Faith, duty and country

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

Faith, Duty and Country is the title of a book, and below it is the descriptive subtitle, “The Multi-Layered Passions of Leonor Magtolis Briones.”

The book chronicles the journey of a poor girl from Guihulngan, Negros Occidental, to her finishing college magna cum laude at the age of 17, to her working as secretary to the Commissioner of Audit, to her appointment as vice president of the state university’s finance and budget administration, to her appointment as National Treasurer, to her becoming Full Professor, to her leading the Freedom from Debt Coalition and to her assumption to the prestigious position of Secretary of Education.

Dr. Proserpina (Chit) Domingo Tapales, a former dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG), is author of the biography of her friend and confidante for nearly 55 years.

Liling indeed has made great strides in her journey to stardom. Her story begins with her being the third of eight children of educators Carlos Magtolis and Ursula Mirasol, who taught in Hibbard Institute, named after the founder of Silliman University in Dumaguete City. One day when friends visited Mr. Magtolis in his home, Liling sat unnoticed under the table and heard, to her great delight, her father telling them that of all his children, Liling was the brightest, and would go far.

Liling was indeed bright, and she read and read everything she could lay her hands on, and loved music. Her father’s words she kept in her heart… “Your value as a person is not determined by property and not by your status…but by your relationship with God.” She imbibed this disinterested attitude towards money and wealth as she grew up.

She finished high school at age 13 as valedictorian and college at 17 – magna cum laude. She was too young to take the Certified Public Accountant board exam, so she worked as a bookkeeper in two book stores in Dumaguete City at the same time. When she learned about a fellowship offered by the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Public Administration, Liling applied and was quickly accepted, making it to the Dean’s List when she graduated with a master’s degree of Public Administration in 1967.

Later that year, with a Ford Foundation grant, she was at the University of Leeds in England, taking a post graduate course majoring in Public Enterprise. At the end of the course in 1968, she was surprised that she topped the class and graduated with distinction.

In the early sixties, Liling became embroiled in existentialism, and her awareness of the sufferings of impoverished Filipinos influenced by her professor Francisco (Dodong) Nemenzo, who would later be appointed UP president, led to her active involvement in rallies and demonstrations. Liling became active in the movement that later became the First Quarter Storm. During a huge rally, she was shown on TV and the newspapers as the woman in a red mini skirt with the letters MPKP in white standing on top of a fire truck making its way through the Palace gate.

That picture of Liling in a magazine caught the interest of Librado (Caloy) Briones, a young man who studied for three years in Russia. He was entranced, and shortly after they met, they got married.

Liling’s life went on as an academic. She joined the faculty of the NCPAG and made a name in public finance and development administration.

She became part of two major research projects focusing on corruption in the Philippine bureaucracy. Her case study on corruption in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) is still used in Harvard.

Dean Raul de Guzman sent Liling, newly married, to Cebu to beef up the public administration program there. Liling was happy teaching in school in the daytime and partnering with Caloy in the evening in community and labor organizing with people living inside a Catholic cemetery. It was also in Cebu that the first of their two sons was born, who they named Hoche, after Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevarra (not surprising). But the military was tracking down political activists, so the couple fled to Mandaue, then to Sipalay in Negros Island, where they lived in a hut Caloy built.

Finally, when the UP in Manila was able to open its doors to all faculty and students, Liling went back to her home college, taught, did research and delivered lectures in training programs.

She did not apply, but was invited to team up with Commission on Audit (COA) chair Francisco Tantuico. Under Tantuico, Liling produced a book which became required reading in all schools of public administration. Then they started a State Accounting and Auditing Center (SAAC) “to provide advanced training in accounting and auditing for local and international participants.” Liling was appointed its founding director and served until 1982.

Because of her innovations at COA, Liling received three awards: Outstanding Silliman Award for Public Administration in 1982, State Audit Management Award in 1983 and State Audit Management Award as presiding officer of the Policy Study Group in 1984.

Outside UP, Liling served as chair of the Board of Trustees of Silliman University and Universidad de Manila. She also received two Ph.D. degrees honoris causa: Doctor of Public Administration from the Central Philippine University in 2014 and Doctor of Human Studies from the Foundation University in 2017.

When the EDSA revolution occurred in 1986, Tantuico had to leave COA. “There were people in COA who did not like what I was doing. They used legalese to downgrade my position to that of a division chief when I actually held the rank of undersecretary.” Liling got very ill, was hospitalized, her heart broken.

She went back to the NCPAG where she was discovered by then UP president Emil Javier, who offered her the position of vice president for Finance and Administration in 1996. Liling, writes Chit, was prudent in the use of university funds, and supported Dr. Javier’s priority programs.

She left her post in the UP when she was appointed by then president Joseph Estrada as National Treasurer of the Philippines. The bureau’s most important achievement was the launching of its Small Investment Program (SIP). The treasury bills became available in denominations of P100,000, P10,000 and later, P5,000, enabling small investors, including students, housewives and employees to buy government securities.

Liling served as director of the Center for Policy and Executive Development (CPED) where she developed and introduced a course for party-list representatives.

Liling delivered a “gripping testimony” in Japan at the International People’s Tribunal to Judge the G-7 in 1993. She said, “All the G-7 countries, individually and as a group, are not only guilty of triggering the global debt crisis which has engulfed many poor countries… They have perpetuated the crisis by supporting structural adjustment programs which have resulted in stagnant economies and more poverty.”

Above the din and noise, music remained Liling’s passion. Music, she says, is “the most effective language for communicating with God.” She is president of the Manila Concert Choir, a grouping of people from different professions, holding concerts of sacred music, popular Filipino songs, patriotic songs and Broadway hits.

Liling took a long time accepting the position of education secretary. When she finally said yes, she was sent tickets to attend the first shadow Cabinet meeting in Davao, where she met the President. “There, we met each other for the first time. The first thing he said was, ‘Please thank your family for allowing you to accept the position as education secretary. Nakakaon ka na?”

“And so, I embarked on this last-mile position, working for a President I had never met, and who had never met me either, but had heard about my service to the country. Abangan ang susunod na kabanata!”

Secretary Briones will be the guest preacher at the Church of the Risen Lord, UP Diliman, on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 10 a.m. Listen to her online.

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Email: [email protected]

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