Early morning of June 24, 2021, former President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III was rushed to the hospital. Hours later, the unfortunate news appeared on social media, followed by an outpouring of messages from friends, public officials, former Cabinet members, and finally Malacañang. The Senate promptly brought its Philippine flag at half mast, beating the Palace, which at 1 p.m. was still in full mast. Our former leader was dead.
He was “Noynoy” until 2010, when he became PNoy, short for President Noy. He succeeded the longest-running presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who picked up on the remaining years of Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who was deposed via a people power uprising, plus a fresh term after an election victory. Wracked by allegations of corruption, Arroyo’s waning years created negative space for a new figure. The death of former President Corazon Aquino in 2015, some months before the election year, led public attention to her son Noynoy, who despite his storied hesitations to the challenge was eventually swept into power in 2010 with an overwhelming support amid a promise to lead the country back to the “daang matuwid” and fight corruption (Kung walang korap, walang mahirap).
In the first few years of Aquino’s term, we saw the impeachment of a chief justice and the arrest of a number of senators linked to the Janet Lim-Napoles PDAF Scam. We would see reforms in government procurement processes, streamlining of bureaucracy, the K+12, the Bangsamoro Organic Law, private-public infrastructure investments, among others.
When he assumed office, he picked up on the sound economic reforms of his predecessors, built on them and managed to lift the economy with the highest growth rate since the 1970s, at 6.9 percent, narrowly exceeding market expectations, and thus for a while we were seen as the fastest growing in Asia.
His leadership can also be most remembered as the one that stood up against China, bringing our case on the West Philippine Sea to the international court in Hague, and thus secured for us at least an indelible ruling that can aid us in lobbying for international support in the territorial dispute.
The term, too, had its share of imperfections and shortcomings. It was tainted by incidents like the SAF44, alleged mismanagement post-Yolanda, extrajudicial killings, among others.
At this moment of PNoy’s passing, we only cursorily breeze down memory lane and hold our judgment. Presidents must live in alternate universes we can hardly see worlds from their point of view. We’re here, we only get to judge them by what are readily tangible to the common folk—food on table, roof on top, cloth to wrap us in dignity. For isn’t nation-building perpetually a work in progress? He was here with us in this challenging project.
There is also a time for grieving, and that is now for our beloved former President.
But this we can say, he led a decent life, in humity and passion to serve the Filipino. His friend Vice President Leni Robredo is right in her message. He had all the intentions to serve no matter how unpopular the ways may have been.
One of the best and earliest word out following his death came from Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. via the latter’s Twitter post. Aquino was “sea-green incorruptible, brave under armed attack, wounded in crossfire, indifferent to power and its trappings, and ruled our country with a puzzling coldness but only because he hid his feelings so well it was thought he had none.”
But PNoy certainly felt for the Filipino with immeasurable love, humility and dedication.