Genuine Opposition spokesman Adel Tamano is meticulous and particular about details.
At the library of the Kapunan, Tamano, Villadolid & Associates law firm, where he is a partner, he mechanically shelves the hardbound reference books lying on the table, at the same time answering questions thrown at him with the ease of someone used to the pressure in the courtroom. “Don’t mind me,” he says, “I’m really like this.”
Even in casual, non-legal conversations, he refers to “arguments” or “thesis,” and he presents facts in list-style, like he would in a case.
Appearing for the first time in public in February 2007 as GO spokesperson, Adel caught people’s interest not only because of his interestingly familiar surname (he is the eighth of the late senator Mamintal “Mike” Tamano’s nine children) but also for being a refreshing face in the otherwise bleak political scene.
We initially thought Adel was short for something, but the university plaques displayed at his small Ortigas office spelled it out in full: Adel Abbas Tamano.
“Adel is Arabic for ‘lover of justice,’” Atty Tamano shares. “Ang baduy,” he quips. His late father, also a lawyer, had amazing foresight.
Born into a family of lawyers, Adel was expected to continue the tradition, but his heart was on something else. “I wanted to be a writer,” he confides, but his father discouraged him from pursuing it. In the end, Adel acquiesced, taking up economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and later earning a master’s in public administration in UP Diliman.
Being a Muslim Filipino, Adel admits to an “ironic discrimination” that he experiences despite the fact that he looks “normal,” but it was during his yearlong stay in Harvard Law School, between 2004 and 2005, that he felt comfortable in his own skin.
There he met Muslims who were blond and blue-eyed and wore mini skirts, a stark contrast to their Arabic, hijab-wearing counterparts. Adel would come home to the Philippines enriched by the multicultural experience, a lesson he intoned in the commencement exercise that he would deliver to the 2005 graduating class.
Fast-forward to two years later, Adel would be tapped by the Genuine Opposition, first as a senatorial candidate (an offer he turned down), and later as spokesperson. During the campaign sorties, he met his father’s old friends and associates, and felt the good fortune of “[having] a good father who left me with a ‘good name.’”
True, it was his father’s reputation that opened doors for him, but today he is stepping away from his father’s shadow and earning a name for himself.
The lawyer has a busy schedule: with press conferences on top of his legal work and Saturday classes (he teaches constitutional law at Far Eastern University, Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, and Ateneo de Manila University), it’s amazing that he still finds some parenting time for his two boys, Santi, 4, and Mike, 1, by his wife of eight years, Rowena Kapunan, also a lawyer (her father is retired Supreme Court justice Santiago Kapunan).
“I don’t have any spare time!” he exclaims when asked what he does when he’s free. “If I did, I go to the gym, which is at least thrice a week. But I really don’t consider that spare time because for me, it’s work. I consider it part of lawyering and teaching: you have to take care of yourself because it’s part of how you present yourself to the public,” he divulges.
“I feel it takes away from your being effective if you [let yourself go].” Not that he enjoys going to the gym. “I’d rather read a book,” he laughs.
A strange phenomenon, Adel shares, is that his law office—while initially handling appellate cases, the ones before the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court—is seeing a rise in annulment suits.
“We’re developing an expertise on annulment. Ang daming taong nagpapa-annul! And they’re much younger now. But really, some of the things Filipino men do—it’s just too much!” he shakes his head.
“I’m not for divorce,” he reveals, although, he says, Islam allows it, with some reservations. “There’s a saying in Islam that goes, ‘Of all the things that God allows, what is most hateful is divorce.’ It would be a last option.”
In this Q&A with PinoyCentric, Atty. Adel Tamano talks about how it was growing up a senator’s son and a Moro, his experiences in Harvard, and why he’s proud to be Filipino.
Do you remember your first public appearance as GO spokesperson?
The very first was the Sunday before we presented our senatorial slate—the last day for filing the certificates of candidacy was February 11. That was when I was introduced as the GO spokesman.
How did you become the spokesperson for GO?
I was at first offered to be a candidate. Sometime in January 2007, the so-called civil society groups were endorsing three people: Sonia Roco, Antonio Trillanes, and myself as candidates. I was offered to run for the opposition. Pinag-isipan ko, but I wasn’t all that sure. When the administration heard that I was going to run for the opposition, they offered me to be a Muslim candidate. I declined both offers and said I’d prefer to do something else, so when GO asked me to be a spokesperson, I said yes.
Have you always been with the opposition?
I’m not really into politics, and I was not with any political party. My stance in issues such as the impeachment, Daniel Smith’s custody, charter change, and in my cases and the papers I wrote, has always been against the administration.
Have you always wanted to be a lawyer?
No. In fact, the college course of my choice was English. I wanted to be a writer, but my dad dissuaded me. Sabi niya walang pera dun, so I took up economics.
My father was a lawyer, and my paternal and maternal grandfathers were judges, and my uncles were all lawyers. My father was disappointed that nobody wanted to take up law at the time, so I was the one who pursued it. But it wasn’t really because I wanted to.
So among your eight siblings, you’re the only one who’s a lawyer?
Dalawa na [There are two of us now]. My younger brother also took up law after I did.
Do you think being the son of a former senator helped you a lot in breaking into politics?
One of the reasons I was drafted by both camps was because of the family name. Yung name recall importante sa politics. So on that score, malaking tulong yun sa akin. During the campaign, I met a lot of people who knew my dad, and his good will, which transferred to me, was a big help.
What were the challenges of growing up the son of a political figure and being Moro at the same time?
My dad was a senator in 1969. I wasn’t born yet. And then Marcos declared martial law and my dad had to leave the country. He was one of the first OFWs. So I grew up not being able to see my dad so much. And then he became a senator again in 1986. High school na ako in Manila. I honestly didn’t feel it that much because one, I was kinda young so I didn’t really care, and two, I was a nerd.
What were your interests then?
I was into books, mostly science fiction. I was also with the Kundirana. It’s a singing group. I was a nerd. And since I was one, di ko masyadong na-experience yung perks or advantages of being a senator’s son. One thing that I didn’t enjoy that much was always having someone in your house. As early as five in the morning, there’s someone in your house asking for help. That’s how politicians are. I really didn’t grasp what it was like to be a senator until I was much older, and [by that time] hindi na siya senator and namatay na siya.
So you’ve never lived in Mindanao?
You also have to understand that a lot of it was historical. When my dad became senator, the family had to transfer to Manila. [This was in the] 1970s, the conflict in Mindanao: the Jabidah Massacre, the conflict in Jolo.
If you recall, there’s a place in Quiapo that’s called the Center. It’s a Muslim center. That’s where the refugees were. [There’s another one in] Taguig, [the Maharlika Village].
[Security] was one of the reasons we stayed in Manila. And also because education was better here.
Were you conscious of your being Muslim as you were growing up?
The discrimination—yes. We were practicing Muslims. Up to now I still am, although I am married to a Christian.
Ang discriminations sa akin is strange. This is how it works for me: Most people don’t think I’m a Muslim because they have a stereotype of what a Muslim sounds or looks like. So [then I am able to] enter social groups and I hear people say certain things. For example, may nakidnap ang Abu Sayaff. They’d say, “Grabe talaga ang mga Muslim na to.” Or “Okay sana sa Mindanao, marami lang Muslim.”
These things slip out and then my friends or associates would [realize that I’m there,] and they’d say, “Ay, sorry pala.” So the discrimination is still there.
There are many types of discrimination, and one of them is stereotyping, which is basically judging people not on the basis of who they are but of what group or tribe or religion they represent. So my experience with discrimination is ironic in the sense na hindi ako dini-discriminate.
For example, there are guys who are obviously Muslim. These are the ones who have the long beard and white clothes and they have a thing on their head. It’s so hard for them to get a taxicab. Or like the women wearing the hijab; it’s also hard for them to get a ride. But ako, it’s easy for me because I look “normal,” I guess, or nonstereotypical Moro. But since I’m a Moro, mas masakit sa akin na nakikita ko yun.
My experience with discrimination has made me very sensitive, because I see both sides. Yung stereotypical na Moro, di niya nae-experience yun. Ang nae-experience niya ay di niya nakukuha ang taxi. The resentment or the anger that he feels is different from me, who is a Muslim but is treated better.
Discrimination is real. It’s not something that’s a figment or a perception, but I see it firsthand because I see both sides. You get into these secret places where people are able to show you how they really feel.
I have a question about the terms “Moro” and “Muslim.” You seem to use “Moro” more frequently in your writing and oral references. What is the correct term?
I use Moro because it has an ethnic connotation. There’s this concept of Bangsamoro, which is a fictional and romanticized concept. Before the colonization of the Philippines, people were grouped according to tribes or sultanates, and they just never considered themselves as belonging to one nation. But in the 1970s, because of the conflict in Mindanao, which was aimed at Muslims, regardless of their tribe, this idea rose that something connected all these tribes came together, and hence the idea of the Bangsamoro came out. The Bangsamoro Liberation Movement was a precursor to the MILF and MNLF, etc.
Moro has many nuances. There’s the ethnic aspect that I am indigenous to, in a sense. There’s also the religious aspect. When you say Moro, it’s part of being Muslim. It also has the connotation of a longing for statehood.
When you say Moro, you’re referring to Bangsamoro. But with Muslim, it’s purely religious and it’s just a person who believes in the tenets of Islam.
When you were growing up, did you have a lot of Moro friends?
My friends when I was growing up were my relatives. I had lots of cousins. And looking back, I did not have a lot of friends. I was always reading. I preferred reading over basketball.
Can you tell us about your experiences in Harvard? How many Filipinos were there in your class?
In Harvard Law School, there were only two Filipinos. It was me and a girl by the name of Mona Katigbak from UP Law.
There are so many things that you can say about Harvard: from the physical experience of seeing the place and being away from my kid and my wife for the first time.
I had very strong experiences in Harvard. It opened my mind to so many things. Harvard was really a time of intellectual growth for me. I had classmates from over 60 countries, and when you interact with so many people, with so many aspects of culture, religion, and language, you can’t help but be enriched if you are open to the experience.
The experience taught me to deconstruct ideas and understand complexities. I had always been a reductionist before I got to Harvard, always trying to find the base of an idea, and I would stick to the basic. That was my fallback. But in Harvard, you’re surrounded with all these great minds, intellectual giants in the worldwide legal system. It was a mind-blowing experience.
Another take-away was that we can compete. Kung pagalingan lang, in terms of the legal aspect, we can really match any country. I walked away feeling, ang galing talaga ng Filipino.
One thing about the Harvard library—it’s supposedly one of the biggest collections in the world—if you need a book and the library does not have it, they will order it for you. Ganun kayaman at ka-advance ang library na yun.
Culturally, what were the adjustments that you had to make in Harvard as a Filipino and a Moro?
I was there after 9/11, and during that time, Harvard was bringing in a lot of Muslim scholars, so it had a united Muslim community. Since it was after September 11, there was really discrimination among Muslims and it made us stick together. We would pray together.
Having that big Muslim community taught me that [there are many] permutations in being a Muslim. There is no stereotype. I met Muslims who were blond and blue-eyed. And I also met Muslims who were Arabic and wore the hijab. I didn’t have to adjust that much because there was already a Muslim community.
I also realized that the Philippine culture is so akin to the American culture. I was working part-time in the law school library to pay my bills. The people who worked there—natives, not foreign students—were surprised over the similarity of our cultures. They’d talk about a certain type of music, and [they’d be surprised that] alam ko rin. So there wasn’t really that much of an adjustment.
You were asked to deliver the commencement address. Does that mean that you graduated as valedictorian or with honors?
The interesting thing in Harvard is that walang valedictorian, walang salutatorian, walang cum laude—at least from what I saw and what my professor explained to me. When we are called, we are just given the certificates. My professor said, the mere fact that you graduated from Harvard is already your badge na magaling ka.
But to choose the commencement speaker, they have to vote for you. It’s a competition. You give your name; people will vote. And the basis of the competition is, you give a draft of what you’re gonna say.
What was your message?
My basic thesis was, the strength of Harvard Law School and its graduates was the fact that the university was multicultural. It wasn’t because of the courses per se, but it was because you had all these scholars from 60 countries and you put them in this melting pot, and what you get from them is just so special.
My second point was, when you leave Harvard, you have to do something with your education.
It was a very good experience. I had people crying, according to the e-mails I received. They were moved because the usual commencement address is, “We’re so great, we’re from Harvard,” and the message is so light and they make jokes.
My tone was very different. My challenge was, after you graduate, what are you gonna do with your life? Make an impact on the world, and then you can say na magaling ka. I felt it shocked the audience.
It’s weird because I looked it up on Google, and there was no mention of it.
In the Philippines, no one mentioned it. I was a bit piqued by that—not for my own personal glory.
The commencement address was on June 12, and I was on the plane to the Philippines the day after. When I got home, the front page news was we had someone who placed second in a beauty pageant and Manny Pacquiao knocking out someone. And I was thinking, Is my achievement much less than a beauty queen and a boxer winning?
Modesty aside, I was the first Muslim Filipino in Harvard, on a Harvard scholarship. It was not personally funded; it was Harvard funding my education. I thought, Do we value intellectual pursuits so low? It did bother me a bit. I guess, in a way, it shows what our society is and what we value.
So when you came home from Harvard, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to pursue?
No, I did not. When I came home, I wanted to teach and practice law. I didn’t really think of anything political.
So what are your political plans? Are you running for the senate in 2010?
The safe answer would be, let’s wait and see. But people are encouraging me to run because we need a Muslim representative. By 2010, we would not have a Muslim representative for 20 years. The last one was Santanina Rasul, who finished her term in 1992, I think. People feel I am in the best position to run in terms of the national exposure [I have had]. But if I am going to run, it’ll definitely be that—for the senate. But a lot of things have to come together.
[Running for public office] involves so much money, so much organization. If I don’t have that, I can’t run. If I run and I don’t have a chance of winning, it will be a big blow to us Muslims. In the last four or five elections, all our candidates lost. Not a single Muslim candidate ever made it. If it reaches that point, the public consciousness or verdict will be, “Ah, basta Muslim, talo yan, wag na natin ibuwis ang vote.”
But on the other hand, if you win, you’ll be creating a space or room for other Muslim candidates. That’s why I think whoever’s gonna run for the Muslims should be well-positioned and well-prepared.
And maybe it was a good thing too that you started as spokesperson, that it seemed to be a preparation for the senatorial bid.
It’s true, but honestly I did not do it consciously. One of the big reasons I decided to be a spokesman was that I have kids now and when you see where the country is going, you have to take a stand.
I felt I would be best able to take a stand and try to contribute something by being a spokesman. I did not expect the national exposure.
The difference between the 2007 and the 2010 elections is that the first is midterm, which means walang presidential. There’s less politics, less preparation involved. Kung may presidential, you’d have to start preparing your senatorial group much earlier because the candidacy is strengthened or diminished by the senatorial line-up.
So the run-up to the 2010 presidential and senatorial elections will be much earlier. Yung 2007 elections kasi, pumupuwesto 2006 lang. In fact, some of them December lang. But for 2010, by next year—actually, kahit ngayon pa lang—pumupuwesto na sila ng konti. By 2008, they’d start preparing their line-up, making their gestures and symbols that they’re running.
My point is, if I wanted to run for the senate, I should have begun earlier than those who ran for 2007.
Should you run for public office, what will be your platform? What are the issues you want to address?
Definitely the main issue, and the one most people would want me to fulfill as a role, is the Muslim representation.
My approach, whether in my teaching or writing, is I am not a person who advocates only Muslim concepts and ideas. I am a Muslim, and these are my ideas. In other words, [Muslim issues] would not be my single platform because the Muslim population is only about 5 percent. For you to become senator, you need at least 13 million votes, with the Muslim vote there being 1.5 million. So 80 percent of your votes will be taken from the non-Muslim, so you can’t be a representative for the Muslim. You must also advocate platforms that do not just focus on Muslim issues.
As I am an academic, the issue that is closest to me is education.
Have you always been this busy? Or was it only because of your involvement in politics?
I’ve always been busy. Even before becoming the GO spokesperson, I had my teaching, law practice, and taking care of the kids. If I have some free time, I write articles. I also wrote a book. I try to keep myself busy.
You started a blog!
I started a blog but I don’t know how to keep it up. I don’t know what you’re supposed to keep in a blog. I need someone to teach me how to do it. Hindi ko nga masyadong maintindihan. Someone has to sit me down and explain. I’m a nerd basically. I don’t have any hobbies. I only read.
What books have you been reading lately—something not related to law?
I’ve been re-reading The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s a great book to read and re-read.
But it doesn’t seem like bedtime reading.
I don’t do bedtime reading. I do not read for pleasure. I only read for knowledge. I read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Have you read it?
No, I didn’t get to finish it!
It’s the most boring book! But I read it because it was a classic. It just keeps on talking about longitude and latitude, ano bang nangyari bakit nagki-keel over ang boat. I forced myself to read it for my dad. When we were growing up, he’d make us read books and we’d write a book report.
This was how often?
Once or twice a month. He’d choose the title, and he’d give us a prize. Maybe twenty pesos noon.
Last question: What is it about the Philippines that you are most proud of?
The Filipino. It’s nothing geographical. Ang galing ng Pinoy.
For example, in singing. I’m a frustrated singer, but my Boston classmates were bilib na bilib sa singing prowess ko, so to speak. And I tell them, “You know I’m just average. If you make the Filipino sing, he does it beautifully.” My Harvard classmates tell me that if they had a gift they could have, they’d want to be able to sing.
Another thing is, ang bait ng Pinoy. When I was working in the library at Harvard, gulat na gulat ang mga co-workers ko at what they perceive na kabaitan natin. When the Filipino sees someone, with his heart he asks, “How are you doing?” Sila kasi, they say it, but they don’t look at you. They don’t really mean it. It’s just the norm. But tayo, we care. That’s why we make good caregivers. Students tell me they did not experience the type of service na concerned ka.
It’s just sad that we have a lot lousy leaders. But the Filipino is a gem. That’s why I came back [even though] I had a real offer with the United Nations and could have had the chance to work with the World Bank.
Iba ang buhay dito. Walang sinabi ang sa Boston. Lahat naman ng meron sila, meron tayo eh. Mas maganda pang malls natin. Pagkain natin mas masarap. Ang tao mas mabait. It’s just that there’s an inequitable distribution of wealth and we have corrupt leaders. But the quality of life, I feel, is so much better.
Just to be able to survive in spite of the corruption of so many of our leaders, that’s a testament to our resiliency.