When Secretary Mark Villar was first appointed in 2016 — a lot were critical. But after working with him for several years, I had no doubt, he will deliver. He has shown leadership in the most critical times — even when his own life is in danger.
I remembered we were in Marawi to inspect ground zero a few days after Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were killed. We had to shorten our aerial inspection because a bomb detonated. We saw smoke in one of the buildings few meters from where our chopper was. It was my first time to see war up close. Secretary Mark was calm and prompt. He asked our pilot to fly higher so that we are not at a shooting distance. Even in the most precarious situation, he has shown leadership.
This man was willing to work 18 hours a day to build infrastructure that would allow Filipinos to dream and hope for a better future. From the onset, Sec. Mark wanted to end his stint as czar of “Build, Build, Build” knowing that he gave it everything he got.
His first meeting would usually be at 7 a.m. Some days, he wouldn’t even have the time to dry his hair or have breakfast. But I’d often notice that before leaving the house, he’d go to the room of Emma Therese – his two-year old daughter first.
He tells me the country’s huge infrastructure deficit is not only causing the country P2.4 billion a day, it has also made life even shorter.
People who work with Sec. Mark would know he works more than 14 hours a day. He would schedule his last meeting very late at night, and when DPWH has to open a new road or highway in a high traffic transport area, he’d insist to schedule it as early as 12:01 a.m. His instruction is clear: Opening and construction of new roads should cause as minimal traffic as possible.
When he started institutionalizing reforms in DPWH, there were many challenges — from ghost projects, delays, right-of-way issues and death threats. But we knew that if we are to make genuine change in the way government infrastructure is built, then reforms are a prerequisite.
On the first six months of his stint – Sec. Mark adopted drone and satellite technology for monitoring of DPWH projects and eliminated ghost projects via a geotagging system. Excel sheets — which have been used in the department for decades — became obsolete. Now, monitoring is fully automated under the Infra Track app.
“Finish the project or swim in Maysilo flood’
One of the first challenges we faced was the delay in the implementation of the Maysilo Mandaluyong Flood Control Project. The flooding problem was so bad that every time it rained, pedicabs were replaced by makeshift boats.
When Sec. Mark gave the contractor the ultimatum to finish the project on or before September 30, or swim in the Maysilo flood – we knew he meant business.
A 24/7 catch up program was immediately prepared with weekly deliverables. Inspections were detailed and unannounced. At times, even we were surprised. There would be days when we’d receive a text late at night to gather the team and meet him at 11:30 p.m. So when the Maysilo drainage project was completed on time, we all felt relieved and hopeful.
The Maysilo prototype was the basis for Department Order 193, which provided guidelines on contracts with negative slippages. Now, as soon as the project records a delay of five percent — the contractor will automatically be given a warning and required to submit a catch up plan that allows for a 24/7 construction schedule.
Despite all the challenges — I’ve rarely seen him complain about work. When he does, it would only be because he no longer sees Undersecretary Em Aglipay-Villar and Emma.
Love against all odds
When Sec. Mark first asked Usec Em to go on a date, she declined. She thought he was superficial and would not be able to handle the rashes, the hair loss, and the frequent visits to the hospital. She was not interested in dating around and was comfortable being single. She knew lupus, an autoimmune disease, was difficult to accept and live with. At one point, she was experiencing excruciating joint pains that she needed someone to feed her.
It took Sec. Mark one year to convince Cong Em to go out for lunch. The first date went well, better than they both expected. But after several dates, Cong Em wanted him to see her without the wig and make up. At that time, she was bald and had butterfly rashes in her face. He didn’t run away like she expected him to do. Instead, Sec. Mark laughed and told her she didn’t have to wear the wig or the make up when they’re together. He would often joked – “Pati asawa ko, nakuha ko sa Sipag at Tiyaga.”