The Explainer: Magsaysay in retrospect

That was the voice of Ramon Magsaysay, as shown in the PCIJ documentary, Papogi, The The Imaging of Philippine Presidents. There are two significant Magsaysay anniversaries this year. On March 17, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of his death; on August 31, it will be the centennial anniversary of his birth.


Tonight: Magsaysay in retrospect. I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.


I. Mambo Magsaysay


FROM her secret perch overlooking Malacanan Palace, June Kiethley in February 1986, decided to play an old campaign jingle on the airwaves.

That jingle was “Mambo Magsaysay,” whose words and music were by Raul Manglapus.

To play that song at that time, was a pointed jab at an Ilocano dictator, reminding him of another Ilocano president whose fame was built on redeeming the sanctity of the ballot, while Marcos’s notoriety was built on stealing ballots.

Perhaps you’ve heard that tune. But have you paused to reflect on its words? And why they captured the imagination of the electorate in 1953 and served as an inspiration to the electorate in 1986? Let’s listen: 

Everywhere that you would look

Was a bandit or a crook

Peace and order was a joke

‘Til Magsaysay pumasok

That is why, that is why

You will hear the people cry

Our democracy will die

Kung wala si Magsaysay.


Mambo, mambo Magsaysay

Mabu-mabu mabuhay

Our democracy will die

Kung wala si Magsaysay


Birds they voted in Lanao

At pati Aswang pa daw

Ang election lutong macaw

Till Magsaysay showed them how


Mambo, mambo Magsaysay

Mabu-mabu mabuhay

Our democracy will die

Kung wala si Magsaysay


Of course there was another version, too, which would have been even more pointed –a version in Ilocano. Let’s listen to it briefly- [play excerpt of Mambo Magsaysay Ilocano].


We tend to overlook in our present era of pop songs recycled and repurposed as campaign jingles, how revolutionary –and subversive- the Mambo Magsaysay was.

A few years back I bought a Perez Prado album and in the liner notes, another Philippine president, Elpidio Quirino, did a cameo. He was quoted as saying that the Mambo craze that swept the Philippines was “a national calamity.” And indeed it was. A song helped sweep him out of office.

It’s often through photographs and music that we can recapture an era; and I’d like to have you listen to one more campaign song, also composed by Manglapus, from the Magsaysay campaign. It’s a more traditional one. It’s title is “We Want Magsaysay.” Let’s listen to part of it now:

We want the bell of liberty

Ringing for us once more

We want the people’s will to be

Free as it was before

We want our native land to lie

Peaceful and clean again

We want our nation guided by

God-fearing honest men


Men who’ll serve without the nerve

To cheat eternally

Who’ll do the job and never rob

The public treasury


Only the man of destiny

[something something]

This is The Guy for you and me

We want Magsaysay


This is the image of Magsaysay familiar to all of us:  the official portrait painted when he was still Secretary of National Defense, and which hangs in Malacanan Palace to this day.

Goeffrey Bocca, President Macapagal’s biographer, said of the this famous portrait of Magsaysay that he looked “very much the tough guy: he probably chews glass.”

In our profoundly embittered and cynical times, it seems unimaginable that Filipinos would want, so mightily, a leader to lead them out of a time of Communist rebellion and seemingly total government corruption. Equally unimaginable, perhaps, to us today, is the idea that the political system could still produce leaders capable of delivering good government.

But in truth, I don’t think we’re very different then from the way we are today. We’ve always wanted to see three things in our presidents.

The first is, we understand our presidents are human but we want them to be a little more honest, and a lot more dissatisfied, and somehow, a positive example. Veteran journalist Jess Sison, in his book “My Guy Magsaysay,” recounts another reason the public adored the president:

On of the very first directives of Ramon Magsaysay when he became the President was to prohibit his relatives from staying in Malacañan Palace.  He banned even his father and mother from staying at the Palace overnight.  They had to get an appointment with the President before they could see him in Malacañang.  Some people criticized the decision of the President.  But he insisted on it.


When Executive Secretary and later Chief Justice Fred Ruiz Castro did a minor favor for one of the President’s relatives, Magsaysay fired him.

Second, we like it when presidents act as the scolder-in-chief, cracking the whip over inefficient or unresponsive officials.

Take a look, for example, at how Gringo Honasan’s father got fired.

Here’s Sison’s account of how it happened:

One early afternoon [Magsaysay ‘s temper] flared up when he saw many people standing outside the gates of Malacañang.  He got off his car and talked to the people and found out that they were farmers from Central Luzon and they had been waiting outside the Palace gates since early morning.  Magsaysay then asked the sentry guards at the gate why the people had not been allowed to enter. The guards replied that it was Col. Romeo Honasan, then the commanding officer of the Presidential Guard Battalion (now the Presidential Security Group or PSG), who gave the order…

When Col. Honasan arrived, the President gave him a tongue-lashing.  His angry words were: “From the beginning, I told you guys that Malacañang is the Palace of the people.  It belongs to the people and the people should be admitted anytime they want to enter the Palace.  For disobeying my order, you are hereby fired, effective immediately, as commander of the PGB.”  The President then ordered the gates opened and allowed the people to come in.  He listened to their requests for a while before proceeding to the Palace.


Third, we like presidents to attend to our basic problems: law and order, food, sanitation. This clip from Papogi shows the late Dindo Gonzalez, a close friend of the president, demonstrates how Magsaysay harnessed this public desire: [clip from Papogi, chapter 3, 4:20-4:32 “That’s the thing…” to “wells it was…”]

And so, a generation of Filipinos, Magsaysay was such a man.

When we return –what Magsaysay himself believed.


 II. A Healthy Impatience


THAT was the funeral of Ramon Magsaysay. Until the funeral of Ninoy Aquino, it was the largest funeral in Philippine history.

I’d like to pause at this point to tackle a point often raised against Magsaysay, and that’s his unabashed pro-Americanism. That charge was first laid by people upset that Magsaysay not only won, but won with the largest first term victory of any president before or since.

In 1953, Magsaysay garnered 68.8% of the votes, in an undoubtedly clean election. His critics, to rationalize this, claimed it was because of American support. He undoubtedly had that support, because of the Cold War and the rise of the Huks.

And so the Americans were clever in taking credit for Magsaysay, and his enemies as a way of sour-graping, have been happy to attribute to America what should be attributed to Filipinos.

If you’d like to see Magsaysay was no American stooge, read Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippines Relations, 1942-1960 by Nick Cullather. Or simply reflect on how some of the worst aspects of Philippine-American trade relations were addressed through the Laurel-Langley Agreement, undertaken during the Magsaysay administration.

But many other things helped endear Magsaysay to the public, and in a sense, the Americans did a great job in projecting themselves as the secret behind his success, though as in most things, the Americans took credit for something not entirely of their own doing.

Magsaysay gained public confidence for the reforms he instituted in the armed forces. Corrupt generals were swept aside, the welfare of the enlisted men attended to, and the armed forces trained to stop their previous habit of abusing the peasantry which only helped the cause of the Huks.

He was also fanatical in his insistence on distinguishing public from private funds, something he could perhaps afford to do, because in today’s money, the president’s salary would be equivalent to five million pesos a year.

Here’s an example. In  October, 1955, Magsaysay flew to Tacloban on a Philippine air force plane. The President then sent P1,642.57 to a very surprised AFP chief of staff, to reimburse the trip. Even the press was surprised. A reporter later asked Magsaysay, but wasn’t that an official trip as president? Magsaysay had been invited to deliver the main speech at the commemoration ceremonies of the landing of the American forces of liberation in that locality.

This is Magsaysay’s reply, as quoted in the Philippines Free Press:

If I had delivered only that speech during their commemoration ceremony while we were in Tacloban, that would have been a purely official trip. But don’t you remember that I also spoke before the Lion’s Club of Tacloban and followed that with another speech before provincial and municipal officials and public school teachers of Leyte? I talked politics in that last speech. Lest I be accused of using a government airplane for electioneering, I had to see to it that the air force was fully paid for the use of that plane we took to Leyte.


To understand why Magsaysay was so fantical about such things, you only have to look at his own citation of his core beliefs, The Magsaysay Credo, says it all.

I believe that government starts at the bottom and moves upward, for government exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation.

I believe that he who has less in life should have more in law.

I believe that the little man is fundamentally entitled to a little bit more food in his stomach, a little more cloth in his back and a little more roof over his head.

I believe that this nation is endowed with a vibrant and stout heart, and possesses untapped capabilities and incredible resiliency.

I believe that a high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity.

I believe that the pulse of government should be strong and steady, and the men at the helm imbued with missionary zeal. 

I believe in the majesty of constitutional and legal processes, in the inviolability of human rights.

I believe that the free world is collectively strong, and that there is neither need or reason to compromise the dignity of man.

I believe that communism is iniquity, as is the violence it does to the principles of Christianity.

I believe that the President should set the example of a big heart, an honest mind, sound instincts, the virtue of healthy impatience and an abiding love for the common man.


Doesn’t that say everything all classes of Filipinos want? And which most of us believe should be the case?

The Official Gazette, which used to chronicle the activities of our chief executives, used to feature The Official Month in Review. In Magsaysay’s time, the President’s activities became so numerous it had to be changed to The Official Week in Review. Here’s an entry from his first full day in office:

Friday, Jan. 1 — The common people turned out en masse to attend President and Mrs. Magsaysay’s first  “at home” in Malacañan today. Men, women and children, many of them barefooted, many others in slippers or in bakya, streamed through the palace gates, milled around the President and shook hands with him, and then walked in and out of the rooms. Although the reception was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., the people started gathering at 7:30. It was supposed to close at 5 p.m., but the people stayed till much later.

Protocol Officer Manuel Zamora said that around 80,000 people entered the palace grounds. The visitors drank 19,200 bottles of softdrinks and ate 10,000 sandwiches.

A feature of the President’s “at home” was the exchange of toasts between the chief executive and the diplomatic corps. For the first time, the President offered his toast with a cup of basi, the Ilocano drink, and some of the diplomats followed suit.


Magsaysay of course, wasn’t the first president to have an open house in Malacanang –but he was the first to have a totally open house, an event so open it drove officials nuts and after a while, the practice had to be stopped.

But that open house was enough to build a legend. An economy that grew at a rate of 7% throughout his term also helped.

The legend came to an end on March 17, 1957. President Magsaysay was returning from Cebu, where among the last pictures taken of him shows him with former president Sergio Osmena. The president’s party boarded his plane, the Mount Pinatubo early in the morning.

An article from the April 6, 1957 issue of the Philippines Free Press has Nestor Mata, recounting what happened.

We inquired if it was true that he was seated at the tail end of the plane.

“No,” he answered, “I sat in the second seat next to the President’s compartment….

“As soon as I was seated, I fell asleep at once. I did not have the slightest premonition of what was to happen. I had full confidence in our pilot. I felt that if the President was safe in his hands, I, too, was safe. I had no reason to feel otherwise.”

Mata reiterated that after the momentary blinding flash, he fell unconscious.

“At about three o’clock that same morning, I regained consciousness…

“I found myself on the side of a steep cliff among dried bushes…. Agonizing with pain, I was completely at a loss what to do. About three meters away from me were parts of the plane. They were still burning. Meanwhile, I heard the distant howling of a dog. It was only then that I felt hopeful of being rescued. Thinking that there were probably people living not far away from where I lay moaning with pain, I made an effort to shout. I noticed that my voice echoed in the nearby mountains.

“After that, I began shouting, ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President!’ When no answer came, I shouted for Pablo Bautista, the reporter of the Liwayway  magazine. ‘Pabling! Pabling!’ Still no answer. It began to dawn on me that there was no other survivor except me.”

Mata remembered that it was about eight o’clock in the morning when the rescuers found him.


March 17, 1957 was a Sunday, and as the day wore on, extra editions of the newspapers screamed the president’s plane was missing. Jess Sison recounts that Mrs. Luz Banzon Magsaysay spent those hours of uncertainty on her knees in the Malacanang chapel, praying the rosary. Finally, at around noon, it was confirmed. President Magsaysay had died, at the age of 49, when the presidential plane crashed into the side of Mount Manunggal in Cebu.

When we return, we’ll talk to Nestor Mata.


My view


In 1953, the year Magsaysay was elected the Free Press published an Editorial. It observed that “the need to establish a regime above personalities, a government of law instead of men, cannot be exaggerated. In a rule of law alone lies social stability. Those who are for chaos may welcome a personal regime; those who are for order know the need for an impersonal government.” It said that while notable Filipino leaders in the past had a “private conscience drew the line beyond which it would be dishonorable for a public official to go,” the country couldn’t continue pinning its hopes on officials privately drawing “a line which only an impersonal law should draw.” The editorial writer couldn’t know how prophetic he was being.

Ramon Magsaysay landslide had not been seen in Philippine politics since before World War II; such was the charisma and integrity of the man that he almost single-handedly rejuvenated public confidence in government. But by 1957 Magsaysay was dead; and the country was left with the painful realization the editorial writer had expressed three years before: in the absence of a genuine rule of law, the restoration of public confidence was an impossible task. We continue to look for that rule of law, just as we have never found a people’s champion to replace him.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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