A stalwart of justice and truth, Miriam has always fought to ensure that these two virtues prevail in the Philippine political arena in every session she is in; from the time she started working in the public sector, Miriam has exhibited the traits of a true Filipino politician.
Throughout her entire career in both the private and public sectors, Miriam has encountered numerous enemies who attempt to bring her down because of her integrity. There have been libelous statements made against her, and even threats on her life, but these things have never kept Miriam from continuously serving her fellow Filipinos. Her boldness and courage to stand up for what she believes is right has become an example not only for her fellow senators, but also for every Filipino that wants to see his or her country prosper.
One of the things that made Miriam popular internationally is her outspokenness. Her flamboyant personality has allowed her to make comments on issues that other politicians would otherwise leave unnoticed, fearing the power of those who are corrupt. Throughout her time in the Philippine Senate, Miriam has become well-known for voicing out her concerns for the things that she sees are not right and lawful. In many hearings and proceedings, Miriam has always opened up issues that other senators could not; her strong demeanor has allowed her to bring forth answers that have been significant in the results of the hearings.
If we were to compare Miriam to a lot of us, she would have fought more battles than any other person in her profession. She has faced tremendous opposition in her political career, gone through very difficult and challenging storms in her personal life, and has suffered losses that everyone would never even dream of having. And yet, what makes her truly extraordinary is that in spite of all of these things, in spite of all the seemingly overwhelming challenges that she has gone through, Miriam still stands firm in her resolve and continues to serve her people. Her remarkable perseverance and fortitude is what allowed her to rise up in the midst of the storm and say, “I can still fight.”
Miriam’s personal confidence and security is very remarkable in that she does not allow her failures, mistakes or negative circumstances to let her think lowly of herself. This is why she has been so effective in her work as a senator. Miriam does not let whatever happens in her life to affect her competency. Work is work, and life is life. In an interview regarding her nomination to become an International Criminal Court judge, Miriam says:
“If I get to be elected judge of the International Criminal Court, I will be happy for my country. If I don’t get elected, I don’t desire it so much that it will affect me. It is a political process. It has no reflection on my competence. The Dalai Lama has taught me that the best way to live life is to try and avoid desire. Desire is really the basic source of unhappiness.”
Miriam takes her job very seriously, and has a high value for respecting the government system. This is why she has not had any major issues regarding bribery and corruption. She always encourages people to respect the system of governance in the country, no matter how corrupt it may appear, because it is this system that keeps the country from falling apart. She often says:
“I think it is very risky that they seem to lose respect for authority especially when they hold no one sacred. Respect is very high on the priorities of good governance. If you don’t respect the system, if you are sneering at the system or are always skeptical of the system, chances are you will consider yourself an outsider. And that is a great danger.”
Because of her courage and fortitude to stand for truth and justice, as well as her remarkable intellect, Miriam has become a recipient of numerous awards and recognitions throughout her career. Miriam is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Good Governance, which is hailed as Asia’s Nobel Prize. Aside from this, Miriam has also been included in several international lists, the most notable is the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World by the Australian Women’s Magazine.
Early Life: The Beginnings of a Political Genius
She was born Miriam Palma Defensor in June 1945, two months right before the end of the Second World War. She is the eldest of seven children of Benjamin Defensor, a prominent lawyer and trial judge, and Dimpna Palma, a local educator. In spite of having little wealth compared to the community elite they freely moved with, the Defensor family was prominent in that both Benjamin and Dimpna were respected for their professions. During her early years, Miriam lived in a small house with a nipa roof, and along with her siblings, played with toy cars constructed from sardine cans and bottle caps that they themselves made. Miriam described her childhood life by saying, “We enjoyed the luxury of filth.”
As early as her kindergarten years, Miriam already demonstrated her desire to see fairness and justice. At one point, when her fellow classmate (who also happened to be the teacher’s niece) kept on pestering her by erasing her work on the chalk board, Miriam took her classmate by the hair and wrestled her on the floor. In spite of Miriam’s pure intentions, her teacher sided with her nephew, causing Miriam to graduate only at the sixth place despite her amazing academic accomplishments.
Miriam studied at Lincoln College up to her fourth grade because her mother Dimpna was the dean of the school. However, after her fourth year in elementary, Miriam had to transfer to La Paz Public Elementary School after Dimpna resigned from Lincoln College due to an issue she had with the school’s president. While at La Paz, Miriam volunteered in watching the canteen from time to time because of the free snacks that she received as perks for her volunteering. In her interviews, Miriam recalled how she always liked to choose the banana cake, because it was the ‘height of luxury’ for her.
An Early Love for Reading
Even at a very young age, Miriam already exhibited amazing intellectual capabilities and potential for greatness. An avid reader, Miriam spent a lot of time in the local United States Information Service Library because she did not have any money to buy books of her own. Those who often met Miriam in the library were very impressed with the passion that she exhibited in reading books. Through her constant reading, Miriam’s already remarkable talent was further developed. Miriam was also an outstanding writer, and served as the student editor of her elementary school’s newspaper. Miriam graduated from elementary at the top of the class, earning for herself the first honor.
Dimpna played a very significant role in shaping Miriam’s personality and desire to succeed in life. Even at a very young age, Dimpna already encouraged and empowered Miriam to always aim for the top, and pushed her daughter to always be at her best. Many years later, when Miriam finally achieved success, she would always remember her mother as one of the most important figures of her life.
Due to the way her parents raised her, Miriam never once felt ashamed of showing her talents and abilities. When she went to high school, Miriam instantly became a celebrity due to her amazing intellect and courageous demeanor. While some of Miriam’s “friends” became jealous due to her consistently rising to the top, Miriam never allowed the discouragement to keep her from aiming for the top. Her teachers were very impressed with Miriam’s attitude and intellect that by 1961, she graduated valedictorian and received the school’s All-Around-Girl-Award.
During her elementary and high school years, Miriam was inspired by the idea of becoming a nun due to her observance of the nuns in their locality. And while Miriam did grow up with that desire in her heart, she eventually lost interest after her father convinced her that becoming a nun would not help her ‘serve God very much.’
After leaving high school, Miriam went to the Iloilo Campus of the University of the Philippines to study law after accepting her father’s advice that having literary pursuits would not allow her to support herself. While in UP Visayas, Miriam was among the best students of the school (some would even argue to say that she was the best of the students in the years she was in UP Visayas). She finished the four-year Political Science course in just three and a half years. She spent the remaining half school year to focus on literature, which she never lost love in. Miriam became an editor for the college magazine and participated in many extra-curricular activities because she studied so efficiently. In 1965, Miriam earned her bachelor’s degree and graduated magna cum laude.
Afterwards, Miriam went to Manila to apply at the University of the Philippines College of Law. Miriam’s time in UP Diliman (the name which the university is known) was very productive in that Miriam not only excelled in her studies, but her extra-curricular activities and achievements that exhibited the remarkable power of women made her an example and inspiration for her fellow women students to also reach for the top and show off what they were really made of. Among Miriam’s greatest successes were winning the Vinzons Achievement Award, a prestigious leadership award granted to those who truly exhibited the spirit of leadership.
While in UP Diliman, Miriam met Narciso Santiago Jr., another law student who she immediately came to like because of their opposing personalities. Miriam met Narciso one day when she came late to class because of a meeting with the then-President Ferdinand Marcos. As Miriam entered the classroom, she saw Narciso and his friends, completely “unafraid” of their professor unlike Miriam was. Miriam recalled how she felt with her first encounter with Narciso:
“I was absolutely flabbergasted because I always thought all students were like me, terrified of the professors . . . in his case, he was having a grand time.”
Throughout the following years, Miriam and Narciso came to develop a relationship and in 1970, finally got married; the marriage was sponsored by Narciso’s good friend, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
From The Private to The Public Sector
It was in her college years that Miriam began to take a step that defined her life’s work. As an excellent law graduate, Miriam was invited by the famous and prestigious law firm of Alexander Sycip to work with them; in spite of the warnings that Miriam would have to work through holidays and all night, Miriam was impressed but eventually declined Alexander’s offer so she could work in the government, because she believed that this was the best way for her to ‘repay’ the public’s investment.
And so, Miriam chose to work with Juan Ponce Enrile, who was then the Secretary of Justice, and became his special assistant. In 1969, after she graduated from college, Miriam went on to be under Vicente Abad Santos, who was also formerly the dean of the College of Law in UP Diliman. Vicente became Miriam’s professional adviser, and thoroughly trained her in the area of politics. Throughout her following years, Miriam pursued further education in other universities abroad such as the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and finally, the University of Cambridge.
During the years of the Marcos regime, Miriam worked with Vicente at the Ministry of Justice and helped him draft decisions. In 1979, Miriam was offered to become a legal officer of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Switzerland, which she accepted. Miriam moved with her first son Narciso Defensor Santiago III and her “best” maid to Switzerland, only to return in 1980 so she could take care of her father who developed terminal cancer. When he died six months later, Miriam decided to stay in the Philippines and became a consultant to the UP Law Center. The following year, in 1981, Miriam bore Narciso their second child, Alexander.
Throughout her private legal career, Miriam was greatly praised by her superiors for her excellent and tough decision making abilities, as well as her remarkable intellect. She constantly met success after success, rising up to the top her work all the time. And even though she was a supporter of the Marcos opposition (which also brought her some fear that she might end up dead like the others who actively defied President Marcos), Miriam did not allow her fears to dominate and override her desire to see justice and integrity to once again be the standard of government service.
Service In The Government: The Start of Miriam’s Political Journey
In 1988, two years after the famed People Power Revolution of the Philippines, Miriam was approached by President Cory Aquino, successor to President Marcos and the wife of Benigno Aquino Jr, and appointed her to become the new Commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation. Throughout her years in the bureau, Miriam became notorious amongst corrupt politicians for strongly ordering raids on criminal syndicates and fake passport makers. She received numerous threats on her life for her integrous work, but Miriam simply shrugged off all these by stating in an interview that she “ate death threats for breakfast.”
Because of her excellent performance as the CID’s Commissioner, Miriam was appointed to become the new Secretary of Agrarian Reform by President Aquino in 1989. Upon her appointment, Miriam wasted no time in establishing policies that would not only clean graft and corruption-ridden department, but would also ‘set things right’ in the area of land reform. Through her work with the Department of Agrarian Reform, Miriam was able to have big landowners sell their land so that the smaller farmers can benefit from them.
In 1992, Miriam made a bold move by filing her candidacy to become the next President of the Philippines. Although she was not endorsed by President Aquino (who decided to back Fidel Ramos, the then Secretary of National Defense), Miriam led the canvassing of votes for the first five days after the elections. Through a surge of power outages in the following weeks, however, the tabulation ended with Fidel Ramos winning the presidency, much to the dismay of Miriam and millions of other Filipinos who accused the elections of being fraudulent due to the power outages. The election results became a controversial topic in the following years, and was further fueled by Miriam’s filing of electoral protest. Miriam unsuccessfully made another attempt to the presidency in 1998, but she was defeated by Joseph Estrada, a former actor turned politician.
Becoming a Senator of the Philippines
In spite of this great disappointment, Miriam kept on moving forward in serving her country. In 1995, Miriam won the elections to become one of the members of the Philippine Senate. During her first term as a Senator, Miriam became one of the most vocal critics of the Ramos Administration, and became the Senator with the highest number of bills during that time. In 2001, Miriam ran for another term but was defeated. This did not deter Miriam to serve the government and in 2004, won her second term as a senator.
Miriam had a devastating experience in 2003 when her youngest son, Alexander, took his own life at the age of 22. This incident greatly saddened the Santiago family, especially Miriam, who in some ways blamed herself for being too strict (Miriam constantly pushed her sons to success like her parents did).
Miriam’s senatorial candidacy in the 2004 elections was controversial in that she ran under the administration party—the party that opposed the Estrada administration. Miriam was known to be one of the staunchest supporters of former President Joseph Estrada, proven by her siding with him during the impeachment elections of 2001. When she was interviewed, Miriam cited that the reason she switched sides was because she could run with Loren Legarda, a fellow senator who became one of her strongest critics, and because another movie actor was chosen to run for the presidency.
Miriam won her third senatorial term in 2010, finishing in the third place with seventeen million votes. Among her most significant actions in this term were the vote to acquit the then Chief Justice Renato Corona during his Impeachment Trial (which also happened to be the first ever successful impeachment case in Philippine history), her sponsoring of two bills which proved to be very controversial in terms of societal effects (the Sin Tax Reform Act, which increased the tax on alcoholic beverages and smoking industries; and the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, which was strongly opposed by the Catholic Bishops because it allowed for the legalization of contraceptive substances), and her feud with the current Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile due to the allegations that he gave a one million peso “bribe” to each of his allied senators in the form of a Christmas bonus.
Judge of the International Criminal Court: A New Level in Miriam’s Career
In 2011, Miriam was successfully elected to become a judge of the International Criminal Court, a feat that was really something to be proud of, as she became the first ever Filipino to have been part of this international organization. Although officially listed as a judge of the court, Miriam has not yet taken her oath because on March 9, 2012, during the oath-taking ceremony of the newly elected judges, Miriam was absent for medical conditions. Miriam wrote a request to the president of the ICC that she become among the last six judges to take the post so she can complete her responsibilities as a senator.
Currently, Miriam is one of the most significant and inspirational political figures in the Philippines not only because of her outspoken and bold demeanor and personality but also because of her constant support of integrity and honesty in the government. In fact, a lot of those she has worked with have said that the Senate would not be lively without Miriam in it, because she is the one that “brings” all the action to the seemingly scripted arena.
Throughout her life and career in both the private and public sectors, Miriam has epitomized the ideal Filipino because of her constant desire to become successful in life. She serves as a great inspiration to many (not just Filipinos) people around the world for her remarkable perseverance, boldness, and stand for truth and justice. Her life story teaches us that we can face any challenge, no matter how big it may be, if we truly believe in what we are fighting for.
Private and Public Service Career
- 1970-1980: Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of Justice
- 1971-1974: Instructor in Political Science at the Trinity College
- 1976-1988: Instructor in Law at the University of the Philippines
- 1977-1979: Member of the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures
- 1979-1980: Legal Staffer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- 1983-1987: Trial Court Judge
- 1988-1989: Commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation
- 1989-1992: Secretary of Agrarian Reform
- 1995-present: Senator of the Philippines
- 2011-present: Judge of the International Criminal Court
Awards and Achievements
- 1986: Named as one of the Five Outstanding Professionals of the Philippine Junior Chamber of Commerce
- 1988: Received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service
- 1996: Included in the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World by the Australian Women’s Magazine
- Received the Golden Jubilee Achievement Award
- Received the Republic Anniversary Award
- Received the Public Service Award from the Metro Manila Bishops Association
- Received the Gold Vision Triangle Award from the YMCA
- Received the TOWNS Award from Lions International