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Nov 15

Tying up loose ends: The unfinished official record of the Commonwealth of the Philippines

Tying up loose ends: The unfinished official record of the Commonwealth of the Philippines

By Manuel L. Quezon III

(Paper delivered at the 75th Anniversary of the Commonwealth of the Philippines Symposium of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, National Gallery, Manila)

It is a great honor to be asked to share some thoughts with you on this, the 75th anniversary of the inauguration of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

It was a time of transition – and of evolution. There are two statements Quezon made in private – subsequently published – which to my mind summarizes the evolution taking place not just nationally, or institutionally, but in the individuals tasked with playing a role in that era.

The first dates from 1922, as quoted by Teodoro M. Kalaw, in his autobiography[1]:

“The problem with you is that you take the game of politics too seriously. You look too far behind you and too far ahead of you. Our people do not understand that. They do not want it. All they want is to have the present problem solved, and solved with the least pain. That is all.”

The second was an observation recorded in Francis Burton Harrison’s diary in 1938, in the second year of the Commonwealth[2]: “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government… the fear is that the Head of State may either exceed his powers, or abuse them by improprieties. To keep order is his main purpose.”

This was an observation pregnant with meaning, and rife with opportunities for debate, indicating, as it did – and does – which of the two contending attitudes reflects the true nature of our society when it comes to civic and political participation, and their expectation of our leaders: do we naturally gravitate, to borrow Sergio Osmeña’s term, toward a “directing class,” or is the challenge before us that posed by a society stifled by a leadership which itself acts and rules like an alien power?

Or is this an alien dichotomy in itself, which owes more to colonial notions than anything else?

I have argued for some time that if we want to understand the Commonwealth of the Philippines – what it was, and where it was headed – we must look to our Asian neighbors. Specifically, we must look to those nations that achieved independence in a similar manner: by negotiation, and without resort to a war of independence.

But first we must dispense with what can only be called Revolutionary Envy, an ideological affliction that has colored the approach to this period of our national development, with increasing intensity, since the 1960s. Its origins lie in the great national trauma of the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation; it grew and came to be endemic in the great confrontation between Left and Right during the Cold War; and to be sure, all these had its origins during the period under consideration itself – the Commonwealth.

Revolutionary Envy presupposes that the only authentic expression of sovereignty and independence is to seize it by force; that everything else is a sham; that the Jacobin and the Bolshevist, on one hand, are the only truly Enlightened Ones: though their mortal enemies on the Right insist that they have it wrong, and that if rivers of blood must flow, it must be the blood of the enemies of property and not those labeled as Class Enemies.

Both sides believe in force and in the elimination of certain categories of people to establish a utopia maintained by the ruthless application of force. Both share contempt for negotiation, for compromise, for evolution, and liberal democracy. Both sides believe that a country that evolves is inferior – in terms of its institutions and the people tasked with turning those institutions into productive tools for achieving social justice, development, and peace – to countries that have been forged in the crucible of revolution.

As Rigoberto Tiglao recently wrote, “my friends and I had often speculated that our problem as a nation—in contrast to Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam through its fierce internecine wars, and even the US through its civil war—is that we never really went through episodes when blood really flowed, which forces a citizen to cherish his nation.”[3]

Therefore there is envy of the achievements of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, or of Sukarno and Suharto; all engaged in great purges. I suppose there is something admirable in taking such a clinical approach to entire populations: so many tens of thousands or millions to be excised or amputated from the body politic, so much to be desired in achieving a Bionic Nation.

The organic, or evolutionary reality, mind you, may not be much more palatable either: the strongman rule of Mahathir or Lee Kwan Yew, presiding over cozy one party governments spanning generations and adept at using the law and state power to put critics and the population in their proper, that is, thoroughly subordinate, place.

But it is to these contemporary examples that we must turn, if we are to hazard a glimpse, however shadowy, of what might have been. The Commonwealth as it had evolved prior to World War II would have been a familiar place to any present-day Malaysian or Singaporean or even Thai or even, until recently, Indian politician: a well-entrenched, near-permanent political class, acting in league with big businessmen, assured of generations-old networks of patronage extending from the public to the private sector, subject to the control of a succession of increasingly elderly, but durable, peers who rose to rule the roost.

All could claim the outward appearances of the institutions operating to the rule of law, couched in the language and invoking the rituals of the colonizer; all could –and did, and do- claim to be authentic expressions of values the colonizer attempted to inculcate by means of the educational system; all would –did, and do- claim to be finding ways to transform these into more authentic expressions of their native culture. And all –did, and do- bristle at being challenged on these assertions by their former colonizers and their own intelligentsia.

As Al McCoy once asked, was there any difference from Quezonian caudillismo and the rajah pretensions of the Marcosian New Society? He put forward his own answer, but let me propose another.

The difference is fundamental but little noticed: the deliberate mentorship of successors by the former and the studious elimination of all possible successors by the latter.

On the eve of World War II, Quezon had engineered a three cornered fight between three putative successors: his vice president, Osmeña; his candidate for the newly-restored Senate Presidency, Yulo; and the man he eventually anointed his successor, Roxas. The eldest, Osmeña, had every reason to expect to succeed to the presidency in 1943, as Quezon retired to the wings, knowing by then which of his two protégés, Yulo and Roxas, would gravitate to Osmeña as all prepared for what would surely have been a great showdown in 1945 to determine who would become the first president of the independent republic.

This included the possibility that the eventual winner would not be one of the dueling duo of Quezon or Osmeña, but someone else –one groomed to be a successor. In that sense, Quezon arguably had more foresight, perhaps by force of physical circumstances: like Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, who was also afflicted by tuberculosis, the ambition to be the father of his country literally consumed him. Osmeña never focused, as keenly, on grooming protégés, much less anointing any possible successors.

On the eve of martial law, Marcos was preparing the opposite: to perpetuate himself by force of arms and not by means of political maneuver or any –however brief- respite from office. And he proceeded to incarcerate his potential successors, none of whom could be considered his protégés: he probably feared outright persecution from Ninoy Aquino and could not have been too keen on the blander prospects of Gerry Roxas, either.

Here enters one thread that may be worthy of exploration, in order to unravel just how long a thread it may be. The question of confidence, of optimism shared between populace and presidents. There have been times when public confidence was, arguably, prevalent, in contrast to more protracted periods of national self-doubt and even defeatism. For the sake of argument let us propose them as the period of the Revolution and the First Republic; the Commonwealth; the brief administration of Magsaysay; it was attempted, possibly even merely simulated, during the New Society, and flowered all too briefly in the immediate aftermath of Edsa Revolution.

Since today is about the Commonwealth, let me briefly point out that if one accepts the Commonwealth as a period of optimism, with its ambitious nation-building programs of Social Justice, National Defense, Economic Planning and the more controversial Partyless Democracy (interestingly, still debated in India), then what happened to that optimism should be worthy of exploration.

This brings us to the inevitable question of trying to determine just what place the Commonwealth should occupy in the development –or lack of it- of our nation, its people, and their institutions. In Singapore I proposed[4] that the preoccupation of leaders such as Quezon, at the time independence seemed nigh, was what would serve as a rallying cause once the independence movement bore fruit.

As it turned out, this was followed by the obsession over Communism, and the question of social order and material progress. In that lecture, pointing out something our part of the world has only had in common very, very recently –we are the first generation of Southeast Asians to see leaders assume the height of power not having been born during the colonial era- the question confronting those leaders, and us, is a fundamental question of civic, in contrast to cultural, identity. In a globalized world, can the very concept of a nation, a state, have primacy of loyalty or even relevance, to its citizens?

However, returning to the Commonwealth itself, the verdict might be, that what might possibly have been achievable within the full, uninterrupted period preparatory to independence, became not only impossible, because of World War II, but that the looming shadows of war and the national trauma that was the Japanese Occupation, permanently crippled the nation-building project on which the prewar generation had so confidently –even hubristically- embarked[5]. The trauma has been so deep, and so protracted, it has led to what can only be called the perpetual avoidance of opportunity[6] as the default, because less perilous, option for most Filipinos, particularly their leaders.

We should all be wary of ex post facto conclusions –of indicting the past in terms of what could not conceivably have been foreseen, or the tendency to attribute too much foresight to those dealing with day-to-day events of the calamitous kind. To my mind the fairest and most perceptive summary of this period (and those who lived through it) was penned by Randy David[7] and it deserves lengthy quotation:

“Our elders will likely tell us that we have moved backward politically despite the growth of a middle and educated class, and despite the presence of a more informed public. They will say that there was a more reliable and professional civil service in their time, that our leaders behaved like statesmen, and that there was less corruption. They will also say that political parties played a bigger role in politics then than they do today. If they are right, how do we account for this deterioration in the quality of our public life?

“Perhaps we can begin to answer this question by noting that recruitment to leadership roles in Philippine politics up to 1972 was distinctly elitist, controlled by a two-party system dominated by the landed oligarchy. Filipino leaders were conscious of their responsibility as builders of a free nation. They were keen to show the world that Filipinos were capable of governing themselves. A whole generation of Filipino professionals was educated to take over the reins of government. In a sense, that golden period concealed the underlying weakness of our society—the mass poverty and sharp inequalities that reduced most of our people into dependent spectators.

“With the passing of that pre-war generation, the stresses and strains of an underdeveloped society struggling to govern itself democratically began to surface. The old feudal values of restraint and nobility quickly vanished, as the logic of a cash economy prevailed. The intervening martial law period destroyed the political parties. With the return of democracy, the doors to the nation’s political system opened widely, but minus the gate-keeping role of political parties. Gone is the goal of nation-building. The result has been the steady depreciation of politics and governance. We are in transition. We can neither return to the old nor be content with the present. We have no choice but to re-invent the nation.”

I would only note that the two party system itself was an accident and one not envisioned as an integral part of our politics prior to the outbreak of the war, a tendency and attitude, as I’ve mentioned earlier, many Southeast and even East Asians in their own political milieus would have recognized postwar.

Having put forward my opinions, let me move to the main point I want to put forward today: it is, how the official record of the Commonwealth itself remains unfinished. I will set aside the tricky question, itself worthy of debate, whether such an official record can or should be completed after the fact; obviously you know on which side of the question I stand: for collation and if necessary, completion. Let me argue that even as scholars undertake their exploration of the official and unofficial record, and here the recent work of Cullather[8], Gueraiche[9], and McCoy[10] show how much more there is to explore and propose, there is a need, institutionally speaking, to complete the official record.

From Quezon to Quirino, the Messages of the President[11] series of volumes was published, containing, on the American model, the public papers of the presidents. All executive issuances, laws, and important speeches, statements and other For Quezon, the years 1935-1940 were covered; for Osmeña, as far as can be determined, no such official compilation was ever published; and only one volume for Roxas, published in his lifetime, was prepared; while the Quirino volumes do not include the final year or so, of his administration.

As you can see, for this official series of volumes alone, the situation is problematic. For Quezon, the final period before the outbreak of the war, and the war years themselves, officially speaking, have never been fully compiled. The same applies to Osmeña. Roxas’ official record remains unfinished, too; and the Republic’s situation is even worse: the series of volumes was not continued by Magsaysay or his successors. President Aquino, almost alone of the postwar presidents, had an official compilation of her public papers, but again, the final year was never compiled.

We have proposed to the President, and he has approved, that the Messages of the President series of volumes be restarted, and this includes the long-overdue work of compiling what should be the official papers of each of our presidents. This will, of course, require a massive effort, one that will require the participation of the various foundations that exist covering our former chief executives, not to mention the National Historical Commission, the National Library, and private and public institutions of learning working with the Presidential Museum and Library and the office in which I serve.

The raw material is there, and many editorial decisions that might be problematic –how can a proper determination of documents to be included in the official compilations be made, long after the principals have died? – have actually been solved, and at the time. The Official Gazette, particularly the postwar volumes, contains precisely not only the executive issuances of the presidents, but their statements, selected correspondence, and speeches, as well, together with an official chronicle that serves as the definitive official account of the various administrations: at first monthly (The Official Month in Review) and then, starting with Magsaysay, weekly (The Official Week in Review), until, at least, the proclamation of martial law.

The period of World War II, however, is a problem, due to scarcity of materials –I understand an Official Gazette was published by the government-in-exile[12], but we have yet to find copies- and may require more involved editorial decisions, with the template of the prewar Messages of the President as a guide.

For the postwar years of the Commonwealth, there are rare exceptions when the official record, as published in the Gazette, did not include particular documents, considered classified: the problem, as we have found out, is that the classification endures unless otherwise determined, and procedures are still being proposed for adoption in this regard.

The Gazette, with the onset of martial law, becomes more problematic as a source of documents whose inclusion in the official papers of a president can be deemed properly vetted at the time. At this point it is only a theory, but it seems to me that with the elimination of all institutional checks-and-balances on the presidency, after martial law there was little incentive for the official record to be thorough. I would also add another theory, which is that the period of martial law also coincided with the retirement or dismissal of those who’d served continuously in the Executive Office since the time of the Commonwealth.

However, there were many other compilations of official documents and state papers that should fill in whatever gaps may exist; though this does not solve the problem of identifying and including, secret decrees and other controversial material, even if of an official nature.

But first things first. The modern presidency began with the Commonwealth; whether one likes it or not, the institutional foundations and traditions of the office were put in place in that era and have, remarkably, endured. The official record –the official papers- of an administration gives an insight into what that administration considered important. It summarizes what each administration believed constituted its legacy and, by extension, where it considered itself accountable.

In this regard, I must pay tribute to the tireless efforts of the Presidential Library and Museum, which has completed the encoding of all the executive issuances and other official papers of President Roxas. We are in the process of uploading these in the online edition of the Official Gazette, while another interesting project, the scanning and uploading for public access, of these documents on the Presidential Library and Museum’s forthcoming website, is in the final planning stages.

The absence of a complete and comprehensive record, of a final official compilation of official papers, for the three presidents of the Commonwealth, is a tangible, that is, physical, manifestation of how either scrutiny or judgment can only be provisional so long as these compilations remain incomplete. This cannot be done overnight; yet it can be done with thoroughness and dispatch –and since, institutionally and politically, every era affects the next, we can surely strive to achieve a completeness in this regard, whether or the 85th anniversary of the Commonwealth or the 75th anniversary of our independence in 1946.

Thank you.


[1] Teodoro M. Kalaw, Aide-de-Camp to Freedom, Teodoro M.Kalaw Society, 1965.

[2] Francis Burton Harrison, diary entry for December 23, 1938, in Origins of the Philippine Republic: Extracts from the Diaries and Records of Francis Burton Harrison, Cornell University, 1974.

[3] Rigoberto Tiglao, “Learning from Indonesia,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 10, 2010.

[4] Manuel L. Quezon III, “The future of Asia: Whither Nation or State?”, paper delivered at the Asian Thought Leaders Forum, Singpore on December 3, 2008, accessible online at http://www.quezon.ph/2008/12/03/the-future-of-asia-whither-nation-or-state/

[5] Manuel L. Quezon III, “Elections are like Water,” Perspectives, PCIJ Special Election Issue, May 7, 2004, accessible online at http://www.pcij.org/imag/2004Elections/Perspectives/water.html

[6] Manuel L. Quezon III, “The perpetual avoidance of opportunity,” In Pursuit of the Philippine Competitive Edge: An Oral History of a Continuing Journey by 50 wisdom-keepers, AIM Policy Center, 2007, accessible online at http://www.quezon.ph/2007/12/19/book-chapter-the-perpetual-avoidance-of-opportunity/

[7] Randy David, “Political Change,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 12, 2010.

[8] Nick Cullather, Illusions of influence: The political economy of United States-Philippine relations 1942-1960, Stanford University Press, 1994.

[9] William Gueraiche, Manuel Quezon: Les Philippines de la decolonisation a la democratisation, Maisonneuve & Larose, 2004.

[10] Al McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

[11] The Presidential Library and Museum identifies the Messages of the President series under Quezon as including the following:

Volume 1:  Speeches, Messages to the National Assembly, Addresses, etc. for 1935, EOs 1-7, Procs. 1-17, Commonwealth Acts 1-19 (1935)

Volume 2 Part 1:  Speeches, etc., EOs 8-75, Procs. 18-118, AOs 1-29  (1936)

Volume 2 Part 2:  CA 20-232

Volume 3 Part 1:  Speeches, etc. (1937)

Volume 3 Part 2:  CA 233-253, EOs 76-137, Procs. 119-242, AOs 30-58

Volume 4 Part 1:  Speeches, etc., EOs 138-179, Procs. 243- 364, AOs 58-84, General Orders 1-4 (1939)

Volume 4 Part 2:  CA 254-412

Volume 5 Part 1:  Speeches, etc., EOs 180-247, Procs. 365-503, AOs 85-116, GOs 5-10 (1940)

Volume 5 Part 2:  CA 413-512

The Roxas volume is not entitled Messages of the President, but Important speeches, messages and other pronouncements of President Manuel Roxas published in 1947.  This collection only includes speeches until May 1947, and important addresses during his tenure as Senate President.  A two-volume compilation was published in 1954, pursuant to RA 345, and entitled Papers, Addresses and Other Writings of Manuel Roxas, with Volume 1 subtitled Speeches, Addresses and Messages as President of the Philippines: January 1946 to February 1, 1947.  The second volume contains speeches until his death on April 15, 1948.  Apparently, this too is incomplete, as it does not

contain papers and other writings.

The first Quirino volume is entitled The New Philippine Ideology published in 1949, and may be considered as Volume VII of the series.  The continuation of the series is entitled Messages of the President, with volumes VIII and IX published in 1950 and 1951, respectively.  The Quirino volumes do not include executive issuances and republic acts.

[12] Elizabeth L. Enriquez, footnote 131 in Chapter 4, Appropriation of Colonial Broadcasting: A history of early radio in the Philippines, 1922-1946, University of the Philippines Press, 2008.

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