Jesse Robredo: The people's politician
Jesse Robredo was a public official not many people paid attention to. Uncharacteristically for a politician, particularly a Filipino one, he never called attention to himself. He merely got on with the job at hand, whatever it was, without any unnecessary fanfare.
And for "Sec-Jess", as he came to be known in the last two years, fanfare of any kind was unnecessary.
He didn’t plaster his name or his image over public infrastructure projects, didn’t invite the press to cover his every move, and didn’t court publicity regardless of upcoming elections.
In short, for many Filipinos, he was the "anti-politician" - the antithesis to everything many here loathed but had grown accustomed to. Sec-Jess actually just seemed focused on public service, without coming across as insincere.
Robredo was known for his easy smile, his unassuming demeanour – and his rubber slippers, or "tsinelas", as regular male footwear are known in the Philippines. It wasn’t a gimmick, or part of a PR plan – his supporters will tell you he really was just an “ordinary man”.
With his appointment two years ago as President Aquino’s Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, the "approachable" Robredo became one of the most powerful men in the Philippines.
He oversaw law and order, and dealt with risk reduction and disaster management. And through it all, there was never really an unkind word said about him. Not a whisper of controversy.
His peers have called him a “reminder” that good is “still possible” in this complex post-modern world.
The response to his sudden death in a plane crash over a week ago was overwhelming. No one could’ve predicted it. Many Filipinos hadn’t even realised how much they cared about this “simple, honest” man until he was gone.
The eulogies have been many, but the sentiment, the same. It’s been all praises for the “statesman who championed the poor”.
From the homeless vendors on the streets to the president of the country. Grown men wept openly, and the elderly and infirm walked for hours just to get a glimpse of his coffin.
A city mayor before becoming a cabinet secretary, Robredo was then recognised as the most efficient local government executive. He espoused transparency and good governance. And he had a knack for making anyone feel heard, that he was on their side.
Another cabinet official commented that never had so many flip-flops trod on the hallowed floors of the Presidential Palace as when the urban poor came in droves to pay their last respects to their fallen hero.
In keeping with Sec-Jess’ informality, cabinet officials chose to honour him by singing his “theme songs” at his wake.
They stood around his casket, national flag draped over it, and serenaded mourners with “My Way”, “The Impossible Dream”, and “Betcha By Golly Wow”. It's even online. As many expats living here have said – it was "so typically Filipino".
Yes, expats too have reacted to his loss. “I am not even Filipino,” one diplomat said, “I can’t explain why this moves me so much.”
But there are those that explain it simply – the loss of “a good man” is universal.
Sec-Jess personified the “straight and narrow” path that President Aquino has said he wants to lead the country down. According to the Budget Secretary, Robredo’s untimely death has magnified his influence, and that that has recharged and focused the reformers in government even more.
It has been said that greatness can’t be planned, but sometimes, inevitably, if you are true to who you are – it finds you.
As far as mourners in the Philippines are concerned, Jesse Robredo was such a man.