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Miriam Defensor Santiago: Asia’s ‘Iron Lady’

Miriam Defensor Santiago has been dubbed as the "Iron Lady of Asia" for her no-nonsense drive against graft and corruption when she served all the three branches of the government—judicial, executive, and legislative.

"In a nation where many public officials are charged with, or suspected, of plunder, her honesty shines like a light in the darkness," her Senate biography read.

Santiago was born on June 15, 1945 in Iloilo City, Iloilo to Benjamin A. Defensor, a district judge, and Dimpna Palma Defensor.

She passed away on Thursday morning at the St. Luke's Medical Center at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig after battling stage 4 lung cancer. 


Santiago is an accomplished student having graduated valedictorian both in elementary and high school.

She also graduated magna cum laude with Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of the Philippines Visayas in 1965. In 1969, she earned her law degree, with honors, from the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Notably, she was the very first female editor-in-chief of UP's student newspaper, The Philippine Collegian.

She also went abroad and earned the graduate degrees of Master of Laws, and Doctor of Juridical Science, from the University of Michigan, one of the top three law schools in the United States.

She finished the academic requirements for the degree Master of Arts in Religious Studies, at the Maryhill School of Theology.

Miriam also has postdoctoral studies in Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and Academy of Public International Law at the Peace Palace, at The Hague, Netherlands.

Law career

After graduation from law school, Santiago refused to join a private law firm and instead served as special assistant to then Justice Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and his successor Vicente Abad Santos as a payback to the public’s investment as she was an alumna of the University of the Philippines.

She also worked as a legal officer at the United Nations High Commission for refugees in Geneva, Switzerland where she planned and attended conferences on refugee law and analyzed draft treaties affecting refugees.

Santiago was later appointed as a judge at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court where she became known for releasing arrested anti-Marcos rallyists, including director Lino Brocka, which was considered a bold move during the Martial Law.

She also pushed for the efficient and speedy handling of cases.

Government service

President Corazon Aquino appointed Santiago as head of the then graft-ridden Commission on Immigration and Deportation.

Her mandate was “to clean up” the commission which she did. Her work earned her the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1988.

"As commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, Defensor Santiago set out to show that a 'traditionally corrupt government agency can be reformed.' With breathtaking decisiveness, she threw out the fixers, transferred suspected bribe-takers from sensitive positions, and filed administrative charges against corrupt employees. She swept away corruption-breeding disorder and red tape. She declared war on crime syndicates and exposed drug pushers, pedophiles, gunrunners, and passport forgers," Ramon Magsaysay Awards cited on its website.

Miriam also served as Secretary of Agrarian Reform in 1989.

Santiago ran for President in 1992 (won by Fidel V. Ramos), 1998 (won by Joseph Estrada), and 2016 (won by Rodrigo Duterte).

Entry to politics Miriam ran for president in the 1992 election but lost to Fidel V. Ramos.

She claimed to have been cheated after leading the canvassing for days before Ramos was eventually declared the winner.

She also ran for president in 1998 but only finished seventh behind the winner Joseph Estrada and five other candidates.

She was elected senator in 1995, ran for re-election in 2001 but lost. Miriam, however, made her comeback to the Senate when she won a seat in 2004 and got re-elected in 2010.

In her three-term stint as senator, Miriam claimed that she was the first senator in Philippine political history to decline a pork barrel allocation, on the ground that it was unconstitutional because it lacked an appropriation law.

As a lawmaker, Miriam co-authored or sponsored the Republic Health Act of 2012, Sin Tax Law, Climate Change Act of 2009, Renewable Energy Act of 2008, Philippine Act on Crimes against International Humanitarian Law, Magna Carta of Women, Cybercrime Act of 2012, and Archipelagic Baselines Act of 2009.

Among her pending bills include her versions of the anti-dynasty bill; an act institutionalizing an age-appropriate curriculum to prevent the abduction, exploitation, and sexual abuse of children; anti-epal bill; freedom of information bill; and magna carta for Philippine internet freedom.

Lung cancer Miriam brought honor to the country when she became the first Filipino and Asian from a developing country to be elected as judge in the United Nation's International Criminal Court, which hears cases against heads of states.

However, she waived the ICC privilege after she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in June 2014.

Months later she claimed that the cancer has regressed and expressed confidence her chances of recovery are high because of a new cancer pill.

A year later, she said that "cancer growth in her left lung has been arrested." 2016 elections Claiming that she defeated her cancer,

Miriam decided to run for president in the 2016 elections, her third attempt to seek the highest elective post in the country, with former Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. as her running mate.

However, during the campaign period she went on a one-month hiatus while Marcos was active in his campaign trail.

During the last leg of the PiliPinas Debates 2016, Miriam made noticeable long pauses and was frequently assisted in walking and sitting.

She lost the May 9 presidential elections, finishing fifth behind the winner President Rodrigo Duterte.

Earlier in September, Miriam has been brought again to hospital for cancer treatment.

Santiago was rushed to the Makati Medical Center late May for pneumonia due to complications from lung cancer and she was discharged a week later.

Pickup lines

The "Asia's Iron Lady" is not only known for her bravery and legal brilliance in fighting corruption, she also became popular for bringing comic relief to serious political issues with her 'pick up' lines.

Gaining popularity with her "witticisms," Miriam launched two successful books - "Stupid Is Forever" and "Stupid Is Forevermore" — which contain collections of her punchlines, jokes, and witty one-liners, both became top sellers. — KG/VVP, GMA News