Modern Living


- Wilson Lee Flores -
House Speaker Feliciano "Sonny" Belmonte, Jr. is one of the most soft-spoken and self-effacing politicians, despite his colorful background as a former journalist, lawyer, World President of the Jaycees International in 1976, fearless opposition activist and his now being the country’s fourth highest government official as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is also a senior leader of the ruling Lakas-NUCD-UMDP political party. Former Speaker Joe de Venecia, Jr. told The Philippine STAR: "Sonny Belmonte is a good and honorable man, he has been a credible and effective Speaker." Now running for election as Mayor of Quezon City, Belmonte had also previously served as president of the Philippine Airlines, the Manila Hotel, the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), director of San Miguel Corp. and PLDT, and chairman of the Commercial Bank of Manila. Belmonte had once lost the election as Mayor of Quezon City in 1985 to the incumbent, but he has since bounced back to win decisive victories as Congressman representing the city’s fourth district in 1992, 1995 and 1998. Belmonte recently paused from his hectic campaign schedule for an exclusive interview:

PHILIPPINE STAR: You have gained national fame as head of the prosecution team in the Estrada impeachment trial, which was a historic first for Asia. How do you feel about the bewildering political changes? How do you think that historic trial will affect the political culture of the Philippines and the age-old problem of corruption?

SONNY BELMONTE: It was business, nothing personal. We didn’t carry out our duties giggling like girls going to a picnic. Not one among the prosecutors derived pleasure in impeaching the president. There was even a tinge of sadness that our job of fiscalizing President Estrada and his policies would come down to seeking his legal ouster from office. We also carried out our chores not thinking for an instance on how history would judge us. We were just buried in paperwork, research and chasing reluctant witness. Only after the dust had settled, did it hit me that "Boy, you’ve done something for the books." I really hope that this episode in our history would be ingrained in the minds of public servants, that every time they would think of stealing, images of the impeachment trial would gush forth, sending a chill down their spine. I’d rather have that lessons from that era recorded in the minds of the people, than in history books.

Did you receive any threats or were there any dangers when you took up the task of heading the prosecution group? Did you have extra security? Were you afraid?

During the trial, the lifespan of our cell phones would be 48 hours. We would speak in codes because at that time the most precious commodity as far as the other side was concerned was information. Joker Arroyo and the rest, who were not that techno-savvy, had a crash course on how to operate a radio. We were tailed by unknown men and our rooms were bugged. But our concern was not our own safety but those of our witnesses. Kaya sabi ko kay Nani Braganza and Nonoy Andaya, kung meron bodyguards, ibigay kina Chavit. Meron nga, pero eleven were unarmed because of the election gun ban. To give the impression that they were carrying guns, isinukbit nila ang kanilang cell phones sa gilid nila.

Is it difficult to campaign in an election, when your rival is a famous movie actor? What are your strategies ?

This campaign is one good cardio-vascular exercise for me. I’ve shed some pounds and am sporting a good tan. Even if my opponent weren’t a movie actor, I would still be campaigning just as hard, out of respect for the voter. I don’t believe in remote control campaigning. The latter to me is a personal thing, even with the advent of cell phones, fax, or the Internet. Can you fax a handshake or text a hug?

How does your experience as a former journalist influence your success in your other careers, especially in politics?

Discipline. Newspapering is one long boot camp. When you’re a reporter you have to meet daily deadlines. Reporting has never been a postponable thing because news is a highly-perishable item. Before the sun disappears from the horizon, you must have filed your stories. In the ’50s, there were no cell phones, tape recorders and computers, so what we did was take down notes, rush to the office, sequester a typewriter and compose our story without the gizmos the present crop of reporters can’t seem to do without. When I hear my son complain of how slow this or that computer is, I’m tempted to shoot hack: Hemingway never had one and Joe Bautista never relied on Spell Check.

How do you compare the state of Philippine journalism now and during your time? Do you think that we have too much press freedom in the Philippines, as some foreign observers have commented?

Press freedom is as Filipino as lechon and fiestas. Freedom of the press is not measurable. There is no "too much" or "too little" freedom of the press. Either it’s there or it isn’t. To me, press freedom is a precept that is not incompatible with economic development. In fact, on the other hand, a free press is an ingredient for prosperity. As to abuses, I’d rather have too much press freedom than none of it. Besides, to the aggrieved, we have laws against libel.

Is it true you plan to return to the newspaper business in the future, when you retire from politics and even if your two sons jokingly said they wouldn’t allow you to go back to STAR?

My dream remains. I’d like to spend my sunset years as a newspaperman. Some of my friends have been telling me that it’s time to smell the flowers. But I’d rather smell the printer’s ink.

How would you describe your wife, the late Philippine STAR founding chairman Betty Go Belmonte, her influence in your life, and how was she as a wife and mother?

She was my partner, my friend, and my soulmate. To borrow a famous movie line: "She completed me." We shared a passion for papers, political idealism and paintings. My family is my greatest accomplishment.

Would you encourage your children to follow in your footsteps in politics? Why or why not?

I’m giving them the freedom to spread their wings and to soar to the heights their talents would bring them. I’m glad that all of my boys are in the newspapering business. My only daughter, Joy, is busy with her masteral in archaeology in London. I have a brood of three writers and one lady Indiana Jones. If they’ll venture into politics, then it’s up to them but I won’t goad them into it.

Is remarriage a possibility in the future? How do your children feel about it, have you discussed this possibility?

Hindi na siguro. Pero ganoon din ang sabi ni
Yasser Arafat, who married late: "I have taken a bride and her name is Palestine." Tapos nag-asawa din pala. Pero sa akin, I have enough memories of Betty to keep me company in the autumn of my life. And there are my grandchildren who will keep me busy and panting and huffing.

You started in government service in the early 1960s as Presidential Staff Assistant during the Macapagal administration. What are your impressions of the late President Diosdado Macapagal? How is he the same or different from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo?

Cong Dadong remained a simple man. He infected the office with his values instead of the office infecting him with its pageantry. When a person ascends to the throne, he or she undergoes a magical transformation, that he or she immediately acquires a luminescent bearing of royalty, even an aura of infallibility. But in the eyes of the public, Cong Dadong didn’t become King Dadong. Simpleng tao pa rin. Work ethic, intelligence and frugality are the traits he passed on to his daughter. Take the case of food, the simple fare served during his time is the same one served today at the Palace, prompting many to comment that the latter is caught in a "culinary time warp."

You played an important role in the opposition movement against President Estrada. Now that he is in prison and faces many cases, how do you assess the former President, his strengths and his weaknesses? What were the main reasons for his downfall?

I was the first one to suggest that the former president be placed under house arrest, or in a facility that would give him the comfort and privileges that befit a former president but without giving the impression that he’s getting special treatment. I don’t believe that at this time he must be thrown into the Philippine gulag. But if he’ll be billeted in the Boracay Mansion, then there will be a backlash that will have a polarizing effect on our society. As a former actor, he should be the first one to realize that any appearance of being contrite would contribute to his underdog image and eventually help, at least, in the PR component of his case.

How would you describe President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, her personality? Why do you think she will be successful as our leader?

GMA has a very punishing work schedule. She’s a perpetual dynamo and I don’t know where she gets the energy for that. Cabinet members almost half her age like Mike Defensor and twice her build like Rene Corona are complaining that they can’t catch up with her. And it shows in her weight, proving that plain hard work and not Xenical is the best pill for weight loss. On top of that, she has a firm grasp of the issues confronting her government. Other leaders rely on an army of policy wonks to support them, GMA is a think-tank all by herself.

What advice would you offer to President Arroyo as she faces a defiant opposition and many economic and social challenges?

She’s doing the right thing. Going after the instigators of the power grab but showing leniency to those who were simply instigated while addressing the social causes which make it easy for the common folk to be lured into rebellion. The president is correct in focusing on providing jobs and houses to the poor as a way of winning them over to her side. The poor are not the enemy, those who use them are.

When Estrada won the presidency in 1998, your 120 Lakas congressmen became only 29 due to many becoming balimbing or turncoats, but you remained a loyal Lakas member in the opposition. What could be done to reform this negative political culture of balimbings? Can we revive the old two-party system of the past?

"Balimbingism" thrives only when it is tolerated by those in power. If the first agenda of those new in power is to vacuum-clean the opposition of its members, then turncoatism in large numbers will happen. To prevent this phenomenon from happening, the incentive to jump ship must be kept to a minimum. Ang problema kung sino pa ang bagong lipat, they get the plum posts. Secondly, this is the function of political parties. If there is an ideological bond that glues its members, none would be pried from its ranks. Actually, there is a de facto two-party system which is unavoidable in a legislature where lines are drawn between the pro- and anti-administration camps. Even if there are dozens of parties in Congress they will soon be segregated into the minority and majority blocs. So there is no need to legislate a two-party system because in practice there is a dichotomy in the legislature.

Former Speaker Jose de Venecia, Jr. said you are the most qualified to become Mayor of Quezon City, because you were a good Speaker. Do you think he has a chance to win back his old position and succeed you? Who are the other contenders for the Speaker’s position?

Joe has a chance of succeeding me. Don’t underestimate that man’s power of persuasion but there are also other worthy contenders.

Every three years, we hold a national election. Don’t you think this is too short for our political leaders and too expensive for the nation? Should we reform this?

Three years is too long for a bad official and too short for a good one. But due to the system of recall and other mechanisms which allow the pre-termination of an official’s term, including impeachment, tenure becomes secondary for as long as the citizenry has the right to withdraw the mandate they had given to an incumbent anytime. What makes an election expensive is not its frequency but the amount of money spent. For as long as the political culture of purchasing mandates exists, elections will be expensive even if they are held just once every four years, because aspirants will be given four years, or an additional year, to build up their war chests. And more money means longer body count tallies and more funds for buying votes.

Do you have time for any hobbies?

I collect coins, antiques and also paintings. I also love to read.

Do you like music?

I love jazz music. My favorite song is The Way We Were.

What types of foods do you like most?

I prefer vegetables, also seafoods.

Which cities in Asia or the world can be a model for Quezon City’s development?

There is not one single prototype that I can cite. My ideal city would be an amalgam of the cities I have been to, taking the good features of each one, for example, the cleanliness of Singapore, the culture of Paris, the environment of Sydney, the charm of Seattle, the efficiency of Tokyo, the anti-corruption programs of Hong Kong and the determination to beat traffic of Bangkok.
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Please send comments/suggestions to wilson_lee_flores@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 14277, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.
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