By Severino C. Samonte

Reminiscing on FVR as PH's 12th and Centennial president

Did you know why the late President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR), the 12th president of the Philippines -- the first democratic Republic in Asia -- was also called the country's Centennial president?

Well, because, it was during his six-year term from June 30, 1992 to June 30, 1998 that the Filipino people celebrated the first centennial or 100th anniversary of their independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.

FVR, who hailed from Pangasinan, was preceded by 11 Filipino presidents, namely: Emilio F. Aguinaldo, Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio S. Osmeña Sr., Jose P. Laurel Sr., Manuel A. Roxas, Elpidio R. Quirino, Ramon F. Magsaysay, Carlos P. Garcia, Diosdado P. Macapagal, Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., and Corazon C. Aquino.

Aguinaldo was the president from June 12, 1898 to March 23, 1901; Quezon from Nov. 15, 1935 to Aug. 1, 1944; Osmeña (Aug. 1, 1944-July 4, 1946); Laurel (Oct. 14, 1943-Aug. 17, 1945); Roxas (July 4, 1946-April 15, 1948); Quirino (April 17, 1948-Dec. 30, 1953); Magsaysay (Dec. 30, 1953-March 17, 1957; Garcia (March 17, 1957-Dec. 30, 1961); Macapagal (Dec. 30, 1961-Dec. 30, 1965); Marcos (Dec. 30, 1965-Feb. 25, 1986); and Mrs. Aquino (Feb. 25, 1986-June 30, 1992).

If FVR were alive today, he would be celebrating his 96th birthday this coming Monday, March 18. He died on July 31, 2022 at the age of 94. He was the second president to turn nonagenarian after Aguinaldo who died at age 95 on Feb. 6, 1964.

Most people who had observed FVR closely or either worked with or under him during his long public service admired him for revitalizing and renewing global confidence in the local economic development which nearly brought the Philippines to a Newly-Industrializing Country (NIC) status at the start of the 2000 millennium.

To put the nation back on track after the distraction caused by a tumultuous period that followed the peaceful 1986 EDSA People Revolution, FVR coined what he called as "5Ds of Development," namely: Deregulation, Decentralization, Devolution, Democratization, and Development of a Sustainable Kind.

This columnist is aware that at least three media men who had covered FVR since his stint as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, then as Secretary of National Defense, and President in Malacañang, had written books describing his admirable work habits and leadership. They were Ben B. Cal of the Philippine News Agency (PNA), Fred M. Lobo of the Manila Bulletin, and Jojo T. Terencio, a close-in writer of FVR from 1992 to 1998.

Cal was the author of the book "FVR Through the Years" published in 1997; Lobo wrote "FVR The Centennial President" in 1998; and Terencio penned "Behind the Red Pen" as his special birthday gift to the former President during his 92nd birthday on March 18, 2020.

The most admirable traits of FVR as a military leader, public servant, and chief executive included his being a workaholic and not having the propensity of pointing a blaming finger at anyone to escape responsibility during critical situations or problems.

I noted this myself when I was plucked from the PNA in 1993 by FVR's first Press Secretary, Rodolfo T. Reyes, and assigned as executive editor of the Presidential News Desk (PND) at the Palace until June 30, 1996. That was the time when what could be considered as the infant Ramos administration was busy trying to solve the power crisis besetting the country when he assumed the presidency.

Instead of blaming his immediate predecessor or anyone else, he preferred to just work and work, holding numerous meetings daily with various stakeholders in the power sector, guided by what he loved to call as "Completed Staff Work" or CSW doctrine.

The workaholic ways of FVR were best illustrated by Terencio in his "Behind the Red Pen" book. He wrote that to make his time always productive, FVR used to work even while inside his official car on the road, reading or scribbling a note on official documents, using a red pen.

There had also been late nights that FVR would be conducting surprise and unannounced inspections of ongoing government projects or the various police stations and installations in Metro Manila. The President also used to work even during his birthdays.

To illustrate FVR's workaholic ways, and also to serve as a reminder to the public amid the current observance of Fire Prevention Month nationwide this March, I have decided to include in this column an interesting portion of Chapter 32 of Terencio's book subtitled "Ozone Disco Inferno" that occurred in Quezon City on March 18, 1996, FVR's birthday. Terencio narrated:

"For six years, I witnessed President FVR's birthday celebrations -- regular working days spent in the provinces or in the company of the poorest of the poor.

"In 1993, his first birthday as president, FVR flew to Batanes. The following year, he went to Ifugao. In 1995, we were in Iloilo for the reenactment of the 50th anniversary of the landing of the American forces.

"It was the turn of the town of Real in Quezon province to host the President in 1996, and in 1997, FVR was in Tanay, Rizal for a Cabinet meeting. His last birthday in office (1998) was held again in Iloilo as he attended the 53rd anniversary of the Liberation of Panay and Romblon from the Japanese Imperial Army.

"Two of his birthdays -- 67th (1995) and 68th (1996) -- stood out among the rest. The two successive years turned out to be the most unforgettable, not because of the celebrations, but because of the circumstances surrounding those days.

"On March 18, 1995, the remains of domestic worker Flor Contemplacion, who was executed at the Changi Women's Prison in Singapore, arrived in Manila. It was quite a birthday gift to the nation's leader -- a corpse of a 'kababayan' (compatriot) and the public outrage that came with it. The President sent Mrs. Ramos back to Manila on March 17 upon our arrival from an overseas trip to be his representative when the remains arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

"As FVR began his day, we attended an 8 a.m. mass at the Mactan Air Base. I remember FVR asking those in the mass to pray for the soul of Contemplacion and for the family as well. Then we left for Iloilo where he (FVR) spent the whole day.

"The following year, a tragedy happened late night of March 18, 1996. I had just arrived home, exhausted from the day's out-of-town coverage when news broke out that the Ozone Disco in Quezon City was razed by fire and hundreds of people, mostly high school and college students celebrating their graduation, were trapped inside.

"The entire nation was in shock as the tragedy took the lives of 150 people that night and injured 105 others. The final death count, though, was reported at 162, the figure cited by the court that heard the ensuing criminal case.

"The March 18, 1996 tragedy is still considered as the Philippines' deadliest fire to this day. It is ranked as the sixth deadliest nightclub fire in history, next to Beverly Hills Supper Club tragedy in 1977 that killed 165 people.

"It was the top news when I woke up the following day. Investigators were being interviewed by radio and television reporters, and so were the relatives of the victims. The accounts of these people were truly heartbreaking.

"That morning, I was headed to the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) to cover the keynote speech of FVR at the opening of a two-day Anti-Poverty Summit. The opening ceremonies proceeded smoothly and were over by 10 a.m.

"I thought we were heading back to Malacañang when the Presidential Security Group called me to advise the reporters to join the convoy because FVR would be proceeding to the Ozone Disco tragedy site. We arrived there in less than 30 minutes. It was already cordoned off and only the investigators were present.

"FVR was met by then Quezon City Mayor Ismael Mathay Jr. and several officers from the Bureau of Fire Protection. A licensed engineer, FVR asked the investigators: Can we get inside? I want to see the place.

"The PSG checked the site first and when it was deemed safe for the President and the media trailing behind him to enter, they gave the go-signal.

"Before leaving the place, FVR told the investigators to file the appropriate charges as soon as possible and reminded Mathay to ensure that the victims and their families were attended to properly. He also ordered the concerned authorities to locate and close all business establishments that violate fire safety rules."


About the Columnist

Image of Severino C. Samonte

He began his journalistic career by contributing to the Liwayway and Bulaklak magazines in the 1960’s. He was the night editor of the Philippine News Service when Martial Law was declared in September 1972. When the Philippine News Agency was organized in March 1973, he was named national news editor because of his news wire service experience.

He retired as executive news editor in 2003. He also served as executive editor of the Malacanang-based Presidential News Desk from 1993 to 1996 and from 2005 to 2008.