Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A full life is a good life

published August 15, 2012, page A5, MST

The last time I spoke with Corazon dela Paz-Bernardo, she was on her last week as president and chief executive officer of the Social Security System. The result of that interview was the two-part “Setting Benchmarks at the SSS”, published in this space on July 28 and August 4, 2008.

At that time, she was a few months into her second marriage. She was looking forward to her retirement so she could spend time with her husband and her only daughter, then in her 20s. She dreamed of taking a beak, going on a cruise.

Such simple pleasures were long overdue. Her stint at the SSS – which lasted seven years even though she initially said she would be on board for only one – took its toll on her physical health. She came to our interview in a wheelchair, her scoliosis deemed degenerative by her doctors. She she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of paperwork that she had to take some of them home at the end of the day.

Coming from a 36-year practice at one of the most prestigious audit companies, PricewaterhouseCoopers – Philippines, Dela Paz-Bernardo also had to adjust to government culture, where most deferred to the wishes of the boss at whatever cost. It was problematic, she said, because she had built her reputation on saying “no”. If it could not be done, or must not be done, she would tell you so.

Her government stint was not without its rewards. Dela Paz-Bernardo realized that many government workers knew what they were doing, what the problems were, and how they could be addressed. They only needed to be motivated and inspired. She built on the initiatives of her predecessor, Vitaliano Naniagas, to get the employees to give faster, better service.

She knew that the best approach was to manage the organization as a business. When she came in, the SSS fund’s actuarial life was only until 2015. Members were not too keen on contributing, fearing there might not be enough funds for them when their own time of need came. By the time she left, in 2008, the life of the fund had been extended by 21 years, or to 2036.

***

The good news these days is that Dela Paz-Bernardo has ditched the wheelchair. In fact, she is working on strengthening her back, engaging the help of a trainer who comes to her house and guides her as she lifts weights.

“I don’t actually live here,” she says of the Makati townhouse where she has agreed to meet me. “I moved in with my husband because he already had his place, but I did not want to give this up.” She settles into a seat where she rests her back, and then looks around. The townhouse was where she lived with her first husband and raised their daughter. “This is where my secretary works, too. Everything is here.”

It turns out that the laid-back retirement I envisioned her enjoying did not quite come to pass. She did take a few vacations, but she always came back to work.

For instance, she only recently stepped down as president of the Geneva-based International Social Security Association, a global organization of social security professionals of which she was the first woman and first non-European president. Now she sits on the board of directors of several companies and the board of trustees of several schools and non-profit organizations.

Dela Paz-Bernardo also now sits as chairman of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections. She believes that it is time to re-asses the relevance of Namfrel, which was known in elections past as a watchdog, an alternative group providing so-called quick counts.

Dela Paz Bernardo emphasizes the need for information technology and audit expertise in ensuring that the elections are clean and credible. Her group is advocating random manual audits for the 2013 polls. She is also keen on educating voters: How must we discern who are right for our country?

“I don’t want to be chairman if all I will do is criticize,” she says. “We want to proceed from regularity, assuming that everybody has good intentions and are doing the right thing.”

***

She left the townhouse the same time that I did, stopping by only to pick up a Filipiniana terno from her old closet to wear to some function later on in the day. “Sometimes the meetings come one after the other. I find myself wishing I had more time to sleep, or to tidy up my room which is filled with documents, or just play better golf.”

It seems, however, inconceivable that the 71-year-old Dela Paz-Bernardo, after a long and illustrious career as a financial executive, will ever really relish a day doing nothing. She says, after all: “We always want to use our talent to reach out and help improve something.”

Indeed, is there any other way to live?

adellechua@gmail.com

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