Much has been said and written about Panfilo “Ping” Morena Lacson Sr., the 67-year-old statesman who was born out of humble beginnings in Imus, Cavite on June 1, 1948. A principled Caviteño ever since his youth, Lacson became a permanent fixture in the political landscape because of his love for country, and truth and justice.
Perhaps best known for his no non-sense leadership as Chief of the Philippine National Police, Lacson went to become a legislator, and served the Senate for 12 years. Most recently, he was appointed Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery to plan and oversee the government’s response to the most devastated provinces of Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) in 2013.
Today, after several years outside public service—both in an elected and appointed capacity—Lacson is back in the national spotlight as he runs for the Senate anew in May 2016. Looking both healthy and content in his private life, The Sunday Times Magazine sat down with one of the most popular—and sometimes controversial—politicians in the country to find out why he decided to return to what is definitely the much less peaceful arena of government.
The Sunday Times Magazine (STM): We saw you leaving your post as ‘Rehabilitation Czar’ in February, even as the filing of candidacy was still in October and the official campaign period, early next year. What kept you busy during what the public may perceive to be your “downtime” these past several months.
Panfilo Lacson: Actually, many things (kept me busy). As former PARR, until now there are still invitations coming in (to my office), mostly from our private donors. Just recently, we were in Palawan for the turnover of school buildings donated by Secour Populaire Francais (SFP). I was invited to deliver the keynote speech so I was there.
STM: And how have you been, since your last foray into public office?
Lacson: I am much more relaxed. Unlike when I was in the Senate, and when I was appointed as PARR. I have to mention PARR because that was very stressful. There were a lot of challenges involved so we had to be on our toes, especially because I was the head of the office. The pressure was high and we had so many things to do. Most of the time we were talking to stakeholders, donors, government and non-government officials, ambassadors, among others. There was one activity after another but at the same time, ang daming kulang (there was so much lacking in terms of aid and response).
STM: Would you like to elaborate on that?
Lacson: There was so much responsibility (given the position) with no commensurate authority, and that was very stressful because this is basic in the kind of leadership training I have undergone: (That) for every responsibility, there should be commensurate authority, which I didn’t have when I was the PARR.
STM: Is that the reason why you tendered your resignation?
Lacson: The main reason why I resigned is that I had no implementation authority and I had already delivered on my mandate. My mandate basically was to craft and submit a comprehensive rehabilitation plan, which I already did as early as August 1 last year, and it was approved last October 29, 2014 with a proposed budget. And since I had no implementation authority, I had nothing more to do. But we left some legacy projects like capacitating the local government unit to prepare their own development plans in relation to disasters, on top of others.
STM: Are you enjoying this momentary phase being away from any kind of public office?
Lacson: Yes, sort of. I am enjoying it because the pressure and stress both eased up. But, hindi rin kasi ako sanay na walang ginagawa (I’m neither accustomed to doing nothing). For the longest time, I had been in the government—right after graduating from the PMA, I started serving in public office. I became the chief of PNP, and after that I went straight to the Senate for 12 years until my last term in 2013. I think I only got a “break” between June 30, 2013 (my last day of office) until I was appointed on December 10, 2013 as PARR. We are just talking of six months of lull and then sabak naman sa (I went head on again in the) executive department until my resignation early this year.
STM: Seeing that you are more relaxed now, what made you decide to return to public office via running for the Senate anew in 2016?
Lacson: One word—pork; not to gain from pork, but to continue as watchdog. Since I left and the Supreme Court came up with the decision to declare the pork barrel system as unconstitutional, our continuing study of the budget showed that there’s still “pork.” Pork is still very much present, very much evident in the 2014 and 2015 budget. Yes, we can monitor and we can voice out our strong opinions against the use of pork barrel but it’s better if you are there (in the Senate) because you can actively participate in budget deliberations, and that (is what) I intend to do if and when I make it in the elections next year. If ever I become a senator again, I will see to it that the pork barrel is really eliminated from the general appropriations act and remain buried, extinct. That’s my intention.
STM: Having said that, is pork barrel elimination your main platform for your upcoming campaign?
Lacson: Anti-corruption, generally. And pork barrel is very much part of my anti-corruption term. In fact more than 10 years ago, I delivered a privileged speech against the pork barrel, calling for its abolition but nobody listened—nobody even interpolated on the floor. It wasn’t even calendared for a committee hearing so no resolution happened. The telling effect of the pork barrel system against some legislators only became evident 10 years later, when the story of Janet Lim Napoles (the alleged pork barrel queen) became apparent. It was sort of saying, “I told you so.” I intend to continue that crusade. I call it a lonely crusade because I was all alone at that time and I hope I will not be alone this time if I get the chance to go back to the Senate.
STM: Earlier this year, there were reports you were running for president. Please talk about that and your eventual decision for a Senate bid.
Lacson: The advocacies that we are pursuing did not resonate. At that time we, were going around, and for a while we thought of gunning for the presidency. Our main platform then was, and still is in whatever capacity, to empower the local government units—the communities—by making them a big part of national budget distribution. What we are advocating is that all 81 provinces, all of 1,490 municipalities, all of the 42,026 barangays across the country must have a share, must be given enough responsibility, to develop on their own. The idea being if they are given their share from the national budget to be on their own foot, it will generate jobs, it will decongest the city because each of them will have their own livelihood and infrastructure projects that generate jobs. When there are jobs, among their constituents, it means that they will have purchasing power because they can earn, and when there’s purchasing power, it will trigger a demand for goods and services, meaning the GDP will improve, and not just some sectors but across the country.
We wanted to implement that, not just to decongest Metro Manila but to have a genuine development not only in the National Capital Region or in the urban cities but more so on the country side that’s very far off, with no chance of developing because they are, more often than not, taken for granted.
STM: That seems to be a strong platform for your bid, but why did you back out?
Lacson: I think because we saw that it wasn’t resonating with the population at large. I’ll say it very directly, it did not reflect on the surveys that were conducted. That would have been easier to implement if I were in the executive branch—the problem is, will I make it? So I just decided to go back, give the Senate a shot and make use also of that advocacy, of that knowledge, and actively participate during the budget deliberations if I am elected.
STM: You are high up in the surveys to win for senator in the upcoming elections. Presidential candidate and Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares tagged you as a sure-winner. Are you comfortable being called as such?
Lacson: No. Nobody can be so sure of winning even if they’re rating highly in the surveys. If that’s a reason to be complacent, that will be a hard lesson to learn afterwards. You should run a campaign as if you are at the tail end of the surveys.
STM: Having mentioned Sen. Grace Poe, can you share your thoughts on being dropped from her line-up?
Lacson: I have always considered being a guest candidate a privilege. I told her, “When you invited me, I did not consider it as a matter of right.” It’s always a privilege to be invited as a guest candidate by any serious presidential contender, except of course for nuisance candidates (laughs). But a privilege can be withdrawn any time and since she was withdrawing it, sabi ko, “OK lang.”
STM: In what capacity did you feel most fulfilled as public servant?
Lacson: That would have to be my career-defining moment in the government, when I was appointed as PNP chief. I really felt that the Filipino people appreciated what I did as head of the police force. I really felt the appreciation, and honestly, the admiration in how I handled the Philippine National Police—kotong [corruption]was eradicated in the streets, the policemen and women were disciplined and I was able to implement the reforms I wanted to implement. Second to that, when I was Commander of Metropolitan District Command in Cebu. I felt it almost in my bones that the people of Metro Cebu appreciated what I did there at that time. That led to my being officially adopted as a “Son of Cebu.”
STM: How about your time in the Senate?
Lacson: Not so much as compared to my PNP post because that is already within the realm of politics. The appreciation is very different, whether you do right, whether you do good. Some people appreciate what you do but some people will keep on criticizing you, that you’re just playing politics. You will receive all sorts of criticisms.
STM: You have both been appointed and elected into office, which of the two do you prefer?
Lacson: I would prefer to be in the executive branch because pwede ka mag-implement, but unfortunately, when I was appointed as PARR, I had no implementing authority as I have mentioned. But when I was chief PNP, I was in the executive department, I was calling the shots. I requested the President or the commander in chief at that time [Joseph Ejercito Estrada] to give me full authority over the PNP, and if I did not deliver, he could withdraw everything or even relieve me of my post. So I had practically a free-hand in running the affairs of the PNP that’s why we had success in reform agenda. When you are elected, it’s also fulfilling, but say in the Senate, you are just one of 24 voices. And even if you want to pursue an advocacy, if you lose in the voting, which is part of the process, it will remain just that. Both are challenging, both are fulfilling, they both have pros and cons.
STM: Do you still have unfulfilled dreams?
Lacson: A lot, but they are all for country. I’d like to see the Philippines and the Filipinos, at least before I die, to be a superior race. I’m sure most Filipinos also dream of that, of not being an inferior nation. Someday, I want to see Philippines regarded highly around the world. Maybe that’s also one of the reasons I decided to go back to the Senate, to do my share in whatever manner to fulfill the dreams for the country.
STM: We are a few days away from ushering 2016, and as a tradition, many still make New Year’s resolutions. Do people like you still make resolutions?
Lacson: Again, not for myself. Without the risk of being arrogant, I want to speak on behalf of ordinary Filipinos who are about to make their New Year’s resolutions. Hopefully their resolutions would read as: “Sana ako, pagdating ng New Year hindi na ako manlalamang sa traffic [I will no longer be arrogant on the road]; hindi na ako manlalamang sa kapwa [I won’t take advantage of others], hindi na ako magnanakaw kung nasa gobyerno ako [I will no longer steal as a government official]; hindi ko na rin papayagang nakawin yung binabayad kong buwis kung nasa labas naman ako ng gobyerno [as citizen I will not let anyone steal the taxes I pay]”.