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Few people highlight the trait of endurance better than Jovito Reyes Salonga. During some of the most tumultuous years in Filipino history, Jovito continued to be a voice and force for positive change. His lifetime of dreaming for his country and his determination to reach those goals have helped to shape the Philippines into a more just and democratic society.
Jovito Salonga (fondly known as “Ka Jovy” or “The grand old man of Philippine politics”) was born June 22, 1920 as the youngest of five brothers in an impoverished barrio near the City of Pasig in the Philippines. His hard work ethic probably comes from his mother who was a vendor at the local market and his unwavering moral compass likely stems from his father who was Presbyterian pastor. Together, they pushed their sons to pursue education as a way out of poverty. However, as invading forces threatened his country in WWII, Jovito dropped out of college and joined the underground movement resisting the Japanese occupation. In 1942 he was captured, tortured, and imprisoned for a year before his release.
Though the war had halted his education plans, by the war’s end in 1944 Jovito Salonga decided to take the Philippine Bar Exam. Encouraged by his record breaking results (95.3%), Jovito went back to complete his bachelor’s degree. He then used a scholarship to attend Harvard where he earned his master’s degree, followed by a fellowship to Yale Law School to earn his doctorate.
Jovito excelled in the educational realm where he won awards for his writings in international law, authored several books and was offered a faculty position at Yale. However, his heart remained in the Philippines where he felt his skills and knowledge would be better used to help the country continue its post-war reconstruction and struggle for justice.
“We cannot and do not deserve freedom unless we are prepared to fight for it, to suffer for it and, if necessary, to die for it.” —Jovito Salonga
Salanga returned to the Philippines and spent a short time as a Dean at the College of Law at Far Eastern University, before running for Congress. His bid for candidate was a huge success and Salonga began building grassroots support for the Liberal Party by identifying with the Filipino downtrodden, calling for social equality and establishing himself as a top notch debater. The next term he was selected by his party to run for the Senate position. Again, despite limited resources and well-established opposition, Solanga won the popular vote which would also carry him to a second term as Senator.
Jovito Solonga had made a name for himself by combating the corruption and financial waste of the Marcos administration through well documented exposés and by becoming the chief lawyer defending political prisoners such as the legendary Filipino Senator Ninoy Aquino.
“We cannot have a higher standard of ethics in public service unless we have it in the source – in ourselves as a people.” —Jovito Salonga
While Salonga gave a speech at a party rally in Plaza Miranda in 1971, two hand grenades were thrown on stage, killing nine spectators and seriously injuring those on stage. Due to a gaping hole in his chest and hundreds of pieces of shrapnel lodged in his body, Jovito was given less than a 5% chance of survival. Miraculously Salonga survived and recovered but remained blinded in one eye and deaf in one ear.
In September 1972, President Marcos imposed martial law and rounded up hundreds of oppositionists. The still recovering Salonga was among the many arrested and held in military custody. A year later, Jovito was released and fled with his wife to the United States. While in the U.S. Salonga didn’t give up. He revised his work on international law, completed a study on the Marcos administration and developed a new program for democracy in the Philippines. Salonga also worked alongside the other Filipino leaders exiled in the United States.
When his friend and fellow senator Ninoy Aquino was assassinated for returning to his homeland, Salonga decided that he must also risk return if the struggle for democracy was to continue. For the next three years Salonga participated in the revolution that toppled the 20 year authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Following the return of democracy, Jovito Salonga was appointed as Chair of the Presidential Commission of Good Government and later elected as Senate President. As Senate President Salonga authored and supported major pieces of ethical legislation, among them: the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees”, the “Anti-Coup d’état Act”, the “Disclosure of Interest Act”, and the “Anti-Plunder Law”.
“Honesty is a basic ethical and moral virtue. Government cannot function at all if the people no longer believe the statements of their high public officials. If public officials are perceived to be dishonest, citizens cannot be expected to be honest in their dealings with the Government and with one another.”
His strong moral convictions and wise insights helped Salonga remain Senate President under three separate administrations. In 1991 Salonga spearheaded a group of senators to reject a renewal of a war-era treaty which had let the U.S. control over $1.3 billion worth of Philippine assets, resources and land. His hard work paid off and the treaty was rejected by a slim margin. However, the political cost was much higher. Many in the financial and corporate sectors who profited from the treaty used their political weight to push for his ousting a few months later.
Though his time in politics was at an end, Jovito Salonga endured. He taught courses at eminent Filipino universities, wrote many books, and continued to give speeches calling for moral advancement, social justice, and economic development. Salonga also turned his words into actions, by founding four organizations to promote political awareness and participation, protect human rights, promote heroes and martyrs, and promote social and moral awareness.
Throughout his long trail of justice seeking, Jovito Salonga set aside opportunities for personal gains to promote moral consciousness and pursue the betterment of his nation. Few words can capture the greatness of Jovito’s life better than the words of one of his peers, Senator Arroyo stated “Some people make history, others write it. But there is a rare handful who, in writing -and in speaking-make history. These are the ones who illuminate the issues, and in so doing move men to answer them with noble actions.” At 92 years old, Jovito Salonga now remains in his family’s care, but his lifetime of effort continues to bless his country.