Message at the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Awards Presentation Ceremonies
Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City

Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats. 
Former President Fidel V. Ramos; Excellencies of the Diplomatic Corps; former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr. and the members of the Magsaysay family; Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr., former Philippine Ambassador to the United States and Chair of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation Ms. Carmencita Abella, President of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation; the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees and the past awardees who are present this afternoon; my fellow workers in government; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat! [applause]  

Nineteen years ago, my husband, Jesse, stood on this very stage and received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work on participatory governance. 

Accepting the award on behalf of the people of Naga City, he shared how they struggled to implement reforms when he first became mayor in 1988. He said, and I quote: “The recognition accorded me tonight is an honor that our people in Naga most deserve. It is a fitting testimonial on our faith and confidence in a democratic society where people and government actively engage with each other in forging a collective decision. Our people have proven, that given the opportunity, we can rise above our parochial interests in the pursuit of common good. Given a choice, we will opt for good government despite the attendant obligations it requires.”

Almost two decades after he delivered that speech, and after seven years of continuing his work since his death in 2012, I find myself standing on the same stage, extolling the lives of four brave men and one courageous woman who—like Jesse—dared to defy the expectations and conventions of their time. Seeing how things have come full circle, I cannot help but feel a sense of comfort and gratitude, knowing that Jesse’s life and legacy have led me here, in the company of modern-day heroes.   

For the past 61 years, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards has recognized the rich legacy of Asian leadership and commitment on the global stage. More than being an annual tradition, it honors timeless values that bind us as a region: integrity, excellence, empathy, servant-leadership, and selfless service. This year, we add five more names to the long roster of 330 laureates who have been recognized as prime movers and change-makers in their respective fields and discipline. 

When the first set of laureates received the award in 1958, the world was divided along ideological lines. In Asia, the Cold War system challenged the mindset of new emerging leaders who struggled to maintain peace and order in society. Rising from the ashes of war, famine and crisis, governments promoted development and economic progress as state projects, hoping to address the growing inequality among populations. Some leaders turned to authoritarianism and abuse to reach these goals, dispensing the very reason why they were placed in power.

One of those who was brave enough to stand up and speak against this system was Mochtar Lubis, an Indonesian journalist and critic of then President Sukarno. Receiving the award in 1958, he wrote and I quote: 

“Many honest and well-meaning people, faced with difficult and seemingly insurmountable problems have become persuaded that democratic reconstruction is impossible in Asia. That is why today in Asia we may find leaders, who yesterday were quite willing to die for democracy and human freedom, but are now easily beginning to say that, in order to achieve freedom from want, it is excusable to do away with freedom of expression, which is another way of saying that democracy and human freedom may be thrown away for the sake of filling the stomachs of the masses…”

Today, the Asia we inherited is caught up once again in wave of democratic dilemma. New modes of populism, protectionism, and extreme nationalism are shaping government policies and regulations. In some societies, human rights have taken a back seat, and the relevance of traditional institutions are being questioned. Racism, religious extremism, and gender discrimination continue to instill fear in our people, challenging our notions of freedom, privilege, and equality in the 21st century.

During these difficult times, it has become far too easy for some of us to forget those who are in need. We need to start measuring our progress not [by] how much wealth we have produced, but by the quality of our lives, specifically those among the poor, the hungry, and the disadvantaged.

Tonight, the world’s eyes are upon us as we face new challenges in pursuit of the noble task of elevating the human condition. As we enter yet another era marked by new scientific discoveries, increasing online interconnectedness, and an impending Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be Asian today?

Tonight, before the peoples of Asia, let us recommit ourselves to the relentless pursuit of peace, social justice, freedom, and reconciliation. At a time when human rights are under attack, when human lives are disregarded, when power is yielded for the benefit of [a] few, and when democracy is threatened by our very own leaders—we demand for equality, empathy, truth, and accountability, create safe spaces for dialogue, and as one voice, break the silence and indifference that have long oppressed many of our peoples. 

Tonight, we turn our gaze with pride and approval towards those who refuse to accept that the use of brute force, violence, and aggression have become the Asian norm; that silencing one’s critics is the most effective way to enact and pursue reforms; that ethnic, religious and gender lines must be drawn in the name of preserving tradition. I would like to believe that tonight, the world listens and hopes with us, because among us are those who are brave enough to go to battle against this dark narrative for Asia. Among us are those who keep on fighting the good fight. Among us are true “champions of the masses.”

This is what the Ramon Magsaysay Awards is all about. This is what every Magsaysay laureate has stood for in the past 61 years. This is what it means to be Asian today.   

We live in an era where those who dare to expose the truth are browbeaten until they break apart. But Ko Swe Win’s indomitable spirit was no match for those who threatened to—his commitment to fair, independent, and ethical journalism. Instead of cowering in fear, he continues to lend his voice to the powerless, challenging the way religious and political institutions are run, and seeking redress for injustices committed against different minorities [in Myanmar].   

We have seen how pain and tragedy have led to regret, remorse, and even disillusionment in families and communities. But Kim Jong-ki has shown us that grief can be turned into one of the greatest strengths we can ever possess. Hoping to address the growing cases of bullying and school violence, he brought together parents, teachers, counselors, and police officers to create safer and more caring communities for Korea’s youth. 

In some societies, women still find themselves undervalued and ignored in the national discourse. But Angkhana Neelapaijit proved that Thai women can inspire movements, break barriers, and lead with great heart and mind. As a staunch advocate of human rights, she worked with civil society to defend the rights of women, children, asylum seekers, and refugees. She continues to challenge the legal system so that, as President Magsaysay once professed, those who have less in life will have more in law. 

The advent of social media has made it easier for trolls and purveyors of fake news to spread hate and tear societies apart. But Ravish Kumar remains undaunted and stands by the truth—even if it is unpopular to do so. For many years, his commitment to balanced and fact-based reporting remains a bastion of hope for the Fourth Estate. By creating platforms for effective dialogue and citizen participation, his brand of journalism serves as a window of hope and empathy for the entire Indian nation.    

Nowadays, populism and extreme nationalism are rearing their ugly heads in many parts of the globe, creating tears and divisions in our social fabric. But Raymundo “Ryan” Pujante Cayabyab’s music reminds us, that what brings us together holds more power than the things that try to tear us apart. Half-prayer and half-battlecry, his melodies instill hope, pride, and unity in the nation’s soul, teaching every Filipino to dream of a better world. His songs remind us that if we are willing to work together, and toil to reach a common goal, what seems to be impossible will always be possible. That someday, “our songs in some way, will bring a bright tomorrow, full of love, full of hope, full of joy.”

Our dear awardees, your struggles remind us that heroic deeds need not always unfold in grand, majestic gestures. Many times, heroism reveals itself in simple, everyday acts of kindness and compassion, of resistance and dissent, of generosity and joyful service. 

Our dear awardees, you have taught us to reassess our own values, and to stand up in the face of abuse and injustice. In a world marred by poverty, inequality, and the breakdown of institutions, you have shown us that it is possible to find better solutions and hold leaders accountable for their actions. That we can build kinder and more nurturing communities for the next generation. 

Our dear awardees, you have shown every man, woman, and child in our region how to live with courage undaunted.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we stand on the shoulders of these Asian giants, we find more reasons to keep fighting and doing the work that needs to be accomplished.  

Just as we pay tribute to the great Ramon Magsaysay, we celebrate the life and legacy of these five great souls —our wellsprings of perpetual hope, and titans of compassionate and transformative leadership in Asia. 

In his inaugural address in 1953, President Magsaysay challenged the Filipino nation to build a future worthy of its glorious past. This is the monumental task laid down before us today. 

Tonight, as we remember those who have gone before us, we too challenge ourselves—to give beyond what is asked of us, to empower the weak and vulnerable, and to bring truth, peace, and justice to the margins. 

On behalf of the peoples of Asia, thank you for spreading your beautiful light beyond your homes, beyond your communities, and beyond your countries. Now that you are Asia’s heroes, you will illuminate our paths with your courage, integrity, and selflessness. In our moments of doubt and fear, may we be guided by your flames—so that, we too, will shine as bright, even through the darkest of nights. 

Thank you very much. Mabuhay po kayong lahat!  [applause]