MANILA, JANUARY 2, 2012 (STAR) PULSE ASIA - By Jose Paolo S. dela Cruz (People Asia) Photography by Frank Hoefsmit - To many who remember, tales of the old Ilocos Norte are a case of life imitating art. Art being the classic cowboy films, where the West is governed by guns, goons and gore.

Only, the Old North is not the West and Clint Eastwood is nowhere to be found. Filling in for these elements are our local version of a “wild” North, and its version of the legendary Clint Eastwood — Luis “Chavit” Singson.

Where most politicians needed to dodge corruption accusations, Chavit had to dodge bullets and even grenade launchers when he first eyed public office in the ’70s.

A quick recap of his ascent to power is like a synopsis of a classic action movie, minus the cheesy lines and the bearded villains. Chavit’s real life enemies never talked as much. Burning whole towns and ambushing private parties was more their style. Kill, or at the very least, try. This was their sacred mandate.

Jumping from one survival anecdote to another, it’s noticeable that attempts on his life have all been credited to experience for Chavit. The veteran politician doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he recalls how 11 people died instantly when two hand grenades were thrown his way during one party. Nor did he get excited as he talked about dodging a grenade launcher or storming through checkpoints designed to silence him. Chavit talked about these incidents as if they were no more than unfortunate everyday experiences, like accidentally cutting your chin during a lethargic morning shave.

Indeed, he has gotten over those darker days. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he seems to have gotten over the people who allegedly plotted these events. From his relatives — his first political foes — to deposed President Joseph Estrada with whom he had a fallout in 2000, Chavit maintains civil to friendly relations with those who have put him in hot water at one point or another.

Chavit’s generosity is also fabled. And that’s not just when it comes to money. As many would remember, the governor was one of the very few people who stood behind a once losing boxer who returned home without a title. The empty-handed athlete seemed to have reached a dead end at that time, until Chavit offered a friendship that would rouse the boxer’s dreams once more. And boy, what a dream it proved to be. “I saw Manny [Pacquiao] a long time ago. Bata pa. Mabilis, pero wala pang depensa,” explains Chavit.

Chavit’s fatherly instinct also kicks in regularly on a wider scale. As the patriarch of Ilocos Sur, the governor never stopped pursuing innovations that would better the lives of his constituents. It is perhaps for this reason that the province has risen from being a fifth class to first class province under his watch. He also authored R.A. 7171 during his stint in Congress. Also known as the Virginia Tobacco Law, this piece of legislation became the goose that laid golden eggs for the Ilocos region, resulting in more jobs and billions in provincial revenue.

Judging from his political longevity, one would think that Chavit’s existence is an ultra rare case of Someone Up There really liking him. Or it could be just plain darn luck. But after 40 years of solid performance as a public servant, it’s easy to see why Lady Luck and any other Higher Being keep on giving Chavit a chance to live another day. “Whenever I survive accidents — like the time our helicopter crashed during the last election — people tell me I still have a purpose in life. But a lot more ask me if I have an amulet,” he says in the vernacular.

Girls, guns and governance

There’s very little — if not nothing left — for Chavit to prove in Philippine politics nowadays. His performance as a governor can only be rated as first-class. His influence as a political game-changer is beyond any doubt (EDSA Dos anyone?). The rest of his life, according to Chavit, is all about keeping the legacy alive. Perhaps it is for this reason that Chavit has passed on the proverbial torch to his children, most of whom seem game in trying to fill his very big shoes by dabbling into politics.

Taking the same path as his father is Ryan Singson, former vice mayor of Vigan and current congressman of the first district of Ilocos Sur. Ryan’s transition to politics was a lot smoother than his father’s. There was peace in the land, to the point that Chavit’s real-life tales of the violent North seems to have grown more cinematic than life-like to the 32-year-old congressman. Still, the fortunate lack of bullets for breakfast didn’t completely spare Ryan from emotional hardships that were worsened by a life in politics. In his case, a triumphant march to Congress was preceded by a very unfortunate nationwide scandal.

In 2010, the Singson household was rocked by news of then Rep. Ronald Singson’s detention in Hong Kong for illegal possession of drugs. A stringent trial paired with glaring media interest followed the family like a dark cloud. Soon, Ronald relinquished his seat in Congress and served time as prescribed by the court. Father and son recall the incident as if it happened yesterday. “It was hard. When the sentence was passed, he was taken straight to jail. He wasn’t even able to say goodbye to his son,” recalls Chavit of that fateful incident.

That is when Ryan stepped in to fulfill what his brother left behind in Congress and vacated his seat as vice mayor of Vigan through a special congressional election in March 2011. “It was a difficult time for us. But you just move on. Not just for yourself, but for the sake of your constituents,” says Ryan. Ronald’s strict compliance with Hong Kong detention bylaws have helped shorten his sentence. Come December, father and sons will be reunited once again.

Asked about the greatest lesson they could possibly impart to their children, both Chavit and Ryan agreed on two things: integrity and education. Having learned from his mistakes as a careless young man, the governor encouraged his children to finish their studies no matter what.

The older Singson also warned his kids of the consequences of greed and corruption. “Greed spells the end. There’s always enough for everybody. If you’re too greedy, that’s when it gets complicated. You can’t take all your riches when you die,” says Chavit.

As the photo shoot went on, one couldn’t help but notice how evidently different Chavit and Ryan are in their demeanor. Born in more peaceful times, a gentler aura surrounds Ryan while his father exudes a huskier sense of bravado. But aside from this shallow dissimilarity, they seem to have everything else in common. Both have proven themselves as passionate public servants, with a taste for good food, travel and yes, women. “When we talk, it’s usually about women,” teases Chavit.

It’s easy to tell that both men’s paths meet every now and then. They are two different men who share the same name. Two different roads that tread along the same principles and purpose. Where destiny might bring them, none can tell. One thing’s for sure, though. In the sunset years when their stories are retold, the world can agree that the best part of the journey was when they dove headfirst into transforming the North.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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