Since he was a young man, Gov. Wilhelmino M. Sy-Alvarado had the habit of looking for new opportunities.
“My entry into politics was not intentional,” he told the Philippines Graphic during an interview at the governor’s official residence. “I was a high school valedictorian, then a working student, worked at Consolidated Bank for eight years, then entered the fishing industry.”
It was the heyday of Escolta as the main business district of Manila and as a young man, he felt as if he owned the world working as a bookkeeper in the esteemed neighborhood since most of the well-known foreign banks and companies were there at that time.
“Especially if you’re still young and earning more than the average salary,” he recalled. “That area is very memorable for me. But later on, I realized that was not the world I wanted to be in. It was just part of growth and gaining experience.”
“I was a bachelor back then,” he said. “And, despite my high salary, I didn’t have any savings. During that period, the minimum wage was P120 per month while I was, back then, earning P900 a month. For a bachelor and a young man, that’s a lot.”
“And every Friday in the evening, I would go home and get bangus, shrimp and crabs in San Pascual,” he recalled. “I know the place because I grew up in Hagonoy, a fish pond area. I would return to Quezon City and sell these to my neighbors in Proj. 6. I was earning about P350 per week or more than a thousand pesos a month, which was more than my monthly salary.”
That was the moment when he realized that working as a bookkeeper was not for him.
“I resigned and entered the fishpond industry,” he said. It was an opportunity he took and, it opened a new door for him that led to meeting his wife, who was then simply known as Ma. Victoria Reyes, a college student of the University of Santo Tomas.
“My mother-in-law was a businesswoman,” the governor recalled. “She was a rice miller in Calumpit. She also had other businesses. It was the typhoon season. The date was August 15, 1976. It was the fiesta of San Roque. The belief was that if you join the fluvial parade, your fishpond would not be inundated by flood. Unfortunately, we haven’t even reached the church yet when we learned that our fishponds had been flooded.”
“I didn’t know how to explain what happened to my business partner,” he added. “We spent a lot of money trying to shore up our dikes and still lost our product. Our dikes held but the water overflowed.”
“On my way back to our fishpond, I passed by my wife’s home. My future mother-in-law needed help. I was 31 years old. In the course of mobilizing people to help my future mother-in-law, I saw my future wife. She’s the eldest of three siblings. She was cooking nilugawang manok, which was my favorite. She was cooking food for those who were helping her family. But my mother-in-law got in the way.”
“My mother-in-law said she shouldn’t offer nilugawang manok to businessmen,” he grinned as he fondly recalled the moment. “She told her daughter that businessmen drink coffee. So I was given coffee instead. Unfortunately, I don’t really drink coffee, but I really had no choice but to accept what was offered. That was August 15, 1976.”
Later, he learned that she was studying in UST.
“I decided to meet her there,” the governor said. “But my old professor, Father Garcia, who was an old Spanish friar, saw me. We haven’t seen each other for more than a decade. But he certainly remembered me as a former UST student when he saw me waiting for Victoria.”
The old friar pointedly asked him what he was doing on campus grounds.
Back then, it was frowned upon for single men and women to fraternize near the campus grounds. In the priest’s mind, a 31-year-old guy, even if he was a former UST student, shouldn’t be meeting a 19-year-old female college student. It was an unwelcome hurdle to the relationship he sought. But there was a bright spot.
“Fortunately, I was on good terms with her mom,” he said.
Things went on from there and they were married.
According to his tale, his political awakening began on August 21, 1983, the day former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. was slain at the airport tarmac.
“My wife and I helped feed those who attended the rallies denouncing the death of Ninoy,” he said. “Afterwards, I joined politics during the election for the Batasang Pambansa. So, when the campaign began for the snap presidential elections, I was part of it.”
“We beat President Marcos in Hagonoy,” he recalled. “But the official count showed Cory Aquino losing by a mere 17 votes. In my barangay, we knew Marcos lost by more than 200 votes but the official count showed the opposite. We knew we were cheated.”
“That was 1986,” he added. “That was my key to entering politics. I was appointed mayor by former Pres. Corazon Aquino through the help of Minister of Public Works and Highways Roming Mercado.”
TIME AS MAYOR
According to Gov. Sy-Alvarado, it was a colorful time to be mayor of Hagonoy.
“Can you imagine being a mayor of a municipality consisting of 10,310 hectares and 7,000 of those hectares, which were as big as the City of Malolos, were rivers and marshes? The remaining 2,000 hectares were rice land. And the remaining 1,000 hectares were for more than 100,000 residents. It was the smallest municipality in terms of residential land area in Bulacan.”
As mayor of Hagonoy, his first big problem that he had to deal with was garbage disposal.
“It took me several years to solve this,” he admitted.
He recalled that it took a lot of political will because in a small town, everyone knew everybody else.
He was wary of going after a relative or a close family friend in enforcing the law, but he maintained his course and his efforts paid off. Hagonoy was cited as the cleanest town in Bulacan under the Ramos administration.
“It took me several painful years to sustain the program,” he told the Graphic. “We had the cleanest public market, the cleanest primary hospital and the cleanest waters in the whole of Region 3.
Bogo in Cebu was the only town who beat Hagonoy for national recognition at that time, the governor recalled.
“I am a disciplinarian,” he said. “I am a perfectionist. I had to deal with my relatives in my effort to implement the law, which always have a penal clause. It took me several painful years to sustain that program. But in the end, that was my crowning glory as mayor.” And his efforts were noticed by his fellow mayors. They named him president of the League of Municipalities, Bulacan Chapter.
DEALING WITH INSURGENCY
Another challenge at that time was the insurgency problem.
“I even received death threats,” he recalled. “It was a long year of transformation. The insurgency in Hagonoy as well as other parts of the province, was not rooted in poverty. It was rooted in the wealth of the province. It was focused on collecting revolutionary taxes which was used to finance the insurgency in Region 3.”
The governor explained that he dealt with the insurgency back then by providing people with a shoulder to cry on.
“If the government cannot provide the people a shoulder to cry on, they will look for somebody who will address their problem. And they become the source of water where the insurgency can swim,” he explained. “So, my family and I worked hard to bring the government closer to the people. You have to be compassionate. You have to bring the government and its basic services closer to the people. That’s part of the memorable moments I had as mayor of Hagonoy.”
After serving for 12 years as Mayor in the municipality of Hagonoy, he decided to take his passion in serving the Filipino people to the House of Representatives.
TIME AS CONGRESSMAN
“As a congressman, I tried my best,” he recalled. “Remember, I am not a lawyer. But I believe in loving my work. So, I prepared and learned.”
He agreed that it was his ability to foster trust, which he learned as a young man selling bangus, helped him a lot while he was in Congress.
“I am a friend of everyone even when I was part of the majority back then,” he said. And such was the trust conveyed to him by his peers that he was chosen as president of the Central Luzon congressional bloc.
He fondly recalled that he and his wife were among 18 legislative couples who were given a special class by Couples for Christ movement.
“We were part of those protecting the morals of Catholicism,” he said. “We were among those who worked for the abolition of the death penalty.”
Aside from this, he discovered that he also had a passion for protecting the environment.
“I became the vice chairman of the House committee on ecology,” he said. “As senior vice chairman of the panel, I presided over most of the hearings on the Clean Air Act and Solid Waste Management Act.”
One of the stands he took was his opposition to a complete ban against incinerators.
He explained that there are state-of-the-art incinerators that do not produce carcinogenic smoke or emissions. He was adamant about that point, and he wasn’t alone.
During a crucial committee hearing held in the Manila Hotel, he recalled that he and then Rep. Gerry Espina, representative of the lone district of Biliran, had temporarily stepped out during a break. The hearing resumed without them and when they returned, they learned that a vote was taken and a complete ban on incinerators was approved without them.
Because of that vote, he believed that the country lost the opportunity to use segregated waste and clean incinerators as sources of electricity.
“I believe the Congress should revisit the Clean Air Act,” he said, as he called for legislators to reconsider the ban on incinerators, whose technology he described as having improved tremendously over the years.
He said that if the Congress will take a second look at the Clean Air Act, legislators should also check the provisions concerning emission testing. He explained that the law’s goal was for the government to take the lead in that endeavor. Instead, it was private entities who spearheaded the effort.
This, he pointed out, allowed the practice of non-appearance emission testing for motor vehicles to rise.
“The point of those provisions was to have a clean engine and clean gasoline,” he said. “Meaning to say, a clean engine, new or properly maintained, before a vehicle can be registered. What is important now is to implement the law.”
“The hardest part of my being a congressman was being chairman of the special committee on MSME’s, or micro, small and medium enterprises.
As a special committee chairman, it was his job to conduct the hearings. But when it came time to hold a plenary, it was the chairman of the House committee on trade who took charge.
“When I learned that the committee on small and medium enterprises was a major committee in the U.S. Congress, I worked hard to elevate it into a major committee. I also pushed for major amendments on the Magna Carte for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.”
He admitted that he failed to have the amendments passed while he was in the House of Representatives, but he stood vindicated. His amendment bill was passed through the efforts of his wife, who took over his seat in the House together with Sen. Loren Legarda.
“They did, in six months, what I wasn’t able to do in six years,” he said.
Though he took pride in laying the groundwork for the needed amendments, he pointed out that more must be done to implement the law properly.
“Again, we are calling the attention of the Central Bank in the implementation of the law because the Magna Carta for MSMEs speaks of increasing the loan portfolio of banks from eight to ten percent for MSMEs. It should be direct loans to the MSMEs coursed from small banks. These rural and cooperative banks can be used as conduits by the big banks to provide loans for MSMEs,” he said.
According to him, an MSME owner should be able to head to a bank and apply for a loan.
“What’s happening is that funds are provided to the local government unit for entrepreneurial development. And as a guarantee for payment, the LGU’s Internal Revenue Allotment is used as collateral for this fund. It was feared that banks could fold if loans were granted without any collateral,” he explained. “This system defeats the purpose of the law. That’s why I think Congress should revisit this law. There should be trust involved.”
The governor’s mention of the word “trust” once more harkened back to his days as a young man involved in the fish trade. There, he cultivated the trust of his clients while offering easy payment terms, and he learned that by doing so, his clients did pay on time.
“For me, it’s both trust and discipline,” he said. “If people are disciplined, everything else will follow.”
“And then I became vice governor and my advocacy was to protect our mountains. Why? Because anything you do in the mountain will affect our underground water,” he said. That’s part of our Water Management Protocol, which involves Bustos, Ipo and Angat Dams.”
“Bulacan is blessed that it has 100,000 hectares of mountains which serve as a natural shield against typhoons,” he added. “The mountains collect the moisture and that’s why water is plentiful in Bulacan. Water collected at Angat Dam is used for electricity and 97% of water from Angat Dam through Ipo Dam is used for Metro Manila while water from Bustos Dam is used for irrigation.”
According to the governor, it was part of his responsibility to look after those dams, especially since Angat and Ipo Dams were suffering from heavy siltation because of erosion resulting from deforestation of the dam watersheds.
Because of heavy siltation, those dams were no longer capable of consistently producing its rated capacity of 60 cubic meters of water per second.
“That’s why new water sources were found in Quezon province,” he said.
However, instead of coursing this water directly to La Mesa Dam, it was coursed through Angat Dam.
“That’s why under the Memorandum of Understanding of 1991, three cubic meters per second out of the 33 cubic meters per second volume of water from Quezon are set aside for Bulacan Water Rights to be distributed in bulk through Bulacan’s water district,” the governor said.
“Lo and behold, this is seeing fruition,” he added. “The pipelaying is ongoing. This will enable the province to cut its reliance on underground water sources, allowing these to replenish its reserves. For the first time, this will allow the people of Bulacan to benefit from Angat Dam’s water.”
“For so many years, Angat Dam provided water to Metro Manila and parts of Rizal and Cavite without a single centavo being paid to Bulacan,” the governor pointed out. “Bulacan deserved to enjoy the benefits of those water rights.”