This post was originally printed in The Friday Times on 23 July 2010
In 1988, a second-generation Chinese Philipino was elected Mayor of Naga City, the youngest city mayor of Philippines at the age of 29. By 1999, ten years down the road, Naga City is cited as one of the ‘Most Improved Cities in Asia’ by Asiaweek Magazine. By 2010, he aims to make Naga City a ‘happy place with happy people’. It is the ‘principle of rising expectations’, he quips. ‘People seek a higher standard of living from the service providers and each time, a higher level of ‘happiness’, he says.
Sitting in the conference hall, in Manila city, at the Capacity Development Learning Week, organized by the United Nations Development Programme regional center, I could not help but marvel at his commitment to his city, his vigour to have an informed constituency, and to empower his people. “When you try to cultivate a culture of professionalism, people want to be a part of the government.” Is it any wonder that Naga city is the most awarded local government in the Philippines. Mayor Robredo himself has earned 14 major individual awards including the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government service. In recognition of his skills and competence as a leader and development manager, his peers elected Robredo as President of the League of Cities of the Philippines in 1995, the national association of city mayors.
Mayor Jesse M. Robredo, who walked in the hall in his Jeans and a shirt, without any formal protocol, atleast the one that we are used to seeing, was truly a leader of the masses. On being questioned by one of my colleagues of what drives the Mayor in life, he answered humbly that no material or financial benefit can compare to the sense of satisfaction that comes with serving your city. For a man who has won landslide victory in local government elections six times in a row, this hardly seemed like a pretence statement. Mayor Robredo was vocal about allowing citizen’s voice as a process to support the outcome – improved performance, a sense of ownership for their city government and thereby a sense of citizenship.
As I sat there, awed by his personality, the hall numb with pin-drop silence and respect for the Mayor, I could not help but compare him to the only man I could think of, from Pakistan, who could match his loyalty to his city – Mustafa Kamal, former District City Nazim (mayor) of Karachi.
I am reminded of what Helen Keller once said: ‘People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant’.
Former Karachi District City Nazim Mustafa Kamal, generally agreed as Karachi’s most forward looking mayor and a ‘do-er’ also happens to be its youngest Mayor – ever. The fact remains that Mustafa Kamal is also generally seen as the face of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in Pakistan, a party seen as rising from ethnic grounds in the face of Pakistani politics. Praising Mustafa Kamal is often seen as being a supporter of the MQM and blinded by our own prejudice or political alliances we are often silenced by our inner critic.
How many of us are aware that Mustafa Kamal has been nominated for World Mayor 2010 prize, ironically enough against the very Mayor of Naga city in the Asia region? Many say that the Mayor implemented the policies initiated by the Nazim who preceded him, but how many of us have seen ‘do-ers’ in this land of the pure who serve the people with true dedication? You can actually count them on your finger tips. I do not live in Karachi and so I have a bird’s eye view of the city and perhaps influenced by international media projecting former Karachi District City Nazim Mustafa Kamal. This is sad because the ‘true working class representative’ has remained shrouded in the mayhem that defines Pakistani mainstream media. They would rather play a certain notorious video clip depicting Mustafa Kamal frustrated and angry with the red-tape of the bureaucracy rather than show a video clip showing him sitting by the roadside at 3 a.m., making sure that the ongoing work is expedited to ensure better service delivery to the citizens. Have we ever thought about the personal life of the man who we expect to serve the city at the cost of his family time, serving his people in the wee hours of the night?
Mayor Robredo and Mayor Kamal, to me are examples of Leadership in action. For someone flying in from Islamabad to Karachi airport, the first sight of the airport itself is a reminder of dedication and work of a leader, who was backed by an entire system of the city district government in Karachi, and yes, the ‘ethnic’ party who actually brought him to the forefront. Big budgets can help set up programmes but true success comes from proactive leadership and a commitment to work with the institutions allowing involvement of the people with forward looking planning. I am not aligned to any political party and I strongly believe that in this era of negative publicity of our country in every part of the world, perhaps it is time we ‘own’ our star-performers who may have their own sets of faults and weaknesses, but as long as they serve the people, there is no reason why we should shy away from supporting them. It is leaders like these who give a common man hope to make it to the corridors of power and perhaps the opportunity to be the change we wish to see?