Ramón Magsaysay was born in Iba, Zambales on August 31, 1907 to Exequiel Magsaysay, a blacksmith, and Perfecta del Fierro, a schoolteacher. He entered the University of the Philippines in 1927. He worked as a chauffeur to support himself as he studied engineering; later, he transferred to the Institute of Commerce at José Rizal College (1928–1932), where he received a baccalaureate in commerce. He then worked as a bus mechanic and became the General Manager of the bus company sometime later.
At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the motor pool of the 31st Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. When Bataan surrendered in 1942, Magsaysay escaped to the hills, narrowly evading Japanese arrest on at least four occasions. There he organised the Western Luzon Guerrilla Forces, and was commissioned captain on 5 April 1942. For three years, Magsaysay operated under Col. Merrill’s famed guerrilla outfit and saw action at Sawang, San Marcelino, Zambales, first as a supply officer codenamed Chow and later as commander of a 10,000 strong force. Magsaysay was among those instrumental in clearing the Zambales coast of the Japanese prior to the landing of American forces together with the Philippine Commonwealth troops on January 29, 1945.
On 22 April 1946, Magsaysay, encouraged by his ex-guerrillas, was elected under the Liberal Partyto the Philippine House of Representatives.
In 1948, President Roxas chose Magsaysay to go to Washington as Chairman of the Committee on Guerrilla Affairs, to help to secure passage of the Rogers Veterans Bill, giving benefits to Philippine veterans. In the so-called “dirty election” of 1949, he was re-elected to a second term in the House of Representatives. During both terms he was Chairman of the House National Defense Committee.
In early August 1950, he offered President Quirino a plan to fight the Communist guerillas, using his own experiences in guerrilla warfare during World War II. After some hesitation, Quirino realized that there was no alternative and appointed Magsaysay Secretary of National Defence on August 31, 1950.
He intensified the campaign against the Hukbalahap guerillas. This success was due in part to the unconventional methods he employed and developed alongside an American adviser, General Edward Lansdale. The counterinsurgency the two deployed utilized soldiers distributing relief goods and other forms of aid to outlying, provincial communities. Where before Magsaysay, the rural folk looked on the Philippine Army if not in distrust, at least with general apathy, during his term as Defense Secretary Filipinos began to respect and admire their soldiers.
In June 1952, Magsaysay made a goodwill tour to the United States and Mexico. He visited New York, Washington, D.C. (with a medical check-up at Walter Reed Hospital) and Mexico City where he spoke at the Annual Convention of Lions International.
By 1953, President Quirino thought the threat of the Huks was under control and Secretary Magsaysay was becoming too weak. Magsaysay met with interference and obstruction from the President and his advisers, in fear they might be unseated at the next presidential election. Although Magsaysay had at that time no intention to run, he was urged from many sides and finally was convinced that the only way to continue his fight against communism, and for a government for the people, was to be elected President, ousting the corrupt administration that, in his opinion, had caused the rise of the communist guerrillas by bad administration.
He resigned his post as defense secretary on February 28, 1953, and became the presidential candidate of the Nacionalista Party, disputing the nomination with senator Camilo Osías at the Nacionalista national convention.
In 1949, the governor of Negros Occidental Rafael Lacson assumed the gubernatorial chair and he ran the war-torn province as a police state. He tied up with the wealthy sugar plantation owners in the province, assembled private local armies and held the constabulary in an iron fist. The next year, many local journalists foretold the defeat of Lacson in the office if he would not loosen up his policies in the province.
In the 1951 local elections, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter named Moisés Padilla declared his bid to become mayor of Magallon, Negros Occidental (now Moisés Padilla). Padilla’s opponent was an ally of Lacson, and because of this Lacson sent word to Padilla, threatening him with death unless he renounced his candidacy. Despite the warning, Padilla continued his campaign and sought military protection from Magsaysay who was then Defence Secretary.
Padilla lost the mayoralty race, and the night after the polls, Lacson’s uniformed men abducted him. Padilla was sent on a “town show” where he was publicly beaten and tortured along the road. After the ordeal, one of Lacson’s men announced in the town plaza, “this is what happens to people who oppose us.”When news reached Magsaysay that Padilla was being tortured, he rushed to Negros Occidental, but was too late. He was then informed that Padilla’s body was swimming in blood, pierced by fourteen bullets, and was positioned on a police bench in the town plaza. Magsaysay himself carried Padilla’s corpse with his bare hands and delivered it to the morgue, and the next day, news clips showed pictures of him doing so. Magsaysay even used this event during his presidential campaign in 1953.
The trial against Lacson started in January 1952; Magsaysay and his men presented enough evidence to convict Lacson and his 26 men for murder.In August 1954, Judge Eduardo Enriquez ruled the men were guilty and Lacson, his 22 men and three other mayors of Negros Occidental municipalities were condemned to the electric chair.
In the Election of 1953, Magsaysay was decisively elected president over the incumbent Elpidio Quirino. He was sworn into office wearing the Barong Tagalog, a first by a Philippine president. He was then called “Mambo Magsaysay”.
As president, he was a close friend and supporter of the United States and a vocal spokesman against communism during the Cold War. He led the foundation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization also known as the Manila Pact of 1954, that aimed to defeat communist-Marxist movements in South East Asia, South Asia and the Southwestern Pacific. During his term, he made Malacañáng Palace literally a “house of the people”, opening its gates to the public. One example of his integrity followed a demonstration flight aboard a new plane belonging to the Philippine Air Force (PAF): President Magsaysay asked what the operating costs per hour were for that type of aircraft, then wrote a personal check to the PAF, covering the cost of his flight.
His administration was considered one of the cleanest and most corruption-free; his presidency was cited as the Philippines’ Golden Years. Trade and industry flourished, the Philippine military was at its prime, and the Filipino people were given international recognition in sports, culture and foreign affairs. The Philippines ranked second in Asia’s clean and well-governed countries.
Magsaysay’s term that was to end on 30 December 1957 was cut short by a plane crash. On 16 March 1957, Magsaysay left Manila for Cebu City where he spoke at three educational institutions. That same night, at about 1 am, he boarded the presidential plane “Mt. Pinatubo”, a C-47, heading back to Manila. In the early morning hours of 17 March, the plane was reported missing. By late afternoon, newspapers had reported the airplane had crashed on Mt. Manunggal in Cebu, and that 36 of the 56 aboard were killed (the actual number on board was 25, including Magsaysay). Only newspaperman Néstor Mata survived. Vice-President Carlos García, who was on official visit to Australia at the time, assumed the presidency to serve out the last eight months of Magsaysay’s term.
An estimated 5million people attended Magsaysay’s burial on 31 March 1957. He was posthumously referred to by the people the “Idol of the Masses”. He is the most recent Philippine head of state to die in-office.
Magsaysay was honoured posthumously in 1957 when the Ramon Magsaysay Award was established. Conceived by John D. Rockefeller III, the award was created to commemorate the Philippines’ President Ramon Magsaysay and to perpetuate his example of integrity in government and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. It is awarded to individuals and organizations in Asia. In May 1957, seven prominent Filipinos were named the founding board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF), the non-profit corporation tasked with implementing the awards program.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award is often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.
Every year the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation grants the prize to Asian individuals and organizations for achieving excellence in their respective fields. The awards are given in six categories:
- Government Service
- Public Service
- Community Leadership
- Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts
- Peace and International Understanding
- Emerging leadership
Presentation Ceremonies are held annually in Manila on 31 August, the birth anniversary of the late President.