Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas


Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019


FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.




Penman No. 156: Why I’ll Never Become Ambassador

Penman for Monday, July 6, 2015

IN MY early middle age, around 40, I nursed an ambition of becoming an ambassador, an official representative of the Republic of the Philippines. Some of my friends and schoolmates were on their way to becoming one—Vicky Bataclan, now in Belgium, and Libran Cabactulan, now at the UN, were just two of them—and I imagined that I might carve out a new career in my seniorhood in the grand tradition of writer-diplomats such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and our own Manuel Viray and S. P. Lopez. I’ve met a few real and truly worthy ambassadors and have been much impressed by their demeanor—Cesar Bautista, Delia Albert, and Joey Cuisia, for example.

With a background in literature and economics, and having written a slew of speeches for Presidents, senators, and CEOs, I thought that I had acquired enough political savvy and possessed the language to be able to craft an intelligent and suitably tart or nuanced response to any issue from island-grabbing in the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese in all of us. I also happen to like wearing suits and to be driven around, and I can say “Good morning” in six languages, so I have the externals covered. If I were serious about my ambassadorial plans two decades ago, all I needed to do (if I didn’t want to go the career route and take the FSO exams) was to hitch my wagon to some political star, which is apparently how one too many stragglers like me get to be called “Ambassador” for life, their diplomatic skills be damned.

But I suppose I’ve always had at least two strikes going against my being posted to some swanky European capital: my incipient misanthropy, and my culinary incorrectness.

The older I get, the more reclusive I tend to be, shying even farther away from the frenzy of Facebook and the emoji-enabled spontaneity of many online “friendships.” It’s not that I actively dislike people; I think most strangers will find me friendly, and I warm up easily once we get a real conversation going. (With the exception, I must say, of telephone conversations; having grown up without a phone, I have always disliked—loathed would be the better word—talking on the phone, especially for anything longer than three minutes.)

It’s just that, past 60, I’ve come to seek out human company less and less, preferring to keep to myself and family, and a few close friends who wouldn’t mind not hearing from me for months or years and picking up where we left off, which is my gauge of a true friendship. Over the past five years or so, I’ve become such a homebody (my poker nights excepted) that Beng feels like she has to ask me now and then, “Don’t you have any friends?” She means, of course, people other than herself, because she knows that I’ve been perfectly happy to just have her for company, at home or on the road, and that, in our sixties, our need and desire to socialize as a couple has diminished considerably.

Beng compensates for this by being a Facebook fiend, and aside from her snoring bedmate, Facebook’s the first thing she sees in the morning and the last thing she sees at night. Like I wrote here not too long ago, I’m not even on FB, and obstinately stay out of it, because I think it’s cheapened the meaning of “friend.”

Diplomacy, of course, requires not only meeting with a lot of people, but people you hate, and who very likely feel likewise—sort of like the online world, only it’s face to face. Now, I can fake pleasantness as well as anyone else—except maybe Beng, who’d lose our house and car at poker within five minutes—but I know, from practice, that while they say it takes just 17 muscles to smile and 42 to frown, smiling can be a lot more tiring than frowning, especially if you don’t mean it.

The more important reason I’ll never head an embassy is the mess I would likely make of our foreign relations by my equally boneheaded refusal to acquire a more catholic or at least a more cosmopolitan palate, despite Beng’s entreaties for us to try menus more complicated than Chow King’s. Nothing flusters me more than the prospect of “fine dining.” (I recall how, many years ago, I begged off from joining a very exclusive and epic feast prepared by ten of Manila’s top chefs—much to the dismay of a fellow professor who had wangled the invitation—precisely because all that good food would have been wasted on me.)

That’s also why I’ve declined dinner invitations, especially from people I don’t know or who don’t know me and my curious preferences, to spare us the mutual embarrassment of my shying away from anything with cheese, or oregano (I can sniff out one part in a million), or the aforementioned curry, which effectively leaves out much of Italian, French, Greek, Indian, and Mexican cuisine. No pizzas, thank you! But I’ll take pancit, lechon, adobong pusit, Ligo sardines, chicken mami, and KFC anytime—I’m actually easy to please.

Ambassadors should be able to eat anything with anyone, and not just gorge like a hungry peon (someone called my rice-and-pancit combo “pagkaing obrero”) but dine intelligently, knowledgeably, with the ability to make off-the-cuff remarks like “Don’t you just love the tanginess and the fruitiness of this Dréan d’Auvergne? It’s a bit more complex than the St. Nectaire, don’t you agree?” (Thanks to for the technical details.)

The only place I can imagine not having this culinary quandary would be China—where I’ve gone pretty often because, as I told Beng, I was sure to find a lot of yummy Chinese food there—but I’d hate to tell my Chinese hosts what I really thought of the nine-dash line, and I’d hate to have to explain, on the rebound, why bright kids with Chinese names can create such a fuss on Pinoy Facebook.