REMEMBERING EDSA 1986: The leader who toppled a dictator and the leader we need now  

(Speech delivered by former Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. at the forum sponsored by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on February 4, 2016 at the Discovery Primea, Makati City 

May I thank the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for the kind invitation to address this forum on the kind of government leader our country needs,

The topic assigned to me is embodied in the title of this piece. But, please be forewarned: What follows is not a learned treatise or discourse  on leadership at all. What you will hear are the musings of an old man who (1) heard about the stint of Quezon in Malacanang; (2) watched from afar the way Osmena, Roxas, Quirino, Magaysay, Garcia and Macapagal handled the presidency of the country in their respective terms, and (3) has witnessed the administrations Marcos, Cory Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, and Noynoy Aquino at closer range.

Please understand that we are here not to criticize how  our 14  Presidents, past and present, handled  their respective administrations.

We are here, among other things, to recall, as best we can, the qualities, particularly, of the leader who helped topple the martial law administration of President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 or some 20 years ago. And, to suggest that those virtues should likewise inhabit the life of the person we would like to be our next President come the 2016 elections.

Inevitably, we must resurrect Cory Aquino from her eternal repose for the reason that, I believe, she provided the face of the peaceful EDSA People Power Revolution that restored freedom and democracy to our land.

The peaceful manner in which the 1986 EDSA revolution uniquely attained its aim is acclaimed worldwide, to the main credit rightfully of Cory Aquino, its leader. More factually, however, it was the millions of our people who responded to the challenge of Cardinal Sin to march to EDSA in those precarious days of January 1986, who made it all possible with God’s grace .

We stress here the people’s indispensable participation in the events of 1986 because it is obvious that without people marching to the beat of freedom and democracy, risking their lives and liberty to defy the dictator, the 1986 EDSA People Power would not have succeeded.

Hence, the leader and the led, together, useless is one without the other, as a popular Frank Sinatra song puts it, deserve the honor for the victorious event we are recalling today

Talking about the leader of the EDSA People Power Revolution, Cory Aquino, was probably the least, if not, the last, person who – a good many of our people – thought had the capacity to excite and inspire people to rise up against a dictatorship that had ruled the country with an iron hand for roughly 14 years starting from 1972 to 1986.

How, then, did Cory Aquino emerge as the leader of the peaceful struggle against the Marcos regime?

It was certainly a mix of many circumstances that are not so easy to explain.

Indeed, the fact that she was the widow of Ninoy Aquino, the most articulate leader of the opposition to the Marcos regime at that time, helped propel her into that role. Ninoy, as everyone knows, was assassinated in 1983 upon his arrival at the Manila International Airport upon his return from exile in the U.S.

But, because no other political personality came to the front to carry the torch of freedom and democracy, upon the persistent urgings, particularly, of Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, and with the blessings of the then Cardinal Sin, Cory Aquino became the face of the political opposition to the Marcos regime.

Cory Aquino, however, was probably the most ill-suited – politically speaking – personality to lead the peaceful uprising in 1986 against the dictator.

For as the old saying goes, she was “born with a golden spoon in her mouth” in the comforts of the Cojuangcos, the wealthy hacienderos of Tarlac.

And, she had none of the eloquence or the bravura that is usually associated with political charlatans who would attract audiences with their long-winded oratory. Nor was she known for having any streak of violence that would have prepared the minds of the people to readily accept her as a viable counterpoise to meister of the brutal martial rule regime.

Neither did she have access to the millions needed to do a well-heeled political campaign at that time. For, the Cojuangco wealth – at least, of the Cory Cojuangco Aquino family tree – was severely constrained by martial rule. And, so was the basic constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech and of the media at that time effectively censored and curtailed

Thus, it was certainly the worst of times for anyone, let alone for the likes of Cory Aquino, to challenge the dictator.

After all, the dictator, then, had all the arms he needed to keep the country compliant with the demands of martial rule.

Cory Aquino had none.

The dictator even had the expressed, if not, the tacit, support of some powerful foreign governments.

Cory Aquino had none.

The dictator had the entire civilian government machinery at his beck and call.

Cory Aquino did not have a single barangay under her control.

But, as history records it, without firing a shot, she caused the dictator to flee for his life in 1986, and a year, later in 1987, she likewise unselfishly restored the institutions of freedom and democratic rule to our country and people.

Incidentally, the restoration of the institutions of freedom and democracy to our land was, I submit, the greatest achievement of Cory Aquino.

For without freedom and democracy, our people would not be enjoying the liberties that are now accessible to all our fellow citizens.

How, then, did Cory Aquino galvanize the support of the people under her leadership that metamorphosed into the EDSA People Power Revolution, a phenomenon that is now acclaimed worldwide as a model for dismantling a dictatorship bloodlessly?

It is hard to describe in simple terms how she did it.

But, in the campaign to topple the martial law dictatorship, I saw at close range Cory Aquino’s displaying the virtues of Humility, Honesty and Courage.

Her unpretentious ways, the patent virtue of honesty that she wore on her sleeve, and the incontrovertible fact that as “a mere housewife”, she had the courage to take on the most powerful person of the country at that time attracted and inspired millions of our people to rally behind her.

Because she was humble, she dressed simply, spoke humbly, and treated everyone within reach with respect befitting a fellow human being.

Because she was honest, the people saw in her a good replacement to the then authoritarian incumbent whose name was tarnished by shady characters of all stripes.

And because she displayed plain, efforless, and undiluted courage, the people saw in her, the leader they needed at that time; one who refused to be intimidated by threats of bodily harm by the dictatorship, or by intimations that the bloody end of her husband’s life could also be hers .

Thus, Cory Aquino, the “mere housewife” saw herself pitted against the veteran political strongman, Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was also the country’s incumbent administrator of martial rule.

However, as expected, after the “official” results were counted, the Commission on Elections, which had lost its integrity and independence under martial rule, proclaimed Marcos, the winner over Cory.

The victory turned out to be merely pyrrhic. It did not lead to the reinstallation of Marcos as his own successor to the presidency of the land.

What Marcos only succeeded to do was to have a photo op of his supposed presidential oath-taking in Malacanang. For in a couple of hours, he found out that the Presidential Palace no longer offered any sanctuary for him and his family.

Why? Because millions of people had trooped – not to Malacanang to support him – but to EDSA to proclaim Cory Aquino as the rightfully elected president of the land.

As a result, Marcos – and family – fled to Hawaii and Cory Aquino took over Malacanang as the duly elected President of the Republic.

Because of Cory Aquino’s example, I think we can truthfully claim that people love to see the traits of Humility, Honesty and Courage in the person of the leader of the nation.

Expanding on the list of traits that a nation’s leader must possess, some social commentators claim that the leader should display five indispensable characteristics that include “humility”, a trait we had already discussed earlier as one of the magnets that attracted millions of people to Cory Aquino as the leader of the peaceful revolution that rid the Philippines of the Marcos dictatorial rule.

And those five leadership virtues are: Sacrifice, Accountability, Humility, Integrity, and Generosity; which a friend shrewdly encapsulated into a Tagalog-sounding acronym: SAHIG.

And what do the contents  of SAHIG stand for?

S” is for “Sacrifice“, a virtue that is demanded of any leader in that he or she must be ready to give up self-interest for the wellbeing of the many.

A leader cannot be self-centered. Otherwise, he becomes selfish. Then, he ceases to be leader, and becomes a dealer . In that capacity, more often than not, he or she would trade the common good for personal gain.

As a dealer, the erstwhile leader would, demolish the essence of public service – servicio publico – that tends to the public good by his or her attending, instead, to personal or familial wellbeing.

Hence, it is an absolute necessity for the leader to be ready to sacrifice his own comfort or that of his family to advance the common good.

Mahatma  Gandhi  is my favorite example of a leader who – without being elected to any public office – sacrificed everything, his career, his possessions and, ultimately even his life to lead the people of India in their struggle for freedom against British colonial  rule.

A” is for “Accountability“, a quality that the life of a leader must, likewise, readily demonstrate that he or she possesses.

Put more simplistically, the leader must be transparent. Meaning, the leader must be ready to explain to the people the objectives, the means to achieve, and the consequences of any plan or project that he or she undertakes in the name of public interest.

This is especially true whenever public funds are used to finance any project. The projected cost as well as its actual cost must be known by the public. And when the law provides for it, public bidding must be done to qualify the contractors in a public and transparent manner.

Otherwise, corrupt transactions will prevail and derail one’s leadership. Or, at the very least, suspicions will hound the good intentions that the leader wishes to accomplish and will, then, make it difficult, if not impossible, for him or her to promote the general welfare in a credible manner.

No doubt, as previously mentioned, Cory Aquino also openly exemplified this characteristic of Accountability  as  the President of the land after the Marcos authoritarian rule was toppled in 1986.

H” is for “Humility“, a feature that the leader’s personality should always demonstrate.

Without humility a leader would distract, not attract, followers.

Then, sooner than later he or she would be exposed as a humbug, a person who is interested only in promoting his or her self-interest by false discourse, and not the wellbeing of others.

If a leader is humble, he or she would  acknowledge that he or she cannot ascend the ladder of success without  the support of other people.

One is well advised to remember that the people, the leader passes by when he is ascending to power, would in great likelihood be the same people he would pass by on his descent from power.

We have already cited Cory Aquino as an example par excellence of a leader who exhibited this trait of Humility even as she was hailed by the nation as the savior of freedom and democracy for her role in dismantling the martial rule regime of Marcos.

I” is for “Integrity“, an attribute that should ever be an integral part of a leader’s life.

If what the leader says is not borne out by what he or she does, then, the leader becomes a hypocrite in the eyes of the people, who would be shunned, not followed by them.

In our country, Ramon Magsaysay, to my mind, personified this virtue of integrity when he was our President.

And finally, “G” is for “Generosity” another vital attribute that the leader must possess.

The willingness to share what one has with others without extraneous considerations.

The leader must be ready to give his time, treasure and talent to serve others who are in need. At the time when his or her services are needed, and not a second later.

Do we have an example of this kind of a leader?

In the world’s political arena, the best model of a generous (and humble) leader of a nation would probably be Jose Alberto Mujica, the 40th President of Uruguay, whose term began in 2010 and ended last year, 2015.

Mujica chose to live in his farm house rather than in the presidential palace and to drive an old (1987) Volkswagen Beetle rather than a Cadillac.

Moreover, he gave away 90% of his salary to charity, saying he did not need it to survive with his wife and their three-legged dog in their farm.

In the context of our political system, however, possession of the virtues of SAHIG may not be enough.

If a person aspires to be an effective political leader, he or she must not only be qualified minimally as required by our election laws, such for example as being able “to read and write”, but of being equipped with the requisite knowledge that is needed to do the work of the public office he or she seeks.

For instance, if one seeks  a seat in the legislature of our country, the individual should have the ability to craft laws that he or she envisions would be good for the country. And to expound on its merits and defend it against all comers on the floor of the Senate or of the House of Representatives.

In short, in seeking public office, the person should first be honest with himself or herself.

Can he or she do the job called for the office he is seeking?

If, in all honesty, he or she cannot do the job, then, in fairness to the people and to the nation, the individual should refrain from making a false offering of himself or herself to the public because he or she would certainly be disaster to the public service.

For as the saying goes “no one can give what he or she does not have.”

In this regard, the people, themselves, as voters in our democratic society, have the duty to elect only candidates who are fit for the positions they seek.

And I do not mean only candidates for the Presidency.

If, for instance, a candidate for the legislature only knows how to “read and write”, the basic literacy requirement for all candidates to public office, the people should not only be wary of voting for him or her – but should not vote – for that candidate at all.

The reason is obvious: the individual concerned would not be able to do his job as a legislator properly. That misplaced person would be wasting time totally. And, in effect, he or she would rob the people of their money that goes into his or her pocket in the form of salaries and allowances.

To cut short this piece, people, therefore, should vote only for a candidate who is qualified for the position that he or she is seeking.

Or, to put it more graphically in the context of the premises of our discussion, we should vote only for the individual who truthfully embodies the three “Cs”: Character, Competence and Courage and whose life bears the seal of SAHIG, like the Mark of Zorro, openly displayed, if not permanently branded, on his or her forehead for people to see not only during periods of election, but even in times of privacy.

As for friendship, let it not be the primary consideration for voting a candidate to public office. Be extra careful with friendship because it can blind you from seeing the defects of your friends who are running for public office.

The main reason why one ought to vote for any candidate should be the capability of the latter to serve the best interests of the people or as worded in many a political treatise, to promote the general welfare.

My friends, this intervention is getting too long.

Let me, therefore, just repeat the popular caveat as I close: the people get the leaders they deserve.

So, in the forthcoming elections, let’s vote wisely for the man or woman who would lead our country and people unto the path of development.

Not because the candidate has the money to buy our votes or the power to coerce our voting for him or her. But, because he or she has the qualifications or the capability to promote the public welfare – the good of many – over the interests of a few.

Are we prepared to do that as a people?

And is there such a candidate who’d deserve our trust and confidence?

Let us look for him or her. And together we should cast our votes for him or her to lead us – with God’s blessings – into a vibrant and productive future for our country and people.

Salamat kaninyong tanan. (Former Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. delivered this speech at the forum sponsored by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on February 4, 2016 at the Discovery Primea, Makati City. Pimentel was the Local Governments Secretary who appointed OIC for the towns, cities and provinces, in the aftermath of EDSA. He was elected senator in 1987).