“Republic” was DOF Secretary Ernest Leung’s favorite word. And aptly so, because he spent his life in service to the country he loves, the Philippines.
He founded the words “honesty”, “passion” and “work”. He refused to use an official car during weekends. He would grit his teeth when he discovered cases of dishonesty and sloppiness in work. Often, we found him sleeping in his car because he spent the whole evening working until dawn especially in negotiations with the International Monetary Bank and World Bank. And, was he their scourge! He tired them through endless debates. I think he won every round not just because of his competence but through attrition.
I was initially scared of Secretary Leung having heard of his acerbic tongue. He held no cows sacred. So I avoided all occasions of working with him. But I had no choice when I was assigned to be his Assistant Secretary. There were times when he got into my nerves and tested my patience. He did not just focus on our recommendations but he questioned our equations, coefficients, and derivatives. He was equally enamored with how we wrote our studies paying detailed attention on our use of semi-colons instead of commas. He tired us in going over reviews of claims for rewards and claimed that whistleblowers from the BIR and BOC should not be entitled to rewards because they were doing their jobs. He was so pleased when we put a cap on the amount of rewards as part of the Tax Reform Package. I think there was no “informer’s reward” that was awarded during his time. Of course he was sued. But he did not care. He considered it his sacred duty to protect the interest of the Republic.
He gave the lawyers of the Department their biggest nightmare and emerged having a better handle on law than they did. He became famous for the “Leung levy,” a surcharge that was added to oil imports. He took the Congressional recess as an opportunity to impose the levy to address the widening budgetary deficit. The country owes him so much for the loan and grant negotiations that protected the interest of the country from the debt trap and the inflationary pressures that go with it.
Mr. Leung’s crusade extended to tax reforms which he carried even when he retired from government. He was appalled at how lightly gains from stock transactions are taxed and that government can do much more to tax the wealthy. I worked with him in crafting the shift to specific tax on cigarettes and beer. The debates with him were agonizing indeed. We had to do hundreds of simulation before he got convinced. He patched us with his brother Johnson who provided us with the wisdom and experience. The studies emerged solid and could not be challenged.
But Secretary Leung had the softest heart. He offered me a World Bank post to help solve my financial difficulties in government. When I preferred to stay home to help in the tax legislation, he permitted me to take a leave to work for an American company provided I served on call. Hardly did I know that it meant working at the Department every night until dawn and all through weekends.
He questioned the use of taxpayers’ money for meals during meetings. He was famous for serving crackers which we funded from our meager salaries. His lure of good food when he requested our presence when he was President of PDIC was a bowl of noodles from Chow King.
But oh, he was so gullible! He froze in embarrassment when I told him “I was falling in love with you!” It was the only way I could stop him at bay and prevent any more debates so he would approve my resignation.
But we certainly love this Man. Although he hardly spoke Filipino, he and his beloved Edwina joined Synergeia in working with the Aetas.
It was an honor and a privilege to work with you Secretary Leung. A true patriot and a genuine public servant.