Of all the Filipino presidents I have been able to talk to in the past decade, one has come closest to my ideal of a capable, hard-working, and patriotic leader needed for a fledgling democracy like the Philippines.
Certainly, it was not Fidel F. Ramos is perfect. His critics will point to, among other things, his years-long position in the upper echelons of Marcos’ dictatorship. Others will point to the harmful effect of the aggressive privatization of state-owned enterprises during the 1990s.
It was also under his supervision when Marcus was able to re-establish their small kingdom in the Ilocos region. Meanwhile, more progressive critics will object to his decision to re-establish the American military footprint in our country through what would eventually become the Visiting Forces Agreement.
But, dear reader, make no mistake: Ramos was arguably the best president we’ve had in the last half century. His administration was based largely on overall merit (rather than nepotism), technocratic competence (rather than peculiar populist behaviors), and personal discipline and determination (rather than performative politics and inherited power).
Despite winning by the lowest margins in the 1992 elections, Ramos managed to solidify our fragile democracy, which was on the verge of collapse. Corazon Aquino’s administration barely survived six coup attempts, with a large number of rebellions sweeping the nation. The new democratic order struggled hard to manage the debts and economic crises inherited from the Marcos dictatorship.
That year, former first lady Imelda Marcos and Marcos’ ex-boyfriend Eduardo “Danding” Kogwangkou collectively won nearly a third of the total vote in the presidential election. The democratic project faced its darkest hour.
Within just a few years, Ramos had returned the rogue officers to the barracks. With regular upheavals out of the picture, he gradually stabilized the economy, reduced poverty, attracted foreign investment, and set the country on the path to transforming into Asia’s new rising tiger economy under his “Philippines 2000” vision.
Ramos skillfully used his own powers, granted to him by Congress, to end the electricity crisis, while attacking greedy monopolies in key sectors of the economy. On the foreign policy front, he simultaneously engaged and deterred a rising China by initiating military modernization at home, revitalizing defense ties with traditional allies, and seeking diplomatic support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Former soldier Ramos, who served in the Korea and Vietnam Wars with distinction, became a capable peacemaker, paving the way for the establishment of an autonomous Muslim-majority region in Mindanao. Meanwhile, the communist rebels lost much of their armed force in the same period.
Aside from being our only Puritan president to date, Ramos is also the only contemporary Philippine president who has not presided over or directly benefited from the creation of a political dynasty. Neither his sons nor his wife attempted to monopolize an elected office like a family business.
Of all our presidents, Ramos is the only one rightly considered an “old statesman” in the region. Who knows what he would have accomplished if he had spent more than six years in office – the end of which coincided with the devastating Asian financial crisis.
In essence, Ramos believed in the strong state and not “strong men”. But what makes it even more special are its compensatory policies. Over the decades, he has turned against allies who have turned authoritarian.
First came his decision to launch a risky coup against his distant relative, Ferdinand Marcos, paving the way for the EDSA People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Almost exactly three decades later, he sparked controversy by endorsing Rodrigo Duterte for the presidency. Soon after, Ramos criticized Duterte’s decision to bury the former dictator’s remains as an “insult” to Filipino soldiers and policemen. He has also rebuked Duterte’s anti-Western rhetoric by calling for a “reliant on each other” foreign policy, which secures the Philippines’ national interest through a network of alliances.
More importantly, Ramos also warned of extrajudicial killings and the worsening climate of impunity under Duterte’s drug war, publicly calling on police to follow the “fundamental rule of engagement, which is you shoot to disrupt it.” [dangerous suspects]But don’t kill.” Until the end, Ramos had the wisdom, conviction, and humility to redeem himself – and left behind a colorful legacy that is highly commendable.
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