slow and expensive. They dreaded thinking of the backward and wild places we may find ourselves in should the work require our staying there. To us, of course, that was in part the attraction. My gang and I saw ourselves as trailblazers and pioneers. Intrepid servants who dared to go where few had been.
I think that what underpinned our sentiments was that we saw ourselves as Filipinos, very much a part of this country, and we were proud to be Filipino. We knew the Philippines as OUR country, not just because we had been born as its citizens, but that it was ours because we would have the chance to help make it a good nation in a better country; and ultimately, a great country and a great nation.
I was fortunate to have had parents who shared these perceptions and these sentiments. My Tatay and Nanay saw to it that I would not be a stranger in my own land and encourage my travelling (with them and my other elders) to places far beyond Negros Occidental and Iloilo, our two home provinces. As a young boy I had seen Baguio and Tagaytay (and the places in between), gone to Cebu and Bohol, visited Cagayan de Oro, Davao and Zamboanga and even flew to Jolo and Tawi-Tawi. I saw the beauty of the islands and felt the warmth of its people. What was there not to like and even love?
But simultaneously I saw the poverty and witnessed the injustice, if only as an observer at some distance. In my boyhood I had the benefit of having attended both private and public schools. From both I had learned many complimenting lessons such as civic-spiritedness and Christianity. I had learned that while the pursuit of personal prosperity, popularity and power were good pursuits, they were not the only values worth pursuing, and, indeed, if pursued to the extremes, resulted in the commission of evils. I learned that people needed to balance their personal desires with consideration for the public good. I learned that loving oneself is important, but loving your fellow Filipinos, often at some sacrifice to you, would result in a far better Philippines for everyone, yourself included.
So it was that despite fairly attractive offers from the private sector in 1971, I opted to accept the offer of a senior managerial position in the newly created Commission on Population. My Tatay was not happy with my decision and wagered that I would not last three months. Sure the starting salary was not far from what my fellow AIM MBM graduates were receiving then, but he warned about the need to see that my salary grew every year, especially as I already had a wife and ought to be expecting children. I am fortunate in having married a soul mate. Cora and I believe in a life of service. She did not think poorly of government service and was willing to travel the journey hand-in-hand.
In the short span of five years (not three months as Tatay predicted) that I served in government it was my privilege and pleasure to have been part of a great endeavor of helping our people make a better life, directly and indirectly. We were able to supply medicines and medical equipment to formerly under-stocked, ill-equipped rural health units and other medical facilities both government and private, especially in places difficult to reach.
We provided schools equipment that they would not have had, had the population program been limited only to being a contraceptive distribution program. A blackboard is a blackboard, and chalk is chalk, regardless of the funding source and teachers could use it for population education and other subjects. The vehicles we procured and provided were used for any and all purposes demanded by the total service and not just the special programs we funded.
To me, however, what I thought was the best effect of our visiting all of the clinics strewn all over the country, we from “imperial Manila,” was the perception created in the minds of the public servants in those far-flung areas — that they had not been forgotten, that they were not alone in their quest for helping our people carve out a better life for themselves. To be sure, not all were dedicated to public service and a number were up to no good. Our visits, in such cases, acted as a damper to their corrupted practices.
We travelled as ordinary Filipinos travelled to better appreciate the rigors of transport in the country. Our bodies took the beating of 18-hour trips in buses with very cramped seats to the hinterlands of Kalinga-Apayao and Quezon province, and the sometimes sickening boat rides from Infanta to Polillo Island, or from one island of Batanes to another, just to deliver goods and to ask what else we could do for our doctors, nurses, sanitary inspectors, midwives, social workers and teachers.
We slept on mats on the floors of rural health units; we stayed in “travellers’ inns” where there were eight bunk beds to a room and where the water in the toilets and baths were color coded — reddish brown for flushing and murky white for bathing. Occasionally we were lucky. If there were free beds (and better toilets and baths), courtesy of the hospital director, we slept in provincial hospitals rooms.
We learned to eat the local daily fare, mindful not to catch some bug or other, but on a few occasions make the mistake of drinking contaminated water and winding up having to de-worm.
Why did we (in POPCOM from 1971 to the late ’70s there were many of), who had masters degrees that could land us better paying and more comfortable jobs in the private sector, choose to work in government?
The answer is simple: We loved (and still love) our country and its people and we wanted to do something to help it develop in a way that would make all Filipinos proud of it and want to stay here.
We saw for ourselves that the best service came from people who shared that love, and the worst from those who did not. We did our best to reinforce the former and tried our best to change the latter, not always successfully. But we tried.
In the process of going through this journey we experienced Secretary del Rosario’s second message: Be prepared to live modestly: very, very modestly. In two years’ time I saw my classmates’ income soar to four, even six times my own. Many had moved into their first homes. I was still living in my small apartment. They had cars while I had my office Vietnam War surplus office provided pick-up. Most of us ended our government service with nothing much in terms of material wealth to show. I felt some envy. But some of them had expressed envy at our experiences which, compared to theirs, seemed more fulfilling. They had. We were.
We survived the stay because we had, or had developed in the process, what Secretary del Rosario called for in his third message: We had a great sense of humor! We chose to find the funny, and in many instances the sublime, in what otherwise would have been sad, sorry and sordid experiences.
Those years are decades into my past, and yet, even today, when I travel around the country, I meet a few people who will stare at me and with the shock of recognition, call out my name or title, then give me the warmest of smiles and the friendliest of handshakes while recalling the times when our office came through for them so they could do their jobs which was to serve their communities.
As I recalled those times, I cannot help but think that we must change the way we recruit people into government service. I think we ought not to look only for the best of technical and academic credentials — which often come coupled with expectations of greater remunerations, privileges and the trappings of high office. I think we should look for the eagerness to serve, to be with our people who need attention the most because their needs are the most basic.
I think we should make fond familiarity with the country and its many geographic features, and its diverse people with their diverse cultures, a must for being invited into government service. One cannot love a place or a people one hardly knows and has known little of.
I think, too, that we should do something to upgrade government salaries and the budgets allocated for travel so that head office people can be encouraged to travel to the communities and see for themselves the operating realities so that they may craft realistic plans.
To be sure, not all of government service has become “employment of last resort.” To be sure, not all who join government join because “they have nowhere else to go.” But the service quality has so deteriorated and the actuations of a prominent group so palpably corrupt that one wonders whether anything short of a bloody revolution will change anything.
This administration has four years or more to go. It has the chance to make the needed difference. Let it start with a revamp of the systems to government so that the good people in it can do the good they wish to do for our people who need the good the most.
A meaningful Christmas season and a better years for us all!