Magsaysay’s ‘un-Filipino’ traits
LIKE MOST Filipinos, Ramon Magsaysay, seventh president of the Philippines whose 109th birth anniversary will be marked on Aug. 31, did not forget debts of gratitude.
Ramon V. de Jesus, who devoted Chapter 17 of his book “Zambales,” published by Union Zambalena, to the province’s most illustrious son, wrote: “[Magsaysay] was by nature a very grateful man and loyal to friends and those who had helped him.”
But unlike many Filipinos who consider it a lifelong obligation to repay those debts over and over again, Magsaysay, who was known as the “Man of the Masses” in his time, “would not countenance acts of dishonesty and abuse of confidence even by those to whom he was indebted,” De Jesus wrote.
De Jesus, a lawyer from Botolan, Zambales, was Magsaysay’s fellow guerrilla. He served as chief of staff of Magsaysay when the future president became congressman in 1946.
In “Ramon Magsaysay: ‘Servant Leader’ with a Vision of Hope,” former University of the Philippines president Jose V. Abueva wrote that even party affiliation became unimportant to Magsaysay upon his election. In Magsaysay’s inaugural address on Dec. 30, 1953, he proclaimed: “From this day, the members of my administration, beginning with myself, shall cease to belong to our parties, to our families, even to ourselves. We shall belong only to the people…”
Abueva added: “In a society where the family ties are strong, Magsaysay’s sweeping injunction against favored treatment of his and his wife’s relatives was unheard of.”
Other presidents after Magsaysay would make a similar declaration, but none has shown the same resolve as he. Magsaysay ordered the cancellation of an uncle’s bid contract to transport coal for the government’s cement corporation, Abueva said. The uncle had to seek relief from the Supreme Court, which awarded him damages.
Magsaysay also discouraged his youngest brother, Genaro, a lawyer, from practicing his profession and blocked relatives’ political ambitions while he was president. Abueva said. “The president took pains to avoid what seemed to him unjustifiable advancement of relatives, some of whom were only distantly related and all qualified.”
“The president,” Abueva said, “remained ‘a model of exemplary integrity in public office,’” throughout his political life.
In fact, even as a member of the resistance movement in World War II, Magsaysay adhered closely to what he considered was the proper way of doing things, his only son and namesake, the former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., recalled.
When the future president was tasked to acquire medicines and other supplies for the guerrillas in Zambales, his son said, Magsaysay insisted that the receiving officer, Col. Gyles Merrill, who had organized one of the major resistance groups in Luzon, sign receipts indicating he received the exact quantities and description of the essential supplies given by Filipino doctors and sympathizers from Manila.
Although Merrill became a personal friend, Magsaysay, who held the rank of captain, reportedly told the American: “Sir, I must show these receipts to the donors who risked discovery and probable arrest for supplying us. Otherwise, they will stop doing so and you and me will be suspected of using the supply for our own needs, or worse, that we sold these to earn money for ourselves.”
Thereafter, Merrill signed every delivery of supplies from the Filipino officer.
Magsaysay, also fondly known as “The Guy,” always sought to set a good example even as he was concerned first and foremost about ordinary Filipinos, adopting the slogan: “Those who have less in life should have more in law.”
In his first year in office, he established the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (Narra) which, by June 1956, had resettled 10,651 families—more than half from high-tenancy areas. By 1957, the year of Magsaysay’s death, Narra had served 21,587 families.
The resettled families, Abueva said in his other book, “Ramon Magsaysay: A Political Biography,” were provided agricultural tools and supplies and subsistence aid.
Abueva said Magsaysay also set up the army’s Economic Development Corps (Edcor) resettlement project for retired soldiers and former members of the Hukbalahap, an anti-Japanese group (the acronym stands for “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon”) that became an antigovernment force after the war. It concretized Magsaysay’s promise of help to Huk members who would lay down their arms.
De Jesus said Magsaysay “was fond of the company of the common tao and was happy to be known as one of them,” but he also strove to achieve and succeed, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “A Psalm of Life”:
“Not enjoyment and not sorrow/ Is our destined end or way;/ But to act that each tomorrow/ Finds us further than today.
“In the world’s broad field of battle,/ In the bivouac of life,/ Be not like dumb, driven cattle!/ Be a hero in the strife!”
Despite his ambition and drive to succeed, however, Magsaysay never thought he had all the answers to the problems he faced, De Jesus said. Magsaysay was aware of his limitations, even laughed at his shortcomings, and “endeavored to rectify immediately errors of decision he made based on inaccurate information,” De Jesus said.
No wonder that to many Filipinos, Magsaysay, who was born on Aug. 31, 1907, in Iba, Zambales, remains the standard by which Philippine presidents after him are measured.
As in previous years since 1958, the year after Magsaysay died in a plane crash, his birth anniversary will be highlighted by the presentation of the Ramon Magsaysay Award to outstanding men and women whose work in Asia demonstrates the greatness of spirit of the man after whom the award, the region’s most prestigious and known as the Nobel Prize of Asia, is named.
Magsaysay, soldier, resistance fighter and beloved president, lies at the North Cemetery in Manila, where the family chooses to keep him.
Luis Serrano Jr. is a retired communications officer of the Manila Electric Company.
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