Attorney Harry Roque has occupied various positions in the government. He became party list representative and was one of the principal authors of the Universal Health Care Law. After one year and a half as a legislator, he was appointed as presidential spokesman, a role that exposed him to what he describes as a lonely life in Malacañang. Through it all, he has been in the center of controversies, but he claims that he has always prevailed.
Running for the Senate, he had difficulty convincing his former boss, President Rodrigo Duterte to support his candidacy. When he finally received the President’s nod, he suffered from a heart attack. He took a rest and now he’s back in public life supporting various causes.
Recently, he visited the Daily Tribune office where he guested in the Tribune Now lifestyle online show, “Spotlight,” hosted by lifestyle editor Dinah S. Ventura and social set editor Jojo G. Silvestre
Harry Roque (HR): May I start by saying that this is a dream come true. All I have wanted all these years is to be featured in the lifestyle section of a paper. Who cares about the news? I prefer the lifestyle section over the news section. Give me the lifestyle and social pages anytime. (laughter)
Daily Tribune (DT): You should attend a lot of parties so we can feature you in the social pages.
HR: Ay, that’s what I want. (laughter)
DT: But what do you do outside of lawyering? Outside of supporting all these causes?
HR: Well, I dive. I go home to my house in Baguio where I meditate. I stare each day at my mountain for an hour in the morning.
DT: You have a mountain.
HR: I have a mountain view from my house. And every morning when I am in Baguio, I take two cups of coffee, I stare at the mountain and, in the afternoon, I jog around the village. There’s a golf course where I live in the mountains, and I have a path to jog and I see the sunset at 5:30 p.m. The sunset is so beautiful in Baguio at around 5:45 p.m. It’s all orange because from a distance I have a view of the West Philippine Sea.
DT: You have the best of everything. The deep sea, the mountains and the setting sun.
HR: You know I have a mole in my sole that’s why I cannot stay put in one place. So I really need to travel.
DT: You’ve traveled a lot. What is your favorite destination?
HR: The Philippines. This country is really so beautiful. From Baguio to Bohol to Palawan, it’s all incomparable beauty. And mind you, I’ve been all over the place. There are some places that you can’t forget. Like Venice to Dubrovnik where they shot the Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland where they also shot so many scenes in the Game of Thrones, and of course, Prague. Those are beautiful places, but the beauty of the Philippines is so different. When you see the ocean, it’s blue. The coconut trees… when you look at the mountains, it’s cool weather, pine trees and breathtaking views. So, after having gone all over the place, I came to the conclusion that the Philippines is the most beautiful country on earth. That’s because we have everything, from mountains to ocean, caves, plains, cities, night life.
DT: Shouldn’t you work with the Department of Tourism?
HR: Yah (laughter). I don’t mind being a marketing person for the Department of Tourism because I know where to go in the Philippines because I’ve been traveling since I was 17.
DT: How about these days? Do you travel alone or are you with your wife?
HR: Well, I travel with my wife. We celebrated Valentine’s Day by having a food crawl in Quezon City. After that, I went to Bohol on my own because my wife had to return to Baguio. I also dive with my kids.
Husband and father
DT: How old are the kids?
HR: Eighteen and seventeen.
DT: Already? You’ve been married for a long time.
HR: Twenty years already. We waited a while before we had our first child. We wanted to be just the two of us in the early years of our marriage. Then, when we wanted a kid, it was a difficult one because we waited. Parang karma. But of course, when our daughter came, it was the best gift that we ever had.
DT: What’s your wife’s name?
DT: Is she also a lawyer?
HR: No. In her past life, she was a journalist. She covered the House and we were then discussing the Anti-Dumping duties and I was there as a resource person because it was all part of the WTO. It started with a dare. Tony Abad dared me to talk to that reporter. So I went to this girl, who turned out to be Mylah. She was talking with Imee Marcos on the phone. Then I started chatting her up. And of course my future wife just looked at me from head to foot. Six months later, when I was recovering from a heartbreak, one of my best friends, Ruben Carranza, arranged a blind date with the best friend of his then girlfriend. That turned out to be Mylah. Six months later I told her, I’m going to marry you.
DT: It wasn’t that fast, but then, it was very fast. (laughter)
HR: I believe things happen for a reason. And then six months later, it was too good to be her, I thought it must be her.
DT: What kind of woman do you want? Someone who’s feisty like you?
HR: I want her to be the complete opposite of me. Very gentle, very soft spoken, very orderly. She has a thing for detail, which is my complete opposite.
DT: What did she have to say when you were very busy in government? For that matter, in your public life
HR: I guess we complement each other because she had to stop as a media person because she always had conflicts because of my work. But she was a prize-winning journalist. She had an award from UNESCO for reporting on children. I guess there was a point in time when she was bitter because she gave up her career for me but there was no way if you’re going to be ethical about it. Ours has been a collaboration of sorts because she knows what questions to ask. I also attribute my good relations with the media because of her, because the reporters were friends of hers. She covered all the beats, and they’re still her friends. It helps now that her contemporaries are now the bosses.
Politics in his blood
DT: One wonders how you still have the time to write. What is your schedule?
HR: You know that I withdrew from the Senate race because I had a heart attack. So I begin my day with an hour and a half of exercise in the gym. So this is six days a week, with the exception of Sunday. So I go to the gym by 8 and I am done by 9:30. By 9:30, that’s when I write my columns, two for the Daily Tribune and one for Abante. Directly from the gym, I write. It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to write. Then I take my shower and I go to work. So, by 10:30, I should be in the office. I stay there and do my thing. I generally come home late because of the traffic. So, it’s like I begin my day in the office at 10:30 and end at around 7 or 8.
DT; Were you active as a student? In politics or any of those student organizations?
HR: I was a working student. I was working in Congress. I was a law student in UP. And I worked in Congress for three years. It was for a congresswoman. Lorna Verano Yap, a very controversial legislator. Now you know why I am no stranger to controversy. But it’s sad because at some point we ceased to become friends because of politics. She passed on and she is now in a better place. I was a native of Pasay that’s why I opted to work for her. We generally agreed on anything except that on one particular year, I told her I was going to run for Congress but she opted to run for Congress again. And I didn’t understand why because I knew she didn’t have any chance of winning. I thought it would not look good if we ran against each other. So I let her run, that’s why my entry to politics was postponed for 9 years because I gave way to her. But we ceased to be friends at that time.
DT: Do you have politics in your blood? Why did you run for a political position?
HR: Well, my grandfather on my mother’s side was one of the first councilors in Quezon City. My grandfather on my father’s side was one of the longest seating councilors in Pasay City. Jovito Salonga is the first cousin of my maternal grandmother. So I guess politics is in my bloodline. And then a cousin of my grandfather was a vice governor of Bataan. The Roques are really a political family. Both in Bataan and in Pasay.
DT: How was your stint in politics?
HR: It was a short one. A year and a half in Congress but despite the fact that I only spent a year and a half there, I am proud of the fact that I had at least four major laws of which I am primary author. The Universal Health Care which was passed on 17 September 2017 before I moved to the Palace. There’s the free irrigation program, there’s the feeding program for the children and there’s the free Internet.
DT: Were the other legislators scared of you?
HR: I love Congress. Congress is one big high school. Everyone is friendly. I have a routine. I make beso with the different cliques. Everyone, from the Metro Manila bloc to the Northern bloc to the Visayan Bloc to the women’s bloc to the congresswoman in Bataan, who is very colorful being a transvestite. And then there’s the Mindanao bloc, the partylist and so on, all of them. So, I would mingle with all of them, there was never a dull moment. Sometimes, I had regrets moving to Malacañang. Malacañang was very sad. The only person you could bother there mostly was Menardo Guevarra who was Secretary of Justice. And of course, the Executive Secretary who was always there. While I was dealing with about 300 very sociable individuals in Congress, I was left with the President, the Executive Secretary and Menard in Malacañang. And Bong Go. And the food, o my God. And the quality of the food, oh my. The buffet that we had in Congress compared to the one cup, one dish in Malacañang was really upsetting. Everyday was buffet day in the House.
Life in Malacañang
DT: What caused your heart attack? The food in Malacañang?
HR: I think it was really a combination. It was the unhealthy lifestyle because being spokesman really meant constant pressure while facing the brightest of the Philippine media. Because everyone who was sent to the Malacañang press corps was really the brightest of the news organizations. Then, as a spokesman you needed to see and hear the President for yourself. You could not rely on transcripts. The President loves to make a joke about everything. So you really need to hear how he says things for you to find out if he is kidding or not. And so I kept a schedule and I also kept the President’s schedule. I had to be with him as often as I could and that meant having three hours of sleep only. It was only when the President would leave for Davao that I could finally rest. Sometimes I had to go to Davao because he actually uses the Malacañang of Mindanao a lot, so you also need to be there.
And when we were already in the campaign it was the pressure of how to raise the funds. During the first month that I ran, I spent P90 million. And by that point, I had used up everything that I had, so I wasn’t sure if the next money was coming although on the day that I withdrew, all the taipans were calling and telling me to pick up their contribution. But I guess it was too late.
DT: Let’s wind this up. Do you have any message to the young people?
HR: The only message is when I look back in my life I never had anything easy. In fact when I started grade school, they thought I was retarded because I could not read. It turned out it was only because my mother enrolled me a year earlier. But can you imagine? I was the only one in grade one who could not read. It was really traumatic. But when I started to read, that’s when I left everyone behind. Then I moved to UP for high school already, and then I passed all the competitive exams. So I guess my life has been one of constant struggle. Even in the Senate, if you remember, the President did not want me to run. So it took a long time for me to persuade him to support me. He did, but three days after I became part of his list of selected candidates, I had that heart attack. It was the most difficult disappointment. But the lesson is, just keep rising up and continuing. Learn to live with disappointments, learn to live with pains, but you will prevail, if you have faith in the Lord and if you have faith in yourself.
DT: Do we see you running for the senate in the next election?
HR: I have never given up on a goal.