The Soul of the Ramos Presidency

Speech delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN during the launching of Secretary Jose T. Almonte’s book, WE MUST LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD held at the Club Filipino, San Juan, Metro Manila on August 16, 2007

Before I proceed to the main topic assigned to me today, allow me to specially greet President Fidel Valdez Ramos, our special guest today. May I publicly say maraming salamat po, President FVR, for initiating me into public service and for appointing me to the Supreme Court on a Double Ten, October 10, 1995. If you did not appoint me Associate Justice, I may never have become Chief Justice. And, equally important, I may never have been invited to speak in today’s book launching.

President FVR and The Supreme Court

I first met President Ramos in 1983, when we both became new members of the Rotary Club of Manila. Many years later, on June 17, 1992, when his electoral victory was already assured, he invited me to an early morning one-on-one meeting in his private office at Room 202, 845 Pasay Road, Makati. After exchanging views on many topics — from my philosophy of law to the people’s expectation of their new President — he asked me to be his secretary of justice. Taken aback and pleasantly surprised, I said, “Thank you, Mr. President, but I do not think I deserve to join your Cabinet, because I did nothing for your election. I did not campaign for you.”

“I know,” he replied. “You did not even vote for me. You voted for Jovy Salonga, your mentor. But that’s all right because I want to have a nonpartisan Cabinet, whose members are from all walks of life. Because of our association in Rotary, I know you to be a brilliant lawyer and a capable executive.” How I eventually landed in the Supreme Court is detailed in my book Battles in the Supreme Court. Suffice it to say for today that because of my reluctance to accept a political office, President Ramos modified his unsolicited offer to a seat in our highest court. Though I owe my appointment to the Supreme Court solely and completely to him (I had no padrinos or sponsors), let me add very quickly that he never spoke to me about any case or matter pending in the Court since then up to my retirement from the judiciary seven months ago. Though I voted against some administration cases, he never even so much as hinted to me his displeasure. He respected my independence and integrity as a member of the judiciary. Such is the gentlemen that he is. Mabuhay po kayo, President FVR.

Enter National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte

Now, let me go to my assignment today. I met Secretary Jose T. Almonte, or JoeAl as he is fondly called, a few days after that encounter I had with President Ramos on June 17, 1992. Like many people who did not know JoeAl, I was initially wary of him. Because of his intelligence background and his deep-penetration exploits in Vietnam, I thought of him as some sort of James Bond and Napoleon Solo combined, but without the wine and the women. He had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being shadowy, sneaky, secretive, mysterious, enigmatic and clandestine. His book (p. 206) says the media’s described him as “sinister” and “arrogant.”

Behind the stony façade, however, is a very kind person, gentle of spirit and loyal to a fault to his true friends. He smiles pleasantly, laughs heartily, speaks deliberately, and listens intently. He is always considerate of the feelings of others, quick to apologize for egos he may have bruised and always ready to render a helping hand, especially to those who cannot help themselves. Unknown to many, he is a prayerful and dedicated Christian, whose only hero is our Lord Jesus Christ.

He invited me to attend the meetings of the “Wednesday Group” during which he floated his pet ideas and visions. In time, I gradually eased into his real persona as a true-blue ideologue, thinker, philosopher, strategist, reformer, visionary and patriot. When the topic was about reforms needed to propel the country to prosperity, he carefully chose his words to express the exact nuance of his thoughts. While he always had a word on tactical problems, he preferred to dwell on goals and visions, principles and values, all geared towards the long-term needs of the nation; he was more prone to look at the broad horizon, the total picture. He did not mind criticisms from vested political and business groups; not even from media; he welcomed them as compliments to his efforts to reform the status quo.

Leveling the Judicial And Legal Environment

In brief, beneath the veneer of the shadowy and the ideology, is a softhearted, kind and jovial humanity, capable of tears and fears, pains and gains. Yet still, he never allows the emotional to overpower the cerebral to bring out the uniquely real JoeAl.

After I joined the Supreme Court three years later in 1995, I had to stop attending the Wednesday meetings for ethical and other reasons. But JoeAl’s insights have left their indelible mark in my mind. His commonsensical theories strengthened my own belief that law could not be read in a vacuum, in an abstraction. It must be interpreted and applied in the context of pulsating contemporary social and economic realities. It must be used as a brick in building the social edifice.

To be relevant, law must not only free people from political oppressions but must liberate them from all economic and social enslavements. Of what good indeed is the Bill of Rights to the very poor who can afford only one meal a day, or who suffer from debilitating disease? Indeed, the rule of law must not only safeguard liberty but must help eradicate poverty and nurture prosperity.

Courts must protect and promote not only the political and civil, but also the economic and social rights of our people. JoeAl expresses this ratio in more elegant language, thus, “Legalism has its uses, but if we become imprisoned in its technicalities, if it is used to shield wrongdoings, it cannot be an adequate tool for moral regeneration that – our society needs.” (p. 30)

It is said that the highest form of admiration is imitation. This is why a few years ago, I authored a book entitled Leveling the Playing Field. I should like to believe that this book runs along the same fundamental principles of competition espoused by JoeAl, except that they were applied specifically to the decisions and actions of the judiciary.

The Central Theme of JoeAl’s Book

I was kind of worried that after the term of President Ramos, JoeAl’s thoughts and strategies would be lost in the maze of “Eraptions” and “Glorianomics” that flooded the country. I am therefore very happy that the Foundation for Economic Freedom has decided to eternalize JoeAl’s most profound thoughts in this presentable, well-edited and elegantly bound opus.

The book’s title, We Must Level the Playing Field, summarizes the author’s ideology. To explain the central theme, let me quote JoeAl directly: “To level the playing field of enterprise, we must cut the networks of collusion that have allowed persons of influence to extract wealth without effort from the economy. And we must smooth the economic distortions that perpetuate jobless growth and uneven development. As far as possible, every one should have a fair and equal chance to pursue the possibilities of their lives.” (p.7)

In day-to-day governance, this long-term vision led the Ramos Presidency “to dismantle the most blatant monopolies – in telecommunications, transportation, banking, insurance, open up strategic industries, attract foreign direct investments and raise tax and custom revenues.”(p. 6) To do these meant battling “oligarchic interests (that) had clustered around the protectionist strategy.” (p.3)

The Clarion Call of Philippines 2000

The clarion call of the Ramos Presidency was articulated in “Philippines 2000.” According to the author, this strategic framework has two components.

“The first is the Medium Term Development Plan. The Plan addresses straightforward and specific concerns – for instance, macroeconomic policy; regional industrial centers; agricultural modernization; and export promotion.

“The second component deals with the larger environment – the political and social climate – in which growth must take place._ It consists of three tasks.

“The first is achieving political stability. The second is opening the economy; dismantling the monopolies and cartels erected under crony capitalism; and leveling the field of business competition. The third is reducing corruption and inefficiency in the civil service.” (p. 41)

President Ramos’ career was mostly in the military and the police. Why was his Presidency so focused on the reforming the economy? JoeAl answers that question with the wisdom of a true sage, “We seek economic growth not merely because it enables humans to accumulate material goods. We recognize economic growth as important because it allows greater human freedom.” (p. 93)

The Activism of The Military

As we all know, the author is a retired general in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He has made it his passion to know the length, breadth and depth of the military establishment and has become an authority on the moods and thoughts of the men and women who compose it. Poignantly and carefully, he wrote, “Of all the institutions in the new countries, the military is commonly the best organized, the most nearly equal, the most disciplined and the most closely-knit. Hence, it becomes – in most cases, unavoidably – a major player in post independence politics.” (p. 170)

Even after a country – like the Philippines – has emerged from infancy, he warns that there is always “the likelihood that our dissident officers will emerge as an alternative leadership to our ruling oligarchy. By class and income origin, they come mainly from our country’s lower middle class. By work-experience, they are close to the world of the common tao. They are, therefore, well-equipped to articulate the ordinary Filipino’s needs, wants and aspirations. (p.20)

To prevent unrest in the military, he urges the civil leaders to free the nation of injustice, corruption and intolerable poverty, because “without reforms, no kind of punishment – neither 30 push ups or the firing squad – can keep soldiers in their barracks.” (p. 8)

Upon the other hand, he also has a realistic appraisal of why insurgencies sometimes persist despite the superiority in manpower and weapons of the military, thus, “Insurgencies are wars of ideas just as much as they are killing competitions. Killing insurgents will not kill the insurgency. Insurgencies are won or lost depending on which side gains the people’s trust.” (p. 4)

To solve uprisings, he urges the promotion of social justice, which he simply defines as “society’s commitment to insure every member the minimum necessities of life; extreme inequality always carries the seeds of conflict.” (p. 4)

Social and Political Reforms

Like most social reformers, JoeAl has a special place in his heart for the poor and the weak. However, instead of dole-outs and charity as is the first invocation of many do-gooders, he posits that “the poor can be lifted up only by economic growth that creates – and expands jobs, and business opportunities for all those willing to take them.” (p. 125) Going even further, he believes that “the poor do not need subsidies; they need economic opportunities more than they need welfare.” (p. 123)

On political reforms, he ruefully points out that “parliamentary government will not be a cure-all. It is unlikely to ease quickly our deep-rooted problems of political accountability and unequal access to political power. Indeed it might only play to our factional tendencies and produce revolving-door governments.” (p. 201)

Upon the other hand, he is more confident of the role of civil society in transforming the political landscape. Thus, he wrote, “Civic responsibility is crucial, because the future of democracy in the Philippines may lie outside the formal political arena. It may lie with the various groupings of civil society – and it is these mediating institutions between the individuals and the state that may become the building blocks of true political parties based on principles and programs, rather than on naked power and commanding personalities.” (p. 214)

Interestingly, the book describes in detail how corruption is committed, step by step, in almost all areas of governance, especially in elections, customs, the bureaucracy, public biddings, foreign contracts, transfer pricing, and tariff subversion. If for this reason alone, the Office of the Ombudsman should make the book a must reading for all its investigators and prosecutors.

Like most ideologues who care for democracy’s survival in “weak” states, he pushes for the strengthening of democratic institutions as the long term answer to our recurrent political and social turmoil. In the short term, however, he proposes a little caveat, thus “Building strong institutions, institutions that can guarantee our civil liberties and keep the market free is a complex task that will take time and effort. Meanwhile, a strong President – a president who can resist the importunings of interest groups – must compensate for the inadequacies of these public institutions.” (p. 210)


Ladies and gentlemen, let me end this address by saying that the book gives us the unmistakable conviction that, indeed, the Ramos government had a clear ideology that animated its political, economic and social agenda. Many have already suspected long ago that JoeAl was the mastermind who not only authored the ideology but that he was also the drumbeater who kept the other Ramos officials marching to the cadence of free enterprise, open markets and freedom from all human bondages.

In short, this new book entitled We Must Level the Playing Field confirms what all of us in this august gathering already knew: President Fidel V. Ramos may have been the embodiment of “Philippines 2000” but National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte was the sentient soul of the Ramos Presidency.

Maraming salamat po.

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