Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's Happening to Our Country?

What’s Happening to Our Country? The Life and Times of Emmanuel Pelaez is a recently launched book of Nelson Navarro, a journalist and political analyst who has worked with several Philippine and international media entities. Pelaez (1915-2003) served the country in various offices as Vice President (1961-1965), Senator (1953-1959, 1967-1972), Misamis Oriental Representative (1949-1953, 1965-1967, 1978-1984), and Ambassador to the United States (1986-1992).

“What’s happening to our country?” was expressed by Pelaez as he was being wheeled into the operating room owing to six gunshot wounds from a failed assassination attempt in 1982 which was probably intended to stop his active opposition to the coconut levy that benefited a cartel headed by Danding Cojuangco, the top crony of President Ferdinand Marcos.

The question of Pelaez is one that continues to be relevant today, and ought to be asked by every Filipino in every generation. To have no interest in the question is to be indifferent if not unpatriotic. Pelaez was a patriot, as he expressed his heartfelt concern about our country, even as he was in physical pain and mental anguish in the immediate aftermath of the cowardly attempt on his life.

We can seek the answer to his question with less difficulty, if we read and reflect on the story of his long and colorful life. This story shows us the deep roots of our trenchant national problems such as our weak governance institutions, which are weak especially in terms of upholding the rule of law and holding high officials accountable.

Throughout his public life, Pelaez opposed unlawful violence, more so when he became a victim. He refused to support plans, whether from friends or foes, to take the law into their own hands and resort to violence when they were aggrieved or cheated, for he firmly believed in the principle of justice, which is impossible in a democratic society without the rule of law.

Furthermore, Pelaez envisioned justice as equal opportunity especially for the poor and the rural folk, in the spirit of his model and mentor, President Ramon Magsaysay, who said that those who have less in life should have more in law. Thus Pelaez, the legislator, championed rural community development through the 1954 Barrio Charter Law and the 1969 Rural Electrification Law.

Besides the principle of justice which guided his life in public service, Pelaez pursued excellence in whatever he undertook from his elementary days at Cagayan de Oro, where he graduated valedictorian, his secondary schooling at the Ateneo de Manila in Intramuros where he graduated valedictorian again, his attainment of the number 1 slot in the 1938 bar examinations, and the list can go on and on.

Justice and the pursuit of excellence are two of the core ethical principles that, for the Ateneo School of Government, should be communicated in word and deed and promoted through appropriate systems and practices by contemporary and future leaders in governance and public service. Thus, it is a happy coincidence or a timely development that this book on Pelaez has been launched this year when the Ateneo de Manila University celebrates its Sesquicentennial or 150-year Anniversary with the threefold theme of “Celebrating Excellence, Deepening Spirituality, and Building the Nation.”

The Hon. Emmanuel Pelaez was certainly a nation-builder who pursued excellence in the spirit of his Lord, Jesus Christ, who humbly washed the dusty and dirty feet of his disciples including the feet of his betrayer and the other feet that ran away quickly when their teacher and friend was arrested.

Pelaez himself suffered painful betrayals especially when Marcos broke their gentleman’s agreement to shun the buying of votes at the 1964 Nacionalista Party Convention, which eventually chose Marcos as the standard-bearer against President Diosdado Macapagal. Many convention delegates who initially pledged their support for Pelaez switched to Marcos for thousands of reasons.

The initial bitter feeling from the betrayals, however, did not stay and consume Pelaez, primarily because of the deep Christian faith and values that were nurtured by Jesuit mentors like Fr. John Delaney and Pelaez’s adviser and friend, Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, the first Filipino President of the Ateneo de Manila University.

Pelaez kept to heart what Fr. Delaney told his high school class: “If I had my way, I would put in the office of every public official the picture of Christ washing the feet of his disciples…This must be the symbol of service for all public officials.”

The Ateneo School of Government, the graduate school of leadership and public service which operates from the Pacifico Ortiz Hall in the Loyola campus, congratulates the author, Nelson Navarro, and the Emmanuel Pelaez Foundation for a useful and timely book. I recommend its inclusion as instructional material for one of our core courses, "Leadership in Public Service," in our Master in Public Management program, and I expect that other institutions that offer courses in public administration and political history will find this book useful and instructive.

The Ateneo School of Government has entered into a partnership with the Emmanuel Pelaez Foundation to launch the Emmanuel Pelaez Leadership and Campaign Program in which leadership and campaign seminars will be conducted to prepare reform-minded neophytes especially but not exclusively from Mindanao to organize ethical and effective campaigns for the 2010 elections. We need to put in elective office more reform-oriented politicians. Thus, if you are interested to help us, please let us know by email

I encourage everybody to read the book, learn its lessons as we look backwards to the times of Emmanuel Pelaez, move forward individually, and collectively move this nation forward in light of the lessons of his life.

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