COMMENTARY

Miriam, the Valiant

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

Shiraz, Iran: I am devastated to hear while I am here, away from our country, that my friend, Miriam Defensor Santiago, has gone on to meet her Maker, an event she always expected and mentioned as she lived through the turbulent personal and political chapters in her life. She never forgot our final destination as mortals.

Miriam was a singular Filipina, a passionate believer in right and wrong, a citizen who came to public service with the best intentions and the most courage and the stamina and high expectations to keep them all her life.

She was a good judge, an outstanding legal mind, a writer of serious law books and seriously comic booklets of jokes. She served as Immigration Commissioner and revamped the graft-ridden agency that had been the bane of anyone who had to deal with it. She was appointed as secretary of Agrarian Reform and acquitted herself well. Finally, she ran for President in 1992. With no money, the opposition of the political establishment and the usual dirty tricks that can be concocted against a popular candidate, she made a dramatic entry into the country’s political equation, never ever to be out of it.

1992 is a long way in the past from where we are now. Back then, an anti-establishment candidate could have the votes but could not win. Maybe that is no longer true. But for Miriam it was.


Her style of governance or administration was to seek the best for the task, not the most loyal or the one who had given her favors. Thus, she appointed people she never met personally, just going by their bio data, their track record. That is so counter-intuitive in Philippine politics, it is until now not done.

When Miriam was deprived of the presidency, this country lost a chance to let an agent of change turn this country around. She would have, for she never felt she owed anyone except the ordinary citizens the best of herself in terms of good governance, which she proved in all her positions. And that is saying a lot in the context of subsequent political events and leaders.

I would say this country let her down and failed to see what she could have given it. She lived with that and never gave up. Her senatorial terms were outstanding.

I first came to know Miriam when I received a call from her out of nowhere as she was going through the Commission on Appointments as the nominee to the Department of Agrarian Reform. She was facing a concerted effort to block her. It seems when one is different, or out of sync with the establishment, one can expect its full press attack on you. She wanted to know what my husband would have done under these circumstances. From there, we connected. She dedicated a book against corruption to him. And when she decided to make the presidential run in 1992, she asked me to her office and told me it was carpe diem, seize the moment. I was shocked, frightened and absolutely horrified at what she was about to do and left mumbling to myself that it was a crazy idea. It was not. I ended up as her spokesperson in that campaign that I will never forget, must record before my dying day.

Many educated and refined people were turned off by Miriam for her comments about her educational accomplishments, her remarkably frank if demeaning opinions about certain political figures and her bad temper. She was all that and it came with the territory she entered, the political word of chicanery, double speak, impunity. She believed in leadership that was worthy – educated, ethical and honest enough to call down those who were not. Only the valiant, those who cannot meet the slings and arrows that come with that behavior go this way. Miriam was valiant.

For all her public sternness she was an affectionate and loving Ilongga, free with her kindness and endearments in private. She was also the Filipina woman who defied every convention necessary to prove her point – do what is right, stand by it, and take the flak.

Her sense of humor could be bizarre and arcane, enough to seem otherwise. It was mostly for herself and those who knew where she was coming from. Definitely, not the common and obvious to be acceptable and understood. But when it was, it was hilarious.

The dirty tricks department branded her “crazy” but she was like a fox.

At the onset of her illness, she kept to her public life, continuing with her Senate work, running for President the third time and simultaneously and paradoxically withdrawing from society, a thing she always preferred. While in the midst of campaigning in 1992, she would retire early and alone with a book, night after night.

Miriam, you have left one more hole in my life. Nevertheless, I will love and remember you to the end. You have been good for us all and I am grateful.

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1 Comment

  1. Atty. Rissa Ofilada on

    Thanks Ma’am! I was waiting for you during the wake as I know you are a good friend of Sen. MDS. I totally agree at naiyak na naman po ako reading your article.