Why I have faith in our government
The call of faith is not to be certain first and then believe; it is to believe first, then be certain.
I have faith in our government. I figured this is a strange way to begin a commencement address. But I start it this way because all of us are at a crossroads of faith: we are all jumping off cliffs of the unfamiliar. We are anxious because our future is uncertain: to fall short of expectations, to disappoint the ones we love, to fail to be of public value.
Doubt is the lens through which cynics see the world. To those of us paralyzed in our own uncertainty, the way to see is not with the eyes of cynics but with the eyes of faith. The call to those of us who "seek first the Kingdom of God" is not to be certain first then to believe; it is to believe first then be certain.
I have faith in our government, but I will not mince words: I am also jaded by what I see. My own crossroads of faith is struggling with this question: can we really change structures of sin and corruption and build structures of grace?
With the eyes of faith, I believe: this is why I entered government straight out of college. Because I believed first, I am now becoming more certain that things are possible to change for the better. Even if I am jaded and tired, with the eyes of faith I find myself more idealistic now than ever before.
The eyes of faith allow us to hope.
Allow me to tell you a story of light in darkness. A few days ago, one of my compasses in the civil service, newly appointed Customs Commissioner Sunny Sevilla, along with members of the Customs Reform Team, was criminally sued by companies involved in the importation of rice without the required National Food Authority import permits. This means the rice is smuggled. (WATCH: Sevilla: Fixing the Customs' image)
All I could ask was: how can citizens and businesses think this way? More importantly I was concerned about his welfare: How can an honest man like him last fighting modern-day Goliaths with fat pockets and a bloated sense of entitlement?
Commissioner Sunny was given the arduous task of reforming the Bureau of Customs, an agency that has long been publicly perceived the most corrupt in government. It is marked with employees living beyond their means: residing in mansions, driving luxury cars, owning designer bags, expensive watches, and gold rings and necklaces.
Despite being the highest ranking official of this Bureau, he in his utter simplicity offers a stark contrast to this culture of excess: he washes his own dishes during lunch, uses an analog Nokia phone, refuses to accept gifts, and drives around the ports on weekends to thank customs employees who work despite not being paid overtime. Commissioner Sunny is my model of simplicity and honesty in government.
Customs is starting to change with his brave leadership and the support of President Aquino and the new reform team. The numbers tell us that the reform program is starting to work: Customs collections have grown from a measly 4% before the reform period, to an admirable 19% during the reform period; he has fearlessly issued complaints against Customs employees involved in spurious transactions; recently filed a smuggling case against the second largest importer of steel; suspended the accreditation of suspected importers and brokers even of large multinational corporations. He is unfazed by the suits he will personally bear, and will continue to push for the reforms he was appointed to undertake.
In his turnover speech he said, "The work of reform is in the little unglamorous, things," and that his being called to the helm says that, "God has a sense of humor."
Remember that little David won against Goliath because of faith; almost comical in its humor, but true. Working with people like Commissioner Sunny, who works through the grit of everyday, gives young people like me great hope and more than enough reason to continue to serve in government. With people like him, we can beat Goliaths.
To quote Dean Tony La Viña, there are "Sunny days ahead in Customs." If we can reform the most corrupt government agency, nothing is impossible. The call of faith is to be 'sunny' in darkness; to be light in the Lord in the darkness of sin. To be Lux in Domino. I am jaded and uncertain by what I see, but the hope that things can change strengthens my faith in our government. I am more idealistic now than ever before.
My dear schoolmates, we are all jumping off cliffs of the uncertain: Can you see the light in darkness? Can you see with eyes of faith?
Excellence for service
Excellence is futile if it isn't an excellence for service.
When we were before these same pillars, we always used to say, "Whatever we do, we do it well... very well." It has been our batch's motto. It was printed on our batch shirt. But is our education really about doing well, about excellence in versatility? We can go anywhere and do well anywhere--but so what? What is our direction?
If it is true that we do things "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam" – for the greater glory of God - we are bound by a common, unequivocal call. In the eyes of faith, it is to glorify God by serving the poor.
The best thing I learned from the Ateneo is that excellence is futile if it isn't an excellence for service. "Ano man kun matibay ka, maorag, mayaman o makapangyarihan? Ano man kun mag-graduate kang valedictorian o may sarong kilong medalya sa liog? Mayong kahulugan an gabos na ini kun bakong para sa Dios saka sa mga nagugutom asin nagsasakit tang tugang. Mayong kahulugan."
(So what if you are good, weatlhy and powerful? So what if you graduate with Latin honors? None of them matters if they are not for the Lord and for our fellow Filipinos who are poor and hungry. They are meaningless.)
Dearest graduates, take a look at your medals and be glad that you have finished high school. Congratulations! Close your eyes, hold the medals of your graduation, and remember your four years undergoing gruelling exams, games and intramurals, falling in love, failing in love.
Behold: these are the medals of your graduation. These are useless pieces of metal if they are not used for service.
Maray pang iapon ta iyan kun dai para sa Dios asin sa kapwa an gigibuhon ta. (We are better off at throwing away these medals if our hard work is not dedicated to the Lord or our fellow Filipinos.)
Building the nation begins with the discernment of individual missions. But no matter what our missions are we are bound by a common, unequivocal call. Discernment, Ignatius says, is about fixing your eyes on the end and being indifferent towards the means. Again, in the eyes of faith, our end is very clear: to glorify God by serving the poor.
Allow me then to add a little to the statement to our batch shirt: "whatever we do, we do it well – for God and the poor."
Excellence is futile if it isn't an excellence for service.
On the youth being the hope of the nation
The second set of stories are stories of hope: about how young people are taking on this mission of service. It is not a widely known fact that many young, idealistic college graduates have entered government. Our top college graduates, for example, are entering the civil service. The energy they bring to the service is very positive, joyful and infectious.
Let me share some examples: the youth are the driving force behind transparency and open government. Take a look at data.gov.ph or the Open Data website: which is a comprehensive project to make government transparent and accountable by publishing data and statistics.
The tagline is, "openness inspires trust." Maging bukas para sa bu'kas. If you see this project's backroom, the project coordinators are all highly passionate young staff around the age of 20 to 30. In fact they are so passionate that it feels like they come fresh out of rallies.
The fight for transparency, accountability and good governance is the EDSA of our generation.
Ivory Ong, Gabe Baleos and Nick Castro of the Department of Budget and Management work on project management and data management.
Smile Indias and Gia Banaag of the Office of the President work on design and conceptualizing visualizations. Many government agencies are joining in: Marian Albano of the DOF handles preparation and publication of customs data, data that was previously monopolized and even sold. Openness inspires trust.
Many of the government's technological and modernization initiatives are also powered by the youth: the DOF's Pera Ng Bayan, which allows citizens to anonymously report corruption, is handled by Dir. Jen Tan, Sophie Domingo, Belle Arceno and Jeki Ona.
The visualizations in Budget ng Bayan and the Open Budget process of the DBM opened the books of government to the scrutiny of the public: these are handled by Lance Viado and Clare Amador.
Young staff from different departments were involved in the relief operations of Yolanda. With Air21, government set up operations in a DSWD repacking center at Cargohaus-NAIA, with a goal of repacking 25,000 relief bags per day. Young people worked thirty-hour shifts to make this happen: my colleagues Mick Aguirre and Andoy Inumerable led these operations with admirable energy and fortitude. At the Yolanda Headquarters, Rob Siy, Jenn Lazo and Aika Robredo coordinated traffic; friends in DSWD handled procurement and operations; Dom Bulan, who was Ateneo de Manila High School valedictorian, crunched the numbers.
In the Bangsamoro peace process, Kiwee Wee and Vanessa Maynard were actively involved in the peace negotiations. In social welfare, Dir. Geo-Ann Hernandez, An Ferrer, and their team build sustainable livelihood models for conditional cash transfer families. They are also the ones still out in the fields, tirelessly organizing rehabilitation efforts. In local government, Nikki Jurado works on the difficult issue of informal sector families.
In basic education, Elvin Uy and Kat Kho helped modernize our decades-old education legislation to pass the K-12 law, a curriculum decongestion program to allow our students to become lifelong learners, and in the workplace become more globally competitive. Our schoolmate Raffy Magno of the Ateneo de Naga works with public school teachers to improve education policy.
There are countless other stories of young people taking on the mission of service; I can talk to you about them all day. They are those who devote their energies into believing and building, instead of seeing the government with the eyes of cynics.
The common denominator among all these young people is that they pursue their passion with such great drive and direction. It makes me wonder: what gives them so much energy?
First, I see in my friends a deep sense of purpose and mission. This mission transcends their personal spaces. Every one of these young people constantly asks: what is of public value?
Second, and this is the understated fact: they have leaders and mentors who trust them and guide them. Rizal once said that the youth are the hope of the nation. Nothing can be truer. But now I see the other side of the coin: Leaders who believe in the youth are the hope of the country.
My boss, Secretary Cesar Purisima, is a great believer in the potential of the youth. He trusts all his young staff, despite our inexperience, like full-fledged professionals. He hires smart by hiring young people, he says. He hires young because we have dreams for the country. If it were not for him, his optimism and hope for the country, and his trust in the youth, marahil nagningas-kugon ang mga pangarap kong ito.
I have faith in our government because there are leaders who have faith in the youth. I have faith in our government because I know I am not alone.
How can you say no to such a generous God?
The last story is a story of generosity and gratitude. In college I met two friends under the overpass in Ateneo: 6-year old Mariell and 12-year old Precious. Along with their Lola Rosing they sold candy by the streets of Katipunan. We played patintero, piko and taguan; we sang ABCs, 123s and rap songs. We became very close friends.
In 2009 they wanted to celebrate my birthday with me. They gave me a birthday card. On it they wrote:
"Kuya Ken, happy birthday. Pasensya na at wala kaming pambili ng pagkain para sa birthday mo, pero ito ang handa namin para sa'yo."
On the card they pasted magazine cut-outs of cakes, spaghetti, pie, lumpia, and all the party food they could find. "Maraming salamat po," they concluded the letter.
After that experience, I could only think: the Lord is so generous, and I cannot be but grateful for his graces.
Gratitude is realizing that we are nothing, yet we receive everything in God's Love. Maaring hindi ako nakapag-aral at napabayaan lamang, ngunit isinilang ako sa mabubuting magulang. Maaring hindi ako nakapasok sa Ateneo dahil hindi namin kaya ang pantustos at matrikula, ngunit pinalad akong maging iskolar.
Maaring buong buhay na nakatiklop ang aking mga kamay, ngunit may mga taong unang bukas-palad na nagbigay.
To our teachers and our parents who are here today: kayo ang unang naging bukas palad. Maraming salamat po.
In Bikol, we express this gratitude by saying, "Dios mabalos," which literally means "God will return the favor." But this gratitude is not just a passive prayer; it is an active commitment: "God, through my entire self, will return the favor."
As such, faced with the choice to give and serve, with a heart brimming with God's love, how can we not give ourselves as well?
This generosity is the common, fertile ground upon which missions are built.
As such when we are called by the Lord to our respective missions, how can we say no? How can we say no to such a generous God?
In the face of the generosity of God overflowing through my workmates, my friends, my teachers, my benefactors, my family, how can I not strive for excellence in public service? In the final analysis, there is no other choice but to live out my mission.
To my dear graduating schoolmates - how will you live out yours?
How will you live out "Dios mabalos?" - Rappler.com
Kenneth Abante, 21, is nearing his second year of service in the Department of Finance. He delivered this speech during the 69th Commencement Exercises at the Ateneo de Naga University High School. He believes that our government is only as good as the people who believe and work in it. A Bicolano, he is deeply inspired by the example of Jesse Robredo. He prays that more young people join the civil service.