Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 24 February 2016


At this time since February 1986, the nation engages in ceremonials, speeches and articles bashing the legacy and times of Ferdinand Marcos.

I was part of his Cabinet from 1970 to 1981 and I have first-hand memories that are far from the usual demonized version of him in present-day national politics.

Three of these come to mind: (1) His respect and civility toward his official family. (2) His demand for results even when he met with other heads of government. (3) His knowledge of and use of the law as basis of his official acts.

Civility and respect toward his officials. To evaluate his grasp of important problems, he would engage a small group of officials for consultations. He preferred this format over one-on-one meetings.

Of course, he would use the telephone to give instructions or seek clarifications on any outstanding problem or to respond to urgent issues. This, however, was seldom.

On economic issues, he had the habit of calling a group, often involving Finance, Central Bank, Industry, and NEDA. He convened the Cabinet or the NEDA Board when broad and substantial issues were involved.

He was in full command of meetings. But he allowed officials to speak their minds. I had not ever witnessed him bawling out any one for misbehaviour, incompetence or poor performance as a shaming example among official peers.

He would, of course, confront erring officers for unsatisfactory work. But once, he announced the firing of “notoriously undesirables” from the independence-day pulpit in the early days of martial law.

In the matter of appointments of personnel within the NEDA, he respected that the head of office was fully in charge. I was never told to appoint any one individual to a position in my office.

There was only one instance when he called me to consider someone for a post, but in the end I did not appoint this person.

He would always look for qualified people to fill up sensitive posts. He asked his trusted officials to suggest names, and often appointed them.

Thus, when I was in the government, most of the people I worked with were highly respected persons in various fields of endeavours.

Clarity of purpose and results-oriented work. He made a few, not many, state visits to foreign countries. Thus, he went to the US and Japan on state visits and to neighbouring countries because of ASEAN.

In 1977 he went to the ASEAN leaders summit conference in Kuala Lumpur. A second day feature of this meeting was the ASEAN plus One: the five leaders of ASEAN (then only the original-five – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) as a group would dialogue separately with the leaders of the US, Japan and Australia.

After the first day of summitry including the evening socials, he called for me almost at midnight to his room. (I was the chief Philippine minister in that meeting.) He expressed the fear that ASEAN plus One summitry would be dissipated in pleasantries. He said he had wanted to send a note to the host ASEAN leader, Malaysian Prime Minister Hussein Onn, to suggest points for motivating the discussions on ASEAN issues with each of the world leaders.

He ordered me to draft a short paper to highlight ASEAN’s issues and concerns in the dialogue with these three heads of state. I was to send the draft statement to him through his security by five in the morning so he could look it over and then send it with dispatch to the Malaysian Premier.

With Fililogo Pante (my assistant director general), I worked on the note. In those days of IBM Selectric typewriters and no computers nor word-processing, we managed to send the draft to President Marcos at 5 a.m.

The three separate meetings came one after the other, each with the United States (President Jimmy Carter), Japan (Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda) and Australia (Prime Minister Gough Whitlam). Prime Minister Hussein Onn started each meeting with a reading of a statement that was the replica of the draft that President Marcos had sent him.

His insistence on substance helped to make the ASEAN plus One meeting more meaningfully guided at the start.

Knowledge of the law and sensitivity. Normally, President Marcos affixed his approvals of projects with a simple “approved” followed by his short-signature.

I once sought approval for the allocation of a small amount of public funds to match a one-time donation of the Ford Foundation to support the secretariat of the Philippine Social Science Council.

The PSSC is a private organization composed of the country’s social science organizations — historians, political scientists, anthropologists, statisticians, demographers, sociologists, and economists.

On this occasion, the president hesitated. I thought he disliked social scientists since some of them were openly critical of him. But I soon found out that that was not what had bothered him.

A constitutional provision against allocating public money for private ends was foremost in his mind and he had read a potential conflict.

Realizing the objective of the project could help in promoting coordination of social science societies for development, he wrote cleanly, “approved” with the note the project was for a “public purpose.”

In an effort to encourage the building of social science societies and enable them to work closely together, the Ford Foundation in the early 1960s encouraged the creation of the Philippine Social Science Council. The secretariat was the mechanism for promoting coordination in the country.

After almost a decade of continuous support, the Ford Foundation had decided to give the PSSC a final multi-year assistance. The group, even after more than a decade of existence, was still weakly financed.

Rather than see it wither and die due to inadequate support, I challenged the Ford Foundation to double their intended secretariat funding. NEDA would help supply further matching peso-for-peso funds to assure long term viability for the worthy development cause.