- Paula C. Nocon () - March 28, 2004 - 12:00am
Many years ago, a burglar broke into the home of then Senator Alberto Romulo in the wee hours of the morning. The burglar was passing through the bedroom of the senator’s youngest daughter when he found the Senator looking right at him.

"Good morning, Senator," he sheepishly said.

"Good morning," Senator Romulo replied. Calmly, with no tempers flaring, no sirens blaring, no lights flashing, the Senator quietly asked the burglar to leave and led him out through the front door himself. He then went upstairs to see if his children were all right, and went back to bed.

The story is quite telling, for it is shocking to find such virtues as equanimity and magnanimity in our leaders today, or to find a politician’s house with such lax security, or a politician with such an even temper and utter lack of vindictiveness. Now Executive Secretary, Alberto "Bert" Romulo has enjoyed a spotless record of public service for over 20 years, from assemblyman to cabinet secretary to senator, and has worked so quietly and egolessly within the corridors of power in this nation that he has come to be one of the most admired public servants today.

This year, two of Bert and his wife Lovely Romulo’s five children are following in their father’s footsteps, and that of their grand-uncle’s, Carlos P. Romulo, for the first time as they run for office in their own districts. The second child and eldest son, Roman Romulo, 37, a lawyer, is running for congressman in the lone district of Pasig, and the fourth child and youngest daughter, Berna Romulo-Puyat, 34, an economist – the same one whose bedroom was broken into by the fortunate burglar – is also running for congresswoman in the first district of Quezon City.

"Kung ano puno, yun ang bunga," the proverb goes. In these times when all our hopes and dreams for the country are suspended in limbo as we wait breathlessly for the results of the coming elections, many of us feel the need for continuity and constancy. To see the offspring of such an esteemed servant leader as Sec. Bert Romulo to run for office, one might wish that while the long-awaited change we pray for may lie in the hands of young first-time candidates like them in the running, perhaps an even greater hope lies in the tradition of excellence that flows through their lineage.

In an exclusive interview with The Philippine STAR, Berna and Roman share their thoughts and feelings on running for the first time, the problems the country faces today, and how they think they can carry on their illustrious family name.

Was there any indication in your childhood that you would eventually run for public office?

I had a normal childhood. I went to Ateneo, then Southridge, then UP for college, where I majored in Economics, then UP College of Law. We did the same things that everyone else did. We had our share of girlfriends, going out. Even with Carlos P. Romulo as our grand-uncle we were exposed to public service, but we never really talked about anyone getting involved in public service.

I was very shy. I wouldn’t even want to be elected in class elections. But in 1978 when Lolo Carlos ran as assemblyman we were all campaigning. I was nine, and we would go to markets, do the rounds. That’s what made us different. We were exposed. It was in 1984, I was 15, when my dad ran and we’d go to the rallies and even speak for him when Dad lost his voice. It was just exposure from a very young age.

And in your past careers?

I’ve been teaching Public Economics at the UP School of Economics for nine years. Though the salary’s so low, you still want to teach because you want to help people. That’s already public service. I always liked it because I felt that I made a difference. For my students to like economics was fulfilling in itself.

I practiced law for 10 years, so that was my training. As a lawyer you constantly render opinions and structure deals. If you look at most of our laws they’re not well-crafted. They’re vague. You actually don’t know what the intention is. My belief is that most of our congressmen don’t have the background of a law practitioner so they overlook the details.

The fact that you’re running indicates that there’s something missing, a void you can fill, in our political system today. What would that be?

I understand what is needed: substance. The simple concept of universal insurance, that’s what I want for our country, since now only the employed get it, or you have to get it on your own. The only ones who get it are the ones who need it, the ones who are about to die. Universal insurance – that’s economics. And that’s what I’d really want for all Filipinos.

I’d like to be part of the lawmaking process to make the rights and responsibilities of our people clear. In general, wherever you go, the problems are always the same. It hasn’t changed since Edsa 1. Ang hirap ng buhay ngayon. When our congress was composed of Salonga, Diokno, Recto, Tañada, it was better, I believe, because they were good lawyers, good lawmakers. Now, if you look at the composition, it’s entirely different. And life is now more difficult.

So why do you think we keep getting such inept leaders? Is the electorate to blame?

It’s more of people wanting to enter government for the wrong reasons. I think they fail to see that. People now enter government because they want to earn or they want the accolades, even if they’re not qualified at all. The problem is not with the electorate, but people presenting themselves as public servants.

I disagree. The reason we have such inept leaders is because the electorate voted for them. It’s a popularity contest. If the people started voting more wisely I think we can turn things around.

You are perceived to be educated, well-off, from a good family. In a time when it’s all these actors and athletes that seem to be winning, are you afraid that you’re not masa enough, that you’re too elitist?

A big problem is that people have lost faith in the people they’ve elected, or in government in general. They tend to elect people who would help them directly. The elitist thing is not really a factor, if you show them that you have solutions, you bring back that hope that you can make changes, make a difference. The bottom line is that there’s been a loss of faith. It’s not about being maka-masa, or elitist, it’s just that people think that once you’re elected, you’ll be distanced from them. It’s up to you to show that you can bridge the gap

Our family is not elitist at all. We didn’t live a sheltered life. No one can say that we were spoiled. With our passports, our US visas we always went the normal way. We never had bodyguards. Our dad would always tell us to do it the regular way. We’re professionals. We went through school, we got our own jobs, wala kaming minana. We’re not the rich Romulos. We’re only rich in name.

Berna, you’re married (to banker-lawyer Dave Puyat) and Roman, you’re not. How is your marital status working for or against you?

I’m lucky that my kids are already eight and seven years old, that they’re old enough. I must admit that with the campaign I don’t get to spend as much time with them. My husband Dave is like the mom now, he goes with them to birthday parties, to the supermarket. When they get sick they go to him. They miss me, but I try to make up for it. Dave has been very supportive; if he had not given me the go-signal I wouldn’t have run at all.

I’m sure they’ll make up stories about why I’m still single, but to me it’s advantageous. I have more time, I have less concerns than a married man.

Though you’ve been exposed to campaigning before, how does it really feel to run for the first time, with yourselves as candidates?

It’s different when you’re actually the one running. May stress talaga. Tao ka rin, you get affected by everything you hear. Luckily, I have good support. I talk to my family. Dad says that what’s important is that you lay down your credentials, your plans, do your best, so don’t do anything you might be ashamed of.

Everybody gives you unsolicited advice about how to run your campaign. You’ve heard the same advice again and again, and it’s impossible to implement all of them. Everything from how to dress up, how you should tie your hair, that I look too young. They all mean well, so you just try to accommodate everyone. And of course, campaigning at the local level is so different from national elections. They treat you like family. So when you can’t go to their fiesta or their party they make tampo. They want you on call 24 hours.

Do you think that public servants must be raised to be public servants, from birth?

The surroundings help a lot to form the character of a person. At the end of the day it’s character. You can’t foresee every problem that comes your way, so it’s mainly about being able to know what the right decision will be. It’s just doing right for the benefit of the greater majority.

I think it’s exposure. We saw our dad through 20 years of public service. Serbisyo, hindi negosyo, he’d always say. He’s helped so many people. He’s given so much, but he’s been very low key. When I asked him why the schools he built were never named after him, he answered, It’s the people’s money, not mine. So when I’m faced with a tough decision I’d always ask what dad would do. And we can call him or text him anytime for advice.

What role did your mother play in your upbringing?

Mom was the anchor of the family. She stayed home to take care of all of us. She encourages us always. My dad was very busy, but my mom was always there. We felt like we were the best kids because of her.

My dad wouldn’t be where he is now if it weren’t for mom. When dad sees mom, even after 40 years of marriage his face still lights up.

If there was only one bill you could pass, what would it be?

Like I said earlier, it’s Universal Insurance. I want to make it part of the national budget.

To tackle the housing problem. In my district, the drug problem is still number one, but I believe it’s connected to housing. If you own your own house and lot you have a bigger stake in your own community. And it’s a sense of community that will foster peace and order. If you see that there’s a problem in your community, you yourself would go after the criminals, the drug pushers, and so on and so forth.

With all the crazy things going on now, how do you keep the faith?

I don’t think it’s that bad. The Filipino is a natural survivor. For me I plan to stay here, have a family here in the Philippines. I don’t plan to go anywhere else. We should all realize that if you’re Filipino this is the best place for you. By nature we have a different, unique culture. We’re caring, nurturing. I wouldn’t want to live in a place I’m not used to. If you’re not leaving, make sure you contribute something for the good of the country.

Everyone keeps complaining, why don’t we do something about it? They’re all crooks in congress daw, but if you just let it be, you’re just being part of the problem. I’m entering because I believe I can make a difference. I know how fulfilling it can be to make just one person’s life better. Plus, I think that the young politicians now are doing so well. The hope is there. And just the fact that our dad hasn’t given up is already an inspiration.
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