“How do you keep yourself physically healthy? You’ll have a high- pressure, gruelling job, and your predecessors have had health issues. How do you assure us that you are also taking care of yourself?”
This was my last question in my May 2017 interview with Nestor Espenilla Jr, his first on camera after he was officially announced as the incoming top brass at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas , or the BSP. (Watch the interview below.)
“That’s scary,” he said with a worried smile. But I persisted. I thought it needed to be asked after the two central bank governors who came before him were forced to pause from their central banking duties to attend to serious health issues.
Amando Tetangco Jr. had a triple bypass in 2010, keeping him from accepting an offer of a third term in 2017. Rafael Buenaventura had thyroid cancer, prompting him to take a leave in 2003 to pursue more aggressive medical treatments. He passed on the offer of a second term, and passed away in 2006, a year after his 6-year BSP stint.
In that May 2017 interview, Espenilla replied that he sticks to some exercise regimen and tries to go to the gym, especially on weekends. Otherwise, walking his dogs was his refuge. “They calm me down. I find comfort in those little things to disengage my mind for a while.”
But even his pets could not do more for him when fate intervened. In November 2017, just months after he formally took over the reins as central bank governor in July 2017, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer for which he sought immediate treatment: surgery and radiation therapy. He even went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his wife and friends.
For most of 2018, he said his doctors considered him cancer-free. He continued his duties, occasionally gracing events and delivering speeches. He lost weight, his voice was hoarse, and he occasionally had to reach for a glass of water.
He and the monetary team faced growing inflation concerns, largely due to rice supply issues, as well as criticisms they were slow in hiking interest rates to rein in the rising food prices and the depreciating peso.
I saw him last in August 2018. I was his personal guest to an exclusive economic briefing where he explained why he did not prescribe a monetary cure (rate hike) when it was not yet timely. The policy-making body would later aggressively and successively increase rates up to November, propping the peso.
We chatted afterward. He remembered our interview — his wife’s favorite — especially that topic about being healthy while on the job.
“Life has thrown me a curveball,” he said as sadness began to creep onto his face. He hated the abrupt halt. He was mentally, emotionally, psychologically prepared to take on the top job, but the cancer unceremoniously stopped him in his tracks.
He wanted to stay in the game because the reform efforts, and the new and proposed policies he has worked hard on for many years, were already gaining momentum. Even when he was deputy governor, he was pushing for several policy reforms, including sharper regulatory teeth via a more relaxed bank secrecy law and the amendments to anti-money laundering laws.
He had laid the groundwork for more inclusive and competitive financial markets, which includes regulations that enable technology-based platforms. These would benefit majority of the over 100 million Filipinos excluded in the current formal financial and payment systems.
Then he paused and turned the spotlight on me. “How’s your health, too?” he asked. He knew about my past woes. I admitted to him that before we had our on-cam interview a year before, I had a pain attack. I was on pain meds when we were having our interview. “Show must go on,” I smiled.
We reflected on what a bummer getting sick is, and promised we will do everything possible to have a better quality of life so we can do and be more, both in our personal and professional lives. “I am doing my part,” I said, assuring him we can both beat these issues holding us back.
Before we parted I assured him I’m continuing my wellness journey of yoga, pilates, and good diet. He shared something about seeking more aggressive treatments for his throat cancer, which recurred.
He did not get through it. On January 23, 2019, he passed away. He was only 60. He is the first central bank governor to die during his term.
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I met Espenilla for the first time when he was just Assistant Governor sometime in 2002 or 2003. I was in my early years as a business journalist. We were at the same table at a family business conference somewhere in Quezon City.
When I asked him what he finds interesting in an event like that, he said he wanted to know more about the Who’s Who in the sector he is tasked to regulate, and why they do what they do. How very diligent and proactive, I thought. I told him I was a former banker. Throughout the conference, we were speaking bankers’ jargons and exchanging insights about the presentations.
We would bump into each other occasionally. When he moved to the banking supervision and regulation team at the BSP, I was also investigating wrongdoings by bankers or cases that involve banks. He never leaked scoops to me, though. And he was very diplomatic when I asked him leading questions about the stories I’m pursuing. He never prioritized my quest for information over the rights of my target subject, which BSP oversees. He never provided off-the-record materials. He was fully aware that whatever work-related words he utters are considered official conversation.
I learned to phrase my questions to allow him to respond in a way that would not bring him or the BSP trouble. It meant more work for me, though. I would first seek other sources for facts and details regarding the cases I’m writing about, then I would ask him if these findings violated BSP’s rules and regulations.
That’s how I got quotes from him for my stories on the loans and business deals that allowed controversial businessman Roberto Ongpin to borrow funds from a state-owned bank. A former trade minister, Ongpin used the loan proceeds to purchase the bank’s equity investments in a listed mining firm. Espenilla told me that while the financial transactions were unconventional, they did not result in losses for the Development Bank of the Philippines or DBP. It was a calculated risk that paid handsomely for DBP, so there was no initial trigger for the BSP to come in and intervene.
Ongpin and his legal team would later harp on these points in Senate hearings on the alleged anomalous transaction, even if, on one hand, he attacked me for writing the story. As more details of the related transactions were unearthed, Ongpin later sued Espenilla for ordering the freezing of his local bank accounts.
Espenilla and I were exchanging insights as the legal battle with Ongpin reached feverish levels. I distinctly remember how, during an annual Bankers’ Night, he told me while we stood away from the other partying guests: “We are kindred spirits.”
Aside from Ongpin, we also both experienced legal issues with members of the Aguirre clan. Different branches of the family were clashing over management and financial control of Banco Filipino, which had a troubled past. I wrote a series of investigative stories on Banco Filipino and its related businesses. The Aguirres sued me and my editor for libel, and also sued the BSP and Espenilla for ordering the bank closed.
That evening, we acknowledged that these tactics by the mighty and powerful can sometimes get on our or our families’ nerves. But we affirmed each other that we are doing what is responsible and right, and must continue to stand our ground.
To my good friend, my kindred spirit in the pursuit of good governance, my fight continues but yours have come to an end. Rest now in eternal peace.