15th President of the Republic of the Philippines
February 8, 1960 – June 24, 2021
Sometimes, it takes the passing of a great man to fully understand his legacy. Death often clarifies the muddle, the unjust memes, the cruel turns of phrases that were pure character assassination; death, as a form of hindsight, also consolidates the undeniable fact of accomplishment.
And sometimes it takes the context of the current times to finally understand that greatness which was long misunderstood, and finally enables us to mourn—without tribal colors—what we have lost.
Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Cojuangco Aquino III, Noynoy to most people and ‘PNoy’ (short for ‘President Noy’ and a play on the word ‘Pinoy’) when he became the commander-in-chief, was the 15th President of the Republic of the Philippines.
He was also an economist by education, a lawmaker by vocation, an audiophile, history buff, marksman, and a self-taught billiards sharpie. Yes, he was also a video gamer, but that took a backseat to a work ethic that often saw him burning the midnight candle.
He was born on February 8, 1960 in Sampaloc, Manila to opposition leader Sen. Benigno Lampa Aquino Jr. and former President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the third and only son of five children. He attended the Ateneo de Manila University for his elementary, high school, and college education.
Immediately after graduation in 1981, he joined his family, which was in exile from the Marcos dictatorship, in Boston. The elder Aquino was allowed to seek treatment in the United States after he suffered a heart attack in prison in 1980, and with the rest of the family, they tried to eke out a normal existence, but always under the cloud of fighting the dictatorship. In Boston, the younger Aquino became a “jack of all trades. I was the assistant driver, handyman, gardener, electrician, plumber, [and] dog handler.”
In 1983, when his father was assassinated on the tarmac of the airport that now bears his name, Aquino returned to the Philippines with the rest of his family. Even as the Aquinos were slowly being swept along the tides of history, culminating in the EDSA Revolution of 1986 which would see his mother becoming President, the Aquino scion kept in the background, content to lead a private life. He worked in business, notably as a promotions manager for Nike. Later, he became a vice president of an insurance company. He also helped run Central Azucarera de Tarlac, the sugar refinery in the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita, from 1993 to 1998, first as executive assistant for administration and then as manager for field services.
In 1998, being true to his family’s political roots, he ran for Congress and was elected to the House of Representatives as representative of the 2nd district of Tarlac. He was subsequently re-elected to the House in 2001 and 2004. In his nine years at the Lower House, he focused on the fiscalizing role of a legislator.
In November 2004, he became Deputy House Speaker of Luzon, but relinquished the post when he joined leaders of the Liberal Party in calling for the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the height of the “Hello Garci” scandal. This was another mark of the man: the readiness to give up a powerful position rather than abandon his duty to hold accountable those who do wrong.
In 2007, barred from running for re-election to the House due to term limits, he sought a seat in the Senate and was elected to be part of the 14th Congress of the Philippines, placing sixth.
He filed Senate Bill No. 3121, or the Budget Impoundment and Control Act, calculated to ensure that the President would have to pass a measure through Congress every time the Chief Executive had the impetus to impound part of the budget.
He also passed Senate Bill 2035, or the Preservation of Public Infrastructures bill, which sought to raise the standards in the construction of all public infrastructures by penalizing contractors of defective infrastructures, and required the Department of Public Works and Highways to conduct periodic inspections of public infrastructures.
He also pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 2160, or the Amending the Government Procurement Act, which applies to all government procurement activities regardless of source of funds, whether local or foreign. He also pursued other reform-oriented bills, including the Philippine National Police reform, the banning of reappointment to the Judicial and Bar Council, and the prevention of reappointment and bypassing of the Commission on Appointments.
His Senate biography notes: “He felt that there were already too many laws, and good ones at that, but they seemingly lacked proper implementation. He concentrated on crafting laws that would help create opportunity rather than impose additional burdens to those who are already disadvantaged. He actively took part in budget deliberations to ensure that government initiatives do address the plight of the people who need help the most.”
The 2009 death of his mother prompted calls for Aquino to run for the top post the following year. “I didn’t have any ambition to be president,” he said in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg News. “It was fate. The people found me.” The groundswell of support became known as the “Noynoy Phenomenon.” His campaign endured countless mudslinging, including fake psychiatric reports on his mental health, but he prevailed, and on June 9, 2010, he was proclaimed the winner of the election with 15 million votes.
His corruption-busting stance as senator continued on in his presidency, and he was widely known for his honesty, decency, and his relentless anti-corruption efforts, although he was also hindered by the perception that he lacked empathy, a result of his deep-seated matter-of-fact stoicism. This often limited his ability to achieve his goals, and were usually interpreted as foibles that marred his leadership.
In his recollection of the President, the poet Gian Lao, who served as one of his speechwriters during his term, wrote: “I choose to believe it was his predisposition to be pragmatic and unemotional that made him go to the opening of a car factory instead of welcoming the bodies of our men who fell in Mamasapano. He spent a long time denying the distressing statistics about the damage and death toll of Typhoon Yolanda. It feels wrong to use his trauma as a shield from accountability for such disastrous moments. But it says something about the magnitude of the job of the President—how such simple frailties can have such devastating effects.”
Still, his anti-corruption efforts were considerable. Corruption charges were filed against Aquino’s predecessor, Arroyo, who was his former teacher at the Ateneo, and the country’s ranking on the Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Index improved eleven notches in his last full year in office in 2015 from six years earlier. His administration also did not stop the distribution of land in the Cojuangco family-owned Hacienda Luisita to farmers in 2011.
The Philippine economy also flourished. As a Bloomberg report notes, “under his six-year presidential term, the [Philippine] economy grew an average of 6.2% and twice exceeded 7%, the fastest pace since the 1970s. His administration pursued tax evaders, narrowed the budget deficit from a record level, and enabled the Philippines to clinch its first investment grade score from a major credit rating company.”
The country’s Global Competitiveness Index ranking rose from 85 to 47 in 2015, and the unemployment rate fell to 5.8%, the lowest in the last several years.
Under his term, the Reproductive Health Law was enacted. He fought against climate change by signing the Paris Accord, and had the foresight to prepare a disaster resiliency program by funding Project NOAH. He signed the Enhanced Basic Education Act, also known as the K-12 program, which revolutionized Philippine education.
While he pursued economic reforms with the view of benefitting all, he knew that the “trickle-down” effect would take time, especially for the poor, so he expanded the Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program [4Ps] beneficiaries from around 900,000 in 2009 to 20 million in 2016.
In 2010, without media fanfare, he awarded the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title to the Mangyans in Mindoro, which the indigenous peoples group had been waiting for, almost in vain, for the last 15 years. He also enabled the crafting of the National Indigenous Peoples Education Program in 2015, as well as other policies that upheld the rights of indigenous peoples to culture-based education and integrity.
He pursued meaningful peace negotiations with the Bangsamoro, and enacted the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police modernization program. And while he did strengthen ties with the U.S., in hindsight it was more to the benefit of the Philippines, especially to boost the country’s defense systems against possible hostile powers.
After a standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, Aquino also brought China before a United Nations-backed tribunal in March 2014 to challenge Beijing’s claim of the West Philippine Sea. Only after Aquino left the presidency did the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 rule in favor of the Philippines, emphatically declaring that China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea breached international law.
Under his administration, the Department of Tourism also launched the “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign. Domestic tourism receipts more than doubled during his term from P713.8 billion in 2010 to about P1.5 trillion as of the end of his term. International arrivals grew at an annual average of 8.8%, as international tourism receipts increased from P135.5 billion in 2010 to P274.6 billion before he left office. Under him, the National Tourism Development Plan identified the promotion of culture as central in pursuing the national tourism agenda.
Most of these happened without media fanfare, all accomplished under the administration mindset of “trabaho lang.” After Yolanda and Mamasapano, he bore the brunt of criticism and ridicule—but his administration accepted the criticisms as a full expression of democratic ideals and human rights.
He had a tenuous relationship with the culture and arts establishment, particularly in his striking off of Nora Aunor from being proclaimed National Artist in 2016, but he also acknowledged publicly that the flourishing of culture and the arts was the ultimate expression of national development.
He once said: “Our culture continues to flourish as Filipinos work together to achieve our national development goals. Our identity, traditions, and character are enhanced by the artistic achievements of those honored on this occasion: they are sterling representatives of our people’s talent and genius, and their determination has enabled them to attain recognition and success in their respective fields. May their contributions in the arts inspire future generations to believe in their own capabilities, and encourage greater advances in all artistic fields.”
He was mindful that this blossoming of culture will come about if reforms in government and better fiscal shape of the country will be achieved: “This era of reform is transforming the Philippine landscape, and empowering us to pursue our aspirations with integrity and greater confidence. [Our artists are] exemplars of commitment and creativity as we write a vibrant new chapter in our nation’s history. May they fuel our passion towards building the progressive, equitable society that we deserve.”
His plan to strengthen Filipino heritage was policy-driven, and was divided into three parts.
First, he aimed to concentrate government efforts on core competencies, with government institutions working together to achieve efficiency, enabling each other to focus on their core mandates. Aquino noted the decision of the Government Service Insurance System to entrust its art collection to the National Museum, which “gives our people the opportunity to enjoy the marvels of our various heritages, while allowing the GSIS to focus more on its task.”
Second, he aimed to give cultural workers the proper means to do their jobs. This meant budget increases for various centers of heritage such as National Archives, National Library, National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the National Museum.
In 2013, he earmarked P556 million for carrying out the necessary restorations for historical and cultural collections. His administration also sought the retrofitting of the National Library and the implementation of the National Museum Plan of 1998, which paved the way for the establishment of the National Museum of Natural History.
Third, he aimed to empower cultural institutions to work with common people and with each other. In a 2012 speech, he gave this mandate: “You now have the means to join hands with our countrymen to give them a chance to understand and appreciate our history and our society, and to inspire creativity and innovation in all areas of national life. I am confident that together, all our cultural institutions will become part of the pulse of a nation of hardworking, determined, principled, and free Filipinos.”
In conferment of the National Artists Awards in 2016, Aquino recognized nine individuals “who made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts”: Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Francisco Coching for the visual arts, Manuel Conde for cinema, Lazaro Francisco and Cirilo Bautista for literature, Francisco Feliciano and Ramon Santos for music, Alice Reyes for dance, and Jose Maria Zaragoza for architecture.
National Literature Month was also established by Presidential Proclamation 968, which he signed in 2015. Its goal is to promote, conserve, and popularize the country’s historical and cultural heritage and resources and artistic creations through literature.
It was also during his administration that the second edition of the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, the ultimate resource on Filipino culture, was greenlit.
In 2013, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Noynoy Aquino left a complex legacy as president. To try to fully understand the man, we can start at three beginning points: a yearbook entry, a story cut from the pages of history, and a Bible verse.
When he graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, he would put alongside his photo in Aegis, the school’s official undergraduate yearbook, a reflection interspersed with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second secretary-general of the United Nations:
“To be understood or misunderstood is not so much a struggle as it is to understand or misunderstand the longing for inner peace in each man’s heart. A sincere life is not to go above and beyond others and oneself. ‘… At high altitudes, a moment’s self-indulgence may mean death.’ Should you ever come across me in your thoughts, never fail to include yourself, and your fellowmen, for in our longings, never at a moment forgetting one another, we together will struggle.”
Next to a picture of a young and bright face looking eager for what the future might hold, the brief yearbook writeup suggests a man struggling to be understood (while recognizing that what can often come is its opposite), struggling for sincerity in living and seeking inner peace, and struggling for measured responses to everything—even pleasure and joy. The writeup paints a man who knew himself well, given where he came from and the unique life shaped by that background, and who resorted to a stoicism that was his strength as a leader and also often his weakness.
Where did that stoicism come from? Perhaps an inevitable result of the sum of his life, including its ups and much of its downs. Lao tried to identify its source: “Whenever I had a difficult time with my Boss, I would remind myself of the stories he told me. Once, his family killed his pet chicken and cooked it for dinner, and he was since unable to eat ‘any kind of fowl.’
“Another time, when his father found out Little Noy wouldn’t share his candies, he confiscated the whole bag and redistributed it to the entire house. And lastly—before Ninoy Aquino left the United States to return to the Philippines in 1983, he took his only son aside, and told him that if the worst came to pass, then he would have to be the man of the house. He was 22—and was spending most of his days listening to music records in their basement.
“In the wake of Ninoy’s assassination—Noynoy Aquino tried his best to keep it together. The exact quote eludes me, but he told us something to the effect of: His mother was crying, his sisters were crying, and if he cried too, then who wouldn’t be crying? He needed to be unemotional. He needed to be the man of the house.”
Another true test of being that “man of the house” came in 1987—the reckoning of which would come much later. In August 28, 1987, into the second year of the presidency of his mother Corazon Aquino, a coup d’etat—one of many—was underway and rebel forces in the army who called themselves RAM proceeded to attack Malacañang.
The group gunned down members of the Presidential Security Group and wounded President Aquino’s son. In fact, three of his security escorts were killed, and Noynoy himself was hit by bullets. RAM leader Gregorio Honasan would be pardoned for his lead in the rebellion in 1995, and would later on become a senator.
Much later, in 2010, while on the campaign trail, Aquino III reached out to Honasan, supporting the latter’s application for bail after being tagged as allegedly masterminding a coup attempt against then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Honasan was then running for Vice President as an independent.
Aquino had told Cebu Daily News: “I endorse Honasan’s request for bail para parehas ang laban [to even out the playing field]. I was hit by bullets from Honasan’s men in the neck and hips, but that’s past now. The principle of my father was, ‘Respect the rights even of your enemies.’ Ito ang nagpatingkad ng demokrasya. Genuine reconciliation is democracy in action.”
Trauma played a part in shaping the man, but he was also very much his parents’ child—and service to and sacrifice for the nation, even if one was asked to die for it (as the famous Ninoy Aquino saying goes), trumped everything. He melded all that into a brand of leadership that was pragmatic (although some mistook it for coldness) and, in the words of Manuel Quezon III, always on the “side of data, and systems, and reform.”
Quezon also wrote that Aquino liked to quote Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Which rounds up all the other anecdotes: this was a man who was called to serve the nation despite not having the ambitions to do so, and he did what he thought was right, he accomplished many things that elevated the nation in the eyes of the world, and he showed us the way—and when the nation chose to repudiate all that in the name of politics, he still kept the faith, he kept a low profile, and he died longing that perhaps history would eventually vindicate him.
Quezon ended his tribute with this succinct summation: “He did his duty and then he was done.”
But it is clear enough to know that the man cannot be fully understood in these abbreviated notes. The history that has yet to be written will be the ultimate arbiter, but it has been interesting to note that current circumstances in the light of his untimely passing have immediately sparked a popular comparison that now longs for decency in governance, that longs for data-driven action and policies, that longs for the suddenly-missed stoicism amidst endless political melodrama. In other words, the nation now longs for that “PNoy touch,” now better appreciated in hindsight.
On June 24, 2021, President Aquino died of renal failure. He never married and had no children, making him the Philippines’ first bachelor president.
In his speech at the 111th anniversary of the National Museum on October 29, 2012, President Aquino said: “Nothing less than our Constitution commands us to view culture and the arts, our history and natural resources, and those of you who have dedicated your lives to its study, protection, dissemination, and development, as national priorities and responsibilities.
“Our Constitution views culture and the arts not as a luxury, but as a necessity if we are to have a vibrant national life. It is through education, research, and the arts that we can achieve ‘total human liberation and development’ as a democratic society.
“Our people deserve better than to have our national heritage treated as an afterthought. Art and culture must be treated as part of a strategy for increasing national competitiveness.”