The answer is yes: Questions for young leaders
(This is a plenary speech delivered on May 29 at Ugnayan 2016, which gathered members of the National Alliance of Youth Leaders from across the Philippines and Indonesia.)
Why are we here? This existential questioning is surely familiar to you. We all ask at some point: Who am I? What is my purpose? How can I help?
Today, I am here because I am a Filipino storyteller. Today, you are here because you will be writing the story of our Philippines.
So let’s begin with a story, about a woman who was told no.
Her story may be unfamiliar, but I hope it will stay with you. It is sad, but it is hopeful.
It’s the year 2005. It’s the evening before Good Friday. It’s the city of Tacurong, in Sultan Kudarat. It’s the home a tough and brave woman named Marlene Esperat. It’s the holidays, and she had sweetly sent her two bodyguards home. At the dinner table, Marlene sits down with her family.
What would happen that night before Good Friday began fifteen years earlier, when Marlene was a chemist at a regional lab of the Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Division. Suspecting that sixteen of her colleagues had spent the budget on office supplies that did not exist, Marlene filed a complaint. But before it could be investigated, a fire destroyed the department’s accounting office and a security guard said he saw the driver of one of the suspects, named Osmeña Montaner, with gallons of gasoline. The security guard went into hiding, and Marlene also fled the city, because Montaner was believed to have shot other whistleblowers in other scandals – a department accountant and a regional seed coordinator who uncovered anomalies in a purchase of palay.
But this did not stop Marlene. She started again, as a regional ombudsman for the Department of Agriculture, where she accused officials of stealing millions by smuggling chicken coups from abroad. This and other findings forced her into the witness protection program for two years, but Marlene returned to begin a new career, as a journalist – to expose what the government didn’t care to fix. She worked for the Midland Review newspaper and the local radio station DXKR; her popular column was called “Madame Witness.” There, in 2005, she alleged that Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, Undersecretary Joceyln Bolante, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and many others were involved in that famous fertilizer scam that misapproriated hundreds of millions of pesos of taxpaper money.
That night before Good Friday in 2005, Marlene sits at the dinner table with her family. A strange man walks into the room. “Good evening, ma’am,” he says, raising a gun. Marlene is shot in the face. Instantly, at 45-years-old, the chemist, ombudsman, journalist, and mother, is dead — over office supplies, chicken coops, and fertilizer. Three gunmen were later caught and sentenced to life in prison for murdering Marlene for 120,000 pesos. The masterminds were identified by the hitmen. Do you think they were charged?
I think often of Marlene Esperat. Her story is sad, but it is also hopeful – because she shows us the answer to our existential questioning: Who am I? What is my purpose? What can I do to help?
Marlene discovered who she was when she stood against what is wrong. She discovered what her purpose was when she witnessed our system failing. She discovered how she could help by working to fix a problem.
Problems you want to fix
Let me tell you another story, this time one that is certainly familiar to you. When I was your age, people constantly asked me: What do you want be when you grow up? You’ve been asked that before, haven’t you? By your parents, teachers, elders, peers. You might answer that you want to grow up to be a chemist, or civil servant, or journalist, or somesuch else. That age-old question is a familiar story. But what if we told it differently? What if you were asked not what you want to be, but instead asked what problems you want to fix?
Instead of answering chemist, or civil servant, or journalist, or somesuch else, you’d answer that you wanted to fix corruption, mismanagement, injustice, crime, lack of education. You’d answer that you wanted to resolve this conflict with China, and create opportunities at home for the millions of OFWs, and break institutionalised oppression, and protect indigenous Filipinos from mercenary mining and logging, and end the reign of the oligarchy, and stop the erosion of civil discourse, and safeguard our history from being rewritten, and heal the division amongst all of us, and build bridges to empower citizens to take their rightful part in our society where we are all born naked yet become clothed in inequality
If we changed the question, your answers would be different, and your path would be clearer. You would study the subjects you needed in order to fix those problems, whether your skill with math made you a chemist, or your dedication made you a civil servant, or your love of language made you a journalist. Whether you became a doctor, lawyer, businessman, or teacher, you would then dedicate whatever you could to finding solutions. You would not just be something. You would do something. Just like Marlene Esperat did.
I suspect that all of you are here this weekend because you know there is much to be done. Our world faces climate change, religious extremism, political fascism, chronic inequity. Our country faces all that and more – despite our vast resources, fertile soil, industrious people, and booming economy producing more than enough for the 22-million families that comprise our population.
Our nation is rich in so many ways – but only for so very few people. Take these examples: Of the 10-trillion peso capitalization of our country’s top 300 businesses, more than 60 percent is owned by only ten families. Of the 7-trillion peso commercial banking industry, made up of 36 banks, more than 60 percent is controlled by only four families. This was according to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno, from a study by the respected business journalist Antonio S Lopez. According to another study, by economist Cielito Habito, 25-million Filipinos each earn less than 46 pesos a day, yet forty of the richest Filipino individuals account for three-quarters of our country’s Gross Domestic Product. That’s right: forty people control 75 percent of our wealth.
Alarmingly, or maybe comfortingly, this is a global problem. According to a study by Oxfam, 62 people around the world hold the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50 percent of humanity put together. That’s right: Sixty-two individuals, with the equivalent wealth of 3.6 billion people. And this problem only gets worse. In 2010, 388 people had as much wealth as the world’s poorest half; two years later, that number halved to 159 individuals; two years after that, it halved again to 80 people; while this last year, 2015, data shows that the 62 richest people hold the equivalent wealth of the 3.6 billion poorest. Unless our political and economic systems are changed, such inequality will only worsen, both here at home and abroad.
Challenges not isolated
As you consider our role in the Philppines and amongst our ASEAN community, this global perspective should not be forgotten. We may be an archipelago, but our country’s challenges are not at all isolated. Therefore, they cannot be fixed simply by electing a new president, or praying for salvation, or switching to federalism or a parliamentary system, or even overthrowing our oligarchy. In my wide travels as a writer and professor, I’ve seen our problems here are spread as well across the planet — like snow blanketing the pavement, or ash fallen from Pinatubo.
My work allows me to see much of the world, and so I share with you what I’ve seen. In Quebec, where I lived for years, I saw crumbling infrastructure and roads more potholed than ours, and a corrupt construction industry with tight political ties. In Australia, where I was on scholarship to study, by day I saw the effects of climate change and by night I feared for my safety in the most simmeringly racist culture I’ve ever known. In Lebanon, I was shown by a local around the Shatila refugee camp, to the places where hundreds of Muslims had been slaughtered by Christian extremists. In Mexico City, everyone warned against taking cabs, because the government had given corrupt cops taxi licenses to cushion their firing from the police force.
In Colombia, as in other countries in the region, kidnapping has become an industry. In Malaysia, where the opposition leader was jailed on trumped-up charges of homosexual acts, my colleagues and I worried about what we could recite in public. In Singapore, the migrant workers barracks are so heavily controlled that guards chased me away for taking a photo of a sign listing physical punishments for any behaviour authorities deemed bad. In overpopulated India, the concentration of poverty seemed far more pressurised than here.
In San Francisco, I saw an epidemic of vagrancy – shoplifting, aggression, and sleeping on streets everywhere because New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had given out one-way tickets to clear the Big Apple of the unwashed and unwanted. And that is what I arrived to when I studied in Manhattan, three weeks after 9/11, when posts and walls were then covered in leaflets for all the missing persons who would never survive terrorism.
Just as in Paris, where I recently went, to see where the disaffected gunmen had killed and injured hundreds of innocents – on those same grand boulevards where homeless families sleep nightly in doorways, many with children, even infants, shivering in the cold. While in Italy, where I worked last year, the unstoppable influx of thousands of war refugees inflames the problem of youth unemployment – which at a rate of 40 percent is nearly thrice that of our country’s.
And in the Middle East, where I’m now a professor, the security guards from Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan, and the Philippines – whom I volunteered to teach creative writing on weekends, to help them find confidence in their voices — all of them write the same stories of hardship, and worries for their families, and deep, endless sacrifice. On every continent I’ve been to, the graffiti protests in different languages, but the complaints are identical, the problems the same.
But like snow blanketing the pavement, or ash falling from Pinatubo, these problems collect most where cracks are deepest. In our Philippines, the cracks are oh-so-deep, because the inequality is oh-so-wide.
Fight on several fronts
Make no mistake: inequality is the heart of what ails us all, but not only in wealth. For centuries humanity wrestled with equalizing rights and opportunities for all people—first against abusive monarchs, then churchmen, then dictators, and now sectors of society who wish to maintain their privilege. That fight continues now on several fronts; let’s take three for example: Gender equality, access to education, and freedom of expression.
Across the planet, one in three women will be sexually abused in her lifetime – that’s every third woman you know, or every third woman in this very hall. Thirty percent of those abused will be victimized by their husbands or boyfriends. Sixty million girls are denied education. 125 million females have had genital mutilation forced upon them. 20 million women have been sold into sexual servitude and forced labour. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, divorce remains illegal no matter your religion, and wives are bound forever in marriages where for the most part husbands hold all the power. Further, a wife’s control over her pregnancies has been taken by a patriarchal state—regardless of the woman’s chosen faith. Is all that equality?
Across the planet, 82 countries have made homosexuality illegal. Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters are not only denied their rights to be who they are or love whom they love, they are also mocked, beaten, jailed, or killed — often with the approval of the state. Meanwhile, in our Philippines, the Anti-Discrimination Bill—which would protect citizens of all ethnicities, language, race, disability, creed, sex, or gender—has yet to be passed, having met years of opposition from various conservative or religious groups. Is all that equality?
Across the planet, education has also been denied because of gender, health, poverty, and cultural identity. More than 72 million children cannot receive primary schooling, with more than half of them girls. More than 759 million adults are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. Kids in rural areas are twice as likely not to receive an education as those in cities. Meanwhile, in our Philippines, only 66 percent of students will finish Grade 6, while only 43 percent will complete high school. Is all that equality?
Across the planet, freedom of expression is also being denied by governments who wish to maintain power and protect the sensitivities of the dominant religion, ideology, class, or political party. Free speech – which has always guaranteed citizens’ ability to dissent, worship unhindered, and demand rights – is now subservient to so-called responsible speech, which will always be at the mercy of the government or ruling class. Similarly, blasphemy laws are wielded in a quarter of the world’s countries, many imposing, by law or public action, the penalty of death.
One in 10 countries doesn’t even allow citizens to change their religion. And the reality that secularism provides a neutral public space for the free practice of all society’s faiths has been steadily dismantled and rejected by religious majorities who wish to maintain their dominance.
Meanwhile, in our Philippines, defamation remains criminalized, which results in politicians using the courts to muzzle journalists from reporting even the truth. Senator Tito Sotto, in fact, after famously being mocked online for plagiarising several times in his Senate speeches against reproductive health education, was revealed as having pushed a cyberdefamation clause that would double the penalty from 6 years imprisonment to 12 years—all for publishing, posting, or commenting with words that piss off the powerful. Is all that equality?
Great cost of electing a president
This is the story of our present world. This is the current story of our country. But this month we Filipinos have turned a new page by electing a new leader. That start, however, has come at a great cost.
I’m sure you agree that these elections were incredibly divisive – perhaps the most divisive in our history. Friends unfriended friends. Family members clashed. Filipinos were fragmented. Grabe! Much drama! Such characters!
There was a president’s desente grandson, who neither connected with the people nor acted competently with his responsibilities. There was an action-star’s daughter, who is still unproven in politics and disproven in her pledge to our country. There was a vice-president who efficiently built a city along with a dynasty that is accused of being deeply corrupt. There was a brilliant but ailing senator, who carried the son a dictator — who himself sees nothing wrong with our country being denied democracy for 14 long years, and therefore cannot assure us he would not similarly erode our constitutional rights.
And, lastly, there was a mayor who speaks of suspending our Constitution and representative Congress, and admitted to killing our society’s most desperate while being willing to release political colleagues despite their crimes against our country.
Those were our presidentiables. We may disagree on which candidate was best, but I’m sure you agree that we deserve better. Right?
The truth is this: It no longer matters who was your manok. We must now stop judging each other for who we considered worthy of our hope and faith. We must now quit being divided by those who promise to unite us. The truth is this: only they benefit from our division.
That part of the story they do not want you to know. Why? Because our country is ruled by 178 dynasties — that’s 178 families out of our population of 100-million people. According to Senator Miriam Santiago, when she was promoting her unsuccessful anti-dynasty bill, 73 out of our 80 provinces are ruled by clans. While approximately 80 percent of the 229 Congressional seats are controlled by dynastic polticians. That’s according to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, who also warns that dynasties control the majority of the 24 seats in the Senate.
Who, then, stands to gain with each election? Is it us?
No! Why, then, do we citizens disagree so bitterly?
Stories from the campaign
To seek an answer, I spent the final day of the campaign season attending each the mitings de avance of all five candidates, interviewing their supporters and hearing their stories. In Makati, I talked to 26-year-old Jasper Monterona, a hardworking scholar whose education was funded by the programs of Jejomar Binay; Jasper said dynasties aren’t bad as long as they do good work. In Luneta Park, I met 51-year-old Oscar Cansing of General Santos City, who said he believes Rodrigo Duterte can bring a true and transparent democracy; Oscar said that if it becomes a dictatorship, it is up to us to reverse that. In Plaza Miranda, I spoke to 67-year-old Danilo de la Fuente, who was advocating for rights of workers when he was arrested in 1982, tortured and jailed without trial until Ferdinand Marcos was ousted four years later; Danilo said he supported Grace Poe because her administration would bring justice to the very many victims of Martial Law.
In the Quezon Memorial Circle, I listened to Glorialuz Santiago, a 36-year-old quality control supervisor from Calamba, who credited the projects of this last administration for empowering her to buy a home; Glorialuz supported Mar Roxas because, she said, in him we have a future. Finally, by West Triangle, I met Kristine Isip, a 20-year-old engineering student whose first time voting would be for Miriam Defensor Santiago; Kristine said that she wanted a president who is clean and only says the truth.
From the dozens of voters I interviewed that day, I heard the same demands. Things must change. Our system must work. Corruption is unacceptable. Filipinos deserve justice. The more I listened, the more it became clear: We all share the same goals for our country, even if we disagree on the path to achieve them.
Yet from the dozens of politicians who took the stages that day, I heard the same promises. They will change things. They will make our system work. They will stamp out corruption. They will protect us Filipinos. The more I listened, the more it became clear: Their goals and promises for our country were so identical that they sounded empty.
Let me share with you one more story, this time about me, since I’ve shared stories about so many others. Consider this a confession. I grew up surrounded by politics. In the late 1960s, my father was the president of the national organisation of youth leaders, and a member of Ferdinand Marcos’s constitutional convention of 1972. He ran for mayor in 1986, held a congressional seat since 1998, and was a cabinet minister under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I grew up smiling and dancing on campaign trails, in urban Makati, and in rural Iloilo. It was hoped that I would follow in his footsteps. But I refused, because I’ve always believed there must be a better way.
Because these are some of the things I have learned: politics pretends to be selfless, yet it is always the victory of successful selfishness. Good gets rarely done unless it’s part of an agenda. In every country, and every political level, decent people are forced to make indecent compromises. What we see in public is a shadow of what’s manipulated in private.
Our tangled system makes all Filipinos lawbreakers — when we enter politics, or do business, or deal with bureaucracy, or turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others because we fear for our safety, or sanity, or success. The right laws exist, but they’re not enforced, and when they are they’re enforced unequally.
Our checks and balances against excessive power are well-designed, but they must be fortified and used, not dismantled and abused. Our sense of duty and our deep patience are our culture’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. But the most troubling lesson I’ve learned is this: The greedy and power-hungry will always rationalize their evil as righteous, justifying it as necessary — for the welfare of their family, or their constituents, or their allies who keep them in a position to take but also give.
There must be a better way. Because what does it say about evil that it must convince itself of its own good? It says that goodness still always reigns supreme.
There must be a better way. Yes?
I’ve seen it in the story of Marlene Esperat. And at the rallies I visited, in the responsibility of Jasper Monterona, the decency of Oscar Cansing, the dedication of Danilo de la Fuente, the gratitude of Glorialuz Santiago, and the hope of Kristine Isip. I’ve seen it in the man who showed me the refugee camp in Beirut, and in the friend who risked his job to bring me to the workers’ barracks in Singapore. I’ve seen it in the woman who organises my classes for migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, and in the scholars who painstakingly gathered all the facts and figures I shared with you earlier. I’ve seen it here and around the world, in the trust of friends and the kindness of strangers. And I see it here today, in this room.
I see that better way. Go on, have a look. See it in the revolutionary at your side. Because inspiration often comes easier from others than from ourselves. Look to your left. Because there will be times when you’ll feel alone in your struggle. Look to your right. Because there will be times when you’ll wonder if it’s worth it. Remember their faces. Because there will be times when you’ll doubt your ability to continue. Remember what you saw today. Because there are many others as hopeful and idealistic as you, from every corner of our beloved country.
Could our saviours, then, be you?
Yes! Because you know where you come from, what your neighbors suffer, what your community needs. You know what our nation’s problems are—even if you don’t know yet how to fix them. You know the future we can have—even if you don’t know yet how to get there. You know the powerful will try to stop you—even if what you’re doing is good. You know that our country cannot continue like this—eventually it will break, and those who will lose most are those who have always lost.
Could our saviours, then, be you?
Yes! You can write the story of our future. You understand that everyone deserves the same rights and opportunities. You will lead your family or your team, your company or your constituents, your city or your country. You will dedicate your lives, risk your deaths, and test your integrity against temptation, your patriotism against allegiances, your idealism against compromise. You can make that better way.
Yes, the responsibility is great, but remember, with utter faith, and utmost confidence: You are not alone. That person next to you shares both your doubts and your certainties, both your duties and your sympathies. You are not alone. You are here this weekend to work together—not to be led. You are here to learn from each other—how to be good leaders.
So, yes: Trust yourselves.
Yes: Empower only those who will empower all of us.
Yes: Test those whom we believe in most, to make sure they’re worthy of our faith.
Yes: Listen, especially to those with whom you most disagree.
Yes: Understand, rather than seek to be right.
Yes: Learn, what works and doesn’t work, here at home and abroad.
Yes: You can fix our country’s problems, if you don’t let anyone ever tell you no.
Every revolution began when individuals organized and worked together. That’s the only way it’s ever been done. Yes, it may be messy, but it can be peaceful. Yes, it will take long, but it can be sure. Yes, we may not see it in our lifetime, but it will be seen. As many wise leaders have said before: If not us, who? If not now, when?
And when you lead well – and lead well you will – I, for one, will hear your call and raise my hand and say: Yes! – Rappler.com
The author is a novelist and a visiting professor at the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University. He has written for the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the BBC, the CBC, and others. His acclaimed novel Ilustrado won the Palanca Award and the Man Asian Literary Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in Manila.