A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva
The Bohol Chronicle March 18, 2012
Remembering Ramon Magsaysay
It’s been 55 years since President Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash in Cebu that claimed the lives of 24 others. It is fitting to remember him today for several reasons. People in his time called him simply by his nickname, “Monching,” or “RM,” or “The Guy,” for he was our nation’s most personally popular and truly beloved president. He united our people as never before and after him, because he brought our government closest to them. Spotlessly honest and dedicated to their welfare, he was simply “the people’s president”!
In 1953 Magsaysay was the first to discover and ignite our “people power” when he ran for president on a barrio-to- barrio campaign and defeated incumbent President Elpidio Quirino. Assured of his reelection in 1957, RM would not be around for it. So we lost a very rare “transforming leader”!
Across newly decolonized Asia, Magsaysay loomed large next only to its two great founding leaders, Nehru of India and Mao of China, and he equaled Sukarno of Indonesia in the Asians’ awareness and esteem.
But today most Filipinos do not know RM. Many others hardly remember “the Guy.” Only our older generation would know and therefore miss him so. In his time the Philippines was still a leading country in East Asia after Japan.
Fortunately, since 1967 the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation has yearly recognized leaders all over Asia who have shown the greatness of spirit for selfless service that Magsaysay exemplified in his short public life. In this way he lives as a role model over Asia. We therefore need to recall Magsaysay as a role model in our continuing struggle to unite, rebuild democracy, and achieve good governance and development.
RM as leader. What did the people see in Magsaysay? For most Filipinos, the so-called “masses” or “common tao,” he was their man, their leader and hero like no other president ever was before him. They felt he was one of them. He was for them and with them as President, because of what he said and did and symbolized. He projected and reinforced their image of him by his simplicity, honesty, and visible action. No pretenses.
Tall and ruggedly handsome, he towered and shone over most people around him. Tall, demure and beautiful, Luz Magsaysay complemented her outgoing husband by taking care of the family and avoiding publicity.
Earlier on, as their congressman from Zambales his province-mates knew Magsaysay by his nickname, Monching, the former guerrilla leader, and mechanic and transport manager of TryTran. As President Elpidio Quirino’s Secretary of National Defense he reached out to the troops and the people in the successful campaign against the former anti-Japanese Huks and the communists. The media found him a restless leader, always good copy in word and photos. He helped President Quirino ensure free and peaceful elections in 1951, and make up for the notorious 1949 presidential elections. He would help resettle former rebels in government settlements in Mindanao.
Mobilizing “people power.” Before Magsaysay, in 1953, candidates depended on the local political oligarchy and family dynasties in their limited national campaign. But Magsaysay introduced “the barrio to barrio campaign” where he made direct contact with the voters and made a personal impact on them, as “Mambo Magsaysay” was played. In effect RM bypassed the local political bosses without making them feel ignored by him. In fact they gloried in his company, in being known personally by the next president.
No doubt Magsaysay’s propagandists were skillful in reporting on his policies and actions. But most people believed in him simply because they trusted him. Somehow they sensed that he was working for them and making the government attend to their needs as never before. As lowly people they most likely did not know that they were sovereign citizens, the source of government authority as defined in the 1935 Constitution.
When television was still new and limited in its reach, the radio and the print media maximized their projection of his image as a tall and ruggedly handsome man of action, of restless dynamism and high intensity. Journalists eagerly covered his frequent surprise visits to various government offices. They dramatized his visible impatience for results in making government officials and offices serve the people as upright and honest civil servants. His quick temper was well known and talked about, as were his regrets and apologies when he learned he was wrong.
Malacañang, the people’s palace. On the day of his inauguration Magsaysay opened Malacañan Palace to the people. He ordered its name changed simply to Malacañang, to symbolize its new meaning as “the people’s palace,” not the forbidding palace of colonial governors and Filipino presidents. Curiously, in recent times the media and leaders refer to the president’s office and residence as “the Palace,” reflecting perhaps the images of presidents as high and mighty and inaccessible to ordinary citizens.
Moreover, President Magsaysay created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC), headed by Manuel Manahan, himself tall and handsome as well. Manned by young and idealistic staff, the PCAC heard the grievances of thousands of people and recommended remedial action by the concerned government agencies. To the people, PCAC was a morale booster that gave them confidence in the government, making good the President’s promise that “those who have less in life should have more in law.” Magsaysay told the people they could reach him by telegram for just ten centavos.
Greg Makabenta’s portrait of RM is pertinent. “People knew him as a ‘former mechanic’ who did not have impressive grades in school. Jokes about him included his reported plan to “repeal the law of supply and demand” and the way he encouraged visitors to Malacañang to “feel in the family way” –a Pinoy euphemism to “feel at home.”
“The images that came across sharply in the media were those of a man who would take off his shoes and walk in the mud with the farmers, eat with his hands, leap over ditches. And from the time he became Secretary of National Defense up to his tenure as President, RM was portrayed as a no-nonsense reformer who cleaned up the military and the bureaucracy. xxx There was no reason to doubt that Magsaysay lived up to the image created for him” by his propagandists.
The least schooled among our presidents. Although he did well as a young student, Magsaysay was dismissed from U.P. He could have earned his commerce degree from Jose Rizal College by combining his credits there and at U.P. but he was more serious with his daytime work at a transport company. Most other presidents excelled in their college education and as lawyers and legislators before becoming president. Four had served as vice-president before they became president.
An intuitive learner. Growing up in a middle-class family in the province, Magsaysay excelled in dealing with workers and the common folk, knowing what they needed in their homes and communities, and what they wanted from the government. He learned intuitively and sensed the people’s hopes and feelings by mingling with them. As Secretary of National Defense he sensed the roots of the Huk and communist rebellions and the rebels’ need for land and justice.
Focus on the barrio. As President he focused his administration’s efforts on the barrios and the people’s basic needs for water, irrigation, roads, schools, clinics, peace and order. He initiated the PACD, a national self-help community development program administered by a corps of professional community development workers. Inspired by his passion, several private groups intensified their rural community self-help programs. He sought the help of bright, young leaders he admired and who shared his values, like Emmanuel Pelaez, Raul Manglapus, Manuel Manahan, Benigno Aquino, Jr., Ramon Binamira; and he nurtured them as his political heirs.
Youngest among our eleven elected presidents since 1935. When they became president Ramon Magsaysay was 46, Ferdinand Marcos was 48, Benigno Aquino III was 50, Diosdado Macapagal was 51, Corazon Aquino was 53, Manuel Roxas and Gloria Arroyo were 54, Manuel Quezon was 57, Elpidio Quirino was 58, Joseph Estrada was 61, and Fidel Ramos was 64.
Highest vote-getter among our ten elected presidents from 1946 to 2010. In the 64 years from Philippine independence in 1946 to 2012, Ramon Magsaysay topped all the ten presidents in the percentage of the votes he received in the 1953 election, which was 69 percent of the total votes cast. The other presidents ranked as follows: (2nd) Ferdinand Marcos, 1965 (61%); (3rd) Diosdado Macapagal, 1961 (55%); (4th) Ferdinand Marcos reelection, 1969 (52%); (5th) Benigno S. Aquino III, 2010 (42%); (6th) Carlos P. Garcia, 1957 (41%); (7th) Gloria M. Arroyo, 2004 (40%); (8) Joseph Estrada, 1998 (40%); and (9th) Fidel Ramos (24%). We exclude the manipulated votes attributed to Ferdinand Marcos during his authoritarian regime (the 1981 and 1986 elections).
Ramon Magsaysay is our nation’s humble model of “transforming leadership” for democracy and good governance. Among our national leaders, Magsaysay stands out in his adherence to “Subsidiarity:” the principle that, basically, in a democracy the people as citizens are sovereign: as such they must actively take part in their governance. For the good of all, they must be served by the government and their leaders and civil servants.
In its simple elegance the Magsaysay Credo spells out his lofty and memorable ideas and ideals of leadership, citizenship, and democratic governance as a “transforming leader.” It begins with the statement: “I believe that government starts at the bottom and moves upward, for government exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation.”