Speech: Quezon’s Ideals and the Youth of Today

Quezon’s Ideals and the Youth of Today
Speech delivered on the occasion of the observance of Quezon Day by the Rotary Clubs of Quezon City. Sulo Hotel, August 21, 1995.
by Manuel L. Quezon III

Dear Rotarians of Quezon City, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I have been invited to talk to you today, on the subject “The Relevance of Quezon’s Ideals for the Youth of Today.” Before I go into Quezon’s ideals and their relevance -or irrelevance- for today’s youth, I would like to address a fundamental question. A question which has been hotly debated since Quezon’s lifetime, all the way up to the present.

The question is this: was Quezon a man who had ideals? And was he a man who applied his ideals to his conduct as a politician and a public servant? The man who, in the words of Nick Joaquin, started off as a “penniless parvenu from the sticks,” has certainly been described in unflattering terms. Terms which usually sum up the approximation of Quezon made by the American communist Sol Auerbach -more commonly known by his pseudonym James Allen. Auerbach described Quezon as “the supreme cacique.”

Others characterized Quezon as a “Datu Puti,” a rather picturesque oriental despot with Caucasian features, or “a Beau Brummel among dictators,” in the words of the American journalist John Gunther. This is testimony as to how some of Quezon’s contemporaries perceived him, as a politician and a leader. Using his own words to damn him, Teodoro M. Kalaw, a follower of Osmena, quoted him as having said to Osmena that

The problem with you is that you take the game of politics too seriously. You look to 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.

Based on Quezon’s own words, some of his contemporaries concluded that all Quezon cared about was winning every political contest he entered, to ensure the perpetuation of his own power. The whole thing was a “game:” a glorious, grueling and enormously enjoyable struggle to manipulate people and events, in order to ensure one thing: that Quezon would always be the top man on the insular totem pole.

And if one is involved in such self-centered activities, what use has one of things like ideals, or principles? To further bolster their summing-up of Quezon, other contemporaries of his pointed out that Quezon was a man who did not subscribe to fancy theories -an observation that alludes to a definite conclusion: if a man dislikes theories, how can he have honest-to-goodness ideals? After all, theories provide the ideological standards on which one should base one’s concrete actions.

But Claro M. Recto pointed out the fallacy in this line of thinking:

…Quezon had no political philosophy, practiced or avowed. If he had a philosophy, it was empiricism in its most rudimentary and instinctive form. In any particular political situation, Quezon did what was politically useful and convenient, whether or not it was consistent with any preconceived and formal program of action…

Every politician, if he is to be successful, must be an opportunist in the better sense of the term, and Quezon, the consummate politician, knew best of all how to take advantage of every opportunity. This is not to imply that he was unprincipled. he believed in representative democracy and… preserved and guarded the electoral processes with loyalty and sincerity. He believed in our political independence, in the historic destiny of the Malayan race to which it was his pride to proclaim publicly that he belonged, and built his entire career on the ideal of nationalism.

Those, then, according to Recto, were Quezon’s “beliefs… convictions… principles.” There, at last, we have it: confirmation that indeed, Quezon had what we can also call ideals. Recto always maintained that Quezon never had a “political philosophy distinctly his own” -something I would dare to dispute, but that is a subject beyond the scope of my address to you today. No, let us concentrate on Quezon’s ideals. Now we can safely say that he had them. But, I am afraid, Recto pointed out something else: the ideals Recto said Quezon believed in and espoused, did not set him apart from his contemporaries. After all, Recto said,

Every Filipino was for democracy and a republican form of government. Every Filipino was for independence and national sovereignty.

Thus belief in democracy and independence, preserving and guarding free elections, believing in his fellow Filipinos, and nationalism may have been essential attributes of Manuel L. Quezon, but they do not make him worthy of emulation by the youth -at least not to the extent that he should be singled out over and above all his distinguished contemporaries. After all, these attributes are the minimum we should expect of any leader, past, present, or future. So then, what ideal can we say distinguished, or set apart, Quezon from his contemporaries?

There can only be one answer: the thing that set him apart from his contemporaries was his advocacy of social justice. The Social Justice Program -and its accompanying rhetoric- is the chief qualification for his being remembered as a statesman. Notice that I do not limit myself to social justice itself, but that I also include the rhetoric that accompanied it, as important.

You see, writer after writer has repeated the shibboleth that Quezon’s Social Justice Program was merely a case of “window dressing” to boost his popularity.

This view betrays, I think, a defect on the part of writers, people who should be the first to recognize the importance and significance of rhetoric. These writers love to point out that democracy in Quezon’s time was not just colonial democracy, but “elite democracy;” democracy by and for a small group of Filipinos, whose interests could not coincide with the genuine aspirations of the Filipino masses. A statistic that has profoundly impressed me, and which supports their view, is that in 1941, when Quezon was elected to a second term, an achievement that marked the pinnacle of his electoral career, and which, incidentally, was not to be repeated until Marcos was also elected to a second term in 1969, only about 11% of the population were eligible to vote. Only 11% -and this after the voting population had been enlarged enormously by the grant of the right of suffrage to Filipino women in 1937! All right, then. Let us assume that the writers are right when they say that during Quezon’s time, we only had “elite democracy.”

Elites, as we all know, are a selfish lot. They seek to maintain their status and retain their influence on the affairs of state, through a concerted effort to restrict any and all attempts to limit their hold on the running of national affairs. We also know that the natural human reaction to unrestricted greed, covetousness, and selfishness is the desire to make things equal, to level things out. A reaction shared by generations of poor Filipinos, whether they be sharecroppers, farmers, kasamas, stevedores, factory workers or squatters. Ordinarily these humble folk seek redress for their grievances through loyal appeals to authority. All too often, though, loyal appeals fall on deaf ears. And when that happens often enough, the lowly have no other recourse but to issue a call to arms, and launch a rebellion. Or start a revolution.

Quezon, as our friend the communist Sol Auerbach attests in his book The Radical Left on the Eve of War, was well aware of this. He wrote,

Pedro Abad Santos told m in his opinion most of the Nacionalista leaders and the properties elite were ignorant, selfish and brutish but that Quezon stood out among them as the ablest and most sagacious…. Quezon… I thought [was] a benevolent despot aware of the complaints of the peasantry and the dangers of social unrest… Some attempts at ameliorative legislation were made to improve the lot of the peasant tenant and small land owner but they were ineffective in the face of local control by the big landed proprietors….

Faced with this problem, Auerbach goes on to relate that Quezon

was engaged in solving the problem in his own way -by putting the fear of the masses into the hearts of wealthy land barons. “I tell them [Quezon said], if you know what’s good for you better improve the conditions of your tenants. You do not have enough sons for the army, so we must conscript our soldiers from the poor. we put guns in their hands and teach them how to use them. If you are not careful they will use those guns against you. If you want to save what you have, give them ten percent of it or they will take it all.”

Words, blunt words, words without anything behind them, but words meant to accomplish a change of heart through scare tactics, since obviously legislation wasn’t enough to create change. Now do you see what I meant when I said that writers have failed to appreciate the importance of mere words -whether in the form of rhetoric or blunt words?

The social justice laws passed during Quezon’s time were transient. They could be circumvented, officials could choose not to implement them, they could be watered down, amended or repealed -we have seen this happen in the present: remember the sad excuse for land reform CARP became when it was stillborn as CARL? But words, specially words that are remembered and taken to heart, survive. They lodge themselves in the heart, or in the brain (it doesn’t matter too much in which organ they find a home, the results are just as beneficial), they are believed in, and they become articles of faith.

And as time goes by, the words that keep the spirit of social justice alive, are remembered and repeated to younger generations. As generations grow and multiply, so do the number of hearts and minds that have taken on social justice as a creed, grow and multiply. And as time goes by, so does the need for leaders to pay proper homage to social justice. After a certain point, rhetoric -perhaps reduced to empty repetition of inspiring dreams by then- must give way to action. Action from officials, regardless of how they feel about social justice. Social justice becomes a duty. And finally, a reality.

But it all starts with words. Quezon, aware of the limitations of his colleagues and times, took the first step. He issued bold, inspiring words. After all, as he himself said,

Social Justice is far more beneficial when applied as a matter of sentiment and not of law.

He tried to issue appeals to sentiment, in the hope that even in small ways, social justice might be attempted. And he made it a centerpiece of his administration so that it would be remembered -and never ignored. So that social justice would, one day, become a reality.

Social justice was defined by the late Jose P. Laurel when he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In the decision to the celebrated Calalang vs. Williams case, Laurel said social justice was:

Humanization of laws and the equalization of the social and economic forces by the state so that justice, in its rational and objectively secular conception may at least be approximated.

This is a difficult thing to undertake. But it must be attempted. As an ideal, social justice is not just relevant, it is essential. Let me close then by making a conclusion: Social justice was the greatest ideal ever espoused by Quezon during his lifetime. From the time he daringly enunciated its precepts, social justice has been nurtured all these years. It has remained an article of faith -enshrined in all our constitutions since 1935. It has being applied to our national life, sometimes more, too often less, but generally a little bit more as time passes, principally because of the undeminishing insistence of generation after generation of Filipinos. Its continued extension depends on the youth. And so it is absolutely relevant to them. To us. To everyone.

Quezon’s supreme ideal -his dream of social justice- will owe its continued survival to the youth. And to their elders, who must inculcate a love for it in their hearts. I close with the words of another firm believer in social justice, a Filipino who exemplified and continued Quezon’s advocacy a just society. A Filipino who died twelve years ago today. In his Testament from a Prison Cell, Ninoy Aquino wrote,

Our people, especially the youth, seem to be sinking even deeper into apolitical torpor. Far from welcoming the detachment of the young from social activism, we should take this as a terrible omen of a bleak future.

We must encourage the young to rise above a society that has been apathetic and indifferent, and where justice has been long ignored. We must teach the young how to construct arguments, organize their thoughts, and turn their insights into ideals. They must develop true intellectual discipline and learn the meaning of moral courage.

They must acquire the moral fiber to support an indomitable will! All of us must resolve to be true leaders who will reflect in the clearest way the aspirations of our people.

Ladies and gentlemen, the youth ask you, our elders, to show, in word and deed, your commitment to social justice. It has flagged and failed too often in the past. The youth ask you to reaffirm, loudly, so we can hear it, eloquently, so that we may take it to heart, and concretely, so that we may bear witness to it, your commitment to social justice.

If you don’t do this, we will be back to the way things were in the time of Quezon -and worse, you will have negated the toil and suffering that have ennobled the history of our country since Quezon’s time. At least Quezon, who has been dead for 52 years, will not wittness the utter failure you would have made of his greatest gamble. But we, the youth, will be present to wittness the demise of a noble cause. Don’t let us down. Your success, you see, will also be our success.

Thank you and good afternoon.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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