Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

The Last Good Senator: Ramon Magsaysay, Jr.

The son of arguably the most beloved president the country has ever had, this lawmaker from Zambales had to live up to a surname all his life. But he carved his own path when he entered the senate, fighting for farmers and men in uniform as well as a corruption plot under the pork barrel system.
Nancy Carvajal | May 12 2019

Before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, we want to pose a question: do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished writers reflect on the careers of past and present senators who have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

In the Philippine political arena, the name Magsaysay is blue blood. But unlike other local political families, it represents humility and integrity.

While he is political royalty, former Senator Ramon “Jun’’ Magsaysay did not sit on his family’s laurels. Instead he made his own legacy, and took the path less traveled when it was easier to just give in to pressure. Armed with impressive credentials and an untainted reputation, Magsaysay took on Senate investigations that a less-equipped lawmaker would have difficulty with.

 

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In his 12 years in the Senate, he pushed for bills that showed his family’s affection for the less fortunate. His Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act in 1997 (AFMA), for example, ensures small farmers and fishermen access to assets, resources, and technology services.

It was not only compassion that marked Magsaysay’s Senate stint, but also his aversion to corruption, particularly when it came to funds meant for farmers. Even before pork barrel investigations were in vogue, the senator opened the Pandora’s box about its misuse in 2006. He uncovered a large-scale fertilizer scam, and was the first to conduct a Senate inquiry into the matter. He did not bow to the powers that be who wanted to stop the investigation. He had the courage and conviction to finish and submit its findings.

 

Seeing things through

The senator continued committee hearings despite President Gloria Arroyo’s efforts to undermine the investigation. Arroyo then issued Executive Order 464 which disallowed government officials to attend the proceedings. It was due to this inquiry that some officials of the Department of Agriculture were indicted before the Office of the Ombudsman.

In his report as head of the Senate Agriculture committee, Magsaysay stated that Arroyo benefitted from what he described as an intricate scheme of deception and fraud. He said Arroyo should be held accountable for the stolen funds. Magsaysay called on Arroyo to be transparent and explained to the public how the funds were appropriated. But his calls were ignored by her administration. 

The investigation also proved his independence from his political party, which is rare even today. In his first term as Senator, he ran and won under Arroyo’s political party, the Lakas-NUCD, but this did not stop him from pushing through with the investigation.

Photograph from ABS-CBN News

Magsaysay and his chief of staff were getting death threats while in the thick of investigating. It became so bad that the senator, who was used to going around only with his driver, was forced to get backup security.

The beneficiaries of the scam were governors, congressmen, and mayors, and Magsaysay was prepared for the repercussions. He didn’t run for reelection in 2007 because the investigation took a toll on his health. When he tried to make a comeback in 2010, he lost—mostly because all the local officials whom he linked to the scam withdrew their support of him.

But even before all that, Magsaysay has proved that he is a man of conscience and will do what is right for the people. In the impeachment proceedings of former President Joseph Estrada, the senator voted to open the bank envelope that allegedly contained the evidence against the top official.

The rest is history, and Estrada was convicted of plunder. (Arroyo later pardoned him.) The fertilizer scam was a precursor to the PDAF scam; both involved Janet Napoles. Magsaysay’s investigation already exposed her back in 2005. 

His resilience in the investigation might be linked to his family’s love of agriculture. His son Paco asked him once why he wanted to go into farming when they had been in the cable TV business since 1972. The senator told his child that he was fulfilling his own father’s wishes; at the end of President Magsaysay’s term, he himself wanted to go into farming. This was just the senator’s way of fulfilling his father’s dream.

 

Fighting the good fight

In the Senate, Magsaysay did not only fight against corruption, but also pushed for a legislative agenda that would significantly improve lives of not only farmers, but also soldiers. In 2001, as head of the committee on national defense, he conducted an inquiry on how the Abu Sayyaf was able to escape from a hospital in Lamitan, Basilan. The group took hostages with them, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, and several others.

Like the fertilizer scam, the Basilan probe was also a touchy project as the military was the subject of the inquiry. But it did not deter Magsaysay from taking a stand against military corruption. Notwithstanding his support for men in uniform, Magsaysay recommended the indictment of army officials involved in the siege, including high-ranking officers that had command responsibility.

While he does not tolerate military abuses, he also pushed for legislative agenda that would enhance the soldier’s self-confidence and standard of living. He believes, among other things, that soldiers should be accorded the respect and recognition due them, and that they should have a home they can call their own.

Among the bills he helped approved for soldiers include a housing program, increased basic pay, and the professionalization of military ranks. Through these bills, unused lands inside camps were converted to housing projects for military personnel.

While he cared for the less fortunate, Magsaysay also balanced it with economic and business legislations. His training in Harvard Business School prepared him to craft laws that he knew could spur growth. Magsaysay is the father of the E commerce bill. He funded the Call Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), to attended a convention in Chicago to know more about the industry when it was still in its infancy here.

Prior to his stint at the Senate, Magsaysay was the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s running mate in the 1992 presidential elections. He eventually lost.

Nevertheless, the lawmaker moved on from that loss, and did everything in his power to be the good senator he became.