FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The passing of a statesman always leaves a void in the life of any nation.

Last Sunday, former president Fidel V. Ramos succumbed to illness. Although he has been in isolation for many months, we always thought of him as indestructible. He lived a Spartan life and was always conscious about his health.

When he assumed the presidency, the country was gripped by rotating brownouts. There was no water flowing from our faucets and no dial tone in our phones. Forced to a program of austerity as we worked out our immense debt load, it was never easy to be optimistic about the country’s fate.

FVR won the 1992 presidential elections with the narrowest of margins. One could not say his political capital was large. But he was never apologetic about being a minority president. He reached out to everyone, made friends with the press, won over critics and assembled the first supermajority in Congress with the help of Jose de Venecia, one of only two congressmen who supported his bid for the presidency.

The nation thirsted for hope. FVR told our people we could do it, we could become the next Asian “tiger economy.” He was constantly flashing the thumbs-up sign and telling everyone: “We can do this!”

He was the perfect president for a dreary time.

“The best president!” This is the most common remark I get when I tell friends I worked for the Ramos presidency.

FVR seemed to be governed by the thought that nothing is impossible if we worked hard enough. And he did work very hard, from the crack of dawn to late at night. I was always amazed at how little sleep he needed to be functional.

He loved meeting people. It always amazed me how easily he remembered names and faces, how much detail he held in his brain.

There was a reason he was called “Steady Eddie.” He was always calm, even in the most frantic moments. Recall how during the EDSA Uprising, with very few men under his command, he jogged around Camp Crame to keep troop morale up.

He was AFP chief of staff and then Defense Secretary during the Cory presidency when nine coup attempts were mounted to oust the freshly restored democracy. He calmly faced them all. Nothing leaves him flustered.

The reason he was always calm, I thought, was that he always worked out strategy and tactics in his mind and then acted accordingly. He was never haphazard in word and in deed. He figured things out and then found the most effective response.

FVR was a master strategist. It was clear to him that the only way the country could rise from the morass was to modernize its policy framework and deregulate as quickly as possible. He always insisted that monopolies and protectionism held the country back. He pushed policies that reflected global best practices. That was the framework, the overarching strategy, underpinning his vision of a dynamic and competitive country. “World class,” he would always utter, to remind us to adopt the best practices available.

I was just a kid when I worked for FVR. But he always treated me as a colleague.

He was the one who goaded me to take up golf. At that time, I did not think much of the game, underestimating the discipline it required.

I travelled with FVR on several state visits. After all meetings were done, we would sit around, drink some brandy and talk about everything under the sun.

Once, during his visit to Hanoi, we stood on a street corner in between meetings and he popped a surprising question: When will Vietnam overtake us?

I looked at the intersecting roads and saw peasants cycling to town with baskets of cash to buy television sets. They strapped consumer durables on their bicycles to bring back to their villages. “Mr. President,” I told him, “they do not even have a banking system.” He chewed on his cigar, which he does when he is doing some hard thinking. He did not bother to argue.

I was wrong. Vietnam emerged much more quickly than us. Today, they have overtaken us in most economic measures.

He always peered long into the future – certainly a true statesman.

When FVR was elected president, the country was called “The Sick Man of Asia.” He launched a comprehensive social reform agenda to bring down poverty levels, strengthen the institutions of governance and transform the economy along the path of investments-driven growth.

He was a genuine policy wonk. He knew the importance of reforming our policy architecture to achieve rapid development. The domestic economy responded to the reforms. FVR began calling all those around him “Tiger.” Unfortunately, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis happened and got in the way of our economic leapfrogging.

FVR was not a politician. But he understood the value of making friends and the folly of creating enemies. He rallied the nation behind what he called Team Philippines.

Achieving peace was important to him. FVR pressed our team to work on negotiating with the insurgents. We were successful in forging a deal with Nur Misuari. We were exasperated dealing with the communists. Nevertheless, FVR told us it was better “to talk and talk than shoot and shoot.”

FVR was a technocrat. He had such great faith in the powers reason and science and reason to make a better world.

We will miss this man. He was always as cheerful as he was hopeful, a patriot to the end.


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