OPINION: In search of a hero or a real leader

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Aug 20 2020 12:59 AM

I have been doing a book project for quite some time now and I have to say it is becoming more interesting as I near its completion. It has been an opportunity for me to look back and reflect on our history and rediscover significant fine details that lead me to consider different views on things. 

For example, we probably assume that we know who our heroes are, especially what they did to qualify as a hero, but a closer look might give us a different purview. So then, we end up asking who is a hero and what constitutes a hero? Interestingly, we have been talking about heroes for a while now, especially amidst this pandemic that has gripped the whole world for almost a year now.

August after all is a month for heroes as we celebrate a day for them every year every end of August. Before that, every 21st is the commemoration of former Senator Ninoy Aquino’s death in 1983, the event that is believed to have triggered the downfall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. So, it goes without saying that we consider Ninoy a hero, while we consider Marcos Sr. as some villain. How much of a villain was the former president and how much a hero was the former senator depends significantly on what we know of our history, particularly their story and how and why they decided to do the things they did, which I have to say would not be enough. Lamentably, we have yet to be through being affected and actually, divided, by these two political figures of almost 4 decades ago that whether we see them as a hero or villain still depends on where we sit. I can’t help then that I have more questions than answers about heroes.

Every country, every nation has its own heroes. Past leaders who have contributed to a country’s development, fighting for its freedom and/or independence and leading to its foundation. Heroes are icons as they serve as models to the people that they therefore serve as among the important symbols of a nation. As such, they help remind the people of their identity, how they have come to where they are now, and how it led to the many milestones of the whole country. This makes history a fundamental component of a nation’s identity and its future.

This explains why every people, especially developing countries like ours, are in constant search for a hero or heroes, one who can lead us to a better state of things and therefore save us. Precisely, heroes before were considered as such as they served the country then, probably saving it from dire conditions or leading the people to development. Given all of the foregoing, it would be interesting to go back in time, talk about the Filipino as a nation, and take a look at some of the leading figures in our history. I thought it might be engaging to start with the question about nationhood, of what constitutes a Filipino, which has been a pivotal question for our national heroes.

For a while, many of our leaders thought that we belong to the Malay race. This even led to the thinking that if the colonizers from the West did not come and take control of most of the countries in Southeast Asia, there could have emerged a Greater Malayan Confederation or probably even a United States of Malay peoples. Jose Rizal was a leading proponent of uniting the Malays. He asserted that instead of bringing development to the Philippine Islands, the coming of the Spaniards, mainly because of the abuses of the friars, only led to the Filipinos’ degeneration. The peoples in the Philippine archipelago were already civilized even before, as the Malays who came over and populated the country were already civilized, bringing with them not only goods for trade, but also religion and government.

This idea of a Malay civilization in the Philippine Islands and in the Southeast Asian region remains even up to this time. The vision of a Malay nation in the region was continued by former President Manuel Quezon. Wenceslao Vinzons, who was among the celebrated leaders in the Commonwealth period and one of the leaders of the armed resistance against the Japanese, likewise envisioned a united Malay race. This idea of a nation in the region continued to animate our leaders, leading to the formation of MaPhilIndo by President Diosdado Macapagal, which then contributed to the invigoration, if not agitation, of getting back Sabah. The idea of the Filipino as essentially Malay has given us pride and has granted us some feeling of identity as a people.

Still, the distinct ethno-linguistic identity remains in every one of us. An Ilocano will always gravitate towards an Ilocano in a community, as would a Cebuano, a Bicolano or Kapampangan. Everyone understands Tagalog as it has been the language of the ruling elite since the colonial period, which has now evolved as it adapted some words from the other indigenous languages into what we consider as the Filipino language. But we’ll never know the Filipino language as if it was truly our native tongue more than we know our ethnic language or even English. This explains why we speak good English compared to other Asian countries. So, if in fact we are a nation, this division would not be as palpable as there is more reason for us to be united or at the very least inclined to understand each other better. Of course, it is more than language that binds a people, which could be the subject of another piece.

As it turns out, it is quite limiting to assume that the Filipino is a Malay nation. The Filipino is Spanish, Chinese, Indian, American, Japanese, even Korean recently, apart from the earlier Malay migrants from the south that include our Muslim Filipino brothers and the indigenous peoples who were the original Filipinos. Unfortunately, the reason why the Filipino as Malay became popular is because our revered hero Jose Rizal, along with many other Filipino heroes with him fighting the Spaniards for independence, did not count the other “Filipinos”, including the “original” Filipinos because they thought, they would not qualify as “civilized” and therefore considered as “outsiders”. Rizal even denied his being more Chinese than Malay. It would take the stultification, that is, more than just embarrassment of the Filipinos in Spain during the 1887 Madrid Exposition that our heroes, which included Rizal then studying in Spain, would recognize and defend indigenous peoples as Filipinos. The Exposition put on display Filipinos from various tribes including Igorots and Negritos. Perhaps a mixed feeling of humiliation and compunction led prominent Filipinos then to recognize essentially non-Malay Filipinos.

Sadly, this rather constricted idea of nationhood would continue and lead to the consideration of violent means to take back Sabah, fast forward to 1968 during the presidency of Marcos. There was every reason to vigorously push for the return of Sabah to the Philippines at that time, apart from the fact that it has always been part of the Sultanate of Sulu. Many of the countries in the region were new sovereign states, and Malaysia was then the youngest sovereign country at that time. The Philippines is the first Republic in Asia and had the advantage politically and even economically at that time. Whether by astute and diligent diplomacy or resolute and effective force, there was every reason to believe we could recover Sabah. Our leaders precisely considered both diplomacy and force, but none of these worked.

There are those who have been asking, and I should say, rightly so, what exactly was exposed by then Senator Ninoy Aquino. Did he expose the “Jabidah Massacre” or did he expose the covert “Operation Merdeka”? If it was the latter that was exposed, then the massacre could have happened as a result of the exposé. There are even those who have been asking if the massacre actually happened. True or contrived, it has led to the prolonged turmoil in the south calling for secessionism. Then President Marcos could have exhausted every diplomatic means to recover Sabah as his predecessor did, or simply consider every effective means other than violence. Whether or not the Jabidah Massacre happened, he could have been more straightforward about it, if only to show that his intent was for the good of the country. Then Senator Ninoy, on the other hand, could have at least considered Operation Merdeka as a crucial national security issue to just expose to the public and cause dissension. A true patriot could have weighed carefully the consequences of whatever one has in mind to do. Notwithstanding all these, we still don’t have Sabah back and, more than that, the idea of a Filipino nation remains, at best, embryonic.

So, we’re still looking for a hero or better yet, heroes, real patriots who would do what’s really best for the country and not only for himself, his family, friends, ally and or anyone with the same interest. Many countries have moved on to achieve greater heights for themselves and there are more countries who are about to transcend underdevelopment while we remain as we have been for more than half a century. We find it easy to adduce heroism to just about anyone who make us proud as doing good seems to be just extraordinary, not just something you expect anyone and everyone, especially in government, to just do as it is what is supposed to be done in the first place. We look up to our leaders both past and present, but instead of leading us as one people, they continue to divide us, espousing different colors when we are supposed to identify ourselves to one single color for everyone. We remain needy of real leaders who will be guided more by what is good for the country than just ensuring numbers and relying on partisanship.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.