Remembering Ka Blas
A few days ago the Armed Forces of the Philippines marked its 79th anniversary. One of the highlights of the day was the Commander in Chief’s announcement of an increase in the subsistence allowance of military personnel from P90 to P150 a day. As the name implies, subsistence allowance is supposed to provide bread and butter for the troops. All housewives know that P150 a day to cover three meals calls for a miracle, much like the transformation of water to wine at Cana.
When I was a brand-new graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, the subsistence allowance was—this may be difficult to believe—P1 a day. Unit commanders often tried to come up with an open mess for all, pooling the subsistence allowance of the men. This gives us an idea how meager are the resources of the military organization when it comes to providing support for the soldier. It is good to know we are acquiring guns, ships and jet planes for the AFP; perhaps more subsistence will go a long way to improving the state of morale and welfare of the troops.
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Dec. 14 was the 11th death anniversary of one of our greatest countrymen.
I was a young Air Force captain when I first met Blas Ople. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was in town, one of the first of several heads of government to visit the Philippines after the imposition of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos. I was assigned to Whitlam’s entourage, making sure his schedule was not disrupted in any way. At the residence of the Australian ambassador, as the visiting prime minister was being introduced to members of the Australian community, a Filipino approached me. He had a drink in one hand and was listing heavily to port side. Staring at my nameplate, he asked in a loud, booming voice, “Are you a son of Modesto?” I replied affirmatively and he added, “I’m a friend of your father.” End of conversation. I found out he was Labor Secretary Blas Ople.
Through the years always from a distance, I came to admire his mastery of the English language, written as well as spoken. And as I learned more about him, I realized that in many ways my father’s life and his bore striking similarities. They were both high school graduates with little or no formal university education. Sen. Edgardo Angara would refer to Ople as the first dropout chosen by the Board of Regents to deliver the commencement address at the University of the Philippines in 1979.
My father finished at UP High, one of its first graduates, and started a career in journalism as a cub reporter for the Manila Daily Bulletin. Ople was a former journalist who worked as a deskman and columnist for several publications. In public office, they both fathered government programs which to this day have contributed immensely to the economic wellbeing of the nation. Modesto Farolan earned for himself the title “Father of Philippine Tourism” in recognition of his efforts and accomplishments in the development of the tourist industry. Blas Ople would be remembered best as the father of the overseas Filipino workers’ (OFW) program. This remarkable undertaking has built more homes, enabled more children to acquire an education and resulted in the organization of more small businesses throughout the country than any other endeavor of government. We may wish to phase out the OFW program because of negative social implications. But we must keep in mind that remittances from our workers abroad represent a major pillar of the nation’s economy.
Blas Ople was the first Filipino president of the International Labor Organization in Geneva. My father was the first Filipino president of the International Union of Official Travel Organizations, the forerunner of the World Tourism Organization.
Several years ago, Ka Blas invited me to lunch at the Diamond Hotel. He was just recovering from a stroke and so his movements were a bit slow. But the mind was as sharp as a razor, and much of what he said remains with me to this day. He spoke of the need for modernizing the armed forces, noting that our neighbors were busily but quietly rearming. We had lost most of our strategic relevance to the United States, and it was important to formulate new national security doctrines and develop our own capabilities no matter how modest.
As we were saying our goodbyes, he presented me with a copy of his book “Global But Parochial,” a collection of papers and speeches on foreign policy. It was the equivalent of a mini-course on various Philippine foreign policy issues.
Many consider the OFW program as Ople’s greatest legacy to the nation. While this may be true, I also feel that his other gift in the field of human resource development is just as important. His record in nurturing and developing future leaders of our country is unparalleled. Blas Ople was skilled in spotting raw talent, enriching their experience and allowing them to grow and develop into leaders in their own right. Just to mention a few, we had Pat Sto. Tomas, Benny Laguesma, Regalado Maambong, Jose Brillantes, Nieves Confesor and Ruben Torres. Their common denominator was a poor boy out of Hagonoy, Bulacan, who rose to become secretary of labor, Senate president and secretary of foreign affairs.
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We wish to greet all the men and women of our armed forces a blessed and peaceful holiday season. In particular, our prayers go out to those assigned on board the RP Sierra Madre at the Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys, often described as “the loneliest outpost in the AFP.”
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