Ramon Magsaysay’s continuing relevance
“When our people cast their ballots in the recent election, they voted primarily for a great, sweeping change. They voted to throw out dishonesty, inefficiency and waste. And they voted for a government that would act boldly and effectively to banish insecurity and fear, poverty and want.”
That sounds like a line from the inaugural speech or the first State of the Nation Address (Sona) of President Benigno Aquino, who let it be known early on that his administration would take the “daang matuwid”—the virtuous path. But the words are not P-Noy’s. They were actually spoken almost six decades ago by President Ramon Magsaysay, “The Guy,” whose 56th death anniversary will be marked tomorrow.
Fifty-nine years after Magsaysay, who came to be known as the “Man of the Masses,” the “Champion of the Common Man” and “The People’s President,” delivered his first Sona on Jan. 25, 1954, his words remain as true today as they were then.
That history repeats itself is affirmed once more in these words from the same Sona: “And now let us consider the moral state of the nation. There is little in the immediate past of which we may be proud. Since the change of administration, we have unearthed one case after another of outrageous corruption, abuse of power, and manipulation of the law for self-enrichment. The sordid record is just beginning to unfold. I fear that further inquiry will yield even uglier facts.”
In another passage Magsaysay said: “To guide us in the conduct of public business, we must return to the timeless moral and political principles, which we have either forgotten or taken for granted. There is the principle that honesty is the best policy in public as well as in private life. There is the principle that while politics is indispensable for the workings of a democracy, it cannot be superior to the interest of the nation.”
For Jose Veloso Abueva, who released recently the second edition of his biography of the late President, “Ramon Magsaysay: ‘Servant Leader’ with a Vision of Hope,” what made The Guy even more extraordinary was his genuine
effort and determination to match his deeds with his rhetoric. Abueva considers Magsaysay’s governance, despite its brevity, the yardstick by which Filipino presidents should be judged.
“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,” writes Abueva, professor emeritus of public administration and political science at the University of the Philippines.
Abueva describes Magsaysay’s way of governing as “servant leadership.” He writes: “[Magsaysay] 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.’”
Another part of Magsaysay’s first Sona was almost a description of the 1986 People Power revolution that toppled a dictator, although he was actually talking about the election that made him president: “Perhaps you will say that the people are asking for a miracle. But they too performed a miracle when in one great irresistible movement they dared every peril to preserve the right to have a government of their choice. Thus, they proved to the whole world, to our friends and enemies, that democracy has come of age in our land, that it has become truly and actively a part of the Filipino way of life.”
Abueva says Magsaysay “gave the people hope for an inclusive working democracy and a better life for all and especially the masses.” He says Magsaysay “showed Filipinos the meaning of democracy as a government of, for and by all the people.” Abueva also cites Magsaysay’s efforts to lessen the feeling of alienation of many people from the government and its leaders. At his inaugural, Magsaysay wore a barong instead of a suit, which was favored at the time. He dropped the word “Palace” from the name of the President’s official residence because it evoked memories of colonial days. He also wanted people to address him simply as “Mr. President” instead of “Your Excellency.”
At his second Sona on Jan. 24, 1955, Magsaysay reported that “there is a new confidence in our land.” He said: “If this administration can claim any outstanding achievement during the past year, it is the restoration of national self-respect and the revival of the people’s faith in the democratic way of life. ”
But, as Abueva points out in his book, Magsaysay himself was a major reason for that. “He gave people a vision of hope for a working democracy and a better life for all, and especially the common people.”
This concern for the common people opened Magsaysay’s third Sona on Jan. 23, 1956. “Let me emphasize at this point that my concern for the common man is not merely sentimental or emotional. It is a hard fact that a nation cannot survive without the safe foundation of a prosperous and contented majority of its citizens,” he said.
Magsaysay explained his emphasis on the well-being of the ordinary Filipino: “We believe that what is good for the common man is good for the whole country. Every policy of our administration has therefore been directed to his welfare. We have anchored our national destiny to the common man.”
In his fourth—and what turned out to be his final—Sona on Jan. 28, 1957, Magsaysay declared: “The prime function of government is service to the people. It exists to protect their rights.” He added: “Public office is a stern taskmaster and among its exacting requirements is that a public servant must not only be blameless, but [also] above suspicion.”
Abueva says that President Magsaysay exemplified the model public servant, that by his conduct and example, “he raised the ideal of inspired and dedicated service to all citizens, especially the lowly among them, as the true measure of presidential leadership and public service.”
According to Abueva, Magsaysay was “a shining example of transforming leadership,” one “whose moral leadership leads him or her to involve fellow leaders and followers in the serious pursuit of transforming moral values and ends.”
Although Magsaysay’s tenure was abruptly ended on March 17, 1957, when his plane crashed in Cebu, for Abueva, his integrity, style of leadership and genuine concern made him stand out among the Philippine presidents before and after him, including the incumbent, and “maybe beyond.”
Mario Magat is a former executive of the Loyola Group and the Tambunting Group of Companies.