FLAGS flew half-mast as the nation mourned the death Thursday of former senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, whose verbal prowess, legal acumen and shrewd politics endeared her to the public and awed colleagues and adversaries alike.
The colorful politician, a former trial court judge and three-time presidential candidate, lost a two-year battle with lung cancer at the age of 71.
News of Santiago’s death was confirmed by her husband Narciso “Jun” Santiago Jr., who said the ex-senator died peacefully at 8:52 a.m. on Thursday at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Taguig City.
Two years ago, the feisty senator announced she had stage-four lung cancer and would not be performing her legislative duties for six months to undergo medical treatment.
“I have a very rare condition called behavioral mutancy. By themselves, the cells in my left lungs develop a genetic mutation that makes them impermeable to cancer and which gives them the energy to fight off cancer,” Santiago told reporters in July 2014. The following month, she declared: “I have licked cancer.”
Santiago was rushed to St. Luke’s earlier this month. On May 30, she was confined at Makati Medical Center for pneumonia, and was discharged on June 7.
Despite her serious medical condition, Santiago managed to file the most bills in 2014 and even joined the May 2016 presidential race with former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as her running mate.
Marcos said Santiago’s death was “devastatingly sad news.”
“Our beacon of wisdom, intelligence and ever-present humor and good sense has flickered out. She leaves the world less wise, less bright and sadder,” he said in a statement.
Santiago’s remains were brought to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cubao, Quezon City Thursday night. The Senate, her home for 18 years, is preparing for a necrological service.
Colleagues at the Senate led tributes to the Iloilo-born lawmaker.
“There is no senator, past or present, who can match Senator Santiago’s uncommon brilliance and fiery dedication to her principles and beliefs,” said Drilon, also an Iloilo native and Santiago’s classmate at the University of the Philippines-Iloilo and the UP College of Law, from 1961 to 1969.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd said he owed his legal knowledge to Santiago who was his professor in the UP College of Law.
“I did not always agree with her position but I always learned from her arguments,” said Pimentel.
Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who often crossed swords with Santiago, expressed regret at the passing of a former colleague and said he would include her in his prayers.
“I did not hold ill feelings, I always pray for those whom I had disagreements with,” Enrile said in a telephone interview with reporters.
Sen. Richard Gordon hailed Santiago as a model of intelligence, hard work and integrity, worthy of emulation “for young Filipinos aspiring for leadership positions.”
Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr., father of the incumbent Senate president, described Santiago as an intellectual who fiercely defended her independence to express herself fully on issues of national importance.
Moment of silence
Senator Grace Poe, who was presiding over a public hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, temporarily suspended the proceeding to offer a prayer for Santiago
“I would like to ask that we take a moment of silence to pray for the soul of an esteemed, respected, courageous colleague, a woman who had helped us in the past pass the freedom of information (FOI) bill,” she said.
She recalled being scared of Santiago in defending the bill during the 16th Congress.
“It was the first bill that I defended on the floor and I was quite scared to be interpellated then by Senator Santiago. I remember having sleepless nights preparing for that particular time when she would actually interpellate me,” she said.
Instead, Santiago lectured on the importance of the FOI bill, a moment Poe said she would never forget.
Sen. Francis Escudero, whose wife, actress Heart Evangelista, had grown close to Santiago, said the late senator left a great legacy to the nation.
Santiago played matchmaker between Escudero and Evangelista. Evangelista stood as maid of honor during the marriage renewal ceremony of the Santiagos in 2011, their 40th wedding anniversary.
On Instagram, Evangelista wrote: “My mommy, my Tita, my Elizabeth Taylor, my lawyer, my mentor my everything … I don’t know what to say … I cannot say goodbye. I just can’t… I love you, my superhero… I will miss you my Cleopatra… I will be the luckiest girl in history to have you as my second mom.”
One of the subjects of Santiago’s legendary temper, Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption founder Dante Jimenez, said he had forgiven the late senator.
Jimenez and other Senate spectators earned Santiago’s ire as she went into a heated discourse with the late senator Raul Roco during the impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada over the jueteng illegal numbers game, 16 years ago.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd, who also tangled with the senator as private counsel during the 2012 impeachment trial of the late chief justice Renato Corona, said he regretted not having the opportunity to reconcile with Santiago.
Aguirre covered his ears while Santiago was speaking during the Corona trial, refusing to hear Santiago’s angry lectures.
Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo described Santiago as an ally “all the way.”
“Senator Miriam’s life is the epitome of courage, brilliance, eloquence, dedication to public service and commitment to good governance. The Philippines has lost a truly outstanding and irreplaceable leader,” said Arroyo, now a Pampanga representive and a deputy speaker, in a statement.
Former House speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said he served as godfather to Santiago’s son, Alexander Robert, who committed suicide in 2003.
“Philippine politics will not be the same without the feisty Miriam. We will miss her intelligence, wit and vast legal expertise which she has shared as university professor and earned for the country the distinction of being the first Asian elected judge to the International Criminal Court,” said Belmonte.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who earned praise for his gentlemanly demeanor toward Santiago during the presidential debates earlier this year, expressed his “deepest sorrow” in a statement from Vietnam, where he went for a two-day working visit.
“She is best remembered as a graft buster ‘eating death threats for breakfast,’ earning her the [moniker]Iron Lady of Asia,” Duterte said.
“Rest in peace, Madam Senator. May your legacy continue to guide this nation for many years to come,” he added.