20 March 2010

Emy Boncodin

The Angel of the Budget
In memory of Emy Boncodin
By: Mario Taguiwalo

The loss of someone as precious as Emy Boncodin makes us pause from the urgencies of our daily pursuits to contemplate the meaning of one life.

It seems that there are endless variations in how we could die. We could drown in the floods of Ondoy or be among those massacred in Maguindanao. We could be crushed by a wayward truck on Sumulong Highway or run over by a bus on Edsa. We could die among those on an Air Force plane that crashed into a house upon take-off from Cotabato City airport or be among those who died inside the house the plane hit. We could encounter Jason Ivler on a traffic altercation at a congested intersection of Greenhills or be one of the nameless bodies found floating on a Davao City creek.

Emy died when her heart stopped while lying on a hospital bed at the National Kidney and Transplantation Institute in Quezon City.

In contrast to the endless variety of dying, there are really only two ways we can live our lives. Either we serve our fellow men and women, or we serve ourselves. Emy served her fellow man even as she saw many around her, including those above her, who essentially served themselves. She nonetheless lived her life in service of others.

At Emy’s wake, many rich and powerful people paid tribute to this humble, simple and modest person. One would think she was still at the top of her game when she died hence the accolade. Yet she had long left her position of power. All these tributes testify to the unique and enduring power that Emy exercised, not for herself, but for the benefit of others.

Emy served her country and her fellow Filipinos via a special way, by mastering the many annual versions of the more than a thousand page books called the General Appropriations Act also known as “The Budget” also pronounced as “badyet”. There is a reason why it is indeed “badyet”. It is really bad yet it could be of some good.

“The Budget” is really bad. It is financed by taxes, which means it comes from our sweat as citizens, taken from our pockets, snatched from our hands, denied from our children, extracted from our businesses and enterprises. Often when it is financed by borrowings, it is even taken from the future incomes of our children.

Yes, it is bad, yet it can do some good. It can protect us, care and educate our children, improve the productivity of our land and our workers, and ease our many common problems from congestion to criminality to contagious diseases.

The budget could be an instrument of our economic liberation or an instrument for our deeper indebtedness. It can be a tool to build our nation or to build private wealth at the expense of the nation. It can be a way to reach and serve our millions who are poor and disadvantaged, or it can be a private kitty of well-connected corrupt criminals.

During Emy’s long watch over the budget, she was able to make the imperfect rules governing its preparation, authorization and execution yield as many benefits that any political instrument can reasonably generate. Above anything else, she showed how faithful stewardship in public life is practiced. Despite her discretionary power over billions of pesos that will only flow upon her signature or instruction, she herself did not exact any benefit beyond her legal entitlement as a civil servant. To our great misfortune as a nation, that can be said of very few who served in similar positions in this and earlier governments.

Faithful, dedicated and selfless service defined Emy’s professional career. In the priesthood of the budget, Emy rose from sacristan to parish priest to bishop and eventually, cardinal. Among those of us who knew about this lady at DBM from afar, our common impression was that she was a kind of brilliant technician who solved obscure and important problems of legality and procedure in budget processes without asking too many questions about deeper moral ends or ultimate purposes. She had a reputation for helping everyone, from activist legislator to local warlord, from bright reformer to jaded old pros, from officials with good intentions to grafters in barong. In her budget priesthood, she dealt with sinners and saints and provided them equally with guidance and support according to the rules of the bureaucracy.

If Emy’s story ended there, it would still have been a remarkable one, about a kid from Bicol who rose to the top of the national bureaucracy on the wings of intelligence, dedication, and steady hard work. But something else defined Emy. In an act that was so uncharacteristic of her long career, she resigned from the Cabinet to reject the legitimacy of a president she judged not to have honestly earned the mandate of the people.

Emy can serve everyone bearing the mandate of the people, even those she regarded as not entirely trustworthy. But when a president has not secured a true unquestioned mandate from the people, then the very source of authority is poisoned and cannot be sustained. This act of resigning from the Cabinet and calling for the president to resign defined Emy as someone capable of deep moral outrage, in addition to her proven capacity for faithful and dedicated service. With this act, Emy moved from being a cardinal of the budget to becoming an angel of the budget, an angel fighting the devil in the details.

Looking at Emy lying peacefully in such an elegant casket with all those white flowers makes me feel that her eternal rest is well earned. It feels good to do the right thing. Her passing at the age of 55 is not a waste. It is the culmination of her simplicity, modesty and restraint not to do more to extend what was already a life full of achievement and fulfilment. She spent her 55 years exercising her beloved profession for the benefit of her beloved people. Many people with more years in this world than her still cannot say the same thing.

Emy has died. And we mourn her deeply. But if we think through our grief, we must also recognize that all of Emy’s 55 years were really in consideration of this final end when she shall stand for a final accounting of her life before her Maker. After billions of pesos passed through her hands without her ever being tempted to dip into that treasure trove for herself, Emy can face the final judgment with the calm and confidence we all see in her face as she lies in state. Can we all be as calm as confident as Emy when our time comes? Does anyone doubt that the time of final accounting will surely come?

Emy had a frail body, but she had a strong mind and above all a bright soul. Her virtues will live long after the damage of bad governance has done their worst. Whenever a civil servant refuses to do what is wrong, whenever an official asserts what is right, whenever ideals and principles animate the actions of government, Emy lives on. Her spirit endures and prevails. And our nation rejoices with the enrichment from the labours of this angel of the budget, the truly Honorable Emilia Boncodin.

[Critic-at-large's note: Emilia "Emy" Boncodin served as the Philippine budget secretary, until she resigned in protest against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's cheating during presidential elections.]


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