Ever since I was a young boy I have always admired individuals who became known and successful despite the obstacles that they have to endure to achieve their goals. During my high school days, I love to go to the library to have an updated knowledge on the Philippine Bar Exam topnotchers, top graduates of the Philippine Military Academy and top examinees of other professional fields. Most importantly, I find myself astounded by the achievements of those who were born poor and had to persevere and struggle to reach the top and fulfill their dreams.
Common to a Filipino, I have always sided and rooted for the “underdogs” especially in education, sports and other competitions. I likewise have veneration for those who adhered to their principles and took opposition stands against the “powerful” and the “mighty” at the expense of their own personal interests. As a young college student, I have idolized the likes of King Leonidas of Sparta, Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, Knights of the Round Table, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Pres. Ramon Magsaysay, Senators Raul Manglapus, Ambrosio Padilla, Jose W. Diokno, Jovito Salonga, Benigno Aquino Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile and Sec. Carlos P. Romulo, among others. Although the administration of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos was marred with massive corruption, political repression and human rights violations, nobody can “turn a blind eye” to his astonishing academic achievements and exceptional brilliance in the field of governance by implementing wide ranging infrastructure development and socio-economic programs that saw unprecedented economic progress of the country during his regime.
One who stood out among the many political figures I had admired was the late Rafael M. Salas, a fellow Negrense and the pride of Western Visayas. Although he remained unheralded in his own country until his untimely death in 1987, Sec. Salas exhibited a remarkable intellect and brilliancy in management reinforced by a highest sense of respectability and incomparable humility in public service, a trait uncommon among our public luminaries, both of yesterday and today.Who was Rafael M. Salas? (Excerpts taken from the Biography of Rafael M. Salas by Wikipedia))
Rafael M. Salas was born in Bago City, Negros Occidental on August 7, 1928, one of three children of Ernesto Araneta Salas and Isabel Neri Montinola.
After World War II, Salas went to Manila to continue his education and obtained his B.A. (magna cum laude) from the University of the Philippines in 1950. Three years later, he completed his law degree (cum laude) from the U.P. College of Law. He then attended Harvard University, where he finished his master's degree in public administration in 1955. He returned to the Philippines and joined the University of the Philippines as a lecturer in Economics until 1959 when he transferred to the Far Eastern University as professorial lecturer until 1961. He was rehired by the University of the Philippines as assistant vice president from 1962-63 and then as professorial lecturer of Law and member of the Board of Regents from 1963-1966.
By 1966, Salas, also known affectionately as "Paeng," was recruited to a Cabinet position as Executive Secretary of President Ferdinand E. Marcos as a reward for running the Marcos 1965 campaign. Salas became a formidable cabinet member of Marcos and was at the forefront of the administration.
While Executive Secretary, Salas was named by Marcos as Chief Action Officer of the National Rice Sufficiency Program and was credited for the dramatic increase in rice production whose shortfall persistently plagued the country.
But due to irreconcilable differences with President Ferdinand E. Marcos, he resigned and accepted a position to become the first Executive Director of UNFPA in 1969. The international agency is now known as the United Nations Fund. Salas served in this position with efficiency and distinction.
Salas headed the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), now known as the UN Population Fund with the same acronym, as its executive director from the time he established the organization in 1969 until his death in 1987, when he was already a UN Undersecretary-General.
Salas developed the UNFPA office in Manhattan, New York, from a small staff of 5 people and a budget of US$2.5 million into one of the most stable UN agencies and the world’s largest multilateral provider of population assistance, reaching a budget of $142 million in 1985, long-term commitments of $1.4 billion, and funding for 4,800 projects in 149 countries and territories.
As a UN official, he was well respected as a morally upright leader and for his dedication to the advancement of the UN population programs. He was best remembered for his trailblazing work, earning him the title “Mr. Population” from the international community.
An article entitled "Knowing the Man and the Award" and published by the Commission on Population of the Philippines (POPCOM) cited Salas as "widely known as 'Mr. Population' in the international population community. He brought together more developed and less developed countries, helping them to become aware of the extent to which they share an interest in population and development." For his contributions to the global understanding of population, Salas received 30 honorary degrees, honorary professorships, and academic awards from higher academic institutions in 25 countries.
Besides his role as international public servant, Salas was also a poet and author. He contributed articles to international magazines and newspapers drawing on his writing skills as past editor of the Philippine Law Journal.
Rafael M. Salas died at age 59 on March 4, 1987 in Washington, DC from an apparent heart attack as he prepared to return to the Philippines shortly after the restoration of democracy in the People Power Revolution of 1986 that swept Marcos out of power. It was speculated at the time of his death that Salas was seriously considering to run for the Presidency of the Philippines.
In his honor, POPCOM created in 1990 what has evolved into a yearly prestigious award : The Rafael M. Salas Population and Development Award (RMSPDA). It aims to perpetuate his legacy by recognizing local government units, individuals and institutions for their outstanding achievements and contributions in population management programs. It also seeks to recognize individuals and institutions who continuously pursue the ideals and visions of Salas to "achieve a better world for the present and future generations."
Also instituted in his honor is the annual Rafael M. Salas Memorial Lecture at the UN headquarters in New York. The lecture series began as a memorial and tribute to Salas under whose "leadership, the UNFPA grew from a small trust fund to the world’s largest multilateral provider of population assistance." Past speakers include former World Bank president Robert McNamara, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, and famed marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
While the debate over the Reproductive Health (RH) bill has taken on different standpoints, narrowed down to sex, contraception, and abortion, many Filipinos today are unaware that a fellow Filipino, Salas, started it all in the international arena.
Rafael M. Salas began a population management program that did not even mention sex, contraception, or 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 faiths and beliefs.
He continuously called for urgent government action among countries. “A population policy is a long-range strategic weapon,” he said in one of his messages in 1980. ”Its effects are felt not immediately but a generation hence. To be effective, it must be launched now.”
Salas Crossing His “Rubicon”
The parting of ways of Salas and Marcos was elaborated in “A Memoir” written by now Senate Pres. Juan Ponce Enrile published on September 2012 with the following abstract:
“In the middle of 1969, the partisan struggle between the two major political parties in the country, the and ,was getting heated up. During a national convention, the Nacionalista party anointed Pres. Marcos and Vice Pres. Fernando Lopez to run for their second term together with 8 senatorial candidates. Paeng Salas was a shoo-in for a senatorial berth of the Nacionalista party. The only kink in Paeng’s candidacy was Senate President Gil Puyat who wanted NP Senator Roding Ganzon of Western Visayas , an arch critic of Pres. Marcos, to be in the NP senatorial line up. However, Vice Pres. Fernando Lopez and the influential “sugar block” wanted Paeng Salas instead to represent Western Visayas. The conflict was resolved when Senator Ganzon bolted the NP shortly after its national convention on June 20.”
“In the morning of July 24, 1969, Paeng called me up. He said over the telephone that he wanted to see me on a confidential and personal matter. From the tone of his voice, I sensed that his request was urgent. When Paeng met me at seven o’clock that morning, he said, “Juancho, I am leaving with Menchu (Salas wife) for New York this afternoon. Please do one last favor for me. Hand over to the President personally my letter of resignation from the Cabinet. Do it after my plane has taken off for New York. Do not mention about this to anyone until I am out of the country.”
“I was not prepared for what Paeng said. I thought Paeng was the most eager and the likeliest winner among all the potential candidates for Senator of the Nacionalista party at that time. He had been meticulously preparing his campaign and has already his headquarters, staff and national organization. Paeng never gave me the inkling that he was quitting the senatorial race. We, the members of the technocratic group in the Cabinet treated him as our central pillar and leader. We looked upon him as the one best prepared and the most promising material amongst us for a major role in politics.”
“ Brod, I am sorry if you are disappointed with me”, Paeng finally said. “ I am tired and fed up with the intrigues and the jealousies in the Palace. I cannot take anymore the monkey business going on in the government. Menchu is about to give birth. I have no savings. A good job is waiting for me at the UN and I can no longer afford to miss that” he explained. “But what about your plan to run for the Senate?, I asked him. “ I will give that up. I will give up everything!” he said emphatically. “ I am disappointed with the present system and with the way things are. I do not have my own money to run for the Senate. I do not want to sign receipts for campaign funds. I do not want to owe favor to anyone!” he added. “ Who asked you to sign receipts for campaign funds?” I inquired. “Tio Peding and Bobby”, he replied. “ Tio Peding” was Alfredo Montelibano Sr. and “Bobby” was Paeng’s own first cousin, Roberto S. Benedicto.”
“Although everyone including me, supposed Paeng and Bobby to be very close to each other because they were first cousins, I realized for the first time at that moment that they had a personal problem all along between them, contrary to my earlier impression. And I was able to confirm this later that indeed there was a secret rivalry jealousy between the two cousins.”
“Paeng was an idealist who tried to live according to the straight line of public conduct. Although he liked to enjoy the good things in life, Paeng was nonetheless a simple, frugal and non-acquisitive person. Bobby, on the other hand, was pragmatic and a materialistic individual. He enjoyed luxury and fame as well as power and wealth. Bobby did not relish the rising power and influence of Paeng. For his part, Paeng looked with disfavor at the undue and rapidly rising affluence of Bobby.”
“The decision of Paeng to leave the Cabinet did not affect our friendship. Our contacts continued even in the days of Martial Law. I never failed to see him whenever I was in New York. Our contact ended on his death. I often wondered what would have been the outcome for this country had Paeng run in 1969 as planned and won a seat in the Senate. Perhaps this country would have had a different history. Paeng was gifted and well prepared to handle the demands of statecraft. He had the experience and intellectual acumen for it. But he chose to ride into the sunset contented with what the poet said, “ Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer ….sans End. I truly feel that it is a pity and a misfortune that God did not bestow upon one of the country’s most able sons the destiny to occupy the highest position in the Land.”
During the 1986 People Power Revolution, Enrile called Salas by phone in New York and entrusted his family to him should the uprising against Marcos fail and if anything could happen to him. Enrile and Salas were 1953 UP Law classmates and Sigma Rho Fraternity brothers.
In his message about Rafael M. Salas, Enrile said: “He was, indeed, a true Filipino. He had the depth and the brilliance to transform his country and his people. He is the best president of this country; the best president we never had and will never have.”
What is most admirable in Rafael M. Salas was his strong resolve to repel the enticement of a corrupt bureaucracy and resist the lure of immense wealth that comes with corruption in the government. Salas, an honest and incorruptible person, defied the odds of drawing the fury of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, then the most powerful man in the country, by not permitting himself to be a part of a fraudulent and iniquitous leadership.
The legacy of Rafael M. Salas will forever remain etched in the history of the Philippines. Being recognized and honored more significantly in the international world than in his own country, it is high time for every Filipino to learn and distinguish the unselfish efforts and sheer determination of Salas to make the Philippines a better place to live in particular and the world in general.
April 5, 2013
Fresno, California, USA