Conscience of the nation

MANILA, Philippines — Former Senate President Jovito R. Salonga, the country’s oldest living statesman and my personal guru for more than 50 years, launched last Aug. 14 another illuminating, persuasive and life-changing masterpiece. The book’s title, “Not by Power or Wealth Alone,” is its best summation. As an exemplary public servant and brilliant lawyer, he has had a generous share of power and access to wealth in this material world. But in characteristic humility, he declares them thoroughly inadequate to satisfy life and to reform society.

Practised what he preached. Dr. Salonga, a Protestant, has spoken before many congregations, Catholic and Muslim included. He was always eloquent, spoke with the tremolo of infectious conviction, and left his audience with thoughts and reflections that led to action. But that is not all. True, he preached powerfully; but equally true, he practised even more stringently what he preached.

Believing that the Marcos dictatorship plundered not only the public treasury but also the people’s values, he sponsored the enactment of the Ethical Standards Law. Remarkably, in his personal conduct, he went even beyond the requirements of this law or of any known code of ethics.

For instance, when he and his law partners, Sedfrey A. Ordoñez (who became solicitor general, secretary of justice, and ambassador to the United Nations) and Pedro L. Yap (who was elevated to be chief justice of the Philippines), were recruited to public office by President Corazon C. Aquino in 1986, he was not satisfied with taking a leave from his prestigious law firm as demanded by law and ethics; he went all the way and dissolved permanently his law partnership.

In serving a government swept to office by legendary people power, he opted to forego the luxuries that wealth could buy to be able to demonstrate the virtues that power and wealth alone could not bring. He chose to live simply so that others may simply live.

Indeed, he is a living model of his teachings. He is a dedicated husband, a caring father, a faithful friend and a devoted man of God. Never compromising his principles in exchange for friendship, kinship, relationship, power or wealth, he lives an almost ascetic life. He does not smoke, drink, or gamble. Money, worldly pleasures, titles and honors hold no fascination for him.

Outstanding and humble. To say that Dr. Salonga is outstanding is to say something ordinary about him. He topped the bar examinations, topped his doctoral class in Yale University and topped the senatorial elections three times, a record unequaled in this nation?s history. Yet he remains humble and child-like, as our Lord Jesus Christ counseled all His disciples to be. No wonder, he had been selected as one of the seven Ramon Magsaysay awardees this year.

Even when I was his assistant in his law firm in the early ‘60s, he was never allured by possessions, positions or propositions. He never quibbled over attorney’s fees; did not bill even his wealthiest clients like Don Eugenio Lopez Sr., leaving to them the problem of how to compensate him. Money had very little meaning for him then, and less so now.

Many of the essays, homilies and speeches included in the book had been written some 35 years ago, after his life was almost snuffed out by that bombing in Plaza Miranda, Manila on Aug. 21, 1971. In it are chronicled his pains, struggles and hopes. But like our Lord Jesus Christ, his faith grew stronger as his physical self felt weaker.

Sprightly at 87. On June 22, 2007, Dr. Salonga celebrated his 87th birthday. Yet, despite his advanced age and despite the many tiny pieces of shrapnel that are still imbedded in his frail body as a result of that grenade blast in Plaza Miranda, he is still sprightly. More important, his intellect and his interest in public welfare are still as sharp as when he was 40. Let me give just two recent proofs of this assertion:

1. Peeved at the Commission on Elections—refusal to reveal the names of the party-list nominees in the last elections, he sued the poll body for violating the people’s constitutional right to public information; the result: a unanimous Supreme Court decision (in Rosales vs Comelec), promptly promulgated on May 4, 2007, commanding the Comelec to follow his demand; and

2. Alarmed that President Macapagal-Arroyo violated the Constitution in appointing to the Supreme Court someone who was not a natural-born citizen, he again sued; the result: again, a unanimous Supreme Court decision (in Kilosbayan vs Ermita), promptly issued on July 3, 2007, enjoining Gregory Ong from accepting his appointment to the Supreme Court, precisely because of his lack of natural-born citizenship.

Many times during his prayers and moments of solitude, he has asked our Lord why his life had been spared, and why he had been gifted with longevity when he was one of the most injured during that deadly Plaza Miranda blast. I dare say that our Good Lord had granted him a long and purposeful life, because He wanted him to be the conscience of the nation; to be its fearless anchor during stormy seas of political upheavals; and to be the indefatigable teacher and model of the young and not-so-young who aspire to lead this country.

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In last Sunday’s column, our proofreader inadvertently omitted the hyphens in the married surnames of the lady justices of the Supreme Court and the middle initial (an “S”) of our incumbent Chief Justice. Sorry, your honors.

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