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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

TOUCHING HISTORY: Why I Attend The Ramon Magsaysay Awards Every 31 August

Why I attend the annual Ramon Magsaysay Award.  Reposted to commemorate the 105th birth anniversary of President Ramon Magsaysay and as a tribute to DILG Secretary Robredo whom I met and personally saluted in 2000 after being conferred the award.  From the Philippine Star, 31 August 2008, A12.:

31 August 2000, Philam Life Theater, Manila. Photo by Edna C. Apondar

TOUCHING HISTORY

Michael Charleston “Xiao” B. Chua

“Diligence in the work that gives sustenance to thee is the true basis of love — love for thine own self, for thine wife and children, for thine brothers and countrymen.”

-Supremo Andres Bonifacio, Father of the Filipino Nation

“I believe that this nation is endowed with a vibrant and stout heart, and possesses untapped capabilities and incredible resiliency.”

-President Ramon Magsaysay

On 31 August 2008, I will go to the 50th Ramon Magsaysay Awards presentation ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Since 1998, except for a year, I never missed a presentation ceremony. You might wonder, why do I keep coming back?

It all started when I was a fourteen year-old second year high school student in St. Matthew Christian Academy in Tarlac City.  I won third place, high school division, in the very first Ramon Magsaysay Essay Writing Contest (the fore-runner of the now well-known annual Ramon Magsaysay Student Essay Competition of the Award Foundation) of Mr. Paco Magsaysay and Museo Pambata.  I was therefore invited to attend the Magsaysay Awards.

That was the very first time I heard of Asia’s version of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was created in 1957 within a year after Pres. Magsaysay’s death.  Every kid in the country knows Pres. Ramon Magsaysay as the “man of the masses.”  So as a young Filipino I felt proud that an international body that was established to honor Asian heroes, is named after a Filipino.

The ceremony in 1998, was not only special because of the 40th year of the award, but also because the foundation was honoring President Cory Aquino—our very own cabalen from Tarlac, for the category “International Understanding.”  My Aunt Edna Briones agreed to accompany me after being notified the morning of the ceremonies how to claim my prize-money from the essay competition in Makati before proceeding to the CCP.  We arrived late for my first Magsaysay night and was even wearing sando as undershirt for my Barong Tagalog (a common practice in the provinces).  I only realized I made a mistake with my choice of outfit when guests started looking at me strangely.  For it was a formal affair, attended by famous personalities with the President of the Philippines as guest of honor.  I began counting how many people I was seeing at that time who were familiar to me.  After the ceremony, I hunted all of them to ask for autographs and took pictures of them.  That night, I was literally rubbing elbows with public officials, businessmen, artists, actors, broadcasters and academics.  I met Sen. Jun Magsaysay and had an impression that he got the simplicity and humility of his father.  It was all overwhelming for a kid from the province.  I shook the hand of the person who inspired the People Power Revolution (Pres. Cory Aquino), and the hand that signed landmark measures which moved our economy (Pres. Fidel Ramos).  I was touching history!

But what struck me was the simplicity of it all.  Yes it was formal, all right, but not grand.  Stately but understated.  The emphasis was not on the people, but on what these people represented.  As a kid, with History as my favorite subject, I always thought of how I can really show my love of country without necessarily being a big man or a dead man.  As I was listening to the citations of each awardee, the answer to my question dawned on me:  Be the best that you can be, and do your share.

Xiao Chua salutes Magsaysay Awardee Jesse Manalastas Robredo, 31 August 2000.

From then on, every year, I travel from the province to attend the awards night like a vow—panata.  In 2001, I became a history major at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and I still continue to attend.  It was only in 2003 that I was not able to attend the ceremony because we went to a class field trip in Mt. Banahaw.

Ten years since and a bunch of autographs and memorabilia which I piously collected, why do I still return to witness a formal ceremony over and over again?

The reason is personal.  It is in the annual Magsaysay night that I find great inspiration.  The significant stories (as historian Zeus A. Salazar puts it, kasaysayan must be “salaysay na may saysay”) of the awardees inspire me to make a difference, in an environment where the non-conformists are persecuted.  These stories teach me to fight for principles even if victory is not sure.  These also touch my heart and convince me to do my share in lifting the spirit of others, in a nation that is in crisis and despair.

Trustee Emily Abrera expressed what I always felt in her welcome remarks two years ago when she said that the ceremony is like the sacred gathering of our ancestors in an ancient ritual, “the anointing of heroes.” She added, “It is said that you cannot be around great people and not vibrate to the same high frequency.”

After every presentation ceremony, I feel recharged with the inspiration of these stories.  Believe me, the Ramon Magsaysay Award has changed my life.  When I graduated in 2005, I chose to take a path less travelled by young people like me.  I decided to teach history in the premier state learning institution in this country.  And I wish to remain a teacher despite the sacrifices.  Who knows?  That by being the best teacher that I can be, telling my students to look back at their sad yet great past in the perspective of their own culture, I can inspire my students to be proud of their country.  And when this new generation takes over the country as political, economic and social leaders, they will be an asset, not a liability. A better Philippines is not a dream, I HAVE SEEN IT!  It is a vision that I am sure will come true if the young generation is inspired.

I believe that great inspiration is contagious.  I will tell my students about the Magsaysay Awardees.  They will see how most of the awardees were simple human beings.  The main thing they had in common was the greatness of spirit to help those in need.

Michael Charleston B. Chua, 26 (2008), taught at the University of the Philippines Department of History for three years and is finishing his master’s thesis on “Imelda’s Manila.” His essay “Ramon Magsaysay:  Role Model for the Youth” placed third in the high school division of the very first Ramon Magsaysay Essay Writing Contest in 1998.  The author can be reached at xiaoking_beatles@yahoo.com.