Islander in the City by Pablo A. Tariman:

One-on-One With Mayor Vico Sotto

Pasig City turned 448 years old last July 2 with less fanfare but with more substantial vision.

The city’s 20th city executive, Mayor Vico Sotto, turned 32 last June 17 and has logged two years of a crucial term.

He told this writer: “As we celebrate Pasig’s 448th year, let’s take some time to celebrate the city’s rich history and the achievements of Pasiguenos who have come before us. Because of the pandemic, we are not able to have big events or parades. But I am confident that we will have a meaningful celebration nonetheless.”

Pasig — which became a city only in 1993 courtesy of Congressman Rufino Javier — was a totally idyllic place when it was founded on July 2, 1573 when it received its first bell as a new mission parish named after Our Lady of Visitation. The population then was only a little over 2,000. (As of 2015 census, Pasig has a population of 755,300 with some 440,856 voters.)

The Fortunato Concepcion mansion (now the Pasig Museum built in 1937) was where President Quezon used to make political visits. It is the same mansion where Pavarotti’s first teacher from Modena, Italy, Arrigo Pola, used to stay before fulfilling his engagement at the town glorietta.

In the late 40s and into the early 50s, the pride of Pasig and the entire country was Pasig-born tenor Octavio Cruz, who sang Verdi and Donizetti operas at the Manila Metropolitan Theater, the Manila Grand Opera House and the equally historic FEU Auditorium.

The first and last Filipino prizewinner of the 1956 and 1961 Paganini International Violin Competition in Italy was won by a lady violinist from Pasig, Carmencita Lozada.

One of the National Artists for Music is also from Pasig – Ramon Santos who used to direct operettas in the 60s in a local school.

I became a Pasig resident in 1982 when a violist of the Philippine Philharmonic asked me to move in from my previous Paranaque house. At the time, we were both employees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

I used to watch Lozada perform at the CCP without knowing she is from Pasig and I met Santos also at the CCP where he was then one of the movers behind the National Music Competition for Young Artists.

I live and breathe Pasig history where I live now.

A few houses away from my present address along Marcelo H. del Pilar St. is the house of Valentin Cruz who worked closely with Andres Bonifacio in the plot to oust the Spanish colonizers.

Just across the street was the former Pasig glorietta (now Jollibee) where Pavarotti’s teacher, Arrigo Pola used to sing.

His holding area was the Pasig Museum (the former Fortunato Concepcion mansion).

When I learned that Quezon frequented the Pasig Museum in the late ’30s—when it was still the mansion owned by Don Fortunato Concepcion (his daughter Vina Concepcion was married to actor Luis Gonzales)—I decided to convert the living room into a recital hall and founded the annual Pasig Summer Music Festival in 2002 which lasted five years.

One of my special guests in the Pasig Museum concert series was Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago, the first Filipino soprano to sing Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” She gave voice lessons to former First Lady Aurora Quezon.

When Santiago sang the role of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Manila Grand Opera House in the mid-1930s, President Manuel Quezon was in the audience. But a blackout hit the opera in the sleepwalking scene. There was a long intermission. The opera resumed at 3 a.m. when power was restored.

After that dramatic performance of the Donizetti opera, Quezon sent Maestra Santiago a seven-foot bouquet with the inscription, “Ruiseñor de Filipinas (Nightingale of the Philippines).”

It was also Quezon who recommended that Maestra Santiago be given a teaching position at the UP College of Music, which was founded in 1916. The Maestra’s student assistant was no other than the young Lucrecia Kasilag, who would become Cultural Center of the Philippines president and National Artist for Music.

Among the performers in my Pasig Museum concert series were pianists Cecile Licad, Mary Anne Espina, Najib Ismail, tenors Otoniel Gonzaga, Nolyn Cabahug and Lemuel de la Cruz, violinists Diomedes Saraza Jr. and Chino Gutierrez, among others.

For reviving live classical in the city, I was named one of the Outstanding Pasiguenos in 2002.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mayor Vico also made history when he won in 2019 and ended the 27-year old Eusebio political dynasty.

Mayor Vico Sotto (right) with Pablo Tariman (center) and Pasig congressman Roman Romulo during the unveiling of the marker containing the columnist’s poem, Ode To Frontliner last Dec. 30.

On July 2 last year at the Teatro Pasigueno with some 30 barangay captains and members of the city council in the audience, Sotto outlined the emergence of a new Pasig City no longer tied to patronage politics.

He said he wanted city hall employees to know he will not be part of the old ways.

He said city hall employees need not establish “political ties” with him to get noticed. “All that they have to do is work hard — not for the power of his position — but to see a better Pasig City.”

A few days before the city’s 448th anniversary last July 2, the mayor answered questions on his second year as town executive.

Some excerpts:

Q:  How do you see Pasig City on the second year of your term as city mayor?

A: In the last two years, we have had a good degree of success in terms of instituting reforms, especially in procurement. When we compare our projects today to similar projects two years ago, the City now spends an average of 10-20% less. The interesting thing is that many times the quality is even better now, even if it costs much less. Because of this, the LGU has saved literally billions of pesos — money that we are able to put to good use in other programs such as the Pasig Supplemental SAP (for example 1.2 billion pesos in emergency financial assistance for those who were not included in the National/DSWD SAP list in March 2020).

We have made progress in all other fields as well, despite the challenges and delays caused by covid-19. For instance, in terms of Healthcare Services, which is a major priority, we continue to shift towards Universal Health Care. Towards our mission to implement Universal Health Care, we have made big steps despite the pandemic. We have completed the rationalization of our health human resources, including the creation of 1,502 new permanent plantilla positions. We’ve worked on the infrastructure, including IT infra.

Q: How did your first two years go?

A: It is not a joke to institute major reforms. Lalo na’t inabutan tayo ng isang pandaigdigang krisis. It’s far from perfect. The process of change takes time. Many of our problems are decades-old. The first biggest challenge is changing the mindset. It’s not that easy to convince everyone that we need change. Some have even attempted to convince me that certain corrupt practices are okay reminding me that “lahat naman ganyan ang ginagawa.” A number of “friends” have become upset at me when I refuse to give them favors and insist that they should go through the legal processes just like everybody else.

Q: How did the city cope with the pandemic? What strategies worked and what didn’t?

A: The thing with the pandemic is that none of us have experienced a pandemic before. The last time a pandemic happened, none of us were born yet, and the situation was very different. But I’m very proud of the entire team because they’ve performed well. Although I am often the face of the LGU as the mayor, there are many who deserve much more credit than I do. Our technical and medical staff, the covid-19 task force, these are our unsung heroes who work behind the scenes. The main thing I should get credit for is that I listen to them and take their suggestions seriously, even if it may sometimes go against my initial opinion. As we always say here, we listen to the experts and consult all those affected by any decision we will make. The results are always better that way. Not to say that we will always make the right decisions. Especially in emergency situations, we often have to make quick decisions that are sometimes proven to be wrong later on. For example, early in the pandemic, we disinfected everyone coming in and out of our government buildings, and had a mass disinfection program of our streets and public places. Later on, the experts realized that this is not the smartest thing to do and the DOH actually prohibited the spraying of people with disinfectants.

Q: How did you personally react to being named one of the few anti-corruption champions in Asia?

A: I am thankful, of course. But more than the recognition for me as an individual, I hope that it will help bring the spotlight to the issue. I hope it will get more people talking about corruption, and anti-corruption efforts. Sometimes corruption is just something we know in the back of our minds exists and we tend to ignore or even accept. The problems are deeply rooted in our society, in our culture. That’s why if we want to successfully fight it, we must first of all raise awareness and talk about it and talk about how we can help fight it as individuals and collectively.

Q:  How did the first two years as mayor change you as a leader?

A: It has helped make me more patient. It has also taught me to communicate better, especially when the situation is difficult or complicated.

Q: How do you think did the pandemic bring out the best (and the worst) in people?

A: We’ve seen crisis situations bring people together, we’ve seen families giving out relief packs. We’ve also seen people trying to use the crisis for selfish gain. The pandemic has revealed both our strengths and weaknesses — as individuals, groups, governments. Truly, adversity tests our character.

Q: Your trust rating is high even outside Pasig City to the point people are eyeing you to run for higher positions? How do you react to this?

A: I do appreciate the kind words. But I think it is best for me to ignore it and focus on my job now.

Q: Many people look at you as the young political Messiah who can save the country from bad governance. How do you react to this? Can you feel the pressure this early?

A: I don’t believe in the concept of a leader as savior. As far as I’m concerned there is only one Messiah and he didn’t even want to serve in government. As a democracy, our leaders will ultimately reflect us as an entire society. Yes, having good leaders is good, obviously. But this is just superficial. If we as members of society accepts corrupt practices, we will end up with corrupt leaders. Conversely, if more people demand for good governance, then eventually we will get better leaders too.

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