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Maps, briefers, and high standards: Inside Noynoy Aquino’s black bag as told by two former aides

By Brooke Villanueva Published Jun 28, 2021 1:11 pm Updated Jun 24, 2022 12:04 am

What was inside the bulky black bag of former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III? According to the revealing stories of Aquino’s two former close-in aides, the bag and its contents epitomized the former president’s leadership style and exacting standards.

During his term, Aquino, who passed away June 24, always had an aide carrying the bag  just a step or two behind him. These staff said the bag was very important for the former president as he used its contents as basis for his decisions.

Raf Ignacio, who worked for Aquino for five years, recalled how he never lost sight of his duty to serve the Philippines. “He was very tough on his staff and demanded nothing less than excellence from everybody he worked with—that’s a very admirable trait because the Filipino people deserve no less,” he told PhilSTAR L!FE.

Knowing that his decisions and statements could affect millions of Filipinos, the responsibilities of his staff were centered on “making sure that he was armed with all the data to make a sound decision,” Ignacio wrote in a Facebook post

"Notice the briefing kit on top of the small table in the middle," wrote Raf Ignacio, who was seen at the back of PNoy during his state visit to Singapore in March 2011.

“The staff is tasked to anticipate everything PNoy would need. His instructions were: ‘Dapat iniisip ko pa lang, nagawa niyo na,’” he recalled, sharing that they fulfilled it through a briefing kit containing all the relevant information he might need for the day. These were its usual contents, as enumerated by Ignacio. 

  1. Executive brief - This is a bird's-eye view of the logistics of the meeting or event. Who is attending, what is the agenda, where will it happen, and why should spend time on this engagement.
  2. Speech - This is a prepared statement written with PNoy's input on what message he wants to send. He meticulously reviews each speech, line by line, with his pool of writers who work with PMS to make sure all the data is accurate.
  3. Talk Points - This is a set of suggested points to raise during a meeting. Each point was supported with annotations on the background of the issue and what the Philippines stands to gain by pushing a particular agenda item.
  4. Briefing Note - This is the master document that informs the pronouncements in both the speech and the talking points. For example, if PNoy will announce that the Philippine economy grew, then the briefing note should have all the supporting data for him to make this claim (e.g., faster GDP growth, improved credit ratings, lower unemployment rate, stable inflation, etc.). 

According to CF Orbes—who worked for Aquino when he was still in the Senate in 2008 and up until his presidency in 2010—his eagerness to be well-informed and prepared for his engagements went beyond such briefers. “It wasn’t just making sure he had that, but making sure to account for all eventualities. He likes to use visual representations in his meetings to explain his points,” he told PhilSTAR L!FE

On Facebook, Orbes shared the other things that the “black bag” contained: 

  1. A copy of the constitution - in several meetings he attended, he always goes back to what is written in the law, to what is in the constitution especially when the issue becomes muddled.
  2. Maps - different and detailed maps of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao; world map; map of the West PH Sea, and if there are conflicts around the world, a map of that too. He always looks at these maps to check where an incident happens and helps him visualize the situation and the response.
  3. Briefing kits - his briefing materials for the day which contains the facts and figures for the meeting/ event, the speech, his movement down to the last minute, and even people he will meet.
  4. Photos, graphs, charts, or articles - of specific items, incidents, or policy development/ issue. He uses these as presentation materials in his meetings to emphasize a point and to clearly explain to the person he is meeting (even heads of states/ governments) his decisions and positions.
  5. Calculator (a big one) - he always computes numbers he encounters in briefings and always checks how much is allocated in the national budget.
  6. A pack of candy (Lifesavers, cherry) - from when he wants something sweet to chew on.
  7. Reserve water bottle (replaced every day) - this water bottle has been screened by the PSG. P. sips some water right before delivering a speech so that his throat isn't dry.
  8. Other props - one I remember is having a pack of coco water to show products from PH.
  9. Sometimes, a change of clothes for the aide, for when you need to change attire depending on the nature of the event.

“Be it on himself or from his staff, he demands that the kind of material you provide him or the service that you provide the public is of high quality,” he said, sharing Aquino’s evaluation of his performance in the Senate back in 2009.

Aquino's evaluation of CF Orbes' performance in the Senate (2009) | Photo shared by Orbes

Under Aquino’s leadership, he saw the value of “pride in work,” as he put it. “For us, it won’t be enough to just do the job. You have to do it right, you have to do it properly, you have to give your best,” he said, “because if not, it shows how little respect you have for your principal and it shows how little you think of the trust he placed upon you." 

“The thing is, while PNoy is very detail-oriented, he actually lays it out and connects it to the bigger picture,” he added. “I guess world leaders are like that—they see far beyond what we would normally do.”