Despite living a comfortable life as a successful businessman, the former student activist of the Martial Law era never set aside his passion to improve the quality of life of the Filipino through a better government. And yes, he walks the talk as convener of the Alliance for Truth, Integrity and Nationalism Coalition (ATIN) and the Krusada Kontra Dynasty, whose goals are summed up in the “Rebuild Covenant” of political reforms (see sidebar); as well as chairman of the Consumer Protection Advocacy Group Foundation Inc. (CPAG), which advocates better employment practices in the country, and as such a more equal distribution of wealth.
As head of these two very persuasive non-governmental organizations—whose purpose is truly for the Filipino—it is clear that Penson remains steadfast in his fight for fair public service and governance with repeated calls for government officials to “end the cycle of corruption” and “genuinely care for its people.” At the same time, his advocacies serve as an inspiration for concerned citizens toward greater nationalism as he in turn calls for them “to play an active role in making the Philippines a livable country.”
“What is wrong has become the norm,” Penson lamented as he sat down with The Sunday Times Magazine on August 29 for an exclusive interview at his well-appointed residence in Mandaluyong City. “While government officials continue to provide themselves with ‘rich and famous’ lifestyles, people have accepted it as a fact that whoever is in office will use their position to manipulate and steal from government funds.
“It seems like we have lost our morality of what is good and evil, and we must work to get that back,” he added with burning determination.
With the establishment of ATIN in May, Penson—who ran for the senate as an independent candidate in the 2013 elections—is focused on supporting highly capable political leaders as the 2016 polls loom. Through the movement, he is set to identify individuals who have led a noble and honest existence, and more importantly, possess the will to build a nation “where dreams are made possible even to those who have least in life.”
“Corruption, in all facets of our society, has become endemic in our country. We hope to instill the three important things lacking in the Philippines—truth, integrity and nationalism,” he enumerated. “Our government officials must first speak of the truth and uphold the law, before they are able to lead. When you talk of nationalism, this is where the people come in because we should all work for a better society as a whole, and not as individuals living only for himself.”
Even as a young man, Penson was a staunch activist because he always had compassion for the underprivileged and the oppressed. Today, with his extensive background in politics, philanthropy and business, the 62-year-old lives the “Filipino dream” by example, demanding excellence in all his endeavors, consciously making decisions that benefit the greater good, and persistently fighting for what is right and just.
As his discontent over the “norms” in the country escalates, his advocacies signify his unwavering belief that there is still hope for the Philippines to become an independent, highly developed, self-sustaining country that is worthy of international recognition.
Unlike many upper class Filipino families where children are raised free from everyday responsibilities, Penson’s parents—Cecilio Halili-Penson and wife Nena (nee Lagdameo)—reared him and his nine siblings to become disciplined, hardworking professionals.
“My mother was a disciplinarian, while my father was a very wise entrepreneur. We grew up knowing that we weren’t going to receive financial inheritance from them, so we were always told to work for what we want to achieve,” Penson recalled. “We were treated equally, and we weren’t given everything we wanted. They would listen to us and understand us, but they will not give us money.”
His father was the son of Emilio Penson and Margarita Halili, sister of former Bulacan Gov. Fortunato Halili of San Miguel. Cecilio was appointed general manager of the family’s various businesses, which included the Halili Brewery, Halili Transit, Halrey Ice Plant and Cold Storage, Halrey Construction, and the Rural Bank of Sta. Maria, among others.
Though his father headed the family enterprise, the wise and honest entrepreneur knew how to value his people and welcomed labor unions in the company as an avenue to voice out worker’s concerns. As the fourth child, Ricardo Penson, who is known to family and friends as “Dick,” learned early on from the correct way to treat others through his father’s practices.
Meanwhile, Penson’s mother Nena, who was born and raised in Lopez, Quezon, is the daughter of Atty. Jose Argosino Lagdameo, senior partner of the Lorenzo Tañada Law Firm. She was a full-time housewife, whose strict ways also played a major part in shaping Penson into the successful individual he is today.
While growing up in Caloocan, he was also exposed to the dire living conditions of underprivileged families near their home. It was as far back as those days that Penson became fully aware of the disparity between the rich and poor.
“I grew up in Caloocan and we lived next door to a doctor and a Proctor & Gamble general manager, so we lived in a nice area. But then, just around corner, it was different—those who lived there were not comfortable as we were,” Penson sadly remembered.
“It was during my high school years that I saved money to buy shoeshine boxes, which I gave away to out-of-school-youths so they would have something to do, and earn a little money at the same time. They were just there at the corner of 11th and Rizal Avenues in Caloocan and they each had their own stands. They slowly paid off the cost of the shoe boxes monthly, and of course, I had the shiniest shoes in the neighborhood,” he added laughing.
Among many of his father’s advocacies, which ranged from environmental preservation to labor rights, the young Ricardo was most active in the school for convicted prisoners, which the senior Penson established. Even as a Marketing graduate, he would still take turns with his siblings in teaching a number of different classes in the correctional facility. Incidentally, it was at one of these classes where Penson met actor Robin Padilla (who served a two-year prison sentence for illegal possession of weapons), who remains a good friend to this day.
Penson completed his elementary and secondary education at the Notre Dame of Manila, Caloocan City. He then took up a Bachelor of Science course in Business Administration, with a Major in Marketing at San Beda College.
Exhibiting leadership potential even in college, he was appointed freshman representative of his batch and worked under the late former Sen. Raul Roco, who was then a student at San Beda’s Law School.
As political instability rocked the country under the dictatorship of late President Ferdinand Marcos, Penson was chosen by his peers to become chapter head of the anti-Martial Law student movement, Kabataang Makabayan.
“Being part of Kabataang Makabayan had a strong influence on me. Whenever we would hold meetings and plan our activities, we didn’t ask if there was budget and we did not expect anything in return. We had a common belief and we worked towards our goal together, which is different from how things work now,” Penson pointed out.
“One instance that I could never forget was being in Plaza Miranda when the bombing happened [in August 1971]. I remembered running as fast as I can away from the area, going as far as the Cinerama on Claro M. Recto Avenue,” he recalled of one of the most infamous days of Marital Law.
As Penson’s involvement in the student-militant group intensified by 1975, his parents decided to send him to Sagada in the Cordillera Mountains to evade arrest and detention from the Metrocom—the task force assigned to implement curfew and “maintain peace” at the height of Martial Law.
During this time, Penson also became involved in the Cordillera People’s Liberation before he was asked by his mother to go back to Manila and resume his studies.
Upon his return, however, Penson was not allowed to finish his course in San Beda because of his political activities, and was forced to take up Home Economics at the University of the Philippines upon the advice of his father.
“With 10 female students and four ‘female-at-heart’ classmates, I was the only straight male student taking up that course!” he exclaimed. “Nevertheless it was still a valuable experience for me because I learned to be more independent.”
Despite the threats of detention and torture all through Martial Law, Penson actively supported late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. in 1978, who was then detained at the Batasang Pambansa.
One evening, armed men took Penson from their family home and brought him to Camp Crame.
“It remains to be one of the most extremely traumatic experiences in my life. We were tied to rattan chairs, blindfolded, and were hit in the head many times. I was with two other guys that I knew while I participated in the printing of the anti-Marcos Laban campaign materials,” Penson recalled.
“One of the armed men who was in that room was Colonel [Rolando] Abadilla. They were deciding whether to finish me off, but he said that my family would look for me,” he continued. “The two other men I was with were killed in that same room. I had a gun in my mouth too, but there was no bullet. They still pulled the trigger to scare me off, and my teeth were heavily damaged because of the strong recoil of the gun’s hammer. It also hit my forehead and my blood gushed all over.”
After he was released from his five-day detention, his parents immediately sent him to the United States where he pursued a post-graduate degree. He worked for a Bachelor of Business Administration Equivalency Course at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, and attained a GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) result of 98-percent. With this exceptional mark, he was able to finish his Management Development Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
Still with his beloved Philippines in mind, Penson authored many papers during his time in the US, including his thesis, “Marketing Strategies for Developing Countries,” a United National Development Program staff working paper. He also became resource speaker for such topics as “Looking Back, Moving Forward” at the Center for Asian Studies, University of Michigan; and “Resiliency and Change in Philippine Political Governance;” as well as “Harmony in a Multicultural World,” at the Centre for International Studies, University of Adelaide.
Even before graduation, Penson was employed by Xerox Learning Systems, a company that developed the Microsoft operating system. This was during the time of what is known as the breakup of the Bell System—the telecommunications monopoly—and Pensons feels fortunate he was in the thick of it all.
Nevertheless, his achievements abroad failed to suppress his nationalistic ways.
“My experience in the US got me thinking why many Filipinos force themselves to be part of another country, when we should look after the interest of our own country,” he argued. “In America, the education is all good, but it is only applicable under the American setting. For me, there is nothing you can learn in American business schools that you can apply in the Philippines because sadly in our country, it’s who you know that matters.”
After eight years in the US, Penson returned to the Philippines in 1986—the year of the Edsa Revolution—with a reenergized and stronger sense of nationalism.
Heeding the call to serve country, Penson was appointed Special Assistant for National Security and Political Affairs from 1987 to 1992 under the administration of late President Corazon Aquino.
For a time, Penson also served as chair of the National Advocacy Council, as well as the LP-PDP Laban Coalition.
It was in these succeeding years where he realized first-hand the changes needed for an effective government and honest public service.
Thus, he ran for office in 1992 as Representative of Quezon City’s Third District under the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Liberal Party coalition, but lost to movie actor Dennis Roldan (who was convicted this week of a kidnapping case in 2005). Again, Penson gained first-hand experience in the ordeal, that of blatant corruption in government.
“I was leading the first three days of the elections, then a Comelec [Commission on Elections] district officer came to me and asked for P1.2 million,” he related. “I only had P200,000 then, so I asked my father for the remaining balance. He did not give me the money, and instead he said, ‘If you will start your political career like this, you might as well lose now.’ So I didn’t give them money and my numbers didn’t move anymore. Dennis and I eventually became friends, and then I found out he gave [the Comelec]money when they asked him.”
Disillusioned but still determined to make a difference in government, Penson ran again for the senate in 2013 and realized that nothing had changed since his first attempt.
“I continued to be very passionate in pursuing my advocacies and I realized three decades since I first ran for an elected position that the same problems were plaguing the country. That’s the reason I felt compelled to run again,” he explained.
“I don’t want my son to grow up in a country where things are changing for the worst. I want to leave my son a place that he can be proud of—that he can call his own home,” he added.
Penson ran on a platform of four major advocacies, the first of which is anti- political dynasty stance. He filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to compel Congress to pass an enabling law on the Constitution’s provision barring political dynasties, which the Supreme Court junked citing the principle of separation of powers.
His group also asked Comelec to disqualify candidates from political dynasties, but Chairman Sixto Brillantes refused to grant a hearing for the petition.
Besides his anti-political dynasty platform, he laid down his ideas for driver’s education to be mandatory in high school; cultural reformation; and matching system between the talent and capability of a student with his or her educational path.
Of course, he is also vehemently against the pork barrel system, which he describes as “the bane of our government” and precisely the reason political dynasties continue.
“These political dynasties will run our government to the ground just to fill their pockets. If we don’t fight for this, we will see the end of our country—it’s just a matter of time before we run out of resources,” he admonished.
Passion and beliefs
Penson’s disillusionments over his two failed bids for electoral positions thankfully have still not weakened his deeply rooted patriotism, just as his horrific experiences during Martial Law failed to do.
Even outside government, he actively pursues the goals of ATIN, Krusada Kontra Dynasty, as well his other significant advocacies, and even in business endeavors that will improve services for the Filipino.
He is currently chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Ausphil Tollways Corp., a Manila-based infrastructure development company that provides engineering support services in the construction of expressways and other major projects.
Ausphil is the main proponent of the North Luzon East Expressway Tollway Project that connects Quezon City (Metro Manila) to the Central and North Luzon provinces through San Jose del Monte, Norzagaray (Bulacan), Cabanatuan City (Nueva Ecija) and Tuguegarao (Cagayan); as well as the Clark International Airport Corp. Terminal 2 Project expansion.
Besides these, Penson is also president of Philco Aero Inc., chairman and CEO of Penson & Co. Inc., and in his free time supports the San Beda Football Team.
“I owned Stallion FC, a football club in the United Football League, for a couple of years,” offering a bit of trivia about himself. “And I’m happy our team in San Beda is now on a winning streak.”
Clearly, Penson’s passions in whatever facet in his life are still fueled by his unwavering belief that every Filipino should possess and pursue a “will to greatness.”
He saw this in the very few people he has idolized and emulated throughout his life—his father and mother; the late American entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist Steve Jobs; and the late great founder of The Manila Times, Joaquin “Chino” Roces, who was with him when he was detained in Camp Crame.
“Chino Roces is always a great reminder for me of my student activism years. More importantly, he was the one who influenced me to never stop loving the Philippines,” Penson wistfully recalled. “For all he has done for me, I promised him I would never leave his son Eddie.”
With an incredible sense of nationalism flowing through his veins, Ricardo Lagdameo Penson promises he will never give up the dream of helping his countrymen achieve greatness in whatever he does. Because just as a wise man once told him to never stop loving his country, he can never stop hoping for a better future.