Ramon Magsaysay: “Servant Leader” With a Vision of Hope— A vision of “a working democracy of, for, and by all our people!”

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva
The Bohol Chronicle
August 31, 2014

This column on is on RM’s continuing relevance to our nation-building, democracy, and development and what makes him  stand out among our eleven elected presidents from Manuel L. Quezon (1935-44) to Benigno S. Aquino III (2010-16), and maybe beyond.

RM’s distinctive political leadership and public service

In our history and shared memory, Magsaysay looms large and legendary because he initiated a distinctive kind of political leadership and public service. Who he was and what he did as President are markedly different from what came before and after him.

Distinctively, people in all walks of life regarded Magsaysay as “Champion of the Common Man”, “Man of the Masses,” or “The People’s President.” By his conduct and example he raised the ideal and measure of inspired and dedicated service to all citizens, especially the lowly among them, as the true measure of presidential leadership and public service. More than any Filipino president, Magsaysay exemplified the human model of “Servant Leadership.”

And yet a casual comparison of Filipino presidents would find most of them superior to Magsaysay in social status, education, articulation, political seniority and experience, and in length of service as president. Magsaysay served as president for only three years and two-and-a-half months: (30 December 1953 to 17 March 1957.)

Youngest elected President. Magsaysay stands out as the youngest—only 46 among our eleven elected presidents from 1935 to 2010.

Highest vote-getter. Magsaysay also excelled as vote-getter among our ten presidents from 1946 to 2010 by getting 68.9 or 69 percent of the total votes cast. And his reelection in 1957 was widely conceded.

Promise and symbol of change. To the people Magsaysay became a symbol and promise of a working democracy and a better life. No president had travelled more extensively and met more people in his campaign and during his incumbency. He renamed the office and residence of the president Malacañang, dropping the traditional name Malacañan Palace with its memories of colonial days. Thenceforth the President was to be addressed simply as “Mr. President.” He let go of  “His Excellency.” But the use of “Palace” and “Excellency” has been restored by our presidents and the media.

By his word, action, and habits, Magsaysay transformed the people’s expectations of political leadership and the presidency. They looked up to him as their highest leader and many literally marched with him to Malacañang. Never before had so many plain folk received so much of the president’s personal time and attention. Everywhere Magsaysay went he raised people’s expectations of what the government un­der his leadership would do for them. Certainly, no other leader at the time had the charisma necessary to restore popular faith in democracy.

The people could readily identify with their president because they felt he was sprung from them.

They liked him and identified with him because they found him easy to understand. Whatever the failures of his administration, his announced policies and programs and his insistence on opening up channels of communication between the citizens and their government were setting a precedent. This direction was epitomized in his message: “Bring the government closer to the people.” And in his rhetoric: “Can we defend this in Plaza Miranda?”—his popular accountability to the people.

Several of Magsaysay’s traits loomed large in the people’s view: his sincerity, humility, simplicity, and informality; his integrity and passionate solicitude for the common people especially in the rural areas; and his selfless devotion to public office and quiet religiosity. He had a rare power to evoke love from his people. And his looks and ways gave life to these intangibles.

Magsaysay repre­sented the restless energy, ambition, hope, and moral courage of a people grown tired of being pushed around for so long and eager to prove their worth to the world. His role as leader of a newly free people was unambiguous—he was to lead them in their quest for the good life.

Identifications of a more personal sort also made people see in Magsaysay a fitting rallying figure. To his striking Filipino features could be added the quiet charm and dignity of his wife, a remarkable “Filipino beauty” the people noted. People often commented with a kind of nationalistic pride on RM’s height and composure in the company of foreign visitors.

No contemporary leader could match his marvelous stamina as he struggled with time, distance, and politicians. Despite his colorful antics as a vote-getting politician, he did not fit the stereotype people and cartoonists have of the evil, scheming kind. He was much too sincere and trustworthy for that. His extempo­raneous speeches lacked the glitter and fire often expected of the Filipino poli­tico, but the people understood and applauded him.

RM also personified the release of a suppressed desire to depart from old, established patterns. Simple in his manner and unmindful of personal security, he acted like an or­dinary citizen. To people unsure of themselves it was inspiring to have a leader who was so like them.

The fact that Magsaysay was well-known as a simply religious man sup­plied the crowning and integrating element in the people’s image of him. This was evident in the open and active support that the Catholic clergy and laity gave him during his campaign and election, and in office.

He made people understand what politics and government in a democracy could do to serve and protect them. He made meaningful such concepts as “popular sovereignty”, “public office as a public trust”, “the general welfare”, “human dignity,” and “social jus­tice.” He made the people feel that the government was truly an instrument to promote their well-being. And the people knew that he did his utmost to improve law and order and government service.

He had an extraordinary capacity for getting himself involved at once at many different points and levels in the organization of government. His intense­ly personal relations with an unbe­lievably large number of officials infused them with his passion and sense of urgency for getting things done. He was, and would continue to be, a model of exemplary integrity in public office. Moreover, he promoted the acceptance of competent young people in responsible roles in government.

In public policy and programs, Magsaysay initiated simple as well as bold and untried measures.

His administration is best remembered for its special emphasis on rural development. This was only lo­gical, since he had identified himself most closely with the barrio folk who looked up to him for help, hope and strength.

Small wonder that when he suddenly died in a plane crash on March 17, 1957, people all over the land felt as though part of the strength and self-confidence that they had gained from him was gone. To so many his passing away was felt as a deeply personal loss. His funeral provided evidence that he was well and widely loved as president, idol and hero.

The Model of “Servant Leadership”

As many Christians would know, the model of “servant leadership” was and is Jesus Christ himself, no less. Scripture tells how at the Last Supper “Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and dried them with the towel he wrapped around him. Then he asked them: ‘Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. xxx  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:1-5, 12-17)

On another occasion Jesus sat down and called the apostles to him:”If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35) Serving should be seen therefore as a high honor and in keeping with the very character of God.

“With Jesus as our model, we are called to be servant/leaders,” says Rowland Croucher who elaborates on what the concept means. “Lead by example. Lead by action. Lead by the quality of your life.” Croucher then enumerates the qualities to be an effective servant/leader: “godliness, integrity, stability, humility, diplomacy, decisiveness, vision, sociability, perceptiveness, and natural common sense.”

From Matthew: 20-28. “If you want to rule, learn to serve. If you want to lead, learn to follow. If you want to succeed, learn to make others succeed. We do not measure our success as Christian  leaders by the number of people we lead, but by the number of people we reach and serve.”

As defined “Servant Leadership” fairly describes Ramon Magsaysay’s own kind of leadership and presidency. Very early in his term he said: “We are all servants of the people.” Although not a religious leader, he was a practicing, God-fearing-and-loving Catholic. He acknowledged at certain times that God had given him the opportunity to lead and serve the people. But he was not showy about his faith, nor was he preachy as a believer. His modest and reticent wife, Luz, was likewise humble and private in practicing her faith, usually with the family.

RM Credo as President.  Early in his first year as President, Magsaysay articulated his vision and ideals as President in a compact Credo, with the help of Executive Secretary Fred Ruiz Castro. In its simple elegance the Magsaysay Credo spells out his memorable ideas and ideals of leadership, citizenship, and democratic governance—in relation to society, the nation, and the world.

  1. I believe that government starts at the bottom and moves upward, for government exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation.
  1. I believe that he who has less in life should have more in law.
  1. I believe that the little man is fundamentally entitled to a little bit more food in his stomach, a little more cloth on his back, and a little more roof over his head.
  1. I believe that this nation is endowed with a vibrant and stout heart, and possesses untapped capabilities and incredible resiliency.
  1. I believe that a high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity.
  1. I believe that the pulse of government should be strong and steady, and the men at the helm imbued with missionary zeal.
  1. I believe in the majesty of constitutional and legal processes, in the inviolability of human rights.
  1. I believe that the free world is collectively strong, and that there is neither need or reason to compromise the dignity of man.
  1. I believe that Communism is iniquity, as is the violence it does to the principles of Christianity.
  1. I believe that the President should set the example of a big heart, an honest mind, sound instincts, the virtue of healthy impatience, and an abiding love for the common man.

My political biography Ramon Magsaysay:”Servant Leader” With A Vision of Hope  was published in 2012 by Magsaysay Institute for Transformative Leadership, RM Award Foundation and the Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy of the U.P. National College of Public Administration and Governance in 2012.

My email is pepevabueva@gmail.com.

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