Super Girl was what theycalled herwhen she was a student in the College of Law at the University of the Philippines. She was the sum of what women wanted to be — corps sponsor, Collegian editor, outstanding coed, among other distinctions. She was also on the honors list.
On top of that, she was a certified virgin.
Miriam Defensor Santiago was then staying in a women’s residence hall and had been wondering why her dorm mates would leave late Friday afternoon or early evening. They couldn’t all be going home to their Manila residences or those of their relatives, she thought. Until her best friend told her that these young women were going on dates. Dates? What did one do during dates? Did they have sex? No, said her friend. Mostly, it was eating out. Thus was the Super Girl introduced to the art and pleasure of dating.
“I became an addicted date practitioner,” she now recalls. “You could say that I was easy,” although she stuck to her day-to-day hour-by-hour schedule. Whoever wanted to take her out to dinner would first hear her eager yes, followed by a strongly-worded request that she be brought home not later than 8 or 9 p.m. The boy date falters by a fraction of a minute, and she threw a tantrum. She had to be on the dot where studying was concerned. Not in the case of Jun Santiago, who could speed her off home in his big red sports car.
Yes, she studied even on weekends. Whether she was in the dorm or in the home of her rich cousin, Helen Defensor, who served as a surrogate mother of sorts to the Ilongga who conquered the Diliman campus . She was a “knowledge vulture” and at a very young age, decided to read the encyclopedia from first page to last, strictly in that order. She was shocked to find out that a playmate and classmate was not in the honor roll, and neither were any of her friend’s siblings or cousins. She somehow thought every family had its share of gifted children.
While everyone has been talking about Miriam Defensor Santiago’s vibrant and quaint demeanor as a judge in the impeachment trial, I had the pleasure of visiting her in her Leandro Locsin-designed home in Quezon City. She first declined my request for an interview, claiming she had high blood pressure and was not too keen on answering controversial questions, especially those that would make her voice and blood pressure rise, or so I was told.
But it was going to be a light interview, I told Atty. Jen, who handles her media relations, forgetting that I had meant this to be an “everything you always wanted to know about MDS but were afraid to ask” article.
Miriam Defensor Santiago is more beautiful in person. But if she impressed me with her charm and her undoubtedly beautiful legs, it was what she spewed out that converted me from a nonchalant onlooker to an adoring fan, albeit initially amazed.
The senadora has much to share, and she shares it with gusto and flourish. She asked me what I wanted to know and I said that we were going to start from the very beginning, as Julie Andrews’ song goes. And by that I meant about her parents. It turned out it was a trite way to start, as she expressed dismay over her being asked the same question again and again. Instead, she gave a discourse on Noah’s Ark.
If in the Senate she is one woman who gets angry, or maybe just assertive, Senator Santiago, on a weekend in her home, is a housewife and mother who laughs and laughs the loudest. For all that her detractors say or joke about her, Miriam Defensor Santiago may yet be the one who will laugh last.
MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO: Well, let me begin by saying that planet earth is estimated to have a lifetime of nine billion years. And we’re right smack in the middle of our lifetime. We’ve been in the universe for 4.5 billion years. So, that should mean something. We should sort of take a look at where we came from and where we are going. I think we’re just going downhill (laughs).
I don’t think so-called high technology matters in death. I think they had high technology before Noah’s Ark. And it got lost because that was the first Ice Age. Now we had the second Ice Age and it is said that the third Ice Age is coming. We would all be obliterated just like Noah’s civilization. By the way, it is not true that he had to bring all those life forms and all those plants aboard his boat. That is physically impossible. What he brought was their seeds or their DNA. I mean, how do you figure that out? So they probably had to prepare it.
And when they bring in the DNA — I am just in one of my moods (laughs) — they’ll have to make sure that there should be DNA for three sexes: female, male and the transgenders or others that still have to be discovered. Because these are the varieties of human experience, right? So you cannot just say that we are familiar with the entire known world. In fact, we know very little of our own world because there are only five senses. In some planets, 10 or 20 or multiples of 100. So, we are living very limited lives, that’s why our brains are so undeveloped because we have only five senses.
Everything that we do not know about our universe or planet is what we call God. Which is an entirely appropriate term because we know nothing about God. And I refuse for any person or organized group to dictate to me what God is. That is really the height of insufferable hubris. I believe in just immediately putting to death or just putting over the cliff people who assume they know about God.
PHILIPPINE STAR: Is that your spiritual view? I know you were very religious from way back when you were...
Yes, I was very religious. Because of course I inherited my religion. And so I became convinced that if there was already a preconceived set of ethical values, it was best that I should study those values so that I would understand what life is all about. That is why I was very religious. I walked to church every day, from a very young age, alone, and I read the Bible when I was very young. At that time it was prohibited to read the Bible. Can you remember that time when the Catholic Church said that laymen might misinterpret it so we are the only people who can read it and interpret it for the masses?
I read the Bible mostly because it was an act of sabotage. This must be the essential code book and I have obtained possession so it’s my duty to memorize the code.
And of all the books in the Bible, I like best Ecclesiastes. You know, the one that says vanity of vanities, all is vanity, there is nothing new under the sun, it is like chasing after the wind. The futility of human existence. I like that best. It also says there’s a time for everything, a time to laugh, a time to weep...
Have you followed that in your life?
Well, you have spent enough years on this planet to know that I’m completely stupid. I make these little presumptions about life, and life validates them and sometimes not. And I’ve reached the considered conclusion that whether life is random, you know, when things happen in no which way, or whether every little thing in life is predestined from beginning to end...like the stone you stepped on when you came into my house, whether that was predestined that those should be the particular stones that you stepped on, but whether you adhere to randomness or you adhere to predestination, the result is the same. The human being is not in control.
So, if that is the case, it is so much better, as the Christians teach, to just accept things and not rebel against them, because there is nothing that will ever happen. Whether there is a God remains to be seen literally (laughs). Because we cannot see God. No one has ever seen God. So, for me, it is acceptable that if you don’t understand a thing, just call it God.
Do you have priest friends? Or a father confessor?
Oh, yeah. I finished a master’s in theology.
Why did you pursue a degree in religion?
Because you know, the Catholic religion to which I belong, or at least of which I am a member although I may not be a member of good standing because I am an advocate of reproductive health...you know, there are a lot of so-called mysteries so I wanted to know what these mysteries were. I cannot live my life — if I live to be 80, let’s say — I cannot live for 80 years just subsisting on mysteries or subsisting on things that I cannot perceive with my five senses. That would be living by hope.
There are three cardinal virtues — faith, hope and love. I cannot just subsist on hope. I have to have faith, too. It has to be based on whatever manner of intelligence being given to us as human beings. Yes, in the galactic sense, the intelligence here on earth is just considered primeval amoebic thinking. (laughs). So, that is what my high falutin’ education had led me to so far. In other words, I just want to run away from my life because I feel so stupid. I don’t know a thing, according to Wittgenstein whose philosophy was, words do not express reality.
So, the very first thing, really, is, are we in touch with reality? Because if we’re not, then, everything is folly. That’s what I mean by kagaguhan (laughs).
I’ll mention some names. So, what comes to your mind when I say:
He is very unassuming. Because we were together in the Senate.
She is the archetypal product of a Catholic upbringing.
Exuberance for life. Imelda should be a noun in itself.
Can I mention Renato Corona?
Well, yes. Rene ahh, he is too serious about life.
Juan Ponce Enrile.
He is a very quick study.
Uhm, his craft of trial technique is commendable.
It’s like Coke Zero. Ramos Zero.
Worked her butt off. Meaning she is a very, very hard worker. Mercurial temper just like me. She tends to raise her voice, and let’s just say, practices arm throwing (laughs).
Oh, he can charm the gold off your teeth. That man has excellent table manners. He is very attentive.
Oh, very gentle, soft-spoken.
Grace Ibuna is very very extroverted. It’s a pleasure to see her all the time. She’s like a ray of sunshine. She brings sunshine to everybody’s life no matter what time of the day it is.
Oh, I don’t know her too well.
He is a real icon for the Filipinos in his field of boxing. But I think his tendency to go beyond his talent should be curbed for his own good.
He advised me to go to a very progressive school of theology on the reasoning that if I went to a traditional school of theology, I would end up making enemies of all the priests there. That’s how he sized me up.
We were in school together from undergraduate, I think all the way to law school. Ahh...he didn’t marry his first girlfriend to whom I was close. He got broken-hearted.
You were talking about faith, hope and love. How have you been as a lover?
Well, I’m afraid I have been wearing blinders. I’ve always encapsulated a community to which I owe love. My parents, my siblings, my husband, my children. I remember one funny saying — I love humanity, it’s human beings I cannot stand. (laughs). I subscribe to that philosophy. I love humanity but sometimes I cannot stand human beings. So, I just circumscribe it. I sort of say to myself, it’s your duty to love these people, it is good for you.
How has life been with Mr. Santiago?
Oh, ah... it’s much more, ah, ah, uhm, euphoric than I thought (laughs). I never wanted to get married when I was a student. Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be a nun because during my generation’s time, that was the fad. All prim little girls wanted to be a nun. I also wanted to be a nun because I was taught by the nuns. But I realized eventually that I couldn’t afford that particular ambition. I was the eldest of seven children. My parents were having trouble making ends meet. My father was a very successful trial lawyer and my mother was an exceptional, possibly brilliant, mathematician. There were seven of us in the family, so I said, I just have to help. Because that was the mindset of my generation. Older siblings had to help support the younger siblings. And so i said to myself I can only love a certain number of people. The rest is beyond me (laughs). I just can’t possibly love everything else because I still have to study a lot.
It makes me wonder how your study habits were.
Oh, I studied all the time. Let’s just say I was a knowledge vulture. I loved learning things. I loved learning encyclopedias. I had a promise to read the encyclopedia from beginning to end, and I finished it. I always went to the US Information Service. It was called USIS. It was a free public library. I was too young and I was extremely honest. So, my Mom took me to the registration desk. She said, “I’d like to apply for a library card for my daughter.” They said, “She has to be at least 10 years old,” yes, I think that was what they said. So, they asked my mother, “How old is she?” And my mother, who has such a fantastic razor memory, pretended she could not remember. She really wanted me to have a card since if it was taken in her name, she would have to accompany me each time I took out a book. So my Mom was hemming and hawing and finally said, “Oh, she must be 10 by now.” I immediately butted in and said, “Mother, I am only 8 years old.” I remember that very well.
How was it like being a Super Girl?
I’ve always been like that in school. For example, I was used to using very high words when I was in kindergarten. And every time I used a high word, my teacher would run to my parents and tell them, “Your daughter just used this word. She’s only kin indergarten.” I felt very oppressed. I thought it was a bad thing using high English words. So that was when I learned how to use very simple language. Which is a very, very good technique. The simpler the words you use, the easier to understand. And for a while then, I developed an antipathy for using these words. So, when I went to the USIS library, I said to myself, this must be the sum of all knowledge at least within Iloilo City where I lived. So, what I did was to read all the books starting clockwise. I didn’t go around choosing books. I just started reading on this side until I finished the whole library. They had sign that said Children’s Books or American Literature, but I didn’t go by those. I just did it clockwise (laughs).
Were you also good in math?
Well, when I was younger, math was pretty easy. My mother was a math whiz, you see. But eventually, from overwhelming fear of my mother, since we weren’t as good as she was — she comes from a family that was very skilled in math, it was sort of genetic in their family — I think she felt that she was surrounded by idiots. So, as a result, I never believed that I was capable in mathematics. But now, I think I would make a very good math student because in high school, I had a near perfect grade in algebra. Algebra, for me, was easy. I couldn’t understand why people had difficulty with it. Geometry as well. In fact, there came a point when my teacher in high school would simply say, “Miriam, you’re going to teach this and this and that,” and I would teach the whole class. I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about it. And in algebra, the teacher would say, “If you only do this extra thing, I will give you a grade of 100 if the principal will let me, or at the very least, a grade of 95.” So, I said, “Why bring it home, I’ll just do it right now,” because I really enjoyed algebra.
So, how was your life as a teenager?
So, when I was young, I had very strange habits. Like I never went out with my friends to have a snack, for example, or to go window shopping, which was what young people liked to do. I never went with a pack. I was not a pack member. I was always a loner but I had lots of friends because I was very friendly. I remember that when I was an undergraduate student in UP Visayas, I had submitted my essay and my classmate begged me during recess to write an essay because she didn’t do one. And she got a higher grade than I did (laughs). That shows you that life is unfair.
So, I grew up with these two sides of my family, all academically accomplished. My father’s brother was a librarian in the Vatican. He was not a priest. And so all my cousins on my father’s side were all honor students. Also all my cousins and uncles on my mother’s side. So I grew up thinking that everybody’s family had honor students.
Did you have crushes? I mean, did you like guys?
Believe it or not, no. I loved my boy classmates like my brothers. I grew up in a big family so I was used to handling both sisters and brothers. My tendency is always to be brotherly to somebody but I never had crushes on boys like my classmates. I really thought they were inanimate creatures, why would you spend your time there? I learned later that in high school, you’re supposed to have crushes. I never had one up until I married. I never had crushes on anybody or anything.
So, how did your courtship go?
Well, we were all cooped up in the dormitory. Sampaguita Dorm ako. That’s where I made some of my best friends who are still my best friends. Anyway, my life was very regimented. I had to study right after dinner. I carried around a little clock with me and I had to do things by that little clock. At a certain time, after studying, I had to go up and then I would sleep. I made a rule when I entered law school that I should sleep only five hours. Because I read a sign in the library that said, in very ancient English, that a law student should read only five hours. I took that to heart. At that time, I was very literal. So, that’s how to be a law student. I decided I would study until 12 midnight. I got up and went to Mass at 5:30. I didn’t have time for anything else because I had decided I would live this kind of extremely regimented life.
No. I was warned about them by my parents, but by inclination, I did not want to join a sorority because I just didn’t have the time. So, for me, young men were just pieces of furniture, you know. They were sitting there in class with me, and I was never conscious that they were males. Or that there were attractions to them (laughs). I can see that you are totally amazed, but I am amazed by myself, too. So, in effect, I was extremely naive.
So, I was cooped up in the dormitory with my schedule of Mass, then go to the study hall, then go eat lunch, to class, to library, then go back to the dorm and study. That’s all I did because that was what I wanted to do. That was my big asset, I think. I had no desire to do anything because I felt that there was a whole galaxy to be studied and I was just starting with a very small segment of it.
I was amazed that people had choices, for example, in furniture or clothes or shoes. My thinking was if you had a pair of shoes that would be sufficient. Why do you have to spend so much time for deciding what pair you are going to buy? Or clothes, for example.
But you followed the trends too.
Yes, because you walked into a store and you asked, “What’s the latest?” So, in that sense I was living in an unreal life. It was an asset to me because I was so concentrated on just studying. I was very popular because I loved my classmates — both the boys and the girls who came to me and said they were having trouble with this lesson or that. And I would take time to explain it to them because I loved being didactic. I loved playing teacher.
However, since we all lived in the dormitory, in that manner, at least in my sake, every Friday, everyone went out either to go to their houses in Metro Manila or in my case to go to the house of a very generous first cousin, Helen Defensor, a rich beautiful woman and she was my surrogate mother. She would send her limousine to pick me up and then bring me back to the dorm. I had a room to myself in her big house. It was an ideal life.
I noticed that everyone went out on a Friday. So I asked my roommate and best friend, Zenaida Labrador, who is still my best friend. She is the niece of Justice Labrador of the Supreme Court. A campus beauty and she is now Mrs. Lazaro. I would ask her, “Where do these guys go? It’s impossible that they are all going home.” And she would say, “They are going on dates.” So I said, “What do you guys do on a date? Do you engage in conversation, do you have sex?” And she said, “Well, mostly, you go for dinner. And that means that there is mutual interest.” “Really?” So, okay, the first time I was asked, I said yes immediately. People did not have any kind of sexual conduct. Not in any form.
Do you remember who your first date was?
No, because from that time on, I became an addicted date practitioner. If you asked me for a date, I would say yes immediately. I was an active student leader so these were from all the different student organizations. “You want to go out to dinner?” someone would ask, and I would say yes. Let’s just say I was very easy. But I made clear I had to be home at exactly the time I wanted to be. Like I would go on a date at seven, I had to be back by nine or else I would throw a tantrum.
Where did one go at that time?
We had a fine dining place here at Katipunan, which was all wilderness. It was so very dark and there were no buildings whatsoever except for that fine dining place, which was the closest to UP campus. Or we could go to Roxas Boulevard, which was very far. Or we could go to Cubao. The dates were very staid. I think they were just fascinated by someone like me because I was at the top of my class, and I was very active in all the student organizations — the student council, the woman’s club. I was UP ROTC corps sponsor twice — once in undergraduate, once in graduate school. So I was into everything. I think mostly because young men were interested in what kind of person I was, because I was such a busy body. Because when I went out on a date on a Friday, I was so exhausted after the working week, studying all the time, reciting, and so on. I was really just half asleep.
When did Mr. Santiago finally ask for a date?
In the last year of the law school. In UP, there are three sections in law school. The morning section, the afternoon section and the evening. So, actually, although we were classmates, we did not know each other because we belonged to different sections. And the reason I got to know him was that one time, I was working very hard in the library. And I had to carry home a lot of books. When I passed by the doorway, he just suddenly showed up, I was startled and he said, “Do you want me to bring all those books?” And I said, “Yes, please.” I was willing to pay him, if it was necessary. And then, I was surprised he had a big red sports car. So, I said, wow, that’s impressive. So he brought me home. And that’s how I got to know him.
He was dating someone else from the dorm, whom I approached. I said, “Hey, the boy you are dating gave me a lift last night.” Apparently, he already had an eye on me by that time. So, he asked me out. So I said, this is great. Here is this interested young man and he seemed like he had nothing to do because he is not an honor student. So, I asked him, “Can you bring me to the printing press every Wednesday?” Because I was the editor in chief of the Collegian and I had to travel in the middle of the night to the printing press in faraway Sta. Cruz. And eventually, “Can you bring the whole staff, please?” So, we all loved him. He was very accommodating. It was very hard to find a taxi in the middle of the night. So, if ever I had to go anywhere, because I had so many positions in the student organizations, he was always a ready and helpful friend. Before I met him, I would ask one of those young men, if they could take me to this place, or back to the dorm, and their answer depended on whether they were passing along the way. So I liked very much this young man because he was so accessible.
When did he propose marriage?
Oh, I guess when we were still students, he was already in love. He is one of those people who fall irretrievably in love which, for me, was really an abhorrent state of mind. Oh my God! Why are some people so fixed about marriage? Because I was determined I would never marry. I might have children but I would never marry.
Because men are a distraction. I don’t need them in my life. Like I didn’t need a man to support me because my father had taught me martial arts, I could handle a gun, I could drive myself. We were always taught to be independent and I did not want the idea of tailoring my personality to suit somebody else. I taught that would be an infinite amount of trouble. So I said, well, I can be as friendly as I am. I will treat everybody as a brother but I will never marry anybody.
So how did you react when Mr. Santiago proposed?
The first time my husband said, “Why don’t we get married?” I replied, “Are you out of your mind?” (laughs) And I really meant it. And he just kept at it and kept at it. I finally said, ”I’m not going out on dates with you anymore. I am really so bored. You’re always insisting that you should have your way. You have a very narrow view of the universe. All you want to do is play father and raise children. That’s what everybody else does. Don’t you want to do something else? Like, for example, become a deep-sea diver?” (laughs) Like in my case, what I wanted to do most in my life was to go to the United States and take my doctorate.
Which you did.
Which I did. At the university with the highest academic standards I could get myself into.
You were married by then.
My husband said, “That’s no problem. After we get married, we’ll go to the States.” Then, I said, “I still have to support my six brothers and sisters because I want them all to graduate from UP.” He said, “That’s no problem. All of them could be with us.” So, all of them lived with us. Everything that I said, he always had a solution for it. So, finally I ran out of obstacles. And then, I did a very cold-blooded analysis about marriage. Do I want to get married? I think I have to get married because most people are married so there must be something about this institution. So, if I am going to marry, will this be the best person I can possibly marry? And I said to myself, that would depend on my circle of friends, on how extensive my circle is. With my present circle of friends, he probably is. But if I expand my circle of friends, he probably is not. That means I have to go around the world and be acquainted with as many men as possible. And I didn’t want to embark on that odyssey. And then I asked myself, “What if he turns out to be different from the personality he is presenting to me? What can happen then? Nothing too bad, because I am a lawyer and I can always get this thing annulled. “ So I weighed it all up in one night and I said, okay, fine, let’s embark on this experiment. But I must say my husband has lived up to every promise he made. He supported me while I was doing my doctorate, with a baby by that time.
Were you together in Michigan?
He stood by me there. I had no time for him. He was very patient. But he said one thing while I was studying in Michigan. He noticed how hard I was studying. So, he said “You know, I really thought you were a brilliant person. It turns out you just study like everybody else.” “Well,” I told him, “this is what you call the period of disillusionment.”
You worked with the Department of Justice during the time of President Marcos.
The Secretary of Justice was the former dean of my law school. I was an honor graduate. Vicente Abad Santos was my mentor. I loved him like a father.
Tell me more about him.
He was very principled. Eventually, he broke up with Marcos because he went down the martial law road. He very quietly dismissed even UP graduates from positions in the prosecution service, or even judges because at that time, it was the Department of Justice, not the Supreme Court, that has jurisdiction over judges. He would not tolerate corruption at any level. And he had a vile temper just exactly like that of his protege (laughs). He had a habit of flinging things around.
Did you work in the United Nations?
I worked in the United Nations with Ambassador Romualdez, who just recently died. I have very fond memories of him. He was always teasing me. He was a very jocular person. People would be surprised. He said, “Well, you know what to do.” I was supposed to draft the speech of the President, because there were several speech writers. And sometimes a speaking engagement would just materialize. And I had already been a speech writer, among the speech writers, here in Manila. So, he just said, “Stay in the library.” And then, he told his people, “Lock the library when she is there.” Then, he said to me, “Just work there. I don’t want to hear from you anymore.” So I would just grind out those speeches.
So, did the President have a say? Did he edit the ones you made and return them to you?
Some of them, he sent back to me. I think he noticed the style in which I wrote. And he would write marginal notes to me. I wrote something like, ”When I imposed martial law...” he wrote me back and said, ”Please don’t use the word ‘imposed.’ It sounds authoritarian. Use “‘declared.’” And then, one time, the Secretary of Justice forgot to tell me that the President had requested him to draft a speech that the President was going to deliver before graduates of the law school. And then, on the day the President was to deliver the speech, he suddenly remembered because Malacañang was asking for the speech, so he said, “This is an emergency. You just have to produce something.“ And I just dictated the speech. He liked long speeches. I think that was 20 or 25 pages. And then, in the evening, I was there, of course. President Marcos recited the speech from memory.
Did you like your job?
I was working under happy conditions because I respected and admired my boss at that time. Of course, later on, when the disciplines of martial law deteriorated, and the initial public support for the disciplinary regime that it instituted waned because people began to see that there were cracks in the wall, well, like my boss, the Justice Secretary, I began to lose faith in the efficacy of martial law to elevate the economic status of the Philippines. I no longer had the same intense allegiance to the boss that’s why I just eventually decided I would go study abroad. It was very important for me to always respect my boss. My boss; always had to be a brighter person from whom I could learn things. I mean good things. I was not obtaining the right education from working in that situation, that’s why I went abroad.
But at some point, you were a judge, and a famous one.
I was the youngest judge in Metro Manila during martial law. And the UP and Ateneo students, who were always mischievous and irrepressible, decided to stage a rally against the First Lady. But they could not do that because of the martial law regime and there was a law that said, any gathering of two or more people who criticized the government was a crime. There was such a thing as unlawful assembly. It was an unbailable offense. So they decided to use the ruse of an oil price hike. So, the students said they would strike against the oil price hike but actually, they went to town accusing the First Lady of everything that was committed by Bathsheba, the notorious biblical character (laughs).
So anyway, she got so mad she prevailed upon her husband to issue an arrest, search and seizure order, the very famous ASSO. Because when that is issued, that’s instantaneous, you have no right to bail. So, they were all rounded up. Seniors of Ateneo and UP and final exams time was coming around and so, it would prejudice them one whole academic year if they could not take the exam. Now, they brought a case in court and no judge would touch it with a 10-foot pole. Naturally, because that was martial law. It’s easy to be brave now that there’s no more martial law. Everybody was effectively cowed then.
So, in my absence they so-called raffled the case to me. I was the youngest of all judges there. I really took that case to heart. The fiscal, as they were then called, said he would present 70 witnesses. So, I said, “Oh, you do. Go ahead. I’ll just cancel all the other hearings in my court room and I will hear your cases day and night. “ It would be legally doubtful if I stopped him from presenting other witnesses. I could technically do that as the others are probably just corroborative but that would entail a whole lot of legal technicalities. I told them to present as many witnesses as they wanted. It was a spectacular case. It was titled “Lino Brocka vs. Juan Ponce Enrile.”
Lino Brocka was the leader of the show business faction that was supporting the students. They were all there, including the actresses who had big boobs, and the big boobs were jiggling (laughs). And he made them sit right in front of me. And I was really distracted because their boobs were really so huge. And there were the lawyers for the students like Joker Arroyo, Haydee Yorac who was my former professor, among others. It was a very sensational case but, of course, it was not given publicity.
I was just very sober as a judge, and afterwards, I decided the case in favor of the students, which completely confounded everybody because no one had ever decided a case against President Marcos.
You weren’t scared at all?
Not at all, no. I said to myself, I’d just apply everything I learned in UP and in all the schools that I went to because that’s what I went to school for. Consequences didn’t bother me at all.
How did President Marcos, how did Secretary Enrile react?
Well, I think they were perplexed because I was too young. I mean, too young for them to assassinate me physically or to assassinate my character, because who would believe that someone so young and so simple, because that was my lifestyle, could be accused of, for example, sleeping with the driver, which is the usual charge, or being a child molester or whatever they could dream up against me. I was, I think, only in my early 30s. I just got a call from Kokoy Romualdez, and he told me, “The President is just wondering why you decided that way.” And I said, “Well, I researched as exhaustively as I could and that was the result. And please tell him I’m actually helping him. I have promulgated a decision that would make people realize that martial law is not so bad when a judge can promulgate a decision against the dictator. Plus think of all the students who might go to extremes if they missed their final exams. You know how students are. They can be so stubborn, or they can go into their heroic modes and precipitate the military to gun them all down. You know how idealistic they are. So, I am actually saving the President a lot of trouble.” (laughs) I think I almost succeeded in convincing him that I had done the right thing. But I knew I did the right thing. I was teaching evening classes as usual at the UP College of Law. And all my students lined up and applauded me on my way to the court room. So, I said, “Gee, I did something good for my students.”
What did you learn from the experience?
That’s where I first obtained the clarity of vision about public service that has served me very well. I’ve always been very clear on what I am supposed to do as a public official and I don’t care what happens to me in the process because I have great trust in the Filipino people. Whether they are the rich or the very poor. Whether they are the retirees or the students in the universities. I trust that there is an inherent level of intelligence that is insulted when someone who tries to do good is character assassinated. So, that’s where I reached the conviction that I just must do what the right thing is. That way, I will have peace of mind.
It, of course, brought good results.
I’ve always been tranquil about my decision during martial law. It turned out that I had one very grateful observer — Corazon Aquino. When she became President, she sent out the word that I must be located at any price. And that I must go to the Commission on Immigration.
Did you help in her campaign?
I was a judge so I could not enter politics. And at that time her legal adviser was my former professor, Flerida Ruth Romero, who became Supreme Court Justice. And her Executive Secretary was the Undersecretary of the Department of Justice when I was there. His name was Catalino Macaraig Jr. He was also a UP Law professor, so it was easy for them to contact me. And I was very gratified that the President complimented me.
How did you like the post they were giving you?
I was not attracted by the offer to go to the Commission on Immigration. I was already a judge and the logical next step for me was to become an appellate justice. Up to now, I view the job at the Commission on Immigration as one of law enforcement. It doesn’t need my knowledge of legal analysis or my knowledge of the law, so I really held out.
I sort of dug myself in by telling her, “I am sorry, Mrs. President, but I just cannot see myself helping you in this. Maybe you can put me somewhere else. But to become the Immigration Commissioner will not help the purpose.” But she was very adamant. I think, for six months, she would call every few weeks and say, “Well, can I sleep soundly now?” “But that has nothing to do with my desire to serve her. It’s simply that I would be a square peg in a round hole,” I told her. And she said, “No, but if you had the guts to stand up to a martial law dictator, you would have the guts to clean up that corrupt office.” So, I had to shift my world view. I presented to myself as a challenge that no one hadever cleaned up a corrupt office and put up or shut up. And eventually, that’s how I got to accept that job.
You were always on television exposing this and that. Was everyone bad there? Or were there some good people?
It was like Dante Allighieri’s Inferno. They were just in different cycles. But they were all completely bad, as in badass.
Didn’t you say you were eating death threats for breakfast?
People thought that I just accepted the post. Through the six months that the President was in constant communication with me, I studied the office very thoroughly. I had to know, first of all, how money was being made. I interviewed former commissioners and former practitioners. I talked to people who were making money illegally there. I said that if I ever become commissioner, I shall protect you for six months or 12 months. My people will not harass you. Then, you will have one month to close office and wind down your affairs. After that, if you continue, I will have to arrest you like everybody else. So, tell me what the facts are.
Was that why you were so successful?
It’s not as if I was a brilliant superhero. I entered into these deals with these people. I thought to myself, how am I going to penetrate this? So, I deduced, if this is money making, in a capitalist society, there will always be competition, right? The core of capitalism is you make money by competing with others. And then you offer the best services to the public. So, they must have competitors. That’s why when I became commissioner, I told the chief of intelligence to just look for the competitor. There will always be the top three syndicates there. If you want to capture them, befriend one and make him the source of information. That wasn’t a brilliant move, actually. It was a capitalist analysis. Just look for the nearest competitor and tell him the Commissioner wants to talk to you. The Commissioner will give you protection. I think I said one year. You will be protected for one year but within that one year, you have to wind down your operations and be out of the business. Otherwise that’s the end of our contract. You get arrested like everybody else. So, years later, I would meet these foreigners who would tell me that they were one of those I cut deals with and after a time, they had to leave that kind of business and eventually engaged in something legal and legitimate. That was really gratifying (laughs).
You had this famous photo showing you in the detention cell of the commission.
Well, I simply told the intelligence agents, “You see this detention cell? How many people are inside? Two. What is the capacity. Thirty. Every weekend, I would come here and make a head count. If there is one missing, I would put one intelligence agent there. I don’t care what the reason, I just want 30.” I think that’s how I appeared in Time magazine. I was lecturing to the people in the detention cell. And eventually we had to build another detention cell in Fort Bonifacio because we were catching so many of them.
You seemed like you were finally enjoying your job.
I had so many little tricks there because I was also enjoying my job out-thinking the criminals. I always thought that these criminals are not honors graduates, while I was an honors graduate from one of the most difficult schools in the country. It’s not possible that they are smarter than I am. They probably just had a few years mileage ahead of me but I would catch up because I had all these educational qualifications. There were so many things that I did that any sane person who has certain analytical facilities would have coughed up.
I guess you had to deal with a lot of embassies because these were foreign criminals.
They always came to the Immigration Commission and they would say, “Oh, we have a fugitive here from our country and they have committed a grave offense,” and these were usually cases of money laundering or a criminal activity, and they would ask that we arrest them. So, I called all these immigration attaches from the different countries assigned in Manila and told them, “You want me to catch all your fugitives of justice. Did you ever pause to think how much it will cost in terms of energy and other resources of the Philippine government, which are extremely limited? And you just come in here and say please catch this person. You couldn’t catch them in your own country and you expect me to catch them for you for free?” (laughs) And so, I said, “No, gentlemen, you have to pay a price. From now on, if you want me to catch your fugitive, fine, but if he is caught by an operative, I want that operative plus his partner to be the official guard when you ship him back home. And you pay for the whole lot.” It was an incentive for my intelligence agents.
Let’s shift gears. I am interested in Miriam as a family woman, homemaker and all that. Your favorites too. How are you as a grandmother? You spoil them, I guess.
Absolutely. But I’m very pedantic. I am very dogmatic. I am always teaching. Like my own two children. When I was a young mother, I had a book titled How to Raise a Brighter Child. And of course I bought my son an entire set of books about parenting because now it is such a big art. You just have to treat the child as an adult. When my daughter-in-law is pregnant, she wears a Mozart tape around her belly morning, noon and night. Mozart is supposed to raise the IQ of a child while still in the womb. Not all musicians. So, when they are born, you play Mozart and they will go to sleep.
You have beautiful paintings.
Oh, these are by Cesar Buenaventura. His dad was a professor at UP. I don’t like Amorsolo because he mythologizes the rural Filipino. Hindi real, like some golden age in his mind. No relation to reality. They never sweat. They’re always dressed up. They’re playing a role.
What is your beauty regimen?
You gotta be kidding (laughs).
What do you do first hour in the morning?
Since I was a little girl I never used makeup because I had flawless skin and I had cherry pink lips. They would ask me what makeup I did apply, but I didn’t apply any. I didn’t use anything at all when I was in high school. Basically I just wash my face a lot.
Where do you get all your energy?
Aha, I was very highly motivated until very recently. Today I feel like running away from my life. I am now living a life of quiet desperation, according to Thoreau.
What kind of music do you like?
Oh, definitely Mozart.
What’s your favorite song?
Well, it’s by a Russian composer. It’s normally translated as Stranger in Paradise.
What kind of movies do you watch?
Art films. Those movies that win awards. My family is already used to coming to the movie room when I’m watching movies and hearing different languages there because these are subtitled movies (laughs).
What can you say about Philippine movies today?
I have a general impression that they are not dedicated to their craft as actors. Very few of them are. Well, it may be unfair, but I think there is a proclivity for quickies.
What is your favorite food?
Well, if I could get away with it, I would love to subsist on champagne and caviar but I have a very high cholesterol.
How about your must-travel destination?
Is there any other? Anywhere in Italy. When they finish high school in England, all the children of the rich and the aristocracy are sent to Italy for their one-year break. You go to any place in Italy, there is a lot of culture.
What’s your preference when it comes to fashion?
I don’t spend any time thinking about fashion.
You love to go shopping?
Not necessarily, it’s just a chore. I buy clothes that will fit me, okay? But I would rather have a personal shopper if only I could afford it.
You have a beautiful home, did you decorate this yourself?
This was done by Leandro Locsin, but I was my own interior decorator because I wanted to express myself. I don’t want to live in a house 24/7 that has been decorated by someone else.
What’s your home management style? Do you have a mayordoma?
I have a household manual (laughs). And when there’s someone new in the staff, it is read to them by someone. Or if they are a group, we have what we call an orientation seminar. I expect my home to be run like a tight ship.
What about cooking?
I demonstrate to them. My specialty is my husband’s steak. I show them how to prepare the proper marinade. Everything that my husband wants is my specialty.
Do you have a pastime?
Is there any other pastime aside from reading? All the rest are just self-destructive (laughs).
So, now that you’re busy and no longer in school, what are your study habits?
Outside of my own legal books, I have books everywhere that I read simultaneously. I have one in the car, one in my bedside, one in my library so that when I am tired with my novels I can turn to whatever it is I am reading. I have different vehicles so I have my books there, so I don’t have to carry a book. I have books in different parts of my house so I can just sit down and read that particular book. I’ve got a professional library in my law office, but I have a personal library at home and I read every single book in it.
Who is your favorite author?
Several of them, of course. Of course, Leo Tolstoy, the world’s greatest novelist. Who can possibly write better? Well, generally, you could just say that I like the Nobel Prize winners. But I also like the Russian authors for some reason. But in philosophical writing, my favorite is Nietzsche. He became insane eventually towards the end of his days, if you want to know (laugh).
Marie Curie as role model
Let’s talk about your incoming post as Judge of the International Criminal Court.
Well, it’s definitely an honor for the Philippines to be represented there because it is supposed to gather the best and the brightest minds in the legal profession. And right now, it seems to be much more active than the old International Court of Justice. Generally, the ICJ decides disputes only between states so it’s not very exciting. You only have a lot of documentation. But in the International Criminal Court, the trials are more akin to the usual trials you see in the movies or on television. So there’s more drama involved. If I work in The Hague, I will sort of lock myself into an ivory tower. It would be like leaping from the market place to the ivory tower. In The Hague, I will be conducting a very solitary profession. I will just communicate only with my books and nobody else. So, it’s a big change of universe. It’s like I transferred to an alternate universe.
Are you resigning from your post?
I will have to, when I am called for duty. Probably not within the year.
You have accomplished much in your career. Did you have role models?
Oh, yah, definitely. Margaret Thatcher, for example, whom I really, really love. I met her when she was in Manila. She was very remarkable. She had read up on me. She knew about me. I asked her to sign books about her or by her, and she took me aside and gave me very sound advice.
Since I was a child, my role model has always been Marie Curie because she was so dedicated and because she was a Nobel Prize laureate twice for physics. When I saw one very old movie about her, I think they made that a long time ago before I was born, I cried when finally in her experiments she produced those elements that she had been looking for. She was so intense and emotionally committed. To top it all, she even drove an ambulance during the war. Amazing. If there is a life after death, she is the first person I want to see.
Of your many awards, which do you treasure most?
Of course, the Ramon Magsaysay Award because it says specifically, “For bold and moral courage in cleaning up a corrupt government agency.” So I feel very vindicated in what I was trying to do.
Of your many accomplishments, what are you proudest of?
That I hope I have been a good wife and mother. I am very close to my family. Of course, I tried out a textbook method, what the experts were saying. All my titles, I was a judge, I was a professor, I was a cabinet member...I could be called Secretary, I could be called Commissioner, I could be called Senator or I could be called Doctor, but of all my titles, I prefer the word Mrs. That is the highest compliment. I go to the market and people will say, “Mrs., ito, maganda ito.”
How does it feel to be powerful?
Always burdened and oppressed by the responsibilities. That’s why I facetiously told you I want to run away from my life. The responsibility of power is very heavy. I think some people take ego trips from holding positions of power or authority, but in my case, it afflicts me with a sense of inadequacy. I wish I just had more energy to do the things that need to be done.
If the hands of time were turned back, would you have become a writer?
That’s what I wanted to do. After graduating from high school, I told my father I wanted to study literature and take my doctorate in literature. He said that the only thing that would happen to me was to become a professor in literature in college. He asked if that was what I wanted. He said I had to do something more. And we have a lot of relatives who are criminals, so you should be a lawyer. Many of my relatives were honor graduates but many of them were also cattle rustlers, or they were always murdering people or burning other people’s houses (laughs). My father represented them all and acquitted most of them. That was the future laid out for me.
No, I have absolutely no regrets about the way I lived my life. I lost my son but I refuse to feel guilty because I did everything to protect him from my celebrity status. But other people reacted very violently to my role in Philippine politics. So, I don’t think that I should regret that part of my life. But the effect is that if someone punches me in the chest, there is a vacuum there. I am no longer a fully-equipped human being. There is a big dent in my chest. In another sense, it is also a good development because now, I am almost devoid of emotion. Emotion was never very useful to me when I was young.
Your advice to P-Noy.
Quit...(laughs) I mean that facetiously. I wouldn’t be president for anything in the world because it is so difficult. So to any person who occupies the post, I would simply say, for your own sake, you should consider resigning because it is such an impossible situation. At this stage of the evolution of our country, no way you can succeed because the Philippines at this time is a country turned against itself. And the prevailing virtues are jealousy, malice. There is no sense of shared destiny among Filipinos. So, my advice to Noynoy is life is messy. Deal with it.
What is your advice to Jojo Binay?
People like him as he is, so there is no need to tinker with his political persona. There is nothing wrong with it.
In his sunset years, as he said, that was his last hurrah in politics. I think people should know better his personal characteristics because some of them are very attractive. He is so gallant to women. We don’t see much of that anymore.
I tend to look at him as an amoeba so I am not in the habit of giving advice to amoeba.
I love Lito because he has no pretensions at all, intellectual or otherwise. He will seek advice when he needs it. So I get along very well with him.
Ahh, Chiz is more a political animal than a legal scholar.
Well, we were seatmates for a while. And I will repeat to him what I told him before. Take notice of what people expect of you because of your father. You’ve got the same genes, you have the same DNA, so just wait for these chemical factors to turn into political assets.
To the Archbishop of Manila.
It is best for the Catholic Church to keep abreast of modern developments. According to the latest PEW survey, which is now highly rated in American circles, more and more people are leaving organized religion. They still have faith in God but they no longer wish to abide by the strictures and dogmas of organized church whatever it might be. My advice is to take note of this phenomenon and loosen the grip a little.
And what is your advice to young women who would like to become like you?
It is an act of self-annihilation to want to try and become like me. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy (laughs). I operate under a lot of demons. I am very self-stressed. And I think it is better for humanity if I disappear as soon as I possibly could.
Would you like to say something about the impeachment trial? The whole exercise?
For me, it is extremely dangerous that it is televised. Because it is an accepted dictum in science that the presence of the observer changes the observed. The behavior you are observing, whether they are bacteria or viruses, changes by the mere fact that you are there. That’s why in America they prohibit cameras inside the court room. There’s so much pressure to show off in front of the cameras and everybody loses sight of the real mission of the court, which is to find out who is telling the truth. Everybody may want to show his legal acumen, which might be irrelevant. They are performing to an uninformed audience which doesn’t know how trial technique will ferret out the truth if it is not familiar with the so-called rules of court. Everything tends to be incomprehensible and then it is aggravated by lack of knowledge, to use a polite term, of certain participants.
Any last words to the Filipino people?
My last words are: Why didn’t anybody ask me if I wanted to be born?
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