Senate President Jovito R. Salonga was born just over two decades after the Philippines declared its independence, when stories about the revolution against Spain and the struggles against American colonizers remained fresh and alive. In his youth, Jovito, called Jovy (and fondly in his later years, Ka Jovy), was inspired by speeches that talked of sovereignty and independence for his country. These ideals pushed him to study law despite the family’s poor means.
He was a senior in law school at the University of the Philippines (UP) when World War II erupted in 1942. His studies interrupted, he supported the anti-Japanese resistance and was captured in April 1942, tortured, and incarcerated at Fort Santiago in Manila. He was later moved to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa to serve a sentence of 15 years in hard labor. Japanese authorities released him in 1943, granting him pardon on the occasion of Japan’s founding day (Kigen Setsu).
Ka Jovy took the bar in 1944 and with a grade of 95.3%, topped it together with another Filipino legal luminary, Jose W. Diokno. Ka Jovy then returned to UP to complete his LL.B in 1946. He took his masters’ degree at Harvard University and his doctorate degree at Yale University. (His thesis on international law was awarded the Ambrose Gherini Prize.) Yale offered him a teaching post but he turned it down intending to return to his country to help in its post-war rebuilding.
While in the States, he married Lydia Busuego with whom he would have four children.
Back in the Philippines, Ka Jovy started a law practice and also taught law at the Lyceum of the Philippines and the Far Eastern University. He was appointed dean of the College of Law of Far Eastern University in 1956. He wrote law books, particularly on corporate law and international law. He gained a name as one of the country’s most brilliant lawyers as well as a reputation as a strong advocate of Philippine sovereignty (as against US puppetry).
Later in life Ka Jovy would write:
“Independence, like freedom, is never granted. It is always asserted and affirmed. Its defense is an everyday endeavor—sometimes in the field of battle, oftentimes in the contest of conflicting wills and ideas. It is a daily struggle that may never end—for as long as we live.” (Ka Jovy R. Salonga, The Senate that Said No.)
Ka Jovy entered politics in 1960, running for Congress to represent the second district of Rizal under the Liberal Party (LP). His opponents were from the Sumulong and the Rodriguez clans, the province’s two political dynasties. But Ka Jovy showed himself a champion orator. He won a big victory in the November 1961 elections.
In Congress, he was appointed chair of the Committee on Good Government, where he investigated cases of government corruption. He was also appointed head of a government delegation to negotiate the Philippine petition against Malaysia’s expropriation of North Borneo.
After his term as congressman, Ka Jovy ran as senator in 1965, still under the LP banner, and ending up as topnotcher among all senatorial candidates. In this same election, Ferdinand Marcos, running under the Nacionalista Party, won on his first term as president.
Ka Jovy’s first run-in with Marcos happened when he served as chief lawyer for fellow LP senator Benigno Aquino Jr., whom President Marcos had sued for running as senator below the legal age limit. But with Ka Jovy as legal counsel, Aquino won his case before the Commission on Elections, the Senate Electoral Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
Ka Jovy also exposed several irregularities in the Marcos administration, earning him the media tag the “nation’s fiscalizer.” Among these exposés was an anomalous contract (called the Benguet-Bahamas deal) that involved Marcos cronies.
Ka Jovy ran again for senator in 1971. In August, at the LP’s proclamation rally at Manila’s famous Plaza Miranda, two grenades exploded near the stage, and injured many LP members. Ka Jovy was so critically wounded he was expected to die. Fortunately he survived, but it left him with a damaged eye, impaired hearing, and tiny pieces of shrapnel all over his body. The upside of this was that Ka Jovy again won and topped the senatorial elections. Ka Jovy became known for his crusade for good government, unrelenting criticism of the Marcos administration, and opposition to Philippine involvement in the Vietnam War.
When Marcos launched his dictatorship in 1972 and closed down Congress, Ka Jovy lost his job in the Senate but resolutely refused to cooperate with the Marcos regime. He and his law partners, Sedfrey Ordoñez and Pedro L. Yap, turned their energies towards providing free legal assistance to the host of political prisoners that had swelled the Marcos jails. Aquino Jr., his fellow senator, had then become the country’s most well-known political prisoner, and once again in need of his help.
Corazon Aquino recalled those days:
“Again we turned to Jovy for his legal expertise and for his invaluable support. Of course, we were well aware of Jovy’s tremendous sacrifice in defending Ninoy and other human rights victims.” (Salonga memoirs)
With Cosmopolitan Church pastor Cirilo Rigos, Ka Jovy started a ministry that worked for the release of political prisoners and for giving their families financial aid. The ministry won the release of almost 90 prisoners in five years. (Bueza 2016)
Ka Jovy himself was arrested in October 1980 and detained at Fort Bonifacio on suspicion he was part of a conspiracy to kill Marcos. Ka Jovy’s arrest was met with outrage locally and abroad, so Marcos released him but slapped him a charge of subversion.
The Salonga family left the country and took residence in Hawaii, and later in California where a Marcos opposition was growing fast. Salonga’s family met that of Benigno Aquino Jr., by then also released. The Aquino family was then also living in exile in Boston, Massachussetts.
Senator Aquino Jr.’s assassination in 1983 at Manila’s airport tarmac shook Ka Jovy. He and his family decided to return after a four-year exile to join what had become a vigorous national opposition to the Marcos regime. Ka Jovy became a well-known and much-respected opposition leader. But instead of pursuing a planned candidacy for vice-president in the snap presidential elections of February 1986, he gave his full support to the candidates in Corazon Aquino’s presidential bid. (source: Ramon Magsaysay citation)
When the Marcos dictatorship was dismantled in 1986, the administration of Corazon Aquino appointed Ka Jovy as chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), and tasked it to recover the wealth stolen by the Marcoses and their cronies. Under Ka Jovy’s leadership, the PCGG gave relentless pursuit of these ill-gotten wealth.
Ka Jovy again ran as a senator for the third time during the 1987 elections, under the coalition party Laban. Again, he was the electorate’s chosen number one. His legislative acts reflect his life-long dedication to honest service in government, namely, the State Scholarship Law, the Disclosure of Interest Act, the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and the Act Defining and Penalizing the Crime of Plunder.
He was elected Senate President during this third term, a term remembered most for its decision in September 1991 to reject a new R.P.-U.S. Bases Treaty. The decision effectively ended nearly a century of American military bases’ presence in the Philippines. The Senate’s stance put it smack against President Aquino’s own public support for a treaty renewal. Ka Jovy’s memorable words as he banged the gavel that signaled the treaty’s end were: “(T)he treaty is defeated.”
This Senate decision had a heavy political cost on Ka Jovy. He was “ousted” as Senate President not long after. And the business community, which favored the retention of the US bases, withdrew its support for his presidential bid. In 1992, Ka Jovy ran for president, and lost.
After this, Ka Jovy left national politics. He shifted his attention to civil society, launching three organizations, namely the Kilosbayan (people participation in governance), Bantay Katarungan (monitoring the justice system), and the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation (a memorial to honor the nation’s martyrs and heroes during the Marcos dictatorship). He resumed teaching and became a frequent speaker in forums, still keeping a critical but inspiring view of Philippine society.
He was a prolific writer. Among the most recent books he wrote were: The Senate that said no: a four-year record of the first post-EDSA Senate (1995), Presidential plunder: The quest for the Marcos ill-gotten wealth (2000), A journey of struggle and hope: The memoir of Jovito R. Salonga (2001), The intangibles that make a nation great (2003), and Presidential plunder 2: Erap, the crime of plunder and other offenses (2008).
He continued to receive awards. In 1988, he was given an honorary degree by the Arizona State University, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 2007 (for “the exemplary integrity and substance of his long public career in service to democracy and good government in the Philippines,” and in 1990, by UP a Doctor of Laws degree, honoris causa, (“for his brilliant career as an eminent political figure… for his unwavering, courageous stand against injustice, oppression, and dictatorship … and for his sterling personal qualities of decency, humility, industry and moderation”).
As he grew more frail with age, Ka Jovy nevertheless stayed alert about national events and continued to give sharp and well-thought-out commentaries about them. He also continued to provide inspiration to the Filipino youth. In another speech in 1964, he discussed how to discern education in a person:
“Is he the man who has read a lot? Partly yes, because his reading is serious and discriminate and uplifting. Is he the man who remembers many facts and events? Partly yes, because the training of memory is a wholesome discipline that requires effort and application and because one cannot make a sound judgement without respect for remembered facts. Is the educated man, then, one who because of his skill is able to provide for himself and his family? Partly yes, since education should teach us how to make a living. But there is one thing we should always remember and it is this — that far more important than the making of a living, is a living of life — a good life, a meaningful life, an abundant life.
The educated man lives this kind of a life, because he has opened the windows of his mind to great thoughts and ennobling ideas; because he is not imprisoned by the printed page, but chooses to make a relentless, rigorous analysis and evaluation of everything he reads; because he is less interested in the accumulation of degrees than in the stimulation of his mind and the cultivation of a generous spirit; because his interest is less in knowing who is right but more importantly, in discerning what is right and defending it with all the resources at his command; because he can express himself clearly and logically, with precision and grace; because he is not awed by authority, but is humble enough to recognize that his best judgment is imperfect and may well be tainted by error or pride; because he has a deep reverence for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, as a creature of God; because he has a healthy sense of values, a breadth of outlook and the depth of compassion which a purposeful education generates; because whenever he talks about good government he is prepared and willing to sacrifice himself for it; and because he lives a life of relevance to the world in which we live, a sharing in the problems of his time and doing whatever he can with intelligence and fairness and understanding.”
On his death, the Philippine Supreme Court released a message that said in part: “He was an intellectual mentor and role model to many generations of lawyers through his courage and integrity. The Court recognizes his contribution to the shaping of modern jurisprudence in basic human rights and fundamental civil liberties especially during martial law and after the restoration of democracy.”
Fellow human rights lawyer and senator, Joker P. Arroyo, said of Ka Jovy: “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… In our country there was Claro M. Recto. But if you consider the wealth of historical events surrounding a particular personality who shaped and even generated these events by his words, Ka Jovy Salonga stands virtually alone.”
Despite his growing infirmity, Ka Jovy refused to grow old. In another 2007 speech, he cited this quotation:
“Youth is not entirely a time of life; it is a state of mind. It is not wholly a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips or supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the springs of life.
Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair — these are the long, long wires that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.
You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place of your heart, there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snow of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then — and then only — are you grown old.”
Ka Jovy is today considered one of the country’s statesmen. He would never grow old. #
Born on June 22, 1920 in Pasig, Rizal
Died on March 10, 2016, in Quezon City
Parents Bernardina Reyes and Esteban Salonga
Spouse Lydia Busuego
Siblings Five brothers
Children Patricia, Victoria Regina, Ricardo, Esteban Fernando, and Eduardo
Education College of Law, University of the Philippines
Salonga, Jovito R. (2000). Presidential Plunder: The Quest for the Marcos Ill-gotten Wealth.
Salonga, Jovito R. (2001). A Journey of Struggle and Hope: The Memoir of Jovito R. Salonga.
Salonga, Jovito R. (2003). The Intangibles that Make a Nation Great: Selected Speeches, Lectures, and Writings.
Salonga, Jovito R. (2005). The Task of Building a Better Nation
Salonga, Jovito R. (2007). Not By Power or Wealth Alone
“The life, love and struggles of Jovito Salonga,” by Michael Bueza, Rappler, March 10, 2016
Citation in the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Foundation Award
Jovito Salonga’s long life began only twenty-two years after the onset of American rule in the Philippines. His youth was a time of national hope and longing for independence. These things shaped him, alongside his family’s deep Christian convictions and the hardships of their daily life. When he was twelve, a speech by the independence-champion Manuel Roxas in his hometown stirred him to dream of a life in law and in public life.
Seizing on this ambition, he rose through public schools to the College of Law at the University of the Philippines. When war overtook his studies, Salonga quickly ran afoul of the new Japanese authorities. He was tortured and jailed and released after nearly a year. Amid dearth and uncertainty, he crammed for the bar examinations and, in 1944, earned the highest score.
At war’s end, Salonga embraced Philippine independence but denounced “parity rights” and other compromising ties to the United States. He topped off his legal education with graduate degrees from Harvard and Yale universities and then plunged headlong into the life of his new nation.
Salonga established himself as a sought-after lawyer and an influential legal scholar and educator. In 1961, the Liberal Party tapped him for a successful run for Congress in his home province of Rizal. Four years later, he outpolled all other candidates for the Senate-a feat he repeated twice. He built his reputation as a crusader for clean government and public education. As a staunch nationalist, he opposed Philippine complicity in the Vietnam War and other acts of “puppetry.” And he so persistently exposed the troubling anomalies of President Ferdinand Marcos that the Philippines Free Press named him the “Nation’s Fiscalizer.”
The bomb that crippled him at a political rally in 1971, Salonga says, led him to a second, “borrowed life.” He opposed martial law from the start, defending opponents of the Marcos dictatorship and working tirelessly for the succor and release of political prisoners and for the democratic opposition. In 1980, he himself was jailed without charges and then released. Four years in exile followed.
Yet he never lost hope. In 1985, Salonga returned home to revitalize his political party and confront the dictatorship. Putting aside personal ambition, he withdrew his candidacy for vice president in the snap elections of February 1986 and threw himself heart-and-soul into Corazon Aquino’s presidential campaign and the People Power Revolution.
Afterwards, Salonga initiated the new government’s legal efforts to reclaim wealth stolen by the Marcoses. In 1987, voters returned him to the Senate. There, he authored new laws protecting the state from plunder, military coups, and corrupt officials and, in 1991 as Senate president, triumphantly led his colleagues in ejecting American military bases from the Philippines.
Salonga returned to private life the following year, having made a hotly contested but disappointing bid for the presidency. But through his NGOs, Bantay Katarungan (Sentinel of Justice) and Kilosbayan (People’s Action), he has sustained his principled interventions in the affairs of the nation up till now.
Salonga relishes the point-and-counterpoint of democratic politics. But to Salonga politics is not a game. There is a right and a wrong. Democracy is right. Social justice is right. The rule of law, honest and competent government, compassion for the poor, pride in country-all are right.
To be sure, these are the familiar mantras of Philippine politics. But to Salonga they are a creed. His rare moral authority stems from a simple fact: he practices what he preaches.
Today, at eighty-seven, Salonga urges young people to seek happiness in service. More important in life than wealth is meaning. We will find it, he says, if we live “by what we know to be true and good.”
In electing Jovito Salonga to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes the exemplary integrity and substance of his long public career in service to democracy and good government in the Philippines.