MANILA—More than 30 minutes before his class started, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV was already at the case room, setting up his slides. Projected on the screen in front were the words PA 244: The Policy Process.
It was the second time that he will meet his students since becoming a new lecturer at the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) at University of the Philippines (UP). And he’s teaching a subject that he said has had a big impact on his life.
“When I took this course 17 years ago, I was enlightened and hopefully my students would be enlightened as well,” Trillanes told ABS-CBN News, explaining that he took NCPAG’s Master of Public Administration program (MPA) while he was still with the military. “(It) changed how I look at government and life in general.”
Before becoming a senator and one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s prominent critics, Trillanes served in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, following in the footsteps of his father who was a Navy captain. He made headlines in 2003 as among the junior officers who joined in the Oakwood Mutiny to protest alleged corruption during the Arroyo administration. This led him to shift his sights towards running for the Senate.
Fortunately, he said, by then he had already finished his graduate studies. "And this MPA program prepared me for my job as a senator.”
Trillanes’ 20 or so students are from different government agencies and private companies. As each one came in, he marked their names on his class list.
At exactly 6:15 p.m., he started the class by asking them how to define public policy.
Fifteen minutes into the class, it was clear that Trillanes isn’t a textbook-based professor. While he said public policy is ideally driven by the “common good” there are two other motivations — “greed for money and lust for power.”
“Those two interests are normally hidden and cannot be seen,” he warned.
To test his students, Trillanes asked them about current events and whether recent pronouncements are considered public policies. This included a clip of Duterte talking about being “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.
He asked his students if that should be considered public policy.
Despite the serious topic, the former senator showed that he knew how to lighten up.
At one point, Trillanes said, “As I mentioned during the last hearing . . . ” His students laughed as the former senator corrected himself, amused at his own mistake.
Thirty or so minutes after the class started, a student came in late. Trillanes asked her to introduce herself. After learning that she worked at a regional trial court, he joked, “Fortunately I do not have cases there.”
Throughout the 2 hours, Trillanes was able to call on every one of his students, showcasing how good he was at memorizing their names.
During the second break, his staff brought in several pizza boxes, which he later said would keep students from feeling hungry.
Near the end of the class, the former senator said the class was a democracy so his students could vote on whether they should allow cellphones to be used.
“It’s liberating,” he said, as he talked about his own preference of not checking the phone during class.
Trillanes said his goal is to change his students’ perspective about governance, especially if some of them would end up heads of their agencies or elected officials.
“I wish they would be able to rewire their perception of systems, things and everyday living,” he said. “They should be more problem-solving oriented than whiners.”
Trillanes said the problem with some policymakers is that they do not have training. “They come up with all sorts of solutions or policies that may or may not address the problem or at worst, would exacerbate the problem,” he said.
With more than a decade spent as a senator, Trillanes said teaching is also his way of revisiting his “theoretical roots.”
“I believe that I can contribute to the body of knowledge given my experience the past 12 years as a senator. And also my way of giving back to UP,” he said. “And it’s also a way for me to learn from the students. Because teaching I believe is a 2-way process. They learn from me as much as I learn from them.”
Trillanes’ pragmatism and no-nonsense approach toward policy might exactly be what his students want.
Mabel Montes-Nera, who works for a government-owned and controlled corporation, said she did not even know that Trillanes was teaching the class when she first signed up for it. The professor was listed as TBA, to be announced.
Montes-Nera said she was curious having Trillanes as a professor because she “heard he did exceptionally well when he was a student at NCPAG.”
She said “it’s too early to tell” if her expectations align with reality but that Trillanes’ teaching style “is just the right combination of lecture and practice.”
Ferdi Medina, who is a UP instructor and a director of a non-government organization, also noted how Trillanes was all for balancing theory and practice. “I was expecting that he will look like a newbie professor but I was wrong. He is like a professor teaching the subject matter for years already,” he added.
Jeanky Palabrica from the National Police Commission said she appreciated Trillanes’ “more defined public policy” definition, which takes into consideration the requirement of implementation and motivation.
Meanwhile, full-time student Micah Nazal, who was a sit-in student that day, said he wanted to see Trillanes’ “practitioner’s point of view.”
"It’s not often we get professors who have high seats in office or are members of the senate or who you could say are ‘in the room where it happens’ so I was interested in how Prof. Trillanes would tackle the policy process,” Nazal said.
Asked if he thought about what kind of teacher he would be, Trillanes said: “I want it to come out naturally. I may have this specific model of a teacher in mind but during the flow of the class I may tend to deviate from it.”
All his students agreed that he stayed professional despite his “real life hugots and anecdotes,” as Nazal phrased it.
“I was actually very scared during the first day of class because I thought he’d be scary. He looked intimidating but not as a professor,” Palabrica said.
This perception has changed, she said, as Trillanes made sure to lighten up the mood. “He jokes from time to time. Masaya ang klase namin (Our class if actually fun),” she said.
Medina agreed that Trillanes might be “tough” when seen on TV but “very gentleman in real life.”
Meanwhile, Montes-Nera said the former senator was “amiable enough to make us at ease” amid his “commanding presence.”
PRIVATE SECTOR WITH PUBLIC ROLE
Trillanes said it was his “personal inclination” to “step back a bit and transition to the private sector.”
In addition to teaching a class in UP, he is also a lecturer at Ateneo. He said he is also doing consultancy work, which is his main source of income these days.
“It’s also a way for me to recharge,” he said. “I would revisit my theoretical roots and apply or integrate it with my experience in the public sector. So it’s going to be a good learning experience.”
However, this does not mean that he will be withdrawing from the public stage.
“If the question is about whether I would step back in my role as a member of the opposition? No. I believe voices of dissent are, should be welcome in a democracy. And I will voice out my opinion whenever I need to,” he said.
Asked if his decision was to protect himself and his family from harassment, he said: "Being in the private sector doesn’t mean that they’ll stop harassing me. Because they continue to harass me. I’m still facing 12 to 14 cases. So I don’t expect it to stop.”
He said it was not even to spend more time with his family since his children are now all grown up.
“I believe the question is if they have more time for me,” he said.
As for his so-called “hugot,” or the use of examples that are close to his heart, case in point: President Duterte’s pronouncements and policies, Trillanes said he’s tried his best to be objective, something his students confirm.
"Yes, it’s a conscious effort to cite examples that are applicable. And I try to be objective. Because once I immediately show my bias they might not be able to get the main point of my lecture,” he said.
Nevertheless, Trillanes said it was his students who were “pointing out the flaws in the different pronouncement and policies” without his prodding.
While marrying theory and practice seems to be working out for the former senator, Trillanes said he does not have any plans of running again for public office.
“I’m not saying never, because you know how fickle fate works. But for now the plan is to help in the organizing process and campaign for the official candidate of the opposition,” he said. "The inclination is not to run. Because I believe I would be more effective campaigning for somebody than campaigning for myself.”
For now, he said, he’ll focus on molding the minds of the country’s future policymakers.