Miriam being Miriam

MANILA, Philippines - It's easy to be cowed by the presence of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

After all, the senator has displayed the full range of her incendiary putdowns during the course of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, which included dressing down prosecution lawyer Vitaliano Aguirre for covering his ears while the senator was speaking, and just this past week, lecturing Harvey S. Keh, Kaya Natin! head convenor and Students and Campuses Bulletin (SCB) contributor, on what a witness should be.

As such, it's hardly surprising that the SCB team went into this interview with no small measure of trepidation and anxiety - even if it was already our second time to talk with the feisty lawmaker. It was as if the warmth and humor that she welcomed us with during our previous encounter had not happened at all; the team was just trying not to insult her intelligence with our incompetence.

But just like the last time, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago was quick to allay our fears, opening the conversation with a quip that had us all in stitches and on our toes. From there, it was like shooting fish in a barrel for the lady senator, who proceeded to reply with quotable quotes for every question that the SCB team lobbed at her.

On the prosecution panel: "Let us just say I am not impressed."

On the state of her health during the impeachment trial: "At one point I think I had 200/90. And I really wanted to kill myself that way. Let me offer my humble and miserable life to my people by suffering fatal high blood pressure. In the impeachment court since I do not kill people there, I prefer to kill myself."

On the critics who thought she was being unnecessarily abrasive with her tirade against Atty. Aguirre: "I would not pay any attention to them. They are lowest in the food chain. So why I would pay attention to people whose IQ is equals of that of an amoeba? It's very easy to disregard."

On the impeachment trial itself: "Normally when I'm sitting there very quietly and not saying a thing, there's a thought bubble in my head. I say, for example, please strike me dead, please strike me dead."

On sitting as a judge for the International Criminal Court in the Hague: "The intellectual environment in the Hague will be far superior to that at which I've been exposed so far."

However, to leave an interview with Senator Santiago thinking that she's just a collection of droll declarations and prickly proclamations would be a disservice to the multifaceted grandmother, mother, and lawmaker that she is. Underneath the wit and the vitriol is a curious mind and a patriotic heart, who loves her countrymen even as she is frustrated and exasperated by them.

"I love my own country. I love the Filipinos with all their inadequacies. I feel very strongly that I'm a Filipino and that's one reason why I decided to accept the nomination to the ICC," she says.

In this rollicking 60 Minutes conversation, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago manages to wax philosophical in between the barbs and the quips, in a style that can only be described as uniquely her own. (Ronald S. Lim)

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES: Just like the last time, this will be a free-flowing conversation.

MIRIAM DEFENSOR-SANTIAGO: Yes, yes. I'm very tired of life. I want to kill myself (laughs). But before that I will kill everybody (laughs).

SCB: Speaking of being tired of life, when we watch the impeachment trial, it's very clear on your face that you're easily exasperated with the people...

MDS: That's right. The thing is that I was a very, very disciplined RTC judge. I forced myself to study all my cases, and the law that's applied to it. I read myself cross-eyed. When a judge, who has nothing but fair play in mind, educates herself to the optimum point so that she can do justice, and then other officers of the court like lawyers appear not to have read the law and not to have interviewed the client sufficiently about the facts of the case, she will be very, very exasperated. In my courtroom, that was not allowed.

If a lawyer kept on exhibiting breathlessly his incompetence, I charged him with direct contempt of court. I would say, your ignorance insults me and send him to jail immediately (laughs). I used to ask my sheriff, "Sheriff take him to city jail so he could educate himself there and bring his books with him" (laughs). I'm very frustrated because I could not do that anymore (laughs).

SCB: The impeachment trial is giving you a lot of stress lately, what with your hypertension...

MDS: Yes, I never realized I was hypertensive until the impeachment trial began. I have high blood pressure, maybe a moderate or tolerable kind, but it was exacerbated by the beginning of the impeachment trial. That's when my high blood pressure rose to unacceptable limits. Those are the words of the physician.

At one point I think I had 200/90. And I really wanted to kill myself that way. Let me offer my humble and miserable life to my people by suffering fatal high blood pressure (laughs). In the impeachment court since I do not kill people there, I prefer to kill myself.

SCB: The impeachment process has been frustrating for you, but have there been highlights for you that compel you to go on?

MDS: Well, it's my job. But I'm frustrated because it's been five months! We don't even see the end of the horizon because now the defense announces its star witness. This throws us all in a dilemma because at the start of this session I already delivered a little paper that said it is within the power of the impeachment court to set a deadline for the impeachment trial. It was my way of warning the parties that the Senate now feels that there is a confluence of ideas here that we must finish before June 7. We only have one month left. But now you have all these new witnesses and that upsets the apple cart.

SCB: Is it important that the Chief Justice appear in the impeachment court?

MDS: It is very important because it's so much easier to find out the truth if you are watching the person testifying, both under direct examination which is friendly to him, and under cross-examination, which is done by a person hostile to him.


SCB: Some people misinterpret your discipline in the court as being abrasive...

MDS: I'm used to that kind of criticism. In UP, I always sat in the front row and I always very dutifully took down notes that sprang from the lips of my professor as if he were a god. I tended to hero worship my professors. There were back row boys who just absolutely did not care and who ridiculed the nerds like me who tried to commit to memory the lesson. They ridiculed us all the time.

So I'm used to that kind of backbiting. I would consider that they are the lowest form of life, I would not pay any attention to them. They are lowest in the food chain. So why would I pay attention to people whose IQ is equals to that of an amoeba, not only a regular amoeba but one-celled amoeba? It's very easy to disregard (laughs).

SCB: What do you think is the best teaching moment for the public in the impeachment trial?

MDS: I don't think they're showing any good side of the legal system in the impeachment court. People might think this is how lawyers and judges conduct cases in the impeachment court and they'll have a low opinion of the entire system. I'm really worried about it.

For one, I think the House of Representatives is trying to economize on their funds and they're accepting volunteer prosecutors. I can't believe these prosecutors are being paid for all their errors! So I could only conclude that probably these prosecutors are either free or very cheap.

In the defense panel, they have a good lead defense counsel because of his experience and because of his being in the academe. Ex Justice (Serafin) Cuevas, who used to be my professor in the UP College of Law and my fellow UP alumnus, has both theory and practice at his command. So his panel, more or less, can be disciplined by the sheer will of the lead defense counsel.

But I cannot say the same for the prosecution. Let us just say I am not impressed. And I often ask myself when I'm watching there with beady eyes at what the prosecution is doing, there's a thought bubble on top of my head, "Why am I not impressed?" (laughs).

SCB: Do you think the people trust the impeachment court?

MDS: I would say there's a level of distrust there, sufficient to overcome the presumption of the performance of the official functions. Many say we don't really care because it will be decided by politics. So I'm afraid that the public's view of reality with respect to the impeachment trial makes them feel cynical about the entire process.

SCB: Is that a good thing or a bad thing, that the public is cynical about the impeachment trial?

MDS: Well, they are talking to the arch-cynic (laughs).

SCB: Your exclamations in the impeachment trial, are they planned?

MDS: (Laughs) They're always spontaneous because every time I go to the Senate, I firmly resolve that I shall be very serious, authoritative, kahanga-hanga, kagalang-galang. I always try to achieve that. I think I achieved that as an RTC judge. But because the proceedings are quasi-political, as I say, I always manage to disappoint myself. Whenever I'm there, I can't help it! I lose my temper and I feel the need to discipline that person, either by outright lecturing to him, or by being sarcastic about the whole proceedings. Most of them know they deserved to be berated for their lack of preparation.

I'm very, very serious rendering justice to every person because I did that for years. I became conversant with the many ways by which the truth is twisted in the courtroom. I know the tricks the lawyers play, and that irritates me because that presumes I don't understand what's going on. Basically that is the root cause of my mental problems with the impeachment. Normally when I'm sitting there very quietly and not saying a thing, there's a thought bubble in my head. I say, for example, "Please strike me dead, please strike me dead." It never happens (laughs).

SCB: Are you surprised that all these exclamations are going viral online?

MDS: I'm not surprised but of course I'm pleased that there are many people who share my view. I assure that I am completely sober when I'm listening to somebody (laughs).

SCB: (Laughs).

MDS: I love being serious, for example, in an academic environment. I love listening to lectures in UP, and then in Michigan, and when I did my post doctoral work. I could hardly breathe because I wanted to catch every single word from the professor from Oxford or Cambridge and Harvard. But in this case, I don't feel that I'm learning anything. I feel that there is a lot that needs to be beaten into the brains of the officers of the impeachment court. And so because I'm filled with, let's just say, intellectual violence, I'm very frustrated because I cannot do anything about it (laughs).


SCB: You can't wait to go to the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

MDS: (Laughs) No, not really. In International Criminal Court, I will have a completely different environment. Right now, I'm in the middle of the public square, a place that constitutes a public forum where anybody can say anything. For me, the impeachment court is like a market place. Anyone can have their say, whether it is sensible or not. Sometimes I'm just amazed with the infinite capacity of some people to exhibit the lowest possible IQ consistently for one whole week. It is so amazing (laughs).

In the Hague, I will be with the best and the brightest in the entire world because that is the requirement. And then I'll be among the youngest. I expect that pretty soon I shall be very old there. So that is one more risk I would have to take. Die on the job (laughs). And I'm going to make sure that I update my will (laughs). I expect to return in a horizontal position (laughs).

SCB: How were you chosen to be a judge in the ICC?

MDS: You just don't go and apply. You have to be officially nominated by your head of state. President Aquino very kindly nominated me. I had to go around the world and talk to groups of people, maybe to exhibit my knowledge of international law because these are always followed by forums. After that then we all went to New York last December for the assembly of all the state parties of the ICC. The elections were held and I'm very happy to tell you that I was no. 1 in the elections. I won this time!

SCB: Will you be as unforgiving a judge in the ICC?

MDS: Definitely, but I will have more understanding among my general public because they will have full background, sometimes even knowledge, of the principles of international law involved. It's very hard to be judged by people who have no functioning literacy with respect to the subject matter (laughs). That's why sometimes, instead of answering the question directly, I will take refuge in a witticism or in a silly answer or in a laughable answer because sometimes you just think it does not deserve to be replied to. The amount of intellectual energy it would take to reply to the question and point out all the deficiencies in the question will not be worth it.

SCB: Why did you accept the nomination?

MDS: I love my own country. I love the Filipinos with all their...let's just say... inadequacies (laughs). I feel very strongly that I'm a Filipino and that's one reason why I decided to accept the nomination to the ICC. I wanted to bring honor to our country. I wanted the Philippines to be the first developing country in Asia to have a representative there.

I've worked abroad before as a legal officer of the UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva, so I'm used already to that kind of a life. I've studied in different countries in Europe. But I've always never lost my love of country, which is really imponderable when you think about it. There are so many advantages abroad, one of them being the freedom from malice (laughs), while here I'm made fodder for the malicious.


SCB: How do you remain relevant and in touch with pop culture? A lot of politicians shell out lots of money just to be seen as in touch with young people, and you seem to do it effortlessly.

MDS: It's subconscious. I think it's because I'm used to making cracks in my head all the time. I joke about things, sometimes it's unspeakable so I will not say it in public (laughs). But when my two sons were still living with me, we used to do this kind of thing everyday at dinner. They were brought up in this kind of environment - making cracks, making jokes of situations. I just refuse to be mute in the face of absurdity. Sometimes, I will celebrate the absurd because it's so much fun when life is random, right?

Life is absurd, because you don't have any clue what we are here for. I'm talking about the meaning of life. There's no meaning to it! Look for the meaning, you can never find it. If that's the case, we have to invent our own meaning. That is what we are reduced to. We have to invent why we get up every morning. You get up, cross the street, and get run over by a bus. Isn't that absurd? You're in a big hurry to get your clothes on so the bus can run over you (laughs)? I don't have that kind of attitude about possessions. That's why it's easier for me to fight graft or turn down a bribe or to behave myself so that people realize that I cannot be bribed and that I may even start blabbing all about it. It's because of all these facts I've discovered from middle age.

SCB: Do you keep abreast of pop culture? Your comment on Justin Beiber being one of those phenomena that makes you wonder whether there is a God in the universe quickly became viral.

MDS: Not necessarily just pop culture. I keep abreast of everything. I read law journals, philosophy journals, I'm just very aware of my world. Let's just say that I'm very, very curious about the world and very non-judgmental.

SCB: Speaking of campuses, do you have a favorite pick-up line since it was something you became really popular for?

MDS: (Laughs) Well, I recently told my sister, who is a doctor and is married with children, that if you go to a singles' bar and someone would try to pick you up, he will inevitably ask, what do you do for a living? Just give him a reply, "I'm a female impersonator." (Laughs)


SCB: Do you feel the RH Bill has a chance in passing in this Congress?

MDS: Definitely not before impeachment is finished. We're going to try and fight voting on the bill before July 7, before we go on our long break, but I'm pessimistic. Let me just say that there will be a vote on the RH Bill before the year ends. Besides, the surveys show that majority of the Filipinos are in favor of RH, about 78 to 80 percent.

SCB: Do you feel the biggest stumbling block in passing the RH Bill is religion or misogyny?

MDS: It's really the Catholic Church. I cannot understand the position of the Philippine Catholic Church because Italy, which is the seat of the Vatican, has an RH Bill. Most of the Catholic developing countries in Asia and Latin America already have RH Bills. Of the 48 Catholic countries that were surveyed, only six did not have RH Bill. The Philippines is one of the laggards in that respect.

I'm afraid that the Catholic Church is harking back to its absolute power over the mind before Vatican II. We have to follow what the bishop or the priest say, that was before.

And then in Vatican II, all of the bishops of the world concurred now that they are not as supreme as they think. They have absconded themselves from it. They are now aware that the Church is not the clerics, is not the pope, not the bishops. The Church is the people of God. So under this new principle of Vatican II, the Church can make mistakes, priests can make mistakes. They are not a special select group of extraordinary individuals with supernatural powers. They're just human just like you and me. Therefore they must follow the primacy of conscience.

If the person wants to observe birth control or contraception and his conscience tells him so, why does the Church oppose that just because there is a saying in the Bible to "Go forth and multiply." But if we are going by the words of the Bible then very easily, there's another section we can point to, Jesus said, "Let them be one flesh." So that means, therefore Jesus approves of sex and it is not related to progeny or reproduction.

So that is all that we are saying. The RH Bill does not make contraception mandatory. It doesn't say every couple must observe. It just says, in every public hospital, people who want to be taught, will be taught contraception, and certain types of contraception should be included in the list of drugs that the hospitals are required to store in its premises. Just the overpowering statistic that everyday at least 11 women die because of complications in pregnancy and child birth.

SCB: How do you think the voting will go in the Senate?

MDS: I don't know how the voting will go in the senate but we're trying to enlist the campuses to show to senators and congressmen that the youth will stand for it and we are now a predominantly young country. The youth will now determine not only the fate of the RH Bill but also the fate of those who voted for it in the 2013 and 2016 elections.

SCB: Since Mother's Day just came up, what do you admire most about your mother?

MDS: Well, until now, she's a very, very strict mother. So we all had a sense of inferiority because of her. My siblings mostly graduated with honors or some distinction because we are all disciplined because of her. Until now I am afraid of my mother (laughs). I'm not afraid of syndicates and criminals but I'm afraid of my mother (laughs).

I admire her sense of mental discipline. She was a Math whiz when I was young. When the calculators first arrived, we tested her and she was faster really than a calculator, amazing! She comes with a price, her expectations are too high. We all feel in our family that we are a disappointment to our mother. We haven't learned how to fly (laughs) or memorize algorithms things like those. She taught us a lesson that nothing comes for free. You have to have superior genetics, you have to have superior environment as well, meaning to say, you get whiplashed all the time. I was highest in Math 101, the most difficult undergraduate subject in UP, and my numerical score was 70. So I ran all the way home to show her, mom, this is the highest in Math 101. She said, "70?" She did not pay attention to the highest and she did not speak to me again for a whole month (laughs).

SCB: Are your sons afraid of you?

MDS: No. I'm a lenient spouse, my husband is the very strict spouse. I would sort of undermine my husband's authority, which is very bad for a wife to do. But I did not want to have confrontations so I backchannel (laughs). I would tell my children, "Don't mind that fatuous old man. it's enough to pass your courses." Well of course, if you flunk your subjects, then I will really be outraged, but if you pass your subjects there's no point to be the best or number one in class because it doesn't count for anything. The best in what? You write it in symbols on pieces of paper? Life is just a piece of paper floating in the river. Like what a philosopher said, you throw that piece of paper, it floats there for a while then it sinks forever. Don't worry about it.

I'm basically very simple but I like to discuss intellectual concepts. For example, the basic philosophical question, why is there something instead of nothing? I love that question. One time we had dinner with my two boys, I always like a sparkling conversation at the dinner table. They are always waiting for the opening line, opening question. So I started by asking, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" The two of them just automatically stood up and left (laughs). They just walked out (laughs).