THE KING OF THE NORTH
Narvacan, Ilocos Sur Mayor Chavit Singson’s style
of governance is marked by the merger of strength
and strictness. What are his plans now?
BY KRISTEL DACUMOS LAGORZA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY IVAN LLANETA
What we need now is a benevolent dictator,” states 78-year-old Luis “Chavit” Singson with a deliberate nod.
It’s a controversial statement from an equally controversial figure. But he is unafraid of sharing his opinion, one formed from almost 50 years in politics. “Instead of dictator, perhaps the better term is disciplinarian, baka masamain nila ang dictator (They might misconstrue it),” he laughs. But Singson is unapologetic about his views. He means what he says, and says what he intends.
MAN OF LEGEND
Singson, one of the most powerful—and fascinating—Filipino politicians of his generation, is no stranger to scandal or controversy. He has waded through such for decades and has quite proudly survived attempts to discredit his reputation, and even more gravely, to end his life.
Singson has already dodged death like a cat with nine lives. “Before I was elected, I was ambushed six times. And on the seventh attempt, it happened while I was dancing in the town fiesta after my win; two grenades were thrown at me.” Several people died that night, including the woman he was dancing with. “Luckily, she shielded me and took all the shrapnel,” he recalls. Just another day in the life of this politician.
After so many attempts, he’s grown a thick skin and is unbothered by any other possible threats. “I believe in destiny. Every time I survive, they say, may mission ka pa,may mission ka pa,” he mentions in a previous interview. “I might not go to Mass, but I do have a direct line to God.”
From serving as governor of Ilocos Sur for a total of nearly 29 years, to being a key figure in the events leading to the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada in 2001, to assuming power in the north yet again as current mayor of Narvacan, Singson is forthright with what he thinks is needed for the country to progress.
“Simple lang, kailangan natin disiplina (It’s simple. We need to be disciplined),” he stresses. “We lack nationalism in the sense that we fail to follow laws that are already in place. That is why I believe what we need is a benevolent dictator, because that’s what the current situation requires. We need a leader who is strict and who people will fear enough to follow. Because abusado tayo (we are abusive).”
While strict, Singson also believes in having a leader who is forgiving as well. Referring to the seventh ambush, he shares, “Nahuli lahat, nakulong lahat, but pinatawad ko din lahat. Ako naglabas sa kanila sa bilangguan. And ngayon, magkakaibigan na kami. (All of the perpetrators were caught and jailed, but I forgave and had them released. Today, we’re all friends.)”
This unique ideal and mold of a leader is what Singson has patterned himself after, merging strength and strictness to serve his people.
WIN AFTER WIN
In the last elections, Singson won the mayoralty race with 16,551 votes, defeating Edgardo Zaragoza, the father of then-mayor Zuriel. This was a significant win as it ended the Zaragoza clan’s threedecade reign in Narvacan. The people spoke through the polls, and saw in Singson a leader who could fulfill their wants.
"WHAT WE NEED IS A BENEVOLENT DICTATOR. WE NEED A LEADER WHO IS STRICT AND WHO PEOPLE WILL FEAR ENOUGH TO FOLLOW. BECAUSE ABUSADO TAYO (WE ARE ABUSIVE).”
In his birthplace Vigan, as he walks through the public markets and the famous Calle Crisologo, he is swarmed by the locals and out-of-town visitors. He gamely poses for each and every selfie; he is welcomed like family among friends.
But elsewhere, he acknowledges that he’s met with a little fear and hesitation as he can be intimidating. And it is perhaps because of the many folk legends that have attached themselves to the largerthan-life politician.
Regardless, he says he’s too old to explain everything and please everyone. And when it comes to public service, Singson says, “Your work will speak for you.”
Singson notes many accomplishments he is proud to have achieved as a public servant. One of these is Republic Act (RA) Reflecting on his years as governor, Singson discloses, “We were considered as one of the notorious provinces at that time. There were political deaths every day. And you would not have been able to restore peace and order, if you weren’t strict with the people and demanded discipline from your followers.” The province then was deeply mired in political rivalry, with families vying for coveted local government positions. He claimed that blood was shed, with threats constantly exchanged, but Singson sought to end the bitter war. He’s frank about this particular period in his political life, and insists that the story be shared, because this was one of the means that helped pave the way for peace in his region. “Kasi yung mga followers ko, nung nanalo na ako, gusto gumanti. Sabi ko, hindi No. 7171, the sole law he authored during his term as congressman from 1987 to 1992.
RA 7171, or the Tobacco Excise Tax Law, mandates that 15% of the tax collected from the tobacco industry be returned to the tobaccogrowing provinces of Ilocos Norte, Abra, La Union, and Ilocos Sur. These provinces account for at least 60% of the national yield. This law aims to improve the lives of farmers by giving them greater lead to use their funds in agricultural development. Singson, notably, was also once a major tobacco industry player.
In addition to helping tobacco producers through legislation, Singson proudly touts having achieved peace in Ilocos Sur, then deemed the “wild, wild north.” Reflecting on his years as governor, Singson discloses, “We were considered as one of the notorious provinces at that time. There were political deaths every day. And you would not have been able to restore peace and order, if you weren’t strict with the people and demanded discipline from your followers.”
The province then was deeply mired in political rivalry, with families vying for coveted local government positions. He claimed that blood was shed, with threats constantly exchanged, but Singson sought to end the bitter war.
He’s frank about this particular period in his political life, and insists that the story be shared, because this was one of the means that helped pave the way for peace in his region. “Kasi yung mga followers ko, nung nanalo na ako, gusto gumanti. Sabi ko, hindi pwede. Hindi na natin pwede ibalik yung mga namatay na kamag-anak n’yo. Kung gaganti kayo, wala nang katapusan ang patayan dito sa atin. So ipinagbawal ko yung gumanti. (When I won, my followers wanted revenge. And I said, I can’t allow that. We can’t bring back the dead. If we continue to seek revenge, there will be no end to this.)
“The only way to achieve reconciliation in a peaceful way,” he says, “is to be sincere with the want for peace.”
This is a lesson important for him to share, because all over the Philippines, he says you’ll find numerous areas rife with conflict, stemming from longstanding political feuds. “But more can be achieved if we leave ‘politics’ out of politics, and just do what is best for our people,” he says.
His call for unity is also reflected in many of his initiatives including the ambitious project of bringing greater interconnectivity to the region.
Last October 2019, Singson led the groundbreaking ceremony in Caoayan, Ilocos Sur, where the Philippines’ first shared cell tower will rise. This is the first of at least 50,000 (but he notes as high as 70,000) towers to be built across the region, which will be supported by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). This project will be led by LCS Holdings Inc. (his company), in partnership with Thailand’s UA Withya PCL.
“What we aim to do here is address the lack of cell sites in the country to further improve our competitiveness. As compared to Vietnam, which has 70,000 towers, we only have a mere 18,000, which is why we experience spotty mobile services.”
Through this endeavor, WiFi can be enjoyed by all for free. He proudly shares that Narvacan and all its barangays now enjoy the full privilege, and soon the surrounding municipalities will, too.
Contrary to what many may think, Singson’s efforts to provide free WiFi are not a mere pandering to the young, digital savvy generation. It’s part of a greater strategic economic plan to strengthen the digital power of the region. The future is digital, he says, with everything—businesses, education, public services—tied to the efficiency of telecom services. Economic transformation begins with the adoption of more digital technology.
How do you expect businesses to become competitive; how do you expect children to learn and be at par [with their global counterparts] if we do not equip them with the tools needed for growth,” he points out.
Education is also one of the soon-to-be octogenarian’s key priorities, and he takes great pride in having provided scholarships to hundreds of worthy students. “I don’t believe in dole outs. I find people who deserve the help, or they come to me. Sa akin, knowledge is wealth, yan ang tunay na yaman.” In addition to tuition support, he has also donated homes and helped farmers and entrepreneurs bounce back from crippling calamities.
TOURISM: KEY DRIVER OF PROGRESS
For the seasoned public servant and businessman, tourism is the other priority area of development aside from education and telecommunications.
With regard to this industry, he’s also made a head start, transforming his personal properties in Vigan into a tourist destination. Baluarte, a sprawling 100-hectare farm, is home to hundreds of wild animals, including deer, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, camels, and his favorite tigers and lions—all transported from around the globe.
A big game hunter, Singson shows off his biggest and most prized hunts in a museum where visitors can marvel at massive black bears, elephants, tigers, and the whole lot. These attractions, which are open to the public at no cost, help ensure the continuous flow of tourists to Ilocos Sur.
Singson’s focus on tourism also prompted him to host the highly successful Miss Universe 2016 pageant. Candidates wined and dined, and were brought to the most beautiful corners of the country on his private jets with private security. Needless to say, the successful staging of the pageant that year further highlighted the Philippines’ position as a growing and strengthening player in regional and global tourism.
The Baluarte and the Singson Museum have helped define Ilocos Sur as not only a proud heritage site, but a thriving tourist destination, and there is definitely more that can be done, says the Narvacan mayor.
Another of his projects that he’s excited to see completed is the Jesus Christ statue, touted to one day become the tallest religious statue in the world.
At its proposed height of 121 feet, the Jesus Christ statue, which will sit at the foot of one of the hilly ranges in Ilocos Sur, will tower over the Statue of Liberty and the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The paperwork for its construction are underway and Singson notes that if all goes well, the statue will be up in one to two years.
SEAL THE DEAL
Singson is happy to flex his skill and talent as a nimble dealmaker, rolling out his projects with such swiftness and urgency. One of his strengths he mentions is that he never waits. “I analyze, and make a decision immediately.”
And this quality, which is important in effective leadership, is what he also brings to the table as the new League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) president, assisting the 68 municipalities that are part of the organization.
The LMP, in essence, works hand-in-hand with the national government in the development and implementation of policies, programs, and projects affecting municipalities. In addition, it supplements the efforts of the national government in creating opportunities for gainful employment within the municipalities.
Singson prides himself on being someone who is able to see the bigger picture, a master negotiator, and a compelling leader who can bring key players to the table and have them work together to make things happen. For the indefatigable politician, time is his new currency and he squeezes it for everything it’s got.
“As LMP president, I hope to teach and show others how things can be done more efficiently and effectively, not through politicking but by supporting local leadership and demanding accountability from the leaders,” he says. “They have to deliver on their promises, and they have to deliver it by a deadline,” he nods.
Politics is definitely dirty business, says Singson, and you need to have the grit and character to power through all the mudslinging. “In fact, I’ve said to my children, don’t go into politics.” But Singson has grown a thick skin over time, and this is why he has survived for as long as he has.
JUST GOT LUCKY
On most days, Singson admits that he’s become restless, sleeping a mere few hours a night. But that’s enough to power him through his often-packed schedule, which includes flying back and forth from Manila to Ilocos on his private plane with guests and business partners on board.
On these short trips, which last around 45 minutes to an hour, he indulges in his favorite past time, a simple game of cards with his flight attendants who have become his friends and family. They squeal when they win, and collect their bets from Chavit. “It makes me happy,” he says of his hobby. “But it’s still me who often wins,” he says with a chuckle.
From surviving assassination attempts to outliving enemies, to further growing his business empire, to serving his constituents for another fruitful term as mayor, it seems that Chavit has been on a winning streak his whole life. He shrugs. “I don’t know; I just must be lucky,” he ends.