MONCHING IN ALL OF US (#JustLikeMagsaysay)

Since I can’t get enough of President Ramon Magsaysay’s 105th birth anniversary last 31 August, I am reposting this short piece I wrote for my former column “Walking History” from the former newspaper “Good Morning Philippines,” 31 August 2011, edited by Ms. Rita Gadi:

President Ramon Magsaysay on horseback by Fernando Amorsolo

These are truly historic days!  Aside from the long weekend due to National Heroes Day and the end of Ramadan, we must be remembering the last days of August for many things—the initial encounters of the Philippine Revolution in 1896; Ninoy Aquino’s funeral in 31 August 1983 which is still one of the biggest funerals in world history attended by two million people, a number bigger than Gandhi’s; and also the passing on 31 August of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, and Iglesia ni Cristo Executive Minister Eraño “Ka Erdie” Manalo in 2009.

But we must also remember that on this day, the last day of August 1907, a baby nicknamed “Monching” was born in Zambales.  Despite being part of the landed elite, Monching was so at home mingling with their peasants.  And even as a sickly student in Manila, he was keenly interested with car engines that he got accepted as an ordinary mechanic at the TRY-tran company.  In a few months, he rose to become company supervisor.  Thereafter, he became the commander of the guerrilla forces and later Military Governor of Zambales during World War II.  His codename “Chow,” refers to his great capacity to gather food and supplies in Manila and Zambales for his mountain guerrillas.  Backed by his comrades, he soon was elected Congressman.  Monching never forgot their sacrifices.  To show his love for those who died and survived, he lobbied at the US Congress for the passing of the Rogers Act which secured benefits for Filipino war veterans and their widows.  This led to the establishment of the Veterans Memorial Hospital.  In time, he was appointed Secretary of Defense and, by the hand of destiny, was elected President of the Philippines.

Ramon Magsaysay was my idol mainly because when I was younger my Lola Ching, the mother of my father Charles, used to say that she cried when he unexpectedly died when his plane “Pinatubo” crashed in Mt. Manunggal, Cebu on 17 March 1957.  From Jose Abueva’s political biography I later learned that RM was so popular at that time that politicians from the two main political parties at that time, his own Nacionalista and Liberals, endorsed him as their common candidate in the next elections.  When he died, countless Filipinos bade him farewell and remembered him as the beloved president closest to their hearts.  The political slogan was a constant refrain, “Magsaysay is My Guy” because he was truly the Man of the Masses.

Inspired by my Lola’s love for the Guy, I wrote an essay about him as a fourteen-year-old student at St. Matthew Christian Academy in Tarlac using my grandmother as a storytelling device.  That essay entitled, “Ramon Magsaysay …Role Model for the Youth,” won third in the High School Division of the First President Ramon Magsaysay Essay Writing Contest.  I received Php 10,000.00 as a cash prize and was invited to attend the 1998 Presentation Ceremonies of the RM Award, the Nobel Peace Prize of Asia, where I met that year’s awardee for International Understanding, President Cory Aquino and the son of President Magsaysay himself, Senator Jun.  Since then, to attend the ceremonies was a yearly “panata” for me to keep alive his inspiration by knowing the people within the Asian continent who followed the Magsaysay example.

Writing that essay that won gave me not only the confidence but also the inspiration to no longer be an insecure “provinciano” student but a determined person that would focus on the pursuit of my dreams.  But most importantly, it was the lesson of his life that is of greater value.

Never forget your core.  This was shown in an anecdote when Magsaysay’s car stopped in the middle of the night and his driver could not fix it.  He alighted, folded his sleeves and started to fix the car himself.  His wife and driver were worried.  He was the Defense Secretary at that time, and so he simply reminded them that he was used to getting dirty because he once worked as a mechanic.  It was his down-to-earth character that changed how electioneering was done in the Philippines.  It was a practice at the time that local political representatives would do the campaigning for national candidates.  But Magsaysay had a different style:  he mingled with the ordinary people in the streets, shook hands with the commuters of the bus, and even had Raul Manglapus compose a jingle with the mambo beat so that people could dance to the beat of his name.  When he became president, he opened the gates of Malacañang, twice and sometimes thrice a week, and personally listened to the ordinary “tao” who came.  He did not live long enough to pursue the full term of his program of government, but in the brief period of his regime, he was quick to address the basic needs of the people, offering them immediate “ginhawa,” the way he gave deep wells without delay.

“He who has less in life should have more in law” is the most famous Magsaysay and became the “credo” he demanded public officials to follow during his administration. As president, he demanded no less of himself.  His press aide Jess Sison wrote that one time when Magsaysay was late for an appointment and asked his driver to speed up the driving, the driver tried to beat the red light at UN Avenue but was caught by a traffic policeman.  Realizing it was the president on board the vehicle, the policeman said sorry and refused to issue a ticket.  Magsaysay got his name and said, “Look here, if you don’t apprehend my driver, you’ll find yourself jobless tomorrow.  Make it quick because I’m already late.”  Perhaps an early version of “Walang wang-wang”?

His simplicity is admirable:  His wife, Mrs. Luz Magsaysay, would recall that during state functions with foreign guests Magsaysay preferred serving native dishes and local wines like tuba and lambanog, thereby supporting and promoting local products.  She said that even the curtains in their house should be locally made.  He also veered from the formality of the palace by conducting press conferences at the veranda of Malacañang.  Journalist Nestor Mata, the lone survivor of the fated plane crash, recalled, “In our press conferences, we can feel the breeze of the Pasig River.”

With the help of the persuasive skills of his political aide Ninoy Aquino, Magsaysay ended the Huk Rebellion with the surrender of their leader Luis Taruc.  “With my left hand I am offering to all dissidents the road to peace, happy homes and economic security,” Magsaysay said.  “But with my right I shall crush all those who resist and seek to destroy our democratic government.”  He kept his promise by resettling those who surrendered in Koronadal Valley in Mindanao, giving them farm implements, work animals and funds.  He visited them regularly.  Taruc said that he never doubted Magsaysay’s sincerity to help the poor.

As a student of history in UP I learned of course that he was no saint.  He was shrewd, and developed his image carefully.  To get elected President, he worked with CIA’s Colonel Edward Lansdale and eventually became known to critics as “America’s Boy.”  Understandably, he had to make a choice as leader of a country during the Cold War era between the devil that we know—the United States of America, and the devil that we didn’t know—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  However else his critics may have viewed him, [Zeus Salazar said] he was one of a few presidents who broke the chain of elite democracy by being a “Pinunong Bayan”—a leader of the people, by the people and for the people.

The biographer Manuel Martinez told us a story about the poet Cornelio Faigao, his uncle, who from his hospital bed in Cebu, sent a cable to Magsaysay in 1957 asking for help him to buy a new medicine that was only available in Manila.  Even though Faigao was a stranger to Magsaysay, he received a reply that Magsaysay would be coming to Cebu on 16 March and personally deliver the medicine.  Faigao, already comatose, received the drug that Magsaysay personally carried in his pocket the day before the plane crash at Mt. Manunggal.  He recovered.  Up until his death, Magsaysay was helping people.

Magsaysay never said “I love you” to the people in his speeches, but he showed this with his dynamism to serve them and with his sincerity to give them “ginhawa.”  And we, the people, loved him back.  He showed us that to be simple is to be great—a not-too-difficult a lesson to fellow, but a very important one.  That is the “saysay,” the meaning in the name of Magsaysay.  This is his legacy that we can nurture in our hearts.

29 August 2011