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/ 11:00 PM March 03, 2013

Last month we were treated to a fascinating 2-part series on Roberto Ongpin, trade minister during the Marcos years from 1979-1986. While I served under Finance Minister Cesar E.A. Virata, who was also the prime minister under an interim parliamentary system established in 1978, I had the opportunity to interact with Ongpin on a number of issues that involved trade and customs matters. I was dealing with two completely different personalities, but I had no doubt they were both men of integrity and courage who did their best serving the nation under difficult circumstances.

In an Inquirer special report by Fernando del Mundo, Ongpin relates how he joined government after a stint at SGV and how he took on First Lady Imelda Marcos whenever they disagreed on matters of state.

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One part of the report deals with Ongpin’s mission to secure loans to prop up the government after the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. on Aug. 21, 1983. He was able to borrow $150 million from the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah and another $75 million from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. He got nothing from Singapore.

In his memoirs, “From Third World to First—The Singapore Story: 1965-2000,” Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew tells us what happened.

The assassination of Ninoy Aquino “brought Marcos to the crunch. He sent his Minister for Trade and Industry Bobby Ongpin to ask me for a loan of US$300-500 million to meet interest payments. I looked him straight in the eye and said,  ‘We will never see that money back.’ Moreover, I added, everyone knew that Marcos was seriously ill and under constant medication for a wasting disease. What was needed was a strong, healthy leader, not more loans.”

Lee goes on to relate a meeting with Marcos in Brunei in February 1984, describing Marcos’ condition: “He had undergone a dramatic physical change…. He was breathing hard as he spoke, his voice was soft, eyes bleary and hair thinning. He looked most unhealthy…. Marcos spent much of the time giving me a most improbable story of how Aquino had been shot.”

Lee’s views on Philippine society.

“There was no reason why the Philippines should not have been one of the more successful of the Asean countries…. Something was missing, a gel to hold society together. The people at the top, the elite mestizos, had the same detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had towards their peons. They were two different societies: those at the top lived the life of extreme luxury and comfort, while the peasants scraped a living and in the Philippines, it was a hard living. They had no land but worked on sugar and coconut plantations. They had many children because the church discouraged birth control. The result was increasing poverty.”

On democracy, discipline and development.

“In November 1992, I visited (President Fidel Ramos). In a speech to the 18th Philippine Business Conference, I said, ‘I do not believe democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.’ In private, President Ramos said he agreed with me that British parliamentary-type constitutions worked better because the majority party in the legislature was also the government. Publicly, Ramos had to differ.”

The second part of Del Mundo’s report dealt with attempts to save the Marcos regime. According to Ongpin, the United States set five conditions for Marcos to remain in power: 1) Fabian out, Eddie Ramos in; 2) Imelda out, no position for her in government; 3) a new and stronger Cabinet; 4) Senator Arturo Tolentino to write a new constitution for submission to a plebiscite; and 5) a commission to investigate human rights abuses to be headed by former Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez.

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In his book “President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime,” author Lou Cannon describes how US President Ronald Reagan tended to rely on the advice of career professionals in responding to events such as what happened in the Philippines in 1986. State and defense departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted a regime change. With State Secretary George Schultz’s prodding, Reagan sent Sen. Paul Laxalt to Manila for a firsthand appraisal of the situation. Laxalt realized that Marcos was sinking and in the end got Reagan to issue a public call for Marcos to resign. Offering him asylum in America, Laxalt told Marcos, “I think you should cut and cut clean.” Marcos replied that he was “very, very disappointed,” but accepted exile in Hawaii.

In his memoirs, Prime Minister Lee states that his government was asked by the United States whether “I would be willing to undertake the task of coordinating an Asean approach to offer Marcos asylum. Rajaratnam, our foreign minister, said it would be difficult to get all five Asean members to agree.”

Instead, Lee sent Marcos an invitation to come to Singapore. However, Marcos accepted asylum in Hawaii rather than Singapore.

Lee continues: “A few days after he arrived in Honolulu, Marcos had his baggage, which included cases of new peso bank notes, inspected by American customs. He sensed trouble and sent me a message that he wanted to come to Singapore. Mrs. Aquino, who had already taken over as President, objected. Marcos stayed on in Hawaii to face multiple lawsuits.”

* * *

One of the contenders for Best Picture at the recent Oscar Awards was a film on the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. While it lost out to “Argo,” “Lincoln” won for Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal in the Best Actor category.

Lincoln was responsible for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, an amendment that abolished the practice of slavery in the country. It was approved on Feb. 1, 1865, but it took another 100 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would abolish racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and in public facilities. As late as 1964, Gen. Colin Powell, at that time a US Army captain, would be denied service at a drive-in hamburger joint in Georgia for being black. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had disenfranchised African-Americans.

Perhaps those of us who are at times impatient with the slow pace of change in our society should keep the American experience in mind.

* * *

Last Thursday in a return bout on the golf greens of the Philippine Navy at Fort Bonifacio, PMA Class 1957 defeated Class 1956 by a margin of five strokes. Best scorer for ’57 was Commodore Vicente Buenaventura, while Gen. Mel Goyena led the ’56ers.

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TAGS: Asean, Foreign affairs, History, Lee Kuan Yew, loans, Philippines, Roberto Ongpin
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