We are gathered here today to honor President Sergio Osmeña, Sr. As we remember the deeds and ideals of this man whom history has blessed with the immortality of greatness, we take part in an edifying encounter with the noblest qualities of the Filipino mind; we commune with the indestructible inspirations of the Filipino spirit; and we come face to face with the purest virtues of the Filipino conscience.
Indeed, Don Sergio as a man, a patriot, a statesman, a public servant, and as a leader of the nation is the incomparable epitome of all that is great and noble that must nourish and fortify the mind, spirit, and conscience of this troubled nation.
Much has been said and written to extol his achievements as a patriot and as a statesman. Many have paid richly-deserved reverence to his virtues as a man. And many more have praised the fierce integrity with which he imbued his political career.
The Annual President Osmeña Memorial Lecture is but one of these occasions. First held in 1981, this Annual Memorial Lecture has provided a continuing forum for the study, analysis, and discussion of the many facets of this great man’s life and career. In that first memorial lecture, then Minister of Labor and Employment Blas F. Ople, himself a newspaperman, extolled the virtues of President Osmeña as a journalist sworn to the advocacy of truth and democracy, worthy of emulation up to the present time. University of San Carlos President Florante Camacho, SVD, presented at the 2nd Memorial Lecture another facet of the great leader as an exemplary Christian and family man, while Dr. Salvador P. Lopez, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and UP President, reaffirmed at the 3rd Memorial Lecture President Osmeña’s brilliant career as a publisher-newspaperman, leader, and patriot.
In the 4th Memorial Lecture, Senator Sotero H. Laurel, as President of the Lyceum of the Philippines, shared with us precious intimate glimpses of the man with whom he was privileged to work as a private secretary Then Member of Parliament Arturo M. Tolentino, as lecturer in the 5th Memorial Lecture, had only high praises and deep admiration for Don Sergio as a public servant and exemplary leader. In 1986, through His Eminence Jaime Cardinal Sin, we rediscovered President Osmeña’s sterling qualities as a dynamic and forceful Christian leader and as a gentle, loving, and devoted family man, and, in 1987, Senate President Jovito R. Salonga expounded on his virtues as a man for all seasons.
That all that had been said about him are immutable truths is beyond dispute. That they constitute the outstanding fibers of his legacy to the nation are likewise irrefutable. Thus, I cannot dare belabor today the sum of all these tributes to the man. For to these facets of his greatness I cannot say anything more to add to their significance.
But there is a facet to Don Sergio’s greatness that remains unexplored yet abundantly immanent through all that he has done. It is that facet which defines for us the supreme imperatives of moral governance.
Government is not simply a task of establishing and sustaining political structure and social conditions that allow the creation of ordered relationships between those who govern and the governed.
Government is a moral task—it represents the ultimate ethical responsibility. The ultimate good is the good of the people; and the ultimate interest is the interest of the nation. If these are attained, then the well-being and dignity of every citizen in a society of equals are secured. But to compromise and betray the common good and the national interest are the darkest evils.
Thus, government’s supreme aim is not mere political peace or social order; for even tyranny and oppression can give us these gifts. It is political peace borne from a people’s sense of community and social order fortified by a nation’s moral will.
Indeed, good government is government’s sole valid and enduring end.
What is the common good? What is the national interest? What is good government?
The life and deeds of Don Sergio grant us lessons for their discovery, and have hewn the paths towards their fulfillment.
THE IMPERATIVES OF GOOD GOVERNMENT
To Secure National Freedom
Don Sergio’s life was dedicated to one all-consuming mission—the establishment of a free and independent nation. As the architect of Philippine Independence, he willed his every effort as a firm step in making the Filipino the lord of his own affairs, the steward of his own society, and the master of his own destiny.
For he believed that no nation and no people can lay moral claim to the right of dominance over another nation and another people. And were we to uphold such a claim, no matter how nobly beneficial the motives that inspired it, we would be guilty of sanctifying the denial and betrayal of a people and a nation’s dignity.
As he eloquently declared, “We hold to the self-evident truth that no particular race has a monopoly on the capacity for progress and self-government.”
Don Sergio saw in the grant of Philippine independence the promise of national freedom and national dignity where the Filipino people can stand proud as equals of free peoples in the community of nations.
I must stress that, to Don Sergio, Philippine Independence from the United States brought the promise of national freedom. I say “promise” because he knew that the battle for national freedom is not, and cannot, be finally won with the withdrawal of patent American dominance in the affairs of our society and governance.
The battle had merely begun; a battle that required more in will and sacrifice from the Filipino who has given so much in life, courage and strength to advance the cause of independence and to survive the ravages and indignities heaped upon him by his war with the Japanese invaders.
For the Filipino, Don Sergio knew, independence was the ultimate test to his strength and courage, and to the fiber of his commitment to take responsibility for his own freedom. Without that sense of responsibility, Don Sergio realized that national freedom is but an illusion that cannot help in building for our people a society that ensures them a life of peace, contentment, and dignity.
He said: “We are now a part of that immense caravan of people searching for independence along the pathway of peace . . . The dangers which we will encounter will always exist. We cannot leave to our posterity the legacy of a life without difficulties and struggles. If we did, we would develop a weak and impotent nation, unfit to survive by its own strength and courage.”
To Don Sergio, government must preside over our people’s struggle to secure the arena of national freedom. And the first task of government is to establish the firm foundations of democracy.
Thus, in his speech presenting his Interim Cabinet to the people when he assumed the Presidency, he declared:
We hereby affirm our faith and adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy . . . we hereby reaffirm our devotion to the principle of popular sovereignty . . . a government of the people, for the people, and by the people . . . we believe in the superiority of a responsible democracy, peaceful and law abiding, loyal to its institutions and determined to fight for its way of life over a degenerate fascism and totalitarianism . . . we stand for the individual liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.
In building the edifice of democracy, Don Sergio set forth an agenda that defined the foremost responsibilities of government. To him, democracy and fidelity to its principles and tenets must transcend the realm of government rhetoric. He said in his July 4th, 1955, speech:
. . . Vigilance is the price of liberty. We must cultivate a vigorous public opinion . . . only through discussion and debate, through dissent and concurrence, can the wisdom of the race be churned from the depths of its genius and character . . . Let us not only talk of democracy but also practice it courageously and responsibly.
Truly, a democratic society demands from government the strength to allow the free interplay of ideas and sentiments; an open dialogue among the people and between the people and those that govern them. Only through the avenues of unhampered dialogue—discussion and debate, dissent and concurrence—can government and the people forge a firm consensus on directions, initiatives, and policies vital to the well-being of the people, the stability of government, the peace of society, and the integrity of the Republic. That consensus is the ultimate expression of the true popular will.
His democratic vision was hewn out of his own experiences in the courageous practice of the tenets of democracy. To keep the fires of democratic dialogue, did he not in his younger years challenge the wits and paramount forces of colonial repression by founding and writing for the crusading newspaper, El Nuevo Día? Did he not in the early years of his career as a political leader fight for the integrity of popular representation, as willed by the Filipino people, in the appointment of the nation’s voices in the Philippine Commission? And did he not with his own public deeds and pronouncements uphold the ballot box as the altar of the nation’s free consensus and the final bastion of integrity in the expression of the popular will?
Don Sergio was ever reverent of the people’s supremacy and majesty. In 1908, when he proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, he said: “The Filipino people know perfectly well that in countries that are ruled democratically, the only fight possible is the battle of the ballot box . . . we have not come here to trace a norm of conduct but to follow what the people have traced.” The People, in his concept, was supreme and to be obeyed.
Thus, government must, at all times, ensure a climate of democratic dialogue, the free expression of the popular will, and the integrity of popular representation.
The second task of government is to secure the people’s well-being. Freedom and democracy, to Don Sergio, must be harnessed to secure the people’s liberation from ignorance, want, and destitution. He said:
The salvation of the nation depends upon the preservation and elevation of its dignity and ideals, the intensification of the labor of its citizens, and the adoption of those measures essential to the maintenance of a reasonable social and economic equilibrium within our power to provide. Its security lies mainly in its own hands . . . if it can attract the sympathy and support of all its citizens by removing the causes of discontent, correcting social injustices, and inspiring a high sense of responsibility among its people, it can march onward with confidence . . .
With these words, Don Sergio revealed the double-edged sword which the Filipino people can wield to win the battle for economic advancement—a work ethos that requires from every Filipino full productivity through his own labors, and social justice so that the patterns of inequality, particularly in economic opportunities, can be finally eliminated.
And government carries the burden of developing this work ethos among the people, and creating the conditions by which social justice can be attained. For as government requires from every citizen the full harnessing of his productive labors for his own welfare and the nation’s, it must brave, too, the frontiers of breaking down the patterns of social injustice that for centuries have manacled our people’s claim to the just fruit of their labors. And these manacles encompass the inequity of distribution of the nation’s wealth and resources, the inaccessibility of equal opportunities, and the preservation of a social order that sacrifices the common man to feed the appetites for power, wealth, and influence of the few who are privileged.
To achieve these, Don Sergio set forth two indispensable requisites: public accountability of those in government and unity among the people.
His words still ring true for us today. He said:
We need the support of . . . a united people . . . It would be tragic indeed if . . . we should drift apart and be divided against ourselves. We have had enough of misfortunes and suffering . . . we cannot bear anymore. To plunge ourselves into the abyss of disunion would be suicidal . . . I appeal to you, my people, to remain united . . . United, we will continue to assist effectively . . . in the rehabilitation of our country. United, we can speedily achieve the full restoration of the constitutional processes of our government disrupted by the enemy. United . . . we can win for ourselves and our children the blessings of democracy, freedom, and security.
Government needs to forge in the consciousness of the Filipino a sense of community. Government must make the Filipino realize that he is an indispensable element of his own society, where the well-being of his fellowmen cannot but enrich him, and their sorrow and destitution cannot but oppress and diminish him. Government must aid the Filipino in transcending the barriers of social status, cultural peculiarity, and ethnic or regional aspirations that divide him from his fellow Filipinos, so that we all can discover and nourish the commonality of our yearnings for a better life, a life of dignity in a just and humane Philippine society.
To these ends, government must face with fierce resolve the pursuit of all workable avenues at peace. It must, amidst the divergence of beliefs, sentiments, and creeds, integrate and mobilize all sectors in the task of nation-building. And it must aim at securing from all and for all the labors and fruits of development; the harnessing and equitable sharing of the nation’s resources and society’s opportunities.
To stress the supremacy of government morality and public accountability, Don Sergio also said:
We shall reestablish . . . a social and political system founded on mutual faith, honesty and confidence and not on suspicion, corruption and fear, in which government officials and employees are not the masters of the people but their servants, acting as necessary instrumentalities through which the public good and individual welfare may be advanced and safeguarded.
Government needs to earn the respect of the governed. It must inspire their faith. It must fortify their belief that under its aegis, their welfare will be secured and protected. Government needs to free itself from suspicions of corruption and insidious betrayal of the people’s interest. And beyond the requisite sense of honor and integrity of the men and women in government, government must not rise above the people as a master would to a slave. It must bring itself among the people as would the servant who willingly opens itself to do their bidding. And it can do so by imbibing the spirit of selfless service to the people. For as long as government is motivated primarily by the will to serve the people—its moral substance will be beyond corruption and its sense of integrity beyond compromise. Because then government power becomes responsible power. It is responsible because it is accountable to the people and subject to their judgment.
Indeed, Don Sergio’s imperatives indubitably set forth the wide expanse of government’s moral responsibility to secure the arena of national freedom—it is a freedom that signifies not only our liberation from the clutches of those nations and peoples who have put their will above our people’s. It is national freedom that finds strength in the integrity of our democratic institutions; the indispensability of social justice as the wellspring of social equality and economic advancement; the overriding importance of forging national unity to advance political stability and social development; and the inescapable requisite of morality, integrity and accountability to the people of government.
Without these, government, as the sentinel and vanguard of national freedom, is a brutal fallacy and a mere captive of public rhetorics.
To Provide Courageous, Responsible, and Moral Leadership
Government’s equally sacred duty is to provide the nation with a bastion of courageous, responsible, and moral leadership. It does not simply rule or exact obedience; it fosters harmony, inspires faith, generates collective will and action, and harnesses the popular forces to achieve communal ends.
Don Sergio’s qualities as a leader offer abundant inspiration for government leaders.
The moral fiber of the man as a public servant is pristine, beyond reproach and suspicion. Imbued with supreme honesty, irreproachable integrity, and the deepest sense of propriety, he stands as the ultimate paragon of public virtue. To him, political power must be wielded only for the common good. To use it to advance his political and private fortunes, or to feed the interests of his friends, associates and kin, appears to him to be most evil.
Prominence and fame failed to spoil or corrupt him. He remained gentle, unassuming, and self-effacing. He did not evade opportunities for self-sacrifice if it meant advancing the national interest.
But beyond his moral virtues, he was a competent and resolute administrator, a shrewd political scientist, a sagacious constitutionalist, a most able statesman, and a fervent and intelligent nationalist.
As a government administrator, he had full consciousness of the true pulse of the people—their needs, their yearnings, their aspirations. He single-handedly mapped out the program of Philippine rehabilitation after the war. And during the days of American tutelage, he shrewdly maneuvered policy and program initiatives that carved away at the dominance of the colonial regime, implemented Filipinization, and established the policy framework for national economic welfare and the inevitability of Philippine colonial liberation.
He, too, was adept at the skills of statecraft. His deeds as the architect of Philippine Independence attest to his supreme abilities as a statesman. And his political career is imbued with the sterling virtues of his statesmanship. But his noblest legacy as a statesman and political figure is his commitment to politics with honor.
His sense of politics was neither power-motivated nor self-directed. He disdained bitter confrontation—the adversarial politics that was the order of his political culture. He sought harmony, the welding of political forces at the sacrifice of his political fortunes—so that the unity of the nation and the welfare of the people can be attained and preserved. His political victories were won not by confrontation, they were won by personal sacrifice. And history reaped for him the full measure of his vindication.
While his life and deeds define for us the imperatives of government’s responsibility for moral, people-directed leadership, he also points to us the most urgent arena of government reform—the reorientation of our political culture which has spawned patronage, self-interest, and affection for power and influence at the expense of committed service to the people and the sacrifice of the people’s faith in the integrity of government.
We must begin to learn how Don Sergio was able to stand firm as the advocate of honor and integrity in politics. We must begin to unravel the clutches of patronage and self-interest that have corrupted the political climate. We must begin to redeem the integrity of political leadership from the morass of personalist and sectoral interests.
For the face of government that the people see is not the structures within which governmental powers are harbored and through which they are exercised. The face of government that the people see is the face of the leaders in government. If these leaders inspire not faith and trust but suspicion and derision; if these leaders generate not confidence but fear in their ability to safeguard the people’s well-being and their future; if these leaders foment and abet injustice and oppression, not the protection of the people’s right and freedoms, then government fails the people and has committed the highest treason against the nation.
Government must, therefore, aim to give our people no less than the kind of leadership that Don Sergio lived and enduringly exemplifies.
As we pursue today the tasks of building the edifice of a new nation, it is fitting that we take to heart the very message of President Osmeña’s legacy to the nation—a legacy of imperatives for good government; a government aware and able to fulfill its moral responsibilities of securing and preserving national freedom, human dignity, social justice and popular welfare; sustaining the integrity of our democratic institutions so that the Filipino will ever be the master of his own destiny; and imbued with a firm vision of leadership that refuses to shirk before the challenges of moral and ethical incorruptibility, statesmanship, competent stewardship of the nation’s affairs, and the supreme sacrifice of self in service to the nation and our people.
The best tribute we can pay to the grand old man of Cebu is to honor his legacy with our obedience to its imperatives. And we revere him most by our emulation of his noblest qualities.
Shakespeare once said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
President Sergio Osmeña was all these—born to greatness, he achieved greatness, and history and our people thrust upon him his full measure of greatness.
His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature stood up to say to all the world, “This was a true man.”
And the nation honors and reveres him for all he was and ever will be—because, indeed, we may not see the likes of him again.
9 September 1988
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Born in Cebu City on 24 October 1927, Marcelo B. Fernan served as president of the U.P. Student Council (1951-52) and Student Councils Association of the Philippines (1951-52), graduated from the College of Law of the University of the Philippines, and obtained his Master of Laws from Harvard University in 1953. He was dean of the College of Law of the University of San Jose-Recoletos (1965-86), chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of San Carlos (1971-78), president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (1977-79), president of the Philippine Association of Law Schools (1984-86), and president of the Philippine Society of International Law (1987-89). On the international scene, he was secretary general of the Academy of American and International Law Alumni Association in Dallas (1974-75), fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers (1980 to the present), committee chairman of the Law Associations for Asia and the Western Pacific (LAWASIA) (1984-92), and president of the ASEAN Law Association (1992-95). He was a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, a member of the National Assembly (1984), and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1988-91). He was elected Senator in 1995.