AS I listened to his peers deliver eulogies at the necrological services for Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. in the Senate on Oct. 23, 2019, I wished that I had been as lucky in having been able to see in person how the former Senate president conducted himself both as a public servant and as a private person.
”I lost a father, a teacher and a friend,” said Joey Lina. “But more than that, my grief comes from the realization that the nation lost a great Filipino a statesman who championed freedom, human rights and the pursuit of excellence in local governance.” Lina recalled how the two of them helped organize prayer meetings in the Senate.
Rene Saguisag tried to cheer everyone up with the feel-good memories he had of Nene. “The first time I heard about him, I thought he was a lady,” Rene, the Manila boy, said. His tender storytelling must have been reassuring to Nene’s bereaved family and friends. The poignant words, which added to the authenticity of a friend’s grief, eventually drifted to the tune and lines of “You Are My Sunshine.” Left unsaid, but loudly suggested nonetheless, were the sacred family values that the two of them shared, how family support can sustain the dreamer in one like them, and how unique are they who are able to fight their fight at the cost of sacrificing family comfort.
Legislation, or policy making, is a difficult task, according to Orly Mercado. No matter how clear to you the path of your advocacy may seem, other ways of getting to the same destination will often spring from many directions, pushed by various and sometimes conflicting interest groups, causing gridlocks and inaction. Orly, the main author of the Generics Law, said Nene taught him how to best navigate through the seas of political compromise. More importantly, acknowledging that Nene was the initial proponent of a total log ban bill, Orly said Nene showed him how things can get done faster by being slow to claim credit.
Nikki Coseteng, Heherson Alvarez, Risa Hontiveros and Pia Cayetano also shared their stories of how Pimentel touched their lives; of how Nene inspired them to seek the meaning to their own lives.
Tito Sotto, the Senate president, brought up a point that, in my view, is worth pondering. He said: “To my dear idol, Senate President Nene, nagpapasalamat din po ako na may naiwan kayong kaisipan matapos kong pag-aralan ang inyong buhay. Puwede naman palang pumasok sa pulitika at mamaalam na marangal pa rin.” (To my dear idol, Senate President Nene, thank you because your life is an example that you can enter and leave politics and remain honorable.)
The highlights of Pimentel’s political career are more or less publicly known. At 28, he was the dean of the College of Law at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City, where he also studied law. In 1971, he was a member of the Constitutional Convention, representing Misamis Oriental, his home province. He was mayor of Cagayan de Oro in 1980 and assemblyman in 1984. He was elected senator twice, in 1987 and 1998.
From everything I heard about Nene Pimentel, I can say that he had been thoroughly tested, and found more than sufficient.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” goes a saying often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
A 1910 publication, titled Portrait Life of Lincoln, further elaborates on the above quote: “If you want to discover just what there is in a man — give him power. It will either make him or wreck him. Prosperity has ruined more men than poverty. Watch a man when he catches his first glow of success and you will discover just how big or how little he really is.”
Nene Pimentel did not only overcome enormous adversity in rejecting the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, with power, Pimentel blazed the trail of radical reforms.
Marcos jailed him at least four times for various ghost offenses. But throughout these trying times, he stood his ground and stayed the course. He fought for the values he believed in, all in peaceful yet defiant means.
When Cory Aquino became president in 1986 and exercising the authority of a revolutionary government, Pimentel as her local government minister wielded absolute power in carrying out the priority task of dismantling the entrenched local government apparatus and replacement of overstaying local government officials with officers in charge (OICs). Unlike today’s prison officials who reportedly raked in millions for dispensing early release from detention for convicts under the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law, accounts have it that he refused millions from people who sought appointment as OICs. By the Lincoln standard, Pimentel showed, although unnoticed, how big he really was.
Walden Bello’s Development Debacle: World Bank in the Philippines, recounts an instance when Nene, who was mayor of Cagayan de Oro City then, stormed the bank’s head office in New York to protest against a World Bank-funded housing project in the city without community consultation.
Without a doubt, the process that any development project went through was important to him. In 1984, he delivered speeches at the Batasang Pambansa denouncing the massive scale of corruption that tainted the Bataan Nuclear Plant and the lack consultation in its planning. Costing $700 million when construction started in 1976, its budget ballooned to $2.3 billion when construction was completed in 1985. The plant was eventually mothballed due to technical and disaster-risk issues. For an expensive project (government completed payments for the loan that funded it only this year), the taxpaying public did not get anything from it.
Pimentel in a YouTube video suggested that every public servant, especially politicians, should possess, at the minimum, the three Cs: character, courage and competence. The story of his public life suggests that this is possible, planting the seeds of hope that one day we will have more government officials and employees who pass the test of adversity and power.