Simple man, honorable legacy
The man himself said it best: “Ang layunin ko sa buhay ay simple lang: maging tapat sa aking magulang at sa bayan bilang isang marangal na anak, mabait na kuya, at mabuting mamamayan” (I have a simple goal in life: be true to my parents and to the nation as an honorable child, a kind older brother, and a good citizen).
Uttered during his inaugural address, the words are proof of the man’s fundamental simplicity. President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III, Noynoy or PNoy to many Filipinos, could have chosen loftier images or soaring words to describe his vision of himself and his role in history. But instead, he chose to keep it within an intimate context, a gesture that was vintage PNoy. He had a knack for boiling down complicated concepts into the simplest terms, mostly in Filipino, that ordinary citizens could easily grasp. He was more introverted than the usual Filipino politician, and was not known for the showy backslapping and glad-handing that attended political rituals hereabouts. And for that he was often underestimated and mocked.
Some have bemoaned the tendency of many to preface their tributes or blunt their expressions of grief by mentioning how Aquino was far from perfect (which President or person ever is?). Journalist Vergel Santos and his wife Chit Roces-Santos rue the indifference with which many citizens treated Aquino after he left Malacañang. “Rarely in his retirement were his noble deeds recalled,” they write, “because he cared absolutely nothing about himself and we cared little about proper praise and proper gratitude.”
To be fair, the second Aquino administration was not without its share of faults and failings. For one, the late president was stubbornly loyal to his subordinates, even when these subalterns got involved in scandals amid charges of corruption and ineptitude. Some he let go but only after staining the reputation of his team. Others he kept on, despite ample evidence of incompetence.
Aquino’s stoicism was also viewed as unfeeling and uncaring. When he failed to show up at the welcome honors for the remains of 44 Special Action Force police officers who died in Mamasapano, his critics seized upon this as evidence of his hard heart. The late president explained afterwards that he didn’t want his presence to steal the limelight from the grieving family members and give them the privacy due them. Other deadly missteps the Luneta bus hostage incident, the heartbreaking casualties as a result of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and the government’s muddled responseʍeroded his public standing. Mamasapano, Aquino would later admit, was the most trying episode in his six-year term.
But, there were also the accomplishments. He was one of the rare chief executives to leave the country better and healthier than when he took office. To some, his steely defense of national integrity vis-à-vis China was his most important achievement, a legacy now further burnished given the servility to Beijing displayed by the current administration.
Others will remember Aquino for his determined drive against corruption, resulting in the unprecedented arrest and detention of three senators in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, as well as the impeachment of a chief justice, despite the political costs.
Under Aquino’s aegis, the 4Ps program, as the conditional cash transfer program was dubbed, was able to raise 7.7 million Filipinos out of poverty, raise the employment rate from 92.7 percent in 2010 to 94.2 percent in 2016, and bring down the unemployment rate to 5.8 percent, the lowest posted in several decades. The country’s 6.2 percent average annual GDP growth would be the highest in the last 40 years.
The PNoy administration’s staunch support for the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, in the face of fierce opposition by the Catholic Church and other groups, was also a critical watershed for the rights of girls and women.
Aquino’s unflashy reformist governance paid off: The Philippines gained widespread respect and admiration in the international community, lauded for, among others, its sterling economic performance that transformed the country from the perennial “Sick Man of Asia” to a trailblazer in the region; and its envelope-pushing peace initiative in Mindanao that, though derailed by Mamasapano, became the basis for the landmark Bangsamoro entity eventually realized under the Duterte administration.
In their collective mourning at Aquino’s passing, many Filipinos are belatedly acknowledging the honorable legacy the only son of Ninoy and Cory Aquino was able to bequeath to the nation. It is an acknowledgment much-deserved by a man who, in dying “peacefully in his sleep” as his grieving sisters announced in a statement, slipped out as modestly and unobtrusively as he had lived his life.
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