Who is the country’s greatest president? Go on, ask around. Chances are, Ramon Magsaysay is sure to come up, if not top the list among many Filipinos. Anyone would be quick to point out that he was the president during the so-called “Golden Years” of the Philippines, the 1950s—a time when fake news and online trolls are but non-existent.
While it is rather futile to identify “the best president” because all administrations had their share of controversies and scandals, many of us look back at the 1950s as a great time for the country. It has barely been a decade since the end of a world war that ravaged Manila and the rest of the country. Rebuilding from the ground up, the Philippines was roaring to get back on its feet, rise as a developing nation, and take its place in the international pageant.
This is the state of the country when leaders such as Magsaysay rose. But Magsaysay is not like any other guy—in fact, he is not like any president that came before him. Here are some unique facts about arguably the best-remembered president of the country.
HE CAME FROM A HUMBLE BACKGROUND
Magsaysay was born in Iba, Zambales in 1907 to a blacksmith father and a school teacher mother. Unlike any other president before him, he did not come from an elite family. All this helped enhance his image to the electorate when he ran as congress representative in 1946. He served two terms and was chair of the House National Defense Committee.
His humble beginnings were also reflected in his lifestyle, even when he became president later on. His house was simple, and his clothes were basic (an “aloha” shirt and slacks). He drove his car and spoke the language of the masses. People knew him as a former auto mechanic who did not get high grades in school (he was kicked out of the University of the Philippines). All of these made him very relatable and endeared him to the people.
HE LED AN UNPRECEDENTED COUNTERINSURGENCY EFFORT
But it was during his tenure as Secretary of National Defense under President Elpidio Quirino that Magsaysay took the spotlight, as he led the successful campaign against the Hukbalahap guerillas. Popularly known as “Huks,” they were initially formed to fight the Japanese during World War II but extended their rebellion against the government after the war. As a former guerilla fighter himself, he was in a great position to lead the counterinsurgency efforts.
He opened the doors of Malacañang to the people, literally. The masses flocked to the presidential palace. Twice or thrice a week, Magsaysay would listen to the grievances of the people, in or out of his official residence.
Magsaysay transformed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ridding it of corruption as the counterinsurgency efforts combined intelligence, combat, and psychological warfare to track and arrest the Huks, culminating to the arrest of Luis Taruc, an important Huk leader. The Huks who surrendered were provided legal assistance and economic opportunities, giving them their own house and land.
As the Huk rebellion was effectively defeated and the AFP gained a newfound trust from the people, Magsaysay was a shoo-in to the presidency.
A CATCHY JINGLE PROPELLED HIM TO THE PRESIDENCY
At a time when presidential campaigns were quite a snooze, Magsaysay entered the race and shook things up. It was reported that his rival, President Quirino, hated the mambo, which, in the 1950s, was all the vogue. Magsaysay’s campaign team then came up with a catchy jingle titled “Mambo Magsaysay.” With Taglish lyrics and a chorus that gave everyone the LSS, it probably is still, up to this day, the catchiest campaign jingle ever written.
When all the votes were tallied, Magsaysay won the presidency by a landslide—receiving 69 percent of total votes cast—the highest among all presidents, and remains unbroken to this day.
HE WAS BACKED TO BECOME PRESIDENT BY THE UNITED STATES
The United States played an essential role in Magsaysay’s ascent to the presidency. He was called “America’s Boy” and his victory referred to as a “U.S. Victory” by Time magazine. Magsaysay was quite open about how pro-American he was when he was alive, which his allies interpreted as “strategic” to obtain aid and concessions from the United States for the development of the Philippines.
HIS LEADERSHIP REMAINS UNRIVALED
Magsaysay, then at 46, was the youngest Filipino president, and he brought a certain youth to the presidency with a fresh leadership style. He declined special treatment, refused the naming of towns, bridges, plazas after him, and popularized the Barong Tagalog as formal wear. He also opened the doors of Malacañang to the people, literally. The masses flocked to the presidential palace. Twice or thrice a week, Magsaysay would listen to the grievances of the people, in or out of his official residence.
MAGSAYSAY WORKED HARD TO CREATE A DIFFERENT IMAGE OF THE PRESIDENT
He abhorred nepotism, so much so that he banned his brother, a lawyer, to accept a case for anyone connected to the government. He also created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC), which heard all the people’s grievances and routed these to the concerned government agency for resolution. This boosted the confidence of the people on the government. Surely, Magsaysay was a trailblazer in terms of leadership style, a quality that many presidents would try to copy, to no avail.
HE IS THE ONLY PRESIDENT TO DIE IN AN ACCIDENT
Magsaysay’s term was set to end in 1957 when it was cut short by a plane crash on March 16, 1957. Magsaysay was on his way to Manila from a speaking engagement in Cebu.
His unexpected death ensured that he would be remembered well by the people. It was estimated that 2 million people attended his state funeral, and he was referred to as the “idol of the masses.”
Magsaysay’s example as an exemplary public official is immortalized through the Ramon Magsaysay Award, an annual award given to exceptional individuals, and internationally regarded as the Asian counterpart to the Nobel Prize.
He also created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC), which heard all the people’s grievances and routed these to the concerned government agency for resolution. This boosted the confidence of the people on the government.
The influence of Magsaysay’s unique leadership reverberates up to this day. Leaders have come and gone touting the same tough talk style, simple living, or coming from an impoverished background. One thing is true, though: Ramon Magsaysay will always be a popular past president for the simple reason that he served as an inspiration for Filipinos past, present, and future. —JOHN LEE CANDELARIA