Arnell Ignacio is a keeper of tales.
However, he doesn’t just sit around waiting to be fed with stories. The Architecture and Music graduate of the University of the Philippines would often take random walks and mill about, eavesdropping on conversations.
“Hindi ako namimili ng taong pakikinggan. I listen to everyone, lalo na ‘yung masusungit, the weirdest of people. I want to find out why he/she turned out that way.”
The genuine interest in people and their stories shaped Arnell’s brand of comedy. It’s the kind that doesn’t mock people for their physical imperfections but pokes fun instead at the very oddness of life experiences.
“Kaya ang comedy ko lagi, magmula pa noon, tungkol din sa mga tao eh. Kinukuwento ko lang ‘yung narinig kong mga pinagsasasabi nila.”
What has helped him in his career as an entertainer likewise proved to be of great use to his newfound vocation—yes, it is a calling—as Assistant Vice President for Community Relations and Social Services of PAGCOR (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation). When Arnell assumed his post in July, he was quite naturally a fish out of water, and as such, he was being sized up. His greatest weapon, says Arnell, is to play dumb. “It helps that they think na wala akong alam because they talk to me unarmed.”
Little did those who doubted his capabilities and qualifications know that the man is a voracious reader. His appetite for learning is insatiable.
“Isang linggo ‘yan, binabasa ko lang nang binabasa. All the laws, all the Republic Acts.”
Three months into the job, Arnell realizes that most people in government are a tad too uptight. Words like relaxed and laidback are alien to them. He cites a recent encounter with people from another government-owned and controlled corporation like PAGCOR. Representatives from the said entity went to see Arnell unsmiling.
“Nakasimangot na sila. That’s the language they live with.”
Trained in the showbiz brand of public relations, Arnell employed the art of pakikisama. Dapat estimahin mo muna mga kausap mo.
And, so, Arnell asked the people in his department about the people he was to meet with. “Sabi ko, ‘Ilang taon na ‘yung mga darating dito? Ano mga edad? O, bili ka ng kape, ng merienda.’ Naabutan nila ako nakikipagbiruan ako du’n sa isang pasyente na magpapa-opera ng mata. They overheard it.”
Inside Arnell’s office as AVP, in between sips of coffee and bites of kakanin, the newly minted PAGCOR executive explained their predicament and their desire to extend help. “Unang-una, hindi namin mandate na tumulong ng one-on-one and we don’t have the budget because our budget is allocated to projects that will extend help on a larger scale. The individual cases that we get to help out ginagawa namin ‘yun out of our strong will to help.”
There still ensued a slight tension but as the meeting was winding down, Arnell told his visitors that he intended to pay the other corporation’s Chairman and President soon. Voila, that did it!
“’Yun pala ‘yung hindi pa nila nararanasan na pumupunta ’yung head sa opisina nila kasi laging underlings ang pumupunta. Eh ako wala akong pinapairal na ego eh,” relates Arnell who totally disarmed his guests. His office that day ended up echoing with soft peals of laughter and friendly banter.
Proof of Arnell’s absence of arrogance and guile is how he conducts himself at the PAGCOR office in Pasay. One of Arnell’s friends observes. “AVP siya but he eats at the cafeteria. And his department has cubicles pero siya ‘yung pumupunta sa mga tao niya to relay his concerns.”
Lest you be mistaken, Arnell is not all tact and diplomacy all the time. He can be blunt but never brash, displaying just the right amount of forthrightness to let you know that he means business. Perhaps you may credit it to his Repertory training under the late Zeneida Amador or having gone under the stern supervision of stage director Fritz Ynfante. He brought with him to the job the value of discipline and hard work that showbiz has instilled in him early on. “I have to admit na meron akong reputation dati na mahirap katrabaho. Kasi kung magtrabaho ako, this is not about the glitter of showbiz but about us doing our jobs. Hindi ko talaga gusto kapag ang trabaho mo eh hindi maayos.”
Arnell adds, “Wala sa aking maliit na trabaho o malaking trabaho. Minsan lang nangyari ‘yung meron akong pinatawag ko sa office at kinausap ko. I told him that we could not operate this way. We cannot just say that we cannot do it because we are expected to perform miracles.”
And what resulted from that “reprimand” was nothing short of a miracle in itself. Arnell’s people—note that he doesn’t call them his employees—realized that their boss exemplified everything that his position needed. Someone with a ready ear to listen, a heart that is compassionate, armed with wisdom and a little kindly taray to say what has to be said. “I think their nerves relaxed after I told them na ang s’werte natin na tayo ‘yung merong trabaho na ganito eh. We’ll try our best na ma-accommodate lahat. Nakakainis lang tingnan na ang daming dapat gawin pero alisin natin ‘yung inis. Ang ending, gagawin din naman natin ‘yan.
Let’s just have it done. Ang s’werte natin na hindi tayo ‘yung nasa receiving end (ng tulong).”
And each single day, Arnell’s heart dies a thousand little deaths at the sight of indigents, of the marginalized and the helpless, all pleading for assistance. In some instances, even just the thought that someone is genuinely concerned about their plight. “Nu’ng isang araw lang, merong may bukol na sobra nang laki. It breaks your heart na alam mong wala ka nang magagawa. Tomorrow, he may be dead.”
But the optimistic Arnell Ignacio refuses to accept that no change is forthcoming because something can always be done about it. “Working in government, you cannot help but be stung by (the idea of providing) service. Gusto mong ulit-ulitin. ‘Yan ang sabi nila sa akin ngayon, ‘You’ve been stung.’”
From the outside, it has become a foregone conclusion that government reeks with filth, dirty tactics and corruption. “What I’m seeing now is that there are so many dedicated people in government.”
These are people who go to work everyday and do it to the best of their abilities. Their idea of fun is to play a game or two of pool and down a few bottles of beer.
It is not very different from their AVP’s little joys. “Ako ‘yung tipo ng tao na maliligo at may hot water, masaya na ako. Salamat meron akong ganito.”
In his other world, Arnell acknowledges the special treatment accorded to him. This dawned on him even more during a recent rip to Bahrain for a showbiz engagement. “Tinitingnan ko ‘yung oras and then naalala ko, ito ‘yung time na people start lining up sa opisina namin, na nakikipagkuwentuhan ako sa kanila. How do I reconcile that with the fact that I was instead in a large room with all the privileges and premium service because I’m a celebrity? You’re a star”
He muses, “Tapos may naiwan ako sa Manila, mga tao na sasabihin sa ‘yo, mamamatay na ‘yung anak nila. You come in contact with people who have no choice. Ang pinakamasakit, they do not know what to do.”
Arnell says that working in government has broadened his perspective. “I get to appreciate more what’s there. That I have the brains, the talent, the fire to face life unlike these little people.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of reciting a list of accomplishments in one’s first 100 days on the job: school buildings, comprehensive feeding programs, hospitals soon to be constructed—but perhaps, the most arresting images to support one’s crusade to help others are the ones that often escape the human eye.
Arnell’s department recently held a feeding program at Pulang Lupa Elementary School somewhere in Occidental Mindoro. “Ang akala ko nga sa Las Pinas ‘yun,” laughs Arnell. “Ang microphone nila du’n sa school, maiksi ang kable.” He ended buying the school a new microphone from his own pocket. Now if only some laws can go easy on PAGCOR, more acts of kindness, generosity and charity can be done. “Alam mo kung ano ‘yung nakakatuwa? Kapag nagpi-present na ‘yung mga bata ng song number nila. Makikita mo ‘yung mga tela na ginupit-gupit lang para gawing costumes,” Arnell suddenly pauses, stops short of his recollection, a lump in his throat.
And in the comedian-turned-government head’s expert hands, tragedy becomes comedy. It transforms into something uplifting, bringing a semblance of hope where there is little. “Gumagaan lahat bigla,” Arnell exclaims. “It’s a wonderful job.”