Bobby Ongpin, the ‘child’ who negotiated with Saddam

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

He lived an immensely interesting life with countless brushes with death – politically related and otherwise – including a threat from someone’s jealous husband but in the end, he chose to leave this world quietly.

Roberto V. Ongpin, fondly called RVO, was a brilliant man who no doubt knew his worth. He was tough and ruthless but was also charming and altruistic.

You loved him or you hated him. To Duterte, he was the oligarch who had to be destroyed; to the thousands of Ateneo scholars whose education he fully funded, he was a generous soul. To some Harvard students, he was that whiz kid in the dorm they would line up for, to tutor them.

Days since his death, he’s been called many names including “the Marcos crony who never paid for his crimes.”

But history is always the last judge and the fact is, during Marcos Sr.’s time, RVO played a key role in steering our economy out of the doldrums as trade minister, even at the risk of his life. He was a Marcos technocrat, not one of those cronies who enriched themselves.

Cracking the whip on Binondo traders

This trade minister had four safe houses because he drew the ire of Binondo foreign exchange traders when he organized the so-called Binondo central bank to close the gap between the official guiding rate of P11.14 against the dollar and the black market rate of P20.

Outsmarting his killers was not an easy task but RVO was always smarter. He even sent his family abroad.

“If he didn’t do what he did, our exchange rate would have gone through the roof,” recalls former central bank monetary board member Cesar Buenaventura or CAB.

Negotiating with Saddam Hussein

Another accomplishment that was crucial for the country was how he successfully negotiated with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, already widely known around the world as a brutal dictator.

This was in the early 80s and the Philippines owed Saddam some $200 million – a fortune at the time – because the government guaranteed a performance bond when the Construction and Development Corp. of the Philippines was building an eight-lane superhighway in Iraq. Saddam declared war with Iran and needed money so he called on CDCP’s performance bond.

Saddam was one of the most fearsome persons he met, said RVO in an interview with Philippine STAR business editor Marianne Go back in 2011.

A towering figure at six foot four, Saddam literally looked down on RVO, who called himself a “little guy” at five foot six.

RVO had to cross seven checkpoints to see the Iraqi leader. Then Ambassador to Iraq Jose Cruz accompanied him but RVO lost him after the second checkpoint.

There at the meeting, Saddam, who had a .45 pistol, looked as intimidating as a brutal dictator could be.

Saddam looked him in the eye and said:

“Look at you, you are only a child.”

RVO replied: “Actually, Mr. President, I’m three months older than you.” (Both were born in 1937. RVO was born in January while Saddam was born in April).

“What? How come you look better, a baby?!” Saddam asked in disbelief.

RVO explained: “I guess, sir, I have not been through a lot of crises like you, and I haven’t had adventures like yours.”

And that was what broke the ice between two men of the same age but of starkly different backgrounds.


Perhaps, RVO had other little known accomplishments but maybe, these are stories that were up to him to tell. He told me more than once that his memoirs will be published after his death.

Struck by lightning

After leaving government, RVO, who knew how it was to be poor, built and rebuilt empires, including his luxury developer Alphaland which he continued to expand up to the time of his death.

His post Marcos-era life was not without controversies, including charges of insider trading and allegedly taking out behest loans from the government – charges eventually dismissed by the courts.

One of the biggest blows came in 2016 when then President Duterte named him as “an oligarch that must be destroyed,” something that was a puzzle to him.

He likened it to “being struck by lightning” and he never quite understood why because he never even met Duterte.

I asked him then if he considered himself an oligarch and this was his reply to me: “So am I an oligarch? If that means having money, well, I have money but I made it in an honest way.”

He eventually had to sell PhilWeb to get Duterte off his back but in the end, he was OK. Not even Duterte could destroy him.

Actually, the ex-president didn’t really “destroy the oligarchs.” He even paved the way for new ones.

In fact, many members of the so-called Davao Group became so rich during Duterte’s time.

One of them, a businessman/wheeler-dealer who made deals left and right during Duterte’s time, was quietly labelled in the business grapevine “a Bobby Ongpin without the brains.”

In the end, the one and only Bobby Ongpin survived it all – threats to his life, political assassinations, a president’s wrath and even the fury of somebody’s jealous lover. He not only survived but he also enjoyed life – the good life – with healthy living, lots of wit, stories and humor. Especially humor; he always liked to joke that he was allergic to the blue pill.

He died where he always wanted to be, cradled in the arms of his beloved Balesin. Rest in paradise, RVO. Like the world-class island resort you created, there is nobody quite like you.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.


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