When Leticia Ramos-Shahani passed away, a rare thing happened. People from all walks of life and political persuasions paused to express not only loss over her passing, but admiration for a life well and honorably lived. It’s a rare individual who has been able to have two careers –as diplomat and politician—and emerge respected and missed.
While most people remembered her as the sister of former president Fidel V. Ramos, her career as a diplomat was the result of the example provided by another Ramos, her father.
His name was Narciso Ramos. He was a distinguished Pangasinan assemblyman before World War II. When we became independent in 1946, he left politics and become one of the pioneer diplomats of the country, joining the Department of Foreign Affairs when it was organized. He rose to become Secretary of Foreign Affairs during the first Marcos administration.
Narciso Ramos was considered one of the founding fathers of ASEAN, together with the other four foreign ministers who signed the document creating ASEAN on August 8, 1967: Adam Malik of Indonesia, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajatnan of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand.
The idea of an association of Southeast Asian nations was the latest incarnation of an idea as old as our own founding fathers. Before World War II, there was a growing sense of Pan-Malayan solidarity, as Indonesians and Filipinos got to know each other, and expressed moral support for each other’s independence efforts.
During World War II, the Philippines even advocated, for a time, the union of Indonesia and the Philippines. In the end the idea didn’t prosper because the colonial powers objected to it.
In 1945, we became a founding member of the United Nations. The UN had started as the Allies committed to defeating Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II. It then became the global organization committed to maintaining the peace. As a country that had suffered invasion and occupation, from day one our country was attracted to this idea.
But the Cold War also meant that for the Philippines, the focus of our foreign policy in the first decade of independence was our alliance with the West in fighting Communism. SEATO, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, was established by the Western powers and their allies in 1954, as a kind of NATO for our part of the world.
On the other hand, in 1955, a meeting of Asian countries was held in Bandung, Indonesia to propose a different, non-Western-oriented approach. By the 1960s, an increasing desire to cast off the Western orientation of our international relations in our part of the world, had made the time ripe for a new venture. There was, for example, the broader Non-Aligned Movement, established in 1961, the brainchild of India’s founding Prime Minister, Nehru.
The 1960s was a troubled time for Pan-Malayan solidarity. It broke up on the question of Borneo and the claims of Indonesia and the Philippines on territories the British incorporated into the Federated States of Malaya shortly before they became independent as Malaysia in 1963. Shortly before Malysia become independent, Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia established MAPHILINDO, in an effort to express solidarity. But Malaysian independence meant the old quarrels broke out anew, and MAPHILINDO lasted for only one month.
The creation of ASEAN four years later, composed of two countries, Indonesia and the Philippines, opposed to Malaysia, and another, Singapore, created because it was evicted from Malaysia, was truly remarkable in that it proved countries quarreling with each other could unite and find a way forward.
Since then, even as its membership has expanded, ASEAN has been known as a cautious organization, one that worked by means of that very Asian thing, consensus. This meant, though, that to decide on anything, everyone had to agree on it, first. Which meant many things were left alone because unity couldn’t be achieved on those topics.
In recent years, however, as the members of ASEAN have gotten more prosperous and confident, ASEAN has increasingly proven it can make tough decisions on tough questions. A case in point is China. ASEAN members have come to discover there is strength in unity: that what is difficult to achieve –dealing with China, one-on-one—can be more effective when attempted as a bloc. To this realization, we owe the continuing proposal by ASEAN to define a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and the expression of concern and alarm –combined with a commitment to finding peaceful solutions—to the problem of the Spratleys and other contested areas.
This year, the Philippines is the chairman of ASEAN as it marks its 50th year. It should have been Malaysia, because the chairmanship of ASEAN is done on a rotating basis. Malaysia for its own reasons gave up its turn to be chairman and so the job fell on the shoulders of our country.
Last week, former NEDA Chief Cielito Habito wrote in his Inquirer column that our domestic media loves political firefights but finds diplomatic and economic news boring. He pointed out ASEAN economic ministers had been here two weeks ago but there was hardly any coverage. And yet what those ministers discuss affects all of us. For example, economic integration –Free Trade among ASEAN member countries—is upon us, and little discussion on the topic is taking place.
He has a point. ASEAN represents the fastest-growing region in the world, economically-speaking. Modernity brings with it many challenges: to level up, think smart, and study, so as to be able to compete. ASEAN itself represents the discovery, by the nations of our part of the world, that the past doesn’t have to trap us in perpetually redbaiting the resentments of the past. Rather, we can, and should, move forward, together. Generations of loyal public servants like Narciso Ramos built a diplomatic corps for our country that has served it well. Successor generations exemplified by Leticia Ramos-Shahani proved we can build on the past with professionalism and competence. With her passing, and ASEAN’s 50th, the challenge is now in our generation’s hands, not to drop the ball.