First published in the 2018 edition of the Fookien Times Yearbook
Within the last 100 years, in living memory to some, three cataclysmic events afflicted this nation and people -- the Filipino-American`War from 1898 to 1902, the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, and the Marcos dictatorship from 1972 to 1986.
The Revolution of 1896, which morphed into the Filipino-American War, was the first organized rebellion against Western imperialism. It also established the first republic in Asia, short-lived though that republic was. In his SONA address last July 24, President Duterte described just one of the incidents in that war -- the battle of Balangiga in Samar, where Filipino guerrillas armed with bolos killed a company of Americans after which the Americans retaliated and made the island a "howling wilderness," killing civilians at random.
At the time, the number of Filipino casualties of that war was estimated at 200,000, but more sanguine Filipino historians place the number at a million. Historians like Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil and the late Teddy Agoncillo said that had that Revolution succeeded, a civil war would have engulfed the country soon after.
In the anarchy that prevails in war or revolution, to survive, each man is for himself, civic morality is abandoned, and virtue is thrown out the window. The longer anarchy prevails, the lower morality sinks and corruption is accepted as the norm. When this happens, it is difficult to resurrect ethical values. This is what has happened to us all these years.
I am 93 years old. I grew up in a village in Central Luzon and came to Manila in 1938 to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School, which today is the site of the Isetann Mall on Recto. Manuel Quezon was President of the Commonwealth then, and he dominated the newspapers and the gossip in the tiendas. I have lived through the three brutal years of the Japanese Occupation, and through the Marcos dictatorship. I was one of the jubilant thousands who massed at EDSA in 1986. We had great expectations, all of which were squandered by Cory.
We now have a new President (Duterte) who, like all our past presidents, promised to bring us change. I have strong doubts that he will be able to do that, to unify this fractured nation. It is not obvious to so many, particularly those who are used to the privileges of power and status and who are pampered with the sense of entitlement that their exalted positions have vested in them, that a revolution has been started by a single man who, despite his failings, was the least expected to usher it. In these conditions of stress and danger, often made more confusing by contradictory impulses, it is important for the institutions of freedom to be more vigilant and purposeful, to lessen the collateral damage, and to prevent the revolution itself from eating its own children. Duterte started with much promise, so let us wait and see what he can do in this coming five years.
Our first two presidents, Jose P. Laurel (March 9, 1891 - November 6, 1959) and Manuel L. Quezon (August 19, 1878 - August 1, 1944), served in unusual times. Was Laurel a Japanese collaborator? While collaboration as a political issue had long been settled by the time Laurel was elected senator, collaboration as a moral issue rankles to this very day.
Sergio Osmeña (September 9, 1878 - October 19, 1961) and Manuel Roxas (January 1, 1892 - April 15, 1948), both contemporaries of Quezon, were correct gentlemen of the old school. The country's problems, though alleviated by the return of MacArthur and American largesse, were manageable. Both presidents laid down, perhaps inevitably, the norms of political conduct -- Parity, the Bases that institutionalized American dominance. Such would last to this very day.
Carlos Garcia (November 4, 1896 - June 14, 1971) had a grand nationalist vision. But the day after Magsaysay died, corruption was back with vengeance. Why was he unable to continue Magsaysay's sterling legacy?
Cory Aquino (January 25, 1933 - August 1, 2009) was a disaster. She turned the EDSA revolution into the restoration of the oligarchy. The people expected so much of her. She became president only because Ninoy was assassinated. So did PNoy become president only because of the vast popularity of his mother. Both left nothing remarkable for which they will be remembered. The fact that they did not pursue and prosecute the killer or killers of Ninoy Aquino will always be a black mark on their record, not so much as Ninoy's wife and son but as presidents.
In this country, ethnicity matters. We had four Ilokano presidents -- Elpidio Quirino (November 16, 1890 - February 29, 1956) from Ilokos Sur, Ramon Magsaysay (August 31, 1907 - March 17, 1957) from Zambales, Ferdinand Marcos (September 11, 1917 - September 28, 1989) from Ilokos Norte, and Fidel Ramos from Pangasinan. The best president this country ever had was Ramon Magsaysay and the worst was President Marcos.
I recall what my compadre, O.D. Corpuz, Marcos's education minister, said of Marcos: one, he was Ilokano and therefore will work very hard, and two, he knew history, and therefore will aim for greatness. Yes, he did work very hard at enriching himself, and history? For all his brilliance, he really did not understand it primarily because he was interested only in power, how it would work to perpetuate himself in office. Aside from plundering the nation, Marcos denied a whole generation of Filipinos from achieving political power; his martial rule lasted too long.
Ramon Magsaysay, who was not half as brilliant as Marcos, had a commonsense approach to government. Do good for the poor, be honest. He created the most honest government we ever had. When he made mistakes he acknowledged them and immediately corrected them.
Quirino belonged to the old school of politicians. He was honest, too, but was not effective. He had a big heart. His family was massacred by the Japanese and he forgave them, granted amnesty, too, to the collaborators. He laid down the program for the economic modernization of the country.
Cong Dadong Macapagal (September 28, 1910 - April 21, 1997), the poor boy from Lubao, moved to Forbes Park at the first opportunity. Had he been great, Marcos would not have succeeded him.
Erap and Gloria were also abject failures. Erap, particularly, never understood the magnitude of his office. Gloria as an economist did not use her knowledge to develop the country. She served longest, and left the country's problems even far worse for her rule
Fidel Ramos was efficient. He corrected the many mistakes of Cory. He failed to modernize the Armed Forces. As I told him, he should have declared a coup at the end of his term to continue the reforms he had begun.
For sure, there has never been a shortage of capable and patriotic Filipinos. But the best and the brightest are seldom on the escalator to the presidency. Or if they are, fate -- unswerving and final -- denies them power. Here then is a personal review of Pepe Diokno, Manny Pelaez, and Paeng Salas, all illustrious Filipinos who should have been president, who would have lifted this nation from the dung heap.
I was an aide to then Foreign Affairs Secretary, Emmanuel Pelaez (November 30, 1915 - July 27, 2003) in 1962 before he sent me to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work as Information Officer of the Colombo Plan Bureau. He asked me to look at the Foreign Affairs Department and what could be done to improve it. I set up the Foreign Service Institute after I had gathered materials from Chatham House in London and from the State Department in Washington.
When I returned from Colombo in 1965, I was asked by its director, Alex Fernandez, to lecture on Southeast Asia. The Institute was not founded by Ferdinand Marcos as stated in the Institute's brochure. Pelaez founded it. Because he did not want to play the game, Pelaez was defeated by Marcos in the convention which elected Marcos as presidential candidate.
Pelaez was more than an excellent public official; he had also integrity which President Macapagal "borrowed." During the Martial Law years because of his criticism of the regime, an attempt on his life was made. His driver was killed and he was seriously wounded.
Senator Pepe Diokno (February 26, 1922 - February 27, 1987) championed agrarian reform and social justice. He was also a stern critic of American imperialism and was responsible for the expulsion of the American businessman, Harry Stonehill. When Marcos declared Martial Law, he jailed Diokno and Senator Ninoy Aquino. Pepe was released after two years, while Ninoy was kept in jail.
That imprisonment, Pepe told me, almost made him lose his sanity. He said Marcos was deliberate -- he had been set free because he had no presidential aspirations and did not have Ninoy's political machinery and popularity. On several occasions I went with him to the provinces as he defended the oppressed laborers and farm workers, often at his own expense. We had a longstanding argument. Though he defended in court many who were accused of rebellion, he did not approve of revolution primarily because its violence cannot be controlled. He was diagnosed with cancer when the Mendiola massacre occurred. Twenty- one farmer demonstrators were killed because Cory refused to see them.
He was on his deathbed when I saw him last. Nena, his wife, refused to have visitors see him but because we were such old friends, she let me in. He repeated his old argument. I told him both of us will go but those peasants who were killed in Mendiola will never get justice. I am afraid that I am right.
People misunderstood Diokno as being bitterly anti-American. He was not; he just wanted their influence diminished so we can evolve and free ourselves from the odium of dependency.
In this sense, he was so different from Senators Claro M. Recto, and Lorenzo Tanada who were anointed as nationalists when they were only anti-American. Both opposed the crucial land reform program which would have brought a better life to millions of Filipinos.
Rafael Salas (August 7, 1928 - March 4, 1987) was one of the first disciples of Ramon Magsaysay. He was the compleat technocrat and was Marcos's executive secretary. He illustrated how the Philippines can be self- sufficient in rice when he established the Masagana Program and for the first time, we even produced a rice surplus for export.
With him, Malacañang and the government operated efficiently. But soon, he went to the United Nations to manage the UN's population program. Marcos and his drumbeaters portrayed Paeng's departure as due to Palace intrigue, that he couldn’t agree with one of Marcos's closest friends. Paeng said that was not true at all. He left Malacañang because he saw the terrible corruption that had set in. He told me that at the time, our foreign debt was about 4 billion dollars; if Marcos gave back the money he had stolen, that debt would be wiped out.
Paeng could have been the UN's Secretary General if he had the support of the government. He was also a humanist, a poet. He was a book lover unlike so many powerful Filipinos who do not read. He was a frequent visitor at my bookshop.
In these many years I observed our long and tedious journey to nationhood. I have seen how our people posited their hopes for the future only on one man, the leader, the President who stood as the father of the nation, endowed with the power of the people. We have had this very personal view of our leaders fostered by elements in our culture, our Christian faith in one God who sacrificed for His people. Sacrifice. Who among them truly sacrificed for us?
I am sure the propagandists of these past presidents will object to my conclusions. They are not final, for all our judgments on history as we know it are tentative. As that old Russian saying states: It is difficult to foretell the past. There are no ifs in history, that the water under the bridge that passed will never come back. My only excuse for claiming the truth is that I was there, witness to our time and place.
At the very least, an important insight which our past taught us is this: travail has tempered us in the same manner that fire tempers steel. We are on the way to nationhood the way that Cuba, Vietnam and Japan had become the nations that their own people made them. This country cannot be dismembered anymore; we may seem fractured even to ourselves, but the Philippine state has endured and all those recalcitrant elements in this country--the Moros, the communists, the ethnic separatists--who want to take over this state must realize this very real and formidable development.
In making what seems a definitive assessment of our history and our political leaders, I have not forgotten this most important caveat: Our leaders--all of them were elected, with our approval.
They did not come to power atop a tank or on a white horse, but through the ballot. The damning verdict of history is that only a corrupt society will also produce corrupt leaders. If we made them, we deserve them. So then, what is wrong with us?
From this flash summary of the recent past, it is very clear why our leaders failed. First, they were unable to transcend their vaulting egos, their ethnic and clan loyalties. They could not really identify with this nation because they were not rooted tenaciously in it. If they were, they would love and care for the Filipinos so much so, they would sacrifice for them.
How does our National Anthem end?