By J. Art D. Brion (ret.)
I leave my questions and discussions of constitutional reforms for now to pay tribute to Blas F. Ople (Ka Blas, to many) whose 90th birth anniversary will be on Saturday, February 3.
Ka Blas, first and foremost, was a writer/newspaperman and a public servant. He wrote, among others, for this newspaper; his public service included life as a youthful guerrilla member, minister of labor, Mambabatas Pambansa, senator, Senate president, foreign affairs secretary, and as one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution. He would have been very active in the public debate on constitutional issues had he been alive today.
Ka Blas touched many lives during his lifetime. He was a nationalist and a champion of the cause of labor. These inclinations were apparently the driving force that led him, during his term as labor minister, to work for the passage of the Labor code, the codification of our scattered labor laws. This code was ahead of its time so that now, 44 years later, it is still current in regulating relations between labor and capital.
He has been known as the Father of Overseas Employment; he pioneered and laid the ground work for the overseas employment program that we know today. Time and again over these years, overseas employment and our workers’ dollar remittances have kept our economy alive.
I knew him as the mentor who trained and guided me and many others from my generation into careers in the public service. I was lucky to have directly served him as deputy labor minister, as his vice-chair at the Batasan Labor Committee, and later as his DFA undersecretary. Several secretaries of labor, among them, Ruben Torres, Patricia Sto. Tomas, Nieves Confesor, Marianito Roque, Linda Baldoz, and myself, all trace their labor roots to Ka Blas. He trained us by osmosis as he did it by example and by exposure to his ways.
Ka Blas was minister of labor when I was introduced to him in 1978 by my law office boss, Atty. Leonardo Siguion Reyna, whose assistance Ka Blas sought. Ka Blas was then a candidate for the Interim Batasang Pambansa in Region 3 and he needed legal support. I was one of four lawyers (who included Attys. Jacinto de la Rosa, Opap Villonco, and Raffy Khan) whom Atty. Siguion Reyna tapped. My association with Ka Blas lasted all the way up to his death in 2003.
My early days with Ka Blas were heady days. I enjoyed the unique chance of interacting with a Cabinet member on a daily basis even while I was with the private sector; no one in my law class then enjoyed this privilege. I still remember the thrill of reading the morning papers and skipping news items because I was an eyewitness to what they contained. There, too, were the regular dinners with Ka Blas when he would sum up his day for us and give us his interpretation of events for our comments on what legal implications they held.
I vividly remember that he actively encouraged us to read, read, and read, and to write, write, and write. He kept multiple libraries, at home and in his various offices, and gave us access to all his books. He spent time in bookstores during his foreign trips and would buy multiple copies that he would distribute to friends; he strongly believed that good books should be shared. Very early on, too, he opened our eyes to the wonders of computers although he himself was hardly an active user; he simply provided us with the best and the latest in the market, at that time the TRS 80, the Apple II, and later the Macintosh.
He was a drinking man when I initially met him, but he later quit cold turkey. He never stopped smoking, though, so that the choice seats during his staff meetings were those farthest away from him. He loved newspapermen and spent time swapping stories with them. Time and again, he lectured us: if you want a good press, give the reporters all the news they need; do not force them to get unreliable news from elsewhere.
In almost 25 years with Ka Blas, I remember him best for his unflappable responses to adversity. The most distinct of these occasions came soon after the February 7, 1986, snap presidential elections as the public protest against the proclamation of President Marcos escalated. I remember how cool and composed Ka Blas was in those increasingly unsettling days; he kept his feet planted on the ground of reality by asking us to actively monitor indicators from which we could draw conclusions. Like a lawyer, he drilled into us – know your facts.
I was assigned to monitor the sales of beer and Coca-Cola because of the boycott that the political opposition had then launched. We (among others, Mila Cruz, Willie Villarama, Pat Sto. Tomas, Manny Imson, and Badong Bigay) would meet with Ka Blas every morning for reports on our assignments. I recall reporting that the sales of beer and Coca Cola were continuously and precipitously going down. This report merited his trademark response on receiving bad news – he brushed his face with his right palm in repeated circular motions, seemingly to cleanse it of dirt.
Soon after, President Marcos instructed Ka Blas to proceed to Washington as his personal representative. He had then no illusions about the future of the Marcos government: bluntly, he told us before leaving that he feared for the worst and that the government could fall in six months’ time. He erred in this prediction as he failed to foresee the intervening Enrile-Ramos mutiny; the Marcos government fell in six days’ time.
Ka Blas hurried back to the country from Washington. His order even before arrival was to call everybody for consultations. It was a small, somber, and subdued group that met – the old Ministry of Labor crowd, plus Ka Teddy Natividad, Dodong Maambong, and Tico delos Reyes from the Batasan. Most of us were then about to be jobless.
His repeated refrain in that first meeting and in those that followed was the country’s need for a viable political opposition; in his mind, a political opposition is vital to democracy and it was our duty to provide one. The meetings that followed slowly grew in size, with the increasing participation of Batasan Pambansa members and local government officials, among them, Nono Palmares, Romy Jalosjos, Manoling Collantes, and some mayors from Southern and Central Luzon.
Ka Blas’ effort to establish a political party – the Partido Nacionalista ng Pilipinas – initially took off but soon fizzled out for lack of funds, among others. His companion move – the launching of the institute for Public Policy – was more promising. He envisioned the institute to be the medium for the formulation and ventilation of policy issues relevant to those confused times.
The institute thrived until it was overtaken by events – the nomination of Ka Blas, Ka Teddy Natividad, Dodong Maambong, and Rustico delos Reyes as the members of the 1987 Constitutional Commission drawn from the political opposition. I headed the secretariat supporting them.
We lost no time in preparing for the Con-Com although some groups loyal to President Marcos entertained misgivings on whether an opposition group should participate at all. Ka Blas was at his most adamant in his position that the opposition should participate because it was in the interest of the country to normalize the political situation as early as possible.
Soon, led by Ka Blas, we were engaged in consultations and in long and regular meetings with various sectors of society; weekday meetings were at the Philippine Social Science Center on Commonwealth Ave. in Quezon City, while weekends were at Development Academy of the Philippines in Tagaytay where we often held discussions far into the night.
Ka Blas was the only non-lawyer in the opposition group but he was more than equal to the lawyers; his experience, wide reading, and original thoughts led to the group’s spirited discussions. On his own, I witnessed how he read, studied, and spared no effort to the point of exhaustion, to prepare for his Con-Com tasks, all the while writing his newspaper columns and his articles for the institute.
Ka Blas served at the Con-Com as vice-chairman of the Committee on Amendments and Transitory Provisions. He was a member of the Committees on Local Government, on National Economy and Patrimony, on Social Justice, and on Style. More than these, he was all over, inside and outside the convention, ultimately convincing the other Con-Com members that the opposition group was no less patriotic and desirous of the best for the Filipino people.
He authored the industrialization provision in the Constitution’s Article on the Economy and the principle of initiative as the people’s reserve power to amend the Constitution. At the same time, he actively participated in the deliberations on diverse topics, among them: the national territory, citizen army and the military, autonomous regions, ownership of public utilities and of the media, local government sharing in the proceeds of natural resources, the US military bases, population control, sectoral representation, democratizing access to education, and neutrality. In all these, the people, their needs and the interests of the nation were always topmost in his mind.
In 1992, he won as senator (after initially losing in his bid for a Senate seat in 1987). He capped his Senate stint with the presidency of the Senate in 1999 after winning a second term in 1998. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed him secretary of foreign affairs in 2002. He died at his post, literally “with his boots on,” on board a plane from Bangkok to Tokyo on his way to join the president.
It was a life well-lived in the service of the nation, that saw Ka Blas rise from his lowly Hagonoy beginnings to the pinnacle of public service. Thank you Ka Blas for the chance to know you and to serve with you!
Readers may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.