A soldier, peacemaker and nation builder

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

There is no doubt in my mind that Fidel Valdez Ramos was the best president we have had. Starting his career as a soldier, FVR risked his life defending democracy and became the peacemaker we needed at crucial moments in our history.

FVR was a thinking soldier with a strong sense of history. General Jose Almonte, another thinking general and close confidant of FVR, gives us an idea of their early army days in his book, We Must Level the Playing Field.

“In the late ‘50s, I was a second lieutenant in the Philippine Army, leading a platoon posted in the Gitingan sector of the Sierra Madre, on the Laguna-Quezon border. A company only a few kilometers away was commanded by Captain Fidel V. Ramos, with whom I often visited – to feast on hard-boiled condensed milk.

“Our mission was to interdict remnants of the dissident Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan traversing Gitingan to and from the Central Plains… by then the insurgency had died down enough for Captain Ramos and me, sitting together in the slanting sunlight of the hill afternoon, to ask ourselves why we were killing our own people.

“Only gradually  – perhaps because soldiers are not supposed to reason why — and much later when the 1986 People Power Revolution set us free from our political innocence – did we come to realize how we, as a people, have divided into two nations – and became a country at war with itself.”

We have just gone through our most divisive election in history. The election proved the two thinking generals got it right about us being two nations, about our country being at war with itself.

Not surprising that on Day One at Malacañang, FVR saw his mission to transform society, starting with putting the elite in their place. Here is how General Almonte framed their “to do” list:

“Putting our house in order calls for achieving three tasks.

“The first is to restore political stability and civil order.

“The second is to bring rationality and predictability to economic policy-making; level the playing field of business competition, and link up the economy to the global market.

“The third is to reduce corruption and inefficiency in the civil service; collect the right taxes, and manage public administration prudently and wisely.

“These three tasks – once completed – will give the Philippine State the autonomy it needs – to act unequivocally on behalf of the national interest.”

Hay naku! Now it seems we have regressed. The only thing barely left is FVR’s success in cutting down the oligarchy in control of public service monopolies.

Remember the joke cracked by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew during a business conference we were hosting in Manila about how 98 percent of Filipinos are waiting for a phone line while the other two percent are waiting for a dial tone.

FVR didn’t find that very funny. It made him more determined to break the PLDT monopoly held by a business crony of Junior’s father.

General Almonte recalls, FVR wanted to set free the spirit of Philippine enterprise. So, FVR focused on reforming the service industries controlled by special-interest groups – telecommunications, power, ports, shipping and air services, whose supervisory agencies are vulnerable to “regulatory capture.”

It was not easy. As General Almonte recalled, the economic elite had allies in our institutions… But FVR decisively cut down the oligarchy’s power to monopolize markets and forced them to compete and innovate.

As General Almonte recalled:

“President Ramos, for instance, managed to open the banking system – just enough to let in 10 global banks. That single, limited reform has forced domestic banks to become more efficient, to focus on their market niches, and to depend less on relations-based banking practices.

“Similarly, the forced dismantling of the PLDT monopoly has made our country one of the most vigorous telecommunications markets…”

FVR opened the airline industry to real competition. Cebu Pacific became a formidable competitor to Philippine Airlines, even flying more passengers than PAL (domestic and international) by cutting down airfares. Now, every Juan can fly.

And that’s not all. Filipinos love to talk about the need for a benevolent dictator… that our democracy is getting in the way of progress. FVR disagrees.

Surprisingly for a leader who spent a lifetime in the military, FVR was not the authoritarian leader one might expect. Indeed, General Almonte pointed out that FVR recognized early on that “authoritarianism is a receding tide we Filipinos cannot ride to development even if we wanted to…

“Philippine development would have to rely – much more than the East Asian tigers did – on the play of market forces. It would have to emphasize incentives rather than commands…”

Today we mourn the death of a president who has done much within the limits of our Constitution. FVR could have been a strongman ruler, but he defended our democracy by putting down a number of coups by fellow soldiers.

FVR brought dissidents back to the fold. My colleague Jarius Bondoc, who helped bring Nur Misuari back, recalled that a simple heartfelt message from FVR convinced Nur to end the war. Nur knew FVR could be trusted.

Unfortunately, those who succeeded him at Malacañang miserably failed to follow through. We retrogressed. We no longer have a PLDT monopoly, but the seven or so new telephone companies that were organized from FVR’s initiative soon became just two.

Cronyism re-emerged. Many of our institutions and regulatory agencies are again captive to special interests.

And as we bid FVR a final goodbye, it pains us to note we no longer have leaders with the systematic and determined approach of FVR to fix our nation.

As General Almonte summed it up:

We Filipinos are far from being a fully achieved nation… nation building is still a work in progress. We have been distracted by stronger loyalties to region, language, ethnicity and family.

FVR tried to cobble a nation out of us. Today, his memory should continue to inspire a future generation of leaders who will hopefully pick up from what he has already accomplished.

FVR, a soldier, a peacemaker and nationbuilder, fades into history with accomplishments we should build on and never forget.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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