The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:27:00 09/17/2009
Just as former Senate President Pro Tempore Sotero H. Laurel’s life spanned 90 years, so did the participation of the Laurels in our nation’s political life span about 90 years: from the time Sotero Laurel y Remoquillo joined the Revolution and became undersecretary of the interior and then delegate to the Malolos Congress to his grandson and namesake Sotero H. Laurel’s service in the Senate – the last of his family to be elected to national office. In a sense, Senator Laurel completed the work his grandfather had begun in the First Republic, and that his father exemplified as one of the few statesmen to distinguish himself in all three branches of our government from the Jones Law era to the Third Republic – a secular, independent, and democratic republic.
There are virtues in public life so increasingly rare they are considered old-fashioned, archaic, obsolete, irrelevant. Yet they are virtues that are in truth timeless. Caught by the outbreak of the war in the United States, Sotero Laurel became the secretary of Vice President Sergio Osmena in the wartime government-in-exile. As his father increasingly played a prominent role in the government established back home by the Japanese, Laurel did the honorable thing: on Sept. 27, he offered his resignation to President Manuel L. Quezon.
His resignation was declined on two grounds: first, the real question, as Quezon wrote to Laurel on Sept. 30, 1943 was whether Laurel remained firm in his allegiance to the Commonwealth; and second, Quezon did not believe Laurel’s father was a traitor. “I believe,” his letter to Sotero Laurel went, “he is doing what he honestly believes is in the best interest of the Filipino people for the time being, and not because he has become a tool of the Japanese.”
Sotero Laurel had had to scratch out a living as a taxi driver although he could have clung to the security of a government job. The lesson here is that regimes may come and go, but a public servant will not serve if his integrity is in doubt.
Sotero Laurel had studied in the United States, but like his father, he maintained a clear bias, always, for his country. When he cast his vote against a 10-year extension to the RP-US Bases Treaty, he not only helped make history, he rectified it. By achieving what, for some, marked the true Independence Day of our nation, he helped close at long last the era of a permanent foreign military presence in our country.
It was because of the intrusion of foreign powers that we will never know what could have been in terms of our First Republic. It was because of the collision of foreign powers that what would have otherwise been a firm, stable foundation for the independence his father helped negotiate was shattered because of World War II. It was because of foreign powers that democracy gave way to dictatorship and lasted as long as it did.
Sotero Laurel therefore cast a positive vote for national sovereignty, for the same reasons his ancestors had pursued independence in war and peace: sink or swim, the country had to pursue its own destiny. For the same reason, he adhered to that other defining cause of his ancestors: a nation that would be secular in orientation.
As reported by the Manila Standard on June 8, 1989, as senator, Laurel opposed a bill by Sen. Edgardo Angara, which proposed a government subsidy for private educational institutions. The Lyceum of the Philippines would have been among the beneficiaries of the bill. Laurel pointed out that the bill would cover religious schools and violate a constitutional prohibition on granting direct or indirect subsidies to sectarian or religious organizations, including schools. He brought up the point that a subsidy would be like using public money to purchase religious textbooks and would thus violate the separation of church and state.
Angara pointed to a Supreme Court decision penned by Laurel’s father (Aglipay vs. Ruiz) which argued that if the benefit to a religious group was only incidental to the primary objectives of government, there was nothing unconstitutional about it. Laurel replied, in turn, that his father had been writing about the government issuing a postage stamp to commemorate a Catholic event and was definitely not even a grant of public funds or state property to a particular sect. Laurel voted against the bill.
He was not volcanic like his brother the speaker Jose, or garrulous like his other brother, the vice president Salvador, or a diplomat, banker, or sportsman like his other siblings. He exemplified the contributions a scholar can make to our political life: not only that there is a place in electoral politics for the scholarly-inclined, but how his knowledge informed public debate, as well as providing the bedrock of principles that made it essentially effortless for him to avoid conflicts of interest and make his contributions part of a piece: the adding-on to the campaign for independence that never truly ends, but which can be helped along, or hindered, by each generation as it enters public life in turn.
Jovito Salonga, his law partner, and Isagani Cruz, his lifelong friend, will surely speak of the deep respect and affection they felt for Sotero H. Laurel. Theirs were ties that transcended political affiliations, bound by a common love for country, books, and the law.
For those not of their generation, the deep respect and admiration for Laurel must necessarily come from a distance. But it is there, and ultimately serves to keep the bar of expectations for public service, particularly in deliberative bodies like the House of Representatives and the Senate, high, as it should always be.
His true monument is the most fitting kind: a library named after him in the Lyceum, to which he devoted so many productive years of an honest, patriotic life.