Exclusive interview with Donald Jay Bertulfo and Katherine Peralta
Transcripts by Xavier Roel Alvaran and Lorenzo Miguel Cordero
Veteran of many wars. Distinguished officer of the armed forces. Hero of People Power. Loyal member of the Cory Aquino Cabinet. Defender of democracy against military adventurism. And, from 1992 to 1998, a father to his country. What more about Fidel Valdez Ramos that the public does not know?
OIKON: Do you listen to music?
FVR: Yes. My wife is a musician, as well as my brother. My wife is a jazz piano player.
OIKON: Is she your favorite musician?
FVR: Of course!
OIKON: In your youth, you took an undergraduate course for engineering. Why did you end up in the military?
FVR: Iyong lolo ko kasi may scholarship sa may Westpoint; so, you apply for the scholarship.
OIKON: Were you able to practice engineering?
FVR: Konti lang. Nasa military ako noon e. Nakita ko, andaming problema ng HUKBALAHAP, kaya nalipat ako sa infantry.
OIKON: When was the first time you met Cory Aquino?
FVR: Siguro, that was during Martial Law. I was chief of the Philippine Constabulary.
OIKON: After People Power, you were appointed on many positions in Aquino’s Cabinet. There were coup attempts, and we know you sided with Cory. But, did you received any feelers from some coup plotters, asking you to join their cause?
FVR: Oh yeah. The God Saved The Queen coup attempt. November 22, 1986, led by the RAM [Reform the Armed Forces Movement].
As the 2013 midterm election looms, and the campaign season slowly makes its presence felt, it maybe timely to revisit Ramos’ experience as candidate. After all, he participated in an election campaign only once – in his campaign towards the presidency.
OIKON: Sir, after a long distinguished career in the military, why did you choose to leave it and enter electoral politics?
FVR: You know what those people around me were saying – that of generals still in the active service, officials in the Department of National Defense, civilians who were undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, directors? When they realized that elections were coming, they said, “Sir, why don’t just grab it? Anyway, we are here to support?” I said no. Cannot. You might be successful and be there in one, two [or] three years, but you will not last because the people will not allow it. That is not in our democratic culture. So, I went for the electoral process, as mandated by the Constitution. First, by trying to win the nomination of the ruling party, which was the LABAN, but I lost the nomination. We went through a series of public appearances, rallies [we] call it, in twelve regions. But, in the counting of the votes of the delegates belonging to that party, I lost, not by a little margin, but [by] a big margin. And I just told them, “Hey, can you investigate why I got zero in Cavite? I know I have seven mayors there and they’re all voting delegates. O bakit nawala sila?” ‘Yun pala, they were prevented from voting. “Bakit ako na-zero sa Negros Oriental? I know I have two board members there – they’re also voting delegates.” Nako, overwhelming, talo ako. I just said, siguro out of sour grapes, “Will you kindly investigate the voting processes in – I mentioned seven – provinces where I lost, or [where] I was zeroed?”
OIKON: What did you do?
FVR: Within a week I resigned from that party, formed my own party, consisting of seven people. That’s all that we have, kaya we called ourselves “Lakas ng Tao,” or People Power. Ang tawag sa amin, “Lakas-loob,” kasi pipito lang kami e. But, the unaligned people belonging to the urban poor, belonging to the civil society, belonging to the educators, belonging to the workers, farmers, fisherfolk, and labor bonded together. They formed little NGO’s. Eventually that became united under one group called UPPM – United People Power Movement.
OIKON: Initial reports state that President Cory Aquino was supposed to endorse then House Speaker Ramon Mitra for president. Yet, she endorsed you in the end. Was she the one to approach you and say she is endorsing you, or did your camp approach her, asking for endorsment?
FVR: No, don’t forget I was a member of her Cabinet, as secretary of National Defense. Before that, I was chief-of-staff of the Armed Forces, right after EDSA. And she experienced nine coup attempts during that period, from February 1986 to October 1990. Nine coup attempts. But it was us in the Armed Forces and the Department of National Defense who defended her [and] who defended her government. And so, maybe because of that, she probably owed a sense of gratitude to us, especially me. But she said in a statement – because she announced it to her wellwishers, including Speaker Ramon Mitra – “Secretary Ramos is much higher in service than you.”
OIKON: During the 1992 elections, the rivalry between you and then presidential candidate Miriam Defensor-Santiago was very fierce. Did you ever had a chance to talk with then presidential candidate Santiago?
FVR: At a tailor shop… I guess that’s where she was having her athletic shorts being made. And also I was waiting for my turn to have this barong Tagalog done. So when I saw her, I said “Oh, it’s you, Madam Miriam. I didn’t know you had such nice legs.” And she walked out from me without even saying thank you or ano. And then, that’s all.
Fidel Ramos went on to emerge as the winner the hotly contested 1992 presidential elections. From FVR the candidate, how is he as FVR the President?
OIKON: How is your relationship with then Vice President Erap [Joseph Estrada]?
FVR: I made him work.
OIKON: Is he always funny and amusing as he is in public?
OIKON: Who were the best performing people in your Cabinet?
FVR: Lahat sila. (*laughs*) Well, si (Milwida) “Nene” Guevarra [a former undersecretary of the Department of Finance]. She once said, “Mr. Ramos is responsible for my being an old maid up to now because he made us work so hard during that time. I had to compare presentations for budget hearings to justify the policies of the Department of Finance under Secretary Bobby de Ocampo and I had to break my dates.” One time, during Valentines’ Day, she said, “I had a date with my boyfriend. But because he (Ramos) called me and said, ‘You prepare the Senate presentation tomorrow’, I had to leave my dinner.” When I found out that I was responsible for her civil status, I wrote her a nice letter. Maraming puso-puso. Pinadalhan ko pa ng flowers. But she was really one of the best officials I ever had, including Habito.
OIKON: How did you meet Dr. Cielito Habito?
FVR: When it was showing in the unofficial surveys after the elections of May 1992 that I was winning over you-know-who, I asked for a briefing from some people. “What’s your plan for the next six years. Assuming I win, what are we going to do?” I asked NEDA and this guy was sent to brief me. Habito. And he was so scheduled. He had a plan for six years and even beyond. Six years – of what you call the “medium term development plan” – which is [as long as] the term of the president. I asked him a little longer. And then he told me about the Rio Summit. The Rio Summit was [then] ongoing. There was [what is] called the Twenty-First Agenda. And from that landmark summit came all kinds of other things about environment, about education, population, about growth, about energy, about competitiveness. So, he was very impressive; I had my eye on him. When I was officially declared winner, in the middle of June or one month after the briefing, I said, “You are now director-general of economic planning, NEDA, in my Cabinet. Dr. Habito, you are the one.” And, sure enough, we were the first country to put out the implementation of Earth Agenda 21. We called it…Philippine Agenda 21. We put it out by September, within two months after I took over as president. We were the first country to come out with it.
OIKON: Is it true that you call people even at 3 or 4 a.m. for clarifications?
FVR: Yeah, there is The [Manila] Times. John Gokongwei was the publisher. “Hey Big John!” “Yes, sir. Mr. President?” “It’s 4:30 a.m. Have you read your editorial in The Manila Times today?” “Mr. President, it’s 4:30 a.m. in the morning. I’m still sleeping.” But I said, “Anyway, you read this, and this is what’s wrong with it.”
OIKON: You really seemed to be very workaholic. How many hours in a day do you sleep back then?
FVR: You know my answer to Cory Aquino, when she was President and I was the defense secretary? [It was a] Tuesday afternoon, we had a Cabinet meeting. I spent five days in Mindanao and yet Tuesday morning, before the Cabinet meeting, I [have] written her a thirty-paged report of observations and recommendations [on] how to improve the peace and order [situation]. I [already] did what I was responsible for, but I had to go to her for higher policy matters. So, during the meeting, she said, “General, you are so industrious. You just came from Mindanao and you gave me a report this morning about your policy and recommendations. Do you ever sleep?” I said, “Madam President, with due respect to you, every time I sit down I go to sleep. In the car, I go to sleep. In the helicopter, I go to sleep. During Cabinet meetings, while you preside, I go to sleep.” Because I know already the answers eh. [Even before] she asks a question, I already anticipate the questions [to be answered].
One of the accomplishments former President Ramos can boast of is the strong economic performance of the country during his watch. What made him focus on the economy?
OIKON: Given your background, it is expected to have peace and security in your platform. What motivate you to have the economy as the top priority of your presidency? How did you determine the direction of your administration?
FVR: As soon as I sat down, we formed a national unification commission, led by Atty. Heidi Yorac. And in their survey – and they talked to everybody…poor, rich, rebel, soldier, police, MNLF, overseas workers, families – they said [what was needed were] the basic things: jobs, water, electric power, education, health, longevity, of course, peace and order. We did all of these things simultaneously. So I, as President, and I still say it up to now: You cannot work on a work week with a time-out, Sundays off, Saturday afternoons off [because] 24/7 is not even enough. You have to work 25/8. And how do you do 25/8? Well, you gather the hot potatoes. Mindanao, peace and order. Ilaw, tubig, pagkain, jobs. You’re going like this (*gestures*) like crazy.
OIKON: In one of your SONA’s, you said that whenever you travel abroad, you ask for “trade, not aid.”
FVR: “Trade not aid” because we had just removed US bases and we had to depend on our own competitiveness, you see. So, eventually it became not commonly a slogan in the US but everywhere [to] indicate moral competitiveness.
OIKON: Sir, you actively pursued a policy of privatizing key industries, such as telecommunications.
FVR: We did in three sectors: Energy, [because] walang ilaw. Water, mayroong privatization of the NAWASA and, at that time, most other countries in ASEAN had privatized their water system. Get the government out of it because government was not as efficient as the private sector when it comes to utilities. And then the privatization of telecom. Anong sabi ni Lee Kwan Yue about the Philippines? He came here to keynote the Telecommunications International Conference. And his host, the one who paid for his expenses as an honored guest, was the PLDT. Inatake niya ‘yung PLDT. Sabi niya, the problem with the Philippines is that 98 percent of the people are waiting for their telephone connection and the remaining 2 percent are waiting for the dial tone.
FVR discusses what he calls “the bibingka principle” and the 5-D’s of governance.
OIKON: There are certain sectors saying that your policies, with you being an advocate of free trade and liberalization, caused social inequality and were not able to translate economic growth into something felt by the poor.
FVR: No, that’s just some columnists and some writers. But, if you will look at the record, we said trickle-down economics will not work, we have to make economics work in the same way we cook the Filipino rice cake called the bibingka. We have fire from the bottom, fire from the top. The bibingka principle. And if you put the heat in a balanced manner, ang sarap. That’s why we have five letter D’s of governance. And this is the bibingka principle in a more detailed manner. Ano yung four o five letter D’s? First of all, devolve, meaning authority, responsibility and logistics. You serve down as far as you possibly can so they can handle it efficiently. Next is decentralize. Ito na nga yung let the people in the provinces do their work, not only Manila. So how did we decentralize? At that time, we had 16 regions – now we have 17. I established the Philippine Economic Zone Authority [or] PEZA. We created the Philippine Economic Zone Authority where in order to create an economic zone for tourism, for education, for manufacturing, for fishing, for farming, we didn’t have to walk to Congress for a franchise. It was decentralized to the Board of Investments, or later on called the board of the PEZA. So, mabilis.
OIKON: What will make decentralization effective?
FVR: First, you must have efficient local government. Secondly, you must have a college university nearby from which to derive technical support. Third, you must have some natural resources easily available – beach, forest, universities – so that you don’t have to go so far out to put them in one zone. And then, most importantly, you must have a talent pool of people.
OIKON: What are the other D’s?
FVR: So, devolve, decentralize, deregulate. Ayan, telecom. Shipping, Water. Electric power, eventually. Shipping. Government cannot do all of it. Deregulate it, that will lead to more privatizing. Mayroon bang Global City kung hindi kami nag-privatize ng Fort McKinley? Wala. Mayroon bang Eastwood doon sa may Marikina kung hindi nag-privatize? Wala. The next is democratization of opportunity. See, that’s the problem of the Philippines. It’s economic. Or, not really economic [because] they call it now in the UN [as] human security. Security of jobs, security of housing or safety in your house. Security of education, meaning you must undergo the basic to know-how to compute, read, write. And then the last is development of a sustainable kind. Growth is not development. I could have grown [the economy by] three percent in a year, [make it] double for five years, by cutting all the timber there in Agusan and exporting it to Japan and making a lot of money. But after six years, wala na. You have to wait 25 years for that same forest to grow up again to that size. Some people forget that. So, five D’s of the bibingka principle.
With the impeachment of then Chief Justice Renato Corona and the appointment of Ma. Lourdes Sereno to head the Supreme Court, some critics of President Noynoy Aquino claimed that these moves undermined judicial independence. At the same time, the current President is being criticized for the slow process of legislating important policies, such as the FOI Bill. During the time of Ramos in Malacañang, how well was the relationship of the executive with other branches of the government? What did he do to shepherd important legislation through Congress?
OIKON: Were you in favor of the Corona impeachment?
FVR: I have high standards of public service. But you know, there was no focus on the real issues. Impeaching in order to fight corruption? You have to fight corruption at every level.
OIKON: The Corona impeachment somehow damaged the relationship among different branches of the government. During your time, what did you do to maintain a good relationship with the legislative and judiciary?
FVR: We had consultations leading to a consensus every week. The first law that was passed during my time and approved under my signature was the LEDAC law: Legislative, Executive Development Advisory Council. Meaning, both the legislative and the executive mag-proceed together by advisory or consultations. Under the law, you are supposed to have one LEDAC meeting per quarter to provide such opportunities for consultation and consensus. How many times did I have it? Every Wednesday morning, for as long as Congress was in session. Sinong kasama diyan sa LEDAC? PWD’s, the elderly and handicapped, workers, farmers and fisherfolk, [and the] academe. Pero on the part of the House and the Senate – legislative – we include the opposition and some members of the Cabinet, [although it is] not all. [Inclusion] depends on the agenda to be followed.
OIKON: The membership changes?
FVR: So everybody could speak out freely. We included some of the generals because we were discussing security matters. Also, local government officials – they were represented. Every week, Wednesday morning. Why? Because Tuesdays [I have] Cabinet meeting. So, you appear before the people and the opposition on Wednesday morning and I serve only isang pandesal at kape. Kung kulang iyon, bumili ka ng iyo at bigyan mo yung kasama mo. BYOB: Bring your own baon. Pero share. Caring, sharing, daring kami noon. Daring to make a difference. Daring to unite.
OIKON: How many times a year do you convene LEDAC?
FVR: Out of the 52 weeks a year, if Congress was in session, maybe 35. Wala kaming “Time out to go and see Pacquiao in Las Vegas.” Wala iyon. Ngayon, tingnan mo iyong mga holiday time-out or adjournment, ang haba-haba. [‘Yung iba] para lang makasama tuwing may boxing. Maikli lang iyong amin noon, mayroon pa kaming special session.
OIKON: So under the law, you can have special sessions?
FVR: Well, under the law, in the Constitution, you can call a special session. Even when they’re in “paradise”, if they are committee chairmen and there’s a special session and they are involved, balik dito. You run your committee so that we can pass the laws faster.
OIKON: Is that how you pass laws more efficiently?
FVR: Kapag nagse-certify ng bills, ang bilis. If you certify, you cut out so many committee hearings, you go to plenary and vote right away. Freedom of Information, twelve years na ‘yan, susmaryosep. RH Bill, twelve years na rin yan. Tsaka ‘yung mga may mga fiscal reforms before, mga sin taxes, matagal na yan e. You just certify. One time I had to certify a Senate bill, it took one afternoon.
OIKON: What happened?
FVR: I certified a bill. It returned to me. Bakit? Sabi no’ng liaison officer namin, “Sir may pinalit na comma eh.” “O sige, akin na ‘yung bago.” Certify ulit. “Sir, ito pa: ‘yung ‘and.’ Instead of ‘and,’ ‘or’ dapat.” Sabi ko, “O, e bakit? Ano ang diperensiya?” “Sir, ‘di ka naman marunong mag-English.” Sagot ko, “Oy, marunong ako. Akin na, certify uli.”
From remembering the past, Ramos turns to reflecting on present realities – especially the issue of political dynasties. With these reflections, he puts up suggestions to the present administration on how to manage the country well.
OIKON: What do you think is the biggest problem of the Philippines right now?
FVR: The biggest problem in the Philippines are the “gaps”: Income gap, housing gap, education gap, opportunity gap, health gap, longevity gap. And you know what is the most terrible of the gaps there? Tanggap. Bakit mahirap pa rin ang mga Pilipino? E mahilig tayo sa mga dynasty eh.
OIKON: Dynasty? Sir, how about Sen. Leticia Ramos-Shahani?
FVR: My sister? Sikat na iyon noon pa. Lieutenant-coronel na ako, ambassador na siya. E magaling talaga. May PhD iyan e.
OIKON: So, how to address political dynasties?
FVR: [When the] Constitution was ratified, there has been no law to provide rules about dynasties and prescribe punishments for the existence of dynasties. Why don’t you put in the Constitution itself the prohibition, including the punishments therefore, in the same way that they prohibit the President – Chief Executive – from appointing relatives by blood or affinity in law to the fourth degree. Edi ganun. ‘Yun lang ang ilagay niyo doon. If you are [related] within the fourth degree, hindi ka puwede tumakbo as replacement of the predecessor.
OIKON: What is your advise to the government?
FVR: Plan well ahead. [Plan] for one generation [or for] 25 years. That’s why we [Ramos administration] had a Philippine competitiveness program for 25 years. We had an agricultural modernization and fisheries modernization program for 25 years. And we put up the laws. These are still there. How many laws have we [FVR’s administration] passed in six years that are of national importance? Two hundred twenty nine. How many have been passed by this administration in two years that are of national importance? Maybe six. In addition, we [Ramos government] ratified through the Senate 60 executive agreements and treaties including yung peace agreement [with the Moro National Liberation Front].
And as a conclusion…
OIKON At your age, what do you still want to accomplish?
FVR: I just want to leave a legacy in writing. Of course, this is also [found] in our website. But you cannot put all in the website, so every year, we put out maybe three or four books. I just want to leave a legacy that can be understood by the younger people like you and it must be in writing.