JRS stands for Jovito R. Salonga, who died recently. Roughly 90 percent of the millennials do not know anything about him. JRS, to them, stands for the cargo forwarder, not the towering giant of Philippine politics. So here is a synopsis of his life and times.
Born in the 1920s, in Pasig, then a backwater that functioned as the commercial center – and political capital – of Rizal province. It was the pre-mall years, let us make this clear, for millennials now know Pasig as an asphalt jungle of giant boxy malls, skyscrapers and endless traffic gridlocks. Pasig then was just a few decades removed from the Battle of Manila and the Treaty of Paris. Carabaos and rice paddies were dominant at the town’s outskirts. Only the part of Rizal that was proximate to the City of Manila had the urban feel.
His father was a Methodist pastor. Her mother – the typical wife of a missionary-pastor with little pay and with an overdose of dedication and intelligence – was a market vendor. Methodists have this bent of savings souls and saving the world. So Senator Salonga’s mother had to help his pastor-husband literally keep the family’s body and soul together.
The emphasis on the setting, the period and the circumstances of his birth was done for a reason. To point out that at this particular juncture in the life of our nation, one mysterious phenomenon took place: the birth of intellectually-gifted young men from humble circumstance from across the Tagalog-Pampango spread of Luzon. They shared the same life story: they excelled at law schools, placed number one (Number One, not mere Top Ten) in the bar and took on leadership positions in the body politics.
And the ready acceptance from the Ivy League schools in case they wanted to pursue advanced studies in law (which in Salonga’s case were Harvard and Yale.)
Offhand, I can name three: Diosdado Macapagal, Arturo Tolentino and Salonga. I am still refreshing my dulled memory to remember the others.
I have to add, they were young, brilliant men of amazing literacy. Macapagal acted in stage plays and wrote poetry and plays. Tolentino’s short stories were taught in Philippine Literature courses. Salonga’s prayers at the Senate were deep meditations on life and spirituality. In today’s politics of sound bites and insults, you can readily tell they were from a different era.
Today’s political environment is also a veritable killing field that will work against the rise of a political leader with the deep faith, the towering genius and the unabashed patriotism of Jovito Salonga.
The iconic moment that best defined Salonga – and the kind of Senate the country used to have – came very late and the year was 1991. The Senate just wrapped up the final arguments for a historic vote, on whether the Senate would retain or scrap the RP-US Military Bases Agreement. At that time, there was no issue larger than the RP-US MBA. Should the senators untie the seemingly unbreakable umbilical cord with America? Should it close the US bases to remove the final vestiges of colonialism? Or, for practical and sentimental reasons, should the two giant military bases, the largest outside of Continental US, stay for another half century or more? At that time, more than 30,000 Filipino workers with decent pay – and with a path to immigration – were employed by the military bases.
Remember that the US was, and still is, regarded as our main economic partner, chief armorer and cultural inspiration.
With an 11-11 vote, Senate President Salonga had to break the tie. As he banged the gavel and in a quivering voice announced that the extension of the bases was a lost cause, the Philippines – – via the Senate – finally snapped the cord that many believed would have lasted forever.
Salonga’s gavel rewrote the history of a country and looking back it was a vote of prescience. The ties with the US are stronger than ever, but without the oversized shadows of its giant military complexes looming over us.
That the country can live with a decision that is both practical and highly idealistic, with the legislature (the true policy-making body) making that decision, was last displayed in full glory in 1991, as Salonga banged the Senate gavel on the bases vote. Never again would Congress act with that kind of pride and prescience.
Voters, in return, revered the Salonga of high idealism and pragmatism. He topped (as Number One) three senatorial elections, easily brushing off candidates with showbiz polish and sheen. Alas, we would never see such display of voters discernment again.
With the latest senatorial poll as basis, men of a certain age fall into a state of deep depression as they scan for the latest polls on who is topping the current Senate race, the inheritor of Salonga’s mantle.
It is either a former comic, Tito Sotto, or a former bloviator (komentarista), Francis Pangilinan, who, as agriculture co-secretary under the Aquino administration, helped run the agriculture sector to the ground and turned the Department of Agriculture into a Department of Utter Mediocrity.
Today, this is the hard truth. This dead, sterile land cannot turn out the likes of Jovito R. Salonga anymore.