Profiles

Miriam Defensor-Santiago Is Not Insane

Lessons from a woman who has fought all her life.
IMAGE Charles Buenconsejo
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In 1992, Miriam Defensor-Santiago ran for president. At the end of canvassing, she wasn’t declared the winner of the election. But like many other things in her life, she didn’t lose it either. Because Miriam Defensor-Santiago never backs down from a fight. She knows that when she fights, it’s because she believes that a fight should be fought. She’s always been that way, from elementary school up to her bout with cancer. When it comes to her, what is certain is that she always brought the fight wherever she went.

And that’s what makes her Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a classmade who was the niece of the teacher and my own mother was the dean. But she was up in college and we were down there in grade school and I was very shy. One time, I was overjoyed because I came very early to class and there was nobody there. So I'd get to write on the blackboard to my heart's content—because at that time all of the students wanted to write on the blackboard! I think there were three blackboards. I could write on all of the blackboards! Then the niece of the teacher, who later became a good friend, arrived and said, "I want your blackboard, go move over.” So I moved over. Then she went to the second blackboard and she said, “No, I want this one, so move over.” So I moved over to the third one. And then she said, “No, I want this blackboard.” There was no more blackboard to move over to! And all of a sudden I lost my temper, because I felt that this is already an injustice. I felt I was a victim of injustice! So I grabbed her by the hair, threw her on the floor, and used her to mop the floor.

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She was yelling and kicking and there was a big scandal. Her aunt came in, and then my own mother. So I explained what happened, and my mother told the teacher, “Well, if that is the case, I won’t scold the kid.” But then my father discovered that I have a very bad habit of losing my temper. I’m actually a very small, quiet person. Normally, I won’t even raise my voice but when provoked, all of a sudden, I become The Hulk! My eyes glow, my blood rushes to my head, and I get very red.

He fell on the ground and then I kicked him! “That should teach you!” Then all the other boys came, and all my own friends came, and then he got up and he said, “I am going to get back at you.” And I said, “You try!”

My father was a very masculine father in the sense that he was tall. He was I think 5’ 10” and he devoted himself to body-building. And he was, I think, called a master in jiu-jitsu. He was also a former guerilla in the Armed Forces so he was very eager that all his children should be well-versed in the martial arts. I was the eldest so I had no choice. And I was always brought to these sports events. I just found them hilarious.

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I remember I was only in grade 4, or maybe grade 5. I was about to cross the street going back to my house, and then President Magsaysay's convoy passed by. He had come to Iloilo on some official visit and there were many of us on the curbside waiting to catch a glimpse of the great man. The President pushed his body out of the car and waved at me. And so I told myself, "What a great man."


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I was a very quiet honor student in high school. Our high school was adjacent to the trade school. It was a school of vocational arts where the tough guys in the neighborhood went to learn how to become a mechanic or electrician. The boys from that school always enjoyed terrifying all the girls in our school because, you know, we’re very prim and proper. One time, my best friend and I were walking hand in hand, carrying our school bags, and one guy came barreling down the road. My friend and I were forced to let go of each other’s hand, and he purposely bumped into me and I almost fell! I dropped all my books—and you know I had a book at that time that I really loved. I think it was my book on history. I really loved that book for some reason and I lost my temper so I ran after him! I grabbed him by the collar—his comrades were already all running away—turned him around and hit him! I hit him right in his solar plexus. So he fell on the ground and then I kicked him! “That should teach you!” Then all the other boys came, and all my own friends came, and then he got up and he said, “I am going to get back at you.” And I said, “You try!”

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Well, I specialize in International Law. It’s my doctorate and the only reason I went to Michigan instead of Harvard—and I had fellowships in both—was that the world’s leading authority on international law was teaching in Michigan, William W. Bishop Jr. When he had a lecture, the students would take the train to Michigan just for him. He was that prestigious. I became such a disciple of him that later on, when I was a lawyer, I attended a seminar under the tutorship of the leaders in the International Court of Justice. I recited in class and the judge said, “Did you ever study under Professor Bishop?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “No wonder you sound just like him.”

My dad died on my watch. I was working as a legal officer of the United Nations in Geneva and my sister who is a medical doctor told me that our father was dying. So I took a leave and came home. We took turns watching him day and night.

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It was actually a major milestone, a turning point in my life. [My father] woke himself up from his sleep, turned to me and said, “I want you to come back to your own country.” I said, “What do you mean? You mean, work here?” And he nodded. So I said, “But Daddy, it’s very rare for a person to get this kind of career opportunity in Geneva and I have such a bright future ahead of me. My boss is pleased with me. I get along there, I like it there.” And he said, in very old English of course, “But why are you serving foreign people? Why are you not serving your own people?” So I just burst into tears because I knew I could not debate him.

Love is an emotion and sex is just a biological response. 

Love is an emotion and sex is just a biological response. All of us, all living things on earth including people were created to procreate for some reason we don’t know. You can say it was nature’s way, or you can say that it’s God’s will, but in any event, it is now widely accepted by all the scientists that all living things grow with the purpose of reproducing. So that is what I mean by ‘sex is biological.’ We’re acting only according to our sexual instincts that are carried in our genes or in our DNA. But love is something intellectual.

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Oh yes, love is intellectual! It begins in the brain. In fact, the brain is the most sensitive erogenous zone of all. Contrary to what people might think.

My husband is my greatest strength, absolutely! My husband knows how exactly how I think or how I feel and he can forgive me for all my major failings as a personality. For example, I’m not an emotional person.

I tend to be an emotional zombie when I’m engrossed with a project. With a life project or a career project. And I tend to look at people as pieces of furniture. I cannot remember them. I have no clue how they look. I can’t even tell whether a person is handsome or beautiful. I have to ask my husband, “Is he handsome?” I have no capacity! I have no social intelligence whatsoever. And he has to tell me, “You have to greet this person, or he has to say, “You have to go over and pay particular attention to this person because he felt hurt the last time you were with him.” He’s my very best friend because he does not hesitate to tell me what I did wrong. And he normally is correct. He’s a very gifted person in social intelligence, which I completely lack.

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I tend to be an emotional zombie when I’m engrossed with a project. With a life project or a career project. And I tend to look at people as pieces of furniture.

I am a complete dunce in social intelligence. I tend to say things that hurt people without meaning to.

I just developed intestinal fortitude. The actual expression in English is internal fortitude, meaning to say the inner courage, the power to be courageous in the face of insurmountable odds. They used the word intestinal to make it more graphic. And I even said that I was able to develop the trait of intestinal fortitude, and that I have the epidermis of a pachyderm.

I remember President Marcos looked at me very kindly because I was introduced as a UP alumna just like himself and as the first female editor-in-chief of the Collegian. He even went out of his way to stop in his tracks when he was walking, and I was walking alongside him, and he said, “You know when I was a student, my highest ambition was to become editor-in-chief of the Collegian but I never got to be that.”

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Cory Aquino was always very maternal. She would always inquire about my health, my family. She was genuinely, I think, interested in the personal lives of her people and she would give very person- alized presents. For example, her famous liver pa?te?. She would put it in a little pot for her friends like myself. And she even gave me a tissue holder that she crocheted herself with her initials “CA.” So that was the kind of person she was. But as an administrator, she, of course, naturally, had to be surrounded by people who more or less thought along the same lines and I did not belong to that category. I’m basically a risk-taker.

Oh no. I never wanted the presidency in the first place. I was drawn to run for president only because of the reception of the students. At that time, I just suddenly became popular because of the media and then I received an entire avalanche of speaking invitations, all of which I tried to comply with because I realized that information was going to be the battlefield. There would be hired propagandists against me and I didn’t have my own money to hire my propaganda firm to fight that battle for me. So I decided to expose myself in the battlefield and try to deliver as many speeches as possible. And the students began to say, “Why don’t you run for president?” Naturally, in the first few months, I just dismissed it offhand and I thought it was a ridiculous idea, and it was just some form of student or youthful exuberance. But eventually other people would stop me in the mall or in other public places and say, “Why don’t you run for president? I will campaign for you” or “I will organize for you.”

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I am a complete dunce in social intelligence. I tend to say things that hurt people without meaning to.

What I learned from campaigning was the intelligence of the electorate. We tend to look down at the electorate as stupid or easily misled but actually they have a very firm grasp of the political dynamics involved. I think that when I lost, they simply lost their morale. They became very dispirited. Because I think that the poor and the students—who are by definition usually poor—just realized that there were no resources available at that time to overthrow an established hierarchy in politics.

Yes, technically, I was not able to prevail but I think I won. At that time, you remember, that was still under the system of manual counting and the votes were counted at random under the principle of “first-come, first-counted.” So they would come in and the Comelec would count them, and for the first five days, I was leading. So in effect that was a random survey, and I was leading in that survey.

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I feel not only vindicated but I feel also that I am just an instrumentality. Maybe I was meant to run and to win and then to suffer what is said to have been a defeat. Although I will insist to my last breath that I was not defeated by votes of the people but by the fraud of certain perpetrators particularly certain operators who specialized in that precarious business.

The question of morality is a philosophical question. For example, in Catholic theology, there is now a moral principle that sometimes it is necessary to do bad in order to do good. You can’t help it.

The surveys show that more young people are having sex now before marriage. That is not a product, I think, of any reproductive health idea or device. Just a product of our own time.

So our very purpose is to help the very poor who have no access to knowledge on what are the ways of limiting the number of their children if they want to limit it. We just want to spread education. For example, the very poor woman belonging to the poorest of the poor, who already has ten children, she’s malnourished! She can no longer a ord to have children because that would be risky to her life and to the life of the infant as well. Then she should be told how to space her children. If she wants a big family, there is no problem, but she has to space them accordingly. And many of these women are actually desirous of having fewer children, according to the surveys. The survey questions are: How many children do you have? How many children would you have wanted if you were capable of control? And the answers are very disparate. So we just want to give the woman the freedom of informed choice.

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I will be quite happy if there’s no life after death. If there’s life after death I’m equally happy because I see life simply as a process of education. So we’re sent here on earth, we get educated, and if there’s a life after death we’ll go on to another level, like getting to Grade 2 from Grade 1. All of life is educational, I think.

Well I don’t eat death threats for breakfast because I don’t receive them anymore. I think the senders have realized the futility of it anyway. I tend to see them as sources of humor. “Oh, here’s another one, and look at all the bad spelling!” I don’t know why they make death threats in very bad grammar. Anyway, now I get threats that cases will be filed against me so I eat threats of legal action for breakfast. But all of them have been dismissed so far.

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I don’t know why they make death threats in very bad grammar. 

The Inquirer asked me if they could take a picture of me swimming so I said “Ok, fine, as long as I’m in the water.” I told them, “I can use any stroke you want. I can use Australian crawl or backstroke or breaststroke, just tell me.” They agreed. We took all of these pictures. I was like a trained dolphin. “Now do this, now do that.” I obeyed everything. Then I was waiting for the photographer to ready himself for the next shot, because I was going into the water again, I was sort of resting there. And he apparently took a shot that I was not aware of so that’s what they printed. They didn’t print any of the other pictures at all. It was a sort of a joke on me, I think.

The first thing I did when I got into o ce was clean my offce. I hired a new janitorial office and I insisted that everything should be cleaned and that there should be a guide board on what to do, where to go. And there should be little velvet ropes, so they could queue up there, and everything must be visible. My mother went to the office and the first thing she said is, “Your office is very clean.” And I said, “Yes, Mommy, I really went out of my way to do that because cleanliness is next to godliness.”

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The only thing I know about God is that God is inscrutable. In other words I don’t know a single thing about God. I’m clueless about what God is. Maybe Jesus, or the other historical figures around which religions had been built, would be more approachable. But God itself, being on a divine level, I think it’s just impermeable to human intelligence. And there is a very famous classical book called The Cloud of Unknowing. There’s always a cloud of unknowing over God. I think that, since God is inaccessible to people, we tend to portray Him in anthropomorphic terms. We think of the best qualities in every person and you try and project it on a giant scale on God. So in effect, God is a man-made concept. We have no clue what God is.


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I read the entire Bible and I couldn’t make heads and tails of it. I thought some of it as ridiculous, some of it intended to be funny. Some of it is really very noble poetry. Some of it just interesting history. I never read it as a religious tome. And I wanted to know if my impressions could be validated by formally taking up theology and I consulted Cardinal Sin. He said that because of the way I was thinking I should go to Mary Hill which is supposedly a progressive school of theology, or even to the Jesuit School of Theology here rather than to a more conservative school such as UST. And that’s what I did.

I’m an idealist but in politics I have to make my values work within the world. For example, I was very firmly against entering politics myself because I knew of course, being a political science major, that politics involves compromise. You cannot make politics work without compromise, unfortunately. The question is how much compromise turns into an evil for society? So that is a thin line that every politician has to walk everyday and it exhausts me.

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The most absurd rumor I heard about me is that I am insane—because I have a very impressive resume so I could not be accused of lack of academic preparation.

The most absurd rumor I heard about me is that I am insane—because I have a very impressive resume so I could not be accused of lack of academic preparation. Therefore the only remaining option was to accuse me of overachieving in my academic work. And that translated, as usual, in all other political environments in the world, that I am mentally unstable.

I can only summarize by what life has taught me, which is that stuff happens. We are not in control. Whether we believe that life is completely random—or that it’s just a bunch of crazies running around. Or whether we go to the other extreme, that life is pre-destined, that every single stone we stepped on has been purposely placed there. The basis remains that we are not in control of our lives. That’s what I learned.

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Erwin Romulo
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