MANILA, Philippines — Last aug. 16, The Foundation for Economic Freedom launched the interesting, provocative and highly educative book titled “We Must Level the Playing Field” authored by former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte. Together with President Fidel V. Ramos, I was invited to speak “about the book and the author.”
Shadowy and enigmatic. I met the author, fondly called JoeAl, just before FVR took office on June 30, 1992. Initially, I was wary of him. Because of his well-publicized deep-penetration exploits, I thought of him as some sort of James Bond and Napoleon Solo. He had a reputation of being shadowy, sneaky, mysterious and enigmatic. His book (p. 206) says the media described him as “sinister” and “arrogant.”
He invited me to 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 and strategist. 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. Animatedly, he dwelt on goals and visions, principles and values, all geared towards the long-term needs of the nation.
After I joined the Supreme Court in 1995, I stopped attending the Wednesday meetings for ethical and other reasons. But JoeAl’s commonsensical theories strengthened my own belief that law must be interpreted and applied in the context of pulsating contemporary social and economic realities. Indeed, the rule of law must not only safeguard liberty but must help eradicate poverty and nurture prosperity.
Central ideology. To explain the book’s 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.” (p. 7)
In day-to-day governance, this vision led the Ramos government “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)
Military activism. As a retired general, JoeAl knew the length, breadth and depth of the military establishment. 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 civilian leaders to free the nation of injustice, corruption and intolerable poverty, because “without reforms, no kind of punishment—neither 30 push ups nor the firing squad—can keep soldiers/police in their barracks.” (p. 8)
Upon the other hand, he also has a realistic appraisal of why insurgencies sometimes persist despite the military’s superiority in manpower and weapons, 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)
Social and political reforms. Instead of dole-outs and charity, 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)
To win the future, he is more confident of the role of civil society in transforming the political landscape. Thus, he wrote, “…the future of democracy in the Philippines may lie outside the formal political arena. It may lie with ‘ civil society ’ that may become the building blocks of political parties based on principles and programs, rather than on naked power and commanding personalities.” (p. 214)
The book gives the unmistakable conviction that, indeed, the Ramos government had a clear ideology that animated its political, economic and social agenda. JoeAl was not only the mastermind who authored the ideology; he was also the drumbeater who kept everyone marching to the cadence of leveling the playing field. In short, this new book confirms that FVR may have been the embodiment of “Philippines 2000” but that Jose T. Almonte was the sentient soul of the Ramos presidency.
* * *