We lost another pillar in the academic community.
He was an enabler.
As a teacher, he taught students to reach beyond the boundaries of the prescribed lesson, leading their minds into new territory.
An acknowledged expert on matters in Philippine society and politics, his insight often guided national policies. One of these led the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos to ease the naturalization process in 1975 through Letter of Instruction (LOI) 270, enabling alien Chinese to acquire Filipino citizenship through administrative process and achieve their full integration in the Philippines.
Its far-reaching consequence is evident today, from Tsinoy licensed professionals – educators, doctors, lawyers, accountants – to major business players in such industries as retail, agriculture and land development. These are all fields of endeavor closed to noncitizens.
On March 21, Prof. Benito Lim left behind the country he had helped shape when his heart stopped in his sleep. He was 82.
He could have earned more money in the corporate world, as a consultant in research or intelligence agencies, or as a writer of books on wide-ranging topics covering China, Chinese Studies, Asia, ASEAN, the United States, Philippines-China relations and many others.
But he chose instead to teach: first at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City and upon retirement, at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City and the Confucius Institute in Makati.
My teacher, my mentor
He was my professor in a class on modern China in 1973 when I was taking up Asian Studies at the graduate school of the UP Asian Center. He was one of two professors (Dr. Josefa Saniel was the other) who made us work hard and taught us a lot more beyond the course requirements.
As a teacher, Ben was very conscientious. He exacted a high standard in papers and made sure students understood the subject matter. My term paper for his class was on the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). He asked me to revise the paper to include the impact of ideology and mass psyche in encouraging the peasants to join the mass action.
After my late husband Chinben completed his research fellowship with the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan in 1978, we decided to come home to the Philippines.
We started meeting with Ben and his wife Aurora (Roxy as we fondly called her) to discuss social issues and the Tsinoy community. We were away for two years and the couple, both teaching at UP then, gave us updates and their insights.
Many times, the conversations jumped dizzily from one topic to another because of the Lim couple’s wide range of interests. I regret that when Chinben passed on, there was no chance for these friendly and enlightening discussions. We became preoccupied with everyday living.
When Chinben applied for and was accepted at the UP Asian Center, Roxy defended the rank of Associate Professor II to be given him. Chinben helped a lot in encouraging the faculty and students to do more research.
One unexpected task Chinben was given at Asian Center was to get Chinese organizations to host dinners and lunches for visiting China or Taiwan professors. The Filipino professors were given VIP treatment as guests in China or Taiwan universities because the schools had budgets for such. But, to reciprocate, our professors had to pay for such expenses out of their own pockets because the university then had little or no representation budget.
Other professors usually pooled a monthly fund to prepare for the return visit but if the group was big, transport and food could be expensive.
Since diplomatic relations with China were established just a few years earlier, many Chinese organizations like the Amity Club and World News were always ready, happy and honored to accommodate Chinben and host dinners or lunches for these Chinese guests. Ben, Roxy and Chinben happily chatted with these guests, even if they were not UP Asian Center guests but requested to do so by the UP vice president for external linkages.
Integration, citizenship, diplomatic relations
Few know that Ben left a legacy that had wide-ranging impact for Tsinoys. His knowledge and recommendation made full integration of Tsinoys into Philippine mainstream society possible.
In 1972, American president Richard M. Nixon visited China. The rapprochement between the United States with Russia and China led to the end of the Cold War.
In 1975, the Philippines established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
But there was a domestic issue that needed resolution before Marcos could establish ties with PROC. What should the government do about the 120,000 alien Chinese who held citizenship and passports from Taiwan or the Republic of China?
Before then, the last and most difficult barrier to alien Chinese fully joining mainstream society was political integration. How can a state demand full integration among people who are not even citizens of the country?
Our organization in the 1970s, Pagkakaisa Sa Pag-unlad, worked hard to push for the jus soli principle of citizenship (by birth) at the 1971 Constitutional Convention.
A huge majority of Chinese in the Philippines, more than 90 percent, were born, grew up and educated in this country and know no other home except the Philippines.
But due to the exigencies of the jus sanguinis principle of citizenship (citizenship acquired through a parent who is a citizen) in the Constitution, as well as the difficult, expensive and tedious process of naturalization through judicial means, they were not Filipino citizens.
They could not enter the licensed professions, own land and move out of Chinese enclaves.
Ben was one of those tapped to do a position paper on this matter. He promptly came up with a proposal to make these alien Chinese citizens of the Philippines through administrative means.
He in fact helped draft LOI 270, which led to a presidential decree that opened the door for easy access to citizenship. I am proud to say that Ben used the research and position paper of Pagkakaisa extensively to defend the need to grant citizenship to the Chinese and tap their full potentials in nation building.
Nearly 90 percent of the alien Chinese applied for and obtained citizenship this way.
Since then, instead of flocking only to business opportunities, Tsinoys began to enter professions like education, social work, medicine, technical, legal and engineering fields, which were closed to noncitizens. Since then, the roster of topnotchers in licensure board exams will almost always have Tsinoys in it.
Before then, land ownership was closed to Tsinoys. As newly minted Filipinos, they started buying property and building homes in suburbia instead of just renting in Tsinoy enclaves. This too had far-reaching impact in integration: They started moving to outlying areas to live with Filipino neighbors.
In 1979, by virtue of Executive Order No. 543, the Philippine Center for Advanced Studies (PCAS) was formed as an autonomous unit of UP Diliman.
Then National Security Adviser Jose Almonte, Executive Secretary Alex Melchor Sr. and Social Security System president Adrian Cristobal were among the proponents of turning PCAS into a strategic think tank that produced many of the policy papers that influenced government stand on various issues.
Ben was responsible for many of these high-impact papers. Roxy would share that Melchor, who was very close to Marcos then, would often privately consult Ben on pressing matters, unknown to Almonte.
He made a lot of sense
If he had been paid for every media interview he gave, Ben would have been very rich. He was the favorite resource person of major networks like GMA and ABS-CBN, broadsheets and foreign networks like CNN, BBC and newspapers like South China Morning Post, Singapore Straits Times, New York Times and countless other influential strategic think tanks.
He was a fellow at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a respected group often consulted on major issues like federalism, death penalty, good governance, anti-corruption, the South China Sea-West Philippine Sea tensions, and impeachment.
Up to the time of his heart attack right after teaching a class at Ateneo in 2016, Ben was still giving interviews on wide-ranging topics.
He wrote columns in English which were then translated into Chinese for World News, a leading Chinese-language daily. His ideas and insights were very well received.
He was widely read and had an enormous capacity to absorb news and remember events. His insights on many issues helped clarify and enlighten television viewers and newspaper readers.
Naturally, he had his share of detractors. But to laymen like my own driver who listens to the interviews, Ben made a lot of sense and helped them understand the issues better.
There can be no second Prof. Ben Lim. We, whose lives they touched, owe him and his wife Roxy a lot when they stuck to academic work rather than other more lucrative engagements.
The rewards of people they touched, students they taught, and national leaders they influenced are apparently more important than the monetary gains they could have had.
I salute Ben Lim and express my profound sorrow. He will be sorely missed.
We lost another pillar in the academic community.