Message at the 2018 Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit
Theme: “Leading with Purpose in Turbulent Times”
Maybank Performing Arts Theatre, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Ms. Doris Magsaysay-Ho, CEO and President of Asia Society Philippines; Mr. Tom Nagorsky, Executive Vice President of Asia Society New York; Ms. Suyin Liu Lee, Executive Director; Mr. Timothy Watts, Member for the Gellibrand Parliament of Australia; the Class of 2018 of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Program; the alumni of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Program; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Good afternoon to everyone!
Before I begin my speech, a quick thanks to Tom for the brief history of Asia Society. I have a brief understanding of what it is. I was telling Doris and some others earlier that I had the privilege of accompanying my husband in two Asia Society engagements in the past. I think it was in 2006 or 2007 that he spoke at the Asia Society New York, and there was another event in Japan that I also accompanied him. But it was a fun way to listen to the brief history of how Rockefeller figured in funding the Ramon Magsaysay Awards. My husband was one of the awardees in 2000, and I never really knew, until this afternoon, how Rockefeller became involved in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards. So that was nice, that was a story.
Medical student Serge Aclan had a dream: He wanted to teach less fortunate kids how to play the violin. So Serge came up with a project with his friends called “Project Gifted.” He formed a youth organization and recruited young people to help and inspire others to develop their own talents.
When we made a call for youth organizations to pitch their projects for our Angat Buhay Youth Summit, he took the chance. At the Summit, Serge proposed the creation of the Lipa City Youth Orchestra, not just to make beautiful music, but more importantly, to help children with drug and mental health problems through music therapy.
Project Gifted was awarded as the best out of 50 proposals. After that, we brought Serge to a youth congress in Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea to make another pitch—this time competing against other projects from all over Asia. And he won a special award. Because of his group’s successful pitch, the group received additional funding for its project for the Lipa youth.
One year after the group won, the Lipa City Youth Orchestra has completed one recital already and can play—we were told—different, intricate variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” a feat in itself, despite the seemingly simple nature of the piece. Its adorable young members are now practicing more songs so that they can play in selected communities this December—a beautiful way of healing them from their mental health and drug problems.
In the mountains of Zamboanga del Norte, south of the Philippines, lies a town called Siayan. From 2003 to 2009, Siayan was found to have the most severe type and magnitude of poverty at a staggering 97.5 percent. The people of Siayan were very poor—they could hardly eat three meals a day. But one young mayor changed the course of Siayan’s future. Her name is Mayor Flora Villarosa.
Mayor Flora already had a flourishing business here in Manila, but when she saw the suffering of her people, she went back home and ran for mayor. Hoping to improve the lives of her constituents, she opened spaces for dialogues among the different sectors. Quickly, roads were built, bridges were constructed, and people were no longer jobless. Now, Siayan is a far, far cry from what it was before.
Last February, we visited Siayan because we heard that one of Mayor Flora’s remaining goals is to reduce the dropout rates in her town. Siayan’s children had to walk six to eight kilometers each way, every day, to go to school, so our Angat Buhay partner, the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, built a dormitory, and we now call it the “Dormitory of Hope.” It was so touching to see 25 of the poorest students from the farthest barangays, now living in the dorm. And they are excited to finally finish their studies.
In the same way, students from the municipalities of Balangkayan and Salcedo, in the province of Eastern Samar—also southeast of Manila—have to walk at least 10 kilometers each way, every day, to get to their classes. By the time they reach the campus, students are very much exhausted, affecting their academic performance, which often leads to frequent absences. To address the high dropout rate, we decided to replicate Siayan’s successful model and build student dormitories inside the campuses in these two communities.
Throughout time, we have seen the power and the unique ability of young leaders to move the world in ways others could not. The youth finds ways to do things better, faster, and with more heart—creating a new brand of leadership and redefining the world in countless ways. In these turbulent times, leaders like you are exactly what we need to create a better world for generations to come.
For the last 20 years, Asia Society Philippines has been a strong force in global education and nation-building. Guided by its mission to promote mutual understanding and collaboration among future leaders of this world, it has transformed itself into a seedbed of hope in a fast-changing, globalizing world.
Our world today has great need for organizations like yours, because in many parts of the globe, chaos, hate, anger, and divisiveness have taken over. The Internet mirrors this, perhaps in a more virulent way. Immigration policies that discriminate against color and accent, the proliferation of fake news on social media, the rise of authoritarian figures in the dwindling number of democracies, the growing hordes of refugees in warring states, and the brutal killing of innocent lives due to the war on drugs. These are just a few examples, but the pain they have brought to mankind are massive.
Indeed, the world that we face is a much more complex one compared to centuries ago. We see and experience much darkness, but at the same time are blessed with cures for what once had been fatal diseases. We are witnessing the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and the possibility of interplanetary travel. As a result, political and economic landscapes are shifting before our very eyes.
At the cusp of technological developments and new scientific discoveries, we have reason to be both terrified and discouraged. But let us not forget that used well, they can give us hope that our countries can inch closer to progress and development for the masses.
While we have to watch with a keener eye the many challenges that democracy faces, I have confidence that the human family will never give up on democracy itself. We see this appreciation of freedom all over the mountains and valleys and cities around Asia. We also see it in the triumph of the Filipino spirit that sparked our People Power Revolution more than thirty years ago. Proof? I believe that we all fully understand that the change we aspire for does not lie in the hands of one person alone. It thrives in the defiant hope of every Asian, in the desire for transformative change, in the generosity and camaraderie of ordinary people who perform simple, extraordinary acts of everyday courage.
That is why today’s gathering comes at an opportune time. If we want to reinvent leadership in the 21st century, we have to ask ourselves: What are the core values we hold on to during the most tumultuous of times? What kind of leadership is needed to redefine the world?
Effective leadership is never about one man’s ability to yield power. At its very core, genuine governance is about sharing that power so that others may prosper.
Before I entered the world of politics, I was a human rights lawyer for a legal-resource nongovernment organization called SALIGAN. For more than a decade, I witnessed firsthand how the law could be used to empower the marginalized, by teaching them to defend themselves and stand on their own two feet. We would visit the farthest and the poorest of communities—the farmers, the fisherfolk, laborers, the urban poor, indigenous peoples, women and children—to provide free legal assistance.
We would also offer paralegal training and translate laws into the local dialect, with the belief that with this knowledge, they will be in a better position to fight for their rights. Real empowerment happens when those we help can also empower others.
This is the same philosophy that inspires the work that we do at the Office of the Vice President. Perhaps not many of you know this, but our office has one of the smallest budgets in the bureaucracy. When we discovered that our office does not have the mandate nor the resources to create and implement programs, we decided that we could not sit idly by and spend the next six years merely doing ceremonial functions. So, when we assumed office more than two years ago, I told my staff that we needed to find innovative ways of doing more with what little resources we have.
This is why, in October of 2016, we launched an anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay—which in English translates to “uplifting lives”—where we positioned ourselves as a bridge between communities needing help and organizations wanting to help. Through collaboration and partnerships, we responded to the most urgent of needs of the poor and marginalized, in ways that can be sustainable and scalable rather than cosmetic one-time, big-time assistance.
One of the places we went to was Agutaya, and it blew our minds because of its location among our country’s beautiful islands. You have to take an eight-hour boat ride from the municipality of Coron in Palawan, going to the town of Cuyo, and then from Cuyo, take another a five-hour boat ride to reach one of Agutaya’s barangays, Brgy. Algeciras.
When I first stepped foot on the island in 2016, the locals greeted me with tears. I was later told that due to its very remote location, only a handful of national government officials have visited the place.
There was no electricity, no access to potable water, no hospitals, and many children were stunted. Locals struggled to make both ends meet by harvesting and selling seaweeds.
In places like Agutaya, where poverty, hunger, and hopelessness are daily realities, acts of kindness are magnified a thousand times. When our Angat Buhay partner, the Metrobank Foundation, donated funds to construct water pumps in four public schools and buy hygiene kits and vitamins for Kindergarten to Grade 3 pupils to prevent further stunting, the atmosphere was like a fiesta.
When another Angat Buhay partner, St. Theresa’s College Quezon City Alumni Association, turned over boats for the fishermen, they felt like they won the mega lotto, having been unable to sail their own boats since Typhoon Haiyan years ago destroyed their own.
Imagine what it was like when the solar panels donated by our partners ASA Philippines in Brgy. Diit, and Team Energy in Brgy. Maracañao and Brgy. Matarawis, allowed 400 families to experience the joy of switching on their own lightbulbs at night for the first time. And you know what they immediately did? The women organized weaving sessions so they can produce more hats and bags. Those of us who live in the city do not appreciate this, but without electricity, these women had to stop working at sunset. Now, they weave even at night, and buri hats have become a major source of income for many families in these barangays.
We strove to provide a holistic approach, so our Angat Buhay partner, the Andres Soriano Foundation, provided health caravans, livelihood training, and water testing, so that a Level II Water System could be put up as soon as possible. Our partners, Children’s Hour and Canvass PH, also donated books and school kits for the children. Everybody in the family got something, and while the totality of the help we brought did not amount to billions of pesos, the entire community’s hope that shone in their eyes was worth more than that.
Agutaya is just one of the 176 communities that we serve through Angat Buhay. While these programs may appear modest in scale, we have seen how communities have been transformed one sector, one family, one individual at a time.
You may have seen in the news lately how Filipino farmers and the agriculture sector have not been getting enough help and that is why it is the sector of our economy that has been left behind. You see, for decades, many of our farmers have been at the mercy of abusive middlemen. We have heard stories of farmers who would wake up as early as 3 o’clock in the morning, only to earn too little from their toil and sweat.
Hoping to empower and increase the income of smallholder farmers and create more livelihood opportunities in the poorest communities, we also launched Angat Kabuhayanlast October of 2017.
To help local farmers in the province of Camarines Sur, for example, we entered into a partnership with hotels, restaurants, and hospitals. Our partners agreed to buy their supply of calamansi, ginger, lettuce, chili pepper, and other vegetables from local producers on a regular basis, instead of sourcing them outside of the region like they used to. The creation of a whole new value chain that empowers the farmers was met with much excitement, both from the private sector as well as from our beloved farmers. With this set-up, they were able to command higher prices for their produce as they did away with middlemen. Moreover, they now have a steady market for their produce. And we hope to replicate this model in our other Angat Buhay communities, including Kiangan, Ifugao in Northern Luzon, and Lambunao, Iloilo in Visayas, to name a few.
All these efforts will be more sustainable when local government leaders are supportive and have the skills to sustain the pace of change in society. So we put up a Bridging Leadership Program for local government officials of our adopted communities, in partnership with Seaoil Foundation. Now, local chief executives can gain a deeper understanding of critical issues affecting their community and be equipped with skills and knowledge that would enable them to work with different stakeholders to develop tailor-fit solutions to address local problems.
Angat Buhay is our brave response during these turbulent times. It is our way of saying that creative and transformative leadership is one that is rooted in emphatic and active participation. And we hope that in the future, we can partner with you in creating more positive change in the lives of those who need us the most.
So to our young, emerging leaders in Asia, remember this: it is during the most turbulent of times when real character and commitment are tested. It is when you have to make difficult decisions for others that you will learn the most.
Now, more than ever, we need leaders who will lend their voice to the weak and the powerless. Brave, creative leaders who will choose service over popularity, empathy over personal gain. Leaders who will abandon their personal agenda, and inspire others to follow their footsteps.
Yes, there will always be frustrations. There will always be challenges, rejection, and bad days. Not everything will go along as planned. But we should not allow these things to distract us from the work that we need to do.
During these extraordinary times, let us take on the challenge of creating a society that is more open to collaboration. A society that is free. Where every man and woman—regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, and educational background—can dream of making a mark on the world.
But the fulfilment of these dreams is not the government’s job alone; the responsibility lies in all of us here today.
Once again, thank you very much. Mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]