Congressman John Marvin Nieto, more popularly known for his screen name Yul Servo, was one of the “stars” (actors-turned-politicians) in Manila’s City Council for nine long years. After completing three terms in 2016, he hesitantly threw his hat in the congressional race in the city’s third district and surprised the pundits when he convincingly won the nod of the voters, many of them Filipino-Chinese. Since then, he has emerged as one of the leading men at the House of Representatives, hobnobbing with celebrities in that chamber like Reps. Vilma Santos-Recto, Lucy Torres Gomez, Sol Aragones, Monsour del Rosario, and Alfred Vargas.
With the many bills and resolutions he had authored, coauthored, sponsored, or co-sponsored as gleaned from the records of the lower chamber of the Philippine Congress, it can be said that Congressman Nieto has found his new calling. PUSHING SCIENTIFIC BOUNDARIES Two bills that he takes pride in having co-authored are centered on science and technology, believing that they are vital keys in the speedy growth and progress of the country. The first, House Bill No. 5792, seeks to address the country’s lack of scientists by attracting back to the country Filipino scientists, experts, engineers, and inventors who had made their name in the United States and other countries under a “Balik Scientist’’ program by providing appropriate incentives and benefits like tax and duty exemptions, grants in aid of research and development projects, relocation allowances, among others. The second bill, House Bill No. 4275, aims to catapult the Philippines into the space age and harness space science and technology through the creation of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) akin to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) of the United States of America. Owing to its importance, the first measure hurdled both houses of Congress with ease and the approved bill has, in fact, been signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. The second bill was also approved overwhelmingly by the House and the Senate is ready for final approval.
It was gathered that the country has only 189 scientists per million people when the ideal ratio is 380 scientists per million. This explains why the country trails behind many countries like the US and South Korea, which have over 5,000 and 3,000 scientists per million, and Malaysia with 2,000 scientists per a population of one million.“I’m very happy and proud that my bill has become a law (Republic Act No. 11035) and, hopefully, with this, the country can catch up with our Asian neighbors. Malaking bagay ito para sa bansa,” Congressman Nieto points out.
The Philippines has already built and launched satellites in space but more must still be done to develop and promote a national space program. Congressman Nieto stresses that the proposed PhilSA under his bill shall be in charge of developing a space program that can help improve disaster management, enhance the lives of Filipino farmers, speed up internet and telecommunications systems, among others. Space technology, according to the Manila lawmaker, can give early warnings on hazards and natural disasters, which can help boost the country’s agricultural production.
EDUCATION AND HEALTH—TOP PRIORITIES
Congressman Nieto, who is now only 41 and was an award-winning actor prior to throwing his hat in politics in 2007, has the good of the youth at heart. This is manifested, for instance, in his all-out support to the free tuition bill which ended up as a law, Republic Act No. 10931, and officially called the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act. The new law gives full tuition subsidy for thousands, if not millions, of students in about 200 State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) and local universities and colleges (LUCs) as well as state-run technical and vocational schools like the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). The law also allotted a total of P40 billion for the first year, School Year 20182019, of its implementation, P16 billion of which is for free higher education, P7 billion for free tech-voc education, P15.851 billion for tertiary education subsidy, P1 billion for student loan program, P11 million for the Tertiary Education Tracking and Reporting System and another P11 million for the administrative cost of the Unified Student Financial Assistance for Tertiary Education (UniFast).
“There’s no substitute to education,” the youthful lawmaker stresses, and lauds President Duterte for initiating the free tuition program. “It is the passport out of poverty. It also helps to keep the youth away from drugs,” he quips.
“With the free education, only you could be blamed if you don’t grow and get out of abject poverty,” he says. “Kailangan tayong magsikap para umunlad,” he adds, citing the experience of the youth of Manila who have been enjoying free-tuition college education through the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and the City College of Manila (now the Universidad de Manila). Congressman Nieto knows whereof he speaks—he worked hard to get education winding up at the Philippine College of Criminology, as he admits initially wanting to become a law enforcer. “Pangarap ko talaga maging pulis,” he reveals. But the prospect of earning more in show business was just too tempting at that time, so he chose acting and was eventually given the screen name Yul Servo. He admits being an actor was an advantage when he first ran for councilor—he won in his first attempt at politics.
Congressman Nieto reveals that he also supported the Universal Health Care Bill which both chambers of Congress have passed and forwarded to Malacañang for signing into law. The bill, once signed, will automatically enroll all Filipinos in the proposed National Health Insurance Program, expanding what is already provided for since 1995 by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth. With the bill, Manilans and those from neighboring cities and towns who are availing of the facilities of Manila’s six public hospitals like the Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center will get a big boost in terms of added facilities, medicines, buildings, and other forms of support.
BRINGING BACK THE BEAUTY OF MANILA
As a Manila lawmaker, Congressman Nieto initiates and supports measures which will benefit the city and its residents. Thus, he throws his support to the rehabilitation of the dying Manila Bay and the rivers, esteros, and other tributaries leading to it, inspired by the Duterte administration’s success in rehabilitating the world famous Boracay. “This is long overdue,” he points out, admitting that the work would be massive now considering that Manila Bay covers not only Manila but also Metro Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, and up to Bataan whose waters have suffered from pollution due to multiple causes (e.g. lack of sewerage system, mushrooming of informal settlers, businesses and industries along the coasts and river banks). “Pero nakakatuwa na masisimulan na ang tunay na paglilinis, pag-aayos (I’m glad that the cleanup and rehabilitation can finally begin),” he says, admitting that his district—Binondo, Chinatown, Sta. Cruz, Quiapo and San Nicolas— is one of the worst hit with its esteros invaded by thousands of informal settlers throwing their mountains of garbage and wastes into them and others contributing to the pollution and flooding of the area. “Hopefully, we will also be the biggest beneficiaries of the honest-to-goodness massive cleanup and rehabilitation,” the optimistic solon relates. “Napakaganda ng Maynila noon, lalung-lalo na ang aking distrito na sentro ng komersiyo kaya’t maraming barko at bangka dito noon (Manila was a very beautiful city then, especially our district, which was the center of commerce; there were lots of ships and boats here back then,” he recalls as he rues its degradation through the years. “Sama-sama nating buhayin ang Ilog Pasig at linisin ang mga estero (Let us work hand in hand in saving the Pasig River and cleaning our waterways),” he enjoins everyone.
But will the proposed massive reclamation projects in Manila and neighboring cities get in the way of the Manila Bay rehabilitation? The poser was raised as Manila alone has two reclamation projects covering some 1,000 hectares from the Rizal Park up to the Manila Yacht Club area and beyond, triggering calls to stop the projects. No less than former Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno (Francisco Domagoso) and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año have proposed the suspension of these projects. “We have experts studying those projects, and whatever their recommendation will be, we will support for as long as it is for the good of Manila and its people,” the solon clarifies.
Congressman Nieto, at the same time, calls for the rehabilitation of the city’s ports in tandem with the Manila Bay cleanup. “We have to improve and beautify the Port Area to attract more travelers and tourists and thus raise more revenues for the government, including the city government of Manila,” he says as he bats for higher share of taxes and revenues from the port operations, Manila being the host of the ports.
Congressman Nieto admits he is an accidental politician. His dream was to become a policeman that’s why he studied and finished criminology at the Philippine College of Criminology. But by that time he was studying and completed his studies, he dabbled in acting. His fate changed when an uncle, Willy Cruz, an engineer who knew some actors and directors, saw his nephew’s potential to become a professional actor and introduced him to director Maryo J. Delos Reyes. The budding stage play actor then adopted the name “Yul Servo” from the name of Oscar winning actor Yul Brynner and the name of the head waiter in the restaurant which the director frequented, Alex III.
Politics beckoned when his father, Martin Romano, was about to finish his term as councilor of Manila’s third district. He recalls his father, who made good as a city alderman, asked him several times to pinch hit for him in the next election and every time he hesitated to his father. He admits he eventually said “yes” when his director-friend Maryo Delos Reyes, who had earlier disapproved of his going into politics, finally consented, but with one condition: he won’t become a corrupt politician.
He says he was hesitant at first to run for an elective office because he already had a good acting career. Besides, he admits he didn’t think that he would win. But he won by landslide, and won two more elections as a councilor, obtaining the highest votes among the councilors, thus making him a possible successor for vice mayor just in case. As a councilor, he says he initiated many projects, led medical and dental missions, reached out to out-ofschool youth, and helped the street kids, especially from his district, among others, adding he later enjoyed the work.
Congressman Nieto admits becoming a politician had never crossed his mind. But he has the good fortune to be a councilor, which eventually led to winning a congressional seat. He is currently seeking a second term under the Asenso Manileños the party which catapulted him to the City Council. He says he will continue serving the people of Manila, especially those in the third district, in the best way he can. “Hindi ko sasayangin ang tiwala sa akin ng mga Manileño. Ang tiwala at pagmamahal ay hindi mababayaran. Patuloy akong maglilingkod ng tapat. (I will not waste the opportunity that the Manileños gave me. I cannot repay their trust and love. But I will continue to serve honestly.”) — ALFREDO G. GABOT
*ABOUT THE AUTHOR Alfredo G. Gabot, a professor, author and journalist, has a Master in Government Management. He was a former Commissioner of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and Director later Chairman of the Board of the Philippine Postal Corp. (PHLPost).