Monday, November 16, 2015

Vignettes from the Past—Salvador “Doy” Laurel

“One has to wait for the darkness of the night”, uttered one Chinese philosopher of yore, “to realize how splendid the day has been!” Gazing at the political circus heading to the 2016 elections where windbags, wimps and thieves dominate the show, a huge question mark looms over the political horizon: Where are the grandees of the yesteryear? Sadly, they are no longer around because great leaders, like it or not, come in a torrent or they don't come at all.

Today you look around you simply want to puke in utter disgust. Many of our politicos at present do not have what it takes to be leaders. All they have going for them is that they are popular and they are very good at casting voodoo spell on the masses.

But times have changed. Gone are the days when political leaders possessed the kind of integrity that could mount on granite; leaders of vision and substance, men who cared, men who would readily give up their ambitions, even their lives for the country.

Speaking of great leaders, November 18 marks the 87th birth anniversary of one of the inimitable statesmen of the golden days, the chivalrous Batangueño gentleman Salvador “Doy” Laurel, who was Vice President of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992. But before his iconic display of selflessness in 1985 when he gave up his presidential ambition to unite a divided opposition at the senescent of the Marcos regime, Doy Laurel too graced the gilded halls of the Senate in 1968. This was a time, that glorious moment in our political history when the crass of materialism and opportunism had not yet taken over the nobility of public office. Doy Laurel, a first-timer in politics, trudged by and distinguished himself on a par with the political giants of his time such as Lorenzo Tanada, Jose W. Diokno, Emmanuel Pelaez, Arturo Tolentino, Jovito Salonga, Ambrosio Padilla, and many others who were almost as brilliant and prodigious.

Novice with a cause –social justice

While politicos of today are propelled to public office despite the lack of outstanding academic achievement, appreciable experience or any earth-shaking contribution to society, leaders of the old could jerk your jaw in any direction with their impeccable pedigree. And the same is true with the young barrister, Doy Laurel, when he plunged into politics in the late sixties.

Capped with a law degree from UP and a doctoral degree from Yale University, Doy was a renaissance man who showed a social conscience at the outset of his public life, quite rare for politicians of his stature (if any) these days. For his groundbreaking free legal aid work which greatly benefited the poor and the unwanted, Doy crashed the headlines and earned the cognomen of “Mr. Public Defender.” Soon came the founding of the Citizen’s Legal Aid Society of the Philippines or CLASP, which later on became a nationwide organization of legal aid lawyers, the first of its kind in the country– the mother of what we now call the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO).

Still and all, Doy had the gnawing realization that even though the poor could get a lawyer’s services for free, the law itself did not help them enough to afford the high cost of justice. It was then that Doy Laurel switched his talent and decided to run for the Senate.

On the stump, Doy, a known orator even in his UP days, aroused the crowd with effortless ease: “Let me carry on this crusade for justice in the halls of the Senate! Help me bring down the high cost of justice! Help bring justice within the reach of the poor.”

Such was his battle cry, the ‘cause’ that catapulted Doy to the Senate. Again, this was the 1967 Senatorial Elections when contenders for public office were men of eloquence, ideas and dedication to the cause of the people.

Benjamin of the Senate

From the very start, despite being an administration candidate, Doy Laurel emerged as an independent senator of the realm because he adhered to no party line, not even his own party’s. To set off the mood, Doy rose in the session hall to make his maiden speech entitled “Crisis of Confidence,” a soaring indictment asking all government officials to “change or be changed” or else reap the “gathering whirlwind” of the people’s wrath. The people around Ferdinand Marcos were stunned, as was the president. But Marcos held his peace and it was Imelda, ever the precocious First Lady, who said: “I told you so, I warned you that fellow would be troublesome.”

Once in the Senate, Doy focused on all kinds of reforms– penal, judicial and land reform, even government reorganization. But the one closest to his heart was his cause, the fight for social justice. In keeping with his campaign promises, Doy authored bills that would eventually be enacted into laws popularly known as “Justice for the Poor Laws,” or simply “Laurel Laws.” For the next three years of his term, Doy Laurel was consistently awarded “Most Outstanding Senator of the Year” by the press. Then the unthinkable happened. Martial law was declared and Congress was shut down.

Wishful thinking?

With the passage of time, Salvador “Doy” Laurel stands taller still in the Pantheon of Filipino leaders. And now that the election is nearing, I envy our elders because they get to live during the times of the immortals. I pity that the youth today can no longer or even dare to look back when public office homed the most capable and willing. Amidst our candidates’ crisis in qualification and character, we willingly fall into pit hole full of self-proclaimed thieves and berdugos, messianic foundlings, poor and weakling copycats of their political parents and grandparents and opportunistic family dynasties out of sheer desperation. But we should despair not because the power to change lies on that ballot.

Ah, if only this nation can unite following a fictional romantic noontime series on the idiot box, then maybe we can also have that time to examine and follow the next set of leaders we will elect on 2016.

Photos courtesy of Raffy Sanz, Salvador H. Laurel Archive

NB: On the occasion of Dr. Salvador H. Laurel’s birthday on November 18, the website has been re-launched to commemorate his life, his advocacies, his faith in our people, his love for the country and his great belief in the Filipino youth.