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How the ‘class act’ diplomat in PNoy once saved a host state from embarrassment by climbing 20 flights of stairs

By Bim Santos Published Jul 02, 2021 12:56 pm

Even as a diplomat as he was as a president, the late President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III took to the role with measured reluctance. But according to his previous close-in aide, Aquino was a “class act” statesman on the world stage who, at one point, did not even mind climbing 20 flights of stairs just to save a host state from embarrassment.

According to Raf Ignacio, who served as Aquino’s aide for five years, the late president enjoyed foreign trips the least.

“He was not a fan of travel, especially long-haul flights and freezing temperatures,” Ignacio shared on Facebook. “But he knew that as the President, the country’s chief diplomat, he had to fulfill this role in the best way he can.”

Multiple roles
For Aquino, taking the job seriously as a representative of the country started with the delegation list for every trip. As each state visit is underwritten by taxpayer money, Aquino always sought to cut down the number of delegates which included secretaries, staff, security, media, and protocol personnel.

“PNoy almost always rejects the proposed delegation list, noting that there were too many people. He would ask that we trim the list further and give a reason why each person should be on the list. As a result, the number of people in the delegation decreased, but that meant that each member of the delegation had to assume multiple roles,” Ignacio said.

Bilateral meeting of Aquino in Thailand as part of his administration's efforts to maintain good relations within ASEAN.

During the actual state visit, work starts right at, if not before, breakfast. If the first engagement starts at 9 am, Ignacio said that Aquino will be up two hours before to have breakfast and to pore over the day’s headlines and briefing kits. 

As he goes over the day’s briefing materials, his staff “would then sit quietly in one corner of the suite to wait for any questions or edits to the speeches.”

“If there are none, which is rarely the case, we would breathe a sigh of relief and cross our fingers for a smooth day,” said Ignacio.

Burgers and phonetics
Every minute of every state visit is usually crammed tight with engagements and obligations that there is rarely any window to let one’s hair down. Ignacio recalled one incident during the 2010 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Yokohama, Japan. When they finally arrived at the hotel tired and hungry after encountering delays, Aquino wanted to eat but only had an hour before the next engagement.

“Pressed for time, PNoy asked the PSG (Presidential Security Group) to buy food for everyone instead of eating out. Since we were in Japan, I imagined eating sushi, sashimi and tempura as our first meal, but after a few minutes, the PSG arrived with a big bag filled with McDonald’s burgers,” said Ignacio.

Though we may be separate as nations, our commonalities bind us. Though our flags may proudly wave emblazoned with different colors, the same wind holds them high and proud above any difference or challenge that may separate us

Aquino was also very particular about the details such as the proper pronunciation of the names of the foreign dignitaries he met. To prevent errors, his briefing kit also included a phonetic spelling of the person’s full name.

PNoy's pronunciation guide for the State Visit to Thailand (Photo from Raf Ignacio)

Breaking a sweat
Aquino also did not mind breaking a sweat just to put a state host at ease.

Ignacio shared that in 2011, during a state visit in Singapore, they were touring the Changi Reclamation Plant when the elevator at the underground facility broke down at the end of the trip.

“They were extremely embarrassed because PNoy would be stuck underground until they are able to fix the elevator. This was a security risk and definitely the last thing the Singaporeans wanted to happen to a state guest,” said Ignacio.

“Sensing the situation, PNoy volunteered to walk up over 20 flights of stairs.”

For Aquino, the gesture and inconvenience was a “non-issue.”

“To save our hosts from any embarrassment, PNoy told us that it was a non-issue and that no one in his delegation should make a fuss about what happened. This was such an elegant way of handling a delicate situation,” said Ignacio.

Though diplomacy is heavily laden with structured protocols and sometimes boilerplate speeches, Aquino invested every gesture he made with Filipino authenticity and thoughtfulness.

“When we attended the wedding of Sultan of Brunei’s daughter, PNoy’s gift to the Sultan Bolkiah were tubs of mango and ube ice cream and boxes of Philippine mangoes, the Sultan’s favorites. To the sultan who has everything, these state gifts must have stood out because of PNoy’s thoughtfulness,” said Ignacio.

Aquino with other leaders during the wedding of the Sultan of Brunei's daughter (AFP)

In Aquino’s toast during a 2011 state dinner in Indonesia, he took the time to deliver a tailor-made message for a speaking engagement that is usually stocked with motherhood statements. In his speech, where he also threaded linguistic bonds between the Philippines and Indonesia, he exhorted his vision of how cultural similarities will bond nations.

“Thus is my epiphany. Though we may be separate as nations, our commonalities bind us. Though our flags may proudly wave emblazoned with different colors, the same wind holds them high and proud above any difference or challenge that may separate us,” Aquino said during the speech.

Ignacio noted that Aquino’s “bespoke approach to each occasion is such a classy move  and a sign of how present PNoy was during these trips.”

Favorite part
Aquino’s favorite part of his state visits was meeting the Filipino community. This was where he could relax a bit and be his casual self.

Ignacio said that Aquino enjoyed meeting the Filipino community “because, unlike government-to-government meetings which tend to be stiff and formal, these gatherings let him connect with people in a casual and relaxed way.”

Aquino with cabinet members in a meeting with the Filipino community in Switzerland after the World Economic Forum in Davos

Ignacio recalled Aquino saying to the overseas Filipinos during their trips then, “Pasensya na ho at dadamihan ko ang mga kwento sa inyo. Hindi ko ho kasi alam kung kailan pa ako makakabalik dito.” 
“Then he would go on sharing stories, jokes, and good news about the Philippines,” recalled Ignacio.

Most important part
But out of all the daunting components of a state visit, the arrival speech was the most important part for Aquino. This was the speech he gave upon arriving back in the Philippines as a report of what transpired during the state visit.

“Throughout the trip, the speechwriter and I would collect nuggets of achievements to include in PNoy’s arrival speech. The goal was to be able to give PNoy the draft soon after we take off for Manila so that he could have ample time to review and edit before we land,” said Ignacio.

“PNoy always reminded us that the arrival speech is the most important speech of the trip because it was his chance to report on the achievements. To him, foreign trips are a form of investment of the Filipino people’s hard-earned money so we have the duty to report on the returns.”