The tragedy of Mar Roxas
A high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity.” Last week, I half-tearfully read those immortal words engraved in the haunting nostalgia of the halls of the Ramon Magsaysay Center.
How things have changed over the past three years, both in our material world and, even more importantly, in what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called the “Geist,” namely the collective consciousness.
More than three years since my last visit to the center, I was back again in those august halls, but this time to serve as a reactor to the brave and fiercely spirited Indian journalist Ravish Kumar, one of the recipients of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award.
As Ravish spoke of the disintegration of the Indian democratic spirit and the descent of his country’s media landscape into jingoistic frenzy and predatory capitalism, I couldn’t but compare his predicament to our current state of affairs.
And, remembering our founding leaders, I couldn’t but lament the wholesale vitiation of our very image of leadership amid the emergence of 21st-century arbitrary despotism.
I couldn’t help thinking of Magsaysay’s genuine greatness, and how we are deeply in need of true leadership in our dark and
In a single stroke, Magsaysay embodied not only populist charisma, but also a sincere love for the masses, moral integrity and unassailable decency, and rational and methodical decision-making. His tragically unfinished presidency is considered one of the greatest for a reason.
Magsaysay proved that one could be both appealing as well as competent, that we could have a president with a warm heart and a sharp mind rolled into one conscientious soul. And it’s here that my mind harkened back to some conversation I had during a recent trip to Samar, following an invitation to give a talk at the Eastern Samar State University.
After landing in Tacloban and surveying the area en route to Borongan, I naturally asked about not only the post-“Yolanda” reconstruction, but also the performance of the government then in the run-up to one of the most devastating typhoons in the past century.
Almost naturally, the conversation with some of the officials and experts on environmental disaster pivoted to the performance of Mar Roxas. They reiterated how he was on the ground, risking his life, ahead of the supertyphoon, in order to facilitate preparations.
Reflecting on the scandals hounding the current leadership, the discussion expanded to Roxas’ attributes beyond the headlines and memes. They recalled how he is among very few leaders in Philippine history with practically zero record of corruption, how the Wharton-trained economist abandoned a lucrative life in Wall Street in order to serve his people, and how public decency and moral integrity were the anchoring principles of his several stints at the highest offices of the land.
In short, how, throughout the decades, Roxas managed to combine genuine concern for society with a world-class education. This is the same person who topped the Senate race almost two decades ago as a bright-eyed technocrat with the can-do-spirit of “Mr. Palengke.”
At some point, I was asked: Why, therefore, his pitiful performance in recent times?
It is one of the easiest and at the same time most puzzling questions of our time. Notwithstanding his many mistakes in office and his well-known human imperfections, Roxas’ biggest liability was arguably his public relations skills.
His later quasi-populist “maka-masa” PR turn, likely drawn up to preempt a showdown with the likes of Jejomar Binay, fatally chipped away at his authenticity quotient. Instead, he should have embraced his identity as a person of privilege (not his choice), who nonetheless chose to give back to his community. One can think of the likes of the Kennedys and Olof Palme as belonging to this breed of legendary leaders, men of privilege who nevertheless captured the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens.
Ultimately, however, Roxas’ calibrated language and progressively (over)cautious style of leadership fell out of favor in the current informational ecosystem. One wonders if Magsaysay himself would have been elected in our age of disinformation, denigration and dissonance.
Yet, we also know that the darkest times often create the greatest of leaders. Perhaps, as Mar once put it, “the best is yet to come.”
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