A Requiem: Cyclops Eugene Tan fought unwinnable battles
In Philippine Daily Inquirer, I wrote about Eugene Tan, a lawyer from Hicksville, Capiz, a first-generation Chinese-Filipino with left eye plucked out of his head, high school salutatorian, AB valedictorian magna cum laude, valedictorian Ateneo Law School, a Philippine TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) awardee (1983) and a World Jaycee TOYP (Ten Outstanding Young Persons) awardee (also in 1983) who dared to fight the Supreme Court and emerged in glorious defeat.
We Filipinos celebrate our defeats rather than our victories, because we prize sacrifice above success and virtue over victory, and because we venerate the Christlike martyr who by his magnificent failure proves a principle and consummates the redemption of his people. That is why Lorenzo Ruiz, Rizal, Ninoy, Gandhi, Lincoln, Kennedy earned our love and respect.
Who knows? Eugene A. Tan may be such a man. He suffered his last defeat at the age of 51, strangled to death by persons unknown and buried by his murderers in a shallow grave in Dasmariñas, Cavite. Who else but Eugene Tan, beaten but unbowed, a one-eyed jack, joker and wild card, a fly-in-the ointment, Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, Don Quijote from La Mancha, Crisostomo Ibarra and Simoun of Noli-Fili, a Cyclops fighting unwinnable battles, a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread.
A lawyer fighting the Supreme Court is worse off than a knight fighting the dragon or a nigger fighting Apartheid. The knight and the nigger face tremendous odds but they have a slight chance of success. Not so a lawyer against the Supreme Court, which in a democracy is the nearest thing to God sitting in Judgment, the court of last resort, from whose decision there is no appeal to a higher authority.
Eugene Tan, a small-time lawyer from Hicksville, broke the 17 year monopoly of the bar leadership by the big time lawyers from Manila, got himself elected to the presidency of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), and went out of his way to challenge the Supreme Court -- by daring to set up the IBP Judicial Commission to investigate judicial abuses, declare IBP independence from the Judiciary, and spurn lawful financial subsidy from the Court.
For that impudence he got an unprecedented slap-down from the Supreme Court, acting as court of first and last instance on a trivial labor grievance matter, as accuser, prosecutor and judge through a three-justice fact-finding committee that denied him the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the right of due process. He was in a no-win situation “fighting City Hall” like Joey Cuisia in the ring with Mohammed Ali, like the Philippines against the IMF and American Imperialists of low IQ, like Ninoy Aquino against a gun at the back of his head.
The Court suspended him from his office as IBP president, forced his resignation, and handed him a “severe censure.” Well, did he care? This was but one of the many defeats of his life, starting even before he was born.
At the age of 16 Eugene's father, Tan Chun, born in an obscure village in China, braved the tortuous China Sea, hoping to be reunited in the Philippines with a rich father. Instead he was greeted by the news that his father, who turned out to be an opium addict, died several years before and left a legacy of debts that Tan Chun as his son following Chinese tradition, was obliged to pay.
The young Tan Chun was given shelter in the house of a relative in Aklan, a grand-uncle whose son Jaime Sin still in short pants, was to become the Archbishop of Manila and a Cardinal of the Church.
Tan Chun worked as a houseboy, then as a baker in a bakery, and as a storekeeper, who later started his own store. He became a Christian with a new name, Jose Tan; acquired Filipino citizenship; married a local girl, Fidelina Alvarez, and settled in Capiz.
Jose Tan Chun was giving a younger son a whipping when the stick he was using, drawn too far back, stabbed the left eye of his elder son, Eugene, who was standing behind. A thunderbolt of pain struck through Eugene's head, followed by instant darkness.
The pain in his left eye never left him. The eerie look of his whitish pupil made him, already the butt of cruel jokes about being Chinese, shy and withdrawn. An honor student before his accident, he did so poorly in school he almost flunked his sixth grade.
But he graduated High School as salutatorian; earned his AB degree as valedictorian magna cum laude, missing a summa cum laude due to lack of residence. He was in addition the president of the Supreme Student Council, editor-in-chief of the school paper, champion orator, and chess champion who represent Capiz in the Western Visayas Chess Tournament in 1962.
He was a scholar in the Ateneo Law School in Manila when a series of misfortunes visited his family. The store was completely burned down, his parents separated, and his father launched a fast unto death to escape the miseries of life, a hunger strike against God. Eugene rushed to his father and cried: “Live for me and I will vindicate your name. Live and I promise you that I will become something, I will become...”
Here he hesitated to say President of the Philippines, because Marcos was then expected to be president for life, followed by another presidential lifetime by Imelda Romualdez Marcos, followed by Bongbong Marcos and his issue, so Eugene ended up saying, “I promise to be at least Governor of Capiz..” His father ended his hunger strike.
Meanwhile Eugene Tan underwent four costly operations to reduce the excruciating pain when he blinked. To be able to read his law books for long periods, Eugene had to go through acrobatics and contortions just to vary the angle of his eyesight.
After first two operations, he noted lapses in his memory due to the general anesthesia, fatal to a student taking the bar exam. On his third operation he was told by Dr. Gemeliano Ocampo that without a general anesthesia, the pain would be unendurable. “Doc, if the pain is unbearable, I will pass out anyway.” The doctors injected only a local anesthesia on his eyelid and eyeballs, and cut with scalpel around the eyeball. Eugene mercifully passed out.
The excruciating pain lingered and Eugene had a fourth operation, where his left eye was excised and a glass eye substituted. Years later he figured in an accident that completely wrecked his car, and in which a fellow lady passenger lost her right eye. Eugene shudders to think he might have lost his last remaining eye.
He graduated Law with a gold medal for academic excellence, and top honors as valedictorian. He planned to rest a year then vie for the Top Ten in the bar exams. That particular year, the Supreme Court announced that to prevent crass commercialism, it will not publicize the Top Ten bar topnotchers. Well, since the bar exam only entailed passing and not vying for the Top Ten, Eugene Tan decided to take the exam right away despite his precarious health. Because of the tremendous strain on his eye, he had to finish his answers to the exam questions within one hour instead of the customary two and a half hours, because his good eye was just too exhausted to continue.
But then the Supreme Court went back on its word and published the rankings of bar examinees that year, without Eugene in the Top Ten. He asked the Supreme Court to nullify his exam wherein he was the 14th bar topnotcher so that he can take it again and vie for higher honors. The justices of the Court gave him a tongue lashing and ordered him to take his oath.
The young lawyer became the president of the 100-year-old Philippine Bar Association, and an outstanding human rights lawyer. He was the founder and first president of Order of Utopia, the other Ateneo law fraternity without a record of homicide; founder and executive vice-president of the Maritime Law Association; the only survivor of the 1983 TOYM scandal; outstanding young-lawyer-of-the-world awardee in 1983; Philippine Jaycee “Young Man of the Year 1984” who married Cynthia Javellana-Ledesma, with whom he has five children; a successful lawyer whose greatest failure in life was failure to reconcile his parents.
Another failure of Eugene A. Tan is his failure as President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) to effect the independence of the bar (lawyers) from the bench (judiciary), to set up the IBP Judicial Commission to investigate judicial abuses and at least subject the unlimited power of the Supreme Court to the bar of public opinion.
And his last failure lies in a shallow grave in Cavite.