Winnie Monsod is no ordinary woman.
An opinionated economist and a very vocal critic, the feisty host of GMA News TV’s public affairs program, Bawal ang Pasaway kay Mareng Winnie, always makes sure she digs deep into social and political issues through her holds-barred and no-nonsense trademark interviews. In short, nothing escapes the respected broadcast journalist, especially if she senses something is amiss.
But one summer morning, The Sunday Times Magazine turned the tables on everyone’s “Mareng Winnie” at her home in an exclusive subdivision in Makati, and brazenly asked her if she was ever “pasaway” at any time in her life. “Pasaway” is a popular slang in Filipino that is used these days to mean “stubborn” or “troublesome,” and often attributed to the youth.
“Noong bata kami, [when we were young]it was a different order,” replied Monsod. “You obey your parents and I was an obedient girl. There was never a time when I said to my parents ‘you’re wrong,’ because when you think about it, they were right. Talagang wala kang masasabi [you really couldn’t say anything about them.”
Born Solita Collas to Juan Collas, a diplomat, and Soledad Gardunio, a teacher by profession, Monsod recalled growing up in a household where the line of authority and the word “discipline” were not only well defined but deeply rooted in the bloodline. Think of the Von Trapp family in the Sound of Music before Maria came to the picture. In fact, during Monsod’s teenage years, she was only allowed to attend parties with a chaperone, but like the typical youth of today, she never protested because she understood where her parents were coming from.
“You don’t defy for the sake of defying. I’ve always told this to my children: You don’t defend an indefensible position. If you know you’re wrong, admit it and move on. Maybe that’s why my parents and I got along very well,” she added.
Unsurprisingly, Monsod’s grandfather, a pure Spaniard by the name of Juan Collas Sr., was a captain of the guardia civil. He was assigned in Ilocos where he met Monsod’s grandmother. Meanwhile, on her mother’s side, Monsod also had a great grandfather who was galleon captain or capitan de ultramar, which is equivalent today to leading the navy.
“I think much of who I am today I inherited, really, from my mother and father. They had good values. They stood for what they believed in,” said the credible journalist.
Unsurprisingly again, while Monsod was growing up, politics and the economy were regular topics of conversation in the Collas household.
This explains how she developed an interest in these areas, which in the past, were considered male territory. Her name Solita, “little loner” in Spanish, certainly did not give a clue to the kind of career she would pursue later on.
“It’s a loving term, actually. My mom is Soledad and so I, her daughter, was named Solita. Just like when your father is Francisco then you would be named Paco or Paquito, and so on,” she explained.
Monsod is the youngest of six children, which explains why she was always “under the radar.” However, despite the strict supervision of her parents—especially her father’s—she managed to hide from him one thing she now thinks is the most “pasaway” act she did.
“Smoking,” she revealed. “I kept that from my father! Ayun ang talagang pasaway [I was really being stubborn]! I think I was 14 or 15 when I started smoking. Akala ko kasi ‘pag nagsisigarilyo ka magiging glamorous ka [I thought smoking made you look glamorous]. I must have looked ridiculous,” she laughed.
“I was long-haired and braided but I smoked and nobody told us it was harmful to one’s health. It was so cheap. I remember smoking in my room and my dad wanted to come in. I made paypay [I fanned myself to diffuse the smoke].
“It was my sixth [attempt to]stop. I’d stop and then I’d start again. Imagine after five years I’d start again, two years, one year, and then in 1991, I finally did it,” she proudly declared.
In 1991, Monsod contracted a disease involving her thyroid gland for which she had to undergo an operation. She confessed that before she went to the operating room, she was still smoking a cigarette despite her doctor’s advice. This irritated her throat that led to involuntary coughing on her part, post-surgery.
“Sarado na ‘yung throat ko eh nag-cough ako [My throat was closed up and yet I coughed]. Kaya pala [it turns out]they want you to stop smoking to allow your lungs to clear so that you don’t get that coughing spell,” she related.
Her stitches burst open prompting her surgeon to sew her up again, free of charge. After the ordeal, she thought the best way she could repay her doctor’s kindness was to decide to never smoke again.
Unlike quitting smoking, college was a piece of cake for Monsod. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of the Philippines-Diliman in 1959. She then obtained a Master of Arts in Economics graduate degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1962.
Following her academic achievements, Monsod held various positions in government including minister and later secretary of Socio-economic Planning; concurrent director of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) from 1986 to 1989; and convenor and chairman of the Philippine Human Development Network, a position she held for 11 years.
Her international involvement includes being a member of the United Nations Committee on Development Policy (UNCDP) and the South Commission. She also served the advisory board of the South Centre in Geneva, Switzerland; the Board of Trustees International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRI) in Washington, D.C.; and the advisory board of the UNDP Human Development Report. Moreover, she was a member of the High Level Task Force of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Before hosting her own TV show, she was ubiquitous in the mass media, relentlessly asked to guest on public affairs programs to provide her insights on issues concerning the country’s political and economic landscape.
It was in 1992, however, when Monsod went full throttle as a broadcast journalist, when she accepted to co-host Firing Line, then a late night public affairs talk show on GMA Network. Program host Teddy Benigno asked her to sit-in for his original partner Oscar Orbos when the latter ran for public office, and Monsod has had a string of successful programs ever since.
In 1998, GMA launched the live debate-format public affairs program Debate with Mare at Pare, from which Monsod earned her monicker “Mareng Winnie.” She co-hosted the popular show with the man she pitched in for in Firing line, Orbos, who was a former Pangasinan governor.
The program left Monsod with very vivid memories, particularly an episode wherein then president and now Manila mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada was angered over discussion on his alleged shortcomings as chief executive, and broke protocol to phone the show live to rebut his political enemies’ claims.
After a top-rated eight-year-long run, the show bid adieu in November 2006, and Monsod gamely moved on to host an all-female public affairs program dubbed Palaban. She hosted show alongside beauty queen Miriam Quiambao and veteran journalist Malou Mangahas.
Currently, besides Bawal ang Pasaway on GMA News TV, Monsod also has a segment on GMA Network’s morning show Unang Hirit.
Talking more about Bawal ang Pasaway, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary on air this year, Monsod said of its catchy title, “The program creators presumably thought that that was what I stood for: someone who is against the pasaway. But, ironically, I didn’t even know what pasaway meant. You know, I never heard the term. ‘Saway,’ yes, but not yung ‘bawal ang pasaway, I couldn’t quite understand what it was. But I’ve become very familiar with it now,” she laughed.
“It’s amazing when people come to me and say, ‘We enjoy watching the show,’ and so on. I guess it’s something that not very many shows do.
And so we have a niche because I don’t want to dumb down the show, you know, you’ve got to bring them up. I think that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a tough game but somebody’s got to do it,” she continued.
Among the personalities who bravely took the hot seat in her program, Monsod revealed the most interesting so far was Imelda Marcos.
“I think, to me, in terms of shock-value and fun, it was Imelda Marcos because she said a lot of things that were up to the people to believe or misbelieve. I liked that interview,” she recalled
“Also, another memorable for me was Cristina Ponce-Enrile [wife of Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile]because it’s the wives who tell the real story, eh. We, women, are more straightforward.”
Monsod’s public affairs programs through the years have earned her numerous journalistic recognitions, yet she humbly refuses to call herself a journalist.
“I’m not a journalist who uncovers truth for the public, I’m just an analyst who shows and tries to make sense of what is happening,” she stressed.
Besides being TV host, Winnie Monsod has been a college professor, teaching Economics to students of the University of the Philippines since 1963. She now holds the rank of Professor Emeritus at the country’s premier state university.
Asked if she has thought about retiring from her teaching career now that she is about to turn 75 in July, the professor quickly replied she has no plans of giving up her first love.
“I’ve always told everybody, I will teach until the day I die. That’s my love. That’s what keeps me young, interacting with students. If I don’t teach, I will dry up.”
Through the many years of studying the economic and political affairs of the country, what does the analyst see to be so wrong in the Philippines?
“One of my advocacies is agrarian reform,” she began. “The government tells you that the poor of the country—66 percent of them—are in the agricultural sector. Now if 66 percent are in agricultural sector, don’t you think you should concentrate on agriculture? My God. It’s so simple,” she said in exasperation.
“I mean in countries like Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan, they have done agrarian reform and these are the leaders in Asia today. Di ba tayo nakakahalata [Don’t we get the message]? I don’t know what our politicians do. They don’t read. Apparently, they’re content with what their knowledge is. That’s not correct—you have to read.”
One could easily assume that Monsod’s hosting and teaching careers have her plate full already, but on top of these, she is also a writer and a columnist in two publications.
It had to be asked: How does Winnie Monsod re-charge?
“If I don’t have commitments, I would usually read and watch TV at home. On weekends, my husband and I go to Subic to unwind,” she simply said.
On top of her many hats, Monsod is first and foremost a wife and mother of course. She has been happily married for more than 50 years to former Commission on Elections chairman Christian Monsod. They have a brood of five, and today, she is a proud “lola” to three grandchildren.
Seeing—and doting—on the new generation of her family, Monsod admits she is now more careful about her health. She recently had a mild stroke while hosting her segment in Unang Hirit, which naturally gave her a scare. During the live broadcast, the production—and for sure the audience—noticed that she was almost struggling to speak. It was then that someone suggested she might be having a stroke so the producers immediately cut the segment short and rushed her to the hospital. Monsod made it just in time.
“I’m very, very fortunate. My stroke did not lead to paralysis and so no physical therapy was required. I had therapy for speech, but even and up to now I can feel that I’m always groping for words. But that’s how far it goes. I’m really, really grateful to God that he let me off so lightly,” she shared.
To wrap up the interview, The Sunday Times Magazine went back to the first topic of the sit-down and asked Monsod who she would say is the most pasaway in the Philippines.
Without skipping a beat, she declared, “Eh di tayong lahat ang pinaka-pasaway [It’s all of us]! Who voted for these leaders? Eh hindi ba tayo? Kung palpak yung leaders natin, hindi ba palpak din ang ating desisyon, ang ating pagpili [Weren’t we the ones who voted for these leaders? If the leaders fail, didn’t we fail in deciding to vote for them]?
“I already said it in the show, ‘How do we elect our leaders?’ Kasi ka-klase, ka-probinsya, kaibigan. It has nothing to do with, ‘Magaling ba ito?’ ‘Magagawa ba niya kung ano ang ginagawa niya?’, ‘Ano ba ng programa niya?’ Wala. Hindi ganun. Hanggang hindi natin naaayos ang problema natin in choosing our leaders, we get the government we deserve. [I already said it in the show, ‘How do we elect our leaders?’ We base it on the candidate being a classmate, a town mate or a friend. It has nothing to do with ‘Is he efficient?’ ‘Is he ethical?’ ‘Does he empower the people?’ No, it’s not like that. Until we don’t sort out our problem in choosing our leaders, we get the government we deserve.”
As always, Winnie Monsod just says it is. Managing a small laugh as she ended her passionate and impromptu speech, she ended, “Ayan—iyan ang pasaway.”
Bawal ang Pasaway kay Mareng Winnie airs every Monday at 10:15 p.m. on GMA News TV Channel 11.