MANUEL B. VILLAR: It’s not impossible to end poverty
By Michael Lim Ubac, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
(Editor’s Note: The presidential profiles will be running in no particular order but as the stories come in from our reporters in the field.)
(Seventh of a series)
MANILA, Philippines—From selling seafood in Divisoria to leading the two chambers of the Philippine Congress, the boy from Moriones in Tondo, Manila, now wants to reside in Malacañang.
“Is it difficult to think that a poor fellow can also become President of the Philippines?” Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Sen. Manuel Villar asks rhetorically during his campaign rallies all over the country.
The real estate magnate and lone billionaire in the presidential derby shuns long introductions and quickly reminds the crowds about his humble beginnings in Tondo—once home to the Smokey Mountain dump, which in the 1980s became the symbol of crippling poverty in the country.
Critics, however, question his rags-to-riches story to the point of digging up his family income in the 1960s, which they say was of middle-class standards at the time. They sneer even at his campaign jingle: Did he really swim in a “sea of garbage” as a kid? Was Manila that filthy back then?
More recently, he denied wrongdoing and dismissed as mere politicking allegations that he pressured stock market officials in 2007 to bend trading rules and let him rake in earnings that now form part of his campaign kitty.
Still, this “brown taipan” has attracted the biggest crowds in the presidential race—thanks largely to the “concert” troupe he brings along when touring major cities. Attendance in a Davao City rally last month, for instance, was pegged at 120,000, despite heavy rains, according to police estimates.
In his public addresses, Villar seems to stress that, for all his affluence, he should not be counted among the country’s Old Rich oligarchs. In fact, he considers their perennial lock on the country’s economic and political power as a hurdle to his antipoverty vision. (Insiders in the Villar camp say he has fully calculated the risks of making such statements.)
He let out one of his more direct broadsides against the ruling elite during a recent sortie in Bacolod City, where the audience included descendants of the sakada, landless farmers who had toiled under the employ of sugar barons over the last century.
“Why aren’t you helping me fight poverty? Why are you fighting me? Is it because you believe that you are the only ones who can be President?” he said in Filipino, referring to that clique he called hacenderos.
“Why—if the poor say that they want to lead the country—are you surprised? Why are you puzzled? Is it difficult to think and accept that a squatter boy from Tondo, who once sold shrimps in the market, can also dream to become president of the Philippines?”
He got the crowd roused enough to yell “No!” and to then chant his name.
But while Villar goes around sharing childhood memories of smallness, everything now tends to be big and grand in his rallies, especially the dream of prosperity that he offers to those who would vote him into office.
There’s the fireworks display at the end of each concert, the rain of orange confetti, the giant video screens, the giveaway shirts, hand fans, baller IDs … and then the huge tarpaulin portraits of Villar and running mate Loren Legarda and smaller pictures of the 12-member Nacionalista senatorial slate.
Yet zero in once more on the man during a sortie, and you could catch him wiping off sweat with a “Good Morning” face towel, the cheap, gauzy kind hawked in the streets for sidewalk vendors and jeepney drivers.
Not exactly known for his oratorical skills, Villar tends to be monotonous—and it’s up to his “Rockatropa” team of entertainers led by TV game show host Willie Revillame to pump up the adrenalin. Parlor games onstage add to the fiesta mood.
Sometimes, Villar himself would show his fun side and take the microphone to sing some of Revillame’s songs, swinging to the beat and for a moment losing himself in the melody.
The drive for easy recall and mass appeal extends to nonverbal mediums. Observers noted that Villar’s campaign logo—a “check” mark—is almost a copycat of Nike’s famous swoosh.
But Villar would say these PR ploys make up for the other advantages he lacks. “I don’t have parents with famous names, or siblings in show biz,” he says, referring to his leading opponent, Sen. Benigno Aquino III.
Manuel Bamba Villar Jr. was born on Dec. 13, 1949. As the now oft-told story goes, the second child in a brood of nine helped his mother Curita sell fish when he was just 7 years old at Divisoria. His father, Manuel Sr., was an official of the then Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
In a recent press conference, Nanay Curing, 86, emotionally recalled that Manny “was with me” on those days when she had to endure insults from fish dealers whom she could not immediately pay.
In an interview shortly after the campaign season began, Villar’s younger brother Jojo said his “kuya” ended up helping their mother at the market by default. “He had no choice … because he was the eldest among the boys,” he said.
There were times when Manny had to bring his school work to the market. When left at home to look after his younger siblings, Manny was not the type who spanked the stubborn, the lazy, and the rowdy; he just sat down and talked with them, Jojo recalled.
‘Never a young man’
Villar attended grade school at Holy Child Catholic School in Manila, then high school at Mapua Institute of Technology. He went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration and accountancy at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.
Manny’s wife, Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, said her husband once summed up his Tondo years by saying he was “never a young man.” The longtime friends and UP classmates married in 1975 and had three children—Manuel Paolo, Mark and Camille.
Villar made his first million in real estate at age 27. Last year, Forbes Magazine pegged his wealth at P25 billion, making him the ninth richest Filipino.
As a boss, Villar has been known to value loyalty. Most members of his Senate staff came from his companies and have been working for him for the last 15 to 20 years.
To help put employees at ease, the Villars sometimes join them during meals and are usually the ones to finish off the last morsels on the table.
Deep inside, Cynthia said Manny remained a “shy person” because of his humble roots. “I’d sometimes remind him to greet people kasi akala suplado siya (They think he’s a snob.)”
“He would say, ‘You just remember where I came from … Be tolerant of my insecurities and shyness,’” she added.
Jojo likened his brother to a “diesel engine” when relating to people: “He ultimately warms up after long and frequent conversations.”
After establishing an empire that built over 100,000 low-cost homes, Villar entered politics and was elected as Las Piñas congressman in 1992. By 1996, he was being hounded by allegations of land-grabbing and cornering government loans for his business.
Yet he had since never lost an election and rose to become Speaker of the House of Representatives and later Senate president—the only postwar leader to gain the top posts in both chambers of Congress.
He made what was probably his most dramatic political masterstroke when, banging the gavel as Speaker through a gauntlet of appeals and objections from the floor, he succeeded in transmitting the impeachment proceedings of then President Joseph Estrada to the Senate in November 2000.
Riding on the crest of the anti-Estrada sentiment, he was elected to the Senate the next year and became Senate president in 2006. He was ousted from the position in 2008 and replaced by Juan Ponce Enrile, now a reelectionist senator running under Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino.
Villar’s vaunted war chest is said to be big enough to fund not just one but successive presidential campaigns. He maintains that he spends his own money and receives nothing from shadowy cronies or power brokers.
In an Inquirer interview at the historic Laurel Mansion in Mandaluyong City which the Villars acquired in 2008, Cynthia said she and her husband had allocated a year’s worth of their real estate income for the campaign.
“We have written it off. We’ve forgotten about it and we can live with that. At least nobody can say that we won because of (other financiers). Our biggest supporters are Manny and Cynthia,” she said.
During campaign sorties, this other half of the power couple, possibly a future first lady, has no qualms picking up pieces of trash onstage to make sure no one slips, or holding the dressing room door for guests hoping to have a few minutes with her husband.
Villar banks on his “sufficient experience” in both business and politics to convince voters that he knows the keys to wealth creation: “sipag at tiyaga” (hard work and perseverance) as his political slogan goes.
“Many are saying that it’s impossible to end poverty. My answer—we are the only one left (thinking that way). Our neighbors have either ended poverty, or are about to end it. We haven’t started yet,” he said.
“It is very important for the next president to be able to manage this nation squarely from Day 1,” he said. “We must be able to start and hit the ground running. The nation faces too many problems which should be addressed all at the same time.”
Failing this, Villar warned, Filipinos will have to wait for another six years.