It shocked the nation.

Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III’s sudden death took Filipinos by surprise. Only 61, they did not expect the 15th president to die soon as nobody knew he was terribly sick only five years after he quietly slipped back to private life.

“Noynoy,” as he was fondly called by his family and friends, never dipped a finger in politics after June 2016, rarely appearing in public.

Before he ended his six-year term, he said he looked forward to watching movies, listening to music and spending time with his family. He was a bachelor.

Aquino was born to the wealthy political elite. He had big shoes to fill, being the only son of the country’s two democracy icons.

His father and namesake was a former senator, popularly known as Ninoy, who was assassinated in August 1983 only minutes after he stepped out from a China Airlines plane at Manila’s airport tarmac.

He was warned not to return to the Philippines from a three-year exile in the United States but insisted, assuming a fictitious name to avoid detection.

His death sparked a movement against the iron-fisted regime of the sick dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which built up until 1986 when the people got the courage to rise and support a military mutiny.

Ninoy’s death catapulted his widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, to power in 1986 after a snap presidential election marred by fraud.

But it was not an easy presidency as she had to quell more than half a dozen attempts by rogue soldiers, including some former allies who installed her to office, to seize state power.

Cory’s enduring achievement was restoring the democratic institutions that the dictator abolished in 1972 when he imposed military rule. She brought back honesty, decency and sincerity in leadership.

Her son did the same when he rose to power in 2010, riding on the crest of public emotions after Cory’s death just a year earlier.

Aquino exceeded what his mother did. He had steered the country’s economy to greater heights with annual GDP growth averaging 6.2 percent, one of the fastest growing in Asia. He lifted the country’s credit rating to investment grade and improved the employment rate to 93 percent.

Politically, Aquino’s government signed a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending half a century of conflict in the south that had killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

He also laid the groundwork for the military’s modernization program, enacting a law to allocate P300 billion to acquire new planes, ships, tanks, and other armaments.

The military re-entered the jet age under Aquino with the first F-50A light fighters from South Korea. Negotiations for guided-missile semi-stealth frigates started.

These represent a significant defense capability buildup as tensions rose in the disputed South China Sea, with China aggressively asserting its sovereignty claim, building artificial islands in the Spratlys, and seizing control of Scarborough Shoal.

Although the country has an inferior military, Aquino had taken on China courageously, filing an arbitral complaint before an international tribunal in 2013.

Just days after he handed over power to Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, declaring China’s nine-dash-line claim as excessive and illegal.

These are not ordinary achievements for a leader who had a lackluster performance as a lawmaker for 12 years — nine years at the House of Representatives and three years at the Senate.

He proved to be a better manager and administrator but he also had missteps in handling a disaster when Typhoon “Haiyan,” locally known as “Yolanda,” the most powerful storm to hit the country, struck in November 2013, killing more than 7,000 people and leaving 200,000 households homeless in the country’s belly.

He was also blamed for the deaths of 44 members of an elite police commando sent to arrest a Malaysian bomb-maker in Mamasapano and for the botched hostage-taking operation in Luneta where several Hong Kong tourists were killed.

He stirred up public protests for introducing the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a mechanism to speed up public spending but was seen as another form of pork barrel for lawmakers — an executive tool to control Congress through political patronage.

These missteps and lapses did not affect Aquino’s popularity as it remained high when his term ended in 2016. But it was eroded slowly as the new administration demonized Aquino, blaming him for all the problems it had inherited.

Aquino did not defend himself. He quietly endured all the criticisms against him and his administration. His silence had partly led to the Liberal Party’s debacle in the 2019 midterm elections.

His friends and allies said Aquino’s non-confrontational and self-effacing character prevented him from hitting back.

But things have their own way of redemption. His death has resurrected the country’s longing for a leader who is honest, decent, conscientious, and up to the task.

His supporters need not paint him as a near-saint as the contrast between him and the current leader is very obvious. Aquino had class. Duterte is a crass.

After five years, Duterte has little to show in fulfilling what he had promised in the election campaign in 2016, except for thousands of people killed in a brutal and bloody drug war and a campaign to end insurgency.

The economy collapsed. Even without the coronavirus pandemic, the economy started to slide down from 2017 until 2019.

Except for a few thousands who still support him, propped up by a troll army, Filipinos are fed up with Duterte’s threats and intimidation and inept leadership, mishandling the pandemic response and solely relying on ex-generals’ limited expertise.

There are people who are hoping the death of ex-president Aquino would resurrect the fire in every Filipino’s belly to push back a creeping dictatorship and choose next year a leader in the mold of the ex-leader — decent, honest and with dignity.

There is enough outpouring of emotions and goodwill that could be harnessed to restore decency and integrity in government leadership.

The Filipino people can rise up once more to end violence, corruption and abuse by collectively rejecting the kind of crass politics that has plunged the country back into the dark ages.

In 1986, Filipinos collectively brought back democracy. They threw out a corrupt regime in 2010. They should bring back integrity, honesty and decency in government in 2022.