During my July 21 meeting with former president Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) he was emphatic—“I am not pro-Gloria.” And in the same breath, while pointing down to the slums from his vantage view at his office on the 26th floor, he said “I am for them.”
In our discussion of how to move our country forward, the inevitable question came up—who should lead the country after Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the mess that she will leave behind? FVR and I agreed that we cannot afford to have another disaster in the next leader. He expressed his great fear that we were already nearing that state of dissatisfaction and cynicism that precedes social explosions—in fact he specifically mentioned the “Storming of the Bastille” which is the popular symbolism for political upheavals emanating from widespread discontent and the desperation of the masses.
To my surprise, FVR and I have the same leader in mind who should lead us after the catastrophic Gloria Macapagal Arroyo regime. I was even more stunned to learn that he did not even consider House Speaker Joe de Venecia (JDV) to be that man who will bring us to the Promised Land. Many people, including me, thought all the while that FVR still harbored plans of installing JDV, either as president or prime minister, after Arroyo exits.
He did not. FVR felt that JDV had his time and opportunity to aspire for the top post in the land and had lost to Joseph Estrada in the 1998 presidential elections. I thought that it was smart of FVR to realize that JDV is like a failed product that will not sell regardless if it is as president or as prime minister. I also felt that it was rather patriotic of FVR not to force the issue and offer us JDV again like he did in 1998.
Visualizing the needs of the country to have as its next leader someone who will have the qualifications and competence to spur the economy, regain public trust in the government, rebuild the damaged institutions of our democracy and provide the best example of what public servants should be—FVR and I found ourselves converging on the choice of Quezon City Mayor Feliciano (Sonny) Belmonte, Jr.
Why Belmonte and why now?
In management and organization, it is said that one appoints CEOs according to needs. If what our country needs today is a leader who can solve our fiscal problem and restore credibility and public trust in the government, then Sonny Belmonte tops all other candidates for the job.
When Sonny Belmonte took over as Quezon City (QC) Mayor in July 2001, he assumed the leadership of the country's most populous city that was burdened by a huge deficit, unsightly environment, a bloated bureaucracy, and notorious red tape that abetted fixers and graft. But on his very first term, QC made a dramatic turn around and registered the following landmark achievements:
1. A lean and efficient bureaucracy, keeping personnel cost down to 27% of the budget;
2. Computerized systems in the granting of business permits, assessment of real property taxes, and collection of various taxes and fees;
3. The highest over-all income while maintaining low current operating expenses;
4. A clean and green environment;
5. Enhanced educational, health, and social services;
6. An enviable infrastructure network of streets, drainage and structures.
In 2001, QC suffered from a P1.058 billion budget deficit. On his very first year as QC mayor, Sonny Belmonte wiped out that deficit and registered a P262 million surplus. QC subsequently averaged an annual surplus of P202 million on his first term of three years as mayor.
From 1997 to 2001, Quezon City had an income vs. budget average shortfall of P590 million a year for those five years. From 2002 to 2004, QC under Belmonte’s stewardship enjoyed an average positive variance of P233 million a year on income vs. budget.
Unbelievable reversal from deficit to income you might say, especially in this Arroyo era of mammoth fiscal deficits, year after year. But the facts are facts and numbers don’t lie.
After having transformed what was once a disaster zone into a model local government operation right on his first three years as QC Mayor, Belmonte was subsequently recognized by both government and non-government organizations with the following awards:
• Gawad Galing Pook Award for Effective Fiscal Management in 2003 and Gawad Galing Pook Award for Molave Youth Home in 2005
• Hall of Famer, Most Business Friendly City (2003, 2004, and 2005) by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry
• Most Livable Community Award for 2003 by the Metrobank Foundation
• Kabalikat sa Pabahay Award for Local Government Unit with the Most Number of Community Mortgage Programs, by the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council.
• MOST OUTSTANDING CITY MAYOR FOR 2003
While he was still a law student, Sonny Belmonte already worked as a full-time reporter of the Manila Chronicle, a leading national daily then. STAR publisher Max Soliven reported to Sonny at one time. Sonny’s late wife, Betty Go-Belmonte, founded The Philippine Star, a major national newspaper, and the Pilipino Star Ngayon, a leading tabloid-size paper. Sonny and Betty were blessed with four children—Isaac, Kevin, Miguel and Joy and all of them are accomplished in their respective careers.
If job experience is to be the gauge, Sonny Belmonte's government service has chalked up an enviable record of sterling performances. He was in his twenties when he first served in various government capacities including Presidential Staff Assistant during the Diosdado Macapagal administration.
During the Aquino administration, Sonny served as:
1. President and General Manager of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS),
2. President and Chief Executive Officer of Philippine Airlines (PAL),
3. President of the Manila Hotel,
4. Chairman of the National Reinsurance Corporation and
5. Member of the Board of Directors of leading corporations such as San Miguel Corporation and Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company.
FVR himself recognized how Belmonte restored GSIS to efficient and profitable operations. It must also be noted that PAL and Manila Hotel were so well managed under him that the government encountered no problem selling these at good prices.
Sonny was elected in 1992 to represent in Congress the 4th District of Quezon City which he served for nine consecutive years. He also served as both House Minority Leader and then as Speaker of the Eleventh Congress in 2001.
In July 2001, Sonny Belmonte was elected as Quezon City Mayor and in 2005 he was re-elected to a second term by an unprecedented margin of 436,000 votes, winning nearly 80% of the votes cast. Not the publicity seeking type, Belmonte’s solid accomplishments as Mayor spoke volumes of him.
In terms of qualifications and experience, it is hard to top Belmonte’s track record as a CEO of government corporations, a legislator and a local government official of no less than the biggest city in the country in terms of population. Considering the mess we’re in, I do not see anyone with the integrity, work ethic, solid family background and qualifications of Sonny Belmonte.
Good seeds bear good fruits
I’ve known Betty and Sonny Belmonte since 1975 when I was still an advertising agency vice president and Betty Go-Belmonte was then running their publishing business and the prestigious Fookien Times Philippines Yearbook. It was Betty’s sister Gracie, who was then handling their ad sales, who introduced me to Betty and Sonny.
To us, the close friends of the family, that compound where they lived along E. Rodriguez Avenue seemed like a Shangri-La because of the ambiance of a beautiful place that is inhabited by some of the most wonderful people who can host you. We used to congregate at the Belmonte home to feast on Betty’s superb lumpia dinners—the real deal, the genuine article.
It was former Presidential Management Staff Secretary (Cory Aquino term) Elfren Cruz and I who initiated the talks that led to the Eugenia “Eggy” Apostol and Betty Go-Belmonte partnership that launched the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Elfren and his wife, Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, were very close to Eggy as I was very close to Betty.
Betty, Sonny and I used to call each other partner—the result of being praying partners, three people joined together in prayer for whatever causes we were serving. Theirs is a family that is good at the core and that goodness is reflected in the fruits of their labors.
Those of us who know the Go-Belmonte family are deeply impressed by their family tradition of seeking guidance from God through their daily readings of the Holy Bible. In fact, I wrote about this in my July 17 column (Amazing true-to-life success stories). Started by Betty’s father—the late publisher Go Puan Seng—this practice of seeking and following divine guidance lives on with Sonny’s family.
When President Ferdinand Marcos offered Sonny Belmonte the much-coveted post of Chief of the Bureau of Customs, Sonny realized how tough a job it will be to handle one of the most graft ridden agencies of government and he decided to consult his father-in-law. Go Puan Seng advised Sonny: “That is a good job for a bad man and a bad job for a good man.” His apprehensions having been confirmed, Sonny politely declined the job offer from Marcos.
How many Filipinos do you know who will refuse that Chief of Customs job? In any of the posts that Sonny Belmonte has occupied—have you ever heard of his personal involvement in any graft and corruption scandal?
We must not concern ourselves if Sonny Belmonte is nationally known or popular enough to be elected president. People who concern themselves with such self imposed prerequisites do not deserve to have a president like Sonny Belmonte. After all, we do deserve the government we get. If we think and vote that way, then let us not complain when we get the showbiz types, liars, cheaters and plunderers as our president.
Quezon City voters were not concerned about Sonny’s popularity when he first ran for QC mayor in 2001 against one of the most popular actors—Rudy Fernandez. Today, hardly anybody in QC regretted having dumped showbiz popularity in favor of competence, diligence and integrity.
We must remember that when we got together as a nation in 1986 and placed Cory Aquino in Malacanang Palace, we did not have a candidate then with the national recognition, the experience and the track record of Sonny Belmonte. But we had unity and we believed in democracy then and so we succeeded.
We have great people in our country who can give us good governance but it is up to us—the stakeholders—to put them in positions of power so they can uplift us.
You may email William M. Esposo at: firstname.lastname@example.org