Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star,  13 March 2019

Ramon Magsaysay, third president of the Philippine republic (the seventh if we count from Emilio Aguinaldo), was at the peak of his popularity when the airplane he was riding crashed off Mount Manunggal in Cebu. It was near midnight of March 16, 1957 shortly after takeoff in clear weather.

Hopeful presidency cut short. That crash need not have happened. Magsaysay was just nine months and a half short of finishing his first term as president. He was gearing for reelection.

If only! If …

If only the president did not ride a reconditioned Douglas 45 airplane! (The cause of accident, according to the official investigation report on the accident, was attributed to metal fatigue). As a former automotive mechanic, Ramon Magsaysay had a belief in the value of repair and maintenance.Was it also due to pilot error? To insufficient radar investment?

If only he did not hurry too much! He was a simple man, and he believed in quick action. His scheduling was in too much rush. Perhaps traveling night time was his way of starting work early the next day.

Spoken words as predictors? Magsaysay’s presidency was a signal of great hope for the young republic.

If spoken words could predict what he would or could have done, he was truly a beacon of hope for the country. As president, he once said, “The country is “like a pyramid… and the foundation stone of this pyramid is the common man.”

With regard to the struggle against communism, he said, “Guns alone are not the answer. We must provide hope for young people for better housing, clothing, and food; and if we do, the radicals will wither away.”

In another context, he said: “Our military offensive is indispensable, since force must be met by force. But our social offensive is the extra weapon which the enemy cannot produce. Here the enemy meets democracy’s strongest element – the ability to realize and satisfy the needs of its people without taking from them their freedom and dignity as human beings.”

Finally, here is his most famous quote, “I believe that he who has less in life should have more in law.” This is the ultimate in paying attention to the plight of the poor.

These fine quotes might have come from a spinner of words in speeches that he delivered. Magsaysay, in reality, was no Periclean orator the way Manuel Quezon and even Claro Recto were. Yet, the essential and simple convictions of a sincere leader could strike the right chord in the speech writer to make them so well said.

How he came to be president. He came into national politics through action that he had delivered and not through promises of action like most politicians do.

Magsaysay won a landslide victory when first elected in 1953, over incumbent Elpidio Quirino who was running for reelection and under whom he had served as defense secretary.

In that role, he broke the back of the communist movement when he engineered the capture of active political bureau of the communist rebellion in 1951. As a result, his political stock rose, and that brought him into the immediate radar of those who were thinking of the next presidential election.

Although he had not planned on it, the rival political party, the Nacionalista, led by such luminaries as Jose P. Laurel (the war-time occupation president and the closely defeated candidate against Quirino in 1949) offered him support to run for president.

A poor-centered program of development. Ramon Magsaysay’s program was centered on the country’s poor. He had wanted to get their lives improved by government.

Thus, his development aspirations paid great attention to their needs: to uplift life in the rural areas, to give access to clean water to the poor, to institute land reform and give land to tenant farmers and to the landless, to expand rural credit and, overall, to improve agricultural incomes.

To achieve these goals, paying attention to rural issues consumed him. This meant strengthening programs on land transfer and redistribution, rural credit, and improving agriculture. This also meant building the rural institutions needed to support the programs.

Government programs that tried to deliver rural development projects included those that undertook to build artesian wells in rural communities, to expand credit going to farmers, to establish and support farmer’s cooperative marketing associations (facomas), and to resettle the landless to where there was land in the public domain, and to build rural institutions that serve these purposes.

Thus, the government revitalized, enhanced and expanded institutions like rural banks, repurposed the land distribution institution into the NARRA (National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration) and established ACCFA (Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Administration), which was to extend credit to rural cooperatives.

Despite Magsaysay’s capture of the communist politburo of the rebellion, Hukbalahap rebels continued to wage a battle in the mountains and rural areas in Luzon. During his administration, Magsaysay succeeded in getting Luis Taruc, the leader of the Hukbalahaps, to surrender to the government.

Magsaysay also wanted to institute true land reform. This was not to be. The Congress – controlled as it was by landowners – could only offer a land reform program that smacked not even of tokenism.

The Land Reform Act of 1955 provided that lands to be subject to reform could retain up to 150 hectares, but the land to be separated for land transfers to be only in excess of 300 hectares of contiguous area. (This made it easy to sell small pieces of land to break up contiguous holdings and avoid coverage.) Also, stringent rules were imposed on the process of land transfers, including cash payment, that made it difficult to implement.

Even Magsaysay’s popularity and sincerity in uplifting the rural masses would meet with strong resistance from established interests. Change in the rural economy would not proceed fast enough without lift from the other parts of the economy.

The rural sector had far too many institutional constraints to become the basis of rapid growth. Even the relative abundance of support from American economic aid at that time would not be enough to overcome the logjam of obstacles, arising from institutional failures.

(To be continued.  The Laurel-Langley trade agreement, Japanese reparations.)