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Transforming Society Through Selfless Service

Office of the Vice President

20 September 2017

84th Founding Anniversary, UST College of Commerce and Business Administration, 20 September 2017

Dean Leonardo Canoy Jr. of the UST College of Commerce and Business Administration; Assistant Dean Maureen Gelle; Associate Professor Anthony Altarejos; Mr. Al Faithrich Navarete, College Secretary; other deans and school officials who are present; faculty and nonteaching staff; my dear students; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat.

I find it a great honor to speak before the students of Asia’s oldest university—and the biggest in the world, if you count the population of students in a single campus. Congratulations on your college’s 84th founding anniversary, and for creating a wonderful community of learners.

We, however, come together at a time of sorrow, for Horacio Castillo III, his family, his teachers and mentors, and his friends who might be here this morning. As a parent, I know how painful this must be. During times like these, institutions such as yours will become stronger if discourse continues to be open and we focus our efforts on solutions, more than anything else.

UST has accomplished many things, consistently garnering the honor of being one of the top universities in the country and ranked top 1,000 worldwide. Such honor and distinction only comes with consistent daily commitment to do away with mediocrity, and the students’ discipline to turn in the best work each time, all the time.

This kind of work ethic will be critical for your survival. You see, the world has changed tremendously in the last two decades. Technology has redefined the way we live and work. Young people like you will not just be competing with professionals from other countries and other continents—you will be competing with machines that are able to do deep learning. You will be living in a world where risk is ever-present and ever-changing, and will thus require critical thinking. But more importantly, your generation will have to solve the Herculean problem of global inequality.

In my view, the largest challenge we face today is the wide gap between the rich and poor. It is causing massive unrest all over the world—as well as on social media, where everything is noisier and more chaotic. It is breaking up our societies and challenging our liberties. To make matters worse, this inequality has become a currency for some people to gain power—and their ploys to manipulate the masses are anchored on bringing about widespread confusion on what is right and what is wrong. And for a confused world, the tragedy is that society has a propensity to look for a savior—one man who will promise to fix everything and make all problems go away.

If, as Thomasians, you wish to pave the way for a sustainable future for our country, there is a need to look inwards and set our hearts towards servant leadership and selfless service—old-fashioned values that can save our modern troubles. Servant leadership and selfless service begins with empathy, something that is truly lacking in our world today. And it puts faith in ordinary people as heroes and changemakers, rather than as saviors.

Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy is a response to what you hear; empathy finds a way to listen and to understand. It is a lost art, in our society preoccupied with emotions expressed in one-liners and approved friend requests that never go deeper than a “like.” I hear of many young people who constantly interact on social media with friends that they pass by silently in corridors.

What we need in our society is empathy, not just sympathy—the ability to listen deeply and see oneself in someone else’s shoes. That is the kind of inner transformation that will heal our society today.

I cannot claim to have perfect empathy, but it is something that I have learned—and continue to learn—in my work.

When I became a lawyer, I joined an NGO called SALIGAN—which is short for Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal—and I always tell my staff that that was where I found my purpose. The clients that we served were farmers and fisherfolk, indigenous people, urban poor, abused women and children, and laborers. Instead of waiting for them in our offices, we were the ones who went to them. We traveled to far-flung communities and provided assistance to those who did not have access even to the most basic government services. We would translate laws and ordinances into the local dialect, and explain them in detail. This is premised on the belief that they will be in a better position to fight for their rights if they are aware of them. Often, we would end up spending the night in fishing boats and makeshift huts in the middle of rice paddies because we did not have any place to stay.

Our work was not easy, but it allowed us to see the world through their eyes and how lives can be transformed when you do something for them, no matter how small.

This is why, at the Office of the Vice President, we have vowed to put the poor at the front and center of all our endeavors. We devote at least two to three days every week to visit some of the most remote and poorest communities in our country for our Angat Buhay anti-poverty program. And what we have discovered is that ordinary people can certainly do extraordinary things if they are willing to work together to achieve a common goal.

One of the communities we visited was Siayan in Zamboanga del Norte. Siayan was found to have the most severe type and magnitude of poverty for many years, based on a study by the World Bank in 2003. Its poverty incidence was a staggering 97.5%. The people in Siayan could hardly eat three meals a day and did not even know the word “merienda.” But a mayor named Flora Villarosa changed the town’s future, through careful and collaborative planning. Through Mayor Flora’s active consultations with her people, finally bridges and roads were built, and livelihood and entrepreneurial programs were offered to residents. And of course, people started to eat better.

We also went to Barangay Diit in Agutaya, a small island municipality in Northern Palawan. I do not know if any of you has ever been to Coron. But from Coron, you still have to take a 10-hour boat ride to [reach] Agutaya. That means its nearest hospital, its nearest critical health care facility, is a 10-hour boat ride away, and that boat does not even travel every day.

When we went there, most of the people who met us were crying. At first, we did not understand why. As we started talking with those who lived in the island, we realized that they felt so touched that someone from Manila would visit them.

But what really made the place so difficult to forget were the children. They surrounded us, with their smiles so precious, but we noticed that their Grade 5 students were almost as small as their Grade 1 students. We learned that they were suffering from a condition called stunting, where their minds and not just their bodies were unable to fully develop for lack of food. The only school located in the town was still damaged by Yolanda, a storm that ravaged the town four years ago. There was no electricity and few of the fishermen had their own boats.

We left Agutaya with torn hearts. In the midst of such natural beauty was so much suffering. But since that visit, we have returned several times. Just last September 17, our partner ASA Philippines turned over 120 solar panels. Last June, Angat Buhay opened up a playspace in the daycare center of Barangay Poblacion, adorned with a slide, seesaw, scooters, clay sets, and other occupational toys. And Saint Theresa’s College’s Bangko ni Teresa program delivered motorized boats to the fisherfolk of Barangay Algeciras. These are just some of the assistance that reached Barangay Diit, and we hope that there will be many more.

In Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, we met Commander Agila. He used to be a Commander of the MILF. Ang kuwento niya sa amin, “Dati, baril ang aking hawak namin.” But because of their mayor, Rommel Arnado, MILF commanders were taught to do farming instead of holding guns. I remember when we went there, Commander Agila was so excited to take us to his farm. Ang sabi niya, “Kahit isang buwan ako hindi pumunta sa [merkado], hindi kami magugutom.” Kauswagan is a testament that anything is possible when one person takes the initiative to do something good for his community.

I believe that these are the kind of leaders that we need in these extraordinary times. This is what UST is shaping you to become. This is why I would like to commend the UST College of Commerce and Business Administration faculty and administration for shaping our young people to be rooted on faith and selfless service, following the example of Christ who conducted his ministry among the least.

We all need unshakeable values and principles, because when success, fame, or fortune come our way, or when we experience wealth and recognition, the lines separating right and wrong can sometimes get blurred.

Don’t you see this confusion happening around us today? Dictators turned into heroes, violations of human rights passed off as necessary solutions, verbal harassment of women excused as mere jokes, and erosion of institutions happening before our very eyes. These are happening not just here, but everywhere around the world—slowly, perniciously—confusing our young and leading our brightest minds astray.

I hope that someday, when you take your place among our leaders, or the corporations you will choose to enter, or the empires you might someday build—you will never waver from your values and always choose to remember the last, the least, and the lost.

We place great hope in your power to shape our future, but we also place great hope in your power to shape our world today. You don’t have to be a celebrity, a government official, or even a Vice President. You can do something right now. And you can start by bringing back healthy discourse, especially with those who share opposing views. Debate does not have to be violent, if it starts a conversation that builds bridges of understanding.

So make good use of your time. Study well. Read more. Work hard. Ask insightful questions. Volunteer for causes that promote the welfare of our people, especially the marginalized.

Do not ever think you are too young to transform our society. Pope Francis once said: The future of humankind is not exclusively in the hands of politicians, or of great leaders, or of big companies. It is in the hands of ordinary people.

He said: “A tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you.”

So thank you very much, happy 84th anniversary. Maraming salamat for having me here this morning.