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Jun Magsaysay: Heeding the call to serve

Natashya Gutierrez
Posted on 02/28/2013 1:58 AM  | Updated 03/01/2013 6:05 PM

EMBRACING AGE. Sen Ramon "Jun" Magsaysay Jr says his age offers sagacity and experience. Photo by Franz Lopez.EMBRACING AGE. Sen Ramon "Jun" Magsaysay Jr says his age offers sagacity and experience. Photo by Franz Lopez.

MANILA, Philippines -- At 74 years old, and 5 years retired from politics, Ramon "Jun" Magsaysyay Jr was content running his dairy farm and living the private life -- until he was asked by the Liberal Party (LP) to join its senatorial slate for the 2013 midterm elections.

He couldn't say no.

In May 2012, Sen Franklin Drilon, the campaign manager of the administration ticket, offered Magsaysay a slot on the slate of what would become known as Team PNoy.

It wasn't the first time the LP approached him to join its senatorial slate. He turned down an offer to run with Benigno Aquino III's slate in 2010. This time, however, in a meeting with now President Aquino in July, the usually private man agreed to try to return to the Senate.

He had served as senator for 12 years -- years where he remained untainted with scandal or controversy.

It was rare and refreshing for a senator to keep that reputation. And it is the same rarity Magsaysay sees in Aquino now -- someone whom he says is willing to put his political capital on the line just to attain certain laws -- which made him decide to come back to the world of politics.

Now, he is the oldest candidate in Team PNoy, almost 40 years older than the youngest senatorial hopeful in the same slate, 35-year-old Bam Aquino.

His decision to run has also been interpreted by his niece-in-law, a senatorial candidate of the opposition United Nationalist Coalition, as an attempt by the LP to confuse voters and take away votes from her.

Magsaysay brushed aside these questions.

While the President's team raised concerns about his health, he insisted he is perfectly healthy. He promised he would be the first to withdraw from the race otherwise. For now, Magsaysay is well, and he is energized.

As for the reason he accepted the LP offer, he said: "I felt that he (Aquino) really wanted to pursue more reforms and he talked a couple of times about his late father, Ninoy and of course his mother. I think he was pursuing some kind of legacy of public service."

"It's a duty. Duty called and I can never say no to public service especially with an honest, endearing, and transparent individual like PNoy," he said.

Accidental politician

In a crisp white and blue checkered polo, Magsaysay is a picture of composure. His thinning hair and slower movement betray his age, but he is still sharp when he speaks. He is pleasant, and he is frank when answering questions, albeit he talks somewhat slowly, often monotonously.

He said he still gets nervous before public speaking, and shows off a book he is reading that gives him tips about delivering speeches.

In his office, there is a huge picture of his father, beloved former President Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay, sitting elegantly on a horse. The younger Magsaysay was only 15 years old when his father was elected to office, and only 18 years old when his plane crashed in Cebu.

An engineering graduate and armed with a masters in business, his explanation as to why he joined politics is simple: osmosis.

Magsaysay was 7 years old when his father first became congressman of Zambales. He recalls seeing his father only on weekends. He said his father never offered to run for office but was always asked, something he himself has experienced.

"I didn't even think of going into politics. I wanted to just be an engineer. When I came back [from studying business in the States], I was asked by one of his leaders, 'We'd like you to come back and run for Congress in Zambales.' I was 26," he said.

In 1965, at 27, he became the youngest congressman ever elected after he won as representative of Zambales. When he sought re-election, however, he lost.

Magsaysay returned to the private sector and, in the 1970s, pioneered the cable TV industry in the country. He continued this work for decades, and earned the nickname "The Father of Cable Television" for it.

Magsaysay was beckoned to return to government in 1992 when then agrarian reform secretary and presidential candidate Miriam Defensor Santiago asked him to be her running mate. He lost again. Magsaysay finished 4th, conceding to then Sen Joseph Estrada.

But the defeats didn't faze Magsaysay.

"I don't consider even defeats failure…. I always have a safety net because I'm happy with private enterprise. I don't think I've suffered enough to not want to come back so I think that's meant to be," he said.

In 1995, Magsaysay ran for senator under the Lakas-Laban Coalition of President Fidel Ramos and finished in the top 3. It would be the start of 12 years in the Senate. He was re-elected in 2001, under the Lakas-NUCD-UMDP party.

And now he is back, ready for 6 more. That his name has yet to make it to the Magic 12 in 4 surveys so far does not worry him. It's a challenge for him to campaign harder, he says. Magsaysay has ranked 14th to 16th in Social Weather Stations surveys since August 2012.

Agriculture advocate

During Magsaysay's two consecutive terms in the Senate, he chaired 7 different committees -- national defense and security; banks, financial institutions and currencies; science and technology; economic affairs; tourism; cooperatives; and agriculture and food.

But it was his work as chairman of the committee on agriculture and food for which Magsaysay received the most praise.

In 2006, Magsaysay headed a Senate investigation into the multi-million-peso fertilizer fund scam. The probe found that funds set aside for fertilizers and other farm needs were misused for other purposes, including to support the 2004 campaign of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The investigation has been hailed by media for demanding accountability and good governance.

Magsaysay was also one of 10 senators during the impeachment of former President Joseph Estrada who voted to open the infamous envelope that allegedly contained damning evidence of Estrada's corruption. But 11 other senators, Estrada's allies, voted to block the opening of the envelope, which led to widespread frustration and EDSA Dos or the second People Power Revolution that ousted Estrada.

Interestingly, however, when asked about his greatest accomplishment in politics, Magsaysay names something less grand.

"Putting a lot of time and attention to agribusiness, to the ordinary nitty-gritty, would be a big achievement because I was one of those who helped the 1997 Congress to pass the AFMA (Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act), a template of how agriculture modernization and fisheries can be improved," he said.

He talks excitedly about how it is still used today, and it opens the conversation for his other contributions in agriculture including the Young Farmers Program where Filipino youth are encouraged to venture in agri-related business.

It is clear he is proud of his work to improve the lives of farmers -- his father was one, after all. Now, despite having been uninterested in farming until his chairmanship of the committee, as if to prove the effectiveness of the program, he is a farmer himself.

Agricultural economic zones

Magsaysay plans to continue developing the agriculture business upon returning to government. Specifically, he wants to focus on attracting investments in the provinces.

"We have to look at agricultural PEZA (Philippine Economic Zone Authority) zones. People from China, Taiwan, Israel, if they want to put up a farm here…lets not make it hard for them to put it up," he said.

The businessman that he is, he rattles off reasons why investing in the Philippines is a good idea: there's good peace and order, the cost of doing business is low, it will generate jobs.

He inherently believes in the potential of the Philippines, and it is this that keeps on pulling him back to public service. Part of his platform is a continued push for heightened transparency and less corruption, in order to change the attitude of Filipinos.

"Eventually people will understand that they cannot just put people there and not look at the substance of the individual. What we need is voter education and a sense of being part of society," he said.

"Maybe that's what's wrong. They don't feel the effects of our government services because of corruption."

But Magsaysay thinks the country is on the right path, that Aquino has done something extraordinary in carving the road, with more and more Filipinos believing in the government. He says he needs to somehow help out, to try and "fortify the reforms of the President," lest the country backslide after 2016 when Aquino leaves office.

He is one of the few unadulterated politicians. And perhaps because he has remained true to himself, Magsaysay remains optimistic about the future and has even found hope in politics.

"It has given me enough hope to the point that it's hard to just say I give up. You always have to try because maybe in trying you get a cadre of young people and they come in and keep on improving," he said.

The recent improvements, he said, are unique, and something he hasn't seen in past adminstrations.

Clean name

Upon announcement of his candidacy, Magsayay is the first to admit that he has gotten his share of criticisms.

But his age and the supposed intent of his candidacy to work against the other Magsaysay candidate are the worst the critics can spew.

Voters can always vote for two Magysaysays, he says. As for his old age, he embraces it as a strength, claiming it adds "sagacity and depth and experience."

He says he is often surrounded by younger people in his staff and in his business, and he tries to learn from them. He says this keeps him well-connected to the issues of the youth, to technology and to society.

He also stays away from people who "tempt me to do something out of my standard." He came into office to protect his father's name, and seeing his father avoid "occasions of sin" has inspired him, he said.

This is what he wants to be remembered for. No fuss, no extravagant speeches. Magsaysay says he wants his legacy to be simple, basic.

He wants people to say: "He's a nice guy. He didn't abuse his office, he was effective when he was in the Senate. He was an effective public servant, whatever he sought to do, he did it. He didn't just talk about it. He was a man of action on his own."

Then thoughtfully, he says, "I just want to serve."- Rappler.com

FAST FACTS

Political Party: Liberal Party

Age on Election Day: 74

Advocacies: Agriculture, good governance, job generation, attracting investments

Education:
  • Post-graduate, New York University Graduate School of Business Administration (1963-1964)
  • Post-graduate, Harvard Business School (1962-1963)
  • Bachelor of Science Mechanical Engineering, De La Salle College (1956-1961)

Senate Designations:
  • Former Chairman, Committees on Agriculture and Food; National Defense and Security; Banks, Financial Institutions and Currencies; Science and Technology; Economic Affairs; Tourism anne Cooperatives

Professional Background:
  • 2000-present
    Honorary Member, Rotary Club of Parañaque

  • 1969-present
    Reserve Officer, Commander, Philippine Navy Trustee, Alay sa Kawal & Ramon Magsaysay Society

  • 1995-2001; 2001-2007
    Senator of the Philippines

  • 1988-90
    Business Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer

  • 1974-88
    Member, Board of Consultants, National Supply Services Boy Scouts of the Philippines

  • 1972-75
    Vice President and Director, South Rizal Chamber of Industries

  • 1973-74
    Member, De La Salle College Alumni Board

  • 1965-1969
    Congressman, lone district of Zambales

  • 1963-64
    Assistant to the Commissioner, Philippine Participation to the New York World’s Fair

  • 1962
    Chairman, National Youth Committee for UNICEF Group Leader, Way-US Peace Corps Welfareville Project

  • 1961-62
    Vice Chairman, Work-A-Year with the People Volunteer Doctors Program under Sen. Raul Manglapus and Manuel Quezon

Awards and Recognitions:
  • Doctor of Public Administration, Honoris Causa, Polytechnic Univ. of the Philippines (2003)
  • Golden Jubilee Awardee, Philippine Society of Mechanical Engineers (2002)
  • Most Outstanding Mechanical Engineer, Professional Regulation Commission (2000)
  • First Internet Man of the Year (2000), Web Magazine
  • Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa (1999), Central Luzon State Univ.
  • Most Outstanding De La Salle Alumnus, The Philippine Star
  • Father of Cable Television in the Philippines
  • Most Outstanding Senator, Graphic Magazine

Bills sponsored and passed/contributions:
  • Initiated an Off-Base Housing Program for Filipino Soldiers
  • The New AFP Base Pay Law (RA 9166)
  • The New AFP Table of Organization Law (RA 9188)
  • National Service Training Program (NSTP_ Act of 2001 (RA 9163)
  • Initiated reforms in the Armed Forces of the Philippines by submitting to the Seante a detailed Committee Report on the Basilan Siege
  • Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (RA 8435) and its subsequent amendment
  • The Young Farmers Program
  • The Inquiry on the Fertilizer Fund Scam
  • Provided scholarships, livelihood opportunities and health assistance
  • The Anti Money Laundering Law and subsequent amendments (RA 1960)
  • Electronic Commerce Act (RA 8792)
  • Magna Carta for Small and Medium Enterprises (RA 8289)
  • New Foreign Investments Act (RA 8179)
  • Mechanical Engineering Law (RA 8495)
  • Jewelry Manufacturing Act
  • Amendments to the Omnibus Investments Code (RA 8756)
  • Further strengthening the Social Security System (RA 8282)


Other profiles in our series on senatorial candidates:


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