The Last Good Senator: Rene Saguisag 2
Art by Gica Tam

The Last Good Senator: Rene Saguisag

While others seek the limelight and more time in public office, the former presidential spokesman promised to seek only one term in the Senate—and stuck to the promise. One journalist recalls how, in that short stint as a lawmaker, Saguisag was a workhorse, and the epitome of moral rectitude.
Philip M. Lustre Jr. | Apr 21 2019

Three weeks before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished journalists and opinion makers reflect on the careers of past and present senators whose careers have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

When he ran for the Senate in 1987, human rights lawyer Rene Saguisag vowed to serve a single term and seek no reelection. It was a campaign promise he piously kept. When his term ended in 1992, Saguisag quietly bowed out of public office, but not without leaving his mark.

He was elected senator in the first elections after the fateful 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. As one of the 24 senators, he was mandated to restore democracy, specifically its democratic institutions and processes.

More unforgettable lawmakers:

The one time senator knew the route from authoritarianism to democracy was tortuous and arduous. In three years or less, the Corazon Aquino government dealt with seven military coups that brought the Philippine economy on its knees. Fractious elements sowed discord by taking advantage of the new space given by the restored democracy.

Amid those fractious noises, Saguisaig took the bull by its horns and focused sharply on the legislative agenda laid down by the Aquino government. He stood on the Senate floor as author and co-author of landmark legislations that put flesh on the 1987 Constitution, the blueprint of the restored democracy.

He is the primary author of RA 6713, or Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. This mandates all public servants to remain accountable to the people and work with responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest. This law has been the basis of many decisions of the courts and state regulatory agencies.

This law lays down the moral code, where public servants acknowledge and assume accountability for their actions and decisions, and their results and implications. It includes the public servants’ obligation to report and explain their actions and decisions and answer criticisms.

As a lawmaker, Saguisag did not seek out the public limelight, leaving his colleagues to speak out on burning issues of the day. But he contributed immensely to the legislative grind, or the crafting of landmark legislations. As co-author of RA 6770, or the Ombudsman Act of 1989, Saguisag gave key inputs to strengthen the Office of the Ombudsman as the main agency to run after raiders of the national coffers.

Saguisag was not wanting in advocacy works. For him, the president is the architect of foreign policy. “We speak as one when it comes to foreign policy and only the president should speak for us,” he thundered on the Senate floor. Saguisag was one of the 16 senators, who voted against a new treaty that sought to extend the U.S. military bases here. Its rejection led to their dismantling and their conversion for civilian use.

A man of his word

Born in the idyllic town of Mauban in Quezon, Rene Augusto V. Saguisag finished law at San Beda College in 1963. He was admitted to the Bar in the same year, placing sixth in its examinations. He declined working as a corporate lawyer, but opted to represent the poor and downtrodden as a human rights lawyer.

During the 20 years of Marcos rule, 13 years of which were under a dictatorship, Saguisag flitted from one court to another arguing for human rights victims, who could not afford legal services. He was always seen carrying thick folders of his clients and driving a worn-out car. Most cases were pro-bono; He did everything for the love of humanity.

Saguisag was among the founders of Movement of Attorneys for the Advancement of Brotherhood, Nationalism, and Integrity (MABINI), a group of lawyers, who attended to victims of human rights abuses. Joker Arroyo, Jejomar Binay, Fulgencio Factoran Jr. and several others were his colleagues in that group.

Immediately after the EDSA Revolution, Cory Aquino named him as her presidential spokesman, where he gained prominence for his colorful language and knowledge of the classics. After a year, Mrs. Aquino named him as one of her 24 candidates for the Senate. He placed ninth.

Saguisag practiced what he preached. While in government service, he had personified moral rectitude. He hardly touched public funds, and stuck to rules, including the audit of said funds. His name was hardly mentioned in any talks of corruption or illegal acts.

Moreover, Saguisag was rarely absent from the Senate sessions. In fact, records showed he attended all session days. For this reason, he deserved every peso the Filipino people had paid him as their servant.

After his stint, he went back to his law practice. He was among the lawyers of then President Joseph Estrada in his corruption charges. Then, he hibernated, opting to hop from one dance floor to another to perfect his skills in ballroom dancing. In 2007, he and his wife, Dulce, met a road accident that killed his wife and nearly crippled him.

In early 2017, Saguisag formed a new version of MABINI, now called Artikulo Tres Human Rights Alliance Inc. It has vowed to represent without charge the human rights victims in court. There’s no way to stop Rene Saguisag from his first love, which is to represent the downtrodden.

Philip M. Lustre Jr. is a freelance writer and journalist, who engages in economic and political writing. He covered the Senate in the 8th Congress. He does book writing projects.