By Marisa Vedar
Benigno Aquino III graduated in 1981 with a degree of Bachelor of Arts in Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University. He was one batch ahead of me. I used to see him in campus walking with his batchmates and later Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras and Bong Naguiat who became Chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (PAGCOR). Noynoy was very low profile in college. He stayed most of the time at the Rizal Library in group study or inconspicuously walking to the cafeteria in his baggy cargo pants. Those were Martial Law years, and he was reserved in his demeanor. No one bothered him in campus, nor did we fuss that he was the son of Senator Ninoy Aquino. He was one of us -trying our best to maintain a high QPI and make the most of what we can from Jesuit education. Thinking about it now, perhaps even Noynoy did not anticipate nor plan that one day he will be the President of the Republic of the Philippines.
State Visit to Australia 2012
Thirty-two (32) years later, I met Noynoy again who was then the Philippine’s 15th President during his State Visit to Australia.
As early as March 2012, I received a call from the Office of former Philippine Ambassador to Australia, Her Excellency Belen Anota. I was then the President of FILCCA (Filipino Communities Council of Australia), and she asked if I would be interested to do the welcome speech in behalf of the Filipino community in Australia. However, there were certain conditions that needed to be complied.
- I would travel to Canberra and Sydney as part of the Australian delegation welcoming President Noy at my own expense (travel and accommodation)
- I would agree to an NBI Check and Australian Federal Police Check which would take 6 months. Hence, a replacement will not be acceptable since the character checks would be intensive and would take time. This was discussed with the FILCCA Board and reiterated by Ambassador Anota during the National Conference and Elections in Perth one week prior to the State Visit.
- I would submit my résumé including all my community affiliations and a copy of my speech to Malacañang and the Department of Foreign Affairs for review.
The Presidential Party arrived in Canberra early on 24th October 2012 and so did I. We were all billeted at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra. I came with former Honorary Consul of VIC, Gigi Kalong while the Presidential Party included former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, former Secretary of Agriculture Proceso Alcala, former PAGCOR Chairman Cristino “Bong” Naguiat” Jr., Former Secretary of National Defence Voltaire Gazmin, former Secretary of Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Ramon Carandang, former Secretary of Finance Cesar Purissima, former Secretary of Trade and Industry Gregory Domingo, former Director-General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Arsenio Balicasan and, then DFA Assistant Secretary for Asia and Pacific Affairs Ma. Theresa Lazaro. The Hyatt Hotel Canberra was festive that day. We chatted with the Presidential Security Men at the Lobby, and it felt like we were at “Home” seeing many of the Filipino guests accompanying the President during this trip.
State lunch hosted by the Governor General
By 11.15am on the 24th of October, my fellow Gawad Kalinga Director George Lemon and I arrived at the Government House in Yarralumla. There was music being played by the Australian Federation Guard and Band in the beautiful gardens of the Government House and the guests enjoyed the view by the lake while waiting for the Presidential party to arrive. A 21-gun salute heralded the President’s arrival closer to 12 noon. All the invited guests were then asked to go inside the receiving area while each guest was called out and presented to President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and Governor General Quentin Bryce.
When it was my turn to be introduced, I shook the warm hand of the President and courtsied to the Governor General. President Noy was very statemanly yet had a friendly composure and he smiled and spoke to me in Tagalog,
Pnoy: “Kumusta Mam ang pag-alaga sa ating mga kababayan dito sa Australia?”
My reply with a smile, “Masakit po sa ulo” and then we both chuckled.
Then I briefly mentioned that I was one batch younger than him in Ateneo to which he replied….
“O nandiyan si Bong Naguiat”.
The State Lunch hosted by the Governor General only had 37 people. In addition to the Cabinet Secretaries, the Presidential Party included Reynaldo Delantar Jr, Special Assistant to the President; Sulpicio Confiado, Deputy Chief of Presidential Protocol; Brigadier General Ramon Dizon, Head of Mission of the Presidential Security Group; Captain Raul Obando, a Senior Military Aide-de Camp and Rafael Ignacio, Presidential Staff Officer. There were 16 from the Presidential Party in total and 21 from the Australian Party including the Governor General.
It was a very jovial party though the lunch setting was very formal as expected. I was seated in between former PAGCOR Chairman Bong Naguiat and former Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala. It was a good chance to reminisce Ateneo days with Bong Naguiat; after which he gave me a sneak preview of how President Noy now has become so dedicated to ensuring he fulfills the legacy of his parents.
Half-way through my dessert, there was a trumpet sound, and everyone stood. President Noy had excused himself which meant that lunch was finished. Later on, we found out that he was not feeling so well since he arrived from New Zealand.
State dinner given by the Prime Minister
By 6pm on the same day of the 24th of October, we drove to the Parliament House in Canberra where The Honourable Julia Gillard, then Prime Minister of Australia hosted a Dinner for President Noy and the Presidential Party. There were about 120 invited guests to include Filipino Honorary Consuls and Australian Filipino Community leaders in Australia. Unfortunately, President Noy still felt ill and could not attend the State Dinner and so neither did Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The ceremonial toasts were done by their proxies instead.
Sydney Business Forum
The next day, 25 October, I travelled with Atoy Sayas, former President of the Filipino Community Council of NSW and his wife Tess by car to Sydney. There was a scheduled State Lunch for the Presidential Party hosted by the Premiere of NSW Hon. Barry O’Farrell. I was not invited to the State Lunch anymore and instead proceeded to the Shangrila Hotel Sydney where the Presidential party was also staying.
In the afternoon, there was a Business Forum hosted by the Philippine Australia Business Council and the Australia Philippines Business Council (APBC) with focus on strengthening Public Private Partnership, Education, BPO, Skilled Manpower and Mining. President Noynoy enumerated his government’s initiatives to strengthen the Philippine economy through government and private partnerships and business opportunities. He delivered his speech and presentation with pride and eagerness to show the Australian business community the big strides his government wants to accomplish.
Big day for the Filipino diaspora
The 26th of October 2012 became a defining moment of my life in community service. This was the day I prepared for since March 2012 and that is to deliver the welcome speech on behalf of the Filipino Community in Australia.
The first schedule of the President that morning was to unveil the Statue of Jose Rizal at the Rizal Park in Rosemeadow. The five-metre brass statue was sculptured by renowned Filipino artist Eduardo Castrillo and donated to the people of Campbelltown which boasts the second-largest Filipino population in Sydney.
I was advised by former Consul Marford Angeles of Philippine Consulate General in Sydney that the Australian Federal Police required me to be at the John Therry Catholic School Auditorium by 7.30am in the morning and not attend the unveiling at Campbelltown. John Therry Auditorium was venue for the President to meet up with the Filipino Community in Australia. I skipped breakfast trying to memorise my speech. The President arrived at the Auditorium close to 11am and was greeted by Atoy Sayas representing the Filipinos in NSW.
President Noynoy enthusiastically reported to his kababayans in Australia the milestones of his two-year government citing the improved credit rating of the country. He mentioned how the savings of 50 billion pesos from interest a year could be spent to deliver services in health, education, building of roads, houses and much more. His government’s target is for the Philippines to be labelled as an investment haven for foreigners (Investment Grade).
My speech was brief and as close to 10 minutes as instructed. The highlight was a warm welcome to the President and his party, and I acknowledged the efforts of his government in the past two years. I borrowed a term which I used to commend his efforts and gave him a rating of “Pogi Points”. This generated not just a hearty applause from the crowd, but also a wide beaming smile from the President. Later after his State visit, I came to know that the term ‘Pogi points” got stuck with the President and the Cabinet and was often used in the meeting rooms of Malacañang.
After my short speech, President Noy was gifted an Akubra Hat presented by Atoy Sayas in behalf of the Filipino Australian Community. He wore it with pride and posed for the media and his kababayans who were proud of their President.
Watching the live telecast of the internment at Manila Memorial, I could not help but cry and feel emotional. I looked at the urn with his ashes and remembered this quiet, unassuming guy walking around the campus of Ateneo de Manila and the dignified look of a President at the State Lunch in Canberra. It made me proud being a Filipino and it made a sometimes, thankless job of community service a fulfilling mission. Of course, his Presidency after that State Visit was marked with many turbulent times and even up to the time of his death his detractors spoke negatively non-stop. But as his sister Kris Aquino laid his urn next to his parents, I said my final goodbye ….
Go peacefully President Noy. You have earned enough “Pogi Points” to say your mission is accomplished. In the end, it is not the various political parties’ judgement that will matter as you come face to face with your Maker. You will only be answerable to God and God alone. Enjoy the warm embrace of Ninoy and Cory. Rest in peace my fellow alumni and President.
…. From the lyrics of Anima Christi…
In the hour of my death call me and bid me to come to Thee,
That with Your saints and angels, I may praise you
Forever and ever, Amen
St Ignatius Loyola