Who is Rafael M. Salas? Selling the millennial man to the millennials

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – Rafael M. Salas has often been known as "The Best President the Philippines Never Had."

As a senior at Negros Occidental High School in 1947, he wrote in their yearbook that his ambition is "to become the president of the Philippines."

The weird thing is that he never stepped into the political arena, even if he was indeed a kingmaker.

He was what his University of the Philippines (UP) classmate, Juan Ponce Enrile, described as "a complete politician, a skilled political strategist and tactician, and a brilliant and well-read classical scholar."

Yet a new book, A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas by Jose Dalisay and Carmen Sarmiento, tells us not only what our country gained in having him but also what the world profited from when Salas decided to get out of the Philippines.

What did we lose when Salas died in 1987 at the age of 59? The country is leaning towards authoritarianism. The country's population is in a mess, with the teenage pregnancy rate reeling out of control. The rice industry is on the verge of collapse.

Salas is the son of a country doctor and a strong-willed woman whose leadership style he would later emulate. He belonged to the ilustrados of Negros: the Montinolas, Aranetas, Yulos, and Benedictos. 

But as Salas told Nick Joaquin: "My parents are never of that kidney. We had a strong work ethic and a broader view of life that didn't see it as just a satisfying of the senses."

He studied in public schools until he studied at Harvard for a master's in public administration at the Littauer School.

Born in Bago, Negros Occidental, on August 7, 1928, he graduated with high honors from UP in 1950, completing his BA (magna cum laude) and LLB (cum laude) in 1953. He returned to teach in UP until 1966.

His first foray into politics was when he campaigned for Governor Rafael Lacson when he was a high school student council president. But he shifted politics when Lacson became a local despot.

When Salas became president of the UP Student Council as well as president of the Student Council Associations of the Philippines, he supported Ramon Magsaysay when the latter was ousted by then-president Elpidio Quirino and became one of Magsaysay's campaign strategists when he ran and won as president of the Philippines in 1953.

In 1964, Ferdinand Marcos approached Salas to head his campaign for the presidency and the rest is history. Salas would become executive secretary and his untarnished record in the regime would ultimately save the country in the decades to come. 

The book chronicled what is now termed the "Salas Boys." "Instead of drawing his staff from among the usual political appointees for bright, idealistic young men who could be infected with his own spirit of public service," Eric Caruncho wrote in 1987. There are 200 of these Salas boys listed in the appendix; most of them would retain the idealism, honesty, and integrity that Salas is known for. 

Some of them would also be infected with Salas' scholarship and love of books. Despite suffering from the Japanese atrocity during World War II, Salas was fascinated with the Japanese warrior spirit and became a prolific haiku poet. He has collected almost 11,000 books, most of them now at the Negros Occidental Museum. 

If Facebook were alive then, Salas would compose haikus for his daily posts. The book is scattered with his insightful haikus like autumn leaves falling on a lake of words.

"Salas was the antithesis of the power-tripping politician," the book said. "It was not in his nature to show off how superior he was by putting himself above others. As a Negrense, he had grown up hearing the Hiligaynon pre-war equivalent of epal which was poderoso, someone in power or nasa poder who throws his weight around. Over the decades, this has morphed into waslik poder, Hiligaynon slang for 'power-tripping.' Just as he never lost the Visayan lilt to his speech, he has never lost his sense of who he truly was, and remained firmly grounded."

In 1967, Salas was made the action officer of the Rice Sufficiency Program. During his three-year tenure, he made the Philippines rice-sufficient, after 82 years of importing rice. The rice sufficiency program was so successful that it helped propel Marcos to his second term and the program was expanded to what is now known as the National Food Authority, which has returned to its corrupt ways in the decades that followed. 

After rice, Salas would take on a legacy that would make him an international byword.

"After attending the UN General Assembly in 1968, Salas requested the Director of the Philippines Population Institute to form a multidisciplinary study group composed of heads of relevant government agencies to recommend to President Marcos to initiate a family planning program," wrote National Scientist Dr Mercedes Concepcion. 

This group would evolve into the Commission on Population. Salas began a population management program that did not even mention sex, contraception, and abortion, but provided a broad perspective of people and development, and urged countries to adopt a population policy that centers on people and quality of life regardless of faith and beliefs, noted journalist Diana Mendoza. 

It was also Salas' willowy way of exiting from the Marcos government which he thought was getting too corrupt for him. 

He became in charge of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. He turned the small office with 5 staff members and a budget of $2.5 million into the world’s largest multilateral provider of population assistance with a budget of P142 million when he was still at its helm. 

"The question of poverty, its eradication, and the allied questions of development and population are in the end questions of morality. We should not become so closely involved in consideration of the morality of specific means of family planning that we lose sight of the wider issue, which is not less that the physical, mental and moral well-being of two-thirds of mankind. The totality of the relationship between population and development is a concern I believe all Catholics and Christians can share," Salas said. 

He married late.

He died on March 4, 1987, in Washington, DC, from an apparent heart attack. 

Only a few mention his name now. Forum for Family Planning and Development president Ben de Leon, one of the Salas Boys, together with another Salas classmate, former president Fidel V. Ramos, held the 12th Rafael Salas Golf Cup on Friday, November 8, in his honor.

This book would be a great introduction to a great man for millennials. With the huge problems in teenage pregnancy, rice supply, and populist authoritarianism, this could be the manual for operations that they need. – Rappler.com