Sal Panelo on Duterte, Trump, Obama, Yao Ming, Bato, Gloria, Leni, Kris & De Lima
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Atty. Sal Panelo in Bacolod City

Sal Panelo on Duterte, Trump, Obama, Yao Ming, Bato, Gloria, Leni, Kris & De Lima

WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - November 20, 2016 - 12:00am

Remember the colorful celebrity lawyer who came out one week before the May 9 election to dramatically defend opposition presidential bet Mayor Rody R. Duterte of Davao against then President Noynoy Aquino’s political ally and vice-presidential bet Senator Sonny Trillanes at the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) branch in Ortigas Center, Pasig City? The eloquent, sartorially flamboyant former student activist and music-loving Secretary Salvador “Sal” Panelo is now the indefatigable Chief Presidential Legal Counsel of President Duterte.

Unknown to many, Panelo had heralded Duterte as an ideal constitutional strongman ruler to drastically reform Philippine society as early as seven years ago at a Rotary Club speech in Makati and he then kept urging him to run for president. They’ve been friends for over three decades, having met first time when Panelo was a corporate lawyer for pharmaceuticals giant Unilab, heading to Davao for court cases while Duterte was a prosecutor who would become mayor.

A self-made man, Panelo in grade school used to buy pandesal from a Quezon City bakery every morning in order to peddle it in the streets from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., then rush to class at a public school. He has since made a name defending celebrities and also handling the most controversial cases. Panelo studied English and political science at University of Nueva Caceres and law at University of the Philippines. A day before he left for Peru to join President Duterte’s trip to the APEC Summit, he gave Philippine STAR this exclusive interview at his home. Here are excerpts:

PHILIPPINE STAR: I heard you were one of the first to publicly call for then Davao Mayor Duterte to run for president of the Philippines. When was this?

SECRETARY SAL PANELO: Rody has been a good friend through the years, we’d been talking on and off, exchanging views on what’s wrong with the country, the need for a visionary and capable leader in the style of President Marcos, strong but not corrupt. We have the same channel.

Ten years ago, I began to articulate the problems of our Philippine democracy, that there was no national discipline. Many lack education, while those educated are mis-educated so that’s why we elect those kinds of leaders due to vote-buying, electoral violence, etc. We need to have constitutional reforms. Three years later, they “forced” me to name Duterte as the ideal president who could really reform our society.

Who were “they”? This was seven years ago?

Yes, I was invited as speaker at a Rotary Club in Makati. The president of this Rotary told me he had a problem, because only five people confirmed to attend. I said it was no problem. Then on that day when I arrived, I was surprised to see 100 people in attendance and I asked how come. The president told me he did a newsletter to announce me as the speaker and based on what I told him I wanted to talk about, he announced the title of my speech as “Why This Country Needs a Dictator and Why Congress Should Be Abolished.” 

What I articulated was the need for a constitutional dictator. At the open forum, the audience asked me who this leader should be, was it Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago? I said okay. Another asked, was it Senator Ping Lacson? I replied, okay. Someone said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was then ending her term, I said okay. Someone stood up to say, “You came up with this concept, you must have a leader in mind. Tell us who.” For the sake of drama, I paused for one minute, then I replied that I had only one person in mind: Mayor Duterte of Davao City. I was surprised; there was big applause. Three days later Rody called and said: “I don’t want to be president, tapos sinabi mo pa ‘diktador,’ tigilan mo ng kabalbalan mo (then you even mentioned ‘dictator,’ stop this foolishness of yours)!”

So you’re like Nostradamus, predicting the Duterte phenomenon?

That’s what he calls me, “Nostradamus.” (Laughs) During those years, I told Rody: “You have a date with destiny and an appointment with history. There will come a time when you shall be confronted with the people’s clamor for you to run and you cannot escape from that.”

Ayaw niya, talagang ayaw niya (He didn’t want to, he really didn’t want). He’d say: “Padre, tigilan mo ‘yang kabalbalan mo (Padre, stop your foolishness). You’re creating a fire which I cannot contain.” I said to him: “It’s not only a fire, it will be an epidemic!”

Is that Rody the red-nosed reindeer between Santa Claus and Sal Panelo?

Was it true during the last ASEAN Summit in Laos, you went up to US President Obama to defend President Duterte? How did this happen and why?

Yes, I went to President Obama, because I saw he had snubbed our President. He passed by our President, he approached Indonesian President Widodo who was seated to the right of Rody, and then Obama approached Russian Premier Medmedev who was seated to the left of the President, then he went to the other end to Brunei Sultan Bolkiah, then he talked to two more people. Pumuputok na ang butchi ko, tumayo na ako (I was already getting pissed off, so I stood up).

The other Cabinet officials like Secretary Bong Go were surprised. But there was a problem, because there were Secret Service security men guarding him, but I just stood, across from Obama, then I positioned myself to the path that he needed to pass on the way back to his seat. I was waiting for him. Then when he came, I introduced myself, we shook hands. I told him that he had not been insulted by our President. I gave him the context in which the remarks were made.

You said Obama snubbed President Duterte. What is your reaction to what Kris Aquino said was Duterte’s “epic snub” of her scheduled TV and also town hall-style interview?

She was not snubbed. According to the President he had a migraine. Some media people had questioned how he could have suffered a migraine when he had gone to another meeting at that time? It’s possible that the President really had a migraine and sinadya din niya (he also did intentionally) attend another event, so where’s the conflict?

What is your impression of the US President-elect Donald Trump? How would he and our own tough-talking President Duterte talk to each other?

Well, if mag-away sila (both of them get into a quarrel), Duterte would tell him: “Go to hell!” and Trump will say: “F*** you!” (Laughs) There will be f***ing fireworks!

Although both are not exactly the same, since Duterte has a solid track record as a public official, in some ways, can we call Donald Trump the “Duterte of America”?

Correct! Nauna siya (He was first). Rody was ahead by several months.

During President Duterte’s state visit to China, Yao Ming was one of the VIP guests invited by President Xi Jinping as part of the grand welcome. Your impressions?

The world-famous basketball superstar Yao Ming flew from a different place to Beijing for that state banquet, because the Chinese government knew that we Filipinos admire him.

What is your impression of the exceedingly popular PNP chief General Bato dela Rosa?

Rody said that Bato’s aping him, but he said there’s only one Rody Duterte, so do not imitate. But I think General Bato is really doing his job.

Will the government jail Senator Leila de Lima?

It should! (Laughs)

She claims there is no real case against her and that this is all “political persecution.”

According to the President, based on the evidence, on record, she’s involved in the illegal drug trade.

Is there a possibility for President Duterte to actually court Vice President Leni Robredo?

Hindi daw (I heard no), it’s only a joke, not serious.

What is your impression of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?

I was the only person to have visited her weekly all those years (while she was in hospital detention). Masipag siya (She’s hardworking), she’s disciplined, a victim of politics.

Why did you visit her weekly?

Naawa ako sa kanya (I pitied her condition), she was persecuted, I want to make her happy. You know, there are those people who benefited from her and who used to walk in the corridors of power, they abandoned her. They were afraid to visit her, because the government had CCTVs  there.

How do you keep yourself so lean and fit, with all your receptions and dinners?

I’ve been doing 100 push-ups every morning for the last 30 years. I’m semi-vegetarian — I prefer leafy vegetables, kangkong, mongo. My favorite dish is tinola soup with native chicken. I also like to eat fried saba bananas, in fact, I introduced this to Rody whenever we’d meet and sing at our favorite Davao place called After Dark.

Is it true I heard you and President Duterte are playboys?

There’s no basis for comparison, because I’m a family man, very much a family man, while he’s a family man with a little extra (laughs), because he’s legally single. Takot ako sa asawa ko. By the way, my wife Dr. Araceli Abrogina Panelo is a highly regarded diabetologist, she’s chairwoman of the Institute for Studies on Diabetes Foundation.

How is President Rody Duterte as a person, without the cameras and beyond politics?

Rody is very humble, he is a soft-spoken person, pero pag nag-kuwento na siya (but when he starts telling stories), non-stop. He is very honest. The passion of President Rody Duterte is to get this country out of its rut, that is his obsession, and he won’t stop until his last breath, until he achieves his magnificent obsession.

* * *

Thanks your feedback! Email willsoonflourish@gmail.com or wilsonleeflores@yahoo.com. Follow @wilsonleeflores on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and my new blog wilsonleeflores.com

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