TOMORROW, Aug. 31, is the 111th birth anniversary of the late Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay, the seventh president of the Philippine Republic. Magsaysay, also known as “The Guy,” died 61 years ago in a plane crash in Cebu. The lone survivor of that crash, journalist Nestor Mata, passed away just last April at the age of 92 — finally laying to rest a memorable chapter in the nation’s history.
One can surmise that, with Mata gone as well, the unfortunate events of March 17, 1957 will also be soon forgotten. “Mt Pinatubo,” which was the name of Magsaysay’s ill-fated plane, is more known now as the volcano that brought Central Luzon to its knees during a mighty eruption in 1991. Pinatubo is in the mountain range of Zambales, Magsaysay’s home province.
As generations come one after the other, understandably, people tend to forget events in the nation’s past. My knowledge of Magsaysay, for example, comes from books and other literature, as well as interaction with his descendants. After all, his life far preceded mine. It was just my fortune to have met his son, and his grandson.
It takes an active and conscious personal effort to learn from the past. For most people, however, history is just that — history. Something that is from the past and best left in the past. As such, perhaps unless taken up in school, or as a matter of necessity, there is little effort to know and to learn about the past. What matters most is the present, and then the future.
It was perhaps for this reason that the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation (RMAF) was established in 1957. Its annual award, deemed as Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been given out in the last 60 years to “perpetuate [Magsaysay’s] example of integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.”
Since the first award was given in 1958, every 31st of August to coincide with Magsaysay’s birth anniversary, it has continued to recognize the best and the brightest in Asia, with particular emphasis on individuals or organizations that have rendered exceptional and exemplary service in the fields of public service, government service, community leadership, and journalism and literature, among others.
And it has been a long list, proof that we are never short of good people and organizations that work for the best interest and the common good of people all over Asia. This year, 2018, the Filipino awardee is former ambassador Howard Dee, who joins five other awardees from Cambodia, East Timor, India, and Vietnam.
Dee is to be awarded in ceremonies tomorrow, being recognized by the RMAF for “his quietly heroic half-century of service to the Filipino people, his abiding dedication to the pursuit of social justice and peace in achieving dignity and progress for the poor, and his being, by his deeds, a true servant of his faith and an exemplary citizen of his nation.”
“Poverty eradication. Indigenous people’s rights. Social justice. Peace building. Each of these issues involves complex aspirations, seemingly intractable conflicts, radical implications. All are interconnected, elusive, yet crucial to building a progressive, inclusive society. In the Philippines, no one private citizen has been as directly engaged in addressing all these issues as Howard Dee,” RMAF noted in its citation of Dee.
Dee was cited for helping establish in 1970 the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), where member business corporations committed to donate 2% of their profits to social development; for cofounding in 1975 with Jesuit priest Francisco Araneta the Assisi Development Foundation (ADF), which has implemented over 4,000 projects serving over 10 million people in over four decades as it pursues “peace through development with justice”; and for his direct involvement in the National Peace Conference (1990-1992), the Social Reform Council (1993-1995), and Peace Talks with the Communist Party (1993-1994) and the Bangsamoro Basic Law Peace Council (2015).
A former Philippine Ambassador to the Holy See & Malta in 1986-1990, Dee was also president of United Laboratories, Inc. in 1965-1972; chairman of the Government’s Panel for Peace Talks with CPP-NPA-NDF in 1993-1999; and a Cabinet secretary under the Office of the President in 2002 as Adviser on Indigenous Peoples Affairs.
The very first Ramon Magsaysay awardees from the Philippines, in 1958, were Operation Brotherhood, which was a Philippine organization founded to help meet the medical and relief needs of the tens of thousands of refugees and wounded who were flooding from embattled areas of Vietnam into crowded Saigon and Cholon; and Robert McCulloch Dick, a Scotsman who migrated to the Philippines and established a thriving career as a journalist, founding the Philippines Free Press which championed press freedom during colonial rule.
Other Philippine recipients of the award over the years include Filipino scientists Angel Alcala and Arturo Alcaraz; BusinessWorld’s founding publisher, Raul Lacson Locsin; Jesuit priest James Bertram Reuter; actress and Red Cross Governor Rosa Rosal; former Naga City mayor Jesse Robredo; former senators Jovito Salonga and Miriam Defensor Santiago; accountant Washington SyCip; Jesuit priest Joaquin Villalonga, who worked at the Culion Leper Colony; and, lawyer and law professor Haydee Yorac.
As the award helps perpetuate the memory of the late Ramon Magsaysay, his ideals and his life of service, may the award and the awardees also inspire and encourage more and more Filipinos to seek and pursue a life of excellence in service of their peers and fellows. A life spent for others is a life truly worth living.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.