Authors Note: Following the State of the Nation Address of the newly-elected president, Diosdado Macapagal (LP), delivered in the last week of January 1962, I attended the first session of the House of Representatives as the recently-elected Congressman of the second district of Rizal, under the banner of the Liberal Party. I was immediately struck not so much by the liveliness of the opening debates but by the undisguised animosity and belligerence of my colleagues in the Opposition (Nacionalista Party), who constituted the majority in the House with Congressman Daniel Romualdez of Leyte as the Speaker. It was as if everything President Macapagal said since he came into power was not only wrong but malicious, not only ill-advised but wicked. On Constitution Day, February 8,1962, I took the floor and delivered my first privilege speech, titled "A Plea for Sobriety." The point of the speech was that in a time of great poverty, we in Congress cannot possibly allow the great ship of national purpose to be swallowed up by waves of interminable wrangling and pointless controversy. The media took notice of the speech and quoted a number of passages.
Significantly, the poverty I had referred to in 1962 — when the Philippines was second only to Japan in Asia and was way ahead of all the other Asian nations — became massive during martial rule. Graft and corruption, which had been a regular, run-of-the mill issue against almost every administration since 1946, became the No. 1 issue against the Estrada Administration since it came into power on June 30,1998. By a sudden twist of events, President Diosdado Macapagal's daughter, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), became president on January 20, 2001, following what is known as People Power 2 (or EDSA 2), resulting in the non-violent ouster of Joseph Ejercito Estrada. He has been in detention since April 2001, facing plunder charges in the Sandiganbayan.
When, on February 8,1935, the Constitutional Convention approved what we now call the Constitution of the Philippines, the members of that Convention nominally completed a task which required of them not merely competence and insight but patriotism of the highest order. Behind them were the memories of valiant men and women who had laid down their lives for the sake of freedom; confronting them were brutal, shocking events in the world that seemed to snuff out the ideals of liberty and equality which they had just written into that document.
These men who drafted the Constitution came from conflicting political camps. Some of them had just emerged from battles in which no quarters were asked — and no quarters given. The memory of the bitter fight over the Hare-Hawes Cutting Act was still fresh. The wounds it had caused were still there— gaping open, unhealed.
From all over the land, they came to this great city to write that historic document. That document had to be written if our people were to be free, it was to be their testament of liberty. The gravity and immensity of the task before them seemed to have cancelled out their past antagonisms. That did not mean their views were one. The debates in the Convention attest to the sincerity and vigor of their diverse opinions — but it was diversity dictated by a compelling need to achieve one goal, one national purpose.
Indeed the document they approved recognized that the dignity of the human personality can be achieved only where men are free to think, to speak, to publish their thoughts without previous restraint and to worship the god or gods of their own choice. At a time when the right of free men to govern themselves was undergoing crucial test in the political crisis in Spain, in the beer halls of Germany and in the blood-soaked earth of China, these men who drafted that document put their faith in the ultimate validity of a regime of ordered liberty. They put their faith in the free trade of ideas, in the principle of free debate and in the enduring belief that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. For in truth, the sound — sometimes the deafening noise — of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear "the music of our own opinions."
But those who made our Constitution knew that there is also a moment at which democracy, if it is to survive, must prove its capacity to act— and act boldly without loss of time, or face inevitable death. Every man has a right to be heard, but surely, no man — to paraphrase a wit — has the right to dismantle democracy out of all usefulness with a set of vocal chords.
The records of the Convention proceedings show how lively and spirited the debates were; they discussed, they argued and they disagreed — and may I say they disagreed heartily — because as Filipinos they cared and cared deeply. But they disagreed without calling each other names and without imputing to one another motives unseemly and offensive in the company of civilized men. If there is one lesson they left us, it is this — that whatever be our political persuasion, whatever be our affiliation, that which unites us as Filipinos, that which binds us as one nation under one flag, sharing the same hopes and the same fears is far greater and bigger and nobler than that which divides us as party men.
To be sure, the world that confronted them in 1935 was one mourning, ever-increasing violence. The world that confronts us now is entirely different. If one winged messenger of death could exterminate hundreds of human beings in 1935, a single nuclear weapon in 1962 can release more destructive energy tha all the explosives used in all wars throughout history. In the beginning of 1960, the scientists estimated that the world's nuclear stockpile contained the equivalent of 30 billion tons of TNT — about 10 tons of TNT for every human being on the globe.
And when we get closer to our immediate surroundings, we cannot but bear witness to what has been called the "revolution of rising expectations". In this august hall, we are for the moment secluded from the sight of human affliction and poverty. But outside, just a few meters away and beyond that, the areas of misery and want and suffering lie, seemingly endless, waiting for the touch of those whom the people have elevated to power. The many who have been forgotten all these past years are not willing to be forgotten anymore. Their faces tell us, in mute pleas that cannot be mistaken, that poverty and affliction are not sufferings to be endured any longer, but injustices to be remedied, wrongs to be righted.
It is against this background that the danger of excesses in democratic procedures should be viewed. In 1935 when that historic document was drafted, democracy was on trial; today, the right of free men to govern themselves has been prejudged and condemned in more than half of the world. And even within our borders, the institutions of freedom are held up in ridicule and plain mockery. Day by day, press and radio deride the proceedings of Congress, as if its sessions were a meaningless series of aberrations bereft of reason — full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The danger in all this is the spectacle that has become concrete and real in many places in the world — harassed and bewildered by the everyday problems of survival and finding in the long, seemingly endless verbal clashes no solution to their problems, masses of men take the easy way out by escaping from the responsibilities of freedom, deliberately surrendering their liberties and submitting to any form of authority, however uncontrolled and absolute, if only to have some semblance of order.
God forbid that this should happen to us!
The Constitution prescribes equality and coordination among the three departments of the Government. The legislative is, many would love to say, the policy-making body of the State. As such, it should command the respect of the two other departments — the judicial and the executive. Whether it does inspire respect is, of course, another question. For respect is neither commanded nor imposed — it must be earned. How well we shall earn the respect of the nation will depend in large measure on the quality of our proceedings here and on how we as members of Congress conduct ourselves. If we liberate ourselves from the slavery to which we are supposed to have been reduced by the press, if we succeed in resisting the lure of cheap, vulgar publicity, if we refuse to be held in bondage by narrow, partisan interests, then it may well be said that the golden age of lawmaking has once again descended upon us and that in a time of great challenge we have become the instrument of national renaissance.
It may be true, Mr. Speaker, that we are not making the Constitution here and that there is no basis for comparison between 1915 and 1962. But in a deeper sense, we are making the Constitution here every day. For the Constitution is nothing more than a set of words and phrases unless the entire nation, particularly those in power, lend sum and substance to the liberties as well as the restraints found in that great document. Whatever our political membership, we do not revere the Constitution by making sweeping accusations that defy the rules of logic and evidence; we do not revere the Constitution by slaughtering the reputation of our fellow men without giving them a chance to be heard in their defense; we do not revere the Constitution when, in the desire to catch the spot light of publicity, we seize upon the fears of the people, appease them, excite and exploit their inclinations and refuse to make the hard, unpopular decisions which serve their long-term interests; we do not revere the Constitution when we take refuge in the liberties it guarantees without discharging the responsibilities of freedom; we do not revere the Constitution when we deliberately becloud the issues to serve our narrow interests. It is high time we realized that the pursuit of truth is the only rational justification for free speech and free press and that our survival as a free society depends on the proper use and application of those wise restraints, born of self-discipline, that make men free.
Manuel Roxas, Jose P. Laurel, Claro M. Recto, Elpidio Quirino and many of their distinguished colleagues in that Convention are now gone. In their day, they stirred us beyond the measure of words, no less by their eloquence and merit than by the quality of their dedication, each one of them transcending the immediate demands of selfish partisanship, all of them united by the great task building a free nation of free men. In times of great peril such as these, these men — all great and good men — would have us know a hard lesson in leadership and self-discipline, namely, that we cannot possibly allow the great ship of national purpose to be swallowed up by the waves of interminable wrangling and pointless controversy. Let us therefore resolve, as one statesman might put it, to take a fresh look. There has been too much freezing of positions, too many dogmatic statements of irrevocable attitudes. We are dealing with mass poverty, with human suffering. We are dealing with human beings, all of them desirous of having a place in the sun. Our purpose must be to reason together for the common betterment of all. Our interest must not be in endless, pointless controversy, but in results. Let us not hold post mortems over that which is past and gone. Our duty is to do something now so that the people of this land may say "We were in chains and you freed us; we were sick and you made us whole; we were hungry and you fed us; we were thirsty and you gave us water to drink."
On this day, which is the birthday of that great man who presided over the deliberations of that Convention, may I take the liberty, by way of tribute to his keen mind, of quoting his deathless words:
"Let us then bear witness to the Constitution, so that in the language of the Gospels, all the people may learn to believe. If our nation is to survive and attain greatness in freedom, the Constitution must live in our actions, both as individuals and as a people, in the enlightened conviction and steadfast belief that only in the spirit of the Constitution, infused in us, shall democracy abide with us and our nation forever enjoy the blessings of independence under a regime of justice and liberty and fulfill its destiny within the Lord's kingdom.”
Salonga, Jovito Reyes
The Intangibles That Make A Nation Great - Regina Publishing, ©2003. 481pp.