The ROTC program and a citizen army

In his memoirs “From Third World to First—The Singapore Story: 1965-2000,” Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew recounts that when the island state was forced out of the Federation of Malaysia, his first concern was to build an armed forces from scratch. There existed the danger presented by Malaysian armed units stationed within Singapore.

“We had to re-orientate people’s minds to accept the need for a people’s army and overcome their traditional dislike for soldiering. . . we set up a national cadet corps and national police cadet corps in all secondary schools so that parents would identify the army and police with their sons and daughters. Only if we changed people’s thinking and attitudes could we raise a large citizen army like Switzerland or Israel.” He went on to say that “the best deterrent to any Malaysian plan to regain control over Singapore was their knowledge that even if they could subdue our armed forces, they would have to keep down a whole people well-trained in the use of arms and explosives.”


We will never have enough resources to fully modernize our armed forces or to support a substantially larger standing army. But we can make life difficult for an enemy force just as we did during the Philippine-American War of 1899 and during the Japanese occupation in World

War II.


Hand in hand with the acquisition of modern weapons and equipment is the need for a citizen army that shall support the efforts of our armed forces. An important component in the creation of this people’s army is the revival of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program of the past in order to strengthen the leadership base of the military organization.

At the start of the 21st century we instituted what is known as the National Service Training Program  of 2001. It was designed to enhance civic consciousness and defense preparedness among our youth. It was made up of three components: (1) the ROTC program that provides military training for tertiary level students; (2) the Literacy Training Service program, designed to train students to become teachers to schoolchildren, out-of-school youth and other segments of society; and (3) a Civic Welfare Training Service devoted to improving health, education, environment, safety and morals of the citizenry.

Unfortunately, the ROTC program was made optional and voluntary, and this led to a decline in the number of young men taking up the program in preparation for a possible military career. It has resulted in the loss of potential leaders for our military—young men who would be interested in a military career without necessarily having to join the Philippine Military Academy.

In the past, competition for leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was mainly between two groups: the products of the ROTC program (Basic as well as Advanced) and PMA graduates. It was a healthy rivalry which often brought out the best in both groups. Today even though roughly 75 percent of the officer corps of the AFP is the output of existing officer candidate schools of the various services, key leadership positions have been generally held by PMAers. This has resulted in practically a monopoly of power by one group, oftentimes by one particular class of the academy. Monopolies, whether in business or in government, do not always serve the best interests of society.

One of the most prominent ROTC graduates who made it to the post of AFP chief of staff was Gen. Alfredo M. Santos, an engineer-turned-soldier who graduated from the Mapua Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering. His role as corps commander of the MIT ROTC contingent led him to a military career through the Reserve Officers Service School at Camp Henry T. Allen in Baguio City. Prior to his appointment by President Diosdado Macapagal as AFP chief of staff, Santos served for two years as Army commanding general. He was also the first chief of the Seato (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) military planning office, with headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.

Another engineer-turned-soldier was Gen. Rigoberto J. Atienza, a civil engineering graduate of the University of the Philippines. He was a founder of the engineering fraternity Tau Alpha and holds the distinction of being the first engineering student to become news editor of the Philippine Collegian. As with Santos, Atienza was appointed to the highest post in the Armed Forces and brought to the position of chief of staff all the skills, intelligence and sensitivity that marked his wartime services. The 51st Engineering Brigade headquarters in Libis, Quezon City, is named “Camp General Rigoberto J. Atienza” in his honor.

The longest-serving AFP chief of staff was also a product of the ROTC program. Gen. Romeo Espino graduated from UP Los Baños with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. A master’s program in plant pathology gave way to military service, when he was called to active duty as a probationary third lieutenant. He would serve as AFP chief of staff from January 1972 to August 1981, a tour of duty of almost 10 years, a record which may never be broken.


Because of his closeness to President Ferdinand Marcos, Gen. Fabian Ver, another ROTC graduate, would be one of the most powerful to ever hold the post of AFP chief of staff. His sphere of influence would cover every facet of government operations because of his concurrent position as director general of the National Intelligence and Security Authority.

Perhaps the most famous ROTC graduate anywhere in the world would be Gen. Colin L. Powell. Because he was a “Distinguished Military Graduate” of the City College of New York ROTC Program, Powell was given a regular rather than a reserve commission. He would become the first black national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, the first black chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, and the first black secretary of state under President George W. Bush—all these before anyone ever heard of Barack Obama. Without the ROTC program, the United States would probably have lost the services of one of its most distinguished soldier-statesmen.

It is time to restore the ROTC program to its honored place in the leadership efforts of our Armed Forces.

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TAGS: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia, nation, national security, news, ROTC, Singapore
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