Column: Why Ninoy?

Published on November 25, 2014.

Let me begin with a basic question: Is Ninoy Aquino a role model of good governance? Millions of Filipinos see him as a modern-day martyr and (as a 2011 Social Weather Stations survey reminded us) a genuine hero. But is he the sort of political figure who represents the ideal that a school of government should aspire to form, to graduate?

When the Ateneo School of Government was renamed last August after Ninoy and his wife, the late ex-president Corazon Aquino, the reaction, or at least the response I was able to monitor, was generally positive. This reading may have been a result of the filter bubbles I am wittingly or unwittingly encased in, but as far as the Aquinos are concerned (in August 2009, for instance, I wrote a series of four columns on the legacy of this influential family), I think my opinion closely tracks that of a national majority.

As we prepare to mark Ninoy’s 82nd birth anniversary (it is to be held later this week), we can revisit the original question, and perhaps rephrase it: Was Ninoy a martyr in the mold of a Thomas More, who was by all accounts an excellent administrator before Henry VIII turned against him, or was he more like Jose Rizal, less a political personality than a heroic one, whose violent death sealed his fate as a national hero?

Apolinario Mabini should be a noncontroversial choice as name and ideal of a school of government; he was not only a hero, he ran the day-to-day operations of the Aguinaldo presidency for several months. (Also a school of political science, because Mabini wrote the first fully thought-out political programs of any independence movement in Asia.) Rizal was an able steward of his portion of Dapitan, during his four-year exile, but perhaps he may not be the best person to represent the ideal of government and public administration. To be blunt: Rizal was never a politician, while Mabini, despite his distaste for the give and take of politics, was among the most dominant political personalities of his time.

The trajectory of Ninoy’s political career is clear enough: After a successful stint as a journalist, he became the country’s youngest mayor, the country’s youngest governor, then famously (confirmation courtesy of a landmark Supreme Court decision), the country’s youngest senator. A controversial profile in the New York Times painted him at the time, to use the preeminent scholar Benedict Anderson’s influential prism, as just like any other rich, entitled politician. “Corazon Aquino’s husband was conforming to general practice in the late 1960s when he campaigned for a senatorial seat in a black Mercedes ringed with Armalite-toting bodyguards,” Anderson wrote in “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines.” He added in a footnote: “The same account describes Cojuangco [family] financing of Aquino’s political career, and the heavily guarded family compound (six California-style ranch houses grouped around a colossal swimming pool)—a useful antidote to the current martyrology surrounding the assassinated senator.”

(It might be equally useful to note that Ninoy described himself, in the 1960s, in exactly the same terms: I’m “a radical rich guy,” he said.)

But if his career had ended here, or if he had succeeded President Ferdinand Marcos in 1973 according to his own ambitious plan, he would have been just another successful politician—not the sort of personality for Ateneo de Manila to name its school of government after.

Then martial law happened. He spent seven years and seven months in Marcos’ jail, and then another three years in self-exile in the United States. It was in these years of self-sacrifice that he became the Ninoy that the nation now remembers; he could have easily played Marcos’ game, because he was himself very good at it. (Here’s a subject fit for a book: How did Ninoy, the youngest senator in 1967, become the undisputed leader of the opposition by 1972? There were towering personalities to choose from: Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada, Jovito Salonga, Gerardo Roxas, to name just four. But by 1972, Ninoy’s name was on everyone’s lips, as the candidate with the best chances of succeeding Marcos. One hypothesis: He was just as clever as Marcos in playing the political game.)

Instead, he suffered. He stood for his principles. He endured months in isolation; he almost died from a hunger strike; he dared to return to the Philippines despite near-certain death.

(Imelda Marcos herself warned him against assassination plots.) And through it all, he managed to turn himself not only into a symbol of the opposition, but its true leader: dispensing advice, forging alliances, mediating disputes, spreading the unpopular gospel of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of active nonviolence, galvanizing support for the opposition before American and other audiences. Despite the lack of power in the last 10 years of his young life (we often forget that he was only 50 when an assassin’s bullet bore a hole through his skull), he remained true to the virtuous politician’s noble calling.

It is for this reason, I think, that Ateneo de Manila decided to honor him, together with his widow. The distinction is both timely and overdue.

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