It was during the early 1950s, when I was writing a series of articles on our agrarian problem, that I met then National Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Lt. Joe Guerrero, his Ilokano aide, told me that agrarian reform was Magsaysay’s main interest, his answer to the Huk rebellion which was then winding down. With the approval of President Quirino, he had opened the wilds of Mindanao, Palawan, and Northern Luzon for resettlement by the land-hungry farmers of the Visayas and Luzon.
Lt. Guerrero and Magsaysay spoke in Ilokano. It is my mother tongue so I spoke with Magsaysay in Ilokano too, but his Ilokano was far better than mine. He was tall for a Filipino. His manner was urbane but he had a common touch; he could speak to the lower classes in their own idiom, and he was quite direct. His questions were direct too.
His interest in the masa was not a political put on, it was genuine. Sure, he had his faults. He was imperious and impatient, and he often reacted impulsively. But when he committed a mistake, he corrected it immediately. The love of the people for Magsaysay was genuine and deep.
He was also the subject of some jokes – that he was going to repeal the law of supply and demand. My favorite is this: A group of farmers went to Malacanang to complain about the artesian well that Magsaysay had set up in their barrio. It had no water. Magsaysay said, “I promised you an artesian well. I did not promise you water.”
A narrative still current today is that Magsaysay was a CIA creation, that General Edward Lansdale was instrumental in his rise. After working in the Philippines, General Lansdale went to Vietnam to influence the South Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. He failed and the Vietnamese eventually triumphed.
The United States spent billions in the Vietnam War compared with the pittance that they spent in the Philippines to support Ramon Magsaysay. Magsaysay's success, however, is not due to American support. He was elected to office by a great majority. He campaigned personally in the villages. Before him, candidates for the presidency relied on their leaders to do that for them.
When Magsaysay was President, Malacañang was wide open, without the elaborate security arrangements of today. It would have been easy to assassinate him, particularly when he went to the provinces without bodyguards.
Magsaysay also gathered around him the best minds of the day and relied on them for advice. It is with these that he was able to create an honest government, at a time when politicians were already regarding their positions as sinecure. Mark the words of Jose Avelino, Senate President during the Quirino administration, “What are we in power for?”
Sure, we were only 30 million then. We are more than a hundred million now, yet so many of the problems that the Philippines faced in the 1950s are no different from those we face today. Which is why the forthcoming election is important. We must vote for the candidates who will revive Magsaysay's ideals, who will strive for transparency, for honest government, because at the root of our problems is the death of honesty and sincerity in the Filipino.
Magsaysay came from a comfortable middle-class family. He got to know poverty and the onerous tenancy system when, as a guerilla leader in Zambales, he lived with the farmers. He sympathized with the Hukbalahap who were demonized as communist in the beginning of the cold war. He was pressured by the Americans, and Taruc and the Huk leaders were jailed.
He was also shackled in his efforts to free the peasants from their bondage by a landlord-dominated Congress. Had he declared Martial Law, as one of his political allies, former Pangasinan Governor Conrado Estrella said, the people would not have objected. I have a feeling Magsaysay wanted to establish a new political party and a socialist government patterned after Scandinavian socialism. But there are no ifs in history and fate claimed his life too soon.
The day after Magsaysay died, corruption was back. The clean government that was ushered in by Magsaysay had not been institutionalized. It would have been very easy for his successor, President Carlos Garcia, to have continued his legacy, but he did not. This is an important lesson for us, and particularly for our political elite.
I visited President Quirino when he retired in Novaliches. Like Magsaysay, he was also very honest; all those stories about his expensive bed were concoctions to destroy him. He was responsible for plotting our economic recovery after our devastation during the war. And he was magnanimity personified when he forgave the Japanese for killing his family.
He was happy, he said, that Magsaysay had turned out very well. After all, it was he who appointed him Secretary of National Defense. But Claro M. Recto opposed agrarian reform because it was Magsaysay who had made it his major concern: "That ignoramus stole the presidency from me," Recto said.
It was not so much that Magsaysay defeated the Huk insurgency. He got a lot of help from the Huks themselves when their leadership broke up because of their egos. What he did was to show that we Filipinos, given the proper leadership, can have a very honest government.
It is almost seven decades ago that the best president we ever had died in a plane crash. His death anniversary on March 17 went largely unnoticed, and it may seem that he has been forgotten, too, like EDSA I.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 23, 2019
I also read Kit Tatad's last column for The Manila Times, and the rebuttal of the paper's publisher, Dante Ang. It is an undeniable fact there is overt censorship in the media today because of the President's hypersensitivity to criticism.
Kit Tatad is a superb writer and an enterprising journalist. I first met him in the 1960s when he was covering the Department of Foreign Affairs on Padre Faura, which was close to my bookshop. He was an avid reader and often dropped-by.
He became Marcos’s Minister of Public Information in 1969, yet on the morning of the first day of martial law, I was still surprised to see him on TV, reading Marcos's martial law decree.
During the martial law years, Kit kept his office open to journalists. At a recent Philippine PEN conference which he attended as a speaker, some of the writers were angry that he was there. I said Kit was one of PEN's earliest members, and during the martial law years it was he who brought PEN officials and foreign writers to Malacañang so Marcos could hear their plea to release the writers in jail.
A writer, someone I counted as a close friend, had placed me on the blacklist, and for four years I was not allowed to travel out of the country. It was Kit who helped remove me from that blacklist so I could attend a couple of conferences in Dublin and Paris.
AFTER THE LIFTING OF MARTIAL LAW, Kit ran for the Senate and was elected. As a politician, he had the best tutor on opportunism in the country – Marcos. President Duterte admires Marcos, and it would have been logical for Kit to become the President’s comfortable ally. That Kit chose not to be speaks volumes for the man.
I know he has already written a novel and I hope he will release it soon. In the meantime, although he is no longer a Manila Times columnist, I hope he will continue writing even if he is the last writer to rail against this erratic presidency.
All these brought to mind those ten years, 1949-1960, that I worked at the old Manila Times, first as associate editor of the Sunday Times Magazine which was then the most widely circulated magazine in the country. I also edited Progress, the Manila Times’ annual publication. I never took a vacation. Instead, I travelled all over the country, from Sabtang in the Batanes in the north, to Sitankai in Tawi-Tawi in the south. I remember the first advice given to me by Primitivo C. Mauricio, the editor of the magazine. He said: “We don’t own the magazine. It belongs to the people who buy it.”
Joaquin P. Roces, the Manila Times publisher, was a hands-on executive. Every day he was in the newspaper and there were occasions he went to the upper floor where the magazine offices were to talk with me. I was usually there after office hours, working on my novels and short stories. We had protracted conversations about current events, national personalities, and the books I had read. He wasn’t a reader but he kept himself informed by being a good listener.
All of us in the editorial department called him Chino, his nickname because he looked Chinese. But I always addressed him as Sir when he was talking with me as publisher. Chino was warm-hearted and so was his older sister, Isabel, who was the company treasurer. We called her Bebing. I felt she was the paper’s real boss. Both of them never interfered with the work of the editorial department.
NOT ONCE IN MY TEN YEARS at the Manila Times did Chino tell me what to write or criticize what I wrote. I had absolute freedom even when I got to be the editor of the magazine itself. He also gave me the most expensive cameras at the time. He never examined the figures in my travel and expense vouchers. He signed them immediately.
When I left the Manila Times in 1960 to go to Hong Kong to work for the Asia Magazine, I was one of the Times’ ten highest-paid employees, but still I did not have a car. Chino gifted me with a Volkswagen.
His sister called me to her office twice. The first time to tell me she had accepted an award at the National Press Club on my behalf and to ask why I had not been there. I told her outright -- I did not have a barong tagalog. Within the hour I received one.
On another instance, she sounded very anxious and worried because some of her landlord friends had questioned her about my articles on agrarian reform. I told her that if I were to be sued for libel, I would stand by everything I wrote. Not only did I know the libel laws, but my articles were filled with facts. Immediately, she smiled. She then asked me if I had problems writing those articles. They were to win several awards later. I told her I had difficulty because they involved a lot of research. She told me to hire a researcher immediately.
Journalism 1950s was already tainted with some corruption. It was obvious in the lifestyle of some journalists. The Manila Times was the most profitable paper at the time, primarily I think because of the great freedom that its writers enjoyed. The paper had credibility. In remembering those days, I understand why Marcos closed the Manila Times and the other newspapers. It was not so much because media were critical of him but because he wanted the profitable papers, and the radio and TV stations to be in the hands of his cronies.
There is apprehension in the country today that we are on the verge of a dictatorship. I don’t think so but just the same, I hope that the cry, Never Again, is being heard by all those who hold enormous power today.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 16, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/03/16/1901844/kit-tatad-and-old-manila-times
In Berlin, in June 1960, Raul Manglapus and I had lunch with Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who created the atomic bomb. He was soft-spoken, tall, with sandy hair. We talked about the possibilities of a world powered by cheap nuclear energy. Indeed, further research in nuclear physics had led to so many refinements in the electronics industry and in nuclear medicine. Then, somehow, Oppenheimer reminisced about how the atom bomb came to be. He paused and cried silently. I told him I could not share his grief over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we had been brutalized for three years by the Japanese.
If anything, that encounter with Oppenheimer impressed me, convinced me of how neutral science is and how it can easily be evil if those who develop and use it are not moored to ethics. All these came to mind as I perused the major events last week -- the failure of the Trump-Kim summit meeting in Hanoi and the visit of U.S. State Department Secretary Michael R. Pompeo, who assured us that the United States will defend us from any attack by China in the South China Sea. China responded that it will not attack us, while at the same time occupying Scarborough Shoal, Philippine sovereign territory just off the coast of Zambales.
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN OBVIOUS to the Americans that North Korea will not give up its major achievement, a delivery system for its atomic weapons. This small, insignificant country has achieved parity with the United States. A unified Korean peninsula is probably North Korea's eventual goal -- but on its own terms. And North Korea can always argue the atomic bomb had long ceased to be an American monopoly. Russia, China, Britain, France, India, and Pakistan have it. Israel is rumored to have it, too, and soon Iran. Pandora's box has been opened, and cannot be closed.
The Philippines is a mere bit player on the global stage. The world problems that the major powers exacerbate -- their trade wars, climate change -- these eventually impact us but we can do little about them. For us then, a world view is not only a luxury, it can also be a distraction. But not a regional view for we need regional security, and active and profitable interaction with our neighbors. And the domestic view, if anything, this should be our sharpest focus -- our dismal poverty, our dysfunctional political system, our civic decay.
It is in this insecure world wherein we are situated that we must think for ourselves -- what we need to survive and, hopefully, to thrive, unable as we are to participate in developing nuclear power or preventing a nuclear holocaust, and to counter the other threats not just to our country but to humanity as well. We are at the edge of a scientific renaissance that could portend disaster, too. As the scientist, Stephen Hawking, warned, the development of artificial intelligence may usher the end of civilization.
On the very specific threat from a recalcitrant neighbor, it is so easy and simple for the United States to give us more military assistance, yet it has not done so. We can no longer depend on the American pledge of assistance. In the first place, all through history, pledges have always been broken once they are no longer useful. Each country and people must decide on how they should resolve the challenges they face, and their response eventually defines them and their future.
NATIONALISM SPELLS SURVIVAL In my lectures before committees of the American Council of Foreign Relations in the United States in the 1970s, I told the Americans who were embroiled in Vietnam that if they remembered the Philippine-American War in 1898, they wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam. Asian nationalism was their enemy, not communism.
The Vietnamese decided to fight the Americans and they succeeded. Vietnam is now united and doing very well. And the Vietnamese have not sought war reparations from the United States. From this, we may draw insight on the hardiness of the Vietnamese character.
It was the other way around in Thailand. The Thais opened their doors to the Japanese in 1942. I do not think such willful collaboration with the Japanese dented Thai nationalism. Thailand today is doing much better than us.
On those few occasions that I have spoken before the National Defense College, I tried to connect culture and the arts to the development of our national security. I told military officers and government executives that we are a very divided people, riven by geography, language, religion, ethnicity. In our effort to unite the nation, we need to recognize and use the elements that can weld us together -- the water, our history, our culture.
AND SO WE COME TO THE ARTS, to literature. They reveal so much of ourselves, our character, our identity. Our arts give us a profound knowledge of ourselves and eventually and hopefully, develop in us a sense of nation and, most of all, a profound commitment to our Motherland. As a people so committed and dedicated, we are the formidable bastion against any enemy, not the quantifiable weapons that a nation can muster.
I bring to mind the Roman siege of Masada in the first century A.D. This ultimate sacrifice, to my mind, is epitomized by the Jewish rebels who defended the plateau fortress, now part of Israel. When the imperial Roman legions finally captured it, they were greeted by eerie silence. To a man, the 700 defenders had committed suicide.
I always remind the young people of our history that we have a revolutionary tradition and that we are a heroic people. We don’t deserve this poverty, this corrupt government, these incompetent leaders. Our first duty then is to banish all these so we can build a secure future for ourselves.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 9, 2019
I have been watching movies since I was a boy in that small town where I grew up. I saw my first silent cowboy film starring Tom Mix in the early 1930s, in the rice bodega that was also the town cinema. The town's five-piece band provided the musical score. In fight scenes, the band would strike up a jaunty tune and in love scenes, a smaltzy piece.
The first Filipino picture I saw was "Bituing Marikit," starring Elsa Oria. When I moved to Manila in 1938, I saw more American films than Filipino. The major movie theatres in Manila -- the Avenue, State, and the Ideal on Rizal Avenue, and the Lyric and Capitol on the Escolta -- showed only American pictures; Grand and Dalisay on Rizal Avenue and Life on Quezon Boulevard showed only Filipino films. Rogelio dela Rosa, Carmen Rosales, Arsenia Francisco, and Corazon Noble were the stars.
During the war, there being no films to show, these first-class theaters staged Filipino drama, with the movie stars playing the lead roles. The plays in Tagalog were adapted from the popular western classics. Then Liberation, and Tagalog movies were revived, and a new generation of actors and actresses surfaced and new directors as well, Bert Avellana, Gerry de Leon, and Eddie Romero, were followed by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, but none approximated the brilliance of Chaplin, Kurosawa, or Rossellini.
A new breed of actresses, too. Vilma Santos, Hilda Coronel, Nora Aunor. I think that Nora Aunor is our greatest movie actress ever. No actress in all these years acted roles with such candor and fealty to the character portrayed. And as she ages, her worth increases. She does not need that National Artist Award that was denied her by ignoramus authorities.
IN THE 1950s, the movie personalities, Rosa Rosal and Eddie Romero, and the writers D. Paulo Dizon, Vic Generoso, Fred Munoz, Fred Bunao, J.C. Tuvera, and myself formed FAMAS, similar to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts, to select the year's best Filipino movies. I remember those many nights that we spent at Premiere studios in Caloocan, at Sampaguita in Quezon City reviewing all those films and evaluating them.
I don’t know what has happened to FAMAS; I hear that it is still around but is now overshadowed by more active organizations. Their credibility is validated by their choices of the best.
I cite this background to assure my readers of my bonafides as a critic of Filipino films. And here is my judgment -- our movies are developing yet are still inferior to what is being produced in Korea, or in Japan. It is not the technology that is wanting, or the lack of skilled workers. In almost all instances, our motion pictures are dreadful because their scripts are.
From the very start, many foreign movies have used the best literary material produced in those countries. Not in the Philippines.
Compare our movies with those Korean global attractions. Their scripts are written by the best Korean writers steeped in both Asian and Western literary traditions. There was a time when Hollywood also got the services of the best American writers like William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald.
I saw Gerry de Leon’s film, “Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo,” in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur. The ravishing beauty, Anita Linda, played the female lead. Gerry worked without a script. But he was meticulous and each scene was fully rehearsed and discussed before it was shot.
KOREA'S TELENOVELAS have gained an international audience because they are well made and they also project much information about Korea itself since many of the stories are based on Korean history. On a recent visit to South Korea, I was taken to a site where one of Korea's novels was made into a film. The Koreans are also sticklers for authenticity.
I can't recall how many films I have walked out of.
The films of Fernando Poe, Jr. for instance, were for ten-year-olds and below. Almost always, they are so unreal and I have to suspend belief to see them.
I WALKED OUT of Abaya's Rizal -- it was well crafted, realistic, but oh-so-boring for a Filipino who already knows the Rizal story by heart. Perhaps it was meant for a foreign audience.
I once talked with Dolphy, whose films were slapstick comedies. He was a Charlie Chaplin fan and I told him I would help him with the script if he did something like Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight," which was both funny and moving. He said he had tried making that kind of film but he lost money on it. If it is mush that the public wants, give it to them.
The films of Kidlat Tahimik are crude and so was Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan. We have gone quite a long way from these primitive efforts particularly with the developments in photographic technology. Producing films now is not as expensive as it used to be. Today we have a slew of independent movie makers whose problem basically is national and global distribution. This will be surmounted by demand, when our moviemakers start producing world-class movies.
The best Filipino moviemakers now are Mike de Leon and Brillante Mendoza. De Leon is a slow worker. His last film, "Citizen Jack" is superb, but it could have had more impact had it not been overloaded with extraneous themes. Mendoza is a fast worker and of his dozen films, half are truly excellent. But like de Leon, he has yet to produce a truly great movie. This will be done for sure, within the next few years. We also now have producers like Wilson Tieng who are willing to invest in quality. But always, they should concentrate on scripts that truly fulfill the requirements of an excellent narrative.
Meanwhile, I would like to see a movie scripted by that genius Rody Vera and directed by that equally gifted Chris Millado.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 2, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/03/02/1897888/our-pitiful-movies