Interview with Ma'am Liling

published April 14, 2013 MST Sunday

Leonor Magtolis Briones remembers her late father’s words like he just said them yesterday. “There are only three kinds of people in the world. One, those who already know what to do and do it without being told. Two, those whom you can show what needs to be done, and after a while they do it on their own. Three, those who do not do anything even though they know what it is they should do. Aspire to be in the first group.”
‘Being Lola is the best thing that can happen to a woman!’ —Briones and granddaughter Cheyanne in a 2010 photo
‘Being Lola is the best thing that can happen to a woman!’ —Briones and granddaughter Cheyanne in a 2010 photo
She was a precocious 13-year-old when she started attending Silliman University in Dumaguete City as a business administration and accounting scholar. The family was poor—Liling was fifth among eight children and her parents were humble school teachers. “In the province, you were either landed, or you were not. We belonged to the latter group.” She remembers difficult times when her parents, saddled with debt, could not afford to give allowances to children to attend school. She had to resort to working as a bookkeeper when she was 15. “I did not want to be a burden.”
It was in Silliman, a Christian university, where she learned that one could be respected and admired despite one’s lack of material wealth.  “So long as you had knowledge, you were somebody.”  Her father, for instance, was regarded highly in the community. They were also taught that education was the key to success.
The young Liling enjoyed her literature classes most of all and thrived in university life.  She persevered in her business degree and graduated magna cum laude four years later, at age 17.
A taste of the real world
Two years later, she found herself in Manila, pursuing graduate studies in fiscal management in UP Diliman.  She also worked at the government’s budget agency as an on-the-job trainee. On her first day, her supervisor asked her to write an essay on what she wanted to do with her life. “I just wrote that if I was able to buy all the books I wanted to read, and all the music I wanted to collect, then I would be really happy.”  Her supervisor laughed, but the girl was just being truthful.  The accumulation of wealth for its sake has never been a goal.
It would never be.
Briones and the Manila Concert Choir with Gary Granada during their April 6 concert.
Briones and the Manila Concert Choir with Gary Granada during their April 6 concert.
Leonor’s life in UP was starkly different from the one she knew in Dumaguete, where life was simple and idyllic.  In Manila, she came face to face with poverty rooted in injustice and exploitation.
She observed that the poor enjoyed no respect and no dignity and even if they tried to get out of it, they were consigned to desolation. “It was no longer their fault; it was the fault of the system.” She became an activist in the late 1960s to early 1970s, joining rallies and denouncing the social situation. “I became aware of social problems and again I felt a tremendous sense of duty.”
She went underground for many years upon the declaration of martial law, settling in the rural slums of the Visayas. She overhauled her identity and posed as an elementary school teacher, leaving her life as an academic. She fled with only the clothes on her back and a typewriter.
She thought she fit in well because she could speak Cebuano and  Ilonggo.  But their former neighbors later on said they knew there was more to this family than they had let on. For one, Briones and her husband never quarreled—this was strange in an environment where people screamed at each other all the time.   She frequently wore a watch— nothing fancy, just something to make her conscious of the time at all times.  As treasurer of a group, she demanded receipts every time cash changed hands. Finally, washing clothes in the river, her neighbors gossiped about how her laundry looked the same before and after she washed them.
After martial law, Briones returned to her social involvement, becoming active in the Freedom from Debt Coalition and convening Social Watch Philippines. Other stints included being secretary to the commissioner of the Commission on Audit, vice president for finance of the University of the Philippines and eventually, National Treasurer, appointed by former President Joseph Estrada. She has formed a party-list organization that seeks to push budget reforms and foster a more transparent process in budget deliberations.
Briones now enjoys professor emeritus status at UP—a process that took two and a half years and serves as a recognition of her academic work.
The maverick
Long before she was National Treasurer, Briones had had some experience with treasury bills.  She had a small amount she had wanted to invest—she does not remember of it was P25,000 or P10,000  “So I went to bank and told the people there that I wanted to buy treasury bills. They looked at me as though I were crazy. The highest denomination was P100,000.”
At the Bureau of Treasury, one of her pet projects was the small investments program, where treasury bills were made available to retail investors first for P50,000, then P25,000, and down to P5,000.
Banks were not happy with this, just as they found odd her adamant rejection of the market-driven pressures to increase interest rates. Briones believed that such moves would have disastrous consequences on the country’s debt profile.
In one gathering of money market executives, Briones challenged the audience to take a few steps out of their posh hotel and offices and see the living conditions of Filipinos who may not even have heard of their services. “I am their [the people’s] national treasurer.”
Her many loves
Anyone who thinks Professor Briones is all about numbers and serious stuff would be wrong. For one, she loves music. “I listen to classical music when I am stressed. When I am especially stressed, I listen to opera.” Living in a low-cost housing project for UP professors in the 70s and 80s, Briones used to play opera music every Sunday on full volume. “My sons would close the windows and tell me to turn it down, because nakakahiya sa kapitbahay.”
It was during her stint at the Commission on Audit that she started taking voice lessons. “You have no choice but to forget about your problems when you sing. It’s very exhausting, physically. It’s not just your vocal chords that are at work—it’s your entire body.”
The training has paid off—Briones is a soprano for the Manila Concert Choir, a choral singing group founded in 1951.  The group, composed of members aged 17 to 70 coming from all walks of life, staged a concert on April 6 at Colegio San Juan de Letran.  They performed all-Filipino songs from several regions and eras.
“For me, music is the best way of communication. God speaks through music—the clearest language.”
She is also a fan of The Lord of the Rings.
Professor Briones maintains close ties with former students, who graduate to being her friends. “They have several groups and they include me in their activities,” she proudly says. One such group is into fine dining. Another is into karaoke singing. “I sing along with them—although I don’t join them for the drinks.”
She counts herself blessed for having a supportive husband who lets her do what she wants. “His only request is that I don’t drag him or the children into the spotlight.” The Brioneses have two boys who are now in their 30s, and on the morning of the interview, Briones happily played the part of proud lola. Her only granddaughter, Cheyanna, received an award for English proficiency “even if we all speak Tagalog at home.”
Guiding force
At 73, Briones shows no signs of slowing down. She wants to have a bigger audience for her advocacy—hence the party-list group. She wants to keep on singing—the Manila Concert Choir’s activities for the rest of the year are all lined up. She wants to enjoy the company of her family and former students. She goes home to Dumaguete every once in a while—she is now chairman of the board of trustees of her alma mater.
All these, she figured out on her own, just as she took it upon herself, back then, to excel in school, to apply for scholarships, to help her siblings and her extended family, to rail against injustice in society, to channel her passion and expertise to advance good governance in the country —and even to sit back a little and enjoy life through music and art.
“My parents never told me to do this or do that. All my life, I just aspired to be the kind of person my father said I should be….and I will only stop reaching for more when I am no longer physically able to do so.”