Remembering Ramon “RM” Magsaysay
On March 17, 1957, Ramon Magsaysay, the third President of our republic, perished in a plane crash in Cebu with 27 companions; only one survived. Millions grieved over the passing of our nation’s most popular and truly beloved President who united our people in our socioeconomic and political development. Across newly decolonized Asia, Ramon Magsaysay, or “RM,” loomed large next to its great founding leaders—Mao of China, Nehru of India and Sukarno of Indonesia.
But today most Filipinos do not know RM. Many others hardly remember “the Guy.” In his time, the Philippines was a leading country in East Asia after Japan. Fortunately, since 1958 the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation has yearly recognized leaders in Asia who have shown the greatness of spirit and selfless service that RM exemplified in his short public life. In this way he lives all over Asia as our nation’s humble model of “transforming leadership” for democracy and good governance.
What did the people see in RM? To the so-called “masses,” he was their man, their leader and hero like no other president ever was before him. They saw him as one of them, for them and with them because of what he said, did and symbolized. He reinforced their image of him by his simplicity, honesty and visible action. He stood out in his adherence to “subsidiarity,” the principle that in a democracy, the people are sovereign and must actively take part in their governance, and must be served by the government and their leaders and civil servants.
As a congressman, RM was known to his constituents in Zambales as Monching, the former guerrilla leader, mechanic and transport manager of TryTran. As President Elpidio Quirino’s defense secretary, he reached out to the troops and the people in the successful campaign against the former anti-Japanese Huks and the communists. He helped Quirino ensure free and peaceful elections in 1951 and make up for the notorious presidential election in 1949. He would help resettle former rebels in government settlements in Mindanao.
Before Magsaysay, candidates depended on the local political oligarchy and family dynasties in their limited national campaign. But RM introduced the “barrio to barrio” campaign where he made direct contact with the voters to the tune of “Mambo Magsaysay.” In effect, he bypassed the local political bosses without making them feel ignored by him.
No doubt RM’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, radio and the print media maximized their projection of RM’s image as a tall and ruggedly handsome man of action, of restless dynamism and high intensity. (Tall, demure and beautiful, Luz Magsaysay complemented her outgoing husband by tending to the family and avoiding publicity.) Journalists eagerly covered his frequent surprise visits to various government offices. They dramatized his visible impatience for results in making government officials and agencies serve the people. His quick temper was well-known, as were his regrets and apologies when he learned he was wrong.
On the day of his inauguration in 1953, RM 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.
He formed the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC), with Manuel Manahan heading a young and idealistic staff. The PCAC heard the grievances of thousands of people and recommended remedial action by the concerned government agencies. It served to boost the people’s morale and gave them confidence in the government, thus making good the President’s promise that “those who have less in life should have more in law.” RM also told the people they could reach him by telegram for just 10 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.”
Although he did well as a young student, RM was dismissed from the University of the Philippines. He could have earned his commerce degree from Jose Rizal College by combining his credits there and at UP, but he was more serious with his daytime work at a transport company.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Zambales, RM 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 defense secretary, he sensed the roots of the Huk and communist rebellions and the rebels’ need for land and justice.
As President, he focused his administration’s efforts on the barrios and the people’s basic needs for irrigation, roads, schools, clinics, peace and order. He initiated a national self-help community development program administered by a corps of professional community development workers. Inspired by his passion, private groups intensified their rural community self-help programs. He sought the help of bright, young leaders who shared his values, like Manahan, Emmanuel Pelaez, Raul Manglapus, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Ramon Binamira; he nurtured them as his political heirs.
RM was the youngest Filipino President, taking on the post at the age of 46. When they became president, Ferdinand Marcos was 48; Diosdado Macapagal, 51; Corazon Aquino, 53; Manuel Roxas and Gloria Arroyo, 54; Manuel Quezon, 57; Elpidio Quirino, 58; Joseph Estrada, 61; and Fidel Ramos, 64. The incumbent, President Aquino, was 50.
And in the 64 years from Philippine independence in 1946 to 2012, RM topped the other presidents in the percentage of the votes he received in the 1953 presidential election—69 percent of the total votes cast.
Jose V. Abueva, president of Kalayaan College, is preparing his second edition of “Ramon Magsaysay: A Political Biography,” which is to be launched on Aug. 31, on the occasion of the annual RM awards ceremony at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He is a professor emeritus of political science and public administration and a former UP president (1987-1993).
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