Remembering FVR

Published August 5, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The dynamic President exuded dignity and competence and was highly respected internationally


President Ramos loved to visit the PEZA Zones and he needed little prodding to attend inaugurations and other milestone activities of PEZA enterprises.

Always on the go in typical FVR fashion, the President would ask me to schedule two or three such zone enterprise events in one day, usually the inauguration of new factories and he would fly by helicopter to PEZA zones in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas or Bataan. I have a problem with chopper rides because I suffer from vertigo. I preferred to travel by land and catch-up with the Presidential party. But most times, FVR wanted me to join him in the military helicopters, some of them with open windows and doors.
Up in the air, he knew all the landmarks and details on the ground below and would point to me possible good development sites. Since I dared not look down I would just nod my head in agreement.

In these short flights, he took time reviewing documents, made notes with his red and blue-inked ball pen – “OK” in blue ink or “CSW” (complete staff work) together with his comments or instructions in red ink.
Upon landing at the inaugural site inside the zones, without missing a beat, FVR would go straight to greet the host and VIP guests and immediately jump into the program with not a minute lost. A typical company inaugural included a blessing of the new building or facility and other celebratory rituals and a tour of the factory. A priest presided over the blessing of the facility, coins were tossed for good luck, and trees were planted to commemorate the event. Japanese companies observed “Kagami-biraki,” a Japanese tradition in which the lid of a sake barrel is smashed with wooden mallets by the VIP guests so that the heady liquor could be passed around to toast to harmony and good luck to the company and the guests.

The highlight of the formal program was a message from President FVR who never failed to assure investors of government’s support. Head office VIPs of foreign companies deeply appreciated the presence of the President and as a consequence, most pledged additional expansions in the country.
The tour took time because factory buildings of big companies typically measure from one to six hectares. I had wised up to always wear comfortable shoes for a factory tour.

As expected, guests were herded to a sumptuous lunch. But what a pity, FVR didn’t have the time to savor the feast. He and his party had to leave. Even before his party reached the helipad, his helicopter’s rotor blades were already furiously twirling, ready to fly the President to his next engagement. With most of us hungry I took out a packet of Tic-Tac mints, chewed a few pieces and passed the rest to the PSG men seated behind me in the chopper. The packet never got back to me.

At the next event, lunch was purposely delayed and food awaited us but FVR marched straight on to the program. By this time I would already feel hunger pangs, but there was yet another event to rush to. Finally, after the program of the third and last event, FVR settled down for the merienda. For most of us this was hardly lunch, worse, after a few spoonfuls, the President hurtled everyone back to the helicopter as there were people waiting for him in Malacanang. During President Ramos’ time I was always hungry, speaking from famishing experience!

The same held true when he visited the local governments across the country. The governors and mayors would, of course, love to show their hospitality grandly. Their splendid intensions were, however, scaled down by FVR’s advance party, the Presidential Management Staff, who saw to it that only finger food would be served, nothing fancy. FVR was certainly no foodie. Gen. Jose Calimlim, PSG head, who accompanied the President on his out of town engagements, shared this vital tip: “Whenever I join FVR on his sorties, whatever food is served, hungry or not, I eat a big serving because one never knows when the next meal would be.” I took his advice to heart.

Considering his backbreaking schedule, even for a soldier and a military man, he never cancelled his attendance in PEZA investors’ events he had previously confirmed. To put his audience in a relaxed mood, he would throw away his written speech “prepared by Secretary so and so” and proceed with his extemporaneous talk. He consummately inspired his people and his audience with his thumbs-up sign and his battle cry: “Kaya natin ito.” He would also incessantly exhort us to “accelerate, fast track, pole vault,” which energized us to do just that.

His audience would all get used to him chewing on his ubiquitous unlit cigar. At times, towards the end of his talk, he would suddenly point to his eyeglasses which was just a frame with no lens, to the amusement of his audience.

President Ramos was wont to introduce me as “General de Lima, the only lady general in my administration.” I will never forget this incident in Tokyo. On May 16-17, 1996, FVR was on a working visit to Japan to attend and speak at the International Conference on the Future of Asia. Here he met with all the major Japanese banks and sogo shoshas at a breakfast meeting.

We entered this enormous hall and were seated around a single super long table along with seasoned bankers and tycoons. The only woman in the Japanese block was an interpreter. FVR’s party included former Prime Minister Cesar E.A. Virata, Gen. Jose Magno, and two others I could no longer recall, and myself, the only woman in our group.

Spread before us was a sumptuous breakfast. There was light chatter, though I noticed that the gentlemen beside and in front of me hardly talked to me. He introduced the male officials with him.

When my turn came, he paused and said: “But gentlemen, we men are only second stringers here, the most important personality with us is the only lady general in my administration, General Lilia de Lima, director general and chairman of the board of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority. And I advise you all to get to know her because she holds the key to your investment in our country.” I almost fell off my seat. Suddenly, these seasoned magnates who snubbed me earlier all rushed toward me to present their business cards. Since Japanese society is known to be male oriented, perhaps they earlier concluded that being the only female in our group, I was the interpreter for the Filipinos.

I was walking on air after that. Never have I been so lavishly introduced in my whole life – by the President at that, and to such an elite group!

It was a breeze as it was a joy to do investment promotion missions abroad during the presidency of FVR. This dynamic President exuded dignity and competence and was highly respected internationally. His prominence preceded us in any country we went to. The PEZA law paved the way for an exponential growth in investments, exports and employment, particularly in PEZA Zones, such as we have never seen before. This was because of the economic strategy put forth by the PEZA law but also — and perhaps most importantly — because FVR earned the trust and confidence of prospective investors. Up to this time, our country and our people continue to reap the gains in the Philippine economy that FVR planted. Indeed, FVR is a hard act to follow.

(Lilia B. de Lima was appointed by President Ramos in 1995 as the first director general and chairman of the board of Philippine Economic Zone Authority and subsequently reappointed by Presidents Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo and Aquino III).