First elected in 1995 as the 24th governor of Albay, Al Francis Bichara—a civil engineer by profession—was voted anew to the seat in May 2016, signaling the resurgence of significant improvements he had previously established for his constituents and the province as a whole.
After the expiration of his third consecutive term as governor in 2004, the popular public servant had successfully placed this part of northern Luzon both on the national and international stage as The Sunday Times Magazine learned on a weekend visit to Albay.
Eager to share what he has accomplished in the last six months since assuming office, the governor enumerated, “I’m currently re-organizing the institution, the bureaucracy, the Councils, and the Committees. I have to align them toward one direction to work as a team. I’m very particular with details, particularly on fiscal matters, and on how we can earn more revenue to support the budget. Our province has to service a debt of about P1-billion, which is a financial burden to the Albay.”
Clearly a man of action, it is worthwhile to take a look back at Bichara’s career in government, in order to understand what motivates him as a public servant.
Bichara started his political career in 1986 when he was appointed OIC Mayor of what was then the Municipality of Ligao [Ligao was upgraded into a city in 2001].
He climbed up the ladder of government when he was elected to the House of Representatives, representing the Third District of Albay in 1992. After serving one term, however, Bichara felt he could do more for his province when he is permanently there, rather than doing most of his work from Batasan Pambansa in Quezon City.
His political party Lakas took his decision to be very good news for Albay as they immediately fielded him in the gubernatorial race. He won his first term in 1995, and was re-elected in 1998 and 2001.
In his first term alone, Bichara successfully elevated Albay as a premier province in the Bicol Region by prioritizing much needed infrastructure, thereby putting the taxpayer’s money to good and tangible use. Among the landmarks the governor established under his leadership were the construction and renovation of the Albay Astrodome complex, the creation of Albay Park and Wildlife, and the development of the Lignon Hill among others.
Another important milestone under his tenure was the passage of the Albay Tourism Code, which vastly improved the province’s tourism program alongside aggressive promotions for the month-long celebration of the famed Magayon Festival every year.
Moreover, Bichara, who had envisioned Albay to be the “Vegetable Bowl” of Bicol Region, achieved his goal of providing food security with the establishment of the Albay Agri Center in Ligao City and the High-value Crop Center in Tabaco City.
He further upgraded the Provincial Disaster Management Office (PDMO)—now known as Albay Provincial Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO)—to ensure the protection and safety of Albayanos from the constant threats of typhoons, volcanic eruptions and other calamities and disasters; as well as pursued an expansive permanent relocation site in Barangay Anislag, Daraga for families who are vulnerable to calamities and disasters. With these, Bichara earned for the province its first-ever national award for zero-casualty during disasters and emergencies.
Upon completing his third and final term as Albay governor in 2004, Bichara was appointed as the Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon and Syria where he spearheaded the evacuation of Filipino workers at the height of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
“I was quite excited when then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed me as Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon. I thought it was destiny to be posted in the country of origin of my grandparents on my father’s side, and to learn and get acquainted with the place and culture of my forbears,” he shared.
“As Ambassador, I had to circulate with my counterparts and the highest authority of my host country. I became close to the Lebanese President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Chief of the National Security who was in charge of immigration, and who treated me like a brother. When the war broke out, he helped me evacuate the OFWs from Lebanon to the Philippines through Syria. And with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was able to safely repatriate more than 6,000 OFWs back to the Philippines,” Bichara added.
The former ambassador said that spearheading the emergency departure was quite an experience. At that time, however, he performed swiftly and effectively what with his many years of experience evacuating Albayanos whenever volcanic eruptions and typhoons would hit the province.
Albay’s true son
“But as soon as the crisis situation in Lebanon was resolved, I resigned as ambassador and returned to politics to continue my passion of serving my constituents in Albay,” Bichara recalled.
As such in 2007, Bichara returned to the House of Representatives for the Second District of Albay, and completed another three terms. There, he authored various House Bills and Resolutions including the Filipino ID System, Philippine Passport, the Absentee Voting, non-wage benefits for public school teachers, amendments to the Family Code, and salary increase among others.
Bichara, whose clan owns decades-old cinemas in the province [see sidebar], also took the opportunity to give back to the industry that fueled his family’s livelihood, in resuscitating what was then the dying movie industry. He filed House Bill 1250 during the 14th Congress, which aimed to exempt theaters from paying amusement taxes. This was enacted into law via Republic Act 9640.
In his succeeding terms, he filed House Bill 1380 during the 14th Congress, which mandates the direct remittance of the share in the national wealth to Local Government Units. He also filed House Bill 1248, which was substituted by House Bill 3971 seeking to grant non-wage benefits to minimum wage earners. This was later enacted as Republic Act 9504.
Still as congressman, Bichara fulfilled the positions of Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, and Vice Chairman of the Committee on Banks and Financial Intermediaries. He was a member of the Committees on Appropriations, Good Government and Public Accountability, Energy, Public Works and Highways, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Dangerous Drugs, Games and Amusement, Aquaculture and Fisheries Resources, and Bicol Recovery and Economic Development.
When asked on what he considers his most valuable achievement as a politician in his almost 30-decade long career in government, Bichara replied, “It actually depends when you’re a Congressman and a Governor. When you’re a Governor, you can see tangible changes such as landmarks, but in Congress, sometimes it’s frustrating because you pass a number of Bills in the House, then when it goes to the Senate, it gets frozen many times. When I was Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the past six years, many bills did not move at the Senate.”
Elaborating, he continued, “One example is when I introduced the idea of a 10-year passport—it was approved by the House, but when it went to the Senate, it was not acted upon. The same fate happened to my proposed Filipino ID system. It was approved in the House but not acted upon in the Senate. That was during the last Congress, so now, they had to re-file it. I’m still hoping though that it will be approved in the Senate because of the many advantages it will bring to the Filipinos.”
Back at the home front, Bichara shared, “The problem that I now encounter as Governor is insufficient, outdated and unreliable data in the province. Some bureaucrats have been there for so long but they remains stagnant, did not grow professionally, and failed to develop expertise on important issues. To formulate a world-class development plan, I really have to hire professional consultants to do the work.”
In his renewed mandate as governor, Bichara’s knowledge of his province’s strengths and weaknesses, perfected almost through the years, helped him to get back in the saddle even in a much larger scale.
“There are more people, more cars, more business and investments, which all require support services,” he explained. “We need more roads, more infrastructure, transportation. Imagine that even people and goods from Visayas and Mindanao pass through Albay.
“We also need to continue building more hospitals. When it comes to agriculture, we want to put up a farmer’s village with a greenhouse, e-library for agriculture, conference rooms and dormitory for trainings. We will create a one-stop shop agricultural farm for everyone and weekends will be a farmers’ village day.”
Besides these, Bichara is also bent on ensuring the well-being of Albayons. “We want to prioritize on the health services for the people. That is why the first thing I did was to convene volunteer health workers who have access to every household. Tasked to do health profiling, they have been given support and guidance by the provincial health office, city government, municipal government and the barangay officials.”
Meanwhile, in terms of tourism, Bichara is bent on further placing the 18 municipalities and three component cities of Albay in Legazpi, Ligao and Tabaco on the map with aggressive marketing campaigns, as well as the establishment of convention centers.
“We are actually promoting Legazpi through conventions centers in the Southern part of Luzon. We already have a number of activities calendared for 2017. We still have to build more facilities to accommodate 3,000 delegates who visit at any given time.”
With so many plans for the province of Albay, Bichara said he is able to multi-task because of the most important skill a public servant should posses: The sincere ability to listen to the needs of his constituents on how government can improve their quality of life.
“If you know what your constituents need, it is only then you can even take on the challenge of developing a master plan for the entire province. You need to consolidate a number of data but they have to be evaluated and updated to come up with credible and reliable figures. So back in June, we essentially had to start from scratch, for example health profiling, as I said earlier where we’ve had to go down to the grassroots to get the real and present data,” Bichara explained.
“But the fulfilling and rewarding part in all these is when you see the results. It makes me feel good when people are able to enjoy the improvements put in place, and when you hear feedback that what you accomplished is the best thing that has happened in the province.”
Besides being Chief Executive of Albay, Bichara is concurrently Chairman of the Regional Development Council of Bicol Region, the National Chairman of the League of Provinces, and Interim President of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP).
Asked if he plans to run for higher office given his three-decades worth of achievement in public service, Bichara replied in the negative and reiterated his desire to pursue his plans and vision for his province.
“I’m planning to run again after this term for governor because you can’t do everything in three years. It is not enough time to plan and implement projects. The first year is used to familiarize and organize the work to be done. The second year is about budgeting and funding of projects, and the third year is when implementation takes place, which also coincides with election time. That’s why I believe a local official’s tenure of service should be four or five years, but then the Constitution has to be amended for that,” he said.
As a truly devoted son of Albay, what then would the governor like to be remembered for when he retires from public service?
“I don’t know,” he mused. I will let history judge me. I just want to continue with public service. My experience working in the executive and legislative branches has given me insights on government procedures and the system that allows me to think out of the box, to be creative, resourceful and innovative. I want this knowledge and experience to move this province forward to greater heights of economic and social development.”
Bichara’s fervent wish however as he pursues his vision for Albay is for his fellow Albayons to nurture their love for their home.
“I keep telling people that we own this province, that this is our place, and we belong to one community. That most of us will grow old here, and that children and grandchildren will inherit this place. Given all that, we should all work together to leave something good for them and make Albay a great place where they will want to live in too.”