Arthur Tugade: The understated statesman
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - July 17, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week, I spent an entire morning with Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade – just he and I. We had an animated conversation which swung from the aviation industry to his personal philosophies, from his dreams for the nation to gardening. I got to know the man behind the enigma.

The public may know Secretary Tugade as man who pushes hard, who spurts out invectives when frustrated, who is impatient, unpredictable and moody. This, I learned, are just minute aspects of his multi-faceted character. The man I got to know was akin to senior statesman and a father figure.

I got to understand where the Secretary’s impatience stems from. Many times during our conversation, he stressed how the Philippines is 20 years behind in infrastructure. The bottlenecks in airports, seaports and roads are the reason why the economy has not been able to operate on all cylinders. The economy’s growth, albeit high at six percent, is unable to grow faster without overheating due to the infrastructure gap. Mobility and connectivity is the trigger that will unlock the true potentials of the nation, he said.

On Secretary Tugade’s shoulders lay the enormous task of rolling-out some 300 infrastructure projects, all of which are highly complex on a legal, financial and engineering perspective. What I appreciate is that the man is fighting with everything he’s got. He is on a mission and in a hurry, hence, the impatience.

When I asked how many of the 300 projects will be completed by 2022, he replied not with a “maybe” but with a definite 70 percent of all projects. Some will be complete, others will be partially operational, he said. There is no time to waste, which is why he demands that engineers and contractors work on a 24/7 basis and why he mandates all unsolicited proposals to follow a fixed legal and financial template.

I appreciate his sense of urgency and welcome his aggressive style. It only shows his intent to deliver. I would take this any day over a passive executive who simply takes things as they come.

We had coffee at his office and I discovered that this was his third cup of the morning. Apparently, the Secretary gets up at 4 a.m. daily to commute from his home in Alabang to his office in Clark just to make it to the 7 a.m. flag ceremony. He travels by car without an escort or sirens. To the Secretary, the flag ceremony is not a routine act but a manifestation of allegiance. He is fiercely patriotic and demands that everyone at the DOTr pay their respects to the flag. He gets upset when people are late for the morning ritual. The love of country is what gives rhyme and reason to the difficult work the DOTr has to do, he asserts.

In one of his public speeches, he told the audience that whenever they interact with foreigners, as Filipinos, they are duty bound to tell them how good our country is. I then realized that the man has a score to settle with the rest of the world. To him, the Philippines should not be in the middle of the pack of emerging countries, but should lead it. He aches for the country to take its place among the exclusive group of progressive nations. This ache is where his drive stems from. Even if his 73-year-old body needs a respite, the ache motivates him to push forward.

Last June, he declared that schoolchildren can ride the MRT and LRT for free provided they do so at designated hours in the morning. The move serves three purposes – to decongest the trains during office rush hours, to discipline the youth to start their day earlier and to allow disadvantaged families to save on transportation cost. I asked where he got the inspiration for this idea. The Secretary shared that he gets his inspiration in the shower. Under the ripples of water is where his best ideas flow.

I inquired what he thinks of during his private moments. Immediately, he mentioned his parents. They are humble government workers, he shared. He wishes they were still alive to see what he has accomplished. It would have given them great joy to see him serve the country in a big way. It would make all their sacrifice worth it . I could feel the Secretary’s high esteem for his folks. His gratitude showed.

In three years, his term at the DOTr will come to a close. What would be his legacy?

Aside from infrastructure projects delivered to the Filipino people, he would like the DOTr to be left with a template on how to do projects efficiently. He would also like his people to continue working with urgency, intent and honesty. They should not stop being “corporate gladiators,” he declared.  The Secretary personally mentors his people, not only on how to work right but also how to think right . He is like a father who is strict but also cariñoso. He made his people vow not to resign when his term ends. This ensures continuity at the DOTr.

As I was preparing to leave, the Secretary escorted me all the way to the car. On the way, he proudly showed me a plantation of herbs and vegetables in the office yard. He prefers vegetables to grass since it can be eaten. In fact, the day prior, the office feasted on pinakbet made from the vegetables from the garden. An army of aetas tend to the plantation. The Secretary knows them by name and spoke to them as a doting father would. To me, he gave bundles of dill herbs to bring to my wife.

The faith, loyalty and reverence of the DOTr employees toward the Secretary was palpable. As I drove out of the DOTr complex, I found myself feeling the same way. The Secretary’s fatherly discipline and fierce patriotism won me over. I reckon Art Tugade to be the statesman of our generation.

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